“Oh, there you are, poppets! I was beginning to wonder when you’d work up the courage to get back here. I’ll be with you in a moment, just let me finish up this bicep, I have the contours almost perfect and I don’t want to lose my vibe … vive? Vigour? Vitality?”
Saldis frowned as she worked through this linguistic enigma, then give up with a sigh and a tut and a shake of her thickly braided hair.
“Virtue,” Praem suggested.
A billion billion books in unnumbered shelves soaked up the golden bell of Praem’s voice, beyond the rectangular clearing in the Library of Carcosa.
Saldis laughed. She tried to click her fingers and point at Praem, but the wet grey goo clinging to her hands precluded a satisfying snap of thumb and forefinger. She settled for a playful wave instead.
“That is exactly what I am aiming to lose, you wonderfully dressed construct, you,” she said to Praem. “Well, if I had any virtue left in the first place. I lost that a long time ago, trust me. That experience was a lot less delicious than this three-course-meal will be, once it’s all ready and baked and sizzling.”
Saldis snapped her perfect teeth together on the final word. Her tone made me vaguely uncomfortable, like she was perusing pornography in public.
Evelyn did not hush Praem for speaking first, for abandoning the very explicit instructions of our plan, perhaps because our plan had survived all of about five seconds since stepping through the gateway.
To Evelyn’s credit, it was a very simple plan. She’d taken less than fifteen minutes to explain all the possible outcomes, earlier that Saturday morning. She was to open the gateway to Carcosa, we were all to step through, and she was to do the talking. Evelyn’s plan was to deliver a specific threat in a limited way, and use that credible threat to forge a brief understanding – or at least, a mutual backing-down – between two mages.
The rest of us were supposed to stand around and look threatening, with an eye to a very quick retreat back through the open gateway if anything went wrong. Praem was laden down with gear again, carrying not only the bag of expedition supplies and the metal nuts tied with twists of cloth, but a second sports bag of familiar appearance, heavily padded inside, which kept rustling and shifting beneath her shoulder. Raine stood be-shielded and armed like a spiked turtle, while myself and Lozzie were tucked in neatly behind her, wrapped in coat and poncho and holding hands. Zheng lurked in the rear, a little grumpy after my reverse pep-talk during which I had asked her not to just pull Saldis’ head off, but also quietly satisfied that she was essential to my long-term safety.
Twil was not present, because after three days of on-and-off, I’d run out of energy to argue with Evelyn.
We’d stepped back through to Carcosa, a week after our first journey Outside, in full awareness that Saldis might attack us. That’s what the bone wand raised in Evelyn’s hands was for, and the reason for the secret silent preparation in my own mind, which was threatening to give me a nosebleed. We’d been prepared for Saldis to be back in her grey sphere, or waiting with a mob of the squid-faced librarians, or transformed into a ogre. Or – if we were exceptionally lucky – just absent.
We had not been prepared for her being obviously and openly turned on.
Nor that she might return to her work after a glance and a smile and a wink at us. We were of sideline interest, compared to her objet d’art. And return to her work she did, skilled hands gliding smooth and wet over the curve and dimple of artificial flesh, humming to herself.
Nobody said anything for a long moment. Raine, Evelyn, and I shared a glance, and I let go of the half-formed hyperdimensional equation on the edge of my consciousness, blinked past the shadow of a headache, and wiped a droplet of nosebleed on a tissue offered by Lozzie.
“ … what the fuck are you doing?” Evelyn eventually asked, in the unimpressed tone of walking in on an esoteric masturbatory technique.
Well, that hadn’t been in the plan at all.
In the clearing hedged by tall bookshelves where we’d stopped last time, Saldis’ blocky grey sphere machine had put down roots, unfurled its leaves, and blossomed.
The core sphere-shape was still recognisable beneath the curling staircase-stems and wide platforms like flat rain-catcher leaves, dotted with smooth grey lumps and curves that were probably meant to act as furniture. Highlights of colour had appeared amid the grey uniformity: a few piles of books undoubtedly sourced from the library shelves, some flimsy silken discarded clothing on a wide expanse of grey I took to be a bed, and a shocking trail of crimson bloody smear near the central stalk of the unfolded construct. The whole thing rose perhaps ten feet into the air, like a miniature apartment without walls, rendered all in smooth grey, dropped into the middle of an Outside dimension.
A pile of half-melted grey blocks lay on the topmost exposed balcony, as if part of the machine had detached and died. Saldis herself was up there, stripped down to a gauzy scarlet undershirt with her sleeves rolled up. She was using the melted blocks like sculptor’s clay, her hands and forearms caked in grey goo as she worked on her masterpiece.
A half-finished human figure stood before her. She’d completed the feet and legs and abdomen and the side of a chest and one arm, all cast from smooth unblemished grey like flawless cement.
Her sculpture was muscled like a Greek deity, lithe and athletic, detailed as any classical statue.
Saldis glanced down at us, at Evelyn’s question, and laughed a rosy laugh. “Making a man!” she said, then took a step back from her creation and tilted her head sideways. “Or perhaps a woman, actually, I haven’t entirely decided yet.” She gestured at the statue’s unfinished groin, smooth as a doll’s and absent any detail. “Of course I could always just go half-and-half and have both, but I think I’m in the mood for being split open like a pomegranate.”
Lozzie let out a snort-giggle behind one hand, eyes going wide and seeking mine. Evelyn huffed a sigh. Raine laughed and went ‘savage, nice,’ under her breath. I didn’t get it.
“Well, actually,” Saldis continued. “Why does that have to be a man? Why, indeed?”
She asked the question of the air, with all the pretentious gloss of a self-defined artist. I finally understood the meaning and felt a blush in my cheeks.
“Um,” Raine cleared her throat from behind her homemade riot-shield. “You got so bored without us, you’ve been making a living dildo? Girl, you need some company.”
“‘Dildo’?” Saldis frowned down at Raine. “Oh, that’s … that’s an awful word. Really? ‘Dildo’? Ugh.” She pulled a stricken face. “I do pity you little Englishers, this is not a pretty tongue. Tch, and now you’ve broken my concentration too. Oh well, not like he’s going anywhere.” She affectionately patted the statue’s abdomen, which looked like it had been chiselled from the unrealised sexual yearnings of the terminally repressed. She turned away to descend the whorl of little staircases and platforms which led back to the core of the sphere.
“Deliver your threat, wizard,” Zheng purred softly.
“I know!” Evelyn hissed over her shoulder. “I was only … distracted.”
“S’one way of putting it,” Raine murmured from the corner of her mouth, barely concealing her laughter. “I was expecting a fight, not to find her making a sex doll.”
“It is not a sex doll,” Saldis said with a tut, as she finished winding her way down toward the floor and stepped out before us. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t leave the boundaries of the unfolded sphere-machine, her bare feet still in direct contact with an impossibly thin platform of grey material, like a little patio.
“It’s a doll, and you’re gonna fuck it,” Raine shot back. “Or it’s gonna fuck you. It’s a sex doll. Not to shame you though. S’cool. We understand.”
“Do we?” Evelyn grunted.
“Sex doll!” Lozzie squeaked, bright red in the face. If we hadn’t been holding each others’ arms, I think she would have fallen over in pure comedic delight. I wasn’t blushing quite as hard, but this whole situation had rather left my resolve behind in the dust.
“I’d been asleep for ages!” Saldis waved a hand at the sphere, tutting. “I can hardly be expected to maintain myself in the total absence of a good rut. And you lot were taking your sweet time coming back as well. I was getting bored, especially after I got chased out of the cheap seats by Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.” Saldis’ eyes sought out my own and made contact with a half-wince. “Lady Morell, do tell me the truth, is the good director still very angry with me?”
I gathered myself, tried to stop thinking about hand-made grey-clay sex dolls, and shrugged.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “We didn’t talk about you, after you left.”
“Oh.” Saldis blinked at me, blank-faced. “Oh. Well. Hm. Well then. Could you … put in a good word for me, perhaps?”
“That depends on what you do for us,” I said. “Sorry.”
Saldis sighed, then narrowed her gaze at me in a twitch of confusion, as if she’d seen a truth behind my eyes.
Perhaps she had. After all, truth did lurk behind my eyes. Behind every inch of my flesh.
I smiled at her curiosity.
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed for my ears alone. “That was not the plan.”
“Plan’s dead,” Praem intoned.
“Now, correct me if I’m wrong about this,” Raine said, smoothly distracting us all from an argument we could ill afford out here in the library, even with the doorway back to Sharrowford still open right behind us. “But Saldis, woman like yourself could surely find an actual partner, right? No need for that thing.” Raine nodded up at the half-finished statue.
Saldis did this wave-like eyebrow wiggle of self-satisfaction at Raine’s hooded compliment, the sort of expression I’d imagine usually accompanies statements about how much one is going to get laid that night.
“Well, if I could find anybody out here,” Saldis replied. “It’s not as if these thralls can provide much company. Even if they were so inclined. Have you ever seen under their robes? No thank you. I’d rather bed a hound.”
Saldis pointed past us with a lazy hand, to where a few of the squid-faced librarians were going about their rounds, dragging their eyeless sight across the regimented book spines. Occasionally one would pause and feed a book into the mass of tentacles and spikes they used for faces, presumably to be routed to elsewhere in the library, and regurgitated from beneath the robes of another librarian. The gaggle of hangers-on we’d attracted last time were nowhere to be seen, perhaps returned to their duties, or simply driven off by Praem’s timely physical violence. A few gritty grey bloodstains still marred the floorboards on the other side of the clearing.
The few left here ignored us completely. The anthill paid us no heed.
Evelyn cleared her throat, loud as she dared in this Outside place. “Everyone shut up. Saldis, listen to me.”
“Yes?” Saldis heard the confrontational tone and raised her eyebrows with all the unimpressed superiority of a very rich woman who considered herself not to be complained at.
She also put her hands on her hips – hands covered in grey sculpting goo, which instantly ruined her red-and-gold skirt before she realised what she’d done. She looked down at herself and tutted, removing her hands and leaving smears of grey behind. “Oh, bother.”
“Will you pay attention?” Evelyn hissed at her. “Perhaps this place is not dangerous for you, but we’re all on a timer and-”
“Yes yes yes, I’m listening.” Saldis flapped a hand, trying to scrape the goo off her hips on a spur of her blossomed sphere without making the stain any worse. Like a bear rubbing itself on a tree.
Evelyn faltered, going tight around the jaw.
“Evee, just say the line,” I whispered over her shoulder. “I don’t think it matters at this point, anyway. I think she’s … well. We can all see.”
“And you’re ready to get rid of her?” Evelyn hissed back at me.
“I don’t think it’ll be necessary.”
“But you’re ready? Heather, promise me this time.”
“Mmhmm. I promise.”
Evelyn took a deep breath and raised her chin. “Saldis. I want you out of Heather’s head. We are carrying a comedenti with us,” she gestured at the rustling bag under Praem’s shoulder. “And if I free it in here, I doubt even you could scourge every hiding place in this library before it grows enough to eat you.”
“Hmmm?” Saldis looked up from her hip-wiggle cleaning. “A what? Don’t speak Roman at me, what is that supposed to-”
“I have the corpse of a rabbit possessed by a demon, with a specific feeding deal,” Evelyn snapped. “It-”
“Oh!” Saldis lit up and almost clapped her goo-smeared hands together before catching herself, tutting, and waving them about ineffectually. “Delightful! Yes, I’ll play, I’ll play. And what is it you want, what, uh, what is this about?”
Evelyn gave her a look like she’d just clogged the toilet. “I want you out of Heather’s head.”
“I’m already out!” Saldis tutted, outraged. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight has seen to that. I’m not going to do every little thing you tell me, Englisher, just because you threaten me with having to adopt a new pet, but I’m not going to cross a princess daughter of the Yellow King.”
“You already did,” I piped up. Evelyn shot me a look.
“Yes, well.” Saldis shrugged. “That was all out of love for her art, not defiance of a direct royal request.”
“Like pirating a movie,” Raine said.
If that made any sense to Saldis at all, she ignored it.
“You know, miss … what was it again, Saye?” she said to Evelyn. “You shouldn’t be so judgemental, you look like you could do with a bloody good spot of rumpy-pumpy as well and-” Saldis stopped and pulled a face. “What were those words? I will never like this language, that was awful. It wasn’t even obscene in the fun way, just the stupid way.”
Raine was struggling not to laugh. Evelyn had blushed a confused red across her pale cheeks. Lozzie was grinning like we were at a real comedy play.
“Anyway,” Saldis continued before Evelyn could recover her battered composure. “Where’s your vargr? She was your shield before, and you can’t get far before escape velocity as one of us without a shield, and I’m pretty certain she was also your-”
“The werewolf is busy,” Evelyn spat. “Now answer my-”
“I already have! I’m out, I-”
“Then clear off out of our path, or submit to my-”
“I’ve already offered to help, you pustulent little-”
While the mages traded puerile insults from a safe distance, sheltered respectively by arcane grey machinery or loyal loving constructs, I wove myself a tentacle.
Imagination had been encouraged in me at a very young age. In Maisie too, when our mother had taught us to read and given us free run of the local library every Sunday afternoon. My young mind, as yet unafraid of Wonderland and monstrous unnatural things, had learnt to weave from words the worlds I wanted to visit, from the rustic simplicity of The Shire to the mysterious surrealism of Where The Wild Things Are, through to the far-too-mature horrors of Watership Down.
So when I visited Kimberly’s bedroom every few days, to share visualisation practice with her, I’d found it easy intellectually – but hard emotionally.
She’d made that spare bedroom into a cosy little space, colonised it with pastel bedsheets and her collection of questionably tasteful books on witchcraft, and even less tasteful little statuettes of rearing unicorns, along with all her other possessions rescued from the cramped flat in Gleaston tower, except a few pieces of larger furniture which lay gathering dust in one of the less inhabitable upstairs rooms. Raine had helped out with a few trips back and forth in the car, and then Kim had stopped paying the rent on her old place. I think the whole set up was Evelyn’s way of trying to help the poor woman, after what she’d been through, but nobody ever put it into words.
The visualisation process sometimes made me want to cry. I could weave in my minds’ eye, right down to the connective tissues and epithelial layers, what a tentacle should look like, and yet know it was never really mine. Kimberly’s skittish softness helped somewhat. I didn’t want her to worry over my tears, so I always controlled myself as best I could.
But now, standing Outside, in the middle of a place so unnatural that it hurt us to stay here too long, I weaved a beautiful thing, and smiled.
Dexterous point of tapered muscle, shaft of smooth pale dolphin-flesh, core of flexible cartilage links like miniature locking pistons. Bioluminescence in the cell walls, set to strobe and pulse and throb in rainbow brilliance, or slink silent and slow in their own darkness. And where it met my skin, I built transition, not interruption. I hooked anchors deep into my flesh, wrapped them around my spine and hips, toughened the supports with tendons like steel cable and packed them around with brown fat and bone sheaths to cushion the strain.
All in my head, of course. Just my imagination.
Concentrating hard, I stretched out the tentacle toward Saldis. She was in the middle of throwing some huffing, tutting comment back at Evelyn. I was half-tempted to flick the mathematical switch, make the tentacle real, and tweak her elegant little nose.
She might be able to see it though. And if I did make it real pneuma-somatic flesh, Lozzie and Zheng and Praem would all see, and they’d be very unimpressed by the aftermath of aching and bruising and wheezing pain and terminal exhaustion, especially if I expended myself for a childish gesture. Actually, Lozzie would approve.
But I still smiled, because I knew the tentacle was not merely a phantom limb at all.
“Heathy,” Lozzie whispered. “We should break it up before they fight, shouldn’t we? No fighting, no fighting!”
“Mmm,” I agreed, and let the thought-tentacle drift apart.
“A single word keeps your guts in your belly, wizard, instead of between my teeth,” Zheng was rumbling behind us. “Scuttle back into your shell, lest I change my mind.”
“Don’t be silly, you dizzy old draugr.” Saldis waved a hand at her. “I’m still inside my walls. Test me if you want to feel the boiling oil, please. I’ll re-purpose you as well, I always need more fodder to break down, and there’s lots of fodder clinging to your tired bones.”
“I will not,” Zheng purred back. “Because I am under the shaman’s grace, and she has asked me not to kill you. If I judge this is unwise, I will make my own choice.”
“No, Zheng,” I sighed and raised my voice a little, felt it creeping off into the depths of the library to be absorbed by the books. “It’s okay. Evee, let it go, you too, please. I think we’ve established what Saldis’ priorities are. Sorry, I was … thinking about other things.”
“Quite right!” Saldis said with a tut.
“I will put in a good word for you,” I told her before anyone could start again. “With Seven-Shades. If you help us find the books we need.”
“ … you mean it?” Her eyebrows rose up her perfect high forehead. A wet tongue darted out to slick ruby-red lips. “That’s not just a pleasantry, is it? Lady Morell, I will be forever in your debt if you can get me back into the audience. Or … ” Her eyes widened. “Or win me a play of my own?”
“You gotta have a big lesbian drama for that, I gather,” Raine said.
“I can’t make Sevens do anything,” I said. “But I will ask her to allow you back into the uh, ‘seats’. If you hurt us, then I’ll tell her the opposite.”
“Sevens?” Saldis echoed, clapping her hands together for real this time, sending little droplets of grey clay splattering all over the front of her scarlet undershirt. “You are on a first name basis, with one of the pretenders? Oh, oh, I could never- never lay a finger on such an august- no, never. You have nothing to fear from me. But please, please do tell her how much I wish to admire her work. I am a worthy audience, I am.”
“Right. Yes.” I nodded and cleared my throat, feeling a little awkward.
There was no way I would have been comfortable with Saldis watching what had transpired in that bathroom, after she’d left.
We probably didn’t need to make a explicit deal with Saldis, she’d already offered to help find the books before. We likely didn’t need to threaten her either, but I’d let Evelyn go ahead because I’d begun to suspect this was what mages needed. Formal deals, contracts, armed negotiation. Perhaps it was all the spell-casting and demon summoning that did it, or perhaps being a mage simply attracted a certain type of person. Perhaps this was why Kimberly was so bad at the emotional and manipulational side of being a mage – one had to be a bit of an arse first. Evelyn was an arse, though I loved her for it.
“I still don’t trust you,” Evelyn told her, then spoke sidelong to Praem. “Watch her. One twitch out of place-”
“Trust?” Saldis said the word like it was an utterly preposterous notion. “Trust has nothing to do with it, little Englisher. Respect – everything!”
“Think about it, Evee,” Raine said with an amused grin. “Flash stuff here-”
“Flash stuff?” Saldis echoed, then smiled slowly. “Flash! Oh, I do like that. Flash. But how about … fabulous! Oooh yeah, now there’s an English word worth hanging onto.”
“Flash here thinks she’s pissed off one of the Gods,” Raine carried on. “And she’s getting Heather to intercede. What does that make Heather? What does that make us?”
Evelyn let out a grumbling noise, not quite convinced, but did not dissent further. In the corner of my eye, I saw the fingertips of one of Praem’s hands sneak over to the back of Evelyn’s wrist, and make contact. Evelyn flinched and turned to frown, but Praem was staring at Saldis, betraying nothing inside.
“Gods, pffft,” Saldis made a derisive noise. “The Yellow King’s get are not Gods, little hound.”
“How-” Evelyn cleared her throat, recovering from Praem’s unexpected touch. “How would you define them then, hmm? How would you define the Eye?”
“I have met many creatures that claim to be Gods,” Saldis said. “But never been face to face with Freya or Odin or even a stray giant, and certainly no demiurge. If the Gods truly existed, miss Saye, do you believe they would allow obscenities such as us to wander the worlds unobstructed?”
“None of us are obscenities,” I said out loud.
The conviction in my voice drew Saldis and Evelyn both to stare at me. Saldis narrowed her eyes again with that piercing cold intelligence. She clicked her fingers at last – an unsatisfying wet snap on her grey sculpting medium – and pointed a finger at me.
“Lady Morell. You know, you do seem different.”
I smiled. “I’m not. I’m still just me.”
Molten cords of tendon flesh a single cell in thickness, fins and scoops and graceful curves for gliding through dark water, throat of brass and eyes of crystal, all wrapped in pressure bubble. Six tentacles, there for when I willed them, a mouth of teeth so sharp and clean, gums of pure-peach health. Muscles trim and smooth and fast, yet changeable into more. A polyhedron shifting faces; a dancing star in my core.
Those words do not do justice to what I’d seen through abyssal senses.
As my insensate body had twitched and jerked in Lozzie’s cradling arms on the bathroom floor, I’d seen the side of me I’d brought back from the abyss – and in the end, it was just me.
Me, translated to the mathematical potential of the abyssal intercellular matrix. Abyssal eyes did not look back at me, because I wasn’t even looking at a reflection. I was merely gazing down at my own body, flesh and blood and bone redefined in wave-particle duality and polymorphic infinity. The only way my mind could interpret the sheer overwhelming euphoria was to turn it into metaphor, the same way it had when I’d swam the ocean beyond.
It was beautiful. I was beautiful.
I’d been such an idiot.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had exaggerated slightly, probably for dramatic effect – I was not the perfect amalgam she had shown me. My physical body was still scrawny and weak, a seed that needed water and sunlight if it was to act as a proper anchor to the real. My shuddering abyssal flesh was still tender and raw, even so many weeks after bursting the membrane back into reality, flushed with vitality but in need of stimulation, acknowledgement, exercise.
But flaws didn’t matter. Imperfections were nothing.
Beneath my skin, I was what I was meant to be. I was homo abyssus.
I stared and stared and ran hands over my flexing abdomen and shuddering flanks, encircled the roots of tentacles which came and went at will, stroked sharp spines and giggled at the sensitive flesh between my legs. I blinked nictitating membranes back and forth across all-black eyeballs, saw in infra-red and ultra-violet and other spectra we do not know. I cracked vertebrae in limbs I cannot name, measured the levels of chemicals and enzymes and hormones in my bloodstream and my organs, puffed my flesh with toxin, drained it and replaced it with the healing properties of a resonant purr.
Lozzie swears up and down all I did was twitch and judder, but I know what I saw.
I sensed her too, her hands cradling my head, her presence behind me, the hint of shining starlight flesh and the whisper of a fey voice.
I came up for air five minutes later, according to her; it felt more like an hour.
“It’s me,” I croaked in a weak little voice, tears of release running down my cheeks. “It’s me. It was always me.”
“It you!” Lozzie giggled, wiping the sweat from my forehead with the end of her sleeve.
The bathroom floor served as a most welcoming place to rest, as I was drained by the experience in more than one way. For a long, long moment Lozzie let me drift with my head in her lap. I stared up at the bathroom ceiling and the old, peeling paint. Eventually, without having to explain myself in words, Lozzie helped me struggle up to a sitting position. Luckily, using abyssal senses had not triggered any kind of sympathetic manifestation of pneuma-somatic tentacles – or worse – so while I was drained and tired, I was not ravenously hungry or about to pass out.
And I was happy.
“Heathy? Are you okay?” Lozzie steadied me with hands on my shoulders as I sat there, wavering and looking down at my body. “Raine will be very upset with me if I let you fall over and bang your head, so I’m going to be very careful not to let you fall over and bang your head. Okay? Okay. Okay!”
With clumsy hands and numb fingers, I lifted up my tshirts and touched my belly and hips, stuck my arms under my clothes to feel my own physical body, the rush of my blood beneath my skin, the gurgle of my guts, the thudding of my heartbeat.
“ … it was me all along,” I croaked at myself.
“Of course it was!” Lozzie chirped, bobbing her head from side to side like a curious little bird. “I thought you kind of knew?”
I shook my head, then looked up at her as her words dawned on me. “What Sevens showed us … is that what you see when you look at me, Lozzie?”
“Mmmmmmmmmmm.” Lozzie did a one-eyed squint. “I’m not like Sevens. No two pairs of eyes are exactly the same but I’ve always thought you’re beautiful, Heather! Before the swim, and then after it too! You think you changed, but you didn’t! You’ve always been you, and you has always been good.” She patted my chest and forehead and thighs. “And you’re pretty and cool and sparkling, whatever you keep thinking inside your head.”
“I guess I am pretty, uh, ‘sparkling’.” I tried to giggle too, not a noise I was too familiar with.
Lozzie and I put our heads together, like a pair of small animals in a burrow, and for the first time in a long time I felt like I made sense. The dysphoria was still present, but now I knew the truth, and nothing could touch that. Even if I couldn’t see it ninety-nine percent of time, hidden below the surface of my skin, past sight and sense on the abyssal wavelength of oceanic metaphor, it was there. I was not broken wreckage, not irreconcilably insane from a visit to the abyss. I was homo abyssus, my pain came from the mismatch of my flesh, and when seen through the right eyes, I could be beautiful.
Phantom limbs wrapped around Lozzie’s shoulders, and I simply let them. They tugged on the bruises in my sides as real, physical muscles tried to compensate for abyssal truth. The pain was sweet – which was a bit of a mad thing to think, but it was true.
“I’m going to go to the gym with Raine,” I croaked as Lozzie nuzzled my neck. “I’m going to get fit, and … and run, and learn to … you know.” I sniffed hard. “I saw me, Lozzie. I’ve been so, so stupid. How could I- all this time- a-and I have to move, I have to- all this time spent on me, I need to help Maisie, not sit around navel-gazing and-”
“No!” Lozzie tutted and pulled back. “Bodies are important!”
I blinked at her, then nodded, too weak to turn this moment of victory into a self-pity session, or worse, beating myself up for not figuring everything out overnight and rescuing Maisie after breakfast. I gazed at Lozzie for a long moment, and wondered what she might look like through abyssal eyes. I cast my mind back to the periphery of what I’d seen of myself earlier, and recalled hints of something behind me, something made of fragile star-spun glass and the tinkle of tiny stones on metal.
Lozzie just blinked at me with big sleepy eyes, turned her head sideways, and smiled an elfin little smile.
“I should get back to bed,” I laughed softly. “But I think I’m too … too ‘buzzed’, as Raine would say.”
Lozzie stroked my head, nodding. “We can stay here a while. It’s safe in the bathroom! No spooky creeping night-Praem to find me.”
“Night Praem?” I asked.
Lozzie shrugged, impish mischief on her lips.
“ … where’s Seven-Shades, anyway?” I asked, glancing around the shabby little room. “I need to thank her, I really, really do.”
“I think you have a truce now!” Lozzie chirped. “I wish she’d stayed though, I wanted to see her with her clothes off.”
I blinked at her in surprise, and Lozzie stuck her tongue out.
“Not like that, dumb-dumb! She’s pretty, I like her. I wanna see under the mask.”
“Um, fair enough.” I turned to the empty air. “Thank you, Sevens.”
“Thank you, Seveny!” Lozzie chorused with me, loud enough to bring the Night-Praem down on us.
Twenty minutes later – or an hour and twenty, I wasn’t sure, I think I fell asleep on Lozzie’s shoulder for a good few minutes – she helped me to my feet and we padded together through the dark upstairs hallway and into mine and Raine’s bedroom. Lozzie tucked me back into bed, but before she could even finish pulling the covers up, I was snuggling into Raine’s front not only with my hips and arms, but with half a dozen phantom limbs that I now knew were not mere brain-ghosts, but an echo of the truth beneath my flesh.
And as I drifted off to sleep, wrapped for the first time in months in the euphoria of truth, I knew what I had to do.
I knew what I was; now I must learn to use it.
“We have a truce with Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I told Evelyn the following morning.
I told her and Raine a great many things that morning, some of them inexpressible in human language, or at least difficult to express at high speed, especially without the luxury of emotional brakes or anything in my belly. Raine had sensed my manic mood the moment I’d woken up, how I’d wriggled out of bed and grabbed her in a hug, laughing through the painful twinges in my flanks and the way my bruises knocked the wind out of me when I bent over too quickly. Evelyn saw it in my face as she frowned at me over a bowl of cereal, as I all but bounced into the kitchen, feeling like I was channelling too much Lozzie.
“Wait wait, hold up, important part you keep glossing over: there were two of you?” Raine asked, paused in the act of trying to get me to eat a bite of cereal bar. “Full-body style?”
“There’s always been two of me!” I felt a giggle in my throat, unbidden, an unfamiliar feeling. “There’s Maisie.”
“Yeah, but … ” Raine wiggled her eyebrows. “You know.”
“Tch,” I tutted, but couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “You wouldn’t. Seven-Shades wasn’t actually me. You’ve changed your tune on her, Raine, I thought you, well, disliked her, after what we saw … ”
“She’s put a smile on your face, Heather. I’m not going to pretend to fully understand, but you seem happier than in months.”
“It’s like she’s high on blue skittles,” Evelyn grumbled, but then she added, “Good for you, Heather.”
“It’s simple!” I laughed again, and wouldn’t stay still, fiddling with a cereal bowl even though Raine was literally following me around the kitchen with a cup of tea and a plate of toast, trying to tempt me to either eat or sit down or both. “It was always just me. It still hurts, but it’s so good to know that I am what I am. Maybe I was always this way, maybe the abyss was just a catalyst, maybe it’s the Eye’s fault, but I don’t care anymore. And I feel … ready! This is what I’m supposed to be. And it’s stupid, it’s horrendously silly. I feel like one of those people on the internet who believe they’re dragons or ice fairies or something and-”
Raine shot Evelyn a raised eyebrow. “You telling Heather about the dark corners of the internet?”
“Me,” Praem intoned from by the workshop door.
“Yes, yes,” I waved that point down. “Praem was reading things on my laptop on wikipedia, it was very fun. Anyway, the point is, we have a truce now. We need to get everyone together, go back to Carcosa, as soon as we can. We’re going to get those books and I’m going to figure out how to locate my sister. Today, yes, we can go back to the library? Is that doable?”
“Saturday,” Evelyn grumbled. “I still need time to re-target the gate. And do not tell Twil we’re going back.”
My enthusiasm hit a brick wall of sudden anxiety. “ … no … Twil?”
“She has coursework due,” Evelyn said, holding my gaze without faltering. She seemed colder than last night, somehow hollow around the eyes. “This week and the next. I have extracted a promise that she will focus on it, mostly by guilt tripping her. Don’t undermine that.”
“You aren’t the only one who had a rough night, Heather.”
“Then … then we can wait, can’t we? We can … um.”
“No, we don’t want to wait,” Evelyn said with a long suffering sigh. “You don’t want to wait, do you, Heather?”
“Not … not really, no.”
“Every day we delay is one less day of action, one less day of working on how to counter the Eye,” Evelyn said. “We go in, we shove Saldis’ head in a toilet, we get the books. Leaving Twil out means nothing.”
“Liar liar, pants on fire,” Praem sing-songed.
“And you can shut up,” Evelyn grumbled at her, too worn out to snap. Something sagged in her expression. Raine finally stopped waving toast at me and noticed that something was wrong.
“Evee?” she asked. “Evee, something happen? What did Twil say, she upset you?”
“Practical decisions, that’s all. And it’s none of your business.”
An hour deeper into the library of Carcosa and we had acquired two out of three books. Now we were closing on the third.
Working the ‘catalogue system’ – as Saldis had described the squid-faced librarians – proved both easier and more disgusting than we’d envisioned. The trick was to feed them books constantly, which Lozzie took to with gleeful giggles, despite my visible concern.
“They’re always in communion, all of them, that’s how they draw on the existing organisation of every volume in the library,” Saldis had explained. She’d requested we interrupt one of the shuffling creatures in the clearing, offer it a book taken from the shelves, to start the necessary chain-reaction.
“Communion with what?” Evelyn had asked, voice sharp.
Saldis shrugged and pulled a face. “I do not care to know. Does one observe the butcher at work, or merely enjoy the meat?”
We’d followed her instructions, lured a squid-faced librarian creature with books pulled from the shelves, and watched as it had shoved them into its tentacle-hole one by one.
“The books are not actually moved, you understand?” Saldis went on, with little bored sighs and waves of a hand as she resumed her seat in the sphere-machine’s core. “The internal parts of one thrall are not merely similar to all others, like the innards of one pig resemble all other pigs – they are the very same innards. But the active overlap only occurs when they need to move a book from one position to another.”
“ … quantum superposition?” Evelyn asked with a professional frown.
“Shared guts!” Lozzie chirped, and handed the squid-face another book.
Saldis waved a hand and pulled a bored grimace. “I don’t pretend to understand, little Englisher, and frankly I don’t feel like vivisecting one of them to find out. One can bash them around all one likes, but insert a single fingertip past their skin, into the organs, and you’re likely not to get it back. Now, see?” She nodded at the squid-face Lozzie had finished feeding, which stood before us in a moment of silent contemplation, as if waiting to be addressed. “It knows the position of all the other books relevant for the re-shelving of the ones it has just communed for the correct location of.” She smiled and smacked her lips. “Now that’s a sentence. Your ‘English’ did quite well there, mmm?”
“Stop yammering, wizard,” Zheng purred.
“Yes, please, Saldis,” I added. “We are on a time limit. Being here is tough on all of us.”
Saldis rolled her eyes and leaned on a hand. “Very well, lady Morell. This is much more reliable than asking a scrum of thralls to dredge up what little scraps they have in their local meat, yes? Go on, ask it for the books. Ask away, and ye shall receive! If not, feed it more until the net catches what you desire.”
The first tome we reached twenty five minutes later, following the slow shuffle plod of the librarian through the endless labyrinth of Carcosa’s bookshelves. It didn’t point our way as the gaggle of followers had, but simply led on, up to the next floor and deep into a spiral tangle of overflowing shelves. Hundreds of books lay in avalanche piles here, thick leather-bound tomes and ancient scrolls and scraps of unbound manuscripts in Latin and Greek and less recognisable languages, but the creature neatly picked its way along a clear path around the textual rockfalls.
Evelyn insisted we continue using the method of throwing cloth-wrapped nuts, testing for that which was not conducive to human life or terrestrial matter. So Praem threw, and our caution was proven warranted – the librarian creature passed unharmed through patches of clear ground that compressed the cloth-wrapped nut into nothing, or whisked it out of the air on dark semi-translucent claws. On those occasions, we had to find our own route around the obstruction to rejoin our guide.
Beyond the Northern Ice by Magnhildr Dahl was exactly where the creature led us, in the middle row of a stack of early Medieval texts, bound in soft, pale leather which made my skin crawl to look at, written in a tongue not unlike Old English.
“This is not supposed to exist,” Evelyn breathed, voice shaking as Praem had carefully extracted the book and cradled it in her hands.
The doll-demon had cracked the cover, checked this was indeed the genuine article and wouldn’t hollow out the mind of anybody who gazed upon the words, then laid the book inside the less lethal of the two sports bags, with mechanical gentleness.
“What does that mean?” I asked softly.
“All copies were destroyed,” Evelyn said, her eyes following the book with naked hunger as Praem tucked it away. “Dahl was excommunicated, executed by drowning, and … well. That book shouldn’t be.” She swallowed hard. “Come on, we have further to go. Yes, much further.”
Saldis accompanied us as well, rolling along well behind the rear of the group in her grey sphere-machine. Back in the clearing it had folded up its strange blossoms, sucked the stair-stems and balcony-leaves back into itself like a strange sea creature re-absorbing expelled organs. Saldis’ boy-toy sculpture now lay in a side-seat next to her, visible through the peeled open front of the machine as she lounged inside. The sphere clicked along behind us, Saldis only occasionally smothering a laugh at our cautious, creeping antics.
“You think this is amusing?” Evelyn had shot back at her after the third laugh, as Praem had watched a cloth-wrapped nut bounce along the floorboards. “You want to go first for us? I suppose you have some better way of avoiding the hazards out here, do you?”
“Don’t mind me!” Saldis waved a hand. “Far be it for me to leapfrog your process. You do you, miss Saye.”
Whenever I looked back, Saldis favoured me with an excited smile, but mostly let us get on with our book borrowing.
Les voies des goules – written by an anonymous Parisian magician in 1803 – elicited just as much fascination from Evelyn as the first book, despite the relative slimness of the cheaply-bound volume, and the absurd cover illustration of a cavorting ghoulish figure with a gnawed bone between its teeth.
“Let me guess,” Raine said. “All copies burned? Author burned at the stake?”
“What? … no, no,” Evelyn muttered, distracted as Praem handed her the book after checking, and Evelyn greedily leafed though the pages, eyes working back and forth at high speed. “Only three copies ever published. Referenced by other books, but I wasn’t sure it existed. Grave magic, flesh … stuff … ” She shook her head and frowned. “The necessary formula for hiding of human flesh is meant to be in here, even from gazes such as the Eye, but my French is atrocious, I’ll have to translate it line by line. This is necessary. We need this. We do.”
“Evee?” I said her name out loud, because she sounded like she was trying to convince herself. Her voice was shaking.
“I’m fine,” she said with a huff, pulling herself together and handing the book back to Praem. “Let’s carry on. Feed our friend here some tomes. The faster we get the last book, the faster we can be out of here.”
By the time we reached the third book, Evelyn was the only one of us not beginning to buckle under the strain of being in this place, of existing Outside. I was getting twitchy, my phantom limbs trying to guard every approach to our little group. Zheng had grown silent and intense behind me. Raine was pulled taut inside her motorcycle jacket, every muscle pumped with stress hormones. Praem kept blinking too much. Even Lozzie had stopped bouncing from foot to foot as she walked, hand-in-hand with me.
Evelyn had that wide-eyed look, that old look, that hungry look, as she stomped on into the darkness.
The last known location of the third and final book – The Testament of Heliopolis, an anonymous translation of some ancient Greek scrap – was two floors up and far toward the back wall of the library canyon, where a wide area of the library had long ago suffered some kind of collapse.
As we crept inch by inch through the tangle of bookshelves, an open space revealed itself, like a rubble-clogged crater ahead, though the rubble was all splintered wood and piles of books in jumbled heaps. Though it did little to alleviate the oppressive air of the library, the slow appearance of a wide open space did ease off the claustrophobia of the library stacks.
“Looks like somebody set off a bomb,” Raine muttered as we drew almost level with the collapsed area.
“I could do worse, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled.
“Here … it should be right here,” Evelyn was saying, eyes roving the nearest bookshelf, across the neatly stacked spines of leather-bound, crumbling books. “This part is alphabetised, but I don’t see it.” She glanced at the squid-faced librarian, who had stopped and turned toward us, waiting for the next instruction. “Has the thing made a mistake? Do we need to feed it more?”
Praem noticed it first.
She stepped past Evelyn and reached for the shelf, into a shadowed gap between two books. It was only then I realised that the dust on the shelf had been disturbed. A book had been removed. Recently.
Praem’s hand drew back the object which had lain in space once occupied by The Testament of Heliopolis.
A clean white envelope.
My eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my head. Raine went tense all over, as if it might be a letter-bomb. Evelyn made a choked sound deep in her throat. Lozzie squeezed my hand. Saldis was standing up in her sphere-machine, trying to see. Zheng laughed.
“It’s for us,” Praem intoned after a moment.
Written on the front of the envelope, in messy looping handwriting, with the unmistakable blue ink of cheap biro, was a single sentence.
‘To Miss Evelyn Saye.’