Nicole, Marmite, and I arrived in Camelot on our feet, but we didn’t stay standing for long.
It had been a while since I’d used hyperdimensional mathematics for anything more complex than subconscious speculation, let alone a manual Slip, not since my return from Carcosa. The aftermath of the inhuman equation crackled and hissed across the surface of my mind, like water droplets flung on a red-hot metal plate. A stabbing headache blossomed behind my eyes and my stomach clenched like a fist. My body tried to reject the logic and lessons of the Eye. I doubled up so hard that Nicole’s arm slid off my shoulders and I lost my tentacle-grip around her waist. Marmite scurried to give us space, pulling his own bony tentacle free from around my thigh, moving with such haste that it bounced off my opposite shin.
Nicole staggered and slumped to her knees on the grass, bundled in her long coat. I hugged myself with all my tentacles, drooling ropes of saliva, heaving with the effort of holding back a wave of vomit.
But I refused to give up the contents of my stomach. A Slip is just a Slip, and I’d Slipped so many times before.
I croaked and gurgled and spluttered, but I wasn’t sick.
By the time I straightened up and wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my hoodie, Nicole was staring about us in slack-jawed wonder.
“Welcome to Camelot,” I croaked, then had to clear my throat again. “We are currently Outside.”
Nicole wore an expression like a palaeolithic woman dumped on a London pavement, open-mouthed and wide eyed at sights for which she had no context. I watched her take in the whorled purple sky and the soft yellow hillsides, the rough circle of Lozzie’s shining knights spread out nearby, and the vast, humped bulk of the caterpillar, still standing where we’d left it only hours earlier. The off-white carapace-bench lay where it had fallen beside the massive machine-creature — and if my eyes did not deceive me, Jan’s little polystyrene box of chicken lay on the bench.
“Tch, littering,” I said under my breath.
A dried patch of crimson marked the nearby grass, where a little of Zheng’s blood had soaked into the soil.
Nicole looked up and found me with numb eyes, blinking up and down my body with growing confusion. She was not taking this well.
“Um, Outside reality, that is,” I added. “Not ‘outside’ as in outdoors. Obviously. You can see that.” I cleared my throat again. Nicole blinked very hard, as if trying to wake up from a bad dream. “It’s perfectly safe, I promise.”
Nicole and I both jumped at the sudden booming noise — a miniature version of the caterpillar’s booop-wooop alarm, like the tiniest touch of engine plates on some vast machine, followed by the long, muffled dial-down whine from inside the pitted bulk of the giant.
“It’s just the catty saying hi,” I explained quickly, more than a little shaken myself. I turned and called out to all our extra-dimensional friends. “Hello, everyone! Sorry for the confusion. We’re back again. Only for a moment though.” Then I glanced at the caterpillar again, raising my voice across the yellow-grass plains. “I don’t suppose you can get a message to Lozzie? No?”
The caterpillar did not reply. I took a deep breath, my stomach beginning to churn with anxiety.
“We really must keep moving,” I muttered to myself. “Get back to the house, get, um … Sevens. Right, yes.”
“Camelot.” Nicole finally spoke, then huffed a humourless laugh, her voice stretched thin.
“That’s just what we call it. It’s a silly name, I know.”
“You have got to be joking,” she said, still huddled on her knees beneath her long coat. She looked much more vulnerable than I’d ever seen her before, which was quite a feat, considering I’d seen her tied up and begging for her life. There was something pitiful and broken about her, out here. Stands of her blonde hair had escaped her bun, and she looked like she was in pain. That, or constipated. “Knights in shining armour. Where’s the castle, huh? What next, we gonna recruit a gender swapped king Arthur? Totally expect you lot to have something like that up your sleeves. At least that would make sense.”
“We have a castle in a different dimension. Sort of,” I said with off-handed embarrassment — then I did a double take down at Nicole. “Nicky! You’re talking normally!”
“That I am.” She puffed out a big sigh and a wince, rubbing her sternum with one hand. “Feel like total shit though, like I’m gonna hurl. Is it alright if I hurl out here, or is that gonna unravel my soul, or something equally stupid?”
“Um, yes, be sick if you need to. I’ve done it plenty of times.” I awkwardly reached for her with my tentacles. “That’s just what Slipping feels like, I’m sorry.”
“Better than a teleporter accident, I guess,” she grumbled, but then she shied away from me, eyes going wide at my approaching tentacles. “Um. Hey.”
“Sorry, sorry!” I recoiled, mortified. “I keep forgetting people can’t see them normally, back in reality. Sorry. You’ve never seen this before. I’m sorry. It’s just me.”
“Ah, don’t worry.” She waved a hand. “I gather you saved me from getting some experimental brain surgery back there, so, hey, thanks. Don’t worry about it.” She nodded behind me. “What’s that though? That meant to be here too?”
Nicole was talking about Marmite, of course.
The poor squid-spider thing was taking to Camelot far worse than we apes. He was pressed low to the ground, his shadowy black membranes standing out like spilt ink on clean parchment, the purple light of Camelot reflecting from them like iridescent beetle-wings. His legs were tucked in below his body and his segmented bone-tentacles were wrapped in a ball around his core. Cone-eyes swivelled and twitched in every direction.
Marmite was a creature of dark corners and shadowy recesses, not wide open spaces and grassy steppe. Poor thing was cowering and exposed.
“Oh, Marmite! I’m sorry!” I reached out and touched him with a tentacle. He reached up to meet me, locking the end of one bony appendage with mine. “Nicky, I’m sorry, this is Marmite, he came with us just now but you couldn’t see him.”
“Right. Invisible monsters. I’ll try not to think about that, thanks.”
“I’m sorry, this is always so confusing.” I sighed. “Evee’s right, we really need more than one pair of those magic glasses.”
“Last thing my senses need right now is more bloody magic.”
“Nicky, it’ll be okay,” I said — but I was really talking to myself, my own worry clawing up my throat, making my voice quiver. “But we have to get back, as soon as possible. I-I’ve left everyone else’s safety in the hands of Hingle- Hingey—” I huffed. “The Brinkwood Church. Evee would kill me if she knew. Oh, wait! You were with Evee and Praem! What happened, were you in the room with them, what—”
“Yeah,” Nicole said with an exasperated sigh, giving me quite a look. “Evelyn Saye was doing … I don’t know. Some magic. Some bullshit with a notebook and sticking paper on the walls. Then I closed my eyes and she and the … Praem, right? They were gone. You were out in the corridor. You know the rest, you were there for it.”
“ … okay. Okay, that explains absolutely nothing.” I swallowed too hard, which made my throat hurt. “Okay, Nicky, we’ve got to get back. Uh, I need— I need us to Slip again—”
Nicole raised both hands in surrender, wincing hard like she had a hangover headache. “Heather Morell. Slow down. Please.”
“I can’t! Everyone is in danger!”
“And you’ve got tentacles!” Nicole laughed, right up on the edge of hysteria. “Give me a moment here, okay? I’ve been babbling all day. I don’t know how I got where I was, and now I don’t know where I am. And that is an understatement.”
“We should just go, I can do it—”
“Yeah,” Nicole’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “And when I go back, am I gonna be talking in riddles again? Gimme a sec to gather my thoughts. Your friends are scary enough, they can look after themselves for a couple of minutes, okay?”
Abyssal instinct pulled both ways at once. Get back to your pack, they need you, it screamed — while at the same time it demanded whatever information I might glean from Nicole. One of my tentacles twitched with the urge to just peel her head open and extract what I needed directly, but that urge was so absurd it flickered out as soon as it crossed my mind.
“Okay,” I forced myself to say, blowing out a deep breath. “But we should get moving as soon as possible. Everyone else might need help.”
Nicole nodded, still wincing and rubbing her ribs, looking like she was suffering the onset of food poisoning. “Help me up, yeah? My legs are … well, I would say they’re fucked, but I think they’re getting better. A hand, please, not a tentacle.”
I did as she asked, though it was easier said than done; Nicole didn’t weigh that much more than me but my noodle-arms were not up to the task, so I instinctively braced myself against the ground with half my tentacles, using them as leverage. The detective stumbled to her feet, then stared at my tentacles as they adjusted with my balance.
I wasn’t sure if it was a subconscious reaction, but I made them strobe slightly brighter when she stared.
“Of course they’re rainbows,” she muttered, not quite laughing.
“Lozzie once called them my ‘lesbian limbs’.” I pulled an awkward smile. The detective arched an eyebrow, hunched in her coat, still using me as a handrail.
“So, you’ve got tentacles, all the time? Just invisible normally?”
“Yes. Well, sometimes I have to put them away, it does take effort to keep them out.” Except, not anymore, not with the bioreactor in my abdomen, but I decided not to complicate Nicole’s mind further by telling her about the pneuma-somatic reactor inside my body. “They’re just a … reflection of what I’m meant to be. I’m sorry, I’ve scared you a bit. I should have said something first.”
“Nah, nah.” Nicole straightened up and pulled a smile, tired and confused, but draping herself with the aura of professionalism once more. “They’re very impressive. I won’t lie and pretend I understand, but you do you, Heather. But uh, why not anchor them in your back instead of your sides, though? It looks awkward.”
I sighed. “Are you an expert on tentacles?”
“No! Sorry. I just … hell, I’m just trying to hold onto something concrete right now. We’re out here standing on the bloody ethereal plane getting booped at by giant slugs, and you’ve got a set of rainbow tentacles. Cut me some slack, yeah? I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to say something offensive. I think.”
“Apology accepted, please don’t worry about it.” I felt just as awkward as Nicole looked. “I suppose there’s no accepted etiquette for this, is there?”
“Young women growing tentacles? Eh, not really.”
“Well, um, they’re in my sides because this is what I went with first, on reflex. Over time I’ve gotten used to it. I know it’s not optimal, but it’s what I’ve made. It’s mine. That matters more.”
Nicole nodded along. “Yeah, sometimes you’ve just gotta roll with what works. I’m, uh, happy for you? Is that appropriate?”
I nodded back. “Thank you.”
As if putting weight on a tender injury, Nicole stepped back with exaggerated care, letting go of my hand at last. She moved slowly, until she was standing on her own two feet. She didn’t look very steady. Her breathing was deep and slow, but shaking with pain and discomfort. She pressed a hand to the middle of her chest again. “Why are we talking about your tentacles anyway, huh?” She tried to laugh but couldn’t quite get there. “Oh shit, this really hurts.”
I tried not to show any alarm. “That might have something to do with being Outside. Did it hurt like this back in reality?”
“Nah. A bit. Not like this though.” She cast around again, up at the whorled sky and around at the knights. “This ain’t what I was expecting. So what are these guys, the knights of the round table?”
“Lozzie made them. It’s a long story. What were you expecting?”
“I dunno. A lot more wibbly-wobblies. Not blokes in armour and giant insects that go boop.” She huffed a laugh, but she sounded like a heavy smoker all of a sudden. “I’ve tried reading a bunch of Lovecraft since we met. Trying to get my head around the real world. He was probably onto something, but too far up his own arse.”
Nicole straightened up by force of will, wincing through her teeth. She blinked at me. “You’re telling me you’ve not read any Lovecraft? You’re a squid person, your sister was kidnapped by an alien god, and you’ve not read any Lovecraft?”
“ … oh, him.” I tutted. “No, it’s all just stories. Well, Evee says so, anyway.”
“Still. Might have been onto something, right? Fragments of truth in fiction, yeah? S’what I think, anyway. Or maybe that’s just how my mind works. Looking for details.”
I shrugged. “I am dating a daughter of the King in Yellow, so I can hardly speak.”
Nicole went very still.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, wincing with embarrassment. “I didn’t tell you about that. We’re going to ask her for help now, with whatever on earth was going on back there. That’s my plan, anyway.”
“You know what? Forget I said anything.”
“Actually wait, unforget.” Nicole frowned, tilting her head, discomfort briefly forgotten. “Aren’t you already with Raine? And Zheng, at the same time?”
“So now you have three girlfriends?” Nicole managed to make this question sound like So now you’ve won the lottery three times?
“One is technically a fiancée. Maybe two.” I cleared my throat.
“Fucking hell.” Nicole laughed. “What have I gotta do to get pussy like that? Is it the tentacles?”
“Nicky,” I hissed, embarrassed and blushing. I even glanced down at Marmite behind me, as if a giant pneuma-somatic spider-squid was going to have his delicate sensibilities scandalised by talk about pussy. He didn’t care, he was mostly just afraid of the sky, and holding onto my tentacle very tightly.
“Ahhh, sorry,” Nicole said. “You didn’t deserve that. Look, I’m a crude old bitch in private sometimes, and right now I’m kinda fucked up.”
“Evidently,” I said. “We need to get back and get help, and figure out what happened to you. Are you ready now?”
Nicole held up a hand. “Whoa, whoa, can’t we … like … regroup? At least tell me what the hell was going on back there?”
“With the darkness? And the spooky stuff? I have no idea, I’m sorry. Something similar to this happened to us a little while back, but it wasn’t quite the same. This big guy was trying to eat us.” Nicole’s eyebrows shot up her forehead. “Well, he wasn’t a guy, he was a mage. Or had been a mage, once. But he’d been in the abyss, like me.” Nicole’s eyes kept getting wider. “Actually, never mind. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah that’s a bit above my pay grade.”
I tried to laugh. “You get paid for this?”
“If Miss Saye will give me danger money, I’m not gonna turn it down. Though I’d prefer knowing what the hell was happening.”
“I just don’t know. It’s like we were in one of those Hammer Horror movies or something, it was all so silly. Hardly scary.”
“Well I’m glad you fucking thought so!” Nicole snapped at me. I flinched, blinking, confused. She eyed my tentacles, the way they curled back in, protecting my vulnerable core of true flesh. “Look, Heather, the last time I had to deal with supernatural stuff because of you lot, it kind of changed my life. Okay?”
Nicole was concealing it well, with all the professionalism of a lifelong public servant — a real one, no matter the realities of what she’d actually done while with the Sharrowford Police. But tucked away beneath her physical discomfort, her flippant comments, and her shock at being Outside, Nicole Webb was terrified of going back.
“Sorry,” she said, trying to pull herself together. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget you’re just a uni student.”
“Nicky, this is nothing like that house we went to, where the cult had—”
“Yeah, okay, yeah,” she spoke over me, and quickly. “I don’t want to think about that. I get it.”
“It’s not the same, this is not the same at all. I won’t let it be the same.”
Nicole stared back at me. I finally noticed how she was sweating, gone pale and waxen beneath her otherwise healthy complexion. “Alright, chosen one. So, what do we do?”
“We go back to the farm. Not straight back inside the house, but next to Raine’s car — I think I can pinpoint that. Then we see what we can see. Maybe without you it’ll all have collapsed, be back to normal.”
“And if not?”
“Then I’ll call Lozzie. I’ll talk to Sevens. She might be able to help.”
But she’ll have to break the rules she’s set herself, won’t she? I bit my bottom lip at that thought. She had offered.
“Muddle through it from there, hey?” Nicole pulled a rueful smile. “I get the picture this is how you lot always operate.”
“Not always, sometimes there’s planning. But this is an emergency.”
“Yeah, right. Okay, so, hold up a sec, because if we go back and I can’t talk, then I can’t tell you what happened to me, right?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Please, explain. Please.”
Nicole blew out a long breath. A change came over her, a calming and quietening of her mind, visible in the tension of her facial muscles and the angle of her chin. She even closed her eyes briefly, then glanced around Camelot once more, perhaps anchoring herself in the undeniable reality of what she could see.
“It was yesterday afternoon,” she said, with a flicker of her tongue over her lips, squinting a little with the effort of recall. She stared at the caterpillar as she spoke. “I was in Manchester for a job, like I told you lot. Well, okay, actually I was in Stockport, but same thing. Don’t let anybody from Manchester know I said that, though.” She added a forced chuckle. “Just didn’t want to confuse Miss Saye with more shaking my head. I was in the suburbs, supposed to be looking for this guy cheating on his wife — his lady-friend’s place is round there. But the husband is also paying me to counter-spy on the wife, because he’s certain she’s stealing money from his business. Whatever, probably doesn’t matter. I parked just off the A6, next to this old Church with a great big graveyard. For all I know my car’s still there. Hope it is … ”
She trailed off, eyes lost on the horizon.
“Mm?” She blinked hard. “Sorry, yes. I was thinking. It’s … a little hard to think, right now.”
“Outside is difficult to endure, I understand. We can go back as soon as you’re ready.”
“So, I parked up,” she went on. Her voice faded as she spoke. Her attention couldn’t seem to find me, eyelids blinking too much as she focused out at Camelot, or up at the whorled purple sky, or down at Marmite, cowering behind me. “Then I walked into the graveyard for a little bit, to think.”
She fell silent again, sharp blue eyes staring out at nothing, gentle wind plucking at the hem of her long coat and the few strands of blonde hair that had escaped her bun. My gut clenched with worry. Nicole was not meant to be out here. Even the comparatively gentle effect of Camelot was too much for her mind.
“To think about the house we asked you to find?”
“Well, no, that’s the weird part. I was thinking about the job, making a plan. Not about you lot at all. Then I looked at the graves and the trees, and there was this one grave with a little statue of an angel, kinda tacky, it was naked, and … and … ”
Nicole blinked very slowly and put her hand to her chest again, rubbing as if pained.
“And I did think about the stolen documents,” she said. “But only for a second. Maybe my subconscious was chewing on the puzzle, I dunno. I remember turning away and leaving the graveyard, and crossing the A6, but … nothing after that. Not until I was on the edge of that farm. Exhausted, must have been walking all night. Doubt I slept.” She snorted. “They did feed me, you know? Nice people, the Hoptons. As long as their god doesn’t take an interest in you, I guess.”
“They’re … all right.”
“So, Heather. Miss Morell. Any idea what happened to me?”
I bit my lip and shook my head. “I’m sorry. If I use brain-math, I might be able to unravel what’s happened, or where you’ve been, or something, maybe. But first I have to use that to get us home.”
Nicole puffed out a long sigh, ending in a cough. She nodded and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I just gotta hold on to you, right?”
“Tighter than that, please. You too, Marmite,” I added over my shoulder.
Nicole and I linked arms, firm and close. Marmite wrapped one segmented bony tentacle around my thigh again, a solid anchor.
“You’re gonna call the rest of your friends, right?” Nicole asked.
“For help, yes.”
“Don’t suppose you could swing somebody to my flat to go check on my dog? He’s been alone overnight. He’s got water, of course, but, you know. Dogs.” She pulled a pained wince. “Preferably before we get sucked back into a Scooby-Doo episode.”
“Um, I’ll see if somebody is free? I’m surprised you can think about that, out here.”
“Eh.” Nicole shrugged, but her shaking breath gave away her fear. “I got used to it, being a copper. Always gotta take your mind off how the sausage is made, you know?”
“It’ll be okay, Nicky, we’re going to solve this.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re not about to be reduced to verbal diarrhoea again.”
“Once we’re back, I’ll fix it. We’ll find a way.”
Nicole shared a sidelong look with me. Our faces were far too close. She sighed and rolled her eyes, though I got the impression it was unintentional. “Hey, thanks, wonder tentacles. I appreciate it.”
“Nah. What we really need is a cunning plan and a talking dog for a mascot. Or a firearms team loaded for ghosts. Or a priest.”
“Marmite can be the mascot,” I said. “Ready?”
“All right. Take us away, teleporter girl.”
Geerswin Farm was back to normal.
Shafts of mid-afternoon sunlight fell through the tangled canopy, dappling Raine’s car and the other two vehicles. Brown tree-trunks marched away in every direction, but stopped at the edge of the road back to Brinkwood. Green grass reflected the warm, bright, welcoming day. Out in the fields, two very normal alpacas stood amid their cluster of sheep, watching as Nicole and I heaved and panted, as I doubled over and tried not to vomit. The old farmhouse stood silent and still, the front door sensibly shut.
Three bubble-servitors were perched in their guard positions on the roof, but nothing else lurked in wait. Quiet, rural, picturesque.
“Oh, oh no,” was the first thing out of my mouth once I pulled myself together and straightened up. My stomach roiled with anxiety.
“Isn’t this— a good— thing?” Nicole panted next to me. She’d stumbled a few paces away, blinking and shaking her head, wincing slowly with the shock of being shoved through the membrane from Outside, but she was keeping it together. “It’s back to normal, that’s good, right?”
“Not if there’s nobody here.” I watched the front door, praying it would open and Raine would step out. “I don’t even know if we should go inside or not.”
Part of me wanted to sprint at the door and knock it down, calling for my friends. Another part of me wanted to curl up in the back seat of Raine’s car and hide from the implications of all this. My tentacles certainly agreed. They were gripping Raine’s car like a rock in a storm, like I was a delicate deep-sea mollusc amid strong currents and threatening tides.
“Your nose is bleeding, by the way,” Nicole said.
“What? Oh.” I sniffed hard and realised I could taste blood. Two Slips in quick succession had indeed given me a terrible nosebleed — a droplet rolled off my chin when I tilted my head forward. I scrubbed the mess on my sleeve and rummaged inside my hoodie for my mobile phone.
“Your tentacles are gone too.”
“Don’t remind me,” I said, oddly pained by the fact Nicole couldn’t see them. I held up my phone. My heart leapt — I had a signal.
“So’s the little spider guy.” Nicole put her hands on her hips and glanced behind me.
“You just can’t see him. He’s right there,” I mumbled up a throat full of my own nosebleed. “It’s okay, Marmite. It’s okay, boy.”
Marmite was still right behind me, taking shelter in the gap between the tarmac and the underside of Raine’s car, trying to keep well clear of the high-visibility patches of sunlight. He couldn’t quite fit under the car though, he was too large. His black shadowy membranes weren’t doing too well out here either, making him look like a big splotch of dirty laundry to any passing pneuma-somatic sight. But the bubble-servitors on the roof paid him no mind.
“Look, I dunno about you, but I’m much happier out of whatever that trap was,” Nicole said, hands on her hips, frowning at the house. “Maybe it didn’t even have anything to do with me.” She raised her hands and cupped her mouth. “Hello! Hey! I’m out here with Heather! Hello!”
We waited for a long moment, but the only reply was the rustle of leaves and the creak of tree-trunks in the gentle wind.
I jabbed at my phone, found Lozzie’s number, and hit the call button.
“Look on the bright side,” Nicole went on. “My chest doesn’t hurt anymore, and I’m still speaking like tiger refracted but without seals upon the lips of the Buddha.”
She paused, shared a look with me, then let out a gigantic sigh.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Screen thought to fractal process,” she huffed, exasperated beyond words — literally. She threw her hands in the air and took a couple of experimental steps forward, then wobbled as her balance seemed to give out. Nicole tilted her head to look at her own feet like they were very naughty children about to get arrested and given an official caution. “Noodle!” she spat.
“Noodle, indeed,” I whispered, phone to my ear. “Please pick up, Lozzie, please please—”
With a click and a squeal, my prayers were answered.
All I heard from the other end was distant giggling and somebody going ‘shhh, shhh,’ barely audible over the sudden rustle of leaves in a gust of wind. My heart sank — were we still in the trap? Was the phone call corrupted, the same as it had been when I’d called Evelyn from inside Orange Juice’s mouth?
Then Lozzie’s voice slapped against the phone.
“Hey hey hey heeeeeeey,” she said, floaty yet heavy, as if half-asleep. “Everything good? Goody-good-goodies? Heathy-Heaths?”
“Oh, she sounds worse than me!” a voice slurred somewhere behind Lozzie, more distant from the phone. Was that Jan? She sounded impaired somehow, speaking too slowly. “Get her off that.”
“I will not enforce anything here,” said a third voice, stern and cold. That was July, no doubt about it.
“Lozzie? What’s going on?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I winced, bracing for a torrent of nonsense, for this voice on the phone to not actually be Lozzie, but an imitation about to pour vile insults or horrifying suggestions into my ears.
But Lozzie just giggled, as if she couldn’t help it. “Nothiiiiing!”
In the background, somebody gurgled, sleepy and irritated.
Nicole was staring at me with mounting disbelief. She tried to say something, stopped, and mimed a drinking action. I just shook my head, there was no way.
“Lozzie, I’m sorry,” yet another voice said, much closer to the phone, quivering with nervous tension. “May I talk to Heather? Please, yes, thank you, mm.”
The phone changed hands with a soft rustle.
“Hello! Hello?” I snapped, starting to lose patience. “We are in actual trouble here, I need help!”
“Heather, hello, I’m so sorry about this.” It took me a moment to recognise the anxious quiver and habitual fear.
“Kimberly? Is that you?”
“Yes, yes, it’s me. I’m sorry.” Her voice was trembling with worry, as if she was afraid of getting slapped. “I’m so sorry, I tried to enforce some responsibility on this situation but—”
“My fault!” Jan called from somewhere behind the phone, ending her words with a slap of flesh on flesh. “My fault, blame me, I put down the cash!”
“ … Kim, what is happening there?”
A swallow, dry and hard. “I couldn’t say no. This … January—”
“Jan! Just Jan for you, sweet pea,” said Jan.
“Jan,” Kimberly corrected herself with a pained sigh. “She offered me five hundred pounds. I couldn’t say no!”
“For what?” I boggled at Nicole over on this end of the conversation. Nicole just rolled her eyes.
“Some … you know. Some green.” Kimberly’s voice dropped to a murmur. “Some cannabis.”
“ … you mean … you’re all … high?”
I couldn’t quite process this information. My brain lacked the slot for this shape. Kimberly gushed with apologies and stammered to explain herself. But then she went, “Oof,” and Lozzie’s voice returned, close to the phone again — I assumed Lozzie had jumped on her back.
“Not Tenny!” Lozzie informed me, proudly. “Tenn-Tenns and Whistle are upstairs playing video games! No mind-altering substances for Tenns until she’s bigger! And not for dogs!”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Kimberly agreed all in a rush. “Not for dogs or Tenny, that was very important, I wouldn’t have said yes if it wasn’t for that and I’m so sorry, Heather. I’m sorry, I—”
“Kim,” I said, snapping harder than I’d intended. “Kim, is Sevens there? We need help, something has gone badly wrong, and I don’t have anybody else to turn to. Please don’t tell me she’s high as well.”
“Ummm. A little bit.”
“Guuuuoobluuuuuurrrrr,” came a long and irritated gurgle. Somebody yelped, at least two voices giggled, and something clacked loudly against the phone. “Heatherrrrr?” came Sevens’ raspy voice a moment later, thick and fuzzy with relaxation. “What happened?”
“Sevens!” I snapped her name too. “I … I left you there to be the responsible one! We’re in trouble, I need your help. But you’re … impaired! How can you be … look, I’m going to come and get you, with a Slip, we need help—”
Three things happened at once.
On the other end of the call, the phone clattered to the ground, hard enough to make me wince.
Jan raised her voice in sudden alarm. “Whoa, whoa, okay, what!?” Lozzie was babbling something about “doing a big whoopsie.”
And a split second later, appearing like a glint of dawn on brass, The Yellow Princess stepped from nowhere and stood just in front of Raine’s car.
A splash of gold amid the green and brown, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight wore her aristocratic mask like a well-fitting glove, a second skin over flesh that none but I had ever seen. Impassive blue eyes framed by knife-sharp features, hair cut level and straight at her neck. She wore a crisp white blouse and long yellow skirt, expertly curved and starched and without a single crease. The metal tip of her umbrella clacked against the tarmac, as if she was just stopping by in the middle of a casual stroll. She greeted me with a tiny widening of her eyes.
“Sevens!” I sighed with relief, letting my phone drop from my ear. On the other end, Jan did not sound too happy. I killed the call without bothering to inform them that Sevens had joined us. Lozzie could figure that out, I was sure.
“You call and I come, kitten,” said Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-by-my-Side, calm and cool. “In more ways than one.”
“Tch!” I tutted, but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “It’s hardly the time for that! We’re in a lot of trouble and I think you might be able to help.”
“Am I your last resort? Is that my role in your life?”
I juddered to a halt, suddenly horrified. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight gazed at me with that ice-cold expression, unreadable and unknowable. Had I hurt her? Was she joking, or was this serious? Had I ruined all the progress she’d made in her long process of self-redefinition? I studied her face, but I was suddenly reminded that what stood before me was a mask.
“ … no,” I managed to say. “I mean, you … you offered to—”
“And I always will,” she said, ice-cold precision in every word. “I should have come with you.” Her eyes flickered first to Nicole, then down to Marmite, then back to me. “The detective and a spider. Interesting companions. Where is everybody else?”
Nicole gave me a dubious look, pointed at Sevens, and shrugged a silent question.
“This is Sevens,” I explained, “the lady I mentioned before, the daughter of the—”
Nicole waved that down and shook her head. She didn’t want to know.
“I know of you, detective,” said Sevens. “I respect your craft and your experience. That is all we require for now. We have a problem to solve. Issues of identity can be addressed later. Even yours, if you wish it so.”
That set an additional alarm bell ringing in my head, but I muffled it for the moment.
“Sevens, thank you. Thank you for coming so quickly. I had no idea you even could. I hope this hasn’t … hurt you. I meant what I said about retaining your progress, I don’t want this to … ” I sighed, rubbing my chest, trying to still my nauseating worry. My tentacles tightened their grip on Raine’s car. “I didn’t know you could teleport from place to place,” I added, awkwardly. “I suppose you’ve done that before, though.”
“I cannot,” Sevens said. “But I can come to you, my beloved. Wherever you may be.”
Nicole laughed at that, a slim relief amid this growing confusion. I blushed and resisted an urge to roll my eyes.
Quickly, with the minimum of confusion that I could achieve, I informed Sevens about what had happened — she wasn’t a literal mind-reader, after all. She listened closely, without nodding, eyes boring into me, the sunlight shifting and fluttering across her face as it filtered through the leaves above. When I described the absurd and spooky alpaca, she turned briefly to consider the animals in the field. They were slowly trotting across the grass and mud to come look at what we were doing. They looked perfectly normal now.
As I spoke, I realised that the alpaca and the sheep weren’t the only parties interested in Sevens. Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors, the three of them which hadn’t entered the trap, had all gathered at the front of the roof, craning forward like rearing slugs made of soap suds. They had neither faces nor eyes, but somehow I could tell they were focused on Sevens. Yet they were unwilling to risk warding her off, like guard dogs staring through a fence at a stray komodo dragon.
“And then we came back from Outside,” I finished. “Nicky’s speech is all jumbled again.”
“Typists and secretaries writing with invisible ink,” Nicole said. She threw up her hands.
Sevens stared at her for a moment, then back at me, then over at the house, as if considering nothing more important than what blend of tea to select for her afternoon repast. She said nothing, but blinked once, slowly. Sunlight moved across the clearing. The sheep in the field nosed at the fence. It was so peaceful here, but my chest hurt and my stomach roiled.
“I’m really worried about everybody else,” I said. “I don’t understand where they physically are. And there’s children in there, too, Amanda’s children. Bystanders.”
“You took something Outside,” said Sevens. “When you removed the detective from the situation. Outside, that thing became different. Pain in the detective’s chest.”
“Oh,” I said. Nicole shared a worried glance with me.
“Outside, it ceased to work as it does here, above the surface. Upon return, it resumed. The detective’s pain stopped. Her language fails once more.”
“That makes … sense,” I said, swallowing hard. Nicole was starting to look very worried indeed.
Seven-Shades-of-Serious-Suspicion turned to watch Nicole, tilting her head to one side. The detective spread her arms and did a little sarcastic bow with her head, asking if Sevens wanted her to do a twirl.
“No, detective, that is quite all right,” said Sevens. “I suspect this is not a matter of combat, it is a matter of—”
Sevens slammed to a halt mid-word, lips quivering on an unformed thought. She blinked several times, eyes looking right through Nicole, face gone pale and waxen, as if a wave of sudden nausea had gripped her stomach. She even leaned forward slightly, as if preparing to vomit. I knew that pose and that feeling all too well.
But I’d never seen the Princess Mask like that.
“Sevens?!” Instinctively I grabbed for her with my tentacles, letting go of Raine’s car and wrapping one around her waist instead, then another around her shoulders, creasing her perfectly pressed outfit.
Seven-Shades-of-Deep-Distress turned to me, breathing hard and unsteady.
“I have been infected,” she said.
“ … what? I’m sorry?”
“We may as well be standing waist-deep in tidewater mud. My nature has not afforded me any immunity.” Sevens took a deep breath with considerable effort, then nodded at Nicole. “She is carrying a parasite. Everyone in contact with her has been infected. I am no exception.”
Nicole stared back at Sevens, wide-eyed with horror. Her hand went to her own chest.
“A-a parasite? Sevens, what do you mean?”
“Not a physical creature. A parasite of information, designed to infect the mind that was looking for the hiding place of Edward Lilburne.” She paused, still sweating and pale, turning almost grey with effort or fear. “It has cornered me. I have no options. Let go of me, kitten, please.”
“Don’t call me kitten at a moment like this! Sevens, what do you mean, what are you going to do?”
“I must go Outside, where the parasite becomes a physical thing, and assume a form it cannot inhabit.”
Nicole gripped her own chest, where she’d been feeling the pain while Outside. A physical thing? A parasite inside her chest?
Sevens wouldn’t look at me, but I knew her too well to be fooled. Seven-Shades-of-Subterfuge was hiding something, or leaving something unsaid.
“Sevens? Wouldn’t going Outside and changing be cheat—”
“I must remove this thing before it takes root,” she said, precise and cold. “It has found fears in a language it understands, albeit childish ones. The darkness, the altered animals, these are coming from a human interface, but implemented via something greater. Amanda Hopton’s fears, with Hringewindla’s powers as the implementation. I would wager that Amanda Hopton does not like horror fiction.”
“Wait, wait, you mean all of that stuff is coming from her mind?”
“There is no time to be certain. I must be quick.” Sevens placed her free hand on the tentacle around her waist, gently trying to peel me off her. But her hand was weak and shaking, her skin clammy and cold. “Let go of me.”
“Sevens, if you go Outside and change—”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight finally looked at me. “I am both human and not human. If this thing takes root inside me, it will have access to far worse fears from which to weave its false world. And greater stages on which to play them out. I am cornered.” She tried to explain carefully. “I must turn and fight.”
“Great ones, but not the apes alone?” Nicole asked, frowning hard. She was trying to keep up.
Sevens nodded at her, curt but respectful.
“That … kind of made sense?” I said.
“Yes,” Sevens explained. “This parasite is information, not intent. It was designed to obfuscate for human minds, not Outsider ones. It has spilled over into something it was not meant to touch and is rapidly metastasising. With you, detective, confusion was the aim, and would likely have worn off once you had moved on. But then you met Amanda Hopton, and the parasite now grows in fertile flesh it should never have had access to, that of a God. It is our good fortune this God understands human fears as the sum of black and white horror movies, because his current mortal paramour hid behind the sofa as a child. But now it has me.”
“Oh. Oh no,” I said, mouth going dry as I finally understood.
“I must assume another form. Let go.”
“Sevens, no!” I snapped, holding her even tighter. “What about me!? I’m not really human any more, either, what’s it doing inside me?”
Sevens opened her mouth with a wet click. Her spine straightened, ready to shut me down, to deploy just a sliver of that aristocratic bearing to overrule me. I wondered if this was why she’d appeared as the Princess, not the Blood-Goblin.
But then she paused. She looked me up and down with admiration and appreciation, and said, “Ah.”
“Ah? Ah what? Sevens!”
“You are not infected. You are immune. You have been subject to the projection only, via Hringewindla’s own infection, not the jumbling of direction and meaning.”
“Oh. I couldn’t see the jumbled doors and stuff! You’re right!”
Nicole raised a fist in mute, provisional triumph.
“This is not all a good thing, kitten,” Sevens purred. “It means you are subject to the effect, leaking from others, without ever being able to identify the cause inside yourself. Immunity denies you access. Without cause, how can one observe?”
“Okay, fine!” I huffed. “But what do we do, practically? I’m not letting you go Outside and changing yourself, Sevens, I’m not letting you undo all the progress you’ve made with finding yourself, even for an emergency, even for this! How do I … ” My throat went dry and my words trailed off as I realised what I was about to suggest.
“Yes.” Sevens nodded, very matter-of-fact. “The other method of removal would be for you to share your immune system.”
“I’ve done that with Zheng before! I know that’s a thing I can do, I think?”
“And Zheng shared hers with Raine, earlier today. They may both be immune, too. Lucky ladies, little kitten. Will you include me among their number?”
I huffed and rolled my eyes. “You don’t have to make it so sexual.”
“Because if you don’t do so, and quickly, then things are about to get a lot spookier. The spore is germinating. Look around, my beloved.”
Seven-Shades-of-Seriously-Scared was correct — Geerswin Farm was beginning to change once again, but not like before.
The golden-yellow sunlight filtering through the leaves was turning a wintry grey, thick and heavy with the threat of snow. As the four of us looked up — including Marmite peering out from beneath Raine’s car — the wind went still and a few flakes began to fall, drifting through the quiet air. Not just out of season, but the wrong temperature. It was not growing cold. Several flakes dusted my hair and my shoulders. I reached out and caught one in my hand.
It wasn’t snow at all. It was ash.
A smell of burning meat tickled my nose — not the dreaded pork-like scent of human flesh, but something utterly wrong, the stench made by an alien funeral pyre. My stomach clenched in disgust and I shivered as I brushed the ash from my hair and flipped my hood up.
The farm house itself seemed to leer at us, as if the tight, latticed windows had become empty eye sockets. A giant skull on an ash-strewn plain. The grass, the weeds, the plants, all turned slowly pale, withered by drought and cracked soil, the ash piling up to obscure everything. Off in the field, the pair of alpacas and the little cluster of sheep slowly sat down, lowering their heads and going very still. Ash began to cover their bodies.
Nicole looked horrified. She was seeing this too, clear as the suddenly fading day. Marmite tried to cram himself deeper beneath Raine’s car, but he couldn’t quite fit. His clawed climbing-limbs scrabbled and scratched at the tarmac.
“ … Sevens?” my voice came out in a squeak. “T-this isn’t real, this is an illusion, correct? You said it was a parasite, making us see things, warping reality with Hringy-cringe-whatever’s power, yes? So this isn’t—”
“What happens on the stage is always real. The hand holds the knife and makes the stroke, even if the intent is pure invention. Your immune system, your white blood cells. Now, little kitten, or the struggle will be worse.”
“Okay, okay! But how?”
I felt a twitch in the tip of one of my tentacles, the merest suggestion of bio-steel delivery system, needle and fluid. But that wasn’t my immune system, that was something else, something I barely understood yet.
“Blood,” said Sevens. “For myself, a droplet or two should suffice.”
“Oh!” I lit up with relief. Blood would be easy enough. “Do you want to bite me, as your vampire mask—”
“No,” she said, gentle but quick. “Never mix business and pleasure. Speed is of the essence.”
I nodded and got to work. With a flicker of one of my free tentacles, I turned the tip into a millimetre worth of razor-blade, then braced, winced, and forced the sharp edge against the pad of my own left thumb. I had to close my eyes and not look at the moment I sliced into my flesh. Nicole watched in mounting horror, though all she could see was a tiny cut suddenly open on my thumb. I raised the miniature wound toward Sevens.
“Here, here, take whatever you need.”
Before I could consider the necessary logistics of feeding my abyssal white blood cells to an Outsider Princess of the Yellow Court, Sevens grabbed my hand in hers, cool and quick, cradling my wrist like I was made of sugar glass. Ashen flakes fell upon her yellow-blonde hair as she raised my hand to her mouth in the gathering darkness. I blushed and made to look away as her lips pressed to the blood dripping from the pad of my thumb — but she had other ideas.
Sevens lapped a droplet of blood from my skin, then yanked my wrist so I fell against her. I yelped. Then she pressed her lips to mine, kissing my own blood back into my mouth.
She tasted of iron under sunlight, wheat soaked with rain, and blood-thickened butter.
I broke away from her in shock, though I didn’t let go with my tentacles, I did not reject her. “Sevens!” I squeaked.
“One would think you were used to the flavour of your own veins,” she answered, cool and collected, as if we hadn’t just snogged in the middle of a serious emergency, rapidly getting covered in meat-ash.
Her lips were red with my taste, the impression of her still on my mouth. Ash fell behind her and around her, piling on the ground. The house had gone grey and old, forgotten and barren.
“Yes, but that’s rather beside the point now! I thought you said don’t mix business and pleasure?”
Nicole was watching us with confused shock, with the kind of expression that said ‘Why are these dykes making out when the air smells of burning flesh and the world is turning dark?’
“With you, kitten, it is all pleasure,” Sevens said. She licked me off her lips.
Even amid all this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Fine! More importantly, is it working?”
“I believe so. Give your blessing a moment to … to … ”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stopped again, the same as she had before, as if wracked by a sudden wave of carefully concealed nausea. This time I was already holding her in my tentacles, ready to assist.
But this time, the base of her throat bulged outward.
Something was inside her.
For a split-second, the Yellow Princess lost all her calm, all her composure, all her perfect poise. She grabbed at my arm, eyes bulging with panic — and then she was gone, replaced, mask stripped away.
Sevens the Blood Goblin lay wrapped in my tentacles, panicking and choking, something writhing inside her throat.
The Princess Mask had encountered an emotional state it could not support.
Nicole actually stumbled back in surprise. Of course, she had no explanation for this, she’d only just met Sevens, let alone witnessed her transition from one mask to another. Sevens couldn’t even speak, eyes bulging, choking past the suddenly very physical parasite.
I did the only thing that made any sense.
I whipped a tentacle through the air and slid it smoothly down her throat.
I didn’t stop to consider the implications; if a bystander — say, Raine — had suggested the slightest innuendo about this moment, I would have slapped her, well-meaning or not. This was pure instinct, the need to get this thing out of my friend, my partner, my beloved, the need to protect her body. Whether she was real or abyssal illusion or anything else, it was her and it had been invaded. Abyssal instinct demanded I remove the source of the infection.
Having a tentacle down Sevens’ throat was a unique and bizarre experience. She gagged and shook. I felt myself slide past thin lips, needle-sharp teeth, raspy little tongue, then bumped down into her trachea. Then I felt something else, lodged in her flesh, coated with cold slime and hooked barbs.
Sevens gagged and tried to retch, thrashing against my tentacles. I gripped her harder, trying to get this over with as quickly as possible, the tip of my tentacle wrapping around the parasite in her throat. But it wriggled lower, slipping downward into her body. Sevens grabbed for my arm and dug her fingernails into my skin.
I squeezed another six or seven inches of tentacle past her lips. This time I didn’t apply half measures. Inside the wet darkness of her throat, I made suckers and adhesive enzymes and slapped my tentacle against the wriggling parasite, melting its spikes and trapping a dozen tiny limbs with my own precise muscles.
With a horrible wet slooorp noise, I dragged the parasite up Sevens’ throat, out of her mouth, and into the open air.
“Sevens?! Sevens are you okay?!”
Seven-Shades-of-Shock-and-Spluttering whined and sagged in my grip, leaning against me and drooling from slack lips, exhausted and spent. “Mmmnnnuuuhhhhh,” she rasped. “Didn’t expect … that would make it … physical.”
“Are you okay, though?”
“Mm. Will be. Kill it, please.”
“What? Oh. Ew.” I finally looked up at the thing I was holding in my tentacle, and wrinkled my nose in disgust.
It was like a big grey limbless shrimp crossed with a slug, about the size of a hot-dog, dotted with half-melted spines and hooks, curling and flexing in a futile attempt to escape my grasp. I was vaguely aware that it was, on some level, not real — it had been forced into physicality by my abyssal immune system, borrowed by Sevens.
My head hurt when I thought about that too closely; I’m sure the Eye’s lessons contained the exact mathematics to explain how that all worked, but it was hardly the time to go dredging.
Instead, I slapped the parasite on the tarmac, hard enough to kill it. The thing stopped wriggling and went still.
Ash slowly ceased to fall. The sky began to brighten. Out in the field, one of the alpacas stumbled to its feet.
“Uuuurrrrrrrgggg,” Sevens gurgled. I helped her stand up. Red-on-black eyes blinked heavily, first at Marmite, then at Nicole.
“What now?” I asked, looking up at Nicole, at the centre of her chest and her throat.
The detective shook her head, eyes wide with terror, clutching her own chest.
“No,” Sevens rasped. “Same procedure would kill a human. Don’t try with her.” She tilted her head to peer at Marmite, still half-crammed under Raine’s car. “He’s safe though. Come out, come on. You ain’t got nothing in you, little one.”
Marmite stayed firmly under the car, not convinced by a gurgling, drooling, sagging vampire girl upon whom I’d just performed emergency surgery.
“Sevens, what do we do now?” I asked. “How do we get everyone else out of the … spooky-house?”
“ … pardon?”
Sevens looked up at me, pulling quite the pained grimace, lips covered in blood-speckled drool.
“Find Hringewindla. Immunize him. Pull out the parasite. His might be a bit bigger, though.”
Well, that was quite messy. Parasites in gods? Outsider-hijacking? Good thing Heather was immune. Or maybe not a good thing, seeing as it prevented her from figuring out what was happening. But hooray for tentacles, they’re so useful! Sevens thought she was coming to the rescue, but it was her who needed help in the end. At least Jan and Lozzie are having, um, ‘fun’ … right.
Dragon’s Dilemma is at least partly about “a strong romance storyline between a shapeshifting genderqueer dragon and a human woman”, so you might like it! Go check it out!
Next week, it’s off to find Cringley-wingley and administer emergency parasite removal. To a god. Yup, this isn’t going to go wrong at all. No problems here. Just like de-worming a dog. You know, on second thought, maybe Heather needs more help.