With her iron grip around my waist, and my arm about her shoulders, Praem dragged me up the scree-slope of a million books, chasing Evelyn.
Climbing the slope was like trying to walk on a carpet of loose rocks, slipping and skidding beneath our feet, stray volumes sliding down to the abandoned stage-floor below. Even hale and well rested that climb would take me fifteen or twenty minutes, and only Praem’s inhuman stamina won us the ragged lip of the wooden crater.
She dragged me up without mercy, pulled on my bruises, scraped my knees. I would not have asked her to do otherwise.
We could ill afford to wait for full strength to return to my legs; the clacking sound of Evelyn’s walking stick was already leaving us behind. In the wake of the violence and the shouting and the gunshots, an oppressive silence had settled on the library of Carcosa, broken only by that clack-clack-clack. Each distant tap against the floorboards made my heart shudder. Evelyn was sinking beneath the waves; Praem and I could not dive fast enough.
In a moment of absurdity which probably masked growing panic, I was thankful we’d never purchased Evelyn a proper, modern replacement walking stick, with a good rubber tip.
“Thank-” I panted as Praem allowed me to put my full weight back on my own two feet, once we were off the slope, up alongside the squid-faced librarians and Saldis’ sealed grey sphere, silent and still. Even with Praem dragging me, the climb had devoured what little energy I had left, after the brainmath earlier. “Thank- you- Praem. Yes.”
“Evelyn,” Praem intoned at full volume.
“Yes- yes- right now. No- no rest. Give- give me your arm.” I groped for her again, caught support, and cast a last thoughtless glance down at the floor of the makeshift amphitheatre.
The echo of Edward Lilburne’s gate in the far wall. The corpse of the unfortunate unnamed man drained and devoured by the touch of the Outsider. The battle damage and bullet holes and patches of lightning-etched floorboard.
I dearly wished I could have tarried to examine Lozzie’s knight in more detail. The strange noble shining thing had saved us – and been cooked inside its armour by a brush with the black lightning, like a loyal boar-hound throwing itself in front of its beloved master. Discoloured and scorched all down the front, lance-point embedded in the library floorboards, tower-shield collapsed to one side, visor-less, eye-less, feature-less helmet slumped forward, it would stand here as a monument that none but us would comprehend, and I very much doubted we would ever return to this spot. Would some mage discover it one day, a lonely eternal grave among the toppled bookshelves and bullet holes and bones? Or perhaps a library visitor as unimaginable to us as we had been to the black lightning? Would they wonder what it meant, what manner of creature died here, and why? It had saved our lives, it deserved a better funeral than abandonment, whatever truly lay burnt and blackened inside that armour.
Raine’s blood was drying on the floorboards not twelve feet from the dead knight, wet and sticky in the unhealthy light of the library glow-stones.
I didn’t need a psychologist’s professional opinion; all these fleeting, poetic thoughts about the dead knight were deflection. If Amy Stack’s final bullet had passed a few inches further north, it would be Raine’s cooling corpse I was forced to leave behind down there.
“No- no no, Heather, can’t- can’t deal with that right now, can’t deal with that right now-” I hissed to myself as I ripped my eyes away from the sight.
“Evelyn,” Praem’s voice rung like a soft bell. She dragged me on the first of many, many hobbling steps.
“Yes, yes. After Evelyn, of course.”
We were in no fit state for this pursuit, but we had no other options. Quite the pair we made. Me, all jelly-limbed and sore-stomached, a pounding headache in my temples, blood smeared all down the front of my face from an unattended nosebleed I could not have cared less about. Praem’s maid uniform was ruined beyond repair, scorched patches burned away from her exposed pale skin, skirt ripped, tights laddered, blonde hair in singed and curled disarray. At least her supernatural flesh itself seemed mostly untouched beneath, except for a few scratches and scrapes and some minor surface burns.
“Glad you’re- I’m glad you’re alright too, Praem,” I hissed as we staggered onward, along the lip of the crater, toward the tangle of smashed floors and shelves.
“I am inedible,” she sang, softly.
“Ahaha,” I laughed weakly, afraid to drown out the sound of Evelyn’s walking stick. “We’ll need to get you a haircut when we get back. Evee can-” I swallowed. “Evee can buy you a new outfit. Lots of new outfits. Different uniform for every day of the week. More frills. Maybe some gloves. Would you like some gloves? New shoes? Heels?”
“I would like all of that,” Praem sing-songed, even softer than before.
I was too focused on Evelyn, too scared for Raine, and too out of my head on adrenaline and pain, to pay attention to the fact that Praem was scraped and bruised like a human being, not an illusion of one wrapped around a core of wood animated by abyssal spark.
At least we wouldn’t have to cut our way through the squid-faced librarians. As soon as the drama below had ended, their attitude of enraptured watching had passed. The show was over. They drifted back to their duties alone or in little groups, no longer shoulder-to-shoulder in a silently jostling wall, dispersing like gas.
“Evelyn, oh Evee, what’s wrong with you? What are you doing?” I hissed to myself, as we turned to set off into the tangled wreckage of the shattered library floor. Far away, her walking stick kept up a steady pace.
“Bewitched,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, obviously.” I scrubbed at the blood drying around my lips. “Damn you, Sevens. We had an agreement. When I find you, I-”
A smooth tock-tock-tock-tock from behind us interrupted my smoldering outrage before it could take flame.
Saldis’ grey block-sphere-machine rolled to catch up with us. Praem halted and half-turned, as if expecting treachery. I sort of did too, but I hadn’t learnt my lesson about Saldis yet. Evelyn’s paranoia was rubbing off on me.
The sphere-machine blossomed open on the front even as it drew to a halt, blocks rolling back like the leaves of some disgusting fleshy egg. From inside, Saldis blazed at us with a pinched frown of irritation, rising from her pilot seat and opening her mouth.
“Go away,” Praem told her.
“We don’t have time for you, Saldis,” I croaked, already dipping a mental hand toward the necessary hyperdimensional equations to just plain get rid of her. “I will stop you without-”
“Sevens!?” She leaned bodily out the open front of her machine and waved a fluttering hand at the wreckage in the amphitheatre below, enunciating her words as if this was a gurning competition. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, did that? Oh, pet, I do not think so!”
“-hesitation because our friend is-”
“Do you seriously think I would allow myself to sleep through a pretender’s performance?” she shrieked onward, vastly offended as only a true aesthete can be.
“-in trouble- wait, what?” I blinked at her furrowed brow, her folded arms, her dismissive huff.
“Evelyn. Now,” Praem intoned, tugging on my arm to pull me onward, back into the tangle of fallen floor and smashed shelf.
“It- it was a play, I saw it,” I stammered at Saldis, even as my feet tripped and dragged alongside Praem. “I saw the logic, in everything, every movement. In-”
“Lady Morell,” Saldis said with long-suffering, performative patience – of which she did not actually possess a single iota. “You are seeing patterns where there are none. Too much time jawing backstage with Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight and not enough paying. attention. to. her. work.” Saldis punctuated her words with little chops of one perfectly-manicured hand against the opposite palm. “And besides, who would put on a play for these deaf and blind things?” She gestured dismissively at some of the squid-faced librarians, shuffling off between the distant library stacks. “What’s to teach them? What truths do they need? A new alphabetical sorting system?”
“But- but they were the audience, they-”
“They were a work-gang. Watching a problem solve itself.”
“But- Evee- she’d have no reason to-”
“Evelyn,” Praem intoned – louder, and I staggered to follow, to dive headfirst into the maze of the library, trying to take in Saldis at the same time.
Saldis did a passable impression of a small spoiled girl being asked a question by the most tiresome of school friends; a great huff, a roll of the eyes to blow out the front of her own skull, and a vast flop back into her seat.
“Did you see any yellow, Lady Morell?” she asked. “The faintest hint? A whisper? A single highlight?
I blinked at her.
In all that fight, all that confrontation, even the moment of terror when Evelyn had been led away – which, now I thought on it, had involved only the librarians and an unseen figure – I had not seen a scrap, a speck, a shimmer of that colour.
“No?” Saldis smiled with brittle pleasure. “Well then. There you are, poppet.”
“I … I don’t understand- then why- she’s walking off! What difference does it make? We have to get her back before … before … ”
Saldis did this infuriatingly delicate little shrug with both hands, lips pressed together, a you-should-have-asked-me-first look.
“Follow us then,” I snapped at her, coughed some blood up into my mouth, and swallowed it again, iron and bitter. “We can’t let her get too far. Follow us, or sit there and be useless.”
“Oh, certainly, poppets. Certainly.” Saldis huffed and rolled her eyes – but she did follow as Praem and I staggered on, after the sound of Evelyn’s walking stick.
We plunged into the tangle of the collapsed wreckage once more, Praem acting as my support, my crutch, while Saldis’ machine clicked along behind us. Her exasperation and outrage had seemed too real for an act – despite her love of the yellow pretenders’ art, she herself was no player – but an unknown mage at my back made my shoulder blades itch. We had little choice. She knew the library of Carcosa far more intimately than we did, and if one hint from her mocking lips could ensure we break whatever spell had taken Evelyn, it was worth the risk.
Praem’s stride grew strong as she regained her coordination, but I was stumbling just to keep up, my head throbbing with the echo of brainmath exertion, blood still in my nose. Somewhere ahead in the maze of twisty passageways through the towering mess, Evelyn’s walking stick called to us, but we couldn’t be certain exactly which pathway she and her group of squid-faced guides had taken. Praem had scavenged a few handfuls of cloth-tied nuts from the split carrier bag, stuffed as many as she could into the surviving pockets of her maid outfit, and now tossed them ahead of us as we went, but we didn’t slow down to watch and wait as each nut flew and rolled.
“I don’t understand,” I panted back over my shoulder as we finally sighted the end of the wreckage, the slight climb back up to the more orderly library floor of marching bookshelves and stacked volumes.
“Understand what, poppet? The universe?” Saldis tutted. “The secrets of creation? I don’t put much stock in giant cows and infinite salt-licks, I’m afraid.”
Praem hauled me up onto the floorboards, where our feet met firmer ground. Here her own tread made a distressing mistimed shuffle-click, between her one remaining smart black shoe and her bare foot shod only in ruined tights. We hurried on, past the end of the bookcase-corridor where we’d found Lilburne’s nasty letter, and out into a row of many stacks leading off into the library floor. We’d been here before, not an hour ago, but I could barely remember the way.
All around us, Squid-faced librarians seemed to be shuffling in the same direction, as if also following the clack of Evelyn’s walking stick.
“Praem,” I said, struggling to keep my voice from quivering.
“I see,” she intoned, and we didn’t need to share that we felt the same fear, the same lack of comprehension at what was going on here.
She dragged me onward, deeper into the stacks, picking up the pace in hopes of catching up with a much larger group of librarians than we were prepared to deal with. We had to walk very close past several of the strange creatures and their shuffling gait, but they paid us no heed. If it came to violence, I told myself I would not hesitate to hurt as many of them as necessary to get them away from Evelyn.
“Evee!” I called out, but the heavy silence of the library seemed to swallow my cry.
I glanced back to see Saldis lounging in her pilot-seat-slash-love-sofa, following close.
“If Seven-Shades didn’t tamper with Evelyn’s mind,” I said to her as I clung to Praem’s shoulder. “If she didn’t set up that performance with Stack and Edward’s men, what was going on? What was that?”
“Well,” Saldis drawled. “You can’t go setting off … Greek fire, or whatever that awful racket was, in here, around the books, and expect the catalogue not to take notice.” She gestured at the nearest librarian. “I did say you’d lose a finger if you opened up one of these horrible bags of guts.”
A cold realisation crept over me. “ … what would happen, if you punctured one of them from a distance, with a … a … fast moving object?”
Saldis gave me a look of most disdainful disbelief. “I do know what an arrow is, little Englisher. I’m not some wood-poor skraeling who makes do with whale bones.”
“Please, Saldis, just- just answer the question.” I screwed up my eyes, desperately trying to clear my head.
She scoffed. “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been stupid enough to try. Perhaps they summoned help, perhaps they herded another library visitor over, or perhaps the smell of their guts attracted a shark. I’m smart enough to keep my head down when there’s an eater going at-” She paused, blinked, and sighed with a sharp tut. “’Eater’, is that really the best your English can do here? No word for the genus, eh? Matari?” She pulled a sour face. “Mm, well, even the northern tongue fails occasionally, I suppose. Nobody’s perfect.”
“You mean the black lightning creature?”
“Is that what it looked like to you?” Saldis considered me with studied disinterest. “I wasn’t using this at the time,” she waved a hand vaguely at her own face, and with a shudder I realised she meant human senses, eyes and ears.
“ … they must have shot one,” I murmured in horror. “Praem, Praem we can’t hurt these things, not that badly, not if they-”
“Evelyn,” was her only reply, as she dragged me onward.
“You could have warned us earlier,” I said to Saldis. “Instead of hiding in your silly ball thing. Thanks for the complete lack of help.”
“Not all of us are suicidally brave with our immortal souls, lady Morell. I would commend your frank insanity as bravery, but, actually no, nobody who wishes to see sunrise or smell grass or taste salt ever again would willingly expose themselves to an eater. No pillared hall if you go that way, ugh.” She sniffed. “I don’t understand how you little Englishers are even scurrying about afterward. Besides, the thing was of no interest to me. None of the pretenders would cast such a boor in any production.”
“Exit,” Praem sing-songed, “pursued by a bear.”
Saldis laughed and slapped her thigh. I boggled at Praem’s face in profile as she stared straight ahead, looking for any hint or sign of Evelyn’s new entourage as the bookcases unfolded ahead of us.
“Praem? When did you read The Winter’s Tale?”
“All I do is read,” she sang softly.
“ … are you alright?” I whispered.
“Okay, silly question,” I sighed. “Stupid question, yes. I know, I know, we need to get to Evee. We will. I won’t let any harm come to her, if the worst comes to the worst, I can-”
I could push brainmath past the limit, taste the abyss once more, define Evelyn and drag all of us back to reality along with this entire half-mile stretch of library and everything in it, books and Saldis and all, at the cost of another swim in the limitless dark. Drop this entire section of library in a field on the edge of Sharrowford.
Perhaps the fear was too much, because a hysterical giggle escaped my lips.
Praem twisted her head to stare at me.
“I-I’m sorry,” I caught myself, swallowed hard. “This is all my fault, Praem. I’m so sorry.”
It was all my fault, but now was not the time for guilt; I crushed it down, bottled it up for later.
Praem said nothing. Milk-white eyes stared back into mine.
“I know you care deeply for her, I know you’re capable of that,” I whispered to Praem, very softly. This wasn’t for Saldis to hear. “I- I like to think she knows that too. That she- I’m sure she would … ”
Hopeful lies. Praem turned back to our path, and concentrated on the sound of Evelyn’s walking stick.
I twisted to look back over my shoulder again. Behind and around Saldis’ sphere, dozens of squid-faced librarians were converging on our pathway, shuffling grey robes dragging against the bookshelves, blind tentacles feeling forward from eyeless faces. All around us in parallel stacks, I heard the dry rustle of grey-fleshed feet beneath the library silence.
“Alright,” I said to Saldis. “Explain. If Evelyn’s not part of a play, what’s happening to her?”
Saldis blinked at me, once, twice, in actual open-mouthed shock, looking like I was a child who’d spilt her own guts from her slit-open belly, with no idea what was happening as hot bloody snakes wriggled through her fingers.
“Oh. Oh, poppet, oh no. Don’t tell me you’ve all been wandering around out here without proper protection? I assumed you knew. That your construct here was part of it,” she gestured at Praem. “Or- or something. Anything!”
“Knew what? Saldis, just tell me what’s happening, now, before we reach-”
“She’s being inducted into the library catalogue.”
“ … what? What does that mean, what are they doing to her?”
“Turning her into one of them.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Praem- Praem, hurry-”
“Yes,” Praem intoned.
“Where are they taking her?” I snapped back at Saldis. “What exactly are they doing? How long do we have to-”
“Taking her to a junction box, I assume.” Saldis paused, smacked her lips, and frowned. “Oh no, that’s not the right word, not at all, no. Tch. Your absurd sheep farmer peasant tongue doesn’t have anything at all for this. Synapse. Bone marrow. Liver. Middle manager.” She grimaced at that last one. “No, no, no. You won’t call it any of those things if you clap eyes on it, of that I am certain.”
“Saldis,” I hissed, taking my panic out on her navel-gazing.
We emerged from the end of a sweeping curve of bookshelves, having followed the clonk-clonk-clonk of Evelyn’s walking stick through the strange, lowering silence of the library, and found ourselves suddenly exposed to the vast open space of the library canyon. We’d walked all the way to the front of this library floor. Massive ornate wooden banisters gave way to the spider-webbing of rickety walkways that climbed the canyon wall, reaching twig-like fingers across the mile-wide gap to the far side.
A wave of vertigo washed over me at the infinite floors in the distance, a mirror of the ones on this side, receding into the upper darkness, but Praem’s iron strength kept my knees from wobbling. For a horrible moment I thought the librarian entourage had led Evelyn out onto those creaking, crumbling walkways, and seriously began to contemplate the math to just rip this entire half-mile of library back to our reality – but then I saw the librarians, maybe two hundred feet ahead of us, making for the stairs down.
Hundreds of squid-faced librarians shuffled away from us, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, clogging the edge of the library floor like grey cholesterol clotting a vein. If Evelyn was in the centre of that scrum, she was too short for us to spot.
“Evee!” I called, heard no response. “Praem, Praem, right there-”
Praem dragged me forward, all but marching now.
“Don’t- Praem, don’t hurt them, you heard what Saldis said and we can’t deal with-”
“My point is, lady Morell,” Saldis drawled from behind me, her machine ticking along the floorboards to keep up. “Your friend has decided she wants to stay with the library, rather than face reality.”
“What?” I twisted back to look at her. “That’s … well, actually, considering Evelyn that’s not completely absurd, but it is also mad.”
Saldis smiled – and a hint of real, genuine sorrow touched her dark eyes, her full red lips, the crease of a noble brow.
“Have you never loved a library, lady Morell?”
“Well, yes, but … ”
“Have you never abhorred the world beyond books? Wished to stay within that candlelight halo forever, no matter the strain on your eyes? All it takes is a little self-honesty, in one’s heart of hearts, and the library knows you.”
A sound slithered across the blanket of silence, not sudden but slow, slick and sodden and sinewy, louder than the shuffle of grey librarian feet or the clack of Evelyn’s walking stick, and undeniably biological. It did not cut the silence, but seemed like part of the quiet had come alive.
Like a huge wet snake emerging from a sewer pipe.
I looked for source of the sound, and Praem stumbled to a halt for a single step – she must have sighted the thing a second before I did, but by the time my eyes had widened and the breath gone still in my throat, Praem was dragging me onward again with renewed purpose, toward the wall of grey librarian backs.
Down on the floor of the library canyon, far far away, a tower of meat was approaching.
One third biology textbook drawing of a virus, one third flesh-stripped nervous system of a flightless bird – and one third giraffe – the thing was a giant pillar of dark red leathery meat mounted atop a collection of far too many crab-like legs, which moved with a disturbingly artificial motion, like a child trying to make their fingers walk as the legs of a spider. At the tip of the meat-tower the thing possessed a potato shaped head the size of a lorry, with a dull grey beak, and a circular band of sickly green light hovering in the air above.
Orifices yawned in the back of the thing’s head. Several long fine tentacles like the feelers of a jellyfish emerged from those dark holes, and a single massive tentacle waved lazily upward in the air, a blunt-ended tube the thickness of a water slide, with a sucking, puckered hole in the middle, easily large enough to swallow a human being.
The sound I’d heard was the emergence of that tentacle.
The thing was so big I could see details clearly from all the way up here. It’s head reached the fourth or fifth of the library floors, the tentacle much further – all the way up to us, as it navigated over the piles of books and weaved its way through the cobwebs of rickety walkways without so much as brushing against them.
A cloacal stench reached my nostrils and made my eyes water. Mucus and urine and digestive fluids.
“I … uh,” I almost laughed, panic and hysteria too much. “Why … why does it have a halo?”
“Ignore it,” Praem intoned.
The library canyon suddenly seemed less like the main passageway of a wood-panelled infinite building, and more akin to a cell-wall capillary byway in a creature larger than all reality. And here came a macrophage.
Ahead, the wall of librarians was shuffling to a slow stop, as the meat-trunk-thing began to draw level with us.
“Ah yes,” Saldis said, a quiver in her voice. “There’s the middle manager, come to remake your friend’s flesh.”
“What?” I boggled back at Saldis, and found her leaning out of the front of her machine, peering down at the bizarre half-bird half-dried-jerky monster.
“Well, where do you think the catalogue comes from?” She winced. “Or the books? This is not a safe place to be a magician.” Saldis shook her head and frowned, quite upset. “Not at all. Mages are vulnerable here. The more books they’ve read the worse it is. And they always assume they are untouchable, that their work is more important than mere self-definition. At least I admit I’m a fruitcake full of emotional sinkholes, thats why I stay in my shell.” She slapped the inside of her grey-block sphere-machine. “That’s the price for staying here and staying me, I live as a snail does.”
“What- what is it going to-”
“The books your little Englisher magician knows are about to be rotated out of her mind,” Saldis explained. “The liver will pass them back to this rabble, to be added to the library, and then she herself will be, uh, mm,” Saldis cleared her throat. “Reborn. You’ll want to be interrupting this initiation before she’s swallowed, yes? Not after. Bit late then. But if I were you I wouldn’t-”
I never got to hear what Saldis wouldn’t do, if her dearest friend was about to be eaten and processed into a grey-faced slave drone, because Praem decided to do her best impression of a professional rugby player.
She tucked me to one side as if to shelter me from driving rain, pointed her opposite shoulder at the wall of grey-clad backs, and charged.
The librarians went over like cricket stumps hit with a cannon ball, flailing and falling and flapping and fumbling, toppling their fellows with clawing hands, bouncing off the banister at the edge of the floor and scrabbling grey fingers against the bookcases opposite. I had to swallow a scream, half at the sudden, crawling proximity of the masses of writhing grey flesh, my phantom limbs lashing out in a protective but useless corona, as I was dragged along by sheer momentum, clinging to Praem for fear of stumbling and falling – and half at the terrifying prospect of Praem somehow puncturing one of them deep enough, spilling enough blood, enough guts, to attract the attention of anything lurking nearby, another thing like the Black Lightning Outsider.
Praem slammed through the librarians and they scattered before her, hundreds of them streaming away between bookshelves or onto the rickety walkways, parting like sand, then like water, flowing back from the red-hot iron of our sudden intrusion.
“Evee!” I called out – and then we were upon her.
Small hunched shoulders over the crooked spine beneath her coat, great mass of blonde hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, her pockets overflowing with notebooks and tools and her bone-wand jutting out from beneath the layers, her soft cream jumper with the off-colour thread where she’d repaired the collar herself. Leaning on her walking stick. Prosthetic black visible just beneath the hem of her long skirt.
I had this bizarre moment where I expected her to have been stripped naked, like an offering in some silly old horror movie, but it was just Evelyn. Magic did not work like that. Outside did not follow our badly arranged cultural expectations. She could die fully clothed and standing upright just as easily.
The grey librarians flowed away from her like water sucked back by an incoming tidal wave – or by capillary action – their hands leaving her shoulders and arms and waist. She was side-on to us. Eyes unfocused.
Praem pretty much just dropped me.
I let out a yelp, but adrenaline and fear and love kept me on my feet, kept me staggering the last few paces to my stranded friend. Praem went for the librarians still in proximity, circling Evelyn once, quick and sharp, chasing the creatures back with silent glares and the twirl of her torn skirt and the click of one shoe – and a couple of well-placed piston-fast punches to gut or spined head.
I’d once seen a video of a service dog – a great muscled German Shepherd – trained to protect a small girl, by putting itself between her and a simulated attacker, turning always to keep its vulnerable charge in the shelter of its own body. In that moment, Praem reminded me of that dog, driven by something deeper than mere conditioning.
But one part of the library catalogue did not respond to Praem’s threat.
The towering re-maker creature far below had drawn level with Evelyn, and the massive tentacle it had extended upward now bobbed and arced like an elephant’s trunk, sniffing for a scent.
I almost fell onto Evelyn, grabbed her about the shoulders, and promised myself I’d never let go again.
“Evee, Evee what are you- are you-”
Evelyn Saye wore the expression of a sleepwalker, or the victim of mild stroke. Slack lips, heavy-lidded unfocused eyes, staring ahead at nothing. She made eye contact with me and blinked once in slow acknowledgement.
“Oh,” I breathed, heart thudding. “Oh, we have to get you out of here, Evee. Right now. Praem!” I pulled Evelyn into a hug and held on tight. She didn’t resist, limp in my grip. “Praem, grab me, now, and hold on! We have get Evee-”
Praem obeyed with a quick hop and trot, wrapping her arms around me from behind before I finished speaking.
“Okay,” I breathed a shuddering breath, dredging up the familiar equation that would collapse the world, instinctively clenching up in anticipation of the oncoming pain. “And don’t let go, and-”
“I wouldn’t do your plane-stepping trick if I were you, lady Morell,” Saldis’ voice cut across my panic, high and sharp.
Her grey sphere-machine had rolled into the gap left by the scattered librarians, who were already drifting back in twos and threes, the parted sea returning in ebbs and dribbles, all their blind spine-and-tendril faces turned toward us, toward Evelyn. Saldis was leaning out of the front of her machine, eyes flashing danger, as close to panic as I think she was capable of feeling.
“Not on her, not now,” she continued. “If you lead your friend back across the ice wall firmament, it will be her body only. Her mind is entangled with the catalogue.”
Saldis’ gaze flickered up and to the right, behind me, out into the open space of the library canyon, where the trunk-tentacle was wavering closer.
“How do I undo that?” I asked. “How? What do we do?”
“I haven’t the foggiest, my dear girl,” Saldis said with a tight smile. “All I know is that your friend does not want to leave.”
“Evee?” I pulled away from the tight hug, Praem pressed to my back, and took in Evelyn’s sleep-hazed face. She blinked, once.
“That is all I know, poppet, I cannot help you further,” Saldis said, and collapsed back into the waiting seat of her machine, as the grey blocks began to fold shut around her, sealing up her shell. At the last moment, she pulled a pained smile. “Wisdom of the gods go with you. Good luck.”
The grey surface of Saldis’ machine swallowed the dark oval of her face, her grimace the last thing to vanish inside the protective sphere. It began to roll slowly backward, away from the tentacle, away from us, before the press of returning librarians became too much through which to force a path.
“Oh dear,” I said, and hiccuped, loudly.
“Talk to her,” Praem intoned, right in my ear, as she peeled herself off me and turned to face the giant tentacle. The feeler was almost at the banister now, the puckered opening turned downward as if ready to pinch a morsel off a plate. My phantom limbs itched to fight or flee, setting up an awful deep tissue ache in my flanks.
“Praem, you can’t fight that, you’re not-”
“Talk,” Praem repeated – and I heard a tremor, as if the bell of her voice had been struck at an angle.
I turned back to Evelyn, tried to peer into her eyes, make her see me.
“Evee? Evee, you don’t want to stay here. Why? What- What happened? Evee?” My mouth was going dry, couldn’t keep my voice steady. “You’ve always been obsessed with magic, I know, and with the books, with everything … everything your mother did, but I thought I had you. We’re friends, and I love you, and that matters. It- it doesn’t matter, this nonsense here, this crap with Edward Lilburne, all this mage stuff doesn’t matter one whit compared to the people who love you. Evee? You do have a family to go back to, people who care about you. Me, Raine, Praem right here, Lozzie too. Maybe not Zheng, okay, fair enough. A-and Kimberly, yes, you’ve done a good thing for Kim, you’ve done good, you’re good, you’re wanted. Evee!”
Evelyn watched me like she was riding an opiate high. Blank.
I was babbling now, in panic, struggling not to give in to the urge to turn and hiss and raise all my phantom tentacles as the vast feeler approached us. Abyssal instinct screamed at me to turn and fight, to spit poison and make myself toxic to this thing that wanted to eat me – but I was not the target of its hunger, and I could not make Evelyn safe, and at a deeper level than pure instinct I knew that no empty threat would halt the seeker’s purpose. This was no predator of the deep, no tiger to posture and stalk, it was more akin to cellular machinery. If we wanted to stop it, we would have to dismantle the thing entirely, until no part was linked to any other.
“And Twil,” I added at last, to Evelyn. “You have Twil. Don’t you?”
A fluttering blink passed over Evelyn’s eyes. Her lips moved, and she murmured a sound which might have been “couldn’t” or perhaps “hood” or maybe a word I refuse to repeat.
And that was all.
“Oh this is ridiculous.” I hiccuped again. “When we get home, I’m never letting you live this one down, Evee. Evelyn! Oh, this is like me and the abyss,” I muttered. “Praem, Praem we need more time, we need to get Evee away from- yaah!”
I’m not ashamed to admit I yelped. The squid-faced librarians had been trickling and shuffling back, the ring of their robes and empty faces tightening around us, but now several of them all reached for Evelyn at once with pale grey soft hands, like dead fish. I didn’t get the sense they were trying to wrestle her away from me; they seemed like lepers desperate to touch a queen, that her grace might heal them.
But still I yelped – and then followed instinct and let out a long, high-pitched hisssss.
They scattered back from me like startled animals, but did not draw off very far. My heart was pounding in my chest, my spinning head flushed with adrenaline, my back soaked with cold sweat. They crept toward us again. I hiccuped in panic.
“Praem!” I yelled.
The huge trunk-like tentacle was almost upon her. Praem, standing ramrod straight with her hands clasped. What was she planning to do, swat the thing like the paw of an over-curious cat?
“Praem, you can’t scare that thing off. Keep- keep the librarians away from Evee- let me- I can-”
I can do what? Brainmath the thing into oblivion? Not only was it bigger than a whale, its main body was hundreds of feet below us. The kind of brainmath to solve this problem would also likely lay me out unconscious, and then who was going to get us home? What if another of these things lumbered up to take the place of this one, even if I could burn it to a crisp with atomic fire summoned at the speed of thought?
But it was the only choice. The librarians had regathered too thick to shift now, no room for a running start to plough through them. If they decided to hold us in place, we’d be done for.
“Praem, I have to use brainmath,” my voice shook. “Take Evelyn.”
Praem finally did as I asked, stepped back as I stepped forward, toward that searching trunk like the feeding tube of a giant alien insect. It was very close now, bumping against the banister only two feet away from me. The puckered orifice shuddered, and that cloacal stink washed over us again, like an open sewer.
I stuck both hands into the sump of my soul. Perhaps if I redefined the air around the trunk, set it alight, crushed it, froze it, perhaps if I held on very hard I wouldn’t pass out and-
“You are a better mother than yours ever was,” Praem sang behind me.
I glanced back in surprise to see her staring right into Evelyn’s eyes, gently holding her mistress by the forearms.
“Do not orphan me,” Praem added.
And Evelyn winced like we’d burst into her bedroom in the middle of the night with a high-powered spotlight and a foghorn. She drew in a pained breath and grunted like she had a mouth full of sand and a throat covered in fur. She sounded, in that instant, very hungover.
“No I’m not,” she grumbled.
“Oh, Evee,” I breathed in relief.
The questing tentacle-trunk-thing had paused, lost the scent. The squid-faced librarians had lost focus too, milling about aimlessly.
Evelyn clung to the front of the doll-demon’s ruined maid outfit with white knuckle pressure, as if she was afraid that gravity might fail her and she’d go spinning upward into the void.
“Yes you are,” Praem argued back, bell-clear.
“I make a terrible mother,” Evelyn grumbled, almost right into the pillow of Praem’s chest, shaking all over with soft tears flowing from the corners of her eyes. “Terrible everything. Failure. Worse than she was. Incompetent. Swiped it right from under my nose. And then everyone’s in danger because of me and what do I have to go back to? Nothing works. There’s no life there, nothing normal. Everything I was meant to be is a ruin.”
“I love you,” Praem told her.
Evelyn grimaced, as if this was the worst barb of all.
“Evee,” I whispered, tip-toeing away from the shivering, shuddering trunk-tentacle thing.
Evelyn glanced up and around, furiously scrubbing her eyes on her sleeve. She turned green and pale and swallowed a scream at the sight of the thing that hung behind me, and the hundreds upon hundreds of squid-faced librarians all around us, and pressed herself closer to Praem as if trying to hide in her embrace.
“Heather. Heather, oh fuck, I’m sorry, I-” She screwed her eyes up. “I’m such a fucking idiot. Oh fuck, Raine was shot, I need to be there, I-”
“It’s okay,” I whispered, trying not to think about Raine, stepping close to join the hug and get us all out of here. “I understand. You wanted to stay here, in a moment of weakness. It’s okay, this place gets into your head. But it’s okay. Just because Edward pulled one over on us doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make you worthless, never, never-”
“I couldn’t orgasm,” she said out loud.
“ … what.”
For a moment my brain didn’t process the word correctly. Then, I decided we were most definitely not in the right place for this conversation.
Evelyn opened her eyes and pulled a smile of such desolate self-mockery, bitter tears running down her cheeks.
“Twil,” she hissed, shaking and shrugging and smiling that awful smile at herself. “When she stayed overnight. We tried to sleep … to … we tried to have sex, and it didn’t work. I couldn’t … she couldn’t make me … miserable fucking failure. I hate this. I hate it. I want to be something else. Somebody else. Anything else.”
“Oh, Evee. Oh, it’s okay, Evee. It’s going to be okay.”
“And just for one moment I thought maybe … ” She sobbed. “Maybe I’d be better off here. No more pain in this broken fucking body.” She screwed her eyes up tight, ashamed and horrified and afraid. “No, Heather, no I do not actually want to stay here. Take me home. Please.”
I wrapped my arms around her and Praem, and began the equation.
“It’ll be okay, we’ll make it okay. Back home,” I whispered, my head against Evelyn’s. “Not here, never again. Hold on tight now, don’t let go.”
Reality folded up.