for the sake of a few sheep – 15.3

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Popular media is rife with apocryphal tales of so-called ‘hysterical strength’ — young mothers lifting burning cars off trapped infants, fathers discovering hidden reserves of speed to snatch a child from the jaws of death, even old men sucker punching bears to save their tiny pet dogs from being mauled and eaten. Raine says there’s a grain of truth in such stories, but that it’s mostly justification for nonsense, and I’m inclined to agree with her. Adrenaline and love make a potent cocktail. Pain, fatigue, even permanent damage can all be rendered into mere illusion, but bodies — even inhuman bodies — still have limits. One’s instincts make demands, but eventually bones break, tendons snap, and muscle fibres tear. But sometimes the damage is worth taking, just for a chance of saving another.

When I slammed into the Knight and sent us crashing through the membrane back to Outside, I barely felt the transition. The molten toxic corrosion of hyperdimensional mathematics sloshed inside my skull, searing through my eyeballs like hot pokers, but I simply didn’t care. I executed the equation with a flicker of thought, pure reaction, no concern for how little energy I had left.

Reality dissolved into kaleidoscopic chaos. For a moment which was also eternity, we were nowhere at all.

Then the Quiet Plain exploded around us with colour and motion and time.

The kinetic force of five-foot-nothing me, with my clutch of tentacles and my trailing fan of yellow robe, finished the arc I’d begun back in reality, smashing into the front of the Knight’s shiny chrome armour, tentacles lashing like a panicked octopus. I was a tiny wrecking ball of fragile flesh and frantic fear, but he should have withstood that like a tank versus a particularly excitable hedgehog.

To my endless horror, he fell over.

He toppled like a felled tree, crashing onto his back on the soft yellow grass of the quiet plain. I went down with him, clinging on hard. My head banged off his breastplate, I bruised both elbows and one knee, crunched a hip into his armour, pinned one hand beneath his weight for a moment long enough to grind my bones, and somehow managed to punch myself in the stomach with one of my tentacles.

It wasn’t the worst post-Slip landing I’d ever had, but it was up there. Not to mention I was already drained, exhausted, and emotionally spent after one of the longest nights of my life.

Head whirling, body throbbing with new pain, truly empty, I felt myself just let go.

But I didn’t black out — I couldn’t black out. My body wouldn’t let me, it had decided otherwise. In the one second it had taken me and the Knight to fall down in a tangle of limbs and shaking metal, the miracle bioreactor in my abdomen had performed the opposite of an emergency SCRAM operation. Every control rod shot out of its chemical channel, slamming the reactor to maximum output; I was running hot before I even finished injuring myself, screaming past safe limits and risking ego-death.

I sat up and fell off the Knight in a second tangle of limbs, turned to my head to vomit, and didn’t even take the time to groan before I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. No time for self-pity.

I turned back to the Knight because I had to do something, anything, whatever I could.

“No no no no no—” I hissed, going up on my knees and leaning over the Knight’s supine form. I had no idea what to do with my shaking hands or quivering tentacles. I didn’t even know where to start.

The Knight was literally falling apart — peeling himself out of his protective shell of imperishable metal, pushing away the chrome plates and shining pauldrons and letting go of the helmet and the greaves and the gauntlets, leaving them to lie limp and empty on the yellow grass as he revealed the gnarled truth inside, the real Knight contained within the amour, the self of dark flesh. Watery red fluid sluiced out and soaked into the ground, stinking of blood and bile. But his tentacles — glorious things lined with powerful suckers and filaments like Velcro — had grown too weak for the task; he couldn’t lift the heavy breastplate off himself, like a man trapped beneath a fallen beam with broken arms.

I grabbed the metal with both hands and two tentacles and heaved it off his core. The heavy plate fell onto the grass with a dull thump.

“Oh … oh God,” I breathed. “Oh no. Please, please—”

When one of the other knights had shown me the truth of what lay inside their armour — the protoplasmic bubbling, the masses of tentacles like ropes of muscle, the leathery dark raw-beef texture of their skin — the experience had not only gifted me with empathy and understanding, it had given me a baseline for what they were supposed to look like.

Which is why I understood the forest-knight was so badly injured.

His core — about the size of a beach-ball — flopped as if partially deflated, like a balloon filled with cold, lumpy, congealed fat, spasming and flexing. The thickest and strongest of his dozens of tentacles lay limp and twitching where he’d managed to extract himself from the arms and legs of the armour; the smaller ones tried to rise, to drift like seaweed, but they merely quivered, falling back as if beached in the cold air. The surface of his tea-coloured skin was puffy and bloated, like a bar of soap left in the water for too long. Every inch of him was weeping that thin, watery, stinking blood. The vigorous protoplasmic bubbling was absent; half-formed mouths and eyes and other alien organs were frozen in the surface of his skin, as if he’d kept trying to generate the correct sensory apparatus right up until his energy had given out.

Three eyes seemed to still function: one like a goat’s eye, the second an insect compound eye, and the third distressingly human. They all turned to meet my panicked gaze.

“You’re … you’re okay now.” My tongue was numb and a weight lay on my chest. “You’re Outside. You’re Outside now, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay … ”

My hands and tentacles hovered, useless. I had no idea where to start, how to help, what he needed. I dared not touch anything, lest I cause more damage, more pain. I’d practised and practised and practised in order to do brain surgery on Badger, but the Knight wasn’t even remotely human.

“What … what do I … ?” I managed, throat closing up, tears running down my cheeks. “Why didn’t you say something? Why— no, no, this is all my fault, it’s all my fault. I should have paid attention. You weren’t even supposed to be there.”

He shouldn’t have been in our reality. Lozzie had told me in plain language. But I’d been so distracted, so focused on myself and Sevens and on getting home. I’d pulled him up behind us without even thinking. Like dredging a deep-sea fish to the surface on the back of my safe little submersible, like Lozzie but a thousand times quicker, a thousand times worse.

His suit of armour, wrought from Outsider star-steel, had probably afforded him some limited protection. A bubble of metaphysical safety against what for him must have been a howling void. But even that armour had seams. He’d had to hold it together himself, from the inside. Imagine trying to clutch a space suit to your own naked body, when every movement might allow in more of the deathly cold nothingness beyond.

“I’ve hurt you,” I tried to say, but it came out as a whine between gritted teeth. “What do I do? What do you need?”

A mouth near his top end flapped open and shut with liquid noises, but held no expression and made no cry for help. I stared at it, feeling myself sinking.

“Not vocal,” I said, voice dying. “Not vocal. Of course I know you’re not vocal. It’s not your responsibility to be vocal. I should have … asked … should have known.”

One of his three active eyes — the goat-pupil one — blinked slowly in an unmistakable gesture. A thickly muscled tentacle bumped against my knee.

I believe he was trying to say ‘It’s okay.

When I turned to vomit again I could barely see through a veil of tears. It wasn’t an aftershock of hyperdimensional mathematics that brought up the remains of my breakfast, it was guilt and horror.

I’d done this. By accident. That didn’t make it any better.

I scrubbed my tears away and wiped my mouth again, desperate to help rather than be consumed by selfish guilt, but I couldn’t do anything except be ready. There was no move to make here, no first aid, no medical help. Not without his maker.

“Lozzie?” I said her name like a prayer, hoping beyond hope that she would materialise in front of me, just like she had that time in Wonderland. “Lozzie?! Lozzie please!” I looked up and around, pleading with her to appear. “You made them, you know how to—

When I raised my eyes, I discovered a ring of steel.

Other knights had gathered to watch, to pay their respects to their dying comrade, or perhaps just to look on in horror at what I’d done. About two dozen of them had wandered away from their habitual positions in Lozzie’s imaginary round table, spread out across the soft yellow hillsides. They stood at a safe distance, silent grey-chrome sentinels of thick metal, carrying their shields and their swords and their lances, slung over their shoulders or held at rest. Their armour shone darkly, lit from far above by the strange purple whorls in the sky, framed by the distant horizon and brushed by the touch of the sweetly-spiced wind.

“Help!” I said. “How do I help him? What do I do?”

None of them answered. They couldn’t, that wasn’t how they communicated. But that didn’t stop me from twisting on the spot, looking at each blank-visored helmet in turn, pleading and babbling. “Help, please, can’t you do something for him?! Tell me what to do! I can do magic, I can fix things, I can fix people, and— and— I don’t know what to do! I need Lozzie but she’s not here!”

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I saw sorrow and resignation in the set of their shoulders, the angle of their chins, the slump of their arms. One of them was even pointing his featureless faceplate up at the sky, as if weeping to the absent stars.

Two of them had died protecting Lozzie and I, first from the Eye, then from the black lighting creature in Carcosa. But had they ever witnessed the death of one of their own, up close and slow, with time enough to say goodbye?

Regret almost overwhelmed me, filling my eyes and gritting my teeth; all that bioreactor energy rushed through my veins and saturated my cells, with nothing to do.

This was why I cared.

If Raine or Evelyn had been in mortal danger, that so-called ‘hysterical strength’ would have made perfect sense. I loved my friends. I would do anything for them. But I’d known this Knight, this weird blob of flesh, for about twenty hours. I’d never exchanged a single word with him; we could barely communicate. But he’d been alongside me every step of the way. He’d volunteered to protect me, duelled Hastur, walked through the darkness, faced a sphinx, and helped me defy the King in Yellow. He was a hero, no matter how minor the part he played.

All of them had volunteered for this, made some kind of vow with Lozzie, an unimaginable pact to protect me and help rescue Maisie. Though I had not asked for them, I had followers, disciples, pawns.

Perhaps they were all prepared to throw themselves at the Eye, when the time came. I did not particularly like that they had pledged themselves to die for me, but I knew I would use them in the end, if they were willing and able and could help me rescue my sister. So the only way to deal with that was to accept I had a responsibility to them in return. I had a duty of care. A covenant to never spend them carelessly — or spend them not at all, if it could ever be avoided.

To die defending us was one thing. But to die because I made a stupid mistake?

A keening noise tried to force itself up my throat. I hadn’t cried like this in months. I was filth.

The dying forest-knight bumped my knee with a tentacle again. Powerful suckers tried to grasp my jeans, but slipped off like broken fingers. A sob choked me as I reached down to make contact, as I touched tentacle to tentacle and the forest-knight hung on as hard as he could.

“It’s going to be okay,” I lied.

Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned forward and took the poor thing in my arms. I hugged the Knight and gently pulled him off the ground and into my lap, stroking the puffy, leathery, weeping flesh like comforting a dying animal that didn’t understand what was happening. But the Knight understood all too well. He coiled several tentacles around me in return, but could barely hold on, all his strength gone.

I made sure to wrap as much of him as I could in Sevens’ robes. Perhaps the warmth would soothe him, take away the pain.

“It’s going to be … okay,” I lied again.

Television and movies always make these sorts of moments seem so clean and neat; white bedsheets and murmured goodbyes, eyes closing without the need for intervention, picturesque bullet wounds that never disfigure, sorrow-stricken heroes carrying their dead friends. But reality is so much flesh. They never show the voiding bowels, the ugly coughing, the bitterness and failure.

The Knight was heavy enough that my thighs were already aching, a beach-ball made of muscle, leathery flesh rough and sticky with the bloody weeping, which soaked into the front of my clothes and got all over my arms and hands. He stank of strange fluids, bloody excrement and bile, vaguely cloacal, and he was an awkward shape to hug without getting his watery blood on my neck and face. But I didn’t care. I hugged him gently so as not to make the pain worse, pressing him against the radiating warmth of the bioreactor in my abdomen, now running almost out of control. My head felt light, spinning away into the clouds, senses beginning to blur.

He was just like us. Lozzie had made him flesh, true flesh, and I was an idiot who hadn’t paid attention to that simple fact. I swore I would never let this happen again.

“It’s going to be—”

True flesh.

Pressed against my abdomen.

“—okay,” I finished as my tears suddenly stopped.

I looked down at the be-tentacled beach-ball of swollen, aching flesh nestled in my lap. Two of his three eyes were half-closed in exhaustion, but the one with the goat-pupil swivelled to look up at me.

“ … I know flesh,” I murmured. “I’m flesh too.”

He blinked. A question.

“I’ve already let two of you die and I should have been smarter, should have been faster, should have done something differently. Well this time I can.” My voice rose in confidence as I spoke, quivering but backed by resolution. “I have an idea.”

I brought one of my own tentacles in front of my face so I could watch the concept blossom into life. My beautiful pneuma-somatic limb responded to my half-formed notion with a shudder of sub-dermal transformation, new organs and structures speed-growing beneath the pale, rainbow-strobing skin, seeded by thought and fuelled by the pounding energy of my bioreactor. The Knight’s single remaining eye swivelled up to watch as the tip of the tentacle peeled open like a flower, revealing a needle.

Six inches long and wrought from bio-steel — a substance I hadn’t even known I could make until the idea had struck me. The needle was thick enough to pierce elephant hide. Purple light glinted off the metal. Tiny tendrils lapped it in a layer of antiseptic and then wicked away the moisture until it shone like a dagger.

A trio of sacks nestled at the needle’s base, each the size of a golf ball, semi-translucent, and rapidly filling with their respective payloads.

One was golden-yellow, bright and burning. The second was clear-white, milky and thin. The third was black as the deep, oily and potent.

My flank started to go cold, right where that tentacle was rooted and anchored in human flesh; I shoved the folds of Sevens’ cloak tighter against my side. Those three fluids were being distilled from my own blood, taken from my plasma and lymph, leeched out of my cells. The bioreactor in my abdomen screamed with heat as it compensated, pumping out glucose and enzymes and other things best left unformed in the light of reality, substances which had no place in the human body — and I was seeing them with my own eyes for the first time.

Somehow, deep in my gut, I knew I had only a second or two; the unnameable substances I was extracting from my own body would not stay stable when isolated and purified like this. I had to mix them again, join them with flesh, give them purpose.

I raised the needle over the Knight in my arms and reared the tentacle back, ready to strike.

His single eye found me, weeping a few slow tears. I didn’t need to read minds to know the question he was asking.

“You’re going to be—” I started to say.

The needle ached like an open wound. Any longer and I must close it, void the contents, seal myself back up. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t give him hope, I couldn’t lie.

His strange goat-pupil dilated with fear.

Will this work? he asked.

“I have no idea,” I admitted — and plunged the needle home.

The metal spike struck true, stabbing right through his leathery hide and sinking into his core, among alien organs and exotic chemicals, the base slamming home against his skin. A set of tiny muscles contracted inside my tentacle-tip, valves opening and sphincters pushing and tubes dilating, draining the trio of sacks and mixing their contents into a single stream of alchemical miracle that shot through the needle and into the Knight.

It was one of the most disgusting physical sensations I’d ever experienced, like a cross between shoving one’s leg into a vat of sun-baked cow viscera, and a highly-localised chill of frostbite just under my ribs. A shock wave ran up through the tentacle I’d used and hit me in the flank like a bucket of ice-cubes dumped into my torso cavity. I hissed through my teeth — then just hissed at the sky like an animal, in pain and shock. It stung and ached and made me want to tear out a fistful of my own flesh. In my abdomen, the trilobe bioreactor screamed and overheated, a burning star in my belly spinning new matter and dumping it into my bloodstream, to replace what I was giving away.

He twitched and shivered in my arms, his single remaining eye going glassy and cloudy. I hugged him tighter, as if that would make any difference.

Either this was going to work, or I’d just delivered a merciful deathblow.

I didn’t even fully understand what I’d just done; abyssal instinct and bodily drive were screaming at me to stop, like I was losing blood. The fluids I was ejecting were never supposed to leave my body, never meant to be chemically isolated in the first place, and absolutely not intended for transfusion into another living creature.

But I squeezed with muscles I hadn’t possessed sixty seconds earlier. Tiny membranes in my tentacle-tip tore themselves apart. Miniature tendons snapped and curled. Muscles ripped under their own force, pushing out every last droplet of burning ichor.

And suddenly, like touching a live electrical cable, I achieved connection.

For a split second the Knight and I were part of the same pneuma-somatic circuit. As the trio of chemicals recombined and pulsed through his circulatory system, as they bonded with his cell walls and located whatever he used instead of adenosine triphosphate, as they sank into the whorls of his thinking-meat and rode the nerve impulses, his biology and mine were linked through the thin tunnel of bio-steel, back up through my tentacle and into my body through my flank, all the way back to my heart and lungs and brain.

I felt what he felt — all-encompassing pain and exhaustion, desperate hope, and a kind of love that no word exists for in any human language. I finally understood why Lozzie had made them knights. Real historical knights may have been a thin justification over the brutality of feudalism, but here was chivalric devotion worthy of the name.

But there was not only one knight.

There was this flesh and this mind, cradled in my arms on the cusp of death or salvation, but for one glorious explosive moment I was aware of all those other minds too, arranged in a ring for comradeship, company, and consensus-making. When one of them fell, the ring could close, so as to never truly be broken. I caught a snatched moment of their constant flow of thought-exchange, not as words or any other recognisable communication, too alien for even me to understand, a whirling impressions of sorrow, hissed arguments about intervention, debates on proper rites and procedures and mourning, wild shouts of trust and belief, while beneath it all they still carried on a million conversations about subjects so alien I never did manage to understand what I’d witnessed. It was as if I was a foreigner who had walked up to their round table, respected and beloved, but bereft of their tongue.

Yet more distant than these alien yet human-scale minds, I sensed other groupings of thoughts further out, still connected but totally incomprehensible to me, awash with sense-impressions of vast barren plains beneath the purple-whorled sky, or the ruins of impossibly cyclopean cities built from sandy megaliths, or deep mountain caves full of strange fossils and ancient machinery. These were the minds of the barn-sized creatures Lozzie had called ‘caterpillars’, out there exploring the world of the Quiet Plain. If I stood at the Round Table, then those were akin to esoteric board games being played out in adjacent rooms, with terminology and move call-outs I couldn’t begin to decipher.

Lozzie had made life and imbued it with love and purpose — but now it was out there, beyond the boundaries of human imagination, exploring and learning in a place truly alien, making definition for itself.

In that frozen moment, I realised I could never spend these beings against the Eye. It would be a kind of genocide.

Then my alchemical gift finished gushing from the needle. The connection broke and I was alone once again, shivering and hissing with pain, with a great big lump of bleeding flesh cradled in my lap.

All three of the forest-knight’s eyes were closed. He was twitching, tentacles spasming, flesh roiling with sudden protoplasmic activity. Like a seizure.

I withdrew the needle — wincing and retching at the awful sucking noise it made as it pulled back out of him, slick with blood. The tentacle I’d used felt tender and abused. I couldn’t seem to close the petal-structure again, so the needle hung there in the air, throbbing and aching.

“Please, please,” I hissed through my teeth.

There was no great moment of relief, no rush of gratitude, no hysterical laughter, only a numb trickle of realisation when I noticed the Knight wasn’t dying in my lap anymore. His leathery skin began to very slowly exude and consume strange organs again. Five new eyes — none of them human or even animal — bubbled up from the surface half-formed and cloudy, but they all looked at me, blinking with recognition.

I eased him off my lap and onto the backplate of his armour, which still lay where he’d fallen. He tried to help, but his tentacles were still weak, slapping against pieces of discarded metal in a fruitless effort.

“It’s okay,” I murmured, patting one of his tentacles. My head was whirling and pounding, my face flushed as if in the grip of a fever. “Rest. You don’t have to rush to … um … pull yourself together.”

Three of five eyes swivelled back to me. Two of them blinked. The third rolled back in its socket.

I hiccuped, holding back a spike of hysterical laughter that had nothing to do with amusement. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Don’t know what to say. Just rest, okay? I … don’t know what I’ve done to you, but we still need Lozzie to look at you. She understands how you work, your biology and stuff. I don’t, I don’t know what I’ve done, you might still be in danger. We need to wait for Lozzie, or find her. Lozzie, right, she’ll know, she—”

With a soft pop of displaced air, a scuff of trainers on grass, and a flutter of pink-white-and-blue poncho, Lozzie materialised eight feet to my left.

“Heathy!” She lit up , with her big smile and sleepy eyes.

Lozzie looked no worse for wear than when she’d left me behind on this same spot the previous day. A little puffy around the eyes from lack of sleep perhaps, but practically glowing with bouncy energy. Her braid had come loose and fallen apart, wispy blonde hair loose about her elfin little face and mischievous eyes. A crudely constructed paper crown sat at a jaunty angle on her head, decorated with orange scribbles, and a face-paint hand print of the same colour was smeared across one of her cheeks and part of her neck — though the hand which had applied it had clearly not been human. Not enough fingers, too many claws.

She’d also brought a passenger. Evelyn was holding on to Lozzie’s forearm.

Eyes going wide as saucers at our surroundings, mouth dropping open as her face drained of all colour, other hand turning white-knuckle tight on her walking stick, Evelyn started screaming.

“W-what?” Lozzie flinched away in confusion.

“Why did you bring me!?” Evelyn shouted in her face, trying to transition from terror to anger. She flung Lozzie’s arm away from herself, gritting her teeth, unsteady as she took a stumbling step backward. But then she glanced over her shoulder and discovered nothing but more quiet hillsides of yellow grass and more silent knights around us.

“ … because you said it was an emergency?” Lozzie tilted her head and pointed at me and the forest-knight. “And it is! You were right!”

“I didn’t mean for you to bring me along you fucking loon!” Evelyn screamed.

Lozzie recoiled like a kicked dog. “You took my hand!” she chirped.

“To impress on you the importance of—”

“Evee!” I yelped, staggering to my feet and reaching out for her with my tentacles. I was unsteady too, weak and covered in cold sweat like I’d just donated a pint of blood. “Evee, it’s okay, I’m here. This is a safe place.”

But Evelyn flinched away from my tentacles. She started to half-raise her walking stick, shaking all over, going green around the gills, her breath coming in struggling spurts. She couldn’t stay focused on me, eyes whirling for possible threats, her weakened leg buckling with effort. If I struggled to exist Outside it must have been so much worse for Evelyn, unprepared for the trip, let alone the arrival.

“Safe?!” she managed to spit. “You—”

I didn’t wait for her to finish; I threw my tentacles wide, into a shark—cage for Evelyn to shelter inside. She didn’t like to be touched, so I doubted trying to calm her with a hug would help defeat the panic attack she was so clearly trying to stave off, but at least I could show her she was protected.

“Lozzie,” I spoke over Evelyn’s sudden splutter. “Yes, it’s an emergency.” I pointed at the forest-knight on the ground, still writhing gently amid the ruins of his armour. “He came back to reality with me and I forgot, I forgot what you told me, after an hour he started to … ”

“Oh.” Lozzie’s eyes went wide. She started at the knight. “But he’s okay?”

I brought my needle-tipped tentacle up between us. “I injected him with the distilled … stuff, from my bioreactor.”

“Heather, what the hell?” Evelyn hissed. That seemed to have done the trick. She was still white as a sheet and looked like she wanted to vomit, but she wasn’t rapidly falling apart anymore.

Lozzie did a double-take at the huge needle and back at me, then over at the knight. For a second she was paralysed. My heart sank.

“I-I think it stabilised him,” I said, “but I don’t know how to—”

“It’ll be alright!” Lozzie launched herself toward the Knight, poncho flapping as she went down on her knees by his side. “Eeeeeverything is going to be alright! Alright, on the night! Just wait wait wait wait!”

She waggled a hand at Evelyn and me as if to tell us to be quiet — then she started singing.

Slow and soft at first, aimed down at the Knight, like murmuring a lullaby to a small child; for a moment I was afraid that she had lied, that she was administering some kind of last rites, or saying a tearful goodbye. But then her voice rose in volume, mouth open in a long, haunting, beautiful note. She raised her eyes too, fixed on the horizon and then the skies, her face bathed in the purple light spilling from the starry deep above. Her eyes fluttered shut as she hit her stride.

Lozzie’s singing was beautiful but strange, one long note varying in pitch, broken only by the need to inhale, a sound that seemed too much for her throat, bobbing as she undulated up and down the scales. Below the pure sound of her voice itself lay another voice, a second tone on the very limit of human hearing, perhaps ultrasound, camouflaged and embraced by and hidden inside Lozzie’s own singing.

My eyes were watering, my ears itched, and a sympathetic resonance rung deep in my chest, as if the sound was reaching inside me.

Evelyn had to wipe her watering eyes too, though neither of us was actually crying. It was like standing before a pressure differential, tugging on one’s front with the deceptively gentle insistence of an undertow current. The Knight at Lozzie’s knees responded well though. He wrapped several tentacles around her thighs and waist. His protoplasmic shifting seemed to slow into a steady rhythm.

Evelyn nudged me in the side with the handle of her walking stick and nodded sideways. I nodded back.

We stepped away from Lozzie until we were clear of the invisible pressure from her singing. We had to pass among the gathered ring of knights who had come to watch, though several of them gladly moved to make room for us, stepping aside without a sound as their metal boots moved across the soft yellow grass. Evelyn flinched at that, despite my protective cage of tentacles around her. Even when we finally stopped and took a shared deep breath, her eyes followed the knights with all the wariness of a spooked cat.

“It is safe here, I’m serious,” I said, lowering my tentacles at last. “I don’t even really need to do this.”

Evelyn shot me such a look, mustering her ire despite how she was still pale and waxy. “Heather.”

“Really, I mean it. This dimension, it’s empty apart from us and the knights, and they would literally die for me. You’re safe right now, Evee. I promise.”

Evelyn wet her lips and leaned heavily on her walking stick, fixing me with a very unimpressed and grumpy look. That was more like it, that was more her. I’d given her an opening to do her usual thing, a familiar emotional handhold.

“Heather, perhaps you’ve forgotten,” she said. “But I happen to be a human being. I don’t know exactly what you are anymore — and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” she added with a huff. “But you and Lozzie are far better equipped to be out here. I am not.”

“And I’m right next to you,” I said, waggling a tentacle. “See? Protecting.”

Evelyn eyed my tentacles again, wary and uncertain. “ … mm. Quite.”

A horrible slimy feeling slid into my chest and squeezed my heart. “Do my tentacles scare you? Do I scare you?”

“What?” Evelyn scowled at me. “No, don’t be absurd. Heather, I don’t doubt your intentions. I doubt your capacity. We are Outside and I don’t care how supposedly empty and safe this particular patch of ground might be.” She tapped the grass with the tip of her walking stick, then gestured around at the yellow hillsides, the dozens of knights, the sky full of purple whorls like diamonds scattered across velvet. “This is all a little overwhelming, to put it lightly. I don’t even know what this place is. We could be breathing in anything — what is that smell?” She sniffed the cinnamon scent in the air.

“Evee, if the Eye itself opened above us, then my first priority would be to get you home safe.”

Evelyn shot me a sidelong look, still scowling and gritting her teeth, but she stopped ranting.

“Do you want to hold my hand?” I asked, offering one. “In case of emergency, in case we have to leave quickly. I won’t ask you to touch a tentacle.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes — but she slipped her hand into mine anyway, her maimed hand with the missing fingers, the same one I’d once felt slip out of my grip when she’d gotten stranded Outside all by herself. It was clammy with cold sweat, muscles tight with tension. This time I held on tight. She looked away to watch Lozzie instead. I followed suit and we shared a moment of silence.

“You’re too kind for your own good, you know that?” she said.

“I think it’s for everybody’s good.”

“Mm, well. Lozzie is performing a miracle, isn’t she?”

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” I quoted, watching with awe as the forest-knight seemed to gain in strength with every minute Lozzie sang. Thick tentacles waved in the air.

“Not an apt quote, Heather,” Evelyn sighed. “Because it looks like Lozzie will indeed be able to put Humpty together again. Have you noticed she’s got a hickey on her neck?”

I sighed. From this angle, with Lozzie’s face pointing up at the sky as she sang, it was impossible to miss. “Yes. How did she get that, Outside?”

Evelyn shrugged. She eyed my tentacles again. “I think your tentacles are very nice, Heather. They suit you. But please keep that one away from me.”

“What? Oh!”

I realised she was staring at the bio-steel needle still hanging exposed in the air — it had been creeping closer to her without conscious intent on my part. I reeled it in, oddly embarrassed, and finally managed to fold up the tip of the tentacle once again, like a flower of flesh closing its petals. I felt the needle begin to dissolve back into the pneuma-somatic cells.

My bioreactor was still running hot, pumping out energy into my veins and animating my tentacles; had the excess of power led me to seek an outlet? I forced the control rods back into their channels one by one, shaking and shuddering as I did so, feeling the exhaustion wash over me. My eyelids were like lead. Didn’t help that I’d vomited up half my breakfast.

“Sorry, sorry, I lost track of it,” I said. “Though I’m pretty sure jabbing you with it would just make you hyperactive or something.”

“Or give me cancer. Heather, you have no idea what that could do to a human body, one that lacks the self-regulating systems yours probably possesses by now.”

“That’s true, you do have a point. Again, sorry, really sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“Do not use it on a person. Do not. Even in an emergency. Do anything else, brainmath, experimental surgery, jamming your fingers into the wound.”

“I understand.” I was struggling not to blush.

“Do not—”

“I get it,” I grunted, then squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I’m sorry, Evee. I’m … I panicked and … no, don’t worry, I won’t jab you with my magical life juice. I promise.”

“Well. See that you don’t.”

Awkward silence descended, broken only by Lozzie’s singing. The forest-knight looked like he was going to pull through; his skin wasn’t weeping anymore and he had more than a dozen eyes, pointed in every direction. His tentacles were beginning to poke at the discarded pieces of his armour.

“This is fascinating,” Evelyn murmured eventually. “But Praem will be going spare.”

“She trusts Lozzie. And she trusts me too, I hope. She knows we’ll keep you safe. And we’ll have you back in a minute or two, I just … I need to know the Knight is okay. I really messed up, Evee. I really did, I almost killed him.”

Evelyn looked at me — no longer probing and wary, but just meeting my eyes. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you move that fast before.”

“I’m sorry?”

“When you realised something was wrong with him.” Evelyn nodded at the Knight, who was now attempting to slowly reassemble his armour around himself, worming bundles of tentacles through greaves and vambraces. He was still clumsy though, and couldn’t quite get himself together.

“I have a responsibility,” I muttered, only half talking to Evelyn. “To everyone who helps me, to not be like … not be … ”

I waved a tentacle in front of my own face. Not be like what? Not turn into the thing that Evelyn had seen back in the kitchen, the awe-inspiring transhuman Outsider that I feared I might become? Like Ooran Juh?

Evelyn squeezed my hand, a little too hard, almost panicked. When I looked up at her, she was frowning back at me, sober and serious.

“Don’t drift away on me,” she said.

I laughed softly, not really amused. “That’s exactly what I’m trying not to do.”

“You really feel that responsibility, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. He helped me, he volunteered when I was alone and lost. I know it was only one night, but I was terrified. I would have had to go to Carcosa, totally alone.” I watched as the Knight struggled to flex a metal boot at the end of a branch of ropy tentacles.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. She opened her mouth, closed it again, then looked away before finally speaking. “You feel that way about everyone in your life?”

“Well, um, to some degree, of course.”

“You don’t have to give of yourself to everyone who asks. Or even everyone who doesn’t ask. You have a right to say no.”

“Evee?”

She didn’t answer, staring at Lozzie singing away into the deep purple sky, squinting slightly as if puzzling over a complex problem. Her profile was framed by the distant hillsides, her small neat nose and her compact jawline, the bags under her eyes and her surprisingly squishy cheeks. Fingers of wind plucked at her hair, tugging loose strands across her shoulders.

I could have left it there, pretended I didn’t understand, feigned ignorance. But I was flush with the dregs of draining energy, with the emotional aftermath of narrowly avoiding the accidental death of a being in my care, and with the relief of conquering my life-long fear of getting stuck Outside. I was alive, so no more holding back.

“What are we talking about, Evee?” I asked, and my voice only quivered a little.

Her throat bobbed. Her maimed hand grew clammy in mine. Slowly, like the turning of an iceberg in deep waters, she looked back to me. Our eyes met but neither of us spoke. We both knew. That was all we needed.

Then she huffed out a great sigh. “Oh, not this. I don’t mean this.” She waved her walking stick at Lozzie and the Knight. “This was right, you were right, you have a responsibility toward those who help you. We all do, it’s basic solidarity. I admire you for it. It’s the right thing.”

“ … but?”

“But everyone wants to bloody well sleep with you or worship you!” she snapped, scowling at the knights gathered around us. “That goes for you lot as well.”

“Evee,” I said gently.

“What? I’m right. You go off Outside for a night and you come back with another girlfriend! I know there’s reasons, good reasons, but—”

“You’re jealous.” I swallowed, hard.

“Fucking right I’m jealous.” She stared right at me, cheeks burning but unembarrassed. “I’m ashamed too. You had me read cold, Heather, I was looking at you like a mage with a creature to study. Thank you for reminding me otherwise. I mean it. Thank you for reminding me you’re just you.”

“I’ll always be just me.”

“For better or worse,” she huffed, rolling her shoulders to work out the kinks, watching Lozzie again so she didn’t have to see my reaction to what she said next. “I never had any normal friends.”

“ … obviously,” I said, wary but wanting her to continue. Maybe she just needed to get it off her chest.

“I had — and still have, yes — Raine. Don’t tell her I said that, she’ll be insufferable about it. But she’s hardly a normal friend.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth in thought. When she spoke again, her voice came out soft and low. “Don’t repeat this to anybody, but … sometimes when I’m alone in bed, I like to dream that I might give up on magic one day.” She glanced at me, faintly guilty. “After we rescue your sister. And we will, we’ll succeed. But I can’t give it up, not even then. Not if I kill every mage within a hundred miles of Sharrowford and we blind the Eye with the universe’s largest broken bottle.”

I gave a weak laugh, a polite laugh, but Evelyn wasn’t joking.

“I know I can’t,” she carried on, looking out at the Quiet Plain again. “Once you’re in you can never get back out, but that’s not why. It’s not because of the knowledge that lives in my skull or the hunger for it — the only worthwhile thing I inherited from my mother. No. It’s because of you, Heather.”

She went silent for a second. My heart climbed up my throat and knocked on the back of my teeth.

Then she added, “And Praem.”

“Oh,” I breathed.

“And yes, Raine too, obviously. But mostly you and Praem. You’ll never get out, it’s part of you now. And Praem is my daughter. Not sort of my daughter. She is. That’s final.”

“You’re saying you have a responsibility too.”

“No. No, it’s not responsibility for me. If I didn’t have this—” Evelyn hissed through her teeth and corrected, “I mean if I didn’t have all of you, then I don’t think I would have a reason to carry on.”

“Evee?” I squeezed her hand. She glanced at me and pulled a self-directed scowl.

“Oh don’t fret,” she said. “I’m not talking suicidal ideation. Heather, I was terrified when you didn’t come home.”

“I know, and I’m sorry, and I—”

“I’m not looking for an apology.” She looked away and cleared her throat. “You can’t force your way into my life and not take some responsibility.”

I managed a small laugh. “You sound like me with Raine.”

I regretted those words before they left my mouth. Evelyn winced. I bit my tongue. I swear I heard a waver in Lozzie’s singing. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I could have sworn one of the knights on a distant hillside put his faceplate in his palm.

“Sorry,” I said, blushing.

“It’s not quite the same, is it?”

“It’s not,” I hurried to add. “No. Not at all.”

Evelyn took a moment to compose herself. “Heather, would you like to watch some cartoons with me?”

“Um … sure? Of course, I’d be delighted to. You mean anime?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Let’s not get into that distinction right now. I’d like to show you some more favourites sometime. We don’t do enough of that, we’re always caught up in not dying or being eaten. So lets you and me watch some cartoons together. Just you and me.”

“I’d like that.” I squeezed her hand and she smiled, a real smile, which melted the tension from her face and for just a second made me see what Evelyn might have looked like if she’d never discovered magic at all. Puppy-fat and kindness.

I would have slipped a tentacle across her shoulders for a proper hug, but I thought it best to ask first, and I didn’t quite have the courage for that.

We waited through another minute of singing.

“Evee, I’ve been wondering, why didn’t Sevens come after me just now?”

“Mm? Oh, yes, that was a bit of a panic. She said you’d know what to do, but Raine was grabbing her and demanding she take us after you.” Evelyn grumbled as she spoke, clearly unimpressed with the whole thing. “Then Lozzie appeared about sixty seconds later. It was like an episode of Scooby Doo, you out one door and her in the other. I half-expected Praem to start humming Yakety Sax.”

“Yakety what? I’m sorry?”

“Never mind.”

“But she didn’t follow.”

“She said it would be cheating,” Evelyn explained. “Then she ran off, vanished upstairs.”

My heart sank. That was a bad sign. “Vanished as in … vanished vanished?”

“No, physically ran off, with her feet. Though I think she took the stairs on all fours. We could hear her banging around up there. As soon as Lozzie appeared, Raine shouted at her to go help you, then she took off, to coax Sevens out from a cupboard with a box of dog treats for all I know.”

“Oh dear,” I sighed. But that did sound better than the alternative. “More mess to solve.”

“Before you go solving any messes, you need a sleep. A long one. And a bath.” Evelyn performatively sniffed at me. “You stink, you know.”

“Well, pardon me for bleeding on myself,” I said, mock-apologetic.

Evelyn snorted a laugh, shaking her head. Then she looked around at the knights, the yellow hillsides, and up at the purple-whorled sky again. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe this particular place is safe. It feels like it right now, but I don’t trust that feeling.”

“Only a few more minutes, I think we’re wrapping up,” I said. The Knight was finally wriggling tendrils back into his helmet, dozens of tentacles grasping pieces of armour and pulling them into place over his dark, leathery core, bracing them and fitting them together. “I think he’s going to be okay.”

“At the rate he’s going, it’s going to be another fifteen minutes before he gets himself sealed in.”

I glanced around too, at this strange and desolate place, now filled with Lozzie’s progeny. “I guess we can just come and go now, what with the dead hands gone.”

Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “You mean you can come and go. Do not tempt me.”

“Ah. Oh. Very fair point.”

“Screw it,” Evelyn grunted, nodding at the ground. “Is it safe to sit on this grass? It’s not going to poison me or something?”

“I’ve lain down on it for hours before.”

“Fair enough then. Give me a hand, will you?”

And so Evelyn and I settled down to wait for a few minutes, Outside but not alone, never alone, as Lozzie put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I guess I’m doing the post chapter author notes here on the main site too from now on! Unless anybody finds it distracting or something. Though I shan’t plug the patreon or such down here! At least unless somebody tells me it’s good idea???

Heather’s body sure has become a medical marvel, hasn’t it? Though as Evee says, using any of this on baseline humans might be a bit risky.

Next week, it’s probably (hopefully, finally, please) time for Heather to unwind a little. But she might need to dig a rat out of the walls first.

10 thoughts on “for the sake of a few sheep – 15.3

  1. TFTC!

    My PoV: happy to see a usual set of links after each chapter! TWF boost link if that helps bring readers (& whatever is most valuable) and Patreon link if that’s how you’re funding this work.

    It takes a lot of time, energy, focus & skill to create good writing. I love it that folks without spare funds can still read; but if people who *can* help support it don’t, that means only the writers lucky enough to have outside support get to write.

    I’m just figuring this out slowly 😀 — gentle reminders to all of us are surely good.

    • You are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

      And thank you for the kind words. I usually put the patreon and TWF link on the RR and SH versions of the chapters, just to gently remind readers they exist, since I assume readers here on the main site already know about them. But maybe I’ll include them for a bit and see how it goes!

  2. Extremely happy for the increasing intrigue in the “Evelyn clearly loves Heather romantically” subplot. I’m not even sure Heather is actually conscious of it yet somehow.

    • The most dangerous subplot.

      But is it really romantic love? Zheng did say there’s more kinds of love than eros. That does seem to be one of Heather’s blind spots.

    • Thank you so much for all the votes and support!!!

      … okay that is a very blursed mental image for Lozzie’s singing. Thank you for that; I laughed!

  3. Current party for the Raidboss “The Eye” to save Maisie:
    Lozzie as Bard, Evelyn as Black Mage, Raine as Rogue (or thief depending on game terms), Zheng as Pugilist, Twil as Beserker, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight as [REDACTED], and Last but not least Heather as Blue Mage. Oh and almost 100 Knights. Now if only this was a actual raidboss and not a borderline immortal everwatching eye. At least its a rescue mission… Like that’s any easier.

    • Oh I love that! How crazy would it be if I actually wrote it as an MMO raid? (I won’t do that, don’t worry, but maybe as a side joke thing …)

      I especially like Zheng as Pugilist. But I can’t help but think of Heather as an FFT Mathematician.

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