any mortal thing – 14.13

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I thought I’d grown accustomed to rough landings; seven months ago I’d forced myself through a baptism of fire with my first intentional return from Outside, only minutes after I’d accepted self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics — I’d rescued Evelyn from her ill-considered trip and I’d had to complete the equation with her clinging to me for dear life. Since then I had become intimately familiar with the pain and the nausea and the disorientation that came with each Slip, with each crash through the membrane, each shunt to Outside, each stomach-churning drop through the hidden trapdoor in reality’s stage.

But our arrival on the book-strewn floor of the library canyon was so bad that I ought to have invented a new classification. A category six hurricane of mess, panic, confusion, and pain.

Technically we didn’t cross the membrane. We didn’t so much as brush against it. The equation I’d crafted was like a gravity-well slingshot, balling us up in a package of mathematics and swinging us around the fulcrum of the quiet plain, without ever touching down. I had aimed us back toward the Library of Carcosa, straight at the memory Saldis had slapped into my brain.

Under pressure, I’d taught myself how to teleport. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”, but I’ve come to believe that a good dash of fear can sometimes help things along.

Unfortunately, the source of that motivation had hitched a ride.

Hastur had come with us.

We crashed down like a starship breaking apart under atmospheric stress, onto the polished wooden floor, tumbling among the book-drifts at the bottom of the library canyon — myself, Saldis in her sphere-shell, Lozzie’s forest-pattern knight, and our unwanted, uninvited, insistent stowaway.

For several vital seconds, all was blood and pain and noise. My head throbbed like a struck gong and my vision blurred with hypotension and stabs of white-hot agony, turning the heaps and hills of discarded books on the library floor into a shadow-puppet play of whirling darkness and clawing gloom. My feet slipped on loose tomes, I let go of Saldis’ sphere, and doubled up to spit stringy bile onto the floor. Without my tentacles braced against the ground, I would have crumpled and fallen on my face.

My heart slammed into my ribs like a dying bird and my body dumped another round of adrenaline into my bloodstream, because I knew we weren’t out of the woods yet.

The knight had let go of me, he couldn’t spare a hand to help me up; the most awful, wet, slick, sulfurous sounds were slapping against his armour. Then a heavy swish made me flinch — his axe parting the air — followed by a noise like rotten meat exploding under pressure.

I couldn’t afford to pass out or lie down. I couldn’t even afford five seconds bent double with my hands on my knees.

With effort I hadn’t thought myself capable of, I reeled upright, arms clutched around my own chest as if to keep my organs inside, tentacles flailing to catch myself.

My blurred vision took in everything at once; the gloomy glow of distant witch-light over the head-height drifts of discarded and ruined books, more tomes slipping and sliding underfoot; Saldis’ grey sphere-machine, still closed up tight and rolling to bump against a book-drift — not flowing on its strange mechanical blocks, but actually rolling, as if inert and abandoned, as if the Slip had knocked her unconscious and insensible; I think I screamed her name for help, but I may as well have screamed at a ball of concrete.

On my other side, the forest-knight was doing battle with Hastur — whatever Hastur was.

By either a miracle of luck or a limitation of the hyperdimensional equation, I had not dragged the entire ring of expanding yellow flesh along behind us. Only two of the parasitised librarian corpses had made the transition. They lay in a rapidly yellowing heap on the side of a book-drift about seven feet away from the Knight, their dead bodies at the core of a seed-bed, a thick layer of soupy flesh like rotting mustard, about the size of a small car, from which emerged a whirling mass of pus-coloured tentacles.

That bed of yellow flesh had been neatly severed by two curved arcs, bisected by the edges of my hyperdimensional teleport. A steaming mess of fluids and tissues and vaguely organ-shaped wet masses were spilling out onto the library floor from those massive wounds, the colour of rotten lemons. It reminded me of a slice of lasagna, or one of those terrible microwave pastries that Raine sometimes ate, with the filling overflowing from the sides. The comparison turned my stomach. The internal goop was staining and ruining the books even as the substance rapidly hardened and began to sprout the stubs of fresh tentacles, like a self-cauterising sample of giant carrion mollusk.

Each live tentacle was smooth and thickly muscled, the colour of old bone and rancid butter. Trying to focus on them made my eyes ache — they seemed to exist in more than the physical dimension, leaving behind after-images and ghostly outlines as they lashed and whipped at the air, as if each tentacle was the sum of all the different positions it might occupy in space. They trailed visible spores of twinkling gold and little clouds of fungal gas; the air was beginning to stink of sulphur again.

The knight had severed two tentacles with his war-axe. Their shrivelling remains lay at his feet, twisting and shrinking and smoking.

But that was all he’d managed. Several tentacles clutched hard around the head and haft of his axe, trying to rip it from his grip.

As I gaped in wordless panic, another three tentacles shot out like attacks from a hunting squid. Two of them bounced off the knight’s armour with the ring of star-steel plate, turned away by some Outsider property that Lozzie had woven into the metal.

But the third struck true, found purchase on the knight’s helmet, and began to squeeze. Loops of tentacle dropped around his chest plate and abdomen too, exploiting the opening. I heard metal creak and groan under sudden pressure.

The knight tried to pull back, to free his axe — and to protect me from a pair of tentacles sneaking around his side — but Hastur’s hands were much stronger than their slender appearance suggested. To my horror, hairline cracks began to open between the plates of the knight’s armour, separating under the massive external pressure. The flesh-blob of ascended pneuma-somatic kami inside was losing the tug of war.

The King in Yellow would not be denied by strength, not here, not clothed in this mask.

Hastur may not have understood the lack of a skull to crush inside that helmet, the lack of ribcage to shatter and heart to shred, but once the armour was breached, my wonderful little protector would be exposed, not only to the King’s wrath, but to the yellow spores in the air, the rotten-lemon virions, the fungus and sulphur stench. Saldis had her shell and I had my bioreactor, but the Knight — the true knight inside the armour, a scrap of flesh and faith that I personally owed — did not possess those advantages.

I hadn’t realised, earlier that day, back in the quiet plain, just how vulnerable and soft the knights had chosen to be, by becoming flesh.

They had agreed in some Lozzie-dreamt ritual to risk themselves for a greater principle.

And the forest-knight, right then, was about to die for that principle. For me.

With an instinctive flick more thought than muscle, I slammed all the remaining biochemical control rods out of my trilobe reactor. A gasp ripped from my throat as pure energy flooded my veins, sluiced through my heart, and soaked my brain until I was quivering from head to toe. It felt like how I imagined taking a huge snort of cocaine might feel.

Sharp and aware and running red-hot, I moved. Two of my tentacles slipped my squid-skull helmet back over my face, though my nose was running freely with blood. On shaking legs I threw myself out from behind the knight, out into the open, arms and tentacles spread wide, teeth gritted and bared and eyes bulging with more than just adrenaline.

“Get off him!” I shouted.

Well, I tried to shout that. I actually just hissed at the top of my lungs, a long, warbling sound that should not have come from any human throat.

To my surprise — and horrified dismay — the writhing mass of yellow tentacles, the Outsider fungal parasite, Hastur, whatever it was, obeyed.

In a flash of motion the tentacles were off the knight and into the air, so fast that the poor forest-knight stumbled, metal boots clanking against the floorboard and slipping in the discarded books. The whipping, slopping, dripping fronds of yellow death turned to point at me instead.

I hissed again, intentionally this time, long and loud, though muffled by the library’s enforced quiet. Arms wide, tentacles splayed, making myself look big. I shook from scalp to toes with adrenaline and fear and substances that had no place in a proper human bloodstream.

Hastur was most certainly not intimidated.

The writhing array of yellow tentacles bobbed to the left, then to the right, always pointing at me, as if each one were tipped by an eyeball. The seed bed at their conjoined roots continued to expand, like slime mold crossed with comedy foam, flowing over the books and dissolving their pages, soaking into the floorboards, sprouting little wriggling nubs of new tentacles. My face and hands itched as the air was flooded with fungal stink; my throat began to burn and sweat broke out all over my skin as my body fought off the unseen pathogen.

Lozzie’s forest-knight hefted his axe and took two steps sideways, to stand at my shoulder. A right-hand man. But I was in charge now.

I hiccuped, loudly. The yellow tentacles flinched.

“Saldis?” I hissed through my teeth, unwilling to take my eyes off the tentacles. They were locked onto me, mesmerised and awaiting a signal, like a snake pit full of charmed cobras. “Saldis, wake up, please! What do I do?”

Saldis’ sphere-machine lay inert.

A mad notion entered my mind, but it made sense. This was no tentacle beast, no animal, no cosmic child. This was a tiny piece of a being similar to the Eye. It was the King in Yellow, no matter how convincingly masked or how little I had severed from the greater mass. This was a monarch.

Slowly, shaking and caked in sweat, I lowered my tentacles and my arms. I pinched the hem of my pink hoodie between thumb and forefinger, bowed my head, bent my knees, and did the best approximation I could of a curtsy.

“I request an audience with the King in Yellow,” I croaked out through blood-splattered lips. “By … by the gift your daughter has given to me.”

I tilted one shoulder forward, trying to show the skin-warm, sun-yellow cloak which I still couldn’t touch.

“I claim no position or right by this,” I babbled, making it up as I went along. Thank goodness for reading enough trashy fantasy in my teenage years to just spout this off the top of my head. “I only ask to be allowed to approach your majesty and speak a few words. If we gave offence or incited alarm, I apologise with all my heart and beg forgiveness, for the sake of your daughter, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.”

I swallowed another hiccup and raised my eyes. The tentacles were holding still in the air, pointed at me like a clutch of curious serpents trying to hypnotise a mouse, dripping thick yellow globs of venom and fungal matter that dissipated into wisps of toxic yellow gas before they hit the floor, filling the air with stinging fumes which made my eyes water.

“Please?” I added.

Hastur waited, but I had nothing more to say.

“Oh, fine!” I spat, another hiss rising in my throat. I braced for impact, whirled my tentacles in a protective wall, and began the difficult, painful work of flushing my skin with neurotoxin and poison and antimycotic agents, a hyperdimensional equation brewing in the back of my mind. “If that’s not good enough for you, then you’re a terrible father to Sevens. Stand aside or fight me. You might win but I’ll burn going down and ruin your digestive tract on the way out.”

And with that, the dripping yellow mass collapsed.

The pustulent tentacles shrivelled up in the blink of an eye, turning brown and wrinkled like dead fruit, slumping to the floor. The sudden rot carried back down their trunks and into the thick mat of muscular yellow meat, which shrank and dried and went grey in seconds. Its corners peeled up from the books like a salted slug. A faint wisp of clean white steam rose and vanished into the dark library air. The invasive fungal scent ebbed away to nothing; my face and hands and throat stopped itching and my fever broke. In seconds, Hastur was gone, replaced with a grey mass of spent ash and desiccated flesh, with a pair of skeletal librarian corpses lying at its core.

Silence returned to the library, broken by the racing of my own heart.

“Oh … kay?” I managed, croaking and coughing, my body still wired tight, ready for fight or flight. I hadn’t expected my little outburst to work, and I couldn’t believe my eyes as I stared at the dried grey mess on the floor. My hands were shaking with uncontrollable nervous energy, my tentacles were bunched like fists, and I couldn’t stop heaving for breath.

My vision began to blur and warp at the edges and a strange detachment crept up from the black pool of my subconscious. All dressed up with nowhere to go.

With the delicate care of a lover attending to one’s own body, I slid the biochemical control rods back into my trilobe reactor, narrowly avoiding the start of burnout. It was like clenching and relaxing muscles inside one’s own abdomen in a specific sequence; I felt the power inside me spike, which tore a gasp and a twitch and quiver from me, my knees buckling. But then I slammed all except three of the control rods home, letting out an involuntary keening noise through my teeth, a panting wail. For a long moment I just hunched up, sweating and shaking, guarded by the forest-knight, hugging myself through the strange afterglow.

Eventually I felt coherent enough to straighten up again, though I was still panting softly inside the squid mask. I took that off again so I could wipe the sweat and blood off my face with both hands, then wiped those on my sleeves, despairing for the state of my once-beautiful pink hoodie.

“You don’t suppose he liked my defiance?” I asked the knight in a dry croak, waving a tentacle at Hastur’s vacated manifestation. “Earned his respect?”

The knight did not answer. He just shouldered his axe.

I took a deep breath, stuck my tongue out at the taste of blood and bile in my throat, despairing at the lack of water to wash it away, then made sure my legs worked before I went to see if Saldis had finished her nap.

Her sphere-machine lay where it had rolled, leaning against a book-drift. Previously, each individual grey block which formed the exterior of the sphere had always been vertical, no matter how far or fast the machine had rolled, or what Saldis had been up to on the inside. But now the blocks were all at an angle, like a capsized ship.

“Saldis?” I said out loud. “Oh, come on, I’m too tired for this. Wake up.”

I slapped the machine with a tentacle. Nothing happened, so I hit it harder, like hammering on a door.

“The Slip better not have killed you,” I muttered. “And you better not be playing dead.”

Despite my flippant words, a seed of doubt germinated in my belly. What if I had killed Saldis by accident? I had no particular love for her, but she wasn’t my enemy. Such a senseless death would be a tragedy, my fault, a terrible thing to have done. And I would be without a guide again.

“Come on, little miss snail, get up.”

An idea struck me — what if she was less snail and more tortoise?

I readied three tentacles and tried to heave her machine off the book-drift, planting both feet and putting my back into the motion, but the thing weighed a ton. I lacked the strength to roll it upright. The forest-knight joined me a heartbeat later, free hand on the grey blocks. Between us we righted the machine. As soon as the blocks were vertical to the floor, the sphere suddenly stopped and became oddly weightless, lost all inertia but gained infinite stability; still heaving with all my strength, I blundered into the side and only narrowly avoided cracking my skull open on one of the edges, cushioned by a tentacle.

Before I had even taken a breath and stepped back, the front of the sphere snapped open in fast-forward, peeling back like the lips of a snarling animal.

Saldis emerged in a blur, her red and gold dress like a bleeding, jewelled tongue lashing out from the core of her machine. She planted one bare foot on the lip of the opening, the other back in her pilot seat, eyes blazing, braids swept back, and held both hands aloft with her soft sleeves fallen back to her elbows. Exactly the sort of pose I would imagine for a wizard in a silly fantasy novel, ready to cast a fireball at her foes — if it wasn’t for all the blood.

Her hands and forearms were split open in twin twisting spirals of exposed muscle and bone flowing like wax, her flesh itself forming a sigil ready to rend the surface of reality. The effect made my eyes hurt and sent a spike of pain directly into the centre of my head.

“Ahhh, ow,” I hissed, stumbling back.

Fessi dottir nordursins mun ekki finnast vant!” She was howling like a banshee. “Ekki af neinum gudi- oh,” she suddenly cut off. “Oh my. Oh dear.” She cleared her throat. “Have I missed it? I’ve missed the entire thing! No!”

“Could you put those away, please?” I said, still squinting and shielding my eyes from her blood-magic.

“What? What? Put what away? Oh!” Saldis gave an awkward little laugh. I heard a sound like a dozen zippers being fastened at once, if zippers were made of meat and bone.

When I looked up again, Saldis was still standing with one foot planted on the lip of her sphere-machine, staring down at the grey, shrivelled mass of Hastur’s manifestation with a bewildered frown on her delicate features.

“And I was all ready for it, too,” she murmured, shaking her head.

“Are you … Saldis, are you all right?”

“Pardon, poppet?” She blinked at me with a look like a woken sleepwalker. “Oh, yes, quite all right. All together and in one piece, that’s what really matters, in the end. In the end, there is no end. Ha ha for me.” She nodded at the dead thing on the floor. “Looks like a very old, very dried out turd, doesn’t it? How undignified. I suppose your travelling without moving trick didn’t bring along enough of him to keep him viable, yes?”

“Oh, no. He was here, very much so. He left of his own volition, though.”

Saldis coughed out a single laugh and then gave a deflating sigh, sagging against her sphere-machine. A surprise crested her delicate features and coffee-brown cheeks — a genuinely warm smile. I hadn’t seen that kind of smile on her face before, resigned and happy at the same time, more human than I had expected from her.

“Well. Well!” she said. “We should count ourselves extremely lucky indeed. And here I was ready to go out in a blaze of glory. Die taking a chunk out of that fellow and I’d get a seat at the head table, alongside Odin himself.”

“In Valhalla? I thought you didn’t believe in any gods.”

“There are no atheists in foxholes, my poppet.” A frown marred her smile, but then she dismissed it with a shrug. “No, I will give that phrase a passing grade. It’s presumptuous but grammatically elegant, although foxhole? Hmmm, I would have words with the inventor of that one.” Saldis plucked one of the pendants from around her neck, an inverted golden hammer, then raised it to her lips and kissed it with savage relish. She nodded at the ashen grey remains again. “Lucky that your strange technique didn’t leave enough of him for a fight then, hmm?”

“Oh, he tried to fight.”

Saldis blinked at me several times. “Oh no, no no, you must be mistaken.”

“No. I’m not.”

“You’re not?” Saldis’ eyes widened.

I shrugged, too exhausted for her awe. “I curtsied and asked for mercy—”

“Oh!” Saldis brightened. “That makes so much more sense—”

“—but he didn’t respond, so I trash talked him.”

“Trash … talked?”

“I told him to go away or fight me properly. And that I’d give him indigestion if he ate me. So he left.”

Saldis stared at me for another heartbeat, mouth open, then started laughing. She laughed long and low and so hard that she cried. She leaned her head against the exterior of her machine and shook all over. I rolled my eyes and clutched at myself, beyond done with this.

“Saldis.”

“I weep!” Saldis reared back up to her full height, one arm thrown wide. “Not only for your audacity, but also for the fact that I missed it!” She wiped tears from her cheeks, then grabbed one of the golden pendants around her neck. With a quick tug she pulled the necklace free and then tossed it in my direction, a flash of bright gold arcing through the air.

I instinctively reached for it with my actual hands, not my tentacles, but fumbled the catch and almost dropped it onto the library floor, slipping on the footing of loose books. “Tch!” I hissed, frustrated and embarrassed. If it weren’t for my tentacles, I would have gone sprawling onto my backside.

“Oh, Lady Morell, you are such a fascinating creature,” Saldis said as I was recovering, huffing and puffing and red in the face. “Look at that, you can barely keep your own feet, yet you face down a destroyer of worlds with nothing but polite insults. Perhaps it’s your English, perhaps the language is simply that toxic.”

I gave her an exhausted look, then examined the pendant she’d tossed to me. It was a thick disk about half the size of my palm, showing an intricately detailed design of a stylised, androgynous face. One eye was an empty, blind socket; the other eye was wide open, blazing with inner light. The necklace portion was made of soft dark leather, but the pendant itself must have been worth a fortune. Real gold, yellow and bright and heavy.

“I … I can’t—”

“You have earned the right, Lady Morell,” Saldis said, with a strange new tone I’d never heard in her voice before, softly reverent. “Keep it. For what little protection it may offer.”

“Saldis, where I come from, this would be worth a staggering amount of money. I can’t just take this.”

Saldis sneered — not at me, but at a formless notion. “Money cannot buy wisdom. Only sacrifice does that. Sell it, give it away, or lose it, and you will find it quickly returned to your hands.”

I frowned at the pendant, then sighed. “All right, thank you. Thank you for the gift. As long as this isn’t another hidden marriage proposal, or any other kind of hidden proposal. Yes?”

Saldis tutted. “Perish the thought! I would never get in the way of a pretender’s romance, I’m not suicidal. Besides, Lady Morell, you are cute as a fawn, but you are not my sort.”

“Well, that’s … ” I cleared my throat, vaguely embarrassed. “Good to know.”

I tucked the pendant away inside the front pocket of my hoodie, out of sight and out of mind, and finally raised my eyes beyond this little clearing between the drifts of discarded books. We were quite close to one towering wall of the library canyon, perhaps only a hundred feet away. The sheer wooden wall rose for sixty feet or more, cloaked in thick shadows and cobwebbed with climbing staircases, before giving way to the first of the library floors. A few clutches of squid-faced librarians peered over the railings up above, but with only their own customary curiosity, not piloted by an Outsider god-parasite. Some of them clutched books, others held those wicked fork-weapons for controlling intruders, but none of them moved toward the staircases.

None of this matched the memory Saldis had slapped into me, but that memory was already fading into a dreamlike haze. All I could picture was a wooden archway.

“I don’t see anything that looks like a front entrance,” I said. “Are we in the right place?”

“Exactly the right place,” Saldis answered, airy and arrogant. She slapped the side of her machine and then slipped back down into her pilot seat, putting her feet up on the open lip. Her two rats appeared from somewhere behind the seat, scrabbling up into her lap and nuzzling at her hands. “And how is that memory I shared with you, Lady Morell?” She asked the question without looking up from her rats. “How is it faring?”

“Mostly faded by now, actually.”

“Good!” she announced. “Good, yes. As it should be. I shall lead the way, have no fear.”

Saldis’ grey sphere-machine turned on the spot and trundled out of the little cove of book-drifts, the blocks ticking against the exposed floorboards where they weren’t cushioned by fallen tomes and loose pages. I shared a wary look with the forest-knight — or at least imagined that he looked back at me with the same level of doubt and trepidation, despite his blank, unseeing helmet — then drew myself up as best I could, gathered my tentacles close to my core, and set off after Saldis.

We didn’t travel far before the front entrance revealed itself. Saldis rounded the corner of the book-drifts and led us toward the library floors, out into a wide open space that was somewhat clearer compared to the hills of books toward the centre of the canyon. Perhaps the librarians stuck close to the walls whenever their cataloguing duties sent them down here.

“There, see?” Saldis said when we were perhaps two hundred meters out from the canyon wall. “Precisely the right place. Just as I remember it.”

As we approached, the front entrance drifted out of the gloom. What had seemed a blank space, hidden deep in the shadows, resolved first into a stretch of wall strangely devoid of staircases for a hundred metres in either direction. But then the darkness deepened, stretched off into a third dimension of distance, and I realised I was staring right into the mouth of a wooden archway built for a giant.

Vertigo gripped me and my feet stumbled to a halt amid the books. That single archway was sixty feet tall and a hundred feet wide, but it was not the size that stopped me — the rest of the Library of Carcosa had already inoculated me against that. Size didn’t matter, but darkness did.

Distant glow-globe light struggled a few feet down the unseen passageway, but beyond that lay a wall of night, a suffocating blanket of subterranean pressure, a nothingness. It was a hallway, a corridor, but I could only see it as a pit.

“Lady Morell?” Saldis drew to a halt and her machine turned to face me.

“We have to go through that?”

Saldis raised her eyebrows, not quite following, but then lit up with a silent, amused oh on her lips. “Fear of the dark is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite natural, quite rational. Very sensible, in fact.”

“There’s nothing natural about that darkness. Is it safe to pass through there? I’m serious, and don’t leave anything out.”

“Safe?” Saldis laughed. “No, absolutely not.”

I blinked. “But you said—”

“I said fear of the dark is very sensible. Did I not?” she tutted. I huffed a sigh and rolled my eyes, but Saldis waved a hand and carried on. “I’ve only passed that way once and I did so with all my hatches firmly battened down. The library does have a receptionist.”

“A … receptionist?”

Saldis huffed and threw her hands up in frustration. The pair of rats in her lap rolled on their backs, as if laughing. “Apparently that’s the best your language can do for the concept. Yes, a receptionist, to screen visitors. But I subverted it. As far as the catalogue system is concerned, I never really arrived. An inert ball rolled in, beneath notice.” She sighed. “Getting out is less trouble than getting in. You won’t have to demonstrate your worthiness to handle the light of knowledge, but you and your bodyguard will require some actual light. Else you are likely to be eaten.”

“Light,” I echoed, staring into that darkness again. “Against that? And that will protect us?”

Saldis nodded.

“But I don’t have a torch, or a … ” I trailed off and rolled my eyes at myself.

Power thrummed from my abdominal reactor as I turned up the rainbow-strobing bio-luminosity in all six of my tentacles. One around each of my legs as bio-mechanical braces, another wrapped around my midsection in a self-hug, another two held aloft like raised torches, and a final one trailing behind me, embracing the knight’s free hand and forearm to keep him close. I slipped the squid-skull mask back on over my head, for whatever protection it might offer in the dark.

“Oh, bravo!” Saldis gave me a little round of applause. I don’t think she was being sarcastic. “Very fetching.”

“I feel like I’m at a rave,” I sighed, blushing with the absurdity of how I must have looked, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Not that I’ve ever been to a rave. Maybe I should ask Raine to take me to one, I’d be very popular like this.”

“You don’t sound very happy about it, Lady Morell.”

“Never mind.” I stomped past her, leading the knight. “The palace is on the other side of this, you’re certain?”

“Quite certain. And past the lake. A short little jaunt, nothing really.”

“And you can’t just slap a memory into me again, have me teleport?”

Saldis drew in a breath between her teeth. “Oh, we’re not in enough danger for that. Not something I want to do more than once. Might have emotional repercussions for you.”

I sighed. “Right. Are we going, then?”

Saldis looked up at the wall of darkness. For a moment she didn’t say anything. I turned to her, expecting a sarcastic comment on her lips, but found instead a strangely contemplative and melancholic look in her eyes, distant and far-away as she stared into the dark. For just a moment, she seemed as old as she must have been.

“Well,” she sighed. “I don’t suppose I’ll be coming back this way soon. Perhaps it’s time I stopped being a pure scholar for a little while.”

“What were you, before?”

Saldis smiled, sharp and dangerous and full of pleasure. “A terror.”

An involuntary shiver went down my spine. I’d spent enough time around real killers and monsters to identify a genuine boast.

“Well, little ones,” Saldis said to the rats in her lap, stroking their heads with her thumbs. “It’s time for a bit of a longer sleep, yes? Nothing to worry about, we’ll be out the other side in no time, and I’m sure your brother will catch up with you soon.”

I glanced back at the forest-knight. “Is it alright for me to take the knight through this?”

“Him?” Saldis ran her eyes up and down the knight. “Oh, certainly. Just have him stay close. Would be such a terrible shame to leave him behind, after all.” She winked at the knight, then licked her lips and wiggled her eyebrows too. “I do so adore the strong and silent type.”

“Saldis, he’s not even humanoid,” I huffed. “The occupant of this armour is a tentacle blob. A dutiful, devoted, sweet tentacle blob,” I added quickly. “The armour is just a shell, he’s like a mollusk inside there.”

Saldis frowned at me like I was saying something mildly offensive. “So? I don’t discriminate. Don’t be a bigot, Lady Morell, it doesn’t become you.”

“That’s not— I mean— oh, fine, never mind.”

“Quite right,” Saldis said, giving me an awkward side-eye.

“Forget I said anything. Let’s just go.”

“Of course,” she said. The grey blocks of her sphere-machine began to close up again, sealing her and her pair of rats inside. “It’s a straight shot to the way out, but it can be a long walk, so I’ll lead. If we run into trouble, I won’t be able to open up, so keep your rainbows flashing.”

I nodded, trying to quiet the fluttering nerves in my belly. Saldis shot me a wink as the front of her machine flowed shut.

As soon as she was sealed inside, the machine resumed trundling toward the vast wooden archway and the thick, cloying darkness within. I swallowed past a growing lump in my throat and forced myself to pick up my feet and follow her, step by shaking step, guiding the knight along behind me.

The archway loomed tall as we approached. Darkness lurked inside, a wall of a stale air. I felt so very small. What a paradox; I had plunged into the abyss, a truly infinite space, and we were currently in the Library of Carcosa, a place so vast the human mind had trouble dealing with it, but here I was, afraid of the dark.

I glanced up as we passed below the wooden archway. Letters as long as I was tall were inscribed on the wood itself, in some long-forgotten or non-human language, an angular alphabet of spikes and spines. I couldn’t read a word of it.

Beyond the letters, leaning down from the floor above, a small group of squid-faced librarians were watching us leave.

I raised a tentacle to wave to them, but none waved in return. The gesture made my rainbow-light waver in the darkness ahead, pushing the black depths back inch by inch. Saldis crossed the threshold first and the gloom swallowed her grey sphere. I followed, hand-in-tentacle with my knight, wrapped in my protective bubble of colour and light as the darkness closed in tight.

==

Darkness.

Complete and total. Not a mote, not a flicker, not a pinprick of light in the void. Darker than the most overcast night on Earth, darker than a mineshaft miles underground, darker than even the abyss. At least out in the abyss the membrane served as a surface, filtering the light of reality to the upper reaches, no matter how crushing the black depths down on the ocean floor; at least out there other creatures occasionally pulsed and sparkled with bioluminescence, or gathered around the heat-glow of geothermal vents, or flared in bright arcs of violence.

In the dark passageway, all suns had gone out.

There was only me, only the light of my six tentacles. The gentle rainbow illumination maintained a soap bubble of fragile light, just enough to see a metre or two of the polished oaken floorboards in every direction, just enough to keep the knight safe as he stuck close to my back, just enough to pick out the rear of Saldis’ sphere as it crept along in front of me.

If this place had walls or a ceiling, they were too far away for sight. Once, I glanced back, past the knight, expecting to see the wooden archway and the distant glow of the library — but the archway had been swallowed by the dark.

No books littered the floor. No dust lay on the tessellated boards. Saldis’ sphere rolled along, but made no sound. Neither did my own footsteps.

We made it perhaps twenty minutes before I started to have a panic attack.

I wasn’t afraid of the dark. Even as a small child, it hadn’t bothered me much — the world is very different when you have a twin whose hand you can always hold in dark places. Maisie and I would always wake the other up if we had to use the toilet in the middle of the night, we’d go together, because nothing and nobody could harm us together. I had one particularly delightful memory — which I’d managed to finally re-embrace, those last six months — of when our parents had taken us out for a walk in the woods a little too late in the day, and we’d both grown nervous and jumpy as the sun had begun to set, casting skeletal shadows through the trees. Of course, we’d been no more than five minutes walk from the car, in the middle of a well-maintained public park, shepherded by our parents, but a little girl’s mind sometimes doesn’t take those factors into account. Maisie and I had each wriggled off a glove — her left, my right — and held hands, skin to skin, walking side by side with the sort of solemn seriousness that only children can. What is there to be afraid of in the dark when there’s two of you?

After Wonderland, there was plenty. I had worse things to be afraid of.

But this was no mere darkness.

As we walked deeper into the passageway leading out of the library, the darkness seemed to thicken around the edges of my fragile bubble of rainbow light. In my peripheral vision I saw the shadows press inward, shaving off the edges of my rainbows, as if testing the resistance of my illumination — but the optical illusion always passed whenever I looked directly at it. I was certain there were silent things moving just beyond the range of my light, vast presences and awarenesses in the black depths, always parting and slithering away before the weak lamps of my tentacles so that I would never see them.

The silence was unbearable. All I could hear was the pounding of my own heart and the hissing of my own breath. As the minutes stretched longer and longer, I began to hear the pump of my own blood in my veins, the tiny gurgles in my stomach, the fluid inside my inner ear, the creak of my muscles and tendons.

My heart hammered faster and faster and cold sweat ran down my back and a weight began to settle on my chest; there was nowhere to turn, no light to be seen, no end to the dark.

We walked through a void. If I turned left or right and lost my way, I might walk forever.

“Sal— Saldis!” I hissed at the rear of her sphere-machine. “Saldis, I need to … ”

To what? All I could do was keep walking. The knight’s hand in my tentacle was cold comfort, but at least he was here with me. I sucked air through a closing throat and hugged myself with a tentacle, drawing my hoodie tighter as if I could shelter from the dark. I eased a control rod out of my bioreactor and turned my tentacles brighter, but it didn’t seem to make any difference to the darkness, did not expand my refuge of light.

The panic attack did not pass, but sapped my energy and my willpower, made me want to curl up and hide. My feet began to drag and my pace slowed as I worked harder and harder just to breathe.

Then, for just a heartbeat, a thin band of gloom separated me from the rear of Saldis’ sphere.

The separation lasted less than a second as I picked up my pace, my blood curdling at the prospect of being left behind. The rear of the grey sphere floated back out of the darkness as I caught up — but suddenly the rainbow illumination at the front of my bubble was swallowed by shadows.

I slammed to a stop as if I’d been about to run off a cliff, the knight stopping with me.

My rainbow bubble was cut off by a straight line of darkness. I took a step back and the illumination returned, like an obstacle had been removed from the front of a torch. It was a wall of darkness, literally, a straight line blocking my way.

Somehow, I could still see the rear of Saldis’ machine, trundling slowly away from me, vanishing into the void.

“Saldis!” I hissed, my voice a scratchy, panicked mess as my chest felt like it was collapsing. “Saldis, stop!”

I slammed a full control rod’s length out of my bioreactor and flooded my tentacles with bioluminescence, but that didn’t help, the wall of darkness did not permit illumination. Saldis’ sphere-machine was finally swallowed by the gloom ahead, leaving me behind.

“Saldis?” I whispered.

She wasn’t coming back.

All around me, the darkness seemed to press in, and this time the effect did not stop when I stared at the edge of my rainbow-light. My bubble of light shrank, rainbow strobing bioluminescence compacted, inch by inch. The knight drew in closer too, huddling inside the safe zone created by my tentacles.

“Oh that’s a stupid trick,” I hissed out at the dark, trying to turn terror into anger even as I was panting and shaking. “How could I possibly see the back of Saldis’ machine if light doesn’t cross this barrier? I’m not stupid. That’s impossible.”

But the darkness wasn’t listening. Hastur may have been moved by defiance and courage, but darkness doesn’t care.

My sphere of safety drew smaller and smaller, no matter how much energy I poured into my tentacles, no matter that I made them blaze until they itched and burned and ached with the effort. The darkness drew in so tight that I started to hunch, that any moment the knight would be swallowed first, and I would follow soon after.

“All right,” I hissed, about to break, terrified out of my mind, clinging to the knight. “All right. You want light? You want to see how much light I can make? Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I jammed my hands down into my own deep, unknowable darkness, into the Eye’s lessons, dredging them from the toxic black tar which stained my soul.

And I found a dozen ways to make an awful lot of light.

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11 thoughts on “any mortal thing – 14.13

    • Ghost pepper magical girl/squid-person. What a delightful notion!

      And thank you for all the votes! It still helps, a very great deal, and I know from the stats that a lot of readers discover the story through TWF.

      Heather sure does seem to have taken to that mask very quickly. Perhaps it feels familiar somehow?

  1. I literally had a girlfriend’s father greet me with a shotgun in hand once, so I don’t know that this meeting went particularly poorly… but it probably could have gone better.

    • Oof, my goodness. Yes, Heather could perhaps have refrained from trash-talking him, but to be fair, he did provoke that. Maybe she’s quietly won his approval though.

  2. “A steaming mess of fluids and tissues and vaguely organ-shaped wet masses were spilling out onto the library floor”

    OK, this a travesty of library vandalism. Hastur should have his library card revoked…but if he really is the king I suppose he will get away with it. Disgusting.

    It’s a good thing Heather followed her desires and embraced her tentacles and abyss-gifts, or she wouldn’t have survived ten minutes here.

    • Heather is going to have stern words about library practice when she meets the king in a form she can actually talk with. Besides, there’s books all over the floor already, it’s a travesty!

      Yes, the Heather of even a couple of months prior would not have made it this far. She’s being tested. Well, by the narrative, at least.

  3. Upgrading from bioluminescence to reality warping for illumination feels like the nuclear option. Although Heather was already relying on a reactor with control rods, so it’s the nuclear option to the nuclear option.

    Definitely fun seeing the way Salis interacts with Heather—our eyechild doesn’t even seem to realize how much the much-older and more knowledgeable mage is treating her like the bigger fish supernatural entity.

    • Literal nuclear option, complete with control rods and a runaway reaction.

      Saldis is perhaps more wary that she is letting on, and has plenty of good reason for it! Even if she’s not wary of Heather, she wouldn’t want to enrage Heather’s yellow friend.

      • I think one of the telling examples is how quickly Saldis has decided Heather will be able to weather dangers than she herself dares only face with the advantage of an extensive pre-prepared defense system fully battened down. One could read this as a kind of indifference, but it really seems to be confidence that her betentacled royal acquaince can and will improvise her way through what lies ahead, without the need for the extensive research Saldis implies she needed.

        Some of that is probably due to Saldis being a little out if touch (doesn’t have a good reference for what an average modern mage knows or is capable of anymore, and she makes a bad benchmark herself) but she’s also got a fair amount of evidence to support that confidence so far.

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