Cold as an empty grave and strong as granite, dead hands closed around the delicate bones of my ankles until talus and tibia creaked under pressure; I was held fast, neither in reality nor Outside, neither back home in Sharrowford nor stranded on the quiet plain.
I wanted to scream, but could not. I wanted to thrash and kick and spit, but could not. I wanted to reach down with tentacle and claw and extrude specialised cutting tools and rip the hands off at their own wrists, but could not.
Could not do. Could not act. Could not even think.
I was stuck neither here nor there, but nowhere at all. Inside the membrane, in the transitional state, caught in the act of translocation.
It was both a single moment and also eternity, because time did not mean anything in the between-space. This was not the abyss — if the dead hands had dragged me down there, I could have turned on them like a cornered fox and torn them apart with beautiful truth. But this was merely the cell wall, the space between one state and the other, the phase transition; in itself it meant nothing, was nothing, could produce and harbour and be nothing.
I was stuck there, and yet I did not exist there.
It was like being suffocated.
And then I rubber-banded back out, because vacuum abhors presence.
I crashed back Outside squealing and spluttering like a dying pig.
The soft yellow grass of the quiet plain rushed up to meet me as my knees gave out. I dropped the blue plastic bucket and the beautiful Outsider-cephalopod skull, gripped by full-body rejection of what I’d just experienced. Shivering as if in the claws of a fever, I managed to stay on my hands and knees, sagging and moaning, body drenched from head to toe in cold sweat. My vision throbbed black and red, head pounding like a struck gong. My six tentacles braced against the ground as well, and I would have collapsed without their support, though I lost control of my stomach. I vomited in the kind of way I hadn’t for months. Disgust and panic and physical revulsion brought up bile and acid — laced with a surprising amount of blood.
For a long time — several minutes, not the mere subjective time-torture of fear and pain — all I could do was stare at the puddle of my own sick and force wheezing breaths into my fluttering lungs, arms and legs quivering as if I’d run for miles. My head span, my vision was blurry. The crude chemical factory of my poor, abused ape body needed time to adjust to the shock.
Eventually I summoned the presence of mind to feed that chemical factory. I slid another control rod a quarter out of the bioreactor in my abdomen, flushing my body with energy. But no equilibrium came. Blood-tainted sweat dripped from my nose.
“ … what … what on earth—”
But I wasn’t on Earth. The word stuck in my throat.
“Ignore it. Ignore it, Heather,” I hissed to myself, then choked, almost vomiting again. “You have to ignore it. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. Can’t stay like this. Can’t. Come on, get up, get up. Raine’s waiting for you, get up.”
That got me moving, though only enough to crawl clear of the vomit puddle and flop onto my back on the yellow grass.
Panting, dazed, trying to fight down the mounting horror, I stared up at the whorled purple sky of this Outside place.
The shaking intensified, spreading to my whole body. I wrung my hands together, trying to quite literally get a grip on myself. My tentacles tried to help, wrapping around my waist and chest in a self-administered emergency hug. Couldn’t think about what this meant, couldn’t allow that thought to grow; I’d lose control, I’d break down and curl into a ball and never move again.
Instead I sat up, clutching my own ankles to protect them.
“Coward,” I hissed, then hiccuped, then tried again.
The familiar old equation slid down like rose-tinted poison. I span it up at the speed of thought; this time I was ready, tentacles poised, with the toxic knowledge of a dozen other equations waiting at my back, ready to skin and debone and melt and crack.
Dead hands closed a cold vice around my ankles, right on cue. I reached toward them with pneuma-somatic limb and hyperdimensional mathematics, with all the warning colouration of immanent conflict and the black flags of no mercy and the bleeding eyes of cornered animal savagery. Like before, they should retreat in fear. A coward’s filthy trick is one thing, but fighting on this kind of level is another, and over the last few months I had received what Raine might call a “battlefield baptism” in supernatural struggle. Whatever the hands were, they were not up to a fight, they’d proved that before, they’d run, they’d vanished, they’d declined the duel.
This time, the hands did not flee.
I touched the dead hands, made contact with cold, dry, papery flesh, made ready to rip and tear and break and shred, readying all the tools at the bottom of my subconscious. If they would not yield, I would even drag them down into the abyss.
Hands, hands, I kept thinking of them as hands, but there was no visual information here in the stopped time of hyperdimensional mathematics, no sensory input that was not the desperate interpretation of electrically charged meat, no instinct that was not misapplied savannah ape evolution.
I made contact — and the hands exploded outward into a hundred iterations of themselves.
Fractal expansion of dead flesh and clawing fingers grasped at my own specialised tools, wrapped my blades in boney fingers, dug iron-hard digits into my tentacles; hands, hands, a hundred, then a thousand, flowing over each other like something from one of Raine’s terrible zombie movies she’d tried to show me, a tidal wave of grasping, holding, grabbing and gripping, the very concept of possessing, boiled down to what one may hold tight in one’s own clenched fist. For every finger I ripped off another three appeared from the torn stump; for every wrist I shattered, another two sprouted in its place; for every grip I broke by peeling muscle from bone, another dozen latched on.
If this had happened in reality I would have been screaming my head off; instead, my instinctive reaction screamed dive. Down into the abyss, where this thing would not survive. I would drown it.
But I couldn’t go. I couldn’t leap deeper. The dead hands held me back, like slamming myself against the bonds of a net.
To struggle was pointless, like fighting mold that grew faster than I could tear at it; somehow I knew that the hands could have flowed up and over my face and head if they so chose, that my act of keeping them at bay was futile.
I gave up and crashed back to my own body, groaning and crying and doubling up to vomit again, stomach muscles clenching on nothing but stringy bile. My vision swam and my nose ran freely with blood, dripping down my chin and onto the yellow grass. Wheezing for breath, headache pounding, I dug my fingers into the dry soil as if I could somehow dig my way back to reality.
“No, no no no,” I began to whine through clenched teeth, and wished I hadn’t.
All my worst fears were coming true. I tried to look up at the yellow horizon, but it was blurred through a veil of tears. I started to hyperventilate, a weight pressing on my chest. No amount of bioreactor energy or bodily euphoria could hold this back.
“Lozzie,” I whispered. “Lozzie, come back … Raine? Evee? Zheng? … Maisie?”
The panic attack rolled over me like a breaking storm. Hands shaking, caked in sweat, my breath coming in short, ragged gasps; my heart raced and wouldn’t stop, my chest felt like it was collapsing. I couldn’t do anything but curl up where I sat in sheer unbridled terror. Hiccups interrupted wet, choking sobs. Everything had been so good only minutes before, everything had been okay, but now the walls had closed in.
Outside was never my worst nightmare; getting stuck there was.
I don’t know how long I sat, crying and shaking, hugging myself with my tentacles. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes, shivering and growing cold. I was completely alone. Nobody was coming for me. Not Raine, not Zheng, not any of my friends and comrades and would-be saviours, because I was beyond anybody’s reach out there. Anybody but Lozzie, and she had left with a hop and a skip and a smile on her face.
I had come so far since I’d been a terrified half-alive thing, rotting in my own delusion and exhaustion in the days before Raine had found me. I was armed with hyperdimensional mathematics, a bioreactor in my guts, a living shadow of my abyssal self in summoned tentacles and limitless potential; I was observer and observed, I was the adopted daughter of the Eye, and my shoulders were still wrapped with the yellow cloak from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
But in the end I was still without Maisie. I was incomplete. A half-person, a joke.
And I was alone, trapped Outside.
“I … I can’t … ” I whispered to myself, throat thick and clogged. “Can’t … ”
A shining hand descended into my field of vision; I didn’t have the energy to flinch. I looked up and found one of Lozzie’s knights before me, blurred by tears, half-knelt to offer me a gauntleted hand. I hadn’t even heard the knight approach.
I stared at it for a long moment as my brain caught up.
The panic attack had technically passed, leaving despair and childhood fear in its wake, but all of a sudden I felt like I was waking up from a nightmare. My clothes were stuck to my skin with cold sweat, and I felt terribly weak, but I took a deep, cleansing breath and then accepted the knight’s hand. My own was very small in comparison to the gauntlet of Outsider star-steel, but the metal felt faintly warm as if heated by gentle sunlight. The knight straightened up and easily helped me to my feet.
“ … thank you,” I croaked, then cleared my throat. The knight didn’t respond, just stood as if waiting for orders.
I scrubbed my eyes clear and wiped my bloody nose on my sleeve, but most of the blood had dried. Then I flapped my hoodie and t-shirt, trying to alleviate the physical discomfort of sticky sweat as best I could. I gave myself the time I needed to think. I was experiencing something I never had before — panic had actually burnt itself out. Without an immediate threat, and having passed through the crucible of a panic attack, my mind was — well, not clear, not this deep in ancient trauma. But close enough.
I knew I had to get out of here, one way or another. I was lost, but not permanently. Not yet.
“I could hug you, you know that?” I told the knight, though I didn’t expect a response. I awkwardly patted its metal arm.
The knight who had helped me up was not one of the two that had guarded Lozzie and I during our Outside pub-crawl. This knight did not carry shield and lance like the majority of Lozzie’s knightly order, but held a gigantic single-bladed axe slung over one shoulder, the sort of axe one might use to fight dragons or ogres in a traditional fairy tale. Its armour was accented with little swirls and lines etched into the metal, not unlike floral patterns. When I squinted and peered closer the decoration revealed itself as abstract representation, an optical illusion which brought to mind the depths of a forest seen from the edge of the tree line, filled with secret green places and dripping branches. It didn’t seem like something Lozzie would make. Was this the knight’s own choice?
“So, which member of the round table are you meant to be?” I asked it.
The knight continued staring down at me with that blank-faced helmet, though I knew the hollow inside the helm contained only the end of an anchor-tentacle. I found myself addressing its midsection instead, where I knew the true creature must reside, tucked away in metal and darkness.
“ … oh, oh I am sorry,” I breathed, forcing the absurd words as a ritual of calming, trying to think about anything except what was happening to me. “You are a true knight, you’re not meant to be anything. My apologies.”
The knight dipped its chin in thanks. That was all.
I took a deep breath to further fortify myself and then looked away, first out at the horizon. One of Lozzie’s gigantic caterpillar creatures was still inching along the grassy plains. Its course must have curved closer to us, because it seemed slightly bigger than before, the vertical ribs more easily defined against the off-white of the creature’s massive carapace. I could see little antennas — which must actually have been as tall as a person — sticking up from the front of the caterpillar in a cluster of sensory organs or equipment. Then I looked up into the calming beauty of the whorled and spiralled sky, then finally down at the ground.
“Oh, oops,” I said to myself, and left the knight’s side to retrieve the cephalopod skull I’d dropped. I cradled it in my arms and hugged it to my belly; I would have preferred a pillow, or a friend, but this cold comfort would have to serve.
I looked at the ground again and frowned.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” I asked.
Then, feeling terribly awkward, I cleared my throat and glanced up at the forest-pattern knight.
“Not you, sorry,” I told it. “I was talking to … well … ” I gestured at the ground. Silly really, the physical ground was not actually where the dead hands had come from. But the knight didn’t respond. I think it understood my intent.
I turned back to the ground, talking to nothing.
“It’s you, correct? I can’t think of anybody else who would be stuck between our reality and Outside, disembodied, trying to trap me. You used Lozzie’s needs as bait, didn’t you? You let us come Outside, because she was never your real target. I’m your target. You hate me because I murdered you.”
The ground did not answer. Neither did the sky. I sighed and felt absurd, but I kept going.
“I killed you once, Alexander,” I said, then sighed, blushing even though I was the only one who cared. “And yes, I know it sounds like Raine, it’s like a one-liner she’d say trying to be cool. But it’s true: I will kill you again if I have to. Whatever you are now, you are not beyond my reach.”
Gentle wind, sweet smelling and faintly warm. The feel of my own heartbeat, exhausted by adrenaline. One of my own tentacles squeezing my waist.
I let out a final sigh of surrender. “Oh well. Maybe it’s not even him at all. Maybe it’s something else, completely different. What do you think?” I glanced up at the knight, but it declined to offer an opinion. “Yes, my thoughts exactly. Okay, next is step two, let’s see if she’s about.”
I looked up and around and raised my voice. I didn’t need to, but it felt right.
“Sevens?” I called out. My voice echoed away across the quiet plain and died off on the wind. “Sevens, if you’re here, if you’re paying attention, I could really use some help right now. Practical help, you understand? I’m stranded. I’m in very big trouble. Are you here?”
Silence and wind and the knights beneath purple light, but no flicker of sun-kissed gold. If Sevens was listening, she wasn’t willing to step onto the stage. Perhaps subconsciously, I tried to tug at the feeling of her yellow cloak which still hung about my shoulders, invisible and intangible. I hadn’t seen her since she’d gifted me this part of herself. Not even a glimpse. I didn’t know what that meant and I couldn’t help but worry about her.
“She’s a god-like Outsider creature, Heather,” I tutted to myself. “I’m sure she’s fine. You need to concentrate.”
I had to stay logical, had to take practical steps, practical problem-solving steps. I didn’t want to do this, but there was only one logical thing to try next. I glanced up at the axe-carrying knight.
“Do you know how to locate Lozzie?” I asked. I looked back past its elbow, at all the other knights, sitting or standing, frozen in their poses of thought. “Do any of you know?”
None of them responded.
“All right. I’ll take that as a no. Will you consent to come with me, elsewhere?” I asked the forest-etched knight. “I need to experiment, but I don’t want to go alone. I can bring you right back, or at least back to the house, if this works. I promise I won’t abandon you anywhere.”
The knight did not need to nod, it simply raised a single gauntlet and laid it upon my shoulder.
“Ah.” I forced myself to breathe out as butterflies started up in my stomach. I was really going to do this. “I see. You understand what I’m talking about then.” Awkwardly, I laid my own hand over the warm metal gauntlet and added a tentacle just to be sure. “Hold on tight, please. I’m not as good at this as Lozzie is.”
It held on tight.
I span up the equation at the speed of thought and added a slice of the Saye map, the map of all realities, to select an Outside dimension as nonthreatening as possible.
The quiet plain collapsed in a spinning kaleidoscope.
My experiment was not only a miserable failure, it also hurt, a lot. It left me exhausted, even with the limitless energy of my bioreactor thrumming away in the wet red darkness inside my abdomen.
Dead hands — Alexander Lilburne or not — did not try to stop me jumping from the quiet plain to another Outside dimension. Or perhaps they couldn’t.
The knight and I materialised in the snowbound castle that Lozzie had taken me to twice before, in a sort of long gallery open to the elements along one side, affording me a breathtaking view of the deep valley in which the castle sat, filled with gnarled trees and thickly swirling snowflakes beyond the monolithic blocks of stone.
The axe-knight caught me around the belly before I could fall over and vomit my guts out, helping me to retain my feet as my tentacles flailed for purchase and my stomach clenched up hard. My teeth began to chatter within seconds of our arrival. The cold here was like a physical wall. The small signal fires burning at regular intervals along the open gallery did not provide much heat, so I clung to the knight’s front to leach the warmth of its armour.
“Thank you,” I croaked. “Onward and … and out.”
Out, again, to see if the hands could follow me here, if they still barred my way back home when my exit point was a different Outside dimension entirely.
I found the hands waiting for me at the membrane yet again, like a clever guard dog that had circled around inside a curtain wall.
Reeling, coughing, choking, the knight and I both got rubber-banded back to the snowbound castle together, like a toy boat filled with air exploding from the surface of the bathwater. Simple physics, applied on the scale of universal principle. The knight wasn’t shocked, but it did stagger, clank-clank with those imperishable metal boots against the cold stone of the castle floor. I hung limp in the poor thing’s grip, vomiting and spluttering and heaving for breath with the strain of a third casting out. It was a small miracle I didn’t drop the cephalopod skull again, hugged tight in my tentacles.
“Didn’t— work,” I panted against the metal of the knight’s chest. “Okay, have to go back, go back, have to go back, think, think—”
Familiar old equation like a progressively blunted sword, but it could still tear the gossamer between worlds.
Back in the relative warmth of the quiet plain once more, I slumped from the forest-knight’s grip, still shivering from the lingering cold. Curling my freezing toes inside my trainers, I hugged myself and rubbed my arms, even as my head throbbed with pain and I fought off the after effects of another intentional Slip and another shove back by the dead hands.
“Well, here we are again,” I said through chattering teeth.
I couldn’t keep doing this.
The forest-knight resumed a pose of relaxed indifference, axe over one shoulder. I sat down heavily on the grass with the squid skull in my lap, allowing the bioreactor to flood me with slow waves of heat to fight back the cold, with my tentacles acting as insulation. Eventually I stopped shivering, but by then my thoughts were closing in again.
“I’m not alone, I’m not alone,” I whispered, then cleared my throat and raised my voice, trying to make myself sound confident. Who was I kidding? I was talking to myself. “In the worst case scenario,” I said out loud, “I just have to wait for Lozzie. Until tomorrow morning. She’ll go home, back to the house, and then she’ll know I got stuck. Unless the hands try to stop her too … no, no, don’t think that, you can’t think that, you can’t. She’ll go home and … and Evelyn will have to reactivate the gateway, point it here, and … oh, oh God. Oh, Raine. She’s going to be worried sick.”
Understatement of the year. Raine was likely going out of her mind with worry; she couldn’t help, didn’t know where I was. All her daring and confidence did not apply to this problem. For all I knew, Evelyn was already trying to rework the gateway mandala. After all, I’d been gone quite a while. But without Lozzie’s innate knowledge she wouldn’t or couldn’t deduce how to adjust the gateway to connect to this plane of Outside.
“If … if Lozzie is stuck too … or … ” I put the idea together slowly, a lump growing in my throat. “If nobody else can get to me, I’ll have to fight the hands. I should be able to fight the hands. Dammit,” I hissed, “I stared down the Eye, why couldn’t I fight them off?”
Because they were infinitely expanding, a fractal explosion.
“And there’s only one of me. Only six tentacles,” I sighed, answering my own question. I glanced over the knights spread out across the hillsides: there was an idea. But no, however skilled they might be at physical combat, this was hyperdimensional mathematics, or perhaps just plain old magic.
“Lozzie, Lozzie,” I murmured, “please just come back. Just come back. We can beat it together. Surely.”
My breath caught on the lump in my throat. I was out of options, out of places to turn. Not alone, but without the kind of help I needed. If only Evelyn were here, she would know something we could try, some spell or old book to bridge the gap, or if only Sevens was listening, ready to step in — or even if Zheng was by my side. She might not be able to help but she’d put up a good fight all the same.
I needed a mage.
I lit up inside and actually gasped out loud, a true eureka moment. There was one mage I could reach, in theory.
“Oh please, please be where we last saw you, please,” I said through shaking lips, climbing to my feet and grabbing the cephalopod skull again. I turned to the knight. “We’ve got to go somewhere really dangerous. Well, okay, no, I have to go somewhere really dangerous, even for me. Are you willing to—”
The axe-knight placed a metal hand on my shoulder and tilted its helmet.
“ … thank you,” I whispered, then swallowed and found my mouth had gone very dry indeed. “This is going to be difficult, I have to get the exact location we left from. I might be bleeding on the other side, unconscious, dazed, worse, I don’t know. Please catch me. And … right, yes.”
No time to waste.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jammed both hands into the black swamp at the bottom of my soul.
This operation required not only the familiar old equation to force passage through the membrane between worlds, targeted via the indelible memory of the Saye map, but needed me to perform exact translocation with only meters of allowable error. I had to take us to the right spot, a place I’d known only at the height of stress and panic, a place with no real landmarks I could think of, no distinguishing features, just memory and mathematical data. The effort to attain that level of precision might fry my brain.
But I did have the emotions.
One of the most important moments of my life had happened there, the moment I pulled a beloved friend back from the brink. Could emotion be processed into mathematical input? How bleak, how cold. I hated the notion, but it was the truth. Just because we’re all mathematics and brain chemistry in the end does not make our experiences any less valuable.
I built an equation at the speed of thought, piece by exact piece, through the all-too-familiar construct of the intentional Slip and the sickening, impossible directions of the map, then onward into my own memories of cradling Evelyn’s bruised and battered self-worth. I rendered experience down into the raw materials of hyperdimensional mathematics, until I knew the exact spot where it had happened.
My head flared with blinding pain. I was out cold before reality folded up.
The scent of books and dust and aged wood teased me back to consciousness. Those old friends let me know I’d gotten the destination at least half correct.
I groaned and opened blood-gummed eyes and found myself curled into a ball on my side, cold drool pooling on the floorboards next to my slack lips. Bookcases towered in front of me, marching off into the distance, stuffed to overflowing with all manner of volumes in all shapes and sizes, scrolls and leather-bound tomes and things that didn’t seem like books at all, with leaves of metal or ridged spheres with hexagonal openings. Down a row of bookcases I spied grey robes fluttering past, dragged by the shuffling stride of leathery grey feet, on the eternal task of cataloguing and sorting.
A pair of chrome boots stood off to one side of my peripheral vision — the knight, unmoving, facing outward, guarding my unconscious body. I looked up at the helmet and the axe. The knight seemed untouched. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.
“ … how long have I been lying here?” I croaked, coughing. My throat was dry, my head thick with sleep, my muscles stiff. The knight did not answer.
Neither did the jumbled deeps of the Library of Carcosa.
When I tried to sit up, I discovered that I’d wrapped myself in my tentacles, like a cat nuzzling into its own tail, or an armadillo or pangolin tucking itself tight within layers of armoured scales. Disentangling myself was like stretching sleep-addled limbs, coupled with the slow-to-wake feeling of the thrumming reactor warming up in my belly. I felt stupid and guilty and disoriented. Oversleeping Outside, how absurd.
I also found the cephalopod skull hugged tight to my stomach, safely brought with us during the transition. Didn’t want to lose Lozzie’s gift.
Eventually I got myself into a sitting position and then clambered to my feet, using the forest-knight’s chrome elbow for support that I didn’t really need. Rubbing the crusted blood out of my eyes and filling my lungs severed to sharpen my senses, but looking around us granted no sense of recognition, no relief.
“Well,” I said to the knight, to myself, to nobody. “We made it, but I don’t know if this is the right spot.”
The Library of Carcosa swallowed the sound of my voice, the quiet itself like a thick, cloying blanket around my head and face.
We had made it to the library, of that there could be no doubt. I’d managed to deposit the knight and myself on a broad concourse of open floorboards which ran parallel to the vast canyon between the two walls of library floors. The dizzying open space yawned wide to our left, separated from us by a mere waist-high banister. The gap was crisscrossed with spindly walkways and creaking bridges. A touch of vertigo made my head swim when I dared glance down at the canyon floor far below, with its drifts and mounds of discarded books. The far wall tempted me to look up at the infinite height, worryingly familiar now — how upsetting, how strange, that an Outside place could seem familiar.
To our right lay the depths of this library floor, rows of bookcases that appeared ordered from the edge, but revealed their bedlam and chaos if you dared peer around a corner. Little stacks of books like balanced rocks lay between the avalanches of dislodged texts. A few squid-faced librarians went about their business in ones and twos, but none of them close to us. Had the imposing presence of Lozzie’s knight kept them away?
I swallowed and blinked and tried to remember — was this the place that Evelyn had almost been taken away by the library’s catalogue system? I glanced up and down the open space between the library stacks and the canyon edge, but there was no sign of my quarry.
If we were in the right place, then all trace of that event had been cleared away. No bizarre macrophage creature down in the canyon below, no scrum of librarians.
And no grey sphere-machine. No Saldis.
“Every part of this library looks the same as all the other parts,” I hissed, frustration and fear rising in my throat like acid reflux. “Oh, what was I thinking? Even if this is the same spot, she would have moved on by now. Why would she stay?”
My shot in the dark had gone wide, my slim hope turning to ash in my hands. My tentacles were restless, curling about the knight’s arm and reaching out to poke at loose books on the nearest shelf, nervous actions to occupy my overtaxed mind. A lump was growing in my throat again, fear returning and clear-headed logic fading fast. Locating Saldis in all the unknown vastness of the Library of Carcosa was almost as daunting as trying to find Lozzie among the infinite alien spheres of Outside.
“ … but she is here,” I said. “We know she’s here. That means … ”
I trailed off as my eyes wandered down the length of the library floor to the nearest squid-faced librarian, currently occupied in a strange re-shelving process with a fallen pile of books. It looked like the work of several days to come. The creature wasn’t going anywhere soon.
“That one.” I glanced up at the axe-knight’s helmet. “Will you follow me? I’ll do my best to protect you out here, but … I can’t do this alone, if I get overwhelmed, I … ”
The knight answered me with a disarmingly human response. It — he, I was starting to think of it as — rolled one shoulder as if limbering up, and adjusted his grip on the massive axe.
“Right. Thank you,” I said, nodding pointlessly. “I’ll have to lead the way. We don’t have Evelyn’s scouting tools, no nuts and bolts to throw ahead of us, so … I’ve got the longest reach. We’re only going fifty feet or so. Step where I step.”
The journey to the squid-faced librarian only took a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours. I inched along, watching for distortions in the air, for discoloured patches of floorboard, or any other tell-tale sign of the anomalies we had previously encountered in the library. Last time we’d had Evelyn’s bag of cloth-wrapped nuts to throw ahead to test our path, but now I simply stretched out a tentacle, feeling the way ahead, trying to still my racing heart with the knowledge that I could regrow the pneuma-somatic flesh if I really had to. The knight followed behind me on surprisingly silent feet, sticking close.
I stopped about six feet from the squid-faced librarian creature. If we had left any ill-will or hard feelings behind when we had departed last time, it didn’t show any. It stayed focused on its task, bending at the waist to pick up books from the fallen pile, feeding each one into its own head like a library return-slot made of sharp spines and writhing grey tentacles. A few seconds passed after it ate each book, and then its raggedy grey robes would twitch with horrible sinuousness, prompting the creature to reach inside the robes and withdraw a book — sometimes the same one, sometimes totally different — before finally slotting the book into the proper place on the shelves.
“Hello,” I raised my voice into a stage-whisper, then rolled my eyes at myself. Now was not the time to stand on library etiquette. Nobody was going to tut and frown at me if I spoke up and made some noise.
Well, I certainly hoped they wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to meet whoever was in charge here.
“Excuse me,” I tried again. “Hello. Hi. Hello? I need, um, assistance. I think that’s what you do. Sometimes.”
The librarian carried on working. I frowned and was about to huff and turn to the knight at my back, but then Lozzie’s own technique surfaced from my memory. I could have kissed her for that.
With one tentacle — after all, I didn’t want to risk brushing the creature with my bare skin — I picked up a single book from the low drift of fallen tomes and held it out to the squid-faced librarian. At first it ignored my offering, but when it finished processing the current book it was on, it didn’t bend down to retrieve another volume. It turned to me instead.
“Here. For you,” I said, feeling terribly awkward. Between the forest-knight and the librarians, I was practically a chatterbox by comparison. “Please take it, and please listen to my request.”
The squid-faced librarian accepted the book in its gnarled grey hands and promptly fed it into its own face, engulfing the book within a second or two.
Then it waited, facing me.
I felt the most sudden and unaccountable urge to take the Outsider cephalopod skull and place it over my head and face, to hide my true identity in front of this tiny, detached appendage of whatever intelligence truly managed the library. With fumbling hands I did exactly that, despite the lack of padding or cushioning for my head. I lowered the mask over my own face. The metallic skull was a little large for the task, and ridges inside dug into my scalp, but it weighed barely anything and the eye sockets lined up perfectly with my own eyes. The sound of my own breathing echoed in my ears, but I felt safe and secure. Shielded.
“Saldis,” I said out loud. The mask didn’t muffle my voice as much as I’d worried. “Saldis. The mage in the grey sphere. She’s not part of your catalogue, but I bet you know where she is. Saldis. Show me where she is. Please.”
For a second, the squid-faced librarian did not respond. My heart pounded in my own chest with anticipation of failure. But then out whirled one of its arms, to point off down the clear concourse.
“Take me,” I said.
The squid turned, abandoned its task, and led the way.
“Well, here we go then,” I said to the knight behind me. “I hope you like walking.”
My stomach was clenched into a tight knot of anxiety, but I picked up my feet to follow the ragged grey robes. What choice did we have? Saldis could be very far away indeed; we might be about to walk for hours and hours through the mad labyrinth of the library. I needed food and water. Could my bioreactor compensate for those? Worry set in quickly, but I had to keep going. There was no way back.
To my incredible relief, Saldis turned out to not have ventured that far since our last meeting. The squid-faced librarian led us along the wide concourse, then deep into the library stacks themselves, past towering bookcases and shattered wooden floorboards, over mounds of jumbled books and around patches of deep darkness where the glow-globes had failed in times long past. It didn’t once look back to check if we were following, and didn’t respond when I raised my voice to ask it how far away Saldis might be. I gave up after that, settled into a rhythm of walking.
Up a spiral of maddening stairs that seemed to turn back on themselves if one dared look down, across a section of floor populated by lecterns with books chained and bound and roped shut on top of them, past a trio of corpses that looked like dried and shaved gorillas with too many mouths, and then finally deep into the rear of this library floor, almost to the back wall of dark wood.
The journey took almost an hour, but just when I was beginning to despair, the librarian led us into a tiny clearing among the bookcases. The clearing contained a sort of tapestry strung between four poles, covered in tiny script in green ink in a language I didn’t recognise. The text itself was normal enough, but the way the tapestry was hung made my eyes hurt — it was between four poles, but a casual glance made it seem as if it only had two sides, a front and a rear. But there were four poles in a square formation.
Even inside the shelter of the cephalopod skull, I had to blink my watering eyes and look away.
And there was the grey sphere-machine, sitting opposite the tapestry.
“Oh,” I breathed out as relief flooded me. My heart soared and my head felt light. “Oh, thank you. Thank you.”
I glanced around for the librarian, but the creature was already leaving, robes rustling off down a row of bookcases. Probably for the best — I had not forgotten what those things were capable of, in large enough numbers. Best avoid the attention of the library catalogue as long as possible. I looked over my shoulder instead, at the forest-knight.
“This is her,” I told him. “In the sphere. She’s … well, maybe not a friend, but close enough.”
If the knight understood, it did not respond.
I turned back to the sphere. It was no less bizarre than the first time I’d seen the unearthly machine, six feet in diameter and made of thousands of hand-width rectangular prisms, all matte grey and blank and smooth. It was balanced on the floorboards as if given unnatural buoyancy by invisible physical forces, instead of crashing straight through the ground with all its massive weight.
It was also closed.
“ … maybe she’s sleeping,” I murmured. I cleared my throat, straightened my hoodie — absurd habits, I knew — and then reached out with one hand to knock on the sphere, like I was dropping in for an unannounced visit at the flat of an acquaintance, rather than deep Outside and standing before some impossible machinery which I knew contained a person who hadn’t been entirely human in a very long time.
Knock knock knock, three times with my knuckles. Then I cleared my throat again and added, “It’s me, Saldis. Um, Heather Morell?”
I waited. Nothing happened.
“Oh, don’t make me wake you up by getting the knight to hit your silly hamster ball with his axe,” I hissed in barely contained frustration. I was tired from the walk and more than a little hungry, without the patience for her games. “I need help, Saldis. Wake up.”
I gave the sphere an angry thump and skinned a knuckle, then hissed in pain and stuck the hand beneath my mask to suck at the spot I’d grazed.
Then, before I could so much as step back to think, the sphere emitted a ripping, tearing, pulping sound, like meat being pulverised and shredded. I jumped about half a foot in the air, tentacles whirling before memory caught up with me. I’d heard that sound before, back when we’d first met Saldis.
The sphere opened, rectangular prisms sliding back like the petals of a mechanical flower of extreme precision, folding up and back and away to reveal the well-lit interior of the sphere and the soft flowing curves of grey that formed the pilot seat.
“Saldis!” I said in relief.
And there she was, long and slender and neat like a dancer, dark-skinned and gentle-eyed, hair woven into thick masses of braid which fell about her shoulders. Lounging on her comfy seat, she wore an expression half surprised and half bored, blinking slightly with poised and practised interest, as if woken from a pleasant nap by an over-enthusiastic songbird.
Like the first time the sphere had opened, she was completely naked from tip to toe and covered in a steaming layer of crimson blood.
“Oh,” she sighed, rolling her eyes at the ceiling then down at herself. “I am hardly dressed for visitors, you really must give me a moment to ready myself if you’re—”
“I don’t care about that, it doesn’t matter!” I blurted out, though a tiny part of me was very impressed, not only with the sheer fact of Saldis’ nudity — she was remarkably beautiful, even if not my type — but also with how she was completely unselfconscious. She carried herself with the attitude of a queen. “Saldis, I need help!”
“Help, help, yes, of course.” She smiled as she spoke, a teasing crease in the corners of her eyes. She finally looked up at me and winked. “But when you ask for assistance, you usually let the … one … petitioned … ”
She trailed off, eyes widening. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, staring at me.
“Oh, for pity’s sake, it’s me!” I snapped, pulling the cephalopod skull off my head, making a mess of my hair. “It’s Heather. Don’t tell me you don’t remember, or something silly like that. You don’t lose all your memories every time you … ” I nodded at her gore-soaked nudity and whatever unthinkable process that implied.
“No, no no, of course not, don’t be absurd.” She tutted, but her awe did not abate. She wet her lips — tasting blood with a little smack of appreciation — and gestured at me with both hands. “Lady Morell, forgive me, but you have rather changed since I last laid my poor, plebeian eyes upon you.” She paused and pulled a face like she’d bitten into a rotten lemon. “Plebeian, really? Is that the best word you little Englishers have for it? Well, I suppose you’re more than a little Englisher, now. My poor, lowly— oh no, no that won’t do. My mere gaze?” She experimented with a flourish of one hand, then tutted and waved it away like a bad smell.
“I know,” I said, raising one tentacle. “But I can tell you all about the pneuma-somatic additions later. Right now, I need help. I’m stuck and—”
“What?” Saldis squinted at me like I was an idiot. “No, I don’t mean your arms, Lady Morell. I mean, well, should I be addressing you differently? I know I have a reputation to uphold as a deliciously cheeky and dangerously illegal woman, but I do owe you at least a modicum of proper respect.” She gestured at me, up and down. “Especially if your raiment came from where I suspect it did.”
I boggled at her. “I never asked you to call me Lady in the first place.”
She brightened with a hesitant smile — I suspected the hesitancy was an act, but the smile was real. “Ah, yes, we are on first name terms, are we not? Delightful! I suppose that means you might be willing to introduce me to your … well, as I said, should I be addressing you differently?”
“Saldis, what are you talking about?”
She gestured at me again, pulling a perplexed expression, as if it was obvious. “You have donned the purple. Or the yellow.” She laughed, a bubbly, relaxed sound. “Same thing! I assume it was from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Oh what am I saying, of course it was, who else would you have met?”
I blinked at her, dumbfounded, and finally realised what she meant — she could see the yellow cloak Sevens had gifted to me. I tried to draw it tighter, to rub the fabric between my fingers, but it proved as intangible as always.
“You mean you can see the … ?”
But Saldis wasn’t listening. She rattled on. “You must tell me everything, I am all ears and a terrible gossip, though I promise my lips are sealed. Oh, this is delightful. Have you had some kind of ceremony yet, or is this only a betrothal?”
My eyes went wide. My mouth opened but no sound came out.
Saldis came up short too, then curled her lips in a wicked smile like a scandalised teenager. She put her fingers to her mouth. “Oh. Oh dear.”
“It’s … it … it—” I hiccuped hard enough to hurt. “She gave it to me to protect me!”
“I’ll bet she did,” Saldis laughed. “You may not have said any vows, little Englisher, but that mantle around your shoulders is an invite to the family. Her family. And I very much doubt that Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is looking to merely adopt you. You are too much of a catch for that, my dear.”