“ … the King in Yellow?”
“The King in Yellow.”
“Apparently not. I don’t think I was hallucinating, or being tricked. All the tricks were out in the open, that’s how they worked so well. I know what I saw, what I spoke with. And it wasn’t as if it was just him on his own, there was plenty of corroborating evidence. Like I said, there was a whole family of them. A castle. His kingdom.”
“You can’t know— this thing must have been— it’s not possible that—”
“There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” I said gently, to help Evelyn as she struggled to complete her sentences.
Evelyn did not thank me for that. She gave up her protests and glared across the kitchen table, unimpressed and heavy-lidded, looking like a dark cloud incapable of bursting into rain.
“Heather,” she said. “That is the third time you’ve quoted that exact same line of Hamlet at me since we first met, and it makes no more sense now than the previous two times.”
Delighted surprise stole over me. “You … you remember when I quote things? Evee?”
Evelyn waved me away with a huff, squeezing her eyes shut and pinching the bridge of her nose. “This is giving me a gaping arsehole of a headache. You are giving me a headache. The King in sodding Yellow is giving me a headache.”
“Drink,” Praem intoned from next to Evelyn’s shoulder.
Evelyn hissed through her teeth and continued to ignore the stone-cold mug of tea at her elbow — along with the merely lukewarm second mug, the barely hot third one, and the plate of now soggy toast that Praem had attempted to get her to eat during the hour I’d taken to tell the story, to no avail. Evelyn had been too focused on me, watching and listening and taking notes, with all the rapt attention of seeker after knowledge trying to piece together a shredded text from some ancient library. Except, from her reaction, one had to assume the venerable tome had turned out to be full of childish insults and drawings of genitalia.
“Praem’s got a point there, Evee,” Raine said. She was looking far more at ease, feet up on the corner of the table — ankles only, soles dangling over the edge after being told off by Praem — with her chair rocked back to balance on two legs, hands behind her head like she was sunbathing at the beach. Unlike Evelyn, Raine had not only downed a cup of tea, she’d asked for a mug of my coffee too, and eaten some vague approximation of breakfast — though I disagreed in the strongest terms that microwaved pastries from the freezer counted as breakfast food. She wiggled her be-socked toes in the air, cracking small joints with satisfying audible pop sounds. “You’re dehydrated.”
“I don’t need water,” Evelyn grumbled. “I need half a bottle of whiskey. Sod that, I need a shot of morphine.” She glared at me again, her elbows on the table, hunched with the exhaustion of an unresolved all-nighter. “You’re serious? You met and talked with the King in Yellow, or at least something calling itself that? Like you’re talking to me? Not in hyperdimensional mathematics? Everything you’ve just said, it didn’t happen in some abstract mind-space?”
I shrugged. “It was very physical. I don’t know what more to tell you, Evee, I can’t seem to make you believe—”
“I would never suggest that you would lie to me,” Evelyn said quickly, almost embarrassed. “Heather, the King in Yellow is not real. It’s fiction. It’s far more likely that you met a being which decided to base itself on the fiction, not the other way around. Life imitating art, something like that, I don’t fucking know!”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because!” Evelyn snapped and threw her hands up. “It’s fiction!”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight let out a low, throaty rasp, showing a quick snatch of her sharp little needle-teeth. She was perched in a chair pulled so close that it was touching mine, staring across the table-top at Evelyn’s denial.
Evelyn almost managed to control her flinch this time; she’d improved over this last hour, every time Seven-Shades had something to add, but she hadn’t quite mastered herself yet. She huffed and shot a redoubled glare at Sevens. “Yes? You have something to add?”
“He’d like that,” Sevens gurgled. She only managed to hold Evelyn’s gaze for a moment, then looked down and away, rocking slightly in her weird squatting pose.
“Like what?” Evelyn snapped.
“Mages convincing themselves he isn’t real. Gurrrrr-rrrr-rrrr,” Sevens laughed like a malfunctioning radiator, but without much of a smile.
“Greatest trick the devil ever pulled,” Praem intoned.
“Hey, that’s what I was about to say,” Raine said. “Great minds think alike, Praem.”
“Great minds,” said Praem.
Evelyn didn’t look away from Sevens, daring her to resume eye contact, but the hunched gremlin at my side declined the challenge. Instead, Sevens stared at her own pale little hand, moving it slowly back and forth over the table, in and out of the watery, early-morning sunlight pouring in through the kitchen window. She’d been doing that on and off since the dawn had broken through the clouds. True sunlight revealed the fine tracery of blue veins beneath the mushroom-pale skin of Seven-Shades-of-Shivering-Sprite. I ran a tentacle up her arm, gentle and supporting, following her back and forth motions.
“Evee,” I said, gently as I could — and that proved more difficult than I’d expected. I had to consciously restrain myself from reaching across the table with a spare tentacle to wrap around her forearm. I already had another tentacle coiled in Raine’s lap like a cat, but Evelyn didn’t like being touched without warning normally, let alone by invisible feelers that she could only see through a pair of glasses that made her eyes hurt. But I didn’t want her to dislike Sevens.
“Mm?” she grunted, still staring at Sevens.
“Evee,” I tried again, “why does it bother you so much?”
Evelyn let out a huge sigh and sat back in her chair, one hand massaging her thigh where flesh met prosthetic socket, the other finally giving in and picking up the stone cold cup of tea. She took a sip and pulled a face.
“Still hot.” Praem indicated the most recent cup of tea with a brush of her fingertips.
“Yes, thank you Praem, you’re a dear,” Evelyn muttered, swapping mugs and sighing after a sip of tea how tea should always be.
“She’s salty because she’s been proved wrong,” Raine said with a wink. “And she hasn’t got a theory to replace it yet. Give her five minutes, she’ll make one, and it’ll be better than the last. Theory for everything, our Evee.”
“This bothers me,” Evelyn used her words like a whip, eyes shooting daggers at Raine and receiving a mock duck-and-cover gesture in surrender, “because I once spent a significant amount of time reading them all — Chambers, Blackwood, Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, Dunsany, even Robert Howard — ha! What a different world we’d be living in if he was right. I even tried some of the modern ones — Derleth, Campbell, all that nonsense. Because I needed to know what was real and what was fiction. Because my … ” She shot a look at Sevens, then shrugged when the yellow daughter didn’t even look up. “Because my mother insisted it was important. Because she made me read them.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You’ve never told me that,” Raine added, eyebrows raised in surprise.
“There’s plenty of things I don’t tell you,” Evelyn grumbled.
“But,” I said, “wouldn’t this mean your mother was wrong? She was wrong about plenty of other things, isn’t this another chance to ‘stick it to her’?” I did little air quotes with one hand.
Evelyn shook her head. “She would be delighted.”
“She always insisted there were grains of truth in some of all that pulp fiction guff.” Evelyn tapped her fingernails on the table in an irritated rhythm. “Didn’t know what though, or where, or who. She would love this. The discovery, the confirmation, being proved correct. Same as me, same as—”
“She is dead,” Praem said, voice like a musical bell made of ice.
Raine’s eyebrows shot up her forehead and she looked to me for emergency help. I shrugged minutely, fully prepared to get up and walk around the table to give Evelyn a hug.
Evelyn grit her teeth at the interruption and started to bite back, to hurt, to lash out. “She’s—”
“Deady-dead-diddly-dead-deado,” Praem said, utterly expressionless.
Evelyn stopped like she’d walked into a lamppost. I wrapped an invisible tentacle around my own face to stifle a laugh. Raine stayed perfectly still, like a cat spotting a dog. Seven-Shades-of-One-Of-Us watched the exchange with her black eyes flicking back and forth, like the audience at a tennis match.
Then Evelyn sighed. Something slipped inside her, some gear that she wasn’t capable of shifting on her own, some long-tensed muscle she’d been desperately trying to unlearn how to flex. She glanced at Praem, then raised her eyes to the ceiling. “That she is.”
“Deadydoodle,” Praem added.
“Okay, yes, you can stop now,” Evelyn sighed. A nasty smile slowly crossed her face. “And she never got to find out. Eh, good enough for me.” She shrugged and took another long sip from her cup of tea before banging it down on the table, then spoke with only a thin veneer of sarcasm. “Fine, Heather. The King in Yellow is real, and strong, and he’s your friend. Now, I need some bloody breakfast before I start digesting my own bones.” She pulled a face at the soggy, cold toast on the plate at her elbow.
“Bacon and eggs,” Praem intoned.
I’d spent the last hour or so telling my friends everything, from the top, while the sun rose on a chill and grey Sharrowford morning.
After I’d dropped the bomb about Sevens’ half-intentional marriage proposal, Raine had suggested we decamp to the kitchen. Just like that. I’d been shaking with nerves at the reveal, ready for anything — shouting, anger, another round of Raine’s unfairly suppressed jealousy, perhaps even another judder-stop as she failed to integrate what I’d done — but Evelyn was far worse than Raine, looking at me just so utterly exhausted by all this, as if she should have expected nothing less.
Raine barely reacted to the actual news, which spooked me badly. Working out everything with Zheng had been painful enough, so I was prepared for this to send an emotional wrecking ball at the reinforced concrete of our relationship. Perhaps the walls would hold, or perhaps they would buckle and we would have to dig through the wreckage for bits of rebar to build a temporary shelter. Perhaps doing this a second time would be the last straw on the camel’s back. Never mind that I had agreed to nothing with Sevens, committed to nothing, said yes to nothing.
I had blurted out as much. “It— it’s only out of respect for her! I haven’t said I will, we haven’t started a … anything! I haven’t kissed her, I don’t even know if I want to!”
But Raine just laughed. She shrugged, aimed a pair of finger-guns at Sevens, and said something about being a ‘spawn camper’. That went completely over my head, but it provoked Evelyn to hiss with disgust and throw a balled-up piece of paper at Raine’s head.
“Raine, don’t you want to— shouldn’t we— I mean, this—” I’d stammered and stuttered.
“Shhhhh. Come on, you need a sit down.”
Raine had taken my hands and coaxed me along, smiled at me without guile, and helped me make the walk into the kitchen — though Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stayed glued to my side, hiding her face and unable to glance up at Raine. I felt like I was held between a pair of animals which might snap at each other any moment. I’d half-dragged myself to a chair with my tentacles, legs still wobbly from the strange Outside-high. Sevens had huddled next to me, quivering like a leaf, breath hissing between her teeth in little gaspy spurts.
Raine crouched so she was eye-level with me in the chair, held my hands, and didn’t even comment on the tentacle I instinctively wrapped around her shoulders, though I saw the moment of surprise in her eyes.
“You’ve just been through a traumatic experience,” she said, beaming softly with that bottomless confidence which still made me melt in her hands. “And hey, I get it, you wanna unload it all at once. And I wanna hear all about it too. But right now the important thing is that you’re home. Chill, right? You wanna get out of that hoodie? It’s covered in blood. Better get it in the wash if we’ve got any hope of saving it. That’s all your blood, or … ?”
“Oh, um, all mine, yes. Raine, I—”
“Take it you wanna keep the yellow robes on for now though, yeah? You gotta get some food in you, at least. And I can run a bath if you like.”
The others trailed into the kitchen after us — Evelyn all but stomping, Praem gliding over to the counter with Evelyn’s cooling cup of tea. The knight had to duck to pass through the kitchen doorway. Praem shot him a silent look and he unshouldered his axe — one second later he would have put an impressive hole in the wall. This building was not made for beings of his size, at least not without Zheng’s muscular grace to compensate. Was it my imagination, or were his movements growing less coordinated?
“I— Raine, I—” I’d struggled to pull my thoughts together, still deep in the sensory high from my return, but trying to stay prepared for Raine’s true reaction. I’d never had to pretend to be sober before. “Don’t we need to talk about all this?”
Raine had shrugged — though she’d glanced at Sevens. “What’s to talk about?”
“Don’t give me that!” I’d hissed. “You can’t just glide over this, you—”
“I can and I will,” she shot back suddenly, sharp enough to make me flinch. She squeezed my hands tighter, as if afraid I might pull away from her. “Heather, my priority, my number one, my reason for being awake all night long, my reason for breathing, is you. And right now you’re kinda loopy—”
“So are you,” I’d murmured.
“—obviously exhausted, and crusted with blood. You want me to be me? Well, here you go, this is me. My number one priority is you being safe and healthy, and until I’m satisfied about that I couldn’t give a flying shit for your need to explain.”
I blinked at her, half-surprised, half cheering that she was finally denying me something. “O-okay?”
Then she cracked a grin and everything was okay again. “Or has the King planted a bomb on you that goes off if you don’t start necking with Sevens ASAP? What are we at, T-minus twenty seconds until you gotta shove your tongue down her throat?”
“Guuurrrrhhh,” Sevens gurgled against my side, trying to curl up small enough so the floor could swallow her.
“W-w-well no. But I—”
“Oh for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed from the other side of the table.
“Heather,” Raine said, warm and patient, but utterly immovable. She would not take no for an answer, not about this. “You wanted me to be real and raw, so you’ve got me raw. Now do as I say.”
A deep blush rose up my neck and cheeks. “ … yes.”
“Yes what?” Raine asked. I blinked at her, totally lost. “Yes, ma’am,” she filled in for me.
“Raine!” I hissed, shooting a deeply embarrassed glance at Evelyn and Praem. Evelyn looked like every word of this was killing more of her brain cells. “Raine you—” Stop competing, you don’t need to win anything, I thought, but I couldn’t say that out loud. “I appreciate the thought, but you’re avoiding the subject, just like before, and—”
“Yes, ma’am,” Raine repeated. “Say it.”
“Urgh,” Evelyn grunted.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes ma’am.”
“Good girl,” Raine purred.
“But I need to know how you feel,” I blurted out. Now that was the truth, maybe too raw.
Raine winced in slow motion. “Yeah, so do I. Might take a while.”
My heart climbed into my throat. I couldn’t believe my luck — an honest admission of hesitancy and irresolution, from Raine. The sky was falling.
“Raine? Raine, what does that mean?”
“I dunno yet.” She shrugged and glanced at Sevens again, still huddled against my side. “I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean though. Doesn’t mean I disapprove of yellow here. But it doesn’t mean I like this.” She took a handful of the yellow robes, the symbolic commitment, the warmth of Sevens’ embrace still wrapped deep and soft around my shoulders. “Gotta think about that one. After all, I’ve got dibs on you.”
Before I could react to any of that, Raine let go of my hands and straightened up. She reached past me, going for Sevens. For a second my heart slammed against the cage of my ribs, expecting the worst — but Raine brushed the top of Sevens’ head and gave that lank, greasy hair the ruffling of a lifetime.
Sevens yelped into my shoulder with surprise, a strangled, gnashing sound. Raine managed a full second of ruffle before Sevens exploded upward from my shoulder and bared all her teeth, hissing and gurgling like a cross between a surprised possum and a rabid squirrel. Snap snap went her teeth, clacking shut on empty air as Raine whipped her hand away just in time.
“You’re a good girl, too,” Raine said, laughing.
Sevens’ ire vanished, replaced with an incandescent blush.
“I think I like you now, yellow,” said Raine. “Any friend of Heather’s is a friend of mine. We cool? ‘Yellow’? Or you want me to call you something else?”
Sevens stared at her like a deer in headlights, black eyes gone wide, then rammed her face back into my side so hard it knocked the wind out of me with a little “Oof!” I wrapped an arm around her head, driven by a bizarre need to comfort her. Raine laughed and ruffled my hair too, then grabbed another chair and slid it up behind Sevens until it gently touched the backs of her legs.
Sevens jerked and flinched and let out a, “Guurrrg!”
“Raine, be gentle with her, please,” I said. “Don’t— please don’t do what you did with Zheng, this is different.”
Raine actually blinked at me in surprise. “I’m giving her a chair. For real. Hey, Yellow, come on, you gotta sit too, if you’re gonna be here for real and not float off. Those legs aren’t powered by magic, far as I can see.”
Sevens accepted the chair by climbing into it, gurgling and rasping like a stray cat warily accepting a bowl of food. She still refused to let go of my side, clinging on with both hands. Her sitting position looked horribly uncomfortable — she squatted on the chair, feet planted firmly, knees up, shoulders rounded. A natural position for one blessed with double-joints and hyper-mobility, perhaps. She was like rubber.
Evelyn finally sat down opposite us, eyebags heavier than her gaze. “Stop flirting.”
“Why?” Raine asked. “I’m enjoying myself here.”
“Because I am not getting up to relocate again.” She made sure to catch my eye. “Heather, either go take a bath or start talking. Or eating.”
“I-I really don’t think I could begin to relax,” I said. “I’m sorry, Raine, I can’t, I need to … unburden.”
Raine shrugged with her hands. “How about a compromise? You eat some food, drink some fluids, take it easy, and I’ll listen. Cool?”
“ … ‘cool’,” I echoed.
“You’re also covered in your own blood, so you are coming out of that hoodie,” she added. “You wearing anything under there?”
“The usual, two t-shirts.” I lifted a corner of the yellow robes. “But, um—”
“Allow me,” said Raine.
I didn’t have much of a choice, I couldn’t have resisted even if I’d wanted to. Raine rolled the yellow robes down my shoulders until I could wriggle my arms out of the sleeves, then peeled me out of my terribly bloodstained hoodie. She passed it off to Praem, who stepped into the utility room, presumably to shove the garment into a bucket full of cold water.
Before I could do it myself, Raine helped pull the yellow robes back up to cover my shoulders again.
“ … are you sure?” I asked. Raine nodded.
“Sevens,” rasped Sevens.
“Oh, wonderful, now she’s like a Pokemon,” Evelyn sighed.
“Sevens, then. Got it,” Raine said without missing a beat, and I realised Sevens had been peeking at her over my shoulder, showing twin slivers of red pupil. “You want a bath too? Not to critique your personal hygiene, but you look like you need it. You could even share it with Heather. I’m cool with that.”
“Raine!” I squeaked at her.
“ … laterrrrrr,” Sevens rasped.
So I told them everything, in as much detail as I could recall. I told them about getting stuck on the quiet plain, rubber-banded back by the immovable object of the dead hands, waiting for me in the membrane between worlds like a tripwire snaring my ankles. The dregs of my strange high finally dribbled away as I recalled the fear and panic, the blossoming of childhood terror into awful reality. That nine-year-old Heather was still huddled up warm and safe in my core, still tender and afraid, as if the rest of me was a protective shell I’d woven around her. She stirred at the memories and I felt tears threaten behind my eyes, but I wrapped metaphorical arms around my previous self and reminded her that we were strong enough to survive anything.
I told Evelyn and Raine about how I’d gotten the bright idea to find Saldis, and how I’d taken the Knight with me, how he’d volunteered to help me in my hour of need. Raine saluted him for that, with a clenched fist held pointed at the side of her own head. To our surprise, the Knight returned the gesture of respect, though somewhat slower. His elbow creaked ever so slightly.
I recounted the dimensional slingshot technique and passing out on the floor when I landed in the library of Carcosa. I told them about finding Saldis, about the confrontation with Hastur — “Hastur!” Evelyn scoffed again.
But she also asked me to pause and repeat that part. A spark kindled behind her eyes. She asked Praem — “If you would be a dear, please” — to fetch her notebook and the “pale tome, the one on the left,” from the magical workshop.
She had me repeat every detail of Hastur’s appearance, everything I could remember. Her questions grew more esoteric, more difficult to answer — “What kind of taste in the air? Were the tentacles repeating any patterns in their movements? Did it whisper, any sounds, any words at all?” – until I could answer no more.
As I spoke, Raine began to ply me with food. Praem had moved to start cooking first, brewing another cup of tea for Evelyn and putting coffee on for me, but Raine had silently taken over the responsibility of making sure I ate. She put food in front of me without a word, then levelled meaningful looks at me until I paused to take a bite.
She led with two slabs of thickly buttered toast, then moved to jam, then a bowl of oats and honey, then on to pop tarts. It rather extended the process of telling the story, but after the first few uncertain bites of toast and jam I felt my body start to wake up, demanding fuel for the fires of mortal life as my physiology switched from Outsider processes to human metabolism. My abdominal bioreactor had been running so hot and high for so long that I didn’t have to exert any conscious effort to begin sliding the biochemical control rods back into their channels. As glucose hit my bloodstream, the inexhaustible thrum of extra-biological power ebbed away, slowing to a trickle, just enough to maintain my six tentacles.
A new kind of exhaustion settled on me as the miracle in my abdomen powered down to a resting state — eyelids like lead, a dull headache, limbs heavy with the wrought-iron of over-exertion. Even my tentacles felt sluggish; I wrapped two around my own body and one around Sevens’ shoulders. I’d bought time and endurance with the bioreactor, but all debts came due in time.
Raine noticed my struggle when she made me a plate of scrambled eggs. The smell was intoxicating — it brought me back to my body, to my needs, to being alive and fleshy and incredibly hungry — but I didn’t reject it this time. I had my tentacles now and they gave me something to cling to, proof of what I really was.
I could have eaten three times what Raine made, but when I fumbled my fork and dropped it on the tabletop, she insisted on wiping my face with cold water. I felt like a small child with grubby cheeks as she washed away the lingering traces of my own blood.
When it came time to recount what had happened in the corridor of living darkness, I left out the details — not only Sevens’ private matters, but Evelyn’s too. I glossed over what nobody needed to hear.
Sevens herself relaxed as I told the story, as I contextualised her Princess-mask. She finally stopped gripping my robes and peeled her face away from my side, hooking her small, pale hands around her ankles as she squatted, peering at the others across the tabletop. She gazed at Praem with interest, sometimes made furtive eye contact with Evelyn, and snuck little sideways looks at Raine. Apparently she didn’t need to flex her knees to relieve joint-pressure in that pose. I was almost jealous.
“But now she choses to appear like this?” Evelyn gestured at her with a pencil, but spoke to me. “Why? She’s not even yellow anymore.”
“Authenticity,” Sevens gurgled in the back of her throat.
“Well, I’m getting to that,” I said. “It’s complicated. And um, I might not even get to it. It is Sevens’ business, really.”
“You said it yourself, Heather,” Evelyn reminded me. “She’s all masks. How can she have ‘business’ that isn’t imitation?”
“I am right here, you know,” Sevens rasped — but she looked down at the tabletop when Evelyn paid attention to her.
“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “That much is undeniable. Is she going to be living here? Heather, even this house only has so many bedrooms.”
“I, um, er, I think so? I don’t know. I assume so.”
“You need to eat, too, Sevens?” Raine asked, swanning past the table with a second cup of coffee for me. She placed it down with a tiny flourish of presentation.
“Not hungry,” Sevens gurgled.
“Nah, I mean, do you need to eat, for real?” Raine asked. “Judging by those teeth, you need a carnivore diet, yeah? Hey, you wouldn’t be the first in this household. We’ve got a packet of bacon in the fridge.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and tapped her pencil against her notebook, impatient for me to continue. “Of course she doesn’t need to eat our food, Raine. She’s not even really physical. She’s not technically real.”
“Hey, we can afford an extra mouth.”
Evelyn turned an expression on Raine which would not have been out of place on a stone carving of Satan glowering down from a doomed mountaintop. If she’d looked at me like that I would have hidden under the table, tentacles or no. If the King in Yellow had really wanted to make me leave without taking Sevens, he should have imitated Evelyn at her most deeply insulted.
“You mean I can afford an extra mouth,” Evelyn said, voice dripping toxic waste. “And don’t ever suggest I would not be willing to do so.”
“Whoa,” Raine put her hands up, laughing. “Okay, okay, we’re cool. Don’t bite my head off.”
“No money jokes,” Praem intoned. Raine turned the surrender to her too.
“Not a carnivore,” Sevens rasped between her pointy sharp needle-teeth. She managed to glance up at Raine long enough to make a flicker of eye contact. “Eat, yeah. Should eat. Anything else would be cheating.”
“Sure then. Eggs?”
“Egg,” said Sevens.
Raine shot her a wink and a finger-gun; Sevens’ red-on-black eyes followed Raine around the kitchen as she cracked three more eggs into the pan and scrambled them up. When the food was ready, Sevens ate with rapid nibbles, taking tiny bites and chewing them with the speed of a rodent.
Evelyn continued to take notes on everything I said about what lay beyond the library of Carcosa: the King’s hollow sphere-world of castle, the landscape of pale mist, the creatures and strange beings within. She asked me endless questions about Melancholy and the big angry trapezoid — and when I couldn’t answer, she turned to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
“What are any of you actually constructed of?” Evelyn demanded. “You’re not normal matter.”
But Sevens merely shrugged. “I’unno,” she said with the sulky disinterest of a teenage girl at a parent-teacher meeting. “What are you made of?”
“Mostly carbon and water,” Evelyn shot back. “Don’t you even know that?”
Sevens blinked those huge black eyes — she managed to stay fixed on Evelyn for a second — and then twitched her head to look at me. “Need to go down to understand. Down in the dark. Like Heather. She knows.”
Evelyn huffed and gestured with her pencil. “Alright, fine, whatever. Heather, carry on, please.”
In the end I couldn’t hold back the waterworks when I spoke about Alexander Lilburne. I told Raine and Evelyn and Praem about the King in Yellow, about his family, about the meeting he had lured me into, the meeting that imitated the same fateful time I’d met the real Alexander in a shuttered and closed Sharrowford coffee shop.
“What a bastard,” Raine muttered.
“No. No, he knew what I needed,” I said. “But, also yes, absolute bastard.”
Evelyn frowned through the whole thing with professional interest, rapt with attention, sharing a confused look with Raine when I explained the respective transformations of the King’s favourites — Steel and Orbit. Raine sat forward in her chair and held tight to one of my hand when she began to realise what had really happened out there. What I’d really seen.
“And it was all right,” I repeated, wiping slow tears on the sleeve of my yellow robes. “It was all right. That’s what he showed me. When I killed Alexander, when I murdered him, it was the right thing to do. Not because of some set of ethics that justifies it, but because it needed to happen. And the hands … they didn’t have any power over me anymore. And then I went home. Came home. And here I am.”
A moment of silence settled over the kitchen, broken only by my sniffling as I brought my tears under control — for there was nothing to cry about any more. Sevens gurgled softly. Raine squeezed my hand.
Then Evelyn sighed. “Heather.”
“Mm?” I looked up at her, surprised by the ease in her eyes.
“You’re not the only one who’s had to deal with this. Killing a mage, when it had to happen, but never feeling right afterward.” She cleared her throat, but it didn’t help, her words still came out stilted and halting. “If you need to talk about … well. You know. You could have done, with me. You still can, whenever. I know what it feels like.”
To my surprise, one of Praem’s perfectly neat hands crept onto Evelyn’s shoulder and stayed there, even when Evelyn awkwardly tried to shrug her off. After a moment, Evelyn cleared her throat and patted Praem’s hand in return, awkward and tentative.
I nodded. “Thank you, Evee. I just … I thought I was okay with it. With what I did. I guess I wasn’t, but I didn’t even know.”
“You know it but you don’t know you know it,” Raine murmured softly, then to my surprise she sighed too. She leaned over from her chair and helped dry my eyes with a gentle thumb brushed across my cheeks. “Because it needed to happen, yeah?”
“Yes. Raine?” I blinked at her, at the new way she was looking at me, serious and a touch sad, but then she broke into a smile.
“I guess I hoped you’d never have to learn that.”
I laughed, once, more bitter than I’d expected. “Learn that murder is sometimes okay?”
She shrugged. “But hey, you were never going to stay innocent, and that’s okay too.”
“Innocent, really?” I almost bristled. “Raine, I was never innocent.”
Raine laughed and put her hands up in surrender. She was doing that a lot this morning. “Poor choice of words, right. Hey, I just hoped I could shoulder some of that for you.”
“You can’t shoulder murder for other people,” I said.
“Bloody right,” said Evelyn. “She tried to do the same thing for me too, you know? She ever told you that? Although she was much more clumsy about it back then. Screamed it in my face with my mother’s corpse not even cold. Literally.”
Raine stared at Evelyn in blank-faced surprise. “Holy shit, Evee.”
“What?” Evelyn hissed. “What, I’m not allowed to finally deal with that via a bit of humour?”
Raine laughed, shaking her head, but I could see the delight in her smile even as she verbally brushed it off. “Come on, Evee. I hit your mum at least six different ways that would have killed a regular person. I did that murder too.”
“Mmmhmm.” Evelyn pursed her lips. “You keep telling yourself that.”
“Tally, minus one,” Praem intoned. Raine gaped at her in mock-offense. I actually laughed.
Sevens’ eyes ping-ponged back and forth between my friends as they bantered about matricide. I squeezed her arm with a tentacle and she let out a low, raspy, “Guuuuurg.”
“Heather,” Evelyn said, her tone sliding down into the chill waters of something I did not like, her pencil resting against her notebook. “You need to explain that last part to me over again. In detail, please. Because I still don’t understand — the King in Yellow? The real thing?”
The sun finished rising as I repeated details for Evelyn. Sevens kept sticking her pale hand into the patch of light on the table. And I did too, letting the warmth of our own star soak into the dry and dirty skin on the back of my hand. As Raine stood up and rubbed my shoulders through the yellow robes to work the tight knots out of my muscles, I stared through the small kitchen window at the scraps of blue beyond the clouds. Sevens watched and listened and learned, not as an observer who had convinced herself she was objective, but as a participant, in the room, here with us. Praem and the Knight had nothing to say, but I liked that both of them were here with us.
Part of me wanted to step outdoors to bask in the sun, despite my aching muscles and heavy limbs. Here was where I was meant to be.
A sensation grew inside my chest, a dull realisation that I would have felt that way even if I’d Slipped back to the wrong location — say, if I’d landed in the Gobi desert or the Australian outback or the middle of the Pacific ocean. Well, yes, I would have been in a panic — I’m still me — but this specific relief, this return of the real, that would have remained even with all else gone.
But I didn’t like that thought. I didn’t need the world, I just needed what was in this kitchen. And upstairs. And sleeping off a rough night Outside. And over in Brinkwood. And wherever Zheng had got to.
Earth for Earth’s sake mattered nothing. I’d killed Alexander for the safety and lives of specific people.
After we’d decompressed, when Evelyn finally accepted the existence of the King in Yellow, and when Praem had speed-cooked bacon and eggs — and firmly rejected Raine’s help with a silent stare — Evelyn still regarded me with that cold clinical look, a mage’s look, those narrowed eyes and that probing intelligence, staring at me over a half-cleaned plate in our very normal kitchen of slate floor and old counter-tops and cast-iron stove.
“ … Evee?” I ventured, sending my own probe back to discover her intent.
“Do you even begin to understand what it is you’ve done, Heather?” she asked.
“You’re also being creepy as hell,” Raine said.
“What I’ve done? Made a new friend?” I glanced at Sevens, who was peering right back at Evelyn across the table, eyes shaded by the tilt of her own brow. “Outwitted a monarch? Okay, I didn’t do that part. I’m pretty sure he could have stopped me if he’d tried. Evee, what are you talking about?”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth, turning her head as if to examine me from different angles. Her eyes roved my sides and my shoulders, even though she couldn’t see my tentacles, not without the aid of her hastily-wrought trick glasses, which currently sat on the table in front of Raine. Her gaze made me want to slip the squid-skull mask back on over my head, but I’d left it in the magical workshop. This was home, this was safe, I didn’t need the mask.
“Evee, hey.” Raine clicked her fingers twice. “I know what you’re doing.”
Evelyn ignored her, eyes cold with hunger. “Heather, the experience you had this night, nineteen hours Outside, alone and far from human contact, that is the sort of thing which forms the basis for an entire tome like this.” She tapped the book on the kitchen table, the one Praem had fetched, bound in worryingly pale leather, old and cracked but still supple. “Any mage achieving such a feat — and surviving it! — would be ambitious beyond telling.”
“But you’ve been Outside too. We all have. To the library of Carcosa, together.”
“Oh, tosh,” Evelyn huffed. “That was a short expedition under controlled circumstances — during which, I might add, a lot of things went wrong. We almost died half a dozen times. Especially me. And look what happened to the group Edward sent in too, they got it even worse. That’s nothing by comparison. You were alone, or almost alone.” She nodded to the Knight. “Making deals with Outsiders on your own terms. And look what you’ve won.”
She gestured at Sevens, but didn’t look away from me — and then I saw the hint of wonder in the back of her eyes, the spark of awe touching kindling I dare not examine too closely.
Instead, I stamped on it.
“Evee? Evee, I know that look from you. Don’t.”
“Oh don’t—” she started.
“Don’t look at me like I’m a mage. I’m Heather. That’s all I’ll ever be. Don’t.”
“ … yes.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Yes. Sorry. Still!” She brushed it off, barked with laughter and let herself grow sardonic. “My mother would have given her firstborn for such an experience. That’s me, in case you don’t get the joke.”
“No,” Praem intoned. Evelyn cleared her throat again and looked away.
“Evee, where is this coming from?” I demanded.
Evelyn shrugged. “Old habit. Survival strategy. I said sorry, didn’t I? You were gone all night, Heather. Forgive me for thinking the worst.”
I didn’t like the tone in her voice, but she had a point. “It does feel like I was gone a lot longer than that,” I said, haltingly. “Could that have actually happened?”
Raine perked up. “You don’t look older or anything. Tired as shit, sure, but not older. I’d know.”
I couldn’t help but smile despite myself. “Thank you, but that’s not what I mean.”
“Time dilation?” Evelyn asked. “That’s why you were panicked when you returned?”
I shrugged. “I slept twice. The second time, I know how long that one was, because Sevens and Saldis were both right there. But the first, I was just unconscious on the library floor, wrapped up in a cocoon of my own tentacles.” I looked over my shoulder at the forest-knight, standing tall by the door to the workshop, axe held point-down on the kitchen tiles. “The Knight was there, but I’m not certain he experiences time like we do. I could have been lying there for a subjective week.”
“Weren’t,” rasped Sevens. We all glanced at her and she moved to hide behind my shoulder, but managed to refrain from the full withdrawal. “Just hours. Hours.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “Okay, good. Thank you.”
“You went on a true journey Outside,” Evelyn said. “You returned with artifacts, with gifts torn from the utmost rim of the universe.” She gestured at my yellow robes and through the door behind me, at my squid-skull mask sitting on the table in the workshop, staring at us with six dark eye holes. Saldis’ golden pendant lay there too, dull in the shadows. “You met a god, but you didn’t even think to ask the relevant questions. Any mage would give both eyes to hear the merest whispers from an Outsider of that scale, but you—”
“Evee, don’t, please.”
“Yeah, hey,” Raine added. “Evelyn, down.”
Evelyn shook her head, sighed — and smiled, hard and savage, right at me, a choke in her voice. “Heather, your every action proves me wrong. Proves my mother wrong, I suppose. I love you too, you godly fool.”
I was too stunned to thank her. Evelyn held her resolution for about half a second before she blushed, looking down and tapping her notebook with her pencil. We all knew better than to comment on the sheen of tears in her eyes.
“Love is good,” Praem intoned.
“Uh, yeah!” Raine joined in. “Hear hear! Bit generic, but big truth from our resident maid enthusiast.”
Praem gave her a look. Raine shrugged with a very ‘I-did-my-best’ kind of expression. I don’t think she understood what was going on with Evelyn. In truth, neither did I, not fully.
Evelyn rolled her eyes at all this, a nice opening for an elegant recovery as she scrubbed her face on the back of her sleeve. We all pretended not to see. She pointed her pencil at Sevens. “And I don’t suppose I’m going to get anything out of you, am I?”
This time, Sevens met her look, staring sullen from behind black jewels. “What’s to get?”
“Exactly. You’re a theatre kid, not a monarch. You have nothing to teach me.” Evelyn paused with a strange look on her face, a wary intensity, a paradoxical need. “Do you?”
Sevens tilted her head to the side, so slowly that my imagination supplied the creaking of a door from some half-remembered black and white horror film, something about ancient castles and forgotten caskets. Her head rotated on a neck far too rubbery and flexible to be truly human, though I heard the popping of several vertebrae as they stood out on the back of her neck. Her black-and-red eyes never left Evelyn, glittering like rubies in the night. She stopped blinking. Stopped breathing. Stopped moving at all.
That was no act. The motion was distressingly predatory, like something Zheng might do, but purer, more real; Zheng’s body had, after all, begun life as a human being. Sevens’ motion reached down into my brainstem and tugged at ancient instincts evolved for avoiding big cats on the African savannah. This scrawny, pale, weird little creature squatting next to me was a predator. My genes knew so.
Evelyn flinched back, following her instincts too. Raine sat up straight all of a sudden, eyes fixed on Sevens. Praem didn’t move — she knew better, she saw through the mask — but her milk-white eyes swivelled to fix on Sevens.
But to me, in that moment, this mask of Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight was heart-achingly cute.
Before I knew what I was doing, I reached out with one hand and touched the back of Sevens’ neck, entangling my fingers with her long, dirty hair, cupping the base of her head where spine met skull. Vulnerable, slender, full of fragile little bones and important blood vessels and vital nerve trunks. Her ever-so-slightly-too-warm skin tingled beneath my fingers as a shiver shot through her.
I was entranced by this mask, by the predator, by the paradoxical seduction. And unlike Zheng, she wasn’t even trying.
“Rrrrr?!” She flinched, breaking eye contact with Evelyn and jerking round to face me — but a pair of my tentacles had instinctively lashed hard around her slender wrists, holding her tight as our eyes met.
A soft hiss rose up my throat; the first time I’d felt the urge to hiss at anything other than a threat. It came out low and slow. It felt right.
We stayed like that for three heartbeats, heat climbing up my face. But I couldn’t let go.
“Be … be nice to … to Evee, okay?” I squeezed out eventually.
Sevens nodded. Jerky, up and down, once.
I let her go as suddenly as I’d grabbed her. Seven-Shades-of-Suitably-Submissive rocked back, but didn’t flee. She ducked her head and watched me as I withdrew hand and tentacle alike. I felt a laugh creep up my throat with strange and hysterical delight, buzzing inside with something I’d never felt before. When I glanced around the table, I found that Raine was watching us with deep interest and curiosity, which only made me choke on my laughter.
“What I meant,” Evelyn raised her voice to stop us descending into complete animalistic nonsense, “is that you have no magic to teach me, Sevens. Nothing about Outside. No secrets. Yes?”
“Guuuuurrrrgggg,” went Sevens, like a white noise machine set on a note too deep. She eyed me warily once more — then bumped me with her head, exactly like a cat accepting a petting. But she quickly returned her attention to Evelyn. “Nah.”
Oh, I realised with numb fascination, I was establishing dominance.
Evelyn blew out a long breath, still a little jumpy, watching Sevens like the stray she was. “I don’t know how you find her so palatable like this, Heather. I preferred the prissy princess.”
“Uh … right, yes. Uh, I mean, she’s fine.” I was still recovering from what I’d done.
“Rrrrr-fuck,” Sevens rasped. Evelyn barked a laugh.
“I don’t,” I murmured, almost out of breath with strange excitement. “I don’t prefer the princess. Oh wow.”
“Yeah, me neither,” said Raine, loud and proud and swinging her feet down to the floor. She stood up, twisting her head left and right and flexing her back to work the sleep-deprivation kinks out of her muscles. Then she went quite still and locked eyes with Sevens. “But I sure would love to have a chat with her. Don’t know if I can say the things I need to say to that sweet little face.”
Sevens held her gaze — but also dug a hand into my robes, holding on tight.
Flushed with the aftereffects of how I’d just renegotiated the nature of my relationship with Seven-Shades-of-Gnashing-Goblin, my mouth ran away before I could control myself.
“Raine, Raine, we— I— I mean you—” I hissed through my teeth, trying to get a grip. “Raine, you can be as jealous as you need to. We’ll deal with that. You can accept it or reject it and I am one hundred percent by your side and we will work this out.”
Raine shot me a grin, her confidence dialled down just a notch less than usual. “Ehhh. I already said, I don’t really know. I mean, I don’t even know who or what I’m actually dealing with here. This isn’t her, not really, is it? This is just a mood. You and I,” she said to Sevens, pointing two fingers at her own eyes and then back at Sevens, “we need to get to know each other. For real.”
“You can do that,” I blurted out, then looked at Sevens. “You can do that?”
“Rrrrr-gguuurg.” Sevens ducked her head, avoiding the attention.
“The Princess, well,” Raine said with a shrug, half-acting, putting on a show. “I don’t like the idea of her bending you over and making you squeal.”
I went tomato-red, mouth wide open in a splutter.
Sevens did her weird gurgle-laugh in the back of her throat. Raine shot a pair of finger-guns at her. “See what I mean? Gobbo gets it.”
“I’m not a ‘gobbo’. That’s disrespectful,” Sevens rasped.
“Sure,” said Raine. “So, is there a real you I can speak to?”
“Abyssal,” Sevens said. “Wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Ah. Right. Beyond even me, hey? But you ain’t beyond me, not like that.”
I knew exactly what she was doing — she was trying to communicate. But I couldn’t help myself.
“I do not squeal!” I said.
“Sometimes you do,” Evelyn drawled, looking like she wanted to pass out. “I can hear it through the walls.”
Everybody looked at her. Even Praem.
“ … I was joking,” Evelyn added.
Raine was laughing, I was blushing, and Sevens seemed to be relaxing into this somehow.
“So yeah, the princess, maybe yes, maybe not,” Raine went on. “But hey, goblin girl here is the same thing, the same person. I accept that. So I don’t know how to feel.” She shrugged. “You’ve really not even made out with her?”
I sighed and rolled my eyes, trying to control my blush. “Not everything is about physical lust, Raine. Emotions are real too. Why does it matter if we haven’t? I’d never intentionally break your trust like that.”
She shrugged. “Yeah, but what if you want to snog her?”
“Then I’ll … I’ll have to … to … ”
To not do it, my mind supplied. I glanced at Sevens. Could I reject her for Raine’s sake? She stared back at me, red-on-black like fire inside obsidian, sulky but apparently not worried. Maybe she couldn’t understand what was being negotiated here. Or maybe I was the one not seeing the truth.
“Call it my simian territoriality or whatever,” Raine said. “My alpha prerogative or something.”
“Oh please,” Evelyn drawled. “Heather’s the only alpha here.”
Raine cleared her throat. “Well, yeah, but you get the point. Anyway. Heather, there’s a bit of me that doesn’t want you to do it unless I give you permission first.”
“ … permission?” I asked, feeling a much slower yet much hotter blush creeping up my cheeks.
“Yeah,” Raine said. She waited a beat, watching me with a growing smirk — a nasty one, showing a few teeth. “Ask permission to kiss Sevens.”
Sevens and I glanced at each other at the exact same moment. The scrawny little gremlin had points of bright colour growing in her cheeks too.
“You … you want me to?” I asked Raine.
Raine took three steps closer to my chair. I suddenly felt like she was towering over me. “Ask permission. Go on.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and bent down, so her face was inches from mine. I could not have stopped her with two dozen tentacles. I was like a rat in front of a snake. “Let’s find out what I say.”
I opened my mouth, but my tongue was dry as sand. My heart felt like a dying dove. My hands were shaking. Next to me, Sevens was making a gurgle in her throat, but my hind-brain registered it as submission.
Raine was indeed much more powerful than the Yellow Princess.
“Oh I’m not fucking watching this,” Evelyn grumbled, and started banging her walking stick against a table leg to punctuate her word. “Do this upstairs. With a closed door. And soundproofing.”
Raine laughed and let go of me and took a step back. She shot me a wink and ran a hand through her hair and tilted her chin up, beaming with confidence. And it was all real.
I let out a sound like a confused seal.
“Right,” Evelyn hissed. “Before you lot inevitably make a gigantic mess in the bathroom that I don’t want to know about, I have to ask. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight — what are you right now?”
Sevens turned with a little flick of her head, desperate for relief from the pressure of Raine’s attention. “Excuse me? What?”
“I’m not a fool,” Evelyn explained. “What are you? Clearly not a human being. This mask, I mean. What was it before you borrowed it?”
“Vampire,” said Sevens.
Evelyn frowned and sighed like a small child had just said something very stupid. “There’s no such thing as vampires.”
And to my surprise — to everyone’s surprise, judging by the flinches and the stares — Sevens pulled a huge, toothy grin. It had none of Zheng’s slow predatory menace. It was like looking at some faerie creature that had just stolen a cooling pie off a windowsill and been caught with crumbs on her fingers.
Evelyn cleared her throat and looked away. Raine nodded in appreciation. Sevens let out a “rrr-rrr-rrr” laugh, like a small electric motor with a loose blade.
I stared at Sevens, and realised.
Oh no, oh dear. I sort of did want to kiss her.
“Well,” Raine said, raising her voice over my kindling desire, “maybe it’s time for that bath.”
I sighed and nodded yes, shaking a little at all this, but feeling the exhaustion drag at my limbs. “I suppose so. Oh, I do wish Lozzie would come home already. I am still worried about her.”
“Sleeping off a night out,” Praem intoned.
“You’re probably right,” I admitted, “but I wish she’d do that at home. I wish she would—”
A noise like a submarine at sea rang through the kitchen, of creaking plates and straining rivets, metal tortured by the pressure of the deep. For a split second I thought it was the house itself, that something had come loose in some distant room, a beam was buckling or a bed breaking upstairs. The sound was so clearly structural, on a greater-than-human scale, something going very wrong.
Behind me, the Knight dropped his axe to the floor with an almighty clang.
I wrenched round in my chair, tentacles grabbing the table for leverage. Raine and Evelyn were both staring, as surprised as I was. Sevens all but fell out of her chair in shock, half-sprawling on the floor in a tangle of pale limbs and long dark hair. Praem picked up a tea towel and stepped forward.
The forest-knight was bleeding.
Thin watery red liquid was seeping from the almost imperceptible seams in his shining metal armour. Every plate and piece of his suit was quivering, as if he was struggling to keep his hold on the inside, like a man in the grip of a hemorrhagic fever.
Lozzie’s words from weeks and weeks ago slammed into the forefront of mind, from back when I’d first asked her about her knights.
“They don’t work up here, they fall apart. Like a deep-sea fish brought up to the surface, they’ll just – ploop.”
I was out of my chair so fast it skidded across the kitchen. Bioreactor waking back up, nerves screaming, yellow robes tangled around my legs; I used my tentacles to launch myself at the Knight like an octopus shooting from a gap in the rocks, chasing shelled prey with a sharp beak – except I was trying to do the opposite, trying to keep his shell intact, and plunge him back into the deep waters.
I slammed into him at the same moment I executed the equation.
I didn’t even care about the risk of getting stuck again.
… oh, what’s this? It’s a chapter afterword! These never happen on the main site! Usually they lurk at the bottom of each chapter on Royal Road and Scribblehub (chapters which are exactly identical to each one posted here, don’t worry, you aren’t missing anything). Perhaps they might start appearing here too though.
I just want to take a moment to publicly highlight some of the absolutely incredible fanart that readers have drawn of Katalepsis, all of which is currently posted over on the fanart gallery! Some of it’s been there for a while, such as Nocturne’s breathtaking image of the moment Heather truly met Zheng. However, the end of Arc 14 has inspired several new pieces, such as a family portrait (by DreamingHunter), Sevens celebrating her handiwork (by Brack), and perhaps a glimpse into the future of the Yellow Princess mask (by Quintillion). There’s several more, both under the spoiler-tags and not. Go check it out! I am endlessly flattered, delighted, and humbled when my work inspires such creativity. You’re all wonderful.