Darkness closed its jaws around me as I scrambled to make light.
The Eye’s lessons presented a dozen methods to bend physics to my will, or break it entirely, or apply it in ways that only worked Outside, far from the watchful constraints of Earth’s reality. I might combust the air itself with an infinite gout of flame, or summon a gigantic arc of electrical discharge, or gather a handful of hydrogen atoms and squeeze them together until their protons began to fuse. Other methods had no Earthly analogue. The Eye’s lessons whispered of ways to light my skin itself with the power of a star, to blaze hot without fire, to cut through darkness with laser and microwave to cook the shadows themselves until they might illuminate the whole planet with the pyre of their death.
But choice was almost my undoing.
Rummaging through the equations already ate up a precious second – I couldn’t do this at the speed of thought, it was all so new and experimental. I keened through clenched teeth as I exposed myself to the toxic corrosion of the Eye’s lessons, head filled with stabbing pain, stomach clenched in desperate desire to purge a sickness from my body. The process took a toll of both pain and time; the former I could endure, the latter I had little left to spend.
My bubble of rainbow bioluminescence was shrinking, my tentacles a flickering ember against the dark, my walls breached and overtopped by a siege of shadows. The forest-knight and I had less than a metre of refuge left. I pressed myself close to his side so that I wouldn’t lose him. Blackness lapped closer and closer to my toes and began to touch the edge of the knight’s other arm.
I threw away another half-second to examine and discard seven, then eight, then nine ways of making light. The hyperdimensional details of each one made me retch and choke.
“None of these will—” I babbled in panic, bloody spittle on my lips.
The hyperdimensional mathematics were undeniable: none of these methods could overcome the dark.
All of them would make light, yes, all of them functioned, but that wasn’t the problem. The Eye’s teaching was accurate and true, it had left me no traps, held nothing back. That very same fullness of instruction informed me that all these methods would fall short. None of them would pierce this darkness.
My six tentacles were already overheating, burning and itching as I poured energy into them in a vain effort to flood the air with bioluminescence. I was already pouring out a torrent of light, to no avail. Fire or electricity or slamming atoms together would prove just as futile — which was lucky, because in panic I began to execute that last one before I realised it wouldn’t work. I began to weave the equation which would pluck hydrogen atoms from the atmosphere, ball them up, and squeeze them hard. But I let the equation collapse in horror as I realised that light was not the solution.
That attempt cost me another two seconds, two seconds of convulsive dry heave and throbbing headache. The pain was a vice widening inside my skull, threatening to burst my brain. My nose ran with blood and my eyes flared with pain and a sticky sensation seeped from the sockets behind my squid-skull mask. I would have crumpled if it wasn’t for the knight’s free hand holding me up by the scruff of my neck.
No source of light would piece this darkness; a deeper principle was at work here.
The Eye’s lessons, long buried but comprehensive beyond human imagining, explained this in painstaking detail — and offered an obvious solution. Darkness was the absence of light, but this darkness was the presence of absence. Absence could not be detected with human senses, not without presence with which to compare. But here it had presence, because we were Outside. The trick was to observe the absence.
My body shied away from that solution so hard that I almost choked on my own tongue.
Then, we ran out of time.
Darkness finally engulfed the forest-knight’s opposite side, swallowing his elbow and part of his forearm, despite his efforts to stay within the contracting bubble of safety. A sound broke the silence of the dark passageway — a rustle like petals of dead flesh drawn over metal, a brushing and a scraping like steel wool on stone, repeated and overlapping itself like a broken audio program trying to play the same note a thousand times. It was so soft, so gentle, so subtle that if one was not sunk deep in the darkness, one might doubt it was a real sound at all.
The dark touched the toes of my left trainer, pressing in so tight that my tentacles themselves would soon fall into shadow. And then, as I was still trying to process the Eye’s solution, darkness flowed over my left forearm.
A sensation like a thousand dry tongues slithered over my exposed hand.
My skin crawled with revulsion, my blood went cold, and I think I screamed. It was as if every inch of darkness contained infinite layers of feelers, running over my flesh and probing at the sleeve of my hoodie, stroking me with the blunt underside of a billion claws.
Implications be damned, I ran headfirst into the Eye’s lesson rather than be swallowed by that.
Back in Lozzie’s dream-dimension this principle had come easy, but accepting it in the flesh was a leap I’d been unwilling to take, even if only subconsciously. I’d spent weeks pushing myself closer and closer to this edge, but here it was at last, undeniable and inevitable. I had to do it quick and dirty, not the full transformation I’d achieved in the dream. This was not going to be beautiful or elegant or euphoric. Mostly it was going to hurt.
I opened my eyes as wide as I could, ignoring the blood which made my eyelids stick together, and then made tiny adjustments to my eyes with pneuma-somatic flesh. I added lenses and layers that existed in both the physical and the metaphysical; I flooded new mucus membranes with fluids that had no place in the human body; I catalysed processes inside my cone and rod cells, to make them do more than just capture light.
Agony screamed through my optic nerve and extraocular muscles, like a serrated icepick to my face. I span up an equation that made me gibber and shake and bleed from my hair follicles.
I stared out into the darkness, peeled back a set of eyelids I’d had closed all my life — and I observed.
For a split second I saw the presence of absence. I understood, in both the molecular and metaphysical sense. And I knew how to make it go away.
With my sight — with hyperdimensional mathematics expressed through the power of seeing and knowing — I reached out and gathered together that handful of hydrogen atoms I’d been about to crush earlier. I made sure this would work, that this version of the equation would negate absence, piling on layers of metaphysics that only the Eye would have understood. I crushed that ball of atoms tight, overcoming the nuclear forces not with sheer strength but with the inevitability of editing reality. I picked a pair of atoms, aimed them at each other, and slammed them together. Protons fused.
A pinprick of light shattered the darkness.
Achingly bright, hot enough to burn out my human retina, and about to grow, to expand, to wash clean not only the darkness but everything it touched.
It was only then I realised I’d made a huge mistake. This was it, this was where I was going to die, consumed by nuclear fire that I’d summoned not in panic, but in pure superiority. In arrogance. In imitation of my teacher.
I’d made myself a little bit more like the Eye, and in the process I’d lost track of what I was doing. Observation is a heady drug.
My ocular adjustments began to collapse, my mouth hinged open to scream, and my regrets drowned me — Lozzie would be stuck Outside forever, Evelyn and Raine would never know what had become of me, and Maisie would wither away to nothing, never to see home again.
A small, pale, blood-stained hand emerged from the darkness and smothered the atomic spark.
Yellow light bloomed across the tessellated floorboards, the colour of a shaded desk lamp on a stormy night, a candle flicker in a ship’s cabin among the gloaming waves, wan flowers beneath winter sun. Yellow chased away the darkness, giving me and the forest-knight eight feet of breathing room in every direction. Yellow cradled me as I sagged and crumpled and fell to my hands and knees. I yanked the squid-skull mask off my head and let it roll across the floor, retching and twitching and spitting bile from quivering lips. I barely resisted a tidal wave of dysphoric urge to claw at the burning sensation behind my eyes as the pneuma-somatic additions turned to ash, as my optic nerve reacted like a torn muscle, as normal sight wavered in and out, familiar but horribly alien and wrong and not what I was meant to see.
For a few moments I thought my vision was forever ruined — a strange cocktail of fear and delight, that I might be stuck like this. But yellow illumination struggled to soothe my sight, to bring me back from the brink of endless blur. Normal vision throbbed back like an aching tooth. I stayed there on my hands and knees, panting and shaking with the aftershock of becoming too much like my adoptive Outsider parent.
A sigh of shaking relief floated through the air.
“Oh, Heather,” somebody said in my own voice, with a tremble of sickeningly earnest concern.
I looked up from the floor and found a blood-drenched nightmare staring back.
“Sevens,” I said.
She was the source of the sombre yellow light. It glowed from her like a shrouded beacon on a lonely hill. The darkness appeared skittish and reluctant to intrude.
She was clothed in my musculature and wearing my face again, dressed like me but modified to attend a rave I would never enjoy. Blonde highlights graced my plain hair, light-up shoes flashed on the end of my feet, rainbow tights wrapped my scrawny legs, a white and pink belt looped around my waist, and three finger-strokes of yellow paint marked my cheek — her cheek.
But she was also covered in blood. Her nose ran with crimson, eyes gummed with scarlet, mess all over her face, cut through with pink-froth tear-tracks from her eyes. Even her hairline showed a sticky residue. Her own blood — my blood — was smeared down the front of her pink hoodie and rubbed into the sleeves in great long streaks. Her hands were filthy with bloodstains too, even the fist she was holding out in front of herself to contain the nuclear reaction I’d unwittingly sparked. Her clothes were stuck to her with cold sweat, rumpled and dishevelled. She’d mirrored my six tentacles as well, six slender, graceful, rainbow-strobing limbs emerging from her flanks, through the fabric of the hoodie. An abyssal creature soaked in blood, exhausted and harried at the end of her rope.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, voice trembling, brow creased with tearful worry. “I should have gotten over myself sooner. Are you hurt?”
My eyes in her face were dark and hollow, the sockets flowering with strange bruises; my face on her soul was grey with stress.
I stared at her for a groggy moment before I realised she was mirroring me exactly, blood and bruises and all, despite the different clothes.
“ … do I really look that awful?” I croaked.
“I’m sorry?” Sevens boggled at me with my own gormless expression, then glanced down at herself, spluttering with embarrassment. “Oh, um, well, not … it’s not that bad.”
“I look barely human,” I mumbled, then groaned at the ache in my eyes as I squeezed them shut. The bruises on Sevens’ face were not for show — my eye sockets and facial muscles hurt like I’d been beaten with a rolling pin by Praem in a very bad mood.
With help from my tentacles I slowly and painfully climbed back to my feet, legs shaking and unsteady, as if I’d just run a marathon. I scrubbed my face on my hoodie, trying to clear the worst of the blood out of my eyes. Then I checked my left hand, wiggling my fingers, but it seemed none the worse for the split second descent into darkness.
The knight hadn’t fared quite so well. The darkness had not actually breached his suit of armour, but his left vambrace was covered in a swirl of tiny scratches where it had been submerged in the black. He’d only been touched for a second or two longer than me. I shuddered to imagine my fate if I hadn’t reacted as fast as I did.
“You okay?” I croaked to him. He turned his helmet to look at his scratched forearm, though I knew there were no sensory organs up there, the motion was all for show. He gave an unreadable nod, then dropped his axe from over his shoulder to hold it ready in both hands, facing out into the dark, as if he could fight absence itself.
“Wouldn’t bother if I were you,” I muttered to him. “But thanks.”
As I peeled my sweat-soaked t-shirt from the skin of my back, I realised my tentacles were stuck beneath some of my clothes, a new and confusing sensation. How had I gotten that badly tangled up? I rolled my shoulders and went to adjust my hoodie — but found myself with a handful of skin-warm yellow cloak.
Soft as silk, thick as hide, warm as an hour in the sun, the yellow of fresh butter and ripe lemon.
“ … what? I can see it. I can touch it now,” I said. I manoeuvred my tentacles out from beneath the cloak, so it would stop getting in the way.
“Of course you can,” Sevens said, with a strange crack in her imitation of my voice. “You’re in my light.”
Normally I wouldn’t describe the experience of almost getting eaten by sentient, living darkness as lucky, but right then the aftershock of pure terror overrode any thoughts of romantic embarrassment. I was more than capable of looking Seven-Shades-of-Drug-Rave right in the eye.
“Thank you,” I croaked, nodding weakly at where her yellow blessing had pushed back the darkness.
“Heather, what were you doing?” She gestured with her closed fist, eyes filled with horror. Was that just mimicry of my subconscious, I wondered, or was Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight appalled at what I had been about to do?
I squeezed my eyes shut, winced at the pain, and took a moment to dig for energy reserves. Luckily, my bioreactor seemed none the worse for wear, still thrumming along in my belly.
“Nearly blowing myself up, apparently,” I said.
“You wouldn’t have taken the library with you,” Sevens said, my own tone of exasperation making me want to grit my teeth, “but you would have burned yourself to a crisp. You were unprepared! Heather, what were you thinking!?”
“There was not a lot of thinking involved. Mostly I was trying to not get eaten.”
Sevens shook her head, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, speechless, the very picture of how I might look at Raine in the aftermath of some madcap plan. She let out a humourless laugh, devoid of joy.
“You never cease to amaze me, Heather,” Sevens said in my own voice, trembling with affection. She was crying softly, swallowing and blinking in a failing effort to hold back the waterworks. “I’m so sorry, I should have been here sooner, I shouldn’t have let that idiotic crone drag you in here. I owe you more than that, I … ” She trailed off, furiously scrubbing her eyes on her sleeve. Goodness, did I really look that pathetic?
A faint fluttering threatened inside my chest. I had to glance back out at the darkness. Moving my eyes made them ache.
I thought about all the things I might say to Sevens, the question I ought to ask, and the fluttering got worse. Instead, I cleared my throat, awkward and thick.
“Sevens, can you get me home?”
Her expression was like an arrow through my chest — not the ugly twist of pain, but a hollow look of utter failure.
“ … no,” she said, struggling with tears again. “Of course not. Do you think I would have left you stranded if I could help? Do you really think so little of me?”
“I … ” I sighed heavily, beyond exasperated, unprepared for this. “I don’t really know you, Sevens. Even now I’m talking to a mask, aren’t I? All I know is your fascination with me. And that you like to watch.”
She sobbed, once, exactly like me. I did not find it endearing — it hurt.
“Okay, okay,” I hurried to add, stumbling over my words, gesturing a surrender with one hand and one tentacle. “That’s not fair, that’s not fair. You’ve helped me, multiple times. Very seriously. I’m sorry, I didn’t really mean that, I just … I thought you were avoiding me, earlier. Running away when I needed your help, when you might be able to get me out of here, or help me find Lozzie. I’m sorry.”
Sevens controlled her sobbing and stared at me again. “Do you mean that?”
“ … yes, I do.” Not a lie, by only just. “You have helped me, a lot.”
She nodded slowly and wiped her tears on her sleeve, but that only served to smear the blood around her face. She still sniffed a bit, but at least she’d stopped crying. Two of her tentacles, imitations of my own rainbow-strobing beauties, reached out toward me, hesitant and halting, as if asking to hold my hand.
I tilted my head with an exasperated look, a silent really?
She pulled a shaking smile, tugging at my heartstrings. It was like looking in a mirror and it made me equal parts nauseous and heartsick.
“Sevens, is this you crying?” I asked. “Or is this just you imitating me? Are these crocodile tears?”
She hesitated for a long moment, hollow and defeated, then said, “ … I don’t know anymore.”
I relented with a sigh and wrapped one of my own tentacle-tips around hers, squeezing gently. She squeezed back.
I couldn’t say no, could I? I needed her.
“Thank you for saving me,” I repeated, somewhat stiff and rote, more to soothe my own guilt at speaking so harshly to her than to make plain my gratitude. “Nothing I could do was going to work, nothing until … well.” I nodded at her closed fist. “And you really can’t get me home? You can’t even try? Or find Lozzie for me?”
Sevens took a deep and steadying breath, coming back from the brink of weeping. “I’m sorry, Heather, but I can’t get you back to Earth.” She stepped a little closer and glanced at her closed fist, then opened it as casually as casting away a mote of dust. The nuclear reaction I’d started was nowhere to be seen. “I tried, I tried to find a way back for you, but that horrible old crone is right — those dead hands are true vengeance. I can pass by them, even clad in your mask, because it is not me they want, it is you. They are too real to take to the stage, they are beyond my jurisdiction. Even if they weren’t, they are not merely a mage’s tattered soul. They borrow the strength of another.”
“Then it really must be Alexander,” I muttered, flaring inside with real anger. “Channelling the power of his final deal. Why can’t mages just stay dead? What did I commit murder for?”
“For your friends.” Sevens smiled with pained affection and it made my stomach curdle and my heart flutter both at once. That look on my own face, directed at me, was too much. I was a horrible little gremlin, too capable of sugar-sweetness for my own good, but rotten inside.
“By ‘that horrible old crone’, I take it you were referring to Saldis?” I asked.
“Yes. I wish you weren’t following her around.”
“She’s helped so far,” I said, feeling oddly defensive. “Aren’t you much, much older than her, anyway?”
Sevens gave me a little frown. “By human standards, perhaps, yes. By mine? Well … ” She shrugged. “Saldis is … I don’t like her. She’s a nuisance audience.”
“I’ll put up with quite a lot of nuisance right now if it’ll get me home. I assume you know we’re trying to reach your father. Could he get me back home?”
Sevens’ face collapsed into a theatrical parody of anxiety, me at my absolute worst and most dramatic. She frowned and bit her lip, cringing as if from an imagined blow. Her exhausted eyes lost what little shine remained in them, replaced by the manic energy of desperate panic.
“Oh, please don’t, Heather, please don’t,” she pleaded. “He won’t understand what I’ve done.” Her eyes flickered down to the yellow cloak about my shoulders. “This is not a confrontation I can let you walk into.”
“I already told him, as Ha—” I sighed. “As that yellow blob.”
“I know, I know—”
“I told him what for. I threatened him, Sevens. I think it even impressed him a little bit.”
Sevens blinked at me, shocked. “You … you did what?”
“I told him to move aside or fight me. Didn’t you see?”
“I was … I was busy, I was examining the hands. I did not see that.” Sevens stepped even closer to me, my eyes in her face wide and bloodshot with near-hysteria. “But it makes no difference. Heather, you do not know what you are speaking of. My father is the King in Yellow. He can be so silly sometimes, but he is not like me. You are walking into a terror that has crushed generals and kings, emperors and popes. I cannot protect you from my own father.”
“Well it’s a good thing I’m none of those things,” I huffed. “I’m just a lowly university student. Can he get me home or not?”
“ … probably.” Sevens glanced away, biting her lip so hard it must have drawn blood, though it was hard to tell amongst the smeared mess of half-dried gore on her face. “But he won’t understand why you’re wearing that.”
I didn’t have to ask what she meant. I tugged the yellow cloak tighter, instinctively taking refuge inside it despite the emotional ambiguity. It was so warm, like it had come straight from the dryer, inviting me to bury my face in the sun-kissed fabric. Even right then, exhausted and bloody and having one of the most paradoxical conversations of my life, I could quite happily have wrapped myself in the cloak, laid down, and slept like a baby.
“Won’t understand?” I echoed. “Or won’t accept?”
Sevens’ eyes flickered back to me, filled with fear. How had Raine ever seen anything attractive in me if this was what I looked like when afraid? I was ugly and pitiful, nothing to be proud of.
Before she could answer, I lost my nerve. I huffed and gestured at the darkness lurking beyond Sevens’ bastion of light. We still stood in a void of terror, beneath a crushing pressure that could rush back in at any moment and drown us both. “I cannot believe we’re doing this here. In the middle of this nightmare. This is not the place for a heart-to-heart, Sevens. Can’t we … if we have to talk about this … isn’t there somewhere—”
“We could go to my room, in the palace,” she said in a voice of spun-glass fragility.
I almost choked. “Your … room?”
She flushed bright red, unable to meet my eyes. “T-that is an inappropriate suggestion, I apologise, I retract the invitation. T-though if you want to … ”
“Uh, um … not … yet,” I managed. I glanced at the forest-knight too, embarrassed that he was being subjected to overhearing all of this, but he didn’t seem to care.
Sevens nodded with mortified relief. “You’re perfectly safe now, regardless. This light cannot fail.”
“What is it, anyway?” I asked quickly, just to change the subject, to get away from her implication. “Normal light wouldn’t do the trick, I figured out that much.”
“It’s just me, being myself,” she said. “The library is intended for family only, and approved guests, though those rules have been flouted for longer than they were ever enforced. Most visitors don’t use the physical entrance.” She laughed softly, a forced sound, me trying to make light of a bad situation.
“Obviously,” I agreed.
“You merely lack the proper permissions. My fault, I am sorry. I never was one for stamping forms in triplicate and the like. Well, you lacked the permissions. Now I’ve made them … official.” She swallowed with self-conscious embarrassment as she gestured at my yellow cloak, her cloak, the piece of herself she’d given to me. “I could leave you here in the dark, if you … if you want, if you tell me you want me to leave. I’ll go, if you want. You would be properly marked as allowed, now that I’ve made it clear.” She shot a glance out at the darkness, a tiny, delicate frown, like me frowning at Raine saying something inappropriate, faintly irritated at the dark.
“No, no, you can … you can come with us,” I said, slowly, trying not to think about what exactly she had made ‘official’. I glanced over my shoulder at where the wall of impenetrable darkness had barred my way. Sevens’ light had cut a hole through it, clearing our path. “We should catch up with Saldis, she’ll be wondering where I’ve—” I turned back “—gotten … to … ”
Sevens, wearing my face, looked so pitiful and abandoned. She looked how I might look in the wake of Raine breaking up with me. A thought so terrible I could not acknowledge the comparison. My heart wrenched itself inside my chest.
“I would go with you,” she murmured. “I would not let you face any corner of my home without me.”
Then she hiccuped. Like a frog with something stuck in its throat. Exactly like me.
To my everlasting embarrassment, I hiccuped too, then huffed and scowled.
“Sevens, I can’t do this talking to myself thing. Please, can’t you, I don’t know, chose somebody else?”
“Can’t you find any love for yourself?”
“It’s like talking to Maisie. It’s grotesque.”
Sevens nodded once, awkward and self-conscious — my awkwardness, my self-consciousness — and then as she raised her head, she ceased to be me.
The optical transition made me flinch in shock. Suddenly, Sevens was a whole head taller, built like an athlete, dressed in leather jacket and curb-stomping boots. Gone were the tentacles and the blood and the bruises, the lank hair and the hollow eyes, all replaced with a rakish grin.
“Hey,” said Seven-Shades-of-Raine. “Better?”
“Oh, no. Absolutely not.” I shook my head, hands up in surrender, scared at the speed of my private reaction — the sound of Raine’s voice had instantly put me at ease, unlocked whole groups of tensed muscles, made me sigh with relief just to see her. But it wasn’t her, not really. “You cannot be Raine. You cannot be her! That’s underhanded. That’s cheating.”
Seven-Raine shrugged, smiling with a perfect simulation of Raine’s blazing confidence. “My bad.” She pointed a pair of finger-guns at me. “Can’t fault me for trying though, yeah?”
“Yes. Yes I bloody well can. Stop it. Right now.”
“You’re the boss.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight ran Raine’s hand through Raine’s artfully messy hair; when she finished, she had gained another two feet of height, a hundred pounds of muscle, and teeth to shame a great white shark.
“Shaman,” Seven-Shades-of-Seven-Feet-Plus purred in Zheng’s voice.
That deep, throaty, stone-on-stone rumble made my bowels clench with a unique cocktail of thrill. Sevens had chosen Zheng at her most dangerous, dressed in jeans and boots and a long coat and nothing else, showing off her iron-hard abdominal muscles and the proud curve of her chest, her red-chocolate skin covered with a dense mass of black tattoos, punctuated by the missing patches and circles I’d erased when I’d freed her.
She grinned and showed all her teeth. I flinched, my tentacles drawing back into a defensive ball.
“Sevens!” I hissed. “You can’t just cycle through other people who are in love with me!”
“Can’t I?” she rumbled, an exact replica of Zheng’s understated, proud defiance. She even flexed her fingers and rolled her neck, limbering up for a fight.
Seven-Shades-of-Muscular-Demon shrugged. “Another, then.”
And in the blink of an eye she lost her height, her muscle, and her confidence. Gripping a walking stick, blonde hair gathered into a messy ponytail, hunched shoulders wrapped in an oversized cream sweater, Evelyn stared back at me, most unimpressed.
The effect was uncanny, somehow more accurate than either Raine or Zheng. Perhaps it was the little details of mannerism, the clench of her fingers on the handle of her walking stick, the sour twist to her lips, the bags under her eyes.
“Oh, come on,” I sighed. “Evelyn? That’s just ridiculous, she doesn’t—”
“Ridiculous?” spat Seven-Shades-of-Saye, Evelyn’s voice dripping with scorn, oddly comforting in this Outside place. “You trample feelings without even realising you’re doing it, Heather.”
“Sevens, I’m not ignoring your feelings, I—”
“Did it from day one.” Evelyn went on. “How can you get close to me, force me to open up, without expecting this to happen? This is your responsibility. I’d been wrapped up tight and secure for years, surviving. But oh no, no, right from the word go you were only into Raine. Healthy and hale, strong and fit, bench pressing you into the fucking bed. And look at me.” She smacked her prosthetic leg through her skirt with her walking stick, a hollow sound echoing off into the darkness. “How could I ever compete with that? Evelyn Saye, twisted little cripple, pining after things she doesn’t deserve. I should have put you from my mind, but you’re always there, being so fucking right and sweet and brave,” she spat those words, made them foul. “And then to add insult to injury, you pushed me and Twil together when neither of us was ready.”
Faint tears stained Evelyn’s cheeks, angry and repressed.
I stared at Seven-Shades-of-Unrequited-Love, mouth open, stomach fallen through the floor, and had to remind myself very carefully that she was not actually Evelyn.
“No,” I said slowly. “No, go back to being me.”
Seven-Saye snorted with derision, turned her face away, and reverted to a mirror image of myself, short and scrawny and covered in blood. Sevens omitted the fanciful additions of blonde highlights, stripy tights, and face paint. She even didn’t bother mimicking my tentacles, but stood as a simple mirror of me at my worst, hollow-eyed and dirty and pathetic. Me without my abyssal side.
“Sorry,” she murmured.
I was still reeling, hands up in stunned surrender. “Was that … you? Or was that Evee? How much of that was Evee?”
She shrugged. “Not sure.”
“ … okay. All right.” I shook my head, trying to recover, slipping on my emotional footing. I glanced to the forest-knight for support, but he wasn’t even paying attention. Lesbian relationship problems were a bit far out of his wheelhouse. “Okay, let’s take everything that just implied about Evelyn and put it firmly to one side, because I cannot deal with that right now, thank you very much.”
“Yes. Sorry. I was getting a little off track.”
With an emotional effort only possible under such strained conditions, I did exactly as I suggested; I put that all away in a box, perhaps never to be opened.
“Why are you only crying when you’re me?” I asked, grabbing onto any handhold to get me away from those thoughts. “Is that you, or me? Do you have any real interiority of your own, Sevens?”
Seven-Shades-of-Morell chewed her lip. “What’s the difference? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Quoting Shakespeare at me; I did that to other people. It was insufferable.
“Don’t you have a … a you? A favourite avatar, a favourite face, somebody I can talk to and it’ll just be you?”
“No!” Sevens whined. “You’ve already forced me onto the stage, I cannot stand here as myself. There is no me to join you on the boards, Heather.” She sighed heavily, and I knew from the experience of my own face in the mirror that she was struggling to not start crying. She’d found my own battered pride and was hanging onto it for dear life. She hiccuped, loudly. “I’m so confused.”
A lump formed in my throat. I took a handful of the yellow cloak again, and did my best not to look away from Sevens as I asked, “Why am I wearing this?”
“You were going to die,” she told me. “I had no choice but to give you part of myself. You do this same thing all the time, Heather. You make decisions, split second decisions for the good of your friends, for their lives, their survival, during which you carve off pieces of your own heart. You do what has to be done. I did the same, because your mask has become affixed to my face.”
That sent a steel barb through my heart, but I kept going. “And it is a marriage proposal?”
Sevens sighed, flopping her arms against her copy of my hoodie, casting her eyes skyward into the dark. “Technically, yes. It’s traditional.”
“Did you mean it as such?”
She shrugged with her hands and pulled a very sad smile. “Do you know you can trick the brain by smiling, even when you don’t feel happy? Making the expression causes a sort of reverse feedback loop, causes your brain to release the relevant chemicals. It’s the same if you stand like a superhero. Ever heard of that?” Sevens puffed out my chest and put her balled fists on her hips, striking a pose that looked utterly wrong for me. “Like this. Hold it for a few minutes and it’ll make you feel more confident. It reverses cause and effect.”
“You’re not a human being, Sevens. You’re an Outsider god-thing, you don’t have brain chemicals to trick with feedback. And the power pose phenomenon isn’t true, anyway.”
Sevens’ superhero pose collapsed back into my usual slump. “Sometimes, acting stops being acting, is that so difficult to believe? The cloak is not just a symbol, Heather. I gave you a piece of myself. It has metaphysical weight. I did it to save you, I did what you would do, but that’s made it real.”
“So, you really are in love with me?” I swallowed and found my throat dry, my hands clammy, my stomach fluttering.
“ … I don’t know,” Sevens said, face twisting as she struggled not to start crying again, her voice quivering. “How could I be? I am only a question. You have the answers, how could I be part of them? This isn’t what I’m supposed to be, it feels wrong. It’s all wrong, Heather. You’ve made me all wrong and now I don’t know what I am anymore.”
“I … I’m sorry, Sevens, I don’t know how to process any of this.”
“I don’t seriously expect you to actually marry me,” she said quickly, embarrassed and mortified; I couldn’t help but think she didn’t deserve to be embarrassed at such feelings, whatever she was. “We’ll have to explain to my father, now that he’s already seen you. But I still feel this, whatever happens, whatever he says, whatever you say to me. Whatever you decide.”
I cast about for an emotional handhold. “Sevens, there’s something I don’t understand. Why haven’t I seen you since you gave me the cloak? Why not just come talk to me?”
“I am … not meant to be a player, strutting upon the stage. It changes everything. How can I direct when I am involved? It reduces me to a mere voyeur. To direct players is one thing, it is what I am made for, it is my essence. But to watch those who I have become a part of?” She shook head. “It makes me filthy. I am disgusted with myself.”
She held her line against the tears, but only just.
I tried very hard in that moment to keep in mind what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight actually was, behind her imitated flesh and the soft yellow light and the desolate emotion on my mirrored face. She was an Outsider thing, not a human being, a godlike shard of some alien principle; I’d seen behind her curtain, laid my abyssal senses on the beautiful truth of her real self, the butterscotch fronds and sunlight ripples of her true body, which existed in a way I ached to be.
That creature had fallen in love with me and could not process those emotions back down to a human scale. The thought made my head swim and my stomach flutter.
Or, she was acting.
Either way, I needed her on my side. I hated what I was about to do.
Slowly, hesitantly, worried that I was making a mistake, I opened my hands, then my arms, caught between a warding-off gesture and an invitation. Sevens stared, awestruck and terrified.
“This is not an answer,” I managed to say. “I don’t know how to deal with this, I don’t know if I can accept anything from you, and we can’t do this here and now. But you are not wrong, you’re not disgusting, you’re just feeling things. Do you want a hug?”
Sevens nodded, fighting to stop her face from collapsing into tears. She took a few shuffling steps, then all but blundered into me, pressing her face to my shoulder as she held back dry sobs. Awkwardly, but not without a certain level of affection, I put my arms around her shoulders and wrapped a tentacle around her waist. My shoulders, my waist, exactly the same height as myself. My scent, my warmth, all a copy. A falsehood. But was the real core, inside the mask?
Hugging myself was too cruel. It was like hugging Maisie. I tried not to think about that.
“You’re not … you’re not wrong, Sevens,” I repeated. “You’re not broken. You’re just … in love, I suppose. That can feel very much like being broken.”
“You would know,” she murmured into my shoulder, with my own voice.
The hug went on for a minute, then two minutes, with Sevens’ weight sagging onto me, our bodies pressed together in a perfect twinned fit. I started to quietly panic; was I leading her on? Giving her hope where there was none? Did she have hope? Did I want her to have hope? But she wasn’t even a person — well, no, I corrected myself forcefully, she was a person, just not a singular person in the normal way. Most of the people in my life were not strictly human, what was one more?
But Sevens was so much more alien and other compared to Zheng or Praem or Lozzie. Or even Tenny.
A dark thought began to creep into the back of my mind. Wasn’t this all too convenient? I’d been trapped by the crushing weight of the darkness, alone except for my brave knight who was as powerless as I, about to be devoured; then, soft yellow light had burst forth to save me, to pull me back from the brink. And now Sevens was wearing the form of the one person whose presence I desired more than anything else in the world, the one person to whom I would deny nothing — for it was my face she wore, but I couldn’t stop thinking of my lost twin.
I didn’t feel like I was standing on a stage. But would I know, if I was?
Gently, carefully, so as not to make her think that I was rejecting her outright, I peeled Sevens off me and made a gap between us, just to arms length. She gave me a fragile little smile, my own shaking face at my most vulnerable. She dabbed at her eyes with a clean corner of one sleeve, which only made her eye sockets that much bloodier.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“You’re welcome. I think. Look, even if nothing comes of this, you’re still … ” I paused and cleared my throat, with some discomfort. “Actually, are you my friend? You have helped me, a lot.”
“If you would have me, I would be,” she said.
“Well, okay,” I steeled myself to say it. “You’re that at the very least. It’s just a bit weird when the only faces you can wear are my own, or those of my friends. This is a very surreal moment for me. I hope you understand that.”
Sevens nodded, glum and low, but not crying any more.
I took a deep breath. “We still need to go see your father. The King in Yellow. If he can help me.”
“He might,” Sevens said, nodding seriously.
“What about finding Lozzie? Can you help me do that?”
Sevens shook her head. “My father wouldn’t be able to either. She has gone elsewhere. He does not even rule every part of Carcosa, let alone all of Outside.”
I bit my bottom lip. “Then I really do need to defeat the hands, if she’s going to be able to get home.”
“I suppose so … ” Sevens murmured.
“What about everyone back home?” I asked with a sudden hitch in my heart. “Have you seen them, checked up on them?”
Sevens let out a shuddering sigh, a note of alarm in her widening eyes. “I … I cannot. Not now that I’m on the stage beside you. If I leave it now … I do not know what will happen to the role I am improvising. I … do not wish to lose it. There is no understudy to take my place. Not now.” She swallowed, an obvious lump in her throat.
Well done, Heather, I scolded myself. You went one step too far.
But outwardly I nodded. “That’s okay. I understand. Well, I think I understand.”
I broke away from her at last, gently and slowly, her fingers trailing after me, and I stooped to pick up my squid-skull helmet from where it had fallen. I didn’t slip it on just yet, but instead reached out to gently touch the forest-knight on the corner of his elbow. “Sorry you had to stand there through all that. I think we’re ready to move again.”
He lowered his axe and turned toward us, awaiting our departure from this nighted realm.
“I will walk you to my father’s audience chambers,” Sevens raised her voice ever so slightly. “With me at your side, well, we will have to deal with my siblings and cousins, but I am the equal of any of them.”
“That would be helpful. Thank you.”
I screwed up my doubts and worries, pulled the warm yellow cloak tight about my shoulders, and held my hand out to her — but to my surprise, Sevens shook her head.
“I do not want that awful woman to see me like this,” she said, and I was surprised by the suddenly revealed core of quiet defiance in her voice — my voice. Is that what I sounded like when I found courage? When I was prepared, when I was facing down the dark? I don’t think she noticed, but I was speechless for a moment.
Maybe that was what Raine saw in me.
I cleared my throat. “You can be Raine if you must,” I said. “I understand. Though … don’t do anything, not even hold my hand, not as her. Please.”
“No, that would be grossly unfair,” she said. “I could … ” She cleared her throat delicately, exactly like me broaching a very awkward suggestion. “There is no unmasked self, you understand? This will not be me. It will merely be an old mask, one that will not cry in front of strangers. It will be strange for me too, to don the guise of an intruder in your story.”
“Do what you need to do, Sevens.”
So I can do what I need to do. I left that part unsaid.
Sevens nodded, then turned her head sideways by only a few inches, and suddenly she wasn’t me anymore.
In place of my mirror image stood a completely different person, a young woman who had no presence in my memories, not even a passing familiarity. I could say with absolute confidence that I had never seen this mask before.
She also looked exactly like I imagined a minor princess should do.
Slender and slight, an inch or two taller and perhaps a year or two older than me, Sevens’ new mask had blonde hair cut ruler-straight just below a sharp chin, brushed to perfection so not a single strand stood out of place, held back with a red hair-band. A blunt fringe framed unnaturally turquoise eyes, wide and staring, not with the austerity of command, but with an unstudied intensity that marked her out as eccentric. That was a stare to unnerve daddy’s visitors. A neat little nose and a small, serious mouth completed the somewhat doll-like look.
She wore a crisp white blouse with short sleeves, tucked into an ankle-length yellow skirt, and neat, sensible black shoes on her feet.
Ramrod-straight posture, hands clasped behind her back, head tilting slightly to meet my surprised gaze with those wide, staring, unsmiling eyes; if she’d raised her chin she would have radiated aristocratic arrogance, but the lack of that single mannerism kept her firmly on my own level.
But my goodness, she was intense. I balked a little at that strange stare.
“Ready to depart?” Sevens asked. Her voice was perfect, trained, sweet but sharp. For a moment I lost my tongue.
“Uh … um … ”
“Remember, this is not truly me,” Sevens said. “It is merely an old mask.”
“It … seems like you. Sort of.” I took a deep breath to settle myself. This was still Sevens, not some aristo daughter. But Sevens was an aristocrat’s daughter, that was the point. Perhaps it was because she was finally wearing the face of a person I did not know, but I felt like I was actually seeing her at last. “I like it, at least.”
She blinked and tilted her head again. “Really?”
The tone of the question was impossible to read: an innocent platitude, a veiled threat, an unimpressed suggestion — and an appeal for more, all at once.
“ … are you sure you’re not trying to appeal to me?” I asked.
Sevens blinked. “Not intentionally.”
“This mask, is this person still out there in the world somewhere? Or—”
“She died a long time ago,” Sevens said, level and cool. “She would have approved of me borrowing her looks, especially if it sent a young maiden into paroxysms of confused lust. She was like that. Can you believe it?”
Without even a hint of smile, I could not tell if Sevens was joking.
“Er … ” I hiccuped. Sevens did not.
“She was also very good at self-control.” Seven-Shades-of-Suggestively-Sexual offered me a slender hand, nails cut very short indeed. “Shall we?”
I sighed, but I accepted her offer, slipping my hand into hers. She did not squeeze, but raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement.
“Come on,” I said to the knight. He shouldered his axe and set off after us, as we walked into the pressing darkness, to catch up with Saldis, and to go see the King in Yellow about a present for the object of his daughter’s affection.