In the space between one world and the next, dead hands closed around my ankles.
But now they were weak.
Skin and bone do not provide much strength. The hands had been dead for so long that all their muscle and sinew had withered away to dust, their nails had turned yellow and brittle, and their grip was no tighter than a chance brush with a leafless branch, barren and winter-bare. How had I never noticed before? How had such an emaciated grasp ever held me back? They tried to scramble and scrabble and scuttle up my trouser legs, but they didn’t possess strength enough to climb.
I could have shaken my ankles loose, kicked the hands away, and carried on without a backward glance.
Instead, in that forever moment of non-time inside the membrane between reality and Outside, I reached down — not with my tentacles, not with toxic defences and venomous stingers, not with rending teeth and ripping claws, but with my plain old human hands, or at least with their analogue in that place where nothing truly existed.
Gently but firmly, I removed what was left of Alexander Lilburne’s ambition from around my ankles; I held the hands for a heartbeat, bony and dead and without true will.
Then I pushed them off into the static, and let go.
We — that was, myself, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, and Lozzie’s dutiful forest-knight — landed back in Number 12 Barnslow Drive with all the grace and elegance of a mistimed leap off a deflating bouncy castle.
My feet touched solid floorboards for about half a second. I caught a whirling glimpse of the ex-drawing room, Evelyn’s magical workshop, all dark wood caressed by the fuzzy grey shadows of early morning, with a soft pool of warm light floating in the middle, a beacon calling me back across a dark ocean. Home flooded my senses, the familiar scent of the house, of old furniture and peeling paint and fresh laundry and steamed rice and chicken casserole and cumin and paprika and black pepper and Raine’s shampoo and Evelyn’s hand cream and feminine sweat and rumpled sheets and pencil lead and printed pages and traces of my own bodily oils on a hundred surfaces. I was part of this place and it was part of me. Even with my eyes watering, my head pounding, and my stomach in open rebellion, relief blossomed inside me like a bomb going off.
Then I fell over onto my backside.
No simple pratfall for me; I went down hard. I don’t know if it was the relief, the stress of the Slip, or the aftermath of Carcosa, but I went over like a horse, feet skidding out from under me as gravity’s enthusiastic welcome took a sledgehammer to my centre of balance. My tentacles flailed in a futile effort to break my fall, knocking things over, sending a chair clattering onto its side, slapping against the floorboards, dropping my squid-skull mask with a dull thump. I twisted as I fell, arms and legs tangled in my voluminous yellow robes.
I bumped my tailbone when I landed on my bum, not hard enough to injure, but still hard enough to send that unique spike of pain rocketing up through my body.
But the sudden pain was exquisite. So sharp, so bright, the clearest thing I’d ever felt — and it didn’t really hurt. It sang through my nerve endings and said here I am, undeniable and irrefutable.
Sevens was busy falling over too, even messier and more uncoordinated than me; her sweaty little hand slipped out of mine as she went down in a dry-heaving, twitching heap, letting out little throaty gurgles of animal complaint. Either this mask did not confer immunity to the effects of the Slip, or she was still employing her acting skills. The knight didn’t collapse, which was lucky, since his armour weighed far more than any human being. He probably would have gone straight through the floorboards and into the cellar. But he did stagger, a clank-clank-clonk like a coughing train. A chrome giant much too big for the room swayed and wavered in my tear-blurred peripheral vision. He only stopped when he bumped into the table hard enough to leave a dent in the wood, hanging onto the edge with his free hand, bent over like he was going to be sick.
I was in pain, stomach roiling, squeezing my eyes shut as I lay on my back in a heap of limbs and yellow fabric, tentacles and arms alike both limp with exhaustion. I should have groaned, or turned over to vomit, or cried out for Raine, or just whimpered and prayed for help.
Instead, laughter pushed its way up my throat and out through my lips.
“Ahaha … home! Hello hoooooome,” I wailed in victory.
The laughter came in waves, subtle but irresistible, in between spikes of nausea. Honey-sweet relief drenched my thoughts in amber antiseptic.
Eventually I managed to roll onto my side, dragging my yellow robes with me, at least to avoid choking on my own sick if the nausea overpowered the relief. My tentacles could barely help — they were quivering as if I’d just followed along with one of Raine’s weight lifting routines. My entire body felt like a fresh bruise, that slow subtle ache of phantom weakness that heralded being very sore in the morning, but it was coupled with every inch of my skin feeling like I’d just stepped out of a steaming hot bath, oversensitive and tingling. From my eyelids to my toes, every nerve ending was open like a flower, leaving me on the blurred boundary between strange pleasure and writhing discomfort.
For a moment longer than I intended, I just lay there on my side, staring at the bony corner of Sevens’ hip as I ran my fingertips across a patch of floorboard, fascinated by the clarity of the woodgrain.
“Made it,” I was muttering. “Made it, made it, made it. I did it. I got out. Got back. Maisie can get back too.”
“Nnnnnn … ” Sevens gurgled with pain. “Owwwww?”
I didn’t care how badly I ached or how tired I felt. I could have been bleeding out or concussed or missing a hand; none of those would have spoilt my relief. I was home, I’d made it back. I’d overcome the childhood fear that had haunted me since Wonderland. I was not lost.
As I pulled myself into a sitting position, I welcomed each and every flex of deep-muscle ache, like the embrace of old friends. Every twinge and stab was so clear, so real, so instantly and evidently present.
But when I turned my bleary, bloodshot eyes on the magical workshop around us, I discovered that clarity was not restricted to the inside of my own body.
The first feelers of grey dawn were creeping around the edges of the heavy curtains, encroaching on a sloppy puddle of warm orange cast by a small lamp on the table — and for perhaps fifteen uninterrupted seconds, I was mesmerised by the floating dust caught within the light. It was beautiful and complex and completely impossible to look away, even if I’d wanted to. When I finally did, my fascination shifted to the woodgrain in the table and the chairs, the fabric fibres in the lumpy surface of the old sofa, the imperfections in the wall paint. All of it bored into my senses like an overload of reality, leaving my head heavy and fuzzy.
The surface of my skin, the scent of books and food and hair, the hard feeling of the ground beneath my backside and legs; the air entering my lungs as I inhaled; the glint of light off the knight’s shin armour and the nervous shiver of Sevens’ bare legs — all of it was just incredible. These things had been here all this time, and I hadn’t noticed how beautiful they were? Even my own hands were mesmerising. I held one up and flexed it in front of my face, hypnotised for a moment by the motion of my own fingers, my mouth hanging open.
I’d expected to suffer some sensory processing issues on my return to reality, similar to when I’d delved too deep into the abyss, that horrifying splashdown back to a world of rotting meat and deafening ape noises and unspeakable stenches. But I hadn’t been to the abyss, I’d been Outside.
I had not exactly attended the cinema many times over the course of my life; the constant presence of pneuma-somatic creatures made it very difficult to concentrate on enjoying a show. But I recognised this feeling all the same, from those scant few Christmas pantomimes my parents had taken Maisie and me to see when we were very little. This feeling was very much like when one stood up from a long stretch in a dark theatre, when the curtain closes and the lights go up and you are no longer audience, but simply a being once again, reduced back down to your own body.
Reality felt hyper-real, because I’d been gone for too long.
Which is why it took me a moment to look up from the creases in my own right hand and realise that somebody was staring at me.
Big blue eyes, exhausted and ringed with dark bags, set in a round, sallow-skinned face which had never quite shed all its teenage puppy fat, so naturally inclined to kindness yet so artificially adapted to defensive scowls. A mane of golden-blonde hair was gathered back into a functional, messy pony-tail. Hunched shoulders wrapped in blanket and shawl and cream-coloured jumper against the predatory cold, long skirt not quite managing to hide the black carbon-fibre of a prosthetic ankle and blade-shaped foot. Small and cuddly, badly in need of a hug.
Evelyn Saye was sitting at the old dining table, staring at me wide-eyed, her mouth hanging open in shock.
She looked like hell, like she hadn’t slept for a week, running on nothing but fumes and spite — which, to be fair, was not entirely out of the ordinary for my dear friend Evelyn. Whatever else had happened in my absence, at least she was a constant. But she’d either been crying or stressed out of her mind, or both, or worse, and I knew in my gut it was probably because of me. A huge mess of notes and papers lay on the table before her, looking like a whirlwind had been through them, accompanied by two ancient tomes wrapped in cracked leather, both of them propped open with other books. She was holding a pen, but it clattered to the table from her hand.
“Evee!” I croaked, fully aware that I was grinning like a lunatic but unable to control myself. I made an abortive attempt to stand up and hurl myself at her for a hug, but ended up sprawling forward instead, all tangled in my yellow robes. I barely managed to catch myself with my tentacles to avoid going flat on my face. “Oop! Ahh, um, haha.”
Evelyn just shook her head, numb with amazement. She tore her eyes away from me to take in Sevens and the Knight as well.
Even as I laughed at my own clumsiness, I could tell something was wrong with me. The act of almost falling over was so funny, the rubbery sensation in my muscles was so fascinating I wanted to stretch them every which way. But I couldn’t deny the force of relief, wiping unexpected tears from the corners of my eyes.
“Evee, oh Evelyn, Evelyn, I’m back, I’m back. Oh, it feels like it’s been such a … long … time?”
The alarm and confusion in Evelyn’s eyes grabbed me by the throat. Cold panic lanced into my bowels, even through the enclosing warmth of Sevens’ yellow robes. My unsteady vision lurched around the magical workshop, but nothing seemed different, nothing out of place. The bucket with the clay-squid still sat in one corner. The pair of spider-servitors still clung to the walls, watching me in mute silence with their banks of crystalline eyes. I waved numbly at them.
“Why does it feel like it’s been such a long time?” My voice came out tiny and weak, mouth going dry, lips quivering. “Evee? Evee, say something. Don’t tell me it’s been weeks, or … or months, or … no, no.”
Evelyn threw up her hands, grimacing with frustration. “It’s been seventeen hours, Heather,” she said, tight and controlled. “No, make that nineteen. You have been gone all night long.”
I heaved with relief, one hand to my chest. “Oh thank god. Thank you. Oh Evee, oh—”
“And what time do you call this?” she hissed. In any other circumstances, the quiet fury in her voice would have sent me into stammered apologies, but I just started laughing again. I let out a silly giggle that should have had me scowling at myself, but instead I half-covered my mouth, laughing and kicking and going red in the face.
“Home time!” I said.
Evelyn boggled at me, then turned her head to the kitchen door, took a deep breath, and shouted at the top of her lungs. “She’s here! Heather’s down here and she’s all fucked up!”
“Ow,” I murmured as I winced my eyes shut. Evelyn’s shout was an affectionate assault on my tender senses. “Actually I’m significantly less screwed up than usual. I don’t feel as sick, really. It’s really cool! Less painful, mmhmm.”
Evelyn frowned at me like I’d just grown an extra head. “No. No, you are definitely riding high on something.”
A small, clammy hand suddenly wormed into mine; Sevens had found me again. Wide black-and-red eyes peered at me over the top of her own knees, drawn up to her chest in a protective huddle, rocking back and forth. She let out a throaty gurgle, a low, “Guuuurrrrrh.”
“It’s okaaaaaaay,” I replied to her.
A sudden slam made us both flinch; Evelyn slapping the table with an open palm. She was staring at Sevens, going a little green around the gills. “Fuck me, I thought that was Lozzie. I thought she’d dyed her hair or something, or … ” She grabbed her walking stick from where it had been leaning against the back of her chair, clutching it with white knuckles.
“Oh noooo, no no.” I tried to gather my thoughts. Evelyn had nothing to worry about. “Lozzie’s not here.”
“Not here? Oh I don’t fucking believe this shit,” Evelyn spat, eyes blazing at me, tendons in her neck standing out as she went red in the face. “Heather! What happened?” She grabbed a fistful of the notes spread out across the table and brandished them like proof of a criminal conspiracy. “I’ve been trying to reach you all fucking night! I don’t even know how to describe your trajectory, let alone the Outside dimension you went to! I told you this was a terrible idea, I said, I said it and you didn’t listen!”
“I know and I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But you can stop now, Evee.” The words tumbled out of me. “We’re safe, we’re safe, and I love you, and thank you for looking and—”
“So where the hell is Lozzie? I can’t stop until you’re both safe, can I?” she snapped, then pointed her papers at Sevens. “Because that is not Lozzie. I know what that knight is, that’s one of Lozzie’s, and fine, whatever, but what the hell is she?” She turned her head to shout into the kitchen again. “Praem! Praem, in here, now!”
“It’s Sevens!” I said, laughing again. “Sevens! Sevens!”
“Seven?” Evelyn gaped at me.
“Evee, this is just Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I said, concentrating past the haze. “It’s okay. This is a mask.”
“Rrrrrrr,” gurgled Seven-Shades-of-Toothy-Goblin, peering up at Evelyn with red-on-black.
“ … your yellow Outsider?”
“Yes! Yes!” I nodded. She finally got it! I could have cheered, though I knew the confusion was my fault.
Sevens clacked her needle-teeth twice. Evelyn frowned at the pair of us.
“She’s safe,” I said.
“Safe?!” Evelyn snapped. “She’s an Outsider and she’s already screwed with us more than enough—”
“People are sleeping,” came a sing-song intonation, clear as a bell.
Praem stepped through the kitchen door. The sight of her was almost as much of a comfort as Evelyn. Straight-backed and holding herself with perfect poise, dressed from head to toe in the crisp black and white of her maid uniform, with her blonde hair pinned up in a bun, she was a very familiar sight, and for that I could have kissed her. Plush and smooth and smart and sensible, Praem was still here.
However, her warning came too late; as she joined us, I heard footsteps through the ceiling, a confused, half-awake stumble.
“Yes, I know, I—” Evelyn stopped dead at the sight of Praem’s blank, milk-white eyes, her expressionless reproach. Praem stepped forward and placed a steaming mug of tea on the table in from of Evelyn, then turned to me.
“Welcome home,” she intoned.
“Thank you,” I croaked, trying to get my feet under me again. “Praem, you’re so cute. I-I mean, um, er— yes.” I cleared my throat. “I can’t quite stand up … could I trouble you for—”
Praem clicked over to me and Sevens, precise and exact with every movement. In the past, back when we’d first met, her perfectly stiff mannerisms could sometimes seem slightly uncanny, but now they were familiar and family and home. She stopped by the Knight and turned toward him first. He had just finished straightening up, his axe back on his shoulder where it belonged. A still-functioning sub-Heather in the back of my mind noted that it had taken him an awfully long time to stand up straight again.
“Welcome,” she intoned. The Knight’s helmet chin went up and down, almost as stiff as her.
“Oh for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed. “This isn’t a bloody tea party. Help her up and—”
Praem interrupted her creator with nothing but a look. Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes and banged the tip of her walking stick on the floor twice. I laughed, unable to stop myself, but mortified at my own behaviour, hand covering my mouth in embarrassment.
“Welcome,” Praem repeated — for Sevens this time, bell-clear and expressionless, milk-white eyes looking down at red-on-black.
“Rrrrrrrrrrr … ” Sevens gurgled, withdrawing her hand from mine and curling up in a tighter ball.
“Sevens?” I murmured. “It’s okay, Praem is lovely.”
“Welcome,” Praem repeated.
Sevens hissed between her teeth.
“ … thank you,” Sevens finally gurgled. She clambered into an awkward squat-crouch, bare feet on the floorboards, joints like loose rubber.
Praem turned back to Evelyn. “Safe.”
“Oh fine,” Evelyn huffed. “If you say so.”
Praem helped me up with strong hands under my armpits. She didn’t mind when I leaned into her for a hug, heavy and slow and almost sleepy, nor when I added my tentacles around her shoulders and waist and hung on tight. Nor did she mind when I started absent-mindedly rubbing my face on her shoulder as I tested my quivering legs, just for the sensation of starchy cloth on my cheeks — though I certainly minded very much when I realised what I was doing.
“Oh!” I jerked back, blushing and stammering. “I’m so sorry, I, uh, I don’t what came over me, I was just— just—”
“Stim good,” Praem said.
“You are in an altered state of consciousness,” Praem replied, sing-song and soft.
“You can bloody well say that again,” Evelyn huffed. “She’s high as a kite.”
“I’m not high? What are you talking about.” I paused and blinked several times; my intonation was all wrong there. “Oh … oh, I … I am? Oh, bum.”
“Did you do this to her?” Evelyn snapped at Seven-Shades-of-Shy.
“Nooooo,” Sevens rasped, grimacing away from Evelyn’s withering attention. “She was out there too long. Adjusted. She’ll be fine. Coming down.”
“ … like decompression sickness,” Evelyn murmured, then jabbed toward Sevens with her walking stick. “You tell me now, Outsider, and you tell me the truth, or I will find a way to hurt you—”
“Be kind!” I almost yelled. Evelyn blinked at me in surprise.
“Alright, alright! You, Seven whatever-you-are, is this putting Heather in any danger?”
Sevens shook her head and hooked her fingers between her toes.
“Are you lying, you—”
“She cares about me too much to hurt me,” I blurted out. “I’m sure it’s fine. I’m fiiiiine, I’m just … woozy.”
Evelyn spat out a single bark of non-laughter.
“Heather, what on earth have you been doing? Or not on Earth, rather! And you still haven’t answered my question. Where the hell is Lozzie?” She waved the handful of notes in the air again. “Do I need to keep going? Because I will. I need you to concentrate for five seconds, Heather. Stop looking elsewhere, focus on me.”
“I am focusing.”
“You are not. Lozzie? Where is she? Because if she’s lost too I’m not stopping. I am not leaving a single—”
“She’ll be along as soon as she realises the way is clear,” I said, still smiling and half-laughing with relief. “The way is clear now. I cleared the way. I killed him, I killed him! Lozzie can get home herself. It’s okay, I did it! I did it!”
Evelyn fixed me with such a look, lips pursed, eyes bulging, dark with exhaustion, red-ringed and bloodshot, and I realised with a flash of insight that she’d been sitting at that table all night long, trying to get me home. She’d been up since I’d left, or at least since my friends realised something was wrong. The mess of notes on the table were a new set of changes to the gateway spell, the same kind of changes that had left Kimberly a sobbing, shaking mess, which only Lozzie had managed to understand in the end. And Evelyn had been up all night, trying to make new ones. I noticed she was shaking, shivering inside and trying to control it, like she had a fever.
That was like a bucket of cold water poured over my head.
“ … Lozzie’s okay. I think,” I managed to say. It was difficult to focus, but I tried as hard as I could. “She should be along in her own time.”
Evelyn watched me carefully for a moment longer, then nodded and blew out a slow breath. She put the papers down and flexed her stiff fingers. “Right. Thank you, Heather. Praem, get her some … oh, I don’t bloody well know, chocolate won’t help, she clearly doesn’t need a serotonin hit.”
“Praem,” I said to the doll-demon still holding me steady. “Is Evee okay?”
Evelyn huffed. “I’m fi—”
“Yes,” Praem intoned. “Kept her fed and watered. Needs to sleep. Will be okay.”
“You can sleep now,” I told Evelyn, nodding in what I thought looked like a very serious and sober way. “You should, we’re safe, we—”
I didn’t have a chance to insist further before the sound of footsteps crashed down the stairs and across the front room.
Raine came literally skidding across the kitchen and sliding into the workshop on her socks.
She was, in that moment, the best thing I’d ever seen, a firm reminder why being physically embodied in the real world was absolutely fantastic.
Her chestnut-brown hair stuck up like she’d been running her hands through it all day; warm eyes looked at me like I was made of gold; the soft angles of her face were more familiar than the shape of my own body. She was wearing a tank top and shorts in an unexpected mirror-image of Sevens, showing off butter-smooth muscles and healthy pink skin, toned arms and powerful legs and the unsubtle curve of her hips. I could tell she’d run downstairs too fast on her still-healing leg, putting weight in the uninjured one; she didn’t need the dressing around her thigh anymore, but the wound was still there, still healing, still hidden beneath her shorts. But apparently the pain didn’t matter.
For some reason which my mind took too long to catch up with, she was also wearing a pair of cardboard anaglyph spectacles perched on her nose, the kind which came with 3D posters or novelty animations. One plastic lens in red, the other in blue, they made her look like she’d been reading a racy comic in bed. Or they would have, but the white cardboard which surrounded the lenses was covered in the tiny black scrawl of a pair of miniature magic circles.
She lit up with a grin of utter delight and aimed a pair of finger guns at me.
“Heather!” she roared — then paused, mouth open wide, eyes going up and down and around me. “Holy shit, look at you! All six!”
“Raine!” I screeched back. “Oh, you can see my tentacles?”
“Sure can.” She tipped the glasses down as she stepped closer, looking at me with naked eyes, then blew out a low whistle as she checked through them again. I couldn’t help but notice how her attention briefly flickered to both Sevens and the forest-knight, then dismissed both of them as safe and unimportant compared to the joy of me being back.
Praem deposited me into Raine’s arms and I snuggled against her like she was pillow, sheets, mattress, the whole bed, burying my face in her chest and wrapping all my tentacles around her. She returned the hug, hard and urgent, squeezing me tight inside my yellow robes.
“Raineeeee,” I sighed into her chest, into her warmth and her beating heart, her familiar scent, the feeling of her muscles flexing and relaxing.
“Hoooo, okay, hello there,” Raine laughed. I felt her fingertips brush the surface of one of my tentacles.
“Ahhh!” I gasped in surprise.
“Heeeeey, it actually works,” Raine said.
“Hugs feel soooo good,” I murmured. “Touch me, please, please touch. Feels like I’ve been gone a lot longer than I have.”
“Heather, you are so beautiful. You know that?”
“Of course she is,” Sevens gurgled from beside me on the floor.
Raine blinked and peered over my shoulder, down at Seven-Shades-of-Invasive-Gremlin. She tugged the glasses off, tilted her head at Sevens, and received a low, throaty hiss in return, before Sevens buried her head beneath her own arms again, hiding.
“Of course the glasses bloody well work,” Evelyn grumbled. “I made sure they would work. I spent enough blood on the process, didn’t I? You can see her additions? Is it just the tentacles or has she done worse to herself this time? Let me guess, as soon as she relaxes, we’re going to need to call the hospital?”
“She’s fine, as far as I can see. Just the tentacles, very cool!” Raine shot me a wink, but then nodded down at Sevens. “Who’s this delightful little bundle of tooth and claw?”
“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, apparently,” Evelyn grumbled.
“It’s Sevens,” I murmured. “She helped. Helped a lot. Gave me this.” I flapped one sleeve of the yellow robes. “And I wouldn’t have gotten out if it wasn’t for her and the knight. Both of them. Stars, yes.”
“You got her out? You helped?” Raine asked over my shoulder, down at Sevens.
“Rrrrrrr … yes,” went Sevens.
“Then hey, thanks. I know we’ve had our differences, but you rescue my girl, you’re in my good books.” She craned up at the knight too. “Hey there, tin man. You one of Lozzie’s, right? Never did get to have a good look at one of you things. Nice axe, you an ess-tee-arr build?”
She received a nod in return. To my surprise, the knight’s armour made a low creaking noise as he moved.
“Thanks for saving my girl. Owe you one.” She cracked a grin. “If there’s anything I can possibly owe you?”
“Could do with a drink,” Sevens gurgled from next to my shins. At that, Praem turned on her heel and clicked off into the kitchen.
Raine gently eased me back. “Hey, Heather, look at me, please? Oh, Heather,” she breathed my name, shaking her head, an uncontrollable grin on her lips. “It’s so good to see you. Are you alright, are you hurt anywhere? You don’t look bruised, but you are pale.” She was squeezing my shoulders, my arms, my wrists, and I realised she was speaking too fast, trying her best to conceal the way she was shaking between each breath. “What happened, hey? And where’s Lozzie? Heather, you look like you need a sit down and a cup of tea and a bath and a—”
“Raine, stop, stooooooop,” I managed. “Stop speaking.”
She couldn’t. She tried to catch herself, blowing out a breath and nodding, but she carried on anyway. “You’re home. That’s what matters, right, yeah. But if there’s something after you or you need help or— I mean, where the hell is Lozzie, right?” She laughed. “Heather, you look like hell. Is that dried blood on your face? And it’s all down your hoodie and hey, hey, this yellow robe, yeah?” She rolled the fabric between her fingers. “This is really something. You gave this to her, yellow?” She peered down at Sevens, who looked away, hiding behind her own hands.
“Shhhhhhhhhh,” I hushed, one clumsy finger mashed against Raine’s lips.
Praem returned at that exact moment, clicking back into the workshop with a glass of water in each hand. She offered one to Sevens — who downed it as if she didn’t even have to swallow, tossing the glass back in one throw — and the other to the Knight. To all our confused surprise, the Knight accepted the glass in his free hand and somehow managed to not crush it to powder. We all watched, my finger still against Raine’s lips, as he clinked the glass against his blank metal faceplate and tipped the water down himself. Praem produced a tea towel, as if she had expected this, and dropped it on the floor to absorb the puddle.
“Um,” said Raine.
“I think he’s just being polite?” I squinted at the Knight.
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she drawled. “But Heather’s high as a kite. Absolutely off her head. Some kind of decompression sickness, but apparently she’s not in any danger.”
“I am not high!” I whined.
“ … you kind of are,” Raine said, peering at me with a grin. “Wow, you weren’t kidding, Evee, it’s like she’s stoned.”
“And you were freaking out,” I shot back.
“Yeah,” Raine admitted, much to my surprise. “Little bit. Haven’t slept, haven’t eaten. What do you expect, hey? You were gone, girl. I thought maybe, you know, that was it. Maybe you and Lozzie had finally moved on.”
She smiled, but there was real pain behind her eyes.
Guilt and warmth and love surged through my chest. I reluctantly pulled myself out of Raine’s embrace, gathering my yellow robes up. She and Praem both moved to catch me, as if I might topple over at any moment, but I planted tentacles on the ground to keep myself on my own two feet, gently easing their hands away.
“Heather,” Raine said, trying to catch my hand. “Come on, hey, let me—”
“Shut up,” I said, with the most affection one could ever squeeze into such disrespectful words. Before Raine could react, I reached up with both hands and clumsily cupped her cheeks. Yellow sleeves fell back from my thin arms.
“I love you,” I said. “You do know that, don’t you? I love you.”
Raine blinked. I savoured the rare feeling of rendering her speechless.
“I love you, Raine,” I repeated. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
“I love you too,” she said, and I could hear the choke in her voice.
I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate past the feeling of hyper-reality, the altered consciousness, the exhaustion and the lingering pain. “In the last … what was it, Evee, nineteen hours?”
“Nineteen hours,” Evelyn supplied with a grunt.
“In the last nineteen hours I have almost died … three times? I think that’s a conservative estimate.” I let out a huge sigh. “Infected by Hast— no, no,” I took care to admonish myself. If I summoned that here then there would be no containing it, whether I had the blessing of the King in Yellow or not. “Almost infected, almost eaten by living darkness, then almost eaten by a giant cat with an abandonment complex. Almost joined a party where I’m pretty sure they were eating human flesh — oh, that’s four times, oh, silly me. And then I almost got trapped in an emotional loop which could have ended me, I assume.”
“Father wouldn’t do that to you,” Sevens gurgled from down at my feet. One small hand curled around my shin. “You’re not his type.”
“Father,” Evelyn scoffed, in the exact same tone as bullshit.
“And now I am home,” I said with a sigh. “And I want you to know that I love you, Raine, and I don’t tell you that enough, and maybe I would never have been able to tell you again. But I made it back because I am not leaving.”
“I love you too,” Raine repeated, dead serious.
I nodded, then surprised everyone by stumbling away from Raine and crossing the two steps to Evelyn. I opened my arms, yellow robes flapping wide as well.
“Hug okay?” I asked.
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes, but she nodded and accepted my awkward, half-leaning embrace as I ended up mostly hugging her head. Her hair was so fine and soft and I wanted to keep touching it, but I accidentally made her flinch when I forgot what one of my tentacles was doing and started to wrap it around her waist. She brushed off my stuttering apologies with a “Don’t worry about it.”
Raine laughed. “I like this high and huggy Heather. Hugeather.”
“Yes,” Praem intoned.
Sevens let out a rasp like some kind of cave rodent.
As Evelyn and I parted again, her fingers lingered on the fabric of the yellow cloak for a moment too long, entranced by the warmth and softness. As she was still frowning at it, perhaps about to ask something, I opened my stupid mouth on an impulse I should have ignored.
“I love you too, Evee.”
Her eyes met mine from beneath a suddenly skittish frown, response stuck in her throat. For a moment, my mind’s eye recalled the image of Evelyn that Seven-Shades-of-Unrequited-Love had shown me back in Carcosa, Evelyn spitting bitterness and jealousy. But how much of that had been true? How much of that had been Sevens? I’d stumbled over to Evelyn on impulse, to tell my best friend how much she meant to me, but I’d snagged myself on a hidden bear trap.
I could have backed out. The necessary words floated up my throat: I love you, yes, but in a slightly different way to Raine, haha, so funny, laugh it all off.
But I didn’t say it. I had no right to shut her down.
After a moment, Evelyn took it how I knew she would, averting her eyes and looking extremely awkward as she cleared her throat. “Thank you, I suppose. That’s very sweet of you. You are very, very sweet, Heather.” The way she said it sounded anything but sweet.
“Sweet to you,” I said on impulse, and cursed myself for it.
“But we still need to know what is going on,” she ran right over me, revving up her frustration again. “Where exactly is Lozzie? I know you said she can get home by herself, but if she can’t then I’m not abandoning the attempt. I’ve sunk enough into this already.” She slapped the notes on the table with an angry, dismissive backhand.
“It’s fine, really.” I had to squint my eyes, forcing myself to stay steady and coherent. “It’s all good. I think. Lozzie should be home whenever she realises the way is clear. It’s safe now, nothing should be stopping her. I killed him, I really killed him, and it’s okay!”
“Killed who?” Raine asked, gentle but serious.
“Oh, Alexander Lilburne.”
Raine looked at me very, very carefully. Evelyn went quite still.
“Heather,” Raine said, “that was months ago.”
“Yes, yes, it was, it was but I only just realised that I killed him. No, wait, no that’s not right.” I shook my head and huffed.
“I told you she was high,” Evelyn said.
“I only just accepted that I killed him. Look, it’s a long story, but basically the dead hands are gone. Lozzie can get through whenever she likes.” I let out a weak laugh. “If she’s finished her night out, that is. Maybe she never even knew all of this happened.”
“Knew all of what happened?” Evelyn demanded. “Unnnnnhh,” she groaned in frustration and tapped her walking stick on the floorboards, undoubtedly restraining the urge to whack me in the shins — I didn’t blame her. “God, I can hardly think straight, I need to sleep for a week.”
“Me also,” I said, gathering myself as best I could, then completely undermined my determination when I lurched backward and caught myself on the edge of the table with my tentacles. Raine took my shoulder, helping to steady me. Sevens closed her fingers around my leg again and I absent-mindedly placed one hand on her hair. Then I spotted my squid-skull mask where it fallen on the floor and picked it up with one tentacle. Evelyn’s eyes went wide — I suppose all she saw was a floating metallic-grey skull — and Raine whipped the magically modified 3D glasses back on to her face, then let out a low whistle.
“Got some dexterity in you, yeeeeeah!” Raine cheered as I placed the skull on the table.
“And what exactly is that?” Evelyn hissed at the skull, frowning dark and curious.
“Cute,” Praem intoned.
“Oh, this was just a present from Lozzie, before everything went wrong. It is kind of cute. It’s mine now.” I stroked the skull mask and began to lift it onto my head, then stopped halfway, laughing at myself, vaguely embarrassed. “Um, something about it makes me want to wear it.”
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed.
“No, no, it’s safe! It protected me several times! I think it’s something in the … bone? Steel?” I shrugged. “Anyway, look, I got stuck,” I said, speaking to the room. “You were right, Evee. You’re often right. You really know … things. Stuff. You know what I mean.” I tried to ignore Evelyn rolling her eyes at my rambling speech. “The dead hands, they were a trap. Lozzie and I had a good talk, she went off for a fun night out, I guess? But then when I tried to come home, snap!” I closed the fingers of my free hand like a Venus flytrap. “Stuck. Stuck Outside. It was one of the worst things that’s ever … I was stuck.”
Raine squeezed my shoulder. I sniffed.
“So what, it took you nineteen hours to break some fingers?” Evelyn asked.
I shook my head again. “Had to get help.” I patted Sevens’ head and nodded toward the knight. “Saldis too.”
“Saldis?” Evelyn hissed. “What does that mage have to do with all this?”
“I went to the library. Only place I could think of. It’s kind of a long story. Oh, uh.” I rummaged in my hoodie and dumped Saldis’ golden pendant on the table. “She gave me that, after I, um, chased off the King in Yellow, one of his bad masks.”
Evelyn and Raine both went wide-eyed — Evelyn at me, Raine at the pendant.
“Solid gold,” Praem intoned.
Raine started laughing. “No shit, Sherlock.”
“You … ran off … what? Hastur?” Evelyn asked, aghast.
“Shhhh!” I hissed, waving her down. “Don’t say the name!”
“That actually works? Heather, I tried that as a teenager. It’s nonsense. It’s fiction.”
“He’s real,” Sevens rasped.
“Oh for the love of—” Evelyn slapped the table again. “Hastur Hastur Hastur. Hastur! Hastur! Come on, come and get me!”
I tensed up and Raine followed my lead, going stiff and ready all of a sudden, but nothing happened. I hiccuped once and Evelyn frowned at me.
“It worked in the library, okay?” I said. “Just don’t ever do it Outside. Maybe it doesn’t work on Earth. Look, nothing’s happened here at home, right? While I was in trouble?”
Raine and Evelyn shared a glance.
“Nothing has happened,” Praem intoned, suddenly at my shoulder with a glass of water. I hadn’t even seen her leave the room. She pressed it into my hands.
I asked Praem instead. “There’s no crisis? Nothing happened when I was gone? No attack on the house? No plot to get you?”
“Nothing has happened,” Evelyn snapped. “Except a lot of panic. Should something have happened?”
“I … well … no. Though I think this confirms the dead hands were not under the control of Edward Lilburne, anyway. Which is good! Good, yes. Good.” I laughed softly at the absurdity of it all. It really was a vengeful spirit, all along. “I guess I really was being haunted. Like a ghost. Out for revenge. Ha!”
Evelyn huffed a sigh to knock down an oak tree. Raine just laughed.
“Where’s Zheng?” I asked. “And Tenny? Is she worried about Lozzie?”
“Yeah, real bad,” Raine said softly. “We couldn’t hide what was up, not after a few hours. She’s too smart for that. So I just told her, straight up, no white lies. Finally got her to go to sleep about two hours ago, but I’m pretty sure it was just pure exhaustion. She needs to know her mother is okay, soon as we can. ‘Cos that’s what Lozzie is to her, right?”
I nodded, tears suddenly threatening in my eyes. “Lozzie will come home. She will. What about Zheng?”
“Your stupid zombie is still not back from her hunt,” said Evelyn.
“Drink,” Praem intoned, pressing the glass of water toward my face.
“Oh, I’m fiiiiiine,” I said, blinking rapidly and smiling at Praem, though I still accepted the water and took a long sip. “I actually ate not too long ago.”
“You ate?” Evelyn said. She shared a glance with Raine, but got a shrug in return. “You ate food, Outside? You ingested matter? With your mouth?”
“Ham and cheese sandwiches,” I said.
“Cool,” said Raine. “They have mustard?”
“No, not cool, Raine.” Evelyn boggled at me. “Heather, you put things in your mouth, Outside things, and swallowed them?”
“My fault,” said Sevens in her raspy little voice.
All eyes turned to Seven-Shades-of-Supremely-Self-Conscious as she finally unfolded herself from her awkward squat-crouch. At less than five feet tall, scrawny and bony and dressed only in tank-top and shorts, with bare feet and stringy, rat-tail hair, she looked like she wanted to climb into a dark hole and be forgotten, not join this room of athletic lesbians and scowling mages and perfect maids. She clung to my side with both hands, fists gripping my yellow robes as if afraid she’d be ripped away from me. Shoulders hunched, eyes darting about, she couldn’t even meet the gazes directed at her.
“I still don’t fully understand what exactly I’m looking at here,” Evelyn said, cold and sharp, frowning at Sevens. She jabbed a finger at her too. “Because you — yes, you, I’m talking to you — do not look anything like how Heather described Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.”
Sevens hunched up even tighter, trying to make herself small. “Sorry,” she rasped.
Evelyn paused as if very confused. “I … I wasn’t looking for an apology, I just … I— oh, sod it,” she huffed. “If you are something else, piggybacking on Heather’s return, how would I even know?”
“It is Sevens,” I said, placing a gentle hand on one of Sevens’ pale arms and wrapping a protective tentacle around her shoulders. “One of her masks, anyway.”
“And she’s being awfully clingy with you,” Evelyn added.
“She is, ain’t she?” Raine said with a smirk. She shot me a finger gun. “Heather, you dog, you been having a night out and making moves without me?”
Raine meant it as a joke, but it was more sobering than an emergency hypodermic full of pure caffeine. The flash of guilt in my eyes caught her attention like a siren. She tilted her head with guileless curiosity. Words stuck in my throat, words I could not say yet.
“Yo, yellow,” Raine carried on instead, doing an upward-tilting nod at the quivering goblin clamped to my side. Sevens just hid her face in my shoulder. “You been taking good care of my girl? Thanks for bringing her back, I mean it. I appreciate it, for real, despite you being a bitch before. We’re cool, you and me. Yeah?” She reached out for Sevens’ shoulder, but Sevens shrank away like a cat who didn’t want to be petted. Raine paused as soon as she saw this and glanced at me instead. “She alright? No touchy?”
“Uh … no,” I said. “I think she’s going through some things right now.”
Raine shrugged. “Think I prefer her like this. At least she’s not being me.”
“What is the purpose of this mask?” Evelyn asked, and I recognised that clinical coldness, that mage’s hunger for meaning and knowledge. “Are we in the middle of one of her plays? Heather, you’re basically high, and you’ve got a reality-altering Outsider trying to hide behind you. We need clarity, right now, because I’m too exhausted to give a shit; are we in the middle of a play?”
Sevens shook her head against my side.
“No,” I said. “This is just Sevens. For real. No play.”
“Wait wait wait,” Raine said, half-grinning, pointing a pair of finger-guns at Sevens. “This is the real Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? This is her real self? This?”
“Don’t you dare laugh at her!” I exploded at Raine, surprised at my own anger. Raine actually blinked, the second time I’d surprised her in the minutes since I’d gotten home. “If it wasn’t for her help, I’d be dead. And she’s allowing herself to be vulnerable right now, in ways I don’t think we even understand. She’s sort of … left the stage, I think?”
I glanced at Sevens for confirmation, wary of speaking for her. She managed to make fleeting eye contact with the others, long enough to nod.
“Redefining self-hood,” she gurgled, then let out a long hiss like the start of a panic attack.
“There you have it,” I said. “And she’s done it all to help me. I’m serious, Raine, if you laugh at her now I will be very unimpressed by you. You’re meant to be a knight errant, aren’t you? Chosen freely, not just because I needed it? Well, here is a damsel who needs help.”
“Is she your friend now?” Raine asked without missing a beat, completely serious, and I fell in love with her all over again.
I paused so hard I almost choked. Raine’s eyebrows climbed. My heart rate spiked and I hiccuped loud enough to make Sevens flinch.
“No,” Sevens rasped.
“No,” I corrected myself, voice shaking, lips numb. “She’s actually a bit more than that, now. I think. Maybe.”
Raine’s eyebrows left orbit.
“You have got to be fucking joking,” Evelyn muttered. She looked ready to eat her own fist.
I let out a shaking sigh. “A lot has happened. God, it feels like it’s been days, not a single night. I-I didn’t mean to— I haven’t done anything— we haven’t, I mean—”
Raine burst out laughing, which made me flinch. I watched her eyes, trying to read which way she was jumping. Jealousy, forced acceptance, something else? The last time I’d done this, with Zheng, it had not ended well; but we’d learned things about each other since then, surely it wouldn’t be the same.
“Our Heather moves fast!” Raine said with a grin. “Doesn’t seem like your type though?”
“Well done,” Praem intoned. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not.
“It’s not like that!” I protested, desperate to explain everything that had happened in one breath and trying to convince myself that I could. Reality is a hell of a drug, as Raine would say, and I was still struggling for coherence. “It’s so much more complicated, I have so much to explain and I’m so tired, oh goodness, I have to sit down.”
“I don’t believe this,” Evelyn growled. “You go missing all night, Outside, and I’ve been putting my mind through a goddamn wood chipper to find you and bring you back, and you’re having a grand old time, oh yes, making out with yet another thing you’ve dragged—”
Sevens detached herself from my side. For a moment I thought the worst was happening — either she was scurrying away in mortified embarrassment, or she was going to hiss at Evelyn in challenge over the insult, or she was simply going to rotate herself back through the membrane, back to the castle, back to her father. But what she did was so much worse.
In less than a heartbeat, a second Evelyn was standing next to me.
The illusion was perfect: the hunched spine, the permanent disapproving scowl, the layers of comfy clothes wrapped around a brittle core. She even had Evelyn’s walking stick and the currently visible slice of prosthetic leg. The real Evelyn’s angry words died with a splutter.
“Be honest,” grunted Seven-Shades-of-Saye. “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
Evelyn went pale. I wasn’t sure if she got what Sevens meant. Maybe she did.
“Sevens!” I squeaked and almost slapped her. I hadn’t expected this, I thought she was done with other masks, finished with plays.
“Two Evees?” Raine laughed. “Oh damn, I got my work cut out for me. I have enough trouble body-guarding for one, but I’ll give it my best shot.”
Seven-Shades-of-Grumpy-Mage turned to Raine, scowling at her too, but then the illusion broke and reformed yet again.
Starched white blouse and perfectly level blonde hair, long yellow skirt and impassively cool expression on a delicate-featured face. The Princess-Mask was back and my mind reeled with confusion and embarrassment in equal measure. She extended one dry, neat hand toward Raine.
“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” she said, unreadably plain. “We have met before, but proper introductions are in order.”
Raine laughed and shrugged, but she shook Sevens’ hand while I looked on, speechless.
“A handshake after you steal my girl?” Raine asked, shaking her head as if impressed. “You got guts, I’ll give you that.”
“Not stolen. I have nothing but respect for you.”
Raine blew out a theatrically uncertain breath, but Sevens was already turning away, toward Praem. She offered her hand to the doll-demon and Praem took it without complaint, apparently utterly unruffled by the spiritual wardrobe switching.
“Sevens, stop,” I managed, but she was already turning to Evelyn.
“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, madam mage,” she introduced herself all over again, hand out.
Evelyn just scowled at her, eyes flicking between the rest of us. “I cannot believe you lot are stupid enough to listen to this.”
“No trick,” said Sevens. “No trap. No trust?”
“Trust an Outsider,” Evelyn hissed sarcasm.
“You are angry and bitter because you were afraid for Heather,” said Seven-Shades-of-Far-Too-Perceptive. “And jealous because she is your best friend, yet I got to see her and support her through an ordeal. You are made no lesser by this; she does love you. But you already trust Outsiders, and worse.”
Evelyn managed to keep most of the blush off her cheeks by staring Sevens down. When she took the hand of the Yellow Princess, she visibly squeezed too hard, or at least tried to, but Sevens gave no sign of pain.
“Thank you for having me,” said Sevens.
“Stop, stop! Sevens, stop!” I finally blurted out as she stepped back from Evelyn. “Sevens, I told you, you don’t have to put on masks like this if you don’t want to.”
“And what if I want to?” she asked me, cool and collected.
“ … then … I … nobody here is going to reject you if you wear your emotions on your sleeve.” I spread my arms and my tentacles, though Raine and Evelyn couldn’t see the latter. “If they do, they’ll have me to answer to.”
A tiny sigh from the Yellow Beauty. “You prefer me this way. This is your preference, kitten.”
“Kitten?” Raine echoed, deliciously amused.
Perhaps Sevens had expected that to bowl me over, render me speechless, shut down the argument and allow her to retreat into her mirror-house of false selves once again. But she had me wrong. She’d been having me wrong all this time.
“My preferences do not — and should not — determine who you are!” I yelled at her, though the princess did not so much as blink. “I don’t need you to be this … this … ”
“Dommy mommy princess vibe,” Raine supplied. “Niiiiiice.”
“I— what?” I boggled at Raine. “But yes, yes, that, I suppose. I don’t need you to be that, Sevens. I already went through this with Raine. And I already have her.”
“Heeeey, thanks,” Raine said with a grin. Evelyn looked like she wanted to pull out her own teeth.
“You do,” said Sevens.
“If you’re going to do this,” I carried on before I could unpack what that might mean, “then you may as well just wear a copy of Raine instead — and don’t. Don’t do that. I want to know you, Sevens, not whatever front you feel you have to put up. Raine and Evelyn, and yes, Praem too, they’re basically my family. If you meant this,” I grabbed a fistful of the yellow robes, “then they’re—”
I bit off the words. Then they’re yours too.
“Drop the act,” I finished. “Please.”
“Yeah, hey,” Raine said, “don’t wear my face, if it’s all the same to you? One of a kind, can’t touch this.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes.
“Heather,” said the Yellow Daughter, slow and calm. “I know what you are about to say to your family here. I am not certain I can endure it in any other form. My comfortable mask — for it is too a mask — will surely wish for the ground to swallow her. It will hurt.”
“What do you mean, what I’m about to say?”
Seven-Shades-of-Superlative-Subtlety took a pinch of my yellow robes between thumb and forefinger. My mind caught up with hers. I hiccuped, loud and painful.
“Oh … well … I … I have to tell them. I do.”
“Look after me, please,” said Sevens.
And then she was the blood-goblin again, quicker than I could blink. She hid against my side, burying her face, trying hard not to hyperventilate.
Everyone was looking at me, Evelyn vaguely unimpressed, Raine deeply amused, Praem unreadable. The only one who didn’t care was the forest-knight; in fact, he hadn’t moved or reacted at all in minutes. He’d seen it all before.
I took a pinch of the yellow robes between thumb and forefinger. “This was a … a … gift. From Sevens. It … um.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I suppose I better start at the beginning.”
“You better,” Evelyn hissed.
“Hey,” Raine said, still jovial, but bubbling beneath with a dangerous undercurrent. I was shaking when I opened my eyes, expecting to see her gaze boring back into me, real jealousy revealed, hard and ugly and undeniable — and justified.
But she was pointing at Evelyn.
“I’m the one who sleeps with her,” Raine said to Evelyn, “and I say it’s fine. I trust Heather. Alright?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and threw up her hands in surrender.
“But hey, Yellow.” Raine turned back to Sevens and me. “You and I need to get to know each other.”
“We can talk about this,” I said quickly, desperately avoiding the actual subject.
“Yeah,” Raine said, so very reasonable. “We sure can. Hey, relax. I trust you. You haven’t shagged her yet, right?”
“Nooo! As if we had time for that!”
“And you don’t have to spill it all right now. I get the jist, it’s cool.” Raine smiled, so confident and sweet, so unbreakable. But I knew the truth, I knew who this was for, and I had a duty to Raine too. “You’ve been on your feet for, what, nineteen hours?”
“Minus a nap,” I said.
“Minus a nap, pfffft, yeah, you need to sit down and have something to eat, and maybe a bath?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I have things to tell you, things you have a right to know.”
“But you didn’t bonk her?”
“There’s things more important than sex!” I squeaked. I grabbed a handful of the robes. “Sevens gave me this when Lozzie and I confronted the Eye inside Badger’s head. It was the only reason I survived. She had to give it to me. It was the only way. It was non-physical before, but when she saved me Outside, it … turned real.”
Sevens herself shivered and shook against my side. Raine caught the meaning in my voice, something below my words themselves; she didn’t try to interrupt. Evelyn seemed to get it before I said it, her eyes going wide in shock for a split second before she put her face in her palm.
“It’s a marriage proposal,” I managed through a closing throat. “And now I’ve met her father. The King in Yellow. He approved.”