any mortal thing – 14.14

Previous Chapter

Darkness closed its jaws around me as I scrambled to make light.

The Eye’s lessons presented a dozen methods to bend physics to my will, or break it entirely, or apply it in ways that only worked Outside, far from the watchful constraints of Earth’s reality. I might combust the air itself with an infinite gout of flame, or summon a gigantic arc of electrical discharge, or gather a handful of hydrogen atoms and squeeze them together until their protons began to fuse. Other methods had no Earthly analogue. The Eye’s lessons whispered of ways to light my skin itself with the power of a star, to blaze hot without fire, to cut through darkness with laser and microwave to cook the shadows themselves until they might illuminate the whole planet with the pyre of their death.

But choice was almost my undoing.

Rummaging through the equations already ate up a precious second – I couldn’t do this at the speed of thought, it was all so new and experimental. I keened through clenched teeth as I exposed myself to the toxic corrosion of the Eye’s lessons, head filled with stabbing pain, stomach clenched in desperate desire to purge a sickness from my body. The process took a toll of both pain and time; the former I could endure, the latter I had little left to spend.

My bubble of rainbow bioluminescence was shrinking, my tentacles a flickering ember against the dark, my walls breached and overtopped by a siege of shadows. The forest-knight and I had less than a metre of refuge left. I pressed myself close to his side so that I wouldn’t lose him. Blackness lapped closer and closer to my toes and began to touch the edge of the knight’s other arm.

I threw away another half-second to examine and discard seven, then eight, then nine ways of making light. The hyperdimensional details of each one made me retch and choke.

“None of these will—” I babbled in panic, bloody spittle on my lips.

The hyperdimensional mathematics were undeniable: none of these methods could overcome the dark.

All of them would make light, yes, all of them functioned, but that wasn’t the problem. The Eye’s teaching was accurate and true, it had left me no traps, held nothing back. That very same fullness of instruction informed me that all these methods would fall short. None of them would pierce this darkness.

My six tentacles were already overheating, burning and itching as I poured energy into them in a vain effort to flood the air with bioluminescence. I was already pouring out a torrent of light, to no avail. Fire or electricity or slamming atoms together would prove just as futile — which was lucky, because in panic I began to execute that last one before I realised it wouldn’t work. I began to weave the equation which would pluck hydrogen atoms from the atmosphere, ball them up, and squeeze them hard. But I let the equation collapse in horror as I realised that light was not the solution.

That attempt cost me another two seconds, two seconds of convulsive dry heave and throbbing headache. The pain was a vice widening inside my skull, threatening to burst my brain. My nose ran with blood and my eyes flared with pain and a sticky sensation seeped from the sockets behind my squid-skull mask. I would have crumpled if it wasn’t for the knight’s free hand holding me up by the scruff of my neck.

No source of light would piece this darkness; a deeper principle was at work here.

The Eye’s lessons, long buried but comprehensive beyond human imagining, explained this in painstaking detail — and offered an obvious solution. Darkness was the absence of light, but this darkness was the presence of absence. Absence could not be detected with human senses, not without presence with which to compare. But here it had presence, because we were Outside. The trick was to observe the absence.

My body shied away from that solution so hard that I almost choked on my own tongue.

Then, we ran out of time.

Darkness finally engulfed the forest-knight’s opposite side, swallowing his elbow and part of his forearm, despite his efforts to stay within the contracting bubble of safety. A sound broke the silence of the dark passageway — a rustle like petals of dead flesh drawn over metal, a brushing and a scraping like steel wool on stone, repeated and overlapping itself like a broken audio program trying to play the same note a thousand times. It was so soft, so gentle, so subtle that if one was not sunk deep in the darkness, one might doubt it was a real sound at all.

The dark touched the toes of my left trainer, pressing in so tight that my tentacles themselves would soon fall into shadow. And then, as I was still trying to process the Eye’s solution, darkness flowed over my left forearm.

A sensation like a thousand dry tongues slithered over my exposed hand.

My skin crawled with revulsion, my blood went cold, and I think I screamed. It was as if every inch of darkness contained infinite layers of feelers, running over my flesh and probing at the sleeve of my hoodie, stroking me with the blunt underside of a billion claws.

Implications be damned, I ran headfirst into the Eye’s lesson rather than be swallowed by that.

Back in Lozzie’s dream-dimension this principle had come easy, but accepting it in the flesh was a leap I’d been unwilling to take, even if only subconsciously. I’d spent weeks pushing myself closer and closer to this edge, but here it was at last, undeniable and inevitable. I had to do it quick and dirty, not the full transformation I’d achieved in the dream. This was not going to be beautiful or elegant or euphoric. Mostly it was going to hurt.

I opened my eyes as wide as I could, ignoring the blood which made my eyelids stick together, and then made tiny adjustments to my eyes with pneuma-somatic flesh. I added lenses and layers that existed in both the physical and the metaphysical; I flooded new mucus membranes with fluids that had no place in the human body; I catalysed processes inside my cone and rod cells, to make them do more than just capture light.

Agony screamed through my optic nerve and extraocular muscles, like a serrated icepick to my face. I span up an equation that made me gibber and shake and bleed from my hair follicles.

I stared out into the darkness, peeled back a set of eyelids I’d had closed all my life — and I observed.

For a split second I saw the presence of absence. I understood, in both the molecular and metaphysical sense. And I knew how to make it go away.

With my sight — with hyperdimensional mathematics expressed through the power of seeing and knowing — I reached out and gathered together that handful of hydrogen atoms I’d been about to crush earlier. I made sure this would work, that this version of the equation would negate absence, piling on layers of metaphysics that only the Eye would have understood. I crushed that ball of atoms tight, overcoming the nuclear forces not with sheer strength but with the inevitability of editing reality. I picked a pair of atoms, aimed them at each other, and slammed them together. Protons fused.

A pinprick of light shattered the darkness.

Achingly bright, hot enough to burn out my human retina, and about to grow, to expand, to wash clean not only the darkness but everything it touched.

It was only then I realised I’d made a huge mistake. This was it, this was where I was going to die, consumed by nuclear fire that I’d summoned not in panic, but in pure superiority. In arrogance. In imitation of my teacher.

I’d made myself a little bit more like the Eye, and in the process I’d lost track of what I was doing. Observation is a heady drug.

My ocular adjustments began to collapse, my mouth hinged open to scream, and my regrets drowned me — Lozzie would be stuck Outside forever, Evelyn and Raine would never know what had become of me, and Maisie would wither away to nothing, never to see home again.

A small, pale, blood-stained hand emerged from the darkness and smothered the atomic spark.

Yellow light bloomed across the tessellated floorboards, the colour of a shaded desk lamp on a stormy night, a candle flicker in a ship’s cabin among the gloaming waves, wan flowers beneath winter sun. Yellow chased away the darkness, giving me and the forest-knight eight feet of breathing room in every direction. Yellow cradled me as I sagged and crumpled and fell to my hands and knees. I yanked the squid-skull mask off my head and let it roll across the floor, retching and twitching and spitting bile from quivering lips. I barely resisted a tidal wave of dysphoric urge to claw at the burning sensation behind my eyes as the pneuma-somatic additions turned to ash, as my optic nerve reacted like a torn muscle, as normal sight wavered in and out, familiar but horribly alien and wrong and not what I was meant to see.

For a few moments I thought my vision was forever ruined — a strange cocktail of fear and delight, that I might be stuck like this. But yellow illumination struggled to soothe my sight, to bring me back from the brink of endless blur. Normal vision throbbed back like an aching tooth. I stayed there on my hands and knees, panting and shaking with the aftershock of becoming too much like my adoptive Outsider parent.

A sigh of shaking relief floated through the air.

“Oh, Heather,” somebody said in my own voice, with a tremble of sickeningly earnest concern.

I looked up from the floor and found a blood-drenched nightmare staring back.

“Sevens,” I said.

She was the source of the sombre yellow light. It glowed from her like a shrouded beacon on a lonely hill. The darkness appeared skittish and reluctant to intrude.

She was clothed in my musculature and wearing my face again, dressed like me but modified to attend a rave I would never enjoy. Blonde highlights graced my plain hair, light-up shoes flashed on the end of my feet, rainbow tights wrapped my scrawny legs, a white and pink belt looped around my waist, and three finger-strokes of yellow paint marked my cheek — her cheek.

But she was also covered in blood. Her nose ran with crimson, eyes gummed with scarlet, mess all over her face, cut through with pink-froth tear-tracks from her eyes. Even her hairline showed a sticky residue. Her own blood — my blood — was smeared down the front of her pink hoodie and rubbed into the sleeves in great long streaks. Her hands were filthy with bloodstains too, even the fist she was holding out in front of herself to contain the nuclear reaction I’d unwittingly sparked. Her clothes were stuck to her with cold sweat, rumpled and dishevelled. She’d mirrored my six tentacles as well, six slender, graceful, rainbow-strobing limbs emerging from her flanks, through the fabric of the hoodie. An abyssal creature soaked in blood, exhausted and harried at the end of her rope.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, voice trembling, brow creased with tearful worry. “I should have gotten over myself sooner. Are you hurt?”

My eyes in her face were dark and hollow, the sockets flowering with strange bruises; my face on her soul was grey with stress.

I stared at her for a groggy moment before I realised she was mirroring me exactly, blood and bruises and all, despite the different clothes.

“ … do I really look that awful?” I croaked.

“I’m sorry?” Sevens boggled at me with my own gormless expression, then glanced down at herself, spluttering with embarrassment. “Oh, um, well, not … it’s not that bad.”

“I look barely human,” I mumbled, then groaned at the ache in my eyes as I squeezed them shut. The bruises on Sevens’ face were not for show — my eye sockets and facial muscles hurt like I’d been beaten with a rolling pin by Praem in a very bad mood.

With help from my tentacles I slowly and painfully climbed back to my feet, legs shaking and unsteady, as if I’d just run a marathon. I scrubbed my face on my hoodie, trying to clear the worst of the blood out of my eyes. Then I checked my left hand, wiggling my fingers, but it seemed none the worse for the split second descent into darkness.

The knight hadn’t fared quite so well. The darkness had not actually breached his suit of armour, but his left vambrace was covered in a swirl of tiny scratches where it had been submerged in the black. He’d only been touched for a second or two longer than me. I shuddered to imagine my fate if I hadn’t reacted as fast as I did.

“You okay?” I croaked to him. He turned his helmet to look at his scratched forearm, though I knew there were no sensory organs up there, the motion was all for show. He gave an unreadable nod, then dropped his axe from over his shoulder to hold it ready in both hands, facing out into the dark, as if he could fight absence itself.

“Wouldn’t bother if I were you,” I muttered to him. “But thanks.”

As I peeled my sweat-soaked t-shirt from the skin of my back, I realised my tentacles were stuck beneath some of my clothes, a new and confusing sensation. How had I gotten that badly tangled up? I rolled my shoulders and went to adjust my hoodie — but found myself with a handful of skin-warm yellow cloak.

Soft as silk, thick as hide, warm as an hour in the sun, the yellow of fresh butter and ripe lemon.

“ … what? I can see it. I can touch it now,” I said. I manoeuvred my tentacles out from beneath the cloak, so it would stop getting in the way.

“Of course you can,” Sevens said, with a strange crack in her imitation of my voice. “You’re in my light.”

Normally I wouldn’t describe the experience of almost getting eaten by sentient, living darkness as lucky, but right then the aftershock of pure terror overrode any thoughts of romantic embarrassment. I was more than capable of looking Seven-Shades-of-Drug-Rave right in the eye.

“Thank you,” I croaked, nodding weakly at where her yellow blessing had pushed back the darkness.

“Heather, what were you doing?” She gestured with her closed fist, eyes filled with horror. Was that just mimicry of my subconscious, I wondered, or was Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight appalled at what I had been about to do?

I squeezed my eyes shut, winced at the pain, and took a moment to dig for energy reserves. Luckily, my bioreactor seemed none the worse for wear, still thrumming along in my belly.

“Nearly blowing myself up, apparently,” I said.

“You wouldn’t have taken the library with you,” Sevens said, my own tone of exasperation making me want to grit my teeth, “but you would have burned yourself to a crisp. You were unprepared! Heather, what were you thinking!?”

“There was not a lot of thinking involved. Mostly I was trying to not get eaten.”

Sevens shook her head, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, speechless, the very picture of how I might look at Raine in the aftermath of some madcap plan. She let out a humourless laugh, devoid of joy.

“You never cease to amaze me, Heather,” Sevens said in my own voice, trembling with affection. She was crying softly, swallowing and blinking in a failing effort to hold back the waterworks. “I’m so sorry, I should have been here sooner, I shouldn’t have let that idiotic crone drag you in here. I owe you more than that, I … ” She trailed off, furiously scrubbing her eyes on her sleeve. Goodness, did I really look that pathetic?

A faint fluttering threatened inside my chest. I had to glance back out at the darkness. Moving my eyes made them ache.

I thought about all the things I might say to Sevens, the question I ought to ask, and the fluttering got worse. Instead, I cleared my throat, awkward and thick.

“Sevens, can you get me home?”

Her expression was like an arrow through my chest — not the ugly twist of pain, but a hollow look of utter failure.

“ … no,” she said, struggling with tears again. “Of course not. Do you think I would have left you stranded if I could help? Do you really think so little of me?”

“I … ” I sighed heavily, beyond exasperated, unprepared for this. “I don’t really know you, Sevens. Even now I’m talking to a mask, aren’t I? All I know is your fascination with me. And that you like to watch.”

She sobbed, once, exactly like me. I did not find it endearing — it hurt.

“Okay, okay,” I hurried to add, stumbling over my words, gesturing a surrender with one hand and one tentacle. “That’s not fair, that’s not fair. You’ve helped me, multiple times. Very seriously. I’m sorry, I didn’t really mean that, I just … I thought you were avoiding me, earlier. Running away when I needed your help, when you might be able to get me out of here, or help me find Lozzie. I’m sorry.”

Sevens controlled her sobbing and stared at me again. “Do you mean that?”

“ … yes, I do.” Not a lie, by only just. “You have helped me, a lot.”

She nodded slowly and wiped her tears on her sleeve, but that only served to smear the blood around her face. She still sniffed a bit, but at least she’d stopped crying. Two of her tentacles, imitations of my own rainbow-strobing beauties, reached out toward me, hesitant and halting, as if asking to hold my hand.

I tilted my head with an exasperated look, a silent really?

She pulled a shaking smile, tugging at my heartstrings. It was like looking in a mirror and it made me equal parts nauseous and heartsick.

“Sevens, is this you crying?” I asked. “Or is this just you imitating me? Are these crocodile tears?”

She hesitated for a long moment, hollow and defeated, then said, “ … I don’t know anymore.”

I relented with a sigh and wrapped one of my own tentacle-tips around hers, squeezing gently. She squeezed back.

I couldn’t say no, could I? I needed her.

“Thank you for saving me,” I repeated, somewhat stiff and rote, more to soothe my own guilt at speaking so harshly to her than to make plain my gratitude. “Nothing I could do was going to work, nothing until … well.” I nodded at her closed fist. “And you really can’t get me home? You can’t even try? Or find Lozzie for me?”

Sevens took a deep and steadying breath, coming back from the brink of weeping. “I’m sorry, Heather, but I can’t get you back to Earth.” She stepped a little closer and glanced at her closed fist, then opened it as casually as casting away a mote of dust. The nuclear reaction I’d started was nowhere to be seen. “I tried, I tried to find a way back for you, but that horrible old crone is right — those dead hands are true vengeance. I can pass by them, even clad in your mask, because it is not me they want, it is you. They are too real to take to the stage, they are beyond my jurisdiction. Even if they weren’t, they are not merely a mage’s tattered soul. They borrow the strength of another.”

“The Eye?”

Sevens-as-Distraught-Me nodded.

“Then it really must be Alexander,” I muttered, flaring inside with real anger. “Channelling the power of his final deal. Why can’t mages just stay dead? What did I commit murder for?”

“For your friends.” Sevens smiled with pained affection and it made my stomach curdle and my heart flutter both at once. That look on my own face, directed at me, was too much. I was a horrible little gremlin, too capable of sugar-sweetness for my own good, but rotten inside.

“By ‘that horrible old crone’, I take it you were referring to Saldis?” I asked.

“Yes. I wish you weren’t following her around.”

“She’s helped so far,” I said, feeling oddly defensive. “Aren’t you much, much older than her, anyway?”

Sevens gave me a little frown. “By human standards, perhaps, yes. By mine? Well … ” She shrugged. “Saldis is … I don’t like her. She’s a nuisance audience.”

“I’ll put up with quite a lot of nuisance right now if it’ll get me home. I assume you know we’re trying to reach your father. Could he get me back home?”

Sevens’ face collapsed into a theatrical parody of anxiety, me at my absolute worst and most dramatic. She frowned and bit her lip, cringing as if from an imagined blow. Her exhausted eyes lost what little shine remained in them, replaced by the manic energy of desperate panic.

“Oh, please don’t, Heather, please don’t,” she pleaded. “He won’t understand what I’ve done.” Her eyes flickered down to the yellow cloak about my shoulders. “This is not a confrontation I can let you walk into.”

“I already told him, as Ha—” I sighed. “As that yellow blob.”

“I know, I know—”

“I told him what for. I threatened him, Sevens. I think it even impressed him a little bit.”

Sevens blinked at me, shocked. “You … you did what?”

“I told him to move aside or fight me. Didn’t you see?”

“I was … I was busy, I was examining the hands. I did not see that.” Sevens stepped even closer to me, my eyes in her face wide and bloodshot with near-hysteria. “But it makes no difference. Heather, you do not know what you are speaking of. My father is the King in Yellow. He can be so silly sometimes, but he is not like me. You are walking into a terror that has crushed generals and kings, emperors and popes. I cannot protect you from my own father.”

“Well it’s a good thing I’m none of those things,” I huffed. “I’m just a lowly university student. Can he get me home or not?”

“ … probably.” Sevens glanced away, biting her lip so hard it must have drawn blood, though it was hard to tell amongst the smeared mess of half-dried gore on her face. “But he won’t understand why you’re wearing that.”

I didn’t have to ask what she meant. I tugged the yellow cloak tighter, instinctively taking refuge inside it despite the emotional ambiguity. It was so warm, like it had come straight from the dryer, inviting me to bury my face in the sun-kissed fabric. Even right then, exhausted and bloody and having one of the most paradoxical conversations of my life, I could quite happily have wrapped myself in the cloak, laid down, and slept like a baby.

“Won’t understand?” I echoed. “Or won’t accept?”

Sevens’ eyes flickered back to me, filled with fear. How had Raine ever seen anything attractive in me if this was what I looked like when afraid? I was ugly and pitiful, nothing to be proud of.

Before she could answer, I lost my nerve. I huffed and gestured at the darkness lurking beyond Sevens’ bastion of light. We still stood in a void of terror, beneath a crushing pressure that could rush back in at any moment and drown us both. “I cannot believe we’re doing this here. In the middle of this nightmare. This is not the place for a heart-to-heart, Sevens. Can’t we … if we have to talk about this … isn’t there somewhere—”

“We could go to my room, in the palace,” she said in a voice of spun-glass fragility.

I almost choked. “Your … room?”

She flushed bright red, unable to meet my eyes. “T-that is an inappropriate suggestion, I apologise, I retract the invitation. T-though if you want to … ”

“Uh, um … not … yet,” I managed. I glanced at the forest-knight too, embarrassed that he was being subjected to overhearing all of this, but he didn’t seem to care.

Sevens nodded with mortified relief. “You’re perfectly safe now, regardless. This light cannot fail.”

“What is it, anyway?” I asked quickly, just to change the subject, to get away from her implication. “Normal light wouldn’t do the trick, I figured out that much.”

“It’s just me, being myself,” she said. “The library is intended for family only, and approved guests, though those rules have been flouted for longer than they were ever enforced. Most visitors don’t use the physical entrance.” She laughed softly, a forced sound, me trying to make light of a bad situation.

“Obviously,” I agreed.

“You merely lack the proper permissions. My fault, I am sorry. I never was one for stamping forms in triplicate and the like. Well, you lacked the permissions. Now I’ve made them … official.” She swallowed with self-conscious embarrassment as she gestured at my yellow cloak, her cloak, the piece of herself she’d given to me. “I could leave you here in the dark, if you … if you want, if you tell me you want me to leave. I’ll go, if you want. You would be properly marked as allowed, now that I’ve made it clear.” She shot a glance out at the darkness, a tiny, delicate frown, like me frowning at Raine saying something inappropriate, faintly irritated at the dark.

“No, no, you can … you can come with us,” I said, slowly, trying not to think about what exactly she had made ‘official’. I glanced over my shoulder at where the wall of impenetrable darkness had barred my way. Sevens’ light had cut a hole through it, clearing our path. “We should catch up with Saldis, she’ll be wondering where I’ve—” I turned back “—gotten … to … ”

Sevens, wearing my face, looked so pitiful and abandoned. She looked how I might look in the wake of Raine breaking up with me. A thought so terrible I could not acknowledge the comparison. My heart wrenched itself inside my chest.

“I would go with you,” she murmured. “I would not let you face any corner of my home without me.”

Then she hiccuped. Like a frog with something stuck in its throat. Exactly like me.

To my everlasting embarrassment, I hiccuped too, then huffed and scowled.

“Sevens, I can’t do this talking to myself thing. Please, can’t you, I don’t know, chose somebody else?”

“Can’t you find any love for yourself?”

“It’s like talking to Maisie. It’s grotesque.”

Sevens nodded once, awkward and self-conscious — my awkwardness, my self-consciousness — and then as she raised her head, she ceased to be me.

The optical transition made me flinch in shock. Suddenly, Sevens was a whole head taller, built like an athlete, dressed in leather jacket and curb-stomping boots. Gone were the tentacles and the blood and the bruises, the lank hair and the hollow eyes, all replaced with a rakish grin.

“Hey,” said Seven-Shades-of-Raine. “Better?”

“Oh, no. Absolutely not.” I shook my head, hands up in surrender, scared at the speed of my private reaction — the sound of Raine’s voice had instantly put me at ease, unlocked whole groups of tensed muscles, made me sigh with relief just to see her. But it wasn’t her, not really. “You cannot be Raine. You cannot be her! That’s underhanded. That’s cheating.”

Seven-Raine shrugged, smiling with a perfect simulation of Raine’s blazing confidence. “My bad.” She pointed a pair of finger-guns at me. “Can’t fault me for trying though, yeah?”

“Yes. Yes I bloody well can. Stop it. Right now.”

“You’re the boss.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight ran Raine’s hand through Raine’s artfully messy hair; when she finished, she had gained another two feet of height, a hundred pounds of muscle, and teeth to shame a great white shark.

“Shaman,” Seven-Shades-of-Seven-Feet-Plus purred in Zheng’s voice.

That deep, throaty, stone-on-stone rumble made my bowels clench with a unique cocktail of thrill. Sevens had chosen Zheng at her most dangerous, dressed in jeans and boots and a long coat and nothing else, showing off her iron-hard abdominal muscles and the proud curve of her chest, her red-chocolate skin covered with a dense mass of black tattoos, punctuated by the missing patches and circles I’d erased when I’d freed her.

She grinned and showed all her teeth. I flinched, my tentacles drawing back into a defensive ball.

“Sevens!” I hissed. “You can’t just cycle through other people who are in love with me!”

“Can’t I?” she rumbled, an exact replica of Zheng’s understated, proud defiance. She even flexed her fingers and rolled her neck, limbering up for a fight.

“Stop it!”

Seven-Shades-of-Muscular-Demon shrugged. “Another, then.”

And in the blink of an eye she lost her height, her muscle, and her confidence. Gripping a walking stick, blonde hair gathered into a messy ponytail, hunched shoulders wrapped in an oversized cream sweater, Evelyn stared back at me, most unimpressed.

The effect was uncanny, somehow more accurate than either Raine or Zheng. Perhaps it was the little details of mannerism, the clench of her fingers on the handle of her walking stick, the sour twist to her lips, the bags under her eyes.

“Oh, come on,” I sighed. “Evelyn? That’s just ridiculous, she doesn’t—”

“Ridiculous?” spat Seven-Shades-of-Saye, Evelyn’s voice dripping with scorn, oddly comforting in this Outside place. “You trample feelings without even realising you’re doing it, Heather.”

“Sevens, I’m not ignoring your feelings, I—”

“Did it from day one.” Evelyn went on. “How can you get close to me, force me to open up, without expecting this to happen? This is your responsibility. I’d been wrapped up tight and secure for years, surviving. But oh no, no, right from the word go you were only into Raine. Healthy and hale, strong and fit, bench pressing you into the fucking bed. And look at me.” She smacked her prosthetic leg through her skirt with her walking stick, a hollow sound echoing off into the darkness. “How could I ever compete with that? Evelyn Saye, twisted little cripple, pining after things she doesn’t deserve. I should have put you from my mind, but you’re always there, being so fucking right and sweet and brave,” she spat those words, made them foul. “And then to add insult to injury, you pushed me and Twil together when neither of us was ready.”

Faint tears stained Evelyn’s cheeks, angry and repressed.

I stared at Seven-Shades-of-Unrequited-Love, mouth open, stomach fallen through the floor, and had to remind myself very carefully that she was not actually Evelyn.

“No,” I said slowly. “No, go back to being me.”

Seven-Saye snorted with derision, turned her face away, and reverted to a mirror image of myself, short and scrawny and covered in blood. Sevens omitted the fanciful additions of blonde highlights, stripy tights, and face paint. She even didn’t bother mimicking my tentacles, but stood as a simple mirror of me at my worst, hollow-eyed and dirty and pathetic. Me without my abyssal side.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

I was still reeling, hands up in stunned surrender. “Was that … you? Or was that Evee? How much of that was Evee?”

She shrugged. “Not sure.”

“ … okay. All right.” I shook my head, trying to recover, slipping on my emotional footing. I glanced to the forest-knight for support, but he wasn’t even paying attention. Lesbian relationship problems were a bit far out of his wheelhouse. “Okay, let’s take everything that just implied about Evelyn and put it firmly to one side, because I cannot deal with that right now, thank you very much.”

“Yes. Sorry. I was getting a little off track.”

With an emotional effort only possible under such strained conditions, I did exactly as I suggested; I put that all away in a box, perhaps never to be opened.

“Why are you only crying when you’re me?” I asked, grabbing onto any handhold to get me away from those thoughts. “Is that you, or me? Do you have any real interiority of your own, Sevens?”

Seven-Shades-of-Morell chewed her lip. “What’s the difference? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Quoting Shakespeare at me; I did that to other people. It was insufferable.

“Don’t you have a … a you? A favourite avatar, a favourite face, somebody I can talk to and it’ll just be you?”

“No!” Sevens whined. “You’ve already forced me onto the stage, I cannot stand here as myself. There is no me to join you on the boards, Heather.” She sighed heavily, and I knew from the experience of my own face in the mirror that she was struggling to not start crying. She’d found my own battered pride and was hanging onto it for dear life. She hiccuped, loudly. “I’m so confused.”

A lump formed in my throat. I took a handful of the yellow cloak again, and did my best not to look away from Sevens as I asked, “Why am I wearing this?”

“You were going to die,” she told me. “I had no choice but to give you part of myself. You do this same thing all the time, Heather. You make decisions, split second decisions for the good of your friends, for their lives, their survival, during which you carve off pieces of your own heart. You do what has to be done. I did the same, because your mask has become affixed to my face.”

That sent a steel barb through my heart, but I kept going. “And it is a marriage proposal?”

Sevens sighed, flopping her arms against her copy of my hoodie, casting her eyes skyward into the dark. “Technically, yes. It’s traditional.”

“Did you mean it as such?”

She shrugged with her hands and pulled a very sad smile. “Do you know you can trick the brain by smiling, even when you don’t feel happy? Making the expression causes a sort of reverse feedback loop, causes your brain to release the relevant chemicals. It’s the same if you stand like a superhero. Ever heard of that?” Sevens puffed out my chest and put her balled fists on her hips, striking a pose that looked utterly wrong for me. “Like this. Hold it for a few minutes and it’ll make you feel more confident. It reverses cause and effect.”

“You’re not a human being, Sevens. You’re an Outsider god-thing, you don’t have brain chemicals to trick with feedback. And the power pose phenomenon isn’t true, anyway.”

Sevens’ superhero pose collapsed back into my usual slump. “Sometimes, acting stops being acting, is that so difficult to believe? The cloak is not just a symbol, Heather. I gave you a piece of myself. It has metaphysical weight. I did it to save you, I did what you would do, but that’s made it real.”

“So, you really are in love with me?” I swallowed and found my throat dry, my hands clammy, my stomach fluttering.

“ … I don’t know,” Sevens said, face twisting as she struggled not to start crying again, her voice quivering. “How could I be? I am only a question. You have the answers, how could I be part of them? This isn’t what I’m supposed to be, it feels wrong. It’s all wrong, Heather. You’ve made me all wrong and now I don’t know what I am anymore.”

“I … I’m sorry, Sevens, I don’t know how to process any of this.”

“I don’t seriously expect you to actually marry me,” she said quickly, embarrassed and mortified; I couldn’t help but think she didn’t deserve to be embarrassed at such feelings, whatever she was. “We’ll have to explain to my father, now that he’s already seen you. But I still feel this, whatever happens, whatever he says, whatever you say to me. Whatever you decide.”

I cast about for an emotional handhold. “Sevens, there’s something I don’t understand. Why haven’t I seen you since you gave me the cloak? Why not just come talk to me?”

“I am … not meant to be a player, strutting upon the stage. It changes everything. How can I direct when I am involved? It reduces me to a mere voyeur. To direct players is one thing, it is what I am made for, it is my essence. But to watch those who I have become a part of?” She shook head. “It makes me filthy. I am disgusted with myself.”

She held her line against the tears, but only just.

I tried very hard in that moment to keep in mind what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight actually was, behind her imitated flesh and the soft yellow light and the desolate emotion on my mirrored face. She was an Outsider thing, not a human being, a godlike shard of some alien principle; I’d seen behind her curtain, laid my abyssal senses on the beautiful truth of her real self, the butterscotch fronds and sunlight ripples of her true body, which existed in a way I ached to be.

That creature had fallen in love with me and could not process those emotions back down to a human scale. The thought made my head swim and my stomach flutter.

Or, she was acting.

Either way, I needed her on my side. I hated what I was about to do.

Slowly, hesitantly, worried that I was making a mistake, I opened my hands, then my arms, caught between a warding-off gesture and an invitation. Sevens stared, awestruck and terrified.

“This is not an answer,” I managed to say. “I don’t know how to deal with this, I don’t know if I can accept anything from you, and we can’t do this here and now. But you are not wrong, you’re not disgusting, you’re just feeling things. Do you want a hug?”

Sevens nodded, fighting to stop her face from collapsing into tears. She took a few shuffling steps, then all but blundered into me, pressing her face to my shoulder as she held back dry sobs. Awkwardly, but not without a certain level of affection, I put my arms around her shoulders and wrapped a tentacle around her waist. My shoulders, my waist, exactly the same height as myself. My scent, my warmth, all a copy. A falsehood. But was the real core, inside the mask?

Hugging myself was too cruel. It was like hugging Maisie. I tried not to think about that.

“You’re not … you’re not wrong, Sevens,” I repeated. “You’re not broken. You’re just … in love, I suppose. That can feel very much like being broken.”

“You would know,” she murmured into my shoulder, with my own voice.

The hug went on for a minute, then two minutes, with Sevens’ weight sagging onto me, our bodies pressed together in a perfect twinned fit. I started to quietly panic; was I leading her on? Giving her hope where there was none? Did she have hope? Did I want her to have hope? But she wasn’t even a person — well, no, I corrected myself forcefully, she was a person, just not a singular person in the normal way. Most of the people in my life were not strictly human, what was one more?

But Sevens was so much more alien and other compared to Zheng or Praem or Lozzie. Or even Tenny.

A dark thought began to creep into the back of my mind. Wasn’t this all too convenient? I’d been trapped by the crushing weight of the darkness, alone except for my brave knight who was as powerless as I, about to be devoured; then, soft yellow light had burst forth to save me, to pull me back from the brink. And now Sevens was wearing the form of the one person whose presence I desired more than anything else in the world, the one person to whom I would deny nothing — for it was my face she wore, but I couldn’t stop thinking of my lost twin.

I didn’t feel like I was standing on a stage. But would I know, if I was?

Gently, carefully, so as not to make her think that I was rejecting her outright, I peeled Sevens off me and made a gap between us, just to arms length. She gave me a fragile little smile, my own shaking face at my most vulnerable. She dabbed at her eyes with a clean corner of one sleeve, which only made her eye sockets that much bloodier.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“You’re welcome. I think. Look, even if nothing comes of this, you’re still … ” I paused and cleared my throat, with some discomfort. “Actually, are you my friend? You have helped me, a lot.”

“If you would have me, I would be,” she said.

“Well, okay,” I steeled myself to say it. “You’re that at the very least. It’s just a bit weird when the only faces you can wear are my own, or those of my friends. This is a very surreal moment for me. I hope you understand that.”

Sevens nodded, glum and low, but not crying any more.

I took a deep breath. “We still need to go see your father. The King in Yellow. If he can help me.”

“He might,” Sevens said, nodding seriously.

“What about finding Lozzie? Can you help me do that?”

Sevens shook her head. “My father wouldn’t be able to either. She has gone elsewhere. He does not even rule every part of Carcosa, let alone all of Outside.”

I bit my bottom lip. “Then I really do need to defeat the hands, if she’s going to be able to get home.”

“I suppose so … ” Sevens murmured.

“What about everyone back home?” I asked with a sudden hitch in my heart. “Have you seen them, checked up on them?”

Sevens let out a shuddering sigh, a note of alarm in her widening eyes. “I … I cannot. Not now that I’m on the stage beside you. If I leave it now … I do not know what will happen to the role I am improvising. I … do not wish to lose it. There is no understudy to take my place. Not now.” She swallowed, an obvious lump in her throat.

Well done, Heather, I scolded myself. You went one step too far.

But outwardly I nodded. “That’s okay. I understand. Well, I think I understand.”

I broke away from her at last, gently and slowly, her fingers trailing after me, and I stooped to pick up my squid-skull helmet from where it had fallen. I didn’t slip it on just yet, but instead reached out to gently touch the forest-knight on the corner of his elbow. “Sorry you had to stand there through all that. I think we’re ready to move again.”

He lowered his axe and turned toward us, awaiting our departure from this nighted realm.

“I will walk you to my father’s audience chambers,” Sevens raised her voice ever so slightly. “With me at your side, well, we will have to deal with my siblings and cousins, but I am the equal of any of them.”

“That would be helpful. Thank you.”

I screwed up my doubts and worries, pulled the warm yellow cloak tight about my shoulders, and held my hand out to her — but to my surprise, Sevens shook her head.

“I do not want that awful woman to see me like this,” she said, and I was surprised by the suddenly revealed core of quiet defiance in her voice — my voice. Is that what I sounded like when I found courage? When I was prepared, when I was facing down the dark? I don’t think she noticed, but I was speechless for a moment.

Maybe that was what Raine saw in me.

I cleared my throat. “You can be Raine if you must,” I said. “I understand. Though … don’t do anything, not even hold my hand, not as her. Please.”

“No, that would be grossly unfair,” she said. “I could … ” She cleared her throat delicately, exactly like me broaching a very awkward suggestion. “There is no unmasked self, you understand? This will not be me. It will merely be an old mask, one that will not cry in front of strangers. It will be strange for me too, to don the guise of an intruder in your story.”

“Do what you need to do, Sevens.”

So I can do what I need to do. I left that part unsaid.

Sevens nodded, then turned her head sideways by only a few inches, and suddenly she wasn’t me anymore.

In place of my mirror image stood a completely different person, a young woman who had no presence in my memories, not even a passing familiarity. I could say with absolute confidence that I had never seen this mask before.

She also looked exactly like I imagined a minor princess should do.

Slender and slight, an inch or two taller and perhaps a year or two older than me, Sevens’ new mask had blonde hair cut ruler-straight just below a sharp chin, brushed to perfection so not a single strand stood out of place, held back with a red hair-band. A blunt fringe framed unnaturally turquoise eyes, wide and staring, not with the austerity of command, but with an unstudied intensity that marked her out as eccentric. That was a stare to unnerve daddy’s visitors. A neat little nose and a small, serious mouth completed the somewhat doll-like look.

She wore a crisp white blouse with short sleeves, tucked into an ankle-length yellow skirt, and neat, sensible black shoes on her feet.

Ramrod-straight posture, hands clasped behind her back, head tilting slightly to meet my surprised gaze with those wide, staring, unsmiling eyes; if she’d raised her chin she would have radiated aristocratic arrogance, but the lack of that single mannerism kept her firmly on my own level.

But my goodness, she was intense. I balked a little at that strange stare.

“Ready to depart?” Sevens asked. Her voice was perfect, trained, sweet but sharp. For a moment I lost my tongue.

“Uh … um … ”

“Remember, this is not truly me,” Sevens said. “It is merely an old mask.”

“It … seems like you. Sort of.” I took a deep breath to settle myself. This was still Sevens, not some aristo daughter. But Sevens was an aristocrat’s daughter, that was the point. Perhaps it was because she was finally wearing the face of a person I did not know, but I felt like I was actually seeing her at last. “I like it, at least.”

She blinked and tilted her head again. “Really?”

The tone of the question was impossible to read: an innocent platitude, a veiled threat, an unimpressed suggestion — and an appeal for more, all at once.

“ … are you sure you’re not trying to appeal to me?” I asked.

Sevens blinked. “Not intentionally.”

“This mask, is this person still out there in the world somewhere? Or—”

“She died a long time ago,” Sevens said, level and cool. “She would have approved of me borrowing her looks, especially if it sent a young maiden into paroxysms of confused lust. She was like that. Can you believe it?”

Without even a hint of smile, I could not tell if Sevens was joking.

“Er … ” I hiccuped. Sevens did not.

“She was also very good at self-control.” Seven-Shades-of-Suggestively-Sexual offered me a slender hand, nails cut very short indeed. “Shall we?”

I sighed, but I accepted her offer, slipping my hand into hers. She did not squeeze, but raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement.

“Come on,” I said to the knight. He shouldered his axe and set off after us, as we walked into the pressing darkness, to catch up with Saldis, and to go see the King in Yellow about a present for the object of his daughter’s affection.

Previous Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.13

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I thought I’d grown accustomed to rough landings; seven months ago I’d forced myself through a baptism of fire with my first intentional return from Outside, only minutes after I’d accepted self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics — I’d rescued Evelyn from her ill-considered trip and I’d had to complete the equation with her clinging to me for dear life. Since then I had become intimately familiar with the pain and the nausea and the disorientation that came with each Slip, with each crash through the membrane, each shunt to Outside, each stomach-churning drop through the hidden trapdoor in reality’s stage.

But our arrival on the book-strewn floor of the library canyon was so bad that I ought to have invented a new classification. A category six hurricane of mess, panic, confusion, and pain.

Technically we didn’t cross the membrane. We didn’t so much as brush against it. The equation I’d crafted was like a gravity-well slingshot, balling us up in a package of mathematics and swinging us around the fulcrum of the quiet plain, without ever touching down. I had aimed us back toward the Library of Carcosa, straight at the memory Saldis had slapped into my brain.

Under pressure, I’d taught myself how to teleport. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”, but I’ve come to believe that a good dash of fear can sometimes help things along.

Unfortunately, the source of that motivation had hitched a ride.

Hastur had come with us.

We crashed down like a starship breaking apart under atmospheric stress, onto the polished wooden floor, tumbling among the book-drifts at the bottom of the library canyon — myself, Saldis in her sphere-shell, Lozzie’s forest-pattern knight, and our unwanted, uninvited, insistent stowaway.

For several vital seconds, all was blood and pain and noise. My head throbbed like a struck gong and my vision blurred with hypotension and stabs of white-hot agony, turning the heaps and hills of discarded books on the library floor into a shadow-puppet play of whirling darkness and clawing gloom. My feet slipped on loose tomes, I let go of Saldis’ sphere, and doubled up to spit stringy bile onto the floor. Without my tentacles braced against the ground, I would have crumpled and fallen on my face.

My heart slammed into my ribs like a dying bird and my body dumped another round of adrenaline into my bloodstream, because I knew we weren’t out of the woods yet.

The knight had let go of me, he couldn’t spare a hand to help me up; the most awful, wet, slick, sulfurous sounds were slapping against his armour. Then a heavy swish made me flinch — his axe parting the air — followed by a noise like rotten meat exploding under pressure.

I couldn’t afford to pass out or lie down. I couldn’t even afford five seconds bent double with my hands on my knees.

With effort I hadn’t thought myself capable of, I reeled upright, arms clutched around my own chest as if to keep my organs inside, tentacles flailing to catch myself.

My blurred vision took in everything at once; the gloomy glow of distant witch-light over the head-height drifts of discarded and ruined books, more tomes slipping and sliding underfoot; Saldis’ grey sphere-machine, still closed up tight and rolling to bump against a book-drift — not flowing on its strange mechanical blocks, but actually rolling, as if inert and abandoned, as if the Slip had knocked her unconscious and insensible; I think I screamed her name for help, but I may as well have screamed at a ball of concrete.

On my other side, the forest-knight was doing battle with Hastur — whatever Hastur was.

By either a miracle of luck or a limitation of the hyperdimensional equation, I had not dragged the entire ring of expanding yellow flesh along behind us. Only two of the parasitised librarian corpses had made the transition. They lay in a rapidly yellowing heap on the side of a book-drift about seven feet away from the Knight, their dead bodies at the core of a seed-bed, a thick layer of soupy flesh like rotting mustard, about the size of a small car, from which emerged a whirling mass of pus-coloured tentacles.

That bed of yellow flesh had been neatly severed by two curved arcs, bisected by the edges of my hyperdimensional teleport. A steaming mess of fluids and tissues and vaguely organ-shaped wet masses were spilling out onto the library floor from those massive wounds, the colour of rotten lemons. It reminded me of a slice of lasagna, or one of those terrible microwave pastries that Raine sometimes ate, with the filling overflowing from the sides. The comparison turned my stomach. The internal goop was staining and ruining the books even as the substance rapidly hardened and began to sprout the stubs of fresh tentacles, like a self-cauterising sample of giant carrion mollusk.

Each live tentacle was smooth and thickly muscled, the colour of old bone and rancid butter. Trying to focus on them made my eyes ache — they seemed to exist in more than the physical dimension, leaving behind after-images and ghostly outlines as they lashed and whipped at the air, as if each tentacle was the sum of all the different positions it might occupy in space. They trailed visible spores of twinkling gold and little clouds of fungal gas; the air was beginning to stink of sulphur again.

The knight had severed two tentacles with his war-axe. Their shrivelling remains lay at his feet, twisting and shrinking and smoking.

But that was all he’d managed. Several tentacles clutched hard around the head and haft of his axe, trying to rip it from his grip.

As I gaped in wordless panic, another three tentacles shot out like attacks from a hunting squid. Two of them bounced off the knight’s armour with the ring of star-steel plate, turned away by some Outsider property that Lozzie had woven into the metal.

But the third struck true, found purchase on the knight’s helmet, and began to squeeze. Loops of tentacle dropped around his chest plate and abdomen too, exploiting the opening. I heard metal creak and groan under sudden pressure.

The knight tried to pull back, to free his axe — and to protect me from a pair of tentacles sneaking around his side — but Hastur’s hands were much stronger than their slender appearance suggested. To my horror, hairline cracks began to open between the plates of the knight’s armour, separating under the massive external pressure. The flesh-blob of ascended pneuma-somatic kami inside was losing the tug of war.

The King in Yellow would not be denied by strength, not here, not clothed in this mask.

Hastur may not have understood the lack of a skull to crush inside that helmet, the lack of ribcage to shatter and heart to shred, but once the armour was breached, my wonderful little protector would be exposed, not only to the King’s wrath, but to the yellow spores in the air, the rotten-lemon virions, the fungus and sulphur stench. Saldis had her shell and I had my bioreactor, but the Knight — the true knight inside the armour, a scrap of flesh and faith that I personally owed — did not possess those advantages.

I hadn’t realised, earlier that day, back in the quiet plain, just how vulnerable and soft the knights had chosen to be, by becoming flesh.

They had agreed in some Lozzie-dreamt ritual to risk themselves for a greater principle.

And the forest-knight, right then, was about to die for that principle. For me.

With an instinctive flick more thought than muscle, I slammed all the remaining biochemical control rods out of my trilobe reactor. A gasp ripped from my throat as pure energy flooded my veins, sluiced through my heart, and soaked my brain until I was quivering from head to toe. It felt like how I imagined taking a huge snort of cocaine might feel.

Sharp and aware and running red-hot, I moved. Two of my tentacles slipped my squid-skull helmet back over my face, though my nose was running freely with blood. On shaking legs I threw myself out from behind the knight, out into the open, arms and tentacles spread wide, teeth gritted and bared and eyes bulging with more than just adrenaline.

“Get off him!” I shouted.

Well, I tried to shout that. I actually just hissed at the top of my lungs, a long, warbling sound that should not have come from any human throat.

To my surprise — and horrified dismay — the writhing mass of yellow tentacles, the Outsider fungal parasite, Hastur, whatever it was, obeyed.

In a flash of motion the tentacles were off the knight and into the air, so fast that the poor forest-knight stumbled, metal boots clanking against the floorboard and slipping in the discarded books. The whipping, slopping, dripping fronds of yellow death turned to point at me instead.

I hissed again, intentionally this time, long and loud, though muffled by the library’s enforced quiet. Arms wide, tentacles splayed, making myself look big. I shook from scalp to toes with adrenaline and fear and substances that had no place in a proper human bloodstream.

Hastur was most certainly not intimidated.

The writhing array of yellow tentacles bobbed to the left, then to the right, always pointing at me, as if each one were tipped by an eyeball. The seed bed at their conjoined roots continued to expand, like slime mold crossed with comedy foam, flowing over the books and dissolving their pages, soaking into the floorboards, sprouting little wriggling nubs of new tentacles. My face and hands itched as the air was flooded with fungal stink; my throat began to burn and sweat broke out all over my skin as my body fought off the unseen pathogen.

Lozzie’s forest-knight hefted his axe and took two steps sideways, to stand at my shoulder. A right-hand man. But I was in charge now.

I hiccuped, loudly. The yellow tentacles flinched.

“Saldis?” I hissed through my teeth, unwilling to take my eyes off the tentacles. They were locked onto me, mesmerised and awaiting a signal, like a snake pit full of charmed cobras. “Saldis, wake up, please! What do I do?”

Saldis’ sphere-machine lay inert.

A mad notion entered my mind, but it made sense. This was no tentacle beast, no animal, no cosmic child. This was a tiny piece of a being similar to the Eye. It was the King in Yellow, no matter how convincingly masked or how little I had severed from the greater mass. This was a monarch.

Slowly, shaking and caked in sweat, I lowered my tentacles and my arms. I pinched the hem of my pink hoodie between thumb and forefinger, bowed my head, bent my knees, and did the best approximation I could of a curtsy.

“I request an audience with the King in Yellow,” I croaked out through blood-splattered lips. “By … by the gift your daughter has given to me.”

I tilted one shoulder forward, trying to show the skin-warm, sun-yellow cloak which I still couldn’t touch.

“I claim no position or right by this,” I babbled, making it up as I went along. Thank goodness for reading enough trashy fantasy in my teenage years to just spout this off the top of my head. “I only ask to be allowed to approach your majesty and speak a few words. If we gave offence or incited alarm, I apologise with all my heart and beg forgiveness, for the sake of your daughter, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.”

I swallowed another hiccup and raised my eyes. The tentacles were holding still in the air, pointed at me like a clutch of curious serpents trying to hypnotise a mouse, dripping thick yellow globs of venom and fungal matter that dissipated into wisps of toxic yellow gas before they hit the floor, filling the air with stinging fumes which made my eyes water.

“Please?” I added.

Hastur waited, but I had nothing more to say.

“Oh, fine!” I spat, another hiss rising in my throat. I braced for impact, whirled my tentacles in a protective wall, and began the difficult, painful work of flushing my skin with neurotoxin and poison and antimycotic agents, a hyperdimensional equation brewing in the back of my mind. “If that’s not good enough for you, then you’re a terrible father to Sevens. Stand aside or fight me. You might win but I’ll burn going down and ruin your digestive tract on the way out.”

And with that, the dripping yellow mass collapsed.

The pustulent tentacles shrivelled up in the blink of an eye, turning brown and wrinkled like dead fruit, slumping to the floor. The sudden rot carried back down their trunks and into the thick mat of muscular yellow meat, which shrank and dried and went grey in seconds. Its corners peeled up from the books like a salted slug. A faint wisp of clean white steam rose and vanished into the dark library air. The invasive fungal scent ebbed away to nothing; my face and hands and throat stopped itching and my fever broke. In seconds, Hastur was gone, replaced with a grey mass of spent ash and desiccated flesh, with a pair of skeletal librarian corpses lying at its core.

Silence returned to the library, broken by the racing of my own heart.

“Oh … kay?” I managed, croaking and coughing, my body still wired tight, ready for fight or flight. I hadn’t expected my little outburst to work, and I couldn’t believe my eyes as I stared at the dried grey mess on the floor. My hands were shaking with uncontrollable nervous energy, my tentacles were bunched like fists, and I couldn’t stop heaving for breath.

My vision began to blur and warp at the edges and a strange detachment crept up from the black pool of my subconscious. All dressed up with nowhere to go.

With the delicate care of a lover attending to one’s own body, I slid the biochemical control rods back into my trilobe reactor, narrowly avoiding the start of burnout. It was like clenching and relaxing muscles inside one’s own abdomen in a specific sequence; I felt the power inside me spike, which tore a gasp and a twitch and quiver from me, my knees buckling. But then I slammed all except three of the control rods home, letting out an involuntary keening noise through my teeth, a panting wail. For a long moment I just hunched up, sweating and shaking, guarded by the forest-knight, hugging myself through the strange afterglow.

Eventually I felt coherent enough to straighten up again, though I was still panting softly inside the squid mask. I took that off again so I could wipe the sweat and blood off my face with both hands, then wiped those on my sleeves, despairing for the state of my once-beautiful pink hoodie.

“You don’t suppose he liked my defiance?” I asked the knight in a dry croak, waving a tentacle at Hastur’s vacated manifestation. “Earned his respect?”

The knight did not answer. He just shouldered his axe.

I took a deep breath, stuck my tongue out at the taste of blood and bile in my throat, despairing at the lack of water to wash it away, then made sure my legs worked before I went to see if Saldis had finished her nap.

Her sphere-machine lay where it had rolled, leaning against a book-drift. Previously, each individual grey block which formed the exterior of the sphere had always been vertical, no matter how far or fast the machine had rolled, or what Saldis had been up to on the inside. But now the blocks were all at an angle, like a capsized ship.

“Saldis?” I said out loud. “Oh, come on, I’m too tired for this. Wake up.”

I slapped the machine with a tentacle. Nothing happened, so I hit it harder, like hammering on a door.

“The Slip better not have killed you,” I muttered. “And you better not be playing dead.”

Despite my flippant words, a seed of doubt germinated in my belly. What if I had killed Saldis by accident? I had no particular love for her, but she wasn’t my enemy. Such a senseless death would be a tragedy, my fault, a terrible thing to have done. And I would be without a guide again.

“Come on, little miss snail, get up.”

An idea struck me — what if she was less snail and more tortoise?

I readied three tentacles and tried to heave her machine off the book-drift, planting both feet and putting my back into the motion, but the thing weighed a ton. I lacked the strength to roll it upright. The forest-knight joined me a heartbeat later, free hand on the grey blocks. Between us we righted the machine. As soon as the blocks were vertical to the floor, the sphere suddenly stopped and became oddly weightless, lost all inertia but gained infinite stability; still heaving with all my strength, I blundered into the side and only narrowly avoided cracking my skull open on one of the edges, cushioned by a tentacle.

Before I had even taken a breath and stepped back, the front of the sphere snapped open in fast-forward, peeling back like the lips of a snarling animal.

Saldis emerged in a blur, her red and gold dress like a bleeding, jewelled tongue lashing out from the core of her machine. She planted one bare foot on the lip of the opening, the other back in her pilot seat, eyes blazing, braids swept back, and held both hands aloft with her soft sleeves fallen back to her elbows. Exactly the sort of pose I would imagine for a wizard in a silly fantasy novel, ready to cast a fireball at her foes — if it wasn’t for all the blood.

Her hands and forearms were split open in twin twisting spirals of exposed muscle and bone flowing like wax, her flesh itself forming a sigil ready to rend the surface of reality. The effect made my eyes hurt and sent a spike of pain directly into the centre of my head.

“Ahhh, ow,” I hissed, stumbling back.

Fessi dottir nordursins mun ekki finnast vant!” She was howling like a banshee. “Ekki af neinum gudi- oh,” she suddenly cut off. “Oh my. Oh dear.” She cleared her throat. “Have I missed it? I’ve missed the entire thing! No!”

“Could you put those away, please?” I said, still squinting and shielding my eyes from her blood-magic.

“What? What? Put what away? Oh!” Saldis gave an awkward little laugh. I heard a sound like a dozen zippers being fastened at once, if zippers were made of meat and bone.

When I looked up again, Saldis was still standing with one foot planted on the lip of her sphere-machine, staring down at the grey, shrivelled mass of Hastur’s manifestation with a bewildered frown on her delicate features.

“And I was all ready for it, too,” she murmured, shaking her head.

“Are you … Saldis, are you all right?”

“Pardon, poppet?” She blinked at me with a look like a woken sleepwalker. “Oh, yes, quite all right. All together and in one piece, that’s what really matters, in the end. In the end, there is no end. Ha ha for me.” She nodded at the dead thing on the floor. “Looks like a very old, very dried out turd, doesn’t it? How undignified. I suppose your travelling without moving trick didn’t bring along enough of him to keep him viable, yes?”

“Oh, no. He was here, very much so. He left of his own volition, though.”

Saldis coughed out a single laugh and then gave a deflating sigh, sagging against her sphere-machine. A surprise crested her delicate features and coffee-brown cheeks — a genuinely warm smile. I hadn’t seen that kind of smile on her face before, resigned and happy at the same time, more human than I had expected from her.

“Well. Well!” she said. “We should count ourselves extremely lucky indeed. And here I was ready to go out in a blaze of glory. Die taking a chunk out of that fellow and I’d get a seat at the head table, alongside Odin himself.”

“In Valhalla? I thought you didn’t believe in any gods.”

“There are no atheists in foxholes, my poppet.” A frown marred her smile, but then she dismissed it with a shrug. “No, I will give that phrase a passing grade. It’s presumptuous but grammatically elegant, although foxhole? Hmmm, I would have words with the inventor of that one.” Saldis plucked one of the pendants from around her neck, an inverted golden hammer, then raised it to her lips and kissed it with savage relish. She nodded at the ashen grey remains again. “Lucky that your strange technique didn’t leave enough of him for a fight then, hmm?”

“Oh, he tried to fight.”

Saldis blinked at me several times. “Oh no, no no, you must be mistaken.”

“No. I’m not.”

“You’re not?” Saldis’ eyes widened.

I shrugged, too exhausted for her awe. “I curtsied and asked for mercy—”

“Oh!” Saldis brightened. “That makes so much more sense—”

“—but he didn’t respond, so I trash talked him.”

“Trash … talked?”

“I told him to go away or fight me properly. And that I’d give him indigestion if he ate me. So he left.”

Saldis stared at me for another heartbeat, mouth open, then started laughing. She laughed long and low and so hard that she cried. She leaned her head against the exterior of her machine and shook all over. I rolled my eyes and clutched at myself, beyond done with this.

“Saldis.”

“I weep!” Saldis reared back up to her full height, one arm thrown wide. “Not only for your audacity, but also for the fact that I missed it!” She wiped tears from her cheeks, then grabbed one of the golden pendants around her neck. With a quick tug she pulled the necklace free and then tossed it in my direction, a flash of bright gold arcing through the air.

I instinctively reached for it with my actual hands, not my tentacles, but fumbled the catch and almost dropped it onto the library floor, slipping on the footing of loose books. “Tch!” I hissed, frustrated and embarrassed. If it weren’t for my tentacles, I would have gone sprawling onto my backside.

“Oh, Lady Morell, you are such a fascinating creature,” Saldis said as I was recovering, huffing and puffing and red in the face. “Look at that, you can barely keep your own feet, yet you face down a destroyer of worlds with nothing but polite insults. Perhaps it’s your English, perhaps the language is simply that toxic.”

I gave her an exhausted look, then examined the pendant she’d tossed to me. It was a thick disk about half the size of my palm, showing an intricately detailed design of a stylised, androgynous face. One eye was an empty, blind socket; the other eye was wide open, blazing with inner light. The necklace portion was made of soft dark leather, but the pendant itself must have been worth a fortune. Real gold, yellow and bright and heavy.

“I … I can’t—”

“You have earned the right, Lady Morell,” Saldis said, with a strange new tone I’d never heard in her voice before, softly reverent. “Keep it. For what little protection it may offer.”

“Saldis, where I come from, this would be worth a staggering amount of money. I can’t just take this.”

Saldis sneered — not at me, but at a formless notion. “Money cannot buy wisdom. Only sacrifice does that. Sell it, give it away, or lose it, and you will find it quickly returned to your hands.”

I frowned at the pendant, then sighed. “All right, thank you. Thank you for the gift. As long as this isn’t another hidden marriage proposal, or any other kind of hidden proposal. Yes?”

Saldis tutted. “Perish the thought! I would never get in the way of a pretender’s romance, I’m not suicidal. Besides, Lady Morell, you are cute as a fawn, but you are not my sort.”

“Well, that’s … ” I cleared my throat, vaguely embarrassed. “Good to know.”

I tucked the pendant away inside the front pocket of my hoodie, out of sight and out of mind, and finally raised my eyes beyond this little clearing between the drifts of discarded books. We were quite close to one towering wall of the library canyon, perhaps only a hundred feet away. The sheer wooden wall rose for sixty feet or more, cloaked in thick shadows and cobwebbed with climbing staircases, before giving way to the first of the library floors. A few clutches of squid-faced librarians peered over the railings up above, but with only their own customary curiosity, not piloted by an Outsider god-parasite. Some of them clutched books, others held those wicked fork-weapons for controlling intruders, but none of them moved toward the staircases.

None of this matched the memory Saldis had slapped into me, but that memory was already fading into a dreamlike haze. All I could picture was a wooden archway.

“I don’t see anything that looks like a front entrance,” I said. “Are we in the right place?”

“Exactly the right place,” Saldis answered, airy and arrogant. She slapped the side of her machine and then slipped back down into her pilot seat, putting her feet up on the open lip. Her two rats appeared from somewhere behind the seat, scrabbling up into her lap and nuzzling at her hands. “And how is that memory I shared with you, Lady Morell?” She asked the question without looking up from her rats. “How is it faring?”

“Mostly faded by now, actually.”

“Good!” she announced. “Good, yes. As it should be. I shall lead the way, have no fear.”

Saldis’ grey sphere-machine turned on the spot and trundled out of the little cove of book-drifts, the blocks ticking against the exposed floorboards where they weren’t cushioned by fallen tomes and loose pages. I shared a wary look with the forest-knight — or at least imagined that he looked back at me with the same level of doubt and trepidation, despite his blank, unseeing helmet — then drew myself up as best I could, gathered my tentacles close to my core, and set off after Saldis.

We didn’t travel far before the front entrance revealed itself. Saldis rounded the corner of the book-drifts and led us toward the library floors, out into a wide open space that was somewhat clearer compared to the hills of books toward the centre of the canyon. Perhaps the librarians stuck close to the walls whenever their cataloguing duties sent them down here.

“There, see?” Saldis said when we were perhaps two hundred meters out from the canyon wall. “Precisely the right place. Just as I remember it.”

As we approached, the front entrance drifted out of the gloom. What had seemed a blank space, hidden deep in the shadows, resolved first into a stretch of wall strangely devoid of staircases for a hundred metres in either direction. But then the darkness deepened, stretched off into a third dimension of distance, and I realised I was staring right into the mouth of a wooden archway built for a giant.

Vertigo gripped me and my feet stumbled to a halt amid the books. That single archway was sixty feet tall and a hundred feet wide, but it was not the size that stopped me — the rest of the Library of Carcosa had already inoculated me against that. Size didn’t matter, but darkness did.

Distant glow-globe light struggled a few feet down the unseen passageway, but beyond that lay a wall of night, a suffocating blanket of subterranean pressure, a nothingness. It was a hallway, a corridor, but I could only see it as a pit.

“Lady Morell?” Saldis drew to a halt and her machine turned to face me.

“We have to go through that?”

Saldis raised her eyebrows, not quite following, but then lit up with a silent, amused oh on her lips. “Fear of the dark is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite natural, quite rational. Very sensible, in fact.”

“There’s nothing natural about that darkness. Is it safe to pass through there? I’m serious, and don’t leave anything out.”

“Safe?” Saldis laughed. “No, absolutely not.”

I blinked. “But you said—”

“I said fear of the dark is very sensible. Did I not?” she tutted. I huffed a sigh and rolled my eyes, but Saldis waved a hand and carried on. “I’ve only passed that way once and I did so with all my hatches firmly battened down. The library does have a receptionist.”

“A … receptionist?”

Saldis huffed and threw her hands up in frustration. The pair of rats in her lap rolled on their backs, as if laughing. “Apparently that’s the best your language can do for the concept. Yes, a receptionist, to screen visitors. But I subverted it. As far as the catalogue system is concerned, I never really arrived. An inert ball rolled in, beneath notice.” She sighed. “Getting out is less trouble than getting in. You won’t have to demonstrate your worthiness to handle the light of knowledge, but you and your bodyguard will require some actual light. Else you are likely to be eaten.”

“Light,” I echoed, staring into that darkness again. “Against that? And that will protect us?”

Saldis nodded.

“But I don’t have a torch, or a … ” I trailed off and rolled my eyes at myself.

Power thrummed from my abdominal reactor as I turned up the rainbow-strobing bio-luminosity in all six of my tentacles. One around each of my legs as bio-mechanical braces, another wrapped around my midsection in a self-hug, another two held aloft like raised torches, and a final one trailing behind me, embracing the knight’s free hand and forearm to keep him close. I slipped the squid-skull mask back on over my head, for whatever protection it might offer in the dark.

“Oh, bravo!” Saldis gave me a little round of applause. I don’t think she was being sarcastic. “Very fetching.”

“I feel like I’m at a rave,” I sighed, blushing with the absurdity of how I must have looked, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Not that I’ve ever been to a rave. Maybe I should ask Raine to take me to one, I’d be very popular like this.”

“You don’t sound very happy about it, Lady Morell.”

“Never mind.” I stomped past her, leading the knight. “The palace is on the other side of this, you’re certain?”

“Quite certain. And past the lake. A short little jaunt, nothing really.”

“And you can’t just slap a memory into me again, have me teleport?”

Saldis drew in a breath between her teeth. “Oh, we’re not in enough danger for that. Not something I want to do more than once. Might have emotional repercussions for you.”

I sighed. “Right. Are we going, then?”

Saldis looked up at the wall of darkness. For a moment she didn’t say anything. I turned to her, expecting a sarcastic comment on her lips, but found instead a strangely contemplative and melancholic look in her eyes, distant and far-away as she stared into the dark. For just a moment, she seemed as old as she must have been.

“Well,” she sighed. “I don’t suppose I’ll be coming back this way soon. Perhaps it’s time I stopped being a pure scholar for a little while.”

“What were you, before?”

Saldis smiled, sharp and dangerous and full of pleasure. “A terror.”

An involuntary shiver went down my spine. I’d spent enough time around real killers and monsters to identify a genuine boast.

“Well, little ones,” Saldis said to the rats in her lap, stroking their heads with her thumbs. “It’s time for a bit of a longer sleep, yes? Nothing to worry about, we’ll be out the other side in no time, and I’m sure your brother will catch up with you soon.”

I glanced back at the forest-knight. “Is it alright for me to take the knight through this?”

“Him?” Saldis ran her eyes up and down the knight. “Oh, certainly. Just have him stay close. Would be such a terrible shame to leave him behind, after all.” She winked at the knight, then licked her lips and wiggled her eyebrows too. “I do so adore the strong and silent type.”

“Saldis, he’s not even humanoid,” I huffed. “The occupant of this armour is a tentacle blob. A dutiful, devoted, sweet tentacle blob,” I added quickly. “The armour is just a shell, he’s like a mollusk inside there.”

Saldis frowned at me like I was saying something mildly offensive. “So? I don’t discriminate. Don’t be a bigot, Lady Morell, it doesn’t become you.”

“That’s not— I mean— oh, fine, never mind.”

“Quite right,” Saldis said, giving me an awkward side-eye.

“Forget I said anything. Let’s just go.”

“Of course,” she said. The grey blocks of her sphere-machine began to close up again, sealing her and her pair of rats inside. “It’s a straight shot to the way out, but it can be a long walk, so I’ll lead. If we run into trouble, I won’t be able to open up, so keep your rainbows flashing.”

I nodded, trying to quiet the fluttering nerves in my belly. Saldis shot me a wink as the front of her machine flowed shut.

As soon as she was sealed inside, the machine resumed trundling toward the vast wooden archway and the thick, cloying darkness within. I swallowed past a growing lump in my throat and forced myself to pick up my feet and follow her, step by shaking step, guiding the knight along behind me.

The archway loomed tall as we approached. Darkness lurked inside, a wall of a stale air. I felt so very small. What a paradox; I had plunged into the abyss, a truly infinite space, and we were currently in the Library of Carcosa, a place so vast the human mind had trouble dealing with it, but here I was, afraid of the dark.

I glanced up as we passed below the wooden archway. Letters as long as I was tall were inscribed on the wood itself, in some long-forgotten or non-human language, an angular alphabet of spikes and spines. I couldn’t read a word of it.

Beyond the letters, leaning down from the floor above, a small group of squid-faced librarians were watching us leave.

I raised a tentacle to wave to them, but none waved in return. The gesture made my rainbow-light waver in the darkness ahead, pushing the black depths back inch by inch. Saldis crossed the threshold first and the gloom swallowed her grey sphere. I followed, hand-in-tentacle with my knight, wrapped in my protective bubble of colour and light as the darkness closed in tight.

==

Darkness.

Complete and total. Not a mote, not a flicker, not a pinprick of light in the void. Darker than the most overcast night on Earth, darker than a mineshaft miles underground, darker than even the abyss. At least out in the abyss the membrane served as a surface, filtering the light of reality to the upper reaches, no matter how crushing the black depths down on the ocean floor; at least out there other creatures occasionally pulsed and sparkled with bioluminescence, or gathered around the heat-glow of geothermal vents, or flared in bright arcs of violence.

In the dark passageway, all suns had gone out.

There was only me, only the light of my six tentacles. The gentle rainbow illumination maintained a soap bubble of fragile light, just enough to see a metre or two of the polished oaken floorboards in every direction, just enough to keep the knight safe as he stuck close to my back, just enough to pick out the rear of Saldis’ sphere as it crept along in front of me.

If this place had walls or a ceiling, they were too far away for sight. Once, I glanced back, past the knight, expecting to see the wooden archway and the distant glow of the library — but the archway had been swallowed by the dark.

No books littered the floor. No dust lay on the tessellated boards. Saldis’ sphere rolled along, but made no sound. Neither did my own footsteps.

We made it perhaps twenty minutes before I started to have a panic attack.

I wasn’t afraid of the dark. Even as a small child, it hadn’t bothered me much — the world is very different when you have a twin whose hand you can always hold in dark places. Maisie and I would always wake the other up if we had to use the toilet in the middle of the night, we’d go together, because nothing and nobody could harm us together. I had one particularly delightful memory — which I’d managed to finally re-embrace, those last six months — of when our parents had taken us out for a walk in the woods a little too late in the day, and we’d both grown nervous and jumpy as the sun had begun to set, casting skeletal shadows through the trees. Of course, we’d been no more than five minutes walk from the car, in the middle of a well-maintained public park, shepherded by our parents, but a little girl’s mind sometimes doesn’t take those factors into account. Maisie and I had each wriggled off a glove — her left, my right — and held hands, skin to skin, walking side by side with the sort of solemn seriousness that only children can. What is there to be afraid of in the dark when there’s two of you?

After Wonderland, there was plenty. I had worse things to be afraid of.

But this was no mere darkness.

As we walked deeper into the passageway leading out of the library, the darkness seemed to thicken around the edges of my fragile bubble of rainbow light. In my peripheral vision I saw the shadows press inward, shaving off the edges of my rainbows, as if testing the resistance of my illumination — but the optical illusion always passed whenever I looked directly at it. I was certain there were silent things moving just beyond the range of my light, vast presences and awarenesses in the black depths, always parting and slithering away before the weak lamps of my tentacles so that I would never see them.

The silence was unbearable. All I could hear was the pounding of my own heart and the hissing of my own breath. As the minutes stretched longer and longer, I began to hear the pump of my own blood in my veins, the tiny gurgles in my stomach, the fluid inside my inner ear, the creak of my muscles and tendons.

My heart hammered faster and faster and cold sweat ran down my back and a weight began to settle on my chest; there was nowhere to turn, no light to be seen, no end to the dark.

We walked through a void. If I turned left or right and lost my way, I might walk forever.

“Sal— Saldis!” I hissed at the rear of her sphere-machine. “Saldis, I need to … ”

To what? All I could do was keep walking. The knight’s hand in my tentacle was cold comfort, but at least he was here with me. I sucked air through a closing throat and hugged myself with a tentacle, drawing my hoodie tighter as if I could shelter from the dark. I eased a control rod out of my bioreactor and turned my tentacles brighter, but it didn’t seem to make any difference to the darkness, did not expand my refuge of light.

The panic attack did not pass, but sapped my energy and my willpower, made me want to curl up and hide. My feet began to drag and my pace slowed as I worked harder and harder just to breathe.

Then, for just a heartbeat, a thin band of gloom separated me from the rear of Saldis’ sphere.

The separation lasted less than a second as I picked up my pace, my blood curdling at the prospect of being left behind. The rear of the grey sphere floated back out of the darkness as I caught up — but suddenly the rainbow illumination at the front of my bubble was swallowed by shadows.

I slammed to a stop as if I’d been about to run off a cliff, the knight stopping with me.

My rainbow bubble was cut off by a straight line of darkness. I took a step back and the illumination returned, like an obstacle had been removed from the front of a torch. It was a wall of darkness, literally, a straight line blocking my way.

Somehow, I could still see the rear of Saldis’ machine, trundling slowly away from me, vanishing into the void.

“Saldis!” I hissed, my voice a scratchy, panicked mess as my chest felt like it was collapsing. “Saldis, stop!”

I slammed a full control rod’s length out of my bioreactor and flooded my tentacles with bioluminescence, but that didn’t help, the wall of darkness did not permit illumination. Saldis’ sphere-machine was finally swallowed by the gloom ahead, leaving me behind.

“Saldis?” I whispered.

She wasn’t coming back.

All around me, the darkness seemed to press in, and this time the effect did not stop when I stared at the edge of my rainbow-light. My bubble of light shrank, rainbow strobing bioluminescence compacted, inch by inch. The knight drew in closer too, huddling inside the safe zone created by my tentacles.

“Oh that’s a stupid trick,” I hissed out at the dark, trying to turn terror into anger even as I was panting and shaking. “How could I possibly see the back of Saldis’ machine if light doesn’t cross this barrier? I’m not stupid. That’s impossible.”

But the darkness wasn’t listening. Hastur may have been moved by defiance and courage, but darkness doesn’t care.

My sphere of safety drew smaller and smaller, no matter how much energy I poured into my tentacles, no matter that I made them blaze until they itched and burned and ached with the effort. The darkness drew in so tight that I started to hunch, that any moment the knight would be swallowed first, and I would follow soon after.

“All right,” I hissed, about to break, terrified out of my mind, clinging to the knight. “All right. You want light? You want to see how much light I can make? Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I jammed my hands down into my own deep, unknowable darkness, into the Eye’s lessons, dredging them from the toxic black tar which stained my soul.

And I found a dozen ways to make an awful lot of light.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.12

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Acceptance had come easy to me — acceptance that monsters and mages and magic really do exist, along with werewolves and spirits and demons, not to mention the black seas of infinity Outside our own placid island of ignorance.

Well, for a given value of easy, after the initial shock and denial and the crying and the dry-heaving and the survivor’s guilt and ten years of medication and hospital visits and medical torture wasted. When Raine and Evelyn had first pulled back the veil and left me with no safety blanket, I had felt a terrible sense that reality itself had betrayed me, that the universe had played a grotesque trick on my mind and perception; it was like vertigo of the emotions. I’d had a choice: either reject it all and retreat into decay, or leap from the cliff and hope I learnt to fly before I hit the rocks.

But I had started from a unique position which imparted to me a certain weird strength. Before I’d met Raine on that fateful morning, I had believed in error that I was broken, that my memories meant nothing, that my senses were wrong. Then she’d turned my world upside down and I discovered myself the right way up for the first time in ten years. I was not broken, I was healthy — or at least I did not suffer from schizophrenia. The jury’s still out on post-traumatic stress disorder.

And if I was not broken, if reality really was that silly, then Maisie really had existed and my life meant something.

So I’d leapt. I had not quite learnt to fly, but at least I was still falling.

Even months and months later, I still woke up occasionally in the small hours of the night and forgot myself. Groggy and sleepy with Raine wrapped around me from behind, cuddled in her arms, or with the massive bulk of Zheng’s imposing physique in front of me, radiating heat. In that comfortable, animal gap between sleep and true consciousness I could pretend that none of it had really happened. I could cling to a dream that I was a very lucky university student with some unconventional romantic relationships.

Though since I’d made my tentacles permanent, those moments of ignorance had faded. Reality was now wrought in my own new flesh. I’d left the illusion behind and in truth I was not sad to see it go. I knew what was real and what was not.

But The King in Yellow was fiction.

Saldis’ enthusiastic suggestion hung in the stale silence of the library clearing, excitement and delight playing across her face in a bright smile and a wiggle of her perfectly plucked eyebrows, but the idea of petitioning the King in Yellow for help did not bring me any relief. A worryingly nostalgic sense of unreality began to settle on my shoulders; a pressure built inside my head like a high-pitched whine on the edge of my hearing. My breath caught in my throat. My empty stomach did not help, either. Low blood sugar, short temper, irritable and rash.

“But,” I said. “But the King in Yellow isn’t—”

Isn’t real?

I bit my tongue hard enough to draw flesh blood. The pain sharpened my mind, grounded my senses, and reminded me that at least I was real; I cut dissociation off at the root.

“Isn’t going to listen to your petition?” Saldis got the wrong end of the stick and finished my sentence. She waved one manicured hand at me, then glanced down at the pair of massive black rats in her lap, as if sharing an amused and sceptical look with a close friend, at the expense of my naivety. “Lady Morell,” she carried on with an indulgent sigh which made me want to grit my teeth, “you are wearing proof of invitation to join his family, no matter how far down the royal hierarchy you may sit. You may be an uninvited guest to the palace, certainly, but you will be of great and pressing interest. Of that I have no doubt. He will not only grace you with the time of day, he will be very eager to speak with you indeed.”

She finished with a smug smile, like she’d snatched a puzzle box from my hands and completed it with a single twist.

I sighed and rolled my eyes, fighting derealisation with exasperation, hugging the Outsider squid-skull to my belly to stop my hands from shaking. “Yes, exactly what I need, an angry king shouting at me about corrupting his daughter. Let’s just pile another crisis on top, see how high we can go before the whole lot collapses and crushes me.”

Saldis pouted, either genuinely hurt or very good at putting on the look. “There’s no need to be sarcastic.”

I shot her a glare but her childish pouting did not relent. I huffed and cast about for a moment, wishing I could just order the forest-knight forward to slap her in the face or something, but then I reminded myself of my situation. I only had one ally right now.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Apology accepted!” Saldis brightened instantly. I very nearly threw the skull at her.

“Saldis, try to see your suggestion from my perspective. Assuming I can reach this … palace, what am I even walking into?”

“Oh, Lady Morell, you’re not going to get hung, drawn, and quartered for having known Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight in the Biblical sense, you—” Saldis cut herself off with a face like she’d swallowed a fly. “Known in the Biblical sense?” she repeated slowly, with an expression of growing outrage I imagined she might wear if she found a perfectly framed dog turd lying right on the middle of a folded dress. “What an absolutely useless, foul, vague euphemism. How do you Englishers even communicate when you’re working with such utter dross? Wait, no.” She held up both hands and adopted a look of angelic tolerance. “I am getting off track. Lady Morell, you are not going to get thrown into a dungeon and have hot pokers applied to unmentionable places, not for the crime of having gone elbow-deep in the cunt of the King’s decidedly lesbian daughter.”

Saldis illustrated her colourful description by pushing a clenched fist through the ring of her opposite thumb and forefinger, all the way to her elbow. She held the demonstration aloft, completely serious.

I burst into embarrassed laughter, going red in the face, smothering my mouth behind both hands as I hiccuped loudly. One of my tentacles had to catch the squid-skull mask. The laughter was not all good — I was genuinely on the verge of losing control with shaking and hiccups and lurking fear, even if Saldis’ absurd display had taken the edge off the lingering sense of unreality.

She watched me with a perplexed frown. “Lady Morell?”

I waved her down, taking several deep breaths to get myself back under control. “Nothing like a bit of sexual obscenity to ground the mind,” I muttered.

“Oh, quite,” Saldis agreed, though she didn’t seem sure at all, still frowning at me like I was about to fall over or pass out. “Did I hit the nail on the head, just then? Have you and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight been … ?” She made an upward fist-pumping motion.

“No!” I snapped, and had to fan my face to fight down the enduring blush. “Saldis, I don’t know what you’re made of — literally, I can’t imagine — but we mere mortal humans—”

“Which you are most certainly not—”

“—are not made for inserting entire arms up inside!” I finished, squeaking with the absurdity of what I was saying.

“Speak for yourself,” Saldis said with the corner of her mouth.

“Sevens and I have not engaged in any coital or even flirtatious activities, none whatsoever. If we had, do you think I would be so surprised about this?” I made to pluck at the invisible fabric of Sevens’ cloak, but my fingers passed through the space my senses said the garment should occupy, just like every previous attempt. I tutted and fussed, one of my tentacles paffing at where the fabric should be.

Saldis sighed and pulled an infuriatingly indulgent shrug, more with her palms than her shoulders. “Well, if that’s what you say, you have even less to worry about.”

“How can it be both invisible and yellow?” I huffed at the feeling of the invisible cloak, the warmth snug about my shoulders. “It’s the invisible pink unicorn problem, illustrated in reality. Oh, I do hate this. Damn you, Sevens.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing,” I sighed. “Something Raine taught me. Philosophy, about the existence of God, or Gods. How horribly relevant.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight herself was one thing — she undoubtedly existed, no matter how many layers of mask she wore or whose face she imitated. I’d seen her with my own eyes, both in the flesh and in the abyss. I’d seen past her masks to the truth beneath, all her alien complexity and robust abyssal beauty like secret life at the bottom of a marine trench. I could touch her and verify she was real.

But her father, the King? The King in Yellow was was from a book, a set of unremarkable short horror stories written in the late nineteenth century.

Since meeting Sevens, I’d read that book from cover to cover three times, trying to glean the slightest clue from those confused snippets of fiction. The first time we’d encountered this strange crossover between fiction and reality, Evelyn had launched into an outraged rant, firm and unyielding in her belief that the Yellow King could not exist, that all those old stories were just nonsense pulp from a hundred years ago. At the time I’d mostly dismissed her anger — after all, it stood to reason that any fiction could contain kernels of truth. What if the person who wrote those stories had encountered the real Yellow King, long ago? Why not process that experience into fiction rather than writing down some squalid occult tome that nobody would take as real? The King in Yellow had endured and thrived as fiction, far better than it ever would have as one of those crumbling books from Evelyn’s secret collection beneath Sharrowford University Library.

But I’d only been able to accept that because it was a purely academic question. Now it was rapidly becoming a practical problem. Perhaps paradoxically, that made it a philosophical issue.

“Why can’t things just be simple?” I hissed to myself.

In that rather lame collection of short stories, the entity known as the King in Yellow was poorly defined — a haunting presence in a fictional play that drove its audience insane, a name whispered in rotting tenements while the fog roiled outside, a creeping suggestion of watching and observing, reinterpreted and rewritten dozens of times in the years since.

The King in Yellow was not merely a fictional entity, it was created by the process of fictional re-imagining, like the compacting of silt on a lake bed to eventually create rock.

So what would I be going to meet?

Something not unlike the Eye. A being which had dragged itself from the dark of the abyss under its own power, whatever it had been before. Sevens had told me that her father the King had begun life as something not unlike a human being. Perhaps that’s why he had a family, something comprehensible on a mortal level, rather than the Eye’s dead globe of Wonderland.

I was going to meet Sevens’ dad.

I was also covered in my own blood, stank of fear-sweat and vomit, and was so hungry I could have eaten my own fingers. A great first impression.

How would I have reacted to meeting Raine’s father? Well, bad example. I probably would have tried to punch the man with a tentacle. Don’t do that to the King, I told myself, I doubt he’d be willing to help after a tentacle fight.

“If I meet the King in Yellow,” I said out loud to Saldis, anxiety clutching at my chest, “what exactly will I see?”

Saldis raised her eyebrows. To my surprise, the pair of rats in her lap paused as well, sitting up on their hind legs and looking right at me with their tiny black eyes.

“A very good question,” Saldis said, voice low and husky, as if she was telling a horror story around a campfire. Just what I needed; I almost rolled my eyes. “I’ve never had the pleasure in person, though I have heard all the tales. Usually he is not somebody you would wish to meet, not if he is actively seeking you out, especially when wearing some of his other guises.”

“Other guises?”

“Mmmhmm! You know how it goes, a king or a prince wants to go among the common people, so he dons a disguise. But for one of such majesty, nature is difficult to conceal. When the King walks abroad, those who meet him know they have been met. It is impossible to mistake him for a mere pretender to the throne, or even for one of his closest family. He will certainly show you a mask too, Lady Morell. I doubt very much that either of us wants to see the unfiltered truth. Neither would I want to deal with one of his displeased masks, but the Library has been quiet for a long time; Hastur hasn’t passed through in decades, so I suspect the King’s mood is still amiable.”

“Hastur?” I echoed the strange name — and instantly regretted it.

From Saldis the word had sounded normal, not one of those twisted un-words that made the mouth and throat bleed and seared human ears with supernatural pain. But in my mouth the word felt like a live slug. I stopped to retch, clutching at my chest, and would have vomited if I didn’t have extensive experience in holding back nausea.

“Yes, Has-” Saldis cut off with a tut, blazing an angry frown all of a sudden. “You almost made us say it three times between us! Don’t!”

I spat on the floorboards, trying to wash away a taste that was not a taste, a phantom sensation of something wet and wriggling and rancid. The bioreactor in my abdomen suddenly spiked its power output, thrumming hard in my gut, purging an invader that I’d accidentally invited inside, merely by speaking a word. For a few seconds my skin burned fever-hot and a flash sweat broke out beneath my clothes. But the bioreactor did its job, fuelling impossible processes, churning out pneuma-somatic approximations of macrophages and eosinophils to surge through my bloodstream and fight off the infection. The fever passed and I straightened up, panting and blinking, wiping sweat off my face.

Saldis was still frowning at me, like I’d done something wrong, hands on her hips inside her sphere-machine.

“You could have warned me,” I spluttered.

She shrugged. “I did! Don’t say Ha- … that name three times. It’s obvious, it should feel obvious. Besides, it’s common knowledge. I thought you had a little mage or two among your comrades, didn’t you? The blonde one with the terrible attitude and the dangerous eyes?”

Dangerous eyes? I filed that one away for later.

“Yes, okay. I get the picture.” I spat on the floorboards again, though I had regained enough composure to once again feel the pressures of being a goody-two-shoes, so I turned and hid the gesture behind one hand.

“I wouldn’t want to invoke that aspect of the King of Yellow even if I was completely inert at the time.” Saldis was saying. She gestured up with both hands at the inside of her grey sphere-machine. “Best not speak of the devil, yes?”

“Oh, this bodes really well for meeting him,” I muttered.

All I’d done was speak the name of one of the King’s masks, but if I had still been mere ape, without my pneuma-somatic additions and changes, without my abdominal reactor and my adaptive biology, what would have happened to me just then? My hands were still shaking with adrenaline and my t-shirt was plastered to my back with sweat. Whatever assault I’d just come under, my body had awakened to a real fight, not just brushed off a lazy exploratory tentacle.

Sevens’ father, once something like us, great playwright and director, patriarch and monarch — whatever the King in Yellow was, first and foremost he was an Outsider god. Like the Eye.

I forced myself to take a deep breath; I had no other choice, except to give up, lie down, and die. I’d faced the Eye, I could face this.

“It’s all right for you inside your shell,” I said to Saldis, transmuting my terror into flippant grumpiness; I finally understood why Evelyn did this all the time. “The rest of us can’t simply retract our necks and hide from consequences.”

Contrary to my expectations, Saldis got all smug when I said that. “As a lifestyle, I highly recommend it,” she purred.

I frowned at her, distracting myself with a silly thought. “Saldis, are you a snail?”

“ … excuse me?”

“You’re sort of like a human snail, aren’t you? I mean it seriously, I’m not trying to insult you. Since I last saw you, I have had some experience with how mages can eventually end up. You’re a human core inside a some kind of mage snail-shell. Aren’t you?”

Saldis’ expression went through a fascinating slow-motion change, growing more and more disgusted with every second of contemplation. She looked away, out at the library, then at the pair of big black rats in her lap who were happily rolling on their backs. She cleared her throat, expression getting even worse as she twisted her lips together. “Well … I … that is to say … I … ”

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

“No. Maybe. No, no! Absolutely not. I will not accept that description. A snail?!”

“You do carry your home on your back.”

“But still!”

“Look, Saldis,” I said, seizing the opportunity while she was off balance. “I’m not worried about the King in Yellow punishing me for seducing his daughter, that would be absurd. I’m worried about the vast gulf between what I am and what he is. Do you understand? How can I possibly communicate with something like that?”

Saldis tutted, still faintly offended. “You communicate with Seven-Shades, do you not? Well enough for her to fall for you. The trick is to speak clearly. And listen carefully when spoken to.”

I sighed and ran a hand over my face, followed by a tentacle. I really didn’t have a choice; if things took a turn for the worst, I could always Slip out, back to the quiet plain, assuming the King couldn’t stop me. I glanced over my shoulder at the forest-pattern knight still standing silent and unmoving.

“Are you willing to walk into this with me?” I asked him softly.

His helmet went up and down, just a single jerk of his chin. I nodded back and curled a tentacle-tip around his empty gauntlet. At least I had one normal companion out there. That thought made me puff out a breath of dark laughter — a pneuma-somatic spirit given real flesh and piloting a suit of Outsider steel now counted not only as a comrade, but normal compared to the surroundings. He was as far out of his element here as I was.

“Saldis, okay, so, the palace. How do I get to—”

But as I turned back to Saldis, I noticed we’d attracted an audience.

A single squid-faced librarian stood in one of the gaps between two bookcases, as if it had just walked around the corner, turned, and stopped. It was totally motionless, grey hands tucked into its sleeves, face-tentacles slack. Despite the lack of sensory organs in its eyeless grey face of tentacles and spines, I felt like I was being watched, intently, by something of great intelligence.

Saldis leaned forward out of her pilot seat to follow the direction of my shock. Her rats clung to her skirts with their little claws.

“Oh,” she went, raising her eyebrows. “That’s unexpected. I wonder what it wants.”

“Um,” I said. “That’s new behaviour. Saldis, the last time we saw unorthodox behaviour from these things, it was very bad. And that’s an understatement.”

My tentacles drifted upward as if to defend myself from attack, but the librarian just stood there, perfectly still. In a sudden blur of metal, the forest-knight swung past me, unlimbering his axe from his shoulder in one smooth motion and dropping the haft down into a two-handed fighting stance. His footsteps hit the floorboards without a sound.

“No!” I squeaked, shooting out one tentacle to grab him by the elbow.

He stopped right away. If he’d pulled, I doubted I could have restrained him.

“Don’t antagonise them,” I said softly. “Don’t make it worse.”

The librarian hadn’t even flinched.

“Mmm.” Saldis pursed her lips. “I suspect the content of our deliberations has attracted attention, but not from the catalogue — it wouldn’t care. Somebody’s taken an interest, somebody with enough authority to personally hijack a librarian. Hello there!” She waved her fingers at the insensate squid-faced puppet, but it didn’t react, so she sighed and shrugged and sat back, winking at me instead. “Best you not stick around in this spot much longer, yes? If you’ve drawn attention, the family’s already onto you. Best get to somewhere nice and official with lots of witnesses.” Then she nodded at the forest-patterned knight, her voice turning to a flirtatious purr. “Your big fellow there is quite the eager one, isn’t he?”

I tore my eyes away from the grey librarian with some difficulty, heart pounding in my chest. What exactly was watching us? I told myself I was better off not knowing.

“Maybe we were talking too loud in the library,” I muttered, then hiccuped out a strangled laugh.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing,” I said, rallying my thoughts. “I can’t stay here, yes. Saldis, how do I reach the palace? You mentioned the front of the library, but as far as I can tell the library is infinite in three directions. Where do I go?”

“Not infinite!” Saldis sighed like I was small child failing to add two and two. “Oh, little Englisher, nothing is infinite. Not even my appetites.” She cracked a terrible smile and let out a cackle, her eyes travelling up and down the forest-knight’s armour without guile. Even the rats appeared to cringe. “The library has a front entrance, of course. How else would anybody get in? Well, present company excepted.” She gestured at me.

“Yes, but how can I reach it?”

“ … you walk there, with your little feets on the ends of your little leggies. How else? Perhaps your chap there can carry you.” She nodded at the knight. “Wouldn’t mind that myself.”

I tried very hard not to kill her with my eyes. “I need to get back today. Tonight. I don’t even know how many hours have passed since I left. I was asleep on the floor, for crying out loud!” I snapped, losing control of my anger and fear again, trying not to think about Raine and Evelyn and Lozzie, shooting an angry glance at the silent, watching librarian. “And I’m ravenously hungry. I don’t know about your bloody hamster ball, Saldis, but I cannot walk for three months or three years until we find the front door.”

Saldis raised an eyebrow, delicately offended. She even folded her arms, which messed up the perfect lines of her golden-embroidered red dress.

I sighed, closed my eyes, and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m … I’m sorry. None of this is your fault,” I forced myself to say. “I apologise for snapping.”

“Quite understandable, Lady Morell.”

“Saldis, how did you get here from the front—”

But when I opened my eyes I choked off my words and did a double take — our single watching squid-faced librarian had brought some friends. Now three of them stood in the gap between the bookshelves, shoulder to shoulder in perfect stillness. Several more ragged grey-robed figures were drifting in behind them.

Saldis leaned forward to follow my gaze again, then froze.

“Ah,” she said, voice suddenly tight. “Faster escalation than I expected.”

“There’s more,” I said with a quiver in my voice.

I pointed left, at the opposite exit from the little library clearing. Another pair of grey librarians stood there, as if blocking a potential retreat, slowly being joined by more shuffling down the bookcase rows. I looked over my shoulder at the direction from which I had entered the clearing and found a further four squid-faces staring back at me in silent regard, a small crowd beginning to gather behind.

One of the librarians took a shuffling, zombie-like step forward, bare grey feet edging into the clearing. Then another did the same. Then a third. The first trickle of an avalanche began to converge toward Saldis and me.

The forest-knight adjusted his footing, drawing closer to my back and levelling his axe to protect me. He crowded me toward the sphere-machine, the only retreat still available, though it led us nowhere. My stomach clenched up hard, my skin broke out in cold sweat, and — damn the consequences, I thought — I narrowly ignored the urge to slip the squid-skull back over my head.

Saldis and I looked at each other.

“What does this mean?” I asked.

“It means you have attracted more attention than I thought,” Saldis said quickly, all her amusement gone, very focused all of a sudden. “The catalogue is gathering numbers. You have become an object of some interest, Lady Morell.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t the catalogue?”

She shrugged. “None of us are totally infallible, despite very good track records. I was wrong. Wrong! Ahaha, wrong!” She laughed, and I did not like the edge of hysteria in her voice. “The issue of leaving in a hurry is becoming rather pressing, no?” She sat back in her machine and ran her eyes over the unfolded entrance.

“Don’t you hide in your shell!” I snapped at her.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” All around us, more librarians were beginning to shuffle into the clearing. A ring was forming, centred on me and Saldis. “Besides, it’s not I who has to worry. Observe.”

Saldis’ sphere-machine suddenly backed up from me by about six feet, clicking across the floorboards in its strange rolling locomotion, the grey blocks flowing over the outer surface without disturbing the interior. It looked as if Saldis and her pilot seat were suspended by a gyroscope. When she reached the desired safe distance, the machine stopped and Saldis peered out of the opening in the front, nodding at the slowly tightening ring of librarians.

“See?” she asked brightly.

Several of the shuffling grey figures adjusted course — toward her.

Her smile died and her eyes went wide. She sat back quickly in her pilot seat, staring at me, her pair of black rats nuzzling into her lap, trying to hide.

“I am supposed to be invisible to them, to a degree,” she said, but I sensed she wasn’t really talking to me. “But I’m not. Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear, no no no, we can’t have this. I’m afraid I may have to break my promise to you, Lady Morell, I may have to crawl back into my snail shell and see you when this is all over. I do wish you the—”

“Saldis!” I snapped at her, more irritated than afraid. “Don’t you dare! I’ll never—”

“—the best of luck with surviving. Perhaps you can translocate yourself out for a few hours until they lose interest, no? Well, best of—”

“Oh, fine!” I huffed. I suppose she had a point — she was willing to help, but not risk her life. I rolled my eyes and prepared to leave.

Hastuuuuuurrrr.”

The voice came from the crowding ring of squid-faced librarians, a low rumble of wet meat like an open wound used as a mouth.

Saldis froze and stopped talking, face gone white as ash. We stared at each other for a split second, then both turned together, she all but clambering out of her shell to get a better look. The rats swung from the front of her dress, scrambling up to perch on her shoulders.

The ring of squid-faced librarians was drawing closer — and their robes were bulging and twitching with awful life beneath. Hummocks and humps and writhings stirred the fabric. As we watched in horror, the motions began to part the ragged grey down the middle, first on one librarian, then another, then a third, like insects ripping free from spent cocoons.

Has … turrr?

The voice came from among the crowd, from twenty hidden mouths ripped in grey flesh.

“Hastur,” one of them gurgled.

Third time’s the charm.

The closest librarian suddenly twitched and convulsed as a yellow tentacle poured out from between the gap in its robes. Slow as rancid honey, the colour of old pus, about as thick as a baby’s arm, the tentacle twisted in the air like a newborn creature tasting reality for the first time, clumsy and awkward. Its surface flowed with protoplasmic change, as if trying to sprout suckers and claws and sensory organs. Another tentacle joined it, then another. The librarian fell over in a heap on the floorboards, writhing and jerking as its body was given over entirely to the parasite.

A second librarian fell too, yellow tentacles bursting forth like the petals of a flower rooted in a corpse. A third went down the same way, lashing at the floor, though at the back of the crowd I saw the spell weaken and break. The rearmost librarians were scattering and running now that the unseen presence had manifested in the sacrificial flesh of their comrades.

Had I brought this parasite here, when I spoke the name and purged the infection from my own body?

The tentacles did not reach for us right away, but found each other first, touching and groping like mating slugs, then binding together into one flesh, melting into each other and becoming one. The host bodies of the fallen librarians were rapidly consumed with yellow rot, their own flesh donated to the growing mass in front of us, ringing us, all around us.

The air tasted like fungus and sulphur, making me cough. My eyes stung. A whine beyond human hearing made the inside of my head hurt.

And the rest of the possessed librarians were still shuffling toward us.

Without hesitation, I slipped the squid-skull over my head, taking refuge inside the bone-metal. My eyes stopping stinging and my breath cleared instantly. The forest-knight pushed me back toward Saldis, axe levelled, nowhere to go.

Saldis sat back, took a sharp breath, slapped herself twice on both cheeks, and snapped her attention to me, speaking very fast. “Let’s stop beating around the bush, Lady Morell. Heather? Can I call you Heather?”

“Obviously!” I squeaked. “But this is hardly the time to—”

“Can you use your powers of travelling without moving to take us both straight to the library entrance?”

“Us? But-” I cast a glance at the tentacles and the librarians, the closing ring. Some of the limbs were taller than the bookcases now, their flesh flowing like candle wax. “You want to come with me?”

She clapped her hands together with a frozen smile. “I would be delighted to accompany you all the way to an audience with the King, as long as it is away from this spot. And quickly.”

“Right, okay, but I can’t just take us straight to the entrance, because I’ve never been there. I don’t know what it looks like, where it is, anything about it.”

“I have been there! Once, when I arrived,” Saldis announced quickly, hands grasping the air in front of her. “Is that enough to work with? If not, anywhere else is acceptable too!”

“I … I have no idea.”

Saldis shrugged, a rather fatalistic smile on her lips. The rats clung to her shoulders. “Well, we can give it a shot, or I can close up and run like hell.” She waved a hand at the tightening ring of librarians and their strange yellow parasites, the former still shuffling closer and the latter waving in the air like strange carnivorous plants. The bookcases of the clearing were barely visible between grey and yellow now, but our would-be captors were still just beyond range of the forest-knight’s axe. I suspected he was more than capable of defending me against the librarians themselves, but not against whatever was riding them. The growing mass of yellow flesh could simply have engulfed him, axe and armour and all.

“I … I think I can slingshot us back out of the library and to the entrance.” I hiccuped. “If … if I can sort of … process the history of everywhere you’ve been. Maybe! Oh, actually, I have no idea if I can do that, I’m hungry and exhausted and we’re running out of time and we need to—”

“Well! Hurry up, then! Do it!” Saldis said. “I’m assuming I’m going to need to close up my front here anyway. I don’t want to be dragged unprotected through whatever medium you use. Yes?”

“Yes, yes. Keep your eyes closed, at least!” I nodded, stepping closer to her sphere-machine and touching it with hand and tentacle alike. Behind me, the forest-knight clapped a hand on my shoulder, anchoring himself, ready for the Slip. “Go ahead, seal up- no, wait!”

Saldis blinked at me as the blocks of matte grey began to move. They paused mid-flow.

“What about your rat?” I asked. “The one you sent after Sevens? We can’t leave him behind!”

“Mótsognir? Oh, he’ll be fine.” Saldis waved a both hands. “He’ll find his own way back to me, he always does!”

The rats on her shoulders bobbed their heads in agreement. The blocks started to flow closed again.

“Saldis, this isn’t going to work!” I squeaked. Several of my tentacles flew forward to hook the edges of the grey blocks, like grabbing a door before it closed. The blocks stopped again and Saldis gave me a deeply impatient, wide-eyed, almost panicked look. “In the best of times I could do this, but I need something to go on. Somewhere to go! I don’t know the location, and if I get this wrong I could pass out and we’ll both be stuck here, with this.”

Behind me, a great swish of parting air heralded the forest-knight swinging his axe one-handed. I cringed and braced for terrible violence, whirling to look, tentacles ready to defend myself against the press of grey bodies and explosion of parasitic yellow. But he had only brought the axe down horizontal, pointed at the chest of the nearest librarian. It didn’t react in the slightest, beginning to press itself against the head of the axe like a puppet being walked into a wall, blind and unfeeling. Then it twitched and a tentacle eased out from between splitting robes. The knight brought the axe back, ready to strike.

“I can gift you a memory,” Saldis said, in the exact tone of somebody offering to break all my bones.

I spun back to her. “You can? Is it dangerous?”

“No, it’s just … intimate.” She huffed and leaned forward in her seat, toward me, though her eyes scanned past my shoulders in wide and unconcealed fear. “But circumstances leave us no choice. If your fiancee has a problem with this, well, she can only blame herself for leaving us to deal with her father’s wrath.” Saldis focused on me and brought a hand level with my cheek, as if to cup my face. “You have to consent, understand? And take that mask off, quickly now!”

“Oh. C-consent?” Even in the grip of a crisis I felt myself blush, but I fumbled the mask off and back into a cradle of my tentacles. My eyes watered in the open air and my bioreactor spun up, fighting off unseen pathogens.

Saldis leaned all the way out of her machine and brought her face to within twelve inches of my own; no matter how irritating and egotistical, she was a strikingly beautiful woman, with full red lips now gently parting before me, her hand about to brush my cheek. My heart skipped more than a beat and I found myself frozen to the spot. What did she mean by intimate? Was she going to kiss her memory into me?

“T-This is too silly, you can’t be serious,” I said. “Stop joking!”

“This is a an emergency, Lady Morell,” she said quickly, husky and low. “Give me your consent and allow me to touch your face.”

I steeled myself. We had to get out of here. I had to find Lozzie, I had to beat the hands, I had to get back home. I would have slept with Saldis if that’s what it took; I didn’t for a second believe she had engineered this to trick me. I swallowed on a very dry throat.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, do it. Yes, quick!”

“Best close your eyes, too,” she whispered. “Works better that way.”

I closed my eyes, heart slamming inside my ribs, fear crawling up my spine. Behind me, the forest-knight pressed against my back, retreating further from the ring of waving yellow tentacles. I heard another three thumps of limp bodies as librarians went down, followed by the slick wet curl of fresh-born tentacles throbbing into the air to join the rest.

Lips parted, blushing red as a tomato, I was braced for an emergency kiss.

Saldis slapped me across the cheek so hard she drew blood.

“Uuhhh.” I grunted and spluttered, blinking watering eyes and clutching my stinging face, the taste of fresh blood in my mouth again. I would have gone spinning to the floor if it wasn’t for my tentacles anchoring me to the sphere-machine, as well as Saldis’ own firm grip on my shoulder. “Ow!”

Saldis’ face filled my vision, eyes blazing wide. “Did it work?” she demanded.

“I- um- uh-” The slap had knocked my thoughts sideways, like a hard reboot of a computer by ripping the plug out of the wall and jamming it back in again.

“The library entrance!” Saldis raised her voice in the manner of speaking to an elderly person who had refused to use their hearing aid. She shook my shoulder, rattling me back and forth. “The entrance, Lady Morell! Can you picture the entrance?”

“You- you just slapped me, that didn’t do—”

An image burst into my mind, fully-formed and too detailed, more like a frame from a movie than a memory, the edges too sharp, the colours too saturated, the scents too real, the taste of the air in my mouth and nose. The library entrance, a dark wooden archway, inserted into my own mind.

“ … yes!” I said, blinking in shock. “Yes, I do! I can!”

Behind me, the forest-knight’s axe suddenly broke the air, slamming through meat with a wet sound of shattering bone. I flinched in surprise, my stomach turning over at the worse sound that followed — tentacles slapping against metal.

“Then get us there!” Saldis shouted. The grey blocks of her machine rolled shut, sealing her inside like a mollusk in its shell. I only pulled my tentacles out of the way at the last second, heart hammering in my ribs as I dared a glance back over my shoulder.

The nearest of the fallen librarians had sprouted a clutch of yellow tentacles too, and these were tangled with the knight’s axe as if trying to pull it from his grip. One of the thick yellow tendrils whirled around as if to point at me, waving in the air like a cobra rearing to strike.

I hissed at it. Long and loud.

Spitting a little blood, I placed one hand on the rough grey surface of Saldis’ machine, made sure the knight was still gripping my shoulder, and closed my eyes.

The familiar old equation spooled free like loose magnetic tape, burning through the flesh of my hands as I desperately wrapped it tight around the false, foreign, unfamiliar memory, as I looped and knotted and pulled it tight, anchored it hard, and let go.

In the last second of consciousness before reality folded up, I felt an extra, unexpected weight along with Saldis and the Knight.

Those yellow tentacles were anchored to me, through the knight, through the axe they were wrapped around, through the librarian flesh they were using as a vehicle for physical manifestation, all the way back to whatever Hastur was.

I had a feeling I was already meeting the King in Yellow; perhaps he was not best pleased with his daughter’s choice of partner.

The Library collapsed.

Out I went, with an unwanted passenger.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.11

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“A marriage proposal.”

I moved my mouth and pushed air over my vocal cords; sound came out, but the words couldn’t possibly be correct. My voice felt far away, my head was hot and spinning, and my chest tightened with internal pressure as if about to implode around the vacuum of my heart.

But Saldis either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“More of a marriage promise,” she rambled on, waving a hand in little circles of thought, lounging back against the comfortable grey curves of her machine’s pilot seat. Her naked skin was still slathered with a thick layer of gently steaming blood, but somehow she left no stains upon the grey material. “You’ve already accepted it, after all. The proposal stage is over and done with, though, oooooh, there’s a thought.” She smiled wide to show perfect teeth and fluttered her lashes, her eyelids sticking together briefly with crimson mess. “I would have loved to witness the drama of that moment. Imagine! A pretender to the throne of Carcosa, finding herself a suitable match at long last. All the scheming and thought which must have gone into it. Tell me, please, Lady Morell, did she engineer this ‘danger’ she was protecting you from? What a little minx!”

That horrible suggestion bought me round. “No,” I said, frowning at Saldis in her absurd hamster ball. “No, no she did not ‘engineer’ anything. She got burned trying to help and I almost died. She didn’t even want to be there in the first place. There’s nothing romantic about confronting trauma. I will not hear you suggest such a thing of her!”

By the time I finished ordering my thoughts, my tentacles were up and ready, as if itching to peel Saldis out of her machine like ripping a mollusk from its shell.

The muffled quiet of the library caught the snap of my voice in a silent fist, strangling the sound before an echo could form. My anger was reduced to a trickle of wind whispering off between the bookcases and the stacks of abandoned volumes. Saldis made a big show of raising her hands in surrender, but the gesture was undermined by the roll of her eyes and the smirk on her lips.

“I’m not the director or playwright here,” she said. “Don’t vent your fury on me, Lady Morell. Take it up with your fiancee.”

Fiancee,” I spat.

But in private panic, I searched my memories. Could Sevens have worked backstage, to bring together the necessary elements and force the decisions that had led to Lozzie and I confronting the Eye to save Badger’s soul, but then inserted herself at the final moment, all just as an excuse to give me this silken yellow cloak?

My fingers unconsciously tried to touch the yellow comfort about my shoulders, the enclosing warmth, this portable hug. In Lozzie’s dream-world it had felt as warm as sun-kissed skin. Seven’s skin?

Had it all been a ruse? Had I been on stage the whole time?

No, I decided not. I recalled the way Sevens had acted when she’d given me the cloak — her strange reluctance to take the final step, the way her imitation of me had broken down before reasserting itself in nervous hiccups. She had been just as afraid of the Eye as anybody else. Out there in the dream she had burned and bled for me, for real, not an act. Though for something such as her, where did acting end and action begin? But whichever it was, gifting me the cloak had been an act of desperation, not the final move in Sevens’ perfectly executed plan.

The gift had meant something real to her, not merely to the imitative layers she wrapped around the core of her own abyssal truth.

Of course, that didn’t rule out marriage proposal.

I felt a strong urge to don my squid-mask once more and hide inside the grey-metal bone. My tentacles kept curling and uncurling in a nervous fidget. I even wrapped one around my belly as my stomach began to roil with growing anxiety.

“Ahhhh,” Saldis sighed with all the cloying oiliness of a used-car salesman, or at least the Old Norse equivalent of a used-car salesman. “And now you’re seeing how all the pieces have been arranged since the very beginning.” She sighed again, this time in the dreamy manner of a preteen with a magazine spread of a favourite pop idol. She leaned forward and attempted to place her blood-soaked chin in one gore-smeared hand, balancing an elbow on her knee — but she was much too covered in wet blood to assume the pose properly. Her elbow slipped from her knee and she whacked herself in the face with the back of her own hand, overbalancing and nearly toppling forward out of her sphere-machine.

“Tch!” she tutted and huffed at the fumble.

“Serves you right.” I snorted out a bitter little laugh. “And you’re wrong. Sevens did not set up anything.”

Saldis recovered her bruised dignity by clearing her throat and gesturing down at her own nude glory, dark skin still steaming with fresh blood. “I really must get dressed. This news is the most exciting courtly development in over fifty years and I’ve completely lost any sense of decorum, but can you blame me?”

“You don’t have a sense of decorum. You are being an absolute … stirrer.”

“Excuse me?” Saldis blinked at me with bewilderment.

“A shit-stirrer,” I enunciated with great care, doing my best Evelyn-impression scowl, then hiccuped loudly enough to pierce the silence of the library for a split second. Swearing made me feel like a very bad girl indeed, even though I’d learnt that particular word from Raine.

I even glanced back over my shoulder at the forest-knight, still standing behind me in a pose of relaxed readiness, his axe slung over one shoulder. I felt as if I should apologise for my foul language, but the knight did not appear to care. He just did his self-appointed duty, standing by on guard.

Saldis wiggled her bottom in her seat, lips pursed as if to hold back a laugh. “Guilty as charged, but I am also correct. And being right is worth any amount of stirring. Oooh, what a delightful phrase; shit-stirrer. I believe I shall add it to my list of titles.”

I shook my head, as much at myself as at Saldis, along with this ridiculous notion she was peddling. “Look, I don’t have time for this. Saldis, I’m here because I need your help, because I’m in the middle of a crisis, an emergency. A much more pressing emergency than fictitious marriage proposals from Outsider godling daughters.”

Saldis raised her eyebrows in polite interest, so I went on.

“I’m stuck. Stuck Outside, because something is preventing me from returning home — an intelligence, a purpose. It manifests as hands that grab my ankles when I try to leave, but they’re not literally hands, that’s just … interpretation. I think it might be the remains of a mage I killed once, but I don’t know. And I need to find Lozzie first — do you remember her?” Saldis nodded, though slightly detached, with forced politeness. “And I need to get her out too, because the same force is probably going to hold her back when she tries to return home. But I don’t know what Outside dimension she’s gone to. I need help to … break the hands, defeat them, I don’t know.”

Saldis waited a beat, then dipped her head in po-faced acknowledgement. “You are trapped on this branch, this bough, here, in Carcosa?”

“No, not just here,” I sighed with exhaustion as I rounded on the problem again. “I can move from dimension to dimension, Outside, but not back to Earth. Whenever I try, it’s like hands gripping at my ankles. I can’t beat them because it happens in the space between, the membrane, the gap, I can’t do things there.”

Saldis pulled a real heavy pinch of a frown, squinted her eyes and wrinkled her nose, the complete works, as if I was talking distasteful nonsense. She wet her lips, taking a tiny taste of the blood all over her skin, then slowly raised one hand. I braced for magic, for her unique and bizarre flesh-splitting physical incantation.

“I really must get dressed,” she said — and without further warning, her grey sphere-machine began to fold shut, the exterior blocks sliding over each other and back into place. “A moment, please, Lady Morell,” she said as the machine closed around her like a Venus fly trap.

The grey surface slid shut without a sound. All of a sudden I was alone in the Library of Carcosa once more. Alone with Lozzie’s knight at my back. Alone with my thoughts.

I let out a huge sigh and rubbed the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes shut to avert an onrushing stress headache. I was very, very hungry, despite the bioreactor purring away in my gut to supply me with raw energy. My legs were tired enough that two of my tentacles had wrapped around them to act as braces against the floorboards, like a pneuma-somatic powered exoskeleton. I might have been more adapted to survive Outside than ever before, but I still needed food and water, rest and warmth, and eventually a shower and some sleep. Human or not, my core was still flesh and my brain was still meat.

Before I could stop myself, my fingers twitched to pull Sevens’ cloak tighter around my shoulders, to instinctively wrap myself in comfort’s warm embrace.

“Oh, tch,” I tutted when I realised, blushing bright red. I wrapped a tentacle around my shoulders instead. “A marriage proposal, really. Ridiculous. Absurd notion.”

Clearly my subconscious did not agree. One hand tried to smooth my hair down, raking it into a semblance of order, while the other straightened my pink hoodie, then wavered when I realised I couldn’t do anything about the nosebleed stains I’d wiped all over my right sleeve.

Face still burning red and with a guilty barb in my chest, I glanced around the little clearing of bookshelves, trying not to look at the impossible tapestry in the middle. But it wasn’t Outside physics making my stomach churn and my palms sweat. I half-expected to see a white mask peeking around a corner to watch me with shy interest, like a timid character from one of Evelyn’s more irritating anime shows. I even checked behind the forest-patterned knight, but there was no embarrassed mass of yellow on the other side of him either.

“Tell me if you see her, okay?” I asked him. His helmet went up and down in a neat, covert nod.

I filled my lungs, placed a hand over my fluttering heart, and — cursing myself for a romantic fool — called out to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

“Sevens? Sevens, I don’t care what you’ve done or not done, or what it means or doesn’t mean. I just need help getting home. I don’t know what’s happening to Raine, or Evee, or anybody else. I’m terrified and barely holding myself together, and you must know that. You care about my drama, my story, don’t you? Well if I can’t get home, it ends here. Outside. Alone.”

I kept my eyes peeled for a whisper of dawn-break gold, a hint of warm honey on the air, or a butterscotch flutter behind a bookcase. But none came.

A moment later, Saldis’ sphere-machine slid open again like an otherworldly egg disgorging a live parrot with rampant plumage of red and gold. The grey blocks slid back to reveal Saldis cleaned of her gruesome layer of steaming blood and clad in a thick-spun red dress, from chin to toes, showing almost no skin except her face and hands.

It wasn’t the same dress she’d worn the first time we’d met her — this was much flashier. A truly massive amount of gold thread was woven into the fabric, in an ostentatious design that showed a rearing snake-dragon against a field of stars, with a vanquished wolf beneath its coils. A golden raven was inlaid on either shoulder, as if whispering up into her ears. She wore a dozen heavy necklaces with gold pendants, some with triple-triangle interlocking designs, some with little inverted hammers, others with trees or boars, and one that had no pendant but instead a runic inscription in what I assumed was Old Norse. Her fingers glittered with rings and her wrists jangled with gold bangles as she leaned back in her seat and tossed one leg over the other.

In her lap lay a trio of massive black rats, half asleep with their little eyes heavily lidded, all curled up against each other and looking very comfortable indeed, as if they’d been napping there for hours. They were the healthiest rats I’d ever seen, glossy-furred and sleek and perfectly groomed, but each one must have weighed almost two pounds, more than enough to make the boldest cat think twice. Somehow I doubted they were earthly rats at all, not really. Saldis lowered a hand to pet one of them along its spine.

I blinked at her in surprise. She must have caught the look on my face.

“Flaunt it if you got it,” she said with a satisfied smile, then frowned. “Oh dear. Oh, that is just crass. But I suppose I do ‘got it’. Don’t think your mantle is so impressive that I can’t match up in my own way.”

I didn’t have to exert effort to scowl that time. “Saldis, this is not a catwalk contest. I can’t even see this.” I tried to pluck at Sevens’ cloak to make my point.

She smiled with infuriating indulgence and scratched one of her pet rats under the chin. It nuzzled her hand. “So you say, Lady Morell. Have no fear, though, I would never upstage either bride at the event itself. I will keep myself strictly within reasonable bounds.” She suddenly lit up. “That is, assuming you are not going to elope? Oh, how exciting!”

I silently counted to ten, casting about for a conversational — and emotional — handhold. “Where did you get those rats from, anyway?”

She shrugged. “Same place I get everything. Meet Hugstari, Vegdrasill, and Mótsognir.” She touched the three rats in turn, smiling with genuine pride and delight. “They do so love courtly drama, it would be terribly cruel of me to let them miss it unfolding. Now, where were we?”

“I need to get home,” I repeated. “Back to Earth, past the hands. You’re a mage. Can you help me, or not?”

“Mm, yes.” She pulled that same pinched frown from before. “You want to go back to Midgard?” She pronounced the word with exaggerated care, as if it was a foreign object in her mouth, with sharp edges and pointy bits. She wet her lips and tried again. “Midgard. Midgard. Hmm. Your rather … interesting language, shall we say, doesn’t appear to have a suitable concept to hand, let alone an actual word. I’m defaulting.” She pulled a mock-embarrassed grimace. “Midgard, then?”

I nodded. I knew enough basic Norse mythology to recognise the term. She meant Earth, whatever word she used for it, the place where humans lived. “Yes. Can you help?”

Her grimace widened, pained around the eyes. “Oh, certainly, but I have current conditions to consider.”

“If it’s a matter of reciprocation, I will do any—”

“No no no.” She flapped a hand, genuinely flustered. “I would not dream of expecting such, Lady Morell.” She must have understood my raised eyebrow of disbelief, because she waved her hand in a little circle of surrender. “I would not dream of expecting it from you as you are right now. You wear the yellow. Betrothed or not, presumptive or consummated, one does not make demands of a member of the Yellow King’s family.”

My cheeks burned with unspoken denial. “ … okay, so why not help me?”

“I would be stepping on toes. You should ask your fiancee for help first.”

I looked away with growing discomfort and cleared my throat, trying to avoid the inevitable. “I’ve tried,” I murmured.

“Lady Morell?”

I huffed and forced myself to speak up. “I’ve tried and she’s not answering me. Or she’s not even here. I haven’t seen anything of Sevens since she gifted me the cloak. She hasn’t shown her face, not once.”

Saldis lit up like a child presented with a bucket of luxury ice cream. She emitted a small, strangled squeal of delight, contorting her lips to prevent a grin, but could not resist the urge to clap her hands together beneath her chin. I shot her quite a glare, the best I could muster under the circumstances, powered as much by growing headache and hunger as by embarrassment and exasperation.

“Don’t,” I said.

“But it’s so obvious!” She threw her hands wide. “Oh, oh, she’s shy, she’s a fool in love, her heart cannot take it! She must be here, must be watching right now, too afraid to come out.” Saldis put her fingertips to her mouth, eyes shining with a sheen of dramatic tears as she glanced out of the opening of her sphere-machine, at the bookcases all around, looking for the same evidence of a hidden watcher as I had done. “I did not know, I did not know! I have a front row seat, right here, to the greatest confession scene I am ever likely to witness. How did the beginning of it play out? I am dying to know.”

“It’s not a marriage proposal!” I exploded at her. “No, you must be misinterpreting this. Or you’re messing with me.”

Saldis put her hand over her heart. “By the fire at the centre of creation, I am not teasing you, Lady Morell.”

I threw my hands — and tentacles — up in utter exasperation. Words burst from me, unplanned and uncontrolled, the truth of my feelings. “I just can’t believe it, I can’t. It’s nonsense. I am hardly a catch. Look at me. I’m covered in my own blood and I stink of vomit. I am an absolute nightmare, my life is a mess, I’m half abyssal squid — and that’s when I’m feeling good about myself — and I’m on a collision course with an Outsider God that I still don’t know how to beat. I’m weird and ugly and I don’t fully expect to make it through the next year. I’m going to end up dead if I don’t get everything right. I’m not exactly a lot of fun, either.”

“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight clearly disagrees with your self-assessment,” said Saldis.

A sense of deja vu crept over me. I’d been here before, in another secluded spot, running down the list of my faults and failures in front of another suitor who I’d judged worthy of so much more than scrawny little disaster Heather Morell. Blushing, flushed in the face, deeply self-conscious of my messy clothes and unwashed hair, I risked another glance at the corners of the bookcases and the dark nooks between rows; I’d just realised I wasn’t really arguing with Saldis at all.

She was right about one thing — Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight probably was observing. I was talking to her.

“And … and Sevens is so … ” I murmured.

Mad thoughts stampeded through my head. If I accepted, if I said yes — no, that, was absurd. I dialled back: if I acknowledged Sevens’ feelings — if not a bloody marriage proposal — what would that mean? My imagination summoned an image of Sevens-as-me, leaning in close for a kiss. I rejected that with instinctive revulsion, it would be too much like kissing the memory of Maisie. Could she appear as Raine instead? That would be even worse, a horrible falsehood, almost a betrayal. Unless Raine agreed — no, no; I physically shook my head, that was too weird.

Or would she appear as herself? Her true self, the beautiful marine-form of infinite buttermilk ruffles and trailing tendrils of young fire, the canary flesh and scent of fresh lemon.

That thought made my mouth go dry and my heart flutter against my ribs like a caged bird.

“Besides,” I tried to rally by denying it out loud. “I’m taken, twice over. I have enough difficulty just with Raine, let alone Zheng too, and that’s hardly resolved as it is. My love life is complex enough when I’m already living in a polyamorous triangle where the other two angles of said triangle still want to have a no-holds barred fistfight. And I don’t even have sex with Zheng, yet. If ever. My life is complex enough as it is.”

Saldis blinked at me quite hard, struggling to suppress a disbelieving smirk.

“What?” I snapped.

“Goodness, Lady Morell. And you wonder why Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight might possibly be interested in you?”

“Yes, fine! As a protagonist in one of her plays! Not as a … partner.” I struggled with the word, blushing heavily. I tried to cast my mind back to when Sevens had saved me from slipping into the abyss, when I’d been clawing my way back to the submarine shore of bare rock and she’d reached down and lifted me up. She’d told me about the principle of building an anchor for myself, and how she could not intervene a second time because that was not in her nature. It was not what she was.

“That’s not how she works,” I said out loud. “That’s not what she is. She made that very clear to me, once. She doesn’t get involved, it’s counter to her nature, or something.”

Saldis shrugged an eloquent, rolling shrug. “What can change the nature of a woman?”

I rolled my eyes in exasperated surrender, but then my heart went cold with realisation. I had changed Sevens. I’d made her involve herself, to save me, not just that once, but then a second time, in front of the Eye. She’d helped, been burned for her trouble, been wounded and grown tearful, and then gifted me a piece of herself. A piece of her heart?

“And think how rare it must be,” Saldis prattled on while I was busy having an emotional crisis, “for one such as her to encounter anything remotely like a suitable match, one of the same sophistication and ability, let alone the same social station. Adopted or not, Lady Morell, you are a sort of princess too. Or had you forgotten that?”

I cleared my throat. “I am decidedly anti-monarchist, thank you very much.”

“Oh dear. Well, I couldn’t agree more, personally. I’ve done a spot of regicide myself, though rather a long time ago now.” She lowered her voice to a silly stage-whisper. “But don’t let your father-in-law-to-be hear you saying that.” Saldis wiggled her eyebrows meaningfully, then seemed to rethink her words and tapped her chin with one long-nailed finger. “ … or maybe you should, considering his reported exploits. He might approve of a little neck-cutting here and there. Hmmm.”

My glare was faltering, but Saldis humoured me by putting her hands up in teasing mock-surrender.

“This is all academic, anyway,” I said. “If she can’t or won’t help me, I still need to get out of here. I still need to find Lozzie. I don’t have time for this drama. Will you help or—”

Clank.

Lozzie’s forest-pattern knight made a sound of metal-on-metal by adjusting the axe it held over one shoulder. I instantly whipped around, tentacles whirling.

“Sevens?!”

The knight held one hand outstretched, gauntlet curled to point index finger straight at a bookcase.

Hardback spines in browns and blacks and worryingly pale shades of soft leather, punctuated by crumbling pages of ancient grimoires that had lost their bindings, and those few bound in more esoteric materials — girded with bone or wrapped in steel or plated with ancient wood. A jumble of tomes and texts and not a Sevens in sight, not peering around a corner or over the top of the bookcase, nor hiding in the implausibly narrow gaps between the tops of the books and the underside of each shelf.

Then, as I dragged my gaze away, she coalesced in the periphery of my vision, among the chaos of the books themselves.

The ragged spines and dog-eared corners and buckled covers conspired to form an outline of yellow, like an optical illusion or magic-eye picture rising from the chaos. A suggestion of shape burst into life — a petite female figure wrapped in wind-swept robes, peeking around the edge of a low wall, shy and coquettish, backed by sun-baked dunes. The image existed only in the precise angle at which one looked at the rows of books.

I flinched in surprise, but that hid the optical illusion from my sight, returning the bookcases to just visual noise. Squinting, blinking, I caught only scraps, and saw that she was moving, that she had recoiled with the shock of being spotted, though the shift in image was generated purely by the new position I had adopted. The books themselves had not changed, neither had the light; nothing had moved, yet as my perspective shifted so did this furtive pretender.

Six months ago, such an impossible effect would have sent me into screaming confusion, but now I adapted.

Quickly, using all my powers of pneuma-somatic body-modification, I formed tiny screws of extra muscle behind my eyes and forced them to unfocus, grimacing through the sudden pain.

And there she was. Seven-Shades-of-Desert-Sprite, fleeing across the sands. She leapt to the next bookcase in the row like a painting come to life and jumping from frame to frame.

“Sevens!” I cried, outraged as much as I was surprised. “Don’t run away!”

I lashed out with a tentacle to catch her by an ankle, but of course I only knocked books off a shelf. Inside the magic-eye image, Sevens stumbled over a sudden pit in the sand dug by my fumble. She recovered with a little hop that made my heart skip.

“Where? Where? I don’t see a thing!” Saldis was squawking from behind me, utterly inconsolable that she was missing the action.

Seven’s run reached the end of the row of bookcases, where a chasm of eight or nine feet separated her from another camouflaging canvas of book spines. I thought she might slip around the corner or vanish — but she hit the edge of the books and exploded into real space, the illusion shattering in a whipping flurry of thick yellow silk that seemed to pour from nowhere.

For a fleeting moment, that yellow silk wrapped around a petite female figure, or took the shape of one, as if caught on an invisible human outline in a gale of wind. She was glancing back over her shoulder at me, caught in a frozen moment of flight, facial features nothing but folds of fabric.

Behind me, Saldis gasped in awe.

Then the silk whipped away in the grip of a hurricane, vanishing behind the bookcases, leaving nothing but empty space.

“Sevens!” I snapped, hurrying across the floorboards and skidding to a halt, grabbing a bookcase with my tentacles to spin myself around and after the fleeing yellow fabric.

But the row beyond was empty. Silence and shadows and marching volumes greeted me; a couple of squid-faced librarians shuffled about in the middle distance.

“Oh for crying out loud, Sevens,” I said. I couldn’t help myself, red in the face with both embarrassment and anger. “Now is not the time to play at being a shrinking violet. Come out. Right this instant.”

No butter-soft fingers curled around the corner of a bookcase.

“We can … Sevens, if you come and talk to me, we can talk about what this means. We can talk, right now, and I will … I will give you an answer. If you come out right now. I promise. Last chance.”

No sunburst eye lit up in the shadows.

“For pity’s sake, Sevens. My friends, my … family might be in trouble, back in reality. The hands trapping me here might be part of a plan. If something happens to Raine, or Evee, or anybody else, I won’t ever be able to forgive you for not helping me.”

No lock of flaxen hair floated among the shelves. Sevens was well and truly hiding.

“Oh, oh dear, oh dear me,” Saldis was cooing back in the clearing, rather uselessly. “Mótsognir, you’re up, little one. Off you go now. Be swift.”

Little ratty claws skittered across the floorboards and one of the three massive black rats slipped between my feet to skitter off down the row of bookcases, sniffing and snuffling like a bloodhound. He ran in a circle, pointed his nose in the air, then slipped off around a corner. The sound of tiny claws was soon swallowed up in the thickly cloying silence of the library.

I turned to Saldis, wide-eyed with surprise. She was petting the other two rats.

“How is he supposed to get far in this place?” I asked. “He’s big, but not that big.”

Dvergar have their own paths through the great trunk,” she purred, pulling a smugly enigmatic smile. “More importantly, Lady Morell, I think it’s safe to assume that your friends and companions back in Midgard are perfectly untouched by whatever mysterious malicious forces you’re worried about.”

I hardly heard her, glancing off down the row of bookcases again, pursing my lips in irritation at Sevens. I huffed and stomped back into the clearing, back to Saldis and the forest-knight.

“What makes you so confident about that?” I demanded, still scowling through my blush.

“If her fiancee’s comrades were in dire danger, surely Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight would overcome her fear and help you ride to their rescue. Why, it’s a perfect tale, a perfect performance. You think she would pass that up?”

“ … I suppose you have a point.” I wrapped a tentacle around my stomach again, trying to still the roiling anxiety in my guts. “Still. Fiancee.” I shook my head.

“You still doubt—”

“Not after that.” I tutted. “An Outsider godling, behaving like a fourteen-year-old with a crush. Really! She won’t even confront me, this is absurd. I don’t need this right now, I need help.”

Saldis fluttered her eyelashes. “A maiden’s heart is such a delicate thing.”

“And yellow is also a synonym for coward.”

I cast my blushing scowl over the bookcases and spines and the shadows between the rows, over the wooden floorboards and the underside of the next floor up, the glowglobes and the dust-thick library air. Sevens was still watching, I was certain of it, and a spiteful, wounded part of me hoped she’d heard me question her courage.

“Oh, oh,” Saldis was in full dramatic flow. “You cast a spear at her heart, Lady Morell! I never knew you were such a cruel woman.”

“Stop it, please,” I sighed.

But Saldis wasn’t entirely wrong; I was being cruel. Even in the height of crisis, I was forced to consider the possibility that Sevens really had gifted me the cloak purely as protection against the Eye — but that it was also a symbol of marriage proposal at the same time. Both things could be true, and she was deeply embarrassed at the unavoidable implication, or at the revealed truth. But none of that excused her reaction right then.

If any other woman in my life, in any other circumstances, had been forced into this conclusion with me, I would have been reduced to a flustered and flattered mess, whatever I thought of her and whether it ended in mutual agreement to never speak of it again, or in something more heartfelt. But Lozzie was in trouble, I was stuck Outside, and I did not know what was happening back home. Ruthlessness prevailed.

I was also forced to confront the opposite possibility; what if Sevens had planned all of this? What if I was dancing on her stage?

If she wouldn’t face me, I couldn’t answer any of those questions. I had to stay focused.

Saldis prattled on.

“—but if she declines the meeting, it can only mean she is waiting for the right moment. No! The perfect moment—”

“Saldis,” I said, pulling my hoodie tighter around my shoulders, raising my chin, and tucking in my tentacles. “Saldis, forget Sevens. Can you help me get home or not? Can you help me defeat the dead hands, with magic?”

Saldis stopped mid-word, rather unimpressed, then sighed and shrugged. She sat back, waved a bored hand, and concentrated on petting the pair of rats left in her lap. “Oh, I suppose so. It’s a bit pedestrian, but I don’t see why not, other than the risk of stepping on the toes of a Pretender’s plan. But I suppose I must be part of the plan too? Perhaps! In any case, go ahead, show me.” She waved vaguely in my direction.

“Show you?”

“Yes. Of course. I need first-hand experience of the phenomenon that’s troubling you.” She raised a rat up on one palm to make eye-level contact with him, then made a saccharine kissy-faces at the rodent. “Even I’m not skilled enough to fix a problem blind. Show me, please.”

“It’s … well, it’s not something that happens in real space, it’s … oh,” I sighed. “I suppose you can see the cloak, so maybe you can see that too.”

Saldis caught my eye with a tiny smirk and patted the inside of her sphere-machine. “Do not forget that I am not my five senses, little Englisher. You’ve gained some fancy limbs and more than a touch of royal favour, but I’ve been around a lot longer than you.”

Somehow, her smile, her confidence, was the exact balm I needed in that moment; Saldis would get me home. She was awful and irritating, but she could do this for me. Even if this was Alexander holding me back, Saldis was older and wiser and stronger. She would know how to snap his wrists. I’d owe her — perhaps owe her a good word with Sevens, but all that could be dealt with later, after I was home or had found Lozzie or had burned the dead hands down into ash.

“All right,” I said, taking a deep breath and steeling myself for the pain. “I didn’t want to have to do this again, but all right. Watch closely.”

“Have no fear, Lady Morell. My eyes are peeled.”

I handed my Outsider-squid skull to the forest-knight, wrapped myself with my tentacles to brace for the inevitable return, and closed my eyes.

The equation was second nature by then, a click of my fingers, a flick of the wrist, like taking a hop across a barrier that was becoming progressively thinner with every transition.

Out.

Cold hands closed around my ankles.

==

The membrane spat me back out in a welter of blood and pain and disorientation. This time I had expected that same result and readied myself, tentacles braced and hugging me tight to keep me on my feet. But even with the forest-knight placing one metal hand against the small of my back, I still staggered and sagged, bent double as I spat strings of bile onto the library floorboards.

My stomach felt like a void. I was so hungry.

“Uuuurghhhh … ” I groaned, wiping nosebleed all over my pink sleeve and waiting for my vision to stop throbbing black at the edges. “Sevens, if you’re really in love with me, can’t you at least spare me from more of this?”

My whispered plea received no reply. I grumbled some more and spat on the floor and finally managed to pull myself upright, leaning against the knight.

Saldis was staring at me like she’d seen a ghost. She’d actually gone pale with fright, a condition I’d believed she was incapable of. She was cuddling the rats in her lap as if to shelter them.

“Saldis?” I croaked, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, feeling like some kind of filthy vomit goblin.

“I don’t think I can help you, Lady Morell,” she said, voice oddly hushed.

“What?”

She shook her head, swallowed with awkward delicacy, and seemed to come round somewhat. “This is no mere draugr at your heels, my Lady. This is vengeance. What in all creation did you do to attract this sort of anger?”

“I murdered a mage and destroyed his life’s work,” I told her — not without a hint of pride, which instantly made me feel sick with guilt.

“Well,” Saldis sighed. “I cannot help you with this.”

“Can’t or won’t?” I grunted, trying to ignore the crushing pressure on my chest again, trying to keep my head clear. If she couldn’t help me, I was truly stuck.

“Can’t!” She lit up with a smile, though intensely awkward even on her laugh-lined face. “Those who keep going after they lose their bodies are nought but spite and regret, an old form of magic indeed, and not to be countered with mere skill. You cannot fight such a thing with anger and revulsion, either, because yours will never match their own. The only way out is, well … ” She cleared her throat and grimaced. “One must lay the dead to rest. Apologise and forgive.”

“Forgive?” I hissed. “Absolutely—”

“And you have to mean it. Saying sorry in a contrite tone is not good enough.”

I shook my head, wracked with painful aftershock. The forest-knight handed me my squid-mask and I almost slipped it on without thinking, but then hugged it tight instead, like a protective talisman. “I think forgiveness rather out of the question. I don’t think I’m capable of that, not in this case.”

“Quite.” Saldis sighed. “The man in question is dead, you are not dealing with him, but forgiveness is not the easy path. If it was, more would take it and none would sing of revenge. Nevertheless, you cannot hate forever, little Englisher. It eats you inside.”

I sighed and felt my shoulders slump. Apologise and forgive? Give me a few months, less of a crisis, and a good therapist or two — for Lozzie as well — and perhaps I would be able to approach the concept of forgiving Alexander Lilburne, maybe, from a distance, after Zheng had defiled his grave and cracked his bones.

“He killed children,” I said, and surprised myself with the choke in my voice. “He hurt his own sister, my friend. I can’t.”

Saldis nodded and gave me a sad smile. “Yes, it is hard to forgive monsters. That is why this is so effective.”

“At least I know it must be him now,” I muttered, then took a deep breath and tried to put him from my mind. “You really can’t help me fight the hands off? Hurt them, make them stop?”

Saldis shook her head.

A lump formed in my throat once again. I was trapped and Lozzie was trapped. I groped for anything, any handhold I could find. There had to be another way back, another way across the membrane. I sagged back on my tentacles, using them like extra legs against the floorboards, badly wanting to sit down, lie down, close my eyes and curl up in a ball and slip off to sleep.

“Saldis, how did you get here? Originally, I mean? You came from Earth — from Midgard, didn’t you?”

Saldis blinked at me with polite surprise. “Why, I climbed down Yggdrasil, of course.”

I frowned at her through sandy eyes. “ … the … world tree of Norse mythology? What does that mean?”

Saldis shrugged and leaned back inside her machine. One of her rats rolled over in her lap. “I climbed down the trunk, across the roots, and then went wherever I wished. Of course, I couldn’t have done it like this,” she gestured at herself, at her flesh and bone body.

“Wait, you mean this literally? You climbed down a giant tree? The ‘world tree’?”

She frowned at me. “Yes? What else would I mean?”

“But you said you’ve never met a god? The gods, in general? How can the tree … ”

Saldis laughed with genuine amusement. “Just because the gods do not exist does not mean Yggdrasil doesn’t. What a silly notion.”

I shook my head. “We have completely different cultural contexts. You mean there is a place, a real, physical place you can climb up some giant roots and return to … Midgard?”

“Of course.” Saldis looked me up and down quickly and cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t attempt it as you are though. No amount of royal favour and no number of extra limbs would help you survive that climb. You’d be eaten before you got a hundred feet up the roots.”

“I have a feeling that you and I would see very different things if we both looked at Yggdrasil.”

Saldis pulled a mildly offended face. “Well, if you say so.”

“It might be my only choice though, I have to try. Even if it’s dangerous.” I curled up around my stomach, aching with hunger and a desire for sleep. “Saldis, do you have anything to eat? Any food?”

I hated to imagine what she might produce as ‘food’, but I was too hungry to care.

But then, Saldis clicked her fingers and lit up with a grin.

“Why not go to the palace?” she asked, bright and cheery, like this was the obvious solution we’d been missing all along. She scratched one of her rats behind the ears with delight.

“The … the what? I’m sorry?”

“The palace, the palace! You’re already here in Carcosa, it’s hardly that much of a trip.” She gestured into the effective infinity of the library. “Certainly quicker than a journey up Yggdrasil. Out the front of the library, past the lake of Hali, and there you have it. You’ll certainly get an odd reception with that mantle about your shoulders, but it’ll be a safe one. The courtiers and servants would never dare risk affront by laying hands on the betrothed of one of the King’s own family, though they will tease and play games.” She drew in a breath between her teeth. “Though the same cannot be said of the family itself. You would be walking a gauntlet of attention from siblings and cousins and aunts, some of them quite spiteful. I could come with you, though I will have to button up if we encounter … questions.” She smiled. “And they will have plenty of food.”

My hands and guts had both gone cold. “Saldis, what are you suggesting?”

“Go ask your future father-in-law for assistance. Go see the King in Yellow.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.10

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Cold as an empty grave and strong as granite, dead hands closed around the delicate bones of my ankles until talus and tibia creaked under pressure; I was held fast, neither in reality nor Outside, neither back home in Sharrowford nor stranded on the quiet plain.

I wanted to scream, but could not. I wanted to thrash and kick and spit, but could not. I wanted to reach down with tentacle and claw and extrude specialised cutting tools and rip the hands off at their own wrists, but could not.

Could not do. Could not act. Could not even think.

I was stuck neither here nor there, but nowhere at all. Inside the membrane, in the transitional state, caught in the act of translocation.

It was both a single moment and also eternity, because time did not mean anything in the between-space. This was not the abyss — if the dead hands had dragged me down there, I could have turned on them like a cornered fox and torn them apart with beautiful truth. But this was merely the cell wall, the space between one state and the other, the phase transition; in itself it meant nothing, was nothing, could produce and harbour and be nothing.

I was stuck there, and yet I did not exist there.

It was like being suffocated.

And then I rubber-banded back out, because vacuum abhors presence.

==

I crashed back Outside squealing and spluttering like a dying pig.

The soft yellow grass of the quiet plain rushed up to meet me as my knees gave out. I dropped the blue plastic bucket and the beautiful Outsider-cephalopod skull, gripped by full-body rejection of what I’d just experienced. Shivering as if in the claws of a fever, I managed to stay on my hands and knees, sagging and moaning, body drenched from head to toe in cold sweat. My vision throbbed black and red, head pounding like a struck gong. My six tentacles braced against the ground as well, and I would have collapsed without their support, though I lost control of my stomach. I vomited in the kind of way I hadn’t for months. Disgust and panic and physical revulsion brought up bile and acid — laced with a surprising amount of blood.

For a long time — several minutes, not the mere subjective time-torture of fear and pain — all I could do was stare at the puddle of my own sick and force wheezing breaths into my fluttering lungs, arms and legs quivering as if I’d run for miles. My head span, my vision was blurry. The crude chemical factory of my poor, abused ape body needed time to adjust to the shock.

Eventually I summoned the presence of mind to feed that chemical factory. I slid another control rod a quarter out of the bioreactor in my abdomen, flushing my body with energy. But no equilibrium came. Blood-tainted sweat dripped from my nose.

“ … what … what on earth—”

But I wasn’t on Earth. The word stuck in my throat.

“Ignore it. Ignore it, Heather,” I hissed to myself, then choked, almost vomiting again. “You have to ignore it. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. Can’t stay like this. Can’t. Come on, get up, get up. Raine’s waiting for you, get up.”

That got me moving, though only enough to crawl clear of the vomit puddle and flop onto my back on the yellow grass.

Panting, dazed, trying to fight down the mounting horror, I stared up at the whorled purple sky of this Outside place.

The shaking intensified, spreading to my whole body. I wrung my hands together, trying to quite literally get a grip on myself. My tentacles tried to help, wrapping around my waist and chest in a self-administered emergency hug. Couldn’t think about what this meant, couldn’t allow that thought to grow; I’d lose control, I’d break down and curl into a ball and never move again.

Instead I sat up, clutching my own ankles to protect them.

“Coward,” I hissed, then hiccuped, then tried again.

The familiar old equation slid down like rose-tinted poison. I span it up at the speed of thought; this time I was ready, tentacles poised, with the toxic knowledge of a dozen other equations waiting at my back, ready to skin and debone and melt and crack.

Out.

Dead hands closed a cold vice around my ankles, right on cue. I reached toward them with pneuma-somatic limb and hyperdimensional mathematics, with all the warning colouration of immanent conflict and the black flags of no mercy and the bleeding eyes of cornered animal savagery. Like before, they should retreat in fear. A coward’s filthy trick is one thing, but fighting on this kind of level is another, and over the last few months I had received what Raine might call a “battlefield baptism” in supernatural struggle. Whatever the hands were, they were not up to a fight, they’d proved that before, they’d run, they’d vanished, they’d declined the duel.

This time, the hands did not flee.

I touched the dead hands, made contact with cold, dry, papery flesh, made ready to rip and tear and break and shred, readying all the tools at the bottom of my subconscious. If they would not yield, I would even drag them down into the abyss.

Hands, hands, I kept thinking of them as hands, but there was no visual information here in the stopped time of hyperdimensional mathematics, no sensory input that was not the desperate interpretation of electrically charged meat, no instinct that was not misapplied savannah ape evolution.

I made contact — and the hands exploded outward into a hundred iterations of themselves.

Fractal expansion of dead flesh and clawing fingers grasped at my own specialised tools, wrapped my blades in boney fingers, dug iron-hard digits into my tentacles; hands, hands, a hundred, then a thousand, flowing over each other like something from one of Raine’s terrible zombie movies she’d tried to show me, a tidal wave of grasping, holding, grabbing and gripping, the very concept of possessing, boiled down to what one may hold tight in one’s own clenched fist. For every finger I ripped off another three appeared from the torn stump; for every wrist I shattered, another two sprouted in its place; for every grip I broke by peeling muscle from bone, another dozen latched on.

If this had happened in reality I would have been screaming my head off; instead, my instinctive reaction screamed dive. Down into the abyss, where this thing would not survive. I would drown it.

But I couldn’t go. I couldn’t leap deeper. The dead hands held me back, like slamming myself against the bonds of a net.

To struggle was pointless, like fighting mold that grew faster than I could tear at it; somehow I knew that the hands could have flowed up and over my face and head if they so chose, that my act of keeping them at bay was futile.

I gave up and crashed back to my own body, groaning and crying and doubling up to vomit again, stomach muscles clenching on nothing but stringy bile. My vision swam and my nose ran freely with blood, dripping down my chin and onto the yellow grass. Wheezing for breath, headache pounding, I dug my fingers into the dry soil as if I could somehow dig my way back to reality.

“No, no no no,” I began to whine through clenched teeth, and wished I hadn’t.

All my worst fears were coming true. I tried to look up at the yellow horizon, but it was blurred through a veil of tears. I started to hyperventilate, a weight pressing on my chest. No amount of bioreactor energy or bodily euphoria could hold this back.

“Lozzie,” I whispered. “Lozzie, come back … Raine? Evee? Zheng? … Maisie?”

The panic attack rolled over me like a breaking storm. Hands shaking, caked in sweat, my breath coming in short, ragged gasps; my heart raced and wouldn’t stop, my chest felt like it was collapsing. I couldn’t do anything but curl up where I sat in sheer unbridled terror. Hiccups interrupted wet, choking sobs. Everything had been so good only minutes before, everything had been okay, but now the walls had closed in.

Outside was never my worst nightmare; getting stuck there was.

I don’t know how long I sat, crying and shaking, hugging myself with my tentacles. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes, shivering and growing cold. I was completely alone. Nobody was coming for me. Not Raine, not Zheng, not any of my friends and comrades and would-be saviours, because I was beyond anybody’s reach out there. Anybody but Lozzie, and she had left with a hop and a skip and a smile on her face.

I had come so far since I’d been a terrified half-alive thing, rotting in my own delusion and exhaustion in the days before Raine had found me. I was armed with hyperdimensional mathematics, a bioreactor in my guts, a living shadow of my abyssal self in summoned tentacles and limitless potential; I was observer and observed, I was the adopted daughter of the Eye, and my shoulders were still wrapped with the yellow cloak from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

But in the end I was still without Maisie. I was incomplete. A half-person, a joke.

And I was alone, trapped Outside.

“I … I can’t … ” I whispered to myself, throat thick and clogged. “Can’t … ”

A shining hand descended into my field of vision; I didn’t have the energy to flinch. I looked up and found one of Lozzie’s knights before me, blurred by tears, half-knelt to offer me a gauntleted hand. I hadn’t even heard the knight approach.

I stared at it for a long moment as my brain caught up.

Not alone.

The panic attack had technically passed, leaving despair and childhood fear in its wake, but all of a sudden I felt like I was waking up from a nightmare. My clothes were stuck to my skin with cold sweat, and I felt terribly weak, but I took a deep, cleansing breath and then accepted the knight’s hand. My own was very small in comparison to the gauntlet of Outsider star-steel, but the metal felt faintly warm as if heated by gentle sunlight. The knight straightened up and easily helped me to my feet.

“ … thank you,” I croaked, then cleared my throat. The knight didn’t respond, just stood as if waiting for orders.

I scrubbed my eyes clear and wiped my bloody nose on my sleeve, but most of the blood had dried. Then I flapped my hoodie and t-shirt, trying to alleviate the physical discomfort of sticky sweat as best I could. I gave myself the time I needed to think. I was experiencing something I never had before — panic had actually burnt itself out. Without an immediate threat, and having passed through the crucible of a panic attack, my mind was — well, not clear, not this deep in ancient trauma. But close enough.

I knew I had to get out of here, one way or another. I was lost, but not permanently. Not yet.

“I could hug you, you know that?” I told the knight, though I didn’t expect a response. I awkwardly patted its metal arm.

The knight who had helped me up was not one of the two that had guarded Lozzie and I during our Outside pub-crawl. This knight did not carry shield and lance like the majority of Lozzie’s knightly order, but held a gigantic single-bladed axe slung over one shoulder, the sort of axe one might use to fight dragons or ogres in a traditional fairy tale. Its armour was accented with little swirls and lines etched into the metal, not unlike floral patterns. When I squinted and peered closer the decoration revealed itself as abstract representation, an optical illusion which brought to mind the depths of a forest seen from the edge of the tree line, filled with secret green places and dripping branches. It didn’t seem like something Lozzie would make. Was this the knight’s own choice?

“So, which member of the round table are you meant to be?” I asked it.

The knight continued staring down at me with that blank-faced helmet, though I knew the hollow inside the helm contained only the end of an anchor-tentacle. I found myself addressing its midsection instead, where I knew the true creature must reside, tucked away in metal and darkness.

“ … oh, oh I am sorry,” I breathed, forcing the absurd words as a ritual of calming, trying to think about anything except what was happening to me. “You are a true knight, you’re not meant to be anything. My apologies.”

The knight dipped its chin in thanks. That was all.

I took a deep breath to further fortify myself and then looked away, first out at the horizon. One of Lozzie’s gigantic caterpillar creatures was still inching along the grassy plains. Its course must have curved closer to us, because it seemed slightly bigger than before, the vertical ribs more easily defined against the off-white of the creature’s massive carapace. I could see little antennas — which must actually have been as tall as a person — sticking up from the front of the caterpillar in a cluster of sensory organs or equipment. Then I looked up into the calming beauty of the whorled and spiralled sky, then finally down at the ground.

“Oh, oops,” I said to myself, and left the knight’s side to retrieve the cephalopod skull I’d dropped. I cradled it in my arms and hugged it to my belly; I would have preferred a pillow, or a friend, but this cold comfort would have to serve.

I looked at the ground again and frowned.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” I asked.

Then, feeling terribly awkward, I cleared my throat and glanced up at the forest-pattern knight.

“Not you, sorry,” I told it. “I was talking to … well … ” I gestured at the ground. Silly really, the physical ground was not actually where the dead hands had come from. But the knight didn’t respond. I think it understood my intent.

I turned back to the ground, talking to nothing.

“It’s you, correct? I can’t think of anybody else who would be stuck between our reality and Outside, disembodied, trying to trap me. You used Lozzie’s needs as bait, didn’t you? You let us come Outside, because she was never your real target. I’m your target. You hate me because I murdered you.”

The ground did not answer. Neither did the sky. I sighed and felt absurd, but I kept going.

“I killed you once, Alexander,” I said, then sighed, blushing even though I was the only one who cared. “And yes, I know it sounds like Raine, it’s like a one-liner she’d say trying to be cool. But it’s true: I will kill you again if I have to. Whatever you are now, you are not beyond my reach.”

Gentle wind, sweet smelling and faintly warm. The feel of my own heartbeat, exhausted by adrenaline. One of my own tentacles squeezing my waist.

No reply.

I let out a final sigh of surrender. “Oh well. Maybe it’s not even him at all. Maybe it’s something else, completely different. What do you think?” I glanced up at the knight, but it declined to offer an opinion. “Yes, my thoughts exactly. Okay, next is step two, let’s see if she’s about.”

I looked up and around and raised my voice. I didn’t need to, but it felt right.

“Sevens?” I called out. My voice echoed away across the quiet plain and died off on the wind. “Sevens, if you’re here, if you’re paying attention, I could really use some help right now. Practical help, you understand? I’m stranded. I’m in very big trouble. Are you here?”

Silence and wind and the knights beneath purple light, but no flicker of sun-kissed gold. If Sevens was listening, she wasn’t willing to step onto the stage. Perhaps subconsciously, I tried to tug at the feeling of her yellow cloak which still hung about my shoulders, invisible and intangible. I hadn’t seen her since she’d gifted me this part of herself. Not even a glimpse. I didn’t know what that meant and I couldn’t help but worry about her.

“She’s a god-like Outsider creature, Heather,” I tutted to myself. “I’m sure she’s fine. You need to concentrate.”

I had to stay logical, had to take practical steps, practical problem-solving steps. I didn’t want to do this, but there was only one logical thing to try next. I glanced up at the axe-carrying knight.

“Do you know how to locate Lozzie?” I asked. I looked back past its elbow, at all the other knights, sitting or standing, frozen in their poses of thought. “Do any of you know?”

None of them responded.

“All right. I’ll take that as a no. Will you consent to come with me, elsewhere?” I asked the forest-etched knight. “I need to experiment, but I don’t want to go alone. I can bring you right back, or at least back to the house, if this works. I promise I won’t abandon you anywhere.”

The knight did not need to nod, it simply raised a single gauntlet and laid it upon my shoulder.

“Ah.” I forced myself to breathe out as butterflies started up in my stomach. I was really going to do this. “I see. You understand what I’m talking about then.” Awkwardly, I laid my own hand over the warm metal gauntlet and added a tentacle just to be sure. “Hold on tight, please. I’m not as good at this as Lozzie is.”

It held on tight.

I span up the equation at the speed of thought and added a slice of the Saye map, the map of all realities, to select an Outside dimension as nonthreatening as possible.

Out.

The quiet plain collapsed in a spinning kaleidoscope.

==

My experiment was not only a miserable failure, it also hurt, a lot. It left me exhausted, even with the limitless energy of my bioreactor thrumming away in the wet red darkness inside my abdomen.

Dead hands — Alexander Lilburne or not — did not try to stop me jumping from the quiet plain to another Outside dimension. Or perhaps they couldn’t.

The knight and I materialised in the snowbound castle that Lozzie had taken me to twice before, in a sort of long gallery open to the elements along one side, affording me a breathtaking view of the deep valley in which the castle sat, filled with gnarled trees and thickly swirling snowflakes beyond the monolithic blocks of stone.

The axe-knight caught me around the belly before I could fall over and vomit my guts out, helping me to retain my feet as my tentacles flailed for purchase and my stomach clenched up hard. My teeth began to chatter within seconds of our arrival. The cold here was like a physical wall. The small signal fires burning at regular intervals along the open gallery did not provide much heat, so I clung to the knight’s front to leach the warmth of its armour.

“Thank you,” I croaked. “Onward and … and out.”

Out, again, to see if the hands could follow me here, if they still barred my way back home when my exit point was a different Outside dimension entirely.

They had.

I found the hands waiting for me at the membrane yet again, like a clever guard dog that had circled around inside a curtain wall.

Reeling, coughing, choking, the knight and I both got rubber-banded back to the snowbound castle together, like a toy boat filled with air exploding from the surface of the bathwater. Simple physics, applied on the scale of universal principle. The knight wasn’t shocked, but it did stagger, clank-clank with those imperishable metal boots against the cold stone of the castle floor. I hung limp in the poor thing’s grip, vomiting and spluttering and heaving for breath with the strain of a third casting out. It was a small miracle I didn’t drop the cephalopod skull again, hugged tight in my tentacles.

“Didn’t— work,” I panted against the metal of the knight’s chest. “Okay, have to go back, go back, have to go back, think, think—”

Familiar old equation like a progressively blunted sword, but it could still tear the gossamer between worlds.

==

Back in the relative warmth of the quiet plain once more, I slumped from the forest-knight’s grip, still shivering from the lingering cold. Curling my freezing toes inside my trainers, I hugged myself and rubbed my arms, even as my head throbbed with pain and I fought off the after effects of another intentional Slip and another shove back by the dead hands.

“Well, here we are again,” I said through chattering teeth.

I couldn’t keep doing this.

The forest-knight resumed a pose of relaxed indifference, axe over one shoulder. I sat down heavily on the grass with the squid skull in my lap, allowing the bioreactor to flood me with slow waves of heat to fight back the cold, with my tentacles acting as insulation. Eventually I stopped shivering, but by then my thoughts were closing in again.

“I’m not alone, I’m not alone,” I whispered, then cleared my throat and raised my voice, trying to make myself sound confident. Who was I kidding? I was talking to myself. “In the worst case scenario,” I said out loud, “I just have to wait for Lozzie. Until tomorrow morning. She’ll go home, back to the house, and then she’ll know I got stuck. Unless the hands try to stop her too … no, no, don’t think that, you can’t think that, you can’t. She’ll go home and … and Evelyn will have to reactivate the gateway, point it here, and … oh, oh God. Oh, Raine. She’s going to be worried sick.”

Understatement of the year. Raine was likely going out of her mind with worry; she couldn’t help, didn’t know where I was. All her daring and confidence did not apply to this problem. For all I knew, Evelyn was already trying to rework the gateway mandala. After all, I’d been gone quite a while. But without Lozzie’s innate knowledge she wouldn’t or couldn’t deduce how to adjust the gateway to connect to this plane of Outside.

“If … if Lozzie is stuck too … or … ” I put the idea together slowly, a lump growing in my throat. “If nobody else can get to me, I’ll have to fight the hands. I should be able to fight the hands. Dammit,” I hissed, “I stared down the Eye, why couldn’t I fight them off?”

Because they were infinitely expanding, a fractal explosion.

“And there’s only one of me. Only six tentacles,” I sighed, answering my own question. I glanced over the knights spread out across the hillsides: there was an idea. But no, however skilled they might be at physical combat, this was hyperdimensional mathematics, or perhaps just plain old magic.

“Lozzie, Lozzie,” I murmured, “please just come back. Just come back. We can beat it together. Surely.”

My breath caught on the lump in my throat. I was out of options, out of places to turn. Not alone, but without the kind of help I needed. If only Evelyn were here, she would know something we could try, some spell or old book to bridge the gap, or if only Sevens was listening, ready to step in — or even if Zheng was by my side. She might not be able to help but she’d put up a good fight all the same.

I needed a mage.

I lit up inside and actually gasped out loud, a true eureka moment. There was one mage I could reach, in theory.

“Oh please, please be where we last saw you, please,” I said through shaking lips, climbing to my feet and grabbing the cephalopod skull again. I turned to the knight. “We’ve got to go somewhere really dangerous. Well, okay, no, I have to go somewhere really dangerous, even for me. Are you willing to—”

The axe-knight placed a metal hand on my shoulder and tilted its helmet.

“ … thank you,” I whispered, then swallowed and found my mouth had gone very dry indeed. “This is going to be difficult, I have to get the exact location we left from. I might be bleeding on the other side, unconscious, dazed, worse, I don’t know. Please catch me. And … right, yes.”

No time to waste.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jammed both hands into the black swamp at the bottom of my soul.

This operation required not only the familiar old equation to force passage through the membrane between worlds, targeted via the indelible memory of the Saye map, but needed me to perform exact translocation with only meters of allowable error. I had to take us to the right spot, a place I’d known only at the height of stress and panic, a place with no real landmarks I could think of, no distinguishing features, just memory and mathematical data. The effort to attain that level of precision might fry my brain.

But I did have the emotions.

One of the most important moments of my life had happened there, the moment I pulled a beloved friend back from the brink. Could emotion be processed into mathematical input? How bleak, how cold. I hated the notion, but it was the truth. Just because we’re all mathematics and brain chemistry in the end does not make our experiences any less valuable.

I built an equation at the speed of thought, piece by exact piece, through the all-too-familiar construct of the intentional Slip and the sickening, impossible directions of the map, then onward into my own memories of cradling Evelyn’s bruised and battered self-worth. I rendered experience down into the raw materials of hyperdimensional mathematics, until I knew the exact spot where it had happened.

Out.

My head flared with blinding pain. I was out cold before reality folded up.

==

The scent of books and dust and aged wood teased me back to consciousness. Those old friends let me know I’d gotten the destination at least half correct.

I groaned and opened blood-gummed eyes and found myself curled into a ball on my side, cold drool pooling on the floorboards next to my slack lips. Bookcases towered in front of me, marching off into the distance, stuffed to overflowing with all manner of volumes in all shapes and sizes, scrolls and leather-bound tomes and things that didn’t seem like books at all, with leaves of metal or ridged spheres with hexagonal openings. Down a row of bookcases I spied grey robes fluttering past, dragged by the shuffling stride of leathery grey feet, on the eternal task of cataloguing and sorting.

A pair of chrome boots stood off to one side of my peripheral vision — the knight, unmoving, facing outward, guarding my unconscious body. I looked up at the helmet and the axe. The knight seemed untouched. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

“ … how long have I been lying here?” I croaked, coughing. My throat was dry, my head thick with sleep, my muscles stiff. The knight did not answer.

Neither did the jumbled deeps of the Library of Carcosa.

When I tried to sit up, I discovered that I’d wrapped myself in my tentacles, like a cat nuzzling into its own tail, or an armadillo or pangolin tucking itself tight within layers of armoured scales. Disentangling myself was like stretching sleep-addled limbs, coupled with the slow-to-wake feeling of the thrumming reactor warming up in my belly. I felt stupid and guilty and disoriented. Oversleeping Outside, how absurd.

I also found the cephalopod skull hugged tight to my stomach, safely brought with us during the transition. Didn’t want to lose Lozzie’s gift.

Eventually I got myself into a sitting position and then clambered to my feet, using the forest-knight’s chrome elbow for support that I didn’t really need. Rubbing the crusted blood out of my eyes and filling my lungs severed to sharpen my senses, but looking around us granted no sense of recognition, no relief.

“Well,” I said to the knight, to myself, to nobody. “We made it, but I don’t know if this is the right spot.”

The Library of Carcosa swallowed the sound of my voice, the quiet itself like a thick, cloying blanket around my head and face.

We had made it to the library, of that there could be no doubt. I’d managed to deposit the knight and myself on a broad concourse of open floorboards which ran parallel to the vast canyon between the two walls of library floors. The dizzying open space yawned wide to our left, separated from us by a mere waist-high banister. The gap was crisscrossed with spindly walkways and creaking bridges. A touch of vertigo made my head swim when I dared glance down at the canyon floor far below, with its drifts and mounds of discarded books. The far wall tempted me to look up at the infinite height, worryingly familiar now — how upsetting, how strange, that an Outside place could seem familiar.

To our right lay the depths of this library floor, rows of bookcases that appeared ordered from the edge, but revealed their bedlam and chaos if you dared peer around a corner. Little stacks of books like balanced rocks lay between the avalanches of dislodged texts. A few squid-faced librarians went about their business in ones and twos, but none of them close to us. Had the imposing presence of Lozzie’s knight kept them away?

I swallowed and blinked and tried to remember — was this the place that Evelyn had almost been taken away by the library’s catalogue system? I glanced up and down the open space between the library stacks and the canyon edge, but there was no sign of my quarry.

If we were in the right place, then all trace of that event had been cleared away. No bizarre macrophage creature down in the canyon below, no scrum of librarians.

And no grey sphere-machine. No Saldis.

“Every part of this library looks the same as all the other parts,” I hissed, frustration and fear rising in my throat like acid reflux. “Oh, what was I thinking? Even if this is the same spot, she would have moved on by now. Why would she stay?”

My shot in the dark had gone wide, my slim hope turning to ash in my hands. My tentacles were restless, curling about the knight’s arm and reaching out to poke at loose books on the nearest shelf, nervous actions to occupy my overtaxed mind. A lump was growing in my throat again, fear returning and clear-headed logic fading fast. Locating Saldis in all the unknown vastness of the Library of Carcosa was almost as daunting as trying to find Lozzie among the infinite alien spheres of Outside.

“ … but she is here,” I said. “We know she’s here. That means … ”

I trailed off as my eyes wandered down the length of the library floor to the nearest squid-faced librarian, currently occupied in a strange re-shelving process with a fallen pile of books. It looked like the work of several days to come. The creature wasn’t going anywhere soon.

“That one.” I glanced up at the axe-knight’s helmet. “Will you follow me? I’ll do my best to protect you out here, but … I can’t do this alone, if I get overwhelmed, I … ”

The knight answered me with a disarmingly human response. It — he, I was starting to think of it as — rolled one shoulder as if limbering up, and adjusted his grip on the massive axe.

“Right. Thank you,” I said, nodding pointlessly. “I’ll have to lead the way. We don’t have Evelyn’s scouting tools, no nuts and bolts to throw ahead of us, so … I’ve got the longest reach. We’re only going fifty feet or so. Step where I step.”

The journey to the squid-faced librarian only took a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours. I inched along, watching for distortions in the air, for discoloured patches of floorboard, or any other tell-tale sign of the anomalies we had previously encountered in the library. Last time we’d had Evelyn’s bag of cloth-wrapped nuts to throw ahead to test our path, but now I simply stretched out a tentacle, feeling the way ahead, trying to still my racing heart with the knowledge that I could regrow the pneuma-somatic flesh if I really had to. The knight followed behind me on surprisingly silent feet, sticking close.

I stopped about six feet from the squid-faced librarian creature. If we had left any ill-will or hard feelings behind when we had departed last time, it didn’t show any. It stayed focused on its task, bending at the waist to pick up books from the fallen pile, feeding each one into its own head like a library return-slot made of sharp spines and writhing grey tentacles. A few seconds passed after it ate each book, and then its raggedy grey robes would twitch with horrible sinuousness, prompting the creature to reach inside the robes and withdraw a book — sometimes the same one, sometimes totally different — before finally slotting the book into the proper place on the shelves.

“Hello,” I raised my voice into a stage-whisper, then rolled my eyes at myself. Now was not the time to stand on library etiquette. Nobody was going to tut and frown at me if I spoke up and made some noise.

Well, I certainly hoped they wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to meet whoever was in charge here.

“Excuse me,” I tried again. “Hello. Hi. Hello? I need, um, assistance. I think that’s what you do. Sometimes.”

The librarian carried on working. I frowned and was about to huff and turn to the knight at my back, but then Lozzie’s own technique surfaced from my memory. I could have kissed her for that.

With one tentacle — after all, I didn’t want to risk brushing the creature with my bare skin — I picked up a single book from the low drift of fallen tomes and held it out to the squid-faced librarian. At first it ignored my offering, but when it finished processing the current book it was on, it didn’t bend down to retrieve another volume. It turned to me instead.

“Here. For you,” I said, feeling terribly awkward. Between the forest-knight and the librarians, I was practically a chatterbox by comparison. “Please take it, and please listen to my request.”

The squid-faced librarian accepted the book in its gnarled grey hands and promptly fed it into its own face, engulfing the book within a second or two.

Then it waited, facing me.

I felt the most sudden and unaccountable urge to take the Outsider cephalopod skull and place it over my head and face, to hide my true identity in front of this tiny, detached appendage of whatever intelligence truly managed the library. With fumbling hands I did exactly that, despite the lack of padding or cushioning for my head. I lowered the mask over my own face. The metallic skull was a little large for the task, and ridges inside dug into my scalp, but it weighed barely anything and the eye sockets lined up perfectly with my own eyes. The sound of my own breathing echoed in my ears, but I felt safe and secure. Shielded.

“Saldis,” I said out loud. The mask didn’t muffle my voice as much as I’d worried. “Saldis. The mage in the grey sphere. She’s not part of your catalogue, but I bet you know where she is. Saldis. Show me where she is. Please.”

For a second, the squid-faced librarian did not respond. My heart pounded in my own chest with anticipation of failure. But then out whirled one of its arms, to point off down the clear concourse.

“Take me,” I said.

The squid turned, abandoned its task, and led the way.

“Well, here we go then,” I said to the knight behind me. “I hope you like walking.”

My stomach was clenched into a tight knot of anxiety, but I picked up my feet to follow the ragged grey robes. What choice did we have? Saldis could be very far away indeed; we might be about to walk for hours and hours through the mad labyrinth of the library. I needed food and water. Could my bioreactor compensate for those? Worry set in quickly, but I had to keep going. There was no way back.

==

To my incredible relief, Saldis turned out to not have ventured that far since our last meeting. The squid-faced librarian led us along the wide concourse, then deep into the library stacks themselves, past towering bookcases and shattered wooden floorboards, over mounds of jumbled books and around patches of deep darkness where the glow-globes had failed in times long past. It didn’t once look back to check if we were following, and didn’t respond when I raised my voice to ask it how far away Saldis might be. I gave up after that, settled into a rhythm of walking.

Up a spiral of maddening stairs that seemed to turn back on themselves if one dared look down, across a section of floor populated by lecterns with books chained and bound and roped shut on top of them, past a trio of corpses that looked like dried and shaved gorillas with too many mouths, and then finally deep into the rear of this library floor, almost to the back wall of dark wood.

The journey took almost an hour, but just when I was beginning to despair, the librarian led us into a tiny clearing among the bookcases. The clearing contained a sort of tapestry strung between four poles, covered in tiny script in green ink in a language I didn’t recognise. The text itself was normal enough, but the way the tapestry was hung made my eyes hurt — it was between four poles, but a casual glance made it seem as if it only had two sides, a front and a rear. But there were four poles in a square formation.

Even inside the shelter of the cephalopod skull, I had to blink my watering eyes and look away.

And there was the grey sphere-machine, sitting opposite the tapestry.

“Oh,” I breathed out as relief flooded me. My heart soared and my head felt light. “Oh, thank you. Thank you.”

I glanced around for the librarian, but the creature was already leaving, robes rustling off down a row of bookcases. Probably for the best — I had not forgotten what those things were capable of, in large enough numbers. Best avoid the attention of the library catalogue as long as possible. I looked over my shoulder instead, at the forest-knight.

“This is her,” I told him. “In the sphere. She’s … well, maybe not a friend, but close enough.”

If the knight understood, it did not respond.

I turned back to the sphere. It was no less bizarre than the first time I’d seen the unearthly machine, six feet in diameter and made of thousands of hand-width rectangular prisms, all matte grey and blank and smooth. It was balanced on the floorboards as if given unnatural buoyancy by invisible physical forces, instead of crashing straight through the ground with all its massive weight.

It was also closed.

“ … maybe she’s sleeping,” I murmured. I cleared my throat, straightened my hoodie — absurd habits, I knew — and then reached out with one hand to knock on the sphere, like I was dropping in for an unannounced visit at the flat of an acquaintance, rather than deep Outside and standing before some impossible machinery which I knew contained a person who hadn’t been entirely human in a very long time.

Knock knock knock, three times with my knuckles. Then I cleared my throat again and added, “It’s me, Saldis. Um, Heather Morell?”

I waited. Nothing happened.

“Oh, don’t make me wake you up by getting the knight to hit your silly hamster ball with his axe,” I hissed in barely contained frustration. I was tired from the walk and more than a little hungry, without the patience for her games. “I need help, Saldis. Wake up.”

I gave the sphere an angry thump and skinned a knuckle, then hissed in pain and stuck the hand beneath my mask to suck at the spot I’d grazed.

Then, before I could so much as step back to think, the sphere emitted a ripping, tearing, pulping sound, like meat being pulverised and shredded. I jumped about half a foot in the air, tentacles whirling before memory caught up with me. I’d heard that sound before, back when we’d first met Saldis.

The sphere opened, rectangular prisms sliding back like the petals of a mechanical flower of extreme precision, folding up and back and away to reveal the well-lit interior of the sphere and the soft flowing curves of grey that formed the pilot seat.

“Saldis!” I said in relief.

And there she was, long and slender and neat like a dancer, dark-skinned and gentle-eyed, hair woven into thick masses of braid which fell about her shoulders. Lounging on her comfy seat, she wore an expression half surprised and half bored, blinking slightly with poised and practised interest, as if woken from a pleasant nap by an over-enthusiastic songbird.

Like the first time the sphere had opened, she was completely naked from tip to toe and covered in a steaming layer of crimson blood.

“Oh,” she sighed, rolling her eyes at the ceiling then down at herself. “I am hardly dressed for visitors, you really must give me a moment to ready myself if you’re—”

“I don’t care about that, it doesn’t matter!” I blurted out, though a tiny part of me was very impressed, not only with the sheer fact of Saldis’ nudity — she was remarkably beautiful, even if not my type — but also with how she was completely unselfconscious. She carried herself with the attitude of a queen. “Saldis, I need help!”

“Help, help, yes, of course.” She smiled as she spoke, a teasing crease in the corners of her eyes. She finally looked up at me and winked. “But when you ask for assistance, you usually let the … one … petitioned … ”

She trailed off, eyes widening. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, staring at me.

“Oh, for pity’s sake, it’s me!” I snapped, pulling the cephalopod skull off my head, making a mess of my hair. “It’s Heather. Don’t tell me you don’t remember, or something silly like that. You don’t lose all your memories every time you … ” I nodded at her gore-soaked nudity and whatever unthinkable process that implied.

“No, no no, of course not, don’t be absurd.” She tutted, but her awe did not abate. She wet her lips — tasting blood with a little smack of appreciation — and gestured at me with both hands. “Lady Morell, forgive me, but you have rather changed since I last laid my poor, plebeian eyes upon you.” She paused and pulled a face like she’d bitten into a rotten lemon. “Plebeian, really? Is that the best word you little Englishers have for it? Well, I suppose you’re more than a little Englisher, now. My poor, lowly— oh no, no that won’t do. My mere gaze?” She experimented with a flourish of one hand, then tutted and waved it away like a bad smell.

“I know,” I said, raising one tentacle. “But I can tell you all about the pneuma-somatic additions later. Right now, I need help. I’m stuck and—”

“What?” Saldis squinted at me like I was an idiot. “No, I don’t mean your arms, Lady Morell. I mean, well, should I be addressing you differently? I know I have a reputation to uphold as a deliciously cheeky and dangerously illegal woman, but I do owe you at least a modicum of proper respect.” She gestured at me, up and down. “Especially if your raiment came from where I suspect it did.”

I boggled at her. “I never asked you to call me Lady in the first place.”

She brightened with a hesitant smile — I suspected the hesitancy was an act, but the smile was real. “Ah, yes, we are on first name terms, are we not? Delightful! I suppose that means you might be willing to introduce me to your … well, as I said, should I be addressing you differently?”

“Saldis, what are you talking about?”

She gestured at me again, pulling a perplexed expression, as if it was obvious. “You have donned the purple. Or the yellow.” She laughed, a bubbly, relaxed sound. “Same thing! I assume it was from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Oh what am I saying, of course it was, who else would you have met?”

I blinked at her, dumbfounded, and finally realised what she meant — she could see the yellow cloak Sevens had gifted to me. I tried to draw it tighter, to rub the fabric between my fingers, but it proved as intangible as always.

“You mean you can see the … ?”

But Saldis wasn’t listening. She rattled on. “You must tell me everything, I am all ears and a terrible gossip, though I promise my lips are sealed. Oh, this is delightful. Have you had some kind of ceremony yet, or is this only a betrothal?”

My eyes went wide. My mouth opened but no sound came out.

Saldis came up short too, then curled her lips in a wicked smile like a scandalised teenager. She put her fingers to her mouth. “Oh. Oh dear.”

“It’s … it … it—” I hiccuped hard enough to hurt. “She gave it to me to protect me!”

“I’ll bet she did,” Saldis laughed. “You may not have said any vows, little Englisher, but that mantle around your shoulders is an invite to the family. Her family. And I very much doubt that Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is looking to merely adopt you. You are too much of a catch for that, my dear.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.9

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Lozzie took a heartbeat to absorb my foolish request. Perhaps she couldn’t believe her ears; I could hardly blame her, not when I’d been so adamant in my rejection only minutes earlier, so horrified, so afraid.

It’s not every day somebody offers to dive head first into their own trauma.

Eventually I looked away from the knight inside the open suit of armour, away from the fleshy, tea-stain coloured, living core of intent that had set itself the task of protecting us. We broke our tentacle handshake by silent mutual agreement and the knight slowly retracted its feelers too. Lozzie was staring at me, blinking sleepy eyes, mouth open but stalled. One of her hands was bunched in the pastel fabric of her poncho. Her goat-skull mask hung from the other by one horn.

“The trip elsewhere,” I repeated. “Let’s do it. Together.” My voice quivered but rang unbroken, gentle echoes lost across this endless quiet plain of yellow grass, beneath the soft purple light of a whorled and spiralled sky.

“You really mean it?” Lozzie asked, her voice barely louder than her breath.

I nodded, then wiped the threat of tears on my sleeve and held out a hand toward her. “Yes.” A hiccup got in the way and made me roll my eyes. “Don’t make me repeat it again, please. I’ll lose all my courage.”

“Heathy … ” She accepted my outstretched hand. Lozzie’s elfin little smile bounced back onto her face as she rocked on the balls of her feet, but the smile was extinguished again when she bit her bottom lip. “I don’t want to force you! You said, you said you’re not like me and you’re right we’re really not, not really, not in the way it really matters out—”

“We might not be exactly the same thing, yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice free of quiver and shiver. “But since when does that matter? A-and if I … oh, for pity’s sake, if I don’t do this now then I’ll never do it. I might never have the courage again. I might never find the guts to ask you a second time. And Lozzie, I need every edge I can find. You’ve given me one — given us one — a hundred and fifty ones.” I gestured at the knights of Lozzie’s imaginary round table, spread out across the yellow hillsides, and at our specific friend still standing there and holding its armour apart like a shelled mollusk. “But if I can find another by facing— f-facing—” My voice began to shake. “I’m not a scared little girl anymore. You’ve been out there and you’ve come back fine.”

Lozzie pulled an awkward toothy smile and did a little bird-like bob of her head. “Fine is relative?”

“You are fine,” I almost snapped. “No matter what anybody says about you.”

Lozzie scrunched her eyes up like a cat. “Mmmmmm!” she went.

“I need every edge I can acquire if I’m going to take Maisie back from the Eye. I need to find my limits. I thought this was one.” I glanced at the knights again. “But it’s not. Take me elsewhere, Lozzie, please. To interesting places. Show me. Because I might learn something, maybe about myself.”

“Oh, Heathy!” Lozzie her arms around my neck in a sudden hug. I hugged her back, as much to still my racing heart as to acknowledge her joy, and briefly felt her heart beating inside her own chest against mine. I could not have asked for a better source of comfort. She pulled away as quickly as she had embraced me, squeezing my arms and then my hands, nodding enthusiastically. “Yes! We can do it! And it doesn’t have to be long because you want to get back for dinner but it’ll be real and I promise it’s safe and yes!” She laughed and bounced back on her heels, but held on tight to one of my hands.

I smiled back as I let out a long, slow, shaking breath, marred only slightly by a loud hiccup at the end. Truth was, I was still terrified and I didn’t try to hide it. What was the point? I knew what I was doing, and why I was doing it. I’d made my choice. It was time.

Lozzie dipped her head in a wave of wispy blonde hair and slipped the goat-skull mask back over her features, then straightened up, once more tucked away behind shadow and bone, topped with horns, fey and alien.

“You’ll have to get me one of those,” I said, purely to distract from the fluttering in my stomach.

“We could! I think! I don’t know! Maybe!”

I forced out a tiny laugh and pulled my hoodie tighter around myself, drawing my six tentacles inward toward my body; I wrapped two of them around my torso in a self-hug and allowed another to creep down my own arm to grasp Lozzie’s wrist. I would not lose my grip on her, no matter where we went.

“It’s okay, I won’t let go, I promise,” she chirped. I managed a nod. “Come come!” she called out, and the two knights she’d called over previously now got into position again, flanking her shoulders. The one which had opened its armour set about retracting the metal back into place, pulling muscles tight like a clam to seal itself away inside the shell of perfect chrome once more. A tendril flicked out through the final closing gap between cuirass and pauldron, angled up and pointing at me, then slipped inside before the armour closed completely. Once again, a knight in shining armour stood there, with no hint as to what roiling flesh lay hidden inside.

I burst out laughing in a release of tension. The absurdity was too much.

“Heathy?” Lozzie twitched her head side-to-side like a curious puppy, another gesture she shared with Tenny. The re-armoured knight stepped into position and placed a metal gauntlet on Lozzie’s shoulder to mirror the one on her other side.

“It gave me a thumbs up,” I said through the laughter. “Very sweet.”

Lozzie beamed up at the knight, but it did not react, sealed as it was in metal once more. Perhaps it did respond, inside the dark privacy of that armour. Perhaps that’s why they seemed so impassive, all talking mind-to-mind without the need for external expression. I hoped they were happy.

“Ready?” Lozzie asked with a teasing lilt. My heart hammered against the cage of my ribs and my mouth was suddenly very dry. I almost said no.

“Keep … keep it moderate, please,” I said instead. “Nowhere too extreme. Places we’ve been before, perhaps.”

“Mmhmm, mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded along, the goat-skull mask bouncing up and down.

“And whatever you do,” I blurted out and felt stupid, “don’t actually take me to Wonderland.”

“Heatherrrrrrr,” Lozzie purred.

“I know! I know, I didn’t need to say it, I’m sorry, it just scares me, it’s always in the back of my head. I know you wouldn’t.”

“I don’t want to go back there either,” Lozzie said. I could hear the wrinkled nose in her tone even through the weight of the bone mask. Quite right.

“Then I’m ready,” I said with butterflies in my stomach. My tentacle squeezed tighter on Lozzie’s wrist. I had to resist the urge to armour-plate myself.

Lozzie swung our joined hands up into the air with my tentacle along for the ride. Her goat-skull mask turned to meet my gaze. In the second before we departed I felt a brief flicker of dissociation, a sense of looking in the mirror and not seeing oneself — but in reverse; I felt as if I was looking at Lozzie’s real face, or the closest thing possible.

“I love you!” she said, then, “Wheee!”

Reality folded up.

==

Mile-long god-worms digested endless lava flows of molten metal and defecated it out as living, green biomass that exploded into verdant plant-life, while Lozzie and I watched from an outcrop that had already ossified into bone; a sky filled with plate-creatures each the size of a continent, all of them with unique ecosystems riding on their backs, singing songs in the upper atmosphere loud enough to shatter rock, and we tiny little apes protected inside a bubble of air which Lozzie conjured from her knight’s shields as she sang in response; the castle where she’d taken me before, wrapped in a thick blanket of snow and tucked away in a mountain valley, beauty sublime enough to break to my heart, but quieter than before, as if the snow had never stopped falling and the inhabitants had grown fewer, under the watchful eye of the giant bird which perched on a distant peak and watched the fortress, as if laying siege with the power of thought; a giggle and a huddle and a game of noughts and crosses in the dancing sand of a place far too hot for unprotected human flesh, but where Lozzie kicked her shoes off and trod without a care, and I coaxed my bioreactor to power a pair of heat-sink sails and pad my outer dermis with coolant.

I did not come away from that last one unscathed, back bruised in new places and skin tender, all aching and raw from growing fresh pneuma-somatic body parts. Lozzie massaged my muscles as we lay in a cradle of vines, high up in the canopy of a rotting jungle beneath a sun the colour of dead peach.

“We can go back if you want,” she chirped from beneath the bone-mask. She did not take it off in these depths. “It’s been hours and hours and hours.”

“Not yet,” I croaked, and forced my hand back into hers, past my better judgement.

She sang to beetle-backed crustaceans with heads of writhing fingers, that talked to each other in a language of colour and pheromone. She convinced them we were only there to watch the distant mushroom towers unfold like giant sunflowers, though the towers pointed not at a sun, but at a mass of sub-orbital glowing bone like a giant tumour of the sky. There was another castle, one I liked less, built for things shaped so much larger than we little monkeys, with no windows and no doors, only endless dark pressing in on the tiny bubble of light cast from the tips of the knights’ lances. We left there quickly when things began to move in the shadows, shapes that made me want to scream and bristle and cover myself with warning spines and toxic compounds, despite Lozzie’s protests that this was a friendly place. We stood on a frozen shore opposite moving mountains of black mold, Lozzie singing to them in alien language as they split and recombined, eating and disgorging each other in an endless chain as they flowed downriver — though that river was not water, and the sea which served as their ultimate destination was beyond my imagination.

And yet, no matter how beautiful or how awful, every one of these visitations was a kind of subtle, self-inflicted torture.

Lozzie could giggle and dance and sing out here — and she did, with relish and relief, even in places I could not comprehend, the ones where I had to close my eyes and press my palms over my ears and wrap myself in my own tentacles, or the ones where I simply had to swallow a scream. Though, to Lozzie’s credit, as soon as I did those things she whisked us away to the next whistle-stop location, and her knights guarded me like the loyal hounds they were.

But even the beautiful places — the ones that floated in the heart of glowing nebulae, or where the air itself was braided like woven silk, or where all was shimmering dust and bone-white leftovers — even those, I could not fully endure.

Every Outside dimension we visited felt wrong — was wrong. The light was an impossible hue, or the colours shifted along the spectrum just enough to make my vision swim. Or the gravity was incorrect, my own footsteps warped, the processes of my organs confused. My skin tingled, the air a foreign sensation in my lungs. Any surface I touched felt wrong, even through my shoes, and forced nausea down my throat as my body tried to reject the sensation; all Outside was formed by the alien rules and logic that ran riot beyond the ordered walls of the castle of Earth. My thoughts twisted this way and that under ineffable conditions, held fast only by the inviolable core of abyssal being I had become.

We had not evolved for these places. Apes were not meant to be here, Outside. Here was soul-death amid sublime beauty.

No. Lozzie was meant to be out here. I wasn’t. Even with what I had become, these places were not meant for me. Enduring them was an act of sheer willpower and self-discipline that I could not keep up for long. Even an abyssal thing is only adjusted for one set of conditions, not all possible climates at once. Lozzie and I huddled inside pink hoodie and pastel poncho amid the black seas of infinity, but she loved it out there.

I peered through my fingers at iron-blue intensities and void-dark infinities; I groped for Lozzie’s hand in the middle of whirl-storm winds that pulled not at flesh and bone but at thought and memory; I tucked my tentacles in close to avoid the attention of snuffling intelligences and blind immensities. And by the end of it I felt sick, sick, sick.

“Do you want to go home?”

“No,” I lied.

I was an alloy of ape and abyss, testing the limits of my endurance. And I found myself wanting.

But it was not merely a matter of physical confrontation. Here was the other half of my childhood and teenage trauma, and I was attacking myself with it, over and over, until I quivered, bleeding, on the edge of my own sanity. It was self-harm, but I did not admit that at the time.

“Heathy Heathy, Heathyyyy, come, come, time to come home, come—”

“We’re not done.”

“Yes we areeeee.”

Lozzie squeezed my hand one last time, skipping back to me in a place where even she did not look remotely human, an inside-out place of coal-black meat and fluttering tissues.

“No, I have to keep going, have to keep—”

Lozzie did not take no for an answer. She pulled me home by one hand.

==

We touched back down on the quiet plain of yellow grass, like an antechamber between our reality and the true depths of Outside, the continental shelf before the deep dark of open ocean. The first thing I did was sit down very suddenly on the ground, my hand slipping from Lozzie’s as my knees gave out; the second thing I did was flinch about a foot in the air at the skull staring up at me from my own lap. I choked out a yelp and flung the twisted thing away in surprise.

“Oop!” Lozzie squeaked as she lunged for it. She caught the skull in both arms before it could hit the ground, tottering on both feet to regain her balance. “Heathy! It’s not unbreakable, you might crack it!” She giggled and shook her head, her voice and face still hidden inside the shadow of her own skull-mask.

“What— what— I-I don’t—” I panted for breath, blinking in utter confusion.

Lozzie cradled the twisted skull in her arms like a skittish cat. She hopped forward on tiptoes, tilting her upper body to peer down at me, her hair spilling out from her mask in a waterfall of blonde. “Heathy?”

“I … give me a moment,” I managed, trying to gather myself. “ … confused. I don’t … ”

The last hour — or twenty minutes, or three hours, or three days — formed a blur of pressurised memory. It was akin to the feeling of coming up for air after being glued to a book. Nothing seemed real, even myself. I grasped my own hands and squeezed to check that I could still feel pain.

“Tch, ow,” I tutted. That was a yes.

Lozzie squatted down so she was level with me, then pulled her goat-skull mask off and placed it on the ground. Freed from shadow and bone, her face was creased with care and she was biting her lip, big blue eyes like twin sapphires of happy exhaustion after our journey. Her two knights, the two we’d brought with us on the dizzying trip Outside, stepped back from their flanking positions, as if to rejoin the round table spread out across the yellow hillsides. But they did not fully retreat just yet, waiting to be dismissed.

“Heathy?” Lozzie murmured again.

“I’m … I’m okay,” I lied. I was very far from okay. I was caked in cold sweat from head to toe, wrapped in my tentacles like an infant sucking her own thumb, and shaking all over. My stomach felt like a black hole and I had a headache — not a brain-math headache, for once, but simple dehydration and stress, a constant throb that pounded harder whenever I moved my head. “How … Lozzie … what?”

“We were out there too long for you maybe,” she murmured, biting her lip again. “Heathy?”

“No, no,” I said. “My fault, my request.” I managed to blink up at her, at her elfin little face framed by the deep purple night. “I think I’m having a panic attack. Or coming down from one.”

“I know!” Lozzie squeaked, then reached out her free hand and took mine. She squeezed hard, and I squeezed back, trying to get the weight off my chest. “You didn’t have to. You didn’t have to come if it was going to—”

“I didn’t have to,” I echoed. “I chose to. Bad choice.” I forced out an awkward laugh. “Aversion therapy, my hat.”

“You don’t have a hat,” Lozzie murmured and puffed her cheeks out. I almost managed to laugh.

“Exactly,” I croaked.

We stayed like that, hand-in-hand on the yellow hillside, until the shaking and the panting and the worst of the fear passed. I hugged myself with my tentacles and held on tight, forcing out slow breaths, trying to feel normal again.

You made it, I told myself. You went Outside, for hours — or days? How much time had passed? You went Out by choice, to some of the most inhuman places you could ever imagine, you endured them, and you came back. You did it.

I did not feel proud; I felt damaged.

“You did it,” Lozzie said with a teasing smile through her worry. My little mind-reader.

I nodded at the skull cradled in the crook of her other arm. “Lozzie, what is that?”

“You don’t remember?” She blinked at me, then held out the alien skull. “Here, it’s yours! We said we’d get you one as well, remember?”

“I … I do remember that conversation, yes.”

The skull in Lozzie’s hands, the skull we’d brought back from the nighted depths, her sisterly offering to me, was a strange and twisted thing, a fluted, metallic grey, bell-shape, shaped not unlike how I imagine an octopus skull would look — if cephalopods possessed internal skeletons. Six eye holes stared with blind nothingness behind them, ringed with ridges of protective bone. If the creature had a jaw in life, it did not anymore, only a strange horizontal structure like a slash of mouth, which looked as if it had once been ringed with other appendages or bone supports. The implication made me shudder. I was glad it was dead, and that I was not meeting it face to face in the flesh. The bottom of the skull flared out into a skirt of bone, making it perfect for converting into a mask or helmet.

As Lozzie held it out, the skull caught the purplish light of the skies above the quiet plain. The surface shimmered like oil on water, with ripples and rings. The bone was neither clean white nor dirty yellow, but a strangely smooth metallic grey, like a metal that should not have been a solid at normal pressures and temperatures.

“Where did we … ?” I let my question trail off.

“We took it from the seabed, eight or nine jumps ago, among all the others in the graveyard jumble. You really really don’t remember? It’s suuuuuper super old, from near the bottom where none of the scavengers go because all the flesh has been picked off the bones long ago. And it’s beautiful! You said so yourself! Here!”

She offered it to me again, but I flinched back, two tentacles rising as if to defend me from assault.

“I-I-I can’t, Lozzie, I— did I really say it’s beautiful?”

“You did! I can hold on to it for you if you don’t want to take it right now, after all it’s going to need some padding inside for your head and face and you might need to file down the bits around the eyes because they’re still kind of rough despite being in the sea for so long, which is odd and I think it means it used different kinds of metal to reinforce different parts of itself. Isn’t that cool?” She beamed at me, more in love with the thing in her hands than I could ever be.

But her passion convinced me to try. Gingerly, I reached out with both hands to accept the mortal leavings of a creature I could scarcely imagine.

Lozzie beamed even wider, and placed the skull in my hands with all the delicacy of trying to dress a cat. From the metallic appearance I expected the skull to be heavy, but it weighed barely anything at all. Lozzie giggled at my surprise.

“It’s like carbon fibre,” I murmured. “So light.”

“Probably really strong too!” Lozzie chirped. “Look look, up the top there in the back!” She pointed to the underside of the Outsider skull. I turned it over gently, as if it was made of spun glass which might break apart in my hands. Lozzie hadn’t been exaggerating; on the back of the skull there was a set of faint indentations — tooth marks, sharp and raking, from teeth that had once pierced whatever hide and flesh had clothed this creature. The teeth had been turned away by the diamond-hard surface of the skull.

I brushed hesitant fingers over the bite mark. No crack, no weakness, no flaw radiated out from the wound. “I wonder if this is what killed it?”

“Don’t think so!” Lozzie chirped. “Too hard for that! Probably won and bit back!”

I turned the alien cephalopod skull over again, to stare into the eye holes and run my fingers over the contours — though it wasn’t strictly a cephalopod. I had learnt plenty about that particular biological niche, from months of pining while watching youtube videos of squid and octopuses. Whatever earthly analogue I imagined for this creature, it was not truly of that class. The same as Lozzie’s goat-skull mask, which had likely not come from a true goat at all.

The surface was smooth and cool and somehow soothing, and I felt the sweat finally drying on my skin and sticking my t-shirt to my back. The gentle wind of the quiet plain ruffled my hair. Six empty eye sockets stared up at me, unseeing and long dead. The metal felt so unfamiliar, but did not make me shudder with disgust; when I tilted the skull, the metal caught the light and showed me a ripple of colours for which I did not have names. Memory dribbled back, of Lozzie and I in a bubble of air on some nighted sea floor, picking through bones; that had happened, and I had called our find beautiful, if only because it seemed so real down there in the dark. On an impulse I did not understand, I put a finger into one of the eye sockets.

What manner of creature had you been? I asked it in the silence of my mind. Mortal, certainly. Mortal enough to die, to leave a body behind, for one like me to find. What kind of thoughts had filled this skull in life? Outside thoughts, alien to me? Or could we have communicated? You weren’t like the Eye, or the other giants of Outside, or the things in the abyss. Were you male or female? Or perhaps you did not have biological sex at all, perhaps you propagated by budding, or cloning, or some other, unthinkable process. What was your identity, did you have family? None of these questions would ever be answered. But you had flesh, once. I have flesh now, I thought. And one day I will be like you.

But not yet. And not Outside. I will die old, in bed, I told myself, and I have miles to go before then.

It was an oddly comforting idea. My lingering panic attack finally faded away into mere echo. The skull was a connection, a bridge, proof.

“Heathy?” Lozzie’s voice crept into my rumination.

“Thank you for the present,” I said. “I was right the first time. I think.”

“The first time?”

“It is beautiful.”

“Yay!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air, which was not a sustainable pose while also squatting, at least not with her lack of muscle tone. She wobbled and laughed and had to accept falling back onto her bottom with a little “oof,” legs wiggling in the air.

“We still do need to talk,” I said, feeling oddly emboldened. I had conquered my oldest fear — well, with the exception of the Eye. What was a chat with Lozzie by comparison? Nothing to be afraid of. Lozzie and I loved each other.

“Oh.” Lozzie sat up from her sprawl, blinking at me. “We do? We doooo? I thought we did. We did!”

“We never finished. Not about the part that really matters, to me. The part that hurt me.”

“Oh. Oops.” Lozzie bit her lip.

“Not oops. It’s okay.” I sighed. “I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not very good having big serious talks.”

Pfffffft,” went Lozzie. “You so totally are! Duh.”

“Thank you, I think? In any case, I don’t feel like I am. But I’m not going to manipulate you into anything, or browbeat you, or attack you, I promise. I’m not even going tell you off. Maybe I was going to do that at one point, but it feels silly now. We’re friends, and I’m hoping if I express this then you’ll understand.”

Lozzie nodded with enthusiastic urgency, head going up and down like a cartoon donkey, expression that blinking po-faced seriousness that was impossible not to find sweet, but which meant she really was listening. I found myself winding two of my tentacles around each other, a new nervous behaviour.

“You put me right in front of the Eye, without warning,” I said.

Despite everything, my voice cracked. The memory of burning pressure flared up inside me, of the unstoppable force of the Eye’s gaze.

Lozzie lit up, as much as she could do with her damaged extraocular muscles, and her mouth flew open. But I held a hand out to stop her. I needed her to understand, not just apologise.

“And I prevailed,” I added. “I won, I made it out, I learnt I could make it out. I learnt that the Eye is not impossible to escape even once it has me in its sight. Which is invaluable. Invaluable. But, Lozzie, you put me there without warning. You made me face my … my … ” I sniffed hard and had to wipe my eyes on the back of my hand. “You made me face it. And I need you to understand what that means.”

Lozzie nodded.

“Do you understand?” I asked.

Nod nod.

“You can speak now,” I said. “I didn’t mean to silence you, you can—”

“I’m sorry,” Lozzie said, and she said it without biting her lip, without upturned eyes, without any cutesy affectation, except her hands gripping the fabric of her poncho.

“Okay. Okay. I forgive you,” I said. “I can do that, I—”

“But it was still the right thing to do,” Lozzie continued.

“ … pardon?”

Now Lozzie bit her lip. She wasn’t shaking with fear, but this sudden reversal took courage. “You needed me there and you needed me to do that because you just said yourself that it worked out in the end, you needed it!”

I started to shake my head. “Lozzie—”

“I made a decision and it was my decision because you don’t have to do everything yourself all the time. You were missing! Missing something important and I had to step in because I’m your friend and I get to protect you too!” Lozzie raced ahead, voicing her runaway train of thought. “What would have happened if I hadn’t? You would have killed Badger or the Eye would have had him and you wouldn’t have learnt anything at all and we wouldn’t be here talking about this because you might have done something you couldn’t take back. And it worked out.” She slowed down all of a sudden. “And now we’re here.”

I gaped at her. “You’re … trying to justify intentionally exposing me to—”

“No!” Lozzie squawked. “No it wasn’t justified! Of course it wasn’t!”

“ … well, we agree on that much.” I sighed, shaking my head. “Lozzie, it worked out, but it might not have done. There were so many possible things that could have gone wrong, things that could have failed. Because of you deciding something on your own, about me, without asking me.”

“But it was the only thing I could do,” she said.

“So you’re saying it wasn’t your fault?” I asked.

Lozzie shook her head, sending faint wisps of blonde hair out from her like a glowing halo. “Of course it was my fault because I did it but if we could rewind time and do it all over again I would still do the same thing but—”

Lozzie did something she so rarely could: she stopped.

She stopped totally dead, then looked up and away from me, at the spirals of purple light in the unnatural night sky. “But I would ask you first? Okay. Okay! Oki-doki-doos. I would have to ask you first. I wish I could time travel, it’s so much easier that way.” She looked back at me with an expression like a goblin caught with her hand in a biscuit tin. “And I won’t do it again. I won’t. I’m sorry.” She held a hand out toward me.

Hesitant at first, I accepted her hand, small and cool and soft in my own. I sighed and tried to share a smile with her too.

“Don’t hate me,” she added in a small voice.

“I don’t,” I sighed. “Apology accepted. Even if we don’t agree, it matters that you understand.”

“I’m smarter than I look!” She chirped, then let go of my hand with a giggle. “You really seriously for real thought I wouldn’t?”

I shrugged, a touch of colour creeping into my cheeks. I cleared my throat, feeling horribly awkward. “My turn to apologise, I suppose. Lozzie, with the way you act back in reality, sometimes it’s difficult to keep in mind you’re not actually a thirteen year old or something.”

Lozzie mock-gaped at me, scandalised and outraged, but she wasn’t a good enough actor to sell the drama. I still rolled my eyes and had to look away, half in embarrassment, half in guilt.

“We’ve talked about plenty of non-childish things!” she chirped. “All sorts! You’d never talk to Tenny about half of what we’ve talked about, and especially in the dreams but ahhhhh no no you don’t remember that all properly, right, yes, okay-okay. Do you remember telling me about how Raine figured she can make you pop twice in a row if she—”

“Lozzie!” I squeaked, my outrage quite real. Lozzie burst into a peal of giggles. I glanced at the knights a few paces away, as if they gave a hoot about overhearing the details of my sex life.

“They don’t think about those sorts of things!” Lozzie announced after following the direction of my flustered gaze.

“Yes, but it’s still a bit weird to have it said out loud.”

“You didn’t care about that in the dreams. Just relax, Heathy! You know you can talk to me about anything at all, I don’t judge, what have I got to judge on anyway? You know all the things about me and I know all the things about you.”

I let out a little sigh, almost sad. “I don’t, actually. Know all the things about you, I mean. Because the dreams are still hazy.”

Pbbbbbt,” Lozzie made a sad sound and flopped sideways on the pale yellow grass. “That’s true but it doesn’t have to be true. New promise! We’ll do a new promise.”

“There was an old promise?” I asked, somewhat liking this notion.

“Many many manyyyyy,” Lozzie chanted from the ground. “But new promise now. I promise not to make decisions that affect you without asking you first, including—” She stuck out a finger. “—including more dreams.”

“I would love to dream with you again,” I blurted out. “But I’d like to remember them this time.”

“Mmhmm, mmhmm, and in return, you promise to ask me things if you wanna know them.”

“Agreed,” I said, easily and softly. “Do we need to do a ritual to seal the promise?”

Lozzie wrinkled her nose, which looked extra silly with her face sideways. “Promises are promises, the words make them happen and not when you rub your blood together or something. If it’s a true promise then you know because it gets kept and if it was false then it doesn’t.”

I felt unaccountably playful when I asked, “And which is this?”

Lozzie grinned wide, impish and teasing. “A true one.”

“All right. All right.” I felt a mischievous flutter. “Lozzie, do you fancy Twil?”

“Whaaaaaaaaaaa?!” Lozzie burst into laughter, kicking her legs and smacking the ground with both hands before flailing herself back up into a sitting position. I was blushing enough for both of us, mortified at my own question. “Fuzzy? No! No, no, no way. Not mine, not my … type? Typing? Style? I don’t know if I will ever have a type but fuzzy is fuzzy and not like that.”

“A very comprehensive answer,” I hurried to say, trying to manually rub the blush off my own cheeks. “Yes. Thank you. Okay. Ahem.”

I actually said ahem out loud. I could be such a gossip, but I couldn’t take the heat.

Lozzie giggled at my self-inflicted discomfort and then shuffled to cross the gap between us. She settled in beside me and propped her chin on my shoulder, so we could both look down at the metallic skull in my lap. She reached down to stroke the strange Outsider’s skull.

“I think it’s really pretty,” she said.

“It is, in its own way.”

“It’ll make a good mask!”

“And why would I need a mask?” I asked. Lozzie shrugged and puffed her cheeks out.

“Maybe it’s not a mask then,” she said.

I sighed and leaned my head against hers, thought-to-thought.

“I wish you’d told me in the first place,” I said, “about Badger coming to apologise to you. We could have approached everything differently, at least.”

“But then you might not have been able to do it, which is fair because it was a hard thing to do and hard things are hard.”

“Still.” I pulled back so I could look her in the eyes. “I wish you’d just told me that you had a problem with his death. I always assumed … well. I saw you stab a man to death with a scalpel once, you were wild, you were … what’s … oh … ”

As I said those words — as I recalled what Lozzie had done back when I’d murdered her brother, recalled her palming a scalpel and slitting the throat of one of her brother’s cultist minions — Lozzie squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, jerky and cringing and blocking it out, shrinking down inside herself to hide from the memory.

“Oh,” I repeated, and realised what I’d been missing this entire time. “Oh, Lozzie, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay—” she hissed to herself, then opened her eyes again, panting softly and trying to smile. “I’m okay I’m okay just don’t don’t don’t—”

“Okay, okay! I won’t, I won’t bring it up, not now, not now.”

Lozzie clung to me, squeezing my hoodie into tight handfuls in both her fists, shivering and shaking inside her own skin. I held her gently, stroking the back of her head, trying to tease her hair into a semblance of order. After a while she stopped shaking quite so badly, and slowly, ever so slowly, to give us something to focus on, I set about the intimate process of braiding her hair.

None of us — not me, not Evee, not Raine, not Zheng, to my knowledge — had ever addressed the fact that Lozzie had committed murder to escape her abusive brother. I’d blasted Alexander Lilburne into a broken mess of pulped meat and shattered bone, yes, and that had changed me forever. Over time I had discovered, to my twinned horror and fascination, that perhaps I was built for this after all. Not like Raine, but enough not to be destroyed by the act.

Lozzie was not built for murder. Lozzie didn’t even like to hear talk of violence. And she’d stabbed a man in the throat because that was her only option. I’d gotten so used to thinking of her escape as a rescue, but she had participated along with us.

She’d been mentally unwell back then, unwell because of abuse, but that did not make her immune to what she’d had to do.

We sat huddled together on that quiet plain, allowing the minutes to stretch out beneath the soft purple light as I braided Lozzie’s hair and one of my tentacles slipped around her waist in a hug; gentle wind teased stray strands of blonde out of my hands, which I dutifully gathered back in; the fairy tale knights of her round table kept their own council; she did not want to talk about this right now, so I kept my mouth shut, because I’d already done enough damage.

I finished braiding her hair and held up the unsecured end.

“Pretty,” Lozzie chirped. The bounce was back in her voice, even if weak. I thanked whatever gods would listen.

“We don’t have anything to tie it with, though,” I said.

Lozzie rummaged beneath her poncho. I’d always suspected she had secret pockets sewn into the lining, and my suspicions were heightened when she lit up with an, “Aha!” and wriggled and arm out to present me with a little pink hair tie. I bound up the end of her braid, nice and neat.

“Thankeeeeee,” she purred, and we shared a hug.

“Lozzie, if you ever want to—”

“I will!” she chirped before I could finish. “But not … ”

“Not now,” I finished for her, nodding. “Not now. It’s okay.”

A herky-jerky smile twitched back onto Lozzie’s lips. She twisted around, bounced to her feet, and offered me a hand. I accepted, hugging the Outsider cephalopod skull to my chest with the other hand as Lozzie helped me up. She retrieved her goat-skull mask from the ground too.

“Time to go home and have dinner?” I asked.

“I need to decompress,” she said, smile teasing, eyelashes fluttering. “You said not to take you to extreme places Outside but there’s places I haven’t seen in months and months and I want to go see them. I can go by myself!”

My heart dropped into my stomach, but I tried not to let it show on my face. I failed miserably. “ … all right,” I said.

“Oh, Heathy, I’m not going anywhere!” She threw her arms around my neck and squeezed me quickly. “I’ll be back soon enough, I promise!”

“How soon?” I croaked out, my throat closing up.

Lozzie danced back a couple of paces, closed one eye, then the other, then opened both. “I dunno! The morning? Like I’m going out for a night! You don’t do that but it’s a thing that people do a lot and I want to. Ple—”

“You don’t have to ask for my permission,” I blurted out. “I’m not keeping you from … going out and partying? Oh my goodness.” I rolled my eyes and felt absolutely absurd. “I’m like a droll, stick-in-the-mud older sister, aren’t I?” I hiccuped, because otherwise I might cry again. “Keeping you from going out and having fun.”

“Not droll!” Lozzie directed a serious little frown at me. “Indoor fun is fun too.”

“But sometimes you need to see your other friends. Your Outside friends. Right.”

Lozzie nodded up and down, her braid bouncing.

“I … I need you with me, Lozzie,” I said. “For Maisie, and for … ”

“I am with you!” she declared, pointing one finger at me. “And I’ll be back for breakfast! Smoke me a kipper!”

I frowned and spluttered out a laugh. “A what?”

“A kipper! You know. Actually I don’t know what a kipper is. I think it’s a fish but I just heard it somewhere so cereal is fine.”

“I’ll find out what a kipper is and smoke you one,” I laughed, trying to hold back everything else I felt. Lozzie was just going out for the evening. Outside. To all those nightmare vistas and impossible places, because that was her natural environment. “What shall I say to Tenny? Mummy’s out for the evening?”

“Mmhmm! She’ll understand! I’ve told her allllll about Outside, she knows what it means.”

“Do you maybe want to take her along sometime?” What was I even saying? Trying to make this seem normal, make it less terrifying?

Lozzie’s good humour hit a speed bump. She sighed and flapped her poncho. “Tenny’s not a child of Outside.”

“ … oh?”

“She was made on Earth! With all Earth parts and Earth thoughts and stuff. There’s places I really really wanna show her, but she’s not built for it like we are.”

Like you are, I thought, but did not say out loud.

“That’s, well, that’s fair enough,” I said. “She’s going to need room to fly, eventually.”

“And she will get it!” Lozzie spread her arms to indicate the quiet plain, goat-skull mask dangling from one hand.

“Ah. Yes.”

“Anyway. Heathyyyyy, you can see yourself home, yeah? I’ll be back in the morning, for real, I promise!”

I managed a nod. My throat was dry, my palms clammy, but I did not reach out for Lozzie. I chose to trust her.

She slipped the goat-skull mask back over her head, transforming into a pixie from the underworld once more, then skipped across the few feet which separated us and hugged me once more, squeezed me hard until I choked out a laugh and squeezed her back. Then she let go, our hands touching at the fingertips as she stepped away.

“Laters!” she chirped, so undeniably happy.

And then with a hop and a skip, she ran and leaped into the air.

And vanished.

I stood there for several long minutes of silence and peace on the quiet plain, trying to fight down a lump in my throat, twisting my hoodie in one hand and hugging myself with my tentacles. I did trust Lozzie. She wasn’t Maisie, she wasn’t being kidnapped or taken away, she was my friend and she was going out for the night, to places that she’d been to many, many times before.

“A night on the town,” I said out loud, and laughed a sad laugh at myself, then let out a big sigh. “Heather, you’re so silly. She’ll be fine.”

I bid a goodbye — only for now — to the knights, though none of them responded in any visible fashion. I even patted one of them, the one who had opened its armour to me. I located Evelyn’s blue bucket a few feet away, picked it up, and tucked the Outsider cephalopod skull under my arm. Then I took some deep breaths, closed my eyes, and executed the familiar old equation. Time to go back to where I belonged. Time to cry into Raine’s shoulder and endure a sleepless night waiting for Lozzie to come home.

Out.

Space folded up around me.

And boney hands closed around my ankles in a vice-grip of iron and ice, to hold me fast before I could cross back to reality.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Slipping never hurt Lozzie like it did me.

For me, any transition across the membrane between our reality and Outside — whether involuntary or intentional; whether as a terrified teenager thinking I was suffering a schizophrenic hallucination, or as a fully informed and involved abyssal hybrid; whether sitting comfortably and surrounded by friends, or in a moment of crisis and blood — it was always painful, always disorienting, always alienating.

Like stepping through an airlock into a different atmospheric pressure, or descending from a hot day down into a cold cellar, where all my body’s autonomic expectations were thrown into disarray. Pushing through that membrane put pressure on some vital component of the self — not merely of living, but of existing at all. This was not merely the after effects of brain-math; those were bad enough, headache and nosebleed and nausea as my body rejected the impossible maths. I sagged in Lozzie’s arms, clenched my stomach muscles to hold back a wave of vomit, and snorted nosebleed onto the yellow hillside. The others had suffered it too during our emergency return from Carcosa, a dislocation of the soul, an alienation from the sensation of being, a popping of the ears from an altitude change that had nothing to do with height. Even now, with three tentacles and an impossible bioreactor, I took it no better than I had any other time.

For Lozzie it was like slipping into a hot bath.

The moment we arrived back on the quiet plains of yellow grass, I heard Lozzie let out a sigh of true release. Soft, subtle, with a little shudder in her voice, audible even through the skull mask on her face. I was busy squeezing my eyes shut against the black pain of ice pick headache, snorting back my nosebleed, and trying not to be very sick all over the ground. My trio of tentacles unfurled and flailed to catch myself, but they were a part of my body too, and not immune to this sickness.

Lozzie wasn’t so awestruck that she neglected to catch me before I crumpled to my knees. She held me up and I clung to her as crimson droplets fell from my nose to stain the grass. We slowly gave way together, wrapped in my own tentacles, lower and lower until we sat down and slumped against each other. One of my tentacles had gone for her mask, testing the texture of strangely smooth bone surface, and gently tugging on one of the horns as if trying to remove it from Lozzie’s face. She didn’t notice. I was whining softly, but I could still hear the smile of relief in her breathing.

“Heathy, here!”

She pressed something smooth and cool into my lap. My vision slowly cleared, red darkness throbbing back into the periphery, replaced by blue plastic with a bit of cold bile splattered down in the bottom.

“Oh,” I croaked. “Bucket.”

“Bucket good!” Lozzie chirped from beneath her mask. “Heathy good?”

“ … relatively,” I managed. “Three slips in fifteen minutes. New record. Give me a moment.” I squeezed my eyes shut again and hung over the bucket, trying to fight down a wave of nausea as the hyperdimensional mathematics threatened to bubble up from my subconscious, like a black swamp over-saturated with toxic gasses.

Lozzie rubbed my back and leaned against my side, sharing her squirrelly warmth. She made happy little humming sounds from beneath her mask as she looked off toward the ring of armoured knights, at the distant undulating horizon, and up at the purple sweeps and swirls in the distant night sky. She wiggled her bottom back and forth in excitement and her other hand patted one of my tentacles. She was immune to the deleterious effects of a Slip, like a specialised rodent that had evolved to navigate the razor thorns and toxic needles of a jungle bramble that would shred any clumsy human.

This was where she was supposed to be, wasn’t it? Not with us. Not in our reality. Outside was her natural environment.

After a minute or two of shaking and sweating, I could raise my head again. I straightened up and cast my gaze out across the quiet plain. Deep breaths of alien, Outside air filled my lungs with the taste of cinnamon, and the gentle wind eased the sweat from my face.

“Mmm-mmm? Mmm? Mmm-mmmm?” Lozzie made wordless sounds and bumped her shoulder against my side, but I understood every nuance, even through the mask. The purplish light in this place made the bone seem paradoxically bright.

“Mmhmm.” I nodded an affirmative.

Lozzie gently disentangled herself from me and stood up, bouncing on the balls of her feet with barely contained excitement. When she stepped forward I unravelled my tentacle from her side, let her go, though I felt a sick twist in my stomach, a horrible tightening of my heart, and a plea dying on my lips.

“Lozzie … ” I murmured, voice quivering as she took two steps away from me. My trio of tentacles twitched, aching to reach out and restrain her. She turned back to me and executed a fluttering, bouncing curtsy with the hem of her poncho, an overexcited, girlish gesture of gratitude, before she leapt and skipped away and my heart couldn’t take it. “Don’t … don’t leave … ” I whispered.

But all my fears were groundless. Lozzie skipped away a few paces across the quiet hillside of yellow grass, but she didn’t vanish into thin air or bid me a tearful goodbye.

“Woo!” She threw her arms in the air and let out a wild whoop of joy, then hopped and tucked and rolled into a spontaneous cartwheel — exactly as Twil had taught her — only wobbling a little before she lost her balance and collapsed onto the grass, laughing and kicking and rolling over, her goat skull mask falling off in an explosion of wispy blonde hair. She left the mask behind, to my silent and bizarre relief, and bounced back to her feet without missing a beat, skipping and hopping over to the nearest of her chrome-clad knights. She slammed into the poor creature with enough force to topple a redwood, but the knight merely looked down at her with its blank-faced helmet as she hugged it from behind and let out a high pitched “Mmm!” of appreciation.

Dozens of the nearby knights turned toward her too, not clanking or clunking at all but marked only by the soft brush of their armoured feet against the grass. Their motions seemed strangely fluid inside such cumbersome suits. They didn’t salute or kneel or bang their fists on their chest plates, but just pointed themselves at her, like sunflowers turning toward the sun. The effect was more than slightly creepy.

“Everybody stay, stay!” she called out loud, hands up as if waving to a pack of excitable hounds. “Safe safe yes good safe, no problems! Stay and sleep!”

Then she was away from the knights as quickly as she’d scampered to them, skipping back across the yellow grass, flushed and smiling in a way I hadn’t seen her smile in months, genuinely happy. Despite everything, I found myself smiling back, overwhelmed by her energy.

Lozzie finally flopped down on the grass nearby, hair billowing out around her. She stretched out her arms and legs and swept them back and forth, like she was making a snow angel. She scrunched her face up tight and let out another “Mmmmm!” noise, then relaxed all at once, into a deep, satisfied sigh.

A shaking laugh took me, of relief and bewilderment at her sheer joy.

“Heathy?” Lozzie opened her eyes and found me. “Heathy, are you okay?”

“ … no,” I managed, and realised I was on the verge of tears. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve — a mistake, as my nose left a bloody streak on my hoodie. “Are you going to leave?”

Lozzie blinked three times, blankly confused but suddenly alert. She sat up in a hurry, hands planted between her outstretched legs with the easy flexibility of a natural gymnast. “Leave? Leave what? Heathy, whaaaa?”

“I’m so afraid you’re going to leave,” I admitted with a quiver in my voice. “You’ve manipulated me into bringing you out here and now—”

Lozzie bit her lower lip. “Um … ”

“Oh, damn it,” I snapped at myself, staring down into the bucket because I couldn’t face her as I let it all out. “Not that I wouldn’t have brought you here anyway. You do really need it, I can see that, I can see the need is real, but you did manipulate me, Lozzie. And when you left before, when you went Outside before, you didn’t come back for weeks. No, for months! You said you’d visit, but you didn’t. You only came back when I was in danger, and yes, I can’t thank you enough for that, you saved me from the Eye. But you left, Lozzie.” I hugged the bucket, cold comfort. “I can’t deal with this. I’m sorry, I’m sorry for treating you like my sister, but I can’t help it. You can’t just make friends with me and then leave.”

Silence. My courage was brittle as pig iron, forged in desperate haste, and Lozzie’s silence nearly broke it. But when I looked up I met that same sleepy-eyed confusion, that nervous lip-bite, not fear. Whether she intended it or not, that gave me heart.

“You dragged me Outside and made me your friend,” I managed. “And I want that. I don’t want you to leave again, but you belong out here, don’t you?”

“ … don’t you?” Lozzie murmured.

I shook my head.

Lozzie sprang to her feet in a flurry of pastel poncho and strands of wispy blonde hair. For a horrible second I thought she was going to run from me, from this conversation, from the difficult parts of being a person. One of my tentacles reached out for her ankle, a pointless and shameful gesture, a last attempt to restrain her and drag her home.

But then she faced me and bowed from her waist, so deeply that her hair pooled in the yellow grass.

We stayed frozen like that for perhaps ten whole seconds, watched by the eyeless gaze from dozens of silent knights.

Eventually, I figured out how to work the human parts of my throat, and murmured her name. “ … Lozzie?”

She whipped her head back up, hair flung out behind like some ancient Celtic warrior-woman.

“I’m sorry!” she said. She wasn’t the slightest bit tearful or upset, but bright-eyed and coherent. All here. “I’m sorry, Heathy. I’m sorry for not visiting, and I’m double sorry for saying I would but then not doing it. I hadn’t been Outside in so long and it feels so right to be here, I didn’t want to go back again, I just didn’t! And I was worried about leading my uncle to you as well but bleeeh. But that was selfish and I’m sorry for being so useless, I can’t even think in the ways I’m supposed to a lot of the time. Out here, I can think clearer! More clearly?” Lozzie’s eyes did this little spin up and around. “With more clarity,” she said slowly, as if experimenting with the words. “I can think. With more clarity. Clarityyyyy.” She giggled. “See? Clarity. See. That’s kind of a rhyme!”

I blinked at her, surprised. “That … that is becoming evident, certainly.”

“And yes I manipulated you and I’m so sorry,” she went on at usual Lozzie high-speed. Apparently being Outside did not change the fundamentals of her personality. “But it was the only way to defeat being afraid and now I’m not afraid anymore because you’re not him and you’re not trying to lock me up or keep me from Outside and I’m sorry my stupid subconscious thought that way. I wish Zheng had been there and then we could have talked through her, she gets it, but she’s run off like a big stupid dog.”

I sighed, shaking inside. I couldn’t forgive her yet, that wouldn’t do justice to these feelings. “You’re not stupid and you’re not useless, and those aren’t what you should be apologising for.”

“Yes! Yes, yes, yes!” Lozzie chattered, the opposite of what I’d expected and feared. Instead, she smiled. “I’m sorry for being selfish. It’s all about survival! I can’t unlearn that in a few months with you and everyone else being wonderful, and I feel bad for not learning it but the truth is my brother is always going to live in my head and I just have to live with that.”

“ … goodness, Lozzie, you weren’t exaggerating about being different Outside.”

Lozzie giggled and bit her lip again, then gathered her hair up behind her and tidied it into a messy knot of soft gold. She flounced across the gap between us and sat down opposite me, crossed her legs, and reached out with both hands.

“Done with bucket?” she asked. “No more sick?”

“ … yes, thank you.” I let her take the bucket from my lap. She placed it to one side and took both my hands instead, gently swinging them back and forth as she leaned toward my lap. I wrapped a tentacle around her wrist.

“Don’t you remember from the dreams?” she asked. “I know I was alllllways more together in the dreams.”

“Lozzie, I … I loved those dreams. I love that you decided to be my friend, to show me it’s not all bad all the time out here, but … I don’t recall them properly. Not all of it. It’s hazy a lot of the time. Sometimes it feels like it was something done to me.”

Lozzie bit her lip and bobbed her head. “I’m sorry! I just needed a friend, and you always had fun in the dreams, and I wasn’t trying to hide them from you, I wasn’t! You just can’t connect them up. Need to spend more time Outside!”

“ … perhaps,” I said, choosing to ignore that particular minefield for now. “Oh, Lozzie, I’m sorry too.”

“You are forgiven!” Lozzie chirped, waving one hand over me like a magician trying to make all my guilt vanish beneath a white cloth. “Forgiven! Away!”

I managed a small laugh. “You didn’t seriously think I wanted to keep you locked up like a princess in a tower, did you?”

“No no no.” Lozzie shook her head with great emphasis, which unknotted her hair and sent it flying everywhere again. She gathered it up and pulled the knot tighter this time. “Not consciously, not with my front brain parts. But you don’t want me to leave, that bit is true.”

I cringed inside. “I’m sorry we had to keep you in the house all this time, what with the cult, and Edward, but I promise we’ll make it better.” A lump grew in my throat as I left the conditional unspoken: If you stay. “You should be getting … some school? Or something. Oh goodness, you never even went to secondary school, did you? I don’t know, we should be able to do something for you at least, you—”

“Heathy,” Lozzie dropped her voice with a funny smile and a tinkling laugh. “Heathy, none of that is for me.” She let go of my hands and spread her arms wide. “This is for me. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

The lump in my throat threatened to choke me. I hugged myself with my tentacles. “Then you are going to leave.”

Lozzie threw her head back and made a great big pfffffft noise. Evidently the Lozzie-to-Tenny mannerism pipeline was not a one-way connection. “No more than a person leaves their house every day to go outdoors, silly!” she said.

“Well, you didn’t keep that promise last time.” I felt terrible even as I said that, vindictive and angry, with a rusty edge of sarcasm in my voice. “You mean you’d come back, regularly, every night?”

Lozzie blinked at me, tilting her head one way, then the other, as if totally confused. My ugly tone didn’t appear to have upset her. “Of course? Sleeping Outside is fine and fun sometimes but also sometimes not very fun and it’s much better to have a real home with a red bed and stuff. Isn’t it? Heathy?”

My turn to blink in confusion. My rising hurt guttered out.

“ … we’ve got our wires crossed,” I muttered, frowning at Lozzie’s sky-blue eyes, soft and sleepy, tinted with alien purple beneath the glowing night skies of the quiet plain. A self-conscious blush crept up my cheeks. “My own abandonment issues have clouded my judgement.”

“Of course I wouldn’t leave-leave!” Lozzie leapt to the rescue, taking my hands again and suddenly squirming into my lap like a cat, turning onto her back with her head on my thighs and her legs stretched out on the yellow grass. “You gave me somewhere to stay. People! Family! I never had that before. And besides, there’s Tenny.” Lozzie’s eyes widened with a serious nod. “I didn’t know she’d hatch into a real person. She’s my baby. I’m not going to leave her alone. I’m not like my brother, I’ll never be!”

I stared down at Lozzie’s face in my lap, dumbstuck for a moment before I let out a huge sigh. I finally allowed myself to let go.

Lozzie was not Maisie.

I took her face in both hands, upside down, and gently kissed her forehead. She giggled and kicked her legs, happy as a cat being fussed over.

“I forgive you, too,” I said. “For being selfish, I mean. I’m not sure I should forgive you for manipulating me, you could just have asked, but I can’t blame you for your brain not functioning properly in our reality, that would be unfair. That’s not your fault, so … mmm. But I’m not going to stop feeling afraid of losing you, afraid that you would leave, but I trust you, and I forgive you.”

“Accepted!” Lozzie stuck a hand up in the air.

“We still need to talk about what happened with Badger. With the Eye. Your objections, how you didn’t … ”

I trailed off as my gaze wandered upward, as I looked past Lozzie’s discarded goat mask, past the ring of gathered knights and the gently rolling yellow hills, toward the horizon, thinking of that other horizon bordered by the mountains of the mind, where I had stared down the Eye and had learnt what it meant to observe the great observer.

On that distant horizon, an object was moving.

“Lozzie,” I said.

“Mm? Mm? Heathy?” She must have heard the tone in my voice, or perhaps felt the way I tensed up — but more likely it was the way my three tentacles suddenly unfurled into a protective ring. My other three, which lay in wait as mere phantom limbs, tried to join them too, their anchor points aching along my flanks. The trilobe reactor twitched with instinctive insistence that I needed to defend myself, make my extra limbs real, cover myself in spines, and flood my skin with warning colouration.

I pointed.

Lozzie was out of my lap and up on her feet before I could clutch her safe in my tentacles. She sprang forward and stretched up on the tips of her toes, one hand shading her eyes as if a harsh sun beat down on us instead of the strange dark purple light from the twinkling whorls the sky. I scrambled to my feet beside her and gave in to the urge to grow the rest of my tentacles. I eased another control rod out of the bioreactor and allowed the remaining three tentacles to burst into beautiful, rainbow-strobing life from my flanks. They instantly threw themselves out around Lozzie and I in a protective bubble, as if ready for attack from any side.

Privately I sighed at myself. This was a bit of an overreaction for a dot on the horizon.

A tiny white hump was moving across the horizon from left to right — east to west? Did those terms even mean anything on a plane with no sun to move across the sky? Dirty white, like bone or old plaster, shaped like a stubby cigar, rounded at one end and flat at the other and bulging in the middle. Whatever the white dot was, it was so far away as to be impossible to make out any details, except for the merest suggestion of vertical ribs or sections like an insect carapace. It moved at a snail’s pace, inching along the distant horizon, paying us zero attention.

But the sense of scale made my mind swim. To make out even that level of detail that far away, it must have been the size of a barn.

“What is it?” I whispered, bristling all over.

“Caterpillar!” Lozzie announced, and shot a gleeful smile at me. “They’re fine and totally safe really, nothing to worry about! It’s okay, Heathyyyy.”

My mouth hung open in disbelief as I stared at Lozzie. A pressure, a high-pitched note, whined inside my head. My heart rate was climbing and my breathing was hitching in my throat.

“Lozzie, this place was supposed to be empty,” I said. “Safe. You said it was safe.”

“Empty of dangerous things, yeah. The catties are fine, they don’t do anything, they just trundle about. Look, look, it’s fine.” She gestured at the ring of knights, her armoured creations, and she was right. They weren’t reacting at all. Somehow that calmed my nerves better than Lozzie’s own protestations of safety — but it did nothing to blunt my anger, my frustration, the same issue all over again.

“Lozzie.” I swallowed, tried to count to five inside my own head. “Lozzie, you said to us, to me and Evelyn and Raine, not half an hour ago, that there’s nothing here that isn’t yours. You said that. I can’t … ”

I can’t trust your words, or your judgement.

Lozzie blinked big sleepy eyes at me. “Yeah!” she chirped. “I made the caterpillars too, duuuuh.”

My strangled, choked anger spluttered out into a confused frown and a rising blush. I almost shrunk back from Lozzie, my tentacles bunching up; not only did I feel silly, I felt guilty all over again. I had assumed the worst of her.

“You … I’m sorry, Lozzie, pardon me?”

“I made the caterpillars too,” she repeated. “All of them! I don’t remember how many I made because it was the first thing I did with the ones who didn’t want to be knights, soooo maybe three or four dozen? And I know they’re happy because they let me know, they do all the exploring but out here they can do it slow and carefully because everything is already dust and gone and stuff, just ruins waaaay out. They’re going to help with Maisie too! That’s what they’re for! We’re gonna comb Wonderland!”

I boggled at her, then put my hands out and gave up. “Oh … kay. Okay, Lozzie. I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

Lozzie giggled. “It’s okay! There’s sooooo much stuff Outside that isn’t scary.”

“And there’s so much stuff that is,” I sighed. “But yes, Lozzie, I know. You showed me plenty back in the dreams, and I believe you, I just can’t always deal with it and I thought that … um, caterpillar was—”

“What about if I show you more right now?” Lozzie’s expression lit up like a human glow-stick. She bounced away from me on the balls of her feet, hopped and skipped the couple of paces to her goat skull mask, shaking the knot back out of her hair, and slipped the mask back on over her face. She turned those bone-ringed eyes toward me. “And you’re awake this time! You won’t forget any of it!”

My heart leapt into my throat. “Um … Lozzie, I’m not sure, really.”

“You’ve got all your tentacles out too, so you’re super safe anyway, right? Right! Right-o, let’s go, doot-doot doo dooty-oh!” Lozzie went all sing-song on me as she skipped back and grabbed both my hands, her voice strangely muffled from deep in shadow and bone.

“Lozzie, I-I’m really not sure about this!” My voice quivered with barely controlled panic.

“We’ll be fine! One hundred percent!” she chirped. “And hey, let’s be extra — hundred and ten, hundred and twenty!”

Lozzie waved a hand behind herself. Two of the frozen knights suddenly picked up their feet and marched over to us, soundless except for their metal footfalls on the grass. The way they moved made my skin crawl and sent a shock of instinctive warning up my spine; Lozzie’s creations may have been unquestionably on our side, but they walked with inhuman fluidity, as if they possessed neither bone nor sinew beneath that shiny chrome.

Both knights carried shield and lance. They stopped either side of Lozzie, towering over us. I caught my own warped reflection in one of the shields, a pink and brown blob surrounded by six arcs of pale rainbow.

“We’ll all go together, see?” Lozzie chirped, and I could feel her elfin smile burning through the bone mask. “Touch a shoulder, hang on tight, ‘cos—”

“No!”

The word was scarcely out of my mouth before I ripped my hands from Lozzie’s grip and stumbled back in panic. All my tentacles whipped forward as if to shield me from her. My face burned with embarrassment and shame, my back and armpits were drenched with cold sweat, and my heart was racing so fast I thought it might explode. I had to squeeze my hands into fists to stop them shaking.

“ … Heather?” Lozzie’s voice came out so small and confused.

“I can’t, Lozzie, I can’t, don’t make me, I can’t.”

Lozzie pulled off the skull mask. Her hair flew everywhere. Distraught eyes met mine. “H-Heathy? It’s fine, it’s safe, I promise!”

I shook my head, jerky and impulsive, and couldn’t stop shaking it. “You can step into my nightmares without even a blink. I can’t. Look at me.” I held out my shaking hands. “Outside places were my childhood nightmares, my night terrors, for years. I can’t, Lozzie, not without the cushion of being in a dream. Or by shutting my eyes and curling up into a ball. This,” I tapped the ground subconsciously with one tentacle-tip, “this is as far as I can go, somewhere like this.”

“ … but you went to the library! That was cool. It was fancy and fun. And you went to save Evee that one time, and—”

“In emergencies.” I took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to calm myself, trying to fight down visions of rotting jungles and endless metal hallways, of worms the size of continents and the rocks I’d hidden beneath, of the vast sky-bound creatures and blind black tunnels beneath the earth, of fungus that walked as living decay, of five-pointed vegetable intelligences and seas of boiling mercury. All the nightmare places I’d been taken. “To help people,” I went on. “To save them. And to try to acquire what we need to save my sister. Not for fun.”

“But … the abyss!”

“The abyss is not the same,” I sighed. “I spent subjective years down there. It became part of me. Maybe it always was, ever since the Eye began to change Maisie and I. But Lozzie, I am not built for ninety percent of the places I’ve seen Outside. Even like this.” My tentacles gestured inward at themselves. “Not psychologically.”

Lozzie’s lips wobbled. “Even the big cool castle?”

“I … ” My mouth turned dry and my palms went clammy as I realised there was more to this than fear. I did want to see the sorts of places Lozzie used to take me, the wild vistas and impossible castles and quiet deserts.

But what if I liked them too much?

What if Lozzie and I were more similar than I suspected?

“I don’t know,” I forced myself to say. “I don’t know how it would feel without being in a dream. The library was bad enough. Please, don’t … I can’t come with you.”

Lozzie’s face fell even further. I wanted to reach out and give her a hug but fear held me back — fear of her whisking me away, and fear that I might be seduced by what lay on the other side of another Slip.

But then she puffed her cheeks out and shrugged. “Okay. Oke. Okaaaaay.”

“ … okay?”

“Don’t worry about it, Heathy! Maybe we’ll do dreams again sometime instead, but I get it. I dooooo.” She nodded slowly, trying to look sagely and understanding, but I saw the elemental sadness behind her eyes.

“Just because … ” I struggled for the words. “Just because we can’t share everything in life, that doesn’t diminish us.”

She nodded along, but I could tell she was struggling. Outside was part of her, she was part of it, and I could only share in it through a safety filter, with my senses blurred and stopped up, like Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship as the sirens sang.

I let out a sad sigh and stepped back toward Lozzie, cramming my trepidation back into a bottle. One of my tentacles inched out and slid across her shoulder-blades, making her squirm and giggle at me. Involuntary, but better than nothing. She flapped her poncho and sighed too, and then glanced up at the pair of knights still waiting in silence either side of us, as if they understood.

“Tell me about them,” I blurted out.

“Ahhhhhhhh?”

“The knights, I mean.” I nodded up at our silent chaperones. “You made them, yes?”

“Oh, yeah! I put them together and showed them the way and they’re all waiting to help!” Lozzie beamed at me with obvious pride.

I steeled myself for a question I’d been waiting to ask for months. I suspected I would not like the answer. “Back when you saved me from the Eye, when Maisie called you to Wonderland, you had one of these knights with you, and it … ”

Lozzie nodded and gave a sad little sniff. “Melted. Mmmmmm.”

“Yes, and I saw what was inside the armour. Though it was burned by then, and only for a moment. Lozzie, what are they, exactly?”

Lozzie’s face lit back up with glee. “Do you wanna see?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say no.”

Lozzie turned on the ball of one foot, poncho spinning outward, then knocked a jaunty little rhythm on the chest plate of one of her knights. “Ding-dong!” she announced, then grabbed my hand and hopped back, dragging me with her.

Before I could open my mouth in a yelp of surprise, the knight’s metal armour flew open in all directions, like a silent explosion.

And then it froze, each piece suspended in the air at the end of a thick twist of dark, undulating, leathery meat. The open armour revealed that no piece of metal had actually been attached or fastened or welded to any other — the whole suit had been held together by pressure from within, pulled taut by sheer muscular strength, like a child holding a costume close to their body with their hands. Except the occupant possessed much more than just two hands. Open, revealed, exposed to the air like a planet detonated from the inside and but held close by void-frozen magma, each piece of armour from boot to helmet stuck out in a different direction.

I put both hands to my mouth in shock.

The occupant, the pilot, the thing hiding inside, the squirming meat — no, I corrected myself forcefully, two of these things have died for you, one of them staring down the Eye. You do not get to be disgusted — the knight stared back at us in blinking silence.

“Lozzie,” I said from inside my hands. “That’s a blob monster. I-I mean no offence,” I hastened to add, speaking to the knight itself and hoping it could understand.

The occupant of the armour was a roiling, bubbling, protoplasmic blob of dark flesh, the colour of raw beef and over-steeped tea. It — he? she? — possessed more than a dozen tentacles, using one each to grip the inside of every armour plate with a massive set of suckers and filaments. More tentacles filled the arms and legs of the suit, but made no attempt to mimic the structures of human limbs. The helmet’s lack of eye holes or visor finally made sense — there was nothing in there but a pair of tentacles to hold it on. Yet more tentacles simply drifted out of the armour cavity to wave in the air like seaweed. A multitude of eyes boiled up from the creature’s surface — human eyes, animal eyes, insect eyes, and other optical apparatus that had no earthly analogue, along with strange organs that were perhaps ears or mouths, though most of them vanished back below the surface of the flesh again, as fast as they had been formed. It did stare back at us though. It saw, and knew, and recognised.

“Kinda blobby!” Lozzie admitted, as if I had just critiqued a cake. “But they’re super duper extra efficient and it lets them do lots of thinking too. You know they can turn almost every cell into a sort of mini brain-cell if they need to? Though most of the ones who wanted that went out as caterpillars instead, so these ones think with each other instead of alone but they don’t need to touch for that like the ones in the caterpillars. Hi!” Lozzie waved at the blob-knight inside the armour, and to my horror and awe, it waved back with at least three tentacles.

“ … but … but you made this, Lozzie?”

“Yeah!”

“All of these?” I managed to rip my eyes away from the knight in front of us and briefly take in the whole field of them once again, all those happy little blobs safe and snug inside their armour. Lozzie’s round table. She’d made an army.

We really were more different than I thought. Goodness, was I glad she was on our side.

“Of course all of them!” she was saying. “I got the idea from one that already existed, I just had to take it Outside so it could be more fleshy, and then all the others got modified for parts and size and thinking and it worked!” She did a strange, breathy giggle. “I learned a lot, you know? From my friend at the bottom of the castle, I mean, about changing bodies, but I never tried it on this kind of scale before but nobody died or got hurt and I guess they have Tenny to thank for that too, since I made her first and all, from spare parts too, but much safer.”

“Lozzie, Lozzie, slow down, please.” I held out a hand. One of my tentacles echoed the gesture, and the knight reached out a tentacle too, as if to greet me, but I pulled back, staring at it with rising incomprehension. “I don’t understand, and you’re not explaining. What are they?”

“Spirits. Kami!”

“ … wha-what?”

“Some of them are the friends who came with me when I first left,” she started saying, and my mind dredged up the memories of all the spirits who had clustered about her when she’d fled reality, back in that park back in Sharrowford, after we’d rescued her from the cult’s castle. “But others started turning up as soon as I put out the call, ones who’d known you and known all about how you kept getting dragged back by the big scary eye in the sky. Some of them even knew you from like ten years ago! And they all wanted to help and there’s a sort of trade-off, you know, they help but they get a body, but I didn’t make any of them do it if they didn’t want to, a few just left and went off to other places Outside but all these left here are in it to help and—”

Lozzie kept going, but her words went in one ear and out the other. A great rushing sound, like the sea, filled my head as I turned to look at the weird, twisted, mollusk-like blob-thing still holding the plates of its armour out from it body, like an exotic clam feeding on marine snow.

Three stubby little tentacles were held out toward me. A hand, to shake.

The other half of my childhood nightmares, all the nameless ghosts and monsters, the hallucinations which had haunted and tormented me for a decade, which had driven me to false insanity and the dubious refuge of antipsychotics.

Now one of them was knight in Lozzie’s service, on a quest for me.

I reached out not one, not two, but three of my tentacles, one for each the knight offered, and grasped all three in a cross-species handshake, a fleeting moment of contact with a devotion I did not understand.

But I’m not ashamed to admit that I started crying anyway.

“Heathy?” Lozzie chirped, hands suddenly on my side. “Are you okay? Okay-okay?”

“Very okay,” I murmured, but really I was speaking to those bubbling eyes and that leathery flesh. “More okay than in a long time.”

“Yay!” Lozzie chirped.

A lump grew in my throat, courage and recklessness and a little bit of insanity; what else was I wrong about?

What else was I capable of?

“Lozzie, how about we take that trip elsewhere after all?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Lozzie — my little Lozzie, my surrogate sister, my hyperactive gremlin-elf with hair like a cloud of gold and always with more energy to share, who spoke beautiful nonsense half the time and shining truth the other half; my special friend from beyond the wall of sleep and the veil of dreams, who had dragged me Outside and managed to show me that not all trips beyond our placid island of ignorance were doomed to loss amid black seas of infinity; who had brought me to castles as large as cities, and infinite deserts with sand as fine as time, and deep quiet forests of alien trees with slow secret vegetable thoughts; the girl who I had put everything on the line in order to rescue, who I had committed murder for, my proof-of-concept that I had what it took to save Maisie — she stared up at me with fear and shame.

“I can’t,” she squeaked. She meant I can’t Slip. I can’t run away from you.

In all the dark constellations between the bright stars of human emotion, all the grim, lonely paths of grief and alienation, despair and self-loathing, trauma and anguish, one of the most inhospitable spheres on which to alight is the knowledge that somebody you love is afraid of you.

Lozzie hugged her knees to her chest, curled into a ball in the corner of her bed, huddled inside the protective embrace of her pastel-striped poncho. She seemed like a small child afraid of a beating, while I was the terrifying monster who’d stalked her back to what was supposed to be a safe place, and now she couldn’t run away.

But fear and shame were not the only emotions I inspired. Deep in the blue of Lozzie’s eyes lay a cold sheen of defiance.

I put my hands up — not in surrender, but in the manner one might show empty palms to a skittish animal, some tiny vulnerable rodent that thinks it’s about to be thoughtlessly crushed. My three tentacles had begun to drift toward Lozzie too, driven by the natural desire to comfort her with a hug, but I pulled them back as well, to show I wouldn’t even touch her unless she gave her consent.

That felt unnatural. We were always touching each other.

Anything I might have said died on the way to my lips, replaced with a wordless, “Uh … a … a … ” sound.

“Loz! Loz!” Tenny fluttered, panicked by whatever was unfolding between her adults.

She broke the awful spell which had divided Lozzie and I by reaching out toward Lozzie with her silken black tentacles, wrapping them around her wrists and hands, looping round her waist, and holding the underside of her thighs and the back of her head. Tenny had finally abandoned her video game. The screen showed a pause prompt, and one controller hung limp in two thoughtlessly slack tentacles as she tossed the other from her humanoid hands on to the low table. Lozzie took several shaky breaths and hugged the tentacles in return, rubbing her cheek against Tenny’s coal-black skin.

“It’s okay, Tenns, it’s okay,” Lozzie said in a voice that was very much not okay, sniffing and snuffling on the verge of tears. “I’m okay, we’re okay, okay-okay, okaaaaaay. It’s just auntie Heather, just here and normal, everything is normal and okay.”

“Heath?” Tenny fluttered at me. She blinked those sea-black eyes, uncomprehending but worried. Her strips and whorls of white fur were bristling in alarm.

I swallowed, throat like sandpaper, and located my voice. “Of course it’s okay, Tenny. Everything is okay. Going to be okay.”

“Buuurrrrr,” Tenny trilled a doubtful noise. She even narrowed her eyes at me, which was new. One of her tentacles wrapped around one of mine in a cephalopod hug.

“Lozzie,” I said without looking at her — I worried that if I looked, I would gladly sacrifice my words on the altar of her fear. I would lie to avoid hurting her, or shut my mouth and abandon the conversation, and that really would change the nature of our relationship. “Lozzie, there’s nothing, nothing I would say to you that would hurt Tenny. Just things that are maybe not for young ears?”

Lozzie didn’t reply, so I risked a glance at the bed. She was still huddled up, now webbed in Tenny’s tentacles, still staring at me with fear in her eyes.

“Why?” I asked, and my voice broke.

“Frrrrrrppp!” went Tenny. One of her tentacles tightened on mine, and I made a conscious effort to pull myself together. One of us had to get there, to drag the other along, and it wasn’t going to be Lozzie.

“Lozzie, it’s me?” I tried again. “It’s just me. What are you afraid of? Why try to run?”

Lozzie’s lower lip started to wobble, and the fear gave way to the shame. Tears filled her eyes but she resisted the threat of sobbing, and instead scrubbed at her face with the back of her sleeve.

“I don’t know,” she murmured in such a small voice it hurt my heart. “I’m sorry, Heathy, I’m sorry, it’s just what I—”

“Loz!” Tenny trilled. “No!”

“It’s okay, Tenny,” I hushed, one hand out to stop Tenny getting in the way of Lozzie’s emergency unfolding. “It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”

“It’s just what I do, isn’t it?” Lozzie carried on, talking to her knees or the bedspread or Tenny’s tentacle in her arms, in a small, snuffly, reedy voice. “I run away and I go elsewhere and I’m sorry, I’m really sorry Heathy, you’re not like that but I can’t help it, and you’re not like that, you’re not him, you’re not him, you’re not him.” Lozzie buried her face in her knees as she repeated those three words, then kept going, muffled by flesh and bone and cloth. “She’s not him. Stop. Stop.”

She balled up her fists and hit herself on the head, until Tenny wrapped gently restraining tentacles around her wrists to hold her back.

I didn’t even have to ask. In Lozzie’s past, We need to talk could only have come from one person. Running was entirely rational. As far away as possible. Preferably Outside.

“ … yes, Lozzie, oh my goodness,” I said, almost taken with a tiny hysterical laugh, but I managed to control that. “I’m not your brother. I’m not Alexander.”

“I know that!” Lozzie’s face rose from her hiding place, red and flushed with shame. “I know! It’s not fair on you I know that I know it but I can’t help— it’s like I still can’t get away from him, like he’s still doing this to me and I don’t know why— I just— I want to run, I want to go, I don’t want to be— don’t—”

“Brrrrrffffrrrr!” Tenny made an agitated sound, one of the loudest I’d ever heard from her, a feathery trilling which made the floor resonate beneath my feet, like the house was in the grip of a very sudden, short, fluffy thunderstorm. I think I heard somebody downstairs drop something in surprise, but then Tenny was launching herself at the bed in a bundle of whipping tentacles and fuzzy wing fluff.

“Yes, yes, give her a hug,” I said, feeling a bit useless as Tenny squirmed against Lozzie’s side. “That’s … that’s for the best right now. Let’s all … calm down. Yes.”

I allowed myself a big sigh as Tenny wrapped Lozzie in a hug, using both her humanoid arms and all her tentacles too. She even tangled their legs together, and then started to purr that deep, resonant thrum of healing and relaxation, like a huge cat with an injured friend. Lozzie sniffed and managed to stop crying, allowed Tenny to cradle her head, and hung on to her soft fur like a baby marsupial clinging to a mother.

Part of me wanted to join in; the rest of me knew I needed to press on. We weren’t out of the woods yet.

“Lozzie … I … look, the last thing I wanted to do was make you scared or intimidate you.”

Lozzie shook her head, still buried in Tenny. “No. Didn’t.”

“We do still need to—” I slammed on the brakes and tried to recalibrate. “There’s … certain subjects we should maybe, probably—”

“We need to talk,” Lozzie said for me, small and reedy. She raised red-rimmed eyes and sniffed hard. “I get it, I get it, I do, I get it.”

“Lozzie, Lozzie, please don’t say it like that, it’s nothing to be afraid of. I don’t want to scare you. Look, I can put my—”

I started to roll my trio of tentacles away, intending to tuck the pneuma-somatic additions back inside myself, back into their state as phantom limbs.

“No!” Lozzie wriggled a hand out of the cuddle-mass and waved it at me, with a delicate little frown on her face. “They’re pretty! Rainbows are pretty!”

“Noooo,” Tenny imitated in a fluttery trill.

“I-I thought I might be intimidating—”

“Nnnnnn!” Lozzie made a frustrated noise, more Tenny than human, and waggled her free hand at me, boneless and floppy. She puffed out her cheeks — and that was when I knew we were probably going to be okay.

“What?” I almost laughed. “Lozzie, you’re going to have to tell me what that gesture means. Use words, please.”

“Give! Give give!”

“That’s a word, I suppose,” I sighed.

I extended a tentacle out toward Lozzie and she took it in both hands, hugging my extra limb to her chest and nuzzling it like a plush toy. The sensation made me want to curl up and go to sleep. My eyelids grew heavy.

“Maybe we should just take a nap together … ” I said.

Lozzie shook her head. “It’s my fault and I’m sorry, you’re not a scary person, you’re the opposite of scary. Anti-scary auntie Heather with no scary or spiky or dangerous parts.”

“I’d say I have a few spikes and dangerous parts,” I sighed. “Sometimes literally.”

“But never pointed at me,” Lozzie said. I had the distinct impression she was talking to herself. Her words were an affirmation.

“But never pointed at you,” I repeated after her.

Lozzie nodded slowly. Her heavy-lidded eyes took a circuitous route of the bedroom she shared with Tenny, over the low table covered with toys and mathematics puzzles and books of increasing complexity, over the controllers Tenny had abandoned, and the few random clothes draped over the back and seat of a chair — almost all of those were borrowed from me or Raine or Evelyn. Lozzie herself owned so little, only the clothes she had arrived in from Outside, and my affection. Her eyes lingered briefly on the mobile phone we’d given her, on the little bedside table alongside an empty glass of water, a stick of lip salve, and a crumpled up wrapper from a cereal bar. I knew from experience the only numbers in her phone were ours — mine, Raine’s, Evelyn’s. For emergencies.

Her hand tightened on Tenny’s fur as her eyes found mine again.

“This is my fault too,” I said. “It’s taken me three days to find the courage to come talk to you, that shouldn’t happen, I feel like a coward. I’m not even going to raise my voice at you. I’m sorry for doing that, out there, back when … ” My eyes drifted to Tenny, who was staring at me with all the innocent curiosity of a child, soaking up information like a sponge. “Is this really something for Tenny’s ears?”

“Whyyyyy?” Tenny trilled, tilting her head back and forth. “Why not me?”

“Um, not that I’m going to do anything bad to Lozzie, I promise. Just that Lozzie and I are going to talk about scary things, but not scary to each other. It might give you nightmares.”

“Heathy,” Lozzie said softly, though she was watching Tenny’s eyes. “She’s not a human child and she’s growing sooo fast. Can’t keep everything from Tenns forever because she learns really quickly and she already knows half of what’s going on just by listening to us and thinking. She does a lot of that, a lot of thinking in ways we haven’t got and it’s how she’s so good at so many different things.”

“Haaa!” Tenny made a happy noise, well aware that she was being praised.

“Yes, and that’s always very impressive,” I said, “but we’re going to talk about … well … deaths that might have happened, but didn’t. And the Eye.”

“Eye,” Tenny echoed. “Eye know. I know. Bbbbbrrrrttt.”

“You do?” I asked.

“Tenny, Tenn-Tenns,” Lozzie murmured pet names, stroking and ruffling the fur on Tenny’s head. Tenny let out a deep purr and closed her eyes like a cat. “Tenns, are you listening to me very carefully?” Tenny’s eyes snapped back open. “Heathy and I have to do a big serious time talk, because we did a big thing together, aaaaaand I made a mistake.”

“Mistake?” Tenny’s head tilted to the side. “Mistake?

“Mmmhmm. I tried to help auntie Heathy but she thinks I shouldn’t have done it because it was a bad and dangerous thing to do and it was a mistake and everyone makes mistakes.”

“No,” I sighed gently. “It’s not as simple as that.”

Lozzie’s heavy-lidded eyes found me again, skittish with fresh nerves. “It’s not?”

“No, of course not.” I shook my head. “Lozzie, you … you did do the right thing, but you did it for reasons you should have shared with me.” I glanced at Tenny, at her quiet, innocent listening. “You should have told me how you were feeling, after Badger came to apologise to you. If you had doubts, or disagreed with what we were doing, that’s fine. But you should have told me. You could have sat it out.”

“No I couldn’t! You would have been hurt!” Lozzie turned to Tenny. “She would have been hurt!”

“Huuurrr … tuh?” Tenny echoed, big black eyes bouncing back and forth between Lozzie and me. Was she following this without context? How much did she know?

“Maybe Badger wouldn’t have made it,” I said slowly, “but that’s not the problem. That part was good, and thank you, and well done. But … Lozzie, you put me right in front of the Eye, without warning, with no plan, and I … ”

My voice began to quiver with a memory of terror and a rekindled spark of anger, so I swallowed it all down and trailed off into silence. Lozzie had put me in front of the Eye, that was no angry lie of self-justification. No warning, no plan, no protection except what I ended up summoning. In the end that decision had proved fruitful beyond my wildest hopes, but it hadn’t been her decision to make.

Lozzie’s eyes went wide — well, as wide as they could go with her sleepy lids.

“Oh,” was all she said.

I took a deep, steadying breath. “I would still like to talk to you, just the two of us. And it doesn’t matter how angry I am, I would never hurt you. You know that, don’t you? I love you.”

Lozzie’s lips shook, unable to form any words. Then her head snapped up, eyes in full focus, as if dragged taut by internal puppet strings.

“Can we talk Outside?” she asked.

I boggled at her, quietly stunned. “ … but the dead hands, I haven’t—”

“Exactly!” Lozzie slapped the bedsheets. Tenny let out a surprised maaaa! “You won’t let me go.”

“W-what? Lozzie, no, I—”

“It’s been days and you still haven’t done it, you’ve got everything you need and you haven’t done it, you haven’t even tried. Please! And I won’t run off, I promise I won’t run off, I promise, I promise, I just want to be there and we can talk and I won’t feel like this. For real, I promise, I won’t go away and I won’t run. Just open the cage door, please, I won’t fly off. I won’t.”

Lozzie panted softly after her outburst, face fallen far from her usual elfin joy. Heavy eyes pleaded with me, exhausted by days of stress and tension, afraid that I would imprison her deeper, as punishment for her transgression.

She’d spent most of her life in a cult. Taken out of school, isolated, subjected to her parents’ bizarre choices, and then fed to the bare spark of a fallen godling. But even after her personal alliance with the star beneath the castle, she’d been dragged back to a cage of stone and mist, punished for escape with lack of friends, lack of contact, lack of a life. And now, finally living among friends who cared for her, she couldn’t go outdoors, couldn’t go anywhere alone, didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Everything I was doing was aggravating her trauma.

“Right now?” I asked.

Lozzie nodded, desperate, pleading. “And we can talk anywhere, anywhere you like, we’ll go somewhere cool, somewhere really cool, somewhere you’d like.”

“Anywhere is fine,” I said. “The dead hands, then. I suppose it’s time I gave them a shot.”

I forced a smile I didn’t really feel. Once Lozzie was Outside under her own power, who knew if she’d ever come back?

==

I stared into the bottom of the blue plastic bucket in my lap, and felt like I was staring into the mouth of a tunnel. A bricked up tunnel that I was about to force open with a sledgehammer and a pneumatic drill before striding into the dripping darkness. My stomach was clenched up tight and cold sweat had broken out down my back, in anticipation of familiar old pain and unfamiliar obstacles.

“All right,” I said out loud, trying and failing to sound confident. “I think I’m ready.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. She was sitting in a chair next to the table in the workshop. “Once more, I would like to register my significant discomfort that you are doing this by yourself.”

“Gotta agree there,” Raine said from the other side of the ex-drawing room, lounging against the wall with her arms folded. “Can’t stop you though.”

I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve done this more times than I can count.”

“Not while fighting mystery ghost hands you haven’t,” Evelyn said, seriously unimpressed. “First rule of dealing with the unknown when it comes to magic: don’t. That includes mystery ghost hands. In fact, I’d say it explicitly refers to things like mystery ghost hands.”

“Well,” I sighed. “Don’t try is not an option.”

“You sound like Raine,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Ha! She does, doesn’t she?” Raine agreed with a grin. “Can’t help but admire that, you know? I’ve rubbed off on you, Heather. Makes you invincible, like me.”

“Don’t distract her with flirting,” Evelyn hissed. “That is the last thing we need. If she must do this, let her bloody well concentrate.”

“Indeed,” I said, allowing a sardonic edge to creep into my voice. That finally shut the pair of them up.

Quiet fell on the magical workshop, broken by Tenny’s soft purring and the thudding of my heart like a dove caged behind my ribs. The special magic circles from the weekend had been cleared away and disposed of, too stained with blood for preservation, and the floorboards beneath me were freshly scrubbed with detergent and steel wool. Praem had done a wonderful job cleaning up, and I hoped the bucket would prevent the need for a repeat performance.

“Heather knows what she’s doing,” Lozzie said from over on the sofa. “She does!”

She was sitting cross-legged too, wiggling her knees and toes with nervous energy. When I looked up from the bucket, she nodded at me like a bobble-head in a hurricane, and Tenny purred from next to her with wordless encouragement, though I wasn’t sure if Tenny understood what she was encouraging. Half of Tenny’s silken black tentacles waved in the air and the other half were wrapped around Lozzie’s shoulders.

Evelyn cleared her throat. “At least take Praem with you. You’ve taken her before, you know it’s safe, and the journey barely affects her.”

Praem was standing in her customary position just behind and to the side of Evelyn’s chair, dressed not in her maid uniform, but wearing a blue ribbed polo neck sweater and a long skirt. None of us questioned why some days were maid dress days and others were not. I assumed it was just whatever Praem felt like. Praem turned her head as if to acknowledge Evelyn’s suggestion, then looked at me with silent, impassive intensity.

“I need to do this by myself,” I repeated for the sixth time in the last twenty minutes. “I don’t know what the dead hands could do, it might be dangerous for anybody alongside me.”

“It might be dangerous for you. What if you pass out on the other side?”

“I won’t. Not with this going.” I gestured downward with my eyes, at my own abdomen beneath the dark pink of my scaled hoodie. I had two control rods all the way out of the bioreactor; more than enough excess power to keep myself conscious and upright, and to fuel the return equation, even with three tentacles manifested. I would not get stranded or spend an hour face down beneath alien skies. My tentacles would help me deal with any unexpected company. All three were tucked in tight against my body, wrapped around an arm and my waist, waiting to stop me from collapsing onto my back in the worst case scenario. I was dressed for the trip, in hoodie and jeans and shoes, wrapped up warm and secure, taking this seriously. “And I’m going to go somewhere safe, anyway,” I added.

Safe,” Evelyn scoffed.

“Well, yes, fair enough,” I said. “Safe by Outside standards.”

“It is safe!” Lozzie insisted. “There’s nothing there that isn’t mine! It’s where I always used to go for loooots of peace and quiet and it’s definitely safe now with all the stuff I left there so Heather won’t even be alone, she’ll be fine, super fine, lots of protection, extra protection!”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed, “I get it, fine.” She glared over my head. “I can’t believe you’re okay with this, Raine. Where’s all your protective habits gone when we actually need them? Aren’t you supposed to … tch!” She tutted and waved a hand toward me.

Raine shrugged and cracked a grin. “I trust Heather. And hey, I trust Lozzie too. If she says there’s more of her shiny boys over there, I trust them to look out for Heather if anything goes wrong. Which it won’t.”

“Evelyn,” I said softly, “if I try to take Praem but I can’t beat the hands, there’s a risk she could end up Outside without me. Stranded. I know I can get out, Slip, transition, whatever, but Praem can’t. I won’t ask anybody to run that risk.”

Evelyn opened her mouth but came up short. She glanced at Praem, swallowed, and let out a huge huff. “I wish we were doing this with the bloody gate instead.”

Lozzie let out a soft whine.

“The gate isn’t the point,” I said. “Freedom is the point.” I took a deep breath. “I’m ready now, there’s no point delaying, so I’m going to do this. The sooner I try, the sooner we can find out if it works. If it doesn’t, then you’ll know, because I’ll still be right here and vomiting into this bucket. If it does work, then I’ll come straight back, as soon as I’ve recovered. That will take a few minutes, at most. Five at the maximum, I’d estimate. And then I’ll … ”

My stomach filled with butterflies as I glanced over at Lozzie’s expectant excitement. Cold sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back, and my chest tightened in a way that had nothing to do with the embrace of my tentacles.

I wasn’t afraid of pain, and I wasn’t worried about this going wrong. I was barely concerned about confronting the dead hands — either they yielded, or they didn’t. No, I was afraid of keeping my promise to Lozzie.

The silver lining was that I didn’t expect this to work — but I still had to make a good faith attempt, not just go through the motions. For Lozzie.

“Don’t try to follow me,” I told her, out loud, but I hadn’t planned to say any of this. “Please. Just in case something goes wrong, or I’m still dealing with the hands or something. Just wait for me to get back. We’ll go together.”

Please don’t leave without saying goodbye, I thought.

Lozzie nodded, smiling wide, all friendly and happy and insensible to my fears.

“Good luck,” Praem intoned from behind Evelyn. “Come home soon.”

“I … I will, thank you Praem. Won’t be a minute.”

As soon as I said those word, I wished I hadn’t.

I looked down into the bucket again, ready to be violently ill, and plunged both my hands into the tarry black swamp down at the bottom of my soul. Out came the familiar old equation, dark and dripping and oily, the one I could self-implement without even thinking. I had done so over and over again, year after year as a scared, confused teenager, slipping in and out of reality with no understanding of what was happening to me. The most elemental, simple equation I had, the one which had become part of me.

Out.

Reality folded up into a kaleidoscope of swirling colours. I slammed my eyes shut — and felt those cold, boney hands close around my ankles. Unwelcome anchors, to keep my feet rooted on this side of the membrane.

Of course, they weren’t really hands, and they weren’t really boney. If they were, Raine could have broken their wrists with a good stomp and spared us all this difficulty. ‘Boney hands’ was merely the easiest way of translating the mathematical principles into human-readable sensation.

This time I was ready. Before I toppled forward like an unwary animal caught by a bear trap, I reached down with my own thoughts, with an equation unfolding like a flower of razor blades. A dozen tentacles split into tools to flense and pare and skin and debone, to crack joints and syphon marrow, to act like crushing vices and dilating jaws, to free my ankles by force and break a lot of fingers in the process. And if the hands fought back, I was ready to sip from the abyss, ready to test myself to the limit.

But before I could touch them, the hands let go.

They released my ankles and sank back into the membrane between realities. Unwilling to fight, or unwilling to risk injury — or unwilling to be analysed for what they really were?

Suddenly unobstructed, the equation completed.

Out I went.

==

Warm wind caressed my face, carrying a scent not unlike cinnamon and camphor; soft purple light brushed the exterior of my closed eyelids; velvety grass cushioned my thighs and backside. I’d arrived sitting, for once, so I didn’t fall over with nausea and weakness and the shock of the Slip.

The blue plastic bucket in my lap had made the transition with me. That was lucky, because it didn’t matter how much power my bioreactor was creating — executing a hyperdimensional equation still felt like turning my brain inside out and dunking it in molten metal, and I very much needed to be sick. I shook and shivered as waves of headache slammed through my skull, and clenched my stomach muscles in an effort to stop myself from vomiting. I clung to the bucket as I spat stringy bile, heaving for breath, comforting myself with a hug from my tentacles. My vision throbbed black around the edges when I opened my eyes, but the bioreactor ensured that I was far from the mercy of unconsciousness. I had to ride this out.

As I sat there whining on that hillside of soft yellow grass, I realised I hadn’t actually been prepared for the pain. I hadn’t expected this to work.

I certainly hadn’t expected the hands to give up.

“Ugh. Tricked me,” I croaked, sniffing back a nosebleed as I watched a few droplets of crimson splash into the bucket. “Why? Doesn’t make any sense … ”

I couldn’t stay mad though. Pain was fleeting compared to the sight of this place.

Dark yellow grass — natural yellow, not Sevens yellow, though I could not have quantified exactly how I recognised the distinction — coated the gentle hillsides which unrolled all the way to the horizon, creating a landscape like heaped blankets. The wind carried the spiced scent of the grass on the air. The sky was a dome of night, yet not dark, but lit with whorls and spirals of bruised purple, not close enough to be clouds but not far away enough to be the void dust of a nebula; I suspected this planet, this plane, whatever it was, was ringed with glowing belts of material which did not exist in our reality. A pair of moons hung further out, one the colour of old emerald, the other a pale cream, like raw chalk.

This was the first place Lozzie had ever taken me in the dreams. This was where I’d met her, where I’d learnt her name and seen her face, and where she’d begun to show me that Outside was not all bad all the time.

Lozzie had not exaggerated; this plane was peaceful and quiet — or at least this small part of it was — but when I’d visited before, my perceptions been cushioned by dream logic.

As I picked myself up off the grass and unrolled my trio of tentacles, I realised how alien this place was.

Lozzie hadn’t mentioned that. Perhaps it wasn’t, to her.

Silence reigned in this place, except for the almost imperceptible whisper of warm wind through the grass. No birdsong, no animals, no distant sounds of civilisation. It was not the silence of Carcosa, which smothered sounds with unnatural force, but simple emptiness and quiet. The purple light from the whirls in the sky made no sense, creating a permanent twilight of strange colours — was this grass actually yellow? When I looked at the arm of my hoodie, it seemed darker than normal. I reached down to touch the grass and it didn’t feel like grass should. Too thick, too rubbery. Even breathing felt different, as if my lungs were stronger, easier to fill.

Compared to the immensity of the Library of Carcosa, or the blasted post-apocalyptic landscape of Wonderland, the quiet plain was nothing. But it was absolutely not Earth, not our reality. I was over the rainbow and far away.

The horizon seemed very distant in all directions, featureless except for the undulating hills, though far off to my right I could see indistinct shapes which looked sort of like the outline of a city if I squinted, skyscrapers or towers or perhaps walls. There were no other landmarks.

Except for Lozzie’s knights.

This was where she’d been keeping them.

The most double-safe place where there’s nothing and nobody and everything finished happening a loooong time ago, so they can just rest and think and not have to worry! They worry too, you know, if they have to think about stuff when I’m not there to tell them what to do but that’s okay because I made them safe!

That’s what she’d said, and I believed her, but that didn’t make the sight of them any less bizarre.

The knights were spread out over the nearby yellow grass hillsides in a rough circle, like an army in conference, voting on their next campaign.

“Round table?” I mused out loud. My voice carried, far away across the hills.

Every one of them was sealed inside head-to-toe chrome armour, huge plates of mirror-finish metal, though I knew better than to assume it was mere steel. The few visible seams and joints gave away the sheer thickness of that plate, six or seven inches of protection. And even that hadn’t stood up to the Eye for more than few seconds.

Each knight was easily as tall as Zheng. None of their helmets showed eye holes or even a grille for breathing, faceless. But they were not all identical. Some were shorter or taller than others, some bulkier or thinner, some with armour that seemed more graceful and lithe. Many had unique suits of armour, with fluting or additional plates or differently shaped helmets. A few were even overweight, the armour bulging out to contain their paunches or wider hips, though it was difficult if not impossible to assign a gender to any of them. Many were armed the same as the two I’d seen in action, with a huge tower shield and a lance bigger and heavier than any human knight had ever carried, but others held different weapons locked in their metal gauntlets — two-handed swords, maces as tall as a person, weird bill-hook polearms that looked as if they were for cracking armour. Several wielded what I think were meant to be crossbows, if crossbows were made of metal and designed by an alien with no understanding of human physical limits or number of hands.

Some stood to attention, gazing upward, others knelt as if in prayer; a few lay flat on their backs, hands over their chests; many sat cross-legged, as if deep in meditation.

None of them moved an inch. A field of statues.

I stopped counting somewhere between forty and fifty, and that was only a third of the circle. I knew my Arthurian literary tradition, so I could make an educated guess.

“A hundred and forty eight left, Lozzie?” I murmured a sigh for the two we’d lost. Died protecting us. The fact they weren’t all identical made that worse. Whatever Lozzie had done here — and I did intend to ask her about the details — these were living creatures inside those shells of imperishable metal.

I realised one of them was looking at me; facing me, in fact. I hadn’t seen it move, so it must have been facing me when I arrived. I stared back at it, though the helmet lacked even blank eye holes to gaze into. More impassive than even Praem.

“Thank you,” I said out loud, feeling awkward, though the words were important. “Thank you for the sacrifices of your comrades.”

I jumped when the knight responded, though it moved so very slowly. It dipped helmet, shield, and lance, and sank to one knee, head bowed in private prayer. None of the others moved, and the knight stopped once it assumed its new position, head bowed in my direction.

“Oh, don’t pray to me,” I whispered. “Not even the Eye is really a god.”

The knight did not stand up.

However, I didn’t have time to debate theology with creatures that probably couldn’t talk. I had promised my friends I would be gone less than five minutes, and the last thing I wanted to do was send Raine into a panic. I sighed and began to sit down again, my tentacles reaching out to steady me. I tried not to contemplate the possibility that Lozzie might already be gone before I got back.

That’s when I saw the skull.

Lozzie’s goat skull mask lay about twelve feet behind me. I hadn’t seen it until I’d glanced back. For a moment I didn’t know what I was looking at, but then I remembered — she’d been wearing it the very first time we’d met, when Raine and Twil and I had run into her, alongside the core of the Sharrowford Cult in that underground car park. Then, here in the dream when she’d spoken to me properly, she’d taken it off to reveal her real face.

Curious, though stretching my self-imposed time limit, I went over to the mask, reached down with a tentacle, and picked it up.

It was a real skull, the bone old and yellowed, though the surface had been sanded and waxed, or rendered smooth through some other process. The inside was padded with leather straps and foam to create a comfortable fit for a human head. Two stubby horns swept backward, their points blunted for safety or aesthetics.

I frowned into the empty eye sockets. The skull felt far too light, the eyes were positioned incorrectly for a goat — too central, so as to make good eye holes for the person wearing it as a mask — and there was something wrong about the proportions.

“Goats don’t grow this large,” I said to Lozzie, though she wasn’t here. “And you took this off in a dream. How is this real?”

When you live in a world of magic and monsters, when you know the secret truths below the surface of reality, you come to learn there are some questions not worth answering. I sighed and shrugged, tucked the skull under my arm, and began to equation to return home.

Out.

==

Lozzie was on me the moment I felt the solid wood of home beneath my feet, as a cloud of blonde hair and a pair of eyes like fire-lit sapphires.

“I couldn’t follow!” she chirped. “I couldn’t follow you, Heathy, it didn’t work! It didn’t work!”

“I told you— not—” I croaked, smiling with relief even as I clutched my stomach and clenched hard to hold on to my lunch. “Nnnuuhh … ”

“Heath!” Tenny trilled from behind Lozzie, black tentacles reaching past her in confused panic.

Luckily enough, Raine was on me too. She caught me under the arms as I flailed for her support, clinging on hard as blood dripped from my nose.

“Still here,” I panted through the taste of bile as my vision throbbed dark around the edges. “Still here, Loz. Good.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Raine murmured. “I’ve got you, Heather, I’ve got you. Well done, well done, you did it. Knew you could.”

“You left the bloody bucket behind!” Evelyn said. “And what is that?” She gestured at the skull hanging from one of my hands, her voice dripping with sarcasm. I would have felt hurt, but I knew her ire came from a place of worry after all those long minutes waiting for me to return from Outside. “Did you do a trade? Are we now on a fetch quest chain that somehow ends with the book we need? What do we trade with Edward, a bullet?”

“Fetch quest?” I echoed, utterly confused.

Raine, ever a good sport and able to adapt to almost anything, didn’t even comment as I instinctively wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders, hanging off her like a squid lashed to a rock in a strong current. Her eyes widened slightly, but she smiled for me. “Fuckin’ cool,” she said with a wink, and I knew what she meant.

“It’s my hat!” Lozzie shrieked with excitement, clapping her hands together in glee and bouncing from foot to foot, her frustration briefly forgotten.

I offered her the over-sized goat skull. Lozzie did a little twirling curtsy with her poncho before she accepted it from my hand. She grinned wide at the empty eye sockets like greeting an old friend, then quickly turned it around and slipped it on over her head. The gnarled old bone swallowed her face. She looked out at me from deep within the eye sockets, her beautiful blue eyes encased in shadow and bone.

“Oh,” I breathed.

“It’s so pretty, I know! Isn’t it pretty? I know it’s kind of weird and boney, but I love things like this it’s so prettyyyyy!”

Lozzie’s words came out warped by the bones of something that had probably not been a real goat, at least not an earthly one. The weight of the mask, the odd proportions with the rest of her body, the sweeping horns, and the way her wispy waterfall of blonde hair flowed down and out of the back; it all combined together to create a disquieting impression of some fey creature. Something distinctly non-human. Something you might meet in a ring of mushrooms, which would ask you a dangerous riddle with the voice of a songbird, then steal your name and face just for a lark.

All my fears about Lozzie vanishing came crashing back.

Sometimes I forgot. Lozzie was a person, a beautiful one, and important to me. But she was far from a human being. I knew that, I’d seen it up close.

“Lozzzzzz?” went Tenny, backing away, slightly unsure.

“It’s me, it’s just me!” Lozzie pulled the front of the mask up to show Tenny her face beneath. “Still me under here, Tenn-Tenns, helloooo.”

“Fttttpppp,” Tenny trilled, apparently satisfied, patting the skull with a tentacle. Lozzie let the mask fall down over her face again.

“I take it the mystery hands didn’t pose much of a problem in the end, then?” Evelyn asked, frowning sidelong as Lozzie capered from foot to foot. “And that you reached your intended destination? Didn’t look too different compared to when you did it under controlled conditions before.”

“Very elegant,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn frowned at her with a little sigh, but Praem ignored the look, raised her hands, and gave me a tiny round of delicate applause.

“Yes. It worked,” I croaked, nodding a thank you to Raine as I managed to stand straight on my own two feet. She handed me a tissue to wipe my nosebleed. The bioreactor thrummed with power inside my abdomen, pushing energy into my muscles, though I still felt terribly nauseated.

“No!” Lozzie chirped. “It didn’t!”

“ … it … it did, for me, anyway. The hands just gave up as soon as I threatened to fight. Oh,” I said, breaking off as Raine pressed a glass of cold water into my hands. “Thank you, thank—”

“Drink,” Raine said. I obeyed.

“It didn’t work for me!” Lozzie said, tugging the goat skull off her face and swinging it by one of the horns. “I tried to follow but they were still there and they held on and I hate them, I really really hate them, it was awful and … ” Lozzie stopped and sniffed, taking a deep breath, and I realised she was genuinely shaken by the experience.

“Yes,” Evelyn said, voice suddenly tight, frowning at me in puzzled concern. “She screamed, in fact. Sit down, Lozzie, it’s going to be all right,” she tried to sound reassuring, but she wasn’t the best at that while also distracted by a worrying puzzle. “We’ll figure it out. Heather, what was that you just said?”

I finished draining my glass of water. “Lozzie, I did ask you not to follow me.”

“I was just so excited … ” Her face fell into a sad smile, cheeks puffed out. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you and—”

“Heather,” Evelyn almost snapped, holding herself back by the skin of her teeth. “You said the hands just gave up?”

I blinked at her, then nodded. “Yes. I thought it was strange too.”

“Very,” Evelyn said, meaning Uh oh.

“That means it’s not just some kind of automatic process or a natural phenomenon,” I said. “Whatever mind lies behind them is intelligent enough to know I could overpower it.”

Evelyn stared at me, then looked at Lozzie, then cleared her throat. Lozzie bit her lower lip. “We still have no evidence,” Evelyn said. She left the second part of that sentence unspoken.

We still have no evidence it’s Alexander.

“But … ” Lozzie paused, which was rare, then wet her lips with a dart of pink tongue, turning to me as she visibly brightened. “But we can get Outside now! You can take me, we can go together!”

“Lozzie, I’m not sure. I … ”

“But we were supposed to go together anyway!” she chirped. “The whole point was to talk, right? I promise promise promise I’ll be better out there, please, pleeeeease! And we can talk, I’ll listen. It’ll be okay, Heathy. You can take me.”

I put my hands up in awkward, embarrassed surrender, shamed by the depth and desperation of her need. “Okay, okay, Lozzie, okay.”

“Right now?” Raine asked, low and soft, raising an eyebrow at me. “Aren’t you a bit worn out?”

“Best to strike while the iron is hot,” I said, butterflies in my stomach, though I could not tell what made me more nervous — the prospect of a serious talk with Lozzie, her answers to my questions about her knights, or the prospect she might go skipping off Outside the moment I guided her through the membrane. “Plus, no, I can never be worn out again, remember?”

“No, you totally can,” Raine said. “You’re still you, nuclear power plant in your belly or not.”

“I need to talk to Lozzie now,” I whispered. “As soon as possible. We need to.”

Raine sighed, but smiled. “Don’t stay out there too long, okay?”

“I promise.”

“This is a bad idea,” Evelyn said. “A bad idea. You hear me?”

But Lozzie was having none of it. She dropped the goat skull mask over her face again and skipped right up to me, leaving Tenny behind in a confused cloud of tentacles. She grabbed my hands and swung them from side to side.

“Let’s gooooo!” she said from inside the mask, voice a ghostly echo beneath the bone.

“Have a safe trip,” Praem intoned. Evelyn shot her a frown. Raine laughed.

“Let’s go!” Lozzie chirped. “Heather, please! Please!”

“Brrrrt?” Tenny made a curious noise, reaching out with a cautious tentacle.

“W-what about Tenny?” I asked.

Lozzie tilted her goat skull mask to one side. It was like talking to an imp, horns and all. “Mmmm-mmm. Just me this time.” She turned the goat skull’s eye sockets on Tenny. “Be good, Tenns! I’ll show you fun places, I promise-promise double promise, but not right now, you have to stay here and be very good for auntie Raine and auntie Evee, okay?”

“ … brrrrrrrr?” Tenny retracted her tentacles. She looked very uncertain, a mirror to how I felt.

Lozzie turned back to me. “Let’s go! Wheee!”

Why was I so afraid? Why hadn’t I been this scared when Lozzie had come with us to Carcosa? Because back then, she’d had a task to focus on, a reason to help us with a specific goal. But now she was desperate for the air beyond the bars.

I couldn’t deny her.

“Hold on tight,” I said. My voice shook.

Out.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Badger lived, but only just.

I was mercifully out cold during the mundane panic which followed the emergency brain surgery. While I was busy being unconscious and Raine was calling an ambulance, Badger slipped into a coma.

I didn’t get the whole story until that evening, when I woke up in my own bed, groggy and cotton-mouthed, feeling like I’d been run over by a road roller. But then I had to distill the events from Lozzie and Praem, two widely divergent outputs from a game of telephone, which stretched all the way across the city to Sharrowford General Hospital.

Praem had been watching over me while I slept, and she was more interested in making sure I stayed hydrated, in trying to feed me dinner, and tracking my painkiller intake, than in explaining to me what had happened or where everyone else had gotten to.

“But he’s alive?” I’d croaked.

“Alive.”

“ … and?”

“Alive is good.” She raised another spoonful of rice and soft vegetables to my mouth. “Another bite.”

“But-”

“Another bite.”

I chewed and swallowed like a good girl. It was very awkward eating while those milk-white eyes watched me chew — let alone while resisting the urge to pluck the spoon from her hand with one of my tentacles.

I’d woken up with three of them still fully manifested in rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic flesh, two on my left flank, one on my right hip. They were still drawing on the steady, unbroken thrum of power from the bioreactor in my abdomen, with one of the control rods all the way out. Invisible to normal eyes, beautiful and elegant and slightly clumsy, they almost had a mind of their own, following my will before each impulse registered in my conscious mind. They pushed the sheets back before my arms could get there, fumbled my mobile phone off the bedside table, and awkwardly patted Praem on the lap in a gesture of twinned frustration and gratitude. Praem’s milk-white eyes flickered as she followed them; she, after all, could see exactly where they were.

“But I have to get up,” I croaked. “I have to—”

“Raine said to look after you,” Praem told me in her sing-song, silver-bell voice. “So looking after you, I am.”

Lozzie, on the other hand, zoomed at a million miles an hour. I gave her a tentacle to hug, but that didn’t slow her down.

“—and then Raine called again because he woke up but he was trying to tell the doctors things that weren’t true but she had to step in but they didn’t believe him because it was all slurred and silly which was lucky—”

But then Lozzie made herself oddly scarce as soon as I came round to full consciousness and finished eating. She rattled around in the kitchen, trying to clean her blood-soaked poncho in the washing machine, and apparently teaching Tenny how to bake a cake, with Whistle trotting around at their heels, eager for scraps and very interested in random petting from Tenny’s silky black tentacles. The result, which I didn’t witness until the next morning, used no less than five different colours of food dye. Tenny informed me it was a “clown cake”, and that clowns were bad, but cake was good.

Eventually, Praem let me get up, and I wandered out into the dark corridor, propelled more by the three tentacles than my shaky legs. They reached out to touch the floor and walls; I felt like an octopus wriggling along the inside of a tube, deliciously alien and correct, for once.

Despite everything, despite the exhaustion, a small smile crept onto my face.

Evelyn turned out to be the only other person left in the house. She was having a lie down in her bedroom, in the dark, but not truly asleep. Propped up on the pillows, prosthetic leg removed, she cracked open bloodshot eyes and looked me up and down as I gently pushed her door open. In the deep shadows of the house at evening, she was just another indistinct lump on the bed.

“You’re looking less bruised than I expected,” she grumbled.

“Evee, I’m so sorry to wake you,” I said through the crack in the door. “I just … everything’s really quiet, everyone’s gone, and I’m feeling a little shell shocked here. If you want, I can—”

“No, no,” Evelyn grumbled, shifting against the pillows. “You come here, you idiot, I want to see you’re okay. Besides, you didn’t wake me, I’m too tired to sleep.”

I stepped into her bedroom. “ … that sounds like a paradox.”

“Not for me.” Evelyn sat up with a low wheeze of pain, a shadow detaching itself from the pillowy nest. “Be a dear, Heather, turn the lamp on, will you? Not the main lights, my eyes are feeling sensitive.”

I did as Evelyn asked. The bedside lamp threw soft, warm light over the hills and valleys of her piled bed covers, and revealed her tucked in the middle, squinting and blinking against the illumination. She looked so small and vulnerable amid the lilac and purple bedsheets, like a grub wrapped in protective layers of a cocoon that would never hatch. The matte black of her prosthetic leg stood next to the bed, a poor substitute for a real guard, and her mane of blonde hair was loose, badly in need of a brush. For a moment she seemed many decades older than her actual age, slow and creaky, but then she finished blinking and drew herself up as best she could, the fire of sharp intelligence returning to her eyes.

“Evee, are you okay?”

“Mmmm,” she grunted and shrugged. “That spell earlier took a lot out of me. I feel like I’m about eighty years old. Pass me that.” She gestured at a glass of water on the bedside table, and I pressed it into her hands. She didn’t take her eyes off me as she drank the whole glass and wiped her lips gently on the back of one hand.

“Evee?”

“Forget about me, Heather. The real question is are you okay? I wasn’t just being colourful, you really are less bruised than I expected, and you’re already up and moving.” She nodded at my flanks. “How are the tentacle anchor points?”

“Oh, um.” I looked down at myself. Somebody — Praem, obviously, because I couldn’t imagine Lozzie finding the requisite strength unless she was Outside — had cleaned the blood and vomit from my face, and changed me into some of my own pajamas, loose and comfortable. I pulled the top up to expose my belly, expecting to find those massive, circular, stiffening bruises like normal. But the more controlled summoning of my tentacles had left only a series of large red rings around the bases of the three I currently had manifested, raised and irritated, as if I’d been slapped, or stung by nettles. I marvelled at them for a moment.

Perhaps it wasn’t the summoning that left the bruises at all; maybe it was the loss, when they went away again.

“That’s new,” Evelyn said.

“Well … well, most of what I did was in my head. Or in Badger’s head.” I managed a terrible, weak, stupid laugh. Evelyn smiled a grim and rueful smile. “I am very tired though, I feel like I could go straight back to bed, but … ” I gestured at my own head. “Too much to think about. Badger is alive, yes?”

“Praem didn’t tell you?

“Well, yes, but between Praem and Lozzie … ” I waggled both hands either side of my head. One of my tentacles did a loop in the air too, but Evelyn couldn’t see that.

“He’s breathing. In the hospital, with Raine and Sarika. Raine’s been calling every hour with an update, but mostly just to check if you’re awake yet. And your big zombie friend is off chasing the skin-golem that climbed out of Badger. She returned about an hour ago, took one look at you and made some comment about bringing you a trophy, then took off again. You won, Heather,” Evelyn sighed. “Excepting the fact we’re going to need to repair the front door, which is currently braced shut with a piece of wood. All in all, I’d call that acceptable losses.”

“Oh. Oh, okay, that’s all … all good. I mean, except the door.” I let out a huge sigh and felt a head rush coming on.

“Mm. Your legs are quivering.” Evelyn patted the bedsheets next to her. “Sit.”

With relief I hadn’t known I needed, I climbed up on the bed and leaned into the pillows next to Evelyn, taking deep breaths and watching my tentacles wave in the air. I had the most unaccountable urge to give Evelyn a hug, or just to touch her shoulder, or pat her hair. All those long seconds of subjective time fighting the cosmic pressure of the Eye’s gaze on some utterly inhuman barren rock had me touch-starved and desperate for normal, warm, human contact. If Raine had been there, I’d have demanded to be the little spoon, and if Lozzie hadn’t made herself scarce, I’d have asked to snuggle. With Evelyn, such liberties were always more difficult, but I sighed with instinctive relaxation at the shared human scent of her body next to mine.

“How do you feel?” she asked, slowly and carefully, as if I were made of blown glass.

“ … I don’t know,” I admitted to the ceiling. My tentacles waved like fronds of seaweed in an ocean current. “Saved a man’s life. How is that supposed to feel?”

“Heroic?” Evelyn managed a single heartbeat before she let out a humourless puff.

I echoed the sound. We both knew it didn’t feel that way.

“That’s not what I’m asking about, though, and you know it,” she went on, softly and slowly. “Lozzie came out of your … trance state, about two seconds before you did. That’s according to Praem’s count, by the way, so it’s accurate. Usually with you, it’s instant, but you lingered. With the Eye. Are you okay, Heather?”

“I stared back at it.”

Silence. Evelyn swallowed, far too hard. “Why?”

“Because I realised that’s what it is, how it is, the essence of its being,” I spoke to the ceiling, concealing a shudder in my voice, of awe and wonder. “And it’s what I am, too, what it’s been teaching me all along.” I turned on the pillows, to meet Evelyn’s gaze with my own. “I looked back into it, the way it looks at us, at … everything. I looked at it, Evee. You remember what that felt like, when it stared at us before, back in the Medieval Metaphysics room? I did that, back at it. On a much smaller scale, yes, but I did it. I looked back. I … I don’t know what that means.”

Evelyn frowned. Without warning she raised one hand and cupped my chin, bringing her face far too close to mine as she stared into my eyes, first the left, then the right.

“E-Evee … ?”

“Mm,” she grunted and let go of me. “You don’t look any different from where I’m sitting.”

“But—”

“You don’t look any different from where I’m sitting,” she repeated. “Understand?”

“ … well … good. I think.”

Evelyn nodded once, carefully, and then let out a big sigh. “I did tell Praem to get me as soon as you were awake. Where is she, anyway?”

“Taking dirty plates back downstairs. I slipped out while she was gone, actually. Pretty certain she wanted me to go straight back to sleep.”

“She’s being overzealous. Raine made her promise to look after you. Should have come gotten me.”

“Praem only let you rest because she cares about you,” I said.

Evelyn sighed. “That’s what I worry about. And where’s Lozzie?”

“Making a cake. Has she been acting funny?”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “Do bears shit in the woods? No more than usual. She left you alone? She was glued to you, that’s half the reason Raine even agreed to leave the house in the first place, she trusts Lozzie with you. Did something happen, while you were … ” she raised her hands and did little air-quotes, grimacing as she said, “calculating together?”

“No,” I said, then, “yes. Maybe. Oh, I don’t know. She … took the initiative.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“ … I yelled at her. Badly. Screamed my head off, in fact.”

Evelyn’s narrowed eyes deepened into a full blown frown, a searching, inquisitive squint of puzzled concern. “You, shouting at Lozzie?”

I sighed and buried my face in Evelyn’s pillow nest. “I know.”

“Did she deserve it?”

“Evee!”

“It’s a fair question. She can be extremely … Lozzie.”

I bit my lip. “Maybe. I haven’t exactly had time to process events yet.”

“Yes, no kidding,” Evelyn said, the nature of her frown changing. Her eyes alighted on mine once more, and I was no longer a complex problem to be unknotted. “Also, I’m sorry, ‘yelling’? How do you shout in hyperdimensional mathematics?”

“ … you don’t,” I muttered, more to myself than Evelyn. “Nothing that happened … happened. But it did, but it wasn’t this, or here, or like … this.” I raised my hand and flexed my fingers. “It wasn’t flesh, not for real.”

“Okay, now you’re sounding like Lozzie. Please don’t.”

I managed a small smile. “It happened. That’s all I can communicate, without dragging you there too.”

“Don’t do that either,” Evelyn said.

I snuggled in closer to the pillows. Before I realised what I was doing, I made an involuntary motion with one hand, a sort of blind tugging, as if trying to pull a blanket tighter around myself — but I was only wearing pajamas. It took a moment of confused staring at my own hand, a moment of slow neural connections re-linking and firing up, to realise that I’d tried to snuggle up inside Sevens’ yellow cloak.

The yellow gift still lay about my shoulders, an invisible, ghostly sensation, light as spider silk. But there was nothing there, either visible or pneuma-somatic, nothing for my tentacles to pluck at either, as one of them flapped at my collar, trying to find the substance of the fabric. It was similar to the phantom sensation of glasses still on one’s face, when one is too used to wearing them, only to reach up and discover they are not present.

Except the sensation of the cloak did not fade.

“ … Heather!” Evelyn hissed between her teeth.

“I’m sorry, what? What?” I looked up and found Evelyn had gone very still and very pale, wide eyes flicking between me and her own lap.

“Tell me this is you!” she hissed, breaking out in cold sweat.

One of my tentacles lay across her thighs like a lazily flopped-out arm, slowly curling into a hug around her hips. The mystery of Sevens’ cloak had distracted me so much that I hadn’t been paying attention to what my other tentacles were doing, let alone the subconscious desire to cuddle with Evelyn. Practice as I might, and ram the muscles themselves full of extra-biological sources of energy, I still lacked the multi-tasking brain power of a true octopus or squid.

I whipped the tentacle off Evelyn so fast it sent a spike of pain into my side.

“Yes, yes!” I spluttered. “Oh, goodness, I’m so sorry, yes, it’s me! It’s just me! I’m so sorry, Evee, I’m so sorry.”

Evelyn drew in a shaking breath, frowning at me like I’d just goosed her side or tickled her under the armpit without warning. “I do appreciate the … the … skin-ship, I suppose, but bloody well warn me if you’re going touch me at all, let alone with something invisible.”

“I didn’t mean to invade your personal space, it was an accident, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was putting my hands. Um. Not hands.”

“It wouldn’t be half so spooky if we could see the damn things.” Evelyn let out a huff, then paused with an odd frown on her face. A tip of pink tongue poked out from between the corner of her lips, a sure sign of her mind chewing a problem. “Wait here. Actually, no, I can’t be bothered to put my leg back on right now.” Her eyes searched me. “And you need rest. Where’s Praem when I need her, hmm?”

“Probably making sure Tenny doesn’t eat too much raw cake batter.”

“Coming,” a sing-song intonation like a struck bell rang out along the upstairs hallway, and a moment later we heard the sound of Praem’s gently clicking footfalls making their way up the stairs and across the floorboards. I turned to look over my shoulder as Praem appeared in the open doorway, prim and proper and perfect in her maid uniform, hands clasped before her.

Evelyn shot her a sharp frown. “I was speaking at normal volume. How good is your hearing?”

Milk-white eyes made it impossible to know where Praem was looking, but I was certain she stared at Evelyn.

“When you need, I am there,” she intoned.

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to hang on my every beck and call, you know? You can tell me to shut up if I’m being a bitch. I’ll get it myself, I should put my leg back on anyway.” Evelyn started to heave herself up into a proper sitting position, shifting toward me on the bed. “Pardon me, Heather.”

“Oh, no, Evee, I can go,” I said, starting to get up as well, my tentacles pushing up from the bed. “You’re all comfy, just let me—”

“I am already standing up,” Praem intoned.

“Let me just get my leg on,” Evelyn snapped, scooting forward on the bed as I moved out of the way. I noticed she was staring at a point on the floor, or perhaps at the corner of my hip, unable to meet Praem’s eyes.

“I am already standing up,” Praem repeated.

I froze, feeling like piggy-in-the-middle during a family spat.

Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “I said, let me—”

“Not stopping you,” Praem said.

“I am not an invalid, I am perfectly capable of getting out of bed and going downstairs.”

“You do not want to.”

“That is beside the point,” Evelyn hissed at Praem. “Don’t try to stop me from putting my damn leg back on. Anybody would think you were—”

Praem stepped forward, dropped to one knee next, and picked up Evelyn’s prosthetic leg; for a horrible moment I thought she was going to abscond with the artificial limb in some grotesque forced-infirmity behaviour. But all my fears were unfounded. She held the limb up, angled just right for Evelyn to slot the rubber socket onto her truncated thigh.

Evelyn went still, blushing ever so slightly in both cheeks. She couldn’t look at Praem. “You know I don’t need that,” she said.

“Put your leg on; I will get what you need.”

Evelyn sighed, but her voice came out softer than before. “The magnifying glass. It’s still on the table in the workshop. That, and the red pen, and the etching tool. And give me that.” She gestured in irritation. Praem pressed the prosthetic leg into Evelyn’s grip.

Praem stood, straightened, and marched back out of the room. I watched her go, then watched Evelyn in tense, self-conscious silence, as she pulled aside her dressing gown and wriggled the stump of her thigh into the rubber socket of her prosthetic leg, still blushing, concentrating especially hard — or pretending to concentrate — on the process she’d performed at least once a day for half her life.

She finished, stomped on the floor with her artificial foot, and shot me a frown. “Yes?”

“ … she only does it because she cares about you, Evee.”

“Tch, I know.”

“She loves you.”

“And she’s entitled to a life of her own. You make life, you accept that principle. If you don’t, you shouldn’t have the right. Makes you evil.” She took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh, I’m so bloody transparent, aren’t I?”

“A little.” I smiled. “But if you believe what you said, then you also have to respect her choice, to spend her time taking care of you and being your family—”

Family,” Evelyn hissed, almost as if she couldn’t believe the word. She shook her head.

“I thought you were getting used to the idea?”

“Yes, but sometimes it still hits me. Is that so surprising? It’s going to take more than a few weeks to get used to the fact I have a daughter.” Evelyn shook herself, like a raven ruffling her feathers. “I’m too young for this. Too much responsibility. I have to do right by her. I can’t fuck this up, Heather.”

“You won’t. And you’re not doing it alone.”

Evelyn made a noncommittal grumble and looked away, but I was an experienced translator of all the little variations in pitch and tone and volume in Evelyn’s various grumbles and grunts and throaty noises. This was a good one, a slightly embarrassed one, and had me smiling involuntarily at the back of her head.

Praem returned a minute or two later with the requested items — Evelyn’s magically modified magnifying glass, along with a narrow-nibbed pen and a sharpened tool for scraping lines into the metal rim. Evelyn thanked her, then turned the magnifying glass on me, peering through it with one eye closed. I had to look away from the bizarre swirl of colours through the lens, and the warping effect on Evelyn’s eye; the magical circle drawn onto the glass itself already made my stomach turn.

“Do you need me to do anything?” I asked.

“Just be yourself. Oh, but don’t put the tentacles away, obviously.”

Evelyn worked for a few minutes, peering at me and the air around my body, looking for my tentacles, then lowering the magnifying glass to make tiny adjustments to the spell she’d wrapped around the lens casing, adding more angles and a few words in a language I didn’t recognise. I started to blush a little, feeling self conscious.

“There,” she said eventually, frowning through the glass, her eyes made huge by the warping effect of light refraction, wobbling and wavering under the strange optics of the spell. “I can’t see them clearly, not like we did in the castle that one time, but I can make out … mm, a rainbow strobe effect.” She puffed out a laugh. “Very you, of course. I’d forgotten.”

“You can actually see pneuma-somatic material through that?” I asked.

“No. Well, sort of.” Evelyn sighed and shrugged and tossed the magnifying glass onto the bedsheets. “At the moment it’s more like looking at the readout on a radar display. I’m just seeing the fact the object is there, and some basic qualities, not the object itself, or rather the light reflected from it. But if I keep tuning the technique … ” She shrugged again, silently evasive.

“I thought you’d be more enthusiastic about this. Has any mage ever done it before?”

“Not that I know of. But then again, I’m sure there’s plenty of mages in Britain alone who I don’t even know about. As long as they don’t come into my territory, that’s fine.”

I bit my lower lip at her. Evelyn was evading the actual question, but I had no idea why. “Evee … ”

She saw the look on my face and rolled her eyes. “Oh, for pity’s sake. It just feels stupid, all right?”

“Stupid?”

“Yes. Is there an echo in here?”

“Yes,” Praem echoed. I almost giggled.

“What I mean,” Evelyn said, “is that yes, in theory I could perfect the technique, given enough time and a lot more experimental material. I could, possibly, make a pair of glasses that would allow a person to see pneuma-somatic tissues. And you know what?” She answered her own question before I had a chance. “That sounds like an idea from a bad urban fantasy novel, that’s what, and I hate it. Trust me, Heather, if a piece of magic sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

“Oh goodness, I’d love that though. I want Raine to see my tentacles.”

“For what pur— no, don’t answer that.” Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’m not promising anything. And it’s still dumb.”

“It’s not dumb!” My turn to huff. “One must take ideas for new inventions wherever one can. Perhaps we would never have invented flying machines without Leonardo da Vinci drawing all those things that didn’t work.”

Evelyn scoffed. “Nonsense.”

“I’m serious. If you get the idea for pneuma-somatic glasses from a silly novel, so what?”

Evelyn shot me a very tired look. “So I should dedicate this invention to … oh, I don’t know, Nasu? Though those glasses did the opposite.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Never mind,” Evelyn said. “In any case, I’m not working on it right now. I’m bloody exhausted. That spell back in the workshop … ” She trailed off and shook her head, looking five decades her senior for a long, dragging moment once again.

“Was it really that bad?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged.

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

“The whole room … darkened,” Evelyn muttered, “but it wasn’t actual darkness. It was like some vast object occluding a source of light which has always been there, some constant presence in life, in reality, that you just take for granted, the way a fish is not aware of the water. And then something blocked it.”

“ … did you rehearse those words?” I asked.

Evelyn sighed. “Yes. I’ve been thinking about it constantly since it happened. The sensation only lasted for half a second perhaps, before I started the magic, but … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “As I said earlier, I doubt I or the house did anything. The Eye was simply too big to follow through whatever pinprick hole you’d made.”

I shuddered as she spoke, her voice too far away, echoing and distant, as if the experience had taken something from her.

“Evee, I’m going to touch your shoulders. Is that okay?”

“ … mm. I suppose so.”

I wrapped an arm and a tentacle around Evelyn’s kinked, twisted back. I didn’t press too hard, or touch her spine, but she leaned into my embrace with a long-suffering sigh, awkward and unused to being touched, but savouring the contact all the same.

“So,” I said eventually, as we detached again. “What’s going on with Badger? I do want to know.”

Evelyn nodded toward the bedside table, to where her mobile phone was lying beneath the lamp. “Raine’s been keeping us updated, and it’s time we called her before she calls us again. She’ll want to know you’re up and well, so let’s find out if they’ve plugged the hole in his skull yet.”

==

Badger had slipped into a coma back there on the floor of the magical workshop, but his body had kept struggling. According to Raine — and according to the paramedics from the ambulance — he’d come round once on the journey to the hospital, incoherent and weak but fighting hard to stay in the land of the living, and then three more times in intensive care, while he’d lain under an oxygen mask and the doctors had worked to stem the bleeding. He hadn’t been slipping in and out of consciousness, but falling deeper down, right into a coma each time. He’d raved about things that nobody but I could have understood — burning sight in the land of everlasting night, and angels which were all tentacles and wings and eyes — and he cried tears of relief whenever he was fully coherent. Luckily for us, doctors and nurses saw weirder and worse all the time. Badger was just another patient suffering psychological side-effects of massive trauma.

Raine had followed the ambulance in her car, with Sarika in the passenger seat. They were at the hospital as Badger’s friends. According to Sarika he had no family worth calling to his side, except Whistle.

“So, so … ” I struggled to phrase my question down the phone to Raine, as all the little sounds of a busy hospital leaked through from the other side. “What are they actually treating him for? I don’t know what they’ll find if they MRI his brain, we don’t want to cause some kind of panic. What did you tell them?”

Raine laughed. “The truth!”

To my incredible surprise and deep concern — at least until she explained the rationale — Raine had indeed told the doctors and nurses the truth; or at least a fun-house mirror reflection of the truth.

She told them Badger had drilled a hole in his own head, with a home-made skull brace and a stolen medical drill bit.

How did she know this? Well, he was a friend of hers, and of Sarika here, and he’d been talking for weeks about drastic solutions to strange headaches. He’d been building some sort of head-clamp device; he even showed it to her once, and put his head inside the thing, very upsetting, though she was pretty sure he’d since relocated it somewhere other than his little bedsit flat, since she’d reacted with such concern. You know, concern, for a friend. So, if the police happened to take an interest, and they searched his flat, they probably wouldn’t find anything. Dunno where he did it in the end. Somewhere sterile, she hoped.

According to Raine’s inventive but carefully contained tall tale, the first we’d known of this was Badger turning up on our doorstep, head wrapped in a bloody towel, teetering on the edge of consciousness. We certainly had enough blood soaked towels to prove that part, if anybody cared to investigate the particulars.

Raine had no idea where he’d stolen the drill bit from, of course. Sarika had put in the opinion that he’d bought it off the so-called “dark web”.

How they’d come up with the lie so quickly, I had no idea. Sarika’s back up surprised me too. Perhaps they’d spoken in the car.

“But the whole ruse relies on Badger knowing what to say when he wakes up,” I hissed down the phone, as if I might be overheard.

“He’s a crazy man who drilled a hole in his own head,” said Raine. “He’ll be talking all sorts of nonsense. Plenty of time to get his story straight. Plus,” she lowered her voice to a whisper down the phone, “we’ve been here all afternoon and early evening, and the fuzz hasn’t taken any notice at all. They still keep a little eye on Sarika from time to time, so if they gave a damn, they’d be here already. I think we’re in the clear, Heather. For now. Praem got all the blood cleaned up back home?”

“Yes, but—”

“Relax. I got this under control. Cool?”

I sighed. “‘Cool,’” I echoed.

==

Badger spent three days slipping in and out of consciousness. Raine spent three days taking Sarika to and from the hospital, though I never visited. I didn’t want to see him, I didn’t want him to see me, and I didn’t want to risk being there if or when he died.

But he didn’t. He pulled through, with a nasty hole in the side of his head, a psychiatric evaluation to put to shame any UFO conspiracy enthusiast, and a place on a hopefully short waiting list to have a small titanium fixation plate installed in his skull. Three days, no police, no cultists turning up to murder him in his hospital bed, no Ooran Juh reaching for him from a dark corner — and only minor neurological damage. He had shakes and tremors, problems closing his fingers all the way, some issues with intermittent loss of taste and blurry peripheral vision, not to mention the headaches, which were to be expected. But he was apparently free of memory problems, spacial awareness issues, perception of time and so on. His personality was intact, and his higher brain functions preserved, though more by the Eye’s lack of interest than any finesse in my rescue.

Raine conveyed messages from Badger, for me; reports of his garbled private gratitude that I did not want to hear. I told her so after the first time, and she didn’t tell me anything else he’d said about me, except for the fact he was once again was master of the inside of his own head. The Eye’s crushing presence, that outsider whispering in one’s own skull, those alien drives, were gone.

I’d won the tug of war, but I didn’t let it go to my head; I’d gotten lucky, and Badger had paid for my revelation.

Freeing a single ex-cultist from the Eye, that was one thing. Doing it with all the rest? The police would absolutely sit up and take notice if we sent ten more people to A&E with mystery drill wounds in their skulls, brain damage or not.

Maybe the Eye wouldn’t grip so hard next time. Maybe now it knew what I wanted, it would let me take those people from its grasp. After all, it had been playing with me, in the manner of a mother predator playing with its young, letting me win the tug of war.

Or maybe it would force me to rip the next person in half.

And maybe I would do so, just for another few seconds of staring back into that silvery sea of awareness. For another layer of knowledge which would bring me closer to freeing my sister. For another lesson.

On the first day after the brain surgery and the confrontation with the Eye, I called my mother. My actual, real, biological mother, to remind myself that I was not only an abyssal thing, raised by an Outsider on a steady diet of impossible mathematics. I was an ape too, and my own ape mother felt far less intimidating for once, which was an interesting experience. We didn’t talk about much. I had to lie extensively, of course, though I told her the truth — that Raine and I were doing very well and our relationship was stronger than ever, and yes of course we’ll come visit in the summer, and no, the house is perfectly fine, and yes I’m eating plenty, and I’ve made lots of friends now. A mad part of me wanted to tell her about Zheng, but even if I could make her understand the strange, developing, non-sexual-but-still-romantic nature of our particular polyamorous situation, I don’t think even my solid and stoic mother could have looked at Zheng and come away with a rational explanation.

Zheng didn’t return that first night, nor the next, or the one after that. She didn’t so much as leave a dead squirrel on the back doorstep.

“For all her boasting of being such a great hunter,” Evelyn commented on Tuesday evening that week, “she certainly is taking her sweet time.”

“Maybe the weird skin-man’s a good sprinter,” Raine said.

“She wouldn’t go far,” I said, trying to convince myself not to worry. “Not far from me, not now, not after … ”

Raine shot me a grin over the kitchen table. “Missing your left-hand bed warmer?”

“Tch,” I tutted at her. “I’m actually worried, Raine, not everything is about what I want. Zheng’s done this before, vanished for days, weeks on end. I wish she’d just check in, let me know she’s okay. She did still have that wound bandaged up.”

“Mister—” Evelyn sighed, “Orange Juice is completely gone, uninterested in Badger. I doubt she’s going to run into that problem again.”

“Maybe … maybe we could ask Twil to go find her?” I asked. “Follow her nose?”

Evelyn shot me a sharp frown. “It is exam season, Heather. Twil’s got one tomorrow morning, in fact. She needs to sleep, and concentrate. I understand your fears, but don’t screw this up for her. There’s a good reason I’ve kept her away from this mess.”

“Hey,” Raine said, reaching over to squeeze my shoulder. “Zheng wouldn’t get in deeper than she can get out. She’s just being like a cat. I’m sure she’ll be home soon enough, with or without a trophy, eh?”

“Home soon enough,” I echoed. “Just wish I knew where she was.”

==

Physically, I did surprisingly well over those three days; Evelyn was right, I was nowhere near as bruised as I had been in the past. I recovered quickly, my energy returning in slow waves from the trilobe reactor in my abdomen, which I fed with cravings for meat and cheese. Raine picked up fast food on her way home from the hospital each time — thick-sauced curry, pizza enough to choke a bear, an entire package of sausage rolls — and I ate too much, all of it burned on the altar of my new body, fuel for a self-correcting, self-perfecting bio-mechanical experiment in feeling good for once.

Unlike every other aftermath of abyssal euphoria, this time I kept my tentacles.

I kept at least one tentacle manifested at almost all times, fuelled by varying the extraction depth of a single control rod in the bioreactor, like clenching or relaxing a rarely used muscle. Sometimes I treated myself to two or three, touching the ceiling and walls as I crept through the house, stifling a giggle of physical delight, though I folded them all away when we attempted to resume normality by attending classes on Wednesday. The risk of touching a unsuspecting person with an invisible appendage was too great. I gave into temptation only once, unrolling an invisible tentacle below the desk while I sat in a seminar. It felt like stretching out a cramped leg.

After experimentation, I discovered that the most comfortable single tentacle to keep permanently out was the lowest one on my left flank, down on my hip. I started to use it to touch things around the house, reaching for things in the kitchen, playing with Tenny, and trying not to spook poor Whistle. The corgi couldn’t see the limb, but he could somehow sense the motion, though I never risked upsetting him by petting him with it. That would be cruel.

I felt more energetic than I had since childhood, since I’d last been hand-in-hand with Maisie.

I didn’t tell anybody about Sevens’ cloak. Not even Raine. It felt somehow private, something that I should wait for her to request I return, a secret, just between us. Intimate, but harmless.

I could almost have felt confident — not happy, and certainly not contented, not without Maisie returned to me. But confident, yes. Terrified of the revelation, but confident I could use it. Every unoccupied moment returned me to the thought of staring back into the Eye, to the new understanding that seeing was defining, and that was how the Eye related to everything which wasn’t itself.

And I was a little watcher. An Eye in miniature, blended with savanna ape and abyssal choice and parts of all the people I knew.

“So, you gotta practice your scowl?” Raine said when I explained all this to her. “Get a real mean look in your eyes, win a staring contest.”

I laughed, but weakly, still terrified of how to implement what I’d learned. “To do what, intimidate it?”

“To make it blink first, duh.”

“Oh, Raine, the rest of me would die before I got that far. I don’t know how to survive the experience.”

Raine shot me one of those absurd grins, the ones she knew were wrong, the ones meant to make me roll my eyes. “I’ll stand in front, you can scowl at it over my shoulder.”

I did roll my eyes at that, but only a little. Maybe she was onto something.

I could have felt confident, yes — but Lozzie was avoiding me. That hurt.

She didn’t give the silent treatment or shut doors in my face or scurry out of the room whenever I appeared, but she was careful never to be left alone with me, always trotting off with Tenny whenever I turned toward her, always chattering at impenetrable high-speed so I couldn’t get a word in edge ways, couldn’t begin the subject, always sound asleep or strangely absent or currently naked and getting changed or watching Tenny do something and she’d be off again on a thousand-word ramble, both sweet and fascinating but so obviously a conflict avoidance strategy.

“You want me to talk to her instead?” Raine asked. “She doesn’t avoid me.”

I sighed. “That’s sweet of you to offer, but it would be beside the point. She caused a practical problem. Sort of. But that’s not really what bothers me, not really why I need to talk to her. I just need to … talk to her.”

Lozzie had stopped me from committing a murder, and my anger at her intervention had faded, but the issue was still there. She should have let me know. She had too much faith in me. She shouldn’t have been there if she was that vulnerable. She was sweet and I loved her and I needed to understand, but she needed to understand too.

In the end it wasn’t a matter of strategy, but of courage.

I finally cornered her on Wednesday afternoon, after Raine and I got home from university. All I had to do was peer in through the open door of her bedroom, easing it wider with a tentacle — they had more courage than my hands, clumsy fingers clasped together inside the front pocket of my hoodie — and Lozzie and Tenny looked up from the television, the latter innocently curious with her big black eyes, the former like a pixie caught stealing a baby.

Tenny had been playing a video game against herself, one controller in her human hands, another one in her tentacles, racing two go-karts against a host of computer-controlled opponents. Lozzie was perched on the foot of the bed, watching and giving commentary and praise. Tenny kept playing, not even looking at the screen, as I smiled at the pair of them and shuffled into the room.

Lozzie must have seen the look on my face. She froze with a hitching smile.

“Tenny, Lozzie, hey,” I said.

“Heath!” Tenny greeted me. A single tentacle wriggled out from under her wings and came to touch mine in a sort of hand-hold-high-five combo.

“Tenny, can I borrow Lozzie for a bit?” I asked, focusing on Tenny though I knew I shouldn’t. “I need to talk to her, about something important. Adult stuff.”

“ … ‘dult,” Tenny echoed.

“Lozzie,” I said, my throat tightening as I finally made eye contact with her. “We do need to ta—”

I didn’t even get to finish my sentence before Lozzie tried to run away.

Her eyes unfocused and her whole body flinched, a shiver passing through her like the start of a seizure. But then she caught herself like a narcoleptic after a micro-sleep, snapping to and blinking rapidly, cringing away from me.

“Lozzie?!” I jerked toward her in panic that something was wrong, but then I realised. “Lozzie, did you just try to Slip?”

“Loz!” Tenny was up on her feet, game truly forgotten now.

“Did you just try to Slip to avoid talking with me?” I asked.

Lozzie drew her knees to her chest on the bed, and looked up at me with heavy-lidded eyes filled with shame and fear.

“But I can’t, can I?” she said.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.5

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Observation defines reality.

We — human beings and other people-creatures, in our small bodies, with our crude senses, and our physical constraints — we like to think that observation is a passive act. We imagine that absorption of information does not affect the observed. This is a lie, fed to us by the limits of our perception. It is also not important; ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine-recurring percent of people will never, ever have to think about any of this. It will make no difference to their lives. Those few people who experience the strange warping of synaesthesia have tasted the very edge of what this implies, but even they are still working within firmly grounded, human, mortal boundaries.

All those limits go out the window when you deal with gods and monsters, from the wilds of Outside or the deep dark cold of the abyss.

And what greater source of observation than an intelligence which is all eyeball?

The Eye’s observation, its attention, its awareness, poured from that tiny visible slit of silvered sea beneath the dark ridge of eyelid, hanging just above the mountain range.

Observation blasted that barren grey plain in a wave of scorching heat to rival the corona of the sun, already burning through the outer layers of my new defences. The deep red light was both void-dark and yet blindingly bright, forcing me to speed-grow new layers of thick ultra-violet protection over my vulnerable senses. Hurricane-force cosmic winds slammed into me like a million atomic bombs all detonated at once, grinding my heels into the grey soil, prompting me to lash myself to the ground with anchor cables of thick muscle, themselves plated with bio-ceramic heat armour in order to last more than a split second under the force of the Eye’s gaze.

It saw me and it knew me. I think I was screaming.

Deep inside, a buried part of me was wailing with a child’s panic. I’d been forced to replay this trauma once before, months ago when the Lozzie-thing had dragged me to Wonderland, but back then I’d been confused and in shock, and the Eye had taken precious moments to focus a fraction of its attention on my physical body, sprawled in the black ash of Wonderland. But here, in Lozzie’s dream metaphor, the Eye was fully aware, already hunting for the source of the unexplained tickle at the edge of its peripheral vision. It already knew what it was going to find, because it had recognised my touch when I’d freed Badger.

A voice hissed through clenched teeth, “No no no no no, not again not again not again, no please please no—”

Nobody else was left, so it must have been me.

I was a sobbing, shaking, hysterical child once again, transported back ten years to utter incomprehension in the face of a cosmic truth I couldn’t possibly understand. There are things no child should ever see, things that evolution has not programmed us to endure, for which all our responses are inadequate, counter-productive, inappropriate. Part of me was nine years old again, and all she wanted was for this to stop.

But I was more than the sum of my evolutionary history now. I was Homo Abyssus. I cradled that nine-year-old Heather deep in a protective core of pneuma-somatic armour and padded chitin and shock-absorbing pressurised gel. I reinforced her bones with steel in the osteocytes, pumped her lungs full of oxygen-rich gill-fluid, armoured her grey matter with specialised membranes, and cleaned the vomit and blood and tears from her face. I wrapped her in Sevens’ yellow cloak, a gift I still didn’t understand.

I coaxed her into facing the Eye, and I showed her we could do it, we could stand here, and not be reduced to dust.

So when I stared into that light with tears rolling down my cheeks, and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay, look, look, look,” I was only talking to myself.

I had five or perhaps six seconds of subjective time before my fortress would collapse. The Eye’s burning attention tore through my armoured plate tentacles like a blowtorch through tinfoil, reducing them to blackened stumps, then to ash, the limbs snapping off and tumbling behind me in the whipping gale. I speed-grew replacements and slammed them into place in the petal-work lattice, though I couldn’t keep up, forced tighter and smaller with each plugged breach. The heat boiled the super-cooled fluids between my specialised protective membranes, and I ejected the ruined liquid in gouts of bubbling black, manufacturing more to pump into my cells before they cooked. My ablative fat crisped and burned, sloughing off in great slabs of ruined flesh. I sweated protective mucus, covered myself in a dense layer of light-reflecting white, and sprouted neural spines from my back, webbed with vascularised tissue to shed heat into my own meagre shadow. The Eye’s observation chewed inexorably closer to my core, where I was still wrapped in Sevens’ cloak.

My biology could not out pace the Eye. But I didn’t flee — and I didn’t look away.

I stared back into the Eye. I observed the great observer. That was the trick.

There is a famous thought experiment which almost everybody has heard of these days: Schrödinger’s cat. I’m not a physicist, but I understand it is intended to illustrate the observer principle in quantum mechanics. Well, I only understand this because I read a book or two about it; I had to ask Twil for recommendations, she knows some of this better than I ever could. I do apologise to poor Mr Schrödinger, because I am about to torture his metaphor to fulfil a purpose he never intended.

You take a cat and put it in a box. In the box is a device which will kill the cat — poor cat. The cat-murder machine is linked to a Geiger counter, and in front of the Geiger counter is a very small piece of radioactive material. If the Geiger counter detects atomic decay, then the machine triggers, and the cat is killed. If no atom decays, the machine does not trigger, and the cat lives.

Until an observer opens the box to check, the cat is both alive and dead, at the same time. The position of the quantum particle is both a and b, until observed.

Of course, the cat is not actually a cat, and the box is not actually a box. This is all a metaphor. At the quantum level, right down at the building blocks of reality, things do not work the same as up in our rarefied, higher strata, with our heads in the clouds of electromagnetism and gravity, obsessed with causality.

But then again, everything on that grey plain was a metaphor.

Observation defines reality. It is not possible to observe an object without light hitting the object. It is not possible to record the behaviour of marine trench creatures without first illuminating them, and therefore changing their behaviour. It is not possible to stand distant from any system and observe it from outside, because there is no position truly outside of everything, not even Outside. And at the most basic level, right down there in the dripping black guts of reality, to observe is to affect.

This is a truth which the Eye had come to understand, down in the abyss where it had been born. It had used that truth to dredge itself from the dark waters and into being, and that is the truth which it had become.

As my defences smoked and burned and my extremities caught fire, another tiny part of me was laughing like a maniac.

That’s why you’re a giant eyeball? I thought. Because you learnt how to see so bloody well?

But that’s what I had been doing all along, as well — to Raine, to Sarika, and now to Badger, every time I’d defined a human being in hyperdimensional mathematics. I’d been observing, and through observation, I gained the power to change. It was what I’d been doing with every hyperdimensional equation. Observing reality, and therefore changing it. All those lessons the Eye had ever had fed to me, all the buried knowledge it had spent ten years cramming into my subconscious, until a reeking, sucking, fetid swamp lay like a bottomless pool in the sump of my soul, all of it was about teaching me how to observe.

“I see you too!” I screamed out loud into the gale and the heat and the burning red light, with a mouth that was not remotely human anymore.

But I could only look into the Eye because I wasn’t doing it with my actual, biological, human eyeballs back in reality. That would have blinded me and cooked my brain, not to mention given me terrible sunburn. This was only possible via metaphor, here in the dream, and I had Lozzie to thank for that.

Enduring the nuclear storm until the last moment was not enough; winning a staring contest with the Eye was not possible.

No, I had to observe, for as long as I could.

A rational part of me was still thinking in literal terms, and wanted to jump into the muddy, shadowed hole left behind where I’d pulled Badger out of the barren grey soil, but the rest of me knew that was pointless. I had to stare back, right into that curve of silvered sea beneath the Eye’s lid. So I dug my feet in and redoubled the efforts to shore up my defences, with my plate-armour slats burning away and my fluid insulation boiling and my darkened layers crisping around me.

The Eye did not rise any further above that mountain range, but hung as if peering over them, as if up on tiptoes and able to stretch no further. I realised, with the sort of recognition that one has upon finally resolving an optical illusion, that it couldn’t go any higher, because those mountains were the membrane between our reality and Outside, crossable only by the likes of me and Lozzie and other trans-dimensional travellers. Whatever else the Eye was, it could not brute force its way in, not yet. It could only peer over the lip.

I started to grin, to laugh, almost hysterical — and then I discovered I was wrong.

Like a coronal mass ejection made of darkness, a vast tentacle of awareness reared over the mountains and slammed down into my bulwark with the force of an asteroid impact. Not an actual tentacle, not something I could see with my eyes, even in this realm that was all metaphor, but a tendril of pure thought, a focusing of gaze, a squinting of eyes and a narrowing of attention.

A dozen of my tentacles were pulverised instantly, into pulped meat and skinned muscle. Membranes burst and spilled their fluids onto the grey soil, organs ruptured and stopped working, and the trilobe reactor in my abdomen ran red-hot to compensate. Chitin shattered into a million shards, exploding outward in reactive defence, then turned to ash and blasted into my face, clogging my already besieged senses. The last of my ablative fat bubbled away, leaving me with ragged stumps and seared flesh and hanging sheets of blackened tissue.

I was naked before the Eye. Except for Sevens’ cloak.

As my skin steamed and began to crackle, I pulled the yellow fabric tight around myself, and discovered a hood deeper than space, sleeves enough for more than just my arms, and layers of yellow truth just as thick as the Eye’s own nature.

I huddled inside the cloak, screaming myself hoarse and bleeding all over, but still staring back into the Eye for one more heartbeat.

As it focused on me, as it wrapped its grip about my soul, I finally understood — even through the relative gentleness of touch which it applied to its own progeny. Insight finally exploded into my mind like a supernova, and I understood the nature of the Eye’s grasp.

Sevens’ gift had bought me the extra second I needed.

Before the Eye’s grip closed tight, I began and ended the only hyperdimensional equation I could have executed under such stress. The one that came naturally by now, the one I’d unconsciously been using for half my life, the one trick of perception it had successfully taught not to my conscious mind, but to my nature.

The cloak came with me, an unbreakable embrace.

Out.

==

I crashed through the membrane and back to reality. It felt like diving into the sea ahead of a pyroclastic flow.

For half a second, all was noise and meat — ape hooting, warm flesh flapping, ugly jagged shapes of plant fibre and organic polymer at angles that made my head scream and my senses recoil. My mind was still working on that other, deeper level, closer to the truth of reality, and it rejected these shadows dancing on the cave wall, despite the sweet relief of the shade.

My own meat-flaps flickered over blood-slick orbs and I shuddered in disgust. I resolved to rip them out, but my hands got caught up in Sevens’ cloak.

That gave my senses the moment they needed to catch up. I stopped trying to pull out my own eyeballs, and realised that there was a lot of shouting going on.

Some of the shouting was distinctly Evelyn, intoning Latin in a terrified, shaking voice. Lozzie’s arms were still tight around my middle, her head on my shoulder, her weeping apologies flowing in one long chain of sorry sorry I’m sorry Heather I’m so sorry. Then my vision throbbed black and I passed out.

According to Praem — the only person present in the workshop that afternoon who kept her head — I was only unconscious for about ten seconds, long enough for Lozzie to lay me on my side in the recovery position, and for me to regurgitate what little I’d eaten that morning. Consciousness dribbled back as a thousand hammers pounding on the inside of my skull, a headache accompanied by the acrid stench of my own vomit, and the taste of treacly nosebleed. Snatches of voice dug the cotton wool from my ears, and I believe I let out a sound like a beached dolphin.

“Heathy! Heathy! Heathy!” Lozzie was chirping my name through tears. Behind her, Evelyn’s Latin chant trailed off into panting, followed by the sound of her thumping back down into a chair.

“Mmmmm … here,” I managed to grumble.

Everyone spoke at once. Total chaos.

“Lozzie, is she all right? Is she conscious, is—”

“Nathan? Nathan? He’s not breathing, he’s not—”

A soft bark, a gentle whuff of canine curiosity. Hello there, Whistle, that must be you. Glad you made it, at least.

“Heathy, here, here, sit up, upsie-doooo, upside-get, wheeeeeee!”

Footsteps slammed back into the room, heavy boots not far from my head.

“Heather?” That was Raine, unable to hide her concern. I whined in my throat as Lozzie dragged me up into a sitting position. She did not find it easy, she wasn’t quite strong enough, and had to wedge her shoulder under my armpit to apply all her weight.

“She’s fine!” Evelyn snapped. “What about that bastard thing?”

“It’s out,” Raine said. “Zheng’s after it, and we need a screwdriver for the front door.”

“Sounded like it needed more than a screwdriver.”

“What about—”

“She’s fine,” Evelyn repeated. “She even spoke. Heather, you with us?”

“Heathy is here!” Lozzie chirped.

“Did it work?” Evelyn asked, hard and cold. “Heather, did it work?”

“Mm’fine,” I grumbled. My eyes were gummed shut with blood, and I tried to wipe at them with clumsy, numb fingers. My single manifested pneuma-somatic tentacle joined in, but all I managed to do with that was slap myself across the forehead hard enough to hurt. Somebody gently took my face and dabbed at me with the corner of some fabric, and I held still as best I could, wheezing and ravenously hungry, suffering the worst headache short of a swollen brain.

Somebody else touched my shoulder and squeezed. “Heather? I’ll get you some chocolate in a sec, yeah?” Raine, but her voice sounded wrong, fatalistic and rushed. “Evee, what about—”

“Did it work?” Evelyn repeated, hard enough to make me wince.

“Found the Eye,” I croaked. “Got him … out. Yes. Worked. It let me.”

“Let you?” Evelyn echoed, incredulous.

“Evee, look at him,” Raine said.

Lozzie managed to wipe my eyes enough that I could crack them open on the unfolding madness filling the workshop.

“Pay attention!” Sarika screeched from the sofa, heaving for breath. “Can none of you reprobates see that Nathan isn’t fucking breathing!?”

She wasn’t wrong.

Badger was sprawled on his back on his side of the complex magic circle, hands twitching in front of his chest, as if he was trying to raise them but couldn’t find the strength. For a split second I was intensely confused — my brain had expected the burned, malnourished wreck from inside the dream-metaphor, but Badger looked just as he had before we’d begun. His head was rolled back, eyes open just a crack, but he wasn’t really there. Whistle was down on the floor next to him, flagrantly disobeying the ‘no dogs in the magic circles’ rule, nosing at his side and whining.

“Evee, circle?” Raine asked, quick and all business.

“Yes, yes! The circle doesn’t matter, we’re done, scuff it all you like.”

Praem whirled into action and descended on Badger in a flutter of maid dress and white lace, thumping to her knees by his side. Deft, strong hands took his head and tilted his chin back, one of her fingers against his throat for the space of a pulse or two — or not, as it turned out. Before anybody could ask if he was okay, Praem wound back a fist, paused for a fraction of a second to adjust her aim with far more accuracy than any of us could have achieved, and slammed it down into the centre of Badger’s chest.

A solid, wince-inducing crack shot through the room as she broke his sternum.

It didn’t work. Badger just kept twitching. Praem placed a finger against his throat again.

“No,” she intoned.

“Then do like we practised!” Raine said, going for the defibrillator. “Come on, Praem, break some ribs!”

Praem didn’t need the reminder. She linked both hands together, placed them against the centre of Badger’s chest, and began pumping both arms in a steady, unceasing rhythm. If you wanted a person with limitless stamina to do something that absolutely needed to continue without being interrupted, Praem was your woman. It was only later that we discovered Raine wasn’t being dramatic — she and Praem had discussed this possibility, along with about a dozen other potential medical emergencies that might have befallen Badger, if I did manage to rip him from the Eye’s grip.

So I sat there on the floor with Lozzie propping me up, caked in my own sticky sweat, exhausted beyond words, still confused and feeling alien in my own body after the glory on the other side, and watched as Praem did indeed crack two of Badger’s ribs, forcing air into his lungs. Raine rushed to crack open the portable defibrillator.

I clutched at my own chest, expecting to find Sevens’ cloak, still feeling that yellow embrace around my shoulders. But my quivering fingers closed on thin air.

“Heathy?” Lozzie murmured.

“ … it’s nothing,” I croaked.

The next few minutes did not unfold like I expected, with my vague, pop-culture notions of what it took to restart a person’s heart function.

“Whistle, off, off, that’s it boy, off,” Raine said as she knelt next to Badger, opposite Praem. She tried to nudge the worried Corgi away from his best friend, as she opened the yellow clamshell of the portable defibrillator. “Somebody move the dog, please,” she said quick and clear, no nonsense. “He can’t be touching Badger when we do this.”

Lozzie scuttled forward, leaving me to heave for breath and lean on my shaking arms. Then she returned to support me again, with Whistle hugged in her lap. The dog was whining. He had no idea what was going on, but he still understood.

There were no big metal paddles, no rubbing them together, no Raine shouting clear!

The portable defibrillator started talking the moment Raine pulled out a bundle of rubberised wires, and for second I thought the voice was just in my head, another sense-confused artifact of my imperfect abyssal transition. But then I realised it was walking us through the process — peel one pad from plastic liner, place pad on patient’s upper chest, and so on. Raine pulled her knife from the back of her jeans and slit Badger’s t-shirt open, then slapped the pair of adhesive electrode pads on his pale, flabby chest and side before the machine could finish reciting the instructions.

“No, no, Nathan you fucking idiot—” Sarika was hissing through her teeth, one hand pressed tight to her eyes.

Do not touch patient,” the machine said in its bland, polite, female voice recording. Badger was still barely twitching.

“That means you too,” Evelyn said, nudging Praem’s hip with her walking stick. “Even if you don’t have a pulse.”

Praem stopped doing chest compressions, raised her hands, and turned milk-white eyes on Evelyn.

Evelyn frowned. “ … or, do you?”

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

“Fair enough. And, good job.”

Analysing heart rhythm,” the machine was saying. “Shock advised. Charging.

Raine raised both hands, as if we were all raring to get in the way. “Everybody hold up. Hold up.”

Stand clear. Press flashing button to—

Raine pressed the big red button with the flashing heart symbol. Badger twitched.

That was it. No convulsive jerk, no failing limbs, no thoomp of electric shock. Like a flinch. The machine started rattling off fresh instructions about continuing chest compressions, but Praem was already on the task.

“Wake up, wake up you stupid fuck,” Sarika hissed down at Badger. She’d uncovered her eyes, raw and red and angry.

Analysing heart rhythm.”

“Heather,” Evelyn grunted, gone quite pale in the face herself. “You don’t have to sit here through this. Lozzie, get her some water, at least, some—”

“No,” I croaked. “It’s mine.”

I didn’t possess enough eloquence right then to express myself clearly, but Evelyn got the point. She swallowed, nodded, and squeezed the head of her walking stick with both hands, flesh creaking against the wood.

Shock advised. Charging.

“What happened?” I croaked up at Evelyn, as Raine and Praem went through the process again.

Evelyn nodded at Badger. “A man climbed out of his throat.”

“ … sorry?”

Evelyn huffed, and I could tell that her frustration lay with her own incomprehension. “A man. Climbed out. Of his throat.”

“Yeah it was weird shit,” Raine said with an odd grin. “Even for us. Dude was made of all skin, empty, like a rag doll.”

“He, it, whatever,” Evelyn said, “went straight for Sarika, oddly enough. Some remnant of mister Orange Juice, probably. Zheng caught him, of course, but he wriggled out, nothing to grasp, slippery bastard. The bloody Spider-Servitors barely reacted until he was halfway to the front door, too slow and senile to—”

Stand clear. Press—

Raine jammed her thumb down on the button. Badger twitched again. The machine demanded more chest compressions. A lump started to grow in my throat, and a sinking feeling took hold in the pit of my stomach. What if he didn’t come back? What if he couldn’t come back?

“W-what was the Latin for?” I croaked again, trying to distract myself and reboot my lagging mind. “The spell?”

Analysing heart rhythm.”

“Shoring up the house’s defences,” Evelyn said, then sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes. I noticed her hand was quivering. “Or not. As much as I can affect something on that scale.” She gestured with a flick of her wrist, at the house itself. “I doubt I did anything more than add a layer of paper mache to castle walls.”

“ … why?”

“When you came back, something was trying to follow you. No prizes for guessing what, I assume?” Evelyn’s eyes found me, shaken and a little wild. A shiver passed through my core. We both remembered what the Eye’s distant attention had felt like, the first time we’d blundered into it like idiots, back in the Medieval Metaphysics Department.

“Oh. Oh, yes, well.”

Evelyn forced a shrug, awkward with her kinked spine. “I don’t even know if the house did anything. I suspect the Eye was simply too big to follow, whatever … appendage it may have tried to worm after you.”

“Yeah, got kinda dark in here for a sec,” Raine said. “Like something was peering in the windows. Creepy, hey?”

“It’s gone now,” Lozzie murmured, stroking Whistle behind the ears. The dog was focused entirely on Badger, whining softly in his throat.

Shock advised. Charging.

“Come on come on come on—” Sarika was hissing under her breath, in a rasp like her throat was lined with sandpaper and acid.

Stand clear. Press flashing button to—

Raine pressed the button a third time. We all watched Badger twitch and fail to start, like a broken engine with a missing spark plug. Praem slammed both hands down on his chest again before the machine had time to even begin the bland instruction about apply sixty more chest compressions. Up until that third shock, we’d been forcing our voices into a semblance of normality, trying to pretend we were all sitting around and recovering in the aftermath. But the operation was not over yet. Badger was dying, and we couldn’t seem to stop it happening.

None of us spoke into the silence that followed, filled only by the soft wheezing of air in and out of Badger’s mouth, forced by Praem’s hands manually pumping his diaphragm. The machine squawked out identical instructions again.

Shock advised. Charging.

Praem let go, allowed the machine to do its thing.

“Hey,” Raine said to nobody in particular. “Sometimes, you bump-start a motorbike, it takes a few goes for the engine to catch.”

“You’ve never ridden a motorbike,” Evelyn hissed. “Shut up.”

Raine shrugged.

My throat felt like it was closing up. Couldn’t get enough air. Sympathy with the man whose soul I had bruised and burnt? What if his stopped heart was not the root cause? What if Badger was like a man crushed between two train carriages, alive and breathing for the few minutes of false life, but dead the moment the rescuers pulled the crushing metal off his ruined body? What if I’d pulled a dead man out of that muddy grey hole?

Stand clear—

Red flashing button. Raine’s thumb. My vision blurring with sticky crimson blood and clear guilt. Lozzie shaking next to me, starting to cry softly. Whistle’s whimpers, lost and confused.

Badger twitched as the electric shock passed through his muscles. Nothing.

Time seemed to stretch out into a never-ending moment of horror. He’d volunteered, and he was dying free, with no more Eye in his brain, but I’d killed him. Hadn’t I? Thirty more chest compressions, the machine said. Praem obeyed. Evelyn passed her hand in front of her eyes; no love lost for an ex-cultist, but she couldn’t bear this either. None of us were that cold-blooded.

“We keep trying,” Raine said, loud and clear, raising her voice. “Just because we try it four or five times and it doesn’t work, doesn’t mean he’s dead, not yet, not as long as we’ve got—”

“Get up!” Sarika screeched. She struggled to her feet, fumbling her crutches, and almost went flying before she managed to get the supports beneath her armpits. Tears were rolling down her face as she staggered the few steps toward badger.

Analysing heart rhythm.”

“For pity’s sake, keep her out of this,” said Evelyn.

“Kinda got our hands full right now,” Raine said. “Sarika, hey, don’t touch him.”

But to Sarika, there may as well have been nobody else in the room except Badger.

“Get up!” She shrieked at him again. In a feat of bitter frustration, she kicked Badger in the shoulder — no small matter when she could barely stay standing unsupported, wobbling on her crutches, half curled up around her stomach as if in pain. “Get up! You’re not allowed to come back from the fucking dead and then leave again, you worthless bastard, you shit! You promised me! You promised we’d both make it! Wake up!”

Sarika broke down completely, sobbing and retching. I reached out a weak hand toward her, but she didn’t even see, and I didn’t know what I would have done anyway. What could I say? Sorry for killing your only remaining friend?

He’d done terrible things. And he’d volunteered. But my hands were shaking.

Raine pressed the button for a fifth shock. Badger — no, Badger’s corpse — twitched, weaker than before, as if the machine was running out of battery.

“I think it’s time to stop,” Evelyn muttered from behind her hand, a choke in her voice.

“No,” Raine said, “we keep going until there’s no more charge.” She glanced at me with a furtive look in her eyes. She knew exactly what was happening inside my head. “We do our due diligence, if there’s any chance of keeping this man alive. We have to … ”

But Praem stopped pumping Badger’s chest. She sat back and just started down at him. His arms had stopped moving, stopped twitching, gone limp. His eyes were open slightly, but all the light had gone out of them. Glassy, empty, nobody home. Lozzie buried her face in Whistle’s fur, whimpering worse than the dog. Sarika couldn’t stifle her crying. She turned away from us, bitterness fallen into sorrow. A lump in my throat stopped my voice.

“Praem, come on,” Raine said. “Come on, we’ve got another couple of jolts in the shock box here.”

Praem just stared at the corpse.

“Screw it, I’ll do it myself.” Raine sat forward, linked her hands together, and pressed the heel of one palm against Badger’s sternum.

“He’s dead,” Evelyn snapped. “Not every story gets a happy ending. The man is dead.”

Sarika let out a terrible sound, a wounded-animal noise, trying to bury her face in her elbow.

“Come off it, Evee,” Raine said as she started administering chest compressions, breathing deep with the steady effort. “If you know one thing about me, it’s that I never give up. Right?”

“We’re not giving up,” Evelyn spat. “We did what we set out to do, and he gets to die without the Eye in his head. He knew the risks.”

“He ain’t dead yet.”

Evelyn grit her teeth, real anger flashing behind her eyes. “Stop giving Heather false hope. Stop, Raine.”

When Raine glanced at me, her eyes asked a silent question, asked for permission, asked which way now? And for the first time ever I realised all the implications of the way she looked at me. Badger had looked at me with the growing worship of a cultist toward an object of sublime fascination, a thing to be put on a pedestal, an inhuman entity to be decoded and begged and sacrificed to.

Raine looked at me with actual faith.

“It’s not his heart,” I blurted out, my voice croaky and broken. I spat to clear my mouth, and wiped my lips on the back of my hand, feeling disgusting and wretched, but none of that mattered right now.

Evelyn frowned. “Heather?”

“That’s my girl,” Raine said. “Come on, what are you thinking?”

“I mean, it might not be his heart. I don’t know. The heart is shut down but the damage is in the soul, in the mathematics that makes him function, in his … in his brain.”

Sarika turned and stared at me, eyes red and raw. I stared back.

“Then what are you waiting for?” she hissed.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” But even as I spoke, my single tentacle arced through the air to cup the side of Badger’s head. I’d prepared for this, I’d planned it, I’d gone through all sorts of different ways I might have to open him up for real. “And it could be very … ” I winced. “Very grisly.”

“You can do—” Raine started to reassure me.

“I don’t fucking care!” Sarika screamed. “Cut his head open!”

Sagging with exhaustion, still raw and bruised inside from a close brush with the Eye, I slammed one full biochemical control rod all the way out of my trilobe reactor organ, and felt my body flush with heat and energy to make up for the hunger and glucose crash. I summoned every scrap of concentration I could muster, and turned the tip of my single tentacle into a pneuma-somatic diamond drill bit.

I’d done my research. I hadn’t wanted to read about lobotomies and intracranial pressure, but I’d forced myself to learn the basics, and to attempt a copy of a modern trepanation tool in pneuma-somatic bio-diamond. Perfect for cutting bone, but smooth to flesh, and totally sterile at the microscopic level. I’d not expected to need it, but I also hadn’t expected Badger to break in this specific way, where we might just be able bring him back. The bone-saw I’d kept beneath the surface of my tentacle earlier, that had been for me, for our safety, in case of Eye-related emergency. But the drill was for Badger.

“Stop pumping his chest,” I said, voice shaking with adrenaline. “I need him to stay still, I think—”

I manifested two more tentacles before I finished my own sentence, perfect pale strobing flesh reaching out to clamp around Badger’s head and neck, strong as steel, to hold his skull perfectly still. The others saw him twitch. I just stared, starting to shake.

“Heather, talk to me,” Raine said. “Talk us through it.”

“Talk,” Praem echoed.

“O-okay,” I tried, swallowing too hard. “Keep up with the chest compressions, I’ve got him held still now. I’m going to … drill … a … oh, please don’t look. Don’t watch this.”

Praem took over from Raine, forcing air into Badger’s lungs with both hands. She closed her eyes.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, solid and steady — or at least, trying to sound solid and steady, though the cold sweat on her face gave the lie to her voice. “What exactly are you going to do?”

I rolled my eyes, shaking and shivering with adrenaline and anxiety, my teeth chattering as a hysterical hiccup forced its way from between my lips. “I’m going to drill a hole in his head, Evee. I’m going to drill a hole in a person’s head, make a very small tentacle, then branch it down very very small, and see if I can define the problem. Please, just let me—”

“Are you certain?” Evelyn asked.

“Well, no! Obviously! I’m not a brain surgeon, and I’m going to do maths in his head. This is insane, but I have to try, I’m not … I will not be responsible for giving up.”

Lozzie hugged me tight around the middle — a featherweight anchor rooted deeper than I.

“Tell us what you need,” Raine said. “Heather, anything. What do you need?”

Another hysterical hiccup-laugh escaped my throat. “Towels, probably!”

Raine was on her feet and out of the room faster than I could add actually yes that was serious, and back in less than twenty seconds, her arms full of old towels from the downstairs bathroom. She put one over Praem’s side, presumably as splatter protection, and laid the rest around Badger’s head. My core of true flesh was shivering like a leaf, and the shiver passed up my tentacle and into the drill bit; I could not afford the same level of clumsiness that I’d displayed all week, I could not risk fumbling a chess piece here, not with a human brain. So I slammed two more control rods out of my trilobe reactor, the heat ramping up like atomic fire in my belly, and overcame the shiver in the tentacle with sheer muscle power, tensing and locking until it hurt.

“I’m going to start,” I said, voice quivering. “Look away, please, please look away, don’t— don’t watch me do this. This might not work, I might slip up, I might—”

“It’s not as if you can kill him any more dead,” Sarika croaked, no longer crying.

“Hm,” Evelyn grunted. “Point.”

I wasn’t sure who turned away and who watched the process, except for Sarika. She was glued to the whole thing from start to finish, eyes wide open.

The pneuma-somatic drill bit was steady as rock, held perfectly level by the dozens of layers of muscle inside my tentacle, powered by the churn of energy in my abdomen, as precise and delicate as any surgical robot — but the moment I relaxed even a fraction, it would quiver, and this would all be for nothing. I used the tip of one of the other tentacles to make a tiny incision, about an inch diagonally upward from Badger’s right temple, slicing through scalp until I hit skull. Then I wiggled the drill bit in, until it scraped against bone. I gagged and wanted to vomit at the awful sensation, but I held on.

I resisted the urge to close my eyes as I clenched the muscles to spin the drill.

Visually it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. No spray of flesh and bone dust — the drill bit tentacle was too well designed to allow that. When I felt the point of the drill pop through the other side of Badger’s cranium, I quickly pulled it back out. Bright red blood flowed from a wound no wider than a piece of pencil graphite, soaking into the towel below his head. But the tactile sensations made my stomach turn; bone shredded, flesh pushed aside, and the soft pressure of the meninges cradling his brain.

Evelyn made a retching sound. I hoped she wasn’t watching.

The drill melted back into my tentacle, cells folding away their specialisations, and I pressed the pale tip against the bleeding wound — then pressed in.

The slimmest, tinniest, most narrow offshoot of my tentacle wormed through the hole in Badger’s cranium and split itself a dozen times, then a dozen more, smaller and smaller with each division. Each one bifurcated even further, until my eyes fluttered shut with instinctive concentration as I wielded thousands of mono-cellular filaments. Each one found a separate path through the protective folds of his meninges, penetrating through the blood-brain barrier and stopping up the route behind them.

I could not consciously control them all, not even one of them, not with the precision required to avoid inflicting brain damage, not even with three control rods all the way out and my head overheating with the effort. So I let them slide, I let them find their own way deeper, slipping between the wrinkles of a human brain, then inside the grey matter itself, to entwine with the neurons, like blind fingers sliding over unknown topography.

Neurons were still firing, electrical activity still going; he was technically still alive. For now.

I let instinct guide me until I was connected with as much of Badger’s grey matter as possible, and then I fired up the maths.

I did not need to see all of Badger, not the full equation, the burning star of infinite complexity like any human being; I only needed his brain, the physical structure. I needed to find whatever broken neuron had stopped his heart and was blocking the reboot. There was no way I could have done this by actual knowledge, by touch and guesswork, but I didn’t have to rely on that; I will never be a brain surgeon, but I am very much the daughter of the Eye.

I defined what I was touching — a human brain, this human brain — in hyperdimensional mathematics.

Another control rod popped free, like a heat sink firing off in anticipation of greater need. Out in reality, I think I flinched, I may even have cried out, and I certainly bled from my eyes all over again.

In that frozen second of time I observed his brain laid out as a simple equation — well, relatively simple, speaking from my frame of experience — and I found the damage, plain as day.

His lower brain functions formed a smear, like damp newsprint dragged out of a sweaty grip. All the higher stuff was intact, personality and memory and ego, but it was no wonder his heart had stopped. I suppose the Eye wasn’t interested in Nathan as a person, just as meat, a puppet to be commanded. So that’s where it had grasped.

I did the best I could, weaving new mathematics into the broken gaps, pinching off loose ends and tidying up ragged edges, re-stringing broken connections between clusters, the functions of which I could not guess. I did not know what I was fixing, which parts of the equation were heart-related, which were his digestion, what governed the ability to sweat, or feel pain, or stand straight. Would he be deaf for the rest of his life, or be unable to recognise faces? Would he lose control of his bowels, or spend his final years in an iron lung?

I didn’t want that. I told myself it was because I wanted Badger to serve his punishment in a way that did some good in the world, not just languishing in pointless pain. Retribution is pointless if you’ve already permanently disarmed your foe.

He was no Alexander.

So I redoubled my efforts. I pushed the hyperdimensional mathematics to the screaming, bleeding, quivering edge of reality. I modelled replacement equations for his brain, patched him with semi-human processes, plugged the gaps with guesswork based on the only reference I had — myself, abyssal and all.

And then I was done.

I resurfaced with a coughing splutter of nosebleed, a desperate gasping for breath, and a sense of horrible claustrophobia; I had, after all, been inside a person’s skull. Such a small space. My vision throbbed black as gentle hands held me steady, but I was so exhausted, so spent, that even Lozzie’s grip couldn’t keep me up, and I collapsed onto the floor, thumping down on my side.

Barely enough thought left to breathe. I felt my tentacle retracting from inside Badger’s brain, recombining filaments as it sucked back out of his grey matter, and finally it popped free of the trepanation hole in his cranium. I let go with all three tentacles and let them flop to the ground, like a beached squid.

“More blood!” Raine’s voice. “She’s out, that must mean she’s done.”

“Get some fucking bandages on that,” Evelyn spluttered.

“He’ll have to go to hospital, even if this works,” Raine said, rushed but trying to sound confident. “Heather? Heather, are you done? Heather?”

A gentle hand touched my face. I lay at the edge of oblivion, but I put everything I had into cracking open my eyes. Raine was right in front of me, blurry through the haze of blood and the darkness closing in.

“ … shock him,” I wheezed.

“You got it!” Raine moved back, and I could see Badger lying on the floor, still a corpse. A corpse with a hole in its head, and Praem rapidly trying to apply gauze and bandage.

Shock advised. Charging.

Praem let go. I closed my eyes, completely exhausted, beyond thought.

“Magic number, magic number,” Raine said. “Lucky sevens, magic number.”

“It’s shock number six, you fool”, Evelyn grunted.

I heard Badger twitch against the floorboards.

Then nothing.

Sarika, trying to hold back a sob. Lozzie, biting her lip. Evelyn’s fingers tightening on her walking stick. Somehow, I heard it all.

And I heard a breath like a mummified ancient, drawing air into parched lungs.

Badger made a sound of pain, small and mewling.

“Pulse,” Praem intoned.

“Nathan?” Sarika said. There was a sudden clatter of crutches and the sound of Raine catching her as she fell to the floor too. “Nathan, you fuck, say something. Speak! Tell me you aren’t brain damaged, not any more than usual. Say something!”

Badger took another hissing breath.

“ … free,” he managed. I’d never heard a voice so weak.

I’d won.

Lozzie gave me a hug, and brought her lips close to my ear. “We did it! Heathy! We did it!”

“Get Heather some water, and chocolate, and probably painkillers,” Evelyn was snapping. “And call an ambulance. An actual ambulance, because we do not have the resources to deal with that head wound. Now, Raine!”

“Lozzie,” I murmured.

“Heathyyyyy!” she hissed back.

“We need to talk,” I muttered, and felt her go stiff, before I slipped off into triumphant oblivion.

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