Alone in a cabin deep in the woods, far from the paved roads and familiar signposts of civilisation, in the dead of night beside a crackling fireplace, a pair of comfortable armchairs, and a butcher’s toolbox of knives displayed on a bare wooden wall. Some of the knives are chipped and scratched from years of use, from biting into bone or sawing through cartilage. Others are worn down to nubs of their former glory from decades of re-sharpening. But every blade is free of rust, clean and cared for, trophies of the hand that made the stroke and sliced the meat and severed the tendons.
Alone with a disabled old man, bent-backed and shrunken, skin dry and papery and yellowed like parchment, his hair and beard a scraggly mess, his legs braced by steel and plastic to support his crumbling bones, with crutches under his armpits to help him hobble about his reduced and narrow world, the inside of this single cabin.
Alone with an old man, clutching a well-used knife in his hand, asking why I didn’t want to be his friend.
It was like a scene from one of the horror movies that I refused to watch with Raine, not the silly, comfortable, over-the-top Hammer Horror style at all.
Except I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t experiencing any of that with my real senses. These images were merely my human imagination doing the best it could to frame and process the wordless conversation I was holding with Hringewindla. This was how my mind interpreted direct contact between me and an Outsider god.
My physical body, the ‘real’ me — whatever that meant anymore — was still standing inside the heart of his vast and ravaged shell, next to the shrivelled remains of his fleshy core, the gigantic snake-knot inside the purple membrane, and the three tentacles he had extended beyond that final barrier.
The kindly old man gripping the knife was actually a blob of Outsider flesh the size of a football stadium.
He was inside my head in a very literal sense — Hringewindla’s contact medium, a slug of black ooze, had slipped along the inside of one tentacle and crawled up my spine until I’d let it past my own final barrier. Now it lay across the physical fabric of my brain, soaked into my grey matter like a film of oily slime, sluicing between my neurons. It should have felt disgusting enough to make me retch and scream; on the edge of my awareness, abyssal instinct twitched and flexed with a desire to scratch at my scalp, bore a hole in my own skull, and remove this infestation. But Hringewindla had quieted that disgust, wrapped me in warm comfort and reassurance, and made having a brain-slug seem almost normal.
Alone with an Outsider, in my head.
Except I wasn’t alone, not really. I was never alone anymore, not unless I chose to be.
Evelyn must have seen the flare of panic behind my eyes, the sudden alarm when Hringewindla turned to me with that metaphorical knife in one hand. He wasn’t the only one holding a weapon. Evee brought her bone-wand up in both hands again, contorting her fingers across the surface of scrimshawed magical symbols. She stumbled, mishandling her own walking stick, but Praem was there to catch her and hold her tight.
“Heather?” Evelyn hissed between gritted teeth, eyes blazing. “He doesn’t know how to leave? Then I will make it very clear to him. You hear me in there? Do you?”
I knew very well she wasn’t talking to me.
“Ah,” said Sevens, with a wet click of her lips.
Marmite tightened his grip around my left thigh, like a hound trying to stay close to his master.
“Hey, what?” Nicole said, suddenly alarmed again. She turned away from the sight of Hringewindla’s removed and dead parasite, lying far off to one side like a slowly blackening mountain range of grey flesh and cracked carapace. It lay beneath deep drifts of bubble-servitors still cooking the thing to make sure it was inert. The sound of sizzling meat still filled the air. “What’s the panic? What’s going on now?”
“Our new friend has overstayed his welcome,” said Sevens. “Which is a pity, because he deserves the company.”
“Heather?” Evelyn hissed my name again. I swear she moved like she was going to bonk me on the head with her bone-wand.
“Wait, wait, please, wait!” I snapped at everybody, putting my hands and several of my tentacles up to get them to stop talking at me for a second. “I can’t concentrate on two things at once. Let me talk with him, please.”
Evelyn looked at me like I didn’t know my own mind, like I was suggesting I should go walking alone in an abandoned and semi-flooded mineshaft. She looked ready to knock me out and solve this herself, probably with far more violence.
“Evee, I’m going to be fine,” I blurted out. “If the worst comes to the worst, I can always—”
“Everybody grab a tentacle,” Evelyn spoke over me, then glanced at Nicole. “Mostly you, detective.”
“W-what?” I blinked in confusion.
“In case of emergency,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth. She nodded sideways at the trio of giant white tentacles far up in the air above our heads, still dripping with vile fluids from Hringewindla’s dead parasite.
It took me a moment to catch on.
What Evelyn meant is that I might have to Slip us out, and quickly.
The old man inside my mind tilted his head to one side. He didn’t understand that at all. He didn’t understand how I could leave.
“O-oh!” I said out loud, for the others. “Um, go ahead, yes, uh, feel free, tentacles for everyone, I suppose … ”
We then commenced what had to be one of the most awkward group hugs in all history, still plagued by that toxic purple light making every exposed inch of skin itch. I wrapped a single tentacle around Evelyn and Praem combined. Evee helped by pinning it under one armpit, like I was securing her into the seat of a roller coaster. Nicole grimaced and politely allowed me to coil a tentacle around her arm, a firm handshake to anchor her if I had to leave in a hurry. Sevens shrugged minutely and said something about being fine on her own, but she graciously accepted the tip of one tentacle in her free hand, like a dancing partner. Marmite already had a very firm grip around my thigh.
“Well?” Evelyn said. “Speak to him, then.”
“I think he’s just confused, just doesn’t understand. He’s never left somebody’s head before, he doesn’t have the concept … ”
What need for confusion? We’re friends now, we’re getting to know each other, and I can tell you’ve got so many interesting and fascinating stories to share. You’ve been to all sorts of places and met all sorts of strange people, people I could never even imagine. The others, my other friends, they’re all very interesting and sweet and Amanda is very affectionate, but I would also like to hear your stories. Stay by the fire? Why do you need to go back out into the dark?
The old man still held the knife, staring at me with eyes sunken in great masses of wrinkled flesh and liver-spotted skin. He smiled and showed the stubs of his teeth.
“Those aren’t my thoughts,” I sighed out loud, staring up at the vast bulk of the real, physical Hringewindla, to keep myself grounded.
But they could be my thoughts, couldn’t they? They could be our thoughts. Like Amanda’s thoughts are my thoughts and your thoughts and—
“Stop, please,” I said out loud. “I’m not one of yours.”
Alone with an Outsider in my head? Even Evelyn didn’t really understand what that meant.
I’d been here before.
Inside the image that was both metaphor and reality, the dialogue of electrical impulse and pneuma-somatic mind-link, the cabin in the woods that was not real but also more real than my physical body, I unfurled my self-image.
Unlike physical reality, there were no boundaries, no limits, no pesky bone structure or blood vessels or nerve endings to worry about, no risk of massive haemorrhage or organ damage or strangling myself on my own umbilical cord. In here, I was unbounded.
I uncoiled six, then twelve, then two dozen tentacles, creating for myself a halo of barbed and venomous threat display. I blinked three sets of eyelids, layering species of vision than no human eyeball could receive, no human brain process. I plated my soft and vulnerable skin with bio-steel and chitinous carapace, flushed the gaps with toxins, and coloured myself with warning pigments in pink and red and yellow. I rammed my muscles full of excess fibres and anchored them beneath a growing exoskeleton. I sharpened my teeth to razor points and hollowed my tongue for a darting stinger and felt a tail sprout from the base of my spine as the vertebrae extended into spikes. Spines sprouted from my skin, the gaps between my fingers filled in with webbing, and my voice became an abyssal hiss from the darkest pit of my own childhood terrors.
Hringewindla’s little gutting knife shook like a leaf; I reached out with one tentacle and took it from him.
“I already told you,” I said in a voice not remotely human, “you’re inside my head on sufferance.”
The little old man ducked and cringed, fumbling his crutches as his knees quivered. He wiped grey parasite blood on his jumper with shaking hands. He hobbled away from me and all but collapsed into a chair, burying his face in his arms.
In reality, I breathed out a shuddering breath; I wasn’t sure if any of that was going to work until I’d taken the risk. After all, the real Hringewindla was very large, no matter how much scary-squid I could channel. He could have called my bluff.
But he really was a terrified old man.
Evelyn was looking at me with terrible alarm, eyes wide, lips tight. Nicole seemed a little worried too.
“Ah?” I croaked.
“I know you make strange noises sometimes,” Evelyn said, “but that was a little disconcerting, even for you.”
“Ah?” I blinked several times and cleared my throat — which felt like untying a knot. “Oh, um, did I say that part out loud?”
Nicole forced a very awkward laugh. “Less ‘say’ and more ‘gargle with acid’.”
Sevens nodded with gentle agreement, though I got the sense she somehow approved.
“Pretty voice,” said Praem.
I cleared my throat again, blushing and fussing with my hands at my neck, like I wanted to reach in and straighten out my vocal chords.
“Well?” Evelyn snapped.
“Uh … I’m pretty sure he’s absolutely terrified of me,” I said. “He genuinely doesn’t understand how to leave my head. I think I can do it myself though, but as soon as I do, we’ll lose the connection. No more communication. And he’s so … old.”
Nicole pointed at Hringewindla, the real Hringewindla, the giant tentacle monster cone-snail from Outside. “That, that is scared of you?”
“Sort of. Yes.”
She sighed and pulled a very odd smile. “Remind me to bring you along on my next dodgy job, I guess.”
“Absolutely not,” Evelyn said.
“Hey, hey.” Nicole put her hands up. The gesture pulled one of my tentacles with her. “It was a joke, yeah? A joke. I’m not gonna take a uni student on a stakeout. Even one of you lot.”
“ … right. Yes. Of course.” Evelyn cleared her throat and looked back to me. “Well, Heather? Get on with it so we can leave.”
“Um … ”
I’d made it sound too simple.
Back in the deep dark forest of the mind, I was staring down at that withered old man, huddled in an armchair that dwarfed his twisted body. I couldn’t hate him, or even be afraid of him, not really. He was barely even still here, just a scrap of memories and leathery old flesh, hanging on in this hole in the ground for a few more centuries. He was desperate for experience, for a life beyond this. He’d found it in the companionship of creatures so much smaller than himself. Who were we to tell him that was wrong? Nobody was being coerced here. Were they? I didn’t think they were.
In a distant and difficult way, he reminded me of Maisie.
So I told him about her.
Not with words, of course, but in a slew of emotions and images, human principles and human thoughts. I told this Outsider god about my twin sister. I told him all about how we’d grown up together, so very similar and alike, physically identical twins wearing each others’ faces. He looked up as I began to explain, the fear on his face replaced with a hungry look, ravenous for information and experience. But when I told him what had happened to us, his curiosity turned grey. His lower lip quivered. His hands clutched at the arms of his chair. I told him a little about Wonderland. He ducked his head and shivered, whimpering. I told him about the Eye and he mewled, please no.
I told him about the bad years of madness and pain, but then I also told him about Raine, and Evelyn, and the others, and how far I’d come, and what I was planning to do. He listened, nodding slowly, staring up at me with those glassy eyes filmed with cataracts.
And that’s why you don’t want to come with me. You don’t want to go to Wonderland, even inside my head.
You know what I am.
I wasn’t quite sure if that was my thought, or his, but his liver-spotted head bobbed up and down in his chair.
He was really trying — and not just because he was terrified of my razor-tipped tentacles and my maw full of sharp teeth. He was trying to absorb, to comprehend, to relate. But as he nodded his head and blinked those shrunken and rheumy eyes and smiled a papery little smile, I got the impression he didn’t really understand at all.
Hringewindla did not understand what a ‘twin’ was, or why I cared; I had a vague sense that to him we were as difficult to tell apart as a pair of ants. Can a human tell if two gnats are identical twins?
But he listened anyway, fascinated and deeply interested, trying to imagine what life was like for me. Even if he failed, the attempt was real.
When I finished, Hringewindla the old man opened his dry and thin-lipped mouth with a sound like dusty parchment, behind the tangle of thick grey beard.
And he told me a story too. A story of jumbled sense impressions and powerful, raw, unfiltered emotion.
Outsiders — true Outsiders, beings dredged from the deeps of the abyss to impose their self-hood upon the myriad worlds beyond Earth — do not experience memory or sensory processing in the same way as a human being. They don’t even experience those things in a consistent way to each other. But I had stretched my own sense of self so far beyond human baseline. Hringewindla’s stuttering, halting, rambling tale built his own perspective for me, from elements he did not understand. Any other human mind may have frayed under the strain, found it impossible to separate the sensory inputs into ones that we could actually process.
But I did. So he told me a story.
Half a mile up, through senses that had no human analogue, Hringewindla looked down on a gathering of his friends.
The inside of his shell was identical to how we had found it, but the human was different. There was no portaloo back then, no little petrol-driven generator, no modern camping supplies. The tents were a much older design as well, archaic two-peg style shelters from the blasting light of his presence.
One small scrap of thinking flesh stood forward from the gathering, past the line of red paint. They’d used red paint back then, too.
Amanda Hopton, nine years old, dressed in a scarlet robe, hands bound and eyes blindfolded, the kind of bloody-altar-and-ritual-chanting business that Evelyn had been so certain the cult must still practice. And they had, only a few decades earlier.
Hringewindla did not understand terms like ‘human sacrifice’.
Amanda Hopton, a tiny shivering figure, no older than I had been when the Eye had taken me and Maisie away from reality. Hringewindla had already soaked deep into the whorls and wrinkles of her brain; he knew her, he’d known her since she was six months old, he’d cradled her and rocked her to sleep and not understood any of it, except this weird mewling puppy needed to be held and encouraged to exist. But now her head was full of enforced devotion, the religious fervour of other friends that he didn’t understand either, a feedback loop of the darkest corner of human culture dumping toxic waste back into this Outsider god. Our toxicity. Our madness. Not his.
Hringewindla’s memories didn’t identify the other members of the cult there that day, not as individuals. But I could.
I spotted Christine Hopton, another little girl only a few years older than her doomed sister, hiding her eyes in a woman’s skirts, a woman holding a third baby in her arms and trying not to weep.
Two figures led a rising chant by the stone altar in the ancient church, a man and a woman, both of them old and sinewy, stripped half-naked, painted with symbols in black tar on their flesh. Others joined them in praise for their god, urging him to accept their offering of new flesh for his ravaged form.
The family resemblance was unmistakable, but I didn’t need to rely on human facial recognition. I could dip in to Hringewindla’s memories with senses I did not possess, I could read their pheromones, their bodily history, their DNA.
The man and the woman, screaming and chanting, were Twil’s great-grandparents.
But then everything had changed, very quickly. Several of Hringewindla’s friends had gone away. The noise had spiked, then stopped. The urging to eat eat eat had faded.
The images he fed me made no sense to him. He held them out to me like photographs of a strange dance from a foreign culture he’d only ever seen in badly explained television documentaries.
A man with a very old rifle in his hands, who looked like he knew how to use it.
A striking family resemblance to Twil, in the face and the compact frame, but mostly the sheer physical confidence.
An argument — the man with the gun on one side, the half-naked great-grandparents on the other, going red in the face with rage at his interruption. Everyone gesticulating at the tiny, shivering child, Amanda Hopton, past the red line and waiting for the final communion with their god.
I watched Hringewindla’s memories as he showed me Twil’s grandfather shoot his own parents.
There were six corpses that day. The old heads of the cult. Patricide, matricide. Nobody else had guns. The cult, cowed.
There would be no more human sacrifices.
The man with the rifle stepped over the red line too and scooped up little Amanda in one arm. A new prayer blossomed in Hringewindla’s mind.
Hringewindla lowered the photographs and stared at them again, lost in memories he didn’t understand. He didn’t know why several friends had gone away, or what ‘murder’ was, or why a parent might slaughter the most repulsive elements of their own community to save their child’s life. All he knew is that Amanda touched his outstretched tentacle with a little hand and he wouldn’t be fed any more thinking flesh.
He knew this was important. That’s why he told me. But he had no idea why.
“Heather?” Evelyn hissed.
Out in reality, only a moment or two had passed.
“Ah … ”
“Heather, you’re crying. What is happening in there?”
“Crying, yes, I know,” I said, sniffing back tears and scrubbing my eyes on the back of my already bloody sleeve, smearing the earlier blood-tears around even worse than before. I was already a mess, more didn’t matter right now. “I’m learning just how much Hringewindla doesn’t understand, that’s all. It’s … well, he’s telling me a story.”
“Stories can be lies,” Evelyn said gently.
“Not from one so old, I think,” said Sevens. She was gazing up at the real Hringewindla, her face lit by that purple light, shifting like oil on water. Evelyn kept scratching her own scalp and hands, but Sevens seemed largely immune to the irritating quality of the light.
“He doesn’t understand anything,” I said. “About us, I mean. He’s … oh, um.”
Hringewindla’s confusion was not over.
Inside my imagination, the extended and slightly tortured metaphor of the old disabled man did the equivalent of reaching beneath his chair and pulling out a photo album. He opened the cover and held the album up to me with shaking hands, asking a question that my mind could not even process into human terms, a question so wordless and ultimate that I felt a pang of sympathy deep in my chest.
Twil, it was all Twil.
Being born, growing up, seen from the eyes of every single person in her family, a scrap of thinking flesh that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t know. He knew her because he knew all her family. He knew all these people who loved her, everyone in her life. She was wrapped at the core of so much care. But he didn’t know her.
Why? I managed to form the question, as best I could.
He’d tried to, once, a long time ago. But the man with the gun — Twil’s grandfather, I realised, old and grey in this memory, leathery and sinewy with age and determination — had done something to her, made her poisonous to him. He recoiled from a memory of snapping canine jaws and sharp, raking claws, hiding within her like a secret second self ready to tear his connection to shreds.
But who is she? He asked me the question and my answer was not enough.
“That’s Twil,” I said out loud. “It’s just Twil.”
“Heather, what?” Evelyn said.
“Sorry, I … he … he doesn’t know who Twil is.”
Evelyn gave me a scrunched frown. “What? Don’t talk nonsense, she’s … oh. Oh.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Then I was right.”
“About her grandfather’s motivations, yes.” I sniffed hard, but tears were running down my cheeks.
Twil did not become a werewolf as a teenager. The seeds were planted when she was barely an infant, against her parents’ consent, to keep the god out of her head. She wasn’t a footsoldier at all. She was an experiment in freedom.
I did the one thing I’d been resisting this whole time, assured at last that it was not a trap. I walked over to the crackling fireplace and sat down in the other armchair, opposite the metaphor of Hringewindla.
That wasn’t even his real name, just a description of him in Old English, the best that some intrepid fool had managed to choke out upon first discovering him down here. His real name wasn’t a word, obviously. Trying to speak it with a human mouth would have caused terrible pain, and probably hurt the ears to hear it said aloud. But it meant something like ‘spiralled explorer’. He’d chosen it himself, a long time ago.
He showed me other relics that lay about his isolated cabin in the woods, not just the knives. He had a piece of shell wrapped in a handkerchief — not a piece of his shell, but that of his best friend, or mate, or double, I couldn’t quite understand. He had a coin, a little five-pointed star made of greenish soapstone, taken from somewhere that had used currency, somewhere he’d once visited where the locals had liked him very much. He had a dead rat preserved in a jar, an old pet from somewhere else, never buried because she had asked not to be left for the worms. He had a collection of dice carved from the bones of a mentor, a cracked and chipped cup that had held the blood of a saint, and a wooden puzzle box that he still didn’t know how to open, gifted to him by a sinister figure in his youth.
Were these physical objects, held somewhere within his snake-knot core? Or were they just metaphors for memories?
I asked the question but it made no sense to him. I decided not to think too hard.
Eventually I made the mistake of asking how he had gotten here, to Earth.
The story was a blast of incomprehensible memory, of a fight on a scale I could not comprehend, not without totally abandoning my person-hood and plunging into the abyss. I listened politely, nodding along to an old man’s war story that meant nothing to me, full of sound and fury but no sense.
Out in reality, a hand squeezed mine, and pulled me back.
“Heather,” Evelyn said, peering into my face, far too close for comfort. “Heather, that is all well and good, but he needs to leave your mind, now. Are you listening to me in there, Hringewindla? You need to leave Heather’s mind.”
I pulled back from Evelyn, suddenly self-conscious at our faces being only inches apart.
But Hringewindla didn’t understand. It was like asking one of us to cease all communication — not just to stop talking, but to stop body language, all sound, even the reflection of light on our skin and clothes.
“He’s not going to resist or try to hurt me,” I said. “But I am going to have to remove him by force. If at all.”
“If at all?” Evelyn echoed back at me.
“He’s just lonely … ”
“He’s not a dog that’s followed you home,” she snapped right in my face. “Heather, he’s messing with the inside of your head. He’s not meant to be in there. Sevens, for pity’s sake, help me here.”
But Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight merely blinked slowly and sighed a sigh full of melancholy. “I cannot deny others the balm of her attention. You should understand that better than myself, Evee.”
Evelyn slammed to a stop, mouth working but no sound coming out. It was the first time Sevens had called her ‘Evee’.
“You best be bloody sure he’s not going to resist,” Nicole said, leaping in before I could start blushing at the deeper meaning of Sevens’ words. Nicole pointed up at the three giant tentacles standing tall as skyscrapers above us.
“He’s not … what we thought,” I managed to say. “He’s not.”
But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t crush us in confused pain.
Could I remove the oily sludge from between the neurons of my own brain? Absolutely. All I had to do was allow my own abyssal immune system inside my grey matter. Modifying the selective permeability of my own blood-brain barrier was not beyond the limits of abyssal biological modification. I had purged Ooran Juh’s influence with relative ease, and that had been a fast-growing rot in flesh and soul. Hringewindla’s contact surface was nothing by comparison, a gentle hand on my shoulder. I could melt and re-metabolise it in seconds, I had no doubt.
But he was old and sweet and very confused, very tired, very curious. It would burn him, scorch his flesh, make him retract his hand. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do it, but I had to. My mind was my own, no matter how much I had enjoyed this little chat.
I tried to tell him I had to go, tried to explain this might hurt. I asked him please not to lash out.
He stared at me with gummy, sunken eyes, and did not comprehend. He wanted to show me more of his special treasures, hobbling around his cabin, animated and happy now.
“You know, you should really visit my father,” said Sevens.
“A-ah?” I turned to her, my eyes brimming with tears. She nodded to herself.
Inside my mind, the old man paused, as if hearing a voice from nowhere.
“My father does not get many chances to spend time with those of his own calibre,” Sevens went on. “And a good show can always invigorate a degraded mind. What do you say, Hringewindla? Would you like to visit the palace?”
Inside my imagination, an image floated forth, a gracious refusal, an embarrassed old man being modest about his social circles — that being, none at all.
“Sevens,” I hissed, “I-I need to concentrate, I need to make him understand this might hurt, it might be a kind of severing, a—”
“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Just take us all Outside.”
“But then we’d be abandoning him!” I blurted out. “And I need to make him see, before I do it.”
“A visit to the stage,” Sevens purred. “To the backstage, to back rooms of—”
“Whoa, hey,” Nicole said. “Outside again?”
Evelyn snapped. “You owe this thing nothing, Heather. Get us out of here.”
I almost sobbed. “If I can’t communicate properly with him, then what hope do I have for communicating with the Eye? I can’t just leave and—”
With a gentle puff-pop of displaced air and a tap-tap of pink converse shoes on the surface of Hringewindla’s shell, a floaty jellyfish flutter of blue, pink, and white appeared in front of us.
“Lozzie!” I cried.
“Heathy!” she cheered, throwing her hands in the air. “There you are! Found you found you!”
Lozzie was a splash of vibrant colour against the bone-white dead surfaces of Hringewindla’s shell, wrapped in her pastel poncho, her hair all fluffed up, blonde strands all over the place like she’d been dancing outdoors in a storm. She had the goofiest grin on her face, eyes so bloodshot she looked ready to sleep, hands bunched in her poncho to flap it about. Hringewindla’s toxic purple light did not seem to touch her, as if she was lit by some other, invisible source, her hues and shades inviolate from exterior interference.
She was also wearing nothing on her lower half except her shoes. Luckily her poncho was long enough to cover her hips. Bare legs poked out below the hem, unselfconsciously nude.
“Oh shit,” Evelyn snapped, eyes whipping over to Nicole and then the giant, dead parasite that Hringewindla had ripped out of himself.
“Calm yourself, magician,” said Sevens. “The little one is untouched. The parasites are all dead.”
Lozzie didn’t give a hoot about parasites, dead or otherwise. She was too busy throwing herself at me in the most wriggly, fidgety hug I’d ever experienced. She somehow got in between everyone else, avoided all my tentacles, and wrapped her arms around me, but then wouldn’t stop moving and making purring noises and jiggling one leg. It was like being hugged by a cat which wasn’t sure if it wanted to be picked up or not.
“Loz- ah- Lozzie!” I hugged her back, laughing but concerned. “What- how did you—”
“Raine called me!” Lozzie chirped, then hopped back a step like a bird considering a curious worm, tilting her head to one side, giggling all the while. “She didn’t know where you’d gotten to! Then she called me and Jan but Jan didn’t want to come so I went beeeeeeep and went on my own to Raine, because I know Raine so well it’s easy to find her. And it’s chaos! Everyone is there. Twil’s family too. So then I came to find you! And … ooooh, hello-hello!”
Lozzie ducked her head and waved to Marmite. The huge squid-spider pressed himself lower to the ground and more firmly behind me, as if suddenly shy.
“This is Marmite, yes, um, Lozzie—”
“Hi Marmite!” Lozzie waved with both hands. Marmite bobbed one bony tentacle back at her.
“Lozzie,” Praem intoned. That got her attention, head up, eyes sleepy and bloodshot, but listening clearly. Praem gestured at me and Lozzie’s eyes followed the gesture to the end of Praem’s fingers, again like a cat.
“Lozzie,” I said, trying not to explode with worry, “are the others okay? Raine and Zheng and Twil? And Twil’s family? There were kids there, too, little children trapped in the nightmare.”
“Mmmm-mmmmm!” Lozzie closed both eyes and nodded like she was a bobble-head figurine, far more than necessary. “Nobody was bleeding and nobody was crying. Bubbles everywhere though! Zooming about!”
“The bubble-servitors,” Evelyn said, jaw clenched tight. “Lozzie, you’re certain there wasn’t anything untoward happening?” She didn’t even wait for an answer before turning to me. “We have to get back right now, before something else goes wrong.”
“Y-yes,” I said, trying to feel confidence that I didn’t believe.
“It’s fiiiiiiiiiine,” Lozzie said, eyes still closed, as if she could see without sight.
“Lozzie,” Evelyn said sharply. “We are in the middle of a crisis. Are you still high?”
Nicole sighed, sounding sort of wistful. “Looks like it to me.”
“Yes!” Lozzie shot one hand into the air like an overeager student ready to answer an easy question. I started laughing, all the tension of the last few hours peeling off me under the force of the Lozzie pressure-washer.
“Wish I wasn’t sober right now,” Nicole added. “Don’t suppose I could get some of that good stuff later, hey?”
Turning to Evelyn had finally forced Lozzie’s eyes out across the rest of the plain of bone-shell and twisted pillars, out toward the vast mountainside of dead parasite, still sizzling gently as the bubble-servitors cooked every inch of grey meat to make sure it was dead. Lozzie’s mouth opened, slack with sleepy-eyed fascination as she took in the surroundings, as she stared at the distant hole in Hringewindla’s shell, and the vast scorch and claw marks that had ruined his once great flesh, so long ago.
“Oooooooh,” she went, as if we were standing in a theme park.
“How are you not freaked out by this?” Nicole asked. “Is it the weed?”
“Be gay, do crimes,” Lozzie whispered as she looked up at Hringewindla himself, the vast purple dome and the snake-knot inside.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Nicole scoffed. “That explains everything.”
“Be gay,” said Praem. “Be polite.”
“Usually better than my solutions, sure,” Evelyn muttered.
“Hey hey!” Lozzie suddenly flapped her poncho high in both hands, shouting up at the real, physical Hringewindla. Luckily we all discovered she was not nude beneath the poncho, but was wearing a pair of pink shorts I’d never seen before. I had the sudden and unshakable knowledge that those shorts belonged to Jan. “Hey you! Woooooo, you’re big! Yeah!”
Inside my mind, Hringewindla-the-old-man stood up out of his chair suddenly. He smiled like he was seeing an old friend he hadn’t clapped eyes on in decades.
“Um, Lozzie?” I said, clearing my throat. “Do you and Hringewindla know each other?”
“Mm?” Lozzie turned back over her shoulder to look at me, chin popping up over the corner of her poncho, sleepy-lidded eyes blinking like an owl in the light. “No? I’ve never seen him before, not until riiiiight now.”
Second-hand pride welled up inside me. The old hunter, his knives worn down, his bones like dead wood, his flesh failing, drew a breath deeper than he had in centuries. Something about this meeting was revitalising him.
“Wait, wait a second, please,” I said, struggling to keep up. “Lozzie, are you communicating with him?”
Lozzie answered with a song.
She turned back to Hringewindla, opened her mouth, and tilted her head back so she was facing directly upward. Her eyes fluttered shut as she let out three long, high-pitched, ethereal notes of warbling beauty. For one strange moment she was frozen on the spot, neck stretched upward like a swan, body held poised like a statue as the notes trailed off. Her angelic voice made me blink back tears. Nicole gasped in surprise. Evelyn cleared her throat.
Then Lozzie adjusted her posture like a dancer switching to a different freeze frame, or a puppet yanked into a different configuration. She swayed to one side, stopped, and sang again, a ghostly and almost inhuman sound, but still girlish and sweet.
Inside my mind, Hringewindla was nodding and crying.
“The little one has that effect,” Sevens murmured. “There is a reason she is so beloved by the kami.”
Lozzie’s singing went on for several minutes, stop-start as she paused to sway and lurch, as if she was searching for the right acoustic angle. The old man inside my head stood up straight and put more strength into his arms to pull himself up on his crutches. The clouds in his eyes seemed to clear away.
Eventually, Lozzie trailed off and sighed a little sigh. She gazed out at the distant hole in the shell for a moment, her giddy high transmuted into slow and soft melancholy.
“It’s okay,” she murmured to nobody in particular. “It’s not that big.”
“Lozzie,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat and wiping a stray tear from her eyes. “We do need to leave. Sooner rather than later. And Heather has to get Hringewindla out of her head. Can you make sense to him for us? Communicate this?”
“I’m really afraid of hurting him,” I said. “Were you speaking with him just now? Is there anything we can do to make him understand?”
Lozzie bobbed her head from side to side, flapping her poncho like a stingray’s wings, building up steam again after her bout of melancholy. Then she pivoted on one foot, spun toward me, and reached out to press my nose with her thumb.
I laughed, tutted, and rolled my eyes. “Lozzie, that’s very cute, but it’s hardly the time for … uh … ”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight took my arm quickly. I suddenly gripped everything I could with my tentacles — Evee, Lozzie, Praem, the ground, my own legs. My eyes bulged and my stomach clenched up like a fist. I gasped and heaved, flailing in panic.
The oily slug inside my brain was on the move.
Hringewindla’s contact medium gathered itself, leeching its own slick and slimy matter from between my neurons, sliding across the inside of my skull. I have felt a great many disgusting sensations in my life, from the sensory violence of Outside, to mage nonsense here in reality, from things I don’t understand growing inside my own body, to biting infected flesh away from the wounds of a lover. But the brain-slug won an award, a round of applause, and almost overpowered my no-vomiting techniques. How many people can say they’ve felt an alien god physically crawling across their brain?
Inside my imagination, the withered old man waved me a friendly goodbye. He turned toward somebody more his own size, somebody wrapped in a pentacolour pastel poncho.
But as the contact medium peeled away from my grey matter, the metaphor in my imagination collapsed like reality itself unravelling.
I was not talking to an old man at all, I was communicating with something so vast and so alien that the human mind could barely process the information. The warm blanket was pulled off my shoulders, the crackling fire went out, the walls of the cabin fell away, and I was in a void of churning self-hood that threatened to swamp me and drown me.
It was a good thing Sevens was holding me, and that Evelyn was wrapped in one of my tentacles. If I’d been alone, I think I would have ripped my own head open to get Hringewindla out.
Instead, Sevens held me like a steel vice. Somebody was shouting my name — Evelyn, probably — before being soothed by Lozzie’s giggling reassurances. I heaved and flailed and wanted to vomit up my entire digestive tract to purge this sensation. A pair of very strong arms found my waist and helped to hold me up as I retched.
With a noise like unsticking a melted shoe from hot tarmac, Hringewindla’s oil-slick brain-slug contact-medium detached from the inside of my skull and found its way through cells and tissue, down into my esophagus.
I hacked and coughed and choked, until Praem bent me over and slammed her hand against my back.
A glob of purple and white mucus shot from my mouth and splattered on the ground.
I hung there, wheezing for breath, watching the little blob of Hringewindla twitch and flex, like a deep-sea mollusc dragged up to the surface to die. Inside my mind, he was gone. The cabin in the woods, the surrounding night, the crackling fire, all of it was gone. Just me again, alone inside my own head. The relief was like a pulled tooth.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I wheezed as Praem and Evelyn both tried to handle me in different directions.
“Yay!” went Lozzie. She threw her arms up.
Before anybody could make a sensible suggestion, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight let go of me, took a half-step away, and ceased being human.
Hastur’s Daughter reared up all of a sudden, beetle-black armour plates and yellow frills covering her body, her front a downy mat of soft fur, pincers and needle-legs braced against the shell-surface ground.
It had been bad enough when she’d been standing at a safe distance, but this mask change was up close and personal. Evelyn recoiled so hard she nearly sent us all sprawling with her. Nicole flinched and yelped and covered her mouth. Marmite yanked back and almost took my leg with him. Luckily Praem didn’t care, she kept us anchored. Lozzie stared in open-mouthed awe and appreciation — I’d seen that look on her before, but it took me a moment to remember when. It was the exact same way she’d looked at Zheng’s boobs.
Seven-Shades-of-Slick-and-Spiky reached down with one bone-like hand, plucked the dying purple slug-thing from the ground, and popped it past her facial mandibles.
Small chitin plates moved in her throat. Her mouth-parts closed. She swallowed.
Then, just as suddenly, she was back to the Princess Mask, unruffled and starched. She shot us all a cool and collected look.
“My apologies,” she said. “I have sent that to my father.”
“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Evelyn said, dripping with sarcasm. “Perhaps next time you transform into an eight-foot alien monster, you can warn us all first?”
“Very pretty,” said Praem.
Lozzie was looking at Sevens like she was a pin-up model, biting her lower lip and twisting on one foot. I didn’t blame her. If we’d been anywhere else, I would have been having a very difficult and embarrassing conversation with Sevens right then.
But Sevens turned to Lozzie with a strict and unimpressed look. “Little one, you must warn us about this sort of thing in future. Not everyone has multiple breathing holes. Heather was in very mundane and boring danger.”
“Fucking right!” Evelyn snapped. “You could have choked her!”
“I didn’t know it would happen like that!” Lozzie protested, gone shrill, hands suddenly fluttering everywhere. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Heathy, I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay, Loz,” I croaked. Praem helped me to straighten up. Evelyn caught my eye, still brimming with misplaced anger. “Evee, she was just doing her best to help. She got Hringewindla out of my head. It worked.”
“Yes, and, well, good, okay!” Evelyn huffed, gritting her teeth and looking like she wanted to belt something with her walking stick — probably Sevens. Lozzie did a nervous, slow flinch away from her, hands curled into the fabric of her poncho.
I opened my mouth quickly. “You’re not actually angry at—”
“I’m not actually angry at—” Evelyn said at the exact same time.
We looked at each other. Evelyn sighed and averted her eyes.
“We love you,” Praem said, speaking to Lozzie.
“Mmmmmm,” went Lozzie, more than a little confused, heavy-lidded eyes flicking from face to face.
Evelyn cleared her throat loudly and turned to Lozzie. “I’m sorry I snapped. I’m not actually angry at you, I’m angry at Hringewindla. I’m angry at this entire damn situation, and I’m angry with your uncle, who is subhuman filth for risking even a sliver of this in the first place by creating this kind of monster.” She spat the final word and gestured at the vast, dead parasite, the low mountain of blackening flesh and cracked carapace.
Lozzie had brightened when Evelyn had begun to apologise — she knew that Evee was sweet on her, really — but her face froze in stoned, bleary-eyed paralysis when Evelyn explained the true and final target of her ire.
“ … Edward did all this?” she said, in a tiny voice. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
Evee froze too. “Oh, bugger,” she hissed.
“We’re not sure,” I blurted out. “Probably. Maybe.”
Lozzie bit her lower lip, but there was nothing coquettish about it now. She suddenly looked much worse for wear, high and confused and far from secure. I reached for her with a tentacle. She accepted it with both hands, hugging it tight to her chest.
“You’re safe with us, little one,” said Sevens.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Evelyn added awkwardly, trying her best, clearing her throat again. “He’s not directly involved, I think that’s for certain. You’ve nothing to fear. We’re all together. Aren’t we?”
I nodded along, smiling at Lozzie. She puffed out her cheeks.
“And Tenny is safe back at the house with Jan and July, yes?” I asked. Lozzie nodded at that. “Then we’ve nothing to worry about.”
“Nothing to worry about, she says,” Nicole added, deep in habitual sarcasm. “I think we’ve got plenty to worry about right here and now. What are we doing about … him?”
She gestured up at Hringewindla.
Luckily, whatever Lozzie had actually done to eject his brain-slug from my cranium, it hadn’t hurt Hringewindla — or at least she’d somehow communicated enough to stop him from lashing out in alienated pain. The three vast scaled tentacles hung placid in the air like a trio of seaweed fronds waving in slow current. The snake-knot inside his core slithered over itself in an endless dance of leviathan flesh. The bubble-membrane poured out toxic light, but had fully sealed itself once more, healing the self-inflicted parasite-removal wound.
“I don’t think we need to do anything?” I said. “I … think?”
Lozzie turned to look up at Hringewindla, still hugging one of my tentacles like it was a plushie. “I’ll come see you. Yeah.” She glanced back at me. “Can I come see him?”
“Do you want to?”
Lozzie nodded enthusiastically. “He’s smart! He’s got a loooooot of smarts, and he’s feeling a lot better now! I think I can help him walk, maybe!”
“Walk?” Nicole echoed. “Uhhhh.”
“It’s a metaphor,” I said.
“Nope!” Lozzie chirped.
“Like I said,” Evelyn grumbled. “Don’t think about it, detective. You’ll be happier that way.”
“Look, I’m trying my best not to think about much here,” Nicole replied. “But that thing is still a giant squid-monster, alright? Can I think about that?”
“If you want,” Evelyn grunted.
Lozzie was skipping around my side, trying to get close enough to pet Marmite. The squid-spider wasn’t quite sure about her yet, but he didn’t flee. But then Lozzie caught a hint of something in the air. She sniffed loudly.
“Why does it smell like chickens here?” she asked.
“I’ll explain that part later,” I sighed. “I think it’s high time we left.”
“Indeed,” Evelyn agreed. “What are we doing, a round-trip through Camelot, or—”
“Ooh, ooh!” Lozzie bounced up on her heels, which made Marmite flinch. “I can take us straight back to Twil’s farmy-farm farm-place!”
Evelyn wanted to give her a look. I could see it in the tightness of her jaw. But she resisted, and I adored her for that.
“All right,” Evelyn said, sounding covertly unhappy about this. “We’ll take Lozzie’s way, it’s quicker and more direct. Nicole, be warned, this does tend to be a little more rough than Heather’s technique, so brace—”
Hringewindla wasn’t done yet.
With a deep thump of displaced air, one of his three vast tentacles descended toward us once again. Everyone froze in shock and horror; for a moment Evelyn scrambled for her bone-wand and Sevens went very still, about to switch masks. But then Lozzie cried out “It’s okay!” and she turned out to be right. Hringewindla’s tentacle slowed as it dipped, buffeting us with wind from above, but far gentler than before.
Down and down and down it came, until the skyscraper of white flesh hung level with us once again, facing us with a blunt tip of thick scales.
Lozzie let go of my tentacle and skipped forward. For one horrible moment it seemed as if that wall of flesh would swallow her, like she was vanishing into the distance. But then she stopped and bowed, as if with great respect. She held out both hands and touched the end of the tentacle, bowed again, and skipped back over to us, her poncho flapping as she came.
“For you!” she announced, and pressed an object into my hands.
It was the coin.
A little five-pointed star, made of greenish soapstone, about the size of a fifty pence piece. Hringewindla had shown me this, inside my imagination, a relic of somewhere he’d once visited. But that was all a metaphor. Wasn’t it?
I stared at the coin, then up at the snake-knot, and ached to ask him a dozen more questions.
“He says you might need it more than him, one day!” Lozzie chirped. “Because you might meet the people who gave it to him!”
“People … ” I murmured. “Outsider people?”
Lozzie shrugged, giggling and flapping her hands, still stoned out of her mind.
“Sevens,” I said. “Do you know … ?”
But the Yellow Princess shook her head. “To you I may seem well-travelled, but compared to the old man here, I have never ventured beyond the village where I was born.”
“Is he done?” Evelyn asked. Lozzie nodded, then turned to wave at the white scales of Hringewindla’s tentacle. He did not wave back, which was lucky because the pressure wave would probably have knocked us all over. “Good,” Evelyn said. “Then let’s get out of here before he changes his mind. Everyone grab onto Lozzie.”
“I’m popular!” Lozzie giggled, turning on the spot and swaying from side to side. Sevens gently took her shoulder to stop her wriggling about.
“Hey, one more thing,” Nicole said. “Just before we go.”
“You want to delay this even further?” Evelyn asked with a huff.
“Nah. Just … can somebody please, please go check on my dog after this?”
“We’ll make sure your dog is safe, yes,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Doggy!” said Lozzie.
“Good doggo,” said Praem.
Marmite shuffled behind me, unsure if he was the subject of this unexpected praise. Nicole sighed with a great weariness and joined the Lozzie-circle. Evelyn made sure to be holding one of Lozzie’s hands. Praem helped me stand up straight as we all braced for the journey.
I cast one last glance up at Hringewindla, at his shrunken and shrivelled glory, then closed my hand around his soapstone gift.
Lozzie to the rescue! Well, sort of. Lozzie to the interrupting-actual-communication-with-an-Outsider-god. Still, Heather’s come away from this experience with knowledge she didn’t have before. She can talk to something on this scale, even if it’s challenging! Though ol’ Hringle-wingely has been around humans for hundreds of years, so he’s kind of used to it. Maybe she can apply this elsewhere, in due time. And now she knows the true story behind the Brinkwood Cult, and Twil’s mysterious grandfather …
Over on my patreon, there’s a little announcement about the upcoming audiobooks!
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Next week, the girls need recovery, rest, reconciliation … and perhaps revenge, against the mage responsible for all of this.