Slipping never hurt Lozzie like it did me.
For me, any transition across the membrane between our reality and Outside — whether involuntary or intentional; whether as a terrified teenager thinking I was suffering a schizophrenic hallucination, or as a fully informed and involved abyssal hybrid; whether sitting comfortably and surrounded by friends, or in a moment of crisis and blood — it was always painful, always disorienting, always alienating.
Like stepping through an airlock into a different atmospheric pressure, or descending from a hot day down into a cold cellar, where all my body’s autonomic expectations were thrown into disarray. Pushing through that membrane put pressure on some vital component of the self — not merely of living, but of existing at all. This was not merely the after effects of brain-math; those were bad enough, headache and nosebleed and nausea as my body rejected the impossible maths. I sagged in Lozzie’s arms, clenched my stomach muscles to hold back a wave of vomit, and snorted nosebleed onto the yellow hillside. The others had suffered it too during our emergency return from Carcosa, a dislocation of the soul, an alienation from the sensation of being, a popping of the ears from an altitude change that had nothing to do with height. Even now, with three tentacles and an impossible bioreactor, I took it no better than I had any other time.
For Lozzie it was like slipping into a hot bath.
The moment we arrived back on the quiet plains of yellow grass, I heard Lozzie let out a sigh of true release. Soft, subtle, with a little shudder in her voice, audible even through the skull mask on her face. I was busy squeezing my eyes shut against the black pain of ice pick headache, snorting back my nosebleed, and trying not to be very sick all over the ground. My trio of tentacles unfurled and flailed to catch myself, but they were a part of my body too, and not immune to this sickness.
Lozzie wasn’t so awestruck that she neglected to catch me before I crumpled to my knees. She held me up and I clung to her as crimson droplets fell from my nose to stain the grass. We slowly gave way together, wrapped in my own tentacles, lower and lower until we sat down and slumped against each other. One of my tentacles had gone for her mask, testing the texture of strangely smooth bone surface, and gently tugging on one of the horns as if trying to remove it from Lozzie’s face. She didn’t notice. I was whining softly, but I could still hear the smile of relief in her breathing.
She pressed something smooth and cool into my lap. My vision slowly cleared, red darkness throbbing back into the periphery, replaced by blue plastic with a bit of cold bile splattered down in the bottom.
“Oh,” I croaked. “Bucket.”
“Bucket good!” Lozzie chirped from beneath her mask. “Heathy good?”
“ … relatively,” I managed. “Three slips in fifteen minutes. New record. Give me a moment.” I squeezed my eyes shut again and hung over the bucket, trying to fight down a wave of nausea as the hyperdimensional mathematics threatened to bubble up from my subconscious, like a black swamp over-saturated with toxic gasses.
Lozzie rubbed my back and leaned against my side, sharing her squirrelly warmth. She made happy little humming sounds from beneath her mask as she looked off toward the ring of armoured knights, at the distant undulating horizon, and up at the purple sweeps and swirls in the distant night sky. She wiggled her bottom back and forth in excitement and her other hand patted one of my tentacles. She was immune to the deleterious effects of a Slip, like a specialised rodent that had evolved to navigate the razor thorns and toxic needles of a jungle bramble that would shred any clumsy human.
This was where she was supposed to be, wasn’t it? Not with us. Not in our reality. Outside was her natural environment.
After a minute or two of shaking and sweating, I could raise my head again. I straightened up and cast my gaze out across the quiet plain. Deep breaths of alien, Outside air filled my lungs with the taste of cinnamon, and the gentle wind eased the sweat from my face.
“Mmm-mmm? Mmm? Mmm-mmmm?” Lozzie made wordless sounds and bumped her shoulder against my side, but I understood every nuance, even through the mask. The purplish light in this place made the bone seem paradoxically bright.
“Mmhmm.” I nodded an affirmative.
Lozzie gently disentangled herself from me and stood up, bouncing on the balls of her feet with barely contained excitement. When she stepped forward I unravelled my tentacle from her side, let her go, though I felt a sick twist in my stomach, a horrible tightening of my heart, and a plea dying on my lips.
“Lozzie … ” I murmured, voice quivering as she took two steps away from me. My trio of tentacles twitched, aching to reach out and restrain her. She turned back to me and executed a fluttering, bouncing curtsy with the hem of her poncho, an overexcited, girlish gesture of gratitude, before she leapt and skipped away and my heart couldn’t take it. “Don’t … don’t leave … ” I whispered.
But all my fears were groundless. Lozzie skipped away a few paces across the quiet hillside of yellow grass, but she didn’t vanish into thin air or bid me a tearful goodbye.
“Woo!” She threw her arms in the air and let out a wild whoop of joy, then hopped and tucked and rolled into a spontaneous cartwheel — exactly as Twil had taught her — only wobbling a little before she lost her balance and collapsed onto the grass, laughing and kicking and rolling over, her goat skull mask falling off in an explosion of wispy blonde hair. She left the mask behind, to my silent and bizarre relief, and bounced back to her feet without missing a beat, skipping and hopping over to the nearest of her chrome-clad knights. She slammed into the poor creature with enough force to topple a redwood, but the knight merely looked down at her with its blank-faced helmet as she hugged it from behind and let out a high pitched “Mmm!” of appreciation.
Dozens of the nearby knights turned toward her too, not clanking or clunking at all but marked only by the soft brush of their armoured feet against the grass. Their motions seemed strangely fluid inside such cumbersome suits. They didn’t salute or kneel or bang their fists on their chest plates, but just pointed themselves at her, like sunflowers turning toward the sun. The effect was more than slightly creepy.
“Everybody stay, stay!” she called out loud, hands up as if waving to a pack of excitable hounds. “Safe safe yes good safe, no problems! Stay and sleep!”
Then she was away from the knights as quickly as she’d scampered to them, skipping back across the yellow grass, flushed and smiling in a way I hadn’t seen her smile in months, genuinely happy. Despite everything, I found myself smiling back, overwhelmed by her energy.
Lozzie finally flopped down on the grass nearby, hair billowing out around her. She stretched out her arms and legs and swept them back and forth, like she was making a snow angel. She scrunched her face up tight and let out another “Mmmmm!” noise, then relaxed all at once, into a deep, satisfied sigh.
A shaking laugh took me, of relief and bewilderment at her sheer joy.
“Heathy?” Lozzie opened her eyes and found me. “Heathy, are you okay?”
“ … no,” I managed, and realised I was on the verge of tears. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve — a mistake, as my nose left a bloody streak on my hoodie. “Are you going to leave?”
Lozzie blinked three times, blankly confused but suddenly alert. She sat up in a hurry, hands planted between her outstretched legs with the easy flexibility of a natural gymnast. “Leave? Leave what? Heathy, whaaaa?”
“I’m so afraid you’re going to leave,” I admitted with a quiver in my voice. “You’ve manipulated me into bringing you out here and now—”
Lozzie bit her lower lip. “Um … ”
“Oh, damn it,” I snapped at myself, staring down into the bucket because I couldn’t face her as I let it all out. “Not that I wouldn’t have brought you here anyway. You do really need it, I can see that, I can see the need is real, but you did manipulate me, Lozzie. And when you left before, when you went Outside before, you didn’t come back for weeks. No, for months! You said you’d visit, but you didn’t. You only came back when I was in danger, and yes, I can’t thank you enough for that, you saved me from the Eye. But you left, Lozzie.” I hugged the bucket, cold comfort. “I can’t deal with this. I’m sorry, I’m sorry for treating you like my sister, but I can’t help it. You can’t just make friends with me and then leave.”
Silence. My courage was brittle as pig iron, forged in desperate haste, and Lozzie’s silence nearly broke it. But when I looked up I met that same sleepy-eyed confusion, that nervous lip-bite, not fear. Whether she intended it or not, that gave me heart.
“You dragged me Outside and made me your friend,” I managed. “And I want that. I don’t want you to leave again, but you belong out here, don’t you?”
“ … don’t you?” Lozzie murmured.
I shook my head.
Lozzie sprang to her feet in a flurry of pastel poncho and strands of wispy blonde hair. For a horrible second I thought she was going to run from me, from this conversation, from the difficult parts of being a person. One of my tentacles reached out for her ankle, a pointless and shameful gesture, a last attempt to restrain her and drag her home.
But then she faced me and bowed from her waist, so deeply that her hair pooled in the yellow grass.
We stayed frozen like that for perhaps ten whole seconds, watched by the eyeless gaze from dozens of silent knights.
Eventually, I figured out how to work the human parts of my throat, and murmured her name. “ … Lozzie?”
She whipped her head back up, hair flung out behind like some ancient Celtic warrior-woman.
“I’m sorry!” she said. She wasn’t the slightest bit tearful or upset, but bright-eyed and coherent. All here. “I’m sorry, Heathy. I’m sorry for not visiting, and I’m double sorry for saying I would but then not doing it. I hadn’t been Outside in so long and it feels so right to be here, I didn’t want to go back again, I just didn’t! And I was worried about leading my uncle to you as well but bleeeh. But that was selfish and I’m sorry for being so useless, I can’t even think in the ways I’m supposed to a lot of the time. Out here, I can think clearer! More clearly?” Lozzie’s eyes did this little spin up and around. “With more clarity,” she said slowly, as if experimenting with the words. “I can think. With more clarity. Clarityyyyy.” She giggled. “See? Clarity. See. That’s kind of a rhyme!”
I blinked at her, surprised. “That … that is becoming evident, certainly.”
“And yes I manipulated you and I’m so sorry,” she went on at usual Lozzie high-speed. Apparently being Outside did not change the fundamentals of her personality. “But it was the only way to defeat being afraid and now I’m not afraid anymore because you’re not him and you’re not trying to lock me up or keep me from Outside and I’m sorry my stupid subconscious thought that way. I wish Zheng had been there and then we could have talked through her, she gets it, but she’s run off like a big stupid dog.”
I sighed, shaking inside. I couldn’t forgive her yet, that wouldn’t do justice to these feelings. “You’re not stupid and you’re not useless, and those aren’t what you should be apologising for.”
“Yes! Yes, yes, yes!” Lozzie chattered, the opposite of what I’d expected and feared. Instead, she smiled. “I’m sorry for being selfish. It’s all about survival! I can’t unlearn that in a few months with you and everyone else being wonderful, and I feel bad for not learning it but the truth is my brother is always going to live in my head and I just have to live with that.”
“ … goodness, Lozzie, you weren’t exaggerating about being different Outside.”
Lozzie giggled and bit her lip again, then gathered her hair up behind her and tidied it into a messy knot of soft gold. She flounced across the gap between us and sat down opposite me, crossed her legs, and reached out with both hands.
“Done with bucket?” she asked. “No more sick?”
“ … yes, thank you.” I let her take the bucket from my lap. She placed it to one side and took both my hands instead, gently swinging them back and forth as she leaned toward my lap. I wrapped a tentacle around her wrist.
“Don’t you remember from the dreams?” she asked. “I know I was alllllways more together in the dreams.”
“Lozzie, I … I loved those dreams. I love that you decided to be my friend, to show me it’s not all bad all the time out here, but … I don’t recall them properly. Not all of it. It’s hazy a lot of the time. Sometimes it feels like it was something done to me.”
Lozzie bit her lip and bobbed her head. “I’m sorry! I just needed a friend, and you always had fun in the dreams, and I wasn’t trying to hide them from you, I wasn’t! You just can’t connect them up. Need to spend more time Outside!”
“ … perhaps,” I said, choosing to ignore that particular minefield for now. “Oh, Lozzie, I’m sorry too.”
“You are forgiven!” Lozzie chirped, waving one hand over me like a magician trying to make all my guilt vanish beneath a white cloth. “Forgiven! Away!”
I managed a small laugh. “You didn’t seriously think I wanted to keep you locked up like a princess in a tower, did you?”
“No no no.” Lozzie shook her head with great emphasis, which unknotted her hair and sent it flying everywhere again. She gathered it up and pulled the knot tighter this time. “Not consciously, not with my front brain parts. But you don’t want me to leave, that bit is true.”
I cringed inside. “I’m sorry we had to keep you in the house all this time, what with the cult, and Edward, but I promise we’ll make it better.” A lump grew in my throat as I left the conditional unspoken: If you stay. “You should be getting … some school? Or something. Oh goodness, you never even went to secondary school, did you? I don’t know, we should be able to do something for you at least, you—”
“Heathy,” Lozzie dropped her voice with a funny smile and a tinkling laugh. “Heathy, none of that is for me.” She let go of my hands and spread her arms wide. “This is for me. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
The lump in my throat threatened to choke me. I hugged myself with my tentacles. “Then you are going to leave.”
Lozzie threw her head back and made a great big pfffffft noise. Evidently the Lozzie-to-Tenny mannerism pipeline was not a one-way connection. “No more than a person leaves their house every day to go outdoors, silly!” she said.
“Well, you didn’t keep that promise last time.” I felt terrible even as I said that, vindictive and angry, with a rusty edge of sarcasm in my voice. “You mean you’d come back, regularly, every night?”
Lozzie blinked at me, tilting her head one way, then the other, as if totally confused. My ugly tone didn’t appear to have upset her. “Of course? Sleeping Outside is fine and fun sometimes but also sometimes not very fun and it’s much better to have a real home with a red bed and stuff. Isn’t it? Heathy?”
My turn to blink in confusion. My rising hurt guttered out.
“ … we’ve got our wires crossed,” I muttered, frowning at Lozzie’s sky-blue eyes, soft and sleepy, tinted with alien purple beneath the glowing night skies of the quiet plain. A self-conscious blush crept up my cheeks. “My own abandonment issues have clouded my judgement.”
“Of course I wouldn’t leave-leave!” Lozzie leapt to the rescue, taking my hands again and suddenly squirming into my lap like a cat, turning onto her back with her head on my thighs and her legs stretched out on the yellow grass. “You gave me somewhere to stay. People! Family! I never had that before. And besides, there’s Tenny.” Lozzie’s eyes widened with a serious nod. “I didn’t know she’d hatch into a real person. She’s my baby. I’m not going to leave her alone. I’m not like my brother, I’ll never be!”
I stared down at Lozzie’s face in my lap, dumbstuck for a moment before I let out a huge sigh. I finally allowed myself to let go.
Lozzie was not Maisie.
I took her face in both hands, upside down, and gently kissed her forehead. She giggled and kicked her legs, happy as a cat being fussed over.
“I forgive you, too,” I said. “For being selfish, I mean. I’m not sure I should forgive you for manipulating me, you could just have asked, but I can’t blame you for your brain not functioning properly in our reality, that would be unfair. That’s not your fault, so … mmm. But I’m not going to stop feeling afraid of losing you, afraid that you would leave, but I trust you, and I forgive you.”
“Accepted!” Lozzie stuck a hand up in the air.
“We still need to talk about what happened with Badger. With the Eye. Your objections, how you didn’t … ”
I trailed off as my gaze wandered upward, as I looked past Lozzie’s discarded goat mask, past the ring of gathered knights and the gently rolling yellow hills, toward the horizon, thinking of that other horizon bordered by the mountains of the mind, where I had stared down the Eye and had learnt what it meant to observe the great observer.
On that distant horizon, an object was moving.
“Lozzie,” I said.
“Mm? Mm? Heathy?” She must have heard the tone in my voice, or perhaps felt the way I tensed up — but more likely it was the way my three tentacles suddenly unfurled into a protective ring. My other three, which lay in wait as mere phantom limbs, tried to join them too, their anchor points aching along my flanks. The trilobe reactor twitched with instinctive insistence that I needed to defend myself, make my extra limbs real, cover myself in spines, and flood my skin with warning colouration.
Lozzie was out of my lap and up on her feet before I could clutch her safe in my tentacles. She sprang forward and stretched up on the tips of her toes, one hand shading her eyes as if a harsh sun beat down on us instead of the strange dark purple light from the twinkling whorls the sky. I scrambled to my feet beside her and gave in to the urge to grow the rest of my tentacles. I eased another control rod out of the bioreactor and allowed the remaining three tentacles to burst into beautiful, rainbow-strobing life from my flanks. They instantly threw themselves out around Lozzie and I in a protective bubble, as if ready for attack from any side.
Privately I sighed at myself. This was a bit of an overreaction for a dot on the horizon.
A tiny white hump was moving across the horizon from left to right — east to west? Did those terms even mean anything on a plane with no sun to move across the sky? Dirty white, like bone or old plaster, shaped like a stubby cigar, rounded at one end and flat at the other and bulging in the middle. Whatever the white dot was, it was so far away as to be impossible to make out any details, except for the merest suggestion of vertical ribs or sections like an insect carapace. It moved at a snail’s pace, inching along the distant horizon, paying us zero attention.
But the sense of scale made my mind swim. To make out even that level of detail that far away, it must have been the size of a barn.
“What is it?” I whispered, bristling all over.
“Caterpillar!” Lozzie announced, and shot a gleeful smile at me. “They’re fine and totally safe really, nothing to worry about! It’s okay, Heathyyyy.”
My mouth hung open in disbelief as I stared at Lozzie. A pressure, a high-pitched note, whined inside my head. My heart rate was climbing and my breathing was hitching in my throat.
“Lozzie, this place was supposed to be empty,” I said. “Safe. You said it was safe.”
“Empty of dangerous things, yeah. The catties are fine, they don’t do anything, they just trundle about. Look, look, it’s fine.” She gestured at the ring of knights, her armoured creations, and she was right. They weren’t reacting at all. Somehow that calmed my nerves better than Lozzie’s own protestations of safety — but it did nothing to blunt my anger, my frustration, the same issue all over again.
“Lozzie.” I swallowed, tried to count to five inside my own head. “Lozzie, you said to us, to me and Evelyn and Raine, not half an hour ago, that there’s nothing here that isn’t yours. You said that. I can’t … ”
I can’t trust your words, or your judgement.
Lozzie blinked big sleepy eyes at me. “Yeah!” she chirped. “I made the caterpillars too, duuuuh.”
My strangled, choked anger spluttered out into a confused frown and a rising blush. I almost shrunk back from Lozzie, my tentacles bunching up; not only did I feel silly, I felt guilty all over again. I had assumed the worst of her.
“You … I’m sorry, Lozzie, pardon me?”
“I made the caterpillars too,” she repeated. “All of them! I don’t remember how many I made because it was the first thing I did with the ones who didn’t want to be knights, soooo maybe three or four dozen? And I know they’re happy because they let me know, they do all the exploring but out here they can do it slow and carefully because everything is already dust and gone and stuff, just ruins waaaay out. They’re going to help with Maisie too! That’s what they’re for! We’re gonna comb Wonderland!”
I boggled at her, then put my hands out and gave up. “Oh … kay. Okay, Lozzie. I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions.”
Lozzie giggled. “It’s okay! There’s sooooo much stuff Outside that isn’t scary.”
“And there’s so much stuff that is,” I sighed. “But yes, Lozzie, I know. You showed me plenty back in the dreams, and I believe you, I just can’t always deal with it and I thought that … um, caterpillar was—”
“What about if I show you more right now?” Lozzie’s expression lit up like a human glow-stick. She bounced away from me on the balls of her feet, hopped and skipped the couple of paces to her goat skull mask, shaking the knot back out of her hair, and slipped the mask back on over her face. She turned those bone-ringed eyes toward me. “And you’re awake this time! You won’t forget any of it!”
My heart leapt into my throat. “Um … Lozzie, I’m not sure, really.”
“You’ve got all your tentacles out too, so you’re super safe anyway, right? Right! Right-o, let’s go, doot-doot doo dooty-oh!” Lozzie went all sing-song on me as she skipped back and grabbed both my hands, her voice strangely muffled from deep in shadow and bone.
“Lozzie, I-I’m really not sure about this!” My voice quivered with barely controlled panic.
“We’ll be fine! One hundred percent!” she chirped. “And hey, let’s be extra — hundred and ten, hundred and twenty!”
Lozzie waved a hand behind herself. Two of the frozen knights suddenly picked up their feet and marched over to us, soundless except for their metal footfalls on the grass. The way they moved made my skin crawl and sent a shock of instinctive warning up my spine; Lozzie’s creations may have been unquestionably on our side, but they walked with inhuman fluidity, as if they possessed neither bone nor sinew beneath that shiny chrome.
Both knights carried shield and lance. They stopped either side of Lozzie, towering over us. I caught my own warped reflection in one of the shields, a pink and brown blob surrounded by six arcs of pale rainbow.
“We’ll all go together, see?” Lozzie chirped, and I could feel her elfin smile burning through the bone mask. “Touch a shoulder, hang on tight, ‘cos—”
The word was scarcely out of my mouth before I ripped my hands from Lozzie’s grip and stumbled back in panic. All my tentacles whipped forward as if to shield me from her. My face burned with embarrassment and shame, my back and armpits were drenched with cold sweat, and my heart was racing so fast I thought it might explode. I had to squeeze my hands into fists to stop them shaking.
“ … Heather?” Lozzie’s voice came out so small and confused.
“I can’t, Lozzie, I can’t, don’t make me, I can’t.”
Lozzie pulled off the skull mask. Her hair flew everywhere. Distraught eyes met mine. “H-Heathy? It’s fine, it’s safe, I promise!”
I shook my head, jerky and impulsive, and couldn’t stop shaking it. “You can step into my nightmares without even a blink. I can’t. Look at me.” I held out my shaking hands. “Outside places were my childhood nightmares, my night terrors, for years. I can’t, Lozzie, not without the cushion of being in a dream. Or by shutting my eyes and curling up into a ball. This,” I tapped the ground subconsciously with one tentacle-tip, “this is as far as I can go, somewhere like this.”
“ … but you went to the library! That was cool. It was fancy and fun. And you went to save Evee that one time, and—”
“In emergencies.” I took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to calm myself, trying to fight down visions of rotting jungles and endless metal hallways, of worms the size of continents and the rocks I’d hidden beneath, of the vast sky-bound creatures and blind black tunnels beneath the earth, of fungus that walked as living decay, of five-pointed vegetable intelligences and seas of boiling mercury. All the nightmare places I’d been taken. “To help people,” I went on. “To save them. And to try to acquire what we need to save my sister. Not for fun.”
“But … the abyss!”
“The abyss is not the same,” I sighed. “I spent subjective years down there. It became part of me. Maybe it always was, ever since the Eye began to change Maisie and I. But Lozzie, I am not built for ninety percent of the places I’ve seen Outside. Even like this.” My tentacles gestured inward at themselves. “Not psychologically.”
Lozzie’s lips wobbled. “Even the big cool castle?”
“I … ” My mouth turned dry and my palms went clammy as I realised there was more to this than fear. I did want to see the sorts of places Lozzie used to take me, the wild vistas and impossible castles and quiet deserts.
But what if I liked them too much?
What if Lozzie and I were more similar than I suspected?
“I don’t know,” I forced myself to say. “I don’t know how it would feel without being in a dream. The library was bad enough. Please, don’t … I can’t come with you.”
Lozzie’s face fell even further. I wanted to reach out and give her a hug but fear held me back — fear of her whisking me away, and fear that I might be seduced by what lay on the other side of another Slip.
But then she puffed her cheeks out and shrugged. “Okay. Oke. Okaaaaay.”
“ … okay?”
“Don’t worry about it, Heathy! Maybe we’ll do dreams again sometime instead, but I get it. I dooooo.” She nodded slowly, trying to look sagely and understanding, but I saw the elemental sadness behind her eyes.
“Just because … ” I struggled for the words. “Just because we can’t share everything in life, that doesn’t diminish us.”
She nodded along, but I could tell she was struggling. Outside was part of her, she was part of it, and I could only share in it through a safety filter, with my senses blurred and stopped up, like Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship as the sirens sang.
I let out a sad sigh and stepped back toward Lozzie, cramming my trepidation back into a bottle. One of my tentacles inched out and slid across her shoulder-blades, making her squirm and giggle at me. Involuntary, but better than nothing. She flapped her poncho and sighed too, and then glanced up at the pair of knights still waiting in silence either side of us, as if they understood.
“Tell me about them,” I blurted out.
“The knights, I mean.” I nodded up at our silent chaperones. “You made them, yes?”
“Oh, yeah! I put them together and showed them the way and they’re all waiting to help!” Lozzie beamed at me with obvious pride.
I steeled myself for a question I’d been waiting to ask for months. I suspected I would not like the answer. “Back when you saved me from the Eye, when Maisie called you to Wonderland, you had one of these knights with you, and it … ”
Lozzie nodded and gave a sad little sniff. “Melted. Mmmmmm.”
“Yes, and I saw what was inside the armour. Though it was burned by then, and only for a moment. Lozzie, what are they, exactly?”
Lozzie’s face lit back up with glee. “Do you wanna see?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say no.”
Lozzie turned on the ball of one foot, poncho spinning outward, then knocked a jaunty little rhythm on the chest plate of one of her knights. “Ding-dong!” she announced, then grabbed my hand and hopped back, dragging me with her.
Before I could open my mouth in a yelp of surprise, the knight’s metal armour flew open in all directions, like a silent explosion.
And then it froze, each piece suspended in the air at the end of a thick twist of dark, undulating, leathery meat. The open armour revealed that no piece of metal had actually been attached or fastened or welded to any other — the whole suit had been held together by pressure from within, pulled taut by sheer muscular strength, like a child holding a costume close to their body with their hands. Except the occupant possessed much more than just two hands. Open, revealed, exposed to the air like a planet detonated from the inside and but held close by void-frozen magma, each piece of armour from boot to helmet stuck out in a different direction.
I put both hands to my mouth in shock.
The occupant, the pilot, the thing hiding inside, the squirming meat — no, I corrected myself forcefully, two of these things have died for you, one of them staring down the Eye. You do not get to be disgusted — the knight stared back at us in blinking silence.
“Lozzie,” I said from inside my hands. “That’s a blob monster. I-I mean no offence,” I hastened to add, speaking to the knight itself and hoping it could understand.
The occupant of the armour was a roiling, bubbling, protoplasmic blob of dark flesh, the colour of raw beef and over-steeped tea. It — he? she? — possessed more than a dozen tentacles, using one each to grip the inside of every armour plate with a massive set of suckers and filaments. More tentacles filled the arms and legs of the suit, but made no attempt to mimic the structures of human limbs. The helmet’s lack of eye holes or visor finally made sense — there was nothing in there but a pair of tentacles to hold it on. Yet more tentacles simply drifted out of the armour cavity to wave in the air like seaweed. A multitude of eyes boiled up from the creature’s surface — human eyes, animal eyes, insect eyes, and other optical apparatus that had no earthly analogue, along with strange organs that were perhaps ears or mouths, though most of them vanished back below the surface of the flesh again, as fast as they had been formed. It did stare back at us though. It saw, and knew, and recognised.
“Kinda blobby!” Lozzie admitted, as if I had just critiqued a cake. “But they’re super duper extra efficient and it lets them do lots of thinking too. You know they can turn almost every cell into a sort of mini brain-cell if they need to? Though most of the ones who wanted that went out as caterpillars instead, so these ones think with each other instead of alone but they don’t need to touch for that like the ones in the caterpillars. Hi!” Lozzie waved at the blob-knight inside the armour, and to my horror and awe, it waved back with at least three tentacles.
“ … but … but you made this, Lozzie?”
“All of these?” I managed to rip my eyes away from the knight in front of us and briefly take in the whole field of them once again, all those happy little blobs safe and snug inside their armour. Lozzie’s round table. She’d made an army.
We really were more different than I thought. Goodness, was I glad she was on our side.
“Of course all of them!” she was saying. “I got the idea from one that already existed, I just had to take it Outside so it could be more fleshy, and then all the others got modified for parts and size and thinking and it worked!” She did a strange, breathy giggle. “I learned a lot, you know? From my friend at the bottom of the castle, I mean, about changing bodies, but I never tried it on this kind of scale before but nobody died or got hurt and I guess they have Tenny to thank for that too, since I made her first and all, from spare parts too, but much safer.”
“Lozzie, Lozzie, slow down, please.” I held out a hand. One of my tentacles echoed the gesture, and the knight reached out a tentacle too, as if to greet me, but I pulled back, staring at it with rising incomprehension. “I don’t understand, and you’re not explaining. What are they?”
“ … wha-what?”
“Some of them are the friends who came with me when I first left,” she started saying, and my mind dredged up the memories of all the spirits who had clustered about her when she’d fled reality, back in that park back in Sharrowford, after we’d rescued her from the cult’s castle. “But others started turning up as soon as I put out the call, ones who’d known you and known all about how you kept getting dragged back by the big scary eye in the sky. Some of them even knew you from like ten years ago! And they all wanted to help and there’s a sort of trade-off, you know, they help but they get a body, but I didn’t make any of them do it if they didn’t want to, a few just left and went off to other places Outside but all these left here are in it to help and—”
Lozzie kept going, but her words went in one ear and out the other. A great rushing sound, like the sea, filled my head as I turned to look at the weird, twisted, mollusk-like blob-thing still holding the plates of its armour out from it body, like an exotic clam feeding on marine snow.
Three stubby little tentacles were held out toward me. A hand, to shake.
The other half of my childhood nightmares, all the nameless ghosts and monsters, the hallucinations which had haunted and tormented me for a decade, which had driven me to false insanity and the dubious refuge of antipsychotics.
Now one of them was knight in Lozzie’s service, on a quest for me.
I reached out not one, not two, but three of my tentacles, one for each the knight offered, and grasped all three in a cross-species handshake, a fleeting moment of contact with a devotion I did not understand.
But I’m not ashamed to admit that I started crying anyway.
“Heathy?” Lozzie chirped, hands suddenly on my side. “Are you okay? Okay-okay?”
“Very okay,” I murmured, but really I was speaking to those bubbling eyes and that leathery flesh. “More okay than in a long time.”
“Yay!” Lozzie chirped.
A lump grew in my throat, courage and recklessness and a little bit of insanity; what else was I wrong about?
What else was I capable of?
“Lozzie, how about we take that trip elsewhere after all?”