Acceptance had come easy to me — acceptance that monsters and mages and magic really do exist, along with werewolves and spirits and demons, not to mention the black seas of infinity Outside our own placid island of ignorance.
Well, for a given value of easy, after the initial shock and denial and the crying and the dry-heaving and the survivor’s guilt and ten years of medication and hospital visits and medical torture wasted. When Raine and Evelyn had first pulled back the veil and left me with no safety blanket, I had felt a terrible sense that reality itself had betrayed me, that the universe had played a grotesque trick on my mind and perception; it was like vertigo of the emotions. I’d had a choice: either reject it all and retreat into decay, or leap from the cliff and hope I learnt to fly before I hit the rocks.
But I had started from a unique position which imparted to me a certain weird strength. Before I’d met Raine on that fateful morning, I had believed in error that I was broken, that my memories meant nothing, that my senses were wrong. Then she’d turned my world upside down and I discovered myself the right way up for the first time in ten years. I was not broken, I was healthy — or at least I did not suffer from schizophrenia. The jury’s still out on post-traumatic stress disorder.
And if I was not broken, if reality really was that silly, then Maisie really had existed and my life meant something.
So I’d leapt. I had not quite learnt to fly, but at least I was still falling.
Even months and months later, I still woke up occasionally in the small hours of the night and forgot myself. Groggy and sleepy with Raine wrapped around me from behind, cuddled in her arms, or with the massive bulk of Zheng’s imposing physique in front of me, radiating heat. In that comfortable, animal gap between sleep and true consciousness I could pretend that none of it had really happened. I could cling to a dream that I was a very lucky university student with some unconventional romantic relationships.
Though since I’d made my tentacles permanent, those moments of ignorance had faded. Reality was now wrought in my own new flesh. I’d left the illusion behind and in truth I was not sad to see it go. I knew what was real and what was not.
But The King in Yellow was fiction.
Saldis’ enthusiastic suggestion hung in the stale silence of the library clearing, excitement and delight playing across her face in a bright smile and a wiggle of her perfectly plucked eyebrows, but the idea of petitioning the King in Yellow for help did not bring me any relief. A worryingly nostalgic sense of unreality began to settle on my shoulders; a pressure built inside my head like a high-pitched whine on the edge of my hearing. My breath caught in my throat. My empty stomach did not help, either. Low blood sugar, short temper, irritable and rash.
“But,” I said. “But the King in Yellow isn’t—”
I bit my tongue hard enough to draw flesh blood. The pain sharpened my mind, grounded my senses, and reminded me that at least I was real; I cut dissociation off at the root.
“Isn’t going to listen to your petition?” Saldis got the wrong end of the stick and finished my sentence. She waved one manicured hand at me, then glanced down at the pair of massive black rats in her lap, as if sharing an amused and sceptical look with a close friend, at the expense of my naivety. “Lady Morell,” she carried on with an indulgent sigh which made me want to grit my teeth, “you are wearing proof of invitation to join his family, no matter how far down the royal hierarchy you may sit. You may be an uninvited guest to the palace, certainly, but you will be of great and pressing interest. Of that I have no doubt. He will not only grace you with the time of day, he will be very eager to speak with you indeed.”
She finished with a smug smile, like she’d snatched a puzzle box from my hands and completed it with a single twist.
I sighed and rolled my eyes, fighting derealisation with exasperation, hugging the Outsider squid-skull to my belly to stop my hands from shaking. “Yes, exactly what I need, an angry king shouting at me about corrupting his daughter. Let’s just pile another crisis on top, see how high we can go before the whole lot collapses and crushes me.”
Saldis pouted, either genuinely hurt or very good at putting on the look. “There’s no need to be sarcastic.”
I shot her a glare but her childish pouting did not relent. I huffed and cast about for a moment, wishing I could just order the forest-knight forward to slap her in the face or something, but then I reminded myself of my situation. I only had one ally right now.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Apology accepted!” Saldis brightened instantly. I very nearly threw the skull at her.
“Saldis, try to see your suggestion from my perspective. Assuming I can reach this … palace, what am I even walking into?”
“Oh, Lady Morell, you’re not going to get hung, drawn, and quartered for having known Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight in the Biblical sense, you—” Saldis cut herself off with a face like she’d swallowed a fly. “Known in the Biblical sense?” she repeated slowly, with an expression of growing outrage I imagined she might wear if she found a perfectly framed dog turd lying right on the middle of a folded dress. “What an absolutely useless, foul, vague euphemism. How do you Englishers even communicate when you’re working with such utter dross? Wait, no.” She held up both hands and adopted a look of angelic tolerance. “I am getting off track. Lady Morell, you are not going to get thrown into a dungeon and have hot pokers applied to unmentionable places, not for the crime of having gone elbow-deep in the cunt of the King’s decidedly lesbian daughter.”
Saldis illustrated her colourful description by pushing a clenched fist through the ring of her opposite thumb and forefinger, all the way to her elbow. She held the demonstration aloft, completely serious.
I burst into embarrassed laughter, going red in the face, smothering my mouth behind both hands as I hiccuped loudly. One of my tentacles had to catch the squid-skull mask. The laughter was not all good — I was genuinely on the verge of losing control with shaking and hiccups and lurking fear, even if Saldis’ absurd display had taken the edge off the lingering sense of unreality.
She watched me with a perplexed frown. “Lady Morell?”
I waved her down, taking several deep breaths to get myself back under control. “Nothing like a bit of sexual obscenity to ground the mind,” I muttered.
“Oh, quite,” Saldis agreed, though she didn’t seem sure at all, still frowning at me like I was about to fall over or pass out. “Did I hit the nail on the head, just then? Have you and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight been … ?” She made an upward fist-pumping motion.
“No!” I snapped, and had to fan my face to fight down the enduring blush. “Saldis, I don’t know what you’re made of — literally, I can’t imagine — but we mere mortal humans—”
“Which you are most certainly not—”
“—are not made for inserting entire arms up inside!” I finished, squeaking with the absurdity of what I was saying.
“Speak for yourself,” Saldis said with the corner of her mouth.
“Sevens and I have not engaged in any coital or even flirtatious activities, none whatsoever. If we had, do you think I would be so surprised about this?” I made to pluck at the invisible fabric of Sevens’ cloak, but my fingers passed through the space my senses said the garment should occupy, just like every previous attempt. I tutted and fussed, one of my tentacles paffing at where the fabric should be.
Saldis sighed and pulled an infuriatingly indulgent shrug, more with her palms than her shoulders. “Well, if that’s what you say, you have even less to worry about.”
“How can it be both invisible and yellow?” I huffed at the feeling of the invisible cloak, the warmth snug about my shoulders. “It’s the invisible pink unicorn problem, illustrated in reality. Oh, I do hate this. Damn you, Sevens.”
“Nothing,” I sighed. “Something Raine taught me. Philosophy, about the existence of God, or Gods. How horribly relevant.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight herself was one thing — she undoubtedly existed, no matter how many layers of mask she wore or whose face she imitated. I’d seen her with my own eyes, both in the flesh and in the abyss. I’d seen past her masks to the truth beneath, all her alien complexity and robust abyssal beauty like secret life at the bottom of a marine trench. I could touch her and verify she was real.
But her father, the King? The King in Yellow was was from a book, a set of unremarkable short horror stories written in the late nineteenth century.
Since meeting Sevens, I’d read that book from cover to cover three times, trying to glean the slightest clue from those confused snippets of fiction. The first time we’d encountered this strange crossover between fiction and reality, Evelyn had launched into an outraged rant, firm and unyielding in her belief that the Yellow King could not exist, that all those old stories were just nonsense pulp from a hundred years ago. At the time I’d mostly dismissed her anger — after all, it stood to reason that any fiction could contain kernels of truth. What if the person who wrote those stories had encountered the real Yellow King, long ago? Why not process that experience into fiction rather than writing down some squalid occult tome that nobody would take as real? The King in Yellow had endured and thrived as fiction, far better than it ever would have as one of those crumbling books from Evelyn’s secret collection beneath Sharrowford University Library.
But I’d only been able to accept that because it was a purely academic question. Now it was rapidly becoming a practical problem. Perhaps paradoxically, that made it a philosophical issue.
“Why can’t things just be simple?” I hissed to myself.
In that rather lame collection of short stories, the entity known as the King in Yellow was poorly defined — a haunting presence in a fictional play that drove its audience insane, a name whispered in rotting tenements while the fog roiled outside, a creeping suggestion of watching and observing, reinterpreted and rewritten dozens of times in the years since.
The King in Yellow was not merely a fictional entity, it was created by the process of fictional re-imagining, like the compacting of silt on a lake bed to eventually create rock.
So what would I be going to meet?
Something not unlike the Eye. A being which had dragged itself from the dark of the abyss under its own power, whatever it had been before. Sevens had told me that her father the King had begun life as something not unlike a human being. Perhaps that’s why he had a family, something comprehensible on a mortal level, rather than the Eye’s dead globe of Wonderland.
I was going to meet Sevens’ dad.
I was also covered in my own blood, stank of fear-sweat and vomit, and was so hungry I could have eaten my own fingers. A great first impression.
How would I have reacted to meeting Raine’s father? Well, bad example. I probably would have tried to punch the man with a tentacle. Don’t do that to the King, I told myself, I doubt he’d be willing to help after a tentacle fight.
“If I meet the King in Yellow,” I said out loud to Saldis, anxiety clutching at my chest, “what exactly will I see?”
Saldis raised her eyebrows. To my surprise, the pair of rats in her lap paused as well, sitting up on their hind legs and looking right at me with their tiny black eyes.
“A very good question,” Saldis said, voice low and husky, as if she was telling a horror story around a campfire. Just what I needed; I almost rolled my eyes. “I’ve never had the pleasure in person, though I have heard all the tales. Usually he is not somebody you would wish to meet, not if he is actively seeking you out, especially when wearing some of his other guises.”
“Mmmhmm! You know how it goes, a king or a prince wants to go among the common people, so he dons a disguise. But for one of such majesty, nature is difficult to conceal. When the King walks abroad, those who meet him know they have been met. It is impossible to mistake him for a mere pretender to the throne, or even for one of his closest family. He will certainly show you a mask too, Lady Morell. I doubt very much that either of us wants to see the unfiltered truth. Neither would I want to deal with one of his displeased masks, but the Library has been quiet for a long time; Hastur hasn’t passed through in decades, so I suspect the King’s mood is still amiable.”
“Hastur?” I echoed the strange name — and instantly regretted it.
From Saldis the word had sounded normal, not one of those twisted un-words that made the mouth and throat bleed and seared human ears with supernatural pain. But in my mouth the word felt like a live slug. I stopped to retch, clutching at my chest, and would have vomited if I didn’t have extensive experience in holding back nausea.
“Yes, Has-” Saldis cut off with a tut, blazing an angry frown all of a sudden. “You almost made us say it three times between us! Don’t!”
I spat on the floorboards, trying to wash away a taste that was not a taste, a phantom sensation of something wet and wriggling and rancid. The bioreactor in my abdomen suddenly spiked its power output, thrumming hard in my gut, purging an invader that I’d accidentally invited inside, merely by speaking a word. For a few seconds my skin burned fever-hot and a flash sweat broke out beneath my clothes. But the bioreactor did its job, fuelling impossible processes, churning out pneuma-somatic approximations of macrophages and eosinophils to surge through my bloodstream and fight off the infection. The fever passed and I straightened up, panting and blinking, wiping sweat off my face.
Saldis was still frowning at me, like I’d done something wrong, hands on her hips inside her sphere-machine.
“You could have warned me,” I spluttered.
She shrugged. “I did! Don’t say Ha- … that name three times. It’s obvious, it should feel obvious. Besides, it’s common knowledge. I thought you had a little mage or two among your comrades, didn’t you? The blonde one with the terrible attitude and the dangerous eyes?”
Dangerous eyes? I filed that one away for later.
“Yes, okay. I get the picture.” I spat on the floorboards again, though I had regained enough composure to once again feel the pressures of being a goody-two-shoes, so I turned and hid the gesture behind one hand.
“I wouldn’t want to invoke that aspect of the King of Yellow even if I was completely inert at the time.” Saldis was saying. She gestured up with both hands at the inside of her grey sphere-machine. “Best not speak of the devil, yes?”
“Oh, this bodes really well for meeting him,” I muttered.
All I’d done was speak the name of one of the King’s masks, but if I had still been mere ape, without my pneuma-somatic additions and changes, without my abdominal reactor and my adaptive biology, what would have happened to me just then? My hands were still shaking with adrenaline and my t-shirt was plastered to my back with sweat. Whatever assault I’d just come under, my body had awakened to a real fight, not just brushed off a lazy exploratory tentacle.
Sevens’ father, once something like us, great playwright and director, patriarch and monarch — whatever the King in Yellow was, first and foremost he was an Outsider god. Like the Eye.
I forced myself to take a deep breath; I had no other choice, except to give up, lie down, and die. I’d faced the Eye, I could face this.
“It’s all right for you inside your shell,” I said to Saldis, transmuting my terror into flippant grumpiness; I finally understood why Evelyn did this all the time. “The rest of us can’t simply retract our necks and hide from consequences.”
Contrary to my expectations, Saldis got all smug when I said that. “As a lifestyle, I highly recommend it,” she purred.
I frowned at her, distracting myself with a silly thought. “Saldis, are you a snail?”
“ … excuse me?”
“You’re sort of like a human snail, aren’t you? I mean it seriously, I’m not trying to insult you. Since I last saw you, I have had some experience with how mages can eventually end up. You’re a human core inside a some kind of mage snail-shell. Aren’t you?”
Saldis’ expression went through a fascinating slow-motion change, growing more and more disgusted with every second of contemplation. She looked away, out at the library, then at the pair of big black rats in her lap who were happily rolling on their backs. She cleared her throat, expression getting even worse as she twisted her lips together. “Well … I … that is to say … I … ”
“I’m right, aren’t I?”
“No. Maybe. No, no! Absolutely not. I will not accept that description. A snail?!”
“You do carry your home on your back.”
“Look, Saldis,” I said, seizing the opportunity while she was off balance. “I’m not worried about the King in Yellow punishing me for seducing his daughter, that would be absurd. I’m worried about the vast gulf between what I am and what he is. Do you understand? How can I possibly communicate with something like that?”
Saldis tutted, still faintly offended. “You communicate with Seven-Shades, do you not? Well enough for her to fall for you. The trick is to speak clearly. And listen carefully when spoken to.”
I sighed and ran a hand over my face, followed by a tentacle. I really didn’t have a choice; if things took a turn for the worst, I could always Slip out, back to the quiet plain, assuming the King couldn’t stop me. I glanced over my shoulder at the forest-pattern knight still standing silent and unmoving.
“Are you willing to walk into this with me?” I asked him softly.
His helmet went up and down, just a single jerk of his chin. I nodded back and curled a tentacle-tip around his empty gauntlet. At least I had one normal companion out there. That thought made me puff out a breath of dark laughter — a pneuma-somatic spirit given real flesh and piloting a suit of Outsider steel now counted not only as a comrade, but normal compared to the surroundings. He was as far out of his element here as I was.
“Saldis, okay, so, the palace. How do I get to—”
But as I turned back to Saldis, I noticed we’d attracted an audience.
A single squid-faced librarian stood in one of the gaps between two bookcases, as if it had just walked around the corner, turned, and stopped. It was totally motionless, grey hands tucked into its sleeves, face-tentacles slack. Despite the lack of sensory organs in its eyeless grey face of tentacles and spines, I felt like I was being watched, intently, by something of great intelligence.
Saldis leaned forward out of her pilot seat to follow the direction of my shock. Her rats clung to her skirts with their little claws.
“Oh,” she went, raising her eyebrows. “That’s unexpected. I wonder what it wants.”
“Um,” I said. “That’s new behaviour. Saldis, the last time we saw unorthodox behaviour from these things, it was very bad. And that’s an understatement.”
My tentacles drifted upward as if to defend myself from attack, but the librarian just stood there, perfectly still. In a sudden blur of metal, the forest-knight swung past me, unlimbering his axe from his shoulder in one smooth motion and dropping the haft down into a two-handed fighting stance. His footsteps hit the floorboards without a sound.
“No!” I squeaked, shooting out one tentacle to grab him by the elbow.
He stopped right away. If he’d pulled, I doubted I could have restrained him.
“Don’t antagonise them,” I said softly. “Don’t make it worse.”
The librarian hadn’t even flinched.
“Mmm.” Saldis pursed her lips. “I suspect the content of our deliberations has attracted attention, but not from the catalogue — it wouldn’t care. Somebody’s taken an interest, somebody with enough authority to personally hijack a librarian. Hello there!” She waved her fingers at the insensate squid-faced puppet, but it didn’t react, so she sighed and shrugged and sat back, winking at me instead. “Best you not stick around in this spot much longer, yes? If you’ve drawn attention, the family’s already onto you. Best get to somewhere nice and official with lots of witnesses.” Then she nodded at the forest-patterned knight, her voice turning to a flirtatious purr. “Your big fellow there is quite the eager one, isn’t he?”
I tore my eyes away from the grey librarian with some difficulty, heart pounding in my chest. What exactly was watching us? I told myself I was better off not knowing.
“Maybe we were talking too loud in the library,” I muttered, then hiccuped out a strangled laugh.
“Nothing,” I said, rallying my thoughts. “I can’t stay here, yes. Saldis, how do I reach the palace? You mentioned the front of the library, but as far as I can tell the library is infinite in three directions. Where do I go?”
“Not infinite!” Saldis sighed like I was small child failing to add two and two. “Oh, little Englisher, nothing is infinite. Not even my appetites.” She cracked a terrible smile and let out a cackle, her eyes travelling up and down the forest-knight’s armour without guile. Even the rats appeared to cringe. “The library has a front entrance, of course. How else would anybody get in? Well, present company excepted.” She gestured at me.
“Yes, but how can I reach it?”
“ … you walk there, with your little feets on the ends of your little leggies. How else? Perhaps your chap there can carry you.” She nodded at the knight. “Wouldn’t mind that myself.”
I tried very hard not to kill her with my eyes. “I need to get back today. Tonight. I don’t even know how many hours have passed since I left. I was asleep on the floor, for crying out loud!” I snapped, losing control of my anger and fear again, trying not to think about Raine and Evelyn and Lozzie, shooting an angry glance at the silent, watching librarian. “And I’m ravenously hungry. I don’t know about your bloody hamster ball, Saldis, but I cannot walk for three months or three years until we find the front door.”
Saldis raised an eyebrow, delicately offended. She even folded her arms, which messed up the perfect lines of her golden-embroidered red dress.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m … I’m sorry. None of this is your fault,” I forced myself to say. “I apologise for snapping.”
“Quite understandable, Lady Morell.”
“Saldis, how did you get here from the front—”
But when I opened my eyes I choked off my words and did a double take — our single watching squid-faced librarian had brought some friends. Now three of them stood in the gap between the bookshelves, shoulder to shoulder in perfect stillness. Several more ragged grey-robed figures were drifting in behind them.
Saldis leaned forward to follow my gaze again, then froze.
“Ah,” she said, voice suddenly tight. “Faster escalation than I expected.”
“There’s more,” I said with a quiver in my voice.
I pointed left, at the opposite exit from the little library clearing. Another pair of grey librarians stood there, as if blocking a potential retreat, slowly being joined by more shuffling down the bookcase rows. I looked over my shoulder at the direction from which I had entered the clearing and found a further four squid-faces staring back at me in silent regard, a small crowd beginning to gather behind.
One of the librarians took a shuffling, zombie-like step forward, bare grey feet edging into the clearing. Then another did the same. Then a third. The first trickle of an avalanche began to converge toward Saldis and me.
The forest-knight adjusted his footing, drawing closer to my back and levelling his axe to protect me. He crowded me toward the sphere-machine, the only retreat still available, though it led us nowhere. My stomach clenched up hard, my skin broke out in cold sweat, and — damn the consequences, I thought — I narrowly ignored the urge to slip the squid-skull back over my head.
Saldis and I looked at each other.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“It means you have attracted more attention than I thought,” Saldis said quickly, all her amusement gone, very focused all of a sudden. “The catalogue is gathering numbers. You have become an object of some interest, Lady Morell.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t the catalogue?”
She shrugged. “None of us are totally infallible, despite very good track records. I was wrong. Wrong! Ahaha, wrong!” She laughed, and I did not like the edge of hysteria in her voice. “The issue of leaving in a hurry is becoming rather pressing, no?” She sat back in her machine and ran her eyes over the unfolded entrance.
“Don’t you hide in your shell!” I snapped at her.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” All around us, more librarians were beginning to shuffle into the clearing. A ring was forming, centred on me and Saldis. “Besides, it’s not I who has to worry. Observe.”
Saldis’ sphere-machine suddenly backed up from me by about six feet, clicking across the floorboards in its strange rolling locomotion, the grey blocks flowing over the outer surface without disturbing the interior. It looked as if Saldis and her pilot seat were suspended by a gyroscope. When she reached the desired safe distance, the machine stopped and Saldis peered out of the opening in the front, nodding at the slowly tightening ring of librarians.
“See?” she asked brightly.
Several of the shuffling grey figures adjusted course — toward her.
Her smile died and her eyes went wide. She sat back quickly in her pilot seat, staring at me, her pair of black rats nuzzling into her lap, trying to hide.
“I am supposed to be invisible to them, to a degree,” she said, but I sensed she wasn’t really talking to me. “But I’m not. Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear, no no no, we can’t have this. I’m afraid I may have to break my promise to you, Lady Morell, I may have to crawl back into my snail shell and see you when this is all over. I do wish you the—”
“Saldis!” I snapped at her, more irritated than afraid. “Don’t you dare! I’ll never—”
“—the best of luck with surviving. Perhaps you can translocate yourself out for a few hours until they lose interest, no? Well, best of—”
“Oh, fine!” I huffed. I suppose she had a point — she was willing to help, but not risk her life. I rolled my eyes and prepared to leave.
The voice came from the crowding ring of squid-faced librarians, a low rumble of wet meat like an open wound used as a mouth.
Saldis froze and stopped talking, face gone white as ash. We stared at each other for a split second, then both turned together, she all but clambering out of her shell to get a better look. The rats swung from the front of her dress, scrambling up to perch on her shoulders.
The ring of squid-faced librarians was drawing closer — and their robes were bulging and twitching with awful life beneath. Hummocks and humps and writhings stirred the fabric. As we watched in horror, the motions began to part the ragged grey down the middle, first on one librarian, then another, then a third, like insects ripping free from spent cocoons.
“Has … turrr?”
The voice came from among the crowd, from twenty hidden mouths ripped in grey flesh.
“Hastur,” one of them gurgled.
Third time’s the charm.
The closest librarian suddenly twitched and convulsed as a yellow tentacle poured out from between the gap in its robes. Slow as rancid honey, the colour of old pus, about as thick as a baby’s arm, the tentacle twisted in the air like a newborn creature tasting reality for the first time, clumsy and awkward. Its surface flowed with protoplasmic change, as if trying to sprout suckers and claws and sensory organs. Another tentacle joined it, then another. The librarian fell over in a heap on the floorboards, writhing and jerking as its body was given over entirely to the parasite.
A second librarian fell too, yellow tentacles bursting forth like the petals of a flower rooted in a corpse. A third went down the same way, lashing at the floor, though at the back of the crowd I saw the spell weaken and break. The rearmost librarians were scattering and running now that the unseen presence had manifested in the sacrificial flesh of their comrades.
Had I brought this parasite here, when I spoke the name and purged the infection from my own body?
The tentacles did not reach for us right away, but found each other first, touching and groping like mating slugs, then binding together into one flesh, melting into each other and becoming one. The host bodies of the fallen librarians were rapidly consumed with yellow rot, their own flesh donated to the growing mass in front of us, ringing us, all around us.
The air tasted like fungus and sulphur, making me cough. My eyes stung. A whine beyond human hearing made the inside of my head hurt.
And the rest of the possessed librarians were still shuffling toward us.
Without hesitation, I slipped the squid-skull over my head, taking refuge inside the bone-metal. My eyes stopping stinging and my breath cleared instantly. The forest-knight pushed me back toward Saldis, axe levelled, nowhere to go.
Saldis sat back, took a sharp breath, slapped herself twice on both cheeks, and snapped her attention to me, speaking very fast. “Let’s stop beating around the bush, Lady Morell. Heather? Can I call you Heather?”
“Obviously!” I squeaked. “But this is hardly the time to—”
“Can you use your powers of travelling without moving to take us both straight to the library entrance?”
“Us? But-” I cast a glance at the tentacles and the librarians, the closing ring. Some of the limbs were taller than the bookcases now, their flesh flowing like candle wax. “You want to come with me?”
She clapped her hands together with a frozen smile. “I would be delighted to accompany you all the way to an audience with the King, as long as it is away from this spot. And quickly.”
“Right, okay, but I can’t just take us straight to the entrance, because I’ve never been there. I don’t know what it looks like, where it is, anything about it.”
“I have been there! Once, when I arrived,” Saldis announced quickly, hands grasping the air in front of her. “Is that enough to work with? If not, anywhere else is acceptable too!”
“I … I have no idea.”
Saldis shrugged, a rather fatalistic smile on her lips. The rats clung to her shoulders. “Well, we can give it a shot, or I can close up and run like hell.” She waved a hand at the tightening ring of librarians and their strange yellow parasites, the former still shuffling closer and the latter waving in the air like strange carnivorous plants. The bookcases of the clearing were barely visible between grey and yellow now, but our would-be captors were still just beyond range of the forest-knight’s axe. I suspected he was more than capable of defending me against the librarians themselves, but not against whatever was riding them. The growing mass of yellow flesh could simply have engulfed him, axe and armour and all.
“I … I think I can slingshot us back out of the library and to the entrance.” I hiccuped. “If … if I can sort of … process the history of everywhere you’ve been. Maybe! Oh, actually, I have no idea if I can do that, I’m hungry and exhausted and we’re running out of time and we need to—”
“Well! Hurry up, then! Do it!” Saldis said. “I’m assuming I’m going to need to close up my front here anyway. I don’t want to be dragged unprotected through whatever medium you use. Yes?”
“Yes, yes. Keep your eyes closed, at least!” I nodded, stepping closer to her sphere-machine and touching it with hand and tentacle alike. Behind me, the forest-knight clapped a hand on my shoulder, anchoring himself, ready for the Slip. “Go ahead, seal up- no, wait!”
Saldis blinked at me as the blocks of matte grey began to move. They paused mid-flow.
“What about your rat?” I asked. “The one you sent after Sevens? We can’t leave him behind!”
“Mótsognir? Oh, he’ll be fine.” Saldis waved a both hands. “He’ll find his own way back to me, he always does!”
The rats on her shoulders bobbed their heads in agreement. The blocks started to flow closed again.
“Saldis, this isn’t going to work!” I squeaked. Several of my tentacles flew forward to hook the edges of the grey blocks, like grabbing a door before it closed. The blocks stopped again and Saldis gave me a deeply impatient, wide-eyed, almost panicked look. “In the best of times I could do this, but I need something to go on. Somewhere to go! I don’t know the location, and if I get this wrong I could pass out and we’ll both be stuck here, with this.”
Behind me, a great swish of parting air heralded the forest-knight swinging his axe one-handed. I cringed and braced for terrible violence, whirling to look, tentacles ready to defend myself against the press of grey bodies and explosion of parasitic yellow. But he had only brought the axe down horizontal, pointed at the chest of the nearest librarian. It didn’t react in the slightest, beginning to press itself against the head of the axe like a puppet being walked into a wall, blind and unfeeling. Then it twitched and a tentacle eased out from between splitting robes. The knight brought the axe back, ready to strike.
“I can gift you a memory,” Saldis said, in the exact tone of somebody offering to break all my bones.
I spun back to her. “You can? Is it dangerous?”
“No, it’s just … intimate.” She huffed and leaned forward in her seat, toward me, though her eyes scanned past my shoulders in wide and unconcealed fear. “But circumstances leave us no choice. If your fiancee has a problem with this, well, she can only blame herself for leaving us to deal with her father’s wrath.” Saldis focused on me and brought a hand level with my cheek, as if to cup my face. “You have to consent, understand? And take that mask off, quickly now!”
“Oh. C-consent?” Even in the grip of a crisis I felt myself blush, but I fumbled the mask off and back into a cradle of my tentacles. My eyes watered in the open air and my bioreactor spun up, fighting off unseen pathogens.
Saldis leaned all the way out of her machine and brought her face to within twelve inches of my own; no matter how irritating and egotistical, she was a strikingly beautiful woman, with full red lips now gently parting before me, her hand about to brush my cheek. My heart skipped more than a beat and I found myself frozen to the spot. What did she mean by intimate? Was she going to kiss her memory into me?
“T-This is too silly, you can’t be serious,” I said. “Stop joking!”
“This is a an emergency, Lady Morell,” she said quickly, husky and low. “Give me your consent and allow me to touch your face.”
I steeled myself. We had to get out of here. I had to find Lozzie, I had to beat the hands, I had to get back home. I would have slept with Saldis if that’s what it took; I didn’t for a second believe she had engineered this to trick me. I swallowed on a very dry throat.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, do it. Yes, quick!”
“Best close your eyes, too,” she whispered. “Works better that way.”
I closed my eyes, heart slamming inside my ribs, fear crawling up my spine. Behind me, the forest-knight pressed against my back, retreating further from the ring of waving yellow tentacles. I heard another three thumps of limp bodies as librarians went down, followed by the slick wet curl of fresh-born tentacles throbbing into the air to join the rest.
Lips parted, blushing red as a tomato, I was braced for an emergency kiss.
Saldis slapped me across the cheek so hard she drew blood.
“Uuhhh.” I grunted and spluttered, blinking watering eyes and clutching my stinging face, the taste of fresh blood in my mouth again. I would have gone spinning to the floor if it wasn’t for my tentacles anchoring me to the sphere-machine, as well as Saldis’ own firm grip on my shoulder. “Ow!”
Saldis’ face filled my vision, eyes blazing wide. “Did it work?” she demanded.
“I- um- uh-” The slap had knocked my thoughts sideways, like a hard reboot of a computer by ripping the plug out of the wall and jamming it back in again.
“The library entrance!” Saldis raised her voice in the manner of speaking to an elderly person who had refused to use their hearing aid. She shook my shoulder, rattling me back and forth. “The entrance, Lady Morell! Can you picture the entrance?”
“You- you just slapped me, that didn’t do—”
An image burst into my mind, fully-formed and too detailed, more like a frame from a movie than a memory, the edges too sharp, the colours too saturated, the scents too real, the taste of the air in my mouth and nose. The library entrance, a dark wooden archway, inserted into my own mind.
“ … yes!” I said, blinking in shock. “Yes, I do! I can!”
Behind me, the forest-knight’s axe suddenly broke the air, slamming through meat with a wet sound of shattering bone. I flinched in surprise, my stomach turning over at the worse sound that followed — tentacles slapping against metal.
“Then get us there!” Saldis shouted. The grey blocks of her machine rolled shut, sealing her inside like a mollusk in its shell. I only pulled my tentacles out of the way at the last second, heart hammering in my ribs as I dared a glance back over my shoulder.
The nearest of the fallen librarians had sprouted a clutch of yellow tentacles too, and these were tangled with the knight’s axe as if trying to pull it from his grip. One of the thick yellow tendrils whirled around as if to point at me, waving in the air like a cobra rearing to strike.
I hissed at it. Long and loud.
Spitting a little blood, I placed one hand on the rough grey surface of Saldis’ machine, made sure the knight was still gripping my shoulder, and closed my eyes.
The familiar old equation spooled free like loose magnetic tape, burning through the flesh of my hands as I desperately wrapped it tight around the false, foreign, unfamiliar memory, as I looped and knotted and pulled it tight, anchored it hard, and let go.
In the last second of consciousness before reality folded up, I felt an extra, unexpected weight along with Saldis and the Knight.
Those yellow tentacles were anchored to me, through the knight, through the axe they were wrapped around, through the librarian flesh they were using as a vehicle for physical manifestation, all the way back to whatever Hastur was.
I had a feeling I was already meeting the King in Yellow; perhaps he was not best pleased with his daughter’s choice of partner.
The Library collapsed.
Out I went, with an unwanted passenger.