The Saye Fox — if she was indeed the very same preternatural animal we had met skulking around the grounds of Evelyn’s childhood home months ago — ran along the garden walls and fences down Barnslow Drive, hopping from corner-post to crumbling brick on silent paws, skirting patches of slimy black mold, her russet tail flicking as she stayed out of the rising water in the street below.
She led us back out into the city, this false and twisted Sharrowford, as it closed up around us and filled with filth at our feet. We followed as best we could.
The fox turned left at the end of Barnslow Drive, but not before stopping and glancing back again. Those lamplight orange eyes found mine as her paws danced in place with restless urgency, her ears swivelling to catch the distant meaty slapping sounds of the great red wall, and the closer slopping noises of the water in the roadway, as dark shapes disturbed the deeps below.
Vulpine eyes asked me a silent question, but I didn’t speak fox.
“What?” I spluttered out loud over Zheng’s shoulder, my voice still a croaking, weakened mess, dragged down by exhaustion, hunger, and pain. The spiking, prickling sensation in my abdomen was a constant presence now. “Don’t stop! Go!”
“Save your strength, shaman,” Zheng purred.
“B-but she’s— she needs me to … ”
I had no idea what she needed.
But the fox was already away again, as if the hounds of hell had her scent. She had to hop down to the pavement, to round the corner to the next set of walls, darting between the slowly forming puddles of rank, stinking water, before leaping up again and leading us onward. My voice was lost in the splash of three pairs of feet, as Twil and Zheng and Badger all raced to keep up, plunging around the corner through the rising flood.
In the seven months since I’d met Raine and Evelyn and discovered I was not crazy after all, I had fled or been carried out of more than one nasty situation — looping stairwell traps, fake shopping centre fires, defeated cults with collapsing ambitions, actual for-real deadly house fires, the Library of Carcosa — but with the exception of Wonderland itself, this place took the award for most bowel-clenching terror, because it was very obviously trying to swallow and digest us before we could escape.
As we ran after the fox, the great red wall in the impossibly unreachable distance kept up a disgusting shuddering and shaking, undulating like a layer of flesh, or a mucus membrane inching slowly shut. I realised with detached recognition, as I kept my head tight to Zheng’s shoulder and my arms firmly clinging to her neck with all the strength I could muster, that perhaps this explained the deep red colour of the wall: it was slow-twitch muscle, on a scale my mind refused to comprehend.
Whenever I risked a glance upward, I could see the circle of dark sky around the moon was shrinking, as the mouth of this well of flesh tightened around our only source of clean light.
I tried not to dwell on what might happen if it closed.
The mock-city around us was rapidly degenerating now, and filling with what I could only think of as digestive fluid.
We raced past houses straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, the rotting bones of buildings long abandoned, terraced houses collapsed in on themselves, Victorian redbricks devoured by waves of dark ivy and left open to the elements. The trees had reduced to skeletons too; not the hardy gnarled stereotype of a Gothic horror uberwald, but brittle grey things flaking apart like burnt logs, coated with parasitic fungi and greasy biofilm. The pavement itself turned crumbly, rent from beneath by cracks as if undermined by tree roots and weeds. Fewer and fewer streetlights shone with any warmth, many of them had shattered bulbs, and the ones that did still function were flickering or dim, leaving us to rely on the narrowing moonlight.
Everything was covered in grease, cook-fire grease, fatty grease, soft and yellow where it had built up in the corners of windows and walls, the sort of grease one might find in the gut of a drowned corpse.
The filthy water was worse. By the time the Saye Fox turned again — left a second time, a double-back? — the vile sewer water had crested the kerbs and spread beyond mere pavement puddles. Oily with grime, full of floating black rot and tiny white wiggling worms lifted from the drain entrances and gutters. It stank too, like sulphur, rotten cabbage, and bad eggs. Zheng and Twil and Badger were forced to splash through a thin layer of the rancid water, and the Saye Fox spent as little time down on the pavement as possible, darting through as quickly as she could and shaking her paws off once she leapt onto a garden wall again.
Twil was in trainers, her feet must have been soaked through when the water inched up above her soles, but at least Zheng and Badger were both wearing proper boots, and I was safe and dry on Zheng’s back for now. I was most worried about Badger. He was the only true human here. Neither he nor Twil complained — not that they had time to, with the running and the huffing and the puffing — so at least the water wasn’t actually corrosive acid. But there was no telling what it might do to unprotected flesh.
Vast dark shapes moved beneath the murky water in the middle of the road, as if we looked down into an actual oceanic gulf.
They weren’t illusions. Their weight and displacement disturbed the water, forming swells and humps and slopping waves against the kerb. As we splashed along the pavement, limbs and feelers began to break the surface out in the road.
“Oh fuck off with that!” Twil shouted as she ran, shooting wide-eyed glances into the street.
Grey tentacles like a parody of a giant octopus rose slowly to wave in the air, accompanied by multi-hinged insectoid arms clad in dark exoskeleton, along with strange thin feelers like marine plants, and thick muscular tongues like a clam’s pseudopod.
“Ignore it, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.
Badger, huffing and puffing and splashing along behind us, was repeating ‘oh shit oh shit oh shit’ in every gap between his heaving breath.
“How am I meant to ignore this?!” Twil skidded to a halt, throwing up a shower of filthy water, and turned to face the road.
One of the insectoid arms had ventured close to the kerb, plated like a knight and tipped with a hook to rival any butcher’s gutting tool. Zheng slammed to a halt as well, and I clung to her back with muffled squeal, but the arm was already dipping for Twil, darting down to snare her and drag her below the surface of the water. Her ghostly werewolf form whirled together like a second skin. I swallowed a tiny scream as she dodged sideways — the thin stinger missed her — but to catch her balance she put one foot over the edge of the kerb, down into the road itself, into the deep water.
But Twil didn’t go tumbling and splashing into the darkness. Her foot found the asphalt of the road surface, not a thousand fathoms of cold water.
She turned so fast I could barely follow the motion, ripping through the insectoid arm’s exoskeleton with both sets of her claws.
Black blood erupted from the flailing stump. The severed portion flopped to the ground, falling into a nearby garden. The owner of the arm darted beneath the surface of the water and vanished back into the general murk.
“Yeah!” Twil roared. “How’d you like that?!”
Several other marine appendages which had been circling closer suddenly decided we presented too much difficulty to pick off, and drifted back out into the middle of the road, or slipped beneath the waves.
“Not so good at dodging me now, are you, you big bitch?” Twil went on, fired up and grinning with her wolf’s snout.
“It’s not him,” I croaked. “Just parasites. Keep going. Keep moving.”
The Saye Fox had stopped to wait for us almost twenty feet ahead, restless and fidgeting on a garden wall. Her eyes kept darting out into the road too, keeping watch on the circling scavengers below, but then she looked directly at me again. Abyssal instinct stirred at the question behind those fire-lit eyes, but I didn’t understand. I looked past the fox, at the route she was taking through the darkening streets, and felt a tugging from the black pit at the bottom of my soul, from the hyperdimensional mathematics always lurking in my subconscious. The Eye’s lessons presented some solution to this place, an answer to why it existed. A wave of nausea and vertigo passed through me and I clung to Zheng’s back even harder.
“Eh? What?” Twil frowned.
“Parasites, laangren,” Zheng answered for me, already striding past Twil and hurrying after the fox. “Ooran juh’s tapeworms and lice, picking over the scraps of his meal. We are beyond them.”
“Speak for yourself,” Badger muttered, voice shaking with terror as he slipped past too, sticking close to Zheng and I.
“Watch your feet, Twil,” I croaked back, loud as I could.
“What? Oh, shit!” She only just realised she’d stepped into the road, soaking the cuff of her jeans and filling her trainer with water. She pulled her foot up and shook herself off, then frowned at the visible asphalt beneath the water. “How … but— it’s deep, but— what?”
“Don’t think about it!” I called.
Impossible space, broken causality, not meant for the unprotected human mind. I could comprehend it, of course, if only I was willing to dredge up the Eye’s relevant lessons.
“Hurry up, laangren!” Zheng roared, taking off after the fox as it scampered away again, leading us deeper into this roiling, rotting Sharrowford. Twil did not need telling twice. She picked up her feet and passed us seconds later, hot on the fox’s tail.
A minute later, the Saye Fox turned left a third time.
“The hell?!” Twil called out as we rounded the corner. “Is it confused or something? We’re heading back toward the house!”
The fox stopped on a low garden wall, waiting for us to catch up, but she offered no explanation. Orange eyes like clean fire burned into mine, pleading now, begging me to see. Twil slowed to a jog as we reached the fox, casting a wary look at the tentacles and pseudopods and tongues which were keeping level with us out in the water. Zheng and I were not far behind, but my mind was spinning, my stomach rebelling at the thoughts darting through my head.
“Keep going!” Twil shouted encouragement at the fox, even as it was leaping up and racing away down the garden walls and fences, lean vulpine body stretched out in that distinctive loping sprint. “Keep going, we can keep up, we can!”
“The worm is struggling,” Zheng rumbled.
She wasn’t wrong. Badger was having a hard time keeping up. A few paces behind us, his face was red with effort and coated in sweat. He was heaving for breath, legs pumping, the slowest by far when compared to Zheng and Twil, either of whom could easily have outpaced the fox in a foot race.
“I can— can— don’t leave me—” he panted, almost drooling from the strain.
“You will not be left behind, worm,” Zheng rumbled. “The shaman needs your brain, even if I must rip it out with your spinal column still attached.”
Badger swallowed hard, and redoubled his efforts.
“Shit, I’ll carry him!” Twil skidded to a halt and doubled back, ready to grab Badger and sling him over her shoulder. “And don’t complain, you arse, this is for Heather, not you.”
“She’s not waiting for Badger,” I croaked out with considerable effort. Up ahead, the fox halted again, staring back at me, proving my point.
“Eh?” went Twil.
“Shaman?” Zheng purred.
“It’s waiting for me,” I went on, my eyes aching and burning, my skin itching from the aftermath of the screech, my abdomen clenching and spasming inside. I had to see, had to pull aside the veil, figure out what hyperdimensional principle I was meant to apply. I was too exhausted and spent to risk getting it wrong. I would only have one shot. “Running doesn’t matter, running won’t get us out. It needs me to … to … ” My stomach roiled. Out in the road, the water roiled too, slopping as the parasite predators sensed weakness. “Twil, keep moving!” I snapped. “We have to keep going, I can’t— can’t think—”
Twil nodded and turned around, after the fox again. Badger did his best to keep up.
“Focus, shaman,” Zheng whispered.
“Trying,” I croaked.
Miss Fox turned left again. We followed, past rotten trees and collapsed houses, and I realised we’d entered the far end of Barnslow Drive. The insulting parody of home rose into view once more, covered in soot and grease, ruined and empty. The rising water was flooding the front garden now, sluicing through the gate and soaking into the soil, turning the overgrown grass into a reeking, fecal swamp.
“It’s taken us in a bloody circle!” Twil shouted. The fox didn’t slow down, sprinting at top speed along the garden walls.
“Can’t you—” Badger panted. “Talk to it? You’re a— canine too?”
Twil answered with an insulted snap of her teeth.
The Saye Fox slammed to a halt at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, skipping and hopping across the brickwork of the wall and then doubling back, pacing as if in a cage, as she waited the few seconds for us to catch up. Twil looked like she wanted to pick up the animal and throttle her.
“What now?!” she asked the fox. “We’re back where we bloody well started!”
“No we’re not,” I croaked, then had to pause and wince and gasp as a fresh spike of pain raked through my abdomen. I pressed myself tight to the warmth of Zheng’s back. “It only looks that way.”
The fox stopped pacing and locked eyes with me again. Then she looked at the house, the garden, and out at the road with the marine parasites and the slopping water, now up to our ankles on the pavement. I followed her gaze, over the disgusting details of this hostile parody. Then up, up at the great red wall, shuddering and flexing.
The moon was now separated from the mouth of the wall by only a thin margin of sky. Moonlight cast a clean silver circle on us, but only us. All else was plunged into the shadow beneath the ring-wall.
“Talk, shaman,” Zheng whispered.
“Running didn’t matter,” I squeezed out, my mind beginning to detach. “Running was just ritual.”
“Oh,” Badger panted. “Great. Right. Yeah. Some ritual.”
“This isn’t the same spot,” I went on. “Because this isn’t space, not really. We have to reach the wall, but we can’t because we’re not oriented correctly, because … a … a tongue keeps food pushed back?”
“Ahhhh, don’t say it like that!” Twil whined.
“And she’s trying to get me to … rotate us?”
As I voiced the idea, the logic fell into place with a searing lance of familiar old headache pain. I drew a sharp wince between my teeth as the true meaning and structure of this place was outlined in hyperdimensional mathematics, too hot to touch, the abyssal truth beneath the human sense-data. We stood in the mouth of a whale, risen from the abyssal depths, hanging open in our reality. Crusted with barnacles and filled with parasites, all the life of a miniature ecosystem that grew in the centuries between gargantuan swallows. And now it was about to hinge shut and vanish back below the waves, with us inside.
It all seemed so unfair, so absurd, so without meaning or purpose. This ancient mage, Ooran juh, the Big Man, we hadn’t even been aware of him three hours ago. For all we knew, he hadn’t been aware of us either, totally uninterested in anything except collecting his due from Badger. But this was the inevitable result of being involved in this world of magecraft and secret monsters, of brushing up against Outside, wasn’t it?
I’d never truly agreed with Evelyn’s paranoia. I’d proved it wrong enough times, proved that the people we encountered were in the end just people, even some of those who weren’t human, and that we could deal with them as people, not cognitive hazards or insane berserkers or unreachable mysteries to be killed and burned.
But here was the truth and justification. We’d simply bumped into this thing, going about its own grisly, incomprehensible business, absolutely lethal and totally beyond our ability to counter.
A mage, more dangerous than any God.
In the end it was just another threat to my pack, and another obstacle on the path back to my sister. There was only one thing for it.
I was running on fumes, but we had to get out. It didn’t matter if I fell unconscious or vomited up my entire digestive system the second we were out, as long as we got out.
With a scream and a shudder and a stab of white-hot pain inside my head, I drew the relevant equation from the dark rooms in my subconscious, gripped the dripping levers of reality, and pulled.
Zheng leaned forward so I could vomit over her shoulder without getting it all down her front. Very considerate.
Long hard heartbeats passed as my vision throbbed dark and my nose bled all over Zheng’s jumper. Muffled voices shouted in panic — Twil? Badger? — and then the world came trickling back to my senses, my ears clearing with conscious effort as I wiped my mouth on Zheng’s shoulder and lifted my head.
“We’re still here!” Twil shouted up at me. “What did you do? We’re still here!” She was ankle deep in the filthy water. The ruined version of our home still haunted my peripheral vision. I was so weak I couldn’t even nod past her.
“Look, laangren,” Zheng breathed. Badger was already staring, breathless and wide-eyed. When Twil turned and saw, she ducked her head and cowered.
The great red wall now stood a mere twenty feet away. I had brought us here, we had travelled without moving.
The wall looked as if it had erupted from the ground in the manner of a giant tooth from dying gum tissue, displacing pavement and asphalt and overgrown grass, blocking off the road and bisecting one corner of the house. The vast length stretched off to the left and right either side of us. Up close the surface of the wall was gnarled and pitted, covered in bumps and ridges like the inside of a diseased throat. Each red block was so large that we could only spot one seam, sixty or seventy feet up in the air.
Water slapped against the base of the wall, but the parasites in the deep were retreating in haste. Their questing limbs slipped beneath the surface as they fled down the road and away from the edge of their world.
The Saye Fox opened her russet muzzle and let out a laughing chitter-chatter vulpine yip-yap.
“Yes, shaman!” Zheng roared in triumph. “You have brought us here, now we break through. No wall will keep me in.”
“What happened to ‘don’t touch the wall’?” Twil boggled at the vast edifice, then at Zheng. “Evee said don’t touch it, right? And that part was really her?”
“Wizards are often wrong,” Zheng purred. “Shaman, I must set you down if I am to rend this giant’s flesh.”
“No,” I whined as Zheng began to crouch. “Zheng, no. I have to do it.”
“Don’t touch it,” I said, sniffing back my nosebleed. “Can’t touch it. Evee was right, don’t touch. You’d get infected. Have to use brainmath. Punch a hole, with math. Not fists.”
Twil and Zheng shared a glance. Badger swallowed so loud I could hear it over the slopping water.
“She’s nearly spent,” Twil said through gritted teeth.
“The shaman knows well enough,” Zheng purred.
“She’ll pass out,” Twil went on. “She’ll pass out, she’s gone. Look at her!”
“I get one shot,” I croaked. “I know. One shot. I can do—”
But the end of my sentence was drowned out by an earth shattering schlooooop-pop as the great red wall shuddered again, a vast ripple of slow motion passing up through the muscle in a wave of contraction. We all followed the motion upward, to the opening far above our heads.
Like a puckered sphincter squeezing shut, the circular opening of the great red wall closed in on itself, and blotted out the moon.
We were plunged into rancid darkness, left with only the weak orange light from stuttering street lamps.
The Saye Fox went frantic, hopping and bouncing from paw to paw. Twil bristled all over and muttered curses under her breath. The water in the road started to slop and slosh, as if disturbed far below.
“It’s okay,” I croaked. “I can still do it.”
“Oh God, oh fuck, oh God.” Badger closed his eyes and put his hands together, wincing at the pain in his wounded palm. “Please God I’ve never asked you for anything these last few years and I’m sorry I’m sorry, please please let this work, I won’t resist, I’ll let her v-vivisect me, please don’t let this be—”
“Shut up, worm,” Zheng growled. “Let the shaman concentrate.”
Badger bit his own knuckles, tears running down his cheeks.
“Ooran juh is preparing to swallow,” Zheng said. “Work fast, shaman.”
I didn’t waste breath on reassurances. I concentrated.
If we were in the mouth of a true whale, then no amount of bone and hide could have resisted the atomic fire I knew my mind could put out, no cartilage and tendon would stand up to pure force. But this was not mere flesh I was preparing to punch through — it was self-expression, a construct of abyssal truth and genius creativity and human cruelty, which had taken centuries to grow in the mind and body of a mage so far beyond me that they almost rivalled the Eye in sheer power. But I was an abyssal thing too, and I already understood what I was looking at.
With a hiss of pain I laid out the beginning equations of comprehension and definition, the framework that would allow me to define what lay in front of me. Once I had that ready, pulling the cell walls apart would not be too difficult in theory, though it would take everything I had. I would pass out in a welter of my own vomit and blood once I was done. But we would be out, and the others could take it from there. I trusted Zheng to carry me home through anything.
I moved my mind to slot the first figure of the equation into place.
But then the front door of the dark mockery of Number 12 Barnslow Drive flew open, sheering off rusted hinges and slapping down into the water in the overgrown garden. The door frame bulged and cracked, then exploded outward in chunks of brick and a shower of wood splinters. Ten feet of obese worm-eaten pale meat strode out of the house and straight toward us.
Ooran juh, the Big Man, ‘Mister Blobby’ — he’d figured out what I was doing.
He’d rotated himself down to our level to stop me.
Badger screamed. Twil turned and growled through too many teeth, hunched and ready to pounce. The Saye Fox froze in place, ears back, tail bristling. Zheng backed up into the deeper water with me still clinging to her back, but I was insensible with sudden explosive pain in my head and a streaming nosebleed, as the equation fell apart in pure shock.
How could we be in his mouth, yet fight him like this at the same time? I sensed that the answer that question would drive me irrevocably insane.
“Yeah!” Twil was shouting. “Come at me, dickhead! You wanna fuckin’ fight?! I got you a fight right—”
“It is after the shaman!” Zheng roared over her.
But that was all she had time to say.
Ooran juh moved fast and sure for such an impossibly fat figure, slapping down those slab feet and kicking up huge sprays of filth, rather than troubling himself with water resistance by striding through the muck. Headless and towering, both hands held out in front like a cheap zombie, each palm split by a curled red grin filled with dripping saliva and sharp teeth. It bore down on us at full speed, like a man power-walking, taking the garden wall in one stride, coming straight for Zheng and I.
It was like being charged by a hippopotamus.
Even with no energy left, my body instinctively tried to recoil, to make myself small, curl up to protect my vital organs. My phantom limbs joined in, trying to make a ball like a threatened octopus, around both myself and Zheng.
Twil — oh Twil, so full of stupid bravery — launched herself at the Big Man’s side, all teeth and claw at an angle impossible for him to dodge without breaking his stride. But he simply stepped onward and she sailed through the open air behind to crash down into the water, spluttering and confused. She should have hit him, the angle was impossible for her to miss, but he’d simply not been there.
Zheng feinted one way, then darted the other. I hiccuped into her shoulder and clung on for dear life as she moved fast enough to wrench my guts out of place.
For a split-second, I saw Ooran juh in two places at once; the headless giant was bearing down on us from his former angle, but also at the same time intercepting Zheng from another direction. Abyssal senses or pure luck, I had no idea how I saw that, but the trick made my head ache and my eyes sting.
Then he was very much in front of us. Zheng slammed to a halt as he reached out one plate-sized hand to rip me away from her.
“Hey, you,” came an angry, shaking voice.
It was Badger. He’d walked right up to the Big Man’s side, holding his head high, eyes raised, gripping his wounded hand tight in his other. Fresh blood dripped between his knuckles.
The Big Man stopped, as if bothered by a fly. If he had possessed a neck and head, it would have turned slowly to regard the tiny human form of Badger. Zheng took the opportunity to back up, splashing through the water as I wheezed and spat bile and tried to gather myself enough to try again.
“Shaman, we cannot run,” she hissed quickly. “There is nowhere to go. Get us out.”
“Try—” I gurgled. Had to restart the equation, but I had nothing left. Not even fumes. I would have to dip into the abyss. “Trying, to—”
In a display of some of the most idiotic courage I had ever seen in a human being, Badger quickly opened his wounded hand and raised it high, to strike the Big Man’s side or leg. In that frozen moment, I saw the disgusting mouth had re-opened in Badger’s palm – and the blood, his own blood, in his own teeth in his real mouth — and realised what he had done. Weaponless and helpless, Badger had bitten open his own wound and summoned the mouth-hand again, to turn Ooran juh’s teeth against itself.
Badger slapped his palm down onto the Big Mans’s tree-trunk thigh. The mouth bit deep into wormy, greasy flesh, and came away spitting out pale off-white fluid more akin to pus than blood.
The Big Man shook Badger off like a puppy clinging to his trouser leg, and used the back of one his massive hands to move Badger out of way, forcing him to stumble and trip through the water. It wasn’t even a violent gesture. It was the act of an uncaring adult toward a small and stupid child. And he could have simply avoided the whole thing, we were all familiar by now with how he could step past any physical attack. He had chosen to get bitten, to show how little our weapons mattered.
All Badger’s courage drained away into nothing. He went white with horror as the Big Man turned back to Zheng and I.
Twil went for him again, but she just skidded into the empty water where he should have been standing, growling and snapping and shouting in frustration. Over on the wall, the Saye Fox was yipping and yowling, doing what little she could.
And then he was on me.
I saw it again — Ooran juh at every possible angle all around Zheng and I, a dozen mouth-hands all reaching to pluck me off her back, to bite my soul out. Every escape was accounted for.
Zheng chose the unseen option.
In a flash of motion she let go of my thighs, pulled my arms from around her neck, and turned fast enough to fling me off her back.
She shook me off and threw me clear. I screamed in surprise, phantom limbs frantically trying to anchor myself to her, like a squid shooting out feeding tentacles to hook prey — but my tentacles were not real, not right now. I landed with a splash in the filthy water six feet away, the impact knocking the wind out of me, soaked and freezing in an instant.
“Shaman, get out!” Zheng roared, and turned to face the momentarily confused Big Man.
She’d bought me a few seconds.
Zheng struck like lightning wrapped in molten honey. Her fists moved as pounding pistons, aiming a dozen punches in the blink of an eye at the vulnerable bones of the Big Man’s sternum and upper ribs. A single one of those blows could shatter concrete and bend steel, I’d seen it before, and I had no doubt that even the Big Man’s substantial physical form would be hard pressed to withstand that.
Zheng’s fists passed through empty air, as if the headless giant was just to one side of her reach, trapped by an optical illusion of perspective.
Ooran juh reached out to bite her.
One drooling mouth in a fat-fingered hand moved toward Zheng’s face, slow and easy, like he was going to pet a cat, with no need to exert himself. Zheng stood her ground, because if she dodged, the Big Man would go for me instead. I was lurching to my feet, a horrified scream in my throat, my face smeared with nosebleed, barely able to stand on quivering knees and weighed down by my soaking clothes.
But to my incredible surprise, Zheng caught the flabby pale meat of the giant’s wrist with both her hands, bracing her feet and digging her fingers into the greasy skin. A savage grin of blood-lust joy ripped across her face, showing all her teeth as she held the snapping mouth at bay inches from her own.
“Shaman!” she roared.
“Heather get us the fuck out!” Twil shouted too.
“I can’t—” I panted in horror. I had nothing left. My vision was throbbing black at the edges.
Then Ooran juh slapped his other palm onto Zheng’s side, and bit deep.
She didn’t scream, barely grunted. Razor-sharp teeth pieced her flank just beneath her ribcage, ripping straight through her clothes and tearing off a huge chunk of quivering, bleeding flesh. The hand pulled back, swallowing and then darting out a thick red tongue to lick the blood from those smiling lips.
Zheng sagged all along one side as blood streamed down her hip and thigh, soaking into her trousers and streaming into the water. She stumbled as if the strength had gone out of her, and lost her grip on Ooran juh’s wrist as he pulled his hand away. He moved to bite her a second time. She got an arm in front of her face as she staggered backward, and he ripped a chunk of raw meat out of Zheng’s forearm.
That time, she screamed. An angry roar of frustration and pain, open-mouthed like a lion.
I cannot adequately describe the horror of watching somebody you love being hurt in that way. Not just shot or stabbed. No wound could kill Zheng. She’d shrugged off far worse, and she’d revelled in the damage. She’d leapt from a building for me, back when we’d barely known each other. But Ooran juh’s bites were far more than mere wounds. They were an infection, a violation, a claim. Like watching a loved one step on a rusty nail, or drowning in sewage, or taking a poison arrow to the gut.
Zheng sagged backward, one leg going out from under her. She splashed down in the filthy water, barely managing to stay upright, balanced on one knee. Her blood flowed in twin rivers from the pair of massive bite wounds.
The headless giant reached down toward her with both hands.
A hiss rose in my throat, a counter-claim, because Zheng was mine and nobody hurts any of my pack mates and she was mine, my claim, don’t you touch her — but I was spent. Empty. I didn’t even have the energy to wheeze a challenge, let alone transmute my throat again and screech defiance. I could barely stay on my feet, my legs were quivering with the effort. In my blurring vision I saw Twil drop into a crouch behind the Big Man, ready to pounce, but that was a hopeless gesture. I could not get us out, my brain was too full of fog, I was ready to collapse, and Ooran juh would murder my friends and my lovers, eat my pack, and then turn to me regardless.
I lacked the energy.
But I did not lack the means to produce it.
By the split-second that idea shot through my exhausted mind, it was already too late to stop myself. I was already reaching down into the black tar pooled at the base of my soul, to flick a single mathematical value from a zero to a one. It was a minor miracle I didn’t kill myself by accident. I had studied nothing, made no plans, had no idea how this even worked, but there was no time for experimenting. Everything was screaming at me to to help Zheng, to fight off her attacker, to get us out, to protect. And if I had been thinking clearly, if I had been wide awake? I would have made the exact same decision. Consequences did not matter.
With one change in the hyperdimensional equation that defined myself, I spun imagination and phantom pain and abyssal memory together, into pneuma-somatic reality; I forged new flesh and simulated muscle and artificial tendon, tied into a knot so complex that evolution itself could never have woven something so beautiful.
I built the trilobe reactor organ in my abdomen, with pneuma-somatic flesh, made it real — and lit it with a spark of metabolic fire.
Heat, real heat, body heat running hot, flushed up my side and through my gut and pumped strength into my legs like a shot of adrenaline. My heart rate climbed to maximum and stayed there, sustained and supported by processes that would have killed an unaltered human being. My head cleared with a single shake, senses so wide that they hurt, and I gasped as my lungs filled and every inch of my skin broke out with sweat. Glucose pounding through my veins, every muscle overproducing ATP, and the hungry void at my core filling up like an empty fuel tank for which I’d finally found the input nozzle. The trilobe organ inside me was not a mere physical reactor. Other processes were already running away, approximations of chemistry and biology that should only have been possible down in the abyss.
The rest came a split-second later, as naturally as taking a breath — my tentacles sprouted from my sides, six rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic limbs lashing the air, ready for war, reinforced with ropes of muscle, tipped with razor-sharp claws, and lined with hundreds of tiny hooks.
But the pneuma-somatic changes did not stop there. I was too deep now.
I blinked nictitating membranes over my eyes; the surface of my skin flushed with tetrodotoxin and warning colouration; my shoulders sprouted defensive spines like a sea urchin; my teeth ached and elongated and sharpened; webbing formed between my fingers, thick and leathery; a tail tipped by a venom-packed stinger grew from the base of my spine; my throat twisted into an impossible configuration and my jaw hinged open in a screech of challenge. All pneuma-somatic modifications, none planned, all drawing power from my new reactor, a furnace wedged deep in the left side of my abdomen.
I suspected I would never be able to sleep on my left side again. Never sleep again, full stop. I had more energy than I could ever use, drawn from a source that would never run dry, and I had completed the first stage of true alchemical transition, the great work. I was perfect.
And I had no idea if I could ever go back.
Didn’t matter right then.
The whole process had taken the blink of an eye, and Ooran juh was still reaching down toward Zheng’s face with his drooling mouth-hands — but he had paused. Despite the lack of a head or face, I had the distinct impression he was looking at me.
“Holy shit,” Twil breathed. “Heather?”
Badger was staring at me too, mouth open in awe. The Saye Fox had gone quiet and still, ready to flee.
“Shaman,” Zheng grunted, voice bubbling with blood and pain. “Do not—”
I was barely even there. Words registered, but I didn’t care about the meaning of the hooting ape sounds. Those were for later. With a screech and a hiss and a warning display of tentacles to put a colossal squid to shame, I lashed out at the Big Man.
But of course he simply wasn’t where my tentacles struck the air. He was to one side, as if I was mistaken and had missed.
Whatever I had just become, I was still physical and pneuma-somatic, I couldn’t just reach out with my tentacles and stop him.
But I’d thought of that. Or at least, abyssal instinct and ape brain and whatever Heather they had constructed between them, had thought of that. In the illusory split-second where the Big Man was not where he should be, I plunged my mind back into the Eye’s lessons, screeching at the pain in my head, and threw a cage around him. A cage of mathematical redefinition, a cage of here and now. Through effort that would have knocked me unconscious without the reactor thrumming and throbbing in my belly, I defined this part of him, this projection, this slice of his true form, and forced it to stay on our level. Like a giant squid hooking a shark and dragging it down into the black ocean depths.
The equation was still not gentle or easy on my body and mind, no matter how changed or how much I’d added to myself. Lances of pain rammed through my skull like molten-hot railway spikes, and my stomach clenched into a ball as I spat up bile. My nosebleed restarted and I smeared the mess across my face, gagging and panting and whining with pain.
But I didn’t pass out. I couldn’t have passed out if I’d wanted to.
Ooran juh was suddenly in only one place. Straightening up, turning toward me. Even if the full, real entity could not be fought, this slice of him could bleed and die.
“Six or seven or eight dimensions!” I screeched and spat, my voice a trilling abyssal mess of knotted muscle. “Fight in this one or let us go! Take it back! Take back the bites! She’s not yours!”
The headless giant raised both hands toward me, split by leering grins, licking their lips in mocking obscenity.
So I screeched, cast my tentacles wide, and threw myself at this rival predator.