Ankle-deep in filthy water, besieged by cloying greasy darkness, trapped in a rotting mockery of Sharrowford that was about to swallow us alive, with Zheng bleeding from bites the size of my hands and wounded in a way even she could not shrug off, I had taken the only option left.
I screeched and leapt at Ooran juh, with no idea what I was doing.
No amount of pneuma-somatic body modification or magical prostheses gave me the faintest notion of what to do in a fight, however perfect and beautiful my new form, however euphoric I would have felt under any other circumstances. The trilobe reactor organ in my abdomen supplied limitless biochemical energy, but the muscles in my arms and legs were still those of a twenty year old woman who generally did not exercise. Perfected abyssal instinct joined in chorus with savannah ape tribal loyalty, screaming at me to protect my pack, my mate, my partners, but I still had no idea how to actually win a physical fight.
I slammed into the headless giant as a flailing mass of barbed tentacles, toxic spines, and snapping teeth, no more coordinated than a little girl in a playground slap-fight. But this little girl was armed with all the fruits of the abyss.
Ooran juh stood his ground before my inexpert charge. Why not? He probably weighed ten times what I did. A plate-sized hand smacked away one of my tentacles with wrecking-ball force, bruising and tenderising the rainbow-strobing flesh.
But there was no bone inside the tentacle to break, only springy pneuma-somatic muscle. No shock, no transmitted impact, and no way to stop me.
He didn’t have enough hands. My five other tentacles hit him all over like a squid fighting a whale, lashing at his soft, wormy, rotten-oat flesh, digging in with thousands of hooks and barbs. Tiny muscles in my tentacles all twisted in a wave, rotating each hook to tear every wound wider, before whipping back, ripping great tracks out of his hide. He bled slow sickly off-white pus from hundreds of lacerations, the broken flesh covered in necrotizing mucus I’d left behind.
Ooran juh struck back, trying to catch the strobing rainbow beauty in the teeth of his hand-mouths as I lashed at him a second time.
He did, twice, biting chunks of quivering, bleeding pneuma-somatic flesh from my tentacles.
I screeched and yowled, but the trilobe reactor organ was already compensating, flooding my veins with new kinds of white blood cells — and things that were not really mammalian leukocytes at all, flushing the inflamed skin around the bites with eosinophils and lymphocytes that had no proper place in a human body, fighting off the Big Man’s claim. My wounds closed with rapid-growth scabs of pastel florescence; each tentacle blossomed with chitin plates for armour.
The Big Man’s hand-mouths retched out gobbets of my flesh, their lips swollen, gagging on mouthfuls of tetrodotoxin and conotoxin and approximations of compounds that should not have been possible in our reality.
He compensated too, ignored the third strike from my whipping tentacles, and reached for my head and mantle instead.
Head and body instead, insisted a still-ape part of my mind.
Even in a life-or-death fight, running on pure instinct, I knew that to let him bite my core of true flesh would be too much for me to combat. Pneuma-somatic matter was renewable, plastic, malleable, but a bite from one of those mouths could rip out my entire flank, snip off three of my tentacles in one chomp, and snap my spine with ease.
He bore down on me, taking giant crashing steps through the filthy water which was now up to my calves, spraying the rank sewage everywhere as he tried to grab me in a bear hug. Animal fear flashed sirens in the back of my head at his sheer size and weight, this towering mountain of pale meat about to crash into me. I hissed in warning and panic, trying to scramble back. Without the clean moonlight, our fight took place by the disorienting flicker and dying glow of the street lights, casting the Big Man’s bulk in roiling shadows, confusing human eyesight. Pneuma-somatic additions rewired my eyeballs and optic nerve, racing for an advantage as my sight flickered through infra-red and ultra-violet, and other colour spectra which we have no vocabulary to describe.
Abyssal memory provided theory, pneuma-somatic flesh executed praxis; new ligament strong as steel cables sprouted along my ankle tendons, articulated exoskeleton wrapped my knees in springy cages, and the surface of my skin rose in warning spines of red and yellow.
My new legs bounced and I dodged below his grasp, stepping sideways to circle him, hitting his arm and flank with my tentacles again, ripping off great strips of his flesh even as his mouth-hands caught the spines along my shoulders and snapped them off.
But I was too ungainly to make full use of what I was. Too new. Too unfamiliar.
I couldn’t stay steady on my new legs, overcompensating for the muscle difference and the fluid resistance in the rising flood. As I tried to dodge I tripped, sprawled, and splashed down into the road. Water closed over my face.
Membranes slid across my eyes to protect them from the slopping, roiling filth. Valves slammed shut in my nose and throat to keep out infection as I surfaced and spluttered, spitting out the taste of sewage.
Ooran juh turned and stomped and reached toward me.
I attempted to right myself with organs I didn’t yet possess, syphon-jets and internal gyroscopes and gas bladders, organs too complex to grow from idea-seeds in the time it took the headless giant to reach me.
I hissed and spat and screeched and sprouted new spines and armour plates, but he grabbed me and bit through them even as I wrapped tentacles tight around his wrists to hold him back. The rotten pudding flesh on his arms and torso was blackening around the thousands of tiny wounds I’d inflicted, but still his monstrous strength pressed me down. Even pumped full of paralytic toxin, he was a hundred times stronger than I.
The water around us was bucking and chopping, and the great red wall was convulsing, drawing tighter and tighter. Ooran juh — the greater entity of which this obese headless giant was only a projection – was still in the process of swallowing. He was only fighting to keep us occupied.
My reactor was running hotter and hotter as I squirmed to my feet, locked in a death-grip with the Big Man, caked in sweat, heart pounding like a piston. The trilobe organ raced through and discarded entire new classes of reaction, as my body demanded more with each new pneuma-somatic germination, each addition wove at speed, each physical reinforcement and enhancement.
The Big Man forced one hand against my faltering strength, right toward my unprotected face.
“Stop fighting him, shaman!” Zheng roared from somewhere nearby. “Stop fighting and get rid of him!”
A ball of teeth and claw and grey-russet fur shot out of the gathering dark and slammed into Ooran juh’s legs from behind, scything for his hamstrings and the backs of his knees, snapping teeth closed on the classic canine crippling targets.
He let go of me and hit Twil with an almighty backhand, sending her flying. She crashed into the garden wall of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, but hopped to her feet again in a split second, spitting blood and grinning through a wolf’s snout.
“Can’t fucking dodge me now, you rancid cunt!” she screamed at him. “Come at me, bitch-tits!”
Behind her, Badger had picked up the Saye Fox, cradling the animal in his arms like a pet, to shield her from the rising water, even as he cringed at the re-opened wound in his hand, squeezing it tight to stop the blood flow. She was screaming at the Big Man too, those long open-mouthed fox screams of warning and panic, as the water rose and the whale’s mouth pressed in all around us.
Zheng couldn’t even get to her feet. She was sagging, still bleeding, her side coated in her own blood.
“Get rid of him, shaman!”
I’m trying, I thought, I’m trying but I’m not strong enough, even when I’m perfect and beautiful and—
And I could be such an idiot sometimes. That’s the downside of entering a fight without any training. You get tunnel vision.
As Twil picked up her paws and charged the Big Man again, I lashed out at the exposed flesh of his back with all six tentacles, and connected in a great slapping rip of rending flesh.
Then I dredged up that familiar old equation.
This headless giant was only one part of the entity, a projection into our three dimensions of something so much greater and more alien, a human who had journeyed into the abyss and returned as something more, like me. Unlike me, he had pursued a transformation that had left his body and humanity behind, transcended the mere physical, become so other that he was truly untouchable to us.
Also unlike me, he couldn’t do hyperdimensional mathematics.
Best I could achieve was to send this part of him Outside, but it would be like sending a person’s arm or hand Outside, without the rest of him. The impact would rip him apart on the dimensional membrane itself, like throwing a person against an electric wood saw.
Bleeding and quivering with white-hot fire across the surface of my consciousness, I raced through the equation, and put into practice lessons from an adoptive parent far more dangerous than this predator.
But to my incredible surprise, Ooran juh fought back.
He was clumsy and blunt, the struggling of a crab turning the curve of its shell against a cephalopod’s crushing beak. He did not know brainmath, but he had once visited those impossible depths of mathematical principle and starlight and dancing photons. He understood just enough to turn away my beak for a fraction of a second.
That fraction of a second was all he needed. As the equation snapped shut, he took one giant, striding step forward to leave my tentacles behind, ripping wormy flesh off his back. He batted Twil away again so she crashed into the roiling water. Then he turned and backed away from me, palms out and grinning wide with their wet, red mouths.
He only had to wait, stall a few more seconds, until his vast whale-mouth was ready to swallow.
Unconsciously, on the level of autonomic reaction, below true flesh and pneuma-somatic addition alike, down in my soul, I prepared to dive.
If he was going to drag us down into the abyss, I would be ready to swim.
I would eat him from the inside.
Perhaps he retained enough human intellect to read the change in my expression, or perhaps some other less physical sense allowed him to understand what I was about to do, the lengths to which I would go. Perhaps in that moment he realised that I was like him, I had been in the abyss too, and I would not die on the first swallow. My friends would die, but I would linger in his gut, chew through his intestines, sear his innards with acid, and worm my way to his heart like a killing parasite.
I made myself indigestible.
And he let go.
The greasy headless giant stopped moving, frozen on the spot. The life seemed to go out of it for a split second before the entire thing collapsed into jelly, melting down in a mass of yellow-white pus and liquefied flesh. Ooran juh could not rotate this part of himself out of the dimensions accessible to us, I had him pinned here with a cage of hyperdimensional mathematics, so he was forced to gnaw the limb off like an animal in a trap. He abandoned this part, this projection, the fight lost to the threat of real damage in the abyss if he dared swallow me.
Clean silver light crashed down into the dark.
Above our heads, the great red wall opened, puckered around the full moon and rapidly widening, pulling away and down toward us, sinking into the ground only twenty feet away where it bisected the road. The water began to drain as well, slopping and sloshing down hidden sluices as Ooran juh’s jaws receded back into the abyss, without us.
“Holy shit,” Twil breathed, staring up at the wall, before she splashed through the draining water toward the huge mound of rotten white goo. “Where’d he go?! What— what’s happening? Heather?”
“Spitting us out,” I croaked — a scratchy, twisted sound from an inhuman throat.
“You’re sure?” She stared at me, eyes roving nervously along my body, my tentacles, my spines, my toxic colouration. Here, she could see it all, and I looked barely human.
“Mmhmm,” I grunted.
Badger was staring up as well, still hugging the fox. “Never thought I’d be so glad to be regurgitated,” he said.
The fog rushed back in, flowing over the lip of the great red wall as it descended, plunging us into thick soupy mist as the last of the filthy water drained away from the road surface. For a moment the fog was so thick I couldn’t see any of the others, only the disgusting greasy mound of white mess that had been Ooran juh.
“Z-Zheng?” I called out.
She was right by my shoulder in the fog, bent over with pain, heaving ragged breaths between her teeth, blood caked all down her hip and one leg of her jeans and dripping from the bite wound in her forearm. She put her other hand on my shoulder, and I realised with stomach-lurching horror that she was using me to stay standing.
The fog thinned but didn’t clear — normal fog, not greasy and thick, the ordinary weather of spring fog in Sharrowford — and revealed everybody else still standing. Twil gaped around us, wide-eyed and panting and dripping wet, same as myself. Badger closed his eyes, shaking with relief. The Saye Fox wriggled out of his arms and trotted over to me.
We were next to the bus stop where we’d caught up with Badger. Right where we’d first plunged into the beast’s maw.
Relief was sweet, but I didn’t have the luxury of collapsing or passing out. My bioreactor was still burning hot, still fuelling pneuma-somatic flesh.
“Are we—” Twil panted. “Are we out? We won?”
I was too busy gaping at Zheng’s wounds to answer.
“Shaman,” Zheng said, her throat thick with blood and pain. Zheng wasn’t meant to be in pain, not real pain, she wasn’t meant to feel this way, she was meant to shrug it off, to leap and howl and laugh. “Shaman, you must get home. Ooran juh is still waiting for us. Go.”
She shoved me away and I stumbled a few steps as she crashed down to one knee again, heaving for breath, drooling blood.
“Zheng, no!” I said, and rushed back, falling to my knees by her side.
“Oh shit,” said Twil, and hurried over to us. She jabbed a finger back at Badger. “Don’t you fuckin’ move.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere without you lot.”
“Shaman, go,” Zheng grunted. Her eyes were heavy and unfocused. I ignored her plea and wormed underneath her arm, got close to her side, then pulled up the shredded fabric of her jumper to expose the wound in her flank. I gasped and had to blink back tears, a hand to my mouth.
Her wound looked very, very bad. The flesh was chewed and mashed, hanging in strips and dangling shreds. Grey and black patches were already blooming with necrotic infection on fast forward, leeching Zheng’s strength with a claim beyond mere biological damage. I grabbed her forearm too. The second bite there was much the same, ruining her on a level deeper than the physical.
“We’re not leaving you behind, you dumb-arse,” Twil said, but her voice shook at the sight of those wounds. “Fuck knows how we’re gonna get you back if you can’t walk. I can maybe toss you over my shoulder, I dunno, you’re too tall.” Her eyes flickered to me. “Heather’s lost all her like … extra limbs, or she could have carried you.”
Had I? I could still see and feel my tentacles, my toxic colouration, my webbing and my spines, all the miracle of what I really was, Homo abyssus in the flesh.
But we were back in our reality now, and my additions were confined to pneuma-somatic invisibility once more.
“I cannot be saved, shaman,” Zheng croaked. “Ooran juh has me. Go, before—”
I bared my teeth and hissed, to shut her up and establish who gave the orders here, enough to make Twil jump and Badger flinch and the Saye Fox hop back. I hissed in defiance of anything and anyone that would attempt to take what was mine. I was willing to violate reality itself to rescue my sister from the Eye, and I was not about to allow some jumped-up mage who’d spent too long in the abyss to take away any other members of my family.
Abyssal instinct provided the methods.
I opened my mouth wide, shoved my face right into the wound in Zheng’s side, and started biting.
“Unnn!” she grunted in sudden, surprised pain. “Shaman—”
“Holy shit what is she—”
Somebody vomited. I think that was Badger.
I bit away the infected flesh around and inside Zheng’s wound, sheering it off with the clean razor-sharp edges of pneuma-somatic teeth that only she and I could see. I nuzzled in deep, didn’t care about her blood smeared all over my face, gripping Zheng with all my tentacles to keep her in place, barbs safely retracted. I drooled great looping ropes of pneuma-somatic antiseptic mucus into the wound as I worked, forming new glands in my throat for the task, sharing white blood cells with Zheng’s immune system, even as scraps of her actual blood slid down my throat to be sampled and re-purposed by the trilobe reactor organ in my gut. I spat out chunks of grey and black infection to sizzle on the asphalt road surface, melted by bootstrapped enzymes in my saliva.
The physical act of biting away her infection was more than mere biology. Whatever I was doing, I did not understand it on a conscious level, but I knew in my gut that it had a spiritual mirror. I dug out the Big Man’s claim on her, made her safe, made her mine, cleaned away any trace of him with my own abyssal biology.
By the time I finished on the first wound, Zheng didn’t need to be held still anymore. She offered her arm for me to do the same to the second bite, breathing clearer and easier, staring at me with wonder.
“Alright,” Twil was saying, her werewolf transformation dismissed to leave a wet and bedraggled teenage girl standing there. “Alright, this takes the award for weirdest shit I’ve ever seen.”
“She can do it,” Badger whispered. “She can.”
Eventually I was done, and stood up, wobbling on my knees despite the sheer power of the bioreactor in my abdomen. Even backed up by near-infinite energy, cleansing the Big Man’s infection was taking a toll. My immune system — or whatever abyssal processes were analogous to an immune system — were working overtime, producing white blood cells and flushing me out, detoxifying the infection.
“Shaman,” Zheng breathed in awe, and got to her feet. She was shaking too, weak from the effort, but much stronger than before, no longer being actively drained. She caught me under one arm before I stumbled. I wrapped a tentacle around her in return. “You are a beautiful thing, shaman.”
“Mm,” I grunted.
My pneuma-somatic mucus had formed a sticky layer over her raw flesh, stopped the bleeding, and was encouraging and supporting her own rapid healing processes. I stared at it, unwilling to split my attention until I was certain the wounds were beginning to knit closed, however slowly.
“Shaman, we must go. This is not over.”
“Bloody right,” Twil agreed, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “You okay now, Zheng?”
“Not yet. I will be.”
I nodded along. The Saye Fox rubbed herself against my ankles. “Home,” I muttered.
My pneuma-somatic additions were blurring against the fog and the backdrop of real terraced houses, in a trick of the light. They didn’t start falling apart into ash and nothingness, I wasn’t running out of energy. As the last of the Big Man’s infection was cleansed away, the trilobe reactor did not ratchet down, did not cease production. If anything, I was getting hotter inside as my reserves filled to the brim.
“You better not run,” Twil growled at Badger.
“Not a chance,” Badger replied. He’d wrapped his bleeding hand in his sleeve again. His eyes wandered over to where the great greasy mound of liquid flesh still lay in the middle of the road, the remains of the Big Man’s physical form.
Twil noticed it too. “Gross. It’s dead, right? Looks like a fatberg. What do we do with it?”
“Leave it here,” Zheng purred. “Let the monkeys hose it into the drains. Now move, the shaman is burning up.”
We staggered back through quiet midnight streets, comforted by the normality of good old English fog, and the sounds of the occasional car passing along distant roads. The Saye Fox trotted ahead of us as if she knew the way, nosing at the overflowing rubbish bins and sniffing the walls, just like an ordinary fox, but with far more self-assurance than any natural vulpine visitor.
Zheng supported me with one arm, but she couldn’t have picked me up even if I’d needed it.
Unlike Badger and Twil, she could still see the truth of Homo abyssus, my six rainbow-strobing tentacles, the snapped spines on my shoulders, the chitin plates on my legs and sides, the strange shape of my pupils and the toxic colouration in my skin. Carrying me with all that might have presented some difficulty. She was careful to avoid my various spikes and sharp edges.
“Concentrate, shaman,” she purred. “Do not leave me.”
I blinked up at her, blinked four different sets of eyelids, and tried to deny that I knew what she meant. “Zheng? Of course I won’t. I won’t, I’m … fine … ”
I tried to soften my pointy bits, to round them off, to retract my spines and re-metabolise the toxins, to fold away the slashing claws studding my tentacles — but as we crept toward home, my sense of my own body grew harder to hold onto, the plastic metamorphic process running away with abyssal memory and euphoric longing. My tentacles grew blurry, hazy and indistinct, with both hooked and non-hooked configurations laid on top of each other, occupying the same space. I blinked, and the tentacles appeared to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I was coated with sweat; my belly burned with fire like I’d swallowed the sun and become its master.
“Laangren, call ahead,” Zheng rumbled to Twil up in front. “The shaman is collapsing.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m fine. I can … I’m still here, I’m not … going … ”
“Eh?” Twil glanced back. “Uh, yeah, she looks fine? Better than ever. What are you—”
“Call ahead,” Zheng repeated. “Tell the wizard. Now.”
I didn’t argue.
Twil dug out her mobile phone, mercifully undamaged by her various trips into the water, and called ahead. By the time we reached the real Number 12 Barnslow Drive, a welcoming committee was waiting for us in the front garden, lit from behind by a little warm light spilling from the windows of the house.
Raine, Evelyn, and Lozzie all lit up with relief in their own separate ways as we came into view, but Praem merely stared at me in expressionless recognition. Raine called my name and Evelyn puffed out a huge sigh — and quickly blocked Raine with her walking stick, stopping her from scrambling out of the garden gate to meet me.
“Stay inside the property boundary!” Evelyn snapped. “How many times must I say it?!”
“Ohmygoshohmygosh—” Lozzie was breathless, mouth agape, hands flapping wildly. “Heathy Heathy Heathy oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!”
“Loz, what?” Raine’s relief faltered.
“She’s so beautiful!”
“The shaman is unstable,” Zheng called out. “Mooncalf, wizard, I do not know what she needs. And Ooran juh may still be after us.”
“Unstable?” Raine asked, deadly serious. “What does that mean? Hey, big girl, talk to me here.”
“Wait, wait,” Evelyn snapped. She took in our state, Badger walking in front of Twil, sweating with nerves, and the way I was hanging off Zheng’s arm, burning with fire-hot fever sweat. “Actually, no, don’t wait, get inside the wall, for fuck’s sake.” She pointed at Badger. “What about him?”
“He’s volunteered for Heather’s … thing,” Twil said, then growled at Badger to encourage him into the garden.
Badger swallowed as he stepped over the threshold, sweating and afraid. “Right, yes. I … yeah.”
“Then get him indoors,” Evelyn snapped. “Into the cellar, there’s a circle waiting, I want him inside it five minutes ago.”
Then the Saye Fox hopped up onto the garden wall, bushy and russet and proud. Evelyn froze and stared at her, dumb-stuck and going white in the face. Praem stepped closer, as if ready to shoo the animal into the road. The fox flashed firelight eyes at the doll-demon, perhaps in memory of how she’d been captured the first time we’d met.
“It’s okay. She’s okay,” I croaked. “She helped us escape. Sevens sent her.”
Evelyn blinked at the weird, scratchy sound of my voice, but then just stared at the fox as it watched her in return. Zheng led me over the garden threshold too, which Lozzie took as her cue to bounce over and wrap me in a sudden hug, somehow avoiding all of my spines and spikes. Raine was stuck between Evelyn’s distress and my unknown state. Twil set about prodding Badger into the house, but she was distracted too, fascinated by the connection between Evelyn and the fox.
“I don’t need your help,” Evelyn hissed at it.
The Saye Fox turned in a circle on the wall, lowered her head, and let out a chitter-chatter yip-yap unmistakably both friendly and amused. Quickly she hopped down into the street and scampered away into the Sharrowford night.
“No!” Evelyn reached out one hand. “Wait—”
But the Saye Fox was already gone.
“That’s some serious helicopter parenting,” said Raine.
“Oh, shut up!” Evelyn exploded at her, whirling on the rest of us. “We’re still in a crisis. Now what is wrong with Heather?”
“She went full squid-girl,” Twil explained. “I could see it and all. Kinda cool, I guess, but she’s back to normal now. I don’t really get it.”
I’d fallen quiet as we’d entered the garden, growing less conscious, less connected, less here. Lozzie disentangled herself from the hug and leaned back, said something sweet, something positive, something affirming about what I’d done to myself — but the words no longer made any sense. Human-shaped shadows moved in the orange street lighting which bathed the garden, but my new body parts were so much brighter, fluorescing and strobing and glowing with energy from the star in my belly.
Praem spoke, a bell-clear sound I would recognise anywhere, even on the other side of the abyss, and hurried voices followed. Lozzie’s face fell as she grabbed and squeezed one of my tentacles, as if trying to hold it steady. Raine appeared by Lozzie’s side, peering at me in concern, lips flapping sounds that might have been my name. In my blurring vision the tentacles seemed to multiply either side of them a dozen times, spinning out into an infinity of ruffles and tendrils and beautiful variations that I could iterate on forever.
I felt myself flowing between one form and the next. Endlessly mutable. But that was impossible here, there was only one place I could be so incandescent.
A snatch of Lozzie’s voice filtered through, thick and muffled, like I was underwater. “Heathy, you have to turn it off you have to turn it off. You don’t have to get rid of it because it’s beautiful but you need to turn it—”
I knew what she meant. She wanted me to shut down the trilobe bioreactor.
“Everyone’s home?” I said. Or, I thought I said. I had to repeat it twice before ape heads nodded in response. “Safe?”
“—safe, yeah,” Raine’s voice glugged above me as I sank deeper. “—did good, you did good, you can stop now. Rest—”
But I didn’t want to rest. The threshold of the house was only a few paces away now, my body dragged there unresisting, but I didn’t want to smother the reaction inside me. This euphoria of being was too delicious. My body told me I could run and leap, burrow into the earth and swim the skies, leap into the abyss and back again — though a tiny, screaming part of me knew that particular urge was neither sane nor sensible.
My new state of being did not have to end.
I’d just encountered an example of where that path led; if I didn’t stop here, would I become something like the Big Man? Unanchored in my physical body, without definition or concrete self-image? How long had it taken him to build his abyssal-crossing multi-dimensional self? Could I do that?
I sensed that I could, that I was already slipping down that slope, toward the same old destination.
The abyss was calling. I loved the way it felt.
And I had still not forged my anchor.
But on the sandy lip of that submarine shore, that drop into the infinite sunless depths, I found a new principle. I dug my heels in and raked my hands into the silt, turned fingernails to claws and hung on, rammed tentacles into every crack of stone that was not stone at all but maths and physics and starlight and thought. I anchored myself with the meaning of the very thing I had finally summoned into reality; I’d lit that reactor and built my new form to save Zheng, because I loved her.
Homo abyssus — me — had been made whole and complete by that act of purpose. I was both abyssal and human, and would not be taken by one or the other.
An act of love, practised as an abyssal thing, served as the most sturdy anchor in all reality.
I ripped myself up and out, back to full consciousness, gasping and spluttering through a waterfall of nosebleed in the front room of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Voices were shouting my name, somebody was propping me up, a ring of faces surrounded my sight. I held my hands up — and half a dozen tentacles with them — to make some space.
“Stop, stop, I’m fine, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, I’m—”
“Heathy you have to stop!” Lozzie said, tears making tracks down her cheeks.
“Ease down, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You must slow the fire.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Evelyn snapped. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop it.”
“Hey, Heather,” a familiar voice crooned my name, brimming with confidence. Raine took my hand. “Hey, you can relax now. I’m here.”
Raine cracked a beaming smile, just for me. Not a shred of doubt in her.
“You gotta chill out, though,” she added.
“Oh, right, yes, okay,” I croaked. “One second. I think I can—”
And with a flicker of thought, before I knew what I was doing, I slammed home an array of biochemical control rods inside the trilobe organ. They snuffed the reactions out to a decimal-point percentage of their previous runaway heat. It was like plunging every cell of my body into ice water. A gasp ripped from my throat, my pneuma-somatic additions folded up and shrivelled away, and the pain-debt I’d incurred hit me all at once in a wave of bruises and muscle spasms and torn tissues.
I was unconscious before I hit the floor.
I slept for sixteen hours.
There was no fugue state, no dissociation, no out of body experience; I was very much inhabiting my own flesh — much to my discomfort. I was exhausted as if I’d run a dozen back-to-back marathons, and bruised all over in various new and interesting ways, several of which I hadn’t even realised were possible. After I passed out in the front room, I spluttered back to consciousness a few seconds later and found myself in Raine’s arms, but I had no recollection of who carried me upstairs.
I was present but mute with dragging exhaustion as caring, tender hands cleaned the blood off my face, and dunked me gently in the bath to wash off the rancid sewer water. A swirl of voices and busy commotion filled the house, and more than once I snapped to awareness, panicking that we needed to defend ourselves. But every time, Raine’s face or Lozzie’s words would enter my senses and I would sink back below the surface. I think Praem saw me naked, but I was beyond caring, head lolling with sleep on a warm shoulder as somebody else picked me up and took me to bed.
Sleep was deep and dreamless, the sleep of bodily healing, newborn sleep. I woke up three times and support was always there, to help me hobble to the bathroom on legs that lacked the necessary extra parts, to press a glass of water into my hands when I tried to reach for it with tentacles that made my sides ache, to briefly feed my wordless moans for calories with a microwave pastry and a cheese sandwich.
True awakening came slowly, in a chorus of bruises, to the backdrop of the next day’s sunset glow filtering through my bedroom curtain.
I lay on my back for a long, long time, wrapped in bedsheets like a mummy, staring at the ceiling with eyes that slowly learnt how to focus again. My body wanted to stay very still, but my brain had taken its fill of sleep. Five minutes passed, then perhaps ten, and I wasn’t falling back asleep.
Then I tried to scratch my leg.
“ … uhhhhhh,” I groaned. “Oh, I am so sore.”
A pair of familiar voices greeted me. Brain said safe, safe and home. Body complained.
“Mm,” I grunted.
“Think she’s awake for real this time?” Raine asked.
“No,” Zheng said. “Let her sleep.”
“I wish I wasn’t awake,” I grumbled.
Furtive sounds moved beyond the limit of my vision, and a face appeared above me — Raine, peering down with mild concern. I met her eyes, made contact, and puffed out a tiny breath.
“Oh!” Raine lit up. “Hey, no, she is awake. Hey there, Heather. How you feeling?”
She put a gentle hand on my shoulder through the covers, but even that was too much. I winced and groaned. “No, no touch, no touch.”
“Ah, sorry. Sorry.” She withdrew her hand. “That bad, huh?”
I made a noise like a very grumpy pig. Even my throat felt bruised. My eyeballs ached. The tiny muscles between my fingers were strained and every inch of my skin felt vaguely red and raw. It was like waking up from a whole-body transplant.
“I cannot believe how sore I am,” I murmured.
“You wanna sit up? Want some help? I can try to be as gentle as possible.”
“I think I’ll die if I try that.”
“You will heal, shaman,” Zheng purred. “Your body is strong. They are only bruises.”
“Yeah, no joke,” Raine said, grinning that confident grin down at me. “Lozzie’s been over you inch by inch, there’s nothing broken, no permanent damage, you’re just super inflamed and very bruised. Hey, but you know what? You already look better than when you got home.”
“Sit up. Mm. Okay,” I croaked. If I didn’t sit up now, I’d lie here for the next twenty years.
“You want help?” Raine asked.
Sitting up in bed was not the most difficult physical adjustment I’d ever made — I’d been slower, weaker, hungrier, and more tired on occasion before — but it was by far the most painful. A million tiny bruises leave the human body with no comfortable position to adopt, no hiding place from the irritating aches and pains and undignified fleshiness of being mortal.
But as I winced and cringed at the pressure of Raine’s hands on my oversensitive, raw skin, I didn’t feel undignified. I felt whole. As she helped me sit up, my phantom limbs tried to help too, tentacles reaching out to brace against the bed and push the covers back. But those pneuma-somatic additions had already folded back into incorporeality when I’d switched off the bioreactor. Their efforts served only to pull on the already abused muscles in my flanks, drawing a hiss of deeper pain from my throat.
I liked that pain. I valued it. For the first time ever, it was not a reminder of what I yearned for, not a source of abyssal dysphoria. The pain was proof of what I was, no matter that most of Homo abyssus was currently tucked away for safety.
As I finally reached a sitting position and Raine held me gently, I placed both my hands over my own abdomen, and felt the residual heat banked inside.
The trilobe reactor organ was still in there. Not a ghost of abyssal body image and phantom pain, not a pneuma-somatic blueprint waiting to be re-summoned like my tentacles, not a hypothetical piece of impossible biology. When I’d slammed the biochemical control rods into their metabolic channels, the reactor had switched over into a self-sustaining mode. It was part of my body now, an internal organ, and I could not truly switch it off, any more than I could quieten the beating of my own heart.
“Hey, Heather?” Raine murmured very gently. I blinked — ow, even my eyelids ached, how was that possible? — and came around from my self-directed awe.
“It feels good to be … to be,” I croaked. “I’m … I … um … ”
Raine was standing next to the bed, ready to catch me if I collapsed, back-lit by the sunset on the other side of the window. Zheng was sat on the floor with her legs stretched out in front of her, leaning against the wall. She was half-naked from the waist up, one arm and her flank wrapped in bandages and gauze, over the wounds the Big Man had left on her. Clearly her own supernatural healing factor wasn’t quite enough, and needed a tiny bit of helping along by modern medicine. But even the sight of her almost topless wasn’t what stopped my words.
A dog was sitting on the foot of the bed.
Small and round, brown-furred, with stubby little legs. It had its tongue out, panting softly, looking at me with friendly curiosity.
“I am hallucinating a Corgi,” I croaked.
“Oh, this is Whistle,” Raine said. “He’s Badger’s dog. You would have missed him if you’d slept five minutes longer, he keeps doing circuits of the house and nosing in on everybody.” Raine reached over and rubbed Whistle behind the ears. The dog certainly didn’t seem to mind.
I blinked three times, very slowly. “Badger’s dog.”
“A last request,” Zheng purred.
My heart juddered. “He’s not dead, is he? Not after all that?”
Raine laughed. “Nah, Badger’s alive and well, so far. We stuck him in the cellar, but he’s on real good behaviour. Whatever you did, Heather, you really convinced him. He keeps asking if you’re awake, if you’re going to be okay. Made me mighty suspicious at first, but he means it.”
“That doesn’t explain the Corgi.”
The dog in question — rotund little Whistle — tilted his head as I spoke, ears flopping about.
“Badger’s two requests,” Raine said. “He didn’t want his dog to get left locked indoors if he never makes it home. So, if he … well, you know.” Raine sketched me a smile. “We’ll take responsibility for Whistle. The second request is he’d like to see Sarika before you go to town on his head. We can do that. I think he’s sweet on her.”
I sighed — my throat hurt, but never mind. “Raine, what I’m going to do to Badger might kill him. Or leave him as a vegetable. Meeting his dog does not make that any easier.”
As if he understood my tone, Whistle let out a curious whine.
“Yeeeeah,” said Raine, with an exaggerated grimace. “Sorry about that. Can’t leave the poor bugger to starve though.”
Raine was right, but I was too distracted by pain to focus on abstract ethical issues right then. I slowly gathered the sheets in my lap, closed my eyes, and started to drift off while sitting up.
Then memory crashed back in. I gasped, blinked back awake, groping for Raine’s hand. Whistle flinched. “Where’s— is everybody—”
“Everyone is just fine,” Raine purred, one hand gently on the back of my head. The slight pain was worth her touch. “Everybody’s safe.”
“He’s not come back? The Big Man, he’s gone?”
“No, shaman,” Zheng purred.
Raine sighed softly and rolled her eyes, but she told the truth. “There was a knock on the door, round about dawn. There wasn’t anybody actually there, kinda spooky, and then Badger started screaming because he saw something outdoors. But it seems our big fat friend can’t actually get in here, can’t violate Evee’s boundary. We’re safe.” She gave me a slightly strained smile. “Twil’s gone home. She wanted to stay, but she and Evee had a bit of a set-to, ‘cos Twil’s got classes this morning. But no worries, she’s been texting Evee all day to let us know she’s safe. Lozzie’s somewhere, doing … ”
“Cooking,” Zheng purred.
“Ha. Yeah. Tenny wanted to snuggle with you, but we thought it maybe best to leave you untouched for a bit, so she’s downstairs with Lozzie. Evelyn’s been wondering about that fox all day, but she’s doing fine. Kim’s still at work, almost none the wiser, but we’ve had her checking in. Seems like Mister Blobby only cares about Badger.”
“We made a phone call,” I croaked. “Evelyn said … things, I was worried.”
“Yeah, we heard the whole story from Twil, it’s cool. You said some strange stuff down the phone at us, too, but it can’t have been you.”
“Oh. Good. Good.” I blinked, trailing off, then remembered. “Have you seen Sevens?”
“Nah, not yet,” Raine admitted. “Heard all that from Twil too, how she helped. Almost enough to get Sevens back in my good books. Twil and Zheng both told me you went full-on squid-girl transformation too.”
“The shaman was glorious,” Zheng purred from the floor.
“Which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.” Raine flashed me a grin. “Wish I could’a seen it. Lozzie couldn’t stop singing your praises. Bet you looked a right stunner.”
“Oh.” I felt myself blushing faintly and pressed my hands to my abdomen again. “There’s a … I made a … a reactor. In my gut. Pneuma-somatic.”
Raine nodded slowly. “Lozzie explained it, yeah. Well, kind of. You know how Lozzie is. Evelyn took a look too, but I don’t think she understood it.”
“None will,” Zheng purred. “None who have not dived in the dark.”
I glanced down at myself. “I might have shaved years off my life with this. I don’t even know how it works. But I had to. Had to.”
“How do you feel though?” Raine asked.
“ … healthy. Hungry.”
My mind crept back to the events of last night.
I’d fought that thing, for real, that towering mountain of greasy, pallid meat, amid the flooding darkness. A dribble of adrenaline leaked into my bloodstream, and I found my breath hitching, my gut clenching up, my senses opening.
“He’s still out there,” I croaked.
“He still has a claim on the worm,” Zheng rumbled, and raised her arm with the bloody bandage. “But not on me.”
“Good,” I croaked.
The memory of biting into Zheng’s wound was almost unreal. Had I really done that? A strange blush rose inside me. Little Heather Morell, acting like a cannibal horror from some shock movie.
I hadn’t really killed Ooran juh. To kill such a thing was a feat beyond me. But I had won, in a very real way. I had come out victorious, in a contest between two vastly inhuman entities, and protected my family and friends.
I was not insensible to the parallels, though I doubted the Eye could be defeated in a fistfight, no matter how many tentacles I grew.
“You did it once, shaman, you can do it again,” said Zheng, and for a moment I thought she was reading my mind, but then she continued. “With no contract, Ooran juh will leave.”
“Yes, yes. Though it might be a little more difficult with Badger,” I murmured, but Zheng’s faith helped. “There’s a lot of work to do. I need to … get up. If I even can.” I sighed. On the foot of the bed, Whistle rose to his little doggy feet and hopped down to the floor, then slowly trotted out into the hallway.
“Heather,” Raine said, bringing her face to eye-level with mine. “I am so proud of you.”
I averted my eyes. “I did what anybody would do. I wasn’t going to let Zheng go.”
She straightened up, and didn’t press the point, but she and Zheng shared a private, knowing look.
“Are you here, shaman?” Zheng purred a moment later, soft and tender.
She levered herself up off the floor and stood over me, dark hair sticking up in every direction, clean from a bath earlier. She gazed down on me with tender awe and fascinated devotion, a look that still had the power to make me deeply uncomfortable. I did not deserve to be looked at like that. I was no messiah, no miracle worker, not somebody to be worshipped.
But that wasn’t what that expression meant, was it?
It was the same way Raine looked at me, just filtered through a different set of needs and desires. It was love.
“Of course she’s here,” Raine answered for me. But Zheng blinked slowly, waiting.
I pressed my sore hands to my aching abdomen again, felt the residual heat of the reactor organ. My tentacles, my spines, my toxic defenses, my webbing and fins, exoskeleton plates and springy joint reinforcement, it all lay just on the other side of perception, folded away for now as an echo, but undeniably real. Homo abyssus had completed her metamorphosis, anchored herself with one foot in the real and the other foot in the deep.
“I’m here,” I said, more to myself than my pack. “For good.”