“I feel like something has changed. As if things are different now.”
I spoke the words to the ghostly reflection of my face in the bath water, warped by ripples in the surface.
Silent heartbeats counted time against the peeling paint of the bathroom walls and the faded varnish on the door. The water’s heat soaked into my tender skin and aching muscles like the penetrating embrace of an amniotic sac, reaching through my abdomen to cradle the embers in my bioreactor. My eyelids drooped shut for the hundredth time.
“Yeah, plus one girlfriend,” Raine said, bright and clear. I snapped back to full consciousness with a small hypnic jerk. “Coming back from a night out with a bird on your arm, seems like a pretty big difference to me.”
“Raine,” I whined softly. “That’s not what I meant.”
Raine laughed, good natured and teasing. She leaned out of her chair and over the side of the bathtub to ruffle my hair — a little difficult when it was hanging in wet rat-tails down my neck and shoulders, so she ended up awkwardly patting me instead. She carefully avoided the nasty purple bruise on my forehead from where I’d head-butted the knight’s armour.
Whistle shifted on her lap, his little doggy paws preparing for a rough landing as he expected her to stand up, but Raine relaxed back into her chair and scratched Whistle behind the ears, in case he felt left out.
I sank down into the bathwater, up to my cheekbones to hide a blush, then blew grumpy bubbles.
“What do you think, Whistle?” Raine addressed the corgi curled comfortably in her lap. “Should I go easy on Heather while she’s naked in the bath? While she’s so slow and loopy — sloopy,” she laughed at her own terrible joke. “Or should I press my advantage? What is your canine wisdom, ‘o small doggo?”
Whistle replied with neither bark nor whine, but his ears pricked up and he looked from Raine to me.
I surfaced just enough to free my mouth from the bondage of the deep. “Don’t answer that, Whistle. She’s not allowed to entrap you.”
Whistle wiggled his backside and rested his head on his paws, leaving us humans to work this out ourselves.
“Good answer,” Raine said appreciatively, scritching the top of his head. “Smart boy.”
I narrowed my eyes at Raine. “He’s wise to your tricks.”
“I have tricks?”
Raine’s smile was a touch too sharp at the edges. It didn’t reach her eyes.
“You know you have tricks,” I sighed. “But also, no. I’m just being silly because I’m so exhausted. And I’m in the bath. It’s kind of hard to have a serious conversation when you’re naked and tired.”
“Should I get in too, then?”
I rolled my eyes but a faint spark kindled in the base of my abdomen at the prospect of bath time with Raine, even when exhausted past the limits of my transhuman biology. I measured my words with care. “Normally I’d never refuse, but we’re not going to have any fun right now. If you hug me, I’ll fall asleep, and I think that’s the exact opposite of your stated purpose here, yes?”
Raine pulled a cheeky grin; that one did reach her eyes. Something in my chest unknotted.
“I’m not being serious, anyway,” she said. “Not that I don’t want to, you do need a good seeing to—”
“Raine!” I tutted.
“—but you need food and sleep more than you need sex.” Her grin hardened with a tone of command, which stirred a very different kind of squirming in my belly. “You’re still following my orders, got it? You do what I tell you, until I’m satisfied you’re out of the danger zone.”
“Yes ma’am … ” I said, not entirely serious.
Being naked in the bath while Raine sat next to me fully clothed was a strange experience. She’d swapped her shorts for a pair of loose pajama bottoms, but she was still wearing a tank top, showing off her toned arms and well-shaped shoulders — not to mention the lack of a bra. Warm brown eyes watched me in return whenever I found myself lost in her looks, which was difficult to restrain when I was so exhausted, when it felt like I’d been gone for so long, despite the passing of only a single night. She was tired too, with dark rings around her eyes, but no flaw could conceal how painfully pretty she was, between her expressive mouth and full, fluffy, chestnut-brown hair, which she kept running a hand through.
“This feels like the first time I’ve been alone with you in a while,” I said on impulse.
“Ahhh, but we’re not alone.” Raine picked up one of Whistle’s paws and waved it at me. He snuffed through his nose but otherwise tolerated the intrusion.
“Whistle doesn’t count.”
“Poor Whistle!” Raine laughed. “Do you want us to be alone, Heather?”
“No,” I sighed. “It’s okay, it just feels strange right now. Was there no more news overnight?” I nodded at Whistle. “Badger didn’t die in hospital or something?”
“Nah, no news. And you don’t need to be thinking about news, you need to be resting. You were meant to be in class today, but I’ve already called in sick for you. So shut down that big smart brain of yours for a bit, okay? Let me take over for the rest of the day.”
“I suppose so. I can’t just sit here though.”
“Time to get out then?” Raine asked. “You’re looking pretty pruney.”
“Raine, that wasn’t some throwaway platitude earlier,” I said, frowning up at her over the lip of the bathtub. I shifted below the water, crossed my legs, and hugged my single remaining tentacle around my middle, as if to protect myself against a cold that had nothing to do with physical temperature. The pale, rainbow-strobing flesh blossomed with colour against my sallow skin. “Something is different now.”
Raine opened her mouth to tell me off, to tell me to do as I was told, but she must have caught the stone in my eyes.
“Wanna talk about it while I towel you off?” she asked instead.
“It’s not about you and it’s not about Sevens,” I said.
“Oh! Well then. That’s good, because I’m still—”
“Still thinking,” I finished for her. “I know. It’s not about that. It’s about Outside. Outside is different now.”
At least home was still the same. Mostly.
Myself, Evelyn, and Lozzie had returned from the Quiet Plain about an hour ago.
Or perhaps two hours. I wasn’t sure how long I’d spent in the bath. By the time I was coherent my fingers and toes had gone wrinkly from the water. It was exceptionally difficult to keep track of time when I felt so groggy. I kept slipping away to flirt with the enticing dark mistress of sleep, seduced down into that other abyss, from which even I returned with only half-remembered glimpses.
Which is an overwrought way of saying I kept nodding off in the tub. Raine had to sit in the bathroom and keep talking to help me stay awake.
We’d left the forest-knight firmly behind in the Quiet Plain this time, at home alongside the rest of his society and species and hive mind. He’d taken about twenty minutes to fully reassemble his armour around himself, pulling each plate into position with several tentacles and settling it flush against the others. It took him several goes to get each piece just right — the seams of the armour were so finely wrought and locked together with such precision, as if cut by laser and expert hand. He would hold one piece against the next for thirty full seconds, moving it so slightly that we humans could see only the bunching and relaxing of his tentacles as he adjusted the metal by millimetres. But once a plate was locked to the others, he could hold it firm with nothing but the tensile strength of a suckered tentacle attached to the inside.
I hadn’t realised before how complex and advanced the knights’ Outsider-plate really was. When the volunteer from among them had opened up yesterday, in order to show me what they really were inside, I’d been so focused on the occupant that I hadn’t paid attention to the container. The suits were a miracle of both metal smithing and engineering, and a further miracle how smoothly each plate moved once it was in place. They formed a perfect seal, with no oil, no cloth under layer, no rubber to soften the plates against each other.
And Lozzie had made them? She was many things, many of them delightful and lovely and creative, but she made life — Tenny, the knights, who knew what else? She didn’t know the first thing about metalworking.
I made a mental note to ask Lozzie about the armour sometime. Perhaps she’d had help. Armour like that doesn’t grow on trees.
Or maybe it does, I had to remind myself. Things are different Outside.
Still, I wanted to know what kind of help was out there, Outside, now that Alexander’s ghost no longer blocked our way. After all, if things like the King in Yellow existed, that opened up all kinds of potential.
And how much should I tell Lozzie about the dead hands, about Alexander’s final torment? I pondered that question as we watched the Knight stand up. He’d gotten his boots and greaves together, along with most of the hip armour. For a long and comical moment he stood there as a tentacle filled bottom half, while he picked up the first piece of the torso armour and lowered it into place.
“Wrong trousers,” Evelyn murmured, forcing a snort.
Would Lozzie want to know that her brother had returned to life, if only as a short-lived imitation, a mask worn on an Outsider’s face? Would she want to know what had happened to the hands, his ghost, the last trace of his will? She hid her trauma so well behind her own mask, which made it difficult to know what would hurt her more. Regardless, I had a duty to tell her. She’d want to know all about Sevens anyway.
The Knight looked so much better as he sealed himself into his armour and settled the helmet on top, like a tank’s hatch clanging shut. His dark and leathery skin was still puffy and bruised, but the beautiful alien magic of Lozzie’s song had returned his strength and halted the blood weeping through his weakened skin. His protoplasmic shifting seemed to have settled as well. Eyes and mouths — and a dozen other organs for which I did not have names — sprouted across the surface of his skin, many of them rolling toward me. A long thin tentacle waved a thank you. I waved back.
As he slotted the last pieces of his suit back into place, Lozzie reached inside the armour to give him a hug. Whatever flaws she had, none could accuse her of not loving her creations.
Before we left, I hugged him too, through the armour.
“This isn’t goodbye or anything,” I said. “We can— I can come and go freely now. So can Lozzie.”
“Yeah!” Lozzie said, slapping his abdominal armour with the flat of her hand. “I’m going to come back and hear alllll about what they’ve been up to as well and I need to talk to the cattys and check up on this one to make sure he’s recovering okay, so we’ll be back sooooooon! Be good now!”
“And thank you,” I said to his midsection as I stepped back, speaking to where the true Knight was, in the core of the armour. “For everything you did.”
Lozzie tilted her head at me. “Everything he did?”
“It’s a long story, Loz. Later, please.”
“Oh!” Lozzie lit up. “Big emergency, not just knight emergency. Evee already said some, yes yes!”
“Quite,” Evelyn grumbled, eyeing the re-armoured knight. “I’m not going to hug you, but thank you for protecting Heather. Now, can we—”
Evelyn paused in surprise when the Knight nodded, a simple up-and-down tilt of his helmet. After a moment, she nodded back.
“Now,” she tried again with a sigh. “Can we please go home?”
Lozzie returned from the Quiet Plain under her own power, but Evelyn had to piggyback on my Slip. She squeezed my hand so tight it hurt, but I refrained from comment. Lozzie had offered, profusely and with much enthusiasm, to employ her particular brand of dimension-transfer to get us home, but Evelyn recalled the after-effects of that all too well, from when we’d had to make our emergency exit from the library of Carcosa. Going Out, Lozzie’s way was smooth enough, but going back placed a terrible strain on the human mind and soul. So Evelyn had taken my hand, I’d covertly touched a tentacle to her shoulder just in case the worst should happen, and she’d screwed up her eyes for the trip.
We made a far more gentle landing than my earlier membrane-ripping splashdown all the way from the Carcosa audience chamber, which was good because I hated the idea of Evelyn falling over and hurting herself. However, the very first thing I did was let go of Evelyn and sit down in a heap, head spinning, black oblivion filling the periphery of my vision. Even my tentacles were so exhausted they could barely hold me up. Evelyn was shouting for Praem, I was busy lying down for some quality floorboard time, but Lozzie took one step into the kitchen and spotted the Knight’s fallen weapon.
“Oh, he dropped his axe!” she chirped. “He’ll need that!”
Praem appeared in response to Evelyn’s call, clicking across the kitchen flagstones and stopping in the doorway to the workshop, though I could only see the corner of her skirt and her shiny black shoes. I could barely find the strength to raise my head.
“Praem.” Evelyn sighed to conceal a quiver of emotion. “That’s better.”
“Loz Loz Loz!” came a familiar trilling. A bundle of whirling black shot across the sliver of kitchen visible behind Praem’s feet, punctuated by a canine ‘wuff’ of mild alarm, which was in turn followed by scrabbling claws as Tenny gently placed Whistle on the floor so she could use every single tentacle to hug Lozzie.
“Tenny-Tenns!” Lozzie cheered.
Whistle nosed around Praem’s skirt and trotted over to me.
“Hello floor friend,” I mumbled through numb lips. “You are down low as well. World’s funny from down here. Woof.”
Absent-minded, exhausted, and fading fast, I tried to use one of my tentacles to pat him, before realising he couldn’t see them. Poor thing flinched in surprise at the invisible touch. He gave me quite a look.
“Oopsie,” I slurred.
Evelyn frowned down at me. “I believe Heather is going to need a hand. Praem, please? And where is Raine?”
Praem said nothing for several seconds. Tenny and Lozzie were squeal-hugging somewhere behind her. I think my eyes drifted shut, but then they were open again when she spoke.
“Evelyn,” Praem said. Her sing-song voice broke Evelyn’s name down into three distinct syllables, Ev-eh-lyn, with the exact cadence of I-love-you.
I thought I’d imagined it in my growing delirium.
“Yes? Yes, I’m back, thank you, hello, I love you too,” Evelyn rattled off, then cleared her throat.
“Oh I was right,” I mumbled.
Lozzie’s head appeared around the kitchen door, encircled by black tentacles, wispy blonde hair floating all over the place. “Be right back!” she chirped — then ducked back again, quickly followed by the sound of her straining to pick up the axe and failing gloriously. Lozzie may have been an ex-human with a godling riding in her head, but she still had noodle arms.
Praem turned on her heel and stepped back into the kitchen. I couldn’t see what happened, but I heard a very distinct clang and an oof from Lozzie.
“Thank you, Praem!” she said. “Deary-dear Praem!”
“Oh, don’t tell me she’s going back out there again?” Evelyn hissed. “Can we not? Can we stop for five minutes, before Heather passes out? Before I start shouting?”
“Should learn to axe first,” Praem intoned from the kitchen.
It was one of the few times I’d ever heard Praem put intentional stress on a word — and she was not amused.
Evelyn just stopped dead cold. Lozzie made a tiny sound of inquiry, but Praem kept going.
“Axe before you take Evelyn. Anywhere,” she intoned.
“Praem, really,” Evelyn huffed.
“Yes miss Praem yes sorry yes,” Lozzie chattered.
“Axe first,” Praem repeated.
“Yes yes yes yes.”
I started laughing and couldn’t stop, slow at first, bubbling up my throat and crinkling the corners of my eyes, until I was crying a little with the remains of the return-high, the relief that I hadn’t killed the Knight, the fact I was home. All of it overwhelmed me.
I didn’t recall much after that, not until I was in the bath. Reality blurred into an undifferentiated mess of bodily need and hands helping me along and my own tentacles grasping at any handhold they could find. I think I asked where Sevens was, but I couldn’t be sure. At one point I was instinctively aware Lozzie was gone again, that she might not return. I wanted to stay right where I was and wait for her; Tenny waited with me, black tentacles entwined with mine in a cephalopod’s hug.
But then Lozzie was back again, a mote of light in the corner of my confused sensory input. I consented to be carried upstairs.
I did recall passing Kimberly in the front room, wide-eyed and amazed we were all so busy so early in the morning.
“Are we having a crisis? Miss— I mean, Evelyn?”
“No,” Evelyn grunted. “Carry on.”
“Morning, Kim!” I slurred.
“Uh, morning. I have to get to work, but … did something happen?”
“Could say that.” Raine shot her a wink. “Tell you about it some other time.”
“I’d rather you not,” Kimberly mumbled as she passed us on the way to make toast or cereal and do normal people morning things.
Raine shooed everyone else out of the bathroom — except for Whistle, and Tenny for the time it took her to give me a hug — then cradled me on the floor and allowed me to nap in her arms while the bath filled with hot water. She peeled me out of my stained and dirty clothes, but when it came time to remove Sevens’ yellow robes, I felt guilty and confused; the robes had started life as a metaphysical presence before they gained heft and weight and solidity, but what did it mean to take them off? Would I be symbolically rejecting Sevens?
I was half-worried that the garment would melt away like dew before the morning sun, which is why I clung to them, whining a wordless complaint.
“Heather, hey,” Raine had purred. “Even married people take their rings off to shower. It’ll be right here, on the side next to the sink. I promise.”
I acquiesced with a heavy heart and weak hands. Raine folded the robes. Sevens’ affection did not turn to mist, but stayed put, solid and real.
Paradoxically, the bath revived me, even as it bolstered the caresses of sleep trying to drag me below the surface. My bioreactor eased down to a slow ebb and I folded away all but one tentacle — maintaining all six felt right, but they were terribly unwieldy in the bathtub. Putting them away felt bad both physically and emotionally, but the hot water blunted the pain, and the abyssal dysphoria was soothed by the knowledge I could remake them whenever I wanted. Losing them temporarily no longer felt like such a terrible violation, because I knew they were a true part of me. My body was mine to command.
I would need a lot more water in which to manoeuvre with all six tentacles — an idea I filed away for later in a mental folder labelled ‘maybe too good to be true’. The tentacle I did keep out was the one I’d used as the bio-steel injection needle for the Knight. The tip still ached, as if dull and spent, so I soaked it in the hot water.
The sounds of the house comforted my exhausted emotions, the familiar noises of Evelyn and Praem moving around downstairs, the woody, clean scents of the old bathroom, the murmur of Raine’s voice as she kept me awake. A conspicuous gap lingered on the edge of my perception, like a missing back tooth that I couldn’t locate with my tongue, not until Raine dumped water over my head to rinse away the shampoo. Zheng still wasn’t here. Somehow my abyssal instincts knew the shape of her absence, a black hole seen only by the lack of stars.
Of Sevens, I could sense nothing.
“Oh, she’s around here, don’t you worry,” Raine reassured me. “She’s just gone all shy on me.”
Once I was coherent enough, I told Raine all about the Knight and what had happened. I unfolded my guilt and my fears, but then I kept going.
“Different how?” Raine asked.
The gentle teasing had vanished from her tone, replaced by quiet attention. Whistle’s ears perked up too.
I sighed and resisted the urge to sink back down into the bathwater. Perhaps I was more cephalopod than I thought, trying to take refuge in the watery deep. But oceanic darkness and water pressure could not keep uncomfortable thoughts at bay. Raine waited more than a few heartbeats as I tried to find the words to express myself. She didn’t even crack a joke.
“It’s like … exposure therapy?” I said, then huffed and shook my head. “No, that’s not right. Forget I said anything.”
“Heather, I will do almost anything for you,” said Raine. “I’ll even kill people for you. Hell, I already have. But if you tell me something in that tone of voice, I ain’t gonna forget it.”
I nodded, feeling guilty at taking her for granted, then I rested my forehead against the side of the bathtub so I didn’t have to look at anything except blank white.
“Outside was always frightening,” I said slowly, trying to warm to my subject. “That’s a stupid statement, it’s so obvious, but I have to say it. You’ve only been to the library of Carcosa, Raine. It’s dangerous, but at least it’s … comprehensible. Humans make libraries too. But most of the places I’ve seen out there aren’t remotely human, nothing we would recognise, and when they are recognisable they’re worse. I still scream at them even now, even places Lozzie can go make me … ” I had to take a deep breath. “Once, when I was a teenager, I Slipped and ended up in this endless warren of metal corridors. It just went on and on and on. There was no purpose to it, like it had been built by a malfunctioning machine. Loops and circles which led nowhere, had no purpose, or no purpose I could ever comprehend without going mad. When I believed I had schizophrenia, I could write off those experiences as meaningless. Brain-ghosts. Dreams. That was how I comforted and protected myself. All those endless vistas, those watching giants in impossible landscapes, those … ”
I stopped to gather my thoughts, lost in horrible memories of places I didn’t wish to revisit even when armed and armoured in the glory of abyssal reflection, with all my tentacles and a layer of steel wrapped about my body.
Naked in the bath, I turned my left forearm so I could look at the Fractal. The first and best gift, the bulwark that hid me from the Eye’s sight and kept me beyond its reach. The shield that stopped it from dragging me back through the membrane over and over again.
“Thank you, Raine,” I murmured.
“You’re welcome?” she said. “Hey, I haven’t done anything right now except sit here and look pretty. But you’re welcome, that comes naturally.”
I managed a small laugh. “Yes, keep doing that, please.”
“Don’t let me interrupt though.”
“Yes. Right. Where was I? It … it’s alien out there, yes, but at the court of the King in Yellow, they were thinking beings. People, sort of. They were only pretending to be human, but they were people. We could communicate. There are people out there. Sort of. I never thought of it that way before.”
“You gonna go visit for a cup of tea?”
“Absolutely not.” I paused. “Well. Maybe.”
“Hey, I was only joking,” Raine laughed. “But if that’s what you need to do … ”
She trailed off, which was not normal with her. I finally looked up from the bathtub and found her eyes, unsmiling but gentle as she gazed back at me. That was uncommon as well.
“I mean, think about it,” I said, almost pleading but not certain why. “Think about the Eye, about Wonderland, about the world the Eye is floating over. Wonderland has buildings. They’re shells, yes, burnt out by some unimaginable world-consuming flame, but somebody or something built those things. People. I’d never really thought about any of this before. Praem and Zheng are one thing, they came from the abyss and humans gave them bodies, that makes sense, I remember what it’s like down there; anything living there would much rather be here, with warmth and sunlight and strawberries. But Outside? It doesn’t make any sense; some of those places are so alien, so weird, I can’t even imagine how they think. There’s, what? Whole civilisations out there?” I shrugged, lost. “Lozzie came home with a hickey! From where?!”
“Whoa, Heather, easy,” Raine murmured, leaning over to squeeze my naked shoulder. “Slow down, hey.”
“I don’t have time to slow down,” I grunted, strange tears prickling in my eyes. “Maisie can’t wait.”
Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “You think this can help Maisie?”
“I was thinking about it while Evelyn and I were watching the Knight,” I said, trying to unpack thoughts which had gathered while in the grip of exhaustion, half-dreams that held gleaming diamond specks of insight buried deep in the sucking mud. “About Outside, about thinking beings, species, races, civilisations, I don’t know. That’s what the Knights are, a species. Raine, why did the Eye manifest where it did? Over Wonderland? What did they do to let it in, whoever they were?”
Raine tilted her head. “Does it matter to us?”
She asked the question plain, not a challenge but a serious inquiry. I loved it when she did that.
I nodded. “I don’t know how to beat the Eye or how to take Maisie back. I don’t even know where to start. Sevens told me that lesbian romance has something to do with it, but I think she’s a little biased about problem solving. I don’t see how my relationships help me fight or communicate with the Eye. If we get the book from Edward and Evee makes her invisibility thingy, okay, then we can get to Wonderland, but then what?”
“You’re suggesting we root around in the ashes out there?”
“Exactly,” I whispered.
Raine nodded slowly and kissed me on the forehead. I let my eyes flutter shut for a second before she sat back again.
“Experimental archaeology,” Raine said. “You sure have been thinking a lot.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I sighed. “I don’t even know what I expect to find. There’s a whole world beneath the Eye. I’m … trying to avoid a frightening thing, Raine.”
“If I can go Outside casually, easily, am I just doing what the Eye wants me to do? Am I becoming more like it?” I shook my head. “But I have to try. I have to. Lozzie made miracles out there. Maybe I can too.”
“Hey, you make miracles just fine here,” Raine said. Her smile beamed through me.
“ … thank you. It’s hard to remember it’s only been a single night. And now I can just … come and go? From here and Outside? That’s so strange, so different. I can’t put it into words, Raine. I can’t grasp that concept. The realm of my nightmares is somewhere else I can step into, just like that.”
A shiver passed up my body, the physical memory of post-traumatic stress. Outside was still horrible, even if only a thought away.
Raine must have seen, because she reached over to turn the bath tap. She dumped another couple of pints of hot water in with me. I felt the wave of diluted heat against my side, easing away the imaginary chill.
“I was afraid you might not come back.”
Raine spoke low and soft. Her voice cracked.
“Raine?!” I was so shocked I started to stand up in the bath. My single tentacle uncoiled from around myself and reached out toward her. Whistle looked up from her lap, making an inquisitive murmur in his throat.
“Hey, I’m fine now,” Raine said, waving me down. “I’m just … ” She sniffed loudly and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, then blinked in surprise at the moisture she found there. “Oh, hey, tears. Wow.”
“Raine, it is okay to cry,” I blurted out. “It’s okay, it’s fine.”
“Sure is,” she agreed, cracking an awkward smile, words thick in her throat, red eyes blinking at me. “You wanted me real and raw, you got it. I don’t want to lose you out there. And that’s not miss knight errant talking, that’s me, Raine. Just me.”
I reached out with my actual hand, so Raine could see. She gave it a squeeze and I squeezed back.
“I won’t leave you,” I said. “Even if I wanted to go Outside — which I don’t — I’ll always come home.”
“I know,” Raine sighed. “Just feels like you had to go through an ordeal without me. Ha, some bodyguard I am.”
“It’s not your fault. I should have brought you along, even!”
I laughed — but inside I cringed with private horror.
I would not have survived the trials of last night without pneuma-somatic mimicry of the abyssal body I’d once possessed, without my tentacles and my bioreactor, my armour and my immune system, my hyperdimensional mathematics and my status as the Eye’s adopted daughter. Raine was strong, smart, and charismatic; I love her, but she is only human. What if she’d inhaled a lungful of Hastur’s yellow spores? Or had her elbow caught in the million jaws of the gnawing darkness? Or been swatted aside by Melancholy’s paw, or caught up in the party of flesh and madness that raced through the corridors in the palace of the Yellow King? What if she’d been in the audience chamber and required distracting like the others? What if she’d been under threat when the King’s favourites had donned their lover-masks? How would I have reacted to Raine being threatened? Raine Outside and unprotected.
However much tender regard I felt for Sevens, I did not love her. Not yet. But I had defied the Yellow King for her sake.
What would I have done if Raine had been there, if he had threatened her?
“Regicidal revolution,” I whispered, so softly that Raine didn’t catch it above her own gentle laugh.
“I never did get to punch Alexander’s stupid face in,” she was saying. “Maybe the King in Yellow would have obliged a request. What do you think, would he be a good sport about that?”
“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t really mean it. My mind was elsewhere.
I wasn’t sure I could ever take Raine Outside.
She noticed my internal struggle. “Hey, Heather, it’s gonna be alright,” she purred. “We’ll be alright. You and me, whatever else happens. I’m just getting used to the idea. Processing, you know? I’m not sure if I should say this, but in a way those freaky dead hands had a silver lining. I didn’t have to worry that you might step out and never come back. And I’m sorry for thinking that. I really mean it. I apologise.”
A lump formed in my throat — sympathetic guilt. “You still don’t have to worry about that.”
“I know. I trust you.”
Her words radiated that beaming confidence that had first won me over, battered down my walls, and saved me from a future of anti-psychotic medications in a padded cell. But I saw the cracks beneath, the weather-worried flaws. In the past I would never have possessed the courage to press.
“ … but?” I asked.
The Raine of a month ago would have laughed off the question and pretended nothing was wrong. But my Raine sighed through a smile.
“But you had a hell of an adventure out there,” she said. “You already made miracles, by the sound of it. I would have loved to have been there, just to see you being cool. My squid-girl from beyond.” She broke into a grin at that, genuine and undiluted. “But I wasn’t there. And maybe I won’t be next time, either.”
“I will always come home,” I repeated.
“And I’ll always be here.”
“I love you,” I said, trying not to tear up. Raine nodded and reached over to ruffle my hair again and kiss me on the cheek. I hugged her over the side of the bath, leaving damp patches around her shoulders.
When we separated again, her eyes went up and to my left. I followed her gaze and realised she was looking at my tentacle.
“You can see it?” I asked. “But you’re not wearing the glasses? How?”
“It’s wet,” Raine said.
“ … oh.”
“I can’t really see it, not the flesh or the cool arr-gee-bee lighting—”
“Sorry?” I blinked.
“—but I can see the sheen of water hovering in the air. That’s some real invisible man stuff you got going on there, Heather. Better be careful in the rain and such, right? Don’t wanna freak out random people.”
“Of course, I … never thought of that before. How odd.”
I chewed my lip as we both settled back again, moving my tentacle through the air and dipping it back into the bath. Whistle snuffed in Raine’s lap. His eyes followed the dripping wet ghost of my single tentacle.
“You wanna get out yet, or—” Raine started.
“It’s the same for me,” I said before I could lose all my courage. “With Lozzie.”
Raine raised her eyebrows.
“About going Outside, the fear of letting somebody go and that they might not come back.” I explained in a rush, desperate to get it out of me, reject it, expel it. But I couldn’t deny it. “Now the hands are gone, I’ve given up control.”
“You had control?”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t the one stopping her from going outside, but I … I wanted it.” I swallowed, the words like venom in my mouth as I spat them out, but I had to speak them. “I’m always afraid she’ll leave, go Outside and not come back, because that’s where she belongs, that’s where she’s most comfortable. Part of me saw the hands as an excuse, or … used them as an excuse. To keep her here.” I blinked hard, frowning at myself. “And that’s a terrible thing. The potential is in me, to be terrible. To want to control.”
“Admitting it is good. Saying it out loud, that’s good.”
I shrugged. “I don’t feel any cleaner for saying it.”
“Are you still going to try to stop her from going Outside?”
“No! No, I don’t have any right to do that. Of course I don’t. Is this a me thing, Raine? Or is it a mage thing? Or because of what I’m becoming, because of … ”
I trailed off as I arced my one tentacle through the air again, coiling it closed into a fist of pale meat. Raine couldn’t see the flesh itself, but she could still see the faint sheen of dripping water. Her eyes followed it too.
“I don’t know what I’m turning into,” I murmured. “It feels good, but—”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Raine said, firm and certain. I blinked at her.
“How can you be so sure?”
Raine sighed through a slow grin and spread her arms in a shrug — then returned one hand to scratch behind Whistle’s ears when he whined. “Sometimes you forget I’m a student of politics, don’t you? And I don’t just mean ‘cos I’m studying it.”
I shook my head, confused. “What does that have to do with all this? And I never forget. I never forget anything about you, Raine.”
“It’s not a you thing,” she said. “I know you too well. It’s not a mage thing, not specifically, and I don’t think it’s an abyss thing either. It’s a power thing.”
Raine leaned back in her chair, rolling her neck and getting comfortable. “There’s this idea, you’ve probably heard it before; power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“Right, yes. Of course, you think I’m—”
“But that’s bullshit. Power itself doesn’t corrupt, that’s just an excuse used by monsters. If you have a consistent and coherent ideological standpoint, and you apply it to the world around you, then hey, power doesn’t corrupt. Not by itself. The standpoint has to be wrong in the first place.”
I frowned in thought. “I’m not sure I agree with that.”
“Then do some dialectics.”
“Excuse me?” I boggled at her, feeling like a Yorkshire Terrier presented with advanced algebra.
Raine laughed. “Look, Heather, you wanted to keep Lozzie here, you wanted to control her — but you didn’t. You struggled with the feelings and you worked them out, and then you did the right thing. Nobody gets difficult questions right first time, nobody knows what to do on pure instinct. I sure never have. The guidance of conscience is a load of bullshit. You have to actually analyse. And by your own reckoning, that’s what you did.”
“I suppose so … ” I frowned at Raine, at her certainty, at how she seemed to have all the answers. I wasn’t sure I agreed with her, but I didn’t have the brainpower to argue philosophy right then. “Where is Lozzie, anyway? I was a bit woozy back there, I didn’t see where she went. Oh!” I sat up straight in the bath. “She’s not trying to find Sevens, is she? I-I’m not sure what would happen if they met in uncontrolled circumstances, I—”
Raine laughed, serious debate time over. “Far as I know, she went off for a nap while I was running your bath. But don’t worry, I don’t think even she is gonna pry Sevens out of hiding.”
I managed a tiny laugh as well, using it to cover for the question that floated up into my mind.
The bathwater was getting cold again and my fingers had gone very wrinkly. I wiggled them in the air. A lump was hardening in my throat. To not ask the obvious question would be very conspicuous. But I just said, “I suppose it’s time I got out. I could use a nap as well.”
“You sure could. Come here then.”
Raine put Whistle down on the floor, then got up, grabbed a towel from the rail, and held it out for me. I clambered over the side of the tub on shaky legs, muscles soft and sleepy from the heat and relaxation. She wrapped me in the towel and set about drying my hair while Whistle nosed along the skirting boards for interesting smells.
I closed my eyes as Raine rubbed my hair with the towel. “Did you … ”
“Hmm?” Raine made an innocent sound, as if she didn’t know. I sighed heavily and screwed up my courage. I’d faced down an Outsider god only a few hours ago. Why was this so hard?
“Did you have any luck finding Sevens?” I forced out.
“A little bit,” Raine answered — casual, or fake-casual, I couldn’t tell. My heart rate spiked as her hands stopped, leaving me beneath the dark of the towel over my head. “She hid under our bed, then in the cupboard. Like I said, hiding good. Scurries about right fast. Good at slipping through gaps and out of hands, too, like a ferret or a weasel. Made of rubber and grease.”
“You weren’t rough with her, were you?”
“Nah, ‘course not. Just want her to come out and talk.” Raine clucked her tongue. “Besides, she should have been in this bath with you, her hair’s filthy and she does smell a bit, though not of sweat. Got an iron tang to her. Vampire smell, I guess.”
“Raine,” I whined softly. “I’m not going to share a bath with her. I don’t need to do things like—”
Raine whipped the towel down off my head without warning. A soft yelp escaped my throat — chased by a hiccup that made poor Whistle jump. Raine shoved her lips against mine, hard and fierce, gripping my body through the towel wrapped about me. The deep kiss left me flushed and panting when she pulled back, eyes burning through mine. I hiccuped again, ruining the moment. Were we about to do it on the bathroom floor?
“Oh … ” I swallowed, discovering that I’d lashed my tentacle around one of her arms. I let go, gently, but Raine pinned the arm against her body, trapping my tentacle.
“Nuh uh,” she said. “No running.”
“Are you marking your territory?” I managed to ask.
“Yes,” she said. “Straight up, not gonna lie about it. Now, if Seven-Shades-of-Sucking-Shit wants to join us, she’s more than welcome. We can talk. I’m not even fronting or anything, I am being honest about my feelings, wide open. Her shit makes me uncomfortable and she needs to come talk to me about it.”
“I-I don’t think she’s listening in anymore, not like she used to. She’s a participant now.”
“Then she needs to bloody well participate,” Raine said, harder than I’d expected. “Not hide under the bed and hiss at me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m real thankful she saved you out there, stepped in when she was needed. Big respect.” Raine looked up from me and glanced around the bathroom. “You hear that, Sevens? Big respect. Now get out here and talk to me.” Raine grit her teeth with a savage grin. “I’ll even talk to the prissy bitch princess if I have to.”
“She’s not a bitch,” I said. “Raine, don’t call people that.”
Raine’s eyes found mine again, burning bright with passion, and I half-wished I hadn’t gotten her attention. I quivered and wanted to take a step back, as if she was about to slam me into the wall and take me right there.
“But saving you doesn’t mean she gets to sleep with you, in any form,” Raine said. “And she sure as hell isn’t marrying you first. I have a claim on you, Heather. You’re mine.”
I swallowed, flushing bright red. “That’s … very … ”
A grin broke across Raine’s face like the sun from behind storm clouds. She leaned back and straightened up, gave me space to breathe, her engine clocking all the way back down to mild and easy. She ran a hand through her hair and sighed. “Unhealthy? Yeah, probably, but hey, you wanted the real me.”
“I was going to say romantic, but maybe it’s unhealthy of me to think that way.” I took a very deep breath and tried to force my heart rate down.
“Do you wanna get married?”
Heart rate back up. Way up. I stared, wide-eyed, a balloon expanding inside my chest. Raine leaned one hand against the wall next to my head, slow and gentle.
“Not yet?” she added.
“ … Raine … Raine I … ” My mouth had gone completely dry. My tentacle was still around her arm. I couldn’t let go. “I don’t know if either of us will even be alive in six months. Four months!”
She cracked a cheesy smile. “All the more reason.”
“No, I’m serious! Raine! You can’t say that and not treat it seriously. I don’t like to think about it, but we, all of us, we might not survive trying to rescue my sister. Even with everything I’ve learnt, all the ways I’ve changed, I might die. And I can just about deal with that.” I swallowed hard, to hold back the sudden threatening tears. “But you … you might … God, I hope you don’t. Even if I don’t make it, I want … I want you to live, Raine, I—”
“Heather,” Raine said my name and suddenly she was all serious, even through the smile. She didn’t lean in close, but it felt like she did. “If the worst happens, if that happens, if the rest of us all make it back but you don’t, then I’ll never be able to marry you.”
I felt like my heart was going to explode. My head span.
“We’ve only known each other … what, seven, eight months?” My words emerged in an absurd squeak, followed by a hiccup. “What do I tell my— my parents—”
Raine shrugged. “So? Doesn’t have to be a big deal. No ceremony, just registry office. Evee and Praem can witness for us. Dunno what they’ll think of Praem though. Does she even have a signature to sign?”
Oh, Evee, I thought.
“You’re serious,” I said out loud.
“I love you.”
“A-and I love you too, Raine, but I might not come back from Wonderland. I might lose.”
“And I swept you off your feet knowing that.”
I fidgeted in place, as if pinned to the wall like a captured moth. I glanced at Whistle for help, but he didn’t even understand, trying to go up on his hind legs so he could peer into the toilet bowl.
“Oh, screw it,” I hissed. “I was never going to make it to thirty anyway.” I shot a dark look at Raine. “This is very unfair, I’m exhausted. And I thought you didn’t believe in marriage? Why bring the state into this?”
She shrugged again. “We could do it our way instead, if you like?”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t even have to go to the registry office. We can do it right here, right now. Cut our palms and press them together, the way Zheng and I never did to seal our deal. Mix our blood, you and me, forever. You can even jab me with your magical life juice that Evee was telling you never to use. I wanna see what you feel like inside me.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to concentrate past the blush supernova in my face. “Raine, yes, in principle, but—”
Raine finally straightened up again, laughing. “It’s cool, Heather, no pressure. Couldn’t let myself get upstaged by Mellow Yellow. She beat me to the proposal, but she won’t beat me to anything else.”
I boggled at her, coming down from a high I hadn’t wanted. “ … you mean that was all … ?”
“Oh, no.” Raine shook her head. “I’m deadly serious. Just, you know, you can wait. If you want.”
I scowled at her, unimpressed but also secretly delighted, unwrapping my tentacle from her arm and clutching my towel to my front. “Did you just propose to me while I’m naked in a towel?”
She cracked a grin and shot me a wink. “Sure did.”
I huffed and straightened up, but half of it was performance.
“Hey, for serious though,” Raine said. “I am jealous. For real. Sevens wants to join us, be my friend, be your more-than-a-friend? Fine. But she’s not going to scuttle around and avoid me and then slink into bed beside you at night. No way. We do this up front.”
I frowned at her, then at my tentacle tip. “And you’re not bothered by the fact she’s an Outsider? Not even remotely human?”
Raine shrugged. “I’ve got no problems with what Sevens is, as long as she’s not a side-piece. She’s in or out, not halfway.”
“Fair enough,” I sighed, struggling to get my breath back. Raine took me gently by the arm, supporting me.
“Got a bit carried away there,” she said.
“No, no, it’s very understandable, I just … I don’t understand why she’s hiding.” I sighed. “And thank you for being honest, thank you for everything. Oh, Raine, what’s Zheng going to think of all this?”
“Dunno. Wish she’d hurry up and come home though, she’s missed all the fun.” Raine took me gently by the shoulders and carried on drying me off. “Hey, she might be back after you sleep. We can talk more then, too. You just focus on that. Want me to carry you to bed?”
I shot her a look. “I’d rather you get me some clothes, please. However much I would love you to princess carry me to bed, I think I’d expire if Evelyn saw that in the corridor.”
Raine laughed and nodded. She let me go, stepping back toward the door.
“What are you going to do while I nap?” I asked her, with a sudden fishhook in the back of my throat.
Raine paused, as if considering lying by omission, then she shrugged. “Gonna try again with Sevens. Think she’s in the laundry cupboard. I took this off your bedside table, here.”
She pulled a piece of yellow fabric out of her pocket, a jagged torn edge from some larger garment.
“Remember this?” she said. “This was all me, all my knife. I wanna give it back to her. Symbolic gesture, to—”
Raine never got to finish her sentence. All at once the bathroom door crashed open, as if a large and overexcited dog had run headfirst into the wood. A familiar bunch of black tentacles shot inside and grabbed the door frame. Only that familiarity kept my yelp of surprise from turning into a scream. Whistle yipped and turned in a circle.
Tenny stood in the doorway looking extraordinarily proud of herself, fluffy antenna wiggling, tentacles going all over the place, hands flapping.
One group of tentacles had Sevens by the scruff of her neck.
The scrawny, bony, awkward girl looked like she’d been crouched on the other side of the door when Tenny had grabbed her. She hadn’t even had time to start hissing and gurgling, let alone kicking and biting. Needle teeth exposed, red eyes dilated wide, she hung there in shock, hands up as if they’d been pressed against the door, head turned slightly. The very picture of a scuttling goblin.
“Evee’s dropping! Drop! Drop!” Tenny exclaimed in flustered delight, shoving Sevens into the room.
“Eavesdropping,” I corrected her gently, catching on instantly. “Thank you, Tenny. Thank you, but please be gentle. Please!”
“Am gentle,” Tenny said with a smile. She gently encouraged Sevens further into the room. “Pounce gentle. Catch gentle. No bruises!”
Sevens let out a “rrrrrrrr-rrrrr” noise in the back of her throat, looking very grumpy and scowling up at us, then round at Tenny, and even baring her teeth at Whistle, who backed up and let out a little “huff.”
“Ah,” Raine said, a teasing smile on her face. “Listening in, eh? Still trying to play like you’re off stage?”
“Eavesdropping,” I sighed.
“I only wanted to know!” Sevens rasped. “I’m sorry!”
“Well, you’re here now,” Raine said to her. “No time like the present. What do you think, Heather, what’s the punishment for eavesdropping around here?”
“Bath time?” I ventured.
Sevens’ eyes went wider. “No.”
“Vampires allergic to running water?” Raine asked. “Sensory processing issues with liquids? Don’t like being submerged? Anything else?”
“No, not that, but—”
“Then you are having a bath. Or a shower. Or roll in some sand, just get this mask clean,” Raine said. “Then you can cuddle with Heather, when you’re clean. Not before.”
Sevens bared her teeth and gurgled. Behind her, Tenny let out a trilling sound. Sevens flinched and stared at her.
“Or,” Raine said, “you can stay greasy and unwashed, and you and I can have a chat about relationships — without Heather, because she’ll be napping.”
“Bleeeerggggh,” went Sevens, sticking her tongue out and dipping her head. “Bath tiiiiime … ”
Sometimes, Raine and Heather just need to have a good talk. Communication, the foundation of any healthy relationship; but are these two truly healthy? Maybe. At least Tenny found that darned rat.
In response to comments from last week, I guess I’m putting the full length author afterword here too now, so …
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Next week, bath time for vampires. Nap time for Heather? Treats for Tenny!
OMG! Tenny is so amazing! Thanks for the chapter!
You are very welcome indeed!
Tenny is the best, I have so much fun whenever she’s on screen. This part was actually not in my notes; the chapter outline needed them to discover that Sevens was listening, but I had no idea how. And then Tenny just appeared, lurking in the dark, ready to pounce!
‘while in the grip of exhaustion, half-dreams that held gleaming diamond specks of insight buried deep in the sucking mud.’
Either you have first hand experience or second hand experience because that is exactly what maximum exhaustion nodding off feels like… (which I experience all the time because my average time awake is ~20 hours).
Knight is A-OK, and possible foreshadowing to an outsider blacksmith to make Heather and the crew some armor?
With this revelation Heather had, it makes me think that a majority of the outside realms closest to earth have been reclaimed or are in Ruins with vermin (the absolutely horrifying monsters) scattered around, which adds some interesting theories into the origin of Earth’s universe bubble. Possible Celestial level war in order to establish and isolate our universe from everything else?
Praem is the only character I can ever see doing a situational pun 100% seriously and in a way that’s borderline intimidating because she’s clearly ticked off.
Seven-shades-of-sufficiently-slippery being really good at avoiding talking about awkward subjects by running off. Not good enough to escape Tenney though. I think our little munchkin is going to be wary of the moth girl as she was quite shocked at being caught so quickly she couldn’t react.
All the, well, Shades of Raine were put on showcase here, including some that haven’t been displayed before, clear showings that she’s been developing herself further ever since exposing the truth to Heather and means she’s finding solutions to what Heather said she wants from her.
Whistle being the goodest boi.
Me being the type of person who enjoys the times when characters develop each other through conversations, love how that’s at least half of what’s written in this story, even more so that it’s done well. Great chapter, looking forward to next Saturday.
Oh, I have a ton of first-hand experience of major sleep deprivation, yes. Write what you know and all that!
Outsider Blacksmith! Hinted at in Heather’s assumptions, but not yet confirmed. Or maybe metal really does grow on trees, somewhere.
I think if Praem is making a pun at you and sounds angry, that would be incredibly scary. Don’t anger the maid! You won’t like her when she’s angry. (Because she’ll protect her mum).
Moth counters vampire, I guess. Not a matchup I ever expected to write! Should be the other way around, normally bats eat insects.
Raine is actually able to express some genuine things, without locking it all away in the service of being the perfect girlfriend! Yes! She’s making progress.
Whistle is amazing. Needed a good boi in the story.
Thank you! I really enjoy character development through dialogue too, it’s very real, or feels so to me, and I know a lot of readers really like these slower parts to punctuate the danger and horror. Glad you enjoyed it!
Raine’s too cool to not be fiction.
Haha, I know what you mean. She really is cool. Several readers want her to be their girlfriend.
Thank you for such a wonderful chapter, Hy! Heath and Raine having a caring and comfortable real talk is always such a pleasure to read!
Tenny bursting in like YO HUMAN LOOK I CAUGHT A RAT was hilarious!
You are very welcome! Thank you for reading it!
I really enjoy writing characters just talking. It’s one of the major advantages of the web serial format, in fact.
Tenny surprised even me! She wasn’t in the notes for this chapter!
Are they going to have to clean up after Seven like with Tenny?
Hopefully Sevens is a bit more bathroom-trained than literal newborn Tenny, but maybe she’s an absolute terror in the bath!
Power doesn’t corrupt; power reveals.
It can reveal an addiction to control that spirals out of control, or the belief that the only proper use of power is to protect the innocent. Reveal the lust for comfort, or the will to domination, or the conviction that power matters only in finite games to bring the past to an end and restrict freedom, whereas strength is the ability to redefine the boundaries of play with the freedom to allow anything to happen.
It’s really satisfying that Heather and Raine, (and the whole cast in an array of variations), know that power doesn’t corrupt. The writing craft grace of avoiding exposition, because the reader gets to see them working their way out of darkness and into light… The meta-arc thematic weaving of Heathers increasing power revealing her character rather than corrupting her… chef’s kiss.
Thank you so much! This is a theme very close to my heart, and close to the other themes of the story. I had a very clear vision of where I wanted examinations of power to go with Heather, and she’s certainly not done yet! This actually came up in a bunch of recent chapters in some further explorations of the idea.
I’m really glad that theme makes so much sense and you enjoyed it!
I am kinda getting worried for Raine. She has been popping several death flags for the eye visit.
Being a protector but lost most of that purpose with just being human.
Asking Heather to marry her before the big fight.
Most of her character development has been done.
Given the amount of “we might die talk” regarding the eye visit, a important character death is likely to happened.
Her dying would make great amount of drama and angst in future books that can take the role Melise had before, also sevens shifting ability can enhance that drama with her turning to Heather as a horrible coping mechanism.
Only way can get more death flags is If they do some brain math/bio magic nonsense and Heather gets pregnant with Raines baby right before the showdown.
I do really hope she will make it alright and the can live happily after all is said and done. I really like the chemistry and the potential family life the might have later.
Death flags! Oh dear, indeed.
I can’t comment on any of this, obviously, but goodness me that is some fascinating narrative theory, indeed. Going to confront the Eye sure is going to be dangerous, even just visiting Wonderland seems to be dangerous.
Then again, Book Two and Three are going to happen, so who knows if Heather and Raine might be able to settle down into a more domestic family life. It does sound lovely, doesn’t it?
But who is to say that book two and three will have Heather as the protagonist and not someone new in the same world?^^
Also theory crafting is a vital part of the reading experience! No matter how dumb/bonkers the theories are. Gotta occupy the mind something.
I have mentioned in a few places, publicly, that the plan for Book Two does involve multiple POVs! Will one of them be Heather? Maybe! We’ll have to wait and see.
I do love theory crafting, yes! It’s always a lot of fun, one of my own favourite ways of engaging with any fiction, and I’m delighted whenever any reader has fun doing the same with my own work.