Contemplation of death
Camelot served for the stage of reunion, between parents freshly baptised in the eldritch truth, with their lost and miraculous child — plus one venerable marmalade tomcat, of course, playing the fool around everybody’s ankles to keep us sober and sensible.
But the whole process turned out more awkward than tearful. It was nothing like in the movies, where everybody would cry out each other’s names and fly into each other’s arms, weeping buckets of tears and declaring they’ll never let go again and so on and so forth. The reality of such defining moments is always less cinematic than in our imaginations, always more messy, less clean-cut, never really final, lacking any of that sweeping conclusion that real stories so often possess. In reality — or in this case Outside — the dramatic moment passes, life goes on, and one simply has to live with the consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, Stephen and Isabella were obviously and openly overwhelmed with emotion. They did love their daughter. Her return and safety was a blessing. They were thankful in a way they couldn’t fully express. But watching them go through the relief and vulnerability made me feel like a voyeur on a private moment, a predator on their emotions, an intruder on their most tender and unstable feelings. Like I shouldn’t be witnessing it. Even if I had saved Natalie and opened her parents’ eyes, I was truly an outsider to this trio.
And a hissing, bitter voice in my chest insisted that they didn’t deserve this relief.
Luckily — for a given value of ‘luck’ — I was also rather distracted by the important yet unrelated discovery that Lozzie’s Knights had embarked on a construction project.
Our arrival in Camelot was considerably less graceful and controlled than my Slip to the Shamble-swamp. With no further need to maintain the illusion that I was some kind of terrifying Outsider godling-avatar, here to strike the fear of hell into Natalie’s parents, I didn’t have to maintain my footing when we touched down. Which was nice, because I was absolutely exhausted by then. Back in England it must have been past three o’clock in the morning, or close to that, and I’d had one of the busiest days of my life, not to mention that I’d performed half a dozen Slips since mid-afternoon. Or was it more? Had I done seven Slips that day? I couldn’t recall exactly, which was testimony to how tired I felt. In theory my abdominal bioreactor could keep me on my feet indefinitely, such was the fruit of abyssal bio-hacking, but it couldn’t keep me from feeling like a zombie. My brain was mush, my muscles were cracked leather, and my eyes were dry sockets filled with salt.
So, when Camelot blossomed around us in soft yellow grass on rolling hillsides, the omnipresent purple glow of the whorled skies, and the glint of light on the star-steel armour of Lozzie’s Knights, I let go of my charges with arm and tentacle, and sat down very heavily on my backside.
Zheng kept her feet of course, only swaying a little, grunting deep down in her chest like a tiger with an upset tummy. Sevens was totally unaffected by the Slip, cheating as usual. I suspected Sevens never actually went along with the Slip process, neither with me or with Lozzie, but only pretended to while she used her own far less traumatic way of sliding through the membrane between worlds.
Stephen and Isabella were afforded no such mercies, however. While I groaned and hunched up and held on tight to the contents of my stomach, fighting off a stabbing headache like a hot poker through both my eyeballs, Natalie’s parents went sprawling again.
At least Camelot’s grassy hillsides made a better cushion than a rocky outcrop in the Shamble-swamp. No skinned hands this time.
My fifth and final passenger didn’t care about headaches or vomiting, or the soul-violence of the Slip, or the subtle, creeping wrongness of Outside, even here in safe, familiar Camelot. But neither could he enjoy the warm, cinnamon-scented wind which trickled through the air from parts unknown, or the transcendent spectacle of the sky filled with those purple whorls like shreds of quartz galaxy lying in low orbit, or the fairytale figures of Lozzie’s Knights in their impossibly perfect armour.
The corpse of the young man who the Shambler had refused to eat, he couldn’t care about anything anymore.
Camelot was going to be his resting place. Another concession to Evelyn’s paranoia, but even I had to admit this was a sensible precaution. We couldn’t risk bringing the unidentified corpse back to our reality and burying him in secret, no matter how much he deserved the basic dignity and respect of repatriation. He might be found, wherever we buried him. Police might launch an investigation, might trace the body back to us.
So he would be buried here, in a beautiful and peaceful place he had never and would never see.
As I recovered from the pain of brain-math, curled up and groaning like I had indigestion, I gratefully let go of the withered, dried-out corpse with the one tentacle I’d had wrapped around the dead man’s shoulders. But I cradled the skull with care, making sure he was lying flat on the grassy hilltop, not dropped like a sack of potatoes.
Stephen and Isabella took a long time to pull themselves together. Two Slips in close succession was a lot to ask from uninitiated human beings. Stephen spat bile into the grass, then collapsed, then managed to roll onto his back, gazing up in awe at the purple whorled sky.
“Is this … Outside … too?” he asked in a croaking voice.
“Mm, yes,” I grunted into my own knees, still fighting off the stabbing headache. “Different dimension. Safe place. We call it Camelot.”
Stephen spluttered a very weak laugh. “Camelot?”
Isabella tried very hard not to sob at the pain and disorientation as she shivered on her hands and knees. She almost found victory, but then Stephen gently took her wrist, and she lost herself to a wave of nausea and tears.
The bitter whisperer deep in my chest didn’t approve of that; it wanted me to growl and hiss at this pair of entitled apes, tell them they were lucky they hadn’t ended up like the dead man we were going to bury here. It wanted to remind them that without me and my powers and experience, their daughter would be rotting in the swamp as well.
Why does your little girl get to live while this man died of exposure and thirst? Your relief comes at the price of an innocent life. We don’t even know his name!
That twisted, bitter part of me, coiled in my chest like a rotten grub, it had so little sympathy or trust for Natalie’s parents — but infinite empathy and care for this nameless dead man. As they lay there, panting and quivering on the grass of Camelot, I felt a vindictive urge to ask them a hypothetical question.
Would one of you swap places with this man? Would you give yourself up for the sake of your daughter?
In a way, I’d already asked them that, just before we’d left the swamp. And they’d both answered in the positive.
Yes, they were in. They were on their daughter’s side.
They’ll drift away as soon as you leave.
But I had to believe they would keep faith — even if I was going to have to keep an eye on them for a while.
“Shaman,” Zheng purred. She reached down to cup the back of my head with one hand. Her voice contained an oddly worried note.
“M’fine,” I grunted, my eyes still squeezed shut against the pain. Sevens’ yellow cloak was doing a good job of providing warmth and comfort, even through my hoodie. I tugged it tighter around myself. “S’just brain-math stuff. You’ve seen this a million times. Sevens, are you here too? Sevens?”
Sevens took a moment to answer. “ … yes?”
“S’Lozzie here?” I finally raised my head and rubbed at my eyes with a tentacle, feeling bleary and bloodshot. “We need to make sure Nat doesn’t see the corpse again. Or see her parents hurting, or … or … ”
I trailed off in shock, eyes going wide, overwhelmed by a kind of awe I had not felt myself in many months.
Stephen was sitting up, staring as well, though he wasn’t shocked in the same kind of way. After all, this was the first time he and Isabella had seen Camelot. All of this was out of the ordinary to them, from the purple sky to the Knights and the gargantuan semi-machine presence of Lozzie’s Caterpillars, and—
“Do you call it Camelot because of the castle?” he asked.
I answered with a hiccup.
In our absence, The Knights of the Perhaps-Not-So-Metaphorical-Anymore Round Table had apparently been very busy indeed.
We had materialised in the middle of a construction site, albeit a very quiet one, which enclosed the nearby rolling hillsides. My usual arrival spot in Camelot happened to be situated on a slightly higher hillside; by chance or luck — or more likely, by the unspoken, hidden, theatrical flare of the Knights themselves — that hilltop just so happened to form the perfect vantage point to look out across their handiwork. I shook my head in awe, eyes wide, twisting where I sat to take it all in.
To be fair to poor Stephen, he was exaggerating, but only because the structure was clearly unfinished. If this was to be a castle, then it had a long way to go yet — and I should know, because I know castles. At least, from books.
The Knights, along with their larger group-mind allies in the Caterpillars, had begun building two distinct structures.
The outline of a future curtain wall ran along the nearby hillsides, claiming the highest points and joining them together with what I assumed would eventually be tall stretches of stonework. For now, the curtain wall was only a dream, carved into the landscape with a ditch ready for the foundation blocks — but some of those blocks were in place, monolithic slabs of sandstone-coloured rock laid level and flat in the ground, waiting for mortar and stone to be placed atop them. Along that ring of future wall, I spied three low areas without any ditch cut into the soil, obviously intended to become gatehouses. They were wide enough for two Caterpillars abreast.
“Completely indefensible,” I murmured to myself, but I was just talking nonsense, too numb to think. This wasn’t medieval Europe, they weren’t going to be defending their fortress against cannons and scaling ladders.
What were they planning to defend against?
Off to our left lay the area of relatively flat ground where the friendly Caterpillar had once stood to provide us with a stable, upright surface for the gateway exit point, along with the piece of shed carapace that he had so graciously gifted us as a bench, on which to sit and watch Zheng and Raine having a duel out on the grassy steppe. The Caterpillar had since moved on, leaving behind a large area of dead grass, gone brown without the sustenance of the strange purple light from the sunless sky. But the bench remained, as did the gateway exit. The Caterpillar had obviously shed another plate of organic carapace armour, the plate on which the gateway had stood.
The Knights had mounted that plate upright, braced either side with more of that strange, dusky stone, and created a square of stone tiles around the gateway. A welcome mat, for visitors from Earth.
All of that area was well within the intended protection of the curtain walls — inside the bailey, I should say. In the middle of the area circumscribed by the ditch, the Knights and the Caterpillars had begun construction of a keep.
It was only in the very early stages of the process, with foundation stones laid down in a massive rectangular shape, made of that same odd, dusky sandstone-like rock. But where the curtain wall was only a suggestion waiting to be filled in, the keep was well under way, with low walls taking shape and sweeping arches for the entrances and a wide area of paved ground marking out the surroundings. The massive blocks of stone had been cut into more manageable bricks, held together with a faintly pinkish mortar. Almost one entire floor looked ready, and a second was creeping upward. I even spied what looked like narrow windows, arrow-slit style.
Not all of it was made from that odd stone. Some parts — the arches, the windows, anything that required complex shapes — were formed from pieces of Caterpillar carapace, cut or bent or moulded into the right forms. A castle taking form, in stone and bone.
They even had a crane and pulley system, also built from pieces of Caterpillar carapace, though I had no idea what they were using for rope.
“No wood, of course,” I murmured. “What are the internal floors made from?”
The whole structure was swarming with Knights, all of them working in silence except for the occasional clack of stone on stone. Many of them were carrying small sandstone blocks in carriers made from pieces of Caterpillar carapace; others were mixing what looked like some kind of mortar in a great white cauldron, drooling long strands of organic material from within intentional openings in their amour into the mixture; many Knights were working on cutting massive stone blocks into smaller bricks, using tools that looked re-purposed from their weapons; further Knights were sitting and standing around as if observing or overseeing the building work. Some of them still carried their weapons in their gauntlets, but most of them had their hands free for spades or poles or mixing tools.
Several Caterpillars were lined up inside the walls as well — three of them, massive whale-sized things that dwarfed the Knights. One of them was dotted with little growing structures, strange twists and turns of carapace, growing the pieces needed for the castle. The other two were carrying massive blocks of that dusky sandstone on their backs, roped to them with thick strands of sticky-looking black tar that were probably as wide around as a human being. The Knights scurried about them, helping to lower the stone next to the masonry workshop area.
In the distance to our right, I could see several more Caterpillars on the horizon, tiny white lozenge shapes either moving toward the castle or away from it. Some of them also had stone secured to their backs, visible even at such great distance if one squinted a bit.
“Hmm,” went Sevens.
“Or is it because of the blokes in armour?” Stephen asked when I didn’t answer.
I tried to gather my thoughts. “It’s … um … because of the Knights, yes.”
Stephen and Isabella must have heard the worry and confusion in my voice, because they shared a sudden, twitchy, nervous glance. Isabella had managed to get to her feet, but her husband was still sitting on the grass like me. Even if I was no longer a prospective god in their minds, I was still the person in charge, I was the one who knew what was going on, so hearing me awestruck was probably not a good sign for their own survival — or for the safety of their daughter.
“Huh,” Zheng grunted. Performatively unimpressed, but she wasn’t fooling me.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I said, then couldn’t resist a deep sigh. I could feel a headache coming on. My squid-skull mask called to me, promising to soothe the pain if I slipped it on over my head. But I needed a human face right then. We were still treading delicate ground. “I’m just surprised, they … um … this is new, it’s … ”
Sevens cleared her throat delicately. “The knightly order of Camelot did not obtain planning permission for this new build.”
Stephen blinked hard, once, then nodded seriously. “Oh, right. Right then.”
Sevens had successfully summed up the problem in terms he could understand all too well.
Isabella looked less convinced, frowning to herself as she stared at the castle. Her long-fingered hands wrung together in barely contained anxiety. She looked like a stripped willow tree, lost Outside on some forgotten hill. “Who do you ask for planning permission, out here? Is there a … county council?” She winced. “No, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, that’s absurd, obviously, sorry.”
“Me,” I grunted, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Or Lozzie? I don’t know.”
Sevens stepped forward, using her umbrella as a casual walking stick. “There is nothing to fear. This castle belongs to Heather, undoubtedly.”
“I don’t want another castle,” I grumbled. “What are they doing?”
“Another?” Isabella blinked at me, eyes wide.
Stephen was frowning up at Sevens now. “If you don’t mind me asking, miss, who are you? You kind of appeared out of … nowhere … um.” He eyed Zheng as well, realising that he had no idea who or what she was either. He was still very lost, desperate to get his little girl back, navigating mysterious waters.
“I’m an actual god,” said Sevens, cold and completely straight-faced. “But not the kind you worship. Don’t think about it too hard.”
I gave Sevens such a look. She politely tilted her head at me, the picture of innocence.
“You and I are going to have a talk later,” I said.
I sighed and stuck out one hand to Zheng. “Help me up, please. I’m too tired to expend effort. Please.”
Zheng hauled me to my feet, though she probably didn’t need to. I could have climbed her side with my tentacles all by myself, though I still clung to her arm for support once I was standing, huddling inside the skin-warmth of the yellow cloak. For a moment I just gazed out across the castle-works, at the knights all busy building, at the Caterpillars serving as heavy lifting gear and extruding pieces of castle-structure, wondering what on earth was going on.
“How have they done this in a single week?” I asked nobody in particular. “I was last here a week ago. Okay, well, maybe a bit more than a week, but still. How large is this going to be?”
Sevens ventured a suggestion. “Arundel sized? The bailey is easily large enough. No Norman motte in the middle, of course. The keep will be very different, square and more modern.”
I scoffed with humourless laughter. “I’ve been to Arundel Castle, it’s huge, it’s … wait.” I frowned at her, though Seven-Shades-of-Suspiciously-Specific-Experience was gazing out at the castle too, seemingly very interested. “Sevens, how do you know Arundel Castle?”
“I visited for a siege. Only for one day, though. The rest of it wasn’t relevant to me.”
By then, Stephen had gotten to his feet as well, with his wife’s assistance. Even in my increasingly exasperated state, I couldn’t help but notice they remained holding hands with each other, unwilling to let go as they stared out in awe at the seed of a castle framed against the whorled purple sky of Camelot. For a moment they didn’t seem like older adults at all, but more like a pair of teenagers who’d been playing at maturity, suddenly confronted by the vast and inhuman depths of the cosmos.
Not so different to me, see? I told that bitter snake coiled in my chest, but the voice responded with only a derisive snort.
Zheng rumbled, like a cat’s trill but on a tiger’s scale. “Shaman, I do not see the mooncalf.”
“Well, yes,” I huffed. “She’s probably behind the bloody great castle, or capering about on the far side of one of the Caterpillars, or I don’t know … supervising engravings of cat-girls on the inside of a great hall while it’s still under construction.”
“Very suitable,” said Sevens.
My final burst of irritation was half a hasty performance. I swallowed hard but tried to conceal the sudden draining of blood from my head and limbs, the plummeting feeling in my gut, and the cold sweat breaking out down my back. If Lozzie wasn’t here, something must have gone badly wrong. Her part of the plan had involved at least one more Slip, with Natalie and Turmy and Tenny in tow. But she should have been here over an hour ago. She should have been waiting for us.
A terrible possibility blossomed in my imagination — what if Edward had a second machine all along? What if we were still standing waist deep in his trap?
“Shaman?” Zheng rumbled. Hiding my sudden anxiety from her was impossible. She could probably smell my fear.
“It’s … um … we should look for Lozzie. She’s … probably in the castle?”
Seven-Shades-of-Sauntering-to-the-Rescue raised her umbrella and pointed with the metal tip. “I spy Turmy right there. Lozzie must be close.”
I must have squeaked like a surprised fox, because Stephen and Isabella both flinched and stared at me, before they also looked toward their lost cat.
Sevens was right. There was Turmy, a marmalade blob-smudge visible against the velvety yellow grass. He was about halfway across the enclosure of the prospective curtain walls, just by the edge of the keep, nosing and sniffing at the metal gauntlet a Knight had extended toward him. Three Knights in total had assumed a crouched position around the cat, each with one hand out, waiting for Turmy to sniff, or perhaps submit to petting. I hadn’t noticed him there between the trio of crouching Knights, because I’d assumed they were working on something at the base of the wall. Turmy didn’t seem to have noticed us either, especially once he started rubbing himself on one of the Knights’ hands.
The relief was overwhelming, and not just for Natalie’s parents. Isabella put a hand to her chest. Stephen let out a shuddering sigh. But I felt all my fears crawl back up into my brain stem and leave only irritation in their wake. If Turmy was here, then Lozzie was here too, and she really was messing around in a half-finished castle, a construction site, with a small child. Two children, if one counted Tenny.
“Such a popular fellow, isn’t he?” Sevens was saying. I heard a tiny sigh in her voice. Her free hand unconsciously brushed at her skirt, trying to brush away the memory of Turmy’s shed fur.
“Oh,” I hissed. “I can’t believe how irresponsible Lozzie can be! Really!” I huffed harder, gathering myself. “I don’t have the energy to worry right now, about this … this … unlicensed crenellation! I simply do not!”
My angry snap finally drew the attention of some of the nearby Knights. Visor-less sealed faceplates turned toward us. Working Knights stopped in their ceaseless motion and looked up from carrying bricks or mixing mortar or cutting stone. The Knights working the crane paused their limbs like automatons and turned only their heads. The attention went through them like a wave, until every single Knight was stock still and staring in our direction.
“Uh,” went Stephen. Isabella’s lips were shaking, too, eyes gone wide.
Sometimes it was all too easy for me to forget how eerie the Knights could be. I’d grown too used to them.
“Yes, hello!” I called out. “Yes, it’s me, hi! Don’t blame me for being a bit surprised, now, you’re all—”
We all flinched together — well, Sevens didn’t, though even Zheng stiffened briefly, head snapping around — at the trio of sudden booming noises that echoed out across the quiet plain. None of the Knights reacted, of course, but over by the keep I saw Turmy jump and hiss, arching his back and fluffing up his tail at this unseen sonic assault.
“It’s fine!” I called out, heart racing, one hand pressed to my chest, tentacles instinctively flared outward. “It’s just the Caterpillars, the giant white things over there. They were just saying hello.”
The Caterpillars’ giant engine-booms were of course only miniature versions of the deafening alarm-roar any of them could make if they so chose to. Even now, as we recovered our breath and nursed racing pulses, I could hear a trio of great engines dialling down, a chorus of bass machinery inside the Caterpillars’ pitted white carapaces, returning to standby.
However, I did raise one tentacle to wave a greeting. The last thing I wanted was the great machine-creatures to think we hadn’t heard, and express themselves again but louder. Zheng followed suit, oddly enough, raising a single closed fist in salute.
Isabella and Stephen looked more than a bit shell-shocked at all this. Their baptism of fire in the Shamble-swamp had been up-close and personal, something I hadn’t let them look away from, but at least it had all been mostly on the human scale. The Caterpillars speaking, things on that scale communicating, was still a bit too much for them.
But I didn’t tell them to look away. The more they saw, the more they were forced to integrate into their world-view.
That’s why Camelot had come second. Safe, secure, peaceful Camelot. I just hadn’t expected the castle.
As we waved to our gigantic machine-grub friends, a tiny blonde head popped up over the lip of the incomplete walls of the castle keep. A puff of blonde hair, a flap of pentacolour pastel poncho, and Lozzie vanished again into the bowels of the construction site. All over the rest of the castle grounds, the Knights turned their heads away from us, resumed working on their various tasks, and got back on with the business of building.
I shook my head and put my hands on my hips, tutting softly.
A moment later, three small figures appeared around the far side of the castle, flanked by a pair of Knights on guard duty. Lozzie diligently took the lead as Tenny herded little Natalie along, holding both of Natalie’s hands with her silken black tentacles.
“Nat!” Isabella almost sobbed. Stephen looked about ready to cry too.
“Come along,” I said, stepping forward and dragging Zheng after me. “Let’s go meet them. I’d rather Natalie not have to see the corpse all over again.”
We set off across the yellow grass, across what would one day be a castle courtyard. I glanced back only once, at the sad and lonely body of the nameless young man.
Natalie was reunited with her parents beneath the shelter of the walls of Camelot’s keep. We met her and Lozzie and Tenny just shy of the border of paved ground the Knights had laid out. The pair of Knights accompanying them stopped a little way behind.
When little Natalie realised that the ‘octopus lady’ had brought her back to her parents at last, she pulled free of Tenny’s embrace and ran across the gap which separated them, babbling for mummy and daddy.
Her parents did something not too dissimilar. I did my best to look away.
The actual moment of reunion between parents and child was deeply embarrassing to witness, but also a potential minefield. We couldn’t simply turn away and allow it to play out until the moment of emotional exhaustion. We couldn’t give this family their privacy, not yet — because Tenny was right there and Nat had taken a liking to her. She’d made friends with a humanoid moth-puppy. Mum and Dad were going to have questions. Which was, of course, at least partly intentional.
It didn’t take too long for the tears to subside, though Natalie didn’t cry at all. She had that far-past-exhaustion look that very tired small children sometimes get, wired with manic energy from hidden reserves, dressed in borrowed pajamas and a pair of crocs from Evee which were far too large for her small feet. She kicked them off as her mother lifted her up for a hug, and didn’t bother to slip them back on after she was placed back down again. She scrunched bare feet against the grass of Camelot, uncaring of how it felt, as her parents fussed over her.
That was the first sign which worried me.
“—and then the Octopus lady made it go away but it’s not bad it’s just like a big confused dog, a bad dog, but not because it’s a bad dog but—”
Natalie babbled on with a small child’s explanation of what had happened, even as her mother would barely let go of her, and her father cried quiet tears of relief.
“—but Tenns is really nice and Tenns made it go away again by getting really big and—”
Eventually, once they’d reassured their brain-stems that their daughter was safe and sound — and interrupted her several times to ask if she was hurt anywhere — Isabella and Stephen managed to spare a sliver of attention to realise what exactly their daughter was gesturing toward so happily.
Isabella kept a firm grip on one of Natalie’s hands. Stephen straightened up and stared.
“Burrrrrrt?” went Tenny, tilting her head at the parents. Two of her black tentacles were idly reaching toward her new friend. Another two were edging toward each of the parents, as if curious about them but not quite sure. “Naaaaat?”
Isabella and Stephen were freshly terrified all over again.
What did they see when they looked at Tenny? Fluffy white fur on coal-black skin, a pair of twitching antennae on her head, and eyes like something dredged from the deep. Tenny’s musculature was almost human, but not quite, like her muscles and joints were linked incorrectly to be a truly human frame. Wings hanging down like a cloak, part of her body, and a great mass of tentacles writhing out from the hidden space between wings and shoulders.
To me and to Lozzie, Tenny was beautiful. But to people who had not encountered her before?
This thing had just said their child’s name. Their body language was defensive, ready to flee or fight. Tenny must have seen it too, because all her tentacles paused, a worried look on her face, a touch of caution in those wide black eyes.
“Tenny!” Natalie reached out a hand, inviting the tentacle to hold again. “Mmm!”
Lozzie waved the corner of her poncho at the parents. “Hi!”
I cleared my throat and stepped forward. The time for polite distance was over. “Allow me, please.” I gestured at Lozzie first, trying to ease them into yet more supernatural truths. “This is Lozzie, my … sister.” I settled on that word without really thinking about it, but it somehow felt right. Lozzie flashed a cheeky, delighted look at me. “Without her, your daughter would have been taken away again.” Then I gestured at Tenny. “This is Tenny, Lozzie’s daughter. Subjectively, she’s about the same age as Natalie—”
An irritated trill interrupted me. “Older!” said Tenny. “I’m older, Heath.”
To my great and lasting relief, Natalie let out a giggle.
That probably did more work than anything I could say. With the doubtful caution of a pair of apes letting a serpent into their den, Natalie’s parents watched as one of Tenny’s tentacles returned to hold Natalie’s hand.
I sighed and forced a smile. “Yes, well, Tenny is also a child, just a bit older, subjectively speaking. She’s been helping to look after Natalie since we found her in the swamp.”
“Tenny’s a friend!” Natalie said, full of sudden bursting enthusiasm, looking up at her mother and father. “And she’s really really clever! She does clever things with all her octopus parts, lots of different things at once!”
Stephen and Isabella did not look quite convinced just yet. The undeniable physical reality of Tenny had pushed both of them back up to the border of their own sanity. Isabella had gone white in the face, in shock or horror, while Stephen looked like he wanted to spit with disgust. I hoped he wouldn’t, for Tenny’s sake.
The idea that their child had been kidnapped by an evil wizard and spirited away beyond the walls of reality, that was one thing, they could maybe deal with that concept — because she was now being saved, returned to normality by the powers of things beyond their comprehension.
But the prospect of Natalie making friends with something visibly alien and other? That was a different hurdle. But they had to leap it. I wouldn’t let them refuse the change.
How could they not reject this? whispered the doubtful voice. Belief doesn’t equal acceptance. You’re all monsters to them, these so-called ‘normal’ people.
To my horror, I agreed with the doubts, even if they did sound a little edgy when put into words.
Lozzie and I both waited with bated breath, to see what was going to happen.
Despite appearances, we weren’t actually putting Tenny on the spot without any support. Tenny, bless her speed of comprehension, had been given a set of very clear and explicit instructions, plus reassurances, by both myself and Lozzie, before we’d put the beginning of the plan into action. The situation was not about to spiral out of control. Even if something unexpected happened, Tenny was still anchored, both physically and emotionally; nobody had remarked on the single black tentacle that had crept out from beneath her wings and slid up inside Lozzie’s poncho. Tenny was holding her mother’s hand. She knew we were here.
“Helloooooo? Hello?” Tenny trilled, like some kind of exotic jungle parrot repeating the first word she’d heard.
But it didn’t earn her a reply from Natalie’s parents.
I cleared my throat and stuck to the script. “Tenny, Stephen and Isabella are Natalie’s parents. What do you say to a friend’s parents?”
“Ohhhh!” Tenny trilled at me, big black eyes going wide. She didn’t actually need reminding, the ‘surprise’ was part of the act. She turned back to Natalie’s parents and nodded her head in a little bow. “Thank you,” she trilled in her fluttering voice, from a vocal system that we couldn’t even picture. “Thank you for … letting me play with Nat, Mister and Misses … brrrrt … ” Tenny trailed off and glanced to me for help. She was, after all, a nervous young teenager talking to a pair of unfamiliar adults.
“Mister and Misses Skeates,” I supplied in a stage whisper.
“Skeates!” Tenny announced like she’d flipped over a rock and found a fascinating bug. Half a dozen black, silken tentacles wiggled in a halo around her body, bobbing and weaving with the release of nervous energy. Tenny beamed.
Stephen Skeates swallowed hard — and glanced at me for guidance or reassurance.
The moment you’re gone, they’ll revert to disgust, whispered the horrible hissing in my chest.
“Tenny is not a human being,” I said out loud, struggling not to hiccup. I’d practised these lines, but they still came hard. “But she is a person, sapient like us. She’s from Earth, not Outside, whatever she looks like. And she’s also a little girl.”
Brrrrrt! went Tenny, fluttering with irritation. She flapped her arms. Several tentacles waggled and wobbled at me. “Not little! Heath!”
Natalie giggled in delight. Tenny wasn’t frightening to her, not at all.
Lozzie spread her arms beneath her poncho, catching everyone’s attention for a moment with the display of pentacolour pastel, like a songbird flaring her crest.
“She’s my precious babby!” said Lozzie. “So be kind, please?”
For just a second, Lozzie held Isabella’s wary gaze, those little elfin eyes sparkling with mischief and knowledge. Then she did this sort of bend from the waist, flopping forward and letting her poncho flap with her, all relaxed and loose, before whirling back up and fixing Stephen with the same look.
I had no idea if Lozzie was performing covert magic based on interpretive dance, or if she was just being her usual silly self, but whatever it was, it worked. Isabella and Stephen both visibly relaxed, if only by a very small fraction, and the eyes they turned toward Tenny were now consciously restrained and polite. Parenthood bridged the gap; I still struggled to think of Lozzie as Tenny’s mum, but she was, in a very real way.
“Tenny, was it?” Isabella managed to say. “You’re very welcome.”
“And thank you too, for keeping Nat company.” Isabella looked to me again for confirmation. I nodded, while Tenny happily wiggled her tentacles.
“Mum! Mum!” Natalie was saying, tugging on her mother’s hand. “Tenny can tie knots with her tentacles, it’s really funny! And we found a really huge round table inside the castle! And one of the Caterpillars said hello to me! And—”
Natalie was not acting much like a child who had just returned from a traumatic experience; she was rattling on at her parents like she’d just gotten home from a school trip. On one hand, that was a good sign. She wasn’t clinging to mummy and daddy in wild-eyed terror, which would present well for the story that the Skeates would have to tell the police. But she was almost too normal, too excited, too stable.
I didn’t mention that out loud, of course. I stepped back, politely giving the little family the space they needed. Stephen made eye contact with me as I withdrew a few paces, so I said, “We’ll take you straight back home in a few minutes, when you’re ready. We’ll need to talk about practical matters, but it might be better to do that around a kitchen table, rather than out here. Let Nat stretch her legs for a few minutes?”
Stephen nodded. Natalie bobbed on her bare feet and said, “Thank you, octopus lady!”
Isabella looked at me too. “Thank you,” she said, deadly serious.
The awkward moment collapsed in two mutually acceptable directions. Natalie, chattering with childlike excitement, started to lead her parents off around the side of the castle, to show them “the part of the wall where it gets really tall!”, the “knight with the funny helmet”, and presumably to find Turmy before we left. Tenny trailed along with them, still holding Natalie’s other hand in one curled end of a tentacle. Sevens stepped past me to provide a safe chaperone, flourishing her umbrella like a fancy walking stick, just in case of a blow-up or something unexpected happening. We hadn’t planned this part, but she sauntered on without asking for guidance. Which was a relief.
Perhaps she was trying to make up for earlier.
“I will watch the puppy, too,” Zheng rumbled, but she only detached herself from my side after I acknowledged with a nod. I had regained enough strength to stand on my own two feet without wavering — well, two feet and two tentacles as extra bracing against the ground.
I had also mustered enough strength of mind to reach out with one tentacle and snag the hem of Lozzie’s poncho, just as she was about to skip off to join the rear of the impromptu tour group.
“Hey,” I croaked.
Lozzie did a little flutter-flounce turn, dipping her head to one side. “Heathy?”
“Let them walk around for a few minutes,” I said. Lozzie bit her bottom lip, openly doubtful and casting a look at the backs of the others as they neared the corner of the unfinished castle keep. I added, “Tenny has a princess of Carcosa and Zheng to look after her, she’ll be fine.”
Lozzie leaned toward me, wiggled her eyebrows, and put one hand next to her mouth in a comedic stage-whisper pose. “I was thinking more about mister and misses gloomy-face!”
“I think they need a breather too. And they’ve got Sevens, if things go off the rails. Please, Lozzie. Come with me instead? I need to take a look at the … at the body, and I’d rather not do it alone. And I want your opinion on something.”
Lozzie blinked several times as if surprised, went through a very brief show of resistance, pursing her lips and putting her hands on her hips, then broke into a sunburst of a smile, flapped the sides of her poncho, and skipped over to my side to take me by the hand.
While Natalie and her parents wandered the grounds of Camelot-under-construction, Lozzie and I retraced our earlier steps, heading up the gentle slope to where I’d left the corpse of the unknown traveller.
He wasn’t alone anymore; three Knights had appeared around the corpse.
One stood at his head and another by his feet, both holding halberd-like weapons, facing outward toward the castle keep. A third stood opposite us, on the far side of the corpse, with a familiar long-hafted axe held in both hands, as if at parade attention. I would recognise my friend anywhere. It was the Forest Knight. Taken together, framed against the purple whorls in Camelot’s sky, the three of them looked like the protagonists of an Arthurian legend, gazing off into their destiny. Or a very cheap fantasy novel cover by an artist who disliked drawing faces.
Lozzie and I took it slow as we climbed the hill, to give us time to talk.
“Lozzie,” I murmured, peering ahead at the Knights around the corpse. “What are they doing?”
“Standing vigil,” she replied instantly, her voice a sad trickle of its usual self.
“Lozzie? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. I know you don’t like this kind of thing, I just needed a friend with me, I need to drop the act.”
Lozzie sniffed and wiped her eyes on a corner of her poncho, then turned a bright smile on me again. “It’s okay! They’re just so sweet is all, they’re such good sweeties and boys and girls and all other sorts, did you know that too? They’ve invented all these ones that they have terms for but no words yet. They don’t do words often. We should teach them that too. More words.”
I sighed, but with a smile on my face. “I think we’ve taught them plenty, already. Lozzie, what are they doing here?” I glanced over my shoulder at the medieval construction site sprawled out behind us. “I mean, not just up on this hill. The whole thing. Why are they building a castle? More importantly, who are they hoping to defend against? I thought you said this world was empty, nothing here, all long extinct.”
Lozzie shrugged, tilting her head at me, rather po-faced. “I think they just think it’s cool.”
“It’s … I’m sorry, it’s cool?”
“You love castles too, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, I do, but—”
Lozzie giggle-snorted and waved me down as if I was being silly. “Where do you think they got the idea?” She extended one arm out and pointed at the Forest Knight. “You gave him all sorts of stuff from inside you, didn’t you?”
I blinked in realisation. Of course, when the Forest Knight had almost died from spiritual decompression, and I’d had to inject him with the product of my own distilled and purified abyssal energies; I’d shared something with him that was never meant to be a physical substance, let alone leave my own flesh, and I had briefly joined the very edge of the Round Table, though the communication had all happened in a medium I hadn’t the faintest notion of how to understand.
And now the Knights were building a castle, because it was cool.
“I hope they’re not going to adopt any other tastes and interests from my subconscious,” I said, pulling a little grimace. Lozzie giggled and flapped her poncho. “Well, I’m glad you find it amusing, but we can’t have them all developing a crush on Zheng.”
Lozzie snorted again. “Heathy!”
“What? You’re telling me that’s not possible? They picked up a love of castles, so why not that?”
“Because they’re Knights! It makes sense for them to build a castle!”
I tutted and shook my head, blushing faintly and frowning in utter perplexity. All this activity, this building, this industry, this was my fault all along. I couldn’t adjust to that idea.
“Where are they even getting those huge stone blocks?” I asked. “Are the Cattys okay, hauling them all that distance?”
“Mmhmm! They’re fine!”
“And where are they getting it from?”
Lozzie pointed toward the distant horizon, where several tiny white specks were visible, the Caterpillars on their long trek to whatever makeshift quarry they’d carved out of some rocky ground, untouched and unseen by mortal eyes for thousands of years. There was a vague shape on the horizon when one squinted in that direction, the faintest suggestion of naked stone, dun and dusty.
“There’s an abandoned city that way! They’re taking from there.”
I stopped dead and turned my head to stare at Lozzie. She tilted her own head back and forth, like a confused puppy.
“You’re telling me that this castle is being built with pieces of monolithic stone stolen from a dead, ancient city, on a dead world?”
I blinked several times, rubbed the bridge of my nose, and decided it didn’t matter. “I suppose the knights didn’t adopt a healthy fear of curses, then.”
Lozzie mock-gasped and flapped one hand beneath her poncho. “Heathy, you believe in curses?!”
I gave her a scathing look. “Can you blame me, really?”
Lozzie found that irresistibly funny. She giggled all the way up the rest of the hill, all the way to the feet of the Knights, wind-milling one arm and tugging on my hand, calling me the ‘cutest silly-button’. She only trailed off when we came face-to-face with the corpse and the Knights standing over him in their honour guard, for a dead man they didn’t even know.
“Hello you,” I said to the Forest Knight. His helmet dipped by a fraction of an inch. “No, no, I understand, you can’t move right now. You’re standing vigil. Thank you for doing this. You really didn’t have to, any of you three.” I looked at the other two knights, but they stayed stock still.
The Forest Knight resumed his position, helmet up, gazing out across the landscape.
Lozzie was biting her lower lip, staring down at the corpse, at the mummified, greyish skin on the man’s face and forearms.
“Hey,” I said softly, squeezing her hand and tugging gently so she would turn away. “Don’t look just yet. Let’s think about something else.”
So we did. For a long, quiet, peaceful moment, Lozzie and I stood hand in hand on the hilltop, gazing out across the castle construction site. Lozzie wriggled inside her poncho. I watched the little figures trailing around the edge of the keep — Natalie leading her parents and Tenny, followed by Zheng and Sevens. A familiar orange blob was now trying to rub itself on Sevens’ ankles.
“I’m worried that Natalie has adapted to Outside,” I said eventually.
Lozzie peered sideways at me. “Ahhhh? Ah? Ah-ah?”
“She’s not acting like this place feels wrong to her. She doesn’t seem affected by Camelot. I’m worried that could be a bad sign, in the long run.”
Lozzie pursed her lips and pulled a very serious thinky face. “Mmmmm. I think that happens to everyone?”
“Maybe.” Lozzie was somewhat biased, but I didn’t say that out loud.
“She’s gonna be fine, Heathy! You did the right thing. We’re doing the right thing! Fine-fine all fine. And if she needs help, we’re gonna be there, right?”
Lozzie’s turn to squeeze my hand. I nodded, lost in thought and worry.
Warm cinnamon wind tickled my face and ran gentle fingers over my scalp. This place, this Outside realm, Camelot, it was almost like a part of home. A castle on the far side of Evelyn’s gate, garrisoned by Lozzie’s knights, that would be one impressive stronghold. Perhaps Evee could even ward it, make it a fortress in a magical sense too.
But what was a castle except an outpost of control?
But control by what?
By me and mine. The Knights, the Shamblers, the dregs of the Sharrowford cult back home; even Zheng and Sevens; Evelyn, my strategist; Raine, my bodyguard. Where was all this going? What was I becoming?
I had promised myself that I would not become a monster, that when Maisie saw me again, she would see the sister she remembered, her own face reflected. She would not find a monster wearing my skin. I would not shed everything that makes me who or what I am, just to get her back. I would rescue her and I would stay true to myself. And so far I was doing pretty well at that, I thought.
But I was becoming something else. The embryo of a god? No, that had been a delusion in a moment of weakness, encouraged by Sevens for some reason I didn’t yet understand.
I sighed and turned away from the castle. We had practical matters to solve before I could spend time on the philosophy of power.
The corpse of the unknown man stared at the purple sky with blank, dead eyes.
“Mmmm,” Lozzie made a sad little sound again. I held her hand tightly.
I had never met this man. I had no idea who he was. In life he may have been a horrible person, he may have committed acts or crimes that would make me hate him, he may have held beliefs that I would have found reprehensible. Or maybe not, maybe he had been a saint. More likely he’d been like the rest of us, somewhere between extremes.
Whatever he’d been in life, I wished he could have gone home.
“I wish we could figure out who he was,” I said.
Lozzie finally let go of my hand. She spent a few minutes circling the corpse, looking at him from different angles, peering at his dried out eyeballs and the skin on his hands. I’d half hoped she might be able to work out something that I’d missed, but we had no such luck. I was considering the possibility of using brain-math to define him, maybe to trace his history somehow. Even if we couldn’t take him home, perhaps we could let his family know what had happened to him.
But he was a corpse. What would I find, if I peered into a dead thing?
I felt such guilt at not wanting to try. And I didn’t understand why.
To my surprise, we were joined a couple of minutes later by an unexpected addition to our little group — Stephen Skeates.
Down below us, the tour had completed a circuit of the castle. Natalie was busy chattering something to her mother. I think I heard Sevens replying too, and then they vanished inside the keep, perhaps to see the ‘big table’. But Stephen detached from the group, nodding some reassurances, and trudged up the hill to join us instead. As he approached he nodded to me with one of those awkward non-smiles and head-lifts that older men sometimes use to acknowledge each other. He didn’t say anything, but just stood there a few paces away from us, frowning down at the corpse.
Stephen Skeates was a very solidly built man, perhaps only half a foot taller than me. In rumpled clothes and sweat-stained shirt, he could have passed for an ageing football player after a rough night on the town, if it wasn’t for the genuine haunted look in his eyes.
Eventually he cleared his throat and wet his lips, but didn’t look up from the corpse. “I um, I wanted to ask … ”
Here it comes, whispered the bitter voice in my belly.
Stephen nodded at the corpse. “What happens to him now?”
The bitter hiss was silent. Hadn’t expected that.
I drew in a big sigh before replying. “We’re going to bury him here, I think. I was planning on just a coffin and a hole in the ground. But maybe we can have the Knights rustle up a stone sarcophagus or something.”
Stephen glanced at the Knights, then looked away quickly. Still couldn’t quite figure them out, could he? He stared at Lozzie for a second, then nodded to her too, then back to the corpse. “Who was he?” he asked.
“Not a clue,” I said, sounding more prickly than I intended. “Somebody else kidnapped by Edward Lilburne. Sorry, you don’t know who that is. That’s the name of the wizard who kidnapped your daughter.”
“My uncle,” said Lozzie, colder and sadder than usual. She pulled a frowny face when Stephen blinked at her in surprise. “We’re gonna kill him, no worries!” she chirped.
He nodded along to that too, smiling awkwardly at Lozzie before glancing at me.
“Can’t you … take him home? Back to his parents? He looks like he must have been pretty young.”
I pulled a sad smile. “Too risky. The police might find the body, trace it back to us. We can’t return him, not safely. Though I would like to find his family, let them know, somehow. We have ways, but … ”
I trailed off in vague guilt. What would it mean, to touch death with brain-math?
The bitter voice in my chest curled in resentment, like a parasite in my heart. Stephen was just trying to soothe his own guilt, after all. He didn’t really care about this man he’d never met. This was simply something he understood, something he could hold onto, make sense of.
Using the dead man for his own ends, whispered a part of me I hated to acknowledge. Using the dead for absolution, for—
“Some corner of a forgotten field that is forever England,” Stephen said. His voice threatened to break. His eyes were full of tears. He sniffed hard and wiped them on his arm. “Is that how it goes? I was never good with poetry in school.”
“Foreign field,” I corrected him gently. “But otherwise, yes.”
“He might not be English,” Lozzie said. “Could be from aaaaaanywhere. Anywhere at all.”
Stephen shook his head. “This could have been Nat. This could have been my daughter. This poor bloke, he didn’t deserve it, he didn’t. Out there, in that swamp. That’s no place to die.”
“I’m glad you agree,” I said out loud.
The bitter, hissing voice in my chest had finally run out of things to say.
Stephen looked up at the trio of Knights. “Can I stand with you for a few minutes?”
They didn’t answer, of course.
I cleared my throat gently. “They don’t communicate like us, but I think you’re welcome to join them. We won’t be staying much longer, though. We can’t risk dawn rising back in England while we’re all here. People might wonder where you’ve gone, and we need to get your story straight, for the police.”
Stephen nodded, taking it all very seriously. “Of course, of course.” He went to step around the body, to join the Forest Knight in vigil, but then he paused, staring down at the dead man. “I’m not sure I should say this, but have you checked his pockets? For an ID or a wallet or anything?”
Lozzie and I shared a look. Lozzie snorted and covered her mouth with a corner of poncho. I sighed and rubbed my face with one hand.
“No,” I admitted, somewhat embarrassed. “No, we haven’t. I’m a little bit squeamish about corpses. I was going to ask Zheng, but reuniting you with Natalie was more important. Here, let me, um … ”
I used a tentacle, not my hands, but even then it made me cringe with disgust. I should have left this task for Zheng, but I was embarrassed by having missed the obvious solution to the problem. With one tentacle-tip I patted down the young man’s pockets, found nothing obvious, then steeled myself to poke the tentacle inside, to make sure he wasn’t carrying his driving license loose in his baggy jeans.
In the left, nothing but lint.
But in the right, I found a piece of smooth stone.
In shock, I pulled it out of the dead man’s pocket, almost fumbling as I transferred it into my hands. Lozzie put a hand over her mouth when she saw. The little greenish stone meant nothing to Stephen, but he froze as well, the shock on my face was too obvious.
A piece of flat, greenish soapstone, carved into a five-pointed star. A stone coin.
Exactly like the one Hringewindla had gifted to me.
“What does that mean?” Stephen asked. “What is it?”
I took a long moment to gather myself, thoughts whirling inside my head. This wasn’t my coin, it was slightly different, cut from a different piece of stone. But it was an example of the same currency, from a place Outside that used things like currency.
“Heathy?” Lozzie prompted.
I wet my lips and closed my fist around the soapstone coin, staring down at the corpse. “It means our dead man here might not be as uninvolved as I first thought.”
On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. ‘Tis a silly place. Full of corpses, coins, and castles that shouldn’t be.
I have some news! The short version is this: the first Katalepsis audiobook and ebook now have a confirmed release date, October 4th! When preorders are up, I’ll let you all know! The long version can be found here, in a public Patreon post I made a couple of days ago, along with the beautiful front cover, a big thank you to every reader and patron, and a teaser for something I’ve been working on alongside Katalepsis. Be warned, that is a seriously long post, so if all you want is the release date, no need to go read or anything!
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Next week, what is the meaning of a coin? And Heather isn’t finished with Natalie’s parents, not quite yet. There’s still one last hurdle to clear.