Allusions to suicidal ideation.
I left Raine safely behind in our bedroom, with her bouncy video game girls and a kiss on the cheek — plus one on the forehead for me — and departed from the realms of relative normalcy to go talk to a mage about magic and madness.
A pang of guilt needled my heart as I stepped out into the upstairs corridor; not for leaving Raine behind, but for what I was about to do to Kimberly.
Or perhaps that was just the aching bruises of my intercostal muscles.
Number 12 Barnslow Drive felt very much like a cocoon that day, even more so than usual. A safe outer wrapping of brick and mortar and plaster and roof tile and clinging ivy and glass and paint, coiled around my spongy, tender, vulnerable flesh, as if I was a tiny mutualist creature — not a parasite — buried deep within the body of some unknowable leviathan, with armour plates and hard tusks and an appetite for plankton, with big slow thoughts concerned with forces far beyond my scale of comprehension. That impression was only heightened as I crept down the corridor; the long dim artery was lit by overspill from several different bedrooms, and by the dying red sunlight on the distant horizon beyond the city. Perhaps we would be blessed with rain that night, to wash away the thinning clouds and let the house drink deep. I paused at the window and stared out at the gathering dark, then opened the latch and cracked the window by a couple of inches, following some animal impulse to smell the wind. The sun-warmed concrete and city-heat hydrocarbons of Sharrowford were not quite able to blot out the scent of bark and leaf and earth and insect.
Then I sighed, closed the window again, and told myself off: “Stop stalling, Heather,” I whispered.
Nobody was around to hear my confused guilt. Everybody else was doing their own thing that evening, in various poses of recovery. Evelyn and Twil were together in Evee’s bedroom, which surprised me as I passed by the almost-closed door: they were watching cartoons on Evee’s laptop, just as she and I had done previously, though I don’t think Twil was allowed to snuggle quite so close. Evelyn was exhausted, she deserved whatever comfort she wanted. I had no idea where Praem was, but I suspected she was downstairs with Lozzie and Tenny, doing some inscrutable art project that Tenny had taken an interest in, something to do with play-doh and food dye. Zheng was out hunting, north of Sharrowford again, with or without my semi-reluctant blessing. Sevens and Aym were hiding somewhere beyond human concern.
And Kimberly was in her bedroom, talking with Felicity.
I heard the soft murmur of their voices on the edge of my senses as I crept down the corridor, toward the little T-junction in the rear of the house, plunging deeper into the gloom; and then I forced myself to stop creeping and walk normally. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t trying to sneak up on them and I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. I raised my chin — ow, my aching neck and shoulder muscles complained — took a deep breath, and smartened my stride. Let her know I was coming, there was no shame in this.
But then, just as I rounded the corner:
“—light of the sun and flower of the air, how can I dare presume to possess thee?” said Kimberly. Her voice was oddly formal — confident? More confident than I had ever heard before.
Then came a click of parting lips, followed by the gentle motion of a tongue on dry flesh, and a slow intake of breath. Felicity gave a reply, careful and measured: “But I have already given myself to you, you gardener of my heart, you—”
If only I had kept creeping.
I could have clamped my hands over my ears and backed away. But I had committed; in my stupid guilt I was almost stomping. There was no turning back now.
Kimberly’s bedroom door wasn’t even closed — it was open by just a crack, an inch or two, showing the twinned glow from bedside lamp and computer screen, a heady cocktail of soft orange and artificial sky-blue. If the door had been sensibly shut then maybe this moment could have been salvaged, maybe I still could have turned away, maybe I could have left them to it and gone to Evee or Lozzie instead, though neither of them could understand what I needed as much as I suspected Kimberly would.
Unspoken guilt already gnawed at my chest; I knew what I needed to do, but I couldn’t approach it directly, not by myself. I needed help, from somebody who might understand what it felt like. I was going to use Kimberly to help bring me around, from whatever angle she could present.
She’d been at work all day, she’d done so much for us yesterday; didn’t she deserve whatever romance she was playing with Felicity? Yes, she did, but in my stupid guilt I was stomping up to her door to interrupt. It wasn’t even closed!
So stomp stomp stomp I went, blushing and burning and praying that they would hear me coming, because I did not want to surprise them in the middle of an act I had no desire to witness.
I reached the door.
“—sower of my seed—”
Cleared my throat.
“—owner of my fertile earth—”
And knocked. Three times. Hand shaking. Teeth gritted. Tentacles coiled like springs and aching like pulled muscles.
Felicity’s voice cut out with a little clearing of the throat. Something metallic squeaked — a chair? There was no rustle of clothes or bedsheets, no hurried departure of one body from atop another, no parting of hands or whisper of lips. Just a squeak.
“ … y-yes?” Kimberly called a moment later. “Hello?”
“Um, yes, hello.” I spoke to the door, in the dark. “It’s me. Hello. I don’t want to interrupt, um … ”
“Heather? You can come in. The door isn’t even closed.”
I whispered to myself, burning hot with second-hand embarrassment. “Maybe it should be! Oh God, okay, fine.”
I pushed the door open, rooted to the spot, every muscle tight with a kind of fear that is sometimes even worse than the worst of magical monsters and supernatural terrors. My tentacles bunched up as if to protect my core of flesh from sudden attack.
Two very confused faces peered back at me.
“Oh,” I said.
Kimberly was sitting at her computer, headphones around her neck, distinctively unrumpled, not looking at all like a woman who had just been delivering or receiving some of the cheesiest romantic lines I’d ever heard. The computer screen showed a video game of some sort: a box of text at the bottom, with an illustration of a melancholic anime girl in the middle — an anime girl who looked a little bit like an anthropomorphic sunflower, backlit by blazing sunshine amid a cartoon countryside. Felicity was sitting well beyond arm’s reach, all the way over on Kimberly’s pastel bed, feet planted on the floor, bent forward so she could see the screen as well. Both of them were fully dressed — and not in each other’s clothes. Kimberly was in her usual post-work comfy pajamas, complete with a picture of a yodelling dwarf on her t-shirt; Felicity looked positively fluffy in a big grey ribbed sweater, having shed her coat and boots. She still looked utterly exhausted, with deep dark eye-bags and a painful lethargy to her bent musculature. Without her coat she seemed a bit like a hermit crab caught without a shell.
“ … oh?” Kimberly echoed.
Felicity blinked. “Ah,” she said in her habitual mumble. “I think Heather overheard us.”
Kimberly looked baffled. “Over … heard? O-oh!” She suddenly blushed, going beetroot red up to her ears, hurrying to hit the escape button on her keyboard. A pause menu jumped onto the screen, hiding the sad-looking sunflower-girl. Kimberly gestured toward Felicity with both hands, then toward me, lips moving but no sound coming out.
Felicity said, “Kim, it’s okay. It’s nothing.” She said to me: “We were reading a visual novel together. Doing the voices, the dialogue.” She gestured at the pause menu on the screen. “It’s a very romantic scene.”
Kimberly looked like she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She stared at a point down by the skirting board.
I stood there frozen for a second, utterly bewildered. What was a visual novel? What did it have to do with sunflower girls? I didn’t need to know that, but I didn’t want to make Kimberly any more uncomfortable than I already had.
“Oh!” I said, forcing a smile. “Oh. Well. I mean, if it hadn’t been, that would be okay too. I mean, it’s none of my business. I-I wasn’t knocking because I overheard. Not that I did— not that I meant to, I mean. I mean— it sounded. Nice dialogue. Yes. What’s it … called?”
Well done, Heather. Great save. Raine would be in stitches.
Felicity said, “I can’t pronounce it. Kim?”
Kimberly’s eyes found mine. She just stared for a moment, mortified and trapped. Then her lips moved while the rest of her face stayed paralysed. “Megami no niwa no shokubutsu musume.”
“Yeah, that,” Felicity said. She was watching Kimberly’s embarrassment without pleasure, but with a kind of intense focus, hoping Kimberly would look at her to seek refuge. She went on suddenly, “It’s really good stuff. I’m not really one for this kind of literature, but it’s really really good, especially when somebody who really loves it is introducing me to it. We’re halfway through the second route already.”
Kimberly looked like she was going to pass out.
“That’s lovely,” I said, with no idea what I was complimenting exactly. “Is this a favourite of yours, Kim?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Please stop.”
Felicity said, with more force than I expected, “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying literature.”
“Quite!” I agreed. That much I did understand. I cleared my throat. “I am really sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I genuinely just wanted to come and ask you about something — something totally unrelated to reciting dialogue from video games about plant ladies.”
Kim let out a tiny whine. Felicity shuffled closer on the bed and reached out to rub Kim’s upper back.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Felicity murmured. “It’s fine. Who cares? Kim, Heather is in a polycule with at least two different types of actual supernatural creature. She’s in a romantic relationship with a zombie. She’s not gonna judge you for some light furry and monster-girl stuff—”
I actually laughed, in pure shock. Both of them looked up at me, equally surprised.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m not going to judge anybody for anything. I mean, yes, Felicity, my, um … proclivities are a little … extreme. I suppose. So um … plant girls?”
“It’s just the romance!” Kim whined. “I like the story! It’s really tragic and sad. There’s not even any sex scenes in it.”
“I dunno about that,” Felicity mumbled. “The bit with the watering can and the oak tree, she was enjoying—”
Kimberly turned on her, displaying a ferocity I’d not witnessed before. “It doesn’t count!”
Felicity put her hands up. “It doesn’t count.”
I cleared my throat again; the romantic dialogue was one thing, but seeing these two bounce their reducing echoes back and forth felt like I was witnessing actual intimacy, something far more real and private. I gestured back into the corridor and said, “I’m sorry, I can go ask Evee instead, I really didn’t want to interrupt. I’m sorry, Kim, you have a good evening now, you … ”
But Kimberly’s embarrassment crammed itself behind a mote of curiosity, like a six-foot-wide cartoon character trying to hide behind a lamppost. She blinked at me, suddenly more interested. “Evee? You’re going to ask something about magic?”
“Well, sort of. But I can ask Evee. Again, sorry, I’ll go.” I even started to reach for the door handle, cringing my apology.
But Kimberly said, “Is she busy? Evee, I mean.”
“Not really. It’s okay, I can—”
Kimberly interrupted. I wasn’t sure if she’d ever interrupted me before, other than in panic and fear. “You came to me first?”
I paused, hand on the doorknob. Was this a good thing? Kimberly deserved the confidence, but I also didn’t want to lie to her.
“Yes,” I said. “Your experiences are more relevant. Evee’s aren’t, not really.”
Moving somewhat slow and robotic, Kimberly reached over and turned off her computer screen. She unhooked her headphones from around her neck and turned her swivel-chair to face me, then adjusted her backside in the chair, self-consciously attentive and alert. “Please come in. Please do. I’m happy to help. I really am. Please.”
I swallowed and nodded and finally stepped over the threshold, into Kimberly’s grotto-like room of comfortable pastels and silly unicorn posters. Last time I’d been in here the air had held a faint scent of cannabis, but now it was clear and clean; Kimberly’s personal stash was put away somewhere. The light seemed to welcome and envelop me. The curtain was drawn over the single window, shutting out the Sharrowford dusk. Tucked away in the rear of the house, the room felt especially private and secluded. I glanced over my shoulder and couldn’t see the T-junction in the gloomy corridor, as if the rest of Number 12 Barnslow Drive lay far away, down a long and kinking hallway to another place.
“Heather?” Kimberly said.
I turned back and straightened up as best I could, in my pink hoodie and with my six aching tentacles. My eyeballs itched and my teeth hurt and my belly was still full of lead weight in the form of a dormant bioreactor. Kimberly was so eager, like a puppy who wanted to be useful. Pale lips parted, auburn hair swept back over her ears, so slight and snug inside her shapeless pajamas. Mousy face, open and vulnerable. I should have left her well alone, not come here to pester her with this.
Felicity was very, very still, watching us both.
“I … I’m trying to do something,” I said. “Thinking about doing something. Trying something.” I sighed and slumped. “Oh, just listen to me, I can’t even say it in plain language. I need your help, Kimberly, because your own experiences might be able to inform me. Or perhaps you’re just the best person to bounce this off before I go ahead and do it anyway.”
Kimberly nodded. “Okay. I think that’s okay. What do you want to ask?”
“It’s a personal question,” I said. “If you’re okay with that.”
I flicked a glance at Felicity. She didn’t even nod or look down, she just started to get up. “I’ll make myself scarce,” she muttered.
Kimberly put out one hand and touched Felicity on the leg to stall her departure. “No, Fliss, stay, it’s okay. You’re a mage too. Maybe you can help as well!”
I wanted to say something like I doubt that, but I held that rude thought behind my tongue. Felicity sat back down, visibly uncomfortable. We shared a glance of mutual apology.
I said, “Kimberly, you might actually want Felicity to leave, for this.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Go ahead, Heather. Please.”
“Well … Kim. You were traumatised by magic. Is that fair to say?”
Kimberly’s puppy-dog enthusiasm drained away behind the mask of her face, to leave behind a frozen wasteland with only the appearance of life.
I quickly added: “This isn’t about you. This is about me. You haven’t done anything wrong, and I don’t want to dig up painful memories. I just want your perspective.” I glanced at Felicity again and found she was staring at Kimberly. “Do you want Fliss to … ?”
Kimberly swallowed and didn’t know where to look. All her discomfort had returned, all her mousy skittish caution and wordless fear. “Um … I don’t … I … ”
“I should go,” said Felicity. She pushed to her feet. This time Kimberly didn’t attempt to stop her — but she did look up with a concerned frown.
“Fliss, no. You’ll be out in your car again. Waiting. I-I don’t want you to—”
“It’s fine,” said Felicity. “I don’t mind. Evee’s house, Evee’s rules. It’s fine.”
I cleared my throat. “Felicity, go join Raine. She’s in our bedroom, playing some game about bouncy alchemist girls. Go knock on the door and tell her I sent you. I’ll come get you when I’m done with Kim. Don’t go out to your car. Be clear with Raine, tell her I sent you.”
Felicity smiled a very awkward smile, using only the un-scarred part of her lips. We all knew the rules which Evelyn had laid down for Felicity while she was here: she was allowed indoors only if accompanied, and not to sleep. If Kimberly wanted her discussion with me to happen in private, Felicity would have to leave for a bit.
“Not sure Raine will like that,” Felicity said.
“Tell her I sent you. I mean it. She’ll do as I ask. Unless you offend her or do something stupid, so … don’t do that.”
Another awkward Felicity smile. She nodded and padded out of the room, past me. Kimberly started to reach for her as she left, but Felicity didn’t look back. She vanished into the dark maw of the house, footsteps swallowed up by the angles of the walls.
“Sorry,” I said to Kimberly. “I’m sorry to spoil your evening.”
“No, it’s … it’s not your fault. I just wish she … I wish … ” Kimberly looked down at her hands. Her auburn hair fell in front of her face.
“Do you like her?” I asked.
Kimberly looked up and tucked her hair back, then sighed and squeezed her eyelids shut. “I don’t know. It’s complicated. She makes me feel safe. But she’s so … closed off. Like she’s afraid I’ll see something bad.”
It was not my place to say anything about that. “I’m always willing if you want to talk about it. Or if not me, then somebody else. Raine is kind of a master at this.”
Kimberly gave me one hell of a befuddled frown.
“Well,” I added, “she seems that way to me.”
The frown got worse. “Raine?”
“She’s … you know. Good at romance things.”
Kimberly clearly did not believe a word of that. She looked at me like I was mad. Maybe I was; maybe Raine was only any good at romancing me.
“The point stands,” I said. “If you need help, ask one of us. If you need help deciding what to do, or how you feel, or anything really.”
Kimberly’s frown softened into a confused and self-deprecating smile. “I suppose you’re all much more experienced than me. Which is weird, because I’m older. I’ve … um … I’ve never actually been with a woman before. Only guys.”
I blinked at her, mildly surprised. She blushed and fluttered with both hands.
She continued, getting squeaky and red-faced. “It’s not like I have to google how do two women do it, or something. I’m not a child. I just— I feel— I’m uncertain, and— and— ah—” In a fit of terrible embarrassment, Kimberly reared her head back and sneezed into the crook of her elbow. “Achoo! Ahh … ”
“It’s okay, Kim. None of us really know what’s going on. None of us know what we’re doing.”
She smiled awkwardly, sniffling and snuffling. “Well, I suppose so. If you say so. Anyway, you came to ask about magic, not my problems.”
“Your problems are important too. You’re one of us.”
Kimberly nodded in the way that told me she was thankful but clearly didn’t fully believe this, and then waved me toward the bed. I sat down gingerly in the dimple left behind by Felicity; it was still warm. My tentacles ached as I spread them out over the bed, trying to relax my nerves and prepare myself for what I was about to do. Kimberly blew her nose, still snuffling.
“S-so,” she said. “Trauma.”
“You don’t actually have to talk about your own trauma,” I hurried to say. “I … I want your perspective, on how you’ve adjusted to … returning to magic.”
“Oh. Um.” Kimberly bit her lip. I waited, but she didn’t seem ready. This was all so new to her, of course. We had only completed the ritual yesterday, the ritual she had helped to build. The last few days of Kimberly’s life must have been an emotional whirlwind. She asked, “Why?”
I stared back at this small and mousy woman, and thought about the trust I was putting in her. Why hadn’t I gone to Evelyn, or just talked to Raine?
“Because I think you’re the only person I know who might understand,” I said slowly — and I realised I wasn’t really talking to Kimberly; I was talking to myself, beginning a long, long chain of justification which only led to one place. “I need to be better at brain-math. Hyperdimensional mathematics.” I sighed. “The last twenty-four hours, I’ve been basically ‘out of action’. That’s how Raine phrased it earlier. My bioreactor is damaged, healing, repairing, whatever — and I can’t do brain-math. I probably can’t even Slip Outside. Not because the reactor is necessary for brain-math, but because it stops me from passing out, from going to pieces. It helps me endure the pain and the dissociation, the inhumanity of brain-math. The energy it puts out anchors me here. Keeps me conscious. Keeps me … myself.”
Kimberly listened, gone still and silent, like a small prey animal caught by a boa constrictor who just wanted to talk. She had no idea how to respond. I was already spooking her, the poor thing; I crushed the guilt down and kept going.
“Technically I could do brain-math right now,” I corrected myself. “I don’t need the reactor, but it makes everything exponentially easier. But it also doesn’t make the pain go away. And I … I need to make the pain go away. Or find a better way to manage it, or … or … ” I looked down at Kimberly’s bedsheets and sighed so sharply that it made her flinch. “I’m sorry, Kim. I’m circling around something I can’t approach directly. I-I’m using you, to do this. I’m just using you. I can’t look directly at this thing. I can’t. I need help.”
Kimberly said, with such incredible gentleness, “I know how that feels.”
I looked up. She nodded, her nerve-pinched and skittish face full of desperate understanding, like she was trying to reach me across a bottomless chasm.
“Thank you,” I said.
She wet her lips, breathing a little too hard. “Eventually you just have to say it. You can’t keep it inside anymore, and you have to say it. Have to get it out. Have to manifest it, make it real. Even if it changes everything about you.” She swallowed hard, sniffing loudly, and wiped her nose again. “Sorry, that’s probably not relevant to your situation.”
“No. No, Kim. It is relevant.” I braced myself against the bed and wrapped my torso with my tentacles, squeezing myself to make my bruises throb and my ribcage ache. “I need to get better at brain-math. I have to. I have no choice. Everybody else keeps dancing around the truth: the only way we are going to meaningfully interact with the Eye — fight it, communicate with it, browbeat it, serve it a court summons, whatever — is with brain-math. With me.”
Kim bit her lip. There was that fear again. “Okay,” she said.
“You don’t really know what the Eye is. I’m sorry. We’ve never really, truly included you in that — but that’s for your own safety, Kim. You don’t have to know. You don’t have to understand. Just, listen. Please, just … just … ”
“I can listen,” she said, nodding. “Go on”.
I took a deep breath, and went on. “Getting to Wonderland is simple. Evee is building her special magic to allow us to stand there unobserved. Lozzie has given birth to the Caterpillars and the Knights — they’ll allow us to operate physically, to deal with the Eye’s, um, ‘minions’, if it decides to attack us or something. And I have personal protection, I have Raine and Zheng and Sevens, and … well.” I trailed off for a moment as my courage faltered. “But the Eye itself? Talking to it, or just pulling Maisie from it? That’s all on me. Evee’s magic, Sevens’ Outsider nature, those things are both powerful, but the Eye is beyond all of that. I should know. It spoke to me in dreams for ten years. Brain-math is the only way. So I have to improve.” I kept thumping my own thigh for emphasis, hard enough to make the bruises sing.
Kim took a shuddering breath, and then said, “Okay. But why are you telling me?” She flapped her hands in a moment of mortified horror. “N-not that I mind, just, you have Raine, and she might—”
“No,” I sighed. Kim flinched, so I reached out and patted her shoulder awkwardly. “No. Raine would tell me it’s not necessary. Raine would tell me we can find some other way, that there must be something we can do. Raine loves me, she doesn’t like when I get hurt. And Evee … Evee doesn’t want to acknowledge this either. Sevens thought she knew the solution, but then she admitted she doesn’t.” I smiled awkwardly. “I’m sure Zheng would suggest punching it really hard.”
Kim let out a tiny, awkward, token laugh at that. “You don’t have to do this alone. Heather, that’s what you taught me. Kind of. A little. The same goes for you. Doesn’t it?”
I shook my head. “I’m not doing it alone. In Wonderland, I won’t be alone. Everyone will be at my side. And I’m not trying to do this alone right now.” My smile turned real. “I’m asking you for help, Kim. I’m explaining this to you because you’re one of the people who won’t be going. You won’t be there. You won’t be coming with us; I wouldn’t let you even if you wanted to, because I don’t want you to risk yourself. And you have no agenda.”
I let out a little sighing laugh. “You’re not … into me.”
“Oh. Oh. Yes. No, I mean. I’m not.” Kim shook her head. “Not that you’re not a lovely person, you’re just … I’m not. Yes.”
“It’s okay, Kim. I’m not expecting you to be. But that means I can tell you all this without freaking you out. Thank you for listening. I do suppose I could have gone to Praem, or maybe Lozzie, or … I don’t know. But I wanted to talk to you, because you’ve come to terms with magic. I need to come to terms with brain-math.”
Kimberly bit her lip and frowned delicately. She watched my eyes, then stared at my left shoulder, then at the foot of the bed. I’d not seen her look this exact way before, with this subconscious wandering of the eyes. She was really thinking. Chewing the problem.
Eventually, she said at length: “I’m not sure it’s comparable.”
“Well. Your hyperdimensional mathematics, it primarily hurts you, doesn’t it?”
“So this is about enduring pain.” She spoke slowly, carefully, precisely. I was now in the presence of Kimberly Kemp, mage. In a way, that was a delightful honour. “Magic doesn’t hurt me — well, I suppose sometimes it does. But that’s not where my problems come from. My problem is … ” She trailed off, seeing the inner conflict revealed on my face. “Heather?”
“I’m trying to psych myself up,” I admitted. “To do something similar to what you’ve done. Embrace something that has hurt me. Make it mine.”
“ … H-Heather, I really think you should talk to Raine about—”
I put out a hand — and a tentacle too, though Kimberly could not see the latter. “I’m not going to hurt myself. I’ve made some very serious promises that I’m not going to hurt myself.” I took a deep breath and realised that my hand was shaking slightly, that my heart was pounding; I was scared. I was scared of what it meant to confront this without pain. “I’m looking for a way to do it without pain. I need to get better at brain-math, but it’s not a linear process. It’s not like I can study it or use it, practice it like a skill or something. I’ve done that, I’ve read things, I’ve made my own notes, I’ve investigated and pushed and gotten creative and done as many things as I can. But the pain is still there.”
Kimberly nodded, listening closely. She was still in mage-mode.
I carried on: “I need to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt. But even that isn’t right. Controlling the pain isn’t enough. The pain is a product of brain-math being wrong for the human body. For the human mind. The physical pain is a by-product of a ‘spiritual’ process.” I huffed. “I don’t know if that’s an accurate way of putting it, but that’s what it feels like.”
Kimberly was frowning in thought. “So … you want a new way of doing it?”
“Sort of. Kim, when I rescued Sarika from the Eye, I had to leave my body. That particular equation, pulling her from the Eye’s grip, was too complex for the human brain. The pain was too great. I could avoid it by leaving, by diving into the abyss. But I never want to do that again. It was a kind of heaven.” I swallowed, my throat thickening with the memory of abyssal bliss, of how right it felt to slip between the waves, my body infinitely mutable, elegant, strong, and swift. “But I belong here. I know that now. My tentacles, the reactor, all the little changes, they feel right. I’m not going anywhere again. I won’t!”
“Okay!” Kim raised both hands, as if I was shouting at her.
“Sorry,” I said quickly, then hiccuped. “Sorry, Kim, I didn’t mean to … ”
“It’s … it’s alright. It’s okay.” She nodded, a little jerky and shaken. I took a deep breath and tried again.
“You see my problem?” I said, my voice breaking softly. Another hiccup jerked my body, stabbing at all my bruises. “I know how to solve this. If I leave my body behind, I can do anything with brain-math. There is a way, and it’s staring me in the face. But I have fought for months to make myself this again.” I spread my arms. “Me.” I took a shuddering breath. “And the tentacles and my bioreactor, and any other modifications I can make, they’re good, they’re right. But they’re not the solution. And I’ve been ignoring this problem. But now my bioreactor is off-line and I can’t look away from the result.”
Kimberly nodded along. I had no doubt this meant almost nothing to her, but she was listening. I lowered my arms and took several deep breaths, interrupted by only one hiccup.
“I need a way to do difficult brain-math without damaging my body, or leaving it,” I said. “And treating brain-math as this distant, painful, alien thing, is not working.” My voice got quieter, quivering in my throat. “I have to bring it down to my level. To flesh, and meat, and … and … ” I trailed off, with unexpected tears in the corners of my eyes. I sniffed, and wiped my face on my sleeve, and felt very small and very scared.
Kimberly swallowed. Perhaps she suspected where this was going. “This isn’t a technical problem, is it?”
“No. I suspect not.”
Kimberly held her breath as I rolled up my left sleeve to expose the Fractal.
It was so familiar to me now, practically a part of my own body, no different to the tentacles anchored inside my flanks or the bioreactor creaking and flexing inside my abdomen. The blunt angles and branch-like structure drew my eyes downward along the repeating pattern, sucking my attention to a zero-point which swallowed all knowledge. Black pen marks. But more than the sum of its parts.
Then I held it out so Kimberly could see. “Kim, I’m not sure if anybody has ever explained this to you. Do you know what it does?”
Kimberly swallowed, glancing between my arm and my face. “Vaguely. No.”
“We call it the Fractal. Raine drew it on my arm the day we first met. It acts like a kind of no entry sign for the Eye. I spent ten years having nightmares — lessons, channelled from the Eye — and Slipping uncontrollably, back and forth, most of the time not truly with my own body, but my mind. I think, anyway. That whole period of my life is a blur. In a way I’m still only just recovering from it. This stops any of that happening.” I turned the Fractal over, inspecting Raine’s most recent pen-work: we had not yet refreshed the pattern today, so the body-art pen marks were almost twenty-four hours old. I’d dozed half-awake on top of the covers last night, while Raine had traced the lines to refresh my protection. “And for the last few hours I’ve been thinking about what would happen if I rubbed it off.”
A cold hand crept up my back. A lump in my throat. Ice in my gut. I had to tense all my muscles so as not to shake. The words didn’t seem real.
“It’s not a tattoo?”
“Oh, no.” I gave an awkward laugh; the spell of horror broke on Kim’s irrelevant question. Just what I needed. “Though maybe it should be. Gosh, my mother would be quite upset if she saw me with a tattoo, though. Raine redraws it on me every evening. It’s the closest thing we have to a wedding ring. A promise. My safety, her promise. The first gift she ever gave me.” I sighed. “Well, no. The first gift she ever gave me was listening and believing, but practical safety is more important.” I shot Kim an awkward smile, already retreating from the unthinkable.
“And you want to wash it off?”
My smile felt like a mask. “No. I mean, that would be very difficult, for a start. I’d probably have to use white spirit. And everyone would panic. And the consequences could be terrible. So … no. Ultimately, no.”
Kimberly breathed a little sigh of relief. “Too dangerous for you.”
“That too, yes. The Eye might resume teaching me things I don’t want to know — or it might just kidnap me somehow. Or read my thoughts and figure out what we’re trying to do, and retaliate somehow. I don’t know. It’s alien, I can’t understand what it really wants. My best working theory so far is that it thinks of Maisie and I as its surrogate children, but I don’t know what it would do with access to my mind again. Or access to my soul, I suppose.”
“Yes,” Kimberly said, a little nervous. “So, you’re not going to rub it off. P-please, Heather, don’t make me hide something from Raine or the others or—”
“No,” I confirmed. “Don’t worry, Kim. I’m not going to put you in that position. I’m not going to do anything dangerous. Well, not without telling Raine and Evee. I promise.”
Kim nodded. “Good. That’s … good.”
“But the danger is not why I’m avoiding it.”
I rolled my sleeve back down and hid the Fractal, to smother the call of the void. I couldn’t even think about that possibility without edging toward a panic attack. I swallowed a hiccup, burped instead, and said, “The only entity which could possibly teach me more is the Eye. But I don’t think I need more lessons. I have to go beyond the Eye’s lessons. I have to accept this, somehow, and build something new.”
“Something new,” Kimberly echoed. Eyes wide. Terrified of what I was saying.
I let out a huge sigh; the last shreds of my confidence fell away. I slumped forward on her bed, going all shrimp-backed. “Oh, I don’t know, Kim. I don’t know how to do this. I just know I have to!”
“I-It’s alright, I didn’t mean to— Heather— sorry—”
“No, no, it’s not your fault, Kim. It’s not your fault.” I patted her arm again, feeling drained and terrible. “I don’t know what I’m doing. All I know is I have to go beyond what the Eye taught me. Body modification is good, it’s helped me, but … I’m still falling short. I’ve gone beyond the Eye’s lessons before — I made that ‘alarm clock’ for Hringewindla. Oh, but you didn’t see that happen.” I laughed awkwardly. “But I’m still doing it like the Eye. Not in a way designed for my body. It’s not right for my body. I need to make it right.”
Kim nodded, nervous and desperate to placate me. I felt terrible for pressuring her like this. She didn’t deserve this burden. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. So … ?”
“I have the bio-reactor. That’s a foundation. But I don’t have the … ” I grasped at the air. “The theory.”
“But I think there might be a way,” I said slowly, oh so very slowly. Kimberly stared at me like I was about to suggest we go rob a bank. “And I’ve been trying to convince myself to try it, this whole conversation. Thank you, Kim. Thank you for listening. I think I’m ready. I can do this.”
Kim whispered, as if she couldn’t quite get the words out. “What are you going to do?”
“I think it’s time I had a talk with Mister Squiddy. Squid to squid.”
Kimberly swallowed. “Um. Heather. Heather, I h-have to go get Raine. I can’t not—”
“It’s okay,” I said, finally standing up and taking a deep breath. I flexed all my tentacles and winced at their bruised roots. “I’ll tell her myself. And Evee too. Don’t worry, Kim. None of us is doing anything alone.”
“Heather, for fuck’s sake.” A top-grade Evelyn sigh followed the sound of her collapsing into a chair. She grunted, rubbing at her hip, half-clinging to Praem. I dared not look around at her face, lest I lose my nerve. “The thing is contained inside a magic circle for a reason.”
“We broke the circle before,” I said over my shoulder, without looking away from what I had revealed in the corner of the magical workshop.
“With wires. In a controlled fashion. Heather!”
“Uh yeah,” added Twil. “Don’t stick your hand in there, hey?”
I sighed. “I’m not going to stick my hand in there.”
“You’re thinking about it!” Evelyn snapped. “I can see you thinking about sticking your hand in there. It’s in your body language. You have no idea what could happen. It could melt your flesh from your bones! Somebody— Praem! Raine! Somebody pull her away from that.”
“Squiddy,” said Praem.
Raine laughed, also from behind me. “No can do, Evee. But hey, Heather, maybe she’s got a point?” Raine stepped closer, socked feet padding gently over the workshop floor, but not too close, as if I was a skittish animal who might bolt forward at any moment to shove my head through the jaws of the trap. “Slow down, yeah? I’m not saying don’t do this, I’m just saying let’s think about the safest way. Alright? Heather, come on, stand up, look at me. Heather. Heeeey. Heather.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Raine, it’s not a landmine.”
Evelyn almost shouted: “May as well be!”
Mister Squiddy sat in the corner of the magical workshop, in the same place he’d sat for months and months. I’d peeled back the tarpaulin which had been hiding his bucket and the magic circle which surrounded it on a piece of canvas. He didn’t look any worse for wear — but then again, with him, it was hard to tell.
Mister Squiddy really was a terrible name for the mess of clay writhing in the bucket, and rather undercut the truth of what he — or it — was. An entity left behind in a trap by the dead Alexander Lilburne, via some kind of posthumous conduit from the Eye, via the skull of Alexander’s corpse back in Glasswick tower, so many months ago now. The entity — ‘demon’ was not technically correct for this thing — had ended up briefly possessing Evelyn’s comatose body, before Felicity had done her magic to dump it into a vessel of clay. Weeks and weeks later, Evelyn and I had hooked it up to a television set; it had fed me what had seemed like hints of hyperdimensional mathematics, strange geometries, nonsense images. I’d noted a few things down, gained a little breadth of understanding, but nothing more, nothing revolutionary.
We had neither the knowledge nor the techniques to get anything more out of the creature, so we’d kept it watered and contained, and hidden it away in a corner, for the future.
Were we torturing this thing with confinement? I didn’t know. I didn’t like that thought.
It didn’t have eyes or sensory organs, not that I could figure out. It looked like a mass of rotting tentacles beneath a filthy, moth-eaten sheet. Writhing inside a bucket. Slopping over itself again and again. Always moving, going nowhere.
An emissary of the Eye — or from Maisie?
“Heather. Hey, come on,” Raine was saying. “Sharrowford control to low orbit, this is dyke-one calling space station Morell.”
I finally looked up and around at Raine, from where I was squatting down on the floor, supported by my tentacles. I gave her a pinched look. “Raine, I am not going to shove my hand in there. I just wanted to look at him first.”
Raine pulled a rakish grin, brimming with both love and concern. “Can never tell with you, Heather. You’ve got enough guts for both of us.”
“Yeah, big H,” Twil said from next to Evelyn. “You kinda do leap first. Sometimes.”
Evelyn was staring at me, deeply unimpressed, her eyes heavy-lidded, shoulders kinked and slumped with exhaustion. That look wracked me with terrible guilt, but not half as much as the next words out of her mouth.
“Heather,” she grumbled, voice a cracking croak. “Do we really have to do this now? We’re all fucking exhausted after yesterday, and after the bastard lawyer. If I have to deal with another emergency I swear I’m going to have an actual nervous breakdown. Please. I insist.”
Praem added: “Rest time is now.”
That went through me like a hot knife. My heart ached. I looked down, then over at Mister Squiddy again, then stood up — ow, my knees — and dusted off my hands as if I’d been rummaging through a compost heap.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not going to do anything with it right now. I just wanted to check. But I do think this is necessary for me. I want to speak to it. Him.”
Evelyn sighed. I felt rather than saw her put her face in her hand. Twil pulled a grimace. Raine reached out and squeezed my shoulder.
“Mmmmmmmmm,” went Lozzie, from over by the doorway back to the kitchen. “I think it’s okaaaay. Probably.”
Evelyn huffed. “Lozzie, if she does this, you sit by her. You do it with her. Whatever it is.”
I said, trying to hold my patience: “I don’t know what it’s going to entail.”
“All the more reason to not fucking do it!” Evelyn snapped.
“Evee,” I said, soft and measured as I could be. “You insisted I not do it, at least not yet. So I’m not going to.” Evelyn looked so hunched and reduced, sitting in that chair and glaring at me. “You insist. So I won’t.”
Evelyn’s turn to feel guilty, though that wasn’t what I wanted. She sighed and pursed her lips, then looked down and nodded slowly. “Alright. Alright.”
“I didn’t mean to panic anybody,” I said. “I just wanted to check.” I gestured at Mister Squiddy, in his corner-bucket.
Felicity cleared her throat. She was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, with Kimberly’s mousy face peering around her side, as if sheltering behind the older mage. Felicity said, “Excuse me for interrupting the uh, actual argument. But for my own understanding of this situation, that thing in the bucket — that’s the same thing I pulled out of Evelyn, earlier this year? That’s the demon? You kept it?”
“We kept it,” Evelyn grunted.
“It was teaching me some brain-math,” I said. “He. He was teaching me brain-math.”
“Mister Squiddy,” said Praem.
Felicity stared at me, then at Evelyn, then at the mess of clay and bucket and magic circle in the corner. “You kept it. In a bucket. In the corner of your workshop.”
Evelyn turned a dark stab of her eyes on Felicity. “Don’t you dare criticise my practices in my own home.”
To my incredible surprise, Felicity stared right back; she blinked a few times, her good eye watering as if facing down a storm. “And it’s been in here the whole time. We’ve been working a dozen feet away from a demon bound to a lump of clay.”
Evelyn reared up, finding reserves of energy in offended anger. “You’re the one who fucking put it there!”
“As a temporary measure,” Felicity shot back, though she started to lower her eyes from Evelyn, unable to face her rage. “I assumed you would have disposed of the thing by now. It’s in your house. You sleep above it. Kimberly sleeps above it.”
Kimberly squeaked in embarrassment.
Evelyn looked like she was ready for a fight, but she just sat there clutching the head of her walking stick. “Oh don’t you dare you use this new-found concern for Kimberly for the sake of your little—”
Raine cleared her throat and spoke up, loud and bright: “Mister Squiddy’s a lot quieter than he used to be. We kind of forget he’s there. Used to slop and slurp a lot, ‘cos he kept using up all the water we added. Now he’s kinda stabilised, doesn’t seem to metabolise it anymore. Doesn’t go anywhere. Isn’t that right, Evee? We tend to forget. That’s all.”
Evelyn and Felicity both simmered down. Evelyn huffed. Felicity looked away. They both seemed vaguely embarrassed.
If Mister Squiddy cared, he didn’t show it, roiling away to himself in his bucket.
I cleared my throat, and said, “The truth is, we don’t know exactly what it is, or who truly sent it. And I think this plan is worthwhile. I need to communicate with it, properly, more so than just the images it fed me that one time.”
Twil crossed her arms and nodded across the room, at the clay mess in the bucket. “Can we give it a mouth?”
I blinked at her. “Pardon?”
Evelyn sighed. “No.”
Twil went on, “Or like, a better form? A better body? Give it a head, a mouth, ears, stuff like that? Can’t we talk to it that way?”
Felicity shook her head and waved one hand. “It has clay. It could build any structures it wants. I’ve seen demons do that before in similar mediums. No.” She frowned over at the mass of squid tentacles in the bucket. “If it’s still in that form, then that’s what it wants to be. For whatever reason.”
“I really don’t think it’s dangerous,” I said. “It’s never tried to escape. It’s never done anything.”
Lozzie chirped, “Exactly! He’s just a little guy!”
Evelyn hissed a sharp breath between her teeth. “What is your plan, Heather? Because I know you’re just going to stick a hand in there.”
“I am not.”
“I’m going to stick a tentacle in there.” I sighed. “What else?”
Evelyn blinked at me several times, then snorted a laugh and shook her head. Raine grinned at me, laughing softly too. Twil said, “whoa, sick.” Lozzie giggled. Felicity looked vaguely uncomfortable. Kimberly put a hand over her mouth.
“Tentacle,” said Praem.
“Just, like, ram it in there?” Twil asked.
“No,” I sighed again. “I would have to select a tentacle, and then armour plate it, probably isolate the nerves somehow. Gate them, in one direction, so it can’t access my brain in return. Creating the limb for communication would be a project in itself, but I could probably do it in a few minutes.”
Evelyn grunted. “And none of this would require brain-math? You’re already strained to hell and back, Heather.”
I shrugged. “No, just abyssal body modification. I should be able to do it without actually using brain-math. I think.”
The tone in the room had changed completely, from a simmering argument about my safety to a cautious curiosity. Why did everyone else forget my tentacles so often? Probably because they were invisible without special glasses. I always forgot that people couldn’t see them, just hanging there or touching the walls or helping me stand.
Evelyn sighed a long, long sigh. “Alright, Heather. But you’re going to test the tentacle first. I’ll come up with something.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“In the morning.”
“In the morning,” I echoed.
She jabbed a finger at me. “And that means sleep. Not staying up late to iterate tentacle tools. Rest, recover. Eat another lemon if you have to. In the morning, we’ll make a tentacle. Together. In the morning.”
“Together,” echoed Praem.
I was nodding along. “As long as I can actually try it, I—”
“Make sure she sleeps,” Evelyn grunted.
“On it,” said Raine. “Trust me, I’ll have her out. Big dinner first, right? Everyone wanna eat? ‘Cos I sure do.”
“In the morning,” I repeated. “Evee? In the morning, yes?”
“Yes, Heather.” She sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “We’ll make it work. I promise.”
“Tentacle time,” said Praem.
Heather’s got plans, tentacle plans, mathematical plans! Seems like Kimberly and Felicity were having an … intimate time. For anybody curious, no, the name of that visual novel is not actually real. It roughly translates as “plant girls in the garden of the goddess”; I came up with it off the top of my head and then checked it with a fluent speaker of Japanese. Anyway, Heather might try to talk to the Eye soon, somehow. Oh no!
No Patreon link this week! Why? Because it’s the end of the month! If you want to subscribe, wait until the 1st so you don’t get double-charged. Meanwhile, the Acatalepsis Podcast has resumed their reread of the story. They’re back in Arc 3 and having a great time with it! Go check it out, read along if you like.
Meanwhile, you can always:
Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!
This helps so much! A lot of readers still find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!
Or leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, Heather does weird things with her tentacles and talks to a piece of clay, in the hopes that it will teach her some mathematical shortcuts. Anything to avoid that end-of-term exam.
Oh don’t you dare “you” use this = Oh don’t you dare use this.
Hehehe tentacles and lesbians.
Thank you for the chapter.
Oh, wow, thank you for spotting that typo! I really appreciate it!
Tentacles and lesbians indeed! Kind of the foundation of Katalepsis, in a way.
And you are very welcome indeed, glad you enjoyed it!!! Thanks for reading!
Pain and tentacles and emotions abound, I like it a lot.
Good chapter, time to learn more about squid guy after so long.
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!
Pain and tentacles kind of go together for Heather, but it always turns out to be worth the effort.
Yup, it’s Mister Squiddy! He’s been lurking in the background for a long time, never quite forgotten.
I didn’t really think Felicity and Kim were actually courting each other in that flowery (!) language. I thought it was going to be some sort of spell. But just anime, as usual at #12 Barnslow Drive! Only Heather doesn’t need it because her life was already an isekai and it wasn’t fun and it’s not over.
It seems to melike everyone else is being like ostriches in their heads in the sand if they think can try to rescue Maisie without risk. Mr. Squiddy (Heather seems certain it has gender?) is literally small fry. There is also risk in doing nothing. The Eye is still interested in Heather; it wasn’t that long ago that it sent fake-Lozzie.
I’m thinking of a cartoon I saw recently in which a lion is saying to an ostrich “Bad news: 1) I can still see you, and 2) That’s my litterbox”
Anime, always the answer to any truly mysterious goings-on between these shadowed walls of this comfortable house. And yes, Heather has decidedly less interest (unless she’s watching it with Evee, in which case she is very interested.)
Ah, yes, very true! Heather is facing up to the fact that she’s going to have to do something like this sooner or later, to even the odds, to give herself a chance. Mister Squiddy is a good bet, a calculated risk, and this is probably the right moment to do it.
(As for his gender, Lozzie seems sure! And she probably knows, she has a way with non-human, non-verbal creatures)
ROFL… she’s gonna shove her tentacle in it…
Thanks for the chapter!
Tentacle time! Making use of tentacles! She’s gonna shove it in, but prepare first, as instructed by poor Evee.
And you are very welcome indeed, glad you enjoyed the chapter!
The best part of the chapter was when she said “IT’S TENTACLE TIME” and then tentacled all over those guys.
Now I just need the in-story timeline to catch up with reality so Tenny can see Morbius and become obsessed with memes.
I used to do that – read out dialogue from visual novels together with my girlfriend.
Yeah, I based it on some real experiences! Visual novels, regular novels, dialogue from other sources – reading out loud together or to a partner is a really interesting experience.
So maybe that’s not a real visual novel, but when I googled it, it DID show me the light novel “Monster Girl Plant Diary”. Maybe Kim will read that next.
Yeah! It’s not real, but google shows something with a similar enough title; then again, I’ve now had multiple requests that I actually write this fictional visual novel, so … maybe it will be real, eventually!