None, I think.
In retrospect, I probably should have used hyperdimensional mathematics.
Instead of relying on the Outsider-granted mind-powers that I could literally weave at the speed of thought, I threw myself at a pneuma-somatic angel-bud creature — which looked like a collection of angry soap bubbles imitating the shape of a mutant slug, while we were inside the ruins of an ancient church which housed the entrance to the angel-bud’s god-hive-father-nest, with thousands of the bubble-creature’s friends hanging in a mass above our heads, like a inverted glob of giant frog-spawn, clinging to the underside of the forest canopy, ready to fall on us like the world’s most disgusting waterfall.
This was not the smartest move I’d ever made. It wasn’t the worst, but it was, in Evelyn’s words, ‘far from optimal’.
Brain-math probably would have worked better, too. I was maybe ten meters from the bubble-servitor when it shot toward Sevens, well within range to smash it away with a jumbled physics-breaking flail of maths. And brain-math worked at the speed of thought; there was no risk of the bubble-servitor slamming into Sevens before I had time to lash out with the first tool I dragged out of the oily deep. It would be like braining an assailant with a spanner — not a perfect self-defence weapon, but it would have gotten the job done all the same.
But hyperdimensional mathematics was higher-order thinking. Brain-math required intention and planning, even if that planning happened in a split second of thought etched upon the frozen membrane between reality and the abyss.
Planning? When a monster was about to engulf Sevens’ head and digest her like some giant pitcher plant of skinned muscle and toxic slime?
Ape and abyss were in agreement, hands joined, heads together. No plans. Defend the pack.
Which is a long-winded way of justifying why I lost control. I hissed and screeched and sprang off the ground like a coiled spring — forgetting, of course, that Evelyn and I had our arms linked. I think I made her stumble, but luckily Nicole was there to catch her while I was busy playing Humboldt Squid. At least I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of knocking poor Evee to the ground. I think I would have grovelled at her feet for that.
I spent less than half a second airborne, passing Praem and Sevens in a blur of whipping tentacles.
Half a second was more than enough time to realise that I had made a mistake.
Instinct had failed to take into account that I was not a four-hundred pound abyssal creature of fanged maw and razor-sharp spines, that I was not in fact what half my mind said I should be. I was neither armour-plated nor smeared with my own toxic mucus. If I had been, my friends might have had some choice words for me. I wasn’t even ready for a fight, not as I had been against Ooran Juh, with rapid alterations and additions to my core of true flesh. I was still five foot nothing and weighed all of a hundred and five pounds, pneuma-somatic tentacles or not. When I leapt, my mind said I should be sharp and graceful, like a steel spring, but I probably looked more like a chewed dog-toy thrown onto a soggy trampoline. This was not the first time I had followed my abyssal instincts, these grafted-on drives and urges which felt so much more vibrant and real than the muted colours of swallowing my desires. But it was the first time they had led me to do something I was not even remotely prepared for.
My body did the best it could. In that half-second, the bioreactor in my abdomen spun up like a turbine, pumping heat out into my belly, energy surging into limb and core, every muscle suddenly running hot. Five of my six tentacles whipped forward to concentrate the impact on my target. The pale, smooth, rainbow-lit pneuma-somatic flesh erupted with hooks and barbs, toothed suckers, sharp scales, and bio-steel blades.
One tentacle curled tight into my side, holding onto my squid-skull mask. No time to slip it on.
The bubble-servitor never touched Sevens, so at least I was a successful protector. I slammed into the thing in mid-air and brought it down, like a cricket ball hitting a water balloon. We hit the ground together in a rolling mass of tentacles and limbs and trailing bubbles, me hissing at the top of my lungs, the bubble-servitor like a wet sack of rotten potatoes.
Evelyn later described it as like watching a threshing machine dumped into a bowl of pudding.
Pity it didn’t feel that way. I would have preferred pudding.
Touching the bubble-servitor made my skin crawl; the thing felt exactly as I had imagined. Each translucent, iridescent bubble had the texture of raw meat, but wriggling and flexing, oily and warm. I didn’t fight with any intent, just lashing out with feral response, pushing the thing away, ripping at it with hooked and barbed tentacles, slicing bubbles apart with my appendages, getting it away from us, away from me. Hissing and screeching warning noises, animalistic challenges to make this thing leave, I was completely beyond control.
Pieces of the bubble-servitor came away like ropes of rotten meat lashed off a carcass, clumps of bubbles tearing away from the central mass and trying to re-join like water droplets under surface tension.
The bubble-servitor fought back, stabbing at me with makeshift pseudopods and clubbed masses of bubbles, but it was hard to tell how much was intentional response and how much was wild flailing. Perhaps the thing was simply flaring outward like a blob of slime beaten with a whisk. The creature was clumsy, inaccurate, without proper force or killing intention behind each blow. So, we were evenly matched, pretty much. It even whacked me a couple of times, ineffectual slaps that made me screech all the louder.
The fight — really a slap-fight between two creatures that hadn’t expected this — probably lasted only four or five seconds, tentacles whipping the air, bubble-monster whirling in confusion. Other voices shouted around us as I rolled on the hard-packed mud floor of the ancient church.
Then something else stepped in and pulled the bubble-servitor off me.
For a split second, lying on my back in the depths of abyssal instinct and adrenaline-haze, I thought it was Praem, resplendent in her maid uniform with ruffled skirts and frilled shoulders, black and white and perfectly starched, exerting demonic strength as only she knew how.
But Praem wasn’t wearing her maid uniform.
It wasn’t Praem.
The bubble-servitor splashed against the wall of the church, flung there by an engine of war.
Eight feet of black, sharp-edged, armoured plates, flaring outward in a cone, ridged with yellow membranes like toxic frills. A creature of curving carapace and many-jointed limbs, with hands like bill-hooks. A razor-sharp tail whipped past my face; a sensory bulb like a wobbling head turned back to check I was okay; poison stingers and fighting claws poised to repel Hringewindla’s angel a second time.
And yellow, yellow everywhere, in tiny tendrils rising between the plates of the figure’s carapace, in the spore-dust that shed from its back in a golden wave, in the soft downy fuzz down its front.
“ … Sevens?” I said — or tried to, unknotting my throat, raw from screeching like a wild cat.
The bubble-servitor decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Or perhaps it realised it shouldn’t have messed with Seven-Shades-of-What-The-Hell-Is-That in the first place. As soon as it had reformed into a more coherent shape after splattering against the wall, it scooted upward, retreating from us like a spooked sea-slug.
Somebody whimpered in a desperate attempt not to scream. I think that was Nicole.
But before I could say “Sevens, is that you?”, Hastur’s Daughter vanished quicker than the blink of an eye, replaced once again by the prim and proper Princess Mask. Her starched white blouse and yellow skirt were all rumpled and askew, exactly as if she’d just plunged into a bar fight and dragged me clear.
She offered me her hand. I blinked at it, insensible and half-mute, still raging with adrenaline and waist-deep in abyssal instinct. And also still lying on my back like a confused tortoise.
“We must move,” said the Princess. “Up, now.”
I took her hand. She pulled me to my feet as I found my voice. “S-Sevens,” I croaked, throat still raw. “What was—”
“An old mask, from elsewhere,” she said, quick and collected. “We must move, now.”
“That was beautiful,” I mumbled. The crustacean-machine was stark and clear in my mind, like I’d seen a real angel out here in the ruined church deep in the woods. “Thank you, thank you, that was beau—”
Sevens span her umbrella in one hand, pointing upward with the metal tip. I followed, then felt like a bucket of cold water had been dumped over my head. Suddenly I was very sober.
The mass of bubble-servitors up in the trees had not taken kindly to our act of self-defence.
They had concentrated themselves in one central blob, directly over the shell of the old church, then begun to droop downward like a giant raindrop dangling from a leaf. The individual angels roiled and bubbled over each other, reminding me of a nature documentary about army ants. Strength in numbers, stick together, shoulder-to-shoulder to repel this strange and alien threat in their midst.
“Oh. Um, whoops.”
“Whoops is right,” Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth, unsteady on her feet as she peered upward through her modified 3D glasses. She had her bone-wand out in one hand, but didn’t seem to know what to do. “God dammit, Heather.”
“I’m sorry, I—”
“It’s not your fault,” she added in a rush, grabbing at Praem’s arm for support. “Sevens is right, we need to move, right now. In or out, what are we doing?”
“What the fuuuuck was that?” Nicole finally spoke. Her voice quivered on the edge of hysteria. She was wide-eyed with pale terror, staring at Sevens like she’d seen a ghost. Or more accurately, a giant Outsider monster. “Your fucking … what was … please just—”
“Very pretty,” Praem intoned. “But not the time to discuss outfits.”
“Nicky, she’s on our side!” I blurted out. “We have to move, right now. She’s right.”
“—just tell me you’re not—”
Evelyn whipped the 3D glasses off her own face, stuck them over Nicole’s eyes, and forcefully jerked her chin upward.
Nicole stopped talking. Her jaw hung open.
“Right,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth. She’d gone green around the gills. Her other arm was wrapped around Praem’s elbow like a limpet. “In or out, what do we do? Run, or go deeper? Quickly now.”
“In?” Nicole looked at her like she was mad. “Into that … that shell? No, no, no way.”
“It might be the only way to make contact with Hringewindla,” I said, glancing up at the descending droplet of bubbles again. They were halfway to the church now, the dangling blob thickening like a droplet of honey about to fall. The sight made me hunch my shoulders and duck my head, skin aching to sprout armour plates and spikes, instinct telling me to flee as if before a predator I couldn’t possibly understand. “W-we need to move, we—”
Three things happened at the same time.
Sevens pulled my hand, urging me toward the entrance of the chalk-white shell-tip poking from the soil, where the church altar used to be.
Nicole raised her voice in protest. Praem spoke too, a sudden sing-song of warning — “Bad doggos,” — interrupted by a yelp from Evelyn as Praem scooped her off her feet.
And Marmite, plucky little Marmite who apparently didn’t care one whit about the Mask of Hastur’s Spawn, scurried past us all in a blur of terrified scuttling limbs and threw himself into the open mouth of the shell.
“Run!” shouted Sevens.
We had deliberated for too long.
Sevens all but lifted me off my feet as she dragged me into the opening of the spiral shell, shoving me deeper into the cave-like darkness, our feet ringing against the cold, smooth surface, so solid after the mud of the church. Sevens turned back to make sure the others were hurrying too, then she leaned out of the shell-mouth and flicked her umbrella open, raising the lilac canopy as if to shelter them from a sudden downpour of rain.
Praem bustled inside with Evelyn in her arms, half-dragging her. Evelyn’s eyes were screwed shut in terror, knuckles white on her walking stick.
“Detective!” Sevens called, her composure cold with alarm.
Nicole Webb was slow to find her feet — or perhaps her courage. For one critical moment she fumbled with the 3D glasses on her face, unsure if she should join us or turn and run. But then she found her resolve, pushed the modified glasses against her eyes, and sprinted for the entrance, long coat flapping out behind her.
The bubble-servitors began to fall like hailstones the size of dogs. These were not natural spirit-life, but hard pneuma-somatic flesh, more akin to the Saye family spiders than wild spirits. They hit the ground with real physical impact, slamming into the mud, sliding down the walls, filling the air with alien muscle and meat.
Nicole screamed when one fell directly in front of her path, but she didn’t stop. She tried to vault over the thing but tripped and went sprawling in the mud, her legs still not entirely recovered from the effects of the parasite. She scrambled beneath Sevens’ umbrella. One of the bubble-servitors actually bounced off the lilac fabric, which would have amazed me under less dazed and confused circumstances. Nicole took the offer of Sevens’ hand.
Panting, wild-eyed behind the glasses, Nicole lurched to her feet and stumbled into the shell with the rest of us. “Oh my fu—”
“Deeper, now!” Sevens commanded, snapping her umbrella shut and drawing it inside.
No sooner had she voiced the warning than the entire mass of bubble-servitors finally fell onto the church.
It was like being buried by an avalanche. The creatures pummelled against the outside of the shell, the walls of the church, and the ground itself. They blotted out what little sunlight crept around the curve of the shell’s interior structure. They started to flow into the mouth of the shell like loose rockfall at Sevens’ heels. Sevens grabbed me again, but she needn’t have bothered, I was already pulling myself deeper with my tentacles, running on pure animal instinct to avoid being engulfed by that wave of vile bubble-flesh. Praem dragged Evelyn. Nicole followed close. Marmite scuttled sideways along the wall.
We only stopped when the sound of giant hail ceased drumming all around us.
Three sets of shuddering breath filled the close darkness — myself, Evelyn, and Nicole. So little light penetrated this deep, past the mound of bubble-servitors, that I could make out only the faintest outlines of everyone else. The walls of the shell were cool and smooth beneath my tentacles. My chest hurt with adrenaline and panic.
Somebody swallowed on a dry throat. Evelyn. “Is everybody … intact?” she asked.
“I-I think so,” said Nicole.
“Present and correct,” said Sevens from my other side. “For now.”
“Here,” said Praem.
A hand bumped against me, then held fast. “Heather?” Evelyn hissed my name.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I said between panting breaths. “I’m here, Evee, are you okay?”
“For a given value of ‘okay’”, she said. “Fucking hell.”
“You can say that again,” Nicole agreed.
“Praem, here.” Evelyn clacked her walking stick against the floor, against the material of the shell, then rummaged in her coat in the dark. “Here, hold this, please. Yes, there you go. Just flick it.”
“Let there be light,” Praem said as she activated the flash-light function on Evelyn’s mobile phone.
Harsh light burst from her hand, held up high, casting ghostly illumination across the off-white walls of the shell’s interior. Deep fingers of shadow danced across the curved floor, cast by our bodies.
Nicole and I copied the idea. I found my mobile phone and switched the flash-light on as well, trying not to dazzle anybody. Nicole produced a tiny hand-held torch from inside her coat, the exact sort of thing a competent private eye might carry. The torch shook in her grip and her face was coated in cold sweat. She pulled the modified 3D glasses off her face and knuckled at her eyes as we looked around.
“I can still see … still see it, without the glasses … ” she said. Her voice was quivering. Bad sign.
“Because we’re inside it,” Evelyn muttered, taking the glasses from her with surprising gentleness. “Stop trying to think, detective.”
“Stop thinking. I will do the thinking for you.”
Nicole took a deep breath, but it stuck in her throat. She’d gone almost grey in the last few seconds, her face washed out by the light reflected from the walls of the shell. She made a fist, clenching too hard, about to break.
“Nicky?” I said her name, but she was staring back up the way we’d came, at the pile of bubble-servitors blocking the way back. “Nicky?”
But then she noticed that Sevens had somehow caused the raised tip of her umbrella to glow with soft blue light.
“Like a magic wand?” Nicole said, voice raw and shaking, but trying to sound plain old unimpressed. “You’re kidding right? Screw that.”
“It is functional, under the circumstances,” Sevens replied. “You have a problem, detective?”
Nicole snorted, forced and artificial, but she unclenched her fist and let go of her breath. “Alright. Alright, I’m holding it together.” I caught her eye. She gave me a jerky nod and an ironic smile. “Nice tentacles, Morell. On display now, eh?”
I smiled back, trying not to show how terrified I felt. Evelyn and I shared a glance, silently agreeing not to voice the obvious conclusion.
Being able to see the inside of the shell was one thing, we were standing in it, after all. But if my tentacles were visible, then wherever we were standing was more akin to Outside than to our reality.
Between two mobile phone flash-lights, one hand-held torch, and the twee fantasy-glow of Sevens’ umbrella, we took stock of the inside of the shell. We were crammed together in a sort of narrow tunnel, perhaps seven or eight feet wide and ten or eleven feet in height, with a gentle curve to every surface, making it more like an oblong tube, although the floor was relatively flat. The exterior of the shell had looked chalky, sun-bleached, and aged, but the inside was pearlescent white, the surface full of tiny veins like crystal that soaked up the light and reflected it back in shimmers and iridescent flutters. Spiral patterns curled across every inch of surface, white-on-white, looping back into themselves and leading downward, down the shallow incline into the dark, down the helix toward the heart of the shell.
A pile of bubble-servitors blocked the way back up, heaped on top of each other like the aftermath of a rock slide, blotting out the light. They weren’t coming after us, but there was no way back through them.
Evelyn stared at the mass of revolting creatures for a few moments, leaning on Praem’s arm, then sighed and ran her hand over her face.
“It’ll be okay, Evee,” I said. “We’re not stuck. We’re not.”
“Er.” Nicole swallowed hard. “How do we get back out? I would really like to know if there’s a plan.”
“God,” Evelyn hissed. “We can all be so fucking stupid sometimes.”
“That was as much my fault as any other,” said Sevens. “I did not practice self-restraint.”
“No, this is what we get for messing about!” Evelyn snapped.
“It was my fault,” I said. “Evee, it was my fault, I threw myself at the bubble-servitor.”
Evelyn gave me a sidelong look. I tried to look contrite, which wasn’t hard because I was absolutely mortified. I’d brought the gathering of Hringewindla’s angels down on our heads and all I had to show for it was muddy clothes, dirt smeared all over my hoodie, and the ragged remains of an adrenaline high.
“I lost control,” I blurted out. “Back in the house earlier, when I found Raine, I didn’t jump up to the window to join her. I feel so stupid I didn’t, like I could have used my tentacles better, I should have followed the urge, so this time I just … I gave in, I’m so—”
“Don’t you dare,” she said. “Don’t you dare apologise. Shut the fuck up.”
I opened my mouth and shut it again, unable to overcome Evelyn’s glare.
“Uh, the way out?” Nicole prompted. “Please?”
Evelyn gestured at the pile of bubbles. “Remind you of anything, Heather? How do we end up in the same situation twice, hmm?”
“This is just like with Alexander’s bloody castle. We’re inside, no way back.”
“Oh,” I sighed. “No, Evee, this is nothing like that time. It’s not like we’re trying to rescue anybody.”
“First as tragedy, then as farce,” said Sevens, a few paces further down the spiralling slope. Marmite clung to the wall next to her, his tentacles trailing out across the surface of the shell, exploring this strange cave. “I am glad to be present for the farce. And you are all glad I was not here for the tragedy.”
“Not a tragedy,” said Praem.
“Hey,” Nicole said, sharper than before. “Are you all ignoring me?”
“I can literally Slip us all back out if I have to, Nicky,” I said. “That’s how we can escape. And rescuing Lozzie from the castle was not a tragedy, Sevens!”
Sevens nodded minutely, acknowledging my point.
Nicole held her hand out to me. “Alright, let’s go then. I’m ready, let’s go.”
Evelyn snorted. Sevens raised her eyebrows. I swallowed and stared at Nicole’s hand.
“Going down,” said Praem.
Her bell-clear voice echoed in the confines of the shell, vanishing downward into the spiralling dark.
Nicole studied our faces one by one. The light in her hand shook slightly. “You’re kidding.”
I winced. “Well … this is what we wanted.”
“Wait here if you like,” Evelyn grumbled. She turned to peer down the spiral. “Praem, I need a hand, I can hardly balance on this floor as it is.”
“Courage, detective,” said Sevens. “You have more than you believe. You are no coward.”
Nicole grit her teeth and lowered her hand. She looked ready to either curl up in a ball and start sobbing, or shoot somebody dead.
“Sorry,” I murmured.
“Cowards generally live longer,” she said. “Just don’t put me in the vanguard, alright?”
‘Down’ went on forever, plunging into the dark beneath the world.
Sevens led the way down the long spiral, umbrella held against her shoulder, sensible heels click-clacking against the calcium carbonate of Hringewindla’s shell. If indeed it was calcium carbonate at all. What did Outsiders use to make shells? Was this part of his natural form, or had he grown this shell after arriving on Earth, for protection and safety? If the shell was pneuma-somatic, how had it come to be embedded so deeply in the ground? Clearly we had crossed some invisible threshold and stepped into a bubble of Outside, like a bulb of pressurised water from the ocean depths preserved in a reverse-Bathysphere.
I took Evelyn’s advice and tried not to think too much about how this all worked. As Sevens had told me, Outsiders have an odd relationship with notions of reality.
Marmite scurried along the wall next to Sevens, happily keeping pace with her and probing the darkness with his long, bony, segmented tentacles. It was the first time I’d seen him uncoil them from around his body, using them like he had when he’d been Edward’s remote-controlled puppet. The darkness and the close confines suited him well. Perhaps he felt safe here, at home in the dark. At least one of us did.
I followed in Sevens’ wake, my own tentacles wide and waiting, in case something was about to rush out of the darkness. I kept my squid-skull mask hugged against my belly, unwilling to hinder communication by seeking refuge inside the bone-metal, for now. Evelyn and Praem followed behind. Evelyn struggled a little with the smooth, shallow ramp of the shell innards, her walking stick betraying her on the polished surface. Praem acted as her support, the mobile phone raised in her other hand like a lantern in the dark.
Nicole brought up the rear, courage bolstered by purpose.
For the first five or ten minutes, we crept slowly downward without saying much, holding our collective breath. I didn’t know about the others, but my mind was filled with images of Hringewindla, of what he might be like — some kind of giant mollusc at the core of this spiralling shell? At least he and I might have something in common.
But after ten minutes, the change became undeniable.
“It’s getting wider,” Evelyn said, looking at the opposite wall.
“Yeah,” said Nicole. “I noticed that too. Weird, hey?” She toyed with her little can of pepper spray in one hand.
“Well,” I said, trying to sound bright. All I did was make myself flinch at the volume of my own voice echoing down the tunnel. “It is a shell, after all. I think they tend to get wider, on the inside. I think.”
“Stick to the right hand wall,” Evelyn said. “That’s the exterior.”
The shell got wider and wider as we descended further down the helix. The slope of the floor got steeper too, tilting us downward. The left hand wall drew further and further away, until it was barely visible even when we pointed the light directly outward. By the twenty minute mark, we walked at the edge of a black and echoing void.
“It’s okay, it’s going to be all right,” I said now and then. “I’ve been in worse places, much worse places. This is going to be okay.”
“Is this real?” Nicole hissed from the rear. Her voice echoed off into the dark beside us. “Is this another nightmare? This can’t be real. We’ve been walking downward for twenty minutes. Twenty. Minutes. How deep are we?”
“Don’t think about it,” Evelyn said between her teeth.
But Nicole couldn’t stop. Her teeth were chattering. “There was a video game with something like this. Horror game, I think. Played it back when I was a teenager. These stairs kept going down and down and down. Impossible.”
“What was at the bottom?” I asked. “In the game?”
“Hell. Sort of.”
“Well, there’s no such thing as hell,” I said, trying to sound confident. Also a lie. There were many hells, Outside. “And at least there’s no branches here, we can’t get lost.”
Evelyn hissed. “And don’t you jinx us, Heather. So help me God, don’t you jinx us with that.”
I shut my mouth and kept it that way.
Just when the gradually steepening incline of the shell was becoming a problem for those of us without tentacles, Sevens found the stairs.
“Oh, how unexpected,” I said as I joined her. We briefly paused on the narrow, rough, rectangular stairs cut directly into the material of the shell. They followed the right hand wall. Whoever had been here before had the same idea as us: don’t wander off into the dark.
“Stairs,” Praem announced.
“Oh, thank fuck for that,” Evelyn grunted, covering her discomfort with complaints as she rubbed her hip.
“Hringewindla’s home needs disabled access,” said Praem. Nicole started laughing, a little too much, too loud, too shrill. Praem turned to look at her. “I am not joking,” she added.
Nicole ended her laugh with a cough. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”
After almost half an hour of walking, half an hour of worrying about the others, about Raine and Zheng and Twil, half an hour of my gut clenched up like a fist, half an hour of being ready with adrenaline and barbed tentacles and brain-math, half an hour of descent in the dark — we stepped into the heart of Hringewindla’s shell.
Light filtered around the curve from up ahead as the helix levelled off and the stairs gave up. Diffuse, dark purple light washed over everything and made my eyes ache, as if a toxic sun hung veiled behind thick clouds. The light slowly revealed that we were walking huddled along one wall of a massive smooth tunnel; the left hand wall was easily three hundred feet away, and the ceiling climbed up and up and up.
The tunnel ended like an estuary opening into the sea.
We all stopped there, on the edge of the possible. Marmite came down from the wall and huddled behind my legs, his recent courage sputtering out. Sevens put out her light and touched the shell-floor with her umbrella. Evelyn wet her lips and tried to speak, twice, but failed to find the words. Nicole’s jaw hung open. I struggled not to coil my tentacles inward and cradle myself like a frightened child.
A plain of bone curved away from us, so wide it seemed flat. The distant walls must have been several miles away, indistinct boundaries of mottled chalk-and-grey, curving back upward toward an unseen ceiling. The cavity in the heart of the shell was so large that it possessed weather; thick dark clouds hung far up in the false sky, still as a dead ocean, lit from below by that strange dark purple glow.
Towers of curving, curled, spiked shell rose from the surface of the plain at regular intervals, in a spiral pattern, as if to provide anchors to something that had once filled the entire space. Some of them were cracked and broken, pieces of them missing, snapped off and lost.
The ground — the surface of the shell itself — was marked and scored here and there with meter after meter of jagged, black scorch mark, clearly ancient now, worn smooth and begun to blend in with the grey-chalk of the shell. Some of the marks had depressions down their middle, as if dozens of giant claws had once scraped across this surface.
The scorch marks and claw-wounds all radiated from a hole, clearly visible far, far to our right, halfway up the distant wall. The hole opened on darkness. It must have been gigantic, tall as a skyscraper.
But the crippling wound in Hringewindla’s shell was dwarfed by what remained of the Outsider god himself.
Directly ahead of us, perhaps half a mile away, a dome bulged upward from the surface of the shell; a soap bubble the size of a football stadium. The shifting, semi-translucent veil poured out that strange purple light, like oil on water reflecting the sun. Inside the membrane of swirling purple I could just make out a slow shifting motion, like a mass of gigantic pale snakes coiling over each other, a never-ending slither of scale against scale, soundless and vast, as celestial mechanics in the void of space.
Angels — Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors — floated above the oily purple soap bubble in a distant halo. Thousands of them, docile and still, a court attending their crippled god.
A few feet away from us, a short metal rod had been driven into the ground. A blue nylon rope was tied to the top of the rod, with the other end tied to another rod about twenty feet further on, and then another, and another, leading toward Hringewindla.
Guideposts, left here by human hands.
“How … ” Nicole barely breathed the word. “How does all this exist … down here?”
“We can … we can … we can … ” Evelyn kept trying to start a sentence.
A single tear was running down Sevens’ cheek. I doubted that she was overcome by the alien strangeness of this place. Hers was some unknowable sympathetic melancholy.
“I’ve seen worse,” I said with a sigh.
Nicole boggled at me. Evelyn frowned in my direction. Sevens wiped her cheek and turned her attention to me instead. Praem kept staring at the big ball of giant snakes, but I don’t think she was that bothered. Marmite gave no sign he’d understood, but he touched one of my tentacles to demand a hand-hold.
“You what?” Nicole said.
I shrugged. “I have. I mean, it’s weird, yes. Very weird. But I’ve genuinely seen much worse, Outside. At random. As a little girl.”
Evelyn forced herself to take a deep breath, steadying herself by leaning heavily on Praem’s support. “Heather is right. She’s seen much worse than this. This isn’t actually that bad. We must keep this in perspective.”
“Worse than that?!” Nicole gestured at the Hringewindla-dome and the wound in the shell. “Fuck me, Heather. You’re made of sterner stuff than I am.”
“I’m just used to it. It’s not a big deal.” I took a deep breath, oddly embarrassed by the way Nicole was looking at me, then I shouldered ahead, taking the lead as I made for the first of the guideposts driven into the shell-surface. “Come on, it’s not that bad.”
Somehow, I managed to sound like I was telling the truth.
This was very bad, in ways I wasn’t sure I wanted to comprehend. We didn’t even understand what we were looking at; I cursed my own lack of foresight, we should have had one of the Hoptons here with us to explain. I hadn’t been aware of my expectations until they’d been dashed. I had imagined Hringewindla as some tentacle-monster in a stone-walled church cellar, with a bloody altar at his feet, and a taste for riding along in human minds, something that could exist on Earth without breaking too many natural laws.
I’d met Gods face-to-face twice now, and I had to admit that Hringewindla was more akin to the Eye than to the King in Yellow.
But I wasn’t about to admit any of that in front of Nicole or Evelyn. Nicky was barely holding on. Evelyn was an unaltered human, however grumpy and brilliant she could be. Sevens and Praem and I may have been equipped for this encounter, but we had to protect those who were not.
Then again, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this either.
I grabbed the blue nylon rope with a tentacle, just for something to anchor myself, and then forced one foot in front of the other. The alternative was to give up. We’d come too far for that.
To my deep and lasting relief, the others hurried to join me. My gamble had worked. Phone flash-lights were switched off, Nicky’s torch went out, and Marmite scurried up beside me, holding tight to one tentacle.
“And you said you hadn’t read any Lovecraft,” Nicole hissed.
“Old Howard was full of shit,” Evelyn muttered. “Mostly.”
“I think I preferred the spooky house,” said Nicole. “Alpacas and all.”
Crossing the half-mile of open ground took about ten minutes, flanked by those massive twisted pillars of shell, over the remains of scorch marks as wide as a bus. Our feet clacked and echoed across the smooth plain. The rubber tip of Evelyn’s walking stick went squeak-squeak. Making our way toward the semi-transparent purple dome full of giant writhing tubes was not the most intimidating thing I’d ever done, but it was probably up there in the top ten.
The landscape was not simply alien — it wasn’t a landscape at all. The curvature of every surface, the blunt tapering barbs on the towers, the looming hole far off to our right, all of it was undeniably biological. Even the thick grey clouds were not true clouds, but some kind of clinging internal moisture. I tried not to think about the implications of that.
“Why the safety rope?” Nicole asked after a minute or two. “I don’t like that, not one bit. Why do you think they need a safety rope?”
Evelyn answered before I could think of how to soothe Nicole’s worries. “Confusion, disorientation, brain fog,” she said. “That sort of thing. Hringewindla gets into people’s minds, detective. I would wager whatever acts of worship take place down here, sometimes they leave a worshipper … unwell.”
Nicole let out a big sigh. “Fuck me, I hope we aren’t gonna need it.”
“We won’t,” I said.
“ … excuse me?” Nicole sounded even more worried than before. I sighed at my own poor choice of words.
“I mean, I’ll Slip us back out, once we’re done here. We’re not climbing back up the shell. Evelyn would struggle, for a start.”
“Bloody right,” Evelyn grunted.
Nicole snorted and shook her head. “For a second there I thought you meant we weren’t going back at all.”
“It won’t be like that,” I said. “We’re here to help him. Then we’ll leave. That’s all.”
“Help him is doing a lot of heavy lifting there,” Nicole said. She nodded ahead, at the low purple dome like oil on water. “You gonna reach into that with a tentacle and pull out a parasite?”
“She might,” Evelyn answered for me. “Stop thinking about it, detective. Let Heather and I do the thinking.”
Nicole puffed out another sigh, but she stopped complaining.
The Hringewindla-dome revealed its true size as we drew closer. The shape wasn’t really a dome at all, but actually a sphere, lying in a sort of socket in the landscape, slightly loose like a shrunken and withered eyeball, as if this core organ of his being had once been healthy and flush against the supporting tissues. About one hundred meters from the lip of the socket was some identifiably human detritus, where the guideposts terminated. The shapes came into focus as we got nearer. A trio of modern tents were pitched next to a low stone building.
“Is that … a church?” Nicole asked.
“The real church,” Evelyn said between gritted teeth. “Inside his body. Thing must be ancient.”
But one of us was not watching Hringewindla at all. As we walked closer to the little human encampment, Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight was gazing outward across the plain of dead calcium carbonate, her cool and collected features undeniably tainted with distant melancholy.
“Sevens?” I asked, as much to distract myself as to reassure her. “Are you all right?”
For a long moment the Yellow Princess did not respond. I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then she turned to gaze past me, the other way out across the inside of Hringewindla’s shell.
“He must have been such a grand thing,” she said.
Evelyn raised an eyebrow. Nicole went “eh?” But I nodded, because I knew what Sevens was talking about. I hadn’t tried to put it into words, but it didn’t take a marine biologist to understand.
“A fortress,” Sevens continued, voice soft and far away. “Secure within his shell, bringing his home with him wherever he went. How many worlds did he visit? What sights has he seen? But now he cannot move. He cannot risk leaving, not with his protection ruined, or he might be devoured. He is stuck in the heart of his own shell, alive but immobile, marooned.”
“The hell are you talking about?” Nicole said.
“Big hole,” said Praem.
“The hole in the wall, Nicky,” I said. “It’s a drill-hole.”
Nicole boggled at me, too. I saw her throat bob. She was very focused on this conversation, so as not to look up at the dome looming over us as we crept closer, like ants before a whale.
“Hringewindla has a shell, yes?” I said. “Like a marine mollusc. That hole in the wall over there, it’s like the kind of hole made by a predator, the kind with a drill-tongue, a rasping tongue. Like a starfish or a sea snail or something similar. That kind of predator pins the shell down, so they can drill a hole through, to get at the mollusc inside.”
Nicole stared at me, wide-eyed with dawning comprehension. Slowly, like a woman forcing herself to acknowledge a bleeding spectre in the corner of her bedroom, she turned to gaze at the vast hole in the wall of the shell, the leviathan scorch-and-claw marks across the shell’s surface, and the barbed towers that looked like they were meant for anchoring flesh.
Evelyn put her face in her hand. Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “Thank you for that explanation, Heather. Detective, don’t think about it.”
“Looks like he won the fight, though,” I said quickly, trying to cover for my mistake. Nicole had not wanted to know any of that. “But he’s been reduced. That’s what they meant by ‘crippled’, I suppose. Sorry, I only know all this because I’ve watched so many marine life videos on youtube … ” I trailed off and cleared my throat.
“This entire space was once filled with his flesh,” said Sevens. I winced. Evelyn rolled her eyes to the false sky.
But Nicole just laughed, shaking her head. “Giant sea-creature gods, wounded and napping. And you said Lovecraft was full of shit.”
“Reduced so far from his peak,” said Sevens. “Stuck here, trapped in his own body. It is no wonder he rides along in the minds of his mortal friends.”
Evelyn snorted. “Friends. An Outsider with—”
She didn’t quite manage to course-correct before the Yellow Princess gave her a sudden, sharp look.
Evelyn cleared her throat. “Present company excepted. You’re different.”
Seven-Shades-of-not-so-Smooth stopped walking, which was a problem because she was right next to me, with Evelyn and Praem behind us. Evelyn was forced to stop as well, arm-in-arm with Praem. Nicole halted too. Marmite paused at my side, confused by the sudden palpable tension.
“Am I?” Sevens asked Evelyn, ice-cold, umbrella resting point-down. “What about Praem?”
“Sevens, please,” I whined, and felt like banging my head on the ground. “Not now?”
“Praem is a demon from the abyss, in a human form, that’s different altogether,” Evelyn said. Then she huffed. “Look, I’m sorry, I apologise, I didn’t mean to offend you. But you’re a … you wear a human form. That makes it easier.”
“I’m different because I am small, is that it? Because I’m not large? Because I choose to present in this form, rather than one like this?” She gestured around us with a flicker of her fingers. “Because I am not crippled?”
Evelyn’s turn to sigh and give her a look. “I’m crippled.”
“Disabled,” I said — but gently. I wasn’t actually correcting Evelyn’s choice. But the word was there if she wanted it.
“I know what it’s like,” she said to Sevens. “And I apologise. It’s hard for a human being to have sympathy for something the size of a dozen whales.”
“Yeah, cut us some slack, hey?” Nicole said, wide-eyed and confused by the whole situation. She wasn’t just left behind, she was practically on another planet. I was amazed she could keep up with this at all. “And can we maybe not have this conversation while we’re in the middle of a giant underground shell? Maybe? Please?”
“We are about to speak with him,” Sevens replied without looking away from Evelyn. “Now is the perfect time to make sure we all understand what we are speaking to.”
“I’m trying,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.
“She is trying,” said Praem.
Sevens waited another beat, then nodded, ever so slightly. “I know you are, madam magician. I apologise for my fiery temper.”
Evelyn frowned at her, incredulous. “Fiery temper? No apology necessary. I was in the wrong.”
Did I detect a hint of sarcasm in Sevens’ tone? This wasn’t the time to investigate what was going on with her, so I filed that away for now, worried that all was not well with my Yellow Lover.
We covered the final stretch of guide-posts and blue rope, which led us to the little human encampment, about a hundred meters away from the edge of the oily purple sphere. This close, the tube-like shapes below the surface were almost clear enough to see in full, a tantalizing suggestion of snake-like motion, ropes of clean white flesh sliding over each other in an endless dance, without head nor tail to demarcate end or beginning. The surface of the sphere itself was dizzying to watch, oily motion swirling in millions of tiny spirals, across a soap bubble larger than any object any of us had ever seen.
Well, except for me. It wasn’t larger than the Eye.
Purple light spilled from the surface of the great oily bubble. It made my skin feel oily too. My eyes and scalp both itched, as if I hadn’t washed for weeks. As if by unspoken agreement, we all sheltered in the thin shadow cast by the strange old church.
“Who the hell do you think built this?” Nicole asked. “How? I don’t even … ”
“Down here in the corpse of a god,” said Sevens.
“People,” Praem said.
The Church of Hringewindla, the Brinkwood Cult — and the mad fools who had come before them — had established a semi-permanent camp down here. The church building was truly ancient, made of grey stone blocks, roughly cut but expertly mortared. It contained nothing except a few low stone benches and a badly stained altar, the exact thing I had expected, though the stains looked ancient by now. The foundation stones were affixed directly to the shell’s surface, though the building was short and squat, without a roof, and with one open end facing toward Hringewindla himself. What need of a roof when you were sheltered by your god?
“Anglo-Saxon, maybe?” Evelyn said. Her jaw was clenched tight. She shot a look at me. “Does our resident castle expert have an opinion?”
I shook my head, stunned by the age of the structure. It was untouched. No weather down here. “I don’t know. It’s not a castle.”
The modern additions to the permanent encampment were far more practical. Three sturdy tents were fixed to the ground with steel spikes, looking ready to endure an Arctic storm. A large camping stove was set up nearby, ringed by some cheap lawn chairs. Some kind of stout plastic cabin stood a little way from the tents; Nicole laughed when we realised it was a portaloo, complete with the smell and everything.
We kept low as we explored the tents, trying to keep out of the purple light as much as possible.
The cult had food supplies here too, in a big chest next to the tents. Dried food, cereal bars, bottled water, and even a few MREs. Nicole peered at some of the bars, declared they were well within their best-by date, and then started eating while we poked around. The tents contained bedrolls, emergency changes of clothes, a first aid kit, all the things you might want while spending a season contemplating the divinity of a giant sea-snail.
The modern cult had even set up a small petrol-powered generator, currently switched off. Several full jerry-cans sat next to it. Lines ran from the generator to a little heater, some flood-lamps, and — hidden away inside one of the tents — the bulkiest and blockiest laptop I’d ever seen.
Nicole grabbed the computer, shaking her head with amusement. “Rugged conditions laptop,” she explained as she propped it up on the food chest and pressed the power button. It awoke instantly, but only to a password screen for a user labelled as ‘Amanda’.
“No prizes for guessing who spends all their time down here,” Evelyn muttered.
We exhausted the encampment quickly, there really wasn’t much to see, unless we planned on spending the night here. I wasn’t about to suggest that even as a joke.
About twenty feet out from the back of the tents and the open end of the church, the cult had painted a line on the ground, in red. It stretched about a hundred feet to the left and right. A second, closer line, was marked by rocks placed at regular intervals. Perhaps that line had been here for a much longer time.
“Do not cross?” Nicole suggested.
We were sheltering between the tents and the church, like a clutch of tiny fishes afraid to venture out into the open water with the sleeping leviathan. Purple light swirled and flickered over our hands and faces. I was starting to itch all over. Marmite wouldn’t follow us, crouched by the tents.
“Smart money would say that indicates the minimum safe distance, yes,” Evelyn said. “But why the second line? Why the rocks?”
“Maybe he’s gotten weaker, over the years,” I said.
“Sad,” said Praem. Sevens nodded in agreement.
“Why’s he not reacting to anything?” Nicole asked. “Can it … see us?”
“He is having a nightmare,” said Sevens. “Not dead, but dreaming.”
Nicole gave her such a dark look I was afraid the detective was going to draw her pepper spray and unload it on Sevens’ face. “I don’t care what the fuck you are, lady,” she said, “but you make another Lovecraft joke and I will lay you the fuck out.”
“Fair,” said Sevens.
“What now?” Evelyn asked between clenched teeth, staring up at Hringewindla. “If he’s gone full hikikomori here, how do we wake him up?”
I frowned at her. “Full what, I’m sorry?”
“Never mind.” Evelyn shot me a look. “Any ideas?”
There was nothing else for it. I didn’t feel in any kind of fit state for a conversation with a god, let alone a wake up call; my clothes were covered in dirt from rolling around on the floor of the church, I was hungry and tired and mentally exhausted, my skin itched all over and my eyes ached from the oily purple un-light. But I took a deep breath, slipped my squid-skull mask on over my face, and stepped out from beside the church.
Hringewindla loomed like a cliff-face rising from the land.
Don’t worry, I told myself. If the worst happens you can always Slip him Outside. Though that would probably kill him, wouldn’t it?
Evelyn hissed my name, then a plea to be careful. Praem said, “Heather knows what she is doing.” Nicole stayed silent. Sevens followed at a distance, I could hear her shoes clicking behind me.
I spread my tentacles wide and opened both my hands. Unarmed, without guile. We come in peace.
Hringewindla’s halo of bubble-servitors turned above me like moons around a gas giant. Behind the oily veil, giant white tubes shifted and slithered.
I reached the red line, toes stopping inches from the stripe of paint. Behind my mask, my mouth was dry as a bone. My heart was hammering inside my chest. My legs shook. I was the adopted daughter of the Eye, but I was also very, very small.
“ … please wake up?” I said out loud, then sighed when nothing happened, feeling like an idiot. “Wake up!” I yelled, but shouting was not enough to rouse a god. “What do you need here, an alarm clock made of hyperdimensional mathematics?”
I almost jumped out of my skin; Sevens had walked up right beside me. She was gazing up at Hringewindla’s surface, both hands on her umbrella, tip planted on the ground before her, lit all down her front by that purple light.
“Oh my goodness, Sevens, don’t do that!” I hissed, one hand over my pounding heart.
“Alarm clock,” she echoed. “Is that within your limits?”
“I … I don’t know. Alarm clocks are a human concept. I don’t think the Eye had anything to say about them, somehow.”
“Do you have anything to say about them?” She turned to look at me, cool and collected, even amid all this.
“ … maybe?”
“Alarm clock … alarm clock … alarm clock,” I muttered behind my mask, staring up at Hringewindla’s core. “Alarm clock.”
Sevens was asking me to forge something with mathematics that I had not been taught by the Eye.
She was asking me to create.
Turns out that Hringewindla isn’t quite what anybody was expecting. Surprise(?!), it’s cosmic horror! Or cosmic tragedy, if you ask Sevens? Disabled planeswalker cone-snail Outsider? Doesn’t seem like that blood-stained altar has been used in a long time, and at least he’s got some human friends? Must have been down here a long time, that’s for sure.
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Next week, Heather turns herself into a squid-themed novelty alarm clock.