My lips moved in the private darkness behind the metallic bone rampart of my squid-skull mask, forming the words once again. Accurate pronunciation, clear meaning, without adornment. I gazed upward at the gigantic soap-bubble membrane as I spoke, watching the surface swirl with spirals inside spirals, liquid and smooth like oil gliding across water. Toxic purple light poured from the oily sphere, like a blazing fire of biological heat. My eyes and hands and scalp all itched like crazy, as if I was covered in sea-lice.
Vast white snake-forms slithered over each other inside the bubble. That knot of otherworldly flesh was all that remained of Hringewindla, a living god who had once filled this barren cavity at the heart of his shell.
“Alarm clock … ” I whispered once more, then bit my lower lip.
“Alarm clock,” Sevens echoed from beside me, her own voice so much more precise and formal.
But no amount of precision or detail would help me with this task. Sevens could have spelled the words forward and backward, recited the etymology of the term and the entire history of alarm clocks. Or she could have called Evelyn and Nicole up here so we could play a trio of mobile phone alarm noises. None of it would help.
Alarm clock was just words, not the thing itself. The words had no relation to the thing except for those of us who used language, and a specific language, too.
Did Hringewindla speak English, except through Amanda?
Did he even speak?
I shook my head, my confidence draining as I waded through miles of swamp. “Sevens, I don’t think I can do this,” I said. “What am I supposed to do here, summon a giant alarm clock?” I forced an awkward laugh behind my mask.
“If you like,” said Sevens.
“I suppose I could always spin my tentacles together and bob through the air, like one of those novelty alarm clocks you have to catch to turn it off?”
“Exceptionally cute, kitten. But no.”
I sighed. “You could rise to my bait on occasion, you know that? Raine would.”
“Raine would tell you that signifier and signified cannot be—”
“Yes, yes, I know what Raine would say. She would start talking a lot of philosophy that goes over my head. Besides, neither signifier nor signified is relevant here. Somehow I doubt that making a loud enough racket is actually going to wake him up, or drag him out of the nightmare, or whatever it is we’re trying to do.”
In the corner of my eye, Seven-Shades-of-Stressful-Pedagogy nodded her head in graceful surrender.
“Alarm clock,” I huffed, trying to steel myself. I kept scratching at my hands. My cuticles itched.
“Heather!” Evelyn called in a very silly stage-whisper from behind us, from the relative shelter next to the ancient church, along with Nicole. “Heather, what are you two doing?”
“Is it not obvious?” Sevens replied.
“No! You’re just staring at it! Keep us in the loop, for pity’s sake!”
“We’re building an alarm clock,” I called back to her, then cast a look upward at the slowly orbiting halo of bubble-servitors. Would too much noise bring them crashing down on our heads? “Let me concentrate, please, Evee.”
The Eye’s lessons lurked in the deepest parts of my subconscious, the parts I preferred not to examine too closely. I used to think of that as a series of back rooms, cobwebbed and lightless, full of stalking monsters eager to jump out at me and drag me off into the dark. But over the last nine months of my increasingly confusing and dangerous life, that metaphor had become useless. It wasn’t applicable anymore, not when I reached down there so often to drag those lessons forth, to put them to my own uses. Nowadays the Eye’s teachings were more like infernal machinery, stored in a lake of toxic black oil to stop their reactive nature from running out of control when exposed to light and air. And when I was willing to burn my hands and forearms with caustic chemicals, I could use that machinery to perform miracles.
But the Eye had taught me only the principles, the mathematics which described the angles of an alien yet universal physics. Light, heat, kinetic force, these were all simple things. Gravity, nuclear attraction, magnetism. Even the act of sliding matter through the membrane between here and Outside was just another kind of force, in the end.
If I was willing to endure pain and risk permanent damage, I could put a lance of energy right through Hringewindla’s body, no matter how big he was. That would certainly wake him up, as would a thousand slightly-less-violent solutions.
But none of those were an alarm clock.
I’d made a beacon for Evelyn earlier, to guide her out of the house-maze, and I hadn’t even thought about that. But a beacon was just light, turned to the purpose of guidance. My body had an analogue for the concept, in the rainbow strobing of my tentacles.
And an alarm clock was just sound, turned to the purpose of waking somebody up.
Something clicked into place in my thoughts; I didn’t need an alarm clock, I only needed Hringewindla to wake up.
“Sevens,” I murmured, trying not to break my concentration even as I asked the essential question, still staring up at the god-bubble before us. “What happens to the others back at the house, if we wake him up?”
“Nothing, I think.”
“ … you think?” I resisted the urge to turn and look at her. I had to hold on to this concept.
“The nightmare will not end until we extract the parasite and kill it. The parasite is the one projecting the confusion. I think.”
“Again, you think?”
“I am not an expert on Outsiders.” She paused. “That would be you, my dearest.”
I sighed and tried to ignore the clenched fist in my belly. “I’m hardly an expert.”
“My father would probably disagree. As would I.”
“Well, thank you for the vote of confidence.” I tried not to sound too sarcastic. “I’m … I think I’m ready. Ready as I’ll ever be.” My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow. “I’m going to try something. It might not work, I have no idea what the result will be. Do you need to step back?”
“Do you wish me to do so?”
Unable to summon the words, I stuck out my hand, clammy with the fear of pain and failure. Sevens took my hand in hers.
We stepped back together, away from the line of red paint. Nice and safe.
I didn’t do anything so cheesy or obvious as give us a countdown, but Sevens could probably tell I was about to dive by the way I took three short, sharp, nervous breaths.
And then I plunged in, face-first, full-body, and falling, down into the vat of black oil where I kept the things I did not want to know.
It would not be enough to simply locate the correct lessons from the Eye and put them together in the right order to achieve a desired effect. Even dragging Sarika from the Eye’s grasp had been a matter of motion and force, even if I’d had to leave my body to attain enough leverage to perform the equation. But this equation was not brute strength, not a giant gulp of cold waters, no deluge of information overwhelming my tiny ape brain; this was delicacy and dexterity. I had to swim through the waters of the sump, like cave diving in pitch darkness, surrounded by sharp rocks and jagged steel, with the toxic gunk and the burning acids, to forge a human concept from the mathematics of the gods. I had to use the abyssal logic of star-shine and electron mass to build an alarm clock.
My last coherent thought before the pain was that perhaps the Eye had intended this all along. Perhaps this was the point. The pupil must learn to apply herself.
My brain was on fire from the first figure of the equation, white-hot and melting through my neurons, but I couldn’t just slam the pieces into place like with every other hyperdimensional equation. I had to stop and examine each one, select the next piece from the depths and fit it together, then turn the shape over in my mind to see if it looked right. Like building a real clock, with springs and winder and hands.
For some absurd, subconscious reason, I clung to the memory of an egg-timer that my mother had possessed when I was little, shaped like a rooster about to crow. Once, feeling mischievous, Maisie and I had set it to sixty seconds, then peered over the kitchen counter with nervous anticipation, waiting for it to ring out and irritate our parents.
I rebuilt that little egg-timer, piece by piece, from repurposed infernal machinery.
Extrapolating from first principles took seconds. That doesn’t sound like long, but at the speed of thought that may as well have been hours.
I think I screamed. I know I squeezed Sevens’ hand hard enough to hurt her, grinding her fingers together. Lucky it wasn’t Evelyn who’d offered to hold my hand through this messy and imperfect delivery, because I could have hurt her badly, broken a finger or dislocated her wrist. But Sevens was made of sterner stuff. My six tentacles flailed, slapping the ground. The equation-building process went on so long that I felt blood start to drip down my face.
A final piece burned and hissed in my hands, melting my flesh and turning it black. A tiny hammer to ring the bell, to waken. I screamed myself raw with a sound like a beached dolphin as I slid it into place.
An angel was born.
In the open space halfway between me and Hringewindla’s dome, a twelve foot high golden rooster burst into reality, like a sudden flare of molten gold dust. The centre of its body was a giant clock.
The abyssal cockerel filled his lungs, scale-feathers puffing up, glinting black-gold in the purple light. He raised a snapping squid-beak, spread diaphanous wings of glinting crystal, and gripped the shell-surface with rending claws, like an artillery piece anchoring itself to the ground.
He crowed so loud that he exploded.
Later, the others told me that nothing visible had happened, other than me flailing about like a wounded octopus and crumpling to my knees, hissing and spitting blood as I tried not to pass out. Not even Sevens actually saw the giant golden rooster-squid or heard the ear-splitting cock-a-doodle-doo.
The only evidence that I hadn’t hallucinated the entire thing was a small ‘news of the weird’ article a few days later, in one of the local Sharrowford newspapers. Every domestic and farm rooster between Manchester and the Pennines had all screamed their tiny little lungs raw in unison, at about four fifteen in the afternoon that day, for no discernible reason. Some of them had gone on for almost an hour, wearing themselves to exhaustion in an effort to see off some invisible challenger. Farmers irritated, locals baffled. Enthusiasts of the paranormal pointed to a Civil War battle that had taken place on this very same day, in the year 1643, in a field not too far from the south end of Sharrowford. Roundhead ghosts are a better explanation than squid-girls summoning giant imaginary egg-timers, so I’ve never made an attempt to correct them.
My abdominal bioreactor flared to life as the squid-rooster exploded into nothingness. I crumpled and banged my knees on the ground, struggling to stay standing even as the reactor worked overtime to hold me up and keep me conscious. The delicacy of that brain-math had taken every ounce of concentration and intellectual power I could muster. My head was stuffed with cotton wool. I wanted to stop thinking and stare at a wall for twelve hours. Sevens’ held my entire forearm, just to keep me from landing on my own face.
“I’m alright—” I tried to say, but my lips slurred the words and my mouth tasted like blood. My eyes were thick and gummy, tears running down my cheeks. My head hurt like a band of iron was expanding inside my skull.
My stomach tried to punch its way up my throat and out of my mouth — but something stopped it, held it back, kept it in place. I was physically incapable of vomiting into the squid mask.
I reminded myself to thank the donor, somehow, one day.
Sevens was saying something, a low purr of congratulation, calling me a good girl. Stomping footsteps hurried to join us. Another voice floated from behind, perhaps saying my name, maybe scolding me, I couldn’t be sure. My ears still rang with that rooster’s crow.
And then a wet slooooruuummph filled the air.
It was like the sound of an entire sewer system being unblocked with clean sea water all at once, or perhaps a power-generating dam being switched on for the first time and sluicing its internal machinery with muddy silt. I raised my eyes from the surface of the shell.
Hringewindla was awake.
A trio of those vast snake-like shapes breached the inside of the oil-on-water membrane, punching through from inside like sensory tendrils reaching out from the confines of a shell. Blunt-ended, covered in glistening, glinting, glittering scales, millions of tiny points of light reflecting the purple illumination. Each one must have been as thick as a skyscraper.
And all three lashed toward me, crumpled and cowering on the ground.
In that exact same moment, the halo of bubble-servitors gathered and swirled downward, like a tornado forming in a stormy sky.
I raised a hand, pure instinct and panic, my bruised mind spinning together the familiar old equation. Out! Out, all of you Out!
But then something made of black armour plate and white flesh grabbed my hand in a gentle claw. Hastur’s Daughter towered over me, shrieking and wailing up at the awakened god. Yellow spores covered her back in a cloak of deadly promise. Hands tipped with black razor-blades made right-angle signs with each other, rotating back and forth in some unknowable symbolism. Seven-Shades-of-War-and-Ruin stood over me like a bodyguard.
And on my other side, a familiar drag-thump of foot and walking stick heralded a crackle in the air.
A discharge of static electricity rippled out across the shell-surface and terminated in a visible bubble of blue-on-blue that seared my eyes like living fire, surrounding myself and Sevens with a ten-foot bubble of our own. Evelyn stood next to me, hands contorted into painful angles on the surface of her scrimshawed bone-wand, sweating buckets and gasping out a torrent of jumbled Latin. Praem had both arms around her waist, holding her up.
In the corner of my eye, I spotted Nicole too, still sheltering in the cover provided by the ancient church. She’d gone white as chalk. Marmite had joined her, cowering behind her legs.
Nicole had her pepper spray out, held aloft in one shaking hand.
Sevens was hissing and screeching up at the giant descending tentacles. Evelyn was almost panting her Latin chant, but she couldn’t resist darting a terrified look at Seven-Shades-of-Spikes-and-Blades.
I lurched to my feet, spread my tentacles wide, and hissed.
The trio of vast snake-tentacles halted in their descent, whipping outward with sheer muscular momentum. A wave of displaced air buffeted down on us like storm winds, pulling at my hair and plastering my hoodie against my body. The whirling threat of bubble-servitors slowed, circling and bobbing, but not yet returning to their halo formation. We were mad to think that a line of red paint on the ground could ever hold back something that large.
“You mad bastard!” Evelyn shouted up at Hringewindla, sounding like she’d just smoked an entire packet of cigarettes. Blood flecked her lips. Her eyes were wide with barely suppressed terror, her pupils dilated with pain and effort, the side-effect of real magic. “We’re trying to fucking help— you— shit—”
“Do not try to speak,” Praem said, clear as ever.
Sevens made a sound up toward Hringewindla too, a bit like the sound a crab might make if it was losing a game of chess and decided to flip the board. She clacked several claws and did a skirts-to-tip muscular strain, as if threatening to release something from within herself. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the intention was clear enough.
“No, no,” I croaked, groping to brace myself against the floor with my tentacles so I didn’t fall over again. “He’s just trying to smash his alarm clock. Woke up cranky.”
Seven-Shades-of-Chitin-and-Iron turned her bulb-tip head toward me — at least I assumed it was a head, what with the various void-black eyes and razor-sharp mouth-parts surrounded by armour plates.
“He’s terrified of you,” she said in a voice like the god of all wasps.
“Fucking hell!” Evelyn shouted. I couldn’t tell what spooked her more, Sevens or Hringewindla.
“We need to talk to him,” I croaked. I had to clear my throat, tasting mucus and iron, eyes itching and sticky with my own blood beneath the squid-skull mask. Hringewindla’s vast white tentacles floated hundreds of meters above our heads; my abyssal instinct bridged the gap of species and nature and time, reading his body language in those giant feelers — fear and shock, held back for only a brief moment by our barely credible threat display. “He doesn’t know why we’re here, he’s confused.”
“We’re talking to him—” Evelyn tried to say, but then coughed and wheezed like she was having an asthma attack. Her hands held the bone wand in a death-grip, refusing to halt the spell. “Talking to him—” she wheezed out, “right now!”
“We’re not here to hurt you!” I yelled up at the giant purple soap bubble, waving my hands in the air. “You’ve been infected by a parasite!”
The three vast snake-tentacles pulled upward — retreating to gain momentum, to smash us to paste.
Sevens screeched like a banshee crossed with a hornet. Evelyn whimpered in pain. Even between their doubled threat, I doubted they could hold back the fist of a god.
“He doesn’t communicate with language,” I murmured inside my mask. “He doesn’t even have ears. Oh, damn it all, Lozzie would know how to talk to a god. What would she do?”
Lozzie wouldn’t be afraid. Lozzie would make contact, with open arms and a joyous heart.
I raised my voice so the others could hear. “I have to let him into my head!”
“What!?” Evelyn choked on the word.
“Kitten,” Sevens warned me, a sound I did not care to hear again from this particular mask. Her voice made my bowels shiver.
“He doesn’t even understand what we are,” I said. I took the first step toward the line of red paint and the edge of Evelyn’s protective bubble. “He doesn’t get it, he has no eyes to see, no ears to hear. We have to make contact.”
“Wait, wait!” Evelyn snapped. She somehow found the reserves of energy to strain forward in Praem’s grip. “Heather, no! I can do that better than you can. I’ve had demons in my head before, remember? Let me.”
“Denied,” said Praem.
Above us, Hringewindla’s tentacles twitched, as if eager for our defences to fail. We were some horrible irritant or infection, not meant to be here inside his shell. To be repulsed, like others before. He didn’t recognise us.
I turned back to look Evelyn in the eyes. My tentacles worked like extra feet, pulling me toward the boundary, to where I would be exposed to the Outsider god. “Evee, I can’t. What if he doesn’t leave your head afterwards? I can’t risk that.”
“What if he doesn’t leave your head, Heather?!”
“I can force him out,” I said, almost laughing with the absurdity of the statement. “That would be easy. I’m the Eye’s adopted daughter, remember? I can do anything to my own body. Anything.”
“Heather,” Evelyn said my name like it was a desperate curse.
“But forcing him out of you?” I hiccuped, loudly, but I wasn’t sure why. “I can’t do brain surgery on you like I did with Badger. Evee, I can’t risk hurting you. I can’t, I can’t. I can do this but I can’t do that.”
Evelyn started at me, eyes bulging, panting with the effort of maintaining her spell, relying entirely on Praem to stop her collapsing. She looked more openly distraught than I’d ever seen her before. Evelyn was a woman of surly, self-directed disdain, even in her darkest moments, not naked horror as I saw now.
“P-Praem, stop her. Stop her!”
“I cannot drop you,” said Praem.
Evelyn glanced at Sevens, all eight feet of towering war machine, and found half her courage again. “Say something, you useless B-movie rubber monster!”
Seven-Shades-of-Scary-Silicone turned her array of glistening black eyes on Evelyn, then on me, then ceased to be.
She vanished without a flicker, like dropping the rubber monster suit and stepping out of the remains. The Yellow Princess stood there instead, umbrella tip against the floor, face calm and unreadable.
“Heather is correct,” she said. “Hringewindla lacks the means for communication. This is not coffee with my father.”
Far up in the air, Hringewindla’s tentacles jerked, a hundred thousand tons of smooth mollusc muscle trying to decide if now was the time to crush us flat. Evelyn flinched and gritted her teeth, knuckles going white on her bone-wand.
“Heather!” she croaked. “Heather, for fuck’s sake. You might not be the same person after this!”
I staggered sideways toward the crackling blue surface of Evelyn’s protective spell, supported more by my tentacles than my shaking knees, unwilling to turn away from Evee’s vulnerable, naked fear.
“Evee, it’s going to work, it’s going to be fi—”
“Take that fucking mask off!” she cried, her eyes filling with unspent tears. “Let me see you!”
The request made little sense, but I didn’t hesitate. With my tentacles occupied in keeping me standing, I pulled the squid-skull mask off my face with shaking hands, then sniffed back the blood dripping from my nose. I must have looked an awful mess after the brain-math, with my own blood smeared around my eyes and dripping off my chin, mucus and snot all down my face.
Evelyn stared at me, eyes scrunched with more than physical pain. Hringewindla’s oil-bubble cast purple light on her horrified face. Vast tentacles bunched and coiled. Bubble-servitors descended in a slow, spiralling wave.
Evee opened her mouth but she couldn’t find the words, even with Praem holding her tight.
She thought I was about to leave.
“Heather … I … ”
“I know,” I said, croaking through the blood and mucus in my throat, smiling for her. “Evee, I know. I know. And I’m not going to stop being me. I promise. This will be nothing.”
We were out of time. Above us, Hringewindla’s skyscraper-thick tendrils reared up like a nest of cobras about to strike. I lurched toward the edge of the electric blue bubble, finally turning my attention away from Evelyn.
Static electricity crackled across my clothes and tingled on my skin. I shouldered my way through Evelyn’s spell. The bubble offered no resistance, then collapsed behind me as Evelyn screamed with frustration and gave up, hands finally slipping from the bone-wand.
She said something to my back, something she couldn’t say to my face, something that made Sevens turn and stare at her with surprise, right at the limit of the Princess Mask’s emotional range.
But a boom of displaced air drowned out Evelyn’s words; Hringewindla’s tentacles cracked like thunder and raced toward me like meteoric buckshot.
I was exhausted beyond thought, despite the bioreactor working overtime in my abdomen, like a sweat-shedding infection in my gut. Between the revelations and duels this morning, the emergency of Nicole’s mysterious appearance, the absurd and spooky house, and the descent into Hringewindla’s shell, I was about ready to crawl into bed and cuddle in Raine’s arms and stop thinking for the rest of the month.
So I lurched over the painted red line and stopped with my arms wide open.
Hringewindla stopped too.
His tentacles drifted to a halt. The bubble-servitors floated, aimless and uneasy. I held my tentacles wide too, as many of them as I could spare without falling over. Inside, I was shaking with adrenaline as my gamble paid off.
I was right; the red line wasn’t the danger line at all. Hringewindla could likely reach into every nook and cranny of his shell-core with those vast appendages.
The red line indicated how to commune with him. How to get close enough to whisper hello.
One of the three giant tentacles split off from the other two and descended toward me, but gently and slowly this time, pushing displaced air down against me like a slow rolling storm. I held my ground, but had to grit my teeth to keep from screaming or hissing or scrambling back. Instinctive fear made me want to cower and hide at the approach of the largest limb I’d ever seen.
Hringewindla dipped his tentacle, down and down and down, until a wall of white, scaled flesh drew level with me, only a few feet away.
“Right,” I whispered, hoarse and frozen. “Hello. Okay, so, how do we do this? How do we do this … ”
I already knew, even as I asked the question. I stretched out one of my own tentacles — a final concession to caution and reluctance, not to use my own right hand — and touched the very tip of rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic flesh against Hringewindla’s scaly hide.
An intrusion, probing, slick and wet and wriggling, like an injection of living fluid flowing back up my tentacle and into my core of true flesh.
My abyssal immune system gathered itself to repel the invader, assembling macrophage and tetrodotoxin, flooding my veins with white blood cells and raging up my spinal column in a red-hot flash-sweat of internal fire. But I clamped down on the reaction, forcing control rods back into the reactor.
I pulled my tentacle away from Hringewindla’s touch, like I’d grasped bare metal in a snowstorm, but the intrusion was not severed. It was inside me now, wriggling upward, seeking contact.
Shaking, shivering, gasping in the throes of a fever, with a black liquid slug inching up my brain-stem, mouth-parts feeling along the surface of my hind-brain for a way inside. A wave of terrible disgust and sickness rocked me. I wanted to vomit, purge my body, get this thing out of me.
But this was what I wanted, wasn’t it?
There was no choice. If I couldn’t talk with Hringewindla, then what hope did I have of communicating with the Eye?
I opened the gate of my mind and let him inside.
The moment of transition was like dunking my head in a bucket of cold coffee. I felt something ooze across my cranial membrane and settle into the wrinkles of my brain, filling the creases like oil. Suddenly I was wide awake and panting, my heart racing, my skin tingling all over. I smelled alien pheromones — but then my nose filled with the scent of fresh-cut grass and dandelions, a forest glade in spring. I tasted strong tea and lemon cake, felt an enclosing warmth around my shoulders and on the small of my back, and imagined a whispered welcome on the edge of my hearing.
“Oh, oh, that’s … weird,” I panted. “Is that you? Hello, yes, nice to meet you. I think?”
A question suggested itself, as if I was listening in on somebody else’s subconscious. It wasn’t words, just a jumble of sense impression and deep curiosity.
“Heather Morell,” I said out loud, though I doubted it was necessary to speak my answer. “You know me, we’ve met enough times.”
The slug-oil in my brain slid deeper, soaking into the tissues and staining the grey matter. I retched and almost lost the contents of my stomach, but then suddenly the disgust vanished like a lifting fog. A feeling like a warm blanket settled on my shoulders, tucked itself in around my neck, and took my hands, patting them with papery, dry reassurance. My eyelids drifted shut. I felt completely and utterly safe, like I’d wandered out of the woods on a dark night and found a little old cottage, with a crackling fire and a single occupant, welcoming me to this oasis in the endless dark. All in return for whatever tales I could spare of the lands beyond the woods. Warmth, safety — and acceptance, a glowing wave of rightness, of knowing that something more powerful and much older than me was offering me protection and purpose, unlike any I’d ever known before.
No human being could have resisted that opiate.
I wasn’t really a human being anymore.
Abyssal instinct screeched and hissed and thrashed. I forced my eyes open and wide, like I was trying to avoid nodding off.
“Excuse me!” I snapped, shrugging and waving my hands to force the imaginary blanket off my shoulders. “No, I’m not here for that. I’m not one of yours. Stop it.”
Gentle now, rest your feet, sit down by the fire. I want to hear all about you, please, dear. I know you little people out there love to talk about yourselves.
“Those aren’t my thoughts!” I shouted.
They are now, and that’s okay, isn’t it? I’m a lot bigger than you but I won’t blot you out. I wouldn’t learn anything new if I blotted you out and sat on you and ate you up, so that’s not what I do anymore, I promise. Just stay and talk, please stay and talk. Here, I’ve got coffee with spices, and more cake, and we can put on reruns of Home and Away. Or do you prefer cartoons? Spongebob is a favourite of mine.
“Stop it!” I snapped, hissing the words. “I’m going to assume those are Amanda’s tastes, and I’m not Amanda, I am Heather Morell. I am the adopted daughter of the Eye and soon to be daughter-in-law to the King in Yellow. You are in my head on sufferance.”
The strange thoughts went quiet. Quiet and sad, like a little withered old man standing there with a full teapot, confused about why I didn’t want to have a drink with him.
That image sharpened, as my mind took over again and interpreted what it could from the jumble of information spewing forth from the connection with Hringewindla. A little old man, hobbling about his cabin in the woods with his crutches, wearing leg braces to keep himself mobile. But vital and full of energy.
“I can etch the surface of reality with my mind,” I went on, softer now. “I am a master of hyperdimensional mathematics. I can send your physical body Outside with ease. So, don’t make me do that, please.”
The old man went quite still.
The brain-slug was still nestled in my cranium.
I turned away from the massive scaled tendril and back toward the others. Sevens looked calm and unruffled. Evelyn was slumped against Praem’s side, staring at me in mute horror. Praem didn’t seem too worried. Further behind them, Nicole was watching me with a deep frown, still pale and covered in cold sweat, utterly uncomprehending. Marmite crouched at her feet.
“Evee, I’m fine! It’s me! I’m fine!” I said, stumbling back toward my friends, almost tripping with my tentacles.
Evelyn lurched out of Praem’s arms before I could reach her. She let her walking stick clatter to the ground and grabbed my face with both hands, staring into my eyes with a piercing scowl. I had to catch her with my tentacles to stop her from falling over.
“It’s you,” she hissed, hoarse and raw. “It’s you alright. Alright.”
“Of course it’s me, Evee. I’m fine. I’ve had worse in my head for my whole life.”
Evelyn sniffed deeply and wiped her face on her sleeve. Suddenly she couldn’t meet my eyes, watching the floor and then gesturing at Praem to help her once again.
“Greetings,” said Sevens. “Good afternoon.”
She was speaking in my direction, but it took me a moment to realise she was not talking to me.
“Uh … he says hello,” I replied. “I think. It’s not words, it’s just a jumbled impression of … stuff.”
“We are not here on a social call,” Sevens went on. “We are solving a crisis.”
I did my best to stand up straight, even if she wasn’t talking to me exactly. We had to be formal now, sensible, business-like; at least that’s what I told myself, the wrapper I used to process this increasingly absurd situation. Praem took Evelyn’s weight from me as Evelyn fussed about with her walking stick. Nicole slowly approached us as well.
“He … doesn’t understand?” I said slowly, trying to sort through vague impressions. “I … think. He just wants to … sit around with us, hear about us.” I shook my head and sighed. “He doesn’t understand any of this.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Nicole asked, still at a safe distance from us. She eyed Hringewindla’s great drifting tentacles, and the one white tendril down at ground level, like a skyscraper on its side. “Did you tame it?”
“No, he’s in my head. For now.”
Nicole boggled at me. “Like with Amanda?”
“Not quite the same. More like I’ve broken into his house to interrogate him.”
The little old man in my mind hobbled to a chair and eased himself down, hands shaking in his lap, confused and afraid; at least, that’s what it felt like, the closest my human sense-impressions could approximate.
I sighed again and glanced over at the gigantic purple bubble with the roiling snake-monster inside, partly to remind myself of what we were actually dealing with here. “Stop trying to be so pitiful. You were about to crush us to death.”
“Why is it always tentacles?” Nicole sighed.
“Outside has carcinization too,” Evelyn grunted.
“You good, Morell?” Nicole asked. “What’s it feel like?”
“Like being invited for tea,” I answered without thinking, then shook my head. “Never mind.”
“You have a medical condition,” Praem said, clear like a silver bell.
Hringewindla sat up and paid attention to that. He stirred inside my mind, a sudden innocent attention behind rheumy old eyes.
“We are here to deworm you,” Praem explained.
That was apparently the wrong thing to say. The vast white tendril of scaled flesh that had descended for me to make contact with now began to lift from the ground, as if unsure.
“Wait!” Evelyn snapped, stamping once with her walking stick.
All her horror and dismay was gone, or at least crammed inside where she didn’t have to examine it for a while. She still leaned on Praem’s arm for support, but she straightened her spine as much as she could, and raised her chin. She did not address me, but spoke to the soap-bubble-and-snakes of Hringewindla’s physical form.
“Now you listen to me,” she hissed, simmering with anger. “And listen good. Because if you’re going to use Heather’s ears to hear, then you better bloody well be paying attention.”
“Evee,” I whispered. “There’s no need for aggression.”
“I have no love lost for you, you … thing,” she carried on, ignoring me. “So believe me, I would not be here if this was not a very serious emergency. And when we’re done, if you don’t leave Heather’s mind again, I will have your entire cult slaughtered, then come back down here with fire and acid until you’re gone. Do you understand me?” Evelyn took a shuddering breath and turned to me, swallowing down a burning anger that she could not hide. “Heather, does he understand?”
“Actually, I don’t think he does,” I murmured. “He’s already terrified of me in the first place.”
“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “He’ll still have me to answer to.”
“Yes, yes, I think he understands that part, a little.”
Evelyn turned back to the soap-bubble. “You have a parasite, Outsider. You caught it from Amanda Hopton, who caught it from Nicole here, who caught it from … well, we don’t know where from. Not yet. But I have my suspicions.”
Calmly but sharply, Evelyn explained what we knew about the parasite, the information-scrambler. She recounted what had happened back in the house, from our human-level perspective. She related what had happened to the physical parasite inside Sevens, and the fact that Amanda and others were very likely still infected. As she spoke, I felt the brain-slug-ooze-thing shifting inside my skull, a kind of pneuma-somatic parasite itself, a link back to the vast creature that sat in front of us.
“The nightmare exists because of the parasite inside you,” Evelyn said. “It has jumped the species gap, hijacked whatever higher-dimensional nonsense you’re capable of, and is now running wild. We have to get it out of you.”
“Yes,” I echoed softly. I couldn’t tell what Hringewindla was thinking, he had gone very quiet inside my mind, like a placid pool of black water. “We need to get it out, somehow.”
But my mouth had gone dry and my hands were shaking inside the front pocket of my hoodie. Hringewindla was not anything like what I had expected when we’d decided to venture down here. Reaching into Sevens’ throat to remove a physical parasite was one thing, but this? Hringewindla was simply too large, unless I was prepared to step inside his soap-bubble membrane, like some kind of miniature medical robot inside a giant body. Brain-math was an option, but the last time I had attempted to comprehend an Outsider god via direct brain-math, I’d plunged into the abyss with the sheer effort. I did have anchors now, but if Hringewindla was even a fraction as complex as the Eye, it might be too much of a risk.
And how big was his parasite, anyway?
Evelyn finished explaining and looked over at me. “Does he comprehend?”
“I … I don’t know. He’s gone rather quiet.”
Evelyn frowned harder, clenching her jaw.
“Pretty shocking,” Nicole said with a forced casual tone. “I mean, being told you’ve got a parasite. I’d be pretty freaked out if a doctor told me I had a tapeworm, you know?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes.
“Hringewindla,” I said out loud, voicing my thoughts. “I’m not sure how I’m going to get this thing out of you. I-I do want to help. I don’t know what trying to share my blood— m-my immune system, I mean. I don’t know what trying to share that with you would actually do. It might not be good for you. If there’s some other way, we can try to—”
Hringewindla’s trio of exposed tendrils suddenly whirled into motion once more, including the one he had extended to the ground in order to make contact. It was like standing too close to an ambulatory crane; the white scaled flesh shot upwards, the sheer size and strength buffeting us with a gale of wind. Praem had to hang onto Evelyn. Nicole’s coat flapped out with an audible crack. I stumbled and clung to the shell with all my tentacles, swallowing an instinctive hiss. Sevens stood unmoved, hair ruffled by the breeze.
The three tendrils of pale flesh arced high above the dome of purple liquid, then curled inward like fish-hooks. The spiralling mass of bubble-servitors shot upward to join them, moving as if caught in high winds, then pulling into a tight circle.
“Heather, what the hell is he doing?” Evelyn spat.
“I don’t know!”
“Self-surgery,” said Praem.
Evee looked at her in slowly dawning realisation.
“Mm,” went Sevens. “I strongly suggest that none of us move. He knows where we’re standing. He will take care. If I am correct.”
“What?” Nicole turned wide-eyed terror on Sevens. “You don’t mean … oh you massive cu—”
Nicole’s colourful insult was drowned out by the noise of three giant snakes plunging through the world’s largest and messiest soap bubble, a vast, ground-shaking splooooort that sounded more scatological than I had expected. The sound probably would have made Lozzie giggle, if the sight wasn’t so overwhelming. Above us, Hringewindla jammed his three tendrils right back through his outer membrane and into the writhing-snake core of his own body.
The purple membrane split open at the top, where he’d inserted the three tendrils, peeling open like a flower made of flesh, but instantly trying to wrap itself closed again. Great ripping and tearing sounds rolled from within Hringewindla’s depths, like a distant earthquake grinding below our feet. The snake-knot inside him suddenly stopped moving, then seized hard as if with a great muscular spasm.
I couldn’t help but cower at this vast spectacle, hiccuping and cringing and trying not to hiss. Evelyn was the same, huddling in Praem’s arms and gritting her teeth, hands clamped over her ears. Sevens was unaffected, but Nicole had curled up, arms over her head. Marmite was clinging to the ground like a spider in a hurricane. We weren’t built to experience something on this scale. It was like standing too close to the fury of a volcanic eruption.
But deep down inside, I recognised this moment; an abyssal leviathan, exerting all its strength.
I yearned to join in.
Hringewindla’s muscular clench ended with a meaty ripping sound worse than the innards of a thousand slaughterhouses. His bubble membrane seemed to flex and bend, as if something inside him was moving in the wrong way, bulging outward. The three vast tentacles went taut with strain.
“Reel it in,” said Praem, her voice clear as a bell amid the chaos and cacophony. “Almost there.”
Inside me, I felt Hringewindla nod a thank you for the encouragement. Perhaps we should have had Praem doing the talking all along.
With one giant muscular pull, Hringewindla’s three tendrils hauled their catch up from inside his own body, wrenching it past the membrane and up into the open air.
A parasite, a grey slug-shrimp thing plated with thin beetle-like carapace, covered with little barbs and hooks and wriggling legs.
Except Hringewindla’s parasite was the size of a cargo ship.
Sheets of rank mucus fell from the parasite like rain. Hringewindla’s tentacles gripped it so hard that flakes of carapace cracked off and fell through the air, large enough to flatten us all; we were only saved by the sheer sizes and distances involved, and perhaps by Hringewindla’s care toward the weird little apes who had ventured inside his own body.
“Fuck me blind,” Nicole whimpered.
“No thank you, detective,” said Sevens. “You must find a special friend for that.”
Sevens’ moment of absurdity helped short circuit Nicole’s instinctive panic, which was lucky because I couldn’t help. I was lost deep in the rapture of shared victory, a feedback loop from Hringewindla’s own sense of violation and rage. He was very, very angry, with this thing that had the gall to invade his body. He’d seen off much worse in the distant past, nightmares this little gnat couldn’t even dream of. In my mind’s eye, the old crippled man with the crutches and the bent back was clutching a gutting knife.
Hringewindla slammed the parasite against the ground with two tentacles, like a man killing a fish by smashing it against the side of a boat. It was like a bomb going off. The ground shook. Grey meat splattered like an earth-slide of blood and guts. Fragments of grey carapace cracked off and spun away in all directions — except toward us, carefully blocked by the third tentacle.
Far off to our right, the parasite was like a new mountain range of ruined shell and pulped meat. It writhed and shook, pinned by two vast tentacles, making a pitiful effort to drag itself away.
But then the bubble-servitors descended upon it, like a cloud of bees, or perhaps a shoal of piranhas. They swarmed every exposed scrap of flesh, pressing in close, covering the parasite with semi-transparent bubbles.
A horrible hissing, popping, fizzing sound filled the air, louder and louder. Moments later, the parasite stopped struggling, and lay still.
A smell like cooked meat filled the air, rancid and rotten.
Silence slowly returned, like the world filtering back after an avalanche. The crackle and pop of carbonising meat went on like a distant bonfire, joined briefly by a long, slow slurping sound, the sound of Hringewindla’s membrane repairing itself, sealing his snake-knot core inside once again. Our own panting, shocked breathing finally filled my ears. Nicole looked like she wanted to curl up in a ball and stop thinking. I was thrumming with sympathetic rightness and shared disgust, nodding at Hringewindla even though he probably had no idea what the gesture meant.
Praem raised a fist.
“Kaiju fight-o,” she said.
Nicole burst out laughing, a bit too hard, grimacing through her teeth. Evelyn sighed and groaned into her hand.
“I … ” I croaked more like a lizard than a human being, then cleared my throat and tried again. “Well done, um, well done Hringewindla. Thank you. I … uh, I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“What need does a god have of mortal help?” Sevens asked. She shot me a sideways look and I read it instantly. Except me, she seemed to say.
“Exactly,” Evelyn managed to squeeze out, wrinkling her nose at the terrible meaty stench. “Hringewindla is much larger than us, for a start. Though, Heather, he hasn’t hurt himself doing that, has he?”
I blinked several times as the idea descended through my subconscious.
An image returned like a bubble of swamp gas floating up from the murky depths: the crippled old man, cleaning his knife, licking fresh blood from his yellowed teeth. He winked at me.
“I think he’s just fine,” I said.
We all took a moment to gather our wits and share exhausted looks. Marmite slowly crept out from beside the ancient church and got close enough to wrap a bony tentacle around my leg.
“Good boy,” I murmured, absently patting him with a tentacle of my own.
“So … is that it?” Nicole asked, putting her hands on her hips and staring out at the massive dead parasite, like a beached whale. Beneath the semi-transparent layer of bubble-servitors, the grey carapace and burst flesh were slowly turning black. “That lifts the whole nightmare, that’s it?” She snorted and shook her head. “Listen to me, wow, ‘is that it?’ like we didn’t just watch a kaiju fight.” She shot me a look. “And you were so certain this wouldn’t be a Godzilla situation.”
“Kaiju fight,” said Praem. She almost seemed excited, though no less impassive than always.
“I have been known to be wrong,” I said, still a little dazed.
“Why is everything so bloody big?” Nicole asked. She gazed up at the huge soap bubble with its three tendrils, still towering over us and pumping out that purple light. “Your great big caterpillar thing, in Camelot, that was big too. Why is everything so massive?”
“Gods are big,” said Praem.
“Not always,” said Sevens. Then she added, almost like an afterthought, “The nightmare is lifted.”
“What about all the others?” I asked. “Oh, Raine!” I fumbled my mobile phone from my pocket, hands still shaking with adrenaline. Inside my head, Hringewindla leaned over my shoulder to have a look. But there was no signal, not down here in the bowels of the earth and half outside of reality. “Oh, oh no. If she’s been freed, she’ll be looking for me.”
“I suspect we’ll be hearing from them soon enough,” said Sevens.
“Wait wait wait,” Nicole said. “What about all the other parasites? Or is this like a Dracula’s castle thing?” She thumbed at the giant dead parasite.
“Dracula’s castle?” I asked, blinking in confusion. “And, no, um … Hringewindla is dealing with the ones inside his family. His cult, I mean. Right now. I think. It’s hard to process what any of this means, I’m sorry.”
“What about the one inside me?” Nicole tapped her chest.
“It’s dead,” said Sevens. “Parasitic proximity.” She gestured at the mountain of blackening meat with her umbrella. “The larger one took precedence. No doubt it would have tried to re-jump the species gap, back to us, if we had continued to communicate.”
“So … so I’ve got a dead thing wedged in my chest?” Nicole swallowed, going pale, one hand pressed to her breastbone.
“No. It has reverted to information.” Sevens nodded once to her, a slightly amused look in the arch of her eyebrows — or was that just my imagination. “If it had died while you were Outside, that would have been different.”
“Then where are we now?” Nicole gestured around us.
“Inside Hringewindla,” I answered on reflex.
Nicole gestured angrily at the dead parasite again. “Then why was that one not information?!”
Evelyn sighed. “I keep telling you, detective. Don’t think about it.”
Nicole threw up her hands, but she laughed with undeniable relief.
Inside my mind, down in a subconscious place I’d never known about before, Hringewindla and I were having a kind of conversation.
It wasn’t conducted via words or speech, but images and ideas. I didn’t have to vocalise, and he didn’t have to explain himself. The withered old man with the leg braces and the gutting knife was busy dicing up the grey-fleshed parasites that had invaded the minds of his friends.
I asked him if he wanted help. Real help. He was terribly disabled, after all, and even if I couldn’t stretch brain-math that far, I felt compelled to offer. He was alien and gigantic, had almost killed us by mistake, and infested human minds with an irresistible need for information, but he was hardly comparable with the worst that Outside had to offer.
He turned me down with a twinkle in his eye and a creased smile on his papery face. Even if I patched the hole in his shell, there was so little of him left now. So much flesh to re-create, so much of him lost. And would it really be him? He wanted safety and security now, not more risk. He was so very old and very tired, but very comfortable here.
Was there any other way I could help?
Yes, oh yes, little ape. Little squid, I am sorry, I apologise. These old eyes are not what they once were. Little squid, you can help, by not cutting off Hringewindla from his friends. His interface with the world. His eyes and ears and life beyond this shell. Don’t be so cruel to them. Please.
In an imaginary space that was not a space at all, I patted the hand of an old and slightly confused man. He went on slicing up dead meat, angry with the person who dared to meddle with his people.
Mages. Dealt with plenty of them before, haven’t we? Edward Lilburne? Mm. No idea where you might find him. Good luck though.
Back out in reality, Evelyn was frowning at me. Her face was lit by that oily purple light.
“Mm, I’m here. Just … communicating.” I blinked at her, pulling myself back from the crackling fireside.
“Time to go, I think,” she said.
She wasn’t talking to me.
The oily slug-ooze in my brain did not move. I swallowed, suddenly worried. The old man went on chopping and chopping and chopping.
“I … I don’t think he knows how to leave,” I said. “I’m going to have to use brain-math, like I said, to remove the connection. I … ”
Why would you want to leave, little squid? Don’t you want to be my friend too?
The old man turned towards me, inside my imagination, with the gutting knife in his hand.
Giant cone snail, or kindly old man in his isolated cabin? In any case, Heather managed to communicate with him! And briefly summon a giant abyssal rooster-thing which exploded so loudly it freaked out every normal rooster for miles around, oh dear! And what was that Evee said back there???
No Patreon link this week! (Though please feel free to head over there and subscribe if you like, of course!) Instead I want to shout out a very new story, by a long-time reader and fan of Katalepsis. Noctoseismology, in the author’s own words, would not exist without the encouragement and support of the Katalepsis discord server, and is apparently planned to go in a direction that readers of my story will very much like. Go check it out, it’s still on the first few chapters and shaping up great!
Ah, but, please consider:
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Next week, it’s brain-slug removal time. Somebody brought the salt, right? Right?