and walked a crooked mile – 16.3

A small note!

I don’t often do pre-chapter notes, but I have to say something before this one begins!

At the request of several of my patrons and the suggestion of many other readers, I’m going to be placing a very short content warning note before each chapter from now on. This note will be behind a spoiler tag, so if you don’t want to be spoiled on potential content, don’t look at it. I won’t be content warning for blanket genre-typical content — i.e. violence, blood, tentacles, etc — but only for specific issues. Sometimes there won’t be anything inside this content warning spoiler, but it’ll be there anyway.

I am pretty much copying the technique and attitude of the wonderful author Thundamoo, outlined in more detail in the pre-chapter note of Vigor Mortis, over here.

Content Warnings

Spiders
Mental possession/corruption
Drug use metaphor

That’s all! On with the show!



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Alone in a haunted house, surrounded by the wailing wind of an oncoming storm, the tree-trunks of a forest that had marched from nowhere, and the dark claws of a premature, unnatural, cloying night. Separated from my comrades and lovers, taunted by space that made no sense, left with only my wits and my meagre strength to see me through. The lamp-lit corridor beckoned, lined with watercolour mountain vistas and doors that could lead to anywhere.

My whispered threat to have Raine put Edward Lilburne’s head down a toilet did not summon the owlish old man from around one of the door frames, like a puppet-master stepping out from behind the curtain.

I would have preferred if he had appeared; at least then I’d have something to slap.

“Oh, I’m as bad as Raine sometimes,” I hissed to myself, inside the safety of my cephalopod mask. “Can’t solve a problem unless you can punch it, really?”

The me of nine months ago would have found a cupboard or perhaps the space under a bed, curled up in a ball, and sobbed myself to sleep, in the hope that I would be safe and home once I woke up. Like a cut-price Dorothy who couldn’t even be bothered to tap her magic slippers together. Even the me of six weeks back, prior to my unplanned outing to Carcosa, would have been paralysed with fear at being cut off from Raine and Evelyn, scattered to the far corners of this bizarre trap.

But that Heather was not in charge anymore. She was not forced to make decisions in the grip of terror, buffeted by ineffable forces beyond her understanding. My squid-skull mask, my abdominal reactor organ, and my six beautiful, rainbow-strobing tentacles were only the outward heralds of a much more meaningful alchemy, deep in my heart, where the old me was wrapped tight and cradled safe.

Which is a fancy way of trying to explain why I huffed, stamped my foot, and shouted at the top of my lungs.

“Hellooooo!”

I drew out the word right to the edge of a scream. My voice echoed away down the long spinal corridor of Twil’s house, unanswered by bare wood and old wallpaper, soaked up by lino and carpet, but more than loud enough to penetrate every corner.

Nobody answered. I stood there panting, getting my breath back.

“All right, so there’s nobody here but me,” I said out loud. “As if I believe that for a single second. This is absurd.”

Thump went a heavy knock against the wood of the front door, right behind me.

I strangled a yelp, spinning on the spot, then had to grit my teeth and swallow hard to stop myself from hissing like a goaded lizard at the inside of the closed door. All my tentacles were out wide, making me look big and intimidating to whatever shadow-spawned nightmare was about to burst the latch and splinter the wood.

But nothing did. Not even a second thump. Wind howled, tree-tops rustled, beams creaked — so I couldn’t be certain, when I thought I heard something padding away from the door on bare feet.

I stood there panting like a fool, scared out of my wits for a long minute as my tentacles retracted and my heart rate lowered.

“I am not putting up with this!” I snapped. “I am not! You stop this right now!”

I dosed myself up with my own irritation like a hit of diazepam to chase away the fear. It partially worked, though it was mostly for show, in case hidden eyes were watching from dark corners. Abyssal instinct whispered imperatives to stay defiant, show no weakness, do not hesitate, as if I was deep in a warren of predators, among the rocks with the flesh-eaters, puffing myself up to convince them that attacking me was too much of a risk.

Maybe that instinct was right. Perhaps we were among hidden predators.

Raine was right too, about our mobile phones not working. That didn’t stop me from trying. The phone dutifully told me that I had no signal, that I was out beyond the borders of civilisation, but I called Raine’s number all the same, just to see if the line would connect. It didn’t, giving me the usual ‘out of service range’ tone.

“This farm isn’t that isolated,” I said with an irritated sigh, tucking the phone away and talking to the walls again. “It’s fifteen minutes on foot to a small town. There’s probably a mast within jogging distance. This isn’t exactly convincing, do you understand that?”

I faced the mute corridor, chewing my tongue behind my mask, weighing my options.

Slip, or stay?

If I Slipped out — preferably to Camelot as a slingshot to take me back to Sharrowford and home and help — then I might not be able to return, even if I fetched Sevens and Lozzie and came back to this house all over again. I might be stuck on the exterior surface of this trap, whatever it really was. That is, if this was just a trap, rather than the conscious working of some Outsider mind, poised to fight me if I tried to leave. If I did decide to flee to get help, I might only have one shot, one chance to Slip away before the jaws closed around my leg.

And I wouldn’t leave my friends and comrades to that fate. If this was anything like that night with Ooran Juh, if we were in something’s gullet, then the threat of my toxic abyssal poison might be the only thing stopping the trap from swallowing us whole.

No, I had to stay, in case the others would die without me here to poison the dish.

“This doesn’t feel anything like mister orange juice, though,” I muttered behind my mask, gathering my courage to creep down the corridor. “Come on, Heather. Bottom floor first. Let’s find a spooky door and … and … slap some ghosts.”

Slap some ghosts? I winced at myself. Raine would be proud.

Twil’s home, Geerswin Farm, would have been a lovely old house to explore by the light of day, preferably with Raine or Evelyn or anybody else at my side, but it was significantly less lovely during this artificially imposed fake night, complete with winds making the beams creak and the roof tiles rattle, like I was inside a ship at sea. Still, at least this wasn’t a modern house, that would have been even worse: a true nightmare of anonymous walls and inhuman angles, work surfaces never used or touched by human hands or care, every architectural turn suggesting habitation but never quite invoking the reality of living presence. At least tip-toeing down this spinal corridor felt like I was surrounded by a house that somebody loved.

And then I stopped tip-toeing, because why bother?

“I’m here, I’m here, and you are going to have to deal with me!”

I checked the doors on the left and right as I made for the sitting room at the end of the hallway, hoping against hope that I would come across one of the others, passed out or something — which would explain why nobody had answered my shout. Or perhaps I would run into one of the bubble-servitors. At least then I could remotely interrogate Hringewindla. Failing those, I might find some clue as to what was going on, or at least provoke a reaction.

My tentacles stayed poised and ready, hovering like scorpion stingers, edging around each door frame. I kept my mask on, my hands free.

The ‘den’ — as Twil had called it — was still empty, just armchairs and the television and some books, and the limitless, thick night pressing in on the back door to the patio. The other doors revealed equally empty domestic absences: a cloak room full of waxed coats and wellington boots, exactly suited to a walk in the woods; a boiler room with one of those ancient standing water-heaters, a washing machine, tumble dryer, and a big chest freezer — I checked inside that, in case a meat-monster was about to leap out, but it was all just frozen vegetables and chicken nuggets. A spare downstairs bedroom looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, boxes and packaging piled up at one end. I found a tiny study with neatly stacked papers atop a broad wooden desk, along with a truly ancient computer which even I could tell was about twenty years out of date. The final door led into the kitchen, which seemed to wrap around to join the large sitting room.

Their kitchen was beautiful, straight out of one of my teenage fantasies of living in a combination castle-cottage in the Cotswolds. Slate and tile surfaces, pots and utensils hanging on the walls, sideboards of pale stone rather than modern Formica — a true holdover from another age. The room’s centrepiece was one of those huge multi-purpose combination oven-boiler-things, made of cream-painted metal. Pipes ran from the massive oven into the ceiling, pipes that had once provided central heating for the whole house, feeding the iron radiators I’d spotted in some of the other rooms. It even had a little door where you could choose to fuel it with wood rather than gas or oil. I reminded myself to ask Twil’s mother about that oven, if we came out the other side of this bizarre incident in one piece. I wanted to know how old it was. It was like a visitor from the distant past.

“You’re beautiful,” I told it.

But my pleasure drained away as my footsteps tapped across the pale terracotta tiles of the kitchen floor, heading for the connecting door into the sitting room.

What I’d thought was a sitting room was more of a dining room. A large wooden table dominated the space, probably quite fancy once upon a time, with little ribbed carvings down the legs and a smooth expanse of varnished cream-orange wood for the top, though now it was chipped and pitted and scratched from decades of use, but still given pride of place, along with the matching chairs. The rest of the room boasted a pair of sofas, a traditional sideboard cabinet full of crockery, a huge fireplace that seemed to have been used recently, a wonderful pair of enlarged photographs on the walls which looked like pictures of the very woods that lay beyond the house — and a bank of windows, split down the middle by a pair of glass patio doors.

Night loomed beyond the windows, as impenetrable as the abyss.

I glanced around the room to make sure nothing was going to ambush me. I even looked under the table and poked my head into the little closed cubbyhole style cupboard, which was full of random junk, a vacuum cleaner, and some wrapping paper. Only then did I creep over to the windows.

They were supposed to be looking out over the back patio, but I could see only a scrap of ground.

The artificial darkness outdoors pressed in like a wall of fog. Barely three or four inches of the back patio was visible in the overspill of light from indoors. I could hear the tortured creak and moan of trees and the storm-tossed sound of the leaves in the high winds, but none of it was visible beyond the wall of night.

“It’s mid-afternoon in May,” I sighed. “You’re not fooling anybody. In Carcosa I almost got eaten by sentient darkness and I responded by trying to cause a nuclear explosion. Do you want me to do that here? Yes? You want me to blow you up?”

Nobody and nothing replied.

“You’re not listening to this, are you, Sevens? If you’re here, if you followed us, please show yourself? I need some help. I won’t be angry that you followed us, just … please.”

Sevens was not here.

I tried to set my shoulders and look irritated, tried to channel Evelyn at her worst — or best, depending on what one thought of her — but it didn’t quite work. I was very thankful for my pink hoodie, the armour of my soul. I even rolled my left sleeve up a little so I could run my fingers over the Fractal on my forearm, my original safety blanket.

“Fine,” I hissed. “I’ll check upstairs. If I don’t find anybody, I shall unravel this place with my mind. You think you’re strong enough to fight that? I am the daughter of an Outsider god, this … nonsense is beyond me.”

Barely believed the words I was saying, but I had to keep up appearances.

Then, thunder split the night.

I was just about to turn away from the window when the crash of the storm hit — one of those split second crack-boom thunderclaps that comes from roiling silence and makes you jump like a startled rabbit. Or maybe that’s just me.

Lightning flashed in the same instant, as if the storm was right above the house, throwing everything into stark illumination. The lashing trees, thick as a primordial forest; the writhing, wriggling un-grass, out there between the tree-line and the house; the potted plants, meat pretending to be vegetable matter; the mud, thick and cloying, like soil mixed with blood.

And one of the alpacas, from the back field.

It was standing barely ten meters from the house, out in the open, staring directly through the patio doors, right at me. Black horns curved from the sides of its head, coal-dust dark. A human face with blank, fish-like eyes caught the flash of lightning. Bared teeth held a lipless grimace.

Then the darkness slammed back down, concealing all.

Adrenaline pounded through my head.

“Oh, very original,” I spat, though to my surprise I wasn’t actually afraid, more annoyed. “What, am I supposed to be scared of an alpaca with a human face? I’ve spent half my life seeing worse monsters around every corner. You’re going to have to do better than that. A spooky alpaca, really?”

As the adrenaline drained away, my anger grew. I genuinely had been lost and alone in scarier places than this. There was something parodic about this situation — the darkness, the being cut off from each other, the unexplained storm, and now a lightning flash at the exact moment I was looking outdoors. Like we were trapped by the logic of a Scooby-Doo episode. I was a little afraid, of course I was; I didn’t want to have to fight off a weird alpaca with my tentacles. But deep down, I’d seen far worse. I’d been Outside. I’d been to the court of the Yellow King.

“It’s like this is all a bad … joke … um?”

After the lightning flash, the shadows had regathered around the patio doors, but they had also disgorged a curiously coherent shape. Or maybe it had been there all along, and the lightning had ruined its concealment.

Diaphanous skirts of ruffled rippling flesh — translucent camouflage to blend in with the shadows — surrounded a creature the size of a small pony, currently clinging to the outside edge of the patio doors with a set of eight thick, hooked climbing-limbs. Part funnel-web spider, part deep-sea giant squid, part lizard, the thing was armour-plated in pus-white, covered in scales and bristles, looking like an abandoned war machine. A big bulbous abdomen was tucked in close to the body, like a hound tucking its tail between its legs.

A dozen cone-shaped metallic eyes, situated like a spider’s, stared back at me, half-retracted for protection against the whipping winds.

A sharp beak was buried in there somewhere, working up and down with nervous energy, surrounded by a set of seven segmented tentacles — and the stub of an eighth.

“What the … what are you doing here?”

I recognised this creature.

It was Edward Lilburne’s amalgam-servitor, the very same one I’d fought off at the home of Amy Stack’s son and his father, Shuja Yousafzai.

Back then, Edward Lilburne had piloted the creature directly, like an animal with some kind of cartoon-logic control-collar. I’d had to make contact with it and then use hyperdimensional mathematics to chase Edward out of its mind and break his control over the poor thing. In the aftermath, we’d surmised that it had probably started life as an actual pneuma-somatic creature, just another spirit, but it had been experimented on and modified, its own willpower hollowed out and supplanted by the old mage himself. Evelyn believed he probably didn’t have the techniques to construct a true servitor, so this was the next best solution to the lack of spirit-muscle.

The last I’d seen of the thing, it had been fleeing across the rooftops of Sharrowford, running on pure instinct, free of the evil wizard making it do his bidding.

“Are you trying to ambush me?” I said out loud — but I didn’t think this was a repeat attempt.

The first time the amalgam-servitor had ambushed us had been perfect, like a spider from an invisible trap. Now it looked more like a spider stuck in a bathtub, out of its context, exposed and threatened by the unnatural darkness, same as me. The seven jointed, segmented tentacles were not extended in a search for prey, but wrapped around its own body in a protective ball.

The thing was terrified.

In response to the sound of my voice, it shuffled closer to the patio door, which was a little disconcerting because I was looking at the thing’s underside, and it was very large indeed.

Metal cone eyes swivelled to look out at the darkness, then back to me. The creature’s tentacles pulled tighter, re-armouring itself against the whipping winds and the lurking alpaca with a human face.

“Yes, you and me both,” I said in sympathy, shaking my head. “Are you asking to be let indoors?”

It click-clacked further to the side, clear of the door handle. The big sharp beak opened and closed several times.

I bit my bottom lip, caught between natural sympathy for something so much like myself — those tentacles were impressive and beautiful, in their own way — and wariness of the amalgam-servitor, not to mention what might lie in the darkness beyond.

“You’re definitely not with Edward anymore, right?” I sighed heavily. “I’ve no way of being sure.”

Cone eyes blinked. The thing looked so pitiful.

Under Edward’s control and direction, it had been a thing of meticulous planning. The moment I had set it free, it had reverted to instinct. What I saw now was not a perfectly poised trap, but a frightened arachnid.

“I don’t know … ” I murmured, squinting out at the darkness. “If I open the door, is something going to rush in here? Are you … no, no, you’re terrified, you’re still free.”

The amalgam-servitor pressed itself tighter against the glass. The wind pulled and dragged at its delicate black membranes. That looked painful.

“Oh, fine,” I hissed. “Praem would never let me live it down if I left a spider to die. But if this is a trick then you’re going Outside. Understand?”

The brass latch turned without resistance. The wind reached inside like a fist, slamming me in the front and face so hard that I had to anchor myself with my tentacles. I huddled behind the door, safe inside my mask, as the amalgam-servitor scurried inside, a mass of clawed limb and segmented tentacle wrapped in black membranes and shivering all over. Try as I might to suppress the gut reaction, I still flinched as the thing shot past me. Anybody would, so close to a squid-lizard thing the size of a pony.

I had to use half my tentacles to slam the door shut again. My noodle-arms weren’t enough to defy the force of the unnatural storm-winds. As I slapped the latch back into place, another rolling crack-boom of thunder made me jump and hiss.

The lightning in the clouds lit the landscape — and revealed the alpaca with horns and a human face, now only six feet from the patio doors.

Before the night rushed back in, I saw crimson smears and scraps of flesh between its grimace-grinning teeth.

Then all was darkness and wind once more.

“Oh … oh, bugger off!” I snapped at the window. Then I turned, rather absurdly, to the amalgam-servitor, and added, “Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean you. Sorry for swearing.”

I wasn’t even sure if the pneuma-somatic creature could understand me, but I didn’t need to be an expert in supernatural body language to see that it was still terrified. The spider-squid thing had crammed itself against the back wall of the sitting room, trying to jam itself into a secluded corner and wrap itself about with those black, floating membranes of false shadow. All its metal cone-eyes were turned on the patio doors and the darkness beyond. It wasn’t interested in ambushing me, not in the slightest. It wanted to hide.

Stepping toward it and away from the window, I extended my hand, palm-up, shaking only a tiny bit.

It recoiled, trying to make itself smaller. Metal cone-eyes whirred and clicked at me, like camera lenses.

“Okay,” I sighed. “Fair enough. I was responsible for you pulling off one of your own legs, after all. You haven’t fallen back under Edward’s control or anything, have you? If you had, you would be the lethal secret in the trap, not scared out of your wits. Correct?”

Cone-eyes withdrew into mottled flesh, then poked back out. Was that a yes, or a no, or a please-stop-talking-ape-thing-and-let-me-hide?

“Your presence here doesn’t actually answer anything, you know that?” I snapped, huffing with irritation. “In fact, it only raises more questions! Were you the thing that Amanda Hopton saw in the hallway? How did you get past the bubble-servitors? Or have you been here — I mean here, inside this … cartoon haunted house, all along? This doesn’t make any sense!”

The spider-squid crawled slowly up the wall, trying to wedge itself into the corner between wall and ceiling, watching me like I was its natural predator.

“Unless … unless you went back to Edward,” I mused. “For revenge. Or because it was the only place you knew. And then … Nicole comes along, and you follow her back out, you follow her here, from Edward’s house. Maybe?”

Mister double-spider — or Miss double-spider, I couldn’t actually tell — provided an answer by curling up even tighter, segmented tentacles wrapped around itself like a ball of armour.

“Fair enough,” I sighed. “Well, stay here if you want, but I am going to check upstairs, before a spooky alpaca crashes through that door.”

Crack-boom went the thunder. Lightning split the darkness a third time.

The alpaca was right up against the glass. A human face with fish-like eyes and a bloody mouth, smearing crimson on the window.

The lightning flash passed. The alpaca stayed, staring at me.

I crossed my arms, lifted my chin, and tried to ignore the pounding of my heart.

“Shoo!” I said, waving my tentacles. “Go on, off with you! Or break the glass and try me. Go on. What’s the point of this, otherwise? What are you doing?”

The alpaca backed away, slowly vanishing into the darkness.

“Mmhmm.” I tutted. “Thought so.”

When I crept back out into the corridor, the squid-spider decided to follow me.

He kept at a polite distance in the rear, hook-claws feeling his way along the wall, hanging sideways. My own relief surprised me. The thing was incredibly weird and had once been piloted by a horrible mage, but right now it was the only other living thing I’d found in this cursed house.

“I can’t just keep thinking of you as ‘that squid-spider’,” I murmured as we crept back toward the front of the house, past the open doorways. “You need a name. I suppose that’ll have to wait until you’ve communicated in some fashion.” I glanced back at the thing, clinging to the edges of a door frame. “For now … I don’t know, you’re more cat than dog. What do people call their cats? Marmalade? You’re not marmalade coloured though, you’re more like marmite and curdled cream. Marmite the spider, how does that sound?”

Marmite did not reply. He — I decided it was a he, for now, though prepared to correct myself later — scissored his beak up and down, all eyes on me, hunched and close to the wall. I was reminded of a timid animal following its owner into a scary place.

When we passed the open door to the den, a strange thing happened.

First I glanced inside, just to check that Nicole hadn’t reappeared in her armchair, but the room was still empty. Then, as I turned away, a door appeared in my peripheral vision, in the back wall of the room. Plain wood with a neat handle, like all the other doors in the house.

“Oh, that’s … ah?”

But when I looked directly at it, the door wasn’t there. I sighed and slipped one hand inside my squid-skull mask, so I could pinch the bridge of my nose with exasperation.

Marmite and I then commenced several fruitless minutes of trying to find the door again. Well, I did. Marmite just watched. Perhaps he wondered what on earth the little ape-squid was up to, running her hands and tentacles all over the wall, hissing in frustration and taking her helmet off, putting it back on, taking it off again, and putting on all over again. Try as I might, the door was not there, not even invisible. There and gone again.

“Fine. I give up,” I said, stepping out of the room — and then the door appeared again in my peripheral vision.

This time, I didn’t move my head or my eyes, though I hissed with the stupidity of the moment. If I could edge all the way up to the door without looking directly at it, perhaps I could grab the handle and exit this absurd fake space.

Then a shape moved across the door. Blonde hair, rounded shoulders, stomping with her walking stick, scowling and chewing her lips as she stared at a notepad in one hand.

“Evee!” My heart leapt.

And the door was gone. Evelyn wasn’t there either.

“Oh for—” I forced myself to take a deep breath. “If there is a mind behind this, I am going to give you such a … a … telling-off! I am really not in the mood for this. I’ve spent all morning watching demons fight and I am tired. I don’t want to be doing this right now, I want to be at home, taking a nap or reading a book!””

I didn’t waste any more time on the door-that-wasn’t. Back to the corridor. Marmite scuttled along behind me.

We almost reached the stairs before I noticed an extra door. And this one was not running away.

It was opposite the stairs themselves, flush up against the door to the little cloak room, identical to all the other doors in the house, plain wood painted an off-white cream colour.

“That wasn’t there before,” I sighed, more irritated than spooked by now. “Is this meant to be scary? The first one was a bait-and-switch, but this one opens on a bottomless pit, right? This is dumb. What do you think, Marmite? Pretend we haven’t seen it? Oh, I suppose it’s a way deeper into this … whatever this is all meant to—”

The door opened and disgorged a woman being eaten by a blob monster.

At least, that’s what it looked like for the first split second. I recoiled like a cat faced with a snake, hissing at the top of my lungs and whipping all my tentacles forward in self-defence as I scrambled backward. I think I bumped into Marmite on the wall, because somebody or something helped catch and right me on my own two feet again so I could keep hissing.

“Miss— Morell? H-Heather?”

My hiss died down to a pant of adrenaline and confusion as my eyes made sense of what I was looking at.

Amanda Hopton waved at me awkwardly with her free hand, the one that was not engulfed in bubble-servitor.

“Uh … hello,” I croaked, forcing my throat back into a human configuration with an effort of willpower. It felt like swallowing a pine cone. “Sorry … I thought … um … ” I gestured with one tentacle at the collection of massive soap bubbles attached to Amanda’s arm and head.

One of Hringewindla’s angels was perched on her like the world’s largest parrot. Iridescent bubbles piled up around her head and neck, spilling over her shoulder, and clinging to her left arm — which was entirely buried within the shifting mass of the bubble-creature, visible through the translucent layers, warped by multiple angles of refraction.

“Oh,” Amanda reacted quite slowly, glancing over at her bulbous passenger. “It’s quite safe. I’m fine. I needed help, in all this … confusion.”

“Help … right.” I cleared my throat again.

“Is that yours?” She nodded past me, at Marmite, who was still clinging to the wall.

“Um, in a manner of speaking,” I sighed. “Long story. I think he might be what you saw in the corridor earlier, but he’s not responsible for all this. He’s safe too. I think.”

“Mmmmmm,” Amanda made a low humming, nodding along, heavy lidded eyes blinking slowly — then snapping open to fix on Marmite. “Yes. He is allowed to be here.”

I let out a big sigh, trying to straighten up and shake off the adrenaline. “That door you came from, that wasn’t there a moment ago.” I peered over her shoulder. “Oh.”

It was just another cloak room, identical to the one I’d been in earlier. Same coats, same shoes, same boxes.

“Ahh?” Amanda turned, confused, the bubble-servitor turning with her. She half closed the door with one hand, which revealed that the other door, the one to the cloak room I’d been inside, was now nowhere to be seen. Blank wall.

I sighed a great big sigh and wanted to put my face in my hands. Only my squid mask stopped me. “There was another door,” I said. “It’s gone now.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve been experiencing that too,” Amanda said, nodding along. “New doors. Corridors all tangled, going in circles. It’s awful. I’m so glad to see somebody else.”

Her voice held a mesmerised, floating quality; back in normal reality that was just how she sounded, but surrounded as we were now by cloying night and howling winds beyond the walls, the way she spoke almost gave me the creeps.

I’d never been alone with Amanda before. I’d only met her twice. She possessed the same neat features and dark curls as her sister, but with significantly more grey in her hair and much heavier bags under her eyes. Oddly, I couldn’t quite tell her age. She could have been in her fifties or her thirties, run-down in some ways but preserved in others, as if she rarely saw the sun. She had more fat on her frame and more lines in her face, backed by a slack exhaustion that came from a lifetime of terrible stress or an acute period of no sleep. I suspected the former. I knew it well.

But her eyes danced with alert intelligence.

“You’ve been experiencing all this as well, then?” I asked. “You left the den, went upstairs with Twil? What happened?”

Amanda nodded. The bubble-servitor adjusted as she moved her head, a disgusting flowing motion of hundreds of tiny bubbles. “To see my boys, yes. We went upstairs, but then I turned a corner and Twil was gone. I thought she was just doing something Twil-like, you know? Run off somewhere.” She tried a smile, nervous and soft, like a puffball mushroom.

“Yes. It would be very Twil, doing that amid all this.”

“But then my boys were missing too. And Gareth — he’s my gentleman friend. He wouldn’t leave the boys after I told him to stay with them, he simply wouldn’t do that. And Bernard was gone, too. That’s my dog.”

“We’ll find your children, I’m sure they’re safe. I don’t think this place is … serious. Sort of.”

Amanda sighed. “I’m afraid you and I both have better protection than most, miss Morell. Heather?”

“Heather is fine,” I said.

“ … what is it? What’s wrong?”

I felt myself blush, suddenly deeply awkward. She must have seen the way I was watching her face. “Excuse me for saying this, it’s not an accusation, but under the circumstances … well, Amanda, you’re not very afraid, for somebody trapped in a haunted house.”

She really wasn’t. The sleepy-eyed look, the strung-out exhaustion, the strange floating of her words. Her children were missing, wasn’t she supposed to be in panic?

Amanda nodded. “I am fortified and protected in my hour of need. Fear would not help. The hand of my god is on me.”

“Ah,” I cleared my throat. “Literally, yes. I apologise. I’m … ”

“We didn’t do this,” she said, though she didn’t sound offended. “I speak with the voice of my god, and this is not our doing.”

“Well, it’s not ours either.”

She nodded. “I believe that.”

I shuffled my feet and tried to smile back. Not easy in this place. Behind me, Marmite was twitching and adjusting on the wall, as if listening to the sounds of the wind or the creaking of the beams.

“So … we’re all cut off,” I said. “But how have you and I bumped into each other? If we can replicate that, we can probably find everybody else. Maybe get out of here.”

Amanda smiled. “I am receiving direct help.” She wiggled her fingers inside the bubble-servitor. “But I don’t think that’s actually helping. You’re the first I’ve found. All I’ve done is wander around this labyrinth.”

“Labyrinth? All I’ve seen is the house, like normal. Save a phantom door or two.”

Amanda shook her head. “It is a jumble.”

“Well, not for me. Have you seen outdoors?”

“Oh. Yeah.” She cringed a little — that helped remind me she was still a person too, not just a mouthpiece for an Outsider. “I’m sorry, Heather. It’s very strange talking to you through your mask, though it is very beautiful. I might not show it but I am quite perfectly terrified right now, for my safety, for my boys’ safety, for everyone else. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

It was only once I took off my squid-skull mask that I realised how much security and comfort I’d been drawing from being cradled in metallic armour. Naked, exposed directly to the walls of the house and the wind beyond, uncovered and unprotected. I silently thanked the strange Outside creature that had donated its remains, which had become my mask.

“Is that better?” I asked Amanda.

“Thank you. Sorry.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said automatically, frowning at her though I didn’t mean to.

“If we work together, we may be able to find the others,” she said slowly, slack lipped and squinting. “Or … I am not unaware of your many blessings from the Beyond. Can you go for help?” When I didn’t answer right away, Amanda swallowed. “Heather?”

“Amanda, am I speaking with you right now or … well, him?”

“Both,” she said without hesitation. “My god is in my head, all the time. I make no secret of this. He is present, he is listening, he speaks to me. But not through me, not directly.”

I chewed my lip, watching her carefully, trying to see into the backs of her eyes, brown pools like thick mud set in flesh the colour of sunless fungus. Abyssal instinct whispered dark suggestions, ruthless suggestions — maybe this woman was lying, maybe she was the bioluminescent lure before the jaws of the creature that held us in its jaw. Maybe this was all Hringewindla’s trap, but he had none of the strength of Ooran Juh.

“And he doesn’t know what’s going on?” I asked. But my words came out like ice.

Amanda must have read the look on my face. She swallowed hard.

“I am no puppet, I am … loved. Especially so. Please don’t repeat this in front of the others, especially Christine, she doesn’t like to be reminded of it, but I am Hringewindla’s special one, in this generation, this life. I am his closest. I have been with him since before I could speak. He is always with me, and he does not understand what is happening here. Please. I’m terrified too.”

“I … I do want to believe you.”

“He would not leave me in this as bait, miss Morell.”

I reached out with a tentacle and brushed her arm, a subconscious gesture of connection and acceptance. Strangely enough, Marmite copied the gesture — bony, segmented tentacles reached past me, hovering in the air.

“I don’t have any choice but to trust you regardless,” I said. “The only other option would be to … hurt you, I suppose. Which I won’t do. But if this turns out to be a trick … ”

I stared into her eyes, to make clear who was the intended recipient of my implied threat. My voice shook more than I wanted.

Amanda nodded, a little jerky and shaken. I blew out a slow breath and retracted my tentacle. Marmite did the same, mimicking my action.

“However, I can’t just leave,” I said. “It’s too much of a risk.”

I quickly filled Amanda in on my assumptions so far — that my toxic presence might be the only thing stopping this trap from swallowing us, that Raine had suggested this is not intentional but instead some kind of natural phenomenon, and about where I’d found Marmite.

“Marmite?” she echoed, blinking at me.

“Marmite. Provisionally. For now. I just needed something to call him.”

But when I explained where he’d come from originally, Amanda bit her lip, staring at his black-shadowed form clinging to the wall.

“As far as I’m aware, he’s clean now,” I said. “I don’t even know what he’s doing here, he’s basically just pneuma-somatic life.”

“A kami, yes … ” Amanda moved her head left and right, as if examining the squid-spider from different angles. The bubble-servitor attached to her head and arm did the same, much to my suppressed disgust.

Hring—,” I stopped, cleared my throat, and decided not to try that pronunciation again. “Your god really has no idea what is happening here? How we might get out?”

Amanda sighed, glancing down the spinal corridor of the house. “Sometimes his thoughts are difficult to interpret correctly, even for me. But he is concerned about … contamination. Infestation. Hidden germination. These words do not capture the concept he is worried about, but they are close enough. I do not have the right language for it, none of us do.”

“Ah,” I sighed. “Well. Good try, regardless.”

“He does think we should find the private eye again, Nicole Webb.” Amanda hesitated, wetting her thin, cracked lips. “He suggests that I allow one of his buds—” she gestured with her left arm inside the bubble-servitor “—to clean her.”

Cold seeped into my belly.

“ … clean her?”

“Spiritually.” Amanda held my gaze, guilty and pained. She knew exactly how that sounded.

“I think … you should hold off on that, if we run into her. Please.”

Amanda didn’t nod. She just looked away from me. “Do you want to stick together, to try to find her? I would appreciate not doing this alone.”

“Of course,” I said, swallowing and forcing a polite nod. “We best stick together now.”

I couldn’t be certain, of course, but I think Amanda had just asked me to help her defy her god, without saying the words. If she found Nicole first, and alone, then her god was very interested in rooting around inside Nicole’s head.

“Whatever it means to ‘stick together’ in all this,” Amanda said with an awkward smile. “I suspect the maze will separate us again, the moment we’re out of sight of each other.”

“How is your god helping you, exactly? We might be able to work with that, somehow.”

“Directions, of a sort. But even he is confused by the tangle now, by the extra doors, the corridors duplicated, the rooms that shouldn’t be there. This is not within his understanding, as vast as his mind may be.”

I bit my bottom lip. “I haven’t seen any of that, just the house. All except the door you emerged from.”

“Curious.” Amanda tilted her head at me. The bubble-servitor on her shoulders flowed with the motion, like a bag full of silt. “You could find the detective in an instant though, could you not?”

“I … maybe. With the right maths.”

Cold fingers crept into my belly again. Behind me, Marmite eased backward along the wall, retreating with painful slowness.

“I’ve heard about what you can do,” Amanda said. When she blinked, her eyelids were out of sync. “From Twil. I think your friend, Raine, yes? She was right, and Hringewindla agrees. The detective was the start of this. She carried the infection in. If we can find her, we can … diagnose. Identify. Trace.”

I took a step back as well. Abyssal instinct flared warning signs inside my head. “You sound more certain than a moment ago. Amanda.”

“This could all be over quite soon, if you would please—”

“Stop,” I snapped.

Amanda flinched. She blinked several times, eyelids in sync once again. “I’m sorry. S-sorry, I—”

“Just, stop.” I swallowed hard. Abyssal instinct was screaming about lures and marine canyons and the giant things that lurked down there, waiting for prey to stray near to the edge. “You’re not very subtle, are you?”

Amanda gaped at me, gormless and lost. “ … I’m sorry?”

“I’m not talking to you, Amanda.”

“Oh … ”

I forced myself to let out a slow breath. “Look. Look, I understand you think Nicole is the cause of all this, but she’s also our friend, and we’re responsible for what happened. I’m not going to lead you to her if you’re just going to scoop out her mind. If we find her and you try to overpower me … well,” I paused, swallowing awkwardly. “You know what I can do to your followers. And your angels.”

Amanda shook her head, shocked and frightened. “Please, please, I-I won’t— I don’t mean to—”

“I’m sorry,” I sighed, running one hand over my face, trying not to shake so badly. “Besides, I don’t think I can just picture Nicole in my head and rotate the house like one of those puzzles full of ball bearings, it’s never as simple as … that?”

Don’t think of a black cat, one tells oneself, and instantly one pictures a black cat, no matter how hard one tries. The negation of the object contains within itself the definition of the negated. The black hole defines itself against the background of stars. Observation does not fail when faced with an absence — absence itself becomes definition.

So for a moment, I pictured exactly what I described — Nicole like a ball-bearing in a puzzle, and how I might use hyperdimensional mathematics to rotate the dimensions around her, to bring her to us.

And then, from behind Amanda and Marmite and I, came a scuff-stumble of unsteady feet.

Marmite whirled on the wall, backing away in fear, almost bumping into me. My tentacles fanned out with instinctive shock. Amanda gasped and her bubble-servitor flowed upward, as if it was trying to make her look bigger too.

Nicole Webb, private eye, stumbled out of the den and slumped against the wall.

“Salute and advance and by all that is unkept,” she said with weary relief, struggling to stay standing. “But there’s no window for delay, no time for entrenchment, no whistle of shell.”

“You found her!” Amanda sighed with relief. “Detective, hello.”

“ … Nicole, right,” I murmured. “We … found you.”

There was just one problem — I hadn’t actually executed any equations. I hadn’t performed any hyperdimensional mathematics. I had not done this.

But there was no time to stop and think. Amanda was already stepping forward, maybe to take Nicole by the arm and help her stand up, or maybe to inject bubble-servitor into her skull through her ear canal. The bubble-servitor started to crane forward on Amanda’s shoulder like a cresting wave, flowing over itself with naked interest.

I shouldered past Amanda, half-turning with a display of my tentacles thrust out to block her way, my left arm showing the Fractal. The bubble-servitor recoiled and Amanda stumbled. I groped for Nicole with my other three tentacles. Nicole, of course, could not see the wordless confrontation. The detective yelped in surprise as I dragged her to her feet with unseen limbs, grabbing for my physical, human hand when I reached her.

Amanda stood there with a cowed, blinking expression. But the bubble-servitor on her shoulder roiled and rocked, like a giant unshelled mollusc working itself into a frenzy.

“Nicky, hi, Nicky,” I said all in a rush. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s just my invisible tentacles picking you up. It’s just me.”

Nicole gave me such a look when I said that. I sighed and rolled my eyes. At least she didn’t let go of me though, hooking her arm around my shoulders so she could stand up almost straight.

“What now, miss Morell?” Amanda asked. “What do we do now?”

We were at an impasse, an unspoken stand-off, facing each other across this wooden corridor, myself and Hringewindla, surrounded by the whipping, whistling winds and the pressing night beyond the walls. Amanda had gone glassy-eyed, barely even here. To my side, poor Marmite was cramming himself into the junction between wall and ceiling, unwilling to run but trying to stay clear of the confrontation between the avatar of a crippled god and the daughter of the Eye.

“We can’t just stand here all night,” Amanda continued when I didn’t answer.

“It isn’t really night,” I said. Keep up the facade. Play along that we’re not in conflict.

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m not handing Nicole over to you.”

“Parley and sally,” Nicole blurted out. “A hilltop world of whippoorwills and stone circles. Which way to Canterbury?”

“I’m not going to harm her, I promise.” Amanda sighed, frowning in a long-suffering kind of way, the way I would have frowned this time last year. “We need to get rid of this, clean away the cobwebs, and she was the start.”

On her shoulder, the bubble servitor suddenly split itself into six distinct strands, feelers formed by roiling soap bubbles. They fanned out to touch the walls, the floor, and the ceiling, creeping toward us in a web that extended from its main body.

“I should Slip,” I said.

Amanda stopped and tilted her head at me. The bubble-servitor kept inching toward us. Nicole frowned harder, panting with the effort of pointing her feet in the right direction.

“I thought you said you didn’t want to try, in case … ?”

I wet my lips carefully, trying to consider my options. I could not let Hringewindla get his bubbles on Nicole. The way she clung to me proved that much — she did not consent. If he had wanted to harm her for some other reason, then he’d had hours to do that before we’d arrived. I didn’t know how to read the mind of an Outsider, let alone through a human avatar, but I didn’t think I was being lied to.

“If Nicole is the origin of this, then removing her from the house may unravel the effect,” I said. “I can take her Outside.”

The bubble-servitor paused.

“ … that may work,” said Amanda.

“I am afraid of not being able to get back,” I explained. “If this is some … separate, unconnected space, I might not be able to return, not cleanly. But it’s worth trying. And if this is a trap, if I am the only thing stopping it from closing, then I leave the responsibility to you.”

Amanda nodded slowly. Her eyes were full of fog.

“Do I have your word that you will help my friends, if anything happens when I leave?” I asked. “And I’m not talking to you.”

Amanda blinked twice. Behind the glassy, cloudy orbs of her eyes, a vast shape adjusted itself, a leviathan bulk seen through a crack in the earth’s crust.

“You have my word,” something else said with her mouth.

“Exit stage left?” Nicole asked. She might be talking nonsense, but her tone was terrified.

“It’s safe,” I said to her, our faces uncomfortably close. “I mean, it feels bad, yes. And being Outside at all feels … weird. But Raine’s been through it, she’s a totally unaltered human being like you, and she’s fine.”

Nicole gave me a very dubious frown.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “That’s just Raine being Raine.”

“Imbriglicated,” Nicole muttered.

“I will stay here with my angels,” Amanda said. “I will attempt to find your friends.”

“I think that’s best. If you did come Outside, well, I don’t know what that might do to your connection with your god.”

Amanda shrugged. “Hringewindla is with me always.”

I did my best to ignore her fanaticism, glancing up at Marmite instead. He was now firmly wedged into the ceiling, wrapped in his shadow-soft membranes like an upside-down blanket fort.

“Do you want to come with me? Get out of this?” I asked.

Marmite pulled his segmented tentacles even tighter, but then his cone-eyes swivelled to look at the extended tendrils from the bubble-servitor.

“That’s a no, I presume?” Amanda asked. “I don’t speak any kami language.”

“Neither do I,” I sighed. Amanda looked briefly confused, blinking at me. “But uh … oh.”

Marmite slowly crept down the wall, took up a position behind me, and tapped the back of my thigh with a segmented bone-tentacle.

“A yes?”

“A yes,” I said. “Well then. If this works, I’ll be back in a matter of minutes. Be safe, I suppose.”

Amanda nodded politely and stepped back, as if hyperdimensional mathematics had a minimum blast radius. The bubble-servitor flowed after her, deciding to let us go.

Nothing else for it, no time for second thoughts, no other preparation needed. This was the only way to defuse the situation.

“Hold on tight and close your eyes,” I said to Nicole. “This can be stressful. Also I may vomit on the other side, so … watch out. You too, Marmite.”

The squid-spider wrapped his grip around my leg.

The familiar old equation spun up inside my head, rising from the inky depths like a machine preserved in sticky, corrosive black oil. Each piece slammed into place, red-hot with speed and precision, burning a path through my brain.

Out.

The house folded up, shrank to a point, and stepped sideways.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Heather is neither impressed nor intimidated by these Scooby-Doo level scares. She’s used to so much worse! Almost as if all this stuff isn’t aimed at her … Cringewindlas on the other hand, he’s potentially dangerous, right? Gotta look out for his cultists, even if it means doing a little brain-altering to bystanders here and there. Let’s hope snatching Nicole Outside was the right move.

Rather than the usual link to my patreon and TWF, I’d like to briefly point you all towards another story that might be of interest!

Feast or Famine, written by the very talented VoraVora, is a fascinating little story coming along at a rapid pace now. And it is explicitly inspired by some of the themes from Katalepsis! Some of the darker, mental health themes, with a wicked twist. Give it a look!

Next week, with Nicole at her side, can Heather figure out what the hell is going on? What’s even causing this? Mage, Outsider, info-hazard, natural phenomenon? Is this all just a misunderstanding? Or is Edward sharpening the knives?

16 thoughts on “and walked a crooked mile – 16.3

  1. Ahhh I love how Heather wishes either Raine or Evelyn or both were by her side. Heather x Raine. Heather x Evelyn.

    I am partially thankful i only have a vague idea of what the Orange juice man looks like or else orange juice might be become a sour taste for me.

    Nope. No. Never. That Demonic Alpaca. Nope, just no. Creepy and untrustworthy already, but that thing. Hahahaha, no.

    Marmite is so cute.

    Also do you have an interest degree or self taught understanding of architecture and psychology? I forget the thirds names but it has to do with understanding and thinking about life and the world as whole? The wave you weave these subjects into the story has me both awed and envious. (Sorry, probably not sorry 😉 )

    Nice work Hungry.

    Thank you for the chapter.

    • Raine and Evelyn really are the core of Heather’s emotional world! Raine may have saved her, but she saved Evelyn, and they all mean a lot to each other.

      OJ is actually based on a pre-existing Lovecraftian monster! Only vaguely, of course, he’s otherwise my own invention, but heavily references his visual design from elsewhere. I’ll spare you the forbidden knowledge though!

      I am deeply amused that the demon alpaca has caused a vast range of different reactions from the audience! Some people hate it, some seem to think it’s amusing.

      Marmite is amazing! I didn’t expect him to return at this exact time, he was meant to re-enter the story a little later, but here he is!

      I guess I’m interested in a lot of different subjects, all self-taught (apart from literature, I guess) but yeah architecture and psychology are two things I’ve read a lot about! I just read an awful lot, all the time, about all sorts of different things. Thank you for the compliment, that’s very kind of you to say! I always try to weave themes into the story, even if they’re below the surface or informing what happens, rather than directly on the surface.

      And you are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed the chapter, thank you!

    • She really is taking charge here, it’s amazing! She never would have done this in the past, she’s come so far.

      Marmite is incredible, at least in part because he didn’t have this name in my notes or the first draft, but during editing Heather was like “I have to name this little spider chap” and well, here he is!

      • An appropriate name, because while those familiar with him will come to appreciate how wonderful he is, others might mistake him for something horrible

      • Exactly! Gotta have somebody like Heather there, for a gentle and safe introduction to the strangeness that is Marmite.

  2. I love Heather’s attitude of “I’m so done with this shit” it shows how much she has grown.

    Thanks for the chapter!

    • Heather has seen much, much scarier things than this, Outside and in the Abyss. Scooby-Doo nonsense? This is nothing to her! She really has grown, it makes me smile!

      And you are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Also, I just have to say that the demonic Alpaca reminds me of Llamas with Hats. “I don’t kill people. That is my LEAST favorite thing to do. I just stabbed him thirty-seven times in the chest.” “Carl… that kills people.”

    • Somebody in the discord has been posting a picture of an alpaca with Nick Cage’s face on it. It’s … a thing. Yeah.

      I had never heard of Lamas With Hats before and I just watched that sketch. Amazing!

  4. If Edward engineered this somehow….is anyone worried about Lozzie being home alone and relatively unprotected? I don’t think he knows about Sevens, but Sevens is unpredictable – how much is she able and willling to act “out of charator”?

    • Lozzie is indeed relatively unprotected right now. Well, ‘relatively’. She’s got Sevens, but also Jan and July – though July may have lost a fight to Zheng, she’s still a formidable demon host in her own right.

      That is an interesting question about Sevens, because what is Sevens’ ‘character’ now? Heather’s lover? Part of the family? Part of her process of self-redefiniton seemed to be about caring for and making friends with Tenny, right?

      So if Lozzie was attacked … well, she’s part of Sevens’ family, isn’t she? Perhaps that would force some motion.

  5. Great chapter!

    I love and hate the alpaca. I hate it for obvious reasons. But I love it because it reminds me of Alpaca Man from Steins Gate. What do you know, Alpaca Man?

    • Thank you very much, glad you enjoyed it!

      The alpaca is incredibly creepy but also super goofy.

      Oh my goodness, Alpaca Man! It’s been a long time since I read Steins Gate, but I do remember Alpaca Man all of a sudden.

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