Hand in hand, with the forest-knight at our heels and my heart in my mouth, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight led me out of the dark.
At first I was rendered speechless, but not merely because of Sevens’ new and intense mask, her princess-mask of starch and stares and silent implications. Despite the perpetual motion machine of my abdominal bioreactor, I was beyond exhausted — between panic, fear, adrenaline, whirling anxieties, confrontations with multiple Outsider beings, a moment of Eye-like observation, and almost blowing myself up, all topped off with the cherry of a genuine emotional crisis, I was spent. My mind was running on fumes, my emotions were worn down to a stub, and I was probably suffering some kind of short term adrenal fatigue.
Not to mention the hunger. I would have eaten week-old chips right then. I would have risked Tenny’s first attempt at cooking, or gladly scarfed down one of Zheng’s offerings of raw squirrel.
After the first minute or two of walking deeper into the dark void, when it became apparent that the living darkness was not impudent enough to encroach on Sevens’ eight-foot bubble of warm candlelight, my mind wandered into a waking doze. My footsteps grew heavy, my eyelids heavier, my brain slipping into automatic. A pair of my tentacles clutched the squid-skull mask to my belly like a comforting plush toy. I tugged Sevens’ yellow cloak snug around my neck and throat, seeking refuge in warmth.
Safe now, my instincts whispered.
Sevens’ neat black heels went click-click-click against the floorboards in an unwavering rhythm, her long yellow skirt swishing at her ankles, now and again revealing snatches of white tights on her slender legs. I kept sneaking sidelong glances at her new face in profile, her sharp cheekbones and unsmiling eyes, her clear skin and the straight line of her mouth.
On the fifth or sixth lingering glance, I met those wide turquoise eyes staring back at me.
“ … s-sorry,” I blurted out.
Slender eyebrows climbed toward her ruler-straight fringe.
“I’m just very tired,” I explained, under duress from that look. “Having trouble focusing. I can’t get used to you like this.”
“Does my countenance help keep you alert?” Sevens asked. Her new voice was like a slice of lemon dipped in chocolate, sharply sweet and precise, leaving one unsure as to which flavour was the truth.
“Um … ” I squinted, more with tiredness than confusion. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
“Does gazing upon me make your heart rate climb? Does it tighten your chest? Does the sight of me stop your breath in your throat?” She waited a beat while I was unable to reply, staring dumbfounded at her unreadable intensity. I would have stumbled as we walked along if it wasn’t for her hand in mine. “Regardless, Heather, you may feast your eyes to your heart’s content. Be assured, I am not self-conscious.”
I had to look away, blushing like I’d been sunburned, no longer the least bit tired.
“ … Sevens, you are doing this on purpose,” I managed.
“Doing what on purpose?” she asked.
“You know very well what I mean,” I hissed.
“Alas, I am but a young and sheltered princess,” she said, still measured and cool and not sounding sheltered at all. “I am too far down the line of inheritance to merit training as a proper lady, and far too uncanny to bother with sending me to balls and galas in the hopes of marrying me off to some nouveau riche merchant. I am unschooled in the ways of the world. So you must tell me what you mean, kitten.”
I had been ready to face her again and roll my eyes at her absurd act, but that last word made me stammer and splutter.
She still didn’t smile. Not even a hint. She hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d said this mask was good at self-control.
“Ah, here we are at last.” She turned her eyes ahead and nodded into the dark, leaving me unfinished and raw. “The way begins to open.”
I let out a shuddering sigh, expecting another flirtatious trick, but quickly discovered that Sevens was being serious.
All around us, the corridor itself had finally become visible, as if seen through a deep haze on the edge of sight, like the world lit by the first feelers of a grey and rainy dawn. Ceiling and walls loomed out of the gloom, much closer than I had expected, perhaps only twenty feet away and rapidly tightening as Sevens strode on with her unwavering click-click against the floorboards. I squinted in confusion, for the walls were not the same tessellated wood as the floor, but appeared to be made of bare, packed earth, wormed through with gnarled tree roots, some as thick as my entire body but some mere finger-width feelers.
Staring out into the grey haze, I realised that Sevens’ soft light was going out.
Her halo of warmth was shrinking and contracting, fuzzy at the edges as the grey pressed inward, grown so dim that the rainbow glow of my tentacles had begun to overtake it once more.
“Sevens!” I hissed, heart leaping into my mouth, my free hand gripping the sleeve of her perfectly starched blouse, one of my tentacles looping hurriedly about her shoulders. “Sevens, the light!”
“Shhhhh, shh-shh-shhh,” she hushed me gently. Somehow her casual dismissal stilled my nerves better than any actual explanation. “The light is no longer relevant. This is ordinary gloom.”
“Oh. Oh, um, okay, I—”
Blushing and embarrassed, I started to remove my hand from Sevens’ shoulder, but she caught it with her own before I could retreat. Wide, staring eyes bored into mine.
“You are perfectly safe by my side, kitten,” she said.
“ … don’t,” I whined. She let me go.
That kept my mind firmly occupied for the rest of the journey out of the Library of Carcosa, a mercifully short three or four minutes through the steadily tightening corridor of bare earth and visible roots. Sevens’ light faded, replaced by the faint glow of my tentacles and a milky, pale luminescence filtering in from somewhere up ahead, shrouded by a thickening bramble of roots. The corridor tightened to ten feet wide, then six feet, then barely wide enough for the two of us to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. We were forced to press ourselves together if we didn’t wish to snag our clothes on the hooked and gnarled roots. My legs tangled with Sevens’ yellow skirt; her scent stole into my nose — starch and soap and simple shampoo. The poor forest-knight had to stoop, carrying his axe low in both hands.
Then, as if stepping from a deep wood onto a lonely moor, the roots opened like petals, disgorging us into light like watered milk.
Blinking, blinded, struggling to adjust to the weak daylight, I held my arm up to shield my eyes. I think I missed Sevens stumble, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Oh there you are, poppet,” Saldis’ voice greeted us. “And you’ve found a new friend! How delightful. You certainly do know how to make them, don’t you?”
“You could have stopped or come back for me,” I muttered as I peeled my eyes open — still strangely raw and tender from my desperate experiment with the Eye’s observational theory, despite the watery texture of the light. “Saldis, why didn’t … you … ”
But as I blinked away pink-tinged tears to clear my sight, my words trailed off, my mouth hanging open. My head spun with vertigo.
Our escape from the darkness had placed us on a vantage point, on a hillside at the head — or perhaps tail — of a wide road paved with rose-pink bricks. A moth-eaten blanket of pale moorland unrolled at my feet, covered in grasses the white of mature fungus, the purple of dying flowers, and the yellow of mustard gas. The landscape was punctured through not with one lake — the Lake of Hali, Saldis had called it — but dozens of lakes, shining pools of bright blue liquid that looked more like they’d been cut into the ground than formed naturally, each one ringed by steep banks of pale, bare, wet earth. Little copses of things that were meant to be trees dotted the high places of the moors, but they looked too fungal and moved too much to be anything like earthly plant life. Some of them were penned in with barbed wire, a rusty red at odds with the other colours of this place.
The ground was coated in a thin, ankle-deep mist, wispy and ethereal, not dense enough to obscure details unless one looked toward the horizon, where one was met instead by the tall, dark, craggy impression of ancient leering trees at the edge of the fog.
The rose-pink road meandered over the little hills and wound between the lakes, passing a massive signpost made of black stone, which was festooned with dozens of boards pointing in every direction, some of them straight up into the sky or down at the ground. Further on, the road was flanked by a collection of metal gibbet cages, containing inhuman skeletons long-since picked clean.
At the other end of that rose-brick road, all the way down at the foot of the mouldy, rotten blanket, stood the palace of the King in Yellow.
I sighed, trying to cover my sickening vertigo with exasperation.
“Oh, really?” I hissed. It did not help.
The structure could not have been mistaken for anything else, because it was everywhere and it was impossible.
Fairytale spires and rings of fanciful battlements reared hundreds of feet into the sky, far taller than anything possible under Earth gravity; many of them vanished into the omnipresent milky fog which hung in the sky in place of cloud cover. Great grey walls were punctured by decorative arrow-slits and indefensible balconies, covered with mile-wide carvings and gigantic stained-glass windows — though the scenes in the stonework and the glass were too far away to make out. Built from a dozen different types of stone — granite block, white marble, yellowed sandstone, red slate, and types I could not name — the castle was piled up on itself like a layered cake, but the layers appeared to recede forever, never reaching a crescendo, drawing the eye ever inward until one had to blink and look away.
Far weirder were the spires and walls that emerged from the foggy sky, upside down, as if the castle somehow wrapped around on itself in a gigantic sphere which cupped this landscape in its hollow core. Bits of crenellation and clusters of towers stuck out at wild angles from every possible place in the milky firmament. If one squinted and waited for the shifting mist to briefly thin, one could see the layers of the castle piled up in the very sky above our heads.
If there was a sun, it was obscured behind stone. Where the milk-pale light came from, I had no idea.
When I glanced back over my shoulder, I expected to see the Library of Carcosa rearing up behind me. But instead I found a dark hedge of roots and brambles, thick as night and twice as impenetrable, covered with ebony thorns of all sizes from pinprick to spear. A twelve foot wall of half-dead plant-life, impossible to scale without tearing oneself to shreds.
And visible beyond that hedge, more palace.
It was all around us, as if we stood not on the moors but in a castle courtyard bounded in every direction by a world-ball of a building. The eye of the storm.
My brain was like a skipping record; it kept insisting that the Library of Carcosa was so tall, practically infinite, surely it should have been scraping the heavens? Where was it? Where had we been only minutes earlier? We could not be standing here and not be in the shadow of the library, that was impossible, my senses were playing a trick on me.
I crammed that thought into a pressure vessel. I was Outside. I had to start thinking Outside thoughts, or lose my mind.
It had been easy to forget, hidden away in the void of the dark passage, and even in the all-too-familiar alien infinity of the library, just how strange Outside could be.
“Learned behaviour,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Just learned behaviour. Nothing to be afraid of.”
That was a lie. There was plenty to be scared of out here — we were not alone.
Carrion birds wheeled in the sky and perched on the towers, little smudges of dark against the pale air; I guessed that up close they were unlikely to look anything like real crows or ravens. On distant hillsides, pinkish creatures with too many legs and rubbery eyes on stalks paused to watch us, like crosses between cows and spiders, before thankfully going about their business once again. A few hundred feet down the rose-brick road a tall, spindly figure was tending to a clutch of the strange fungus-trees; dressed in a yellow smock, barefoot and bald and without any facial features, like a human being stretched out to twelve feet in height and scrubbed of detail. It wielded a huge pair of clippers, snipping off a branch here and a bud there with glacial slowness, occasionally slapping one of the fungal trees when it tried to wander off like a slug inching away.
The palace itself was visibly inhabited. I kept my focus on the portion in front of us, where the structure wore skirts of stone, flaring out into petticoats of overlapping walls and spindly walkways. Dim figures lurked behind the windows and on the battlements, little more than shadows or memories, accompanied by scraps of half-glimpsed yellow.
Two nightmares perched above the palace gatehouse, where a pair of massive wooden doors stood wide to receive any visitor brave enough to enter.
The first was too painful to look at for more than a second — a gigantic yellow trapezoid shape was balanced on one point, on the lowest of the palace towers, rotating slowly to reveal facets shining with inner light like a gemstone. But the geometry of the object was all wrong and my eyes burned with an afterimage even when I’d looked away.
The second gatehouse guardian was a sphinx.
It was yellow, and the size of a building, but in every other aspect it was just a sphinx. Body of a lion but with a human face, with a pair of massive white-feathered wings lying in repose. It would not have looked out of place in an illustration of ancient Greek or Egyptian mythology. Lounging directly above the gatehouse, massive tail slowly swishing through the air, it watched us at a great distance with deceptively sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes, set in an elegant, androgynous face. Yellow eyes, the colour of lightning.
I had the most powerful urge to put my squid-skull mask back on, that I might hide from that stare.
“And who are you, poppet?” Saldis was saying as I was busy trying not to have a panic attack about answering riddles. “Can’t say I’ve seen you before. Not in the library, anyway, and I wouldn’t forget that face in a hurry. Oh no, no indeed, I would remember those eyes. I would immortalise them.”
I tore my attention away from the soaring towers of the Yellow King’s palace and his worryingly large pet. Saldis’ sphere was parked just at the edge of the pale-pink road, open down the front. Milky fog lapped at its base, and at the feet of the forest-knight, who was standing at a polite and safe distance. Inside the sphere, Saldis herself looked none the worse for the experience of navigating the dark. Her pair of rats sniffed about her lap as she leaned forward to peer at Sevens.
Sevens stared back at Saldis with the same wide-eyed intensity she’d used on me, eloquently unreadable, plainly elegant. She’d let go of my hand so she could clasp them behind her back, radiating mild contempt.
Rather than answering Saldis’ question, she raised her eyebrows by a fraction of an inch. A question of her own.
“Neither would I forget such a bearing,” Saldis went on. “Should I be addressing you in any particular way, my lady?”
I rolled my eyes. “I do not have the patience for you two playing games with each other. Not now. Stop it.”
Saldis glanced at me, faintly irritated. “I am not playing a game, lady Morell, I am being serious. Who is … this … ?” She trailed off, mouth forming a little ‘o’ as she turned wide eyes back to Sevens. “Ah.”
“Ah,” Sevens echoed.
“Your royal highness,” Saldis said as she lit up, voice turning oily, delight cresting across her face like a fangirl before her favourite teen pop idol. She put both hands to her own chest as if trying to contain her wild heart. To my surprise, the pair of rats in her lap flopped and rolled in something approaching exasperated boredom. I frowned at them and could have sworn that both of them turned those little black eyes on me in silent solidarity.
“None other,” said Sevens.
“I do beg your forgiveness, ma’am, I should have realised,” Saldis drooled out. “Should have realised! I can be such a dunce at times, I do apologise. Well! I am honoured that you have blessed us by deciding to join us formally and openly.”
“No you’re not.”
“And may I congratulate you on your betrothal? I understand you have felt somewhat shy in the past, and— oh! And you emerged holding hands with lady Morell!” Saldis clapped her own hands together with girlish excitement. That wasn’t an act, of that I was sure, she was actually losing control, for real. “You have reconciled then? No, no, wrong word!” Saldis hissed at herself and bit down on one of her own knuckles. “Damn this English, it is so clumsy at times, is it not?” She gave a nervous laugh and pulled an oily, fake smile for Sevens. “I meant to ask if you and lady Morell have indeed agreed to marry?”
“ … no?”
“No,” Sevens repeated herself. “ No, you may not congratulate me.”
Saldis blinked three times, slowly. “Ma’am? Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, your royal—”
“Why don’t you take your machine and roll it back into the library, you vile little slug?”
Sevens’ voice, sweet and sharp, held not the slightest hint of disgust or disdain. Somehow that made it all the more intimidating. If she had turned that venom on me with those intense eyes and that aristocratic bearing, I would have transformed my own blood to acid and melted myself to escape the crippling embarrassment. Even at the periphery of her gaze, I felt the blow-back like an emotional heatwave. It made me want to curl up and hide my face behind my hands.
Saldis was dumbfounded. Her mouth moved but no sound came out. Her eyes bulged as if she was on the verge of terrible anger.
Sevens tilted her head to one side, turquoise eyes shining with esoteric promise. All of a sudden she was holding a closed umbrella in one hand, the tightly wrapped canopy a subtle lilac caress, the handle made of polished wood. She planted the metal tip against the road surface and tilted the umbrella at a jaunty angle.
A threat, but so absurd I couldn’t process it; she was threatening to hit Saldis with a lilac umbrella.
“Stop,” I raised my voice. “Stop, or I will … get very upset and probably cry.” My tentacles, all except the one still holding my squid-skull mask, rose in silent menace, as if I had any chance whatsoever of restraining these two inhuman beings if they decided to fight. “I need all the help I can get right now. That means both of you, I don’t have anyone else to—”
But then Saldis, to my great surprise, broke into a manic grin, ear-to-ear, delighted beyond words, with eyes only for Seven-Shades-of-Wildly-Offensive.
“Again!” Saldis cried out. “Again, oh please, ma’am, again.” She tapped her chest with her fingertips. “Insult me again.”
Sevens obliged. “Overstuffed sow. Bitch in heat. Knot-bait.”
“Ahh!” Saldis spread the fingers of one hand, face deep in the rapture of true art.
“Oh! Oh, yes!” Saldis cheered, then stopped dead with a frown. “Wait, no, that wasn’t English. What was that?”
Sevens answered by tilting her head the other way and adjusting the angle of her umbrella.
“Japanese, I think,” I sighed, trying to straighten my back — the subconscious pressure of this Outside place was making me want to curl up and stoop, make myself small so I could hide. “I understood some of that. What are you two doing?”
“Rest assured, my dear,” Sevens turned and spoke to me. “I take no pleasure in the act. The insults are real.”
“And that is what makes them shine!” Saldis announced, rocking back in her seat and slapping an armrest. Her rats jumped. “Bravo, bravo! Oh, I am honoured to witness such a display, let alone to be the target of it! Sublime!” She laughed, free and genuine, no longer oily and repulsive, grinning like a madwoman fresh from the attic.
“It is no display,” Sevens told her. “I do not wish for you to accompany us, you pile of offal.”
Saldis controlled her laughter but not her smile. She rolled forward in her seat, sinuous as a snake, and winked at Seven-Shades. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, ma’am. You can’t seriously expect me to back off now, not when you’ve shown yourself and you’re heading for one of the greatest shows I’ll ever see. Besides, I don’t think you would be able to stop me.”
“I could,” I raised my voice, staring at Saldis. She raised her eyebrows at me in surprise. “I could. I could probably find a way to crack your shell, you know that? And I’m betting Sevens could too.” I shot a sidelong look at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, expecting her to be death-glaring at Saldis, but she was already looking back at me, intense and unyielding. My words stuck in my throat at her scrutiny and I almost didn’t get them out. “But I’m asking her not to. Please.”
Seven-Shades-of-Superfluous-Superiority stared back at me for a heartbeat, then closed her eyelids in a glacial blink. An affirmative.
The chill of that gesture made my heart climb into my mouth. She made her disapproval clear even as she acquiesced.
“Thank you, lady Morell,” Saldis said with a cloying tone and an irritating wink. “While I am not certain in your ability to best me, I respect your confidence.”
“That is not license to antagonise Sevens either,” I said to Saldis, keeping my voice firm. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is my fiancee.” My face burned, but I held her gaze. “You keep your fascination with her at arm’s length. No touching.”
Saldis held her hands up in surrender. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Then she nodded at Sevens, a twinkle in her eye. “Besides, I see you’ve already left your mark on the young princess.”
“What? What are you talking about? I … ”
I followed Saldis’ pointed nod back to Sevens, then to the creased sleeve of Sevens’ otherwise immaculate white blouse. That was where I’d grabbed her in my panic earlier, when I’d thought the dark was closing in again.
Sevens followed the look too, turning her head to stare down at her rumpled sleeve.
It wasn’t the only flaw in her austere aesthetics — a few wisps of her blonde hair had been plucked astray by our passage through the roots, part of the hem of her yellow skirt was upturned from her brisk stride, and the low mist was forming condensation on her black shoes. Sevens’ mask was not artificial perfection. I had a sudden and confusing impression that she would be just as collected and elegant if she was covered in blood and sick, like I still was.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly uncomfortable for some reason I didn’t understand. “Oh, yes, that was … that was me.”
“Made time for a spot of sneaky necking before you caught back up with me, yes?” Saldis asked, voice full of tease.
I shot her a look. “No—”
“Yes,” Sevens said. I boggled at her, speechless and blushing. Saldis cackled like the old crone she was.
“Sevens!” I whined.
Seven-Shades-of-Unsubtle-Insinuation watched me with those wide, staring eyes. “You made the mark. Correcting it is your responsibility. Or your choice.”
I huffed, muttering under my breath as I stomped across the three paces that separated Sevens and me. “Can’t believe this, we’re in the middle of Outside, I’m exhausted beyond words and starving hungry, and you’re trying to mark your territory.” I grabbed her crumpled sleeve, straightened it out, and smoothed it down. But I couldn’t make it quite perfect again. Sevens just watched me, her face far too close, until I looked up and scowled at her. “And I am not your territory, as you are well aware. You’re already sharing.”
Sevens glanced down at her sleeve, then back up at me.
“That’ll do, kitten,” she whispered.
I spluttered and turned away, blushing beetroot red. Saldis was beside herself, both hands to her mouth to smother a squeal, practically rolling around in her seat.
“And you can stop that!” I snapped at her. “We did not make out in the dark! Or do anything else!”
“Yes we did,” Sevens countered me, sharp and cool. “For several minutes. Heather is an expert. I had to sit down afterward.”
Saldis squealed so hard I thought she was going to burst from the top of her sphere-machine. Her pair of rats almost fell off her lap. She kicked her legs and laughed and went red in the face, fanning herself with a hand — though not as red as me. I turned away and folded my arms. My tentacles followed suit.
“For somebody you said you dislike, you certainly seem to have no problem amusing her,” I muttered.
“I do it for you,” Sevens said.
We stood there for a minute while Saldis got her breath back and I stopped glowing like a space heater.
“Oh dear, oh my dear, oh goodness,” Saldis was saying. “You two are a riot. Riot? Riot, mmm, crunchy. I like that word, oh yes. I think I threw a riot once, but we didn’t call it that.”
“Cease your prattling,” Sevens told her.
“Yes, yes, of course ma’am,” Saldis answered off-hand, letting out a big sigh. “Oh, it has been a while since I was last out here. Doesn’t look quite the same without all the pennants and pavilions, not to mention the destriers and cattle and the great big whale carcass. Whale? No, that’s not right. Oh well, I suppose English lacks the word, never mind. The King’s servants have done a grand job cleaning up all the gore, though!”
I finally got over my lingering embarrassment and turned to frown at Saldis. She was gazing out across the unearthly landscape with genuine nostalgia.
“How long were you waiting for me out here?” I asked.
“Ten or fifteen minutes. Don’t you worry yourself about fifteen minutes, poppet, that’s a blink of an eye for me.”
“Yes, Saldis, I was very worried about wasting your time,” I said, surprising even myself with the sarcasm in my voice. “Why didn’t you come back for me? I almost got eaten. Sevens had to come rescue me.”
“I never doubted you for a moment, Lady Morell!” Saldis protested, looking taken aback. “Besides, you had your fiancee watching out for you the whole time. You just said, she rode to your salvation.”
I glanced from Saldis to Sevens, both of them watching me, and narrowed my eyes as a cold feeling crept into my chest. “ … you two didn’t plan this together, did you?”
Saldis laughed. “I wish I had!”
“Never,” Sevens said.
“Never?” Saldis asked, a little sadly.
“N e v e r,” Sevens said, slow as ice-cold venom.
“Oh well,” Saldis sighed. “I suppose there’s your proof.”
“All right then,” I said. “Sorry, Sevens, I just … this is too much. Can we concentrate on reaching your father?”
“As you wish,” Sevens said.
“And I’m very glad your gentleman friend made it out in one piece too,” Saldis went on, nodding at the forest-knight still standing a few paces away, his axe held casually over one shoulder. She even shot him a wink and coquettish little smile. “Such a waste when men like that fall to things they shouldn’t have to face. I truly think men should not be involved in war at all, they’re far too pretty to waste on death in combat and besides, they’re not—”
Sevens and I made eye contact with each other and silently agreed to completely ignore Saldis.
Sevens held her hand out to me again, the umbrella in her other hand held at an angle with the tip against the ground. She didn’t need words, but just raised her eyebrows a fraction of an inch. I sighed and slipped my hand into hers, wrapping my tentacles closer about my own body. Then I tugged her yellow cloak tighter around my shoulders too, the best protection I could hope for in this Outside place. But I left the mask off for now.
Sevens tilted her head at me in silent question.
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s be off.”
We set off down the rose-brick road, hand in hand with the knight following after us. His metal boots made a gentle ringing sound with each step. It took Saldis a moment to break off from her musing about the nature of men — which had descended into a treatise about nudity — and realise we were walking off without her. Her grey sphere caught up a few paces later, Saldis herself peering out the front with a grin.
“Ma’am, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” she said, resuming a fraction of her oily tone from earlier. “How may I address you in this most … graceful of forms?”
“As your royal highness,” Sevens answered without missing a beat.
“No name?” Saldis struggled not to laugh; she was enjoying this far too much.
“Don’t start again,” I hissed. “This might be normal for you two, but I am constantly on the verge of freaking out in this place.” I gestured upward with my eyes, at the world-palace in the sky beyond the mist, all around us.
“Have no fear,” Sevens announced, swinging her umbrella with each step. “This is my home, after all.”
The journey along the rose-brick road was tortuously uneventful; my nerves, frayed thin by exhaustion and hunger, told me that I was Outside, exposed, in the open, screaming in the back of my mind that I should be hiding behind a rock or digging a hole in the ground and waiting for the Slip back to reality. Abyssal instinct whined and twitched at the slow ramble across this open moorland, over the crests of mushroom—coloured hills and along banks of pale yellow grass; I wanted to slink into a dark hole and hide from the immensity — not to mention the slow, steady stare of the giant sphinx lounging on the distant palace wall. It watched our every step.
But nothing else jumped out at us. Nothing descended from the clouds. No Outsider nightmare came roaring over the hills. Paradoxically, that made my nerves worse. Half of me would have preferred to fight something with my tentacles.
We passed the strange gardener creature I’d seen from the hillside. He — I thought of it as masculine, though in truth it could have been anything — paused in his achingly slow work of pruning the pale, fungal trees as we passed by. He turned to us, raising a spindly hand in greeting, twelve feet up in the air. Saldis rattled on, ignoring him; I tensed up and tried not to look at the blank expanse of flesh where his face should have been, or the slug-like motions of his fungal charges trying to creep away while his back was turned; but Sevens nodded politely and touched the handle of her umbrella to her forehead in a makeshift salute.
“What was that?” I whispered once we were safely past.
“A grounds keeper,” Sevens said, unconcerned. “What else would it be?”
We walked on past the huge black signpost with its dozens of suggested directions. Sevens did not pause to consult it, which was a relief, because trying to read the signs themselves made my eyes water and my head throb, though I was surprised to see at least two signposts which were very definitely written in French. We followed the rose-brick road onward, to where it wound closer to the steep-sided banks of several of the unnatural-looking lakes. The road itself never dared violate the halos of oddly bare and packed wet earth around each small lake, but it ventured tantalisingly close. I couldn’t resist the urge to stare down into the waters, if only to distract myself from my nerves and Saldis’ constant stream of one-woman conversation.
“—and the last time I was here there were all sorts throwing themselves into the lake of Hali,” she was saying, “in hopes of rebirth. Despite the fact it’s never worked! Can you imagine? Most of them died before they got a chance to begin drowning and—”
The steep sides of each lake were vertically ridged, as if beaten flat by giant rolling pins, or worn smooth by animals sliding into the water. It made me think of seals or penguins slipping down the banks.
As I stared into the sapphire-blue waters of each lake we passed, I began to see that that Saldis had not lied to me earlier — the depths of each lake seemed to extend beneath the margin of the banks themselves, vanishing into shadow under the curve of the earth before joining with the brighter spots of other lakes further off.
They were not lakes at all. Each hole was a puncture in the land. The true lake was subterranean, beneath our feet.
Each opening allowed a narrow shaft of light to penetrate the gloom-filled waters. I squinted into those depths, able to see so much further than I would through earthly liquid, hampered only by the shadow of the land itself.
And far, far below, hundreds of feet down, I caught a faint hint of sinuous folds shifting over themselves. A bed of snakes at the root of the world.
“ … Sevens, what are we walking on?” I asked in a voice much smaller than I’d intended.
She turned to me, eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch, then followed the direction of my gaze.
“Solid ground,” she said.
“Then what is that?” I whispered. “Down there?”
“A distant relative.” She surprised me with a sigh. “Best not stare.”
“ … right. Right you are. Of course. Very rude to stare.”
I decided to keep my eyes firmly ahead until we were clear of the lake and its hidden inhabitant, but that was not much better. As we left behind the dark punctures in the skin of this world and emerged onto the relatively open final half-mile of flat ground before the great doors of the palace, the sphinx which had been lounging above the gatehouse climbed to its feet.
Even at this distance the creature was truly gigantic. It was easily as large as the Great Sphinx of Giza, the statue back on Earth, sixty or seventy feet tall and well over two hundred feet from nose to tail. Unlike the statue, however, it possessed a rough muscularity that made me think more of an actual animal than anything I’d previously seen Outside. Yellow light from the slowly rotating trapezoid nearby caught the sphinx’s glossy yellow fur and fluffy mane, the roll of powerful legs and the swish of the tail. That light glinted in massive all-yellow eyes, set in a human face as big as a car.
It stood up and spread feathered wings, flexing massive pinions in the milky mist, staring at us.
“Oh dear,” Saldis said, in the exact same tone one might use to comment on a slightly fatter than usual cat.
“Yes, oh dear indeed,” I hissed, stumbling to a halt though the creature was still almost a half a mile away. The knight stopped at my shoulder, but Sevens kept going for a couple of paces, still holding my hand until I dug in my heels and made her pause with me. “Sevens, what is that? We can’t— it’s huge— I’m not big enough to deal with that.”
“You will not have to,” she said, cool and unruffled. “My siblings are my responsibility, not yours. I will shield you from their questions and their disapproval.”
I stared at Sevens for a moment, then up at the sphinx again, then back at Sevens. “ … siblings?”
She gave a single, tilted nod, elegant and concise, coupled with a gentle closing of her eyes as she tucked a stray lock of blonde behind one ear. An embarrassing admission.
“Oh, lovely. I get to meet the family.” My head felt light and my heart skipped a beat.
“News of our coupling has already spread. Doubtless, some wish to offer their opinions. Those I will disregard. Some I may mock.”
“The sphinx of the hundred gates,” Saldis murmured from inside her sphere. “I thought it was an illusion until it moved. I … I wish to meet this beast, very much. But also not to meet it, if you take my meaning.”
“My protection does not extend to you,” said Sevens.
Saldis laughed. “Of course it does, your majesty. But just in case, that’s why I take my home with me wherever I go. Snail I may be, but snail I am proud.” She wrinkled her nose. “That sounded better in my head. Ugh.”
“There is nothing to fear. Come.” Sevens gently tugged on my hand. With fear and reluctance in my heart, I picked my feet up and walked onward, trying to resist the urge to throw my tentacles wide to make myself look as big as possible. I locked eyes with the sphinx, but it did not look away.
We passed the metal gibbet cages full of inhuman skeletons, and two spots where the rose-pink road branched off to head left and right around the castle walls, and still the sphinx stared us down.
“Nothing will befall you,” Sevens said. She must have felt how my palm had turned clammy.
I managed a puff of breath, not even a real laugh. “Yes, all safe here. All like a fairy tale.” I slipped into a snatch of song, “We’re off to see the wizard.”
“My father has been a wizard, at times.”
“It was just a joke,” I said, heart hammering in my ribs. That sphinx was massive, it could swat me dead with one paw, pneuma-somatic tentacles or not. “Wrong colour of road, anyway. And this place is much worse than Oz.”
“Not every place Outside is savage, Heather,” Sevens said. I detected the tiniest hint of pride in her voice, so little as to not break plausible deniability. “Some are much more refined than Earth. Such as here.”
“Glad to hear it. Sevens, is there any food to eat in the palace? Human edible food?”
“ … only from my hand, kitten,” she answered after a beat.
“Excuse me?” I blinked at her, blushing again. On her other side, Saldis lit up with glee at getting a front-row seat to this flirting.
“Accept food from no other,” Sevens said. “Even my father. Only I may feed you.”
“Oh, I really have been kidnapped by fairies, haven’t I?” I sighed. “This is absurd, Sevens. I’m so hungry that I can’t think straight, I don’t want to keep walking, I want to stop right here and—”
I got my wish.
One of Sevens’ siblings chose that moment to make clear their displeasure — but it wasn’t the sphinx.
We’d all been watching the gargantuan feline as it had begun to pace slowly back and forth on the palace wall, huge paws padding with impossible silence for something so large, waiting for those wings to split the air and for the creature to glide over to meet us.
The shining yellow trapezoid shape ceased rotating, detached from the tip of the tower where it had been waiting, and boomed through the air toward us like a jet breaking the sound barrier.
It was like being bull-rushed by a piece of architecture.
The trapezoid was far larger than the sphinx and my body simply had no idea what to do, no more than it would if an asteroid was about to hit me. The thing bellowed as it raced through the air, a deep ringing sound like a gemstone screaming, blotting out thought and blurring the senses. I had only a second or two in which to react, but that moment was consumed by slamming my hands over my ears and wrapping my head with my tentacles to block out the awful noise. I stumbled and tried to duck, as if I could do anything to avoid the force of a meteor about to smash us all into paste.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight took two precise steps forward, opened her lilac umbrella, and levelled it at the onrushing trapezoid.
It halted an inch from the tip of her umbrella, decelerating to a stop instantly, still howling.
I actually fell over onto my backside, cowering in unspeakable terrified awe, trying to hide myself inside the yellow cloak. The yellow gem-creature was the size of a skyscraper. Something that big should not have moved, nor stopped so suddenly, nor make those awful sounds.
Saldis had closed her sphere up tight. The ancient mage was playing it safe. Perhaps she was just concerned about her rats.
The forest-knight had fallen to one knee. He was struggling to raise his axe.
The trapezoid unfurled a dozen wings of glowing light, each one easily a hundred feet long; it sprouted a halo of golden yellow, made of esoteric magical symbols which I couldn’t even look at without feeling a nosebleed drip down my face. It howled and bellowed like a jet engine had learned how to perform death metal vocals, wordless sounds that couldn’t possibly be communication. I crawled on the ground, trying to keep it out of my head. But it did not advance past Sevens’ umbrella.
Sevens just sighed. Somehow I heard that over the din.
“Yes, brother,” she said, cold and sharp. “But it is none of your business.”
More bellowing, more noise like being shouted at by a mountain.
“If you would cease being so rude, I would introduce you to her,” Sevens answered. “But you are being a boor. I shall slap you if you continue.”
A crescendo of planetary rage. I thought my eardrums would explode.
“Father took a human lover once,” Sevens said. “Without that, none of us would exist.”
A ding like a bell the size of the milky way.
“Why yes, I am comparing myself to father. Lord knows, you can’t.”
I looked up, shaking and shivering, tears running down my face with loss of control. The trapezoid had departed even quicker than it had arrived — reduced to a yellow spot in the sky as it fled upward into the castle.
Sevens sighed with the tone of one who had dispatched an unwanted caller. She carefully rolled up her umbrella, dusted off her skirt with one hand, and adjusted the angle of her headband. Then she turned and offered me a hand. I took it without hesitation and all but clung to her when she helped me to my feet, wrapping three tentacles around her arm with instinctive need. She was so slender and slight beneath her clothes, but she was like iron where I was shivering.
“Shhhh, kitten, shhhh,” she murmured, gently drying my eyes with a handkerchief she had produced from somewhere. “I told you not to be afraid.”
“That is a bit difficult when getting yelled at by a piece of a moon!” I squeaked, and finally managed to peel myself off her, embarrassed and self-conscious. Next to me, the forest-knight slowly levered himself up to his feet, none the worse for wear.
“The King in Yellow took a human lover?” Saldis asked as her grey sphere bloomed open again. “Was that a bluff, ma’am?”
“It is none of your business,” Sevens told her. “Besides, you had better get back in your ball, you rancid pustule.”
“What?” I asked, my stomach dropping. “Why?”
But Saldis was already closing up. I caught the whites of her eyes, gone wide in terror.
“Because that was the easy one,” Sevens said. She nodded toward the palace. “Here comes trouble.”
During the commotion with the trapezoid, the sphinx had hopped down to the ground. It trotted up the road toward us with dainty feline strides, each footstep the length of a house, tail swishing, eyes blazing with feline curiosity.