Lozzie — my little Lozzie, my surrogate sister, my hyperactive gremlin-elf with hair like a cloud of gold and always with more energy to share, who spoke beautiful nonsense half the time and shining truth the other half; my special friend from beyond the wall of sleep and the veil of dreams, who had dragged me Outside and managed to show me that not all trips beyond our placid island of ignorance were doomed to loss amid black seas of infinity; who had brought me to castles as large as cities, and infinite deserts with sand as fine as time, and deep quiet forests of alien trees with slow secret vegetable thoughts; the girl who I had put everything on the line in order to rescue, who I had committed murder for, my proof-of-concept that I had what it took to save Maisie — she stared up at me with fear and shame.
“I can’t,” she squeaked. She meant I can’t Slip. I can’t run away from you.
In all the dark constellations between the bright stars of human emotion, all the grim, lonely paths of grief and alienation, despair and self-loathing, trauma and anguish, one of the most inhospitable spheres on which to alight is the knowledge that somebody you love is afraid of you.
Lozzie hugged her knees to her chest, curled into a ball in the corner of her bed, huddled inside the protective embrace of her pastel-striped poncho. She seemed like a small child afraid of a beating, while I was the terrifying monster who’d stalked her back to what was supposed to be a safe place, and now she couldn’t run away.
But fear and shame were not the only emotions I inspired. Deep in the blue of Lozzie’s eyes lay a cold sheen of defiance.
I put my hands up — not in surrender, but in the manner one might show empty palms to a skittish animal, some tiny vulnerable rodent that thinks it’s about to be thoughtlessly crushed. My three tentacles had begun to drift toward Lozzie too, driven by the natural desire to comfort her with a hug, but I pulled them back as well, to show I wouldn’t even touch her unless she gave her consent.
That felt unnatural. We were always touching each other.
Anything I might have said died on the way to my lips, replaced with a wordless, “Uh … a … a … ” sound.
“Loz! Loz!” Tenny fluttered, panicked by whatever was unfolding between her adults.
She broke the awful spell which had divided Lozzie and I by reaching out toward Lozzie with her silken black tentacles, wrapping them around her wrists and hands, looping round her waist, and holding the underside of her thighs and the back of her head. Tenny had finally abandoned her video game. The screen showed a pause prompt, and one controller hung limp in two thoughtlessly slack tentacles as she tossed the other from her humanoid hands on to the low table. Lozzie took several shaky breaths and hugged the tentacles in return, rubbing her cheek against Tenny’s coal-black skin.
“It’s okay, Tenns, it’s okay,” Lozzie said in a voice that was very much not okay, sniffing and snuffling on the verge of tears. “I’m okay, we’re okay, okay-okay, okaaaaaay. It’s just auntie Heather, just here and normal, everything is normal and okay.”
“Heath?” Tenny fluttered at me. She blinked those sea-black eyes, uncomprehending but worried. Her strips and whorls of white fur were bristling in alarm.
I swallowed, throat like sandpaper, and located my voice. “Of course it’s okay, Tenny. Everything is okay. Going to be okay.”
“Buuurrrrr,” Tenny trilled a doubtful noise. She even narrowed her eyes at me, which was new. One of her tentacles wrapped around one of mine in a cephalopod hug.
“Lozzie,” I said without looking at her — I worried that if I looked, I would gladly sacrifice my words on the altar of her fear. I would lie to avoid hurting her, or shut my mouth and abandon the conversation, and that really would change the nature of our relationship. “Lozzie, there’s nothing, nothing I would say to you that would hurt Tenny. Just things that are maybe not for young ears?”
Lozzie didn’t reply, so I risked a glance at the bed. She was still huddled up, now webbed in Tenny’s tentacles, still staring at me with fear in her eyes.
“Why?” I asked, and my voice broke.
“Frrrrrrppp!” went Tenny. One of her tentacles tightened on mine, and I made a conscious effort to pull myself together. One of us had to get there, to drag the other along, and it wasn’t going to be Lozzie.
“Lozzie, it’s me?” I tried again. “It’s just me. What are you afraid of? Why try to run?”
Lozzie’s lower lip started to wobble, and the fear gave way to the shame. Tears filled her eyes but she resisted the threat of sobbing, and instead scrubbed at her face with the back of her sleeve.
“I don’t know,” she murmured in such a small voice it hurt my heart. “I’m sorry, Heathy, I’m sorry, it’s just what I—”
“Loz!” Tenny trilled. “No!”
“It’s okay, Tenny,” I hushed, one hand out to stop Tenny getting in the way of Lozzie’s emergency unfolding. “It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
“It’s just what I do, isn’t it?” Lozzie carried on, talking to her knees or the bedspread or Tenny’s tentacle in her arms, in a small, snuffly, reedy voice. “I run away and I go elsewhere and I’m sorry, I’m really sorry Heathy, you’re not like that but I can’t help it, and you’re not like that, you’re not him, you’re not him, you’re not him.” Lozzie buried her face in her knees as she repeated those three words, then kept going, muffled by flesh and bone and cloth. “She’s not him. Stop. Stop.”
She balled up her fists and hit herself on the head, until Tenny wrapped gently restraining tentacles around her wrists to hold her back.
I didn’t even have to ask. In Lozzie’s past, We need to talk could only have come from one person. Running was entirely rational. As far away as possible. Preferably Outside.
“ … yes, Lozzie, oh my goodness,” I said, almost taken with a tiny hysterical laugh, but I managed to control that. “I’m not your brother. I’m not Alexander.”
“I know that!” Lozzie’s face rose from her hiding place, red and flushed with shame. “I know! It’s not fair on you I know that I know it but I can’t help— it’s like I still can’t get away from him, like he’s still doing this to me and I don’t know why— I just— I want to run, I want to go, I don’t want to be— don’t—”
“Brrrrrffffrrrr!” Tenny made an agitated sound, one of the loudest I’d ever heard from her, a feathery trilling which made the floor resonate beneath my feet, like the house was in the grip of a very sudden, short, fluffy thunderstorm. I think I heard somebody downstairs drop something in surprise, but then Tenny was launching herself at the bed in a bundle of whipping tentacles and fuzzy wing fluff.
“Yes, yes, give her a hug,” I said, feeling a bit useless as Tenny squirmed against Lozzie’s side. “That’s … that’s for the best right now. Let’s all … calm down. Yes.”
I allowed myself a big sigh as Tenny wrapped Lozzie in a hug, using both her humanoid arms and all her tentacles too. She even tangled their legs together, and then started to purr that deep, resonant thrum of healing and relaxation, like a huge cat with an injured friend. Lozzie sniffed and managed to stop crying, allowed Tenny to cradle her head, and hung on to her soft fur like a baby marsupial clinging to a mother.
Part of me wanted to join in; the rest of me knew I needed to press on. We weren’t out of the woods yet.
“Lozzie … I … look, the last thing I wanted to do was make you scared or intimidate you.”
Lozzie shook her head, still buried in Tenny. “No. Didn’t.”
“We do still need to—” I slammed on the brakes and tried to recalibrate. “There’s … certain subjects we should maybe, probably—”
“We need to talk,” Lozzie said for me, small and reedy. She raised red-rimmed eyes and sniffed hard. “I get it, I get it, I do, I get it.”
“Lozzie, Lozzie, please don’t say it like that, it’s nothing to be afraid of. I don’t want to scare you. Look, I can put my—”
I started to roll my trio of tentacles away, intending to tuck the pneuma-somatic additions back inside myself, back into their state as phantom limbs.
“No!” Lozzie wriggled a hand out of the cuddle-mass and waved it at me, with a delicate little frown on her face. “They’re pretty! Rainbows are pretty!”
“Noooo,” Tenny imitated in a fluttery trill.
“I-I thought I might be intimidating—”
“Nnnnnn!” Lozzie made a frustrated noise, more Tenny than human, and waggled her free hand at me, boneless and floppy. She puffed out her cheeks — and that was when I knew we were probably going to be okay.
“What?” I almost laughed. “Lozzie, you’re going to have to tell me what that gesture means. Use words, please.”
“Give! Give give!”
“That’s a word, I suppose,” I sighed.
I extended a tentacle out toward Lozzie and she took it in both hands, hugging my extra limb to her chest and nuzzling it like a plush toy. The sensation made me want to curl up and go to sleep. My eyelids grew heavy.
“Maybe we should just take a nap together … ” I said.
Lozzie shook her head. “It’s my fault and I’m sorry, you’re not a scary person, you’re the opposite of scary. Anti-scary auntie Heather with no scary or spiky or dangerous parts.”
“I’d say I have a few spikes and dangerous parts,” I sighed. “Sometimes literally.”
“But never pointed at me,” Lozzie said. I had the distinct impression she was talking to herself. Her words were an affirmation.
“But never pointed at you,” I repeated after her.
Lozzie nodded slowly. Her heavy-lidded eyes took a circuitous route of the bedroom she shared with Tenny, over the low table covered with toys and mathematics puzzles and books of increasing complexity, over the controllers Tenny had abandoned, and the few random clothes draped over the back and seat of a chair — almost all of those were borrowed from me or Raine or Evelyn. Lozzie herself owned so little, only the clothes she had arrived in from Outside, and my affection. Her eyes lingered briefly on the mobile phone we’d given her, on the little bedside table alongside an empty glass of water, a stick of lip salve, and a crumpled up wrapper from a cereal bar. I knew from experience the only numbers in her phone were ours — mine, Raine’s, Evelyn’s. For emergencies.
Her hand tightened on Tenny’s fur as her eyes found mine again.
“This is my fault too,” I said. “It’s taken me three days to find the courage to come talk to you, that shouldn’t happen, I feel like a coward. I’m not even going to raise my voice at you. I’m sorry for doing that, out there, back when … ” My eyes drifted to Tenny, who was staring at me with all the innocent curiosity of a child, soaking up information like a sponge. “Is this really something for Tenny’s ears?”
“Whyyyyy?” Tenny trilled, tilting her head back and forth. “Why not me?”
“Um, not that I’m going to do anything bad to Lozzie, I promise. Just that Lozzie and I are going to talk about scary things, but not scary to each other. It might give you nightmares.”
“Heathy,” Lozzie said softly, though she was watching Tenny’s eyes. “She’s not a human child and she’s growing sooo fast. Can’t keep everything from Tenns forever because she learns really quickly and she already knows half of what’s going on just by listening to us and thinking. She does a lot of that, a lot of thinking in ways we haven’t got and it’s how she’s so good at so many different things.”
“Haaa!” Tenny made a happy noise, well aware that she was being praised.
“Yes, and that’s always very impressive,” I said, “but we’re going to talk about … well … deaths that might have happened, but didn’t. And the Eye.”
“Eye,” Tenny echoed. “Eye know. I know. Bbbbbrrrrttt.”
“You do?” I asked.
“Tenny, Tenn-Tenns,” Lozzie murmured pet names, stroking and ruffling the fur on Tenny’s head. Tenny let out a deep purr and closed her eyes like a cat. “Tenns, are you listening to me very carefully?” Tenny’s eyes snapped back open. “Heathy and I have to do a big serious time talk, because we did a big thing together, aaaaaand I made a mistake.”
“Mistake?” Tenny’s head tilted to the side. “Mistake?
“Mmmhmm. I tried to help auntie Heathy but she thinks I shouldn’t have done it because it was a bad and dangerous thing to do and it was a mistake and everyone makes mistakes.”
“No,” I sighed gently. “It’s not as simple as that.”
Lozzie’s heavy-lidded eyes found me again, skittish with fresh nerves. “It’s not?”
“No, of course not.” I shook my head. “Lozzie, you … you did do the right thing, but you did it for reasons you should have shared with me.” I glanced at Tenny, at her quiet, innocent listening. “You should have told me how you were feeling, after Badger came to apologise to you. If you had doubts, or disagreed with what we were doing, that’s fine. But you should have told me. You could have sat it out.”
“No I couldn’t! You would have been hurt!” Lozzie turned to Tenny. “She would have been hurt!”
“Huuurrr … tuh?” Tenny echoed, big black eyes bouncing back and forth between Lozzie and me. Was she following this without context? How much did she know?
“Maybe Badger wouldn’t have made it,” I said slowly, “but that’s not the problem. That part was good, and thank you, and well done. But … Lozzie, you put me right in front of the Eye, without warning, with no plan, and I … ”
My voice began to quiver with a memory of terror and a rekindled spark of anger, so I swallowed it all down and trailed off into silence. Lozzie had put me in front of the Eye, that was no angry lie of self-justification. No warning, no plan, no protection except what I ended up summoning. In the end that decision had proved fruitful beyond my wildest hopes, but it hadn’t been her decision to make.
Lozzie’s eyes went wide — well, as wide as they could go with her sleepy lids.
“Oh,” was all she said.
I took a deep, steadying breath. “I would still like to talk to you, just the two of us. And it doesn’t matter how angry I am, I would never hurt you. You know that, don’t you? I love you.”
Lozzie’s lips shook, unable to form any words. Then her head snapped up, eyes in full focus, as if dragged taut by internal puppet strings.
“Can we talk Outside?” she asked.
I boggled at her, quietly stunned. “ … but the dead hands, I haven’t—”
“Exactly!” Lozzie slapped the bedsheets. Tenny let out a surprised maaaa! “You won’t let me go.”
“W-what? Lozzie, no, I—”
“It’s been days and you still haven’t done it, you’ve got everything you need and you haven’t done it, you haven’t even tried. Please! And I won’t run off, I promise I won’t run off, I promise, I promise, I just want to be there and we can talk and I won’t feel like this. For real, I promise, I won’t go away and I won’t run. Just open the cage door, please, I won’t fly off. I won’t.”
Lozzie panted softly after her outburst, face fallen far from her usual elfin joy. Heavy eyes pleaded with me, exhausted by days of stress and tension, afraid that I would imprison her deeper, as punishment for her transgression.
She’d spent most of her life in a cult. Taken out of school, isolated, subjected to her parents’ bizarre choices, and then fed to the bare spark of a fallen godling. But even after her personal alliance with the star beneath the castle, she’d been dragged back to a cage of stone and mist, punished for escape with lack of friends, lack of contact, lack of a life. And now, finally living among friends who cared for her, she couldn’t go outdoors, couldn’t go anywhere alone, didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Everything I was doing was aggravating her trauma.
“Right now?” I asked.
Lozzie nodded, desperate, pleading. “And we can talk anywhere, anywhere you like, we’ll go somewhere cool, somewhere really cool, somewhere you’d like.”
“Anywhere is fine,” I said. “The dead hands, then. I suppose it’s time I gave them a shot.”
I forced a smile I didn’t really feel. Once Lozzie was Outside under her own power, who knew if she’d ever come back?
I stared into the bottom of the blue plastic bucket in my lap, and felt like I was staring into the mouth of a tunnel. A bricked up tunnel that I was about to force open with a sledgehammer and a pneumatic drill before striding into the dripping darkness. My stomach was clenched up tight and cold sweat had broken out down my back, in anticipation of familiar old pain and unfamiliar obstacles.
“All right,” I said out loud, trying and failing to sound confident. “I think I’m ready.”
Evelyn cleared her throat. She was sitting in a chair next to the table in the workshop. “Once more, I would like to register my significant discomfort that you are doing this by yourself.”
“Gotta agree there,” Raine said from the other side of the ex-drawing room, lounging against the wall with her arms folded. “Can’t stop you though.”
I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve done this more times than I can count.”
“Not while fighting mystery ghost hands you haven’t,” Evelyn said, seriously unimpressed. “First rule of dealing with the unknown when it comes to magic: don’t. That includes mystery ghost hands. In fact, I’d say it explicitly refers to things like mystery ghost hands.”
“Well,” I sighed. “Don’t try is not an option.”
“You sound like Raine,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Ha! She does, doesn’t she?” Raine agreed with a grin. “Can’t help but admire that, you know? I’ve rubbed off on you, Heather. Makes you invincible, like me.”
“Don’t distract her with flirting,” Evelyn hissed. “That is the last thing we need. If she must do this, let her bloody well concentrate.”
“Indeed,” I said, allowing a sardonic edge to creep into my voice. That finally shut the pair of them up.
Quiet fell on the magical workshop, broken by Tenny’s soft purring and the thudding of my heart like a dove caged behind my ribs. The special magic circles from the weekend had been cleared away and disposed of, too stained with blood for preservation, and the floorboards beneath me were freshly scrubbed with detergent and steel wool. Praem had done a wonderful job cleaning up, and I hoped the bucket would prevent the need for a repeat performance.
“Heather knows what she’s doing,” Lozzie said from over on the sofa. “She does!”
She was sitting cross-legged too, wiggling her knees and toes with nervous energy. When I looked up from the bucket, she nodded at me like a bobble-head in a hurricane, and Tenny purred from next to her with wordless encouragement, though I wasn’t sure if Tenny understood what she was encouraging. Half of Tenny’s silken black tentacles waved in the air and the other half were wrapped around Lozzie’s shoulders.
Evelyn cleared her throat. “At least take Praem with you. You’ve taken her before, you know it’s safe, and the journey barely affects her.”
Praem was standing in her customary position just behind and to the side of Evelyn’s chair, dressed not in her maid uniform, but wearing a blue ribbed polo neck sweater and a long skirt. None of us questioned why some days were maid dress days and others were not. I assumed it was just whatever Praem felt like. Praem turned her head as if to acknowledge Evelyn’s suggestion, then looked at me with silent, impassive intensity.
“I need to do this by myself,” I repeated for the sixth time in the last twenty minutes. “I don’t know what the dead hands could do, it might be dangerous for anybody alongside me.”
“It might be dangerous for you. What if you pass out on the other side?”
“I won’t. Not with this going.” I gestured downward with my eyes, at my own abdomen beneath the dark pink of my scaled hoodie. I had two control rods all the way out of the bioreactor; more than enough excess power to keep myself conscious and upright, and to fuel the return equation, even with three tentacles manifested. I would not get stranded or spend an hour face down beneath alien skies. My tentacles would help me deal with any unexpected company. All three were tucked in tight against my body, wrapped around an arm and my waist, waiting to stop me from collapsing onto my back in the worst case scenario. I was dressed for the trip, in hoodie and jeans and shoes, wrapped up warm and secure, taking this seriously. “And I’m going to go somewhere safe, anyway,” I added.
“Safe,” Evelyn scoffed.
“Well, yes, fair enough,” I said. “Safe by Outside standards.”
“It is safe!” Lozzie insisted. “There’s nothing there that isn’t mine! It’s where I always used to go for loooots of peace and quiet and it’s definitely safe now with all the stuff I left there so Heather won’t even be alone, she’ll be fine, super fine, lots of protection, extra protection!”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed, “I get it, fine.” She glared over my head. “I can’t believe you’re okay with this, Raine. Where’s all your protective habits gone when we actually need them? Aren’t you supposed to … tch!” She tutted and waved a hand toward me.
Raine shrugged and cracked a grin. “I trust Heather. And hey, I trust Lozzie too. If she says there’s more of her shiny boys over there, I trust them to look out for Heather if anything goes wrong. Which it won’t.”
“Evelyn,” I said softly, “if I try to take Praem but I can’t beat the hands, there’s a risk she could end up Outside without me. Stranded. I know I can get out, Slip, transition, whatever, but Praem can’t. I won’t ask anybody to run that risk.”
Evelyn opened her mouth but came up short. She glanced at Praem, swallowed, and let out a huge huff. “I wish we were doing this with the bloody gate instead.”
Lozzie let out a soft whine.
“The gate isn’t the point,” I said. “Freedom is the point.” I took a deep breath. “I’m ready now, there’s no point delaying, so I’m going to do this. The sooner I try, the sooner we can find out if it works. If it doesn’t, then you’ll know, because I’ll still be right here and vomiting into this bucket. If it does work, then I’ll come straight back, as soon as I’ve recovered. That will take a few minutes, at most. Five at the maximum, I’d estimate. And then I’ll … ”
My stomach filled with butterflies as I glanced over at Lozzie’s expectant excitement. Cold sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back, and my chest tightened in a way that had nothing to do with the embrace of my tentacles.
I wasn’t afraid of pain, and I wasn’t worried about this going wrong. I was barely concerned about confronting the dead hands — either they yielded, or they didn’t. No, I was afraid of keeping my promise to Lozzie.
The silver lining was that I didn’t expect this to work — but I still had to make a good faith attempt, not just go through the motions. For Lozzie.
“Don’t try to follow me,” I told her, out loud, but I hadn’t planned to say any of this. “Please. Just in case something goes wrong, or I’m still dealing with the hands or something. Just wait for me to get back. We’ll go together.”
Please don’t leave without saying goodbye, I thought.
Lozzie nodded, smiling wide, all friendly and happy and insensible to my fears.
“Good luck,” Praem intoned from behind Evelyn. “Come home soon.”
“I … I will, thank you Praem. Won’t be a minute.”
As soon as I said those word, I wished I hadn’t.
I looked down into the bucket again, ready to be violently ill, and plunged both my hands into the tarry black swamp down at the bottom of my soul. Out came the familiar old equation, dark and dripping and oily, the one I could self-implement without even thinking. I had done so over and over again, year after year as a scared, confused teenager, slipping in and out of reality with no understanding of what was happening to me. The most elemental, simple equation I had, the one which had become part of me.
Reality folded up into a kaleidoscope of swirling colours. I slammed my eyes shut — and felt those cold, boney hands close around my ankles. Unwelcome anchors, to keep my feet rooted on this side of the membrane.
Of course, they weren’t really hands, and they weren’t really boney. If they were, Raine could have broken their wrists with a good stomp and spared us all this difficulty. ‘Boney hands’ was merely the easiest way of translating the mathematical principles into human-readable sensation.
This time I was ready. Before I toppled forward like an unwary animal caught by a bear trap, I reached down with my own thoughts, with an equation unfolding like a flower of razor blades. A dozen tentacles split into tools to flense and pare and skin and debone, to crack joints and syphon marrow, to act like crushing vices and dilating jaws, to free my ankles by force and break a lot of fingers in the process. And if the hands fought back, I was ready to sip from the abyss, ready to test myself to the limit.
But before I could touch them, the hands let go.
They released my ankles and sank back into the membrane between realities. Unwilling to fight, or unwilling to risk injury — or unwilling to be analysed for what they really were?
Suddenly unobstructed, the equation completed.
Out I went.
Warm wind caressed my face, carrying a scent not unlike cinnamon and camphor; soft purple light brushed the exterior of my closed eyelids; velvety grass cushioned my thighs and backside. I’d arrived sitting, for once, so I didn’t fall over with nausea and weakness and the shock of the Slip.
The blue plastic bucket in my lap had made the transition with me. That was lucky, because it didn’t matter how much power my bioreactor was creating — executing a hyperdimensional equation still felt like turning my brain inside out and dunking it in molten metal, and I very much needed to be sick. I shook and shivered as waves of headache slammed through my skull, and clenched my stomach muscles in an effort to stop myself from vomiting. I clung to the bucket as I spat stringy bile, heaving for breath, comforting myself with a hug from my tentacles. My vision throbbed black around the edges when I opened my eyes, but the bioreactor ensured that I was far from the mercy of unconsciousness. I had to ride this out.
As I sat there whining on that hillside of soft yellow grass, I realised I hadn’t actually been prepared for the pain. I hadn’t expected this to work.
I certainly hadn’t expected the hands to give up.
“Ugh. Tricked me,” I croaked, sniffing back a nosebleed as I watched a few droplets of crimson splash into the bucket. “Why? Doesn’t make any sense … ”
I couldn’t stay mad though. Pain was fleeting compared to the sight of this place.
Dark yellow grass — natural yellow, not Sevens yellow, though I could not have quantified exactly how I recognised the distinction — coated the gentle hillsides which unrolled all the way to the horizon, creating a landscape like heaped blankets. The wind carried the spiced scent of the grass on the air. The sky was a dome of night, yet not dark, but lit with whorls and spirals of bruised purple, not close enough to be clouds but not far away enough to be the void dust of a nebula; I suspected this planet, this plane, whatever it was, was ringed with glowing belts of material which did not exist in our reality. A pair of moons hung further out, one the colour of old emerald, the other a pale cream, like raw chalk.
This was the first place Lozzie had ever taken me in the dreams. This was where I’d met her, where I’d learnt her name and seen her face, and where she’d begun to show me that Outside was not all bad all the time.
Lozzie had not exaggerated; this plane was peaceful and quiet — or at least this small part of it was — but when I’d visited before, my perceptions been cushioned by dream logic.
As I picked myself up off the grass and unrolled my trio of tentacles, I realised how alien this place was.
Lozzie hadn’t mentioned that. Perhaps it wasn’t, to her.
Silence reigned in this place, except for the almost imperceptible whisper of warm wind through the grass. No birdsong, no animals, no distant sounds of civilisation. It was not the silence of Carcosa, which smothered sounds with unnatural force, but simple emptiness and quiet. The purple light from the whirls in the sky made no sense, creating a permanent twilight of strange colours — was this grass actually yellow? When I looked at the arm of my hoodie, it seemed darker than normal. I reached down to touch the grass and it didn’t feel like grass should. Too thick, too rubbery. Even breathing felt different, as if my lungs were stronger, easier to fill.
Compared to the immensity of the Library of Carcosa, or the blasted post-apocalyptic landscape of Wonderland, the quiet plain was nothing. But it was absolutely not Earth, not our reality. I was over the rainbow and far away.
The horizon seemed very distant in all directions, featureless except for the undulating hills, though far off to my right I could see indistinct shapes which looked sort of like the outline of a city if I squinted, skyscrapers or towers or perhaps walls. There were no other landmarks.
Except for Lozzie’s knights.
This was where she’d been keeping them.
“The most double-safe place where there’s nothing and nobody and everything finished happening a loooong time ago, so they can just rest and think and not have to worry! They worry too, you know, if they have to think about stuff when I’m not there to tell them what to do but that’s okay because I made them safe!”
That’s what she’d said, and I believed her, but that didn’t make the sight of them any less bizarre.
The knights were spread out over the nearby yellow grass hillsides in a rough circle, like an army in conference, voting on their next campaign.
“Round table?” I mused out loud. My voice carried, far away across the hills.
Every one of them was sealed inside head-to-toe chrome armour, huge plates of mirror-finish metal, though I knew better than to assume it was mere steel. The few visible seams and joints gave away the sheer thickness of that plate, six or seven inches of protection. And even that hadn’t stood up to the Eye for more than few seconds.
Each knight was easily as tall as Zheng. None of their helmets showed eye holes or even a grille for breathing, faceless. But they were not all identical. Some were shorter or taller than others, some bulkier or thinner, some with armour that seemed more graceful and lithe. Many had unique suits of armour, with fluting or additional plates or differently shaped helmets. A few were even overweight, the armour bulging out to contain their paunches or wider hips, though it was difficult if not impossible to assign a gender to any of them. Many were armed the same as the two I’d seen in action, with a huge tower shield and a lance bigger and heavier than any human knight had ever carried, but others held different weapons locked in their metal gauntlets — two-handed swords, maces as tall as a person, weird bill-hook polearms that looked as if they were for cracking armour. Several wielded what I think were meant to be crossbows, if crossbows were made of metal and designed by an alien with no understanding of human physical limits or number of hands.
Some stood to attention, gazing upward, others knelt as if in prayer; a few lay flat on their backs, hands over their chests; many sat cross-legged, as if deep in meditation.
None of them moved an inch. A field of statues.
I stopped counting somewhere between forty and fifty, and that was only a third of the circle. I knew my Arthurian literary tradition, so I could make an educated guess.
“A hundred and forty eight left, Lozzie?” I murmured a sigh for the two we’d lost. Died protecting us. The fact they weren’t all identical made that worse. Whatever Lozzie had done here — and I did intend to ask her about the details — these were living creatures inside those shells of imperishable metal.
I realised one of them was looking at me; facing me, in fact. I hadn’t seen it move, so it must have been facing me when I arrived. I stared back at it, though the helmet lacked even blank eye holes to gaze into. More impassive than even Praem.
“Thank you,” I said out loud, feeling awkward, though the words were important. “Thank you for the sacrifices of your comrades.”
I jumped when the knight responded, though it moved so very slowly. It dipped helmet, shield, and lance, and sank to one knee, head bowed in private prayer. None of the others moved, and the knight stopped once it assumed its new position, head bowed in my direction.
“Oh, don’t pray to me,” I whispered. “Not even the Eye is really a god.”
The knight did not stand up.
However, I didn’t have time to debate theology with creatures that probably couldn’t talk. I had promised my friends I would be gone less than five minutes, and the last thing I wanted to do was send Raine into a panic. I sighed and began to sit down again, my tentacles reaching out to steady me. I tried not to contemplate the possibility that Lozzie might already be gone before I got back.
That’s when I saw the skull.
Lozzie’s goat skull mask lay about twelve feet behind me. I hadn’t seen it until I’d glanced back. For a moment I didn’t know what I was looking at, but then I remembered — she’d been wearing it the very first time we’d met, when Raine and Twil and I had run into her, alongside the core of the Sharrowford Cult in that underground car park. Then, here in the dream when she’d spoken to me properly, she’d taken it off to reveal her real face.
Curious, though stretching my self-imposed time limit, I went over to the mask, reached down with a tentacle, and picked it up.
It was a real skull, the bone old and yellowed, though the surface had been sanded and waxed, or rendered smooth through some other process. The inside was padded with leather straps and foam to create a comfortable fit for a human head. Two stubby horns swept backward, their points blunted for safety or aesthetics.
I frowned into the empty eye sockets. The skull felt far too light, the eyes were positioned incorrectly for a goat — too central, so as to make good eye holes for the person wearing it as a mask — and there was something wrong about the proportions.
“Goats don’t grow this large,” I said to Lozzie, though she wasn’t here. “And you took this off in a dream. How is this real?”
When you live in a world of magic and monsters, when you know the secret truths below the surface of reality, you come to learn there are some questions not worth answering. I sighed and shrugged, tucked the skull under my arm, and began to equation to return home.
Lozzie was on me the moment I felt the solid wood of home beneath my feet, as a cloud of blonde hair and a pair of eyes like fire-lit sapphires.
“I couldn’t follow!” she chirped. “I couldn’t follow you, Heathy, it didn’t work! It didn’t work!”
“I told you— not—” I croaked, smiling with relief even as I clutched my stomach and clenched hard to hold on to my lunch. “Nnnuuhh … ”
“Heath!” Tenny trilled from behind Lozzie, black tentacles reaching past her in confused panic.
Luckily enough, Raine was on me too. She caught me under the arms as I flailed for her support, clinging on hard as blood dripped from my nose.
“Still here,” I panted through the taste of bile as my vision throbbed dark around the edges. “Still here, Loz. Good.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Raine murmured. “I’ve got you, Heather, I’ve got you. Well done, well done, you did it. Knew you could.”
“You left the bloody bucket behind!” Evelyn said. “And what is that?” She gestured at the skull hanging from one of my hands, her voice dripping with sarcasm. I would have felt hurt, but I knew her ire came from a place of worry after all those long minutes waiting for me to return from Outside. “Did you do a trade? Are we now on a fetch quest chain that somehow ends with the book we need? What do we trade with Edward, a bullet?”
“Fetch quest?” I echoed, utterly confused.
Raine, ever a good sport and able to adapt to almost anything, didn’t even comment as I instinctively wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders, hanging off her like a squid lashed to a rock in a strong current. Her eyes widened slightly, but she smiled for me. “Fuckin’ cool,” she said with a wink, and I knew what she meant.
“It’s my hat!” Lozzie shrieked with excitement, clapping her hands together in glee and bouncing from foot to foot, her frustration briefly forgotten.
I offered her the over-sized goat skull. Lozzie did a little twirling curtsy with her poncho before she accepted it from my hand. She grinned wide at the empty eye sockets like greeting an old friend, then quickly turned it around and slipped it on over her head. The gnarled old bone swallowed her face. She looked out at me from deep within the eye sockets, her beautiful blue eyes encased in shadow and bone.
“Oh,” I breathed.
“It’s so pretty, I know! Isn’t it pretty? I know it’s kind of weird and boney, but I love things like this it’s so prettyyyyy!”
Lozzie’s words came out warped by the bones of something that had probably not been a real goat, at least not an earthly one. The weight of the mask, the odd proportions with the rest of her body, the sweeping horns, and the way her wispy waterfall of blonde hair flowed down and out of the back; it all combined together to create a disquieting impression of some fey creature. Something distinctly non-human. Something you might meet in a ring of mushrooms, which would ask you a dangerous riddle with the voice of a songbird, then steal your name and face just for a lark.
All my fears about Lozzie vanishing came crashing back.
Sometimes I forgot. Lozzie was a person, a beautiful one, and important to me. But she was far from a human being. I knew that, I’d seen it up close.
“Lozzzzzz?” went Tenny, backing away, slightly unsure.
“It’s me, it’s just me!” Lozzie pulled the front of the mask up to show Tenny her face beneath. “Still me under here, Tenn-Tenns, helloooo.”
“Fttttpppp,” Tenny trilled, apparently satisfied, patting the skull with a tentacle. Lozzie let the mask fall down over her face again.
“I take it the mystery hands didn’t pose much of a problem in the end, then?” Evelyn asked, frowning sidelong as Lozzie capered from foot to foot. “And that you reached your intended destination? Didn’t look too different compared to when you did it under controlled conditions before.”
“Very elegant,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn frowned at her with a little sigh, but Praem ignored the look, raised her hands, and gave me a tiny round of delicate applause.
“Yes. It worked,” I croaked, nodding a thank you to Raine as I managed to stand straight on my own two feet. She handed me a tissue to wipe my nosebleed. The bioreactor thrummed with power inside my abdomen, pushing energy into my muscles, though I still felt terribly nauseated.
“No!” Lozzie chirped. “It didn’t!”
“ … it … it did, for me, anyway. The hands just gave up as soon as I threatened to fight. Oh,” I said, breaking off as Raine pressed a glass of cold water into my hands. “Thank you, thank—”
“Drink,” Raine said. I obeyed.
“It didn’t work for me!” Lozzie said, tugging the goat skull off her face and swinging it by one of the horns. “I tried to follow but they were still there and they held on and I hate them, I really really hate them, it was awful and … ” Lozzie stopped and sniffed, taking a deep breath, and I realised she was genuinely shaken by the experience.
“Yes,” Evelyn said, voice suddenly tight, frowning at me in puzzled concern. “She screamed, in fact. Sit down, Lozzie, it’s going to be all right,” she tried to sound reassuring, but she wasn’t the best at that while also distracted by a worrying puzzle. “We’ll figure it out. Heather, what was that you just said?”
I finished draining my glass of water. “Lozzie, I did ask you not to follow me.”
“I was just so excited … ” Her face fell into a sad smile, cheeks puffed out. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you and—”
“Heather,” Evelyn almost snapped, holding herself back by the skin of her teeth. “You said the hands just gave up?”
I blinked at her, then nodded. “Yes. I thought it was strange too.”
“Very,” Evelyn said, meaning Uh oh.
“That means it’s not just some kind of automatic process or a natural phenomenon,” I said. “Whatever mind lies behind them is intelligent enough to know I could overpower it.”
Evelyn stared at me, then looked at Lozzie, then cleared her throat. Lozzie bit her lower lip. “We still have no evidence,” Evelyn said. She left the second part of that sentence unspoken.
We still have no evidence it’s Alexander.
“But … ” Lozzie paused, which was rare, then wet her lips with a dart of pink tongue, turning to me as she visibly brightened. “But we can get Outside now! You can take me, we can go together!”
“Lozzie, I’m not sure. I … ”
“But we were supposed to go together anyway!” she chirped. “The whole point was to talk, right? I promise promise promise I’ll be better out there, please, pleeeeease! And we can talk, I’ll listen. It’ll be okay, Heathy. You can take me.”
I put my hands up in awkward, embarrassed surrender, shamed by the depth and desperation of her need. “Okay, okay, Lozzie, okay.”
“Right now?” Raine asked, low and soft, raising an eyebrow at me. “Aren’t you a bit worn out?”
“Best to strike while the iron is hot,” I said, butterflies in my stomach, though I could not tell what made me more nervous — the prospect of a serious talk with Lozzie, her answers to my questions about her knights, or the prospect she might go skipping off Outside the moment I guided her through the membrane. “Plus, no, I can never be worn out again, remember?”
“No, you totally can,” Raine said. “You’re still you, nuclear power plant in your belly or not.”
“I need to talk to Lozzie now,” I whispered. “As soon as possible. We need to.”
Raine sighed, but smiled. “Don’t stay out there too long, okay?”
“This is a bad idea,” Evelyn said. “A bad idea. You hear me?”
But Lozzie was having none of it. She dropped the goat skull mask over her face again and skipped right up to me, leaving Tenny behind in a confused cloud of tentacles. She grabbed my hands and swung them from side to side.
“Let’s gooooo!” she said from inside the mask, voice a ghostly echo beneath the bone.
“Have a safe trip,” Praem intoned. Evelyn shot her a frown. Raine laughed.
“Let’s go!” Lozzie chirped. “Heather, please! Please!”
“Brrrrt?” Tenny made a curious noise, reaching out with a cautious tentacle.
“W-what about Tenny?” I asked.
Lozzie tilted her goat skull mask to one side. It was like talking to an imp, horns and all. “Mmmm-mmm. Just me this time.” She turned the goat skull’s eye sockets on Tenny. “Be good, Tenns! I’ll show you fun places, I promise-promise double promise, but not right now, you have to stay here and be very good for auntie Raine and auntie Evee, okay?”
“ … brrrrrrrr?” Tenny retracted her tentacles. She looked very uncertain, a mirror to how I felt.
Lozzie turned back to me. “Let’s go! Wheee!”
Why was I so afraid? Why hadn’t I been this scared when Lozzie had come with us to Carcosa? Because back then, she’d had a task to focus on, a reason to help us with a specific goal. But now she was desperate for the air beyond the bars.
I couldn’t deny her.
“Hold on tight,” I said. My voice shook.