Spiders, touching spiders
“Find Hringewindla?” I echoed the suggestion. A sinking feeling settled into the pit of my stomach. “‘The parasite might be bigger’? Sevens, what does that mean?”
I tried not to look at the smashed remains of the grey shrimp-slug parasite, lying on the tarmac in the dappled sunlight next to Raine’s car.
“Bigger,” said Sevens in her habitual goblin rasp. She licked flecks of her own blood off her lips, from where I’d dragged the parasite out of her throat.
“ … bigger?”
“Bigger. You know. Large. More size.”
I struggled very hard not to give Sevens a nasty look as she coiled there in the embrace of my tentacles.
“Yes,” I said, “I do know the literal definition of ‘bigger’, but what does that mean in the context of an Outsider god? Pardon me for being rather concerned here. How much bigger? The size of a cat, or a horse, or are we about to have some kind of Godzilla incident? Do I need to show you one of those giant robot shows so you can wear an appropriate mask for this? Should we be calling your sister, Melancholy, so she can turn into a giant cat and eat it for us? Help me here, Sevens. How much bigger?”
“Buuurrrrlll,” Sevens gurgled, clearing her throat very loudly — I couldn’t blame her for that, considering what had been lodged in there only minutes earlier. She ducked her head, avoiding my frown. “I dunno? Bigger.”
Nicole gave me the kind of look that I like to imagine she would have given other police officers over an unexplained dead body. She looked about ready to call in the army, jumbled words and wobbly legs or not.
“It’s all right, Nicky,” I said. “It’s probably not a Godzilla situation. I don’t think that can happen.”
Nicole gave me another look that said, You think!?
“I’m … I don’t know what I’m doing, okay? We need to … to think. Does … does Hringewindla even have a throat?”
Sevens shrugged again. “I’unno.”
On the plus side, I was finally able to pronounce Hringewindla correctly, by copying Sevens. I learn something new every day, even if it’s something I’d rather not know.
At least the sky wasn’t turning to ash and darkness anymore. The optimistic sunlight of mid-afternoon was flooding back through the ring of trees that surrounded Geerswin Farm. The only patch of darkness left was Marmite and his imitation shadow-membranes, still half-crammed beneath Raine’s car, trying to hide from the open spaces and the sunlight, and probably from me too, after he’d just seen me ram a tentacle down Sevens’ throat. The grass was green and healthy, laced with low moss and tall thistles and thick clumps of weed. The wind had died down to a mere whisper through the woods, and no longer carried the scent of burning alien meat. The ash had vanished, as if absorbed into the ground.
One of the alpacas had wandered all the way up to the edge of the nearest fence, probably to investigate what we were up to. Alpaca snout, fuzzy and cute, with normal, wide-set, black eyes beneath a big tuft of brown fur, exactly as an alpaca should be. No human face, no bloody teeth.
Geerswin Farmhouse was dead silent.
“Are we certain that we’re back in reality now?” I asked.
Bleeeeeee, went the alpaca.
“Yaaaah,” said Sevens. She cracked her neck and bared her mouth of sharp little needle-teeth — at which Nicole managed to go even wider-eyed with concern. “Amanda doesn’t know where we are, so Cringe-winge-face doesn’t either, so we’re not all jumbled up. ‘Cept … mm … hmmm … ”
She raised one pale, long-fingered hand and pointed up at the trio of bubble-servitors on the roof of the farmhouse. They were still poised at the edge, craning toward us like giant marine molluscs from a lip of rock, spooked by the presence of Seven-Shades-of-Unexpectedly-Powerful.
“Might be bad,” Sevens explained.
“Oh. Oh dear. You think they have direct communication with him?”
“Can’t do.” Sevens had to clear her throat again. “Else we’d already be back in his nightmare.”
Sevens nodded. She wavered for a moment, visibly thinking, then bumped her head against my tentacles, like a cat nuzzling a person’s hand. “He’s having a nightmare. Parasite symptom. That’s what all that was, kind of. I think.”
I sighed. “At least your metaphors are easier to understand than Lozzie’s. So we find Hringewindla, wake him up — whatever that means for an Outsider in this context — and remove his parasite? With the three of us? And Marmite, of course.”
“Ship of fools,” Nicole spat.
I winced. “Yes, I couldn’t agree more. We’re alone, in the middle of the woods. Nicole can hardly walk without stumbling. Sevens, you’re very powerful, but you’re … self-limited, and with good reason. I don’t want to do any more damage to you than I already have done.”
“Murrrrrr, no damage. And no choice. We gotta.”
“And we’re going to introduce ourselves to an actual Outsider, a real one, something that self-describes as a god, and … what, de-worm him?”
“Mmmm, yeah.” Sevens cringed into one of my tentacles, using me like a pillow.
Nicole laughed. Apparently she could still do that without getting scrambled.
“Besides, do we even know where he is?” I ran my eyes along the edge of the tree-line, where the shadows gathered between the trunks. “I think Evee mentioned something about an old church out here in the woods, once. But that was months ago, I can hardly recall it now.”
“Schismatic prismatic,” Nicole said. She sucked on her teeth, a serious frown on her brow.
“Nicky? You … you might know where the church is?”
Nicole huffed and shook her head. “Quakers and quackers and diggers and levellers. World turned upside down. The King’s head on a spike of obsidian, but forgotten amid the ruckus.”
I stared at her, blinking in shock. Her words had shaken a memory loose inside my head. “That almost made sense. Evee said something about Quakers, once.”
With a great deal of effort, I cast my mind back all the way to last year, to when I’d first met Twil and we’d discussed the Brinkwood Cult. That was more challenging that it sounds, because the last nine months of my life had been a whirlwind of change.
“My grandmother had them well-documented,” Evelyn had said, back then. “From a safe distance. They probably started as a group of Quakers, tried to rebuild the abandoned church out in the woods, where Lowdon village used to be. That’s about three miles north of Brinkwood.”
“Lowdon village?” I said out loud.
Nicole pulled a thinking face, but she seemed doubtful.
“I think Evee said it was three miles north of Brinkwood itself,” I said. “But finding an old church in these woods? We could walk right past it and never know. And that’s not even accounting for what’s actually inside. Or guarding it. Evee knew things about the Brinkwood Cult, but she’s … not here right now. We need her. Or Twil, I suppose.”
“Leeches and poultices,” Nicole said. “Bone-setting into the sunset beyond the furthest waves.”
Nicole wasn’t deep in thought anymore. She was staring at Sevens with a different kind of worried frown. Marmite had gone very still as well, all his cone eyes fixed on my sweet little faux-vampire.
Sevens was pulled tight in my tentacle-embrace like a bat in the roof of a cave, her limbs pulled inward and her shoulders hunched, a pair of tiny red points deep in the coal-black of her eyes. She had retreated behind the curtain of her own dark, stringy hair, but that could not conceal the animalistic fixation on her face as she stared at me. Her jaw hung open, her breathing a steady hiss between rows of needle-sharp teeth.
“Sevens? O-oh, right, right, um … ”
She wasn’t making eye contact with me — she was staring at the blood, my blood, smeared across my face from my earlier nosebleed, and from the bloody kiss we’d shared.
I put a hand over my lower face to spare her the awkward temptation. Also to hide my blush.
Sevens blinked hard, like a sleepwalker coming around from deep dreams. She swallowed with a little upward tilt of her head, rasping deep in her throat and forcing her shoulders straight. “Sorry … um … leggo?”
“Let go, pleaseeeee.”
“Oh, of course, of course.”
The moment I unwound my tentacles from around Seven-Shades-of-Sanguine-Solicitation, she quickly stumbled back with a little hopping motion, bare feet scrunched against the sun-speckled tarmac. On the third hop-step-skip the Blood Goblin vanished, replaced instantly with the Yellow Princess once again.
Seven-Shades-of-Regained-Composure let out the tiniest sigh, smoothed her yellow skirt over her hips, and clicked her fingers. Her umbrella appeared in her hand. She did a little flourish and clicked the tip against the ground.
Nicole actually flinched, then looked at me for some kind of explanation. “Circus tents filled to the brim with rotting fish?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “Sevens is not what you see here. But she also is. It’s complicated and you probably don’t want to know. Also this is absolutely not the time to explain.”
“I am exactly what I appear to be and I arrive precisely when I mean to,” said the Princess Mask, cool and confident, addressing Nicole. “Though perhaps I ought not to claim kinship with that particular expression. I am no wizard, after all.”
Nicole gave her such a look, deadpan and unimpressed in the extreme.
“Ah,” said Sevens. Did I detect a hint of sarcasm beneath her tone? “Are you not one for the ‘mommy dommy’ vibes, detective?”
Nicole clenched her jaw and made a fist.
“Sevens,” I said a little too firmly, trying to regain control of the situation before my only support decided to either fight or flirt with each other. “I’m so sorry about the blood.” I gestured at my face. “I should have accounted for it being tempting. I apologise.”
“Worry not,” said Sevens. She sounded perfectly fine, but it was always hard to tell with the Princess.
I took a moment to gather myself and scrub the rest of the blood from around my nose and mouth. I couldn’t tell how much had come from my Slip-induced nosebleed and how much from the strange blood-kiss with the princess. A trace of my blood still graced her lips, glinting in the sunlight like obscene lipstick. I finally pulled in the tentacle I’d used to fish the parasite out of her throat, and carefully cleaned off the tip with some wet-wipes from inside Raine’s car, not wanting to leave any trace of the disgusting creature on my flesh, pneuma-somatic or not. But Seven’s saliva I just wiped on my hoodie. Why not? I was already stained with blood, yet again.
“We can’t confront an Outsider god by ourselves,” I said as I cleaned up.
“We have two options,” Seven-Shades explained into the momentary quiet. “We can attempt to find Hringewindla himself, as I said, or we can plunge back into his living nightmare and attempt to retrieve the others.” She gestured at the house with one perfect hand.
“I thought you said we’d have to bump into Amanda for that?”
“In theory. I suspect we could simply wander around the house and be drawn in. It is the current location of his nightmare. However, it would get us nowhere. As the parasite grows, so will the nightmare.”
I bit my lip. North, three miles. But we could walk right past the church. I didn’t even know what it looked like, what to expect, what to prepare for. We knew nothing.
“Nicole can barely walk in a straight line,” I repeated, mostly to myself. But then I looked at the detective, wearing her long coat and worried frown. “What do you want to do, Nicky? Should we leave you here while we try to deal with this?”
Nicole puffed out a sigh, shrugged, and took an experimental step forward.
She managed three paces before almost losing her balance, wobbling on the spot and wind-milling her arms. I stuck out a tentacle to help keep her on her feet, which made her flinch and almost fall over the other way. She caught herself, hissed with frustration, and shot me a frown.
“Sorry, sorry!” I blurted out when she was finally safe, mortified and blushing. “Sorry, that was me, I just … I … oh, goodness.” My voice cracked. “We’re not the team for this. This is farcical. I’ve got to get Nicole back on her feet, at least. Sevens, are you sure that I can’t somehow remove the parasite from her?”
Nicole pulled a grimace. Sevens fixed me with a cool, level stare.
“Attempting the same procedure on a human being — a real human being — would cause a lot of damage to their throat, oesophagus, mouth, tongue, possibly teeth. Remember what I am. My flesh is … ” Sevens paused with the merest hint of melancholy. “My flesh is not true, though I treat it as if it is.” She pointed at the dead parasite on the tarmac with the tip of her umbrella. “Pull the same thing out of the detective’s throat and her own blood will begin to pool in her lungs. Not to mention the pain. Considerable pain.”
I shared a horrified look with Nicole.
“Then … then how are we ever going to get it out?”
“There may be magical methods,” said Sevens. “To remove it without making it physical. Not every situation is an emergency, kitten. The detective is alive and well, and will remain so.”
I ignored that kitten for now. “Does this mean everyone else in the house has one of these parasites in them now? I can’t just leave everyone here, not Raine and Evelyn, they’re both only human. Twil, Zheng, Praem, maybe they’ll fare better, but … ”
“Stop kittening me!”
“Listen to me, kitten.” Sevens clacked the tip of her umbrella on the tarmac and took two smart steps forward, until she was inches from me. My tentacles whirled up in surprise, as if she was an unknown attacker, but she didn’t blink or flinch. “The detective’s parasite has already re-activated, although the primary effect is wearing off. Her balance is returning. Zheng and Raine will be immune due to the presence of your blessing in Zheng’s blood—”
“Then why aren’t they here?! Where is everybody?”
“Inside the nightmare of a god.”
“But what does that mean?”
The Yellow Princess blinked once, slowly. “You know this. True Outsiders are not meant to be here, on Earth. Those who have swum the abyss have a strange and unstable relationship with notions of reality. You and I. Precious little Lozzie. Ooran Juh. Hringewindla. It is the same. The others are stuck in his nightmare, a nightmare built by the memories and life of his human companionship. That is all.”
I chewed on my lip. Nicole sighed, making a spinning motion with one fingertip over her temple.
“Raine and Zheng will be immune to personal infection,” Sevens continued, fixated on me like a searchlight. “But they are still stuck in the nightmare. Praem, I do not know. Her soul may not possess the right pneuma-somatic architecture to be infected. Twil and Evelyn, very likely. But none of them know the location of Edward’s house, none of them have been exposed to the parasite’s trigger, like the detective here.”
Nicole’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. She finally understood. Yesterday, standing in an unrelated graveyard, many miles away, her subconscious had put together the clues from the documents she’d stolen, and the parasite had whirled to life to stop her consciously realising the location of Edward’s house. Pure chance.
“Evee … ” I murmured. “She’ll be terrified by this, even if she is with Praem. I can’t go, I can’t leave her here, not in all that. There has to be a way to get her out.”
“I know how you feel, beloved. Believe me, I know.”
I turned back to the house, so placid and normal now, a lovely old farmhouse deep in the woods, covered in shifting bars of sunlight through the dense canopy of leaves. But inside was a raging nightmare of jumbled corridors and phantom hallways, unnatural darkness and spooky alpacas with human faces, the sum of all the absurd fears of Amanda Hopton, projected by the powers of a god.
“Oh gosh, I do hope her children are okay in there, too … ”
“We could wander the nightmare for months without finding each other,” said Sevens. “Without finding anybody. But it will collapse without Hringewindla’s parasite.”
“Evee would be able to help us,” I said, trying to convince myself. “She is a mage, remember? And when I glimpsed her, she was trying to get out, she was trying to figure something out. Maybe she’s already trying.”
I bit my lip and focused on the house, clenching and unclenching my hands, subconsciously preparing myself for pain.
“Shhh. I’m trying to think.”
I wished I could pull everyone out of that house, but the others weren’t mages. If Evelyn was already working on escaping, perhaps I could light a beacon for her to follow.
Evelyn was a better mage than she gave herself credit for. Though I had few comparisons and terrible experiences with other mages, I had faith in her. Faith in her drive to survive and escape. The Evelyn of today was not the defeated and broken woman who had tried to throw herself away in the Library of Carcosa. She would not curl up in a ball and sob to herself in a dark corner, certainly not with Praem at her side. And not with me to light her way.
I stuck one of my tentacles straight up in the air; strictly speaking the gesture was not necessary, I was not going to create a physical beacon by flashing my rainbow-strobing flesh at maximum brightness, though Lozzie would probably be delighted at that idea. It was a sympathetic gesture, like taking a step forward when Slipping, like ancient Latin intoned for a spell, like bowing one’s head in supplication to an Outsider god.
Except, I was only trying to remember a lesson.
Beacon, I thought — and I plunged down into the oily black darkness of my own repressed nightmares, the memories of the Eye’s nightly instruction, the toxic machinery held in suspended animation in my subconscious. The equation was mercifully simple, far easier and more straightforward than Slipping, a mere blip-blink across the surface of my mind, a piece of loose driftwood bobbing to the surface of the abyssal ocean.
But my raised tentacle did indeed pulse like a beacon, a triple-flash of rainbow, an alien light beneath the terrestrial sun.
I think Marmite tried to hide from that, poor thing. I winced through a spike of headache and felt a single bead of blood leak from my right nostril.
I’m getting better at this, I thought. Sevens grabbed my arm to steady me and stop me from crumpling to my knees.
“Heather, beloved,” she said, cool and crisp and clear. “You are a guide post of flesh, and that is beautiful, but even you cannot reach into the dreams of a—”
The front door of Geerswin farmhouse banged open so hard I was afraid it was going to fly off the hinges.
Praem lowered her boot, marched down the brick steps, and joined us on the tarmac.
She was carrying Evelyn, piggy-back style.
“Evee! Praem!” I tore myself out of Sevens’ grip, stumbling as I relocated my kneecaps, then rushed forward to greet the latest escapees from the nightmare.
“Oh thank fuck,” Evelyn said out loud.
She looked and sounded ready to collapse, even though she was already being carried. Evelyn had her arms over Praem’s shoulders, but her bone-wand was clasped tight in both hands, fingers twisted into a precise configuration across the scrimshawed magic designs. She was deathly pale as if heaving with effort, sweat beading on her forehead, blinking hard in the direct sunlight. The modified 3D glasses perched on her nose did nothing to protect her eyes. Praem carried her effortlessly, hands beneath Evelyn’s knees, Evelyn’s walking stick wedged beneath her armpit.
“We’re out?” Evelyn called to me over Praem’s shoulder, her voice a breaking croak. “Are we actually out?”
“You’re out, you’re out!” I confirmed as I ran up to them. Evelyn nodded, then slumped against Praem’s back, letting her bone wand hang from one hand. I felt a crackle of static across my clothes and a rush of warm air, the after-effect of Evelyn’s spell. “Evee?!”
“M’fine,” she grumbled, head on Praem’s shoulder. “Not going to pass out. Fuck this.”
I wanted to hug both of them, explain everything, and get Evelyn back on her feet, all at once. Instead what I did was flap back and forth and whirl my tentacles like an octopus with too many enrichment activities, babbling at high speed about beacons and brain-math, as Evelyn muttered a thank you and flopped one hand toward me.
“Heather,” said Praem, interrupting my flow.
Praem locked eyes with me, milk-white and not quite as unreadable as always. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the doll-demon was almost on edge.
“Safe?” she asked, one bell-clear word ringing out.
“Of course it’s bloody safe!” Evelyn grumbled from her back, though she didn’t let go of Praem’s shoulders. “The sun is out, Heather’s here, so is … alright, Seven-Shades of whatever is here too, that bodes well. Put me down, come on. I can stand.”
“We are beyond the localised effect,” said Sevens. “I believe we are quite safe here, as long as nobody steps back into the house.”
“Wishes and fishes, birds and bitches,” Nicole said with a grim smile — saying hello, I assumed.
Praem waited, staring at me.
“It’s safe,” I said, then added, “I think.”
“I’ll make it safe,” I said.
Praem crouched, going down on one knee so Evelyn’s feet could touch the ground. I fussed around trying to help, getting the walking stick into Evee’s hand and steadying her with a tentacle as she found her balance, which seemed more difficult than usual. She was still pale and caked in cold sweat, hair plastered to her forehead. She struggled to get the bone-wand away, poking out of her coat pocket.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Evelyn hissed, half waving me off, half clinging to my hand for support. She held on hard, unwilling to let go.
“It hasn’t got you too, has it?” I asked. “You’re not having trouble walking?”
Evelyn shot me a dark frown. “What hasn’t got me too? Heather, a prosthetic leg can do a lot of things without support, but dismounting from a piggy-back is not one of them. No matter how strong Praem is.”
“Strong,” Praem echoed, straightening up. She turned to stare upward at the trio of bubble-servitors on the roof, which were craning down to examine us. “Strong.”
“But why a piggyback in the first place, then?” I asked. “Are you all right?”
Evelyn pursed her lips and gave me a dark look. “I was doing magic, in case you didn’t notice. Besides, you try wandering around a labyrinth for half an hour after the morning we’ve had. My hips are killing me.”
“Oh. Oh, of course. Evee, I’m sorry. Sorry.”
“It’s alright, Heather,” she grumbled, bumping against my side as if we were a pair of cats sharing our scent.
“Good doggos,” Praem said, apparently talking to the bubble-servitors up on the roof.
“No,” Evelyn snapped. “Bad dogs. All of them. All of this nonsense! Heather, what the hell is going on? Do you know?” She nodded at Sevens. “Does she know? What is all this?”
“The nightmare of a god,” said Sevens.
“Oh yes, that explains everything,” Evelyn spat. “Thank you.”
“We do know what’s going on,” I said. “Sort of, it’s kind of … disgusting, though. And complicated.”
“Well you better explain it then, because I assume everyone else is still stuck.” Evelyn peered past me, taking in Nicole — who gave her a polite nod. But then she flinched and dipped her modified 3D-glasses, to confirm that Marmite was indeed pneuma-somatic life, invisible in the normal human spectrum. Her throat bobbed and her hand went clammy in mine. “Heather? That’s a servitor. It’s lifting the car. There’s actual matter interaction, that is a servitor. Not a spirit.”
“Oh, that’s Marmite, it’s fine, he’s fine, he’s not involved. I think. Well, of course he’s involved, but not responsible. He’s the thing we freed from Edward, back at Stack’s house, remember? Um, Stack’s boy’s father’s house … yes.” I cleared my throat.
Evelyn gave me a look like I’d gone completely off my rocker. “Marmite. The giant spider thing under Raine’s car? You’ve named it Marmite?”
“For now.” Evelyn kept staring at me, so I started to blush. “I needed a name, okay? I couldn’t just keep calling him ‘you’.”
Evelyn squeezed her eyes shut and lifted the 3D glasses so she could pinch the bridge of her nose. She hissed a wordless sound between her teeth. “If somebody doesn’t tell me what’s going on, I’m going to start belting people with my stick until words fall out.”
“Marmite is a fine name, for a fine creature,” said the Yellow Princess.
Praem turned to look at Marmite too. Marmite looked back at her with his metal cone-eyes.
“Good boy,” said Praem, patting one thigh through her skirt. “Come here.”
Evelyn was in desperate need of a sit down, but going back inside the house to fetch a chair would rather defeat the point of escaping in the first place. Praem coaxed Marmite out from under Raine’s car, crouching and speaking in soft musical tones, like he was a nervous dog. With Marmite out of the way, Evelyn sat sideways on the back seat, feet firmly on the tarmac, hands leaning on her walking stick while we filled her in on what had happened. At first she was very concerned with Marmite and had me explain, in detail, that he wasn’t under Edward’s control anymore. He was wild, that was for certain. Praem petting him seemed to go a long way to soothing Evelyn’s worries.
She listened patiently, recovering from her magical efforts, asking only a few questions.
“They’re all high? Did I hear that right? They’ve gotten high? Lozzie, Jan, July, Kimberly? On weed?”
“Most enjoyable,” said Sevens. “My apologies.”
“Tenny and Whistle were excluded,” I said. “Lozzie was very clear about that.”
“Bloody right,” Evelyn grumbled. “Alright, fine, go on. This can’t possibly get more absurd, not after the alpaca.”
She was wrong, of course.
By the time I finished explaining the parasite and how I’d fished one out of Sevens’ throat, Evelyn had gone from a baseline level of frowning to looking like a woodcut of a priest at a witch-burning. She stared at the smashed lump of grey meat on the ground, the dead parasite, one hand pressed to her own breastbone.
“There’s one of these things in Praem, too?” she asked. “And in me?”
I swallowed hard, about to explain how we couldn’t remove it right now — how I couldn’t remove it right now. Sticking a tentacle down Sevens’ throat was one thing, she could regenerate her flesh with little more than a flicker of mask. But I couldn’t risk serious harm to Evelyn. Even pushing a tentacle into her mouth would be too much of a risk. I knew deep down that I couldn’t do it.
“No,” said Seven-Shades-of-Certainty, before I could speak.
Evelyn and I looked around at her. Nicole did too, leaning on the car next to us to save her legs. Sevens was watching Praem petting Marmite, an extremely bizarre sight even by our standards; the doll-demon was squatting, skirt neatly tucked up over her knees, using one hand to stroke and scratch what passed for Marmite’s ‘head’, just past his bank of swivelling, twitching, metallic cone-eyes, which were currently scrunched up exactly like a dog getting some very satisfying pets.
To Nicole, it must have looked like Praem was petting thin air.
“No?” I echoed.
Sevens looked up. “Praem is clean. I do not know why.”
“Personal hygiene,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn snorted. “She doesn’t process information like a human being does, not exactly. That may give her natural immunity. But then again, neither does Sevens here, or Hringewindla, obviously.”
“I am strong,” said Praem.
“Indeed,” Evelyn sighed. “What about me?”
“You are clean too,” said Sevens. “I do not know why.”
“Oh,” I sighed in relief. “Oh, that’s good news. One less thing to deal with.”
“Hmm,” Evelyn grumbled. “Too broken to be infested.”
“Evee!” I tutted. “Don’t say that about yourself.”
Evelyn waved me off, vaguely embarrassed. “I mean it literally. I’ve been possessed twice in the course of my life, remember? I might be … shaped wrong. Inside. That’s not a value judgement.”
“You’re shaped just right, Evee,” I said. “And I don’t care if it’s a metaphor.”
Evelyn actually blushed slightly, huffing and grumbling, waving me away with an irritated flap of one hand. “We don’t have time for all this. I’m exhausted already, after this morning. What a day for this to happen.”
“How are we going to get everyone else out?” I asked. “My beacon-thing only worked because you were already on the right path, so to speak. Nobody else has responded or turned up.”
Evelyn considered me for a moment, then looked to Sevens. “Do you think the others are in physical danger?”
“Hard to say,” Sevens replied. “I would wager not, considering Heather’s experiences.”
Evelyn sighed. “Sevens is right. We need to deal with Hringewindla, shut this down at the source. Though I’d rather not.”
Sevens gave her a little nod of acknowledgement.
“Are you sure?” I tried to keep the quiver out of my voice. “What about Raine, Twil, Zheng? What if this is intentional, what if Edward is behind all this? What if we’re being watched right now? What if Raine is in trouble, or if Edward’s going for Lozzie back at home? There’s children in there too and I—”
“Heather,” Evelyn snapped — then grimaced and nodded an apology. “Sorry. Heather, I know. I’m trying to stay calm too. One thing at a time. We need to cut the phenomenon off at the source. Between myself, you, and Sevens, we stand a pretty good chance, I’d say.”
I blinked in surprise. “I’m not discounting us here, but … Evee, this is an Outsider, a … god.”
“It’s not a god,” Evelyn said, with surprising patience.
“It’s an Outsider, exactly. And we’re not going to fight him, we’re going to talk.” She grimaced at that word. “As Raine might say, we don’t need the tanks for this.”
Nicole snorted a laugh.
“Tanks?” I echoed.
“Never mind. My point is, Heather, all we have to do is get you in front of him.”
“Evee, you’re putting too much faith in me. I don’t even know what I’m doing. De-worming somebody with a tentacle is one thing, but this is an Outsider we’re talking about. I don’t even know what he is, not really.”
Evelyn nodded, taking me seriously. “Do you remember why Hringewindla was afraid of you, back when the cult—” She paused, smiled awkwardly, and corrected herself. “Back when the ‘Brinkwood Church’ tried to convince us to come here?
“ … because of … hyperdimensional mathematics?”
“Exactly. You need to reach inside him and de-worm this dog for us. I’m pretty sure this will work.”
“Good boy,” said Praem.
I boggled at Evee. “How? On what basis? What if he doesn’t want us to? What if he’s confused? What if he’s terrified of me?”
“Heather, we don’t have any other choice.”
I tilted my head at her when I realised. “We don’t know what we’re doing, do we?”
Evelyn winced. “I’m hoping it’ll make sense when we get there.”
Nicole laughed again, throwing up her hands.
“It’s the best shot we have,” Evelyn raised her voice. “And we need to stop this before it grows.” She gestured at Sevens. “Unless you have any other ideas?”
Seven-Shades-of-Superficial-Modesty raised her chin. “I could sacrifice everything I am becoming and wear a mask on the same scale as this ancient god-thing. It may work.”
“No, absolutely not,” I said, then sighed heavily. “I’ll do it. I’m on his level already. I’ve had coffee with the King in Yellow, I can do this. Well, okay, I rejected coffee from the King in Yellow. Same principle.”
Nicole boggled at me like I’d grown a second head. I shrugged an apology.
“Should we call Lozzie?” I asked. “She might know how to talk to it.”
“I would not take that risk with the little one,” said Sevens. “She may not be immune.”
I nodded, trying to fight down my nerves. De-worm a god?
“We won’t need muscle for this,” Evelyn said, with a tone of final planning. “I know where the Church is, as well.” She pointed with her walking stick, off into the trees parallel to the road. “There should be a path, sign-posted by the cult itself, if my grandmother’s notes still hold up.”
“If you say so … ”
“Heather, I don’t like this either. Think of it as practice for the Eye.” To my massive surprise Evelyn reached out and groped for my hand, finding it and squeezing hard. “And you might have to do it alone, because I don’t think I can hump it through three miles of woods.”
I squeezed her hand back. “Magic is difficult, yes … ”
“I will carry you anywhere,” Praem intoned. She stopped petting Marmite and stood up, still holding one of his segmented bone-tentacles.
Evelyn opened her mouth to argue, then sighed and nodded. “Fine.”
“Any taste of indignity would be worth the presence of a mage of your calibre,” said Sevens. She didn’t seem to be joking.
But Evelyn shot her a frown all the same. “Being carried by Praem is never undignified.”
Nicole cleared her throat and gestured at her legs. “Sole pretender to the throne of bones, left without jester or attendant or court.”
“Marmite is also strong,” said Praem. “And a good boy.”
The rest of us shared a worried look. Even Sevens didn’t seem to understand that one.
“Praem?” I said.
“Marmite is strong.”
Evelyn barked with sudden rueful laugher and put her face in one hand. “She’s telling you to ride the invisible spider, detective. That, or we leave you here, alone.” Evelyn slipped the 3D glasses off her face and held them out to Nicole. “Here, you’ll need these, at least to … how do they say it?”
“Mount up,” said Praem.
Nicole looked absolutely horrified, though only for about five seconds. She gritted her teeth, shook herself, and accepted the glasses, slipping them over her eyes with a dubious grimace at Marmite.
“Time to get going, then,” said Evelyn. “Giddy-up, Webb.”
Evelyn clambered out of the car with my help, while Nicole gingerly approached Marmite, still unsteady and weak.
Sevens was watching the bubble-servitors on the rooftop.
“Do you think they’ll come with us?” I asked as Evelyn settled her coat and got her bone-wand tucked firmly under one arm.
“They can’t reach their god right now,” said Sevens, watching the pneuma-somatic froth-creatures as they all stared back at her. “He is lost in his nightmare.”
“Well grab an air horn,” Evelyn said. “Because we’re going to wake him up.”
As we gathered ourselves to leave, I nodded at the smashed remains of the parasite on the ground, a smear of grey meat and thin, cracked carapace. “Evee, do you think we should do anything with that?”
“Burn it. When we come back.”
The Church of Hringewindla — the physical building which enshrined the presence of a living god — was not actually three miles walk away through dark and forbidding woods, trudging through rotting leaves and muddy wallows and scrambling over fallen tree trunks. In the end it was perhaps one mile north of Geerswin Farm, along a well-trodden and properly cleared path, lit with leaf-dappled sunlight, past some delightful bluebell patches. There was even a wooden signpost at a tiny crossroads, pointing to Geerswin, Lowdon, Brinkwood, and somewhere called Bedham, though the wood of the sign was old and slimy and covered in green lichen.
Nothing ambushed us on the way there, not even a kink in the path, which surprised me more than I expected. After all, this was the secret core of an inhuman Outsider cult, the last refuge and retreat of a crippled god from beyond our dimension. Shouldn’t the path through these woods be warped and twisted beneath our feet, as if we approached the metaphysical weight of a black hole? Shouldn’t it lead us into a confrontation with some nightmarish guardian? Shouldn’t the woods behind us be vanishing in thick fog?
I voiced as much to Evelyn, as Praem carried her along in a piggy-back.
“That sort of thing is for cults that don’t last,” she said. “Hringewindla’s been around long enough to have some idea of human normality. I assume.”
The only sign we were approaching somewhere of supernatural significance was the total lack of spirit life, except for Marmite. I spotted a few furtive spirits further off in the woods, things that scuttled or scurried away before I could get a good look at them, but that was all. It was like an oceanic dead zone, deprived of oxygen or nutrients, a pneuma-somatic barren plain.
Whatever was wrong with the place, it didn’t affect Hringewindla’s angels. A smattering of bubble-servitors hung in the treetops, bobbing and rolling across the underside of the canopy.
“It’s like they’re security cameras,” I said.
“Good doggos,” said Praem.
“Keep a bloody close eye on them,” Evelyn said.
We must have made quite the spectacle, traipsing through the woods. Evelyn was too exhausted and shaky for a mile’s walk, so Praem carried her the whole way. At least she wasn’t wearing her maid outfit right now. I still had blood smeared on my hoodie and an alien squid-skull cradled in my tentacles. Seven-Shades-of-Aristocratic-Poise looked totally out of place, more suited to a tea-room than the mud and leaves, though she strode with unwavering confidence, using her umbrella as a walking stick. Nicole rode on Marmite’s back with her eyes closed, gritting her teeth, her hands in a white knuckle grip on fur she couldn’t see. I kept one of Marmite’s tentacles wrapped with my own, in case he tried to wander off, but he was content to follow at my heels.
I was very concerned about running into other people, walkers out for a stroll, that sort of thing, because untrained eyes would see Nicole floating, cross-legged in the air, about two feet off the ground. We’d already had enough absurdity for one day, between spooky alpacas and artificial night, not to mention the duel this morning. I could do without a screaming, panicking bystander. My tentacles kept twitching in anticipation, though I dared not acknowledge what I might do to keep us from being interrupted.
But we didn’t run into anybody. Not a soul. Even the birds were quiet, in this part of the woods.
Trees thickened, canopy darkened, bubble-servitors multiplied above us — and the path led us right to the ruins of Lowdon.
“Well, this is more like it,” I said as we drew to a halt at the edge of what had once been a clearing.
The ancient and forgotten village of Lowdon was nothing but a few stubs of stone and brick poking out of the leaf-mulch. The tallest remnant of wall was no higher than my waist, covered in wet lichen and ivy, the mortar eaten away by time and weather. The vague outlines of half a dozen houses were spread out across a wide area that had probably been a true clearing four hundred years ago. Now it was just more forest floor, with slightly smaller trees rooted where hearths and walls had once stood.
One building was intact, in the centre of the ruins; the Church of Hringewindla looked exactly as I had imagined it might do, a long one-story structure made of that distinctive Northern red brick, raised perhaps a couple of hundred years ago and fallen to ruin not long after. The roof was missing, leaving a half-complete steeple naked to the elements, without a bell or a fire or whatever was supposed to be up there. Tall, narrow windows contained neither glass nor shutters, long since shattered or rotted away. Weeds and moss grew in the cracks between the bricks. The front entrance was under the steeple, a low arch of brick, plain and unadorned.
“What do you mean, ‘this is more like it’?” Evelyn asked, giving me a look. “And put me down now, thank you Praem. I should be on my feet from here.”
“I mean it looks like the centre of an Outsider cult,” I replied, helping Evelyn down again. She found her feet and got her weight firmly on her walking stick. “It’s all ruined and spooky.”
“Spooky,” Praem agreed.
“And well guarded,” said Sevens, very softly, looking up at the trees.
“None of this should be here,” Evelyn said. “Think about what this is, this is local history, somebody would have excavated it by now. Hringewindla has been keeping people away for centuries.” Evelyn adjusted the 3D glasses on her eyes and followed Sevens’ gaze upward. “Ah. Hm.”
The woodland canopy above the ruined village was packed with bubble-servitors, roiling and twisting and flowing over each other, like a mass of slugs suspended upside down.
“That’s … a lot,” I said.
“There must be thousands of them,” Evelyn murmured. She swallowed and found my hand, holding on tight. “Ten thousand?”
“Walk with care,” said Sevens.
“We must be allowed to be here,” I said. “They would make us leave otherwise, wouldn’t they?”
“Hringewindla is having a nightmare,” Sevens repeated. “They are cut off.”
“Walk with care,” Praem agreed.
“Sevens,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. I could feel her quivering. “If they break and descend on us … ”
“I will do what I can,” said Sevens.
Evelyn swallowed hard. “Then come on. And tread carefully.” She gestured us ahead with her walking stick.
“Can I please get off this giant spider now?” Nicole hissed — then opened her eyes and lit up with a grin. “Hey, words! I’m speaking words!” Then she looked down and turned a little green. “Oh, I’m floating. Oh, I hate that, I really hate it.”
“Nicky!” I sighed with relief.
“Huh,” Evelyn grunted.
With a hand from Praem and a tentacle from me, we got Nicole off Marmite’s back and onto her own feet once more. She wobbled a bit, but kept her balance well, straightening her coat and smoothing her hair back.
“That was an experience I don’t care to repeat,” she said. Behind her, Marmite waggled two of his bony tentacles.
“I think you’ve offended Marmite,” I said.
“Eh?” Nicole boggled at me. “Um … er … sorry, Marmite?” She tried to look at him, but being unable to see him meant she just talked to a patch of ground. “Very smooth ride, very strong back. Just a bit weird, ‘cos I can’t see you and all. No offence meant?”
Marmite lowered his offended tentacles and crept over to my side. His eyes kept swivelling and twitching, trying to take in every corner of the ruined village and the church and the bubble-servitors at the same time. He did not like it here, no more than we did.
“This isn’t necessarily a good sign, detective,” Evelyn said, sucking on her teeth. “I’m glad you’re back with us, but this could mean we’ve stepped inside some kind of effect that renders the parasite useless, or has killed it.” She looked to Sevens. “Any ideas?”
Sevens shook her head. “You are the mage here.”
“And you’re the daughter of the King in Yellow,” Evelyn grumbled. “You can’t tell us anything?”
“Please don’t get into this now,” I hissed.
“I am barely a fingernail’s width above you,” Sevens replied. “Because I have chosen to be.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. She looked at the church again. We all did. “Nothing else for it.”
“I’ll take the lead,” I said, mouth going dry. “I can feel ahead with my tentacles.”
“Praem, with her,” said Evelyn. “And both of you be careful, for pity’s sake.”
Bubble-servitors roiled and rolled far above our heads as we picked our way through the corpse of the village. Marmite clung to one of my tentacles with two of his own. Sevens gave Evelyn her arm for support. Nicole drew a highly illegal hand-held pepper-spray device from inside her pocket; she kept glancing at Sevens, but managed to keep her curiosity under control, for now.
There was no invisible force-field or magical trap blocking the front entrance to the church — Evelyn went over the whole thing with the 3D glasses and I stuck a tentacle beneath the arch to test. Nothing happened.
“How is a god inside this thing?” Nicole hissed between her teeth. “It’s just a shell.”
“Shells contain worlds,” said Sevens.
“Both of you shut up and stop thinking,” Evelyn said. “Okay, maybe not you, godling. Webb, you stop thinking about it.”
“Right you are, boss,” said Nicole.
We crept beneath the arch to join the weeds and mud and fallen bricks inside.
The interior of the old church was in an even worse state of repair than the exterior — if indeed there was any distinction between in and out, without a roof and nothing in the windows. The woodland canopy filled the sky, bubbling with Hringewindla’s angels. No wonder he didn’t need human protection. An army waited to descend on anything that dared threaten his resting place.
Nothing remained inside the church, not even the floor, just hard-packed mud. A few weeds straggled at the edges of the walls and some ancient bricks and roof tiles lay scattered about where pews and altar must have stood, once upon a time. Moss clung to the walls, along with some spots of healthy white fungal growth. No bird nests sat atop the old bricks, nor any remains of bee hives or wasp nests. Not a single fly or mosquito buzzed past.
The only sign that people had been here at all in the past two centuries were a pair of wooden beams braced against the ground, their top ends bolted into the bricks on opposite sides of the church, apparently helping to hold the walls up.
“I was bloody right,” Nicole said. “There’s nothing in here. It’s empty.”
The rest of us didn’t reply. Marmite shuffled behind me, cone-eyes peering around my legs. Wordlessly, Evelyn removed her modified 3D glasses and held them out to Nicole.
“Uh … ” Nicole went very still. “Am I going to see a god if I put those on?”
“Just look,” Evelyn hissed.
Nicole fumbled the glasses onto her face. Her jaw fell open when she saw what the rest of us were looking at.
Where the altar had once stood, a white mound emerged from the mud, like a hill of chalk, about ten or twelve feet in height and perhaps seven or eight feet across, flaring out like a natural hummock to meet the ground and disappear below the soil. But this structure could never be mistaken for a natural occurrence — it was ridged with a spiral pattern of impossible complexity, carved into the material itself, like shell or bone that had been worked over and over and over by an obsessive artist, carving the spirals within spirals, recurring downward and downward so one’s eye seemed to be drawn into an infinite depth on a flat white surface.
A dark opening yawned on one side of the white mound, curving down and away, large enough to admit a person.
A single bubble-servitor sat over the opening, leaning toward us like a mollusc performing a threat display.
“ … what am I looking at?” Nicole whispered, as if the bubble-angel might pounce if she spoke too loudly.
“I have no idea,” Evelyn said. I could tell it took her considerable effort to say those words.
“This is pneuma-somatic, isn’t it?” I murmured. “Otherwise Nicky would have seen it. Right.”
“Sevens,” Evelyn said, “what are we looking at?”
“I have no idea either,” said Sevens. “I am not familiar with Hringewindla, or where he came from, or his nature.”
“Are we looking at a piece of him?” Evelyn asked through her teeth.
“It’s a shell,” I said. A sinking feeling settled into the base of my stomach. “It’s the mouth of a shell.” I looked down at the earth beneath my feet. “The rest of it must be below ground, this is just the tip.”
Nicole laughed — or tried to, a nervous flutter in her throat. “Just the tip, she says. Ha.”
“Shut up, detective,” Evelyn snapped.
“You don’t think we’re meant to step in there, right?”
“We’re not meant to do anything here,” Evelyn said. “There isn’t a guidebook for this.”
“You think he’s gonna come out of that opening?” Nicole’s voice was starting to quiver, her breath shaking. “What’s even gonna come out? What- what—”
“Give me those.” Evelyn snatched the 3D glasses off Nicole’s face and put them back on herself.
“Hringewindla?” I called out loud, to the shell-tip.
I don’t know what I expected.
Evelyn grabbed my arm. Nicole flinched. Sevens raised her umbrella like a handgun. The bubble-servitor on the shell-tip craned toward us.
“Bad dog,” said Praem.
Nothing else happened.
“He will not give us an audience,” said Sevens. “He is dreaming, deep in his nightmares. The detective is correct. We may have to enter if we wish to wake him.”
“Enter? The shell?” Evelyn gritted her teeth. “We don’t even know what we’re looking at.”
I shook my head, wetting my lips and trying to think. “He is crippled, remember? What does that mean for an Outsider, for a god?”
“I wish we had Twil with us,” Evelyn hissed.
I patted her arm. My fingers were shaking a little too. “She wouldn’t be able to tell us much, I think. Didn’t you say they always kept her away from all this? Because she frightened him too. A little like me.”
“I don’t care,” Evelyn said. “I still wish she was with us.”
Sevens lowered her umbrella again and took a step forward. “I will see what I can see.”
“Be careful!” I said. “Oh Sevens, please be careful.”
Evelyn gripped my arm with near-panic as Sevens strode toward the spiral shell-tip. Praem walked forward a little way too, to provide unspoken back up. Above us, the bubble-servitors in the treetops rolled over each other like masses of giant slugs. The one atop the shell leaned forward, flaring and narrowing its front like the flat of a spade. It leaned directly toward Sevens.
She stopped about eight paces away, locking eyes with the angel.
“Bad dog,” Praem repeated.
“Praem, what does that mean?” I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.
Sevens peered into the mouth of the shell-structure, craning her neck to see further inside without getting within range of the bubble-servitor.
“It goes down,” she said. “Down and around. A spiral.”
“I am not going in there,” Nicole said. She swallowed loudly. “I am not going in there. You can pay me any money you like, I am not going down there. No way. Just not.”
“Then you can stay here, detective,” Evelyn hissed, nodding upward at the trees and the thousands of bubble-servitors above us. “With them.”
“Our small friend here may have something to say about that,” said Sevens, watching the way the bubble-servitor was leaning toward her.
“You think it doesn’t want us to enter?” I asked.
Sevens didn’t respond for a long moment, locked in silent communion with the creature. Then she sighed a tiny sigh. “I may have to wear a different mask.”
“Maybe I can communicate with it? Let it know we’re not here to do any harm? I don’t know how, though.”
Sevens turned to look back over her shoulder at me. “Beloved, it is not a matter of communication, these little ones are not for speaking to. They are cut off and confused.”
Hringewindla’s angel rocked back suddenly, bunching and coiling like a dozen springs all bound together. Bubbles frothed and boiled — then shot out like a rubber band.
Sevens was caught in the act of turning her head, too slow when reduced to a mere human being.
Praem darted forward to knock her out of the way, but the bubbles were faster, unhindered by the messy business of joints and limbs. Evelyn fumbled with her bone-wand, far too late to respond in time. Marmite flared his tentacles and stood up on his legs, a threat display that went almost unnoticed. Nicole couldn’t even see what was happening.
Rationally, I knew that Sevens was not in any real danger. She was a god-thing from Outside. Even if the bubbles melted her face off, she could just switch masks. Couldn’t she? Or would this count, would this be real? I had no way of knowing.
What I did know is that ten thousand bubble-servitors hung over our heads, and that an act of aggression against one might bring the whole mass down on us.
Instinct did not care. A monster was going to smash into Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. No time to think, so I didn’t.
I hissed at the top of my lungs, braced all my tentacles against the ground, and flung myself like an angry squid.
Entering the fortified nest of an Outsider god is no small feat, even if that god is ‘crippled’ (whatever that means for an Outsider of this scale), non-hostile, and currently trapped in a nightmare. Still, at least they’ve got Evee, a mage who kind of knows what she’s doing, and an Outsider of their own. Heather’s using brain-math and modifying herself on the fly again, too. That’s good, right? Right? … right? These bubble-things might have something to say about that though.
No Patreon link this week, as it’s the final day of the month. If you were to subscribe today, Patreon would charge you once today and then again tomorrow! Very unfair! If you’re thinking of subscribing for a chapter ahead, wait until Monday, yeah?
But you can still:
This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!
And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, is Heather going to slam straight through this nightmare angel, or is it made of acid and tar, too much for her flesh to handle? And there’s a looming mass above their heads, and only one avenue of retreat …