any mortal thing – 14.18

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“No, you’re not really him.” I couldn’t keep the shiver out of my voice. “Not really.”

The King in Yellow sighed through a dead man’s lips. He tilted his chin down, as if to look at me over the rim of an imaginary pair of glasses. Alexander Lilburne’s visage wore a note of ostentatious boredom.

“Well, no,” he drawled. “Not literally. Not by your categorically inadequate definition of ‘the real’. But the events which happen on stage, when in role, really do happen. The motions of muscle and sinew are not fake, the sound of spoken words are not hallucination; the dagger in the night may indeed be made of rubber, but the fist which grips it is real flesh. But that’s not the branch of philosophy we’re here to discuss, is it?” He gestured at the empty chair with one yellow-bandaged hand. “You have had an exceptionally long journey to reach this point. No need to tire your feet further. Please, Lavinia, do sit down.”

“I told you not to call me that,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

Wrong response. Alexander’s sick amusement returned like a sunburst from behind the clouds. He showed his teeth and raised his eyebrows, relishing my irritation and discomfort.

I matched his stare. My tentacles itched to reach across the coffee table, yank him out of his chair, and throttle the life from him, or pluck his limbs off, or punch through the thin bone of his skull to scramble his brains with hook and claw. Abyssal instinct screamed incoherent urges to sink my teeth into his throat or jam my thumbs into his eyes. My bioreactor quivered, trying to shed control rods in preparation for a fight. I slipped my hands deeper into the warm yellow darkness of Sevens’ robes so he wouldn’t see them shaking. My body recalled killing this foe once before and it was ready to do so again.

Except this wasn’t Alexander Lilburne; this was the King in Yellow, and he was more than capable of defending himself against something like me.

Keeping that fact in mind was difficult, to say the least.

“ … wait,” I managed, trying to stay focused on why I was here in the first place. “Are you responsible for all this? For Alexander’s revenge? For the dead hands? For … ”

The King in Yellow managed to make his Alexander-mask look so unimpressed that the real man himself would have admitted defeat. He looked at me like I was a particularly dim child who’d just eaten a pound of glue and chased it with a pair of scissors.

“No,” I murmured. “No, the hands started long before I met Sevens, right after Lozzie saved me from Wonderland. Unless you’ve been watching me this whole time, it couldn’t possibly be you.”

Alexander-in-Yellow raised his bandaged hands and gave me a derisively delicate round of applause, fingertips against palm. His smug smile made me want to spit at him, but the clapping itself was stiff and artificial, as if the bandaged body had not quite caught up with the transformation of the face. Was he like Sevens when I’d first met her? An imitation head on an Outsider body?

“Well done, Lavinia,” he said. “You see? You can get there when you try. The phenomenon which interrupts your clever trick of stepping between worlds has nothing to do with me. I am merely wearing the visage of the cause. And such a visage it is, too. Why, just look at him.” The King spread both hands either side of Alexander’s face, striking a self-consciously noble, upward-angled pose, like a bust of a Roman senator. He ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. “This chin, this nose, these lips. This man should have been a real leader, not a con artist and a cannibal, feeding on his fellows. If I’d had my hands on him, I would have molded him into a man worth the tyrant’s death you gave him.”

“Why wear his face?” I asked. In the secret back rooms of my mind, I already knew.

The King tutted. “Lavinia, come now. That question is beneath your intelligence. Playing dumb will not get you far with me.”

I shook my head, so disgusted I could feel acid reflux at the base of my throat. “This is too accurate, this … this method acting, is that what it is? It’s vile. It’s obscene. I killed this man, you … your majesty.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “And you’re making me talk to him again? I mean, yes, I can guess why, I’m not completely stupid, but … ” Saldis’ words rang in my mind, her explanation of what the dead hands really were. “I can’t forgive him. I can’t do that.”

His-Smugness-of-Yellow nodded along, smile cutting deeper than I’d known possible.

“Indeed,” he purred.

I let out a sigh that shuddered with both anger and anxiety, trying to keep a tight grip on my temper, my instincts, and the sandwiches in my stomach, which now sat like cold lead in my guts. I forced my gaze away from the King, away from Alexander’s memory, and looked out at the crowd of 1920s-era cosplayers in their ring around the edge of the circular white room.

A few of them were watching us, but only with an occasional disinterested glance over their drinks. We didn’t present much spectacle compared with the three attractions the King had put on for them — Saldis telling a roaring tale of going a-viking, her three rats the darlings of her listeners; the forest-knight locked in an endless dance of combat with yellow tentacles, showing off his skills with his axe; Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight scuttling about and chattering through her needle-teeth as she repositioned and recombined the actresses in her web of imaginary sapphic romance.

Sevens’ voice seemed so far away, like I was standing backstage.

“This is not a good first impression of my … ” I swallowed and steeled myself. “Of my future father-in-law.”

The King in Yellow shrugged with every ounce of Alexander’s self-importance. He gestured at the chair again. “Sit, please. We have so much to discuss.”

Fighting my disgust, I yanked the chair out with one tentacle and sat down, gathering the mass of Sevens’ yellow robes and smoothing them over my backside as I lowered myself into the chair. I managed to keep my eyes locked with the King, but unfortunately he did not care; his imitation of Alexander’s superiority complex was far too complete. Once I was settled, I fought against the urge to slip my squid-skull mask on over my head — somewhere deep down, I knew this was an unfair contest. If I wore my mask, I would forfeit my opportunity.

“I’ve taken the liberty of making you some coffee,” he said, his smile giving away the game, the set, the match, the whole damn sport. He nodded at the steaming cup on my side of the little plastic table. “I didn’t know if you prefer it black, or heavily sugared, or with milk, so I went with the safe option. Mediocre.” He rolled his eyes. “Boring, but safe.”

“I thought you knew everything about me,” I said, trying to sneer.

Alexander’s eyebrows shot up in carefully controlled surprise. “Why, no. That’s my daughter’s prerogative. I have no interest in stories such as yours, not beyond the proficiency of their technical execution. You and I do not know each other yet, that is the point of this friendly chat. However, I do know that you were bold enough to stand up to me when I wore my armour and carried a sword. Which is why I’ve done my homework, and … voila!” He gestured at his face again.

Hope fluttered behind my ribs. He said it with Alexander’s cloying, oily tones, which invited suspicion and derision, but that was actual praise. How much could I trust?

“You mean Hast—” I cut myself off, biting my lips before I could say the full name.

Alexander laughed at my expense, a stomach-churning sound. He tapped the coffee table with his fingertips. “Hastur, yes. I was impressed, oh, quite, very impressed. Very few beings attempt to defy that. Humans, lesser still. Most would run, screaming, fouling themselves, mere bit-parts to be quickly discarded or used to illustrate some point. A few might get down on their hands and knees and profess their allegiance. But you? You threatened to give me indigestion. That’s front-of-stage material.”

“I’ve been swallowed by worse.”

He smiled and it was all Alexander. All smug self-importance, the look of a man sizing up a prospect to be flattered just enough to ensnare and exploit.

I couldn’t stop myself. I opened my mouth wide and hissed at him.

He just took it, raising his eyebrows and smiling all the wider. When I finished, panting and glowering, he gestured at the coffee again.

“Please, don’t hold back on my account,” he said.

I didn’t even bother looking down at the steaming coffee. “When the real Alexander offered me a drink, it was probably drugged. And I didn’t fall for it then either.”

“Very smart. Very sensible.”

“I am not the same creature I was when I sat at the real version of this table,” I said slowly, letting my tentacles drift outward from inside Sevens’ yellow robes, allowing the hint of a hiss into my words from my twisted, knotted throat. In truth, I did not feel one hundredth as intimidating as I was trying to look. I was a fragile insect trying to flare the imitation snake-eyes on my wings; but this predator was too canny, too intelligent. He saw through everything.

“Hello, not the same creature,” said Bastard-in-Yellow, “I’m dad.”

All my fronting slammed to a halt, mouth hanging open. “ … did … you just … what?”

“Indeed, you are not the same creature you were back then,” the King continued seamlessly after his awful joke. He reached across the table with one bandaged hand and picked up the steaming cup of coffee. As he sat back, Alexander’s mannerisms flowed through his bandaged body, shoulders flexing, one leg crossed over the other, relaxing into a pose of unassailable confidence. He took a long sip of the coffee and smacked his lips. “You have become so much more, Lavinia. After all, when you spoke to the real Alexander at this table, you were not yet a murderer.”

Murderer. He drew the word out, savouring the three syllables like caviar, watching me for the slightest reaction.

I didn’t give him any satisfaction — I looked away, toward Sevens in her weird little blood-goblin mask, scuttling about between her lesbian volunteers. She didn’t return my gaze, too lost in her father’s trick, but I caught a flash of those huge red-black eyes like shadowed rubies, that strangely wide mouth full of tiny sharp teeth, those delicate cheekbones and petite nose. Her bare arms and legs vibrated with energy, like she was mainlining caffeine, cocaine, and cortisol all at once.

I’m not sure why I looked away from the King. What was the point? I knew what he was up to, and what he was trying to get me to do. I knew what this was about. I knew and acknowledged and accepted that I had committed murder. Furthermore, he was wrong in one important detail. He didn’t have me complete. Did he not know?

“This is cruel,” I said. “You know that?”

“Oh, Lavinia,” he sighed with Alexander’s voice, losing patience. “Cruelty is hardly my intention. If I was being cruel, would I have invited you to a friendly sit down? You cannot even imagine what cruelty from me looks like, you—”

“Not this.” I turned back to him and tapped the table with the tip of one tentacle. “That.”

I pointed out at the crowd, our uninvited and unexpected audience. I pointed at Saldis and the forest-knight, at the silently laughing onlookers, the ones making bets, the ones whispering to each other, the ones clapping with delight. But mostly I pointed at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

Lilburne-in-Yellow raised his eyebrows at me. He knew exactly what I meant, the worm, but he was going to make me say it anyway. He wanted to make me say it out loud.

“Ah? Cruel?”

“Yes,” I hissed. “It’s cruel. To put people on display against their will. Saldis, well, probably not her. I’ll bet she’s having the time of life right now. The knight, you’re probably stressing him out, though I don’t know him well enough to be sure. But Sevens?” I shook my head, anger building inside my gut, a head of steam making ready to burst. “You’re mocking her. If that’s how you treat your own daughter, how you treat her passions, the meaning of her life, then perhaps you really are just like Alexander. Perhaps I should pulverise you like I did to him. I’ve stared down the Eye, your majesty. I know how to observe truth. What will I see if I turn that look on you?”

Alexander’s smug amusement drained away, leaving behind a cold landscape of wordless arrogance. I had offended him with that, with a threat that I suddenly realised was not a bluff.

“Are you prepared for what you might see?” he asked, unsmiling. “There is no little man behind the curtain.”

“Stop treating her like that,” I hissed. “Or I’ll claw your face off.”

Kingly Alexander held my gaze for three heartbeats — perhaps waiting to see if I would really do it. I let my tentacles twitch outward, I pulled a control rod out of my bioreactor, and I tensed up to spring out of my chair and across the table, ready to give it everything I had yet again, to defend a friend — or more? — from this abusive monster, even if he was only a mask. A hyperdimensional equation suggested itself in the back of my mind, whispered to me: see.

But before I could pull the trigger, Alexander sighed and looked away. He raised one hand in the air, moving it from side to side to cover the whole room as he clicked his fingers three times. How he clicked his fingers wrapped in bandages, I had no idea.

His clicking got the attention of his yellow children, the entire audience. Hundreds of faces paused and looked toward him.

“Leave,” he said, voice filling the white room. He waggled a pair of fingers at the far side, where we had entered earlier. “Go on, out. Off you go.”

I was expecting them to vanish like dawn mist, like the illusory projections they were. But a chorus of disappointment rippled through the crowd, faces falling, frowns blossoming, big sighs and over-dramatic shrugs and performative stomps. Some gestured toward the display of their choice — most of those were watching the forest-knight’s gladiatorial showdown, though to my eyes the fight was locked in a never-ending stalemate. A few even opened their mouths and began to voice complaints, the first they’d spoken out loud since their chants of “No mask!”

“But father—”

“You can’t be serious!”

“We’ve only just begun—”

“Dear Seven is going to solve this one, I know it, I—”

The King in Yellow clicked his fingers again and jabbed toward the door which had appeared in the white surface of the curving wall. “Now. You will leave.

In his words I caught the faintest hint of the magical compulsion that the real Alexander had used in life, when we’d faced him on the battlements of his grey jade castle, and later when he’d tried to bring Lozzie back to his side. It hadn’t worked well for him then, but the King in Yellow held an authority that Alexander could only have dreamed of. As one his yellow family gave up on the triple show. Drinks were drained, currency changed hands, arms were linked and kisses given and off they went in one great departing wave, sulking and striding and strutting out of the white doors, into the corridor barely visible beyond. Some of them tossed me winks or meaningful nods or just shook their heads. A few of the women blew me kisses. One particularly ancient old man — who was not an old man at all, I had to remind myself — saluted me with a mahogany walking stick, in utter sombre respect.

The King in Yellow clicked his fingers a couple of times more, still holding his hand high over his own head.

“Orbit, Melancholy, Steel,” he said, “you three stay. I may have need of you.”

Three figures detached themselves from the departing crowd, though I saw that all three had not been making the best effort to leave in the first place, perhaps expecting this retroactive summons. The three resumed their places around the edge of the circular white room, roughly equidistant. I recognised Melancholy — she still wore the same face as earlier, brown and weathered and more than a little grumpy, though I hadn’t spotted her in the crowd, dressed in a simple, unflattering black dress from throat to ankle. Perhaps my nap in Sevens’ bed had given her time to return from her trip to the library.

I had no idea who ‘Orbit’ and ‘Steel’ were. One appeared to be a small boy with an ugly smirk on his face, the kind of smirk that told you he’d just tortured a puppy to death. He was dressed in a tiny dinner suit, blonde hair slicked back, slightly overweight. The other was an older lady who looked more like she should be commanding troops on a battlefield than dressed for a party, with close-cropped grey hair and a severe, strict expression, hands clasped behind a very straight back, eyes forward, feet planted.

The rest of the audience finished filing out. A young man with messy hair was the last through the doors. He turned on his heel and pulled them shut behind him with a wistful sigh.

The doors vanished, sealing us inside the white ballroom. Then Melancholy, Orbit, and Steel all changed.

Melancholy didn’t surprise me. In the blink of an eye she was the grand sphinx once more, ten or eleven feet of feline muscle settling down on her haunches to watch the unfolding drama. She caught my eye with her electric yellow gaze, rumbling a deep purr and blinking once in recognition, but offering no encouragement.

The horrible little boy was replaced by a creature which I swear was just a five-foot rectangle of yellow sponge, but then he seemed to change his mind, becoming something not unlike a centaur — if a centaur was one third praying mantis, one third slug, and one third chimpanzee. Slime-coated yellow muscle flowed into bristly arms and green plates, topped by a head with twitching antennae and massive compound eyes. Whatever it was, it was barely Outsider, could have easily been a spirit back on Earth.

The severe older woman, however, donned a true nightmare.

Humanoid, wrapped in a black carapace, shiny like a beetle; tall as Zheng, but all angular and sharp, as if skin was pulled taut around ribcage and hips and every bone of the limbs. All tooth and claw, a living bundle of black razor blades. Elongated head, smooth and black, no eyes. Strangler’s hands. Tail like an anchor-chain tipped with a blade as big as a spade. It curled up on its haunches, squatting like an ape, but moving with the grace and fluidity of a serpent.

As pure visual data it was no more disturbing than half the pneuma-somatic life I saw on a regular basis, but something about this creature was different. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, my bowels clenched in terror, and my tentacles drew into a protective ball around my core. The thing clearly showed it was relaxed, squatting and watching, but a hiss rose in my throat all the same, prompted by a desperate need to signal that I was not prey and I would fight back.

But it was right next to Sevens. She was still chattering on to herself, adjusting her actresses, currently deciding the exact angle at which two of them would kiss. She didn’t even notice the grim reaper crouched next to her.

Abyssal instinct started to scream: that thing had to die, right now, as quickly as possible. I couldn’t even take my eyes off it, because it might move, and somehow I knew that when it did, it would move so very fast. I would lose track of it and it might scoop up Sevens and Sevens was so very small, smaller than me, and could not defend herself. That thing was an infection, a plague; it had to die.

I started to jerk forward out of my chair, skin blossoming with toxins, tentacles plating themselves with molecule-thick iridium and silicon.

“No,” drawled the King in Yellow, most unimpressed. I flinched round to hiss at him, but discovered he was not talking to me. “Steel, no,” he repeated.

The horrible man-beetle-death-thing gave a low hiss to rival one of my own. I bristled and hissed back, but then Steel obeyed her father. In a flicker, the unacceptable aberration was gone, replaced by an actual human — the same grey-haired, strict-looking woman who had stood there before, but dressed in lumpy, shapeless, brown military fatigues. She raised an eyebrow at the King.

“You are here to provide a counterpoint,” he told her, “not antagonise our guest into a life-or-death fight. Have I made myself clear?”

“That is my counterpoint,” she said, voice hard and clipped, not quite human.

Yellow-Alexander pursed his lips, most displeased.

Steel rolled her eyes, but she nodded.

The King in Yellow turned back to me at last. I eased back into my chair, swallowing down the dregs of the killing instinct. With Steel back to her human mask, the desperate need to defend Sevens drained away, surprising me with its intensity. But the dregs of adrenaline still sluiced through my bloodstream.

“Better?” Alexander asked, spreading both bandaged hands to indicate the whole room.

I managed a nod. “Yes. Thank you.”

“I do apologise, Lavinia. It’s this mask.” He let out a haughty sigh, taking another sip from the coffee on the table. The cup hadn’t stopped steaming. “I’ve been wearing it for hours, you see, ever since you stood up to Hastur.” The King gestured at his own face — at Alexander’s face. “He was an exceptionally cruel man, wasn’t he? Classical sociopathic sadist, even if he told himself otherwise.”

“He was,” I answered tightly, still trying to bring my tentacles back in and slow my racing heart.

“Do you think he really believed his own justifications? Was he working to protect humankind, by leaving it behind?”

“I … I don’t know,” I admitted. It was the truth. “I don’t think it mattered, in the end.”

He nodded, slow and smug. “You’ve had your fun, Lavinia—”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Then stop avoiding the subject,” he snapped, suddenly angry, no longer amused — Alexander’s loss of control at loss of face. “You killed me, Lavinia. Little Lavinny. You became a murderer, because of me. Was it worth it?”

“I was a murderer before I killed you,” I said before I could stop myself. “Him. Before I killed him, I mean. You’re not Alexander, not really.”

“Ahhhhhh yes,” Alexander purred, steepling his bandaged hands together. A new kind of smile crested his face: the smile of a successful flanking. He’d expected me to say that, damn him, he did know everything. “The young initiate I sent with Amy Stack, to deliver your invitation to the real version of this friendly little chat. As I seem to recall, you killed him in one of the most horrible ways possible, a fate not even a dog should suffer.”

“I sent him Outside,” I admitted — and my voice cracked as I said it.

For a moment my mind returned to that dirty back alleyway, and to my ill-considered trip to the bookshop in the centre of Sharrowford, unprotected, unaccompanied, without Raine, before my tentacles, before the abyss. I’d run into Twil, but Stack had lured her away and I’d been left alone to be found by one of the cultists, by Alexander’s man. For a split second my body recalled the feeling of being pinned down by somebody bigger and stronger than me, the horror of being helpless, the writhing, twisting, kicking animal sensation as I’d tried to get free. I’d had to get rid of him, get him off me. Tenny had helped, distracted him for a moment, just long enough for me to free my hand. And then I’d sent him Outside. Gone. Long before I’d gained the knowledge to pinpoint location. Even if I had known how to retrieve him, back then one forced translocation left me shaking and spent, empty and exhausted, ready to pass out. I could not have performed another.

“Tell me, Lavinia, do you even remember his name?”

“Jake,” I said without hesitation. “You said it— he said it,” I hissed my correction. “In the coffee shop, the real one. I’ve never forgotten.”

“But that wasn’t murder, was it? You don’t think of it as murder. My blood is on your hands, but only metaphorically, not literally. You killed me without even pulling a trigger, Lavinia, but still I haunt you. You dream about me sometimes, don’t you? I turn up in your nightmares, though you often forget them by dawn. But poor Jake? You don’t dream about him, and you had to touch him with your actual hand, you had to press it into his face to kill him. But it wasn’t murder.”

I tried to wet my lips, but my mouth had gone dry. “It was a murder, technically it—”

“Technically? No, manslaughter at best. Any jury in the land — well, not this land, I mean England — would take one look at you and one look at him and rule in your favour. Reasonable force, belief in imminent attack, all that. No. It wasn’t murder.”

“It was self-defence,” I squeaked.

“Exactly,” Alexander pressed, smiling wide with victory. “And I wasn’t?”

“I mean it was a reflex!” I snapped, losing my temper, losing my cool, everything flooding out. “I wanted him off me, so I sent him elsewhere, but I didn’t mean to kill—”

I slammed to a stop. Alexander leaned back, smiling like a cat with a mouse trapped between his paws.

“But you did mean to kill me,” he said.

“Yes. Obviously, yes!” I turned away, angry and humiliated, having to admit this to the face of the man I’d murdered. I sought refuge in Sevens instead, her diminutive form scuttling about between her living dolls. She was totally absorbed, enjoying every second — not as fun, but as the creative flow of somebody doing what they really loved. That grounded me for a second, brought me back, gave me something to hold onto. I huddled down inside her yellow robes, warm as sunlight on my shoulders. I was shivering.

“Do you regret it?” Alexander asked.

I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it again. I focused on Sevens as hard as I could.

“Would you kill again, to protect your friends?” he went on. “Your family? Your lovers? Your sister?”

“Of course I would,” I said, still staring at Sevens to keep my head clear. “I had to. You were a monster, Alexander. If there had been another way, if I could have put you in prison for life, have you make some kind of restitution, then maybe I would have done that instead. But I’ll never know. Because you didn’t give me a chance.”

“Oh?” he asked, his mocking tone a twisted knife in my gut. “So I am responsible for my own murder? I am both victim and perpetrator? You said it yourself, Lavinia, there were other ways. You chose to kill me, to murder me, when you had other choices. You chose.”

“You were going to kill me and my friends.” I turned back to him at last, the heat in my chest like a runaway nuclear reaction, burning bright and hot and destructive in ways I couldn’t track anymore. “You were giving Zheng a command. We wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“You don’t know that,” he said, calm and cool. “Perhaps I was freeing her, like a final wish for a genie.” He laughed, well aware of the absurdity of his own words.

I swallowed hard, surprised to find a lump in my throat. My hands were shaking and my head was throbbing. Was this what it felt like to confront a person you’d murdered? Even a monster like Alexander Lilburne? There were no psychological guidelines for this, no tried and tested coping mechanisms. No coping mechanisms at all. Nobody in all history had done this before, not outside of dreams and nightmares and waking hallucinations.

This isn’t really him, I told myself.

“Is this … ” I croaked, had to clear my throat. “Is this all to get me to forgive him, so I can overcome the dead hands? Because I can’t forgive him. I can’t—”

“No, not particularly,” drawled the King in Yellow, suddenly Alexander but bored with all this. He leaned back with a sigh, all amusement gone. The tonal whiplash was too much, too unrealistic; I’d barely known Alexander, not for real, but in that moment I glimpsed the Yellow Ocean behind the mask, the player beneath the role, the man in charge.

I blinked at him. “ … what? But I—”

“We can conclude this right here. End this whole charade, this farce, this poorly written slapstick comedy. The nature of your tale does not interest me, Lavinia. My personal expertise, my art, my brilliance — is all in tragedies.” He allowed a thin smile to creep back onto his face. “And a particular kind of tragedy too, not the futile grubbing of worms in the poisonous dirt, but the tragedy of greatness brought low by its own flaws, blinded by lust for power, by ambition. I deal in great men devouring their own intestines, not … whatever you are.”

I puffed out a humourless laugh. “So what, you prefer King Lear? Would you be more interested if I gouged out my own eyeballs?”

A note of interest sparked in Alexander’s eyes, quiet and sudden and very still. “Will you?”

“No.”

He laughed too, a derisive snort. “I thought not. Well then, Lavinia. I have a deal to offer you.”

“A deal?”

“A deal, a contract, a royal writ. I can solve your problem, these so-called ‘dead hands’ which grasp at your ankles and block your path.” As he spoke, the King in Yellow began to unwrap the bandages from his right hand, starting with his index finger. I expected to see the soft palm and manicured fingernails of Alexander Lilburne, but the yellow bandages fell away to reveal flesh the colour of dying sunlight. No wrinkles, no fingernails, no little hairs on the knuckles — just smooth gold, glowing softly from within like the banked heart of a star.

“And I do not merely mean to brush them aside,” he continued as he revealed the hand. “I will brush them aside for all time, for you and Lauren Lilburne alike, and any other miscreants you care to pick up. I will remove the issue. You need not raise a finger but to shake my hand.” He finished the unwrapping process and held out the hand of the King, halfway across the coffee table.

My breath stopped in my throat. One of my tentacles twitched, but I controlled the impulse. “Alexander tried to make a deal with me too.”

The King in Yellow split Alexander’s face in a grin so smug it made me nauseated. “That he did, didn’t he?”

Then he waited. I rolled my eyes. “What’s the catch?”

“Shake my hand, take my deal — and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight cannot go with you.”

A sheet of ice settled in my stomach. “Ah.”

At the edge of the white room, Melancholy tossed her great sphinx’s head, mane ruffling in the air, and snorted through her nose. Steel, still closest to Sevens, sighed with a long-suffering exasperation. Orbit, the boy who had turned into the slug-centaur, made a sound like wet gravel poured into sewage — a laugh.

“You will remove that cloak.” The King nodded at my warm yellow robes, Sevens’ portable embrace, her symbol of affection. “And hand it over to me. It was, after all, never hers to give, not really.”

Something hard and spiky bristled inside me. “Sevens is an adult, as far as I understand, she—”

“She is, but this is a royal family, after all. Inheritance and all that. She is making a youthful mistake and it is my duty as her father to correct her. Don’t worry yourself, she won’t come to any harm.” He smiled, still speaking with a reasonable and mild tone, Alexander with the knowledge that he’d already won. The lie dripped from the gaps between his words. “I’m not going to lock her in her room or take away her possessions or force her into some partnership she doesn’t want. I’m not going to backhand her across her face as soon as you’re out of the picture.”

“Says you,” I snapped. “I can’t believe this. She’s free to make her own decisions.”

“She is making a mistake.” He nodded at the yellow hand, extended halfway between us. “All this deal will do is ensure the pain is minimal. That it happens at home, where she is surrounded by her family. That it is early on in the process, not late, not deep, not scarring. After all, you’ve already done enough damage, haven’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You have forced her against her own nature. Twice now.”

I stared for a moment, with nothing to say to that. I was caked in cold sweat, shivering despite the comfort of the yellow robes. I glanced down at the golden hand waiting for my assent. Tried to slow my thoughts, tried to step back from the situation and think it through. The King in Yellow loved tragedies. Would he sacrifice his own daughter for the sake of a play? Or was it all a lie, was I on the stage right now? I looked over at Sevens, playing with her dolls, but she was insensible to all this.

“This is obviously a test,” I murmured, nothing obvious about it.

Alexander sighed, so unimpressed he was getting bored. “No, the deal is quite real,” he drawled, flexing the fingers of the golden-yellow hand. “This is not Alexander’s, this is the hand of the king. Open your true eye and check if you must, little watcher. You of all beings should be able to verify that.”

I whirled back to him. “Little watcher?”

He shrugged.

“What does that mean?” I pressed. “Is that a term you made up just now, or have you seen something like me before?”

The King in Yellow shook his head. “I told you already, Lavinia, I am not interested in your tale. For you, there is only this deal, this way out. In fact, this is a step too far in the first place, I shouldn’t even really be offering it. I am indirectly helping you in your struggle. But if it will get you to go away, then that is a fair price, and I must pay it like all others.” He sighed, as if affronted at this ‘fair price.’ “Besides, you cannot seriously think that a human being, even one as changed as you, is a suitable romantic partner for one of us?”

“You took a human woman as your wife.”

I blurted it out before I could stop myself, the words tripping off my tongue.

Alexander’s smug, oily smile drained away, replaced by the truth beneath — the cold anger of narcissism challenged. The King was not impressed by my bleating. Despite how far I’d come, despite every change I’d gone through, despite my tentacles and my bioreactor and my yellow cloak and the fact I’d killed this man once before, suddenly I was back there, not in the coffee shop, but in the moment I’d confronted Alexander in his castle, right at the second before I’d killed him. Except this time there was no Lozzie at my side, no hyperdimensional equation burning and ready, no friends coming to rescue me.

“Do as I say, not as I do,” he said.

“So you’re not just a sadist, you’re also a hypocrite,” I managed to squeeze out.

“Lavinia, you do not love my daughter. Not really.”

I had no clever answer to that.

Guilt twisted inside my chest like a parasite made of knives and acid. He — Alexander, the King in Yellow, whatever was speaking — was correct. I did not love Sevens. Did I even respect her? Did I have a single shred of respect for the value and fragility and tenderness of what she felt for me? I barely even understood it; how could I possibly return those feelings?

The King in Yellow was offering me a significant advantage, the removal of an obstacle which stood between me and Maisie, even if I found some other way of getting home in the meantime. The deal would bring me that much closer to my goals: it would get me home, it would ensure Lozzie’s safety. It would take me back to Raine and Evelyn and Zheng, everything I loved. And all I had to give up was the love of a being I didn’t even really understand, the affection of a woman so complex and contradictory that her feelings for me had already damaged her fundamental nature.

All I had to do was shake the King’s hand. That was the sensible thing. The rational choice. The safe decision.

My right arm twitched.

“What is it to be, Lavinia?”

“Shut up,” I hissed.

Abyssal ruthlessness was silent. This was a higher-order function. But I barely functioned at the best of times.

Everything the King had said in Alexander’s voice was disgusting — not just because Sevens was my friend, but on principle as well: that she didn’t have the right to decide for herself, that her love was not her own to give, that father knew best. I turned to stare at Sevens. She scuttled about between her dolls, a weird little twisted thing all mushroom-pale skin and hot obsession.

I wanted to protect that creature. An ugly duckling full of passion and delight. There was something supremely beautiful about her like that.

But even that was not the real her. Even that was a mask. The real her was abyssal. The King’s domination and abuse would not be remotely human, not even physical, material, not here — so not valid?

All of this, even the deal, even his words, were play and pretend. That was what these yellow beings were. Play and pretend.

And suddenly I knew what to do. He’d said it himself.

We are what we pretend to be.

I whipped out one tentacle and slapped away the King’s golden hand.

“Don’t insult me,” I hissed.

Heart in my throat, lead in my belly, adrenaline surging through my veins, I managed to sound an awful lot more confident than I felt. Bioreactor thrumming, legs ready to throw myself out of the chair, I was prepared to fight over this — over Sevens. Abyssal instinct zeroed the path between me and Sevens as I hatched a plan to sprint to her, scoop her up, and take us elsewhere, anywhere, any other Outside dimension — before Steel could turn back into that death-beetle-thing and reach her first at the King’s snapped command.

But to my incredible relief, the King started laughing.

Sadly, it was Alexander’s laugh, an oily, self-satisfied chuckle, with narrowed eyes of mocking disbelief. He withdrew his offered hand and picked up the coffee instead, taking a long sip to douse his laughter.

“It’s not funny,” I snapped.

“It’s not, of course it’s not! Oh, Lavinia, courage is never comedic,” he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm. He placed the coffee back down with exaggerated care. I was fired up now; I wanted to slap him across the face as well. One of my tentacles twitched in that direction, and he mockingly raised a hand ready to bat it away, as if playing with a feisty kitten. “Oh, Morell. Would you have taken a deal if the real Alexander had offered you one?”

I hissed through my teeth, aching to hit him. “What? What sort of deal? What are you talking about?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He gestured airily with his unwrapped golden hand. “Say, free passage home for you and your friends? Plus, of course, an iron-hard certainty that he would cease all his experiments, never raise a finger again, never touch a single hair on some poor runaway’s head.” Alexander’s voice hardened as he spoke, springing the trap. “Would you have let him live?”

“ … I … no. No, he had to die. He had to. Everything he’d done, and with Lozzie, he—”

“So it was revenge?” His words were hard now, flying at me like spears as he leaned forward over the table, eyes boring into me. “You are judge, jury, and executioner?”

“Not revenge, no. Everything he was doing in that castle, his cult, the dead children, all of it was wrong, he had to—”

“Did you have that right?”

I blinked, frowning hard, feeling like I was sinking in quicksand. “Right? Right doesn’t come into it. Look at what he was the head of.”

“You are so close to understanding. These things are institutional,” Alexander all but growled. “Killing one man, even a leader, does not stop the exploitation, the evil, the suffering. Is that your justification? You are not that naive, Lavinia. You grew up sheltered, but you have learned since then, from your comrades if not from books. Killing me stopped nothing, the act merely dispersed it. My uncle, Edward, he is out there right now, continuing the horror and the abuse, and you know that. And you will not kill him as easily as you ended me.”

“But, everything you were doing—”

“How many protegees have I made, even in death?” Alexander ran on, face a mask of righteous obsession. “Can you be certain Sarika will not turn, in due time? Better kill her too, yes? And all the others I taught, all the rest, they have to go as well. And what about you, what about the cult that is gathering around you? Will you be like me one day?”

“No. Never. Never, I—”

“Killing one man has not stopped the process,” he hissed.

“He had to die,” I murmured, voice shaking.

“Did you have the right?”

“Right isn’t—”

Alexander Lilburne slammed his hand down on the coffee table so hard it made the cup fall over. Brown liquid sloshed out and over the edge and onto the floor. Eyes blazing with the fury of arrogance, he shouted over me.

“Did you have the right, Lavinia!?”

I knew that goading anger too well. It was the exact same way he’d looked the moment before I’d killed him, screaming at me that I wouldn’t do it. An anger that would never admit defeat, never admit wrong doing, never admit what it really was.

“Killing isn’t what mattered!” I screamed in his face. “Keeping my friends alive is what mattered! That’s building something real! Something better. Not just for sentimental emotion, but for community, for mutual support, for each other. Greater than me alone. A whole.” I felt myself dial down with every word, anger leaving me like spent steam. “And to save that, you had to die.”

Alexander’s eyes bored into me.

“ … yes,” I whispered. “For that, I had the right.”

And with that, a mote of guilt left me. I’d been holding onto it all this time. A weight so tiny, so insignificant. The true meaning of the murder I’d committed.

A few stray tears rolled down my cheeks. I sniffed hard. Alexander sat back, suddenly impassive. I stared at him and did not see the King.

“I’m sorry I had to kill you,” I said. “But I don’t regret it. You can’t hurt anyone anymore. You’re dead. Just rest.”

I felt no forgiveness. Only responsibility.

The King in Yellow nodded. “Goodbye, Lavinia.”

And then there was no Alexander Lilburne. Gone quicker than I could draw breath.

Sitting in his place on the other side of the coffee table was a man I’d never seen before. Tall and gangly in an awkward and apologetic way, as if a tree had uprooted itself to relocate, but had been invited to a tea party halfway through, too polite to refuse. The yellow bandages were gone, replaced by a set of comfortable white robes and a pair of sandals on his feet.

His skin was the colour of coffee with too much milk, warm brown but rarely exposed to the sun. Perhaps middle-aged, his curly black hair showed some grey at the temples, cut short around a pair of comically large ears. A matching salt-and-pepper beard and heavy moustache were both neatly trimmed and lightly oiled, which framed a gentle mouth and an overly large nose. High, noble cheekbones highlighted thick dark eyelashes and carefully plucked brows.

The only yellow was in his soft, puppy-like eyes, with irises the colour of burning brass.

I’d never been attracted to a man — and I wasn’t then either — but even my decidedly lesbian self could tell this mask was the King in Yellow at his most handsome and approachable.

“Really?” I sighed, unimpressed.

He lit up with a warm smile which crinkled the corners of his eyes, like a friendly uncle who’d just seen me enter through a rarely used door.

“I am sorry, but it is one’s nature,” he began, in an accent which flattened all tonal stress, vaguely Middle Eastern but which I couldn’t place. “Your— ah!” He noticed the fallen coffee cup and the brown puddle still spreading across the table and the floor, quickly righting it with one long-fingered hand and fussing over the mess, though not actually bothering to wipe it up. “Ahh, I can be so clumsy, so clumsy, what a terrible display. Oh, no, no no.” He threw up his hands, laughing at himself, looking around the room to his three yellow children — Melancholy snorted, Steel pointedly ignored his silent request, and Orbit stuck out a three-foot long barbed and steaming tongue.

“But I have sent all my help away,” the king laughed. “It seems I am alone with the mess I have made.”

“That’s not a very subtle metaphor,” I blurted out, still reeling.

“Not a metaphor, not at all. Well, perhaps a little.” He shot me a wink, scooted his chair back from the puddle, and rummaged around in his robes until he produced a battered paper bag. He dug out some kind of sugar-dusted dough ball and popped it into his mouth, then held the bag out toward me, speaking as he chewed. “Would you like one?”

I stared at him, then into the bag full of baked sweets. I could barely summon the coherence to shake my head, the whiplash was too great. I tried to huddle inside Sevens’ yellow robes, folding my tentacles around me for support, clinging to the real.

“Really?” He seemed surprised. “They are delightful. Very light, very fluffy, not heavy on the stomach.”

“No. Thank you,” I grunted. He shrugged and retracted the offer, plucking out another treat for himself and chewing with relish.

All I could do was stare, my catharsis turning to rot in my belly. He’d brought me to a genuine conclusion, lifted the weight of murder from my shoulders, opened my eyes — and this was how he reacted?

“I can’t … I … how can you do this?” I asked. “Right after you were being him? What if I hadn’t done what you were waiting for? What if I hadn’t reached your desired conclusion?”

“Desired?” He blinked at me. “It was a collaboration. We were writing it together. You and I.”

“My life is not a story.”

“Every life is a story.” He smiled like an indulgent uncle, the genuine affection undeniable, battering against my outrage. “It is how we are made, how we are structured. Structure is everything, you know? It is born up here.” He tapped his forehead with his fingertips. “And we impose it on the world. Otherwise, we are animals, without narrative.”

“ … what if—” I cast about and found Sevens again, still flitting between her playthings, now in the process of making three separate couples kiss. “What if I’d decided differently? What if I’d decided to kill you? Or kidnap Sevens to save her? Because I would have done. I was inches from doing that. Would you have stopped me from writing the wrong story?”

“Oh, no. No, far from it. Then we would inhabit a very different story to the one we find ourselves in.”

I boggled at him. “Are we still in a play? Is this still your bloody stage?”

He shrugged and smiled all the wider, eyes glistening with admiration. “Not mine. Yours.”

That smile was worse than any mockery from Alexander Lilburne. The King in Yellow wore his kindly guise, but I suspected he would wear it just the same if I had been reduced to a mental breakdown, never able to overcome the reality of murder. The smile was a mask. Power lay behind it. I had narrowly avoided disaster, at nothing more than his whim.

“Then how much of what you said was true?” I demanded. “How much was an act?”

The Gentle King spread his hands and almost dropped the paper bag of sweets, making a comical recovery at the last second. I snorted a non-laugh and shook my head, disgusted at the display of slapstick harmlessness.

“What about the dead hands?” I asked. “I feel … I mean, what I felt just now, that was real, but they—”

“I think you will find no trouble from them now, miss Morell. I think Mister Lilburne’s ghost will understand.”

I tried not to thank him for that. He had not done all this for my sake, merely for his own amusement.

“Everything is a play to you people,” I hissed.

“Guilty, always guilty, yes. The play’s the thing, haha!” He spoke the laugh out loud, grinning like he’d offered me a present.

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king?” I spat the rest of the Hamlet line back at him. “I doubt you have one. Now what about Sevens?” I demanded, pointing with one tentacle at where she continued her one-woman play. “How much of that was real? If you’re still going to confine her and stop her from—”

The Kindly Monarch in Yellow flourished one floppy white sleeve and tried to click his fingers, but the dramatic gesture was thwarted by the sugar dust all over his hand. I doubted his power relied on the sound itself, but he still fussed and tutted, licking his fingertips clean before trying again.

Click.

All at once, the three private plays across the stage of the white room came to a halt.

The forest-knight reacted with the least surprise; his duel with the endless yellow tentacles ceased as his opponent suddenly drew away in a quivering ring, then transformed back into the 1920s caricatures. Laughing and slapping each others’ shoulders, the imitation-humans linked hands and took a bow toward the knight, who was paused in the act of bringing down his axe. He held the pose for a moment, then straightened up and returned the bow. I didn’t think he was in on the play, just being polite.

The murmur of Saldis’ nautical tale stuttered out in confusion as her audience suddenly stopped paying attention. All of them turned toward the King with the look of actors interrupted by their director, eyebrows raised and hands spread in silent question, though the ones currently holding the rats kept petting and fussing over them.

Saldis looked so very crestfallen. “I … was just getting to … excuse me? Ladies and gents?”

“We’ll carry on,” one of the young women called to the King, “if that’s all the same to you, sire?”

He waved permission. Saldis got her attentive audience back, but she seemed more than a little shocked, blinking at them, at me, and at the King, as if she’d just realised she’d been hoodwinked all along.

But I didn’t have attention to spare. Sevens was tugging my heartstrings.

The moment the King clicked his fingers, Sevens’ tableau sprang out of their carefully selected poses, ruining her work in one fell swoop. They all stepped back from her with giggles on their lips, smiles hidden behind fluttering hands, making teasing eyes at each other. Sevens let out a noise like a cross between a surprised toad and a steam kettle, sprawling onto her skinny bum in shock before scrambling back to her feet, shoulders hunched and hands drawn in close to her chest.

Flushed bright red with embarrassment, showing all her needle-teeth in a grimace, black eyes bulging, she twitched and spun about with all the nervous energy of a frightened rodent. Lank and greasy hair trailed behind her. She snapped her teeth at Steel and boggled at Melancholy, then finally noticed the King in Yellow, her father.

Gurgling between her teeth, pattering on the balls of bare feet, she rushed over to him with those spindly pale legs, face burning.

“Daaaaad!” she yowled with all the force of a betrayed teenage girl, between teeth like pins. “Fuck!”

“My jungle rose,” he said, smiling that ingratiating smile. “You were wonderful, well—”

She slapped him across the head, a clumsy open-palm mash. He took it in his stride, laughing and putting up his hands in surrender.

“Fuck you! You shit!” she screeched, not amused.

Perhaps she’d forgotten I was present. Her red-black eyes flickered around, searching for more targets on which to vent her embarrassment — but then she juddered to a halt at the sight of me, mouth hinging open, eyes wide as night.

There was no time to think. If I’d thought, I would have failed. I acted on instinct.

I reached out quickly with a tentacle and grabbed one of her small, translucent-pale hands, almost curled like a claw. It was clammy and bony, but very solid.

“No!” I blurted out. “Don’t change!”

She grimaced at me, cringing so hard she almost curled up in a ball. From the back of her throat she made a hissing gurgle like some kind of sunless cave-lizard. “Nooooo—”

“Yes! Sevens, this is you as well. Look!” I squeezed with my tentacle, adding one of my actual hands too, wrapped on top of hers, clinging on hard. “Look, I’m holding your hand. Nobody is forcing me to.”

“Nnnnnnnnnn … ” She grumbled, still blushing bright red, but she didn’t run away. She didn’t change, didn’t switch to a different mask. She shuffled away from her father and got close to my side on little tip-toe footsteps, then grabbed a nervous handful of my yellow robes. She hung on tight, staring at the floor, too mortified to speak.

The King in Yellow uttered a long sigh. “I see it is too late to break this bond. As it was with myself.”

“So you really did have a human wife?” I asked.

“Did!” Sevens rasped at him. “Don’t lie!”

The King nodded. “I bound myself with that decision. I loved her, and love limited my scope, my range, my creative vision. But!” He raised a finger. “Limitation is the mother of invention. Boundaries give us shape.” He gestured at himself, then at Sevens. “You see?”

“And you don’t wish the same for your daughter?”

He sighed with undeniable sadness. “I love all my children, but few of them are mature enough to move beyond imitation, beyond plays, to change their nature in truth. The three you see here?” He gestured outward with arms wide, at Melancholy and Steel and Orbit. Melancholy yawned a cat’s yawn. Steel inclined her head, eyes narrowed, disapproving. Orbit, still a slug-centaur, clasped his ape hands together and raised them over his insectoid head in celebration. “They,” the King continued. “They are the only ones who have gone beyond plays. And two of them—” He glanced at Steel, then at Orbit, with a strange pride in his eyes, half admiration and half terrible sorrow. “Their forms of love would be alien to you. Horrifying, most likely.”

“There is no horror in bearing new life,” Steel raised her voice, cold and certain. “However it is achieved.”

The King winced slowly, with a sad smile.

“Melancholy,” he said, “she knew human beings, like I did, and she knew what she was doing. And it hurt her. But you, miss Morell, or may I call you by your first name?”

“ … if you want. Just not Lavinia.”

“Heather, then. You may live forever, if you play your pieces well. Perhaps you will be good for my daughter.”

“I don’t care about living forever. I’ll settle for saving my twin. You know that already, and I won’t lie.”

“That is what I am afraid of,” he sighed.

“I want to help her!” Sevens said in that chittering gurgle-voice. Her fingers tightened on my yellow robes. “Dad, I want to help!”

He raised his hands in surrender once more, but had nothing left to say from behind his kindly smile.

“That’s it then?” I asked. “We’re just … free to go?”

“If you wish,” he said.

Making sure I had a firm grip on Sevens’ sweaty little hand, I stood up from my seat. My tentacles flexed outward and several of my vertebrae popped as I straightened my spine. Every muscle was sore with tension and my t-shirt was stuck to my skin. This entire encounter had probably shaved a few years off my life.

Sevens hopped from foot to foot, as if unsure if she should break away or toward me, run or snuggle. She was a few inches shorter than me and wouldn’t look at my face. For the first time ever, I think I understood how Raine felt about me.

I turned to her and caught her with eye contact, as if pinning her to a wall. She went stiff and still, black eyes staring back into mine, red pupils dilating wide. Her face was so sallow and pale. It was like looking into a pair of shadowed rubies set in cloudy ivory. There was a dangerous beauty to this mask; my ape instincts told me to stay away from this opportunistic predator, but there was something in her scent, her nature, the urgency of her movements. It drew me in. I wanted to run my fingers along the razor blade. I’d never felt anything like it before.

She cringed away from me, as if expecting a blow.

“Sevens, will you come home with me?” I murmured.

“Like this?!” she rasped. “After you saw … nnnuurrrggggg … ”

“Yes, like this,” I laughed with relief. “Like however you want. However you are. Please?” I took a handful of the yellow robes in my other fist. “I accept. I do. I mean, maybe we can’t get actually married, that’s a technical question for later. A big, complex, messy one. But I accept you. Come home with me?”

“Rrrrrrrrr,” she made a noise like an uncomfortable dog, but she nodded.

I blew out a slow sigh of relief, then turned to the King once more, still sitting comfortably.

“And you,” I said. “Can’t you help me against the Eye, if I’m with your daughter?”

The King raised his eyebrows in surprise, then laughed softly. He gestured around again. Steel was shaking her iron head. Melancholy had raised her eyebrows. Orbit curled up on himself, slug-safe.

“Look around at my court,” said the King, suddenly growing grim and serious. “Look at me, examine me, daughter-in-law to-be. To you I might seem as a god, but in truth I am only a single step removed from you and yours. For all the beauty and pageantry of Carcosa, for all the latent cruelty in my children, for all that I have shown men the hells of their own creation, though I was once the ruination of cities and the coming of the red death … I could no more stand unprotected before Casma than you. There is no help I could render unto you that my daughter has not already gifted.”

“Daaaaaad,” Sevens hissed between her teeth, cringing with embarrassment.

“But if you ever find yourself trapped Outside again, little watcher,” he said. “My house has many rooms.”

“ … thank you.” I nodded as politely as I could manage, still completely overwhelmed. “‘Little watcher’?”

He shrugged. “Poetic license. The Casma watches. You are its heir, but you are not as it. Only little. In the good way. I make my peace now, with the little watcher, that I may be observed favourably in the future.”

“If you say so.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I squeezed tight on Sevens’ hand, to make sure she wasn’t about to run away, then turned to gesture to Lozzie’s forest-knight, but he was already approaching my side, towering over us in his chrome armour. He lowered a hand onto my shoulder, properly anchored. The King nodded politely to him, but he didn’t nod back. When I checked over my shoulder for Saldis, I received only a wave in return, over the heads of her adoring audience.

“I think I’ll stay and get to know these wonderful people!” she called.

One of her big black rats was perched on the shoulder of a man facing away from us. The rat caught my eye and I swear it laughed as only a rat can. Saldis would be fine on her own, I guessed.

“I will come visit, sister,” Melancholy purred, head lazing on her paws. “Keep a bed fresh.”

Sevens couldn’t even look at her, still flushed with embarrassment, eyes downcast.

“Are you ready?” I whispered to Sevens.

“ … no,” she croaked.

“Time to go home, regardless. I’m exhausted.”

The familiar old equation spun up in the back of my mind, burning hot and toxic. The King rose to his feet and gave me one last smile, too sweet and too warm to be real. I knew that if things had worked out differently here, he would have smiled just as warmly at my steaming corpse.

I executed the equation, and took Sevens home.

Out.

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32 thoughts on “any mortal thing – 14.18

    • unclear, considering she tried once and did so very much not controlling it. But also Sevens put out the nuclear fire with relative ease, so it probably wouldn’t do much. However, I bet that she could back up her threats decently well through some means or another.
      Still, even a lesser god is a god. She may not yet have the capacity to take one head on and win.

    • Okay, outside of the story, word-of-author, meta-commentary? Against the King, absolutely not, he could just do whatever he wants. Against Steel? Heather could probably beat her, at the expense of risking serious wounds, but she’s got a chance. Melancholy, ehhhh, maybe? Heather is more likely to get flattened there. Against Orbit yeah lol he’d run like a little bitch.

    • She can certainly trigger the reaction. Considering Sevens snuffed out Heather’s near attempt at blowing herself up it’s… difficult to say if it would affect the King and his family.

      I almost feel like the ‘intent’ behind the ‘fire’ would be more damaging than the fire itself to these beings. Granted, a bomb is still a bomb and is still devastating.

  1. Hmmm, coming home engaged, with a squid skull mask, not in your original clothes, after going through a few mind altering experiences that include: interacting with your future father in law, traversing a castle that doesn’t give a damn about which way is up, and various Outside landscapes… all in the span of day? Roughly?…

    Heather knows how to party…

    Vote here if you would like to show your support for Katalepsis:
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    • Heather has probably had a more eventful night out than Lozzie. At least, hopefully.

      And thank you for all the votes! Thank you for all the support of Katalepsis!

  2. Alright, I realized I also had to remark on this: Seven’s arc has been utterly fantastic.

    Thinking about the stitched up Raine doll oh so many chapters ago; Seven’s was a rather nasty (unknown) entity that I viewed as being the equivalent of a ‘monster of the week’ problem.

    From that impression… to now. She’s fucking nuanced, an adorable gremlin, and one of my favorite characters along side so many other amazing characters.

    In fact, my hat is off to you for creating so many colorful, brilliant, and varied personalities.

    • Thank you very much! Her arc ended up evolving in ways that even I didn’t full expect, breaking out of the outline that I had for her in my notes and plans, and it’s been a delight so far! I’m glad that it has worked for the readers and that she is such a delight and has worked as a way of exploring so many different themes.

      And you are very welcome, it is the delight of readers that keeps me going!

  3. And now Sevens has joined the party. Heather’s polycule is becoming stranger and stranger, and I love it.

    Good luck, Sevens. It’s one thing to be the director behind the stage, but by joining the Morell polycule, you’re going to have to be a player on the stage yourself. Treating the rest of the household and the other partners as equals, instead of as props; that’s going to be her big challenge, I think.

    The King is just so delightfully inhuman, even while imitating humanity. I love how you write cosmic horror and eldritch entities. I just got this chapter, and I’m already craving the next one!

    • Heather’s polycule grows larger, but also more detailed.

      Ooooh yeah, Sevens is going to have a lot to learn. She’s left her position as a maker of the stage and stepped onto it herself, or … off the stage as a director, and into the real? One or the other, it’s going to be difficult.

      The King was super fun to write, very unexpected and different, and I didn’t truly know how he was going to be until he hit the page. Glad you liked the chapter so much, thank you!

  4. King in Yellow did a dad joke?! He must’ve slipped that one past the mask because that’s not something Alexander would do.
    Its strange, despite it supposedly being the King emulating Alexander, unlike the genuine article, I didn’t dislike him in the slightest. I actually enjoyed his performance. Which is odd because if anything, both sides of the yellow king demonstrated here remind me of myself, just with zero restraint (or morals when it comes to his preferences being gruesome tragedy).
    Guess I’ve fully accepted my shadow.

    Steel pulling out a full Xenomorph form straight out of Alien. And her method of creating new life even causing him to cringe a bit, yeah the face-hugger to Chest Burster life cycle is a tad messed up. Though in his mind it would probably be the lack of elegance in the killing of the host.

    Seven-Shades-of-Blushing-embarrassment was adorable. Someone new on the top list of huggable characters along with Lozzie and Tenny.

    Heather managing to pull off the “Good ending” to this encounter was truly a close call. Glad the only “cliff-hanger” is her warping home.

    The King in Yellow being worried that all Heather is focused on is her sister. My view on it is, once she obtains her goal successfully, considering she has built herself up to this point entirely focused on this one goal, will the relief be well received? Will it be like a miraculous healing of a debilitating mental or physical ailment? Or will it be like removing the pressure from someone’s skull between 2 stones only for them to die upon removal? Or even a Deep sea creature rabidly brought to the surface? Hopefully nothing so extreme in either direction. Regardless If she has no concrete plans/goals past attempting saving her other half, it could actually be a major issue regardless of whether she fails or succeeds.

    Of course what worries him about that is how it will effect Sevens I’m sure, he could hardly care less about Heather, even if he has some superficial interest in Heather as a character. Unless there’s more to it than that, perhaps a loss direction could lead to something far worse than a ‘little watcher’ born from Heather than what would be so otherwise.

    • That dad joke has now slain countless readers!

      As for the King in Yellow feeling different to Alexander himself, I can assure you it felt different while writing him too, in a subtle way that I haven’t quite processed yet.

      Steel! Legally distinct xenomorph, ahem. But yes! There is little elegance in that act of love, as defined by the King, however much terrible beauty lies in the resulting creature.

      Ah yes, I decided this chapter really needed to end not on a cliffhanger, since this is the end of an arc, moving on to new things, and after overcoming all this we needed a bit of a narrative pause – if only for a moment.

      Perhaps once Heather attempts (or fails) to rescue Maisie once and for all, she will find a new purpose in life. Or perhaps the results of such a rescue attempt will provide their own new purposes. Only time will tell!

      • Weird fact about Steel’s form, its based off of a sea invertebrate called phronima, its a relative of shrimps and crabs, it likes to snatch the bodies of Jellyfish and hollow them out, making a floating home. Scary looking, but pretty small.

        In regards to Maisie, I have a strange theory that came about once it was basically confirmed the Eye believes Maisie and Heather to be two parts of the same whole (literally). What if Maisie and Heather have both been taught half of the Eye’s knowledge in regards to HDMs, since I’m sure it would be deemed unnecessary to teach the exact same things to two parts of the same whole. Same foundations but two completely different sets of application methods.

      • Iiiiinteresting observation on Steel’s form. Sure. Indeed. Yes.

        So, taking your theory there, what happens when Maisie and Heather get back together and … put their heads together?

  5. TFTC! I think I follow; the dead hands were powered by Heather’s own feeling of guilt — she believed (… until now) that the dead Alexander L deserved some power over her.

    • You are very welcome indeed! Thank you for reading!

      Guilt, indeed. Guilt and a lack of understanding of the true justification of why she killed him, the real reasons. With those resolved in her mind, perhaps the hands will no longer have any power over her?

  6. What a conclusion!

    This was a fairly spectacular showing of the King here. Truly his audience know they have been met.

    Very impressed with Heather too, she’s got some real eloquence even at the height of confronting past traumas. Choreographed or not, it’s easy to see why even the Outsiders like her. A cross-dimensional cult of personality.

    Gotta say though, I’m worried about the knight. Is he going to fall apart as soon as they make it back to reality? Does he know where they’re going?

    I do wonder what makes reality so special. There’s plenty of Outside places, and although they’re all deeply disturbing in their own way they’re still somehow oddly similar.

    • Thank you! I’m really glad I could push this arc and these themes to a strong conclusion!

      Heather certainly is attracting a lot of approval and attention. A cult of personality indeed. She better be careful where that could lead! She’s not much into power for power’s sake, but even she is not immune to the effects.

      The Knight! Let’s just say, Heather might have to deal with some issues on her return. We’ll see …

      What makes reality so special? A good question. If you asked 10 mages you’d get 11 different answers!

    • Oooh thanks for spotting that, I forgot to hit the enter key while updating some stuff yesterday morning, fixed it now!

      And yes, well spotted. Spengelbab seemed like he would fit Outside, if only for a second.

    • Papa may be right, but children have to figure these things out for themselves. And even if for the best, it would have been churlish to abandon Sevens in exchange for help. I don’t think the King really wanted his bargain to be taken.

      • It was more a test of Heather’s character. He already knew she was rather bold and brave, enough to face his “combat form” and threaten to give it ulcers. If she took the offer then he would be proven right, she was absolutely the wrong choice for Sevens. But now that she decided to not only face her guilt, but also not abandon Sevens, and he saw how they interacted, he realized his worries were unfounded in that regard.
        He initially found Heather amusing, then irritating, but by the end, I think he was genuinely impressed, leading him to switch to his gentle form. Had she went down a different path, I’m certain she would have seen a very different mask or he would have remained Alexander till she left.

      • Interesting! Perhaps he didn’t want it to be accepted, but he had to offer it anyway, just to be sure of Heather.

    • “Seven Gradations of Grubby Goblin Girl.”

      I love it, thank you! Can you imagine Praem trying to make her take a bath though? Like a cat.

  7. Ah I loved this chapter. The King is such a compelling character.

    There’s such a conflicting feeling, to interact with someone who can seamlessly switch between playing such disparate roles, completely genuinely. He’s such a good actor, and he respects the roles so much, it feels that you really are at the whims of whatever face he is wearing at the moment.

    • Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it! I found the King very compelling to write as well, and I hope the narrative will give us a chance to see him again eventually. His switching was very challenging to write but also deeply satisfying.

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