Dead animals/animal death/animal abuse.
Despite my reluctant yet pivotal participation in more than a few episodes of physical combat, I did not possess the makings of a skilled fighter.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in violence as a tool; I was no pacifist, at least not any more. My experiences with Alexander had forever changed my mind about that, even if it had taken me some time, not to mention a bit of Outsider help, to reach my eventual conclusion. But there is a big difference between killing — which I could make myself do, when needed — and fighting. I simply didn’t have it in me to ‘throw down’, as Raine might so succinctly put it. I was never up for a scrap, a knocking of heads, a pub brawl. I doubted I could ever learn the proper way to throw a punch, let alone the subtle art of not getting punched as badly as one is punching one’s opponent. Not like Raine, or Zheng, with skill won by years of dedicated practice wedded to a natural propensity for easy violence, even if employed for good causes.
I was never going to win a boxing match or knock somebody out with an uppercut, not with my scrawny muscles and clumsy enthusiasm. I suspected that if Raine handed me her gun, I’d be absolutely terrified at pointing it all over the place and accidentally blowing a hole in the wall. A little hypocritical perhaps, considering what I could do with brain-math.
No matter how much abyssal biology I reverse-engineered from my memories of the sharp, quick, graceful thing who had swum in the abyss, no matter how much of that truth I manifested into reality with self-modification and bio-hacking, I was never going to learn how to handle myself in a punch up.
What I did have was instinct.
The Dimensional Shambler filled my vision, taut grey skin inches from my face, rolling over muscles bunched like steel cables, blocking my view of the cottage kitchen and Edward Lilburne beyond. Her vacant, angler-fish face gaped down at me, pelagic eyes wide and unblinking, toothy jutting jaw hanging open as if mouth-breathing in atmosphere too thin for her lungs. Arms longer than her body ratcheted out like the limbs of a praying mantis, then swept shut to slam me in a bear hug.
One did not need training to know it was a bad idea to get caught by that.
A normal human being could not have escaped, not from a standing start, but my body remembered this feeling. Abyssal instinct recalled the pattern, deep in muscle memory. This wasn’t the first time I’d had a slab of muscle appear out of thin air and try to grab me — and no matter how impressive and weird and alien, no matter how strong and predatory and threatening, the Shambler had nothing on Zheng.
I also had a set of built-in springs, which does help.
The Shambler swept her arms shut, but I was already grabbing the door frame with half my tentacles and slamming against the floor with the other half. Adrenaline pounded through my veins as I let the tentacles themselves do most of the thinking.
I flew backward like a squid on a plume of jet-propelled water.
The Shambler’s arms scythed through empty air, slamming into her own sides like she was trying to hug herself. She lost her balance and stumbled forward.
In the split second before I hit the wall, during the moment the Shambler overbalanced, I lashed out with one tentacle. My instincts were running faster than my conscious mind. Truth was, I had no idea what the creature was doing. Edward’s bizarre whistle had clearly acted as some kind of trigger, a magical signal to force the Shambler to attack me, or to slip the thing’s leash, like a hungry Rottweiler. Or had my communication worked? Was it hugging me, as a thank you? The idea seemed absurd. But I didn’t have time to think. Instinct had made me dodge, and instinct said touch.
Touch the Shambler on my own terms, make physical contact. Define her in hyperdimensional mathematics, locate Edward’s control. Then trace the control or the summoning back to Edward, back to the mage.
What I didn’t consider, in that moment of pure instinct, was why Edward would make such an obvious mistake.
Should have let the Shambler grab me. Would have saved us both a lot of time.
The tip of one of my tentacles lashed out toward the Shambler’s exposed flank. Inside my mind, at the speed of thought, I slid my ego down into that lightless filth where the Eye’s lessons lurked. Preparing for brain-math, at the moment of contact.
My tentacle tip was millimetres from the taut grey skin when the Shambler vanished.
Just gone. Empty air. She hadn’t even looked up, hadn’t finished overbalancing, hadn’t recovered.
I completed my arc through the air and crashed into the wall opposite the kitchen door. I was a tangle of lashing tentacles and sprawling limbs, clattering to the floor tiles with the wind knocked out of my lungs.
Edward spoke from the kitchen. “They compete with each other, like most large predatory organisms do.”
I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could, confused and panting and a little bit bruised from the impact. Adrenaline pounding through my veins made me shake and quiver, made me feel like my feet were going to slide out from under me, like my head was going to explode from pressure. I was panting through my nose. Tentacles helped, they steadied me against the wall and then fanned out into a ring of protection.
Not a moment too soon.
The Shambler reappeared on my left, filling the corridor from floor to ceiling with a wall of grey meat. She stood at her full height, stretched out like a gorilla on hind legs, but so much taller. Her head and shoulders bumped the ceiling. A three-fingered paw descended, straight-armed, in an attempt to slap the top of my head.
I scrambled sideways, hissing loudly, two tentacles whipping up to try to catch the creature’s wrist.
One tentacle almost made skin-to-skin contact. I braced again for brain-math, to plunge into the impression the Shambler left on the mathematical substrate of reality.
Again, with only millimetres to spare, the Shambler vanished.
I struck empty air, hissing in frustration, my tentacles whip-cracking against nothing. I whirled on the spot, anticipating the marine-ape thing was going to appear behind me again. I must have looked like an octopus in a whirlpool.
“They likely evolved somewhere analogous to Earth,” Edward carried on, his voice a smoky rasp. “Close enough that they were shaped by similar kinds of intra-specific competition.”
Edward was still sitting on his rickety wooden chair, safe inside his own magic circle. He still wore that subtle smile on his lips, that knowing look that said only he understood what was truly happening here, while I was merely subject to the process he had set in motion. Behind his wire-frame glasses, his wide, owlish eyes twinkled with the kind of glee that one only ever sees in terrible old men.
I tried to ignore him for a moment. I whipped my head left and right, up and down the corridor, braced for the Shambler to reappear. To my right was the door to the garden. Beyond that was a door through the chicken-wire Faraday cage, and then the overgrown garden itself, drenched in the slowly bronzing sunlight of late afternoon. To my left, the empty corridor, white floor tiles, and still-life paintings on the walls.
A faint organic stench hung in the air — brackish water and estuary mud.
“It thinks you are competition,” Edward was saying. “Or perhaps a mate, though I have no notion of how the things breed, and frankly I do not wish to discover the answer. You probably don’t smell right for a mate, but you’re putting out all the correct signals for a threat. Its flesh will be resonating with that.”
I whirled on him, struggling not to hiss like an angry snake. “What are you trying to do?”
“How did it avoid you so quickly?” he spoke as if in answer to a question I had not asked. “There is your answer. You are a competing predator of the same type. It thinks you are one of its own kind, and it is reacting appropriately, with the same measures it would take against another of its species, or perhaps a competitor of similar stature. I have encouraged it to do this.”
That subtle smile again. Paper-thin, mushroom-pale, perplexing.
I stared at Edward, trying to process his words, trying to bring the rational part of my mind to the fore. What was he trying to do here?
Did the Shambler understand I could Slip? Yes, that was the implication. She knew I could send her Outside, and she had evolved to compete in doing exactly this — combat via first touch, with the winner as whoever grabbed the other and dragged them elsewhere.
And Edward was going to do what? Watch us fight? I wasn’t a fighter. If the Shambler grabbed me and spirited me away, Outside, I’d just come right back. He must have known that. Besides, the moment one of us made contact with the other, I could use brain-math to locate the strings wrapped around the Shambler’s mind. I could follow them back to the puppeteer, the summoner, Edward himself. Even if he’d used an apprentice or underling, that would still be an opening, a chink in his armour, a lead on his real location. He must know that.
He wanted to watch me Slip. Back and forth? But why? He’d already refused instruction in the Eye’s lessons.
A puzzle piece was missing. I was lacking some vital insight. Edward was closing a trap around my thoughts and actions, but I couldn’t even see the jaws.
Abyssal instinct presented an elegant solution: scream and leap.
My tentacles whipped out and grabbed the frame of the kitchen door, a battery of muscular springs winding tight in an instant. For a split second I was suspended like the payload of a slingshot, pointed across the kitchen, aimed at Edward. I opened my mouth in an angry hiss, a warning hiss, a fighting noise. Edward must have realised what I was doing, because he flinched hard, like a man before a charging bull — but a man who knew he was safe behind bulletproof glass.
Time to pit our reflexes against each other. Could Edward vacate his vessel fast enough to avoid me reaching down the connection and into his brain?
My tentacles hurled me forward. I shot through the kitchen door in a scrambling, hissing, incoherent leap at the old man in the rickety chair.
He had less than half a second to react. Slow, too slow.
Then the Shambler stepped out of a sunbeam on my right, spread her arms wide, and caught my flying leap like a cat bringing down a crow.
Her grab knocked the wind out of me. My tentacles whiplashed, spiking my sides with a deep, dragging pain inside my torso. My feet kicked, held off the ground by sheer muscle power and the height of the Outsider marine-ape thing.
“There—” Edward had time to say. But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence.
At the speed of thought, I dredged the infernal machinery of the Eye from the deep places of my mind. My trilobe reactor slammed biochemical control rods all the way out, giving me the energy and stability I needed. This would be easier than every other time I’d had to perform this piece of hyperdimensional mathematics. Physical contact, limitless energy, and a clear, straightforward purpose. The equation burned and hissed across the surface of my mind, searing my thoughts and sealing the pain for the moment the split second passed.
The Shambler — all five hundred pounds of grey meat and Outsider muscle, of curving tooth and three-toed paw and jutting jaw and saucer-sized eyeballs — unrolled before me in the language of the gods. Her definition was instantly laid out figure by figure in hyperdimensional mathematics, her impression on the substrate of the universe revealed before me in all the infinite complex glory of any living, thinking being.
This was going to hurt so much when I was done.
But I didn’t have to unravel her, or pick apart the bits of her that had gone wrong, or even understand a single thing about her. I only had to find the strings, identify the parts of her equation that didn’t fit — Edward’s control.
I was deluged with an impression of her, regardless of my aims. The Shambler was a creature of slow muscle and thick mud. Her memories were of quiet waiting, long observation, silent stalking. I passed over faint impressions of lurking eye-deep in sluggish muck, gripped by starvation-hunger, punctuated by short bursts of hot, red violence, the crunching of bones, and the hurried filling of a multi-chambered stomach.
I didn’t linger. I looked for the alien touch, the foreign object, the external control.
And I found nothing.
The Shambler was the Shambler, unaltered and untouched. She was totally in control of herself, free from hidden magical strings or mental control or the force of summoning contract. There was nothing in here that wasn’t her own will.
Edward wasn’t controlling her at all.
Time resumed in a rush of panic and pain.
I crashed out of the brain-math in a splutter of nosebleed. Ice-pick headache lanced behind my eyes and stomach muscles slammed together like my body was trying to purge a sickness. The afternoon sunlight flooded the cottage kitchen all around us, blotted out by the wall of grey meat that had caught me in a pair of arms longer than I was tall.
The Shambler was pulling me into a bear hug, crushing me against her front. I was spluttering and heaving, reeling from failed brain-math, confused and unable to gather myself. My tentacles whipped out, arcing for her face, running on instinct as they flushed with paralytic toxins and contact poisons. A hiss tried to climb up my bloody throat. My skin tingled with the need to sprout defensive spines. I was trapped, caught, too close, get away get away get away!
Edward whistled again, a haunting unnatural piping.
My payload of deadly toxin and sprouting spines was inches from the Shambler’s vacant face, about to hit her, force her off me, drive her back.
Then the world shimmered as if seen through a veil of water, turned into dark grey fog, and blew away in the wind.
The Shambler’s method of cross-membrane translation felt nothing like a Slip, neither my own brute-force way of hyperdimensional mathematics, nor via Lozzie’s less well understood technique. One moment the world was there, in light and colour as the Shambler crushed me against her chest and my tentacles were about to slam into her face to inject a pint of neurotoxin — and then everything turned to fog, like reality was a dream, fading to nothing in the harsh dark sunrise of a dying star.
I didn’t even shut my eyes, because there was nothing to shut them against. The world, the Shambler, myself, all was mist inside the membrane.
We could have been held in that state for a second, or an hour, or a year. In the membrane there was no such thing as time. The abyss was close, just the other side of a thought, but in this non-place there was no such thing as thought.
Reality smashed back into my senses, like I was a swimmer surfacing from the ocean into the middle of a naval battle.
Grey sky tumbling overhead, seen through mottled grey tree trunks and hanging sheets of rotten vegetation. My own voice hissing, screeching, the taste of iron in my mouth and nose, wet sticky crimson all down my face. The Shambler dropping me and lurching away from me, like I was a red-hot fire poker searing her flesh. My tentacles whipping out at her, shedding poison and toxin into the air — then missing as she vanished.
I landed with a wet splash, still hissing and screeching, in about three feet of muddy water.
If I hadn’t been trying to hit the Shambler with my tentacles, I probably could have caught myself. Instead I splashed down straight onto my backside, feet slipping in the ooze. I yelped in shock as the water closed over my head, swallowing a disgusting mouthful of the stagnant gunk. I burst from the water again, lurching to my feet, spitting and retching and panting. I tried to scrub the muddy water out of my eyes on the sleeve of my hoodie, but my clothes were soaked through. All I managed to do was smear the nosebleed around. I staggered and almost slipped over again, socks and toes sinking into the mud. I had to anchor myself with my tentacles, then wiped at my eyes with both hands until my vision was clear.
The Dimensional Shambler was gone.
And I was standing in a swamp, soaked to the bone, Outside.
Grey. Grey everywhere. Grey muddy water stretched off in every direction, thick as pudding in some places, thinner in others, like the spot where I’d landed. The mud was broken occasionally by low banks of higher ground, barely dry, covered in wet grey moss and glistening grey slime. Grey trees were rooted in the mud, massive things with trunks as wide as a car — or at least, they looked like trees at first glance. Once I stared for a moment I began to doubt my judgement. Their ‘branches’ were arranged in a swirl pattern, almost akin to a bony hand, like some kind of morbid Halloween decoration reaching toward the sky. Grey vegetation hung from those branches, like sheets of ivy or kudzu, but in tiny repeating swirl patterns that drew one’s attention inward, as if down into a pattern deeper than mere surface. Here and there they touched the grey, muddy water, and had turned to wet rot.
The air stank of salt, sulphur, and soil, rich and dark and organic. I winced and wrinkled my nose.
Grey skies sat low overhead, a blanket of slow-moving lead, so thick it left this world plunged into a permanent grey dusk.
Grey horizon showed in snatched slivers between the trees. Far to my left, it looked like the trees dribbled out, giving way to an endless blank mud-flat. To my right, the trees got bigger and bigger, until the ones in the distance rivalled a Redwood back on Earth. Far, far away, far past the trees, I could see a hint of something like a tower, made of regular grey blocks.
Distant sounds floated through the swamp — a throaty hoot not unlike a chimpanzee, answered from far away by a similar voice, then silenced by a wet, lumbering slurch somewhere deeper off in the swamp.
I straightened up and sighed. “Oh well.”
This experience would have been very disorienting for somebody who didn’t know what was going on. An unsuspecting person, even a mage, would probably panic when whisked off to some unknown place, grey and dying, with no way home. But I’d been to far worse places than a muddy swamp. This was nothing. It wasn’t even that threatening.
Besides, I wasn’t trapped.
My bioreactor was dialling down a few notches, easing the control rods back into their channels, though I was starting to flash-sweat with a fever induced by my abyssal immune system. I’d swallowed at least one mouthful of this swamp mud. No telling what I’d ingested. But my reactor would purge that from my body given a minute or two. I was shivering, hot and cold at the same time as the reactor pumped me full of heat.
The worst part was my mobile phone. I fished it out of my pocket and found it was already dead. The screen was blank, the insides were full of water.
“Wonderful,” I hissed through chattering teeth, shivering with a fever. “You owe me a new phone, Edward. I’m not having Evelyn pay for it. We’ll take the money for it after we kill you, I suppose.” I ended with a tut.
Still no sign of the Shambler.
I turned in a slow circle to check my rear. The soupy swamp-mud dragged at my knees, slurping and sucking at my feet. I stared at the trunks of the dubious-looking trees, to see if she was observing me from cover.
“Pull prey Outside, then leave it alone,” I muttered. “Wait for it to weaken, from fear and exhaustion.” I looked up at the leaden sky. The air was still but quite cold. Without my bioreactor I would have been losing body heat fast. “Or from exposure,” I added.
I took a deep breath and braced myself for brain-math. Back to reality. Could I aim well enough to land right on top of Edward’s chair? That would circumvent his tripwire magic circle. Or should I go home, shouting for Lozzie? Should I grab Raine and Zheng and make a plan?
No, land right on Edward’s vessel. End this, fast.
I didn’t even get to start the equation when the Dimensional Shambler appeared right in front of me.
A wall of grey muscle displaced the muddy water in a wave against my front. Her arms ratcheted wide for another bear-hug. Vacant saucer-like eyes fixed on me, jaw hinging open.
I hissed and screeched and whipped out at her with neurotoxin in my tentacles.
“What the … ?” I stood there for a moment, panting and shaking with the sudden burst of adrenaline. Had she known I was about to Slip? Hands on my chest, I tried to still my racing heart. “No, no, don’t do this. No.”
I reached for the Eye’s lessons and tried again.
That time she appeared on my left, close enough to make me flinch and stumble and almost go sprawling in the mud a second time. I screeched in her face and tried to strike her with enough toxin to kill an elephant, but she was gone before I had time to blink.
The third time I was ready, expecting her to appear — but she waited the single split second it took for me to hesitate, then came in with her shoulder low, darting forward through the water, throwing me off balance with a slop of muddy ooze and stinking filth.
And then she vanished again, and the swamp returned to grey quiet.
Panting, wheezing, I turned in a circle in the swamp mud, eyes trying to see in every direction at once, tentacles fanned out and ready.
She was trying to exhaust me. This was how they worked, how they hunted, or perhaps how they fought amongst their own kind. She would disrupt every attempt at leaving. I had a sneaking suspicion that if I managed to Slip out, she would follow me. The Shambler didn’t seem to have taken any damage from the Slip, but I would have to expend energy and pay the price of pain with every time I went back to reality. She could follow me and grab me and bring me here, over and over again, until I was exhausted and spent and made into easy prey.
Of course, she didn’t know about my bioreactor. If pressed, I could do this longer than her.
If pressed, I could use other hyperdimensional mathematics.
I could simply kill her, pulverise her with pure energy, set her on fire, tear all her limbs off.
I raised my voice so it would carry through the grey jungle, but it quivered more than I’d wanted. “If you don’t let me go, I will kill you. Do you understand? I will kill you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Nothing you can—”
And there she was.
I hiccuped in surprise.
Off to my left, perhaps thirty or forty feet away through the tangle of ashen branches and rotting swirl-leaves, the Shambler crouched in a muddy wallow. I was certain she hadn’t been there a second ago. She was barely visible, her taut grey hide blending in with the trees and the mud. A perfect ambush predator for this environment. I only saw her because of her huge black eyes, a pair of oily disks floating in the mottled grey.
We watched each other for a second or two. She made no effort to move.
“Is Edward commanding you somehow?” I called out. “Help me understand what you want! Are you treating me like prey? What are you doing?” I flared my tentacles wider. “I can kill you, if you keep trying to stop me! I don’t want to, but I will!”
The Shambler blinked. The twin pools of oily black vanished into the grey background, and did not return. She’d gone again.
“Clever trick,” I sighed. “From camouflage to … gone … ”
Then I saw the island.
The Shambler had been crouched right in front of it. ‘Island’ was perhaps too grandiose a word; it was little more than an outcropping of jagged grey rock which rose a few feet above the floor of the swamp, perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. I’d missed it earlier, hidden as it was among the trees and the muck, crumbling at the edges, with a few patches of weird bristly grey moss around the base.
Sticking out of a crack in the rocks was a strip of muddy, dirty, torn blue fabric.
“ … okaaaaay,” I whispered. “What am I looking at? Did you want me to see that?”
The Shambler declined the invitation to appear and answer my question, so I sighed heavily, rolled my eyes, and set about trudging toward the island.
Mud sucked at my feet and ankles. My wading motion stirred up an awful stench of organic rot from the depths of the water. I took each footstep with cringing care, feeling before myself with a pair of tentacles, using the others to ward off any unseen ambushers from behind the trees I passed. I was afraid of cutting my feet open on a sharp rock or a pointy stick beneath the water. My abyssal immune system would incinerate anything that got into a cut, but the pain could still debilitate me. The last thing I needed was a hole in my foot. And I was still feverish, my body fighting off the contents of the gunk I’d swallowed earlier.
I made an awful lot of noise wading through that muddy swamp. I exerted conscious effort to dull the rainbow-strobing of my tentacles. Didn’t want some curious predator seeing me through the trees, though there was nothing I could do about my pink hoodie, still standing out even if I was drenched with muddy water.
Something must have sensed me though — when I was halfway to the island I heard a distant whistle-piping sound, not unlike the weird whistles that Edward Lilburne had used to signal the Shambler. The ethereal sound carried through the still air between the trees, a phantom piping. A second whistle replied on my opposite side, far away, weird and haunting and not remotely human.
When I stopped to listen, a third whistle joined in and cut off the previous pair, as if they’d figured out I was listening to them. They fell silent again.
Perhaps that was their language. That would explain a lot. Had Edward learned to speak it?
I reached the edge of the island and slopped up onto the fringe of exposed mud, water streaming from my clothes. The rock was cracked and weathered into ridges and furrows, rising up out of the swamp like a tiny piece of seaside cliff. I stopped and stared at the scrap of blue.
It was a collar.
A dog’s collar, with a paw-print pattern and a little brass tag. Torn and chewed.
My hands were clenched hard inside my hoodie’s pocket, nails digging into my skin, so I reached down with a tentacle and wiped the grey mud off the metal disk. There was a name — I must have read it, but I couldn’t take it in, I couldn’t process what this meant. The name was followed by an address. A Manchester address.
I dropped the collar, then peered into the cracks among the rocks, and found exactly what I was looking for.
I’m not a biologist — well, technically I’m not, at least when it comes to anything except my own slow self-modification, and maybe a bit of pop-biology absorbed from too many youtube videos about marine life. But even I could tell the bones had probably come from Earth, not out here. Small, thin, yellow-white bones, scattered in the low places of the rock formation. Some of them retained traces of red, but all were stripped of every last scrap of meat, sucked clean. Some of the larger ones had been cracked for marrow. I spotted half a skull and couldn’t be sure what it was, but it looked vaguely canine. Another collar caught my eye — brown this time, with a length of leash still attached. It was gnawed and chewed as if something had tried to eat the leather.
“He’s been feeding it,” I murmured, just to hear the sound of my own voice amid this strange horror. “Feeding it stolen pets? Training it with rewards and food and … ”
A sharp scent caught in my nose, just a hint in the still and stagnant swamp air, beneath the salt and the mud. Stronger than vegetable rot, meaty and vile, that smell tickled some instinctive horror in the base of my brain-stem.
I managed to unclench my hands so I could pull myself up onto the rocks. My heart was thudding in my ribs, fearing the worst. Jagged bits of stone stabbed at my feet through my wet socks, my tentacles gripped and pulled, my soaked clothes weighed me down, but I pulled myself up to where the rocks flattened out, beyond the reach of the swamp.
“No,” I said, my voice breaking. “No, no.”
A human corpse was lying on the rocks.
A young man or teenage boy, though it was hard to tell, exactly. He must have been dead for days, perhaps several weeks. He was still fully dressed in baggy jeans and a black t-shirt, with a pair of trainers on his feet. His flesh had mummified, turned dry and taut and greyish on his exposed face and forearms, which made no sense at all; this was a swamp, the air was full of moisture, he should have rotted. No telling how anything worked out here, Outside. Perhaps that was why the smell of a rotting corpse wasn’t too overpowering — just enough to stir revulsion and horror, but not enough to make my stomach rebel.
His lips were peeled back from his teeth by the drying process. His eyelids stood open, shrunken eyes staring up at the grey sky overhead. His tuft of brown hair was turning grey as well, as if consumed by the colourless swamp. He was laid out flat on his back, as if placed there post-mortem. Two bite wounds showed in the mummified flesh of his left arm, neat and precise. Otherwise, he was untouched.
I shook my head in mounting horror. Had to wrap a tentacle around myself to steady my nerves.
Then I noticed the Shambler again. She was standing off to the right of the rocky outcrop, twenty or thirty feet away, stretched up to her full height and watching me openly. One of her paws was clinging to an overhead branch. I stared back, slowly spreading my tentacles, not sure if I should hiss and spit in threat-display, or turn and walk away.
Instead, I called out to her. “Edward tried to make you into a man-eater? Why show me this?” I gestured down at the dead man, cringing and feeling vile, wishing I could roll him into the swamp. This was no fit place for a burial. “Are you trying to apologise? Threaten me? Why did you want me to see this?” I raised my voice further, losing control. “What is this!? What are you—”
A blur of orange leapt up in my peripheral vision. I flinched, whirling around, a hiss rising up my throat.
A live cat, absolutely unmistakable. A marmalade orange tomcat was crouched on the rocks on the opposite side of the corpse.
He was quite old indeed, his muscle gone to soft fat, his fur still thick but no longer uniform. A pair of raggedy stumps was all that was left of his ears. Rheumy eyes peered out from a permanently exhausted, sad-looking expression, the kind that some older cats grow into, like a tiny little orange old man scowling up at me.
He had a green kerchief around his neck instead of a collar, and mud in his fur and on his face, but he wasn’t soaking wet or coated in the grey muck. He stared up at me with all the defiant feline alarm such an old gentleman could muster, then let out a little hiss.
“What,” I croaked out loud. That was the last thing I’d expected.
I glanced back at the Shambler, but she was gone again.
A tiny, terrified, trembling voice cried out from down among the rocks, from where the cat had been hiding — a human voice, speaking English.
Flapping yellow plastic shot from a gap in the rocks, engulfed the cat, and scooped him up. He hissed at me again, unwilling to back down even as he was hoisted into the air. The sight was so strange that for a moment I didn’t know what I was looking at, like a magic eye picture that refused to resolve, because something like this should not be seen Outside.
A little girl, maybe nine or ten years old, had darted from her hiding place amid the rocks and swept the cat up into her arms. She was wearing a yellow plastic raincoat over a thin jumper, and jogging bottoms tucked into a pair of purple wellington boots.
She was filthy and terrified. Long dark hair was plastered against her skull with sweat and mud. She looked pale, exhausted, very hungry and very thirsty and very afraid. Dark rings had formed around desperate eyes. The look in her face was more animal than human, running on instinct and terror.
Children were never, ever meant to look like that. My heart almost folded up.
She hugged the cat tight to her chest and stared up at me in naked terror, eyes wide and filling with tears, trying to swallow a whimper.
It took me a second to realise. We were Outside, she could see my tentacles.
Between my six extra appendages held outward in a threat display, the blood smeared on my face, and my sopping wet clothes drenched with muddy water, I probably looked like some kind of swamp monster.
“It’s okay!” I croaked. I put both my hands out, palms open, and lowered my tentacles, angling them behind me to make myself less threatening. “It’s okay! I’m a person, I’m human!” Technically a lie, but that hardly mattered. “It’s okay! I’m not going to hurt you.”
I was terrible with children, but I don’t think I needed a degree in professional childcare techniques to know the right thing to say to a terrified little girl, lost Outside.
A terrified little girl, nine or ten years old, lost and alone beyond the walls of reality.
She’s me, the thought came clear as the sun amid all this grey. She’s like I was.
The girl stared up at me like I was a space alien, about to abduct her from her bed, or pull her head off her shoulders and eat her brains. She was doing a very admirable job of not crying, brave little thing, but it was a losing battle. The cat couldn’t decide if he should get comfortable in her arms, or stare me down to keep me away.
I stepped sideways so the corpse wasn’t between us, then crouched down so we were eye level with each other.
“It’s okay, it’s all right,” I said, trying to purge the shake from my voice. This girl needed an adult, confident and decisive, not me hiccuping and shying away from danger. Raine, I told myself, be like Raine, right now.
I tried to smile, but I suspect it was more of a blood-soaked rictus.
“My name’s Heather,” I said all in a rush, tripping over my words. “The tentacles on my sides, they’re part of me and they’re very strong, and sometimes I use them to fight bad people, but I’m not going to hurt you. Not with them, or any other way, I mean. I think I can get you out of here. Okay? I can! I can get you out! What’s your name?”
The girl lost her battle against her own tears. Her face crumpled with the pressure of long-resisted fear, eyes filling with water, lips wobbling as she tried to choke down a web sob. The cat in her arms nuzzled into her chest, doing his best.
“Nat,” she said through the crying. It took me a moment to realise it was a word.
“Nat!” I echoed. “Short for Natalie?”
She nodded, tears running down her face, making tracks in the dirt. I nodded too, smiling brightly, pretending we were anywhere except in the middle of an Outsider swamp, surrounded by alien life and sucking mud and a giant gorilla monster that was trying to keep us here.
“I had a friend in primary school named Natalie,” I lied. Didn’t matter. “It’s a really pretty name. It’s a good name. Natalie, I can get you out of here, I’m kind of like a sort of wizard, I can—”
Natalie had decided that I was worth trusting, or perhaps merely that I was preferable to the Shambler and the other denizens of the swamp. She crossed the rocky surface between us in four quick strides, loose wellington boots slapping against her legs, and slammed into me with all the desperation only a terrified child could muster. One arm flew around my neck and she buried her sobbing face in my shoulder, clinging on tight enough to choke. She didn’t drop the cat, to my amazement, but cradled him with her other arm, almost but not quite squishing him between us.
“It’s okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s okay,” I said, patting her back and feeling very awkward indeed.
The hug was smearing swamp water all down her front, getting her clothes wet. She was already filthy, but I wanted to avoid any further risk of this girl getting an infection. I was able to fight off whatever pathogens lurked in this swamp water, but she was a baseline human, and a child. And starving.
Same for the cat. While Natalie clung around my neck and cried herself hoarse, I quickly brought a tentacle close to the cat, so he could sniff me. Old-man eyes squinted and cat nose twitched. He didn’t seem quite convinced by my scent, but he refrained from hissing or clawing at me.
“Natalie, Natalie I have to stand up, okay?” I murmured to the girl. “I have to stand up and look out for the … the … ”
“The gorilla,” she sobbed into my shoulder. She sniffed hard, trying her best to stop crying. “I know.”
After some murmured reassurances, I managed to get Natalie disengaged from my front. I didn’t know what I was saying, just nonsense platitudes, but she was assured I wasn’t about to either eat her or abandon her here. For a moment she hung onto the sleeve of my hoodie with a white-knuckle grip, so I put my hand in hers and held on tight, then craned my neck to look around. I couldn’t see the Shambler anywhere nearby. She wasn’t watching us from the swamp floor or lurking behind us on the rocks or peering between the trees.
I turned back to Natalie, trying to figure out what to do, what this all meant.
Natalie was staring at me, wide-eyed and still terrified, dark hair plastered to her skull. I saw myself standing there, ten years ago. I wasn’t insensible to the comparison, it was too obvious. Protective need burned inside my chest like a slug of molten steel. Abyssal instinct agreed too, which surprised me; I’d never met this girl before, but I would fight the Shambler right down to tooth and claw before I let it keep her here.
But it wasn’t that simple. I glanced at the corpse lying on the rocks, uneaten and barely touched. The Shambler had not eaten that human being. And little Natalie would be no match for the Shambler’s muscle, if it wanted fresh meat.
I frowned in confusion. This was making less and less sense. I needed to get this girl home, but I couldn’t just Slip back to Edward with her in tow — if the Shambler would even let us go without me killing it first. The smart move would be to drop Natalie in front of a police station and then Slip back out, but the Shambler might follow her instead and then snatch her again, and then she might never be found.
Natalie whimpered, eyes flicking to my tentacles. The cat looked like he wanted to hiss at me again.
“Sorry!” I blurted out, trying to reel them back in. They’d been creeping outward, circling around Natalie from behind, building a protective cage without me even thinking about doing so. “They just … they do that, when I’m angry or thinking or … or trying to protect somebody. I’m trying to protect you right now. I’m trying to figure out how to … where to … ” I sighed hard and made an effort to pull myself together. “My tentacles are very strong. Let me put one around your shoulders. That way the big gorilla thing can’t pull us apart if it attacks. Okay?”
“Mm, mm!” Natalie made a desperate sound, worming her hand out of mine and gesturing for a tentacle. She wanted protection, she just didn’t want it lurking behind her.
I put a tentacle in her hand so she could understand what it felt like, that it was just flesh, just a normal appendage. Then I wound it up her arm and over her shoulders in a hug through the yellow raincoat — a Slip-proof safety harness. She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then wrapped both of her arms around the cat again, trying to bite back a whimper. The cat nuzzled her chin.
“Okay, I’ve got you safe,” I said.
Natalie nodded, trying to be brave. Her lips quivered. “Octopus lady?”
“Yes!” I smiled, trying to look bright and wholesome, like we were in a children’s after-school television show. “That’s right, octopus lady. Heather, that’s my name, but you can call me octopus lady if you want.”
Natalie nodded again, more enthusiastic. I hoped she liked octopuses.
I nodded at the cat in her arms. I needed time to think, to plan. “Your cat, he—”
“Turmy,” she told me.
“Turmy, yes,” I echoed. Turmy seemed to recognise his name, looking up at us and then out at the swamp beyond the outcropping of rocks. “Turmy’s a very brave cat, isn’t he? Has he been protecting you too, before I got here?”
Natalie nodded. I sensed she was just old enough to understand that an aged house cat was not capable of protecting her from the Shambler. I was coming off as patronising. I cleared my throat and went for what I needed.
“How long have you been here, Natalie? A few hours, or longer?”
“Don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. Her hair was stiff with dried mud.
“Has the sun gone up and down?” I asked. She shrugged. Maybe there wasn’t a sun here, beyond the clouds. Stupid question. “Have you slept?” A nod. “Are you hurt anywhere?” Shake shake. “Was … don’t look at the dead body, but was he here when you arrived?”
A nod, then she said, “There’s another, too. Down in the rocks. All … rotten and bones and … mm.”
I gave her another hug, gently. She seemed like she was holding on okay.
“Natalie, what’s your family name? Can you tell me that?”
With a few more moments of gentle questioning, I got the details we might need — Natalie Skeates, a Manchester phone number, and an address to match. Daddy was a teacher, Mummy worked in an office.
“One more thing, Natalie,” I said. “I need to know about the big gorilla monster. Did it bring you here?”
She nodded, sniffing hard to clear her nose and throat. “Grabbed me,” she said in a raw little voice.
“Where from? Was there anybody else there? Was there an old man?”
She blinked twice — then nodded. She panted between her words as she spoke. “Turmy got out. Bad Turmy. He was hissing and hissing at something. And I wasn’t supposed to go out into the back alley. But Turmy was there and he was scared. So I picked him up and I wasn’t supposed to and there was a monster.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I murmured. “I’ll take you back home, I promise. But there was an old man, before the gorilla grabbed you?”
Natalie nodded. I opened my mouth again, but then bit off my words. Was she just telling me what I wanted to hear?
“The old man had a whistle,” she said. “He whistled. I didn’t like it.”
My heart leapt. This girl had seen the real Edward Lilburne, in the flesh, whistling to the Shambler, feeding it or training it.
I had to steel myself for something I didn’t want to do.
“Okay, Natalie, okay. I’m gonna get you home, but … I’m going to have to deal with the big gorilla monster first, and that might be ugly. I might have to kill it. So I want you to—”
Natalie’s eyes leapt up and over my head. She screamed the kind of horrible high-pitched scream that only little girls in terror could muster.
In the same moment, Turmy sprang out of her arms, hissing and spitting, his fur bristling, looking like he wanted to claw at the air.
I lurched to my feet and whirled around, the rest of my tentacles arching wide, flushing deep red and warning yellow, filling with paralytic toxins and preparing to sprout spikes and claws. I screeched at the top of my lungs, drowning out Natalie’s scream and Turmy’s hiss with a noise from the deepest places of the abyss.
The Shambler was looming over us, standing on the rocks.
She flinched. Perhaps she hadn’t expected my screech and display, or perhaps she sensed that I was now willing to murder her. Twin pools of oil blinked — and then she was gone again, vanished into thin air before my lashing whip of tentacles could slam into her side. They passed through empty air and I hissed with frustration.
Panting, heaving for breath, trying to get a hold of myself, I turned on the spot, looking for where the Shambler might appear next. Natalie was cowering and whimpering, with the cat cradled in her arms again. The marmalade moggy seemed to have decided that my hiss far outmatched his own volume. His stubby ears were rotated backward, as if trying to flatten them down against his skull.
The Shambler had reappeared about twenty feet away from the outcropping of rock, crouched in the mud up to her chest, dead ahead of us so Natalie couldn’t see. Was that intentional? Did she understand that she’d frightened the child? I stared the creature down.
Seconds ticked by, then half a minute, but the Shambler stayed put.
Natalie was staring around us too, big wide eyes showing absolute terror as she peered out across the rocks. She looked ready to curl into a ball and start sobbing. This child was not getting out of this experience without post-traumatic stress, no matter what I did now.
I crouched down again, swallowing hard to reset the internal shape of my throat. Thankfully my pneuma-somatic reflexes were sharp enough that the tentacle I had wound about Natalie’s shoulders had not flushed with toxins. My body recognised and acknowledged the need to protect, so I wasn’t about to hurt her by accident.
I kept the Shambler in the corner of my vision as I considered the terrified girl.
If I had understood what had happened to me when I was child, when I’d been snatched away to Wonderland and exposed to a supernatural truth my mind couldn’t handle, when the Eye had stolen my sister, then I never would have suffered the decade of misdiagnosis and madness. I would still have been traumatised, yes. What child wouldn’t? But at least I’d have known I wasn’t crazy.
“Natalie, Natalie, listen to me,” I said. “Look at me. Look at me.” She did, with quivering eyes in a pale face. “That creature isn’t going to touch you, I promise. I’m bigger and scarier than it is, understand? But I need you to listen to me. Are you listening?”
My tone, urgent and hard, must have reached her through the terror. She nodded.
“We’re in another dimension right now,” I said. “That’s where this is. An evil wizard kidnapped you and brought you here, because he was trying to get the monster to eat you. The gorilla monster, it’s not evil, I think. It’s kind of like a … like a dog that’s been trained by an evil person. I’m sort of like a wizard too, but not very much. And I’m also not evil. Okay?”
Natalie nodded along, jerky and serious, serious as only a small child could be.
There was so much more I needed to say: this is real but nobody will ever believe you, magic and monsters are real but not all of them are scary and dangerous, and you are not alone. You are not alone. But I didn’t have time to comfort my own ten-year-old self across the gulf of years. I almost reached out to wipe the girl’s cheek. But we had more important things to do.
“Natalie, this is very very important: were you the only child the gorilla brought here? You don’t have any brothers or sisters or cousins or friends with you?”
Natalie shook her head. “Just Turmy.” She buried her face in the cat’s fur.
“Turmy’s a brave boy,” I said. The cat blinked at me, as if to say Boy? I’m an old man. For an absurd moment I felt like I should apologise; this place was getting to me. “And you’re a very brave girl, Natalie.”
She didn’t look like she believed me.
I straightened up and held my hand out toward her, herding her inward with the tentacle around her shoulders, so I could hold her tight. She didn’t need much encouragement to stand closer to me, but then she started to unwind one arm from around Turmy so she could cling onto my hoodie.
“No, Natalie, you hold on to Turmy, okay?” I caught her eyes as she looked up at me in confusion. “I’m going to take us home now, I … ”
I had to look up to check on the Shambler. There was no way to avoid drawing Natalie’s attention. She twisted around in my grip and yelped like a small animal when she saw the creature squatting out there in the swamp.
The Dimensional Shambler hadn’t moved since I’d screeched at her.
Had she led me here on purpose, to this outcropping of rock, and the lost human girl hiding within the cracks? She hadn’t eaten the corpse of the dead young man, and she hadn’t killed Natalie either. Edward had trained this creature with live food, and then tried to make her into a man-eater, but maybe she wasn’t following his plan. She’d eaten the animals, yes, the dogs and cats and whatever else he’d fed her — but could I blame her for that?
When I’d briefly had the Shambler defined with hyperdimensional mathematics, one of the strongest impressions I’d gotten was starvation.
These creatures didn’t all prosper. So yes, she’d eaten the animals. But a human? A fellow sapient?
Maybe she hadn’t known how to return the little girl. Maybe Edward wouldn’t let her. Maybe she was confused or frightened, maybe even guilty.
The Shambler and I stared at each other across the rock and the water and the mud. Her huge oily black eyes did not blink. I couldn’t read her, not even a little bit.
Are you going to let us go? I thought, unwilling to shout across the swamp and scare Natalie further. Please don’t make me kill you.
“Octopus lady … ” Natalie said. She was still pressed close to my side.
I took a deep breath and wanted to hiccup, very badly, but I swallowed it. Had to pretend I knew what I was doing.
“Okay, Nat,” I said. “I’m going to try to take you home now. Actually, I’m going to take you to my home. I know a lot of other, um, wizards. If the Shambler— the gorilla monster, if it tries to come after us, then they’ll be able to protect you, okay? I want you to trust them for me. They’ll seem really scary, um, maybe, but they’re all good people.”
Natalie’s eyes widened with a child’s fear. “You’re not coming?”
“No, I’ll come with you, but then I’ll have to go again, really quickly, because I think the gorilla monster will chase me instead of you. And I have to go deal with the evil wizard who did this, because he won’t be expecting me.”
A weird smile flickered across my face, an evil little smile at the thought of surprising Edward and ripping his head off. A real smile, not the fake children’s television-program smile I’d been trying to maintain all this time.
Natalie tried a little smile back. Just a flicker, but there it was. Maybe she was going to be okay.
I tightened my tentacle around her shoulders. “Okay, Nat, I need you to hold onto Turmy really, really tight, okay? That’s your job, make sure he doesn’t escape. Hug him close.”
She nodded and squeezed the old cat to her chest. He seemed content to snuggle.
“And close your eyes,” I said. “Keep them closed. Whatever you do, keep them closed.” I put both hands on her shoulders. Natalie squeezed her eyes closed, shutting out the nightmares. “This will only take a second, but when we arrive, it’ll be like being carsick. We might fall over. It’s okay though, when we arrive, you can cry if you need to.”
Natalie nodded. She kept her eyes shut. The poor girl was shaking.
The Shambler watched us from the swamp. I stared back at the creature and let out a small hiccup at last.
Let us go. Don’t make me kill you.
I had saved a life, but if I was going to catch Edward as well, I had to move fast.
The familiar old equation spun into life like a perpetual motion machine, as I yanked it from the black oil in the secret room of my soul, pieces slotting into place and burning red-hot across the surface of my mind.
And as reality folded up, the Dimensional Shambler vanished.
In that last split second before we popped through the membrane, I felt her at my heels, coming after us.
I was going to have to be very fast indeed.
Swamps! Lost girls! Protective cats! Heather doing her best to make sure what happened to her never happens to anybody else! She may have blown her chance to catch Edward, but she’s made a real difference here. And why was the Shambler helping?
Full disclosure: ‘Turmy‘ actually exists! The tired-looking marmalade gentleman is a real cat, owned by a long-time reader and early Patron of Katalepsis (well, actually owned by their room mate). I once joked that I should give Turmy a cameo in the story; in the notes/outline for this chapter, his role was originally filled by a large dog, but then I realised this was the perfect moment. So, Turmy! I would like to thank his owners for their gracious permission to use his name and likeness in this perilous situation.
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Next week, it’s back home to gather friends and allies. Heather can’t protect Natalie all by herself, not if she needs to go bitch-slap Edward. Which she does.
But now, some bad news: there might not be a chapter next Saturday.
No, I’m not taking a week off; I’ve caught covid. As of the time of writing this post (Friday night) I’m actually fine, but I’m preparing for the possibility I might be completely knocked out with illness this week. Hopefully that won’t happen, so I can write as normal, but for once I can’t guarantee it. So we’ll see how things go this week, I guess! Stay safe, everybody!