nothing more impotent – 11.11

Previous Chapter

“If this letter has reached its intended recipient, rather than the unknown hand and eye of an intrepid explorer a million years hence, then I have deduced correctly the current mechanical aim of your undoubtedly many ambitions, Miss Saye. And I have frustrated them. If you are reading this letter, and you are alive and sane, then I congratulate you on the fruit of your work. It is remarkable beyond accounting, but in the interest of my personal safety and the safety of my associates, I have ‘headed you off at the pass’, if you will forgive the playful turn of phrase.”

Praem read out loud, in the gathered silence of our stilled breath.

“You seek to recreate the work of Hennel and Zyfridus, founded upon rumours of the great seal beneath Heliopolis, mentioned in at least two of the books which I know reside in your collection. You seek dominion in a sense that cannot be allowed if you are not to become as your mother was, a metastasising cancer to be cut out by either the body politic or the secret swift terrible hand of God. So, you will perceive that the book you seek is no longer here. I do not know which other fabled tomes you wish to borrow from this miracle of a place, if any, but this one avenue I have closed to you, and will meet you with its weapons if you still seek dominion.”

Praem’s voice, bell-clear and smooth and impassive, could not conceal the amused self-satisfied arrogance dripping from the single unfolded sheet of paper in her hands. An owlish face, liver-spotted and grey, peered back at us from between the lines of ink.

“How have I achieved this miracle, you may ask? By copying yours.”

His handwriting was all messy spikes and loops, like a doctor’s hasty note-taking.

“I cannot take credit for the work that has breached the mysteries of physical access to the Beyond. That glory belongs to your genius, and, I suspect, a touch of help from my clever niece. A certain agent memorised the shape of your door, the lines of your work, the tools required to cut through the outer wall that keeps us trammelled within our cradle. I had hoped to conceal this theft from you, but you perceive I am forced to tip my hand, to halt you from worse violences upon my person. You may also take this letter as my answer to your two conditions. On the matter of criminal activity within Sharrowford, we are in agreement. Neither I nor any of my associates will commit any crimes, as defined in British law, within the city of Sharrowford, against yourself or any other inhabitant.”

As Praem read, Lozzie began to shiver inside her poncho. I pulled her close and hugged her tight.

“On the matter of my niece, Lauren Lilburne, we are not in agreement. Upon my resumption of her custody, I am willing to share with you such passages in The Testament of Heliopolis as concern the limited aims of predefined work, the boundaries of which we may discuss as equals when, and only when, my property has been returned to me.”

“Please, Praem, stop,” I murmured.

“To begin this process,” Praem kept reading, “you may contact my lawyer at his public offices. He has been instructed to expect-”

“Stop,” Evelyn commanded.

She barely got the word out. Evelyn had turned from pale to green to a most dangerous shade of flushed crimson. Her knuckles were white on the handle of her walking stick, her eyes blazing, a twitch in her cheek. Perhaps this wasn’t chief-most in our concerns right then, but I was worried Evelyn was going to give herself a stomach ulcer from sheer anger.

Praem lowered the letter. She’d found no tricks or traps, no poison impregnated into the paper, no magical trigger in the torn-open envelope. It was genuine, and she didn’t need to finish. Only one of us was blissfully unaware whose barely legible signature graced the foot of the page, beneath a bland ‘yours sincerely’.

“Oh dear, dear me, poppets,” Saldis sighed from the open cockpit of her alien machine, further down the corridor of bookcases, waiting at a safe distance from Zheng. “Sounds like you have competent foes. That’s always the worst kind, I much prefer the incompetent ones.”

“It’s from Eddy-boy, right?” Raine asked quickly, with the corner of her mouth.

We were all shocked, but Raine was the only one already in action. She’d turned outward toward the far end of the bookcase corridor, where the library floor opened out into the wide space of the collapsed and cratered wreckage of thousands of bookshelves. The unknown. She had her homemade riot shield up and her handgun drawn, eyes alert, head tilted to listen for the tiniest sound.

“Raine, you think this is a trap?” I hissed. As I spoke, Zheng moved past me to flank Raine, head raised, eyes hooded, hands flexing.

“Don’t know,” Raine murmured. “Everyone speak soft like.”

“Eddy-boy,” Praem echoed. “Yes.”

“Oh, but that’s absurd,” I said – but kept my voice low, swallowing hard and trying not to shudder. Lozzie had buried her face in my shoulder, clinging to me like a small animal. I found myself listening too, wondering if we’d hear the tell-tale creak of a boot along a parallel stack of shelves. “We’re not in Sharrowford, we’re not even in reality, we’re Outside. How could he have-”

“The fucking Welshman!” Evelyn spat.

“Hush, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“The fuckboy?” Raine asked.

“Who else?!” Evelyn swung her walking stick and struck the edge of the bookcase from which Praem had pulled the hated letter. The clunk of wood on wood travelled no further than our ears, soaked up by the fabric of the library. “He must have seen our gateway after he stepped through it, that whole home-invasion thing was a set up.”

“For all of a single second,” I said, shaking my head. “Surely he couldn’t-”

“He was a mage, Heather! Photographic memory, remote recording, a fucking magical bird down his underpants, who the fuck knows? Bastard blinked at it for a second – a second! Memorised the whole fucking thing, the papers on the table, everything he saw. He delivered it all to Edward Lilburne, that’s the only explanation for this. Bastard. Bastard, cunt, fuck.” Evelyn spat and raged, red in the face, shaking all over. Praem reached for Evelyn’s shoulder with one hand, but Evelyn didn’t notice as she whirled back on the doll-demon and demanded the letter with her own shaking hand. “Let me read it again, maybe- maybe- oh, what’s the point? What’s the point?” Her voice broke. “I’m done.”

“Hey, left hand,” Raine said softly. “Hear anything? Smell anything?”

Zheng blinked once. “Oil, metal, sweat and fear. Fresh.”

“You don’t think … you don’t think they’re still here, do you?” I asked. In my arms, Lozzie shook her head and whined.

“They’re long gone by now,” Evelyn said. “We have been out planned, out manoeuvred, out fucking thought.”

With careful economy of motion, Raine looked round – at the absence on the bookshelf, the empty space where The Testament of Heliopolis should have lain, nestled between its leather-bound fellows. She turned back before speaking, but not before meeting my eyes and making sure I was where I was meant to be standing.

“That book hasn’t been gone for long. No gathered dust in the gap,” she said. “That was taken minutes or hours ago, not days or weeks. Yeah, they might still be here.”

“Noooo,” Lozzie whined into my shoulder.

“They might still be here,” Evelyn echoed, eyes lighting up.

“We hunt,” Zheng purred. She flexed her neck, cracking vertebrae, and reminded me of a tiger waking from a nap.

“Oh no, big girl, absolutely not,” Raine said, the hint of a laugh in her voice. “We get the hell back home, lickety-split. Lozzie, can you do that for us, right now?”

“They have my book!” Evelyn whirled on Raine, blazing with renewed fury.

“E-Evee-” I said, but she was beyond help.

“Nobody else can have access to this place,” she went on, spitting with rage. “They have a working gateway, Raine. They have access to Outside. God willing they’ll all get themselves killed before they can do any real damage, but they cannot have this, they cannot have these books, this is mine-” Evelyn slammed to a halt and the blood drained from her face. “I mean … I mean … they cannot be allowed to abuse this- … knowledge- they … if they’re still here … ”

“Too much of a coincidence,” Raine murmured. “We’re both here at the same time, after we take days to come back? This stinks. Incident pit, remember?”

“Please,” a tiny voice quivered, and Lozzie’s golden head rose from my shoulder. Her eyes flickered back and forth, breath shaking in her slender chest pressed to mine, shivering in a way that tore at my heart. “Please. Zheng, please hunt him, please please please-”

“Quite, we’re not turning Lauren over to her uncle,” Evelyn said with a hard swallow. “Over my dead body.”

“Not even a question,” Raine said, placating but tight-voiced. “But that doesn’t mean we walk into a trap, we need to-”

“Please-”

“We hunt,” Zheng purred. She turned to me, locking those sharp, dark eyes with mine in paralysis. “Shaman, we have this one chance. We have already scented the prey. Command me.”

“I- I don’t know,” I said. I really didn’t. Evelyn was falling apart on some emotional level I didn’t understand. Lozzie was terrified. Raine’s protective instincts were not wrong, but abyssal ruthlessness crept up my spine and forced my lips to linger.

“Heather’s not in charge right now,” Raine said.

“The shaman is always-”

“Please,” Lozzie whined. “Please get rid of him, please, get him now, get-”

Pop.

A firework-pop-crack. Distant and high-pitched. Deceptively soft, truncated and blunt, nothing like in films or on television.

The sound cut through the thick silent shroud that lay over the library. It came perhaps from across the collapsed crater, perhaps deeper, perhaps elsewhere, lost in muffled infinity as the library ate all echoes. It passed through us and over us and the silence returned, heavier and deeper, as if offended by this interruption.

Raine took a step back, covered Lozzie and I with her shield.

Pop pop.

Twice more. Identical.

“Speak of the devil,” Raine murmured.

“What was that?” I whispered, harsh and close, as if to speak too loudly might provoke the silence itself to crash down on us. Some invisible quality in the air of the library had changed. My gut told me that to raise my voice was to invite attention. My phantom limbs, the ghostly mirror of my secret abyssal body, were trying to pull in tight and secure like an octopus cramming itself into a tiny crack. Instinct screamed at me to stay very still and go very quiet.

“Gunshots,” Raine said, and I cringed at the volume of her voice, though she stayed soft. “Left hand?”

“That way,” Zheng rumbled, nodding ahead into the depths of the cratered mass of splintered wood and torn books. “Down.”

“Gunshots?” Evelyn hissed – white-cold in the face. “It’s them, it has to be them.”

Pop pop- pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

Individual crack-pops slewed into a mechanical judder-judder-judder that seemed to go on and on and on, tearing through the air with a machine sound alien to this Outside place. Beneath the noise, I thought I heard a shout lost in the depths of the labyrinth, and perhaps a thump, muffled far below. Just when it seemed the metal racket would go on forever, the noise cut out far more suddenly than it had begun.

Then – a shout, a human voice, unmistakable this time. Too far away behind the maze of books to make out the words. Running feet. An impact of metal on wood.

And a crackle.

An awful, spine-jarring crackle, just beyond the edge of hearing, like nails down a blackboard from a closed room.

“A fight,” Zheng purred, smiling sharp.

“A losing one,” said Raine. “That was a mag dump.”

“A what?” I asked.

“Yes, Raine, speak English, for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.

“Magazine dump,” Raine said. “Somebody firing off all their bullets at once in panic. Eddy-boy’s friends got themselves in trouble.”

“Good,” Evelyn snarled. “Then we can-”

“Never interrupt your opponent while he’s screwing up,” Raine spoke over her.

“It’s not a bloody trap, Raine, it-”

“Yeah actually, I agree.” Raine shot a grin over her shoulder. “They have an automatic weapon down there and they used it before we showed ourselves. That’s not a trap, that’s how you say ‘fuck right off’. If they wanted to bait us they wouldn’t have lit up. But we’re still getting out, right now. Whatever they’re firing at, I doubt we wanna meet it. Look, somebody’s shitting herself.”

Raine nodded behind us, and I looked back to see Saldis’ sphere machine had sealed up its blocky grey front. The mage was presumably inside, and not talking to us. That distant, spine-raking crackle passed through the air again, setting my teeth on edge.

“Coward,” Zheng purred at Saldis’ machine.

“Horndog’s hamster ball decided it’s time to close the hatches,” Raine said. “That means we’re leaving too. Lozzie?”

“They are minutes away from us, at most,” Evelyn hissed. “And they have my book.”

“I reeeeeally hope he’s dead,” Lozzie squeaked, face white and pinched.

“Hey, we can figure that out later.” Raine shot Lozzie a warm smile. “I promise.”

“My teeth itch for flesh, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled.

“We do need that book,” I said out loud, my voice shaking only very slightly. “And I’m not trading Lozzie for it. And Edward hides too well in Sharrowford, we all know that, how hard it is to find him. If that’s him, or his men, and they’re in the middle of making a mistake, then I would very much like to capitalise on the opportunity.”

Everybody looked at me.

I rolled my eyes and sighed. “If you know what I mean.”

Raine glanced around at four defiant faces – myself, Lozzie, Evelyn, and Zheng. Only Praem declined to offer an opinion – along with the eyeless gaze of the squid-faced librarian that had led us here, waiting without complaint, as if watching our debate. That awful crackle came once more, a creeping, crawling of spiked ice up the inside of my skull. Even Lozzie winced.

“Fuck,” Raine sighed with a resigned grin. “Alright. Heather, Lozzie, you both stay behind me. Praem, take care of Evelyn, she’s your responsibility.”

“Always,” Praem intoned.

“Left hand, you’re in front,” Raine continued. “I’m guessing you can eat bullets for breakfast if you gotta.”

“What do you think?” Zheng rumbled. “But you do not command me-”

“No, that’s the condition,” Raine said softly, far more dangerous than any empty-headed, boastful insult she’d thrown at Zheng over the last couple of weeks. She twitched, muscles taut in a way that presaged violence, enough to make me flinch and shiver. “We’re walking into a fight, and there’s a gun down there. I’m not having anybody getting shot. I’m in charge now.”

Zheng stared at her in heavy-lidded silence.

“Zheng, please,” I said quickly.

The giant demon-host rumbled in her throat like a tiger disturbed in its sleep. But when Praem extracted a cloth-tied nut to throw ahead of us, when it bounced along the wooden floor and rolled to a precise stop at the end of the bookcase-corridor, Zheng went first on silent feet. The rest of us followed. Raine had her pistol out. I stayed close.

We left our waiting librarian guide behind. Saldis trailed in our rear, wordless and faceless inside her grey sphere.

Evelyn’s estimate was not wrong; as the crow flies, we were perhaps but thirty seconds away from the other library users. If it hadn’t been for the tangled rubble of collapsed floors, we could probably have spied them down below, but the broken spars of shattered wood and avalanche falls of hundreds of thousands of books blocked both sight and path, forced us into a labyrinth within a labyrinth. This collapsed crater was old enough that the squid-faced librarians had cut new paths through the wreckage, winding like mountain passes between craggy peaks of shattered floor, lit from above by surviving light-globes in the ceiling and from the stubs of wooden pillars, like the broken legs of giants.

Picking our way through this petrified forest consumed perhaps two or three precious minutes, despite applying a sped-up version of our usual process. Praem threw nuts and we left them behind as Zheng raced ahead, stalking like a nightmare from the jungle as she hunched, rounded her shoulders, bared her teeth.

“She’ll run into something she can’t survive,” Evelyn hissed. “Heather, call her back.”

“Guess she’s the canary now,” Raine murmured.

But Zheng wasn’t listening, not to me. She smelled blood.

The fight wasn’t over. As we hurried through the shattered mess, clearer sounds reached us – a shouted jumble of words caught on the silence-thickened air, a clatter followed by more of that spine-creeping crackle which made all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and made Lozzie whine deep in her throat.

Just before we made contact, somebody started shooting again.

We were close enough to pick out a metallic click and ratchet – which Raine later explained was the sound of expert hands swapping in a fresh magazine and yanking back a bolt. And then the pop-pop-pop-pop rip of a finger jammed on a trigger and not letting go. This close, the sound was harsh and horrible, a machine rasp punctuated by the thwack and crump of bullets chewing into paper and wood. Raine shoved me and Lozzie down behind her, behind her shield, and Praem forced Evelyn to duck just in case, but the bullets weren’t aimed anywhere near us.

The sound stopped. A man screamed at the top of his lungs. The crackle lashed out like a bolt of lightning.

Ten quick paces and one turn in the path later, we almost slammed right into a line of squid-faced librarians, facing away from us. Zheng scattered them with a low growl, wading through them as they ran in all directions, grey robes flapping. Just beyond where they’d stood was a drop, the lip of a second layer of crater, a scree-slope of a million books.

We all skidded to a halt. Raine blocked me with her shield, but she didn’t need to. Even Zheng stopped, to stare, the fight momentarily gone out of her.

Below us was a wide clear space, dotted with a few toppled bookshelves, a section of the floor beneath the one which had collapsed long ago, spread out beneath us like the boards of a stage. And all around the rim of this crater, peering from between bookshelves and around stacked tomes, shoulder-to-shoulder in eyeless audience, stood hundreds of squid-faced librarians, watching events unfold in jostling silence. This was the line we had disturbed and broken.

It did not take a literature student to see the logic.

“Oh, damn you, Seven-Shades, you promised,” I hissed.

Three connected scenes were concluding on the floor below, the final acts of a tragic farce playing out its last bloody movements.

A gateway much like our own shone with earthly light on the back wall of the library canyon, down at floor level to our right. Through that door I saw a hint of dark concrete and scuffed hazard-tape. Three figures were scrambling through, back to our reality, in a tangle of blood-slick panic.

In the middle of the floor, a familiar figure of whipcord muscle and steel-wire tendon crouched behind a fallen bookshelf, dressed in grey athletic wear and a military style harness of pouches and webbing, clutching a stubby black weapon to her chest.

Amy Stack, raincoat hood falling back as she turned.

We’d caught her in the act of turning to her fleeing ‘comrades’, a shout on her lips as they tumbled free of the library, as one of them turned back with an ugly curse at her, which contained words I will not repeat here. Behind him, on the far side of the gateway, another figure – grey-haired and owlish – made quick motions with his hands.

The gateway slid shut, leaving Stack to face her fate alone.

Stage left was a monster, eating a man.

I don’t use that word lightly. The old Heather, the Heather of six months or five years ago, she thought the very spirit life of our own world were monsters, when they can be as kind as I or Raine or Lozzie, just a different form of life. Zheng is not a monster either, despite what I once thought. She is a thinking, feeling being, capable of love and pain and sorrow, and that word presupposes a specific kind of judgement. Evelyn’s mother was a monster. Alexander Lilburne was a monster. I had yet to decide if the Eye was a monster.

Black lightning, twelve feet tall.

A little like a tree and a little like a jellyfish, but nothing like either of those things, a fractal shape cut into the air with such angular precision that the lines seemed to hurt the eye.

Moving like a slow-motion explosion, iterating itself forward as its rear folded up into nothingness, jagged branches expanding into the air.

There was nothing animal, nothing living about it – nothing spirit either, nothing translatable to our manner or matter of life. This was not pneuma-somatic. It was not flesh. It was something else.

Outsider.

In truth it was probably more animal than evil, perhaps just curious, or feeding. Had they disturbed it here, in the library of Carcosa? Another experiment gone wrong, at the cost of poor, sad lives? Or perhaps it wasn’t from the library in the first place. Perhaps it was like us, a visitor from elsewhere. Perhaps this was all an accident, or a misunderstanding, out here in the unknowable spaces beyond.

It had a man snagged in the clutches of a branch of fractal expansion, attached to his head like electric hair. He was thickset and heavily muscled, wearing a webbed and pouched harness like Stack, but had been caught in the open, or perhaps he had been running for the gateway, or maybe he’d charged the thing. His muscles danced and jerked, boots skittering across the floorboards, bowels voided in a mess at his feet, eyes rolled back, lips running with bloody drool as the black lightning triggered every nerve in his body, rooted his spine and pithed his soul.

All of this I pieced together later, from different aspects each of us had focused on in the moment of violence and horror. At the time it was impossible, in the black light of that self-iterating soul-eater.

But I think all of us saw Stack’s little motion with her gun.

Her gritted teeth. Her cold set eyes. The muzzle she pressed to the soft flesh beneath her own chin, as the black lightning expanded toward her.

Amy Stack was a nasty piece of work, a professional killer and thug, who had evidently lied to us that she was getting out of the business of serving mages in return for money. I had little doubt that if our positions had been reversed, she would have left us to die, or even turned her gun on us to make certain. But in the face of that unnatural flicker of fractal black lightning, the fellow feeling of one living being for another was impossible to ignore.

I would like to say that’s why I broke from behind Raine’s shield, why I scrambled and slid and slipped down the scree slope of tumbled books, heart in my mouth and head numb with fear. I dearly wish to blame the milk of human kindness for my insane act of running out between a nightmare and a psychopath with a gun, out of breath and shaking with half-healed bruises in my flanks, as Raine sprinted after me and Zheng came barrelling down like a cannonball and Lozzie started singing.

I would like to blame how much of a nice person I am, but I am not a nice person. I am half of the abyss, and abyssal ruthlessness told me we needed a live captive.

So with a skid and a slip and a shudder, I stood before twelve feet of black lightning.

I had kept my promise to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. I had rushed on stage, to interrupt the play.

Tendrils of fractal touch expanded toward my face. This close I could see them splitting and splitting and splitting again, down into fibres almost invisible to the naked eye. This was the source of the spine-raking crackle in the air, as the black lightning moved by tearing reality.

I narrowly resisted an urge to hiss and spit at thing.

Very lucky, because while that would have felt good, it probably wouldn’t have worked.

The necessary brainmath sliced sharp and hot up from the sump in the pit of my soul, as if drawn through a surface of sticky mucus and clinging tar, ripped from the depths at the speed of thought, leaving my mind chafed raw by its passage. This would require no long weaving of hyperdimensional miracle, no complex interplay of the Eye’s lessons and deduced cosmic principles; the black lightning creature’s body was determined by a visible and obvious mathematics, just as the human body’s mathematical form might be obvious to the senses of some other order of being. The equation was simple – leave a number hanging, an addition unfinished, a decimal leftover unaccounted for.

A moment of chaos and confusion was exploding around me as I summoned the equation. Raine skidded to a halt feet away from me, stopped by a shout from Evelyn high up the slope of books – “No, don’t touch it!” – as Zheng bounced and bounded like a leaping tiger, behind me, slamming into something and flinging splinters of shredded floorboard up into the air. My stomach clenched in rebellious pain and a pair of icepicks lanced through the backs of my eyeballs, into my skull, a sharp shudder as my soft human meat struggled still with the transcendent truth of reality, as I gripped the black, dripping levers behind mere matter, and pulled them.

Lozzie’s singing suddenly cut out, and split-second panic almost broke my concentration.

Black lightning struck for my head, my brain, my nervous system – and snapped.

The creature’s perfect fractal expansion exploded in seven places along its snake-like form, losing coherence as its body tried to follow the new principles I had added to its structure, the nonsense I had introduced. It reared back, whipping about like a severed fire-hose, dropping the twitching corpse of the man it had finished killing. Black light lashed across fallen books, across our faces, across the dull brown floorboards of Carcosa and the hundreds of librarians watching in the audience above.

Raine caught me as I stagged back into her arms, my nose streaming with blood, my head pounding like a struck bell. I wheezed and kicked and clung to her.

“Holy shit, Heather, what did you do?” she breathed.

“I think I gave it cancer.”

Eyes whirling across the strobing black, I looked up the slope of books, where Evelyn cowered behind Praem, and where Lozzie stood no more.

“Where’s Lozzie?” I croaked in growing panic. “Raine, where’s Lozzie, where’d she-”

But Raine knocked the breath out of my sore lungs, yanking me behind her homemade riot shield. I caught a whirling split-second vision of the other fight still unfolding behind us – of Amy Stack, blank-faced and flint-eyed, pointing a sleek metal tube past Zheng’s flicker-fast motion, right at me.

All I could think in that moment, dull with brainmath aftershock and adrenaline, was how much of an ungrateful bitch she was.

Pardon my language. Never would say that out loud.

Zheng roared. Raine had me sprawled on the floor. The crackle scratched the inside of my eyeballs – and the Black Lightning Outsider was not done yet.

Like the animal it was, it recovered and lashed out in panic; an explosion unleashed, a radial ball of fractal chaos, iterating itself in every direction at once. Nowhere to shelter. Mere matter would be no obstacle.

Then, a blink of steel.

Wall and lance of mirrored chrome, armour cut for troll or giant, twice the height of Lozzie who had appeared with it, behind it, sheltered in its lee as the onrush of black lightning battered against the tower of a shield.

Another of Lozzie’s knights.

“Make it go away!” Lozzie screamed.

The knight in shining armour – steel rapidly blackening under the lightning’s onslaught, smoke seeping from the joint seams – thrust its lance into the tangled web of expanding fractal mess with an arm like a steam-piston. There was a soft pop-bang sound, the meaning of which would haunt me for weeks. The black lightning whipped back like an animal from a naked fire, like a sea snake from a shark, expansion halted. It fled into the depths of the library with a motion like smoke caught on sudden wind.

Silence fluttered down on us.

“Heather!” Lozzie flung herself at me on the floor, almost crying as she wrapped her arms around my neck. “Are you okay? You’re okay? It almost touched you and touching you is bad you’re not invincible either you’re not supposed to be, you’re soft and squishy and it was my fault, my fault, I’m so sorry I made us all come over here I shouldn’t have he wasn’t even here and-”

Lozzie kept talking as I returned her hug with numb, shaking arms. Her knight stood immobile behind her, armour charred all down front and sides, black meaty smoke pouring from the seams in the metal. A smell like roast pork filled the air.

A flat, focused voice was speaking from behind me, but the words didn’t penetrate my brain. Somebody else was breathing sharp and hard, hissing through their teeth.

“Shaman,” Zheng said – urgent. That almost did the trick.

It took me a further confused moment to realise that Raine wasn’t on top of me anymore. I twisted round on the floor, dragging Lozzie with me, looking for my lover.

Behind us, Zheng had Amy Stack pinned to the ground, face-down, one knee digging into the small of her back, one hand around a wrist, the other hand pressed to the fragile egg of her shaved skull. Evidently Zheng had understood my intention, which is why she hadn’t gutted the mercenary the moment they’d made contact. Stack’s flint-cold eyes met mine.

Her gun – an ugly collection of black metal surfaces and cylinders – lay kicked to a safe distance.

Raine was slumped on her backside, shield abandoned. She was shaking all over as she forced slow, steady breaths through gritted teeth. White as a sheet, covered in a sheen of cold sweat, both hands gripping hard around her own left thigh.

Those hands and thigh were coated in bright blood, a slow crimson wave soaking into her jeans.

“Oh no,” went Lozzie, very small.

“Raine!” I croaked, and staggered to my feet.

“Shot me with her last bullet,” Raine laughed through a trio of hyperventilating breaths, and pulled a rictus grin. “She was gonna shoot at you, couldn’t let it … it’s fine- it’s fine! It’s a flesh wound. I’m in shock. In shock. Shock. It’s not an artery, just a flesh wound. Not an artery. I’m fine.”

“You … no, Raine, you’re not fine, don’t be silly,” I said haltingly, surprised by how calm I sounded, while inside I went very cold. “You’ve been shot.”

“Gotta learn how to take a punch in the face, you know?” she said, wheezing.

This wasn’t Lozzie’s fault, it was mine.

I swallowed a hiccup. “Right. Okay. We all need to get out of here, right now, Loz-”

“Morell,” Stack said, level and blank. “I shot her, and she’s going to bleed out. I’ll do you too.”

“Bleed out?” Raine laughed, shaking and heaving the last few puffs. “Don’t be ridiculous, this is nothing. I’ll walk it off.”

“Shaman,” Zheng snapped. “Shaman, look up. I cannot pin this prize and be elsewhere too. I would break her legs but she will choke herself on her own tongue. Look up, shaman.”

I didn’t hear Zheng’s words. I only saw Raine’s blood running through her fingers as she applied pressure to a bullet wound. A bullet wound! This was absurd. I couldn’t process the fact.

“Kill me,” Stack said. “Go on. Do it. Order Zheng to do it. Snap my neck. Do it. Do it or I’ll kill everyone you love.”

“ … what?” I blinked at her. “N-no, Zheng, d-don’t, we need her, we-”

 Stack twisted in Zheng’s grip like a ferret in a snare, got her other arm free from beneath her body, and drew a compact silvered knife from somewhere deep in her combat webbing. Raine tried to stagger to her feet, assuming Stack was going for me or something equally ridiculous, but the assassin thrust the knife toward her own exposed throat.

Zheng caught the blade in her bare hand before Stack could commit suicide.

Wordless, straining against an impossible strength, Stack went red in the face, muscles bunching in her neck, eyes staring as she tried to overcome Zheng’s grip and plunge the knife into her own windpipe.

“What the- wow. Okay then,” Raine muttered, and slipped on one knee. I thought she was about to go over, pass out.

Shaman,” Zheng all but shouted at me, like a roaring tiger. “Look up!”

If Zheng had intended to snap me out of panic, she failed; being shouted at by a seven-foot slab of muscle and teeth amid all this madness was more likely to make me wet myself. But the urgency in her words was enough to make me obey, jerk my head, and look up.

Praem lay halfway down the scree slope of tumbled books, looking like she’d been hit by lightning. Which, in a way, she had. Mercy of mercies, she was at least sitting up and blinking her blank milk-white eyes, but she was twitching and flexing, like a human suffering full-body nerve compression, pins and needles in every muscle. Her sheet of blonde hair was singed at the tips, curled up here and there by heat, and her crisply elegant maid uniform was scorched and burned through in several places, the skirt ruined beyond repair, black tights laddered all over. She’d lost a single shoe, which somehow bothered me.

Saldis’ sealed grey machine had been struck as well, scorched and sooted across the front with a spider-web of lightning, but otherwise unmoved, up above us, alongside the audience of watching librarians. Sealed, she offered us no help.

The sports bags Praem had carried had suffered too, half-burst open by the attack. A split carrier bag of cloth-wrapped nuts was spilling its contents down the slope in a slow fall of tumbling metal, punctuated by water bottles and cereal bars and the contents of a first-aid kit.

A blackened twist of cooked meat lay at her feet – the corpse of a rabbit, surrounded by the sundered shell of spells and old towels and torn fabric. Evelyn’s possessed carnivorous time-bomb. Praem must have thrust it forward, or let it free, at the moment the Black Lightning had reached her. The dead rabbit, or more precisely the demon inside it, had taken the brunt of the attack and saved Praem’s life.

And Praem had saved Evelyn’s, by flinging herself in front of her mistress.

Evelyn, untouched and unharmed, up above us on the ragged edge of the upper floor from which we had descended.

Evelyn, alone but for the audience of watching librarians.

Evelyn, eyes and head turned away from the stage, away from us, framed like a painting by the wood and the books, as her lips moved to speak an unheard word to to unseen listener, just behind the nearest bookcase. A frame from a silent film, without music or caption, as inscrutable as a missing page.

Evelyn, nodding once as five squid-faced librarians approached with gentle hands and soft assurances, and took her by shoulder and elbow, to lead her willingly off into the library.

“Evee!” I screamed, and surged to my feet.

But she neither heard nor turned to look. She had already seen and heard something which mattered more than everything else in her life. She clacked her walking stick forward on the floorboards with a sound that resonated in the lingering silence, and stepped toward the blind spot behind the nearest bookcase.

I was meant to see. From that angle. At that exact moment. Stage and audience had switched roles.

I began an equation, dredged up the necessary pieces to knock dead everything around Evelyn and blast the bookshelves to cinders and break both of her legs.

Lozzie was wide-eyed and white-faced, putting all of her strength into just holding me up as I shook and shuddered in brainmath aftershock. Raine lurched to her feet again and shouted after Evee, both hands clamped around her own thigh, blood soaking down her trouser leg to the top of her boot. Praem had turned on the slope of books, slipping and sliding as she tried to regain fine motor control and climb after Evelyn, but her strength and speed was slow to return, and she slipped down two feet for each she gained. Climbing the slope would take many minutes. Too slow.

Twil should have been there.

Twil would have healed from a bullet wound in seconds, shrugged off lightning, launched herself up that slope with unstoppable energy and young love’s devotion. But Twil was not here, because Evelyn had insisted.

Had we been set up? Had Seven-Shades said something to Evelyn or Twil, behind all our backs?

One piece of unseen sabotage, and all of us were undone. Pull a single thread, it unravels the whole tapestry. If I used brainmath now, I could halt Evelyn – and wound her, badly, and probably pass out myself. And then who would rally Lozzie to get Raine home before Raine lost too much blood? Who would drag Evelyn down from that slope, or fix whatever was wrong with Praem? Who would avoid losing all of us at once? Who would get us safely home in one piece?

So as Evelyn stepped behind that bookcase, as the sound of her walking stick clacked away down a corridor of shelves and ancient tomes, I made a cold, calculating, abyssal survivalist decision. I let go of the equation.

I let Evelyn go.

Part of me, the soft human part that loved her, that part was screaming. I was shaking, struggling to control the fear of what I’d just let happen, struggling to tell myself this was the right decision, and also struggling not to vomit all over my shoes as the pain of aborted brainmath made me double up and whine like a stuck pig.

Zheng still had Stack pinned to the ground.

“Shaman,” she grunted.

“I know,” I slurred.

“Shaman-”

“I know!” I put force into my voice, and with every ounce of strength I had, I took Lozzie by the shoulders and peeled her off me, and stood on my own two feet, shaking with the effort.

“Heather Heather Heather! Where- Evee went-”

The clack of Evelyn’s walking stick was still audible, clicking off into the depths of the library, but receding. There was still time.

“Lozzie,” I said. “You have to take everyone else back home, right now.”

Lozzie’s face collapsed into horror. “No, no. Heathy, I can take another knight, I can be there and then here and where Evee is in one step, I know I can, I think I can, I-”

“Evee!” Raine shouted, and I’d never heard her so panicked. She took one broken step toward the slope of books, and I genuinely thought she was going to hurl herself upward with a bullet hole still in her thigh. But she halted and winced deep with pain, gritting her teeth, swearing in a long stream under her breath. A few feet away, Praem slid to the bottom of the slope and stood up, swaying, staring upward after the sound of Evelyn’s walking stick.

“Praem,” I called, trying to keep my voice free of panic. “Are you able to walk now? Can you-”

“Yes,” she intoned. “Evelyn. Now.”

“Yes, I know. Lozzie, please,” I said, and I hiccuped. Lozzie shook her head, on the verge of tears.

“Not leaving Evelyn behind,” Raine wheezed through deep breaths.

“Yes, I am not suggesting we leave Evelyn behind. I’d sooner suggest you shoot me,” I said, exasperated beyond thought, then hiccuped a second time and focused on Lozzie. “Raine needs medical attention, right now, a-and she’s losing a lot of blood. Zheng cannot let go of Stack, and we need her. Lozzie, you have to take them home. Please, you have to do this for me. I need you to.”

“But-”

“Praem and I will follow Evee and bring her back. I may need to use brainmath, Praem can carry me. And we don’t have time to spare, and I won’t be able to think straight if Raine is hurt, and please don’t make me say this all again because I am very terrified right now. Lozzie, please.”

Tearing up, biting her bottom lip, Lozzie nodded.

“Grab everyone,” I said.

Lozzie whirled away from me, pastel poncho flaring out as she skipped over to Raine and gently took her by the shoulder.

“Heather,” Raine wheezed. “No, you- you- Evee- I can’t-”

“You know I’m right,” I told her, as clear-eyed and clear-headed as I could make myself. “Raine, you’ve been shot. I can’t think, I’m so scared. Let me find Evee. I’ve done this before. I can do it. I know Outside.”

Raine didn’t answer. She tried to smile, for me. A pain deeper than mere physical wound twisted her face into a rictus grin.

Praem staggered up next to me as Lozzie reached out her other hand to touch Zheng’s shoulder, to complete her circuit. Beneath Zheng’s grip, Amy Stack had closed her eyes in quiet resignation, her knife limp in her hand.

“Are you sure you’ve recovered?” I asked Praem. “Can you walk? I might be able to do this alone, I-”

Praem shoved two books – the two blasted books we’d recovered from this accursed trip – under Lozzie’s arm, and folded her poncho upward to cradle them, then turned to me.

“My purpose is to protect Evelyn. Do not instruct me otherwise,” she sing-songed, staring right back into my eyes with milk-white clarity. “Help me.”

“You look like a gacha-game reward, girl,” Raine tried to laugh, nodding at Praem’s torn maid outfit, but the laugh turned to a choke of pain. She curled up around her wounded leg and groaned. In a final gesture that would have made me roll my eyes in any other circumstances, she reached down and scooped up Stack’s gun.

“Ready!” Lozzie told me, still white faced, sad-eyed, worried beyond words.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred. She didn’t need to add any other words.

“Zheng. Tie Stack up and-”

“I do not need to be told, shaman,” Zheng purred. She sounded deeply unhappy.

I nodded. “Right. Of course. Sorry. Lozzie, Lozzie promise me to call for help for Raine as soon as you get back in the house. An ambulance. T-the first aid kit is in the cupboard to the left of the sink.”

Raine puffed out a laugh. “How do we explain a bullet-”

“I don’t care!” I almost shouted at her. “Lozzie, call for help.”

Lozzie nodded, very serious.

“And call … ” I almost didn’t say it. “Call Twil. Call Twil, tell her what’s happened. Get her over to the house. Get her … just tell her to be there. I’ll be back with Evelyn. I promise I’ll be back.”

“Heather,” Raine croaked. “Don’t do this alone.”

“I love you. Go, I’ll see you later,” I told Lozzie, and could not look at the species of pain in Raine’s eyes.

Lozzie sobbed once.

And with no pop of air, no click of heels, no sparkle or spark or shimmer, Lozzie was gone from the library of Carcosa. She took Raine with her, and Zheng, and Amy Stack pinned to the floorboards, our prize won by a price too high. Guilt rushed in to fill the silence.

Praem and I were left alone together, in the gathering quiet.

The clack-clack-clack of Evelyn’s walking stick slowly receded into the depths of the library. The watching ring of hundreds of squid-faced librarians made no sound, alongside the closed grey sphere of Saldis in her machine. Closer to hand, Lozzie’s charred and cooked knight stood dead and immobile, metal ticking as it cooled.

“Evelyn,” Praem intoned.

“Yes,” I said, and leaned on the arm she offered me as support. “Come on, up the slope, after her. You’ll have to drag me a little, I’m sorry.”

“I will drag both of you,” Praem sang.

Previous Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Oh, there you are, poppets! I was beginning to wonder when you’d work up the courage to get back here. I’ll be with you in a moment, just let me finish up this bicep, I have the contours almost perfect and I don’t want to lose my vibe … vive? Vigour? Vitality?”

Saldis frowned as she worked through this linguistic enigma, then give up with a sigh and a tut and a shake of her thickly braided hair.

“Virtue,” Praem suggested.

A billion billion books in unnumbered shelves soaked up the golden bell of Praem’s voice, beyond the rectangular clearing in the Library of Carcosa.

Saldis laughed. She tried to click her fingers and point at Praem, but the wet grey goo clinging to her hands precluded a satisfying snap of thumb and forefinger. She settled for a playful wave instead.

“That is exactly what I am aiming to lose, you wonderfully dressed construct, you,” she said to Praem. “Well, if I had any virtue left in the first place. I lost that a long time ago, trust me. That experience was a lot less delicious than this three-course-meal will be, once it’s all ready and baked and sizzling.”

Saldis snapped her perfect teeth together on the final word. Her tone made me vaguely uncomfortable, like she was perusing pornography in public.

Evelyn did not hush Praem for speaking first, for abandoning the very explicit instructions of our plan, perhaps because our plan had survived all of about five seconds since stepping through the gateway.

To Evelyn’s credit, it was a very simple plan. She’d taken less than fifteen minutes to explain all the possible outcomes, earlier that Saturday morning. She was to open the gateway to Carcosa, we were all to step through, and she was to do the talking. Evelyn’s plan was to deliver a specific threat in a limited way, and use that credible threat to forge a brief understanding – or at least, a mutual backing-down – between two mages.

The rest of us were supposed to stand around and look threatening, with an eye to a very quick retreat back through the open gateway if anything went wrong. Praem was laden down with gear again, carrying not only the bag of expedition supplies and the metal nuts tied with twists of cloth, but a second sports bag of familiar appearance, heavily padded inside, which kept rustling and shifting beneath her shoulder. Raine stood be-shielded and armed like a spiked turtle, while myself and Lozzie were tucked in neatly behind her, wrapped in coat and poncho and holding hands. Zheng lurked in the rear, a little grumpy after my reverse pep-talk during which I had asked her not to just pull Saldis’ head off, but also quietly satisfied that she was essential to my long-term safety.

Twil was not present, because after three days of on-and-off, I’d run out of energy to argue with Evelyn.

We’d stepped back through to Carcosa, a week after our first journey Outside, in full awareness that Saldis might attack us. That’s what the bone wand raised in Evelyn’s hands was for, and the reason for the secret silent preparation in my own mind, which was threatening to give me a nosebleed. We’d been prepared for Saldis to be back in her grey sphere, or waiting with a mob of the squid-faced librarians, or transformed into a ogre. Or – if we were exceptionally lucky – just absent.

We had not been prepared for her being obviously and openly turned on.

Nor that she might return to her work after a glance and a smile and a wink at us. We were of sideline interest, compared to her objet d’art. And return to her work she did, skilled hands gliding smooth and wet over the curve and dimple of artificial flesh, humming to herself.

Nobody said anything for a long moment. Raine, Evelyn, and I shared a glance, and I let go of the half-formed hyperdimensional equation on the edge of my consciousness, blinked past the shadow of a headache, and wiped a droplet of nosebleed on a tissue offered by Lozzie.

“ … what the fuck are you doing?” Evelyn eventually asked, in the unimpressed tone of walking in on an esoteric masturbatory technique.

Well, that hadn’t been in the plan at all.

In the clearing hedged by tall bookshelves where we’d stopped last time, Saldis’ blocky grey sphere machine had put down roots, unfurled its leaves, and blossomed.

The core sphere-shape was still recognisable beneath the curling staircase-stems and wide platforms like flat rain-catcher leaves, dotted with smooth grey lumps and curves that were probably meant to act as furniture. Highlights of colour had appeared amid the grey uniformity: a few piles of books undoubtedly sourced from the library shelves, some flimsy silken discarded clothing on a wide expanse of grey I took to be a bed, and a shocking trail of crimson bloody smear near the central stalk of the unfolded construct. The whole thing rose perhaps ten feet into the air, like a miniature apartment without walls, rendered all in smooth grey, dropped into the middle of an Outside dimension.

A pile of half-melted grey blocks lay on the topmost exposed balcony, as if part of the machine had detached and died. Saldis herself was up there, stripped down to a gauzy scarlet undershirt with her sleeves rolled up. She was using the melted blocks like sculptor’s clay, her hands and forearms caked in grey goo as she worked on her masterpiece.

A half-finished human figure stood before her. She’d completed the feet and legs and abdomen and the side of a chest and one arm, all cast from smooth unblemished grey like flawless cement.

Her sculpture was muscled like a Greek deity, lithe and athletic, detailed as any classical statue.

Saldis glanced down at us, at Evelyn’s question, and laughed a rosy laugh. “Making a man!” she said, then took a step back from her creation and tilted her head sideways. “Or perhaps a woman, actually, I haven’t entirely decided yet.” She gestured at the statue’s unfinished groin, smooth as a doll’s and absent any detail. “Of course I could always just go half-and-half and have both, but I think I’m in the mood for being split open like a pomegranate.”

Lozzie let out a snort-giggle behind one hand, eyes going wide and seeking mine. Evelyn huffed a sigh. Raine laughed and went ‘savage, nice,’ under her breath. I didn’t get it.

“Well, actually,” Saldis continued. “Why does that have to be a man? Why, indeed?”

She asked the question of the air, with all the pretentious gloss of a self-defined artist. I finally understood the meaning and felt a blush in my cheeks.

“Um,” Raine cleared her throat from behind her homemade riot-shield. “You got so bored without us, you’ve been making a living dildo? Girl, you need some company.”

“‘Dildo’?” Saldis frowned down at Raine. “Oh, that’s … that’s an awful word. Really? ‘Dildo’? Ugh.” She pulled a stricken face. “I do pity you little Englishers, this is not a pretty tongue. Tch, and now you’ve broken my concentration too. Oh well, not like he’s going anywhere.” She affectionately patted the statue’s abdomen, which looked like it had been chiselled from the unrealised sexual yearnings of the terminally repressed. She turned away to descend the whorl of little staircases and platforms which led back to the core of the sphere.

“Deliver your threat, wizard,” Zheng purred softly.

“I know!” Evelyn hissed over her shoulder. “I was only … distracted.”

“S’one way of putting it,” Raine murmured from the corner of her mouth, barely concealing her laughter. “I was expecting a fight, not to find her making a sex doll.”

“It is not a sex doll,” Saldis said with a tut, as she finished winding her way down toward the floor and stepped out before us. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t leave the boundaries of the unfolded sphere-machine, her bare feet still in direct contact with an impossibly thin platform of grey material, like a little patio.

“It’s a doll, and you’re gonna fuck it,” Raine shot back. “Or it’s gonna fuck you. It’s a sex doll. Not to shame you though. S’cool. We understand.”

“Do we?” Evelyn grunted.

“Sex doll!” Lozzie squeaked, bright red in the face. If we hadn’t been holding each others’ arms, I think she would have fallen over in pure comedic delight. I wasn’t blushing quite as hard, but this whole situation had rather left my resolve behind in the dust.

“I’d been asleep for ages!” Saldis waved a hand at the sphere, tutting. “I can hardly be expected to maintain myself in the total absence of a good rut. And you lot were taking your sweet time coming back as well. I was getting bored, especially after I got chased out of the cheap seats by Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.” Saldis’ eyes sought out my own and made contact with a half-wince. “Lady Morell, do tell me the truth, is the good director still very angry with me?”

I gathered myself, tried to stop thinking about hand-made grey-clay sex dolls, and shrugged.

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “We didn’t talk about you, after you left.”

“Oh.” Saldis blinked at me, blank-faced. “Oh. Well. Hm. Well then. Could you … put in a good word for me, perhaps?”

“That depends on what you do for us,” I said. “Sorry.”

Saldis sighed, then narrowed her gaze at me in a twitch of confusion, as if she’d seen a truth behind my eyes.

Perhaps she had. After all, truth did lurk behind my eyes. Behind every inch of my flesh.

I smiled at her curiosity.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed for my ears alone. “That was not the plan.”

“Plan’s dead,” Praem intoned.

“Now, correct me if I’m wrong about this,” Raine said, smoothly distracting us all from an argument we could ill afford out here in the library, even with the doorway back to Sharrowford still open right behind us. “But Saldis, woman like yourself could surely find an actual partner, right? No need for that thing.” Raine nodded up at the half-finished statue.

Saldis did this wave-like eyebrow wiggle of self-satisfaction at Raine’s hooded compliment, the sort of expression I’d imagine usually accompanies statements about how much one is going to get laid that night.

“Well, if I could find anybody out here,” Saldis replied. “It’s not as if these thralls can provide much company. Even if they were so inclined. Have you ever seen under their robes? No thank you. I’d rather bed a hound.”

Saldis pointed past us with a lazy hand, to where a few of the squid-faced librarians were going about their rounds, dragging their eyeless sight across the regimented book spines. Occasionally one would pause and feed a book into the mass of tentacles and spikes they used for faces, presumably to be routed to elsewhere in the library, and regurgitated from beneath the robes of another librarian. The gaggle of hangers-on we’d attracted last time were nowhere to be seen, perhaps returned to their duties, or simply driven off by Praem’s timely physical violence. A few gritty grey bloodstains still marred the floorboards on the other side of the clearing.

The few left here ignored us completely. The anthill paid us no heed.

Evelyn cleared her throat, loud as she dared in this Outside place. “Everyone shut up. Saldis, listen to me.”

“Yes?” Saldis heard the confrontational tone and raised her eyebrows with all the unimpressed superiority of a very rich woman who considered herself not to be complained at.

She also put her hands on her hips – hands covered in grey sculpting goo, which instantly ruined her red-and-gold skirt before she realised what she’d done. She looked down at herself and tutted, removing her hands and leaving smears of grey behind. “Oh, bother.”

“Will you pay attention?” Evelyn hissed at her. “Perhaps this place is not dangerous for you, but we’re all on a timer and-”

“Yes yes yes, I’m listening.” Saldis flapped a hand, trying to scrape the goo off her hips on a spur of her blossomed sphere without making the stain any worse. Like a bear rubbing itself on a tree.

Evelyn faltered, going tight around the jaw.

“Evee, just say the line,” I whispered over her shoulder. “I don’t think it matters at this point, anyway. I think she’s … well. We can all see.”

“And you’re ready to get rid of her?” Evelyn hissed back at me.

“I don’t think it’ll be necessary.”

“But you’re ready? Heather, promise me this time.”

“Mmhmm. I promise.”

Evelyn took a deep breath and raised her chin. “Saldis. I want you out of Heather’s head. We are carrying a comedenti with us,” she gestured at the rustling bag under Praem’s shoulder. “And if I free it in here, I doubt even you could scourge every hiding place in this library before it grows enough to eat you.”

“Hmmm?” Saldis looked up from her hip-wiggle cleaning. “A what? Don’t speak Roman at me, what is that supposed to-”

“I have the corpse of a rabbit possessed by a demon, with a specific feeding deal,” Evelyn snapped. “It-”

“Oh!” Saldis lit up and almost clapped her goo-smeared hands together before catching herself, tutting, and waving them about ineffectually. “Delightful! Yes, I’ll play, I’ll play. And what is it you want, what, uh, what is this about?”

Evelyn gave her a look like she’d just clogged the toilet. “I want you out of Heather’s head.”

“I’m already out!” Saldis tutted, outraged. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight has seen to that. I’m not going to do every little thing you tell me, Englisher, just because you threaten me with having to adopt a new pet, but I’m not going to cross a princess daughter of the Yellow King.”

“You already did,” I piped up. Evelyn shot me a look.

“Yes, well.” Saldis shrugged. “That was all out of love for her art, not defiance of a direct royal request.”

“Like pirating a movie,” Raine said.

If that made any sense to Saldis at all, she ignored it.

“You know, miss … what was it again, Saye?” she said to Evelyn. “You shouldn’t be so judgemental, you look like you could do with a bloody good spot of rumpy-pumpy as well and-” Saldis stopped and pulled a face. “What were those words? I will never like this language, that was awful. It wasn’t even obscene in the fun way, just the stupid way.”

Raine was struggling not to laugh. Evelyn had blushed a confused red across her pale cheeks. Lozzie was grinning like we were at a real comedy play.

“Anyway,” Saldis continued before Evelyn could recover her battered composure. “Where’s your vargr? She was your shield before, and you can’t get far before escape velocity as one of us without a shield, and I’m pretty certain she was also your-”

“The werewolf is busy,” Evelyn spat. “Now answer my-”

“I already have! I’m out, I-”

“Then clear off out of our path, or submit to my-”

“I’ve already offered to help, you pustulent little-”

While the mages traded puerile insults from a safe distance, sheltered respectively by arcane grey machinery or loyal loving constructs, I wove myself a tentacle.

Imagination had been encouraged in me at a very young age. In Maisie too, when our mother had taught us to read and given us free run of the local library every Sunday afternoon. My young mind, as yet unafraid of Wonderland and monstrous unnatural things, had learnt to weave from words the worlds I wanted to visit, from the rustic simplicity of The Shire to the mysterious surrealism of Where The Wild Things Are, through to the far-too-mature horrors of Watership Down.

So when I visited Kimberly’s bedroom every few days, to share visualisation practice with her, I’d found it easy intellectually – but hard emotionally.

She’d made that spare bedroom into a cosy little space, colonised it with pastel bedsheets and her collection of questionably tasteful books on witchcraft, and even less tasteful little statuettes of rearing unicorns, along with all her other possessions rescued from the cramped flat in Gleaston tower, except a few pieces of larger furniture which lay gathering dust in one of the less inhabitable upstairs rooms. Raine had helped out with a few trips back and forth in the car, and then Kim had stopped paying the rent on her old place. I think the whole set up was Evelyn’s way of trying to help the poor woman, after what she’d been through, but nobody ever put it into words.

The visualisation process sometimes made me want to cry. I could weave in my minds’ eye, right down to the connective tissues and epithelial layers, what a tentacle should look like, and yet know it was never really mine. Kimberly’s skittish softness helped somewhat. I didn’t want her to worry over my tears, so I always controlled myself as best I could.

But now, standing Outside, in the middle of a place so unnatural that it hurt us to stay here too long, I weaved a beautiful thing, and smiled.

Dexterous point of tapered muscle, shaft of smooth pale dolphin-flesh, core of flexible cartilage links like miniature locking pistons. Bioluminescence in the cell walls, set to strobe and pulse and throb in rainbow brilliance, or slink silent and slow in their own darkness. And where it met my skin, I built transition, not interruption. I hooked anchors deep into my flesh, wrapped them around my spine and hips, toughened the supports with tendons like steel cable and packed them around with brown fat and bone sheaths to cushion the strain.

All in my head, of course. Just my imagination.

Concentrating hard, I stretched out the tentacle toward Saldis. She was in the middle of throwing some huffing, tutting comment back at Evelyn. I was half-tempted to flick the mathematical switch, make the tentacle real, and tweak her elegant little nose.

She might be able to see it though. And if I did make it real pneuma-somatic flesh, Lozzie and Zheng and Praem would all see, and they’d be very unimpressed by the aftermath of aching and bruising and wheezing pain and terminal exhaustion, especially if I expended myself for a childish gesture. Actually, Lozzie would approve.

But I still smiled, because I knew the tentacle was not merely a phantom limb at all.

“Heathy,” Lozzie whispered. “We should break it up before they fight, shouldn’t we? No fighting, no fighting!”

“Mmm,” I agreed, and let the thought-tentacle drift apart.

“A single word keeps your guts in your belly, wizard, instead of between my teeth,” Zheng was rumbling behind us. “Scuttle back into your shell, lest I change my mind.”

“Don’t be silly, you dizzy old draugr.” Saldis waved a hand at her. “I’m still inside my walls. Test me if you want to feel the boiling oil, please. I’ll re-purpose you as well, I always need more fodder to break down, and there’s lots of fodder clinging to your tired bones.”

“I will not,” Zheng purred back. “Because I am under the shaman’s grace, and she has asked me not to kill you. If I judge this is unwise, I will make my own choice.”

“No, Zheng,” I sighed and raised my voice a little, felt it creeping off into the depths of the library to be absorbed by the books. “It’s okay. Evee, let it go, you too, please. I think we’ve established what Saldis’ priorities are. Sorry, I was … thinking about other things.”

“Quite right!” Saldis said with a tut.

“I will put in a good word for you,” I told her before anyone could start again. “With Seven-Shades. If you help us find the books we need.”

“ … you mean it?” Her eyebrows rose up her perfect high forehead. A wet tongue darted out to slick ruby-red lips. “That’s not just a pleasantry, is it? Lady Morell, I will be forever in your debt if you can get me back into the audience. Or … ” Her eyes widened. “Or win me a play of my own?”

“You gotta have a big lesbian drama for that, I gather,” Raine said.

“I can’t make Sevens do anything,” I said. “But I will ask her to allow you back into the uh, ‘seats’. If you hurt us, then I’ll tell her the opposite.”

Sevens?” Saldis echoed, clapping her hands together for real this time, sending little droplets of grey clay splattering all over the front of her scarlet undershirt. “You are on a first name basis, with one of the pretenders? Oh, oh, I could never- never lay a finger on such an august- no, never. You have nothing to fear from me. But please, please do tell her how much I wish to admire her work. I am a worthy audience, I am.”

“Right. Yes.” I nodded and cleared my throat, feeling a little awkward.

There was no way I would have been comfortable with Saldis watching what had transpired in that bathroom, after she’d left.

We probably didn’t need to make a explicit deal with Saldis, she’d already offered to help find the books before. We likely didn’t need to threaten her either, but I’d let Evelyn go ahead because I’d begun to suspect this was what mages needed. Formal deals, contracts, armed negotiation. Perhaps it was all the spell-casting and demon summoning that did it, or perhaps being a mage simply attracted a certain type of person. Perhaps this was why Kimberly was so bad at the emotional and manipulational side of being a mage – one had to be a bit of an arse first. Evelyn was an arse, though I loved her for it.

“I still don’t trust you,” Evelyn told her, then spoke sidelong to Praem. “Watch her. One twitch out of place-”

“Trust?” Saldis said the word like it was an utterly preposterous notion. “Trust has nothing to do with it, little Englisher. Respect – everything!”

“Think about it, Evee,” Raine said with an amused grin. “Flash stuff here-”

Flash stuff?” Saldis echoed, then smiled slowly. “Flash! Oh, I do like that. Flash. But how about … fabulous! Oooh yeah, now there’s an English word worth hanging onto.”

“Flash here thinks she’s pissed off one of the Gods,” Raine carried on. “And she’s getting Heather to intercede. What does that make Heather? What does that make us?”

Evelyn let out a grumbling noise, not quite convinced, but did not dissent further. In the corner of my eye, I saw the fingertips of one of Praem’s hands sneak over to the back of Evelyn’s wrist, and make contact. Evelyn flinched and turned to frown, but Praem was staring at Saldis, betraying nothing inside.

“Gods, pffft,” Saldis made a derisive noise. “The Yellow King’s get are not Gods, little hound.”

“How-” Evelyn cleared her throat, recovering from Praem’s unexpected touch. “How would you define them then, hmm? How would you define the Eye?”

“I have met many creatures that claim to be Gods,” Saldis said. “But never been face to face with Freya or Odin or even a stray giant, and certainly no demiurge. If the Gods truly existed, miss Saye, do you believe they would allow obscenities such as us to wander the worlds unobstructed?”

“None of us are obscenities,” I said out loud.

The conviction in my voice drew Saldis and Evelyn both to stare at me. Saldis narrowed her eyes again with that piercing cold intelligence. She clicked her fingers at last – an unsatisfying wet snap on her grey sculpting medium – and pointed a finger at me.

“Lady Morell. You know, you do seem different.”

I smiled. “I’m not. I’m still just me.”

==

Molten cords of tendon flesh a single cell in thickness, fins and scoops and graceful curves for gliding through dark water, throat of brass and eyes of crystal, all wrapped in pressure bubble. Six tentacles, there for when I willed them, a mouth of teeth so sharp and clean, gums of pure-peach health. Muscles trim and smooth and fast, yet changeable into more. A polyhedron shifting faces; a dancing star in my core.

Those words do not do justice to what I’d seen through abyssal senses.

As my insensate body had twitched and jerked in Lozzie’s cradling arms on the bathroom floor, I’d seen the side of me I’d brought back from the abyss – and in the end, it was just me.

Me, translated to the mathematical potential of the abyssal intercellular matrix. Abyssal eyes did not look back at me, because I wasn’t even looking at a reflection. I was merely gazing down at my own body, flesh and blood and bone redefined in wave-particle duality and polymorphic infinity. The only way my mind could interpret the sheer overwhelming euphoria was to turn it into metaphor, the same way it had when I’d swam the ocean beyond.

It was beautiful. I was beautiful.

I’d been such an idiot.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had exaggerated slightly, probably for dramatic effect – I was not the perfect amalgam she had shown me. My physical body was still scrawny and weak, a seed that needed water and sunlight if it was to act as a proper anchor to the real. My shuddering abyssal flesh was still tender and raw, even so many weeks after bursting the membrane back into reality, flushed with vitality but in need of stimulation, acknowledgement, exercise.

But flaws didn’t matter. Imperfections were nothing.

Beneath my skin, I was what I was meant to be. I was homo abyssus.

I stared and stared and ran hands over my flexing abdomen and shuddering flanks, encircled the roots of tentacles which came and went at will, stroked sharp spines and giggled at the sensitive flesh between my legs. I blinked nictitating membranes back and forth across all-black eyeballs, saw in infra-red and ultra-violet and other spectra we do not know. I cracked vertebrae in limbs I cannot name, measured the levels of chemicals and enzymes and hormones in my bloodstream and my organs, puffed my flesh with toxin, drained it and replaced it with the healing properties of a resonant purr.

Lozzie swears up and down all I did was twitch and judder, but I know what I saw.

I sensed her too, her hands cradling my head, her presence behind me, the hint of shining starlight flesh and the whisper of a fey voice.

I came up for air five minutes later, according to her; it felt more like an hour.

“It’s me,” I croaked in a weak little voice, tears of release running down my cheeks. “It’s me. It was always me.”

“It you!” Lozzie giggled, wiping the sweat from my forehead with the end of her sleeve.

The bathroom floor served as a most welcoming place to rest, as I was drained by the experience in more than one way. For a long, long moment Lozzie let me drift with my head in her lap. I stared up at the bathroom ceiling and the old, peeling paint. Eventually, without having to explain myself in words, Lozzie helped me struggle up to a sitting position. Luckily, using abyssal senses had not triggered any kind of sympathetic manifestation of pneuma-somatic tentacles – or worse – so while I was drained and tired, I was not ravenously hungry or about to pass out.

And I was happy.

“Heathy? Are you okay?” Lozzie steadied me with hands on my shoulders as I sat there, wavering and looking down at my body. “Raine will be very upset with me if I let you fall over and bang your head, so I’m going to be very careful not to let you fall over and bang your head. Okay? Okay. Okay!”

With clumsy hands and numb fingers, I lifted up my tshirts and touched my belly and hips, stuck my arms under my clothes to feel my own physical body, the rush of my blood beneath my skin, the gurgle of my guts, the thudding of my heartbeat.

“ … it was me all along,” I croaked at myself.

“Of course it was!” Lozzie chirped, bobbing her head from side to side like a curious little bird. “I thought you kind of knew?”

I shook my head, then looked up at her as her words dawned on me. “What Sevens showed us … is that what you see when you look at me, Lozzie?”

“Mmmmmmmmmmm.” Lozzie did a one-eyed squint. “I’m not like Sevens. No two pairs of eyes are exactly the same but I’ve always thought you’re beautiful, Heather! Before the swim, and then after it too! You think you changed, but you didn’t! You’ve always been you, and you has always been good.” She patted my chest and forehead and thighs. “And you’re pretty and cool and sparkling, whatever you keep thinking inside your head.”

“I guess I am pretty, uh, ‘sparkling’.” I tried to giggle too, not a noise I was too familiar with.

Lozzie and I put our heads together, like a pair of small animals in a burrow, and for the first time in a long time I felt like I made sense. The dysphoria was still present, but now I knew the truth, and nothing could touch that. Even if I couldn’t see it ninety-nine percent of time, hidden below the surface of my skin, past sight and sense on the abyssal wavelength of oceanic metaphor, it was there. I was not broken wreckage, not irreconcilably insane from a visit to the abyss. I was homo abyssus, my pain came from the mismatch of my flesh, and when seen through the right eyes, I could be beautiful.

Phantom limbs wrapped around Lozzie’s shoulders, and I simply let them. They tugged on the bruises in my sides as real, physical muscles tried to compensate for abyssal truth. The pain was sweet – which was a bit of a mad thing to think, but it was true.

“I’m going to go to the gym with Raine,” I croaked as Lozzie nuzzled my neck. “I’m going to get fit, and … and run, and learn to … you know.” I sniffed hard. “I saw me, Lozzie. I’ve been so, so stupid. How could I- all this time- a-and I have to move, I have to- all this time spent on me, I need to help Maisie, not sit around navel-gazing and-”

“No!” Lozzie tutted and pulled back. “Bodies are important!”

I blinked at her, then nodded, too weak to turn this moment of victory into a self-pity session, or worse, beating myself up for not figuring everything out overnight and rescuing Maisie after breakfast. I gazed at Lozzie for a long moment, and wondered what she might look like through abyssal eyes. I cast my mind back to the periphery of what I’d seen of myself earlier, and recalled hints of something behind me, something made of fragile star-spun glass and the tinkle of tiny stones on metal.

Lozzie just blinked at me with big sleepy eyes, turned her head sideways, and smiled an elfin little smile.

“I should get back to bed,” I laughed softly. “But I think I’m too … too ‘buzzed’, as Raine would say.”

Lozzie stroked my head, nodding. “We can stay here a while. It’s safe in the bathroom! No spooky creeping night-Praem to find me.”

“Night Praem?” I asked.

Lozzie shrugged, impish mischief on her lips.

“ … where’s Seven-Shades, anyway?” I asked, glancing around the shabby little room. “I need to thank her, I really, really do.”

“I think you have a truce now!” Lozzie chirped. “I wish she’d stayed though, I wanted to see her with her clothes off.”

I blinked at her in surprise, and Lozzie stuck her tongue out.

“Not like that, dumb-dumb! She’s pretty, I like her. I wanna see under the mask.”

“Um, fair enough.” I turned to the empty air. “Thank you, Sevens.”

“Thank you, Seveny!” Lozzie chorused with me, loud enough to bring the Night-Praem down on us.

Twenty minutes later – or an hour and twenty, I wasn’t sure, I think I fell asleep on Lozzie’s shoulder for a good few minutes – she helped me to my feet and we padded together through the dark upstairs hallway and into mine and Raine’s bedroom. Lozzie tucked me back into bed, but before she could even finish pulling the covers up, I was snuggling into Raine’s front not only with my hips and arms, but with half a dozen phantom limbs that I now knew were not mere brain-ghosts, but an echo of the truth beneath my flesh.

And as I drifted off to sleep, wrapped for the first time in months in the euphoria of truth, I knew what I had to do.

I knew what I was; now I must learn to use it.

==

“We have a truce with Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I told Evelyn the following morning.

I told her and Raine a great many things that morning, some of them inexpressible in human language, or at least difficult to express at high speed, especially without the luxury of emotional brakes or anything in my belly. Raine had sensed my manic mood the moment I’d woken up, how I’d wriggled out of bed and grabbed her in a hug, laughing through the painful twinges in my flanks and the way my bruises knocked the wind out of me when I bent over too quickly. Evelyn saw it in my face as she frowned at me over a bowl of cereal, as I all but bounced into the kitchen, feeling like I was channelling too much Lozzie.

“Wait wait, hold up, important part you keep glossing over: there were two of you?” Raine asked, paused in the act of trying to get me to eat a bite of cereal bar. “Full-body style?”

“There’s always been two of me!” I felt a giggle in my throat, unbidden, an unfamiliar feeling. “There’s Maisie.”

“Yeah, but … ” Raine wiggled her eyebrows. “You know.”

“Tch,” I tutted, but couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “You wouldn’t. Seven-Shades wasn’t actually me. You’ve changed your tune on her, Raine, I thought you, well, disliked her, after what we saw … ”

“She’s put a smile on your face, Heather. I’m not going to pretend to fully understand, but you seem happier than in months.”

“It’s like she’s high on blue skittles,” Evelyn grumbled, but then she added, “Good for you, Heather.”

“It’s simple!” I laughed again, and wouldn’t stay still, fiddling with a cereal bowl even though Raine was literally following me around the kitchen with a cup of tea and a plate of toast, trying to tempt me to either eat or sit down or both. “It was always just me. It still hurts, but it’s so good to know that I am what I am. Maybe I was always this way, maybe the abyss was just a catalyst, maybe it’s the Eye’s fault, but I don’t care anymore. And I feel … ready! This is what I’m supposed to be. And it’s stupid, it’s horrendously silly. I feel like one of those people on the internet who believe they’re dragons or ice fairies or something and-”

Raine shot Evelyn a raised eyebrow. “You telling Heather about the dark corners of the internet?”

Evelyn shrugged.

“Me,” Praem intoned from by the workshop door.

“Yes, yes,” I waved that point down. “Praem was reading things on my laptop on wikipedia, it was very fun. Anyway, the point is, we have a truce now. We need to get everyone together, go back to Carcosa, as soon as we can. We’re going to get those books and I’m going to figure out how to locate my sister. Today, yes, we can go back to the library? Is that doable?”

“Saturday,” Evelyn grumbled. “I still need time to re-target the gate. And do not tell Twil we’re going back.”

My enthusiasm hit a brick wall of sudden anxiety. “ … no … Twil?”

“She has coursework due,” Evelyn said, holding my gaze without faltering. She seemed colder than last night, somehow hollow around the eyes. “This week and the next. I have extracted a promise that she will focus on it, mostly by guilt tripping her. Don’t undermine that.”

“Oh, I-”

“You aren’t the only one who had a rough night, Heather.”

“Then … then we can wait, can’t we? We can … um.”

“No, we don’t want to wait,” Evelyn said with a long suffering sigh. “You don’t want to wait, do you, Heather?”

“Not … not really, no.”

“Every day we delay is one less day of action, one less day of working on how to counter the Eye,” Evelyn said. “We go in, we shove Saldis’ head in a toilet, we get the books. Leaving Twil out means nothing.”

“Liar liar, pants on fire,” Praem sing-songed.

“And you can shut up,” Evelyn grumbled at her, too worn out to snap. Something sagged in her expression. Raine finally stopped waving toast at me and noticed that something was wrong.

“Evee?” she asked. “Evee, something happen? What did Twil say, she upset you?”

“Practical decisions, that’s all. And it’s none of your business.”

==

An hour deeper into the library of Carcosa and we had acquired two out of three books. Now we were closing on the third.

Working the ‘catalogue system’ – as Saldis had described the squid-faced librarians – proved both easier and more disgusting than we’d envisioned. The trick was to feed them books constantly, which Lozzie took to with gleeful giggles, despite my visible concern.

“They’re always in communion, all of them, that’s how they draw on the existing organisation of every volume in the library,” Saldis had explained. She’d requested we interrupt one of the shuffling creatures in the clearing, offer it a book taken from the shelves, to start the necessary chain-reaction.

“Communion with what?” Evelyn had asked, voice sharp.

Saldis shrugged and pulled a face. “I do not care to know. Does one observe the butcher at work, or merely enjoy the meat?”

We’d followed her instructions, lured a squid-faced librarian creature with books pulled from the shelves, and watched as it had shoved them into its tentacle-hole one by one.

“The books are not actually moved, you understand?” Saldis went on, with little bored sighs and waves of a hand as she resumed her seat in the sphere-machine’s core. “The internal parts of one thrall are not merely similar to all others, like the innards of one pig resemble all other pigs – they are the very same innards. But the active overlap only occurs when they need to move a book from one position to another.”

“ … quantum superposition?” Evelyn asked with a professional frown.

“Shared guts!” Lozzie chirped, and handed the squid-face another book.

Saldis waved a hand and pulled a bored grimace. “I don’t pretend to understand, little Englisher, and frankly I don’t feel like vivisecting one of them to find out. One can bash them around all one likes, but insert a single fingertip past their skin, into the organs, and you’re likely not to get it back. Now, see?” She nodded at the squid-face Lozzie had finished feeding, which stood before us in a moment of silent contemplation, as if waiting to be addressed. “It knows the position of all the other books relevant for the re-shelving of the ones it has just communed for the correct location of.” She smiled and smacked her lips. “Now that’s a sentence. Your ‘English’ did quite well there, mmm?”

“Stop yammering, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“Yes, please, Saldis,” I added. “We are on a time limit. Being here is tough on all of us.”

Saldis rolled her eyes and leaned on a hand. “Very well, lady Morell. This is much more reliable than asking a scrum of thralls to dredge up what little scraps they have in their local meat, yes? Go on, ask it for the books. Ask away, and ye shall receive! If not, feed it more until the net catches what you desire.”

The first tome we reached twenty five minutes later, following the slow shuffle plod of the librarian through the endless labyrinth of Carcosa’s bookshelves. It didn’t point our way as the gaggle of followers had, but simply led on, up to the next floor and deep into a spiral tangle of overflowing shelves. Hundreds of books lay in avalanche piles here, thick leather-bound tomes and ancient scrolls and scraps of unbound manuscripts in Latin and Greek and less recognisable languages, but the creature neatly picked its way along a clear path around the textual rockfalls.

Evelyn insisted we continue using the method of throwing cloth-wrapped nuts, testing for that which was not conducive to human life or terrestrial matter. So Praem threw, and our caution was proven warranted – the librarian creature passed unharmed through patches of clear ground that compressed the cloth-wrapped nut into nothing, or whisked it out of the air on dark semi-translucent claws. On those occasions, we had to find our own route around the obstruction to rejoin our guide.

Beyond the Northern Ice by Magnhildr Dahl was exactly where the creature led us, in the middle row of a stack of early Medieval texts, bound in soft, pale leather which made my skin crawl to look at, written in a tongue not unlike Old English.

“This is not supposed to exist,” Evelyn breathed, voice shaking as Praem had carefully extracted the book and cradled it in her hands.

The doll-demon had cracked the cover, checked this was indeed the genuine article and wouldn’t hollow out the mind of anybody who gazed upon the words, then laid the book inside the less lethal of the two sports bags, with mechanical gentleness.

“What does that mean?” I asked softly.

“All copies were destroyed,” Evelyn said, her eyes following the book with naked hunger as Praem tucked it away. “Dahl was excommunicated, executed by drowning, and … well. That book shouldn’t be.” She swallowed hard. “Come on, we have further to go. Yes, much further.”

Saldis accompanied us as well, rolling along well behind the rear of the group in her grey sphere-machine. Back in the clearing it had folded up its strange blossoms, sucked the stair-stems and balcony-leaves back into itself like a strange sea creature re-absorbing expelled organs. Saldis’ boy-toy sculpture now lay in a side-seat next to her, visible through the peeled open front of the machine as she lounged inside. The sphere clicked along behind us, Saldis only occasionally smothering a laugh at our cautious, creeping antics.

“You think this is amusing?” Evelyn had shot back at her after the third laugh, as Praem had watched a cloth-wrapped nut bounce along the floorboards. “You want to go first for us? I suppose you have some better way of avoiding the hazards out here, do you?”

“Don’t mind me!” Saldis waved a hand. “Far be it for me to leapfrog your process. You do you, miss Saye.”

Whenever I looked back, Saldis favoured me with an excited smile, but mostly let us get on with our book borrowing.

Les voies des goules – written by an anonymous Parisian magician in 1803 – elicited just as much fascination from Evelyn as the first book, despite the relative slimness of the cheaply-bound volume, and the absurd cover illustration of a cavorting ghoulish figure with a gnawed bone between its teeth.

“Let me guess,” Raine said. “All copies burned? Author burned at the stake?”

“What? … no, no,” Evelyn muttered, distracted as Praem handed her the book after checking, and Evelyn greedily leafed though the pages, eyes working back and forth at high speed. “Only three copies ever published. Referenced by other books, but I wasn’t sure it existed. Grave magic, flesh … stuff … ” She shook her head and frowned. “The necessary formula for hiding of human flesh is meant to be in here, even from gazes such as the Eye, but my French is atrocious, I’ll have to translate it line by line. This is necessary. We need this. We do.”

“Evee?” I said her name out loud, because she sounded like she was trying to convince herself. Her voice was shaking.

“I’m fine,” she said with a huff, pulling herself together and handing the book back to Praem. “Let’s carry on. Feed our friend here some tomes. The faster we get the last book, the faster we can be out of here.”

By the time we reached the third book, Evelyn was the only one of us not beginning to buckle under the strain of being in this place, of existing Outside. I was getting twitchy, my phantom limbs trying to guard every approach to our little group. Zheng had grown silent and intense behind me. Raine was pulled taut inside her motorcycle jacket, every muscle pumped with stress hormones. Praem kept blinking too much. Even Lozzie had stopped bouncing from foot to foot as she walked, hand-in-hand with me.

Evelyn had that wide-eyed look, that old look, that hungry look, as she stomped on into the darkness.

The last known location of the third and final book – The Testament of Heliopolis, an anonymous translation of some ancient Greek scrap – was two floors up and far toward the back wall of the library canyon, where a wide area of the library had long ago suffered some kind of collapse.

As we crept inch by inch through the tangle of bookshelves, an open space revealed itself, like a rubble-clogged crater ahead, though the rubble was all splintered wood and piles of books in jumbled heaps. Though it did little to alleviate the oppressive air of the library, the slow appearance of a wide open space did ease off the claustrophobia of the library stacks.

“Looks like somebody set off a bomb,” Raine muttered as we drew almost level with the collapsed area.

“I could do worse, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled.

“Here … it should be right here,” Evelyn was saying, eyes roving the nearest bookshelf, across the neatly stacked spines of leather-bound, crumbling books. “This part is alphabetised, but I don’t see it.” She glanced at the squid-faced librarian, who had stopped and turned toward us, waiting for the next instruction. “Has the thing made a mistake? Do we need to feed it more?”

Praem noticed it first.

She stepped past Evelyn and reached for the shelf, into a shadowed gap between two books. It was only then I realised that the dust on the shelf had been disturbed. A book had been removed. Recently.

Praem’s hand drew back the object which had lain in space once occupied by The Testament of Heliopolis.

A clean white envelope.

My eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my head. Raine went tense all over, as if it might be a letter-bomb. Evelyn made a choked sound deep in her throat. Lozzie squeezed my hand. Saldis was standing up in her sphere-machine, trying to see. Zheng laughed.

“It’s for us,” Praem intoned after a moment.

Written on the front of the envelope, in messy looping handwriting, with the unmistakable blue ink of cheap biro, was a single sentence.

‘To Miss Evelyn Saye.’

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“I know you’re watching me,” I said to my reflection.

My face stared back at me from inside the bathroom mirror. I waited for a change, for a smile I did not make, for the twitch of an eyebrow or a lash, or a silent question behind my own eyes. I watched my peripheral vision for a haze of aspirated bile, for a wind-stirred flurry of dead leaves, for scorching sunlight on new bones.

A full minute passed; I counted the seconds in my head, or at least made an attempt to do so, as my heart hammered inside the thin cage of my ribs and my mouth went dry and the stiff bruises throbbed in my sides and hips. I waited for a reply, in the bright cold of the bathroom in the middle of the night with all the lights on.

No reply came. Same as every other attempt we’d made over the last day and a half.

I let out an explosive sigh. “I’m alone, you … ” I puffed out a failed insult. “It took me a lot of courage to do this, don’t you respect that at all?”

My reflection stayed very much just me, plus a scowl.

“Fine,” I said. “Have it your way. Maybe you require more dignified surroundings than this old bathroom? Well, tough. You should have answered us when we were making a big fuss of you. Now you’re just being obstinate. I am not traipsing all the way downstairs in the dark to light candles and make offerings, you … you … high-maintenance old cow.”

Not a whisper.

“Or maybe you’re not watching at all. Or maybe you don’t care, and this is all a mad waste of time and I’m just talking to myself.”

Cursing myself for a fool, I ran the cold tap in the sink for a moment, letting the water swirl down the drain. I slurped a mouthful from my own cupped hand, and when I straightened up again, my reflection straighted with me.

To be fair to her, this bathroom was indeed not an appropriate venue for respectful supplication, but we’d left respect and humility behind hours ago. The claw-foot tub with the dust underneath, the peeling paint on the walls, the scuffed skirting board and the cracked tiles; at least the sink and toilet were clean, but this was still no place for a negotiation.

I glanced over my shoulder at the bathroom door, sensibly shut, the upstairs hallway and the night held beyond. I’d made certain I was not followed, that no eavesdropper would interrupt this. If Raine woke alone, she’d be calling for me. If Praem noticed anything amiss, she’d knock. Evelyn, well, Evee would probably approve of this unilateral plan. Maybe. I hoped.

A shadow of guilt passed across my heart, but this was the only way. We had to get back to Carcosa, the sooner the better.

I turned back to the mirror.

“It’s just me now,” I continued. “Come out, and talk to me like you did before. You and I, we need to make a truce. Though, I suppose we’re not at war. I didn’t practice this part. An agreement then, we need to make an agreement.”

Nothing.

“Please, Sevens. Can I call you that? Sevens? Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is a bit of a mouthful. Please?”

Only the creak of the house and the distant whisper of wind down Sharrowford streets.

“Alright then. Either you can talk to me now or … if you interrupt us in Carcosa, I will attack you. If you start the next act of your play, or you try to take anybody away, I will stop it, I will run on stage, I will pry the actors off each other, I don’t care. If you interrupt us in a dangerous place, I will come at you with everything I have.” My expression frowned back at me from the mirror. “And I … I don’t want to have to do that, but that’s the only choice I can make to protect my friends with what we have to do.”

In one hand I twisted the the scrap of yellow cloth torn from her raiment.

“Please talk to me. I don’t want to fight you,” I hissed at my reflection. “ I … I want to be like you.”

Talking to myself in the mirror was no magical technique, but simply a psychological trick. I could have done this in the kitchen or the workshop, but seeing my own face was supposed to make this feel less absurd. Seven-Shades had worn me for a few minutes and told me unwelcome truths in my own voice, so the point was to imagine it was her in the mirror.

The technique was backfiring. I felt like a crazy person.

So, normal, for me.

We’d been trying to contact Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight for the last thirty-six hours, and this attempt was not only going no better than all the others, it also made me feel very silly.

She had declined to appear to us in the kitchen, not enticed by Evelyn’s huffing entreaties and Lozzie’s genuine excitement to make a new friend. She had not risen to Zheng’s growled offer of a physical duel – which I had vetoed anyway. She had left unanswered our formal requests later that day and this morning, spurned Evelyn’s arcane welcome mat, ignored our humble abode.

Evelyn had broken out certain magic circles which she described as “rolling out the red carpet.”

“Most circles I’ve built are for containment or repulsion, or for some kind of specific examination,” she’d grumbled at the chalked mess which filled half the workshop floor space. “But this? This thing is the equivalent of a five-star hotel room with a mirrored ceiling and a mini-fridge full of booze. And she still turns her nose up at it.”

“Maybe she’s the rustic type,” Raine had joked. “Prefers a B&B.”

With a level of passive-aggressive grumbling impressive even for her, Evelyn had turned to Kimberly’s particular area of expertize, when the poor woman had arrived home from work earlier today.

“But … b-but Wicca isn’t re-” Kimberly had stammered. “I-I mean, religion shouldn’t apply to-”

“Mechanically, no, but for the purposes of appealing to the sensibilities of a creature like this, it does apply,” Evelyn had sounded like she’d bitten into a rotten peach. “Just give me something to work with, something that doesn’t involve bathing in bull’s blood under the full moon, alright?”

“I could steal a goat, wizard,” Zheng had purred.

“I am not putting down a tarp so we can slit an animal’s throat in here. No. Simplify.”

At Kimberly’s suggestion we’d added rings of candles, turned the lights down low, and made an offering – of food, thankfully. We didn’t have to ask Zheng to poach livestock from the Sharrowford countryside, because the general consensus said a real sacrifice should be something we all valued, something we’d rather not give up.

So we’d offered Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight the most expensive curry we could order – something called a ‘Kerala Prawn Kaldeen’ from a curry house near the city centre with the wonderful name of Gulbadan’s Gunpowder – and a full bottle of vodka. Not Tesco value, either. “Proper Polish import,” Raine had called it. “None of that French nonsense made from old shoes.”

Seven-Shades had not the slightest interest in any of that.

We’d all felt extraordinarily silly, standing there in the dark at a respectful distance from a rapidly cooling takeaway curry which had cost over thirty quid. After fifteen minutes of shuffling and coughing, we’d given up, and Raine had begun sampling both curry and vodka. She pronounced both very good.

“Absolute Goddamn waste of time,” Evelyn had cursed, exhausted by the inherent absurdity of trying to attract the attention of an Outsider Godling Daughter with a penchant for lesbian drama. “Give me a spoon of that, Raine. Better be worth it.”

“Maybe she’s ghosted us,” Raine said around a mouthful of rice. “Lost interest.”

“I scared her off,” I sighed. “It’s my fault.”

“That’s a good thing, though,” said Raine. “Right?”

I shrugged. No, it wasn’t, but I couldn’t say that part out loud, not yet.

Evelyn made a face around her sample spoonful of curry. “Too spicy.”

“Weak, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“And no, it’s not a good thing,” Evelyn carried on. “We don’t know why this thing isn’t responding. She could have decided to simply wait for her opening. We take no unnecessary chances. We’ll try again in the morning, with … with … oh, sod it, I don’t know. I’m out of ideas.”

At least the full-on spooky occult offering routine was less loud than Lozzie’s plan of running from room to room trying to ‘catch’ Seven-Shades in hiding.

“What if we put on a play of our own?” Raine suggested, after downing a half-shot of vodka and smacking her lips. “We could do, I dunno, Animal Farm. Zheng can be Boxer.”

“Raine,” I sighed. “And Animal Farm is a novel.”

“How about you three fuck?” Evelyn shot back. “Maybe she’ll turn up to watch.”

“Evee, please,” I’d groaned, blushing.

Zheng grunted. In approval or not, I couldn’t tell.

“Ehhhhhh,” Raine pulled a face.

“No, I’m serious,” Evelyn said, anything but serious. She gestured between Raine and Zheng and I. “Go on. Get in a pile, make out a bit, see if it works. Try sticking your tongue down Zheng’s throat perhaps. Not a good idea? No? Thought not.” She cast me an exasperated glance. “I’ve had enough, I’m going to bed. If you come up with anything, wake me. Or don’t.”

I chose the latter.

Slipping out of bed in the middle of the night had not been easy. The first night after our confrontation with Seven-Shades in the Medieval Metaphysics room, I was worn down to a stub, had embraced unconsciousness long before Raine had guided me into bed. My bruises had woken me in the dim small hours of the early morning, a familiar stiffness in my flanks which blossomed into a slow, creaking ache as I shifted beneath the bedsheets. The pain was deeper this time, rooted in the tissue structures inside my torso where I’d anchored my tentacles. I’d found myself wrapped in Raine’s embrace, her legs tucked between mine. Somehow she’d carefully avoided putting pressure on my bruised flanks, even while asleep.

The idea had come to me as I’d lain in the dark on the edge of consciousness, dreaming of abyssal grace and Maisie’s voice.

But even if I’d had the willpower to pry myself out of bed and expose my bruises to the cold beyond Raine’s cuddle, I wouldn’t have been able to fully suppress the pain, and my fumbling would probably have woken her up. And I had to do this alone – that was the whole point.

So I’d endured a full day of failed experiments in calling up Outside’s most prolific lesbian playwright. Then, snuggled up in bed the night after the curry offering, once Raine’s breathing had grown soft and regular, I’d clawed my way back from the edge of sleep. Extracting myself from her embrace – with my sides stiff with bruises – took fifteen minutes of stop-start wriggling until I was free.

Secrets in the night. At least this time I wasn’t self-harming.

Before I’d worked up the courage to put my plan into action, I’d stood in front of the bathroom mirror, looking at my body. I was wearing lilac pajama bottoms and a pair of long-sleeved dark tshirts borrowed from Raine, a size too big for me and very warm. I’d lifted the shirts up and examined my bruises in the mirror, turned on the spot to watch the way my muscles bunched, ran a hand over the purple-and-black blotches in my flanks.

Zheng was right, in a way; the bruises were beautiful. They were proof I was in this body, that it’s mine, that I was here.

Was that enough? To be here, in this? Weak and scrawny, but real.

In the end, after my ultimatum and my pleading, the mirror yielded nothing. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was not going to respond. I sighed at my reflection, shaking my head and planning a sad retreat back to bed. Perhaps Evelyn was correct, perhaps if I snogged Zheng and then Raine together – how would that even work, I wondered? What were the physical logistics? – then perhaps Seven-Shades would deign to descend from her authorial throne to correct our technique.

“This is all so silly.” I tutted, and looked down at the scrap of yellow in my hands. “What was I expecting, a talking mirror? You are such an idiot, Heather.”

“Not an entirely unreasonable assumption, considering the sorts of things that happen in your life these days,” the mirror said.

Damn her, I did jump. I flinched like she’d crawled out of the sink plughole.

In the mirror, my face was tilted to one side, with a pained expression of preemptive apology. The sink, our toothbrushes, the bathtub, all of it was the same as in reality, even the pajamas on my body. All except the expression on my face.

“It’s you,” I said.

She – Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight wearing my face on the other side of a reflection – sighed and nodded with a sad sort of smile, in the exact same way I might do if confronted by one of my friends indulging in a bit of thoughtless emotional self harm.

“Yes, Heather. Despite everything,” she said gently. “It’s still you.”

“So you are willing to talk.”

“For a certain definition of ‘talk’,” she said with my voice, wincing in slow motion. “I cannot make a deal or a truce, not in the way that you and your friends want me to. That’s not what I am. That would be like asking rain to stay up, or wind to cease blowing.”

“Tch,” I tutted and rolled my eyes. “I can’t talk to the wind or the rain. You’re not a natural force, you’re a being. You can make decisions.” I almost closed my eyes to rub the bridge of my nose in exasperation, but stopped myself at the last moment. If I wasn’t looking at her, would she still exist? “And why are you talking to me from inside the mirror? This was just my psychological crutch, I didn’t expect you to really do it. I thought you’d appear behind me or something.”

Seven-Shades smiled one of my smiles, nervous but passionate.

“It just seemed like a bit of fun,” she admitted. “Spooky mirrors, voices in the night, dopplegangers. Raine would call it all very ‘Hammer Horror’, wouldn’t she?”

“I’m not a fan of random spooky things,” I told her.

“Then you’re in the wrong vocation.”

“It’s not a vocation. I didn’t choose any of this.”

Seven-Shades pulled a face that made me want to reach into the mirror and slap myself – a combination of half-squint, slightly pursed lips, and a sideways tilt of the head. Superior scepticism. Did I ever give Evelyn or Raine a look like that? I looked utterly insufferable.

“You sort of did, Heather,” she said. “You could always have kept taking your pills, or did what the doctors told you and abandoned any thought of your sister, or chosen not to push for this confrontation with the Great Eye. You could still do that, you know? You could still take the step back. You could go wake Raine right now, and have a tearful conversation about how you don’t think beating the Eye is ever possible, how you’re too afraid, you love her and your friends too much to risk them, so on and so on. And you know, deep down, that she’d accept it. She wouldn’t even think less of you, not in the long run. She’d get to keep you, alive and in one piece and not slipping off into the abyss.”

“How is any of that a choice?” I asked before I could stop myself, then winced and held up my free hand. “Wait, no, don’t answer that. You’re distracting me with … developmental personal philosophy. This is what you do. Don’t say a word.”

Seven-Shades leaned forward, as if trying to see her own feet in the mirror. Her eyebrows climbed my forehead. “Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, as in ‘oh, why?’” She pulled a pained grimace and nodded down, at my other hand. “Is that a um, a piece of me you have there?”

I held up the scrap of yellow fabric from her robes. “Yes. Raine cut it off you, I’m … I don’t know if I should apologise for that or something.”

“It is a bit like collecting my toenail clippings.” She cleared her throat softly. “That is a … bit … weird, Heather.”

“Look, forget that for now. Will you talk to me about making a deal?” I asked.

“Only if you promise not to threaten to unravel me again,” she said with a hint of tutting schoolmarm. “I was quite shocked when you blossomed.”

“I do not make faces like that,” I said.

“I’m sorry? Oh!” she laughed a nervous little laugh. “Oh, Heather, but you do. I cannot go beyond your boundaries while I wear your role.”

I resisted the urge to prove her right, and instead counted to five inside my head before I spoke again. “Very well, I promise not to threaten to unravel you again, but this goes both ways. This is why I’m alone, this is why I didn’t want you to turn up with everyone else around. You can visit whatever horrors you want upon my mind, as long as you keep your hands off my friends. Away from Raine. Away from all of them.”

“I understand.” She nodded, very understanding indeed, very empathetic. Very me.

And obviously lying. She’d only said ‘I understand’, not promised to do what I asked. Did I manipulate others like that?

“Could I have actually hurt you, before, with my tentacles?” I asked.

She pulled my thinking face. “Perhaps?”

I sighed. Probably not. Perhaps her rapid retreat yesterday morning was just as scripted as everything else. Maybe even this conversation was all an act.

“Will you come out of the mirror, then?” I asked.

She froze, a doubtful frown betrayed in the turning down of her mouth. “Um. I think you may have made a tactical mistake there, Heather.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Why do you need me to come out of the mirror if you’re not going to try to hurt me? We can talk like this, can’t we? Remember, I’m in your role right now, I’m as cautious – some might say paranoid,” she winced, “as you are.”

My fingers tightened around the scrap of yellow cloth and my throat tightened around unsaid words. “I want to … to see you. Again. Physically. You … you know all my fears, don’t you? You must understand why.”

Seven-Shades did a miniature sigh of politely suppressed irritation. “I’m not omniscient. I’m not actually a God.”

“Oh, for … alright, fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I steeled myself and took a deep breath. “You were beautiful. When I switched to abyssal senses, and I saw what you actually are, you were beautiful. I want to see that again.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, puppeteering my body on the other side of the bathroom mirror, blushed red as a tomato.

The effect was deeply grotesque. I looked like a chinchilla in some kind of mating frenzy.

“Ugh,” I made an involuntary noise. “Is that me?”

“Well … I … uh … ” she struggled and stammered, couldn’t look me in the eye, didn’t know what to do with her hands, flapping them about. “That’s not how this is supposed to turn out at all. Oh, it’s the observer problem all over again, I have changed too much and-”

“Stop blushing,” I snapped, outraged and horrified, blushing right back at her. “You don’t feel embarrassment, you’re just simulating mine! Oh my goodness, don’t.”

“It’s not simulation! It’s you! Tch, fine!”

Seven-Shades rolled her eyes and huffed, a perfect impression of me in a fit of pique, and then climbed out of the mirror.

Despite explicitly asking for that exact thing, the sight of one’s own reflection climbing through a mirror like an open window was not a phenomenon for which the human brain is remotely prepared. For a moment I felt like sitting down all of a sudden as my head swam. The mirror-me on the other side mounted the sink with unsteady feet and uncertain hands and a rather worried look on her face, then stuck her head and shoulders through, grasped the edge of the mirror like the lip of a window, and slowly clambered down on this side, into the real bathroom, reaching for the floor with desperate toes. When she was down, her hands shook with nerves, just as mine would have if I’d tried to scale the bathroom fixtures.

“Oh, that is incredibly weird,” I said, wide-eyed.

“It’s, um, not as easy as I assumed.” Seven-Shades shot the mirror a disapproving look and wiped sweaty palms on her copied pajama bottoms.

Maisie would have loved this, I thought, like something out of a fairy tale.

And why did I think of Maisie at that moment, alone with an Outsider in the middle of the night? Because it was like standing next to her again, if only I wilfully ignored everything else about the situation.

“I don’t mean the mirror,” I said with a shuddering sigh. “You’re not really me, you’re not really in that body. If you’d fallen it wouldn’t have hurt you. I mean how you’re … you’re all me, this time.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight blinked at me with my own face, innocent and lost. “I’m sorry?”

Yesterday morning in the Medieval Metaphysics room, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had manifested my head on a body of rippling sulphuric ocean; but now she imitated me from crown to heel, pajamas and skinny ribs and flat chest and all. She had my permanent eyebags, my indrawn shoulders, even the slight inward tilt of my feet in my two layers of socks. A true reflection stood before me.

The only thing missing was the scrap of torn yellow fabric in my hand, the piece of her real body.

A faint yellow miasma haloed her form, an after image of flowing robes rippling in unseen wind, as if over my copied pajamas she wore a memory of her real self, so translucent it was almost invisible, a ghost washed away by the bright light reflected off the bathroom walls. But unless I focused, her yellow mantle remained beyond sight.

“You know exactly what I mean.” I tried to make it harsh, but couldn’t quite get there. This really was like talking to Maisie, and that hurt.

Except for one difference, a dark and pessimistic part of myself whispered. Maisie almost certainly does not look this human anymore.

“Oh, yes, well.” Seven-Shades cleared her throat awkwardly. “I have been exploring your role in more detail. Not something I’ve done in a long time. You are a most fascinating person, Heather Morell.”

She gave me and awkward smile, the kind I must have given Raine when we’d first met.

“If you impersonate me in front of my friends,” I told her. “In front of Raine, if you use my face to do anything, I’ll-”

“My place is not to interfere.” Seven-Shades held up both hands in surrender, as if I had been about to attack her. “Really! Really. I have no interest in that. There’s no need to be jealous, I-I’m not going to steal your girlfriend, I-I can promise that.”

“ … well … quite. See that you don’t.”

She sighed. “The fact you would worry about such a thing in the first place is proof you still don’t understand what it is I do.”

I waited a heartbeat to see if she would continue. When she didn’t, I sighed. “And this is where I’m supposed to ask ‘And what is it that you do?’”

She smiled one of my smiles, fluttering and nervous. “Yes, oh, yes, well done. You do have a sense for dramatic flair, Heather, especially when you’re cornered.” She looked down at herself – at myself, her wearing a mirror of my body. “It’s been over seven decades since I stepped so fully into a role, since I had to feel out every possibility. You are a most tangled web.”

“Is that meant to be a compliment?” I asked. “It doesn’t feel like one.”

She winced with mortified embarrassment. “Oh- no, I didn’t mean- ah- um-”

“Never mind, it’s okay- … wait, no, it’s not okay.” I tutted, groping for a conversational handhold. I felt as if she kept yanking my feet out from under me, so I flipped the script. “Who was the last person you ‘stepped into’? What happened to them?”

Seven-Shades blinked at me several times, and then her face lit up with the kind of warm smile I usually reserved for talking about my favourite books.

“You … you really want to know?” she asked, in hushed tones of excited reverence.

Oh wow, I thought, I can finally see why Raine likes that part of me. I almost blushed. Did I really look like that when talking about my passions?

“I … uh. Yes. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to know.”

“A soldier,” she said, then paused for effect and bit her bottom lip.

“A soldier.”

“Yes. She was no older than you, in fact. She was a member of a crew team for a … oh, I suppose a sort of gun, yes.” Seven-Shades flapped her hands. “On the outskirts of a great city. The city was about to be squeezed between the jaws of an equally great mechanical host. Many young men had died, too many men for the city to bear, so young women were called up to serve instead, filling their roles behind the lines of battle, and sometimes further forward. They were losing. Her culture, her people, all of it was being extinguished in fire and blood. In the darkness in some stinking billet, she reached out for comfort, and found a friend. And me.”

At first, as she began to speak, I assumed that Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was losing her grip on my role – because I never spoke like that, with wistful nostalgia for a past glory, a magnum opus seen in retrospect. Then I realised I simply didn’t have anything to feel that way about; the real me was too young. Perhaps I would sound like that one day. Eventually. If I didn’t die first.

“The friend she found – oh, ‘friend’, what am I saying, they ended as lovers – she handed my girl a book,” Seven-Shades carried on. “Not quite The King in Yellow, you understand, but something similar, another iteration. She came to Carcosa in her dreams, read books while artillery shells fell around her real self. She loved the woman next to her, but even in the face of certain death, neither of them could reach across the gap to join their hands.” Seven-Shades sighed, smiled, blissful in a way I never had cause to feel. “It was beautiful, two tiny lives in the centre of such vast geopolitical drama, cradled in a web of danger and starvation and bullet wounds.”

“ … are you talking about Earth? Our reality? Did this happen here?”

She demurred with an awkward smile. “Uh, maybe.”

I had to consciously harden my heart; she was so intensely joyous about her purpose, it felt infectious.

“So,” I said. “You made these two people’s lives the subject of voyeuristic drama. That’s what you do.”

Seven-Shades sighed and tutted, exactly like I would if somebody had insulted the very concept of literature. “But I brought them together, in a world that would have torn them apart. They both lived into their eighties, together, after the war was done. Their side won, though of course I didn’t have a hand in that,” she added that clause with an awkward ‘ahem’ at the end. “Is that outcome not worth a little voyeurism? Is love not worth intrusion?”

“ … maybe. I don’t know.”

“Imagine for a moment that I could guarantee you would get your sister back, that none of your friends would die in the attempt.” She held up a hand, expression creased with apology. “I can’t make that guarantee, but imagine I could. Would you accept my ‘voyeurism’ then?”

“Yes,” I said, without hesitation, a lump in my throat. “But what’s your success rate?”

She winced. Ah. “Define success?”

“Do I really have to?”

She tilted her head up slightly, the hint of a laugh on her lips, a flash of good-natured superiority in her eyes. I felt sick – was this an expression I made? It looked awful. Then I realised, she was about to quote. I did do that, I did look like that, and I looked like an infuriating little goblin.

“Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do, or fail to do,” she recited.

I sighed heavily. “So your track record is bad. Your interference mostly results in failures?”

She did this look-off-to-the-side huff and I felt like slapping her. No longer a vision of standing next to Maisie, this really was like standing next to me, and I was awful.

“Can’t you be somebody else while I talk to you?” I asked. “I feel so ugly.”

“You’re not!” she tutted. “Oh, Heather, you don’t like yourself very much, and that’s so unfair. You refuse to use what you’ve got.”

“We’re getting off track again, you’re doing it again,” I said.

“You’re the one who asked me the questions, Heather.”

“Alright, alright, let’s not … ” Deep breaths, count down to zero. “Let’s not lose focus. Let’s make a deal. You want us to win against the Eye, yes?”

“That’s correct.” She nodded. “I also want you to get with both of your beloved, but I know that’s hard, and-”

“Let’s not,” I repeated.

She closed her mouth, and set her face in a polite listening pose.

“We need to go back to Carcosa to get the books Evelyn needs,” I explained. “And we need you not to interrupt us. It’s already dangerous enough out there without you deciding it’s time for street improv. Come to think of it, why did you try to take Evelyn away, out there?”

“That was all for you.” She pulled a pained expression.

I frowned at her. “Well, you did manage to remind me how much I value her, and I don’t need to be reminded of that again. If you try to take her away in Carcosa again, I’ll kill you.”

Seven-Shades pulled an ‘oh-dear’ face. Not how I would have reacted to being threatened with lethal force, but the kind of face I might make if Raine threatened to tickle me.

“We need your assurance you won’t interrupt us again, not out there,” I finished.

“But what if the right conditions present themselves? This is like asking you not to feel curiosity when you see an unread book with a fascinating title.”

“If it was to achieve a higher aim – to rescue Maisie – I could resist any urge,” I told her. “You should understand that, playing my ‘role’. I already am.”

Seven-Shades sighed with indulgent compassion, the sort of noise I might make in the face of Evelyn trying to justify hurting herself.

“Heather, you are such an idiot. You have it upside down,” she told me with stinging kindness. “You don’t want to go back to the abyss at all.”

“Oh, poppets, we are getting rather off-theme here, aren’t we?” a third voice asked, from right behind me.

I almost jumped out of my skin. Phantom tentacles twitched in defence-reaction, and real muscles attempted to compensate for limbs I didn’t have, drawing deep throbs of pain from within my bruised flanks and up the inside of my spine. I wheezed and doubled up, vision blurring, staggering to turn around to see-

Saldis. Of course.

The mage from Carcosa was sat on the edge of the bathtub, noble chin resting in one hand, legs crossed under the skirts of her exquisite red-and-gold robes, wearing the most bored expression I had ever seen on a human face.

“You- what-” I wheezed, trying to straighten past the sudden pain.

“Don’t get me wrong, sweets, I’m all for collaborative work,” Saldis said. “But isn’t this part obvious by now?” She pulled a sour face. “Haven’t you looked at yourself in the mirror recently?”

“Sal-” I managed, hands wrapped around my sides, trying alternately to press my bruises and not touch them. “Again?”

“’Again’? Oh, I’m always watching, sweet.” Saldis winked at me.

“You are not supposed to be back here,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in the same tone I’d used to threaten Saldis back in the library of Carcosa.

Goodness, did I really sound like that? Ice and steel, from a miniature poodle.

Saldis’ perfectly plucked eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Ah. You have become aware of me.”

“You have neither paid for a ticket, nor joined the audience through the public entrance,” Seven-Shades said. “Who are you, magician? Or should I say thief?”

Saldis stood up very quickly, brushing her long skirt smooth over her hips and doing a very good impression of somebody who was just leaving anyway, no need to bother escorting her out, forget she’s even here, don’t want to cause a scene.

“I asked you a sensible question, magician,” Seven-Shades pressed. “Who are you?”

Saldis spread her hands. A mischievous smile played at the corners of her lips.

“Oh, I’m not really here,” she said.

And then she wasn’t.

“I hate it when … ” I finally got my breath back as the throbbing pain receded. “Hate it when she does that.”

“Tch. Gate-crashers,” Seven-Shades said, in the same tone I reserved for the words ‘modern suburban architecture.’

“Can I gate-crash too?” came a whisper from stage left.

That voice didn’t make me jump – it filled me with ice. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight reacted the same, a mirror of me. We both stared at the bathroom door with wide eyes like a pair of deer caught in the headlamps of an oncoming train.

We’d been too busy with Saldis’ unwelcome intrusion to notice. A certain light tread had crept along the upstairs hallway, little dexterous hands had eased the bathroom door handle down millimetre by millimetre, and a perceptive observer had peeked in through the slender gap.

A heavy-lidded blue eye floated in the slice of dark hallway beyond the bathroom.

“Oh, Lozzie,” I breathed.

Lozzie did not wait for an invitation. She opened the door wider and tiptoed over the threshold with all the skittish caution of a young cat investigating new territory. She slid the door shut behind her with a soft click, watching Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight with slow sleepy-eyed curiosity. She was dressed in a borrowed tshirt several times too large for her, and a pair of shorts, her bare legs goose-pimpled against the nocturnal cold.

“Wow,” Lozzie whispered, eyes glued to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. “There’s two of you!”

“You are never gate-crashing, little one,” Seven-Shades told her, with all the same affection I used for Lozzie. “You go wherever you will. Though you did surprise me.”

Lozzie did this side-to-side head-bob, as if trying to examine Seven-Shades from different angles, then crept across the bathroom toward me.

“Lozzie, I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I know I shouldn’t be doing this alone, I- I needed to-”

“Shhh-shh-shh, s’fine fine fine fine,” Lozzie murmured back, without taking her eyes off my perfect imitation.

“ … how did she sneak up on you, anyway?” I hissed to Seven-Shades.

“Because she’s one of us.”

Lozzie came up to my side and linked her arm through mine, cuddling close. She ran her eyes up and down Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, with a kind of performative tight-lipped scepticism. Then she reached out, and before either of us could stop her, she pinched Seven-Shades’ cheek.

“Take this off, silly,” Lozzie said. “I can see you under there. You’re pretty without makeup!”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight used my face to blush bright red, which drew a giggle from Lozzie.

“Don’t encourage her!” I tutted.

“Me or her?” Lozzie giggled at me instead. “Us or we? Are you even the real Heather?” She closed one eye and then the other, peering at me alternately. “I think so!”

I sighed. Lozzie giggled again, bouncing on the balls of her bare feet.

“Lozzie, we were-” I tried, stumbled. “I was trying to negotiate a-”

“I heard!” Lozzie chirped, then fixed Seven-Shades with the most purse-lipped, squinty face of suspicion that she was capable of pulling, which was a bit like a hamster trying to imitate a bulldog. “And for the record, from me, which is the only record that matters, Heather is not an idiot.”

“She is”, Seven-Shades said gently.

“Oh, oh dear,” I cleared my throat. “You … heard that part then, Lozzie?”

“Mmhmm! You want to go swimming again! Next time, I’ll come too!”

“No she doesn’t,” Seven-Shades said with a sigh. “Heather, you-”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “I don’t want to return to the abyss.”

They both blinked at me, blindsided. Lozzie looked like a startled bird, and Seven-Shades adopted a polite sort of blankness to conceal her lack of comprehension. I cleared my throat.

“What I actually want is to not want to return there,” I explained. “I want to be comfortable here, in this.” I gestured down at my own body, scrawny, weak, inadequate as it was. “I’ve tried to change myself, to … add things, and it’s slow. It hurts. It barely works. But when I looked at you, when I saw you through abyssal eyes, you were beautiful. Abyssal life, but … here … and I- I want to be-” I sniffed hard, pulled myself together before I fell apart completely. “You’re both. You get to be both at once. I want to be like you.”

“You already are,” Seven-Shades said.

I blinked at her. “What?”

Lozzie squeezed my hand.

“Oh, Heather,” Seven-Shades tutted. “You’re missing the wood for the trees. You focus on things that do not define what you are. You are no less you, no less what you are meant to be, because of the lack of tentacles to wave around.”

“It doesn’t feel that way,” I said, sagging into Lozzie’s support. “If only I could … be better, faster, I don’t know.”

“Just because you cannot climb up the inside of a stairwell by grasping the handrails with tentacles doesn’t make you any less what you already are. Nothing will change that. Not perception, not pain, not dysphoria. The last one, you must find coping methods, of course, but coping is different from being, and in being, you will find peace and power in equal measure.”

“She’s right about that bit,” Lozzie whispered to me, as if we were conspiring beyond Seven-Shades’ hearing. “But not that you’re an idiot.” She stuck her tongue out at Seven-Shades.

“The tentacles help. That’s why I do it,” I said. “I don’t risk ripping myself apart for fun.”

“Having flawed flesh is better than having no flesh at all,” she said.

“So what?” I felt tears prickle in my eyes. “You telling me to be happy with what I’ve got?”

“I’m telling you to look at yourself.”

“I am, remember?” I gestured at her, at her mirror-image of me. “Alright, fine, forget it, we still need to make a proper deal about going back to Carcosa.”

“And this is exactly why you need to sit still and watch the play,” Seven-Shades said. “But very well, now I will hold up a mirror for you.”

And as she spoke, she aged.

Watching a mirror image of myself gain fifteen years in a heartbeat was not what I’d expected to witness tonight, and I had been prepared for anything, or so I thought. Grey hairs silvered among the mousy brown, lines deepened around my reflected eyes and mouth, flesh sagged and skin roughened. Seven-Shades-of-Heather hunched, clutching herself about the shoulders, shuddering and shaking, a thin string of drool looping from her slack lips. A thousand-yard stare clouded her unfocused eyes. A version of me, wrecked on the rocks.

“You-” she slurred in my voice, blurred by pain and madness. “Want to end up like this?”

I sighed with exasperation. “I’ve seen worse. I’ve been worse. Is this supposed to distress me? You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

“Yeah!” Lozzie chorused with me. “Stupid! That’s stupid!”

Seven-Shades-as-Me nodded, twitching and flinching. “This is not your way. C-correct.”

My denial changed her again.

Seven-Shades straightened up. The wreckage reformed, older than me but not as old as the silly vision she’d first showed. She lost my habitual protective hunch. She crossed her arms over her chest, lifted her chin with an arch superiority, and her eyes grew somehow cold inside. No smile, not a hint, a closed expression. Nothing like me.

“Well?” she asked in my voice, cynical and distant.

For a moment I assumed I was looking at her, the real Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, the soul inside the mirrored flesh.

But then Lozzie said, “Heather won’t be like that! Stop it!”

“She might, Lauren,” Seven-Shades said, precise and contemptuous, and I shivered. “It’s not impossible. She will go this far, if she wraps herself in frustrated ambition and brutal calculation. If she continues to ignore what she is.”

“That’s … me, ten years from now?” I asked.

It was no more credible than the shaking wreck, but it was so much worse. She made me look how I imagined Evelyn’s mother must have looked. A cold maggoty inhuman thing wrapped in an artificial shell of plastic self-control, the truth showing through behind the eyes like parasitic worms.

“Is this who you wish to become?” she asked me.

I shook my head, going numb. “No. No, never, I- no-”

“Then observe the mirror.”

She changed a third time, into truth and beauty, which is the same thing by two different names.

Flesh of peach-leather and dove-down and void-dark, sleek and smooth and sharp. Muscles like oil and butter, tight and trimmed for grace and speed. Six tentacles, elegant and precise, weaving rainbow-strobe patterns in warm water. Clean sharp spines and a mouth of razor teeth and poison threat in every cell membrane. My eyes, in my euphoric face.

Homo abyssus.

And with a blink it was all gone, and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight mirrored the real me again.

I felt tears running down my cheeks.

“Woooooo,” went Lozzie. “Goals!”

“That was beautiful,” I breathed, voice shaking.

“It is what I see when I look at you,” Seven-Shades told me.

I shook my head. “That’s … it’s a lie. I don’t feel like that. How … how can I? I … ”

“Look at yourself,” she said, and nodded at my body.

And I knew what she meant. I shook my head.

“Do it!” Lozzie chirped. “I’ll catch you!”

“N-no, I can’t, I’ll have another seizure. Lozzie, that is such a bad idea, I- no, I … ”

“If you look at yourself, Heather,” Seven-Shades said. “If you look down at your own flesh with your true senses, then I will agree to your deal. While you and yours visit my father’s library, I will … distract myself,” she sighed delicately. “If you look.”

“I should … sit down for this,” I said, lips numb. “Lozzie, cradle my head, don’t let me hit myself.”

“Mmhmm! I got it!” she chirped.

I sat down awkwardly, legs shaking. Lozzie got behind me and held me in a hug, my head nestled against her shoulder. For a moment I couldn’t bring myself to move, too numb, scared of what I might see.

Then, I looked down.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“So. ‘Seven shades of sunlight.’ That’s what it called itself?”

Evelyn used the same intonation one might employ to query a dog as to why it has jumped into a puddle of liquid pig manure.

“And she’s gay,” Raine reminded us. “Don’t forget that part. Seemed kinda relevant.”

Evelyn made a sound like she was trying to crack a walnut with her throat. “Yes, clearly this whole situation is not only dangerous beyond our ability to handle, it’s also astoundingly stupid.”

Not exactly the most encouraging words I’d hoped to hear, not while I stood half-naked in the middle of a magic circle, shivering with exhaustion, hunger, skin-creeping cold, brainmath aftershock, and abyssal dysphoria. All in all, I was not having a good time.

The chill air of Evelyn’s magical workshop raised prickling goosebumps across my bare arms and exposed shoulders and naked belly, despite the overworked gas-cylinder space heater pointed directly at me. Raine had hauled it in here earlier, after Evelyn’s repeated magical failures had dropped the ambient temperature and she’d still insisted I strip down. The gas cylinder powering the space heater weighed an absolute ton, probably hadn’t been used since the 1980s, and also likely constituted a significant fire hazard. The thing poured out heat like an ocean-floor thermal vent, but it still couldn’t drive away the deep-tissue pain in my bruised flanks as they blossomed purple and black.

I managed a sheepish smile, as if I should apologise for how stupid everything had become.

“Hey now,” Raine said. “Stupid? It all happened, Evee, I saw it too.”

“Yes, yes.” Evelyn squinted her eyes shut as if she had a headache, and drummed her fingertips on the handle of her walking stick. “Stupid is a metaphor, have you never heard of figurative language? I don’t doubt your accounts. Or should I, seeing as this thing can direct people’s behaviour?”

“The shaman has a stalker, wizard,” Zheng purred from where she lounged by the doorway to the kitchen. “Be precise.”

Evelyn laughed – actually laughed, which would have worried me deeply if I wasn’t so physically and emotionally wiped out.

“Why bother?” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed up there on mount bloody Olympus, but I’m a bit outclassed by all this.”

“It’s not your fault, Evee-weavy,” Lozzie chirped. “I can’t see Sevens either!”

Evelyn blinked as if slapped. Her emotional processing could not digest Lozzie-style encouragement, so after a moment she just cleared her throat as if it hadn’t happened.

“Evee,” Raine said, gentle but firm. “What’s the next step, where are we at?”

“Where are we at?” Evelyn echoed, as if this was the most inane question she’d ever heard. She gestured at me. “Heather has the Outsider equivalent of an insufferable theatre kid following her around, because she wants your prospective threesome to look good in her scriptwriting portfolio. This thing ignores my wards, can wear our faces, is probably lurking somewhere in this house right now, and I can’t bloody well find it no matter how hard I prod Heather.” She waggled her walking stick at my semi-nudity. “That is where we are at.”

“Sorry,” I croaked.

“Oh, and yes, before I forget again: she’s gay. Whatever ‘gay’ means in this thing’s biological and sociological context. I suspect that knowledge would drive us all screaming mad.”

“Gay is gay,” Lozzie provided.

“Gaaaaay,” Tenny trilled from her safe-distance spot, just over the threshold of the kitchen doorway.

Zheng glanced down at her, which was apparently enough to provoke a soft warning hiss and lazy snapping threat display from Tenny’s tentacles. I didn’t tell Zheng off – for one I didn’t have the energy; more importantly, every moment Zheng spent teasing Tenny was one less moment she and Raine locked eyes across the room. Their silent face-off had been evolving at the periphery of my awareness, ever since our explanation of events on campus had covered Seven-Shade’s opinion on our cold-war ménage à trois.

“I know,” I croaked, dead-voiced, mostly to myself, indulging in a spot of passive-aggression for which I was too tired to chastise myself. “Forgive me, my standard of stupidity is little skewed lately. My life is a joke.”

I must have sounded more depressed than I thought, because everyone else went awkwardly quiet.

Spinning armchair theory – literally – back in the Medieval Metaphysics room, that was all well and good, but hope seemed thinner in my heart after I’d trudged all the way home, bone-tired and shivering, bruises blossoming in my flanks, ravenously hungry and wracked with guilt and abyssal dysphoria. Before we’d left the Medieval Metaphysics room, Lozzie had pronounced me ‘all together inside!’ and fit to travel, but by the time we came within sight of home I felt like I’d been filled with broken glass and hit with a bus.

Raine had given me a piggy-back ride the last two streets. It aggravated my bruises no matter how gentle she carried me.

At home, the first thing I’d done was inhale an entire leftover meal worth of curry and chips. Very healthy, I’m sure my mother would be proud of her daughter’s diet. I’d chased that with half a packet of chocolate cookies and three whole apples, but my body still complained as if I hadn’t eaten all day.

Seven-Shades was right. I was small and fragile and weak.

And now I’d spent almost an hour standing in the workshop as the air temperature dropped every time Evelyn muttered grumpy Latin over me. She’d instructed Praem in chalking an increasingly complex magic circle around my feet, adding more symbols here, staggered layers there, erasing parts and trying new ones, as if I was an esoteric contaminant which required successively thicker containment. One piece of magic after the other had failed to any produce results – except to freeze me down to my bones. I’d felt somehow responsible and Evelyn had gotten more and more frustrated, then eventually she’d had me peel off my hoodie and tshirts, reduced me down to my underwear, and begun pressing hastily drawn sigils directly to the goose-pimpled flesh of my stomach or lower back, hoping that the right scrap of magic would flush Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight out of my system like an exotic intestinal parasite.

I did hope that’s not what the containment was for; my dignity was already in the toilet.

Feeling like meat on a slab didn’t help.

To say I did not have much confidence in my scrawny, pale, weird little body would be the understatement of my life. Six months ago, the idea of standing half-naked in front of several other girls would have induced a coma. But, well, these were my friends. Evelyn had seen this before; Lozzie and I had curled up to sleep together in less; neither Praem nor Tenny gave a hoot; and for some mad reason I still barely understood, Raine actually found me attractive. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

Only Zheng’s attention would have made me blush like a beetroot – if I’d felt human.

After the euphoria of my perfect rainbow-strobing tentacles and the blissful clarity of abyssal senses and the fleeting half-glimpsed beauty of Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, to be stripped out of my hoodie and layered tshirts to get poked and prodded made me feel like a dirty little grub peeled out of my shell. Reduced, bruised, raw.

Half of me wanted to curl up in a secluded dark place.

But the other half of me screamed to move. To dance, to jump onto the table, to spin my arms around in circles like a child, though any of those actions would likely end up with me on my backside, and absolutely make me a lot colder than I already was. I kept looking down at myself, at the slowly blossoming bruises on my flanks where my tentacles had been anchored, at the twitching of my stomach, at the way my bones linked together inside my flesh.

I was dying to just feel the motion of my own muscles, the flex of my tendons, the pump of my blood, to capture whatever echo of grace and beauty I could squeeze out of my twisted little ape body. I held fast to that desire. Probably better than the opposite.

Lozzie had sensed my discomfort without having to ask.

As Evelyn had set to work on my exposed flesh, Lozzie had scampered out of the workshop and returned with a big towel. She’d held it up to shield me, like we were schoolgirls in the changing rooms, trying to mitigate the indignity of P.E.

“No peeking!” she’d chirped back over her shoulder at Zheng, and then at Raine as well, then did a side-to-side head wiggle at Praem. “You too! You’re done helping, so step away from the patient and in front of the curtain, pleeeease.”

Praem had responded by looking to Evelyn, who was busy scribbling the latest of a dozen magical sigils and signs to press against my lower back.

“Yes, whatever,” Evelyn had grumbled. Praem had marched over to join Raine and Zheng in the peanut gallery.

“Peeking?” Raine smirked. “I don’t have to peek, I get the full-frontal whenever I want.”

“Not right now you don’t!” Lozzie stuck her tongue out.

“Thank you,” I croaked. “Just … feeling … self-conscious, right now.”

There was no way I could find the energy to explain the intricacies of what I actually felt, so that would have to do for now.

“Your bruises are beautiful, shaman,” Zheng purred. “They are proof you grow, proof you are. No need to hide.”

I cleared my throat and felt a faint heat in my cheeks; the ghost of normal, healthy self-consciousness moved through me, sexual self-consciousness, not countering the abyssal fascination with my own body but complimenting it, melding like milk in oil. Lozzie must have seen the change in my face. She caught my eye and giggled.

“You just wanna ogle my girl. Admit it, zombie-brains,” Raine said with the corner of her mouth.

“I do not see you stopping me, yoshou.”

Zheng was not ogling me at all, even though all she could see was my head above Lozzie’s towel. She’d locked eyes with Raine again.

“Ah, so you do think like the rest of us, huh?” Raine asked. “Guess we got that in common.”

“There is nothing unclean in the love of flesh,” Zheng purred back.

“Oooh, love.” Raine shot Zheng a look of amused doubt. “Four-letter word, that one. Sure you wanna go there?”

“Mockery cannot touch truth.”

Without either straightening up or looking away from her work, Evelyn said, “Raine, if the next words out of your mouth are any variation of ‘but I love her more’, then I will have Praem knock your heads together. That is not a joke. Now stop, I am trying to concentrate to make sure Heather isn’t fucking possessed.”

That told them. Lozzie suppressed another giggle by ducking her face below the towel. Raine and Zheng both did as they were told, though with much wiggling of eyebrows from the former and a silent level stare from the latter.

Helped me though. Even through the aches and pains and echoes of abyssal dysphoria, a certain warmth filled me at the sight of the two most attractive women in my life verbally sparring over me. It sent the weird little part of me that would be forever fourteen years old into a squealing fit of sexual overload, and I felt a little bit more like myself, in my own body, no matter how inadequate it was.

But then they had to be quiet, and I had nothing to distract me from ruminating on what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had said. Evelyn had given up, erased a wide patch of the chalk-drawn magic circle, and sat down. I’d wallowed in self-pity.

My life is a joke, I’d said.

Now, self-conscious, I said, “Sorry.”

The long moment of awkward silence ended when Evelyn cleared her throat and – to my incredible surprise – attempted a little laugh.

“You think your life is absurd, Heather?” She shook her head. “Well, I suppose I should take some consolation. This conversation would make my mother spin in her grave, if her corpse wasn’t bound in irons.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, soft and understanding, everything I ever wanted. “It’s gonna be alright, yeah? We’re gonna make it alright.”

“Not a joke, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You walk the narrow path. You look down. You do not fall.”

“Do not fall,” Praem intoned a perfect musical bell-note.

All I could think was what Praem’s voice might sound like in the abyss.

“Was that supposed to help?” Evelyn asked Praem. “No, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.” She cleared her throat again and gestured at me with a jerk of her walking stick. “Go on, Heather, put your hoodie back on, you’re freezing your tits off and making me feel cold just looking at you. I can’t find anything wrong with you, this is a waste of time.”

“Floff!” said Lozzie, which was apparently the accompanying sound effect for her wrapping the towel around my shoulders.

The fluffy towel had soaked up much more of the space heater’s output than my permafrost flesh seemed capable of, and the sudden engulfing warmth drew an embarrassing noise from my throat.

I submitted to clumsy intimacy and confused wriggling as Lozzie helped me get dressed. She got my tshirt and hoodie back over my head without pulling the towel away, a feat that surely involved some kind of transdimensional trickery. I kept trying to cling to her body heat; she took the hint and took the opportunity to hug me, sliding hands and arms up my back under my clothes, nuzzling her face into my shoulder. She smelled of coconut shampoo and Tenny’s fur, and her wispy golden hair tickled my nose.

“Stay,” I murmured.

“Heather’s in the clear, then?” Raine asked.

“What? No, quite the opposite,” Evelyn replied. “She’s haunted as all fuck.”

I opened one eye to look over Lozzie’s shoulder, and attempted to say Evelyn’s name, or perhaps some variation of ‘what is wrong with me, dear friend?’, but what I actually did was let out this weird gurgle sound that made everyone look at me. I was too tired and too cold to care.

I tried again, and made a human noise instead. “Haunted?”

“Uh, yeah, Evee, what does that mean?” Raine prompted. She came over to me and Lozzie and put a protective hand on the back of my neck.

Evelyn shrugged with force enough to invent a new sport that involved throwing heavy objects with one’s shoulders. I was vaguely worried she might hurt her back. “How should I know?” she said. “Nothing I’ve attempted has worked. Nothing is following Heather, or attached to her, or circling overhead like a vulture – or maybe it is, and all my techniques are useless. So why not? Why not blame it on ghosts? Do you have a better idea?”

“Um,” went Raine. “No?”

“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Try harder.”

“And you can shut up too,” Evelyn said at her. “If you have a better idea, then I’m a professional long-distance runner.”

With much clattering of chair and popping of stiff joints and muttering under her breath, Evelyn levered herself to her feet and stomped over to the kitchen doorway. Tenny let out a trilling noise and scurried clear of Evelyn’s path, silken black tentacles trailing after her like jellyfish tendrils in ocean water.

“Evee,” I croaked from Lozzie’s shoulder. “Am I-”

“We’re done here, I need a cup of tea,” she shot back without turning around.

“What about the trophy?” Raine asked. I winced inside.

“Droppings,” Zheng rumbled. “Spoor, to track by.”

“Hey hey hey,” Raine said. “That’s not a bad idea for somebody with rotten meat between her ears.”

They meant the piece of yellow cloth, the fragment from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

Upon arrival in the Medieval Metaphysics room, Evelyn had treated the shrivelled scrap of yellow fabric like radioactive waste. As Lozzie had checked my lungs and chest and back for internal damage by pressing her hands against me, Evelyn had drawn a magic circle around the mysterious yellow shred. She’d had Praem wrap it up in a plastic supermarket carrier bag, then covered the bag in magic sigils drawn on strips of masking tape – mostly small variations on the Fractal.

When we’d arrived home and I’d been busy stuffing my face with enough calories to kill an elephant, Evelyn had been poking at our ‘trophy’. Now the piece of yellow cloth lay on the table in the workshop, next to the television hooked up to the slowly slopping squid-clay-thing in the corner, and the stacks of notes about re-targeting the gateway.

The cut-open bag and the sigil paper lay about it like the remains of a cracked egg, the slip of yellow a malformed, stillborn lizard in the centre of the debris.

“Yes, I already tried that,” Evelyn grumbled as she stomped into the kitchen and left us behind. Her voice floated back to us. “I’m not completely stupid, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s nothing. Cotton. Inert. Or maybe it’s a bomb, who knows? Or if you dunk it in water, perhaps it’ll sing. We’ll put it on the telly, get rich. Praem, come here, please. I need that cup of tea before I swallow my own tongue.”

“Evee? Hey, Evee?” Raine half-moved to follow her, but was reluctant to leave me behind. I was still clinging to Lozzie like a wounded animal leaning on a pack-mate.

“Oh dear,” I managed.

“Yeah, somebody’s pissed in her cheerios,” Raine murmured.

“I can hear you!” Evelyn raised her voice from the kitchen.

Raine looked back at me and pulled a pained grimace. I tried to smile, but nothing happened.

“Wanna follow her and go sit down?” Raine asked. “You alright to move?”

“Mm … mmhmm, yes, I’m … I’m on the mend. I must sit down now though, yes.”

“This, good idea,” Lozzie whispered.

“Come on then, lets get some more food in front of you,” Raine said, gesturing for us to depart the workshop, away from all the grisly reminders and arcane detritus.

Between Lozzie’s arm around my middle, Raine’s familiar invitation before me, Zheng’s slow predatory look, and a promise of some bizarre argument with Evelyn in the kitchen, I suddenly felt worryingly normal. As if I was about to slip back into a routine rehearsed many times before, a performance I’d played out day after day. An ephemeral sensation, fleeting as deja vu. A shiver went down my spine.

“What if this is what she wants?” I murmured.

“What was that?” Raine asked.

But my eyes were drawn to the scrap of yellow fabric on the table, a new-born dead thing waiting to be cleaned of afterbirth mucus. With no little reluctance I disentangled one arm from around Lozzie, and reached out toward the shattered nest.

“Heather?” Raine took my arm, gently but firmly. “Woah, Heather should you be touching that?”

“The shaman knows,” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s fine,” I murmured, still staring into the yellow depths. “Raine, let go. It’s just … Evee said, it’s only cotton.”

“Then why do you want to touch it?” she asked.

“ … because I … I need more.”

Past me, Raine shared a glance with Lozzie, and in the corner of my eye, Lozzie screwed up her mouth into a thinky-face, then nodded several times.

“Alright then,” Raine said. “If that’s what you need. Lozzie, you ready?”

“Ready!” Lozzie chirped.

Raine let go of my arm, and I picked up the scrap of yellow infinity.

I was not struck blind and deaf and dumb, or paralysed by lightning, or riven with disgust as if handling a live slug. The piece of Seven-Shades was, after all, just fabric, too coarse for silk but not rough enough to be wool. Perhaps it really was cotton, or some unknowable Outside material. It lay limp in my hand, a dried leaf leeched of all chlorophyll. There was nothing to see here, nothing to feel.

Heavy disappointment settled on my heart, a tightening inside my chest.

Maisie and I had both always been voracious readers. In the years before the Eye took her away, we’d begun to venture beyond the walled garden of children’s literature, sometimes alone and sometimes together, often without our parents’ knowledge. When there were two of us, there was alway somebody with which to discuss the story. To continue it in private whispers after dark, to imagine lives for the characters, better endings or other endings or things that happened off screen. But after Wonderland, by myself, alone, in the brief respites between psychiatric hospitals and oft-terminated bouts of school attendance and the never-ending horror of my ‘hallucinations’, I became intimately familiar with the bittersweet pain of the close of a great story, of the emotional pressure front it leaves behind, the need to retread, to see past the ending.

Seven-Shades’ play had left me depressed and defeated, but it was as strong as any beauty in narrative. I needed to see more. I needed to watch it again, and find the gaps in the story. I needed to rewrite the ending.

But the yellow scrap was just cotton. Seven-Shades was not here.

I wondered, what would this piece of cloth look like through abyssal senses? I could find out, if I wanted to give myself another seizure and probably earn a trip to the hospital.

“Hey, Heather, you in there?” Raine asked.

“She’s all here!” Lozzie chirped.

“I’m fine,” I lied, then scrubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. “It’s just cotton. There’s nothing here. Not like this.”

In the kitchen, Praem already had the kettle on. Raine and Lozzie got me manoeuvred into a chair with a minimum of fuss, while Zheng stalked in after us and upset Tenny without trying, drawing another warning display from her tentacles and a fluttery, retreating hiss as she bounced away on springy, muscled legs, twirling her wings like a cloak. Lozzie told Zheng off with a tut and soothed Tenny by fluffing her fur, then pulled a chair close to me so she could lean against my shoulder. Everyone bustled about, and Evelyn gave a dismissive response to a question from Raine – but I wasn’t listening.

All I could think about was this fragment torn from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. I kept running my fingers over the fabric to feel the loose fibres,  rolling it between thumb and forefinger as if that would teach me what it was made of, half-resisting an urge to sniff it or press it to my cheek.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight possessed a physical form. I was holding a piece of it, no different to a chunk of bloody flesh carved from a human flank.

But she was also an abyssal thing. She was both. Like me.

A slow hunger woke in the back of my mind. A scab, itching to be picked. A desperate need.

Eventually I noticed that a cup of tea had appeared in front of me, along with a microwaved pastry and some sliced apple. My stomach rumbled so I shoved some food in my mouth, barely tasted it, then finally realised that an uncomfortable silence had descended on the kitchen.

Raine and Zheng were staring at each other across the length of the room, expressions still and stoic like a pair of gunfighters in an old western, each waiting for the other to draw first. Steam from Raine’s own mug of tea drifted in front of her face. Zheng lounged against the wall with all the deceptive relaxation of a cunning predator, eyes heavy-lidded like some jungle lizard. Evelyn sat opposite me, sad gaze cast down into a mug of oil-dark tea, Praem at her shoulder, perfectly crisp and starched in her maid uniform. Tenny felt the tension with senses keener than human; she’d slunk close to Lozzie and I to sneak a slice of apple with one of her tentacle-mouths, then froze and hunched as if about to wrap herself in her natural optical camouflage.

Cuddled up to my side, almost purring, Lozzie was the only one who seemed unaffected.

The room was like a painting.

“Oh.” My heart skipped a beat. “Is it happening again?”

“Heather?” Raine turned to me first and broke the impression. Evelyn frowned my way and I could have kissed her. Zheng did not look away from Raine, but that didn’t matter now.

I’d assumed the awkward stillness was the prelude to another act of Seven-Shades’ production. The moment of quiet as the lights dim, before the curtain goes up.

“Oh, oh, okay,” I breathed, hand to my chest, to my racing heart. “It’s just us all being a disaster. Tenny, Tenny it’s okay, it’s okay,” I called out softly, and Tenny bobbed her head from side to side in curiosity. “Relax, nobody’s going to … do anything.”

“Heath,” Tenny fluttered. “Errrr.”

“Heather, what is it?” Raine asked.

“I thought it was happening again. Another play. The next part of the play, right here. I don’t know.” I gestured at the room, the yellow scrap still in my shaking hand. “The tone. The aura. It’s not though, it’s not. She’s not here.”

“Everyone watch your behaviour for a sec,” Raine announced to the others. “Keep your eyes open.”

“She’s not here,” I said, my voice tinged with unexpected disappointment.

“I wanna meet Sevens too,” said Lozzie.

A moment of horrible tension crawled up my spine and ran bony fingers across my scalp, even with Lozzie’s warmth pressed to my side, as I waited for the telltale flicker of yellow cloth or the glint of sunlight on bronze. But thirty seconds passed, then a minute, and nothing happened.

“No scent,” Zheng purred eventually.

“Yeah, nothing doing,” Raine confirmed with a sigh. She shrugged. “Guess we’re over-reacting, yeah?”

“What are we going to do about this?” I croaked. “We can’t just … wait for it to happen again.”

“You think we should check out those people that Seven-Shades used in the English class?” Raine asked. “Might give us more clues.”

Clues,” Evelyn grumbled, as if that was the most stupid word she’d ever heard.

“I … I don’t know, perhaps,” I said. “Do you think there might be lasting damage to them?”

Raine squinted in thought and took a sip from her own cup of tea, waiting for Evelyn to leap in. When she didn’t, Raine shrugged and carried on. “Hard to tell. Wouldn’t mind conducting a thorough investigation of some of those volunteers though. The short one, she was cute.

“Tch, Raine,” I tutted, but my heart wasn’t in it. “Evee? Evee, are you okay?”

“Peachy,” she said, in the tone one might use to announce a terminal disease.

“What do we do about Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight?”

Evelyn managed a feat I’d rarely seen from a human being: a full-body shrug, with shoulders, eyebrows, mouth, even her fingertips. “Pray?”

I blinked at her. She took a very long sip of tea and clunked her mug back onto the table.

“What do you want me to suggest, Heather?” She sounded more defeated than angry. “There’s a true Outsider loose in Sharrowford, apparently following you around. It doesn’t obey the rules of our reality, doesn’t give a damn about my wards, and can manipulate behaviour in the totally uninvolved. The fact this thing hasn’t already popped our heads like grapes or, I don’t know, made us all have an orgy or something, that’s probably a good sign.”

“Probably?” Raine laughed.

“Honestly, Raine, for once, your guess is as good as mine. The mere fact we’re all still alive is probably a good sign, but might just mean it wants to torture us first.”

“It was like torture,” I admitted. “But I don’t think she meant it like that, she had … a point, a good point.”

“Fine, great. Lovely.” Evelyn’s tone executed a perfect ten out of ten dive into sarcasm. “You’ve clearly got more of an idea than I have. I’m out of techniques, Heather. This is so far beyond me we may as well be in fucking outer space.”

Bound hard in my own guilt and pain, I’d been a terrible friend again. It was only then I noticed how hard Evelyn was gripping the handle of her tea mug. Her knuckles had gone white.

“Evee? Oh, Evee, I … I didn’t think … you need … you-

“You’re terrified, Evee,” Raine said, far more gently than I’d expected, in the kind of tone she’d use to soothe me in one of my worst moments. “Don’t be. That’s why I’m here, right? If I thought this thing was a danger to you, I’d have found a way to stab it in the face already.”

Evelyn gave Raine a look like she had just grown a second head. “Don’t do that, Raine. Don’t get weird on me.”

Raine shrugged, a wry grin on her lips. “Do what?”

“Speak to me like that. You haven’t in years.”

“Seven-Shades did something for me too. Reminded me what matters? Yeah, let’s go with that. Anyway, this thing only hurt us emotionally, and we all know you’re too hard on yourself already for it to find any purchase with you.”

Evelyn actually laughed, a derisive snort.

“And let go of your mug, you’re gonna hurt your fingers,” Raine added softly.

Evelyn did as suggested, hands trembling, massaging her fingers. “Our first expedition Outside and we bring back a stowaway, and I can’t even find the compartment it used, let alone contain it. So yes, Raine, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am rather stressed right now.”

“I don’t think she wants to hurt us,” I repeated.

“I agree,” Evelyn said curtly.

“ … oh.”

“If Seven-Shades of whatever can ignore my wards, she could have done anything she wanted to us already,” Evelyn explained. “Her, we may simply have to live with for the moment, until you figure out the right mathematical equation to pull her heart out through her mouth.” I grimaced, but Evelyn ignored me and went on. “Outsiders are inscrutable, perhaps untouchable. But mages are not.”

“Ahhhhh,” went Raine.

“Mmm,” Zheng grunted.

“Oh. Saldis,” I said.

“Exactly,” Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth. “You have more than one uninvited visitor following you around, and her, we can access her physical body, it’s on the other side of the gateway, in Carcosa. I will not have a mage piggybacking on your perceptions, hiding in your shadow. She is basically inside this house, and I will not have that.”

“Death to all wizards,” Zheng rumbled.

“Present company excepted, I hope?” Evelyn drawled at Zheng, but didn’t seem to expect an answer. “We cannot deal with the yellow thing. We can deal with Saldis. So I suggest we do.”

 “Of course. More violence,” I said with a pained sigh and a lump in my throat. “Here’s another one of my fears coming true.”

“What?” Evelyn squinted at me.

“I think I was hoping, on some level, that you’d know what to do.”

I was wretched and small and I did not deserve my friends. I wanted somebody else to take responsibility for once, and chase away the bad things, the ghosts and hallucinations and monsters. If I’d been less exhausted, I might have started crying. Instead, with a supreme effort of willpower that I knew I’d pay for later, I scraped together whatever scraps of energy I had left, and tried to do justice to the people in my life.

“There’s something I need to tell you all,” I said.

Only physical exhaustion stopped my voice from shaking. Everyone looked at me. Even Tenny understood, slinking closer and wrapping a worried tentacle around my shin.

“But … oh, um,” I faltered at the first hurdle. “Where’s Twil? She needs to hear this too, I have to tell everyone. I can’t do this twice.”

“Better that she’s not here,” Evelyn said. “At least that way she’ll live if our yellow friend decides to murder us all for the sake of drama. And it’s Monday, Heather, I made Twil bugger off to class. I’m not having her drop an A-level grade because she wants to spend time with her useless older girl-”

Evelyn bit off the second half of that word.

“Wheeey,” went Raine.

Evelyn glared at her. “Shut your mouth. I am not in the mood.”

“I-I really need to tell everyone,” I repeated. “I have to, I can’t not, I-”

“Heather,” Raine murmured. “Just say it if you need to. It’s okay. I will make it okay.”

I tried to swallow away the lump in my throat, looked around at my friends, and said, “I’m going to kill all of you.”

Confused looks and puzzled frowns and a soft trilling noise from Tenny rather undercut my dramatic melancholy, so that I actually tripped over my next intended words with an absurd laugh.

“I meant- I mean- uh, oh dear, that’s not right. I mean I’m going to-”

“Good luck,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, good luck with that.” Evelyn jabbed a thumb in Zheng’s general direction. “How are you going to handle her, drop a nuclear bomb?”

“No-” I couldn’t help but laugh, this entire moment had gone off the rails so quickly. “I-I mean-”

“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “I have perhaps given you the wrong impression and you’ve taken it to heart, and that means I’ve hurt you and I hate when I do that. Look, if Seven- whatever. Yellow bitch. If this thing was going to kill us, it would have already, and it’s not your fault anyway.”

I stared at her for a second, utterly wrong-footed. “No. Evee, I mean, I’ll be the death of you all, with this quest to rescue my sister from the Eye.”

“Oh. Oh. Right. Well.” Evelyn cleared her throat.

I sighed heavily. The misunderstanding had robbed me of all my gravitas, and everything came out very matter-of-fact. “The play, what Seven-Shades showed me, it was too real. It’s one thing to make armchair theories about technical points of brainmath, about improving my handling, but … it’s another to be faced with all the people I watched die on stage, and know it’s going to be my fault.”

“No,” Praem intoned.

We all stared at her. She stared back at me, and declined to elaborate.

“If that is what happens, shaman, then that is what happens,” Zheng purred. “I am still yours.”

“Not what she needs to hear right now, left hand,” Raine replied. “We’re going to win, and you better believe that.”

“Please never fight,” I blurted out, more exasperated than depressed now. “You two, please never fight. I never want to see that for real. Please.”

“I did make an oath, shaman.”

“It’ll be okay, Heathy,” Lozzie purred next to me, hugging me around the shoulders.

I sighed again and wanted to put my face in my hands. My friends could not convince me that they were safe from my mistakes.

But one person in the room understood that.

“Look at what you’ve achieved,” Evelyn said.

“ … what?”

She gestured wide, in frustration, and she meant us. “In the space of a few months.”

“Maisie told me the same thing – ‘gather your friends’, but I don’t understand what good it does. I-I mean I adore you all, yes, but-”

“It means you’re not alone, you blithering idiot.” Evelyn lost her temper quickly, which oddly enough made me feel a bit better. Getting berated by a silver tongue didn’t leave much room for self-pity. “Do I have to spell it out for you? I do, don’t I? God, I do hope Maisie is the one with the brains. Certainly seems like it.”

“E-Evee?”

“Hey, Evee, come on,” Raine said. “Heather’s had a hell of a day, leave off, and you’re in an adrenaline crash, you need to lie down or-”

“Will you shut up?” she snapped at Raine. “It’s difficult enough for me to put my thoughts in order without you being weird at me. Heather, tell her to stop, please, so I can actually finish my point sometime this year?”

I shrugged at Raine, a bit lost. “Um, stop being weird, please?”

“Never,” Raine said, but she did shut her mouth.

Evelyn rapped the table with a knuckle, as if to get my attention. “What have you told me before, Heather? No-” She stopped, thumped her open palm on the table – which made Tenny jump – and grimaced over a restart. “No, no, better; what has your very presence in my life told me? Hmm? Well?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “That I’m not alone, that I don’t have to solve problems alone. You have a technical problem, and you need technical solutions. Raine and Zheng cooing at you might make you feel better in the short term, but what am I here for, hm? Look what else you’ve gathered, you think that’s a human being clinging to you?” She gestured at Lozzie snug against my side, then winced at herself. “Bad, bad phrasing, ugh. My … apologies, Lauren, I am trying to illustrate a point.”

“I get the point too!” Lozzie chirped, apparently not offended at all.

“But … Evee, I don’t know what I’m doing, I barely have a plan, I’m going to get you all killed.”

“Yes, your rescue plan is a bit thin on the ground,” Evelyn admitted, and guilt rolled in my chest like a spiked lead ball. “The yellow bitch has a point there. We’ve been too busy putting out fires all the time to see the wider picture, but I had thought the same thing. But you know what?”

She did actually pause there, but not for an answer. Her lips half-formed a few different words as her mind jammed on the next thought.

“Evee,” I said. “Your help, Lozzie’s help, I-I know I can rely on you, but you always said I was going to have to be the one to fight the Eye. In the end it’ll be just me.”

“Where the fu- where did you get that- urgh.” She held up a hand and made a very frustrated gesture at me. “Heather, yes, you may have to be the one who strikes the blow, whatever form that blow takes, but you don’t have to forge the sword all by yourself. Isn’t that what your sister meant? There. Does that make sense?” She huffed. “Right now you think you have to mine the ore to smelt the iron to make the sword – alone! And this metaphor is getting out of hand and I hate it.”

Evelyn sat there, fuming quietly at her own assumed ineloquence, as I sniffed and nodded and wiped the threat of tears from my eyes.

I couldn’t help but feel Maisie’s cryptic meaning was more literal than this. Maisie was out there, she thought like an abyssal thing, ‘gather your friends’ was an instruction from lips that spoke a different language. Evelyn’s metaphor was practical, concrete, grounded in the here and now. She wasn’t right – but she also wasn’t wrong.

“It’s a good metaphor,” I said past a lump in my throat. “I like it. Thank you.”

“Damn right,” Raine said softly. “Makes sense to me.”

“Metaaa-for,” Tenny trilled. Her tentacle tightened around my shin.

“The shaman knows what she is doing, wizard, though she knows it not,” Zheng purred. “But your loyalty is real.”

Evelyn cleared her throat and didn’t seem to know what to say.

“Good girl,” Praem intoned – which saved Evelyn from her embarrassment by giving her a target for a thunderous frown.

“I still don’t know where to start though,” I admitted. “I was going to rewire my senses again, but I don’t know how that would help in the long run. Better control of hyperdimensional mathematics, yes, but I’m still an ant trying to fight an elephant. How do I combat the Eye?”

“Know your enemy,” Evelyn said. “And maybe stop thinking of it as a fight? Neither you nor I are particularly good at fighting, are we? You’ve spent too much time absorbing Raine’s attitude, everything is to be punched or shot at.”

“Not everything,” Raine muttered.

I managed a weak laugh.

“Play to your strengths instead. We have a technical problem,” Evelyn continued, ignoring her. “We need to do research – about the Eye. With access to Carcosa, perhaps that’s possible in a way it never was before. There’s bound to be others who’ve been to Wonderland, other accounts than from a single mad medieval monk. Perhaps Wonderland was something else, somewhere else, before the Eye happened to it. Besides, if I can make a working Invisus Oculus with the books I hope to acquire from Carcosa, we can go to Wonderland ourselves. We can look our opponent in the eye- er,” she cleared her throat. “You know what I mean.”

“But then it’ll know me,” I said. “As soon as I try to save Maisie. Seven-Shades was right, she-”

“Heather,” Evelyn almost snapped at me. “This isn’t a Hollywood action movie. We’re not going to do a daring dramatic raid with no intel.”

“ … o-oh.”

“Good bloody point,” went Raine.

“Once we’ve figured out how to make an opening, then yes, you may have to figure out what to do with it. But there’s a whole shattered dimension, a ruined world below the Eye, followers in the rubble. There’s bound to be ways to understand it. We can’t do hyperdimensional mathematics for you, but we can help you figure out how to apply it when you do. We can experiment in controlled conditions, here, with me. And I’m certain Lauren has something to contribute there, when you’re less tired.”

“Mmmmmm,” Lozzie made a scrunched up face. “Maybe?”

“That … yes, that’s all … that’s all a very good point,” I said. “I uh, I feel a bit silly.”

Evelyn smiled at me, rueful and pained, but very real. “You’re a good leader, Heather, but you’re a poor strategist. My mother would have run rings around you. Allow me to help with that.” She sighed. “When I’ve taken my painkillers and gotten up on the right side of bed, I like to think I’m not bad at that.”

“She can be,” Raine said approvingly. “Should’a seen our Evee back when she was suddenly head of the family, if you know what I mean.”

“Shush, Raine. Not now,” Evelyn said. “Heather? Meanwhile, the rest of the plan does not change. We need to return to Carcosa as soon as possible. We need to deal with Saldis. You want to find a weakness in the Eye to exploit, then I need the tools. We need those books. But … hmm.” Evelyn frowned. “But I’m not certain that going back to the library is a good idea while you have little miss yellow drama bitch following you around. She presents an uncontrolled variable, and that’s potentially lethal out there.”

“Yes, yes of course,” I said, nodding with a twinge of guilt. “What can we do about her though?”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes at me. Deep in there I saw a dark twinkle. “Control the variable.”

“But how?”

“Heather,” she sighed. “I am so very tired of being afraid all the time. My methods have availed us nothing. Let’s try yours.”

“ … my … methods?”

Evelyn raised her eyes to the ceiling, as if looking to the heavens. “We know you’re watching us,” she said out loud. “Come out and talk.”

“Oh!” I lit up, glanced down at the yellow fabric still in my hand, and then looked around the room too. “Yes, yes. Seven- uh, are you there?”

“Here? Now?” Raine asked, going tense. “In the kitchen?”

“Why not?” Evelyn grumbled. “Everything else important in my life happens in this house lately.”

Lozzie disentangled herself from me at last and sprang to her feet with excitement. “Come out come out! Come say hi! Hiiii!”

Tenny let out a long, warbling, fluttery sound of shared excitement.

“Come on then,” Evelyn continued. “You old bitch.”

“I know you’re watching us,” I said to the yellow scrap in my hand. “I know you’re watching us. I want to talk to you again. A truce this time. Please?”

“Show yourself,” Evelyn was saying. Raine was laughing, looking like she wanted to draw a knife. Zheng did not join in, but Lozzie waved her arms and twirled on the spot and raised her voice.

Amid the noise and confusion and appeals to an Outsider Godling, I whispered under my breath, to the scrap of yellow cloth in my hand.

“I need to be like you.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.7

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Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, the imitation in yellow, drew her hood over her head and stopped being me.

Another stage trick. The hood hid her imitation of my face behind soft yellow ripples like wind across water, then she straightened up as if she had been bowing, and my face inside the hood was gone, replaced by the pale mask with empty eye-holes. A bottomless depth stared back at Raine and I. A hole in the world, fringed in yellow.

I expected her to vanish, to wink out of reality or spin into nothingness with a glint of sunlight on brass and a hint of chlorine gas. She’d made her intention clear, however mangled by the need to express it through my borrowed mouth; the ‘play’ would resume until I learnt the appropriate lesson. The only force capable of compelling her otherwise lay inside my own head, in hyperdimensional mathematics and heart-sick pain, and I suffered too much of the latter right then to rally the former.

But Seven-Shades stood there, silent and rippling and beyond human communication.

Like a friend who goes to the doorway to leave, then lingers to talk further.

Nasty little prima donna.

Seven-Shades had also given up imitating my height, and my head swam with an impossible paradox; I regarded the mask with my neck unbent, but the Yellow Robes seemed so tall that surely they brushed the ceiling. Without the softening appendage of a copied human head, the Yellow Thing was all Thing, a grease stain smeared upon the surface of reality, rotten fabric slithering across dead flesh, bile running from between slack lips. I was staring into the vastness of a yellow gas giant, from orbit, turning slowly in the void.

“What you waiting for, you lanky streak o’ piss?” said Raine.

At the edge of my perception, I felt her tense up, saw the matte-black flicker of her knife.

Without my face in the way, Raine was ready to give violence a chance.

I made an incoherent noise at her over my shoulder that may have been a hiss and may have contained her name, and which definitely meant, ‘I have already told you not to stab this thing, do not make me say so again’.

“She said she won’t hurt me,” Raine purred, voice low and focused. “Why not give it a go?” And I knew from experience that she was a hair-trigger touch away from going at Seven-Shades with her knife.

“Because I don’t know why she hasn’t left,” I hissed back. “And how are you not freaking out at this?”

In the corner of my eye, Raine shrugged.

I almost couldn’t deal with Seven-Shades, not like this, not without my face, not when she’d robbed me of the clarity in anger. Weird pneuma-somatic life was one thing – bizarre animal amalgamations and slime-dripping proboscises and be-tentacled woodland giants striding across the landscape, they were old hat, especially since Tenny. Almost old friends. But Seven-Shades was a level of unnatural that made my ape-brain cringe away as if from a visible sickness.

The abyssal thing in me did not care; it saw an equal. I gripped that as hard as I could.

“Well?” I demanded of Seven-Shades, trying to rouse my temper again through all the dysphoric misery. “I thought you were going to resume the play? Going to conjure up another way of mocking my need for the abyss? You’re not human, you never were human, you’re not even pretending to be human, how can you understand that pain? You-” I almost choked up. “You get to be whatever and whoever you want. Get out. Leave me alone.”

Slowly, with all the solemnity of an executioner with axe in hand, Seven-Shades turned her head, her mask, her hood, to look at Raine.

And with a quick gesture from those pallid hands, she performed her miracle a second time. Seven-Shades dipped her head, lowered her hood, and shot us both a beaming grin.

Raine’s grin.

My heart fluttered in my chest, same as when the real Raine grinned at me like that. Confident and toothy, bright and irresistible, her total attention and a promise of more. The smile which pressed me up against a wall and made me forget the world existed beyond my own body, the smile which told me everything was going to be okay because Raine would take care of it, that I deserved affection and care and love, the smile which had peeled me out of a dirty toilet cubicle last year and bid me to live again.

Stolen. With Raine’s warm brown eyes and Raine’s short chestnut hair and Raine’s fine cheekbones.

The real Raine had gone very still.

“I … I thought you said-” I struggled. “ … no loved ones … ”

“Ahhhh, well, about that, yeah.” Seven-Shades shot me a wink, Raine’s wink. “But this ain’t for you, Heather. I’m thinking about a parallel production, if you know what I mean. You’re not the only one who needs to be down for a three-way. Somebody else needs a play too.”

Next to me, Raine adjusted her footing, every muscle coiling like a spring.

“Raine,” I hissed at her. “Don’t-”

“But for you, Raine?” Seven-Shades told her, with that familiar confident grin. “Just existing? Hoooo, that’s already a play and a half every day, ain’t-”

Raine lunged, knife out for the kill.

A couple of months previously, Raine had attempted to explain to me the basics of knife fighting, with the assistance of some youtube videos presented by men who seemed like the greatest physical threats they’d ever face were heart disease and hypertension, not blades in the dark. I didn’t retain much except for her enthusiasm – and the rather enjoyable sight of her stripped down to tank-top and shorts to demonstrate ‘footwork’, which gave me lots of excuses to stare at her toned abs. All the stuff about forty-five degree angles and repeated drills and proper grips went over my head. I did care, but only because she cared, and because it was something she was good at and enjoyed.

But a few of the most basic of basics had lodged in my memory, if only because they ran so counter to what one saw in television and movies – how ninety-nine percent of real knife fights end up on the floor within seconds, that avoiding or retreating was always superior to actual combat, how you should keep your body behind your knife, and the core importance of self-control.

Raine went for Seven-Shades because she lost her temper, and the basics went out the window.

Two steps to close the distance, fast enough to make me flinch and stumble back. Knife twisting, arm positioning for a gut-stab. I watched in open-mouthed horror as the blow landed, as Raine drove her knife into where Seven-Shades’ stomach should be, as black steel parted layers of yellow cloth like rancid butter and Raine ripped the knife sideways, tore open a great rent in the yellow robes. Her elbow shot back again and she rammed the knife home a second time, slashed across Seven-Shades’ chest, caught the dangling edges of one sleeve. She stabbed and tore and cut, left ragged tatters trailing in otherworldly wind.

It was like assaulting the ocean; beneath each layer of slashed yellow cloth was just more yellow, more ripples, more infinity. I had warned her.

Raine seemed to sense that her fury was spent in vain. She span the knife into a backhand grip and reared up to stab Seven-Shades in the face or throat or through an eye. Her face, her throat, her eye, a mirror staring back at her.

She couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring the knife down.

“Had enough? Sure you want Heather to see this?” Seven-Shades sighed with an indulgent grin, a knowing grin, Raine’s grin.

“Raine, stop,” I hissed. “It’s pointless.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” Seven-Shades said in Raine’s voice, easy and accepting, the very same acceptance Raine gifted to me so often. “Get it all out if you need to. Better than beating yourself up, yeah? Oh, heh, oops.” Her grin turned cheeky.

Knife held in out front like a quivering shield, Raine retreated two unsteady steps and bumped into the table, heaving rough breaths through her nostrils, eyes wide and overwhelmed. Her attack had shredded the robes at Seven-Shades’ belly and chest. Great flaps of yellow fabric hung down, strips dangling askew, loose threads stirred by invisible breeze. I half-expected the rippling ocean to close over the bloodless wounds, for the garment to re-knit itself, but it just lay naked, cratered and torn.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight didn’t seem to mind.

“Not like you can actually make me bleed,” she told Raine. “’Cos hey, I’m not a real person.”

“I’m real,” Raine said.

And I’d never heard her so angry. So thin and cold.

“You are!” Seven-Shades agreed, with all of Raine’s confidence behind her words. “You are, Raine, that’s the point. But you know what I think? You need a full-blown production to tear down all that messy shit and prove it to your subconscious, so why don’t we-”

“I said no more tormenting my friends!” I snapped, and lost my temper far worse than Raine would ever be capable of.

Temptation had almost overwhelmed respect – temptation to allow Seven-Shades to keep talking. But in the end, I loved Raine more than that.

Was this what lay beneath Raine’s deflection? Was this a glimpse into her worst fears, as the cruel play and Seven-Shades’ authorial exposition had been for me? And I was so hungry to see beneath Raine’s surface, to understand what bizarre value system had provoked the only explanation I’d gotten that had even come close, her words that still rattled around in my head every night as we lay cuddled up in bed together, that reminded me I knew vanishingly little about this woman who I was deeply, insanely in love with – “I do not wish to be surplus to your requirements.

But whatever else this was, it was violation. If I had a choice between Raine keeping her secrets forever, or having to watch me stand by as she was filleted and dissected, there was no choice.

Seven-Shades laughed Raine’s good-natured laugh at my anger. “Heather, come off it, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few legs, ‘n you know well as I that she’ll never-”

Words were dangerous and blades did nothing, but I needed neither to give Seven-Shades a ‘rough old time of it’.

Later, after I’d recovered and had time to think, I suspected that was the only thing I did that surprised her. My threat to unravel her, her appearance before us, her wearing of our faces, even our retreat to the Medieval Metaphysics room in the first place, all of it had been predicted – or stage-managed. We had been directed across the stage to produce a specific effect in our own hearts, all for the sake of drama. Whatever Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was beneath the masks and the yellow ocean, she did understand human beings and how to manipulate them.

But whatever descent she might claim, she did not understand the abyss.

We didn’t actually fight, so I don’t know if I would have won. I doubt it, in retrospect; Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was older than me, purer, more in control, not a clumsy half-made thing with a foot in both words, but a true amalgam. But I do like to think I could have given her a good slapping. Perhaps I’m just ‘tooting my own horn’, as Evelyn might say.

But as soon as I made the threat concrete, Seven-Shades made herself scarce, which implied she hadn’t seen this coming.

She ducked her copied head so fast she didn’t even have time for a final word. She drew that hood up with sheer force of motion, and simply stepped sideways, out of my path, away from my anger, and vanished. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight slipped far further backstage than Raine or I could follow, even in my current state. She left us standing alone and shivering in the muted light cast through the blanket-curtains of the Medieval Metaphysics room.

And I felt great.

It took me several full minutes to come back from what I had done to myself to scare her off. By the time I finally made human response to human stimulus, Raine was frantic with worry.

I’d sprouted my full compliment of pneuma-somatic tentacles, built them in visualisation and imagination, anchored them to the deep tissues inside my torso, hooked them to supporting muscle and wrapped their roots snug around my spine and hipbones, made them real with a wrist-flick of hyperdimensional mathematics, and unfurled them to encircle Seven-Shades with a shiver of delicious physical euphoria. Perhaps where a knife had failed, pneuma-somatic flesh might peel back the yellow layers, aided by brainmath I was on the verge of preparing.

But the abyssal euphoria – the sweet relief of being a touch closer to what lay trapped inside my wet meat – triggered a deeper layer of recognition between myself and the Yellow Interloper. We were alike. And just as I had not really possessed tentacles and fins and gills in the abyss, just as these things were mere approximations reduced to human senses, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was not rippling yellow fabric.

So as my tentacles had whipped out to surround Seven-Shades and she had begun the motion of stepping sideways, I had attempted to see her.

I tried to see and hear and smell as I had in the abyss.

Another trick of hyperdimensional mathematics, performed without even thinking about it, let alone pausing to consider the implications. A simple switch from one to zero, from meat-senses of pressure and heat and reflected light, to a sensory suite that I did not even possess in this ape body, indigestible by the soft grey fatty blob inside my fragile bird-egg skull. The wrong input flared like lightning across my brain in random arcs of nonsense.

But I had another mind, another processor.

The abyssal thing in me, it saw. It – me, I? – saw with all the glorious simplicity I had possessed in the abyss.

I saw Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight step sideways, into a fold in reality, the million frills of her trailing skirts an ostentatious display of power and style – yes, style, seen through abyssal senses. Style had not existed out there in the oceanic dark, where there was no role for anything but survival and camouflage and utilitarian phenotype. But here, or Outside, what wonders could flourish, when built from abyssal principles?

Canary-soft frills and lemon-sharp grace and butterscotch flesh – or at least, something akin to flesh.

There was no face, no hands, no humanity at all, nothing that would be rendered such in human senses.

But just for a second, as she slipped away, seen through abyssal eyes and without her masks, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was the kind of inhuman beauty upon which religions are founded.

I was not sad to see her leave though; she had tried to hurt my mate. That mattered more, to both ape and abyss. She left, and calm settled, and for a long, quiet moment I just felt, because for the first time in quite a while I felt good to be me.

According to Raine, what I actually did was have some kind of fit.

Twitching, spluttering, eyes rolling back, suffering one nasty nosebleed. She rammed her knife into the table, point-down, and caught me as I flailed at random, making weird little hissing and burbling noises in my throat.

I do have vague memories of some indistinct ape nonsense going on at the time, a mouth close to me pushing out gasses and flapping meat against meat, but I was too absorbed in seeing the structural truth beneath the world, the clarity and precision in the dance of photon and electron, the stacked beauty in the core of every atom, the mathematical structure that describes reality itself. Here was the very substrate I manipulated with hyperdimensional mathematics, and it was, to abyssal senses, as lovely as a sunrise.

At one point I apparently stopped breathing for a full thirty seconds; Raine was on the verge of administering CPR and calling an ambulance.

I came back when my body’s energy ran out and my tentacles collapsed back into ash. Pain lanced deep into both flanks, then inside my torso in a web of bruising, scraping red-hot pokers, leaving behind nerve-compression tingles and a throbbing bone-ache. A flash of cold sweat passed over every inch of my skin, and my stomach opened like a black pit in the centre of my being. By that time, Raine had set me down in one of the armchairs, which was lucky because otherwise I would have fallen over.

The first thing I did as I crashed back into my body was curl up and groan like I had the world’s worst stomach ache. Which I kind of did.

“Heather! Heather, hey, hey, say something, hey?” Raine’s hands were all over me as she squatted in front of the chair, squeezing my arms and trying to get me to respond. “Heather, come on, say-”

“Back again,” I managed, then groaned a second time. “Ow.”

“Hey, hey, you’re alright,” Raine laughed with relief. “Where’s the pain, is it serious? Are you bleeding? Heather, I need you to concentrate, tell me where it hurts. Listen to my voice: where does it hurt?”

I managed to shake my head like a sleepwalker as the tears started, as the awful dysphoria of loss crept over me like a wave of freezing horror at the wrongness of my own body. “The-” I heaved for a breath. “ … the usual. S-sorry. Tentacles, and … shouldn’t have, no, I know-”

“Heather, okay, shut up,” Raine said, strict but not harsh, and took my face in both hands to raise my eyes. “Shut up and look at me.”

I did as I was told. Raine raised my face and looked into my eyes, her hands so warm against my clammy flesh. She smoothed my hair back from my sweat-soaked forehead and used a tissue to wipe the messy nosebleed off my face. She watched me carefully for so long that if I’d been less wiped out I would have been blushing with self-consciousness.

“Mmmm?” I grumbled.

“Making sure you’re all here,” she said with a smile. “Now, where does it hurt?”

“Everywhere. Forever.”

“If you’ve got internal bleeding, I need to get you out of here right now, nothing else matters. Piss-robes can harass us in the hospital for all I care. Heather, where does-”

“No,” I said, and tried to force air into my shuddering lungs. “Pain is … uh, normal. I can make tentacles without ripping myself apart. That’s not … not what took … I rewired my senses,” I admitted. “Um, I didn’t know I could do that. Saw Seven-Shades for real.”

“Oh yeah?” Raine asked. “And there’s no burning pain, no stabbing pain, nothing like that?”

I shook my head.

She stared into my eyes again, felt my forehead with one hand, pressed two fingers to my throat to check my pulse. “Mmm. You seem alright. I think.”

“You’re so beautiful,” I said, and took a long moment to realise that I’d said it.

Raine’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth curled with amusement, but I meant what I’d said – though perhaps not in the way she took it. My sensory processing had changed. I still suffered that lingering abyssal difficulty in recognising what she was. Seeing past the flapping meat and the jumble of ape parts took a twinge of conscious effort, but even without full recognition, she was beautiful on some mechanical, mathematical level. I’d cut a square peg to fit a round hole, made my parts join differently.

“’Course I am,” Raine said. “I’m your girlfriend, aren’t I? Only the best.”

Then I blushed. “Uh- I mean- it- I can’t-”

She laughed. I would have laughed too if it didn’t make my lungs ache, but it still helped.

“She’s gone, right?” Raine asked, glancing around as I took difficult sips of water from the bottle she handed me.

“Mm?”

“Piss-robes.” Raine shot me a grin. “Whatever you did, it got her to bugger off right sharpish. Well done. And thanks, by the way. I was kinda losing my shit there.”

“ … mmm, are you … are you okay, Raine?”

“Yeah.” She shrugged and straighted up, still watching my eyes with close attention. “Listen, I gotta call Evee, let her know what’s happened. Maybe she can bring Lozzie to campus, get her up here to take a look at you.”

“I can walk, just … just give me fifteen minutes.”

“Uh-uh, no way. You are not walking all the way home until I’m certain it’s safe. I’d carry you, but I’m not sure if I should even move you yet. Just hold up for now, Heather, okay? Wait right there.”

I took another long sip of water as Raine gingerly left my side, but I was pouring liquid down a borehole. Sustaining pneuma-somatic tentacles for four or five full minutes had drained me to empty, as if I’d run three marathons back-to-back. Low blood sugar cursed me with fragile shaking. If Zheng had presented me with a live squirrel right then, I would have happily eaten it, bones and all.

Raine pulled her knife out of the table and slid it away inside her jacket, then crossed the cosy little space of the Medieval Metaphysics room to scoop her phone off the floor where she’d dropped it earlier.

“Hey, no cracks in the screen,” she said. “Minor miracle there.”

“I need food,” I murmured. “I-I’m gonna- mm-” I made a good-faith effort to stand up, but that wasn’t happening. My head swam. “Oh. Okay then.”

“Woah, Heather, woah, take it easy.” Raine crossed back to the chair. “Doctor’s orders, okay? You go bumping around you might tear something. Here, let’s see, see if I’ve got anything.” She gave her leather jacket a quick pat down, then rummaged through the inside pockets, the ones where she kept dangerous things and dark secrets. “Aha, here we go.” She produced a rather battered looking fruit and nut chocolate bar. The wrapper was intact but it looked like it had been in that pocket since before we’d met.

I snatched it when offered, tore the wrapper open, and shoved it into my face.

While I embarrassed myself with the table manners of a starving pig, Raine rubbed my shoulder with one hand and called Evelyn with the other. I didn’t hear much of the conversation, I was too busy chewing – physically, then mentally once the chocolate bar was all gone and I was washing it down with more water – but I gathered that Evelyn was none too pleased. Raine was not allowed to finish a single whole sentence other than “Hey, Evee, it’s me”, and Evelyn hung up first.

Raine lowered the phone and shot me an ironic grin. “Cavalry’s on its way. We’re to stay put and you’re not to move, or Evee’ll use my intestines for bunting.”

I nodded. “Lozzie too?”

“Uhhh, yeah,” Raine said, glancing down at the phone. “I think that’s what some of the shouting was about. Doctor Lozzie is making a house call, to check you haven’t torn your stitches.”

“First time for her, visiting campus,” I croaked.

“Hey, don’t worry about that. Evee’s nothing if not incredibly paranoid, Lozzie’ll be safe on the way here. Probably make her hold Praem’s hand the whole way.”

Raine gave my shoulder another reassuring squeeze, then left me again to perform a check of the room. Rather pointless gesture, I thought, considering our uninvited guest could come and go as she pleased, doors be damned, but maybe Raine found the process comforting. She double-checked the door was locked, gave the old racking a once-over, and then peeled back the edge of the blanket curtains to peer out into the thin spring sunlight across the university campus.

I watched her, with both admiration and wonder.

“How are you not freaking out?” I croaked.

“Ah?” Raine tucked the blanket curtain back into place.

“At everything that just happened, I mean.”

Raine shot me a grin and shrugged. “S’what I do. Evee asked me the same question once, long time ago now. Couldn’t give her a good answer either. Guess I just have strong foundations.”

I cleared my throat, the iron tang of nosebleed still in my mouth. I gathered what little scraps of energy remained to me; no better time than the present. We were stuck here without distractions, until the others arrived to make sure I hadn’t done myself an internal injury.

“Raine,” I croaked. “What was that all about?”

“Ahhh?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Cute enough name, sure, but she’s no genius play director, just a drama hound. Whatever she showed you back in the lecture hall, don’t take it to heart. All the stuff she said in here too, who knows? More like Seven-Shades-of-Shit-Stirring, am I right?”

“No, I mean … I … ”

“Hey, you think she’ll try this with Zheng too? Imagine how bad that’ll go. Hoooo.”

“No, Raine. I mean, what was the doll of you about? What did it mean? What did any of that mean?”

Raine’s grin didn’t die; there was no horrifying repeat of her hard stop last week, but her little sigh, the way she wet her lips, the way the paused was enough to send a tremor of fear up my spine. She doubted her own answer.

“You are real, right?” I asked. My voice shook in a way I had not intended.

“Heather? Woah, hey, what? ‘Course I’m real, what-”

“Seven-Shades said it. One of my worst fears,” the words spilled out, shaky and difficult. “About you, about Evelyn, when we first got together- no, before that, when we first met. That you were too good to be true, everything I wanted and needed. I was afraid that I was locked in a padded room back in Cygnet children’s hospital, my veins pumped full of drugs, and both of you were just a fantasy, a hallucination. But I know that’s not true, I know I’m not mentally ill, at least not in that one specific way. I’m not schizophrenic. But … but Raine, whatever you are, I accept you. Okay? Whatever that meant, I accept whatever you are.”

Raine stared at me for a heartbeat too long, then allowed a mischievous grin to creep onto her face.

“Raine? Raine, I’m being serious!”

“Hey, so am I. Accepting me? Well.” She did this big theatrical tut and shrugged her shoulders, wandering back to me and perching on the arm of one of the other chairs. “That might be extra difficult, Heather.” She leaned in closer and closer as she spoke, eyes boring into mine, a grin playing across her lips, exuding all the animal pressure and confident self-assurance that made me melt at her touch. I felt myself shiver, and not in a bad way.

“R-Raine, don’t-”

“Because I’m the worst, nastiest creature you can possibly imagine,” she murmured, voice dropping. “A nightmare from the depths, a shadow from a million years ago, the most bloodthirsty horror to ever walk this earth.”

She leaned in all the way, until she filled my vision from horizon to horizon.

“A human being,” she whispered.

I huffed hard enough to give myself a sore throat, shuddering with relief and exasperation in equal measure, and narrowly resisted the urge to belt Raine in the face when she burst out laughing.

“Oh, that is such a ridiculous cliche!” I said. “There are much worse things than human beings. I should know!”

“Yeah,” Raine said through the laughter. “But you get my point.”

“Raine. Raine, really. You almost had me going for a moment there, you terrified me.”

“Uh huh.” Raine’s eyes twinkled as she dialled down her chuckle. “You love it though.”

“I … well … I-” I blushed and frowned.

“See it as payback,” she said. “Normally I’d be a bit miffed at having to reassure a lover that yes, I’m real. I’ve had you all over my face a triple-digit number of times, Heather, and yeah, those orgasms were not the work of your own hands, I really am that good.”

“Raine,” I huffed, blushing rather harder than before. “You’re doing that thing again.”

“That thing you like?”

“That thing where you use sex to deflect a difficult question. It works because I like it, but … please?”

“Ahhhh,” went Raine, and to my incredible relief she neither froze up nor found a different way to deflect my actual point. “No worries. I am real, I am a human being, and I am really here. Where to begin? Well, first, I was born at a very young age.” She cracked another grin, then held up a hand before I could tut. “No, seriously. I’m a regular human being. I wasn’t put together in Evelyn’s old cellar, I’m not a demon-host, or a ghost, or a zombie, or anything along those lines. I’ve never lied to you about where I came from, or what I am. Human, all the ugly bits included. Promise.”

I’d become quite adept at telling when Raine was deflecting, and how far the deflection went. This was the truth, but it answered nothing.

“So what did the doll of you mean?” I asked. “You said ‘ow’, that was pain, I couldn’t ignore it, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t see. It made me feel really bad for you too, Raine.”

Raine began to shrug, but then she caught the look in my eyes, the hard-squint of curiosity, beneath even the shuddering, hungry exhaustion and the throbbing ache down my flanks and inside my bones. She stopped and had the good sense to look sheepish for a moment, then actually took the time to think about her answer. I respected her for that. She was trying.

“You can tell me anything, Raine. You do know that, right? Even when I’m like this.”

She let out a sigh, accompanied by a knowing smile. “Yeah. Yeah, ‘course I can.”

‘I can’ did not mean ‘I will’.

“Seven-Shades showed me literally one of my worst fears,” I went first, blinked first. “That trying to rescue Maisie is going to get all my friends killed, that I’m using you all, for my own ends, one that’s not even going to work. She knew that about me, knew how to hurt me, in here.” I tapped my chest with two fingers, over my heart, then had to lower my hand because my arm felt like it was going to fall off; the calories from a single chocolate bar had only gone so far. “She hurt you the same, even more with the things she said to you.”

“It was an ugly mockery of me,” Raine said, a little too fast. “That hurt, yeah, you’re right, it did.”

“ … and that’s all?”

“Have you heard of impostor syndrome, Heather?”

“Um, a little bit.”

“I get it sometimes, you know?” She grinned for me again, all beaming confidence, not the shaking, furious Raine who had lost control of herself and gone berserk at Seven-Shades. “Fake it ‘till you make it and all that, and no matter how good you are at something, sometimes you still feel like a bit of a fake, and you’re just waiting for everyone to discover, and then they’ll think less of you. ‘Course I know it’s nonsense, up in my noggin’. I’m the best at what I do. No worries, just an ugly old thought she shoved in my face.”

Now that, that was a tower-shield of deflection, a nuclear-disaster sarcophagus of compartmentalisation. It wasn’t a lie – Raine wasn’t lying to me, she hadn’t done so in months. I suspect that on some level I had rendered her incapable of lying to me. But Seven-Shades had made her angrier than I’d ever seen her, made her lose control, and this explanation did not make sense.

But I was exhausted, I was fragile beyond words. At that precise moment I would have gladly traded all Raine’s secrets for a roast chicken.

All I could think of was, “Why did you lose your temper with her then?”

Raine grinned, puzzled. “My temper?”

“I did see, Raine,” I grumbled, not even trying. I sighed, ready to slump back, preparing a surrender on my lips; if she didn’t want to talk about it, she only had to say. I would respect that, if that’s what she needed.

But to my horror, it almost worked.

“My life is not a play,” she said, with a shadow of that same anger.

She didn’t direct that anger at me, but off to the side, as if talking to herself. Pure instinct bid me rise from the chair again, to go to her, but my sides screamed with pain and my lungs quivered and I only managed to shuffle forward an inch.

“ … R-Raine? I-”

“What I am is not a play, not a game, not false. I’m real. Everything I’ve made of myself is real. I count, I matter.”

She frowned to herself, harsh and punishing in a way I’d never seen before.

“You do. Oh, Raine,” I said. “You matter, of course you do. What is this? Raine, where is this coming from?”

She looked up at me and a rueful smile returned to her face, natural and unforced. She shrugged. “When your formative experience is homelessness, it … does things to you.”

“Oh. Oh, Raine, I never … I never thought about … ”

I trailed off in private horror. I could tell when Raine was lying, when she was deflecting, and I like to think I had learned to tell when she believed what she said.

She’d just managed to do all three at once.

I had no idea what I was looking at.

“Hey, was that there before?” she asked, and snapped me out of it.

“Raine, don’t change the subject,” I said. “I … I know you were homeless as a teenager, and it makes my heart ache to think of you like-”

“Heather, hold up,” Raine repeated, harder, in serious mode again, fingers raised to stall my sympathy. She got up from the arm of the chair and took a step around the table, her eyes fixed at a spot on the floor. “Seriously, was that there before?”

I had to lean to the right to see what she was indicating. The movement sent a quiver of bruised pain down my flank.

A strip of torn yellow cloth.

It no longer rippled like an ocean seen from miles up, but lay on the scratchy old carpet like a dead slug, a shrivelled scrap of dried flesh, looking as if it might crumble away to nothing when touched.

“Oh,” I breathed. “When you … Raine, when you cut Seven-Shades … ”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed. She slid her knife from her jacket and squatted down in front of the piece of fabric. “Maybe from her sleeve, you think?” She went to poke it with the tip of her knife.

“Don’t touch it!” I hissed.

“Said she wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Yes, but that’s not Seven-Shades, that’s a part of her … her body, I suppose.” I shivered as I recalled what I’d seen behind the veil of human senses, and not in disgust. “Do not touch it, Raine. It could be dangerous. Wait for Evee to get here.”

“Right you are then, boss.” Raine stood up, put her knife away, and stepped carefully back from the Outsider material. “Evee’ll know what to do.”

I sighed heavily, a lump growing in my throat. “Actually I don’t think she will. I don’t think anybody knows what to do with all this. About all this. About what I saw.”

“Heather?”

Now I’d gotten some answers from Raine – as piecemeal and confusing as they’d been – the weight of Seven-Shades’ prediction settled on my shoulders once more. Evelyn would get here soon, maybe in the next ten minutes, and I’d have to tell her.

“I have to tell her everything,” I said out loud, staring down at my hands limp in my lap. “I have to tell everyone, all of it. That I’m going to be the death of them if they keep following me. The death of you. Everyone has to know, I can’t do this to Lozzie either, or Zheng, or any-”

“Tell me first, then.”

Raine’s tone almost made me sob. She sat down in the nearest armchair, reached over to take my hand in hers, and took me completely seriously. If she hadn’t been there, I think I would have curled up in a ball.

And I am an idiot, because that was all it took for me to accept any amount of deflecting she’d done earlier.

“Tell me about the play again,” she said. “Before, you were rushing, tripping over your own words. I got the jist of it, but gimme the details. However grisly. Come on, I can take it. Take anything for you.”

So I did. While we waited for Evelyn and Lozzie to turn up to ensure I hadn’t torn another hole in my lungs or my guts, I told Raine exactly what I’d seen on stage, and why it mattered.

“And I’m too weak,” I sniffed. “You- you’re so devoted, but I can’t ask for that when I don’t even have a plan.”

“Last I checked, you had a pretty rad’ plan.”

I shook my head. “Looking for books to make us invisible to the Eye? What’s the point? Seven-Shades, oh blast, whatever she is, she was right. I can’t ever fight the Eye. It’s like planning to fight … I don’t know, the sun. A black hole. What does ‘fight’ even mean in that context?” I shrugged, wanted to cry but couldn’t, too exhausted from summoning my tentacles. “I don’t understand what Seven-Shades meant. What else can I do with brainmath? Even tiny things make me bleed from my face like a stuck pig.”

“You can give yourself tentacles. That’s working.”

I managed a weak smile. “And? Growing tentacles is like Evelyn’s artificial leg. It works, functions, but it’ll never be real.”

“They looked pretty real to me, that one time I saw ‘em,” Raine said. She cracked a grin. “Pretty cool, too.”

“Thank you. Thank you, Raine. But they’re not real. They’re only an approximation. And look, how would they even help? I could no more defeat the Eye with a few tentacles than I can in this.” I gestured at my own body, and suddenly felt weird phrasing it that way. Alienated from my own flesh.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Raine was peering at me in an odd way, with a twinkle in her eyes. “Didn’t you just tell me you rewired your senses? That’s new.”

I shrugged. “Suppose so. It was … it was beautiful. It was. And Seven-Shades was … was so … ” I began to choke up. It had been beautiful, to see like that, my place in reality had made more sense.

But next to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight I was a mewling, crippled thing, dredged from the depths and asphyxiating on the shore.

“Hey, have I gotta be jealous of her too?” Raine cracked a cheesy grin.

“No, oh don’t be silly.” I sniffed hard, managed a tiny laugh. That was better. “Rewiring my senses was nice, but it gave me a fit. If you hadn’t been here I would have brained myself. What’s the point, how does that help?”

“You’ve done miracles before, Heather. Everything you do is a miracle. You just have to find the right way.”

I sighed heavily, shaking my head. “Yes, miracles, right. I saved Sarika, that was a miracle, but I had to leave my body to do that. If I go again, I don’t think I’ll come back. That’s what Maisie said.”

“Are you certain Maisie’s right about that?”

“Raine, don’t,” I whispered, urgent and hard. “You can’t say that to me, you can’t tempt me like that. I want to, I want it, but- no, I would- I’d never save her that way. You’d never see me again either, I’d just … I’d go.” I took a huge, shuddering breath. “Why am I even trying? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” I tried to thump the opposite arm of the chair with my fist, but my arms were still shaky and weak with exhaustion. “And I know I’m going to try it anyway. Even if you don’t come with me, even if none of you come with me. I will still go to Wonderland, I will still try.”

“Hey, Heather, I believe in you, I believe you can do this.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t. I don’t know what I’m doing! Raine, you don’t have to dedicate yourself to a lost cause.”

“Evelyn said exactly the same thing to me, once.” Raine shrugged. “Same tone of voice, even. She was a lost cause, nothing left, given up on herself for dead. But she didn’t die. I played a little part, sure, but it was more because she decided to fight.”

I puffed out a humourless laugh. “You make it sound so easy. Like a fairytale. ‘Just have faith’, is that your secret technique, Raine?”

“Grace. Friendship. Solidarity,” Raine echoed Seven-Shades’ words. “Those seemed like pretty clear clues to me.”

“Oh Raine, it’s not a riddle, it’s never that simple, reality is never that simple.”

“Maybe it is? Hey, look at it this way.” Raine stretched out her legs and reached up to rub the back of my neck. Despite everything, I felt my eyelids flutter shut, felt a purr rising in my throat as her fingers kneaded me. “To the people who built the first aircraft, or the first combustion engine – or hey, first nuclear bomb, there’s something to toss at the Eye – those were riddles, right? So maybe Seven-Shades-of-Sucking-Shit was onto something, though she could be less of a catty bitch about telling you. A way to beat the Eye, to keep it on the ropes for just long enough to rescue your sister, how is that any different?”

“ … because magic isn’t a science,” I murmured. “Evee taught me that.”

“Maybe not for mages. But for you? Who’s to say you can’t do actual theory?”

I blinked several times and pulled away from Raine’s hand, which was a testament to how mad the idea sounded.

“I can barely read my own notebooks on hyperdimensional mathematics without being violently sick,” I said. “How am I supposed to do theory?”

“Rewire your senses?”

I stared at her for a long moment, then at the floor, then at my hands.

“I mean, it’s just a suggestion,” she went on. “I’m spit-balling, throwing stuff at the wall until Seven-Shades pops back up and I can tell her to shove herself up her own arse. You’ve got a problem, and I’ll do everything in my power to feed you ideas to help solve it. Hell, if I could read the notebooks for you, I would. I will be your eyes, Heather, I will be your hands, if I can.”

I looked back up at her. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

She nodded.

“Well then … my hands, you may resume rubbing the back of my neck, please, while I think about how to rewire my senses without either giving myself a seizure, or giving Evelyn cause to have us both tied up.”

“Anything for you,” Raine purred.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Yellow robes whispered across the wooden boards, and admitted no hint of gait beneath, no kick of feet to free the director from the tripping tangle. A pallid hand invited each volunteer player upon the stage, guided young ladies to their places by raised fingertips, positioned them with feathery touches at elbow, shoulder, and hip. Empty eye sockets in a blank mask gave no taste as to the coming genre; no comedic crinkle of crow’s feet, no tragic drawing-in of eyebrows, no melodramatic gathering of tears.

Soundless but for the rustle of yellow fabric, the King – or Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, or a demon that had followed us back from Carcosa, or a maniac dressed in rotten rags – set the actors in their starting poses.

And I appeared to be the only person in the lecture hall who saw anything out of the ordinary.

Professor Raymond had retreated to the edge of the stage, to nod and stroke his chin as his ghostly assistant set up the ‘demonstration’. The rest of the student audience watched, with all the curious boredom expected of first-years in an early class with a eccentric lecturer.

Raine’s concern was all with me.

“Heather, tell me what’s wrong,” she hissed.

“Can’t you see it?” I whispered back, mouth bone dry, my hand clammy in hers.

“Nothing. Heather, what’s-”

“Raine, exactly what do you see happening down there? Describe it to me.”

She only glanced at the stage because I was so terrified. She shook her head. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Mister owl chap is standing aside, looks like the students are gonna do a skit or something. Seems a bit much for a lit class.”

The Yellow Director turned an actor’s arm here, adjusted another’s footing there, rotated a volunteer’s wrist by a few precise degrees. The thin sunlight creeping in through narrow slit-windows at the top of the lecture hall suddenly clouded over. Several of the ugly modern fluorescent strip-bulbs flickered and went out, leaving only the wooden platform lit. Nobody looked up, or remarked on the gathering shadows.

How strange it is, not to trust the evidence of one’s own senses. I believe if any other had been in my place in the Yellow King’s audience that morning, they would have flirted with true madness. But I had ten years of experience in seeing things other people could not. With a conscious effort, I anchored my mind with that brutal fact, and told myself this was really happening.

To do otherwise would play right into those pale hands.

One other pair of eyes did see what I was seeing. But I suspected that Saldis was neither a person, nor actually here.

“What is happening?” I hissed over my shoulder, at the wizard in red-and-gold.

“I told you already,” Saldis answered with breathy excitement and not a little condescension. “The show must go on.”

“Heather, Heather, look at me,” Raine hissed sharply. “Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not happening. Or it’s spirits, pneuma-somatic, the same as always.”

Saldis laughed with a musical tinkle. “Your paramour is not part of the audience, lady Morell, however close your hearts lie. Best quiet her down before the ushers decide to remove a distraction from the stalls.”

That got my eyes off the stage and over my shoulder, if only for a second.

“Ushers?” I whispered.

Saldis shrugged.

“Heather,” Raine hissed, her other hand gripping my shoulder, squeezing to bring me back. “Heather, look at-”

“Shhh,” I hushed her as loud as I dared. “Raine, please stop. Don’t disrupt the play. I think you might be in danger if you do.”

In a testament to her trust for me – and how quickly she could adapt to the unexpected – Raine did exactly as I asked. She didn’t understand, she couldn’t see; she just dealt with it. She glanced at the stage again, then over her shoulder at the closed doors to the lecture hall. She scanned the other students, the empty seats, the exits. One hand crept inside her leather jacket.

“Right you are,” she whispered, wire-tight and ready to spring. “Do we need to get out of here?”

“I … I don’t know,” I admitted.

Down on the stage, the Yellow Conductor was making increasingly granular adjustments to the players – bending a finger here, tilting a head there. I noticed with relief that the student volunteers were still acting like students roped into a silly practical demonstration. Trying not to laugh, blushing faintly, sharing amused looks with their friends in the audience.

Eight of them. Six women, two men.

“There’s people involved now,” I hissed. “A-and the … it’s touching them, it can’t be pneuma-somatic, can’t be. Maybe we should get out, yes, maybe it’ll follow me, leave them alone and-”

The retreat died on my lips. The Yellow Apparition finished the preliminaries, and gifted each actor with a role.

A porcelain hand brushed each volunteer’s face, caressed a cheek, traced a jawline, shivered across a chin. At that touch, each volunteer became somebody else.

There was no actual physical transformation, no terrible explosion of change, no warping of flesh like melting plastic, no ruined puppet flopping upon the stage. In a way, that would have made this easier. At least then I could have shot out of my seat with a scream, or scrabbled together some brainmath to reverse what this stray godling had wrought upon innocent bystanders. But no, the Yellow Intruder’s magic was one we humans knew all too well.

Facial muscles shifted in a million tiny ways, settling into expressions alien to their wearers. Musculature slackened here and tightened there, pose flowed like water, shoulders rolled back and up, or slouched with old pain. Eyes relaxed and fluttered, or narrowed into hard squints. Grins cracked open on faces that had never grinned like that before. Arms clutched at themselves in mirror mockery. Teeth flashed that were neither sharp nor too many. One of the volunteers ran a hand through her hair and winked. Another chirped a giggle.

One need not be a mage to recognise acting.

Except none of these people were actors. I do not know much about the art, but I do understand it’s not just reading the script in the right kind of voice. It’s in how you hold yourself, in how you breathe, in tone and glance and how straight your back stands, in every micro-expression and habit and subconscious tell. Acting is to rid oneself of everything that makes you seem like you, and replace them with other parts.

Every single volunteer suddenly displayed the mastery of a classically trained, lifelong veteran of the stage, and they did so without uttering a single word.

“ … oh,” I swallowed. “Well, that’s just obscene.”

Raine eyed me carefully.

“It’s beautiful,” Saldis said. “They have you down perfect. Don’t be such a philistine, little Englisher.”

The actors’ roles were us.

They looked nothing like us, of course. The young woman unknowingly aping Raine’s shoulders-back beaming confidence was nowhere near as athletic as the real Raine. She was soft and cuddly around the middle, with mousy hair down to her shoulder blades and an angular face that should not have been able to pull Raine’s grin at all, but did. Evelyn was played by a man, which vaguely offended me at first, before I saw the miracle of observational mimicry. He had her hunched shoulders, her awkward spinal twist, the kink of her hips and the uneven set of her artificial leg. He even had her scowl.

Twil, bestial and worried, played by a woman who should have been too willowy and slight, too gentle-looking. Praem was also played by a man, but that made no difference in the face of this supernaturally bestowed skill; straight-backed and precise, lack of expression an expression all its own, there was no mistaking who he was meant to be.

Zheng was absurd, played by a woman shorter even than I, but languid predatory intent lingered in every tilt of her head and kink of her amused lips. Even Lozzie was correct, giggly and flouncy in the body of a woman who probably spent her free time playing rugby, whose muscle mass could have given the real Zheng a run for her money.

As they changed, the lecture hall took on an air of hyper-reality. Every colour seemed more saturated, every line of scenery and clothing sharper, every scent richer. I could see every ripple in the Yellow Godling’s robe, every eyelash on the actors’ lids, every rise and fall of every chest, every flash of imitation face.

And then there was ‘me’.

“Tch,” I tutted at Saldis. “No they don’t have me perfectly, don’t be absurd.”

“She has your slouch!”

“She’s ten times prettier than me. And about three cup sizes bigger in the chest.”

I huffed, trying to triage outrage and fear with my own performance. Playing a character is one thing, but down on that stage were the mannerisms and expressions of real people in my life, people I valued and loved, people I chose to spend my life with. Seeing them stolen and recycled made me angry in a way I couldn’t explain. I risked a sideways glance at the real Raine, and saw the same mannerisms right there, right next to me.

“Heather,” Raine whispered, gentle but serious, “can I ask who you’re talking to?”

“Somebody who’s not really here. I think. Saldis. She’s behind us but you can’t see her.”

The pale hand brushed across the brow of the final of the eight volunteer players – a gently pudgy woman with a heart-shaped face and lots of ginger curls. I expected Tenny, or perhaps Kimberly, to sprout into being in pose and gesture, and briefly wondered if the former was even possible. But it wasn’t either of them.

At first I didn’t comprehend who she became, who the role was meant to be; I did not recognise the bouncy child-like shoulder wiggle, the happy side-to-side bob of the hips, the grope of a small hand for an absent partner. Neither did I recognise the awkward twitching layered on top, or the starving look behind the eyes. I did not recognise any of it, but my subconscious did.

It was partly me.

Me at eight years old, before Wonderland, and then molded by a different set of influences.

Tears prickled in my eyes. Fear turned to cold anger.

“You cannot show me this,” I whispered down at the Yellow Thing. “You monster, you cannot show me this.”

“Oh, but this is the entire point,” Saldis supplied. Only the fact she didn’t exist stopped me from turning on the spot and slapping her stupid. “Isn’t this the aim of your quest, lady Morell? You can hardly be expected to deduce the true intent of the author without the goal on stage. The show would make no sense.”

“It’s grotesque,” I whispered, my throat thick with emotion. I wanted to leap out of my seat and run onto the stage. Part of me didn’t care if it was an imitation, if it looked nothing like the real person, if it was plucked from my own memories or a connection with the abyss or some unthinkable simulacrum. “It’s violation.”

“All art is violation,” Saldis said with dismissal.

“When we return to Carcosa, I shall slap you for that,” I hissed.

“Blame the pretender, not I,” Saldis drawled. “I’m right here in the audience with you, lady Morell, and I mean no offence.”

“Heather? Heather,” Raine repeated. “We getting out of here or not?”

I shook my head. I could no more leave the performance than I could stop breathing.

The King in Yellow, or Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, or a ridiculous ghost in yellow sheets, had summoned my twin to the stage.

Played by a woman that looked nothing like Maisie or I, but there was more of her down there than I’d seen with my physical eyes in ten years.

“No,” I hissed, and scrubbed my eyes with my sleeve. “No, we can’t leave. I can’t leave, I have to … I want to watch. I need to know.”

“I’ve never known a pretender to be so literal, hmmm,” Saldis allowed herself a mildly disappointed hum. “Or perhaps a demonstration of power? I suppose you are foreign royalty, after all. Only the most conventional form is acceptable. Unless this is merely a narrative within a narrative.” Her voice brightened at that, and laughed another tinkling laugh. “But hush, I will still myself. It’s beginning!”

The Yellow Master stepped back, falling into muted shadow as if out of focus, and the players began to move.

I’d only ever seen one real play before, a production of Macbeth, alongside the rest of my secondary-school literature class. I did possess vague childhood memories of our parents treating Maisie and I to several Christmas pantomimes, though those hardly count. But I know the theory.

A play is fragile illusion, forged by agreement between actors and audience. Flesh and blood in real time, pretending to be something it is not. Even the worst play captures a glint of that magic, invokes the stage as a place of transformation, invites the audience to believe.

It should not have worked, not on me, not here, not like this. The actors looked nothing like us, I was terrified out of my mind, still not sure if I was going mad, and distracted by trying to see beneath the Yellow Robes at the back of the stage. According to the clock on the wall, the scene the actors played out took no more than Professor Raymond’s promised five minutes, and they acted entirely without dialogue, a story of silent gestures and meaningful looks and pure physicality.

It was so powerful it reduced me to tears.

I cannot do it justice. I am incapable; words fall short. It is often said that one cannot simply read Shakespeare’s plays, one must see them performed, and that the same is true of any great playwright. The Yellow Pretender was one such genius, and the intended audience was me alone.

The play was a vision – or, I prayed, as I came to understand, a version – of what would happen when we tried to rescue Maisie from Wonderland.

Not literal, of course. The Maisie-actor always out of reach at the edge of our group was not literally in the Eye’s clutches, Wonderland itself did not blossom around the actors’ bodies. If it had I would have been provoked to intervention, or destruction, or worse. But it was in the actors’ forced, mimicked expressions, in their fear and resolve, in the pain and anger on ‘my’ face. Wonderland was present via interpretation, in panicked gesture and mad scramble across the stage, in a circle of fellowship that exploded under its own weight.

It was a story of how I was going to fail.

Under the pressure of the Eye’s attention, Evelyn’s efforts collapsed, and she with them, mewling and broken. Praem wanted to help, but she was lost inside herself, redirected to her own lack. Twil became an animal. Zheng and Raine turned on each other – the actors played out a stylised fight, all strike and block and twist with bare hands. Lozzie stayed by my side too long, refused to leave when I told her to go, returned when I pushed her away.

I – the real me – was so absorbed in the personal horror of the story, that I almost didn’t realise when the actor playing me started bleeding.

Great slow rivers of blood flowed from her nose, her eyes, out of her ears, stained the front of her tshirt and jumper as she stared upward – me, defying the Eye – and that was no fake blood. She bled far more than I ever did when executing brainmath. A wave of crimson choked out of her mouth.

“Oh, oh no,” I whispered, finally ripping my attention away from what was happening on stage in favour of what was really happening on stage.

“Heather?” the real Raine squeezed my hand harder.

“Oh no, no no, that’s girl’s going to die, she’s just normal, she can’t bleed like that, not without-”

The action reached a crescendo, and exploded into climax. ‘Heather’ collapsed in a blood-soaked heap, just as she seemed to break through some unseen barrier, her last effort to reach for the Maisie-actor thwarted by her own failing body. The Twil-actor leapt at ‘Praem’ over Evelyn’s prone, still, unbreathing corpse, and awful tearing, ripping sounds came from their frantic struggle. At exactly the same moment, Raine and Zheng’s duel ended – the Raine-actor produced a knife, a real one, huge and sharp, and slit Zheng’s throat in a bloody arc of short-lived triumph, disembowelled a moment later by Zheng’s death-spasm, guts spilling across the stage like writhing snakes.

Not one of them screamed. Not even a grunt.

The Yellow Nightmare whispered forward, into the wreckage, and engulfed the Maisie-actor in yellow robes. She was gone.

Real blood, real guts, real death. This was no illusion. The mingled reek of blood, sweat, and shit filled the air. Only a decade of self-control kept a scream from clawing up my throat.

“Oh, bravo! Bravo!” Saldis slapped her hands together in wild applause. “Not exactly subtle, but I approve. Real grand-guignol treatment, yes! Beautiful!”

I reached both hands into the black pit of my soul, and summoned the Eye’s lessons.

Innocent people lay dead, because an alien god-thing wanted to teach me a cruel lesson, but I could re-knit them if I was fast and precise. It would cost me. I could perform miracles, but I would have to run the equations beyond my body, return to the abyss. And that awful, ugly, bloody prediction upon the stage was so convincing that I wanted to leave, go back to the ocean between worlds, be what I was meant to be. What was the point in staying here, if my actions, my plan, would lead to that? Better I become a thing of photons and starlight and black ocean depths, than lead all my friends, my beloved, to that. A trade. My useless, disgusting ape-self for those innocent dead who weren’t even part of this.

But then The Yellow Beast reached for one of the fallen players – the Zheng actor, I think – and passed that pale hand over her torn throat.

The wound was gone. Blood vanished behind the ripple of yellow sleeves. The actor got to her feet with a flushed face and sheepish smile, no longer channelling the mannerisms and gestures of my beautiful demon-host. She took a nervous bow and shuffled off the stage.

Seven-Shades-of-Serious-Shenanigans went from actor to actor, raising the dead and spiriting away the mess. A stage trick. Relief flooded me even as I sniffed back a bloody nose of my own, the product of stalled brainmath. The vanished Maisie-actor reappeared from behind the yellow robes, and followed the others back to her seat.

“Heather, yo, brainmath, now?” Raine hissed. I just shook my head.

“Why … why show me this?” My breath shuddered as I whispered down at the Yellow Thing. “What was the point? Just to tell me I’m going to fail? I’m going to kill all my friends?”

“Heather, you’re not going to kill all your friends,” Raine murmured, sudden and hard and certain. “I don’t know what you’re seeing, but you’re not going to do that.”

Professor Raymond cleared his throat and returned to the lectern, adjusting his glasses with an awkward smile. “Well, there you have it,” he said. “I hope that made sense. And thank you,” he nodded at the Yellow Mockery.

The King in Yellow turned and glided back toward the little wooden side-door.

“What was the point?” I hissed again, brimming with anger now. I glanced over my shoulder but Saldis was gone, her seat empty once more.

When I looked back at the stage, The Yellow Torturer was still there, on the very edge, about to exit. It stopped and looked directly at me with those dark holes for eyes. I held the gaze. It bowed low – in thanks or mockery or apology – and left the lecture hall.

The door closed behind it. The light bulbs flickered back on. The clouds passed from the sun.

“Right then, where were we? Ah yes, the torture machine,” Professor Raymond picked up exactly where he’d left off.

“Okay, okay, right, okay,” I whispered to Raine, shaking harder than I’d thought, soaked in my own layer of cold sweat as I wiped at my bloody nose with the back of my hand. “I would very much like to get out of here now, yes please. Help me.”

==

“All I saw was a bunch of students doing a silly skit. But if that’s what you say happened, it happened, and I believe you.”

Raine kept her voice low, in case of random passers-by as we climbed the stairs in Willow House, as quickly as my shuddering heart would allow.

The long snake of a building was quiet between classes, our footsteps echoing in the whitewashed corridors and stairwell. I’d never left a lecture early before, and even under these utterly mad circumstances a tiny part of myself – the well trained, goody-two-shoes part – felt awfully guilty at skipping out before the end.

“Thank you, yes, but Raine, we need to get home. We need to,” I hissed back. “We need Evee to look at my head- and- I can’t, I can’t do this. I can’t let you all end up like that, I-”

“Medieval Metaphysics room is closer.” Raine gave me a confident grin. “It’s also warded. We’ll get you there, lock the door, then call Evee. She’ll know what to do.”

“Will she?” I murmured.

Raine squeezed my hand tighter, and dragged me onward.

We reached the door to the Medieval Metaphysics room, tucked away in the bare concrete stairwell at the rear of the building. Thin grey sunlight filtered through the single tiny window. Raine had her key ready before we even stopped. She got the door open and got me inside with a minimum of fuss, then left me shaking and shivering alone for a moment as she closed and locked the door behind us.

“Sit down, take a moment. It’s gonna be alright,” she told me.

We hadn’t spent any great amount of time in here lately, but the Medieval Metaphysics room was still a rallying point for us, a main stop on our routine of safety when beyond the walls of number 12 Barnslow Drive. A comfortable room with a kettle and some tea and some nice armchairs, where I regularly waited for Raine to pick me up, or where Evelyn came between her own classes. We’d even had Praem in here a few times, bustling about and making tea.

The familiar sagging bookshelves and the soft light through blanket-covered windows eased my terror, gave me a moment to take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Even the old racking that filled half the room felt friendly. Perhaps the Thing In Yellow had been forced to use the lecture hall because the house was warded, so perhaps we were safe in here, for now. On shaking legs I walked over to one of the shaded lamps and fumbled for the switch, felt better for the light, then walked back to Raine.

She had her mobile phone out, thumbing at her contact list.

“Seriously, you can sit down, I’m right here, not going anywhere without you.” Raine raised the phone to her ear with a wink for me. “Emergency first, I’ll contact Evee, then I promise I’ll help you get cleaned up.”

“Yes, yes of course. I just-” I sniffed back the lingering nosebleed, dabbing at my face with a tissue, then let my shoulders slump. “I’ll sit.”

Our backs had been turned to the trio of armchairs and the wide table in the middle of the room, for about five seconds.

When I turned back I screamed and jumped out of my skin.

Raine – bless her, keep her safe, I love her so much – reacted faster than I thought possible. She dropped the phone and drew her big black combat knife from inside her jacket in one fluid motion. With a manoeuvre that felt too gentle for how fast she moved, she took my shoulder and shoved me back, interposing herself between me and the occupant of the chair, who had not been there a moment ago.

Her senses didn’t even register what it was until I was safe, until she was protecting me.

I should have been the one shielding her.

It was Raine.

The figure slumped in the chair was Raine – or at least, a patchwork parody of Raine. A life-size wooden doll with a painted face and fake hair and cheap, scratchy versions of her clothes, which looked to have been sewn together from various different cast-off pieces of spare fabric. The doll itself was all mismatched too, arms and legs of different sizes, with different kinds of joints, made from different colours of wood.

But that face. A masterwork of cruel satire. Her rakish grin, the flash of her eyes, the angle of her nose. It was all there, made ugly and false.

A rusted butter knife lay in the doll’s lap. In one hand it held a length of industrial twine. In the other, a large sewing needle. Two thick bands of similar twine – one rose-red in colour, the other dark crimson – were wrapped about it, under the clothes and over the clothes and looping the torso and hooked around the limbs. The wire braced it, held it together, kept the doll in one piece.

At least it wasn’t moving.

“Raine? You- you see this, right? You … see … ”

Raine could see it, and she didn’t need to tell me so. The point of her knife wavered. She began to form a word, a question, but trailed off into silence, frowning in a way I’d never seen her frown before, as if over a bittersweet pain in her heart. She smiled through the frown.

“Ow,” she sighed.

“Ow?” I echoed, panic in my throat. “Raine, are you okay? Are you- its not hurt you- you-”

“I’m okay,” she said, steady and careful, keeping her knife up, and I had rarely heard her less okay. “This- this- Heather, could- could you not look at this thing, please? Maybe … maybe I can deal with-”

I lost my temper.

“Stop it,” I snapped over Raine, over her shoulder, at the doll-mockery of her most well-kept secrets, ones I didn’t even know.

The doll did not move.

“Stop this right now,” I went on at it, voice shaking as my anger grew. “Tormenting me is one thing. You can get away with that, because deep down sometimes I think I deserve it. But you do not get to torment Raine. You stop it, this instant.”

Nothing, except Raine’s breathing.

“I once ripped a human being from the Eye’s clutches,” I said to the doll. “You’re not as complex as that. If I think hard enough, I can unravel you, no matter what you pretend to be, no matter where you hide. Go away, and leave us alone, or shall we find out what’s under those yellow robes?”

The Raine-doll exploded like a dust devil of yellow sand, a tiny whirlwind of jaundice and bile and dying sunlight. With a swirl of fabric and a whirlpool wave of yellow ripple, it resolved into the figure behind the illusion. We had been admitted backstage.

The apparition in yellow stood before us.

Up close, it was an awful thing. Not the pallid hands which emerged from the dangling sleeves like ropes of dead intestine, not the blank mask of perfect ivory, nor the holes for eyes, nor the bottomless emptiness behind them. I realised, in the way one creature recognises another akin to itself, that the yellow robes themselves were all that mattered. Yellow was the medium, the canvas, and the truth.

Cotton and silk and wool, and fabrics named in no human language. A billion ripples, like an ocean seen from miles up. Patterns formed in sleeve and hood and skirts, slow spirals and mountain ridges, hypnotic and infinite.

Raine almost went for it with her knife.

Bless her, but she can be very stupid sometimes.

I stopped her by stepping past her, past her knife, into her path toward the Yellow Thing.

Pure instinct drove me, not courage or defiance. Raine wasn’t merely not on the same level as the Yellow Director, she wasn’t even the same manner of being. She may as well try to stab the North Sea.

But me? I was close enough.

Abyssal instinct pushed me forward because my mate was in danger. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d shoved past Raine’s shoulder, I’d spread phantom limbs to make myself look big, and I opened my mouth and hissed.

Long and loud, sharp and sure. An inhuman sound.

The Yellow King did not move.

It took me a long moment to come back. The wet meat in my throat felt all wrong, shouldn’t have been meat at all. The hiss left behind an echo of euphoric rightness. For a moment of adrenaline and instinct, I’d expressed the truth that lay under my skin.

Vibrating with aggression, crashing back into the sagging reality of my own body, I almost sobbed.

“Heather-” Raine whispered from behind me.

“This is-” My voice was so ugly compared to the hiss, I almost choked on it. But I didn’t take my eyes off the Yellow Robes. “This isn’t something you stab or shoot, Raine.”

“Dunno ‘bout that,” Raine said. “Always gotta give violence a chance.”

“You,” I told the Yellow Provocation. “The play is over. You made your point, fine. But I’ve had enough of grim lessons from cruel Gods. You must see what I really am. I’m not bluffing. If you choose to keep tormenting us, I will peel you open.”

The King in Yellow bowed its head, to hide the eyeless pale mask inside the yellow hood. Then it raised those porcelain hands, and peeled the hood away. Beneath, it possessed a head, and a face, and one last torment to inflict upon me.

For just a moment I thought it was-

“Maisie?”

“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight corrected me.

In my voice, with my mouth, set in my face.

The head above the rippling neckline of yellow robes was an exact replica of mine, perfect as a mirror. The bowing motion from before the reveal had even served to reduce the thing’s height to match mine.

“Wha- … why- … ” I managed, almost crying with cruel hope. “Why?”

“Uhhh,” went Raine.

“Plenty of people have lost their temper with me over the centuries,” Seven-Shades grimaced, in the exact self-conscious way I might do when having made a nasty faux-pas. “It comes with the territory, and I am sorry. But nobody has ever credibly threatened to disrobe me by force, that’s … new. So I thought I better show my face.”

“My face,” I hissed. “Maisie’s face. How dare you.”

“Ah. Oh, um.” Seven-Shades winced hard, flustered and awkward. The effect made my head swim with recognition, as she spoke with my own voice, my mannerisms, my micro-expressions. “Oh dear. Yes. Oh, I’m … I’m so sorry for the confusion. You’re such a unique case. Or, um, not unique. That’s the point, yes, the exact problem. You’re not unique, there is another in the wide seas of all reality with the same face as you. I do apologise. I’m sorry. That was not my intent.”

Did I really look like that? There was something deeply uncanny about seeing oneself in motion, like a video recording but a hundred times worse. A mousy, scrawny, skittish young woman with thin brown hair, an unhealthy pallor to her skin, and deep-set rings of old exhaustion around her eyes. And the eyes themselves, blinking, twitchy, perhaps warm but terminally afraid.

Yes, I had to concede, Seven-Shades had me down perfectly.

“Again, I’m so sorry,” she was saying. Did I really speak like that, as well? So precise, so polite, but with a tremor of nervous tension. My chest ached with sympathy – for myself? “I chose your face because it’s always easier to talk to a person as their self, especially if they’re really introspective. Which, you are.”

She tried to pull a gentle smile, but it came out very awkward.

Like me.

“Stop it,” I said, more offended than afraid. “Stop imitating me, stop, take it off.”

“I’m not imitating you,” Seven-Shades said, voice a little unsteady with nerves. My nerves. “That would be most disrespectful, both to you, and to the art. While I inhabit your form, I am bound by the limits of your personality. I’m not going to suddenly go all spooky and … well. You can imagine, I’m sure.”

A humourless laugh escaped my lips.

“You’ve chosen the wrong person to imitate,” I said. “I barely trust myself to do the right thing five percent of the time.”

“I’m sorry.” She winced again, tilting her head. “I could choose one of your loved ones instead, but that would be contrary to my aim here. Sorry.”

Seven-Shades’ imitation did not extend below the neckline of rippling yellow robes. The hands were still long and bony and porcelain perfect, not mine. The robes themselves continued their ocean-like infinite dance, their half-glimpsed swirling patterns, their admission of nothing beneath. I reminded myself: that was the being I was really speaking to.

“Do I really apologise this much?” I glanced at Raine, just over my shoulder.

Raine was having a harder time with this. Her eyes went back and forth between my face and Seven-Shades’ imitation of my face, her eyebrows jammed halfway up her forehead like she’d suffered a critical software malfunction, her knife limp in her hand.

“ … sometimes?” she said eventually.

“Raine, this is incredibly weird for me,” I said. “Help?”

“It’s weirder for me,” Raine said, then forced a grin. “Don’t think I could handle two of you, Heather. I’ve only got one tongue.”

“Raine!” I hissed. “This is hardly the time.”

Seven-Shades cleared her throat too, fighting down an insistent blush and scowling indignation at Raine. My scowl, my blush.

“Yeah, see? You like that experiment?” Raine nodded at the Yellow Daughter. “That? That’s you, Heather. I can’t even tell the difference, it’s so good. This is some extra spooky shit, and I do not like it.”

“My intention was not to disquiet you either,” Seven-Shades said.

“Oh yeah?” Raine gave her a quietly eloquent look. I had never before seen her able to deliver such disapproval and doubt with a smile on her face. Pain lingered back there too, behind Raine’s eyes.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight winced, embarrassed and shamed.

“The only reason I’m not sticking a knife in you right now is because Heather asked me not to,” Raine went on. “But you keep saying things in her voice, with her face, I’m gonna step up and peel it off you. Piss-rag robes won’t stop me.”

“Oh, don’t be absurd, I’m not going to hurt you, Raine,” Seven-Shades told her with my voice, faintly outraged. “Heather can hardly resolve her ménage à trois if I remove you from her tale. Then it would just be her and Zheng, and that’s hardly why I followed you. That would be sweet, but boring.”

“Excuse me?” I bristled. “You … what? Ménage à trois?”

“Household for three,” she said with another awkward smile. “Or in your case, perhaps for … eight? Nine? I’ve lost count, sorry.”

“Why does everyone want me to have a bloody threesome?” I snapped. “This is absurd. An alien God wants me to have a threesome?”

“For pity’s sake, you’re lucky you got me,” Seven-Shades sighed, exactly like me. “Some of my siblings and cousins delight in asking dark questions that lead to awful places. Your quest offers plenty of opportunity for tragedy, or cruel farce, or simple, uh, ‘gorn’,” she winced at that word. “If I hadn’t taken an interest, somebody darker would have. Somebody far less interested in the delicate tangle of women loving women. Count your blessings you didn’t meet The Sepia Prince, or The Jaundiced Child. They’d have you devouring your own intestines by now.”

I shook my head at her in disbelief. “You’re not a person, you’re just wearing my face. Why should you care about relationships, or love, or anything human?”

She blinked at me, hurt. “ … my father’s family is very large? One of us has to be a lesbian.”

“Typical,” Raine muttered. “Muff magnet, the pair of us.”

“Then why show me that awful, awful performance?” I asked, my anger returning. cold now. “What did that have to do with anything? You made your point, I’m going to fail.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight scrunched my face into an expression of solid determination, serious and small. I’d never seen that expression in a mirror before. The times I pulled that face, I didn’t exactly have a mirror handy. And for a moment – just for a moment – I knew why my friends believed in me and followed me.

“We both know you have no hope of defeating the Eye,” she told me.

If those words had come from any other mouth, in any other tone, I would have spat them back in the speaker’s face. But there was my own worst fear, in my own words.

“You cannot even hope to hold the jaws asunder for a moment or two,” she continued, sad and shaking.

“No,” I said. “No, it’s-”

“Not in your current state. That’s your plan, isn’t it? The one you don’t tell anybody else about. You’re banking on a millisecond’s reprieve, during which you will find your sister, and pull her free. And you know it’s folly.”

“Evee’s … no. Evelyn’s working on the Invisus Oculus. It worked in reverse on Tenny, that’s why we need the books, we’re going to-”

“To make you all invisible to its attention, on the ground of Wonderland itself? For how long? And then what? As soon as you reach out to find your sister, it will know you. You’re setting yourself up for a contest of strength. Or strength of will, at least.”

“I gathered my friends!” I almost shouted at her. Raine took my shoulder, gently, but I shook her off. “That’s what Maisie told me to do!”

“And yet you’re going to wrestle the Eye into the dirt with force of will? What role do your friends have to play in this?”

“I … I don’t … ”

Suddenly the awful, bloody, cruel play clicked into place. The Heather-actor, alone in the centre and reaching for Maisie, while all about her my friends fell alone and apart, while my attention was focused on the Eye.

“Your brainmath alone could not peel back my layers,” Seven-Shades said. “You’d give me a rough old time of it, certainly. But you couldn’t win. And I am descended from something very much like the Eye, but also a little like you, a being that dragged itself out of the abyssal ocean, once upon a time. You have performed the same miracle, recently, and returned to a body of flesh. But you refuse to use what you brought back.”

“How? I’ve been trying!” I felt tears on my face now. “All I can do is make tentacles that pull me apart from the inside-”

“Brute force is not the only way to use enlightenment-”

“And it hurts!” I shouted at her, at me, at myself. “All the time. It hurts, being in this body, being wrong, and I can never have it again, and … and … why? Why tell me to do something I can’t?”

“You have tied yourself upside-down from the tree, put out an eye, and returned with the keys of self-creation, yet you refuse to use them,” Seven-Shades said, in my voice, almost sobbing and sniffing, reflecting my own pain back at me.

“Refuse? Refuse?” I echoed. “I’m learning, I’m still learning, from the clay-thing my sister sent, from-”

“You could wander the library of Carcosa for a thousand years, sit at my father’s feet for a thousand more, and your methods would still avail you nothing against the Eye, and you know it.”

I stopped shouting at her. She was right. I was right.

“Brute force is not the only way to use enlightenment,” she repeated, sniffing, wiping the echo of my tears from her imitation eyes. “My father and my siblings and I, we have one way. You need to find your own.”

I hated myself for being such a snivelling coward. Left my sister behind. Cut off from the abyss, trapped like this. Won’t give Raine or Zheng what either of them want of me.

“Hey,” Raine said softly. “This is some cryptic bullshit. Tell her what you mean.”

“I am only a question,” Seven-Shades told her. “I’m sorry.”

“Try,” Raine told her.

Seven-Shades huffed through her distress. “In the abyss, Heather was a thing of speed and grace. Grace, friendship, solidarity. These are potential building blocks. Things the Eye can never draw on.”

“What difference does that make?” I said, throat thick with defeat. “You’re right. It’s too much. How can I ever do anything against it?”

“Power is relative to form of expression,” Seven-Shades told me. “Heather, you’ve come to an uncomfortable accommodation with what you brought back. You still think of it as a ‘side’ of yourself, instead of accepting it as just you.”

I shook my head. “Raine’s right, these are nonsense riddles. How would that even help? How would that help save my sister?”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight just stared at me, with my own sad twist of my own little mouth.

“If you care so much, why don’t you help me?” I asked. “You’re an Outsider, a real one. If you want my … my ‘play’ to end well, why not help me?”

She shook her head – my head, with a sigh. “You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, Heather. That’s not what I am. It’s not what you are either, but you’re trying to bend yourself that way, playing the Eye at its own game. My way is no more suited, and if you won’t even listen to yourself telling you these things, then I shall resume the play until you bloody well learn.” She tutted, like me losing my temper. “It was a mistake to talk to you like this, so soon after mere preamble. I am sorry.”

The robes flowed upward as the pallid hands rose to flip the yellow hood back up.

On impulse, I reached out to halt her. Human fingertips recoiled from the edge of the yellow robes, but a phantom limb passed right through.

“Wait!” I demanded. “Why don’t you just tell me what you mean?”

“Because I do not know the answer,” Seven-Shades said – and her voice was no longer fully my voice, but soft as the crackle of burning paper. The imitation face had taken on a jaundiced, fleshy sepia colour. “I can only pose questions. It is my nature. You should really settle in, for the rest of the play.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“This train terminates at Sharrowford! Alighting passengers, don’t forget your luggage! Mind the gap between the carriage and the platform!”

Seven pairs of feet scuffed and stumbled on the familiar wooden floor of Evelyn’s workshop, as reality swelled and fattened around our senses like a dry sponge soaked in swamp water. Human smells and human sights and – blessed be, thank God, thank Maisie and the Eye and anything else that cared to listen – human scale. Kimberly bolted up from the sofa in a clatter of books and papers falling from her lap. Raine’s hand squeezed mine too hard, clammy and cold and clinging. Somebody groaned like they’d been gut-punched.

Lozzie was the only one giggling at her own joke.

She wriggled free from our circle of hard-grip safe passage. The engine of our split-second journey home skipped across the workshop and did a perfect, fluttering curtsy with the hem of her poncho.

“Aaaaaand the local time is-”

With a playful smirk and a toss of her braid and a sideways roll of heavy-lidded eyes, Lozzie threw the rest of the line to Kimberly.

“Uh, Lauren, I-I t-think,” Kimberly stammered. “I think everyone needs help.”

She wasn’t wrong.

We’d taken the return Slip for granted. Lozzie was supposed to tap her heels together and whisk us all back to normality and drizzling rain and a hastily ordered takeaway dinner. Like stumbling in from a storm to the radiators turned up full and the smell of cooking on the stove top and a warm hug to welcome you home.

More fool us. Lozzie and I could Slip with impunity, but neither of us were fully human anymore. Had I been human at all, since the day the Eye took my sister and I? For human minds or trying-to-be-human-minds, unprepared by prior experience or cushioned by the spiritual calluses of hyperdimensional mathematics, the translation across the membrane from Outside was, to put it lightly, an unkind experience.

At least I’d shouted for everyone to close their eyes.

Our circle of shoulder-to-shoulder handholding solidarity fell apart – literally, in Zheng’s case. As Lozzie finished her little joke, the giant demon-host lost her grip on Raine’s shoulder and toppled over like a felled tree. She sat on the floor in a great heap, shaking her head as if trying to clear a cloud of flies.

Twil bent double, squeezed her eyes shut, and came audibly close to losing the contents of her stomach. She whined, high-pitched and pitiful, more hound than human, shaking hard as if she’d been plunged into ice water. Raine appeared to fare better, but appearances didn’t last. She ripped her hand out of mine, dropped her makeshift shield with a clang, and tore her heavy motorcycle jacket off her shoulders as if it was on fire. She flung it down after the shield, shuddering all over, her tshirt beneath soaked through with cold sweat. I reached for her but she held up a hand to ward off any touch at all, closing her eyes and forcing slow, deep breaths.

Praem and Evelyn were almost okay – they’d both been through a Slip before, Evelyn while terrified and exhausted – but Praem dropped the sports bag and the rest of our expedition equipment in a great clatter on the floor, then stood stock-still, staring at her own hands. She hadn’t suffered so when I’d Slipped the pair of us to Carcosa and back before; was Lozzie’s technique so much worse? Meanwhile, Evelyn’s face turned a most fascinating shade of rotten grey-green. She stumbled back and fell into a chair, grunting in pain and flinching at the hip, then put both hands on the handle of her walking stick and lowered her forehead to rest against her knuckles.

And me? Well, I was an old hand at trans-dimensional re-entry.

Despite the dragging exhaustion of two rounds of aborted brainmath, I should have leapt into action. I should have fetched chocolate and water, should have helped Twil up when she sat down in a heap and groaned like she wanted to be sick, should have checked that Zheng was actually still alive, should have patted Evelyn on the back and spoken to her.

The show must go on, Saldis had said, before we’d left.

Instead, shuddering and shaking and still bloody in the face, I tried to look everywhere at once, and prayed I would not spy a scrap of hidden yellow.

“Oh, Goddess, what-” Kimberly stammered. “What happened, what-”

“Raine-” I clutched for her arm. “Are you-”

“No, it’s alright, back in a sec,” Raine said, and then went into the kitchen to be loudly sick into the sink. Bless her, even after vomiting up cereal bars and energy drink, caked in her own cold sweat with her tshirt clinging to her, she returned with water and tissues, to help clean the rest of the blood off my face.

“We need, uh, chocolate, right? That’s the trick for this feeling. Yeah?” Raine roused herself further, as Kimberly flapped about and Lozzie blinked at everyone as if she didn’t understand why we were hurting. “Everyone alright, yeah? All accounted for?”

A chorus of grunts, grumbles, and one soft “Present” from Praem.

“Left hand, you stroked out or what?” Raine asked.

“Here, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled, eyes shut.

“Oh, oh no,” Lozzie was biting her lip as we all fell about like a bunch of hungover college students. “I thought I did it proper. I thought I did it right?”

“You did,” I croaked, clinging to Raine with one claw-like hand. “S’okay. S’not your fault.”

“Can we come back by gate next time?” Twil burbled.

We spent almost ten minutes just sitting around, trying to feel normal again. Kimberly and Lozzie pitched in to fetch painkillers, water for everyone, and – at Evelyn’s mumbled suggestion – chocolate. Lozzie spent several minutes almost literally clambering over Zheng to check she was still working, still here, not suffering some sort of body-soul disconnection. Raine made sure I wasn’t about to fall over or pass out, then helped peel the shuddering, sweat-soaked werewolf out of her coat and hoodie, Twil huffing and puffing all the while.

“Gerroff-” Twil eventually grumbled, shaking off the help once she was down to her tshirt, hints of her dark tattoos visible just under the lilac hem. She staggered to her feet and cast around the room, gums peeled back, too many sharp teeth in her mouth, transformation bristling as half-dismissed mist of fur and claw.

“Woah, Twil?” Raine asked, hands up.

“Where is it, then?” Twil growled. “We were followed, right? Where’s the sheet-ghost bitch?”

“I-” I swallowed. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything yet.”

“She was lying,” Evelyn croaked.

Twil blinked at her. So did I.

“The woman, the mage,” Evelyn explained with a heavy sigh. When she raised her face from her knuckles, she looked exhausted, drained, done, very small in her coat with overflowing pockets. “Saldis. She was lying.”

“Yeah, cool, okay,” Twil said between panting breaths. “What if you’re wrong? What if something followed us back? What if something piggybacked on Heather? On you? Evee, that thing was reaching for you and you want me to calm-”

“There’s nothing here but us,” Evelyn said.

“Are you certain?” I whispered, and meant ‘please be right’. Raine must have heard the tone in my voice, because despite her own slow recovery, she dumped Twil’s coat and hoodie on the floor, and returned to put her arm around my shoulders.

“How can you know for sure?” Twil was saying, outraged. “How can you-”

“There are two spider-servitors in this very room,” Evelyn said, with grinding certainty. I could tell she was trying to calm herself first and foremost. “Programmed to take apart anything which shouldn’t be in here. This entire house is one of the most heavily-warded locations in the whole of England, wards laid down by my grandmother. Nothing has followed us. Nothing is here. If it was, I would know, it would be like the alarms going off in a nuclear reactor. Unless it’s literally an invisible ghost, and to the best of my knowledge there is no such thing as ghosts.” She spat the last word. “Heather, do you see anything?”

I shook my head. Lozzie piped up too, “Nothing but us! All of us, though!”

Evelyn’s eyes flickered to the gate, still standing open in the centre of the mandala on the far wall. The dark doorway still showed the vast shadows and humped book-drifts of Carcosa’s canyon floor. “Praem, get that closed. Right now.”

Praem did not respond. She was still staring at her own hands.

“Praem?” Evelyn frowned up at her.

“Praem, are you okay?” I asked.

“No,” Praem intoned. But she lowered her hands and obeyed, marching over to the gate and peeling away one of the additional stuck-on parts of paper and masking tape. The gateway collapsed back into bare plaster wall, and Outside stayed outside. Then Praem turned and marched back to Evelyn’s shoulder, and in a gesture I’d never seen from her before, she smoothed the skirt of her maid uniform over her thighs and backside. Though perfectly wrinkle free, she did it again, and then a third time, mechanical and precise.

Evelyn watched her with mounting concern. “Stop that. Praem, stop.”

Praem did it again.

“You did well,” Evelyn said, with no little difficulty. “Thank you.”

“Praem, what’s wrong?” I asked.

Praem smoothed her skirt again. Evelyn grabbed one of her hands before she could start the gesture a sixth time. Praem’s head twitched to gaze down at her mistress with blank milk-white eyes.

“Thank you,” Evelyn repeated. “You and I need to talk, and I need to feed you a box of strawberries. Yes?”

“Yes,” Praem intoned, and finally stilled.

Twil turned to me. “Heather, you don’t see anything? For real?”

I nodded. “Just us,” I croaked. “No ghosts, yellow or otherwise, really. I suspect I’d be screaming, otherwise.”

Twil peered about the room again, as if she might find a figure in yellow robes hiding behind the sofa or beneath the table. Despite my exhaustion and brainmath pain and even the very words I’d said to reassure her, I found myself following along with her gaze. Could I spy a crack in the backing boards of the stage scenery? Would I spot a prop out of place? Was an actor standing in the wrong position?

I blinked rapidly, shuddered, and tried to stop thinking like that.

“Heather?” Raine murmured my name.

“Just gave myself the creeps,” I said. “That’s all. But- but Saldis said-”

“The mage’s words cannot be trusted,” Evelyn huffed. “And Twil, will you sit down? You’re giving me a headache.”

“How can you be so damn sure of everything all the time?” Twil turned on her. “That place was fucking with your head, Evee! You were getting all obsessed with the books! You keep being sure and getting shit wrong, and what if she was trying to warn us, what if-”

“Warn us?” Evelyn raised her voice with mocking scorn. “That thing we just spoke to was far more dangerous than anything which might have followed us home. Her words may as well have been nonsense. And please don’t make me shout over you, I’m going to be sick.”

“I’m not making you shout,” Twil muttered, eyes down and away.

“Evee, go easy on her,” Raine said. “We’re all wiped out.”

“She wanted us to stay in the library, for some reason on which I do not wish to speculate,” Evelyn carried on, heedless to how she’d just hurt Twil. I was too drained to point it out. “And we are incredibly, unspeakably lucky that she let us leave.”

“Let us?” Twil squinted.

“Yes. Let us.”

“Evee,” I croaked. “I don’t think Saldis was lying. I know what I saw.”

“And you,” Evelyn’s gaze rounded on me with hot anger flashing in her eyes, crouched in her chair like a battered general after a Pyhrric victory. “The next time a mage starts preparing to hollow out our fucking skulls, don’t try to pull rank.”

“ … Evee?” I blinked at her.

“Hey, Evee,” Raine said. “Come on. It worked, didn’t it?”

“Wizard,” Zheng mumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it. She sounded groggy and very far away.

“Why were you along in the first place, hm?” Evelyn demanded of me. “For exactly that situation. And what did you decide to do? Talk at her in your big-girl voice. You should have killed her the moment she started trying to turn us into meat pillars. It was sheer blind luck she was so fascinated by this King in Yellow nonsense.”

“Evee, she- I diffused the- she wasn’t- … ”

I couldn’t justify myself.

“Do you understand what we just met?” Evelyn asked. “That was a mage who has been Outside for so long she isn’t remotely human anymore.”

“Looked pretty human to me,” Twil said. “’Specially before she got dressed.”

“That was an interface, at best,” Evelyn spat. “You think she was riding around naked and bloody inside her giant hamster ball? You all heard the ripping sound. She was extruded, for the purpose of communication with us. That thing we just met, her motivations and thoughts may as well be nonsense. She didn’t lie to us, alright, I could have used a better word. But nothing that she said is trustworthy, because she simply doesn’t think like us, no matter how she looked, no matter how whole and healthy, how fucking pretty, how-” Evelyn cut herself off with a grunt of wordless anger. “The only reason we’re home in one piece is because she decided to let us go. Heather, you told me you were ready to flatten her – and then you didn’t.”

In an awful, cold shudder that went from my scalp to the base of my belly, I realised Evelyn was right.

Why had I not killed the mage when her hand had split into a thousand bloody fragments, a sigil to herald some spell to bind us? Because she’d seemed amiable and talkative? Because she offered to help us find books? Because she was pretty and had a nice laugh?

Because she was on the stage with me?

The show must go on.

“Could have killed that wizard, shaman,” Zheng purred from behind me.

“Yes, I- I should have.” My eyes dreaded to settle on Evelyn, for fear a yellow-sleeved hand would creep over her shoulder at any moment. “Then what did I see? What was the figure in yellow?”

Evelyn sighed and softened a fraction. “I don’t know. I don’t know what you saw, Heather. On one hand, Saldis was fascinated enough to change her mind. On the other … ” Evelyn squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. “This King in Yellow nonsense, I’m half-convinced it was her doing in the first place, a bit of flashy illusion, a stage trick to misdirect our attention.”

“Occam’s razor and all that,” Raine said. “Seems a bit of a coincidence otherwise.”

“Evee,” I sighed a shuddering sigh. “Please don’t call it that.”

“Call it what? What are you talking about?”

“Stage trick. Don’t use that terminology, please. Not for this.”

I shuddered inside as I recalled the apparition in yellow, the pale hand descending to take Evelyn away from us, the peek through the crack in the stage curtains. Raine squeezed my shoulders and rubbed the back of my head, but physical contact and skinship could not chase away the weight of broken taboo.

“Why not?” Evelyn snapped.

“Because I think that’s what it wants,” I admitted.

“It.” Evelyn pressed her mouth into a thin line. “You’ve bought into everything that monster in a hamster ball said, haven’t you? Great.”

“I don’t think it was a trick, Evee. I can’t shake this feeling, this feeling I saw something I wasn’t supposed to. It wanted to spirit you away, as part of teaching me a lesson or something. I’m serious.”

“What lesson is that?” Twil asked. “Friends don’t let friends get lost in libraries?” She laughed without humour, then stopped and frowned. “Hey, you know, that’s not a bad point actually. You were getting way too into that place, Evee.”

Evelyn stared at me for a long moment, gritting her teeth. “Don’t. Heather, just don’t. I have enough to worry about with that inhuman mage, without banana coloured ghosts around every corner.”

“Hey, we got away, didn’t we?” Twil asked.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Evelyn drawled, rummaging in her pockets and dragging out her notes, slapping them down on the table, followed by the dusty tome she’d picked up, the useless one. “But we got away empty handed, without any of the books we need. You know, books? Printed pages with little squiggles in them? Perhaps you should try looking at some.”

“You don’t have to be a bitch about it … ” Twil trailed off.

“Which means we have to go back. Tomorrow, as planned.”

“You think she’ll be waiting for us?” Raine asked.

I pictured Saldis’ smug, all-knowing smile, still directed at us in the moment we’d finally Slipped away.

“Probably,” Evelyn grunted. “And that’s my concern, not blanket ghosts. Nothing has followed us. We would know. Between Heather, Lozzie, myself, and the dog-sized invisible spiders, we would know.” Her words had the cadence of a practised recitation, a mantra of security.

“The house herself would know,” Zheng rumbled.

The massive demon-host levered herself off the floor at last, and stretched like a jungle cat woken from a sun-nap. She yawned, and treated us to a vision down a nightmare gullet. “This house would know any violation. But it lies calm.”

“The less from you, the better,” Evelyn spat at Zheng. “Tomorrow, you are staying behind. You’ve made yourself a liability.”

Zheng levelled a cold gaze at Evelyn. Twil perked up at that, sensing the silent threat, staring back at the giant zombie.

“Oh, no, not now,” I said, raising my voice. “No, don’t fight over this now.”

“I go where the shaman goes,” Zheng purred.

“Then Heather can stay behind too,” Evelyn said. “Pointless bringing her anyway, if she refuses to do the one thing she’s meant to.”

That stung deep, more after the last week and how close Evelyn and I had grown. Yesterday we’d almost shared her bed. I had half a mind to throw a hug at her, but I had too much respect for her aversion to unbidden physical contact. Instead I reached out one limp hand. Tears prickled in the corners of my eyes.

“Evee, don’t, please-”

“You,” she jabbed a finger at me. “You are my best friend and I love you dearly but you nearly got us all fucking killed.”

“Evee, you nearly got us killed.” The words spilled forth in a hot, vile rush before I could stop them. “Did you see yourself out there? The way you looked at the books? You were getting obsessive, falling in love with that place.”

“Oh, don’t be absurd-”

“We all saw it. That wasn’t just Twil being a worrywart. Assume for a moment that I saw nothing, no yellow robes, imagine that it was all so much rubbish. The librarians still surrounded you. That was real. That happened. What did that mean? What were you doing, inside your own head?”

“Wandering in the dark,” Praem intoned.

The fire went out of Evelyn’s eyes. She cast about as if searching inside herself for an answer, but found none.

“I … I don’t …  it wasn’t … ” She tried, got nowhere, tried a different path. “Perhaps … when we return, I … perhaps I should not … perhaps I need to be kept away from the books.”

“You heard the lady.” Raine nodded at Praem.

“No books for Evelyn,” Praem sing-songed.

“Book-free diet,” Lozzie echoed, and crossed her forearms across her chest.

“Yeah, good call. Good call,” Twil said.

Evelyn gave a deep sigh, and seemed to come back to herself. She rubbed her eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake, it doesn’t have to be literal. I’m-” She shot a look up at Twil, then blushed a hard, ashamed red. “I’m sorry, alright? I’m so sick of this. I don’t want to do this anymore. If we’re to return to the library tomorrow and resume the search, we go prepared, to deal with Saldis.”

“Evee,” I said gently. “You said it yourself. If she wanted to hurt us, we couldn’t have stopped her. I don’t think she’s going to be dangerous to us.”

“I’m with Evee on this,” Raine said, loud and clear. “Always like some insurance in my back pocket.”

“You could have stopped her, Heather,” Evelyn said, measured and careful. “And I understand your reasons, but if you can’t do it, then I will find a way. There’s always things in my mother’s notes I can consult.”

“If I’d escalated,” I said, “she might have done the same.”

“Heather defused!” Lozzie piped up.

“I want options,” Evelyn said. “For protection.”

“Yeah, fuckin’ right,” Twil grunted. “Protection, yeah.”

I contained my little sigh; I was outnumbered, and I had to admit that Evelyn had a good point. The woman in the sphere was an unknown factor, no matter how charming she’d appeared.

“Every shell has a seam,” Zheng purred from behind me. “Even a shell of iron.”

Evelyn pointed at Zheng, but spoke to me. “She stays behind. I’m serious.”

“Wizard-” Zheng rumbled.

“Zheng, don’t,” I turned on her, using her to displace my frustration and lingering fear. She was big enough and scary enough, she could take it. “You-”

I stopped before I even began.

There it was again. In the split-second before Zheng rallied a cynical crooked grin to repel my lecture, I caught a glimmer of the unhappy rust creeping along her razor blade. She hid it well, no flowering display of Byronic sorrow.

How could I stay angry at her? Her little bird had rejected her.

“Shaman?” she purred.

“Zheng, we need to talk. Now, before I lose my nerve.”

We had too many fires to put out. This one had to be quenched now, and I was the only one capable, so I did the only thing that made sense. I wriggled out of Raine’s arm and grabbed Zheng’s hand – so much larger than mine, her reddish-brown skin like softest leather, warm like a fire burned beneath but without the sweat and throb of fever – and moved to drag her out of the workshop. She was a demon and seven feet tall and could break bricks with her head, but even she deserved privacy for this.

“Shaman,” Zheng laughed, but allowed me to lead her, then shot back over her shoulder, “Coming, yoshou?”

Raine was already moving to follow us. I caught her eye, caught the easy roll of muscles layered over sudden tension.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, this isn’t about that.”

“I’ll keep my mouth and ears shut.” Raine put up both her hands. “But you need-”

“No, Raine, I- I order you.” I pointed with my free hand, at the chair next to Evelyn. “Sit. Sit down and help Evee. I need to talk to Zheng. This isn’t about that. This is … pastoral care. I’m not going to make out with her.”

“Ewwww,” Twil grimaced. Lozzie clapped a hand to her open mouth in a theatrical parody of a scandalised society lady.

“Heather-” Raine protested, still smiling.

“You want to be my knight, you want to be useful to me?” I squeezed the words out and they felt wrong. Was this really what she needed? “Then do as I ask.”

Raine paused, sighed with an even bigger smile – real, false? I couldn’t tell – and gave me an ironic little salute. “Sure thing, boss. Shout if you need me.”

“Right. Of course. Yes.” I had to re-gather my courage all over again before I could lead Zheng out of the workshop.

We passed through the kitchen all a-jumble with night beyond the windows, and into the front room, where we might win a little privacy for ten minutes, while the others recovered from the journey back.

The front room was as messy as ever. Bare floorboards from a hundred years ago, stacked crates with fifty years of family junk, a few shoes in a pile below the spare coats on hooks. Night crouched silently beyond the front door, easing fingers of cold around the seams in the wood. I led Zheng to the doorway of the disused sitting room, but she let go of my hand before I could usher her inside. I stepped back, a single pace of minimum safe distance.

“Shaman?”

“I know what you were doing out there,” I spoke up at her, at those razor-sharp eyes watching me with relaxed predatory intent.

Suddenly I felt too hot in the coat and hoodie I’d worn for the expedition. I struggled against my coat like a clinging, living thing, shrugged it off and made a low, frustrated noise in my throat, the kind that my mother used to tell me off for vocalising. Only a decade of being a very good girl stopped me from hurling the coat at the floor in frustration.

Zheng plucked the coat from my hands and placed it gently on one of the hooks by the front door.

“ … thank you,” I said, lifting the hem of my hoodie to get some air against my skin. Zheng raised an eyebrow.

“Presenting, shaman?”

“What? Oh. Tch, no.” I blushed and sighed. “Don’t change the subject. And don’t flirt.”

“You have not begun a subject, shaman.” Zheng grinned. I gave her a tiny glare.

Now was not the time to enjoy the way her teasing made me feel. Zheng rolled her head, her high shoulders and heavy chest framed by the dark doorway to the disused sitting room. Behind us, I heard the sounds of the others moving in the kitchen, soft voices, Raine speaking down the phone to order takeaway food we all sorely needed. Kimberly emerged from the kitchen doorway and excused herself with a shy head-bob as she passed us, making a very overt please-ignore-me-I’m-not-listening face before she took the stairs two at a time and vanished into the upstairs corridor.

“Can’t we-” I nodded at the door to the barren sitting room. Zheng said nothing, watching me like a bored cat. I sighed and pitched my voice low. “We all know what you were doing out there, in Carcosa.”

“Do you, shaman?”

“Don’t act ignorant with me. Zheng, you were trying to destroy yourself. You made me a promise, that you would stay with me, that you-”

Zheng chuckled softly. “Self-destruction was not my aim. A fight, shaman. A real fight. I crave it like you crave sex.”

My cheeks flushed, but I kept Zheng’s gaze. “I want to believe that, but you put yourself in danger.”

“I put all of you in danger, as the wizard said.” Her voice turned ironic, cynical, hurt bubbling below the surface.

“I don’t care about that!” I hissed at her. “Well, okay, no, I do care about that, of course, obviously. But I also happen to care about you, a friend, a-” I swallowed, mouth dry, head throbbing. “More than a friend. Zheng, fighting is one thing, but you tried to fight a giant golden tentacle blimp that would have pulled you limb from limb in an instant.”

“Have faith, shaman.”

“And then you tried to make me leave you behind, Outside! Don’t make me watch you die, Zheng.”

“You did not have to watch, shaman.”

I almost – almost – hit her then. It would have been like a mouse bopping an elephant, and just as pointless. I felt my hand rise, but I controlled myself with a hard internal whipcrack of willpower. Even my phantom limbs joined in, one useless thought-tentacle wrapping around my wrist, though I was already lowering it. To strike her would hurt us both, and fracture what lay between us.

“I will never, ever leave you behind,” I hissed at her, my eyes filling with angry heat, wet in the corners again. “I can’t be your little bird, Zheng, I can’t, I’m not her. I’m me. And I can’t- please don’t-” The tears got worse. “Zheng, I do love you, I think, but I can’t be what I suspect you need me to be. Please don’t throw yourself into self-destruction because of that. Don’t do that again.”

I expected a laugh. Zheng would grumble some darkly indecipherable comment, or growl in the manner of a jungle predator. She would leave and brood and I’d never be sure of her again.

Instead, she stared down at me, then reached out and placed one strong hand on top of my head.

“You shame me, little bird,” she purred, with such tenderness my heart felt fit to break.

“Zheng, please,” I almost whined, shaking. “I’m not-”

“You are.”

A warm smile crept across her face, warm because – not in spite – of the many sharp teeth she showed to me.

“I made an oath, shaman. And I strayed. You have returned me to the path.”

“That- that’s-” I hardly knew what to say. “Well, that’s good, then. I think? Yes. But Zheng, we-”

Yellow, in the corner of my eye.

A glint of dying light on tarnished bronze, a whiff of mustard gas in stagnant air, the colour of headache and thin vomit and infected pus. No scrap of costume left on stage and tugged away by a distracted hand, no tilt of misplaced scenery board, no patch of modern denim caught beneath a period-piece costume.

A scrap of yellow silk vanished around the door-frame of the disused sitting room, right behind Zheng, with a gentle flutter on the air. Somebody had passed us by.

I was meant to see that. No taboo of broken stagecraft. Only art.

Zheng responded not to the sight, she was facing the wrong way after all, but to the look on my face. She spun, ready to intercept whatever terrible sight I’d seen behind her, suddenly hard and tense and ready to pull heads off for me. But there were no heads, only the empty door-frame, at which I stared as if a pale hand might curl around it at any second. Zheng stuck her head through and then looked back at me, frowning. “Shaman?”

I raced forward and peered into the darkened sitting room too. Zheng shielded me with one arm, held me back as if I might hurt myself. Nothing in there, a cleared stage, actors dispersed and props put away, only the old sofa and the remains of some of Evelyn’s experiments. I staggered back, starting to hyperventilate. Zheng caught me.

“Shaman, what did you see?”

Her urgent tone brought Raine from the kitchen, almost running across the front room with her truncheon in one hand. I had no extra bandwidth to consider this meant she’d probably heard most of what Zheng and I had said to each other.

“What’s going on? Hey, deadite, drop Heath-”

“It is not me, yoshou, lower your metal stick. The shaman saw something.”

“We were followed home,” I whispered as I went weak at the knees. “There’s something in here with us. Something yellow.”

==

We checked the house from top to bottom.

The disused sitting room first, with Twil’s nose and my eyes and Evelyn muttering snatches of Latin as she went over the walls with her bone wand in her hand, as if we might find a yellow-blanket ghost hidden behind a false panel of wallpaper, like we all lived in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Then the front room, the kitchen, back into the workshop, detour for the utility room. Every window and doorway in this house had been warded decades ago by Evelyn’s mother or grandmother, by mages far more confident and ruthless than us, with our university coursework and messy relationships.

Was it always like this? For Evelyn’s grandmother, for Alexander Lilburne, for Felicity and her unspeakable demonic parasite? Did all mages fumble in the dark, hoping not to stab themselves through the foot with a rusty nail?

God alone knows what the poor takeaway delivery driver thought, when he turned up at the door with curry and naan bread, with us rushing about on emergency footing; Praem answered and paid him and brought the food inside, which either made his day or left him very confused.

At least Evelyn took me seriously now.

“I shouldn’t have made light of your fears, Heather.” she told me as she traced and re-traced and triple-checked the wards hidden around the old wood of the front door. “I was denying my own ones. I am so very tired of being paranoid.”

“S’not paranoid if they really are out to get you,” Twil grunted, then went back to sniffing the air.

I said nothing. Eyes peeled. Watched every corner and shadow. Shoulder blades itched.

Raine went room to room with her big black combat knife in one hand, stripped down to a tshirt, on silent bare feet. I crept in her wake down the upstairs corridor. Beyond the habitual circuit of familiar bedrooms and the bathroom and Evelyn’s old study-slash-library, it was all too easy to forget how many unused rooms lurked up there, full of Saye family junk and iron bedsteads and dark windows with Sharrowford light pollution lurking beyond.

Zheng stayed glued to my shoulder, silent and watchful, the world’s most effective bodyguard soothing my tattered nerves. Lozzie freed Tenny from her safety zone, and the poor moth-girl instantly sensed my discomfort, dispensing many overwhelming hugs with too many limbs. She even forced herself to follow as close to Zheng as she could tolerate.

Twil investigated the house in her own way. “This place is full o’ weird smells at the best of times. Er, no offense. But like, there’s nothing new here. Nothing that smells like Carcosa did, ‘cept us. Sorry.”

“Nothing’s been broken, nothing’s in here,” Evelyn repeated, over and over. “Nothing is reacting. Maybe it’s in your head, Heather.”

“Evee,” I hissed, “I know what I saw, I thought you believed-”

“No, I mean literally. Maybe it’s in your head.”

By the time Evelyn had me standing in the middle of a hastily-painted magic circle, midnight had passed with a vengeance. We were all run ragged from six hours Outside, snatching bites of curry and rice as we’d made sure we hadn’t invited a haunting on our own home. Only Lozzie bounced around with too much energy, sitting half-in Tenny’s lap on the sofa as Evelyn recited bits of Greek at me and frowned harder and harder. There was nothing in my head but me.

All this reminded me too much of the Lozzie-thing the Eye had sent. Another rule breaker, a creature that had brooked no boundary, even Evelyn’s wards.

“Maybe it left already,” Twil suggested.

“Go ‘way,” Tenny fluttered, waggling her legs back and forth, slowly undoing Lozzie’s braid with her tentacles. “Leeeeeave.”

“Perhaps it really was stress,” I said eventually, hand to my eyes, aching and stinging. “I’m sorry, everybody. I’m sorry. I-”

“Don’t go changing your mind now,” Evelyn scolded me gently, and I knew she was really scolding herself. “We may have an uninvited guest, though I can’t figure out how. We all need sleep, we can’t stay awake forever, but anyone sees anything, the slightest thing out of place, scream bloody murder at the top of your lungs. Don’t pick it up or follow it around a corner. Do nothing alone. Twil, you’re staying in my bedroom again.”

Alone, yes.

Deep down, I knew that flutter of yellow silk had been for my eyes alone.

==

That night was hard because I was terrified.

Tucked between Raine’s arms, wrapped up warm in bed, with the soft orange of a night-light spilling across the rugs on the floor, I kept expecting to see a yellow apparition in the corner of my eye, standing in the room with us. I held my breath at every floorboard creak, for fear the door would glide open and in would peer a mask in place of a face, and nobody else would see the figure step into the room as I screamed and sobbed. I lay shuddering with the thought that Raine would wake but see nothing I did. It was all too reminiscent of a decade of ignoring pneuma-somatic life, my constant otherworldly harassers that none other could see.

But none of that happened. Instead of a ghost, Lozzie wriggled into our bed at about two in the morning, wormed in next to me on the opposite side from Raine, so I was bracketed between them. With Raine at my back and Lozzie tangled in front, I finally managed to snatch a few hours sleep before dawn.

We all woke up to find Tenny curled up asleep on the foot of the bed, like a giant cat seeking warmth.

“Awww, she’s so sweet!” Lozzie dragged herself from the covers and set about petting Tenny’s fluffy white fur.

Less sweet was how she’d used one long black tentacle to hold the door shut by the handle.

That put the wind up me, and prompted Raine to covertly grab her knife to check what might be lurking out in the corridor.

Zheng was lurking out in the corridor, sleeping cross-legged against the wall right next to our bedroom door. Raine laughed, I sighed with relief, Lozzie petted Zheng’s head, and Tenny commented with an almost perfunctory hiss.

“Standing guard, left hand?” Raine asked.

Zheng did not open her eyes. “Sitting guard.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout that, I kept her close,” Raine said. “And warm enough for both of us.”

Zheng declined the bait.

“We wait a day,” Evelyn said over breakfast – a late Sunday morning breakfast, a hangover breakfast of leftover vegetable curry and sour stomachs and heavy eye bags. Twil didn’t appear until past eleven, and when she did, she and Evelyn treated each other with awkward halting silences that set red flags up in my mind. That was not a happy couple who’d snuggled in bed last night. But first things first.

“Wait a day?” I asked. “Evee, we need the books. As soon as possible.”

“We wait a day,” Evelyn said, surprisingly calm and confident. “Because you’re under observation, to make sure you’re not haunted.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” I sighed.

“What I believe is subject to change based on evidence.”

“Ghosts, ugh,” Twil did a big shudder.

“We go back Monday afternoon,” Evelyn said, with a tone that brooked no argument, and a dark twinkle in her eye. “With questions for Saldis.”

More tests while I stood half-naked in a magic circle in the workshop. More naps. More leaving me alone in the bedroom for a while to see if anything would happen. It never did. No King in Yellow, no scraps of jaundiced cloth, no whispers in the dark. No, the show did not go on.

==

The King in Yellow was a profoundly boring book.

When professor Raymond arrived in lecture hall B-3, I slipped the book back into my bag, and resolved not to think about it again until class was over. The professor – a bull of a man with prematurely white hair and permanently rumpled sleeves – adjusted his owlish glasses and overflowed with apologies for being more than thirty seconds late. Below us, he took to the platform at the base of the lecture hall, dumped his notes on the lectern, and squinted up at the seventy or eighty of us first-year students, arrayed in the seating for yet another lecture in his Introduction to Modernism unit.

And Raine.

“Looks like he eats rocks for breakfast,” she leaned over and whispered to me.

“He’s sweet,” I hissed back. “And you’re not even meant to be in here. Shush.”

“Yes ma’am.” Raine winked and settled back into her seat. At least we were relatively alone, up in the third-from-final row of the lecture hall seating.

In truth, I rather liked the professor. Of all the first-year lectures I’d sat through in the six months since beginning my degree at Sharrowford University, his were always the most spirited. He loved his subject matter, as did I.

I liked the lecture hall too, nestled in a semi-basement layer of one of the older university buildings. All dark wood panelling polished by two hundred years of lecturers pacing back and forth, of student bums in solid seats, of thousands of hands leaning on the backs of the chair-rows. The seating formed a sort of descending miniature amphitheatre, falling away to terminate in a wide wooden platform, on which stood the speaker’s lectern.  A huge modern chalkboard was bolted to the wall behind; an eyesore, but within tolerable limits.

Comfortable though a little chill, these spaces were not built for modern heating. Venerable and beautiful, with a private history beyond knowing, it took my mind off everything else in my life.

I was safe here, in mundane society, and I intended to make myself feel as mundane as possible. If only for an hour or two, I intended to think about something other than the great library Outside, and our inevitable return that afternoon.

I had, however, been unable to resist The King in Yellow.

The library held two copies of the book, a cheap little paperback from the eighties with cover art of a masked man in yellow robes, a silly illustration which looked nothing like what I had seen. I assumed it was meant to be ‘spooky’. I’d checked one copy out of the library after asking Evelyn’s permission.

“Of course,” she’d told me that morning. “It’s nothing, short stories. Fiction. Utterly bloody meaningless. You’re not going to learn anything.”

“But what about the figure in yellow?” I’d asked. “There must be some kernel of truth in there.”

She’d frowned, and waved me off, too busy trying to re-rig the gateway in the workshop to return us to where we’d left off Saturday night.

Unfortunately for my time and tedium, Evelyn was correct. I’d sat in the lecture hall as it had slowly filled, waiting for class to begin, and discovered The King in Yellow was nothing more occult than a set of rather execrable short horror stories. Though I had no eye for the genre, even I could tell they were not exactly spine-chilling tales of the supernatural. Then again, perhaps my sense of horror was poorly calibrated, for obvious reasons.

Raine had read over my shoulder for a bit, but quickly lost interest.

This wasn’t the first time she’d tagged along for one of my lectures. Our set of safety rules still stood, even if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Edward Lilburne in weeks. Normally Raine would wait for me in the library or the Medieval Metaphysics room, whichever was closer, or attend one of her own classes if our schedules lined up, but that day I was not to be left alone for even a minute. In case I was haunted.

So Raine was sitting in on a first-year lecture for a subject she didn’t study, but they never took attendance at these anyway. A small, immature, girlish part of myself wanted all the people I didn’t really know to see me with Raine, and know I was hers, and I got a little flushed inside at that idea. But we settled in to be sensible, me with my notebook and pen, Raine with her curious eyes, one leg crossed over the other, as the professor began talking about Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.

Professor Raymond was in full flow when reality began to break down.

Or when I began to go truly mad. I’m still not sure which.

“- and the nature of being a body, subject to this impersonal machine,” he was saying, “it’s not going to teach anybody anything. Being dehumanised doesn’t help. That’s the excuse, yes? But it’s an abandonment of the personal and the communal, replaced by didactic pain-”

The wooden platform at the base of the lecture hall was flanked by a pair of a small wooden doors. I vaguely knew they led off into the bowels of the building, to office rooms and storage spaces, to the deeper parts where ancient architecture linked up with modern breeze-block above our heads. The one to the professor’s left suddenly yawned open on silent hinges, I assume to admit a late-arriving student who had gotten lost in the labyrinth of the university.

Nobody else paid it any heed. The professor did not glance that way, too absorbed in his own words.

In stepped a vision in yellow.

My heart stopped. My head throbbed with adrenaline. My guts attempted to crawl up and out of my mouth. I almost lurched from my seat, halted only by a decade of training myself to ignore the unnatural sights of pneuma-somatic life. Nobody else reacted. The professor did not break off from his words. No screams or shouts, no fainting in the seats, not a whisper.

“-and one of Kafka’s points here is that pain and torture cannot teach,” the professor went on. “The man in the torture device cannot see the words etched on his own skin. It’s a paradox-”

The apparition, the King in Yellow, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, whatever it was – it glided over to stand beside the lectern, then turned toward the audience.

Rippling yellow silks and heavy dark cottons lay over no shape of a body beneath, only more layers of yellow upon yellow that parted and rejoined inside a room without wind. The pale hands were tucked up inside the massive drooping sleeves. The yellow hood cradled a pallid mask, facial features so bland and blank there was almost nothing there. Holes for eyes, open on darkness. A suggestion for a mouth.

“Heather?” Raine whispered.

“You don’t see it?” I hissed back, eyes wide at the figure in yellow down on the stage. Raine quickly took my hand and squeezed hard.

“No. Nothing,” Raine whispered again. “What is it, what do you see?”

“It’s back. It’s down there, standing right next to the professor. Just … standing.” I forced myself to take a steady breath. “Just like a spirit, I suppose, nobody else can see it. I’m okay, I’ll ignore it best I can. But we need to tell Evee, we should-”

“And that’s why my assistant here,” the professor was saying, “is going to demonstrate.”

He placed a friendly hand on the yellow shoulder.

My blood turned to ice.

“A few volunteers?” The professor went on, a little huffy. “Come on, this isn’t a magic show, this is serious. It’ll only take five minutes.”

A few tentative hands went up among my fellow students.

“Heather? Heather?” Raine whispered, urgent now. I stared at her, then back down at the professor and the apparition in yellow. It raised a flawless pale hand and indicated several of the student volunteers, moving with the languid ease of oil through water. They got out of their seats and moved to join it on the platform.

“You don’t … Raine, you don’t see?” I asked, my voice a strangled whisper. “You don’t see something wrong here?”

Raine glanced down at the stage, then back at me, frowning with increasing worry. “All looks normal to me.”

“Oh, bravo,” another voice – an amused voice – whispered from the seat behind us. “Audience participation. How unique. How novel.”

I looked over my shoulder. Saldis, the black Norse mage from the depths of Carcosa, was sitting behind us. Resplendent in her red-and-gold dress, she leaned forward, eyes awed as she gazed down at the show about to begin. She caught me looking and shot me a wink.

“Heather?” Raine whispered again, following my gaze for a second before trying to get my attention. “Heather, what’s wrong?”

“I … I don’t know … I-”

“Oh, ignore me, poppet,” Saldis said to me. “I’m not really here.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The apparition in yellow robes reached for Evelyn’s shoulder; a peek behind the curtain.

A shiver of disgust and nausea gripped my throat. I was not meant to see this. I had broken an unwritten and unspoken rule. I had trespassed on taboo.

A stagehand’s mistake, a director’s stutter, an actor caught falling after a slip on the boards. That unblemished pale hand was not intended for my eyes, the ripple of yellow robes in air without wind was not for my disquiet, the mask in place of a face was not for me to recognise. I happened upon this scene by turning at the wrong moment, staring into the hidden space of lost seconds as all eyes were elsewhere.

Or – as I theorised later – was I on the stage as well?

Was I the rebellious pantomime character, who upon the audience’s set refrain of “He’s behind you!”, had refused to play the role of comedic disbelief?

The grey press of librarian bodies jostled against each other, drawing their circle tighter; Evelyn was a stone dropped into an ocean, and that ocean was about to close back over her head. That was for us to witness, but the yellow figure was for Evelyn alone. It would touch her shoulder, she would look up, and I knew with the undeniable logic of dramatic structure, that she would nod in agreement and be engulfed by the grey librarians, and when the rest of us noticed and pulled them apart and shoved them back, Evelyn would be gone, and we would never see her again.

“Evee!”

I screamed her name too late. Perhaps that was part of the performance too, improvised to contain and funnel my intrusion. The pale hand fell upon her shoulder, the drooping yellow cuff brushed the sleeve of her coat. Raine and Zheng both began to turn at the sound of my panic. Lozzie went up on tiptoes. Twil span on one heel, claws out. But all of them were out of sync with the narrative, denied correct places on the stage.

Evelyn did not flinch at the unexpected touch. She pushed stray golden hairs out of her face and raised her eyes from the page. The librarian creatures surged together in one final ripple of gangly grey bodies, about to obscure both Evelyn and the yellow robes from my sight. I knew as one knows that sunlight will feel warm that when the librarians parted again, the yellow figure and Evelyn would both be gone.

In panic I summoned a jumble of brainmath, a garbled attempt at pure pressure, pure force to push the librarians away, to part the curtain so that Evelyn could not slip backstage. With no time to aim, no time for finesse, that force would knock her flat too, break her bones, snap her walking stick. But it would take only a second for her to look up into the empty eyes of the mask beside her.

Panic was enough. I decided the price was worth paying. Evelyn with broken bones and shattered ribs and a concussion was better than Evelyn gone. I spun the equation together in a single heartbeat, molten-hot icepicks through the back of my skull, bile rushing up my throat.

And then Praem was among the librarians like an owl dropped into a box of kittens.

She smashed her shoulder into a knot of the squid-faced creatures, sending them down in a tangle of flopping limbs, shoved another so hard it bounced off the bookcase with a tumble of dislodged volumes, punched a third across the face at the exact angle to break spines and splatter the floorboards with gritty, grayish blood as it flailed backward and dragged down a clutch of its fellows. She span and her black-and-white maid uniform followed, flaring out with a sense of worryingly theatrical display. She slapped the book out of Evelyn’s hands, planted one sturdy boot into a librarian stomach, swung another of the creatures with both hands and such force it toppled others like bowling pins. She cleared a space around her mistress with merciless mechanical precision.

No noise, no screams, no grunts of pain; the librarians made no sound but rustle of their robes and the breaking of their bones.

I had to let go of the equation, of course. A waste of blood and stomach acid, but I would never begrudge Praem getting there first. I spluttered and spat and sagged, caught by a bewildered Raine, holding onto my guts with a force of will as blood streamed from my nose.

Evelyn was white with shock as the wave broke. When she regained enough of herself to scream “Praem! Stop! Down!” the squid-faced librarians had already scattered, dragging their wounded and clutching their bruises, already reforming their group at the far end of the rectangular clearing.

By that time we were all on top of her too.

“Evee, Evelyn, breathe. Breathe. Heather, what-”

“What the fucking shit were they doing to you!? What was-”

“Praemy-Praem, it’s okay, you won, they’re gone, gone away, flown awaaaay-”

I sagged against the arm Raine had under my shoulders, blinking between a shaking, white-faced Evelyn and Raine trying to tend to both of us at once – she had a handkerchief out, wiping at my bloodied nose – and then I shook my head, staring past the confusion and the blood on my own face at the source of a paradox.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled at my shoulder. “What do you seek?”

“It’s gone,” I slurred, lost.

As Praem had broken the ring of librarians, the apparition in yellow had vanished back into the crowd. It had not reappeared among the fleeing stragglers. None of the battered and skittish group of squid-faces wore yellow robes, or carried a white mask. It had slipped backstage.

“I said- I specifically instructed- no- no fighting-” Evelyn was trying for incandescent rage, but too shaken to get there. Her voice came out a jumbled mess, her eyes going everywhere, one hand clutching hard to the front of Twil’s coat. “No hurting them, no fighting! Scattering them only! Praem!”

“Safe,” Praem intoned.

She turned back to Evelyn, spine ramrod straight, heels together, hands clasped before her in perfect demure poise, marred only by the grey blood on her knuckles.

“You made me to keep you safe,” she sing-songed. “Do not instruct me otherwise.”

“Oh, she’s mad at you,” Raine laughed. “Evee, you’re alright, yeah? They didn’t do anything to you?”

“Thank you, Praem,” Twil said, shaking with adrenaline jitters. “Thank you. What the fuck were they doing?”

“They don’t seem too bothered by us now,” Raine said, and waved her truncheon at the creatures. “Yo?”

“They cannot choose,” Zheng rumbled. “They are moved as pieces.”

“You sure about that?” Raine asked.

“I can see it plain.”

“Huh?” Twil squinted at her. “Who’s pulling the strings then?”

“If I knew that, I would challenge it,” Zheng purred.

“A-” Evelyn opened her mouth and faltered. “A warning shout would have been … quite … how did they get so close?” Her temper fell apart as panic dug in with long claws, as she shook all over, even with Twil’s arm around her shoulders. “I was- I- how long were you- there was hardly a need for that, was- oh, fuck, fuck, we don’t have any idea what that violence is going to precipitate. Why-” And then she saw me, with my nosebleed and my squinting pain. “Heather? What the hell were you doing?”

“Getting them off you,” I slurred.

“There was hardly a need for brainmath, you-”

“There was a figure in yellow robes. Reaching for your shoulder. Mask for a face.”

My heart skipped a beat as I reduced the unseen sight, the hidden scene, the taboo revealed, down into blunt words. My head pounded like a vice with the aftershock of aborted brainmath, but also with inability to express the ethereal nature of what I’d seen.

Evelyn squint-frowned at me, then at the librarians, then back to me. “Heather, what?”

“Didn’t you feel it? It touched you.”

“I felt nothing,” Evelyn said, sceptical and hard, and angry – with me. I boggled at her through the throbbing headache, then realised everyone else was looking at me with equal confusion.

“Praem, wasn’t that why you reacted?” I croaked. The doll-demon stared at me with blank white eyes.

“No yellow,” she intoned.

“I didn’t see that either, Heather, sorry,” Raine said, folding the handkerchief in half and wiping my nose again as I sniffed back blood. “Lean your head forward,” she instructed me. “Let it drain.”

“Yeah, I just saw the weird bastards,” Twil agreed. She shot a frown and an involuntary growl at the re-formed group of librarians, now standing a good thirty feet away at safe distance, like a collective whipped dog, shoulders hunched and tentacle-faces turned toward us in mute regard. Twil bared her teeth, and some of them shuffled further back.

“Spooky yellow?” Lozzie puffed her cheeks out, made her eyes wide as she could, and shook her head. “Nope.”

“I saw nothing of the kind, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“But it was- it was right there. It was only a second, but-” I turned back to Evelyn. “Evee, there was a figure in yellow reaching for your shoulder, like it hid itself among the librarians. Look at me, I’m bleeding like a stuck pig, I was going to use hyperdimensional math to knock them all back, I had to, it was going to- I don’t know, take you away, or-”

“Heather,” Evelyn said, through fraying self-control. “I am quite shaken by what just happened, alright? I accept, I made a mistake, I was not paying attention. I am an idiot, a fool, and we need to leave. I admit it. Do not mock me in addition.”

“Er, Evee?” Raine said.

“What?” went Twil.

“Uh oh.” Lozzie clamped herself to my side.

I blinked at Evelyn, increasingly lost. “I don’t-”

“You are insinuating we just had an encounter with The King in Yellow,” Evelyn spat, still white in the face. “Which is fiction.”

“I have no idea what that means,” I said. “I only know what I saw. Why are you-”

“The King! The King in Yellow! The book? Ugh.” Evelyn rolled her eyes and shook off Twil’s arm, trying to re-settle her walking stick in one hand and not doing a very good job of it. Praem had to take her other arm. “Isn’t literature meant to be your area of expertise? The name of this library – Carcosa – was used in some puerile pulp-era horror fiction. The author probably took the name from some tome he shouldn’t have been reading, but the rest of what he wrote was pure invention, nonsense, fiction. You just described the King in Yellow, an alien god, but fictional, no more real than the ravings of any starving monk or oversexed nun. There is no such thing as the King in Yellow, no such figure is mentioned in any real source, not in Unbekannte Orte or by Mechthild or anybody who has written about this place. It’s like believing in Prester John because Ethiopia is a real country. I’ve told you, Heather, keep your nose out of that 1920s crap. It clouds your judgement of reality.”

“ … Evelyn, I have never read that book. I didn’t know it exists until you just told me all that.”

“You must have! You must have done so, and forgotten you did.”

“No.” I sighed, in too much throbbing pain to indulge her. “Evee, I saw a figure in yellow robes and a pale mask, reaching for your shoulder, and I am not lying or hallucinating or having the vapours. You can’t overturn my life by convincing me to believe the evidence of my own eyes, and then tell me I’m wrong when you’re threatened. I know what I saw. It almost took you away.”

Evelyn stared at me, trying to work her jaw. “That’s … that-” She glanced over at the librarians. If they had any secrets to reveal, she saw none.

“I believe Heather,” Raine said with a thankful finality. “She sees more than we do on the regular, why should here be any different?”

“Because reality works different here,” Evelyn muttered, but her heart wasn’t in it, voice quivering. “Plus Lozzie, Praem, Zheng, all would have seen it in that case.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped agreement.

“Evee, hey, it’s alright,” Twil was trying to say. “I shouldn’t have left you alone, I’m really sorry. Really sorry.”

“Alright,” Evelyn said. “Alright, let’s say you saw what you did, Heather. That doesn’t mean it’s The King in Yellow.”

“Don’t care what the freak was,” Twil said. “It stays the fuck away from you, that’s what matters.”

“Evee, why were you standing up and reading a book again?” I asked.

“Because we need one to re-orient the gate exit,” she huffed. “Praem checked it, it’s fine, it’s nothing interesting! Any of you can pick it up.” As she spoke, Raine did exactly that, waiting for the affirmative nod from Praem before lifting the nondescript old leather-bound tome in one hand. “It’s just some medieval German nonsense about place names and numerology. The usual, by and for bored monks. This doesn’t change our plans, it doesn’t change a thing, and I am fine.” She cleared her throat awkwardly and took a long, shuddering breath.

“You’re right, Evee, it doesn’t change our plans,” Raine said. “Ladies, we are leaving. Right now.”

“Damn fuckin’ straight,” said Twil.

“Lozzie, ready to do your thing?” Raine asked.

“Yes ma’am Raine miss sir!” Lozzie beamed back and did a tiny salute.

“I haven’t finished the gate calculation yet!” Evelyn snapped. “There’s no guarantee I’ll be able to do that from back home. We’d have to start all over again.”

“Then we can start back at the bottom floor,” Raine said, and looked to me for approval.

For a moment, I didn’t understand why. Of course we should be getting out of here. We had no idea what the vision in yellow meant, what it wanted, if it would return again. We still didn’t know how the squid-faced librarians would react to our violence. They seemed docile now, but this place did not obey our logic.

Then I realised, we were here for me, for Maisie; but Evelyn mattered too.

“Yes,” I croaked. “Of course. Let’s go, let’s all link hands.” I grabbed Lozzie’s hand as she reached out toward Praem, as Praem reached for Twil, as I looked in Evelyn’s eyes.

“Fine, yes, alright,” Evelyn spat. “Everyone out!”

“We can come back,” I said all in a rush. “Tomorrow, we-”

Zheng took one step backward, away from the group. She turned with all the fluid grace of a hunting tiger, head high, senses open; the gesture sent all us monkeys into a gut-instinct freeze, except for Twil who bristled and growled.

“Listen,” the demon purred. “We are approached.”

Metal spikes rolling across wood, a gentle tock-tock-tock of steady motion, now close enough to reach mortal ears, creeping through the maze of bookcases to our right.

“Ah.” Raine pulled a dark grin. “Our stalker’s here.”

“Our what?” spluttered Evelyn.

“Yeah, yo, what?!” Twil flexed wolf claws, turning to confront this new threat.

“We have been hunted, wizard, beyond the range of your attention,” Zheng rumbled. “Now the scavenger descends, in our moment of disarray.”

“All the more reason to get skedaddlin’,” Raine said. She took Evelyn’s weakly protesting hand in one of hers, and mine in her other, then tipped her head to Zheng. “Don’t be shy, left hand, join up and let’s go.”

But to my endless exasperation, Zheng stepped away and turned from us. She rolled her shoulders, staring at the opposite exit from our temporary camp.

“Zheng,” I said, in a tone that could have frozen iron.

“Ahhhh balls,” went Twil.

“I stay and fight. Until tomorrow, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, rotating her arms and letting her face split into a huge, shark-toothed grin. “It has been too long. You can pick me up when you are ready.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped, pulling myself free from my own position in the circle. “Zheng, I am not leaving you behind, that is absurd. There’s no need for a heroic last stand, however much you want one, and I have too much of a headache to argue with you. Take my hand, now.”

“No last stand, shaman,” Zheng purred, easy and relaxed. “Just for fun. See you tomorrow.”

“Can’t you order her?” Twil asked, looking aghast.

“No, she has a point,” Evelyn spoke quickly. The tock-tock-tock of wood on metal drew very close now, separated from us by only a bookcase or two. “We leave here, good idea, yes, but whatever this thing is may have the power to follow us. Or it may wait in ambush here tomorrow, and we’ll be unable to get a foothold.” She wriggled her hand free from Raine. “Everyone get back. Praem, up front. Twil, keep an eye on the squid bastards, I don’t want them getting in the way. Heather, I need you next to me.”

“That is not my intention,” Zheng turned and growled at Evelyn. “Go home, wizard.”

“Too late, you’ve precipitated something you can’t control,” Evelyn dismissed her. She drew her scrimshawed thighbone from inside her coat. “Zheng has forced our hand. We deal with this here and get rid of it, so it won’t bother us on return. Now, everyone, if you please!”

Evelyn’s snap of command did the trick. In a few short heartbeats we drew together again. Raine tucked me behind her shield, next to Evelyn behind Praem and Twil, a maid uniform and a miniature hulk of werewolf fur with too many teeth. Lozzie huddled in close to my side, arm around my waist. Zheng stayed where she was, and turned away in disgust.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed, eyes fixed on the gap between the bookcases as the wood-on-metal sound grew louder. “Are you ready? Can do you it again?”

“Yes,” I whispered back. “I’m ready. I’ll just … I’ll flatten it with my mind, I suppose. Whatever it is. Would that be okay?”

“Good plan,” Raine said, low and confident.

“Yes, but wait for my signal,” Evelyn whispered. “This might be nothing, like the goats. Might.”

Metal on wood approached with the ticking inevitability of a metronome; mechanical, perfectly regular, uninterrupted. We held our collective breath as a shadow fell across the gap between the bookcases. The caster of that shadow turned, and tock-tock-tocked out into the clearing. Thankfully it stopped a few feet later, because none of us had any idea how to react. Zheng stared in stoic distaste. Evelyn started to speak, then stopped. Twil’s growl fell away.

Lozzie, under her breath, went “Ooooh!”

Our stalker was a sphere.

A sphere about six feet in diameter, composed from thousands of hand-width rectangular prisms of matte grey material, like carbon fibre or very finely wrought concrete fenceposts. Each individual prism stood perfectly upright and flush against each neighbour, except where they marched back with a sort of stepped pyramid effect, forming a rough spherical curve both above and below. It wasn’t rolling, but instead each row of blocks moved downward and back to achieve locomotion, like tank tracks. The spiked wheel sound was produced when those edges touched the floor, but the sphere was clearly too large and too heavy for such a gentle noise. It should have been breaking floorboards as it passed, shattering wood and churning up splinters. No visible mechanisms, nothing to move the prisms; whatever held it up was beyond our understanding.

It was a machine, of that I had no doubt, but a machine wrought by no earthly science.

“S’like lego,” Twil said.

“Say nothing. Do nothing. Touch nothing,” Evelyn shushed her through clenched teeth. “Wait for it to … to leave. Heather, if it-”

“I know,” I hissed back.

Nothing happened. Just as I was about to suggest we back away to give it room – perhaps it wanted to pass us by – an awful tearing, ripping sound filled the air, a wet red noise, from inside the sphere, as if it had just suffered a terrible internal injury. Then it opened.

The rectangular prisms slid back to form a gap down the middle of the sphere’s front, with the eye-watering mechanical precision of a very expensive toy, folding away until they seemed to vanish in on themselves. Inside was a surprisingly well-lit interior of the same matte grey material, but of softly flowing curves instead of blocky exterior armour.

And on those softly flowing curves, the sphere cradled an occupant.

She looked quite normal, which was extremely worrying.

She – the sphere-woman, the pilot, whatever she was – was long and slender and neat, like a dancer, lounging in the seat of her strange machine as if under the sun of a tropical beach. She had very dark skin, equally dark hair woven into thick masses of braid, and the kind of face given to bubbly laugher and knowing looks, easy smiles and mocking snorts. Her eyes were gentle, creased with laughter lines, but her age was impossible to place. She could have been twenty five or fifty.

She was also completely naked, and covered head to toe in a steaming layer of crimson blood.

“Say nothing,” Evelyn hissed, wide-eyed and going green.

The woman in the sphere glanced down at herself, then rolled her eyes and sighed. Before any of us could say ‘Oh, excuse me miss, but you appear to be covered in gore’, the sphere closed again, as quickly as it had opened.

“What the fuck,” Twil said out loud.

“Shut. Up,” Evelyn snapped at her, on the very edge of her nerves. “Everybody shut up. That is a person in there, and that can only mean one thing.”

“Wizard,” Zheng growled, disgust in her teeth. It took me a heartbeat to realise that insult was not aimed at Evelyn.

“And let me do the talking,” Evelyn said. “Heather, if she so much as looks at any of us wrong-”

But the sphere opened again before Evelyn could finish telling me to kill the mage.

The blood was gone. In its place, the black woman wore a thick-spun red dress which looked distinctly medieval, very little skin on display, extra shawls around her shoulders, a rope-like belt around her waist woven with golden thread, and with golden inlaid patterns across the chest and arms and ankle-length skirt, mostly of ravens in flight. A distinctive crest adorned the right side of her chest, a shield with a speared boar picked out in yet more gold thread. A necklace lay at her throat, with a heavy golden pendant showing three interlocked triangles.

Ogh?” she asked.

We all looked at Evelyn. All except Zheng, who looked like she wanted to surge forward and rip the woman out of the sphere with her bare hands.

The sphere-woman smiled at us in a very lopsided, old-lady kind of way. “Kmal eru fu lidel skotfrel ad gera hiier?”

“What’d she say?” Twil hissed.

“I … I don’t know,” Evelyn wet her shaking lips. “I have no idea. I don’t know what she’s speaking.”

“Sounds kinda Scandiwegian to me,” Raine murmured.

“Shut up. You don’t know anything,” Evelyn hissed at Raine, eyes wide on the strange lady. She raised her chin and raised her voice, speaking very carefully. As she spoke, I saw Lozzie reach out and take the back of Evelyn’s coat in one hand. “We do not understand your language, but perhaps you can understand mine, or at least my tone of voice. We mean you no harm. If you wish to pass by, you may do so.” Evelyn paused, forgetting what to do, then took one hand off her bone wand to gesture to the side in a please-go-around-us wave.

The sphere-woman nodded, raised her eyebrows, and made a rotating ‘carry on’ gesture with one hand.

“You want more words,” Evelyn said, and swallowed hard. I reached out and touched her back too, willing her what confidence I could spare. “Very well, very well. Uh, we mean you no harm, we do not obstruct your path. We were just leaving, we will be on our way. We have no interest and no stake in whatever your business is here and wish you-”

The sphere lady clicked her fingers and pointed at Evelyn with the most knowing smile I’d ever seen on a human face.

Then she rammed her hand inside her own head.

No blood, no splattering of grey matter, no cracking of skull. Her hand went straight through the side of her own cranium and into where I assumed she kept her brain, as if passing into water. She rummaged around for a moment. One of her eyelids fluttered, the side of her face drooped, and she shuddered three times, then pulled her hand back out with a little flourish. It was clean of blood, as if she’d merely removed it from her pocket.

She took a deep breath, wet her lips, and tried again.

“There we go,” the sphere-lady said, in perfect if heavily-accented English.

Raine was right, very Scandinavian. “Told you so,” she whispered.

“There we go, yes, much better,” the sphere-lady repeated. “Now we can have a proper talk, isn’t that so much better, much … ” Her face fell. She smacked her lips as if she’d tasted something foul, wincing and grimacing. “Oh, oh no, oh that is not better at all.”

“Fuck,” Evelyn gasped, hands shifting on her bone wand. “Get-”

“What is this barbarism I’m speaking?” the sphere-lady said to herself, in the exact tone of outrage one would use if somebody had just urinated on one’s favourite party shoes. “Oh, oh this is just intolerable, what is this? This language feels like a Saxon peasant dressed up as a Frankish prostitute. Is this what you people speak? This is a real thing? This isn’t some expeditionary cant you only use beyond the wall of your redoubt or something? Ugh, ugh.” She stuck her tongue out and flapped her hands.

“It’s called English,” I said, gently offended on Shakespeare’s behalf.

“Ruuuude,” Lozzie whispered.

“Yes, yes, well.” The sphere-lady cleared her throat. “I’m sure your … ah, noble tongue has … produced many great poets and worthy sagas. Yes. Certainly. No offence meant. Bleh,” she made another face. “Oh I am sorry, poppets. The last language I forced myself into was far prettier, more sparkling. It had all these wonderfully arcane connective propositions, like decorative plumage, it was marvellous.” She spread her hands, then sighed. “There’s a touch of the old northern speech in here, isn’t there? But none of you understood a word of the pure form, so I suppose we’re left with this ‘English’. Mm.” She frowned at us with great pity. “It isn’t really even a ‘language’, is it? More a linguistic chimera. Here, that word was Greek! See what I mean?”

“Some say,” I raised my voice, seeing an opportunity for quick rapport with this strange woman, no matter the gentle bruising to my literary pride, “that English is merely a pirate grammar that has plundered vocabulary from elsewhere.”

“Haha!” The lady in the sphere lit up with a great bubbly laugh. “Well, at least you have a sense of humour about it. Bravo.”

“We mean you no harm and seek no conflict,” Evelyn said without missing a beat, stiff and formal.

“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled through a mouth of knives, but luckily both Evelyn and the sphere-lady ignored her.

“We are strangers here,” Evelyn continued, measuring each word with great care even as she clutched her bone-wand in both hands, walking stick propped in the crook of her elbow, relying on Praem for support. “We are also about to leave. I am a mage of no little power, and my companions are under my protection. You may pass us by, on your business, and we wish you well.”

The sphere-lady blinked at Evelyn several times, suppressing an amused smile at the corners of her mouth. Then she looked around, over our heads at the gaggle of librarians, past our elbows, made eye contact with Lozzie, frowned at Zheng.

“Where’s the pretender, then?” she asked. “It’s not one of you people, is it? No, of course not, that was a joke.”

“The … pretender,” Evelyn deadpanned.

“Seven-Shades-Of-Sunlight? The Sepia Prince? Lady Tawn? The Jaundiced Count? No?” She boggled at us, as if we were the ones speaking in cryptic reference.

“You mean the figure in yellow robes,” I answered. “Don’t you?”

“Yes!” She lit up, all beaming smile and dancing eyes as she leaned forward to consider me. “Was it you he appeared to? Or … she? Yes, I think a princess or a noble lady in your case, rather than a prince. Much more likely, from your … aura, shall we say? So? Yes?” She waved both hands in a go-on motion, bursting with excitement.

“ … so?”

“So what happened?” She laughed. “I am all ears, please, you must tell me the particulars. I am dying to be part of the audience. You did see a pretender, yes? Did you not?”

“The King in Yellow,” Evelyn said, dripping with scorn.

“The King?” The sphere-lady laughed long and loud and slightly mocking, so much she had to wipe little tears from her cheeks as we all glanced at each other. “Don’t be absurd. If you’d met the King, you would know so. Besides, he’s certainly not in the library, you’d have to go to the palace. You met a pretender to the throne, I’m certain. There’s enough of them to go around.”

“We did not,” Evelyn almost snapped. “And if we did, it left, we chased it off. This is absurd, there is no such thing as the King in Yellow, it was a fictional invention.”

“An interesting theory,” the sphere-lady nodded. “You subscribe to the auto-genesis school of thought, then? Or perhaps the illusionist sect?”

Evelyn and I shared a glance.

“This is getting fuckin’ crazy,” Twil growled low, for our ears alone. “Let’s go, she’s tryin’ to mess with us.”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed softly. “This is a mind-screw.”

“And she wouldn’t have left,” the lady carried on, crossing one leg over the other, lounging on her seat inside the armoured grey sphere. “Not if she was beginning a performance, not so early in the show. Which means you delightful little … Englishers? Is that right? You must be more than meets the eye. Even the dullest pretender wouldn’t grace just anybody as an audience. And you’re the one who saw?” she said to me. “What’s your name, little one?”

“Don’t answer that,” Evelyn hissed, without taking her eyes off the lady, caution peeled away for naked hostility.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” the lady sighed. “I’m no demon of the deep, I can no more reweave you with your name than you could me with mine. Here,” she placed one hand against her chest and raised her chin. “Saldis Solveig Nyland, that was my name on birth, daughter of Jarl Tollak Nyland. Now, you?”

“Still don’t answer,” Evelyn said. “Be on your way, magician. We do not wish conflict.”

Saldis rolled her eyes.

“Forgive our suspicions,” Raine said with a smile. Evelyn turned to hush her, but too late. “But you were following us.”

“Nonsense!” Saldis waved a hand. “I wasn’t even consti- … hmm, I’m mangling the subtleties of your mongrel tongue, aren’t I? Constituted? Hydrated? … I was sleeping, let’s leave it at that, shall we? You can hardly blame a sleepwalker for following her nose.” She patted the arm of her chair. “I only get up when I get where I’m going. And where I’m going is the audience of a pretender. Which means whatever performance has begun here, it is still ongoing. But I do wonder, poppets, what is so special about you?”

Saldis frowned gently above her broad smile, and the strangest sensation came over me, as if I was standing on a suburban street before the scrutiny of a sweet old lady, not deep in a labyrinth of books and monsters on the far side of reality. Her eyes flickered over each of us, with a purse of her lips for Zheng and a wink for Praem.

“I suppose you’re browsing the books for the same thing all sorcerers visit here for,” Saldis sighed with disappointment. “Wandering around without protection, all thinking and feeling and seeing without restriction. Barely a human among you, all constructs and amalgams, but that doesn’t explain the interest.” She tutted as if over a puzzle.

Evelyn leaned in close to me, until she caught Lozzie in the corner of her eye too.

“We need to leave,” she whispered through the corner of her mouth, and only then I realised how badly she was shaking. “Now, before this mage changes her mind.”

“Right,” Raine muttered in agreement. “Lozzie, you ready?”

“Can dooooo,” Lozzie whispered back.

“But- Zheng-” I said.

“Exactly,” Evelyn hissed. “Get her over here, or we leave her behind. Quickly.”

Saldis, the sphere lady, the black Norse-woman from a thousand years ago, was still stroking her chin and considering us like a difficult magic-eye puzzle. I turned to Zheng and spoke as casually as I could manage, an effort marred only by the crack in my voice and the tremor in my chest.

“Zheng, could you please rejoin us over here? Come hold my hand.” I stuck a hand out, and found it quivering.

Zheng arched an eyebrow at me. A slow grin spread across her lips, cracking her face until she showed all of those beautifully sharp teeth. Then she turned back to Saldis.

“Zheng-” I started.

“No,” Praem intoned.

“Oh for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.

“Left hand,” Raine called out, but we were all too late.

Wizard,” Zheng purred. “How sturdy is your chariot?”

“Hmmmm?” Saldis tore her eyes away from the puzzle of why we mattered, and looked Zheng up and down with quick appraisal. “Sturdy enough to withstand the arm of any draugr. Why do you ask? Fancy your chances? I am in a gentle mood, little dead-walker, don’t put me out of sorts-”

Zheng let the old mage know exactly what she thought of her ‘gentle mood’.

The demon-host surged forward like a greased bear trap, a blur against the background of bookshelves, her coat streaming out behind with a leathery whip-crack. One hand formed a wedge, to punch through teeth and jaw and rip out tongue at root, before the mage could utter a spell. Zheng moved so fast I flinched; I think I screamed her name, screamed for her to stop. Evelyn scrambled with her scrimshawed bone-wand and the ambient temperature dropped by several degrees. Raine shoved Lozzie and I back and down, crouching behind her home-made shield.

With a whump and a thump and the breaking of several finger-bones, the sphere closed up, and Zheng’s fist bounced off.

She reeled backward, leaving a bloody smear behind where she’d punched the edge of one of the blocks that made up the sphere. I watched in mute horror as the surface absorbed the blood and fragments of skin, as they vanished into the grey.

“God damn you!” Evelyn shouted at Zheng. “Get over here now, or we will leave you behind, you blathering idiot zombie!”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Twil was saying. “We gotta go, we gotta go before she opens up again!”

“We do, yes,” Evelyn agreed. “Lozzie, link hands. Get us all together. Zheng, you have three seconds.”

Zheng growled at the closed sphere.

“Zheng, please!” I called, even as Lozzie’s little hand fumbled into mine and held on tight. Zheng reluctantly backed away from the grey stone sphere, flexing her broken hand to re-knit the shattered bones.

The sphere opened again like a flower peeling back under the light of the sun.

“Oh, no, don’t leave now,” Saldis said, apparently unconcerned that Zheng had just attempted to pull her face off, talking as if we were exiting a dinner party too early. “I want to make a friendly little deal with you people, just a small one.”

“You have nothing to offer us,” Evelyn said, loud and clear and shaking. Twil grabbed her elbow, the circle almost complete.

“You are meat in a shell, wizard,” Zheng growled.

“Zheng!” I hissed.

“You’re undoubtedly here for the same reason a thousand mages have been before,” Saldis continued, waving an airy and disinterested hand at this notion. “Knowledge, power, all that boring stuff. Now, if you will consent to getting me into the audience for the performance your oh-so-interested pretender is putting on, I will help direct you to the most illuminating, most well-informed, correct and complete grimoires you could imagine. Beyond your wildest dreams, anything you like.”

“We have our own way of locating books, thank you very much, no,” Evelyn said. Zheng took another slow, retreating step toward us. Evelyn put her head sideways against mine and whispered. “We need to go, right now, while she’s still talking.”

“Zheng’s almost-”

“Almost is not enough, Heather.”

“Oh, you mean name-finding?” Saldis grimaced delicately. “What an awful term for it. Your English really is not up to much, is it? Anyway, whatever locationary magic you have planned, it won’t work here, names themselves don’t work properly here. You have to use the catalogue system.” She gestured up and over our heads, at the gaggle of squid-faced librarians in their wounded huddle. “But it can be very tricky if you don’t phrase yourself right, and-”

“Thank you, and no thank you. We are leaving,” Evelyn raised her voice and lost her temper. “Zheng, now, or you are being left here.”

“Oh, I can’t let you do that,” Saldis tutted, and raised a hand.

That delicate dark hand exploded in slow motion – split open like a flayed fruit, skin peeling into springy curls, muscle separating from bone into vibrating staves of wet crimson meat, blood vessels springing apart to branch between them like arcane notation, bones a gleaming white sculpture. Her hand forced itself into a symbol, a sigil that hurt the eyes, that made Twil howl through her teeth and Raine hiss in pain and Zheng flinch like she’d been struck with a whip and-

“Stop that.”

I shouldered past Raine’s shield, and stepped forward.

Saldis, whatever she was, raised an eyebrow at me, at the certainty in my voice beneath the shake and the quiver and the fear of being so very small. Her writhing, mutilated hand paused mid-transformation.

“Little one?”

“My name is Heather Morell. The mage behind me, she is not the leader of our group, I am,” I said, and forced my chin high, my spine straight, my bowels to stop quaking, as I prepared an equation in my mind. “I am the adopted child of the Great Eye. I have swum the space between dimensions, and brought the abyss back with me.” I squinted hard as I dug my hands into the sump at the bottom of my soul, as blood began to leak from my nose. “We are looking for specific books with which to save my twin sister, not knowledge or power for power’s sake, and I will kill anything that gets in my way. You will lower your hand or I will reduce you and your … your ridiculous ball-thing to atomic paste.”

I closed my mouth, and held myself there, vibrating with searing headache pain and blood dripping from my nose, right on the edge of violent climax.

Saldis – to my incredible surprise – lit up with girlish glee. She snapped her wrist and her hand returned to normal, and then she clapped it together with the other one.

“A quest! Oh, you’re on a quest! Oh, I do so adore a proper heroic saga. And what could be more heroic? A missing twin? Beautiful! Well, that explains it then, doesn’t it?”

Raine and Praem both caught me as I let go of the equation, as I buckled at the knees and fell back. Even Zheng finally relented in her absurd, costly aggression, and placed herself directly between me and the ancient, horrible, inhuman thing which pretended to be a human being.

“Explains what?” I croaked.

“Heather, shut up,” Evelyn hissed.

“Why you’ve been graced with a performance, of course,” Saldis explained. “All the pretenders take after their patriarch, they all have such a sense for the dramatic. No wonder one showed herself to you personally. Probably Seven-Shades-Of-Sunlight. I have heard she has a taste for sentimental relationships between women, that sort of thing.”

“But it tried to take-” I glanced at Evelyn as I choked back a mouthful of blood, and remembered not to say her name.

“Nonsense, that was for your benefit, lady Morell,” Saldis said, tutting. “Why would a pretender care about some little sorceress? No no, you’re the one who saw it, the show was for you. If you’re the adopted daughter of … what was it again? Never mind. You’re practically foreign royalty, and on a quest! Seven-Shades wants to teach you something, impart some wisdom, inspire you. This is a wonderful opportunity!”

“I have had quite enough of being taught things by alien gods,” I croaked, too exhausted to humour this woman any longer. Raine dragged me back into our little group, and finally Zheng stepped back too, and put one hand on Raine’s shoulder.

“I would like to offer you a different deal,” Saldis said.

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “Lozzie-”

“Yah!” Lozzie chirped. “Twil grab Praem. Praem touch me!”

“I want to be written into your saga – you are recording it, yes? Somebody must be writing it down for posterity?” Saldis went on, heedless, very excited indeed now. “Make sure to include me, in detail. I’ll take you straight to whatever books you wish, name them, please, and in return I want to join the audience for the pretender’s show. Oh I do hope it is Seven-Shades, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of one of her performances.”

“Lozzie, are we ready?” Raine asked.

“Yah yah!”

“Everyone close your eyes,” I slurred as loud as I could.

“Oh, I wouldn’t leave if were you,” Saldis said, with none of the casual menace she had displayed earlier, only an irritating, knowing smirk. She leaned back in her seat, utterly at ease.

“Wait,” Evelyn stalled Lozzie with a sideways nod. “What does that mean, magician?”

“I mean the performance has already begun.” Saldis laughed softly. “The rest of you may exit the stage at will, I’m certain, but … ” She pointed a lazy finger at me, winked, and blew me a kiss. “But the intended audience, well, she is in for the duration, until the final curtain. Whatever stronghold of humanity you are about to retreat to, the show must go on.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.3

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The short strip of pale cloth twirled like a sycamore seed through the library air, dragged onward by the weight of the heavy iron nut.

Praem’s throw was strong, her aim precise. The hard nugget of earthly metal flew straight and true between the rows of towering bookcases, miniature cloth pennant fluttering behind. It hit the floorboards with a muffled thunk, the sound soaked up by the shroud of silence and the insulation of thousands of books, then rolled to a stop, at the edge of the wide patch of shadow, almost exactly where Evelyn had indicated.

We all stared, waiting for the reaction.

Well, Zheng didn’t. She was too busy pulling predatory faces at our gaggle of squid-faced librarian groupies. Neither did Praem, already palming another nut with a length of cloth tied around it, from the bag on her shoulder. Lozzie wasn’t paying attention either, turning her head sideways at the titles on the spines of the nearest books – titles which she certainly could not read, written in erratic looping circles like no human language, on book binding made from a substance too peach-soft to be bone.

“Hold off.” Evelyn stalled Praem with a flick of her fingers, eyes glued to the metal nut on the floor.

“Verdict?” Raine murmured.

“I’ll tell you what my verdict is,” Twil hissed, head hunched low, positioned halfway in front of Evelyn as if something unseen might rush her from the shadows ahead. She eyed the darkness, the bookcases, even the books themselves as if they might launch a surprise attack. “We’re not setting one foot in the spooky bloody darkness, that’s the verdict, not after the last patch. You’re not going in, Evee. I veto.”

“You don’t get to veto me,” Evelyn said.

“Yeah I fuckin’ do. You wanna argue when I can just pick you up? I’ll bloody well carry you over my shoulder instead. Praem and me’ll carry you like a bloody sack.”

“Like a sack,” Praem joined in.

Evelyn frowned. “Be that as it may.”

“That’s not even a full sentence!” said Twil. “Why the fuck are we testing? Let’s just walk round. Come on.”

“Because we might learn something,” I said, and held back a resigned sigh.

“Indeed,” Evelyn murmured, her voice abstracted and distant, still watching the iron nut ahead of us, on the edge of the shadows. “Heather understands. There is much to be learnt here.”

We were paused, less than fifty feet distant from the next set of staircases, a great branching twisted mass that punched downward through the ceiling above like cancerous capillary growth erupting through brittle tissues. The staircases spread out in an organic swirl, some of them far too thin to actually climb, spindly as bird-bone or dead twig; but others joined together like tributaries flowing into a river, sturdy and wide enough to carry us upward, to the next of the library catalogue floors.

The staircases formed an obvious landmark. We’d spotted the explosion of dark wooden growth as soon as we’d reached this floor, no searching required, impossible to miss even with the protective bulk of Raine and her riot-shield getting in my line of sight all the time.

One obstacle barred our route. The lights were out.

A lake of extinguished darkness extended left and right for perhaps a quarter mile through the jumbled maze of bookcases. The glowing light-rocks up ahead lay empty and dark, as if sucked dry, while the ones we stood parallel with still cast their thin, anaemic light without issue. Going around would cost us more time and energy, but privately I agreed with Twil. We all did, except Zheng, who would gladly fight ghosts, inanimate concepts, or her own reflection if given half a chance.

“Learn what?” Twil growled.

“Something useful,” Evelyn drawled. “Perhaps if we learn a few things, this will all go so much faster.”

We’d learnt three things so far, over an hour of picking our careful way up the first four floors of the Library of Carcosa.

Lesson one was that while each floor might indeed be of infinite length, at least they possessed finite depth. Our exploratory efforts – mostly in hopes of locating staircases upward other than the rickety risks of the nailed-on walkways which scaled the canyon-side – had revealed a back wall to the library, made of the same solid dark wood as the canyon floor.

Raine estimated that back wall lay about two hundred meters in, or as she put it, “Two football pitches end-to-end, I reckon. Hey, at least there’s no windows.”

“Do not joke about that,” Evelyn had hissed.

Lesson two: getting anywhere was still going to take an incredibly long time.

As soon as we’d mounted that first staircase up from the canyon floor, Evelyn had pulled a notebook from her overflowing coat pockets and began making a map. Or at least notes toward a map, complete with her meticulous tiny handwriting and awful drawing skills.

We’d crept through a silent, dead forest of towering, overflowing bookshelves, beneath a claustrophobic sky of dark wooden ceiling thirty feet up. A knot of squid—faced librarians followed behind, and even our footsteps seemed muffled, so if one glanced away, one felt very much alone. I’d tried to keep my attention on myself, on my feet, or on Lozzie’s hand in mine or Raine’s back directly in front of me, or at the very least on our group cohesion – I slipped into a mantra of counting off all seven of us again and again, repeating names and making sure everybody was still accounted for – but from the moment we entered the confines of the stacks, Evelyn’s gaze dredged the library for every scrap of information.

She muttered estimated distances and measurements under her breath, counted shelves and guessed at numbers of books, scribbled down conjecture, copied fragments of titles, sketched out known areas and here-be-dragons in the dark beyond.

“Why does it matter how many meters wide that is?” Twil had hissed to Evelyn during one stop, as Praem threw clattering iron nuts at the floor ahead of us.

“Because precision is important.”

Evelyn had answered without looking, not until Twil jogged her shoulder, and then she’d stared around as if only just remembering the rest of us were there.

“Evee, that’s not an answer, hey?”

“Evelyn?” I said gently.

She cleared her throat. “Precision is important, because if the books we need are two hundred floors up, we’re not getting this all done in one trip, are we? I need measurements if I am to make a second gate, if we’re going to have to come back and resume the journey from where we left off. The more I understand about how this place is laid out, the easier it will be to find the books, too.”

“Of course, it’s okay, we’re just trying to … follow,” I’d said, and sketched her a smile – but she’d already turned back to her notebook, indicating another suspect place for Praem to toss a cloth-pennanted nut.

“Where do all these books come from, anyway?” Twil asked. “How do they get here?”

“Bad question, laangren,” Zheng rumbled from behind us.

“Hah,” Evelyn barked without humour. “First sensible thing the zombie’s ever said. Yes, bad question, because I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the platonic ideal of the library accretes them from elsewhere. Or they’re brought here by mages and others, in trade for knowledge. Or perhaps there’s some ur-collector. Let’s hope we never meet it.”

“Oh, I do hope not,” I added.

“How old do you reckon this place is then?” Twil asked with a scrunch in her face.

“I’m flattered that you think I know everything,” Evelyn said. “Now shut your mouth and keep your eyes peeled. Do your job.”

But the map is not the territory.

Some parts of the library boasted neat lines of bookcases, with all their volumes tucked away, spines flush and clean of dust. Little clusters of librarian creatures tended to inhabit those areas, slouching back and forth with books in their arms, dragging those heavy wooden carts loaded down with stacked volumes, or carefully feeding hardbacks one-by-one into their own faces for re-cataloguing. They ignored us completely, as if the attention of the group which followed us was enough to satisfy the whole of their interlinked consciousness. We saw nothing to indicate that they possessed any living quarters – if they lived at all, in our sense of the word – and that upset me on a level I didn’t have the spare energy to process. Did they eat, sleep, defecate? All they did was sort books. All we saw was more library.

“Maybe they just shit in their robes,” as Raine so delicately put it.

Jumble, mess, and maze far outweighed the organised parts of the library. Lines of bookcases kinked and twisted, defying straight line of sight down the stacks. Clear ways narrowed, dead ends proliferated, repeating patterns emerged – of crosses or open squares or L-shapes or dizzying spirals we dare not follow. Clearings were few, tight corners many, navigation a slow plod of test and map and probe.

Lesson three?

We were far from alone in the great Outside library.

“Hopping place, isn’t it?” as Raine described.

“Bottom feeders,” Zheng rumbled through clenched teeth. “Scavengers. The abandoned and the dead.”

The grouped clatter of our muffled stop-start footsteps sent all manner of hidden creatures scuttling off beyond sight as we approached through the stacks. Almost everything except the librarians fled from us, as reluctant to encounter other library users as we were. Thin whispers occasionally leaked over the top of bookcase rows, only for no speaker to be found when we rounded the corner. A skitter of footsteps would reveal no source. Distant voices grew yet more distant if we need venture in their direction.

“This is so fucking creepy,” Twil had hissed.

“I won’t deny that,” Evelyn said. “But it’s the best possible outcome. We are being avoided, and that is a blessing, more than I hoped for. It may not last. Keep moving.”

“Are we being avoided?” I asked, looking back at the gaggle of a dozen librarians, following at a respectful distance.

“They don’t count,” said Evelyn.

“Slaves and hands,” Zheng purred. “Nothingness in them, shaman. They are empty.”

“As I said,” Evelyn grunted. “They don’t count. Keep moving.”

In some places, books had spilled over into foothills of paper and ink, impossible to scale without tumbling on one’s backside. In others, the cases themselves had been toppled over onto each other into masses of shattered shelves and shredded splinters. Our first encounter with one of these nests of snare-tangled broken wood had proved the efficacy of Evelyn’s nut-throwing strategy.

That technique accounted for the other half of our slow progress. We ventured down no pathway, trusted no footstep, braved no ground – not even that trod without care by the librarians – before Praem had tossed at least one of the exploratory nuts ahead of us, and we had observed it come to rest, untouched and intact. She re-collected the ones that fell safely, so we wouldn’t run out. The unsafe ones, we did not approach.

By that method we charted where not to go, the places where the nuts vanished, or fell to rust in the space of seconds, or provoked shadowy fingers to edge out from nearby corners to investigate the sound, or a dozen other bizarre fates that befell our brave little inert scouts. I couldn’t help but anthropomorphise the metal nuts after the first hour, little flags fluttering in the air as they fell by the dozens to unseen threats and pockets of reality not made for us.

We avoided other areas too, places where all the books were missing, or where darkness formed solid walls of lightless reign, or where for no discernible reason our accompanying librarians refused to follow.

Stop-start, stop-start was a constant drain on our energy and nerves. At every stop, Raine would manoeuvre Lozzie and I between herself and a solid bookcase, a temporary fortress. Zheng would silently seethe with impatience and leer at the librarians with all her teeth. And Twil would circle Evelyn, close and protective, which I think was driving Evelyn up the wall.

“Why nuts?” Twil had asked, as Evelyn had instructed Praem to toss a few at the tangle of fallen bookcases, shattered light-orbs, and chewed paper. That nest of broken wood lay at the core of the first lake of inexplicable darkness we had encountered back on the second floor.

“Terrestrial matter,” Evelyn answered. “Any force that acts on them will also act on us.”

“Yeah, but like, why nuts specifically?”

“Heavy,” Praem intoned. “Easily thrown.”

And she demonstrated, as a cloth-tied nut bounced at the foot of the shattered wood and swaddling shadows.

“You mean there’s not like, a magic reason?” Twil asked. “They’re just nuts? Why the bit of ripped-up sheet on ‘em them?”

Evelyn frowned at her like she was an idiot. “Visibility.”

Twil puffed out a disappointed breath.

“I know how you feel, Twil” I added, from behind Raine’s riot shield. “Somehow magic would feel a bit more reassuring, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Raine chipped in. “Wiggle your fingers and banish the darkness, o’ mighty mystical one.”

“Well excuse me for practical solutions,” Evelyn huffed. She clicked her fingers and waved at the torn-up bookcases. “Praem, another, if you please. We can pick our way over this, it’ll be quicker, but I don’t like those shadows.”

Twil was frowning especially hard now, as if manually oiling the gears in her head. “Isn’t this nut-throwing stuff from like, a video game?”

“It was film first, you philistine,” Evelyn said, without much conviction.

“Actually it was a book,” I said, and laughed a small, nervous laugh, nervous enough to make Lozzie squeeze my hand and murmur my name. “Maybe we could find it here.”

The second scrap of fluttering cloth and twist of iron left Praem’s hand and bounced directly into the shadow-clad tangled wooden shards – and provoked a reaction.

A limb, shining and white and luminous and possessing far too many elbows, ratcheted out of the nest like a trap-door spider catching prey. A hand with about a hundred knuckles snatched the nut out of the air, and tossed it back at us as a wisp of compressed gas.

Zheng was the only one laughing. She cracked her knuckles. “A fight, shaman?”

“N-no, no, Zheng, no- I-”

“Even you wouldn’t survive that, idiot,” Evelyn answered for me. “And I won’t try to pull you out. We go around this one.”

So we’d gone around.

This second patch of shadow produced a reaction too.

“There, look,” Evelyn grunted, and pointed with her walking stick. “We’ve learnt something useful.”

The nut had rolled to the very edge of the lake of extinguished darkness, but now it lay within the shadow, as if it had moved without any of us noticing. I blinked hard and rubbed my eyes, and Evelyn must have noticed, because she added: “No, I’ve been watching it this whole time. It was just … over the border one moment.”

And then the nut was gone, faded into darker shadows until there was no cloth-wrapped nut at all, only the unlit floorboards.

Twil shivered. Raine nodded and hefted her shield. Zheng ignored the whole thing because she could neither punch nor eat it.

“No walking in darkness,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn said. “Well put.”

“Could’a told you that myself,” Twil grumbled.

“No,” I forced myself to stand up for Evee’s methods. “No, this is useful. Between this and the previous time, I think we can conclude that any shortcuts through dark areas are bad ideas. So we don’t need to test them anymore.”

“I will walk through any darkness with you, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, and I flinched slightly. Hadn’t thought she was listening. I glanced at Raine, but she said nothing, still on high-alert, watching the nearby corners and the tops of the bookcases and the blind spots.

“Yes, we’re all well aware of that,” Evelyn drawled. She looked left and right, along the edges of the lake of darkness, then glanced back at our following of librarians.

They’d accompanied us all the way from the canyon floor, but never closer than about a dozen feet. That may have been respect, or it may have been because Zheng had wordlessly drifted into a rearguard position and spent most of her time grinning at them, whispering things under her breath, and occasionally stalking toward them with a pace or two of menacing display. I’d stopped her after the first of those, with a sharp “Zheng, I need you to not do that,” and she’d grinned back at me hard enough to make my stomach flip over. But she’d done as I’d asked.

“Well?” Evelyn demanded of the librarians now, the latest of dozens of times she’d asked the same question, at every junction and crossroads in the maze of books.

She pointed at the staircase, then left, then right.

The ‘squiddly-diddly scribblers’ – as Lozzie had dubbed them – once more exploded into the proliferation of pointing in wrong directions. One of them even stuck his arm directly back out toward the canyon. But they quickly rearranged themselves as they had the first time, and every time since, until they all pointed off to the left, around the lake of darkness.

“Left it is, then,” Evelyn drawled. “Praem, another nut, please.”

==

Two floors up and forty minutes later we came face-to-face with another library patron.

Twil spotted him – or her, we never could tell – first, as she stalked a good six paces ahead of Evelyn, into a cross-junction between two rows of bookcases. She froze in sheer surprise, wide-eyed as we all caught up, and then there was much scrambling of feet and hissing to get back, Evelyn snapping out “say nothing!” and Twil growling like an animal. Raine swept me behind her shield, though I craned to see what we’d discovered.

A figure sat cross-legged on the floor with a book open in his lap, hooded and cloaked in yellow robes, bent forward and absorbed in reading. He did not look up.

“Isn’t it just another squid?” Twil hissed, claws out, already trying to creep sideways to catch a glimpse of the man’s face. Evelyn all but swatted her back with a whack of her walking stick.

“They don’t wear yellow, they wear grey,” Raine said, quick and low. “And there’s no tentacles. And he’s too small.”

“Could still be one-” Twil said. “Ow, Evee, fuck, stop, alright.”

“They don’t read,” I said.

“Heather?” Evelyn frowned back at me.

“They don’t read,” I repeated. “The librarians. We’ve not seen a single one of them sitting, let alone reading. They only sort.” I stared at the hunched man, the all-too-human curve of a back, the rounded shoulders, the skull beneath the hood. “I think that’s a person.”

So after positioning of feet and readying of weapons and clearing of throats, Evelyn called out, first in English, then Latin, then something I assume was ancient Greek, then some harsher, more painful languages that made us all wince and made her mouth bleed. Then Praem tossed nuts until one bounced off the figure’s head, and he still offered no reaction.

We crept closer, with Lozzie and Evelyn and I kept well in the rear, until Praem was near enough to politely bend forward and look under the man’s hood.

“Dead,” she announced.

“Super mega extra dead,” Raine laughed, and nudged back the hood with the tip of her truncheon.

The corpse beneath was a shrivelled brown mummy, papery skin pulled tight around empty eye sockets and peeled back on ancient yellowed teeth, so dry he should have crumbled to dust at the lightest touch. The book in his lap lay open on non-human spider-scribble scratches up and down the page. Beneath his thick robes, the long-dead reader wore white silk embroidered with golden thread. At his throat lay several thick necklaces of the same colour.

“Wooo,” Twil let out a low whistle. “Is that like, actual real gold? He’s loaded down with it.”

“Do not touch anything,” Evelyn spat. “Do not touch him. Better, turn around and don’t look at him. Forget we saw this. File past, keep to the opposite shelves.”

“Think I recognise some of that stuff on his necklaces,” Raine said. “Eye of Ra and a sun disk. Our boney old friend here must be-”

“Ancient Egyptian, yes,” Evelyn hissed, bodily shoving Twil to the far bookcases, away from the ancient corpse. Twil skipped and skidded, but didn’t resist. “And it doesn’t matter. This was a mage, a very, very old one, who stayed here too long. Do not touch it. Faster we’re gone, the better. Move. Now.”

Praem followed without question and Lozzie came when I pulled. Zheng gave the corpse a look like she wanted to kick its head off, but we left it behind, to the dust of another five thousand years.

==

We were winding our slow way through the seventh floor, toward the distant sight of another set of stairs – a single shaft this time, a dizzying spiral that got wider and wider toward the top – when something vast and unknowable passed down the canyon alongside us.

I doubt it was looking for us. I doubt it noticed us at all.

First awareness came as a rising wave of lightness, a full-body throbbing as if the air around us had lost the ability to contain our forms. I felt it first, or perhaps my abyssal instincts did, twitching with increasing panic into a blinding swirl inside my head.

“Heather’s not the only one, I’m getting it too,” Raine said, squint-frowning in faint pain.

“Feels floaty!” Lozzie chirped, the only one still smiling.

“Ignore it,” Evelyn hissed. “Ignore it and press on. Ignore-”

And then the singing reached us.

Angelic, wordless, beautiful and alien. It crept into one’s hearing and grew louder with alarming swiftness. We all went silent and still – except for Lozzie, who opened her mouth to join in, stalled only by my fluttering hands against her lips.

The singer drifted by, out in the canyon.

Great dark ropes of flesh hung from far above, each as thick as a tree, moving with silent terrible pressure through the canyon like a mass of dangling jellyfish stingers, caressing the wooden walkways with deceptive gentleness. The main body was far above us, but the tentacles were surrounded by a moth-eaten shroud of pale yellow, draped down in vast sheets of rotten fabric. Tatters of golden light like sickly fireflies detached from the mass and floated off behind, turning to dust and ash.

The librarian creatures scattered among the stacks, all tottering and skittering in different directions.

None of us could stand the singing, the sight, the rotten majesty of the passer-by. Twil managed to bundle a paralysed, green-faced Evelyn behind a bookcase, but then she’d gone all wolf, growling and whining as she crouched over Evelyn’s shaking form. Praem stood next to them, ramrod straight, and closed her eyes as they filled with tears.

Raine crammed herself, Lozzie, and I all into a corner behind her shield, and I’d clamped my hands over my ears to drown out the singing, my own hyperventilating hiccups, and the awful way Lozzie was still trying to join in with the alien chorus. Raine had gone blank and empty, staring at a spot on the wall. My abyssal side wanted to dig through the floorboards and curl up in the dark, as far away from this leviathan’s song as possible. Instead I clung to Raine, and I think I shouted wordlessly into her back.

Only Zheng stood out in the open, arms wide and roaring nonsense, daring the passing godling to pluck her from her feet.

When it passed and the singing faded and the pressure relented at last, I scrambled to my feet and lurched for Zheng.

“H-Heather, woah,” Raine was saying, trying to catch my arm, but she was weak with shock and I was using anger to paper over my terror.

“Zheng!” I snapped, my eyes still wet with the confused tears of a small animal penned by a giant, my heart still going a hundred miles an hour. Fear – Outside fear, stripped of human context – made me forget all my issues with my beautiful Olympian goddess, right here in the middle of a tumble of bookshelves. “What were you doing?! You’re not invincible, it would have crushed you with a thought! You can’t fight something like that!”

“Have faith, shaman,” she purred, staring out into the empty canyon.

“What were you thinking?! What was that? You-”

Zheng placed one massive hand on my head and turned to grin down at me, a shark-toothed smile, marred only by the slow sloping second of profound unhappiness I caught in her eyes, before she muffled it behind a wall of bravado.

“ … Zheng? What … you … I-I don’t understand, were you trying to show off? You … ”

But our little party was rapidly reforming. The librarians drifted back in ones and twos. They did not possess facial expressions, but their body language was hunched and furtive now; poor things were no more suited to this place than us. Twil and Praem were both helping Evelyn to her feet, Twil twitchy and skittish and baring too many teeth. Raine was already at my elbow, taking deep breaths, and could hear everything Zheng and I said to each other. I trailed off, embarrassed. Those were the most words I’d spoken to Zheng since the night we’d kissed.

“What was that all about, left hand?” Raine asked, neutral and easy.

“I long for a good fight, yoshou.”

“You know where to get that, when you want it,” Raine said. “But not out here, yeah?”

Evelyn was still shaking, green in the face, clutching Twil’s arm with all her might, but she had the strength to raise her head. “Everyone keep your bloody voices down,” she hissed in an angry stage-whisper. “We do not want that thing to turn around and come back.”

“Yeah, fuckin’ right, hey?” Twil shook too, eyes going left and right as if a stray tentacle might sneak down through the bookcases at any moment. “Shhh, right?”

“Yes,” came a soft, broken-bell voice.

Tears were drying on Praem’s cheeks; I felt sick.

“Yes, yes!” Lozzie whispered. “Shhhhh, shhhhh!” She did finger-to-lips shushing motions at everybody, dancing between us as if the otherworldly singing had put a spring in her step. She shushed Evelyn and she shushed Raine, she shushed me and ruffled Twil’s hair as one might try to calm a spooked hound. She even hopped over to the squid-faced librarians, pulling a random book off the shelves and passing it to one of them. The librarian so blessed by Lozzie’s attention immediately fed the book into its own face.

“Stop that!” Evelyn hissed at her. “Do not interact with them! Not even you – especially not you!”

Lozzie giggled, curtsied an apology, and clamped herself to Praem’s side. She dried the doll-demon’s tears with the hem of her pastel poncho, and Praem stared down at her. Expressionless as always, I couldn’t tell if Praem was surprised or offended or thankful, but she didn’t push Lozzie away.

Evelyn resumed scolding, but Lozzie took it in good spirits. I turned back to Zheng and struggled over what little I could say.

“Feelers,” Zheng rumbled. “Parts. Slaves. So atrophied they cannot feel the mooncalf’s regard.”

“Ah? Oh.”

It took me a moment to realise she was talking about the librarians again. Zheng stared at them with naked contempt, and that allowed me the fractional hardening of my heart the moment required.

“Zheng,” I hissed up at her. “We’ll talk about this later, when we’re back home. But in the meantime-” I swallowed, held down a hiccup by sheer force of will. “Remember you made a promise to me as well. Don’t do that again. Don’t bait self-destruction. ”

Zheng raised an eyebrow over a casually puzzled smile. I held her gaze until she let go of my head, and thankfully Raine didn’t ask any questions as I snuggled back in behind the protection of her makeshift riot shield.

Still pale in the face and unsteady on her feet, Evelyn pulled out her map sketches once more, as we re-oriented ourselves, ready to move.

“What do you think that was?” I asked.

She gave me a desolate shrug. “Another library user.”

==

We found another ‘library user’ on floor twelve, around which a shrine had been erected.

This one was obviously – and thankfully – dead, and quite a bit smaller.

We all stood there staring at the thing in stunned, skin-crawling silence for a full minute, still recovering from our earlier encounter, still twitchy and on edge. In the end, Twil cleared her throat, and said “Looks like a crab shagging a Christmas tree.”

Whatever it was, it had died, or perhaps been interred post-mortem, in a large clearing ringed with a circle of bookshelves. A few stacked tomes sat nearby, as if it had died in the middle of scholarly study. One of the many clawed graspers radiating from the cone-shaped body clutched a tome even now, though the books this being had perused were not remotely like human books. They were made of dull metal, shaped as icosahedrons and hexagonal prisms, which fell open in thousands of stiff close-packed leaves.

The alien corpse was maybe twelve feet long, and about as tall as me at the widest part, the very end of the thing. Somebody or something had placed hundreds of wax candles around it, untouched and never lit, along with dozens of shallow tin bowls which had probably once contained some sort of offering, now long dried up or rotted away, except for a thin brown crust.

“Very astute,” Evelyn said eventually, her sarcasm failing. Then, after another ten seconds of stunned silence, she added: “Christmas trees aren’t yellow.”

“It’s pretty!” Lozzie said, then pouted when everyone looked at her. “It is! It’s got all those little sparkly bits. And the round parts, shiny!”

Raine tilted her head. “I think it’s on it’s side. Is that the head, at the end of that stalk?”

“Oh, ew,” Twil wrinkled her nose. “Then that – that’s a huge foot! Like a slug. Ew, ew ew, no.”

“Ew,” Praem echoed.

“I have no bloody idea,” Evelyn said, mostly to herself. “I have not the faintest clue what this is. Was.”

“At least it’s dead,” I sighed, but it emerged as a shudder. “Poor thing.”

Praem readied a nut to bounce off the dead thing’s hide, but Zheng was already striding forward, her patience gone. She ignored Evelyn’s hiss of warning and planted both hands against the cone-shaped body, then leaned in close and sniffed at it, long and deep. A mocking grin spread across her face. She rapped her knuckles against the material, clonk, like solid iron.

“A shell,” Zheng said. “Thick, old, empty. No meat left.”

“So it is like a crab then,” Twil said.

“Would have made a good fight,” Zheng purred to herself, gazing down at the triple-lobed head on a thick stalk like that of a palm tree. “Strong claws. So many eyes.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Evelyn huffed. “Leave it alone. Stop touching it, it makes my skin crawl.”

Despite her words, Evelyn made a quick sketch of the the dead monster, and marked it on her map before we carried on; Lozzie patted the empty shell as we passed. Our squid-faced entourage ignored it completely.

==

Floor fifteen was quiet as a grave, muffling even the sounds of our own breathing, filtering our voices so a level tone turned to a whisper. The effect grated on our already wire-thin nerves – and then the hooves started up.

Afterward, we had no idea how they’d approached so closely before we heard the clop-clop-clop on wooden floorboards – perhaps some further trick of the acoustics, perhaps it was their intention, or perhaps they hadn’t fully existed until that moment. The first thing we knew of them was the lonely, haunting rhythm of two pairs of cloven hooves slowly clomping along the row of bookcases parallel to us.

We didn’t need to discuss halting, we just did it; we all felt and acted like cornered animals by then, all but Lozzie.

“What’s that- what’s that-” My eyes wide, throat tight, chest constricted.

“Smells like farm animal,” Twil growled.

Meat.”

“Hush,” Praem intoned.

“Stay still and wait, damn you all,” Evelyn hissed. “It’s heading to the end of the row. If it passes, let it pass, let it go. Say nothing. Mouths shut, now.”

At the end of the row of bookcases, a misshapen shadow crept into view, in time with the clack of hooves. I half expected the devil himself to appear, skin red as blood, pitchfork and pointy tail and all. Instead, our waiting was rewarded with a sight so absurd that a hysterical splutter escaped my lips. I had not meant to laugh, and I was not amused. I felt stretched thin by hours in this place.

Across our path stepped a single live goat.

I would have forgiven the animal, if only it had been a big coal-black stereotype, a Satanic vessel with wickedly curled horns and beady intelligence glittering behind its eyes. That would have made sense. That’s what magic was supposed to look like, right? But it was just a goat. Off-white, sort of old, a bit raggedy around the middle. Sure footed but sleepy. It took one look at us, let out a dismissive snuff, and vanished between the opposite set of bookcases.

“What,” said Twil.

“That was a goat,” I said, rather lamely.

“Sure was,” Raine said. “Sure, Heather. Identifying goats.”

“I told you,” Zheng rumbled. “Meat.”

The very second Zheng declared the goat’s evident edibility, a great clattering of additional hooves started up from the parallel row of bookcases. We watched in incredulous silence as a whole herd of goats – I counted fifteen more – trotted past the end of the row, disappearing off into the library after their vanguard. Males, females, a few tiny bouncing baby goats too, at which Lozzie let out a pained “Awww, they’re so small!”

They wandered past as if lost in an English meadow, not Outside among dead wood and alien books.

The very final goat, a mid-sized juvenile, stopped to look at us with those weird, sideways pupils, and opened its mouth.

Anazitiste kala, mikres kores tis hypervoreas,” it said, in a rich, masculine voice.

And then it trotted off. Hoof beats vanished, and the herd was gone.

Evelyn sighed like a bellows and put her face in one hand. I knew exactly how she felt.

“What? What?!” Twil was on the verge of an explosion. “Did it just put a curse on us? What was that?!”

“Goats.” I shrugged, almost giggled, until Raine nudged my shoulder. “Goats.”

“Did you see the babies?” Lozzie almost squealed, and nobody had the energy to rebuff her.

“It wished us good luck, in ancient Greek,” Evelyn deadpanned. “And called us ‘daughters of Hyperborea’. Which means whatever the hell that was, it knew we’re British. I think. I guess. How the hell should I know anything?”

Raine laughed. “Are we that obvious? Am I carrying a Union Jack I missed somewhere?”

“Speak for yourself, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.

Evelyn made a wide ‘stop’ gesture with both palms. “Fuck it. Fuck it, I don’t care. It left, that’s all that matters. If it- they- whatever that was, if it follows us, we’ve having goat stew for dinner all next week. Come on, keep moving.”

==

According to Evelyn’s analogue watch, when we finally found books written in recognisably human languages, we’d been climbing for six hours and thirteen minutes.

Back in rainy old Sharrowford, night had undoubtedly fallen, but here in the great windowless library there was only the steady greenish witch-light glow from the luminous rocks set in the walls and bookcase-backs. We had paused more than a few times before, for furtive mouthfuls of cereal bar and water, but now we practically set up camp. We stopped with barely any discussion or agreement, in a clearing or reading area or cavity or whatever it was supposed to be, a rectangular space between two heavy rows of shelves, sheltered far back from the canyon-face cliff-drop, in case something unspeakable should pass by again.

We were all exhausted, and not solely from walking.

The experience of hours Outside had not yet proved as physically dangerous as Evelyn’s dire warnings, but the very act of existing in this place had taken an unseen toll. Being away from our reality had consumed some ineffable, indefinable reserve in all of us, in addition to the psychological grind of constant vigilance. Except for Lozzie – who worried me greatly in her own fashion – we were all worn down and haggard, at the thin edge of our collective humanity.

Zheng checked the nearby rows of bookcase-corridors without leaving the group, but she had gone silent, hadn’t spoken in over two hours, every step like a stalking predator. Raine propped her riot shield against a bookcase and peeled the sweat-stuck motorcycle jacket away from her shoulders, and then touched me with the same fleeting, repeated contact she’d been seeking as she’d spoken less and less, slipped into high-alert, wordless tension. Even now she couldn’t relax, didn’t actually look at me, and kept her truncheon in one tight fist.

Twil hadn’t fully relinquished her werewolf transformation in hours either, bits of summoned claw and fur marring her outline, eyes squinted tight, shoulders hunched and twitchy as she hovered protectively at Evelyn’s shoulder. Our mage fared no better, already running her fingers along the spines of volumes in Sanskrit and ancient Greek and medieval German, wide-eyed and book-drunk, though thankfully she retained the sense not to open any before Praem had checked them first.

Praem seemed most unaffected, as she dredged up some random bits of abandoned, ancient furniture – a chair from a reading desk, a pair of stools – and distributed cereal bars and energy drinks. But she possessed less economy of motion than usual, lingering over her own gestures as if examining the workings of her body. She blinked several times as I watched, far too slowly for her. Lozzie flopped down on the floor next to me, toes tapping and head bobbing, almost brimming with energy, like she could get up and sprint at any moment. I was afraid she would, so I stayed close while I rubbed my exhausted, aching thighs.

My abyssal side’s hatred of this place had curdled into quiet survivalist disgust; it wanted me out, but it wanted all of us out more.

It – no, I wanted my pack intact and safe, kept trying to reach for the others with phantom limbs, to draw them close to a protection my soft, vulnerable ape body could not really offer. Every unnatural encounter made me want to bristle and hiss, make myself toxic and poisonous to the things that would devour our souls, provoked claws I could not extend, spines I could not sprout, teeth I could not sharpen. Only a constant effort of will kept me from acting like an animal, and that supply was growing short.

Our gaggle of squid-faces hovered at one end of the clearing, neither joining us nor departing. Lozzie pulled funny faces at them. Evelyn sat down on one of the stools, with a Praem-approved book in her lap. As we all tried to recover, she began to read.

Didn’t take long for Twil to ask an awkward question, after a mouthful of energy drink and a good stretch.

“We are not lost,” Evelyn replied.

“I didn’t mean lost, I mean how do we-”

“Lost would imply not knowing where we are.” Evelyn spoke over her. “And we know exactly where we are: floor twenty one, about sixty meters back from the canyon wall, surrounded by … books.”

With great care, Evelyn closed the dusty tome she’d been flicking through, and rose from the stool with even greater care. She winced and put a lot of weight onto her walking stick, swallowing down a grunt of pain. She handed the book to Praem, who slid it back among its fellows as Evelyn massaged her hip. Evelyn nodded at another volume instead, but Praem did not carry out the instruction. She just stood there in mute defiance.

“Yeah, right, cool, whatever,” Twil was saying, “but how do we get where we’re going?”

“By walking.”

“Oh yeah? Before or after your legs fall out of your hip sockets?”

Evelyn shot her a dark, pinched look, dripping with venom, the sort of expression to make a demon think twice – but for once, Twil neither flinched nor backed down. Evelyn’s mouth twisted around an ugly insult. “You-”

“You said it yourself,” Twil spoke over her, getting in her face, angry with her in a way I’d never seen before. “This might take multiple trips. Why not stop here? Head back for now, make that second gate or whatever. You’re gonna wear yourself raw, you know it.”

Evelyn struggled to speak, glanced at the rest of us, blushing and confused. “Not- Twil, can we not-”

Twil turned away, to me and Lozzie. “We good to go back, Heather? Like, now?”

“Um … ” I swallowed. “She’s got a point, Evee. You’re having trouble walking, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. Twil just wants you to be safe.”

“I’m fine!” Evelyn snapped at me. “I can carry on, you can’t stop me on my own account. We’re so close, look at all this!” She flung a hand at the bookshelves, then waggled an irritated gesture with her walking stick. “How can we stop now? We could be right on top of the exact Latin texts I’m after. We are surrounded, on all sides, by the deepest well of magical knowledge imaginable!” She clacked her walking stick against the bookcase. “We cannot stop now, I will not stand for it.”

“The wizard’s mind is on thin ice,” Zheng rumbled, first she’d spoken in hours.

“Evee-”

“And it won’t be much further, it can’t be much further,” Evelyn said. “I can endure this, this is nothing. Praem.” She clicked her fingers. “What are you waiting for? Fetch that one down.”

“Evelyn,” I tried again, and kept my voice level with a great effort. “Why are you even reading these books? Do we need that one? You’re scaring me.”

“Forget the Invisus Oculus alone.” Evelyn turned back to me with burning eyes. “Forget merely masking our presence, hiding ourselves from the Eye. Heather, the things we could do with the knowledge here-”

“Defeat the Eye. That’s why we’re here. Evee.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Evelyn huffed. “But-”

“Evelyn,” Raine said, and a chill went down my spine, ending somewhere lower than my guts. I’d never heard her say Evee’s name like that.

Evelyn froze too, blinking at Raine. “R-Raine, relax-”

“How much longer to locate the three books you’re after?” Raine asked, deceptively soft.

“I-I … I don’t know,” Evelyn admitted, turning her eyes down and swallowing hard. “There’s magic I can use. Locating the precise texts is difficult but not impossible, that’s why I brought certain resources. With Praem, in the bag. I can … yes.”

“Yeah?” Twil joined in. “How long’s that gonna take?”

“Hours more,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn shot the traitor a dark look – then a darker one at our entourage of librarians.

“Bad service,” Raine cracked a grin.

“Quite,” Evelyn huffed.

The librarians’ group-pointing had led us this far, and over the last two floors of climbing, Evelyn had used any nut-throwing, hazard-avoiding pauses to refine her questions – “where are the books in Latin?”, “where are the books from the 17th century?”, “where is Beyond the Northern Ice by Magnhildr Dahl?” – but the librarians hadn’t pointed at all for those ones. Past a certain level of granularity, we were on our own.

“Hey, Evee,” Raine said, all soft reason once more, her grin easing back. “This place is a living nightmare.”

“Quite,” Evelyn said again. “I do not disagree.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I could do this all night, but Heather needs a hot meal, Lozzie needs to blow off steam, and Kimberly’s waiting for us too. Maybe it’s time to head home in the interim, Lozzie can take us. Make that second door you mentioned, back home. We can pick up right where we left off, load our save point.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Video game metaphors again? Really?”

“Incident pit,” I added, softly. “Let’s not slip further down.”

If nothing else had worked, that seemed to finally penetrate the fermenting fascination in Evelyn’s subconscious. She made a big show of huffing and puffing and sitting back down on her stool, nodding along and grumbling under her breath. She pulled the map-filled notebook from her coat pocket. “Right, yes. Of course. Of course. Allow me to … to figure out the maps so far. We’ll take a book from up here home with us. Should be able to … re-orient the gate … mmm … yes, okay. Give me ten minutes, mm.”

She trailed off into mumbles, scratching notations with a pencil.

We settled in for a few minutes, the last rest before home, waiting as the silence of the library ticked by beyond our senses. Twil sipped sickly-sweet energy drink and hovered at Evelyn’s shoulder, while Praem stood on guard. After some rocking back and forth, Lozzie tottered to her feet and clung to my side, nuzzling my shoulder and making tired sounds in her throat.

Raine leaned against the bookshelf next to us. “Your legs are gonna ache something fierce tomorrow,” she said.

“I don’t mind.” I gave her a smile, and I meant it too. After her territorial displays all yesterday and this morning, in the library she seemed to have reverted to normal. My rock. “Anything for Maisie.”

“Anything for you,” she replied.

“Listen, Raine,” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “What’s wrong with Evelyn? Why’s she acting like this?”

Raine pulled a rueful smile. “Seen her like it before, couple of times. Just like when she first got unfettered access to her mother’s books. It’ll wear off, let’s just get her out for now.”

“I do hope so.”

“Trust me. It will. She’ll come round. Anyway, how about you? You holding up okay out here? Loz too, you good?”

“Good!” Lozzie whispered with an eyebrow wiggle over at Evelyn, still scratching away at her pad.

“It’s … not so bad,” I said, “being along for the ride. I don’t have to make any decisions, at least.”

Raine nodded, as if she could possibly understand, but perhaps she finally did, after six hours walking the realm of my teenage nightmares. After an odd pause during which she examined my eyes, she suddenly said, “I love you, Heather.”

“I … I love you too. Raine? Is something wrong?”

“This place,” she laughed a sigh, and ruffled my hair gently, and looked over her shoulder with only a hint of aggression when Zheng stalked over to loom above us. My two hands met each others’ gaze.

Yoshou.”

“Yeah, I know,” Raine said. “I can hear it too.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow. “Truth? Impressive.”

A shiver went up my spine, a finger of ice and bone. “I’m sorry, what’s this?”

Raine gave me a smile that curdled my blood, a smile I knew all too well from similar situations, from university hallways that repeated forever and underground car parks full of cultists. A smile that told me not to worry, that Raine would commit all the necessary violence.

“We’re being followed,” she said, and made it sound like nothing.

“Followed?” I hissed. My heart skipped, in the very bad way.

“Ooooooh.” Lozzie lit up.

“What do you think it is, left hand?” Raine asked.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “It moves in the shadow of our footsteps. Stays at distance, too far to double-back and catch. Two hundred feet distant? A carrion eater, perhaps. Waiting for our leavings. Or for us to slip and fall.”

Raine nodded. My mouth had gone dry. I glanced at Evelyn, but she and Praem didn’t seem to have heard the import of our hushed conversation. Twil, on the other hand, perked up and wandered over.

“Doesn’t matter one bit now though,” Raine said with a beaming grin, mostly for me. “We’re off home in five, ten minutes tops, and by the time we come back tomorrow or the day after, it’ll probably have lost interest.”

“You really think, yoshou?”

“What is it you can hear?” I demanded. “Exactly?”

“A wheel,” Zheng purred.

“Ah?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “I was thinking spiked shoes or something. Football boots, maybe.”

Zheng shook her head. “Too regular. A metal wheel, spiked, rolling across wood. How long have you heard it, yoshou?”

“About three floors ago.”

“Four.” Zheng grinned. Raine grinned back, and I decided I much preferred this style of sparring match. Let them compare hearing or hunting any day.

Twil joined us, knocking back more foul energy drink. “What’s up?”

“We’re being followed!” Lozzie chirped. “Isn’t that exciting!?”

“What.” Twil blinked once. “Oh fuck, what? Shouldn’t we tell Evee?”

Raine clapped a hand on Twil’s shoulder. “Give her a sec to finish working out her maths, then we can tell her. Next time we come prepared, right?”

“No, I think we should tell her now, we-” I glanced over at Evelyn.

Then a double take, as my guts turned to ice and my blood turned to pure adrenaline.

Evelyn was no longer sitting on the dark wooden stool. She stood before the towering bookcase of ancient tomes again. A cracked leather volume was open in her hands, yellow binding a sick vomit-colour against her palms, head down, eyes glued to the words within. Praem stood about five paces away, but a trick of bad luck or unseen machination had turned her head to watch us instead of her mistress. For perhaps as little as twenty seconds, nobody had been watching Evelyn.

The squid-faced librarians had surrounded her.

A jostling scrum of grey robes and liver-spotted flesh and sharp spines, all within arm’s length of Evelyn, and she hadn’t noticed them at all.

Then, as if glimpsed through the momentary parting of a theatre curtain, I saw one of the figures was neither squid-faced nor librarian. Yellow robes instead of grey, rich and deep and flowing in waves. A solid white mask, expressionless and human, dark eye holes with nothing behind them.

The apparition in yellow reached for Evelyn’s shoulder, with one porcelain-perfect, pale hand.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“We stick together,” was the last thing Evelyn said, before all seven of us stepped through the gateway to the Library of Carcosa.

==

She had explained to me earlier that morning, after we’d completed the initial experiment, that this expedition was probably best carried out with as few people as possible, to avoid both unwanted attention and the ‘proliferation of uncontrolled variables’.

“By that, may I assume you mean one of us doing something stupid?” I’d asked.

“What other variables are there?” Evelyn had grumbled. “I don’t even want to take Twil along, let alone your giant zombie. Too many things to go wrong. We need absolute discipline out there. Absolute.”

According to Evelyn, the classical ideal was a single intrepid mage, plumbing the occult mysteries and risking alchemical transformation of the self; luckily for us, Evelyn did not possess her mother’s arrogance, and even if she did, her spinal problems and uneven gait and reliance on a walking stick rather precluded a solo journey, let alone a return trip lugging a sack of books back to reality.

Three companions seemed a much more sensible number – Evelyn, to locate the books and navigate the hazards; Praem, as muscle and protection and packhorse; and Lozzie, guest-starring as an emergency escape button.

Neat, clean, straightforward; of course that plan did not survive thirty seconds.

The experiment itself had gone off without a hitch. After the mortifying breakfast during which Raine had insulted and provoked Zheng, after the kitchen had been given a proper clean and we’d all had some time to prepare, we’d gathered in the workshop to watch Lozzie perform a miracle. Myself, Raine, and Evelyn, with Praem standing nearby on silent watch.

Raine had donned her head-to-toe riot gear just in case, while Zheng had vanished off somewhere – probably to fish the remains of her deer carcass out of the bin and snatch a few more mouthfuls – and Twil was still dozing upstairs, apparently in Evelyn’s bedroom. Heavy sleeper, or sore from the night? I filed that question away for then, too many butterflies in my stomach to concentrate on anything except Lozzie, bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement, and Evelyn, activating the gateway to the Library of Carcosa.

‘Activating the gateway’ makes it sound absurdly grand.

What Evelyn actually did was take a few lengths of masking tape and stick Kimberly’s and Lozzie’s corrections over the right places on the cacophonous mandala, which surrounded the door-shaped blank section of plaster in the middle. Then she used the tip of a black marker pen to connect the various magic circles and esoteric inscriptions over the empty strips of masking tape.

It all felt very slapdash. Almost inappropriate. Part of me would have been more comfortable if Evelyn wore midnight black robes, chanted some Latin, and used blood instead of masking tape.

That part of me was very silly, and should have been relieved that my magical best friend was happy to do magecraft in her pajamas.

The gate didn’t care either, it opened all the same.

Blank plaster slid through that mesmerising process of shedding matter, first rippling black and empty, then filling in with shape and shade and shadow – and precious little light or colour. Unlike the otherworldly luminous fog of the Sharrowford Cult’s castle, Carcosa glowed with no clean light, only dank amorphous shadows cast by distant starlight, caught on tumbled mounds of discarded books. A sort of cliff or gigantic wall loomed over all, hazy with both distance and gloom.

Evelyn stepped quickly back from the open gateway, half taking shelter behind Praem while pretending she wasn’t doing so. Raine went tense, eyes glued on the other world, the other side, Outside. I endured a wave of vertigo as I stared into the bleak vision through the doorway. It was like looking down into a void beneath the Earth’s crust, a dark forgotten place full of half-glimpsed unspeakable creatures and forbidden secrets. The size and scale of the distant cliff-face – which I already knew was not a cliff – made my head spin. Had to squeeze my eyes shut, then open them again in sudden fear that something might crawl through the gateway while I wasn’t looking.

“It’s fine,” Evelyn said, too hard, either to herself or my fear or Raine’s tension. “Nothing can come through from that side to this, not unless I directly permit.”

She placed much faith in her own separate additions to the gateway mandala. Evelyn had spent the last few days adding wards around the edge – “The good shit. My mother’s shit,” she’d called it, working from old, leather-bound notebooks I’d never seen before. Stark clear white, seven neat magic circles painted directly onto the wall, each of which incorporated the Fractal.

The spider-servitors guarded this side of the gate as well, one hanging above, one clinging to the wall. I trusted Evelyn’s wards far more than I trusted their ability to stop anything from Outside.

“But the faster we get this test done, the better.” Evelyn turned to Lozzie. “Lauren. If you please?”

“You’re up, Loz,” Raine said. “Break a leg.”

I almost reached out to stop the experiment.

But Lozzie was ready. She’d giggled and flapped her poncho, completely at ease with this, and had dutifully flounced through the gateway all by herself. On the other side of the threshold that ancient wooden floor soaked up the sound of her footsteps as she tripped and hopped to a halt.

“Not too far,” I said, my voice cracking. “Lozzie, that’s far enough.”

“Yes, that’s quite enough,” Evelyn added.

Lozzie paused where she stood, and looked up in smiling glee. Her simple childlike wonder made my heart seize up. She looked so small in that window into infinity, and I was gripped by a vision of her skipping happily off into the deep gloom of the great library, swallowed up by the vastness of Outside. I lurched to my feet, convinced she was about to dive back into her natural environment she’d been so deprived of, stuck here in reality with us. I wouldn’t see her again for weeks, months. Maybe never, unless I followed.

“Lozzie, don’t …”

She turned to look back through the gateway, back at me, and blinked in gentle confusion.

And vanished.

Just gone. No ‘poof’ sound, no rush of air, no wiggle of her nose. The reality of magic, of hyperdimensional mathematics, was so bland in its cruelty.

“Oh, thank God for that,” Evelyn exploded with a huge sigh. She turned to Raine and I with the kind of savagely triumphant smile she didn’t often have a chance to enjoy, and even included Praem as she spoke, though the doll-demon did not react. “It works, damn my eyes, it works! There’s no way we could risk a full expedition otherwise. This is wonderful news. We can do it, we really can.”

“Seems so,” Raine said, more guarded, then noticed all was not well. “Heather?”

Panic clawed up my throat. I had to wring my hands together to stop them shaking as I glanced around the workshop.

Evelyn caught it and frowned too. “Wait, where’s Lauren? She was supposed to come straight back.”

“Ah,” went Raine. We all shared a glance, frozen in time.

Then – “Here!” Lozzie chirped.

And her elfin little face appeared around the doorway to the kitchen, sporting a lip-biting smile and a cheeky wink.

Evelyn sighed softly and rolled her eyes, Raine laughed and squeezed my shoulder, but I felt like my heart was about to burst with shaking, quivering relief. My knees almost went and Raine had to hold me by the elbow.

“No trouble, then?” Evelyn asked, and gave Praem the nod to deactivate the gateway. The doll-demon obediently stepped forward and pulled off one of the taped-up pieces of mandala. The gateway collapsed instantly back into regular old blank plaster.

“None!” Lozzie said as she skipped into the room.

She stopped on tiptoes, took a very theatrical double-bow to her adoring public, and followed it up with a single floaty curtsy with the hem of her pastel poncho.

“Lozzie,” I was saying, raising my shaking hands to her. “Lozzie, here, please-”

Praem clapped, once, twice, then carried on extremely slowly. From anyone else the applause would have seemed sarcastic. But Lozzie twirled her poncho like a matador or a dashing heroine in a pantomime, and dipped her head in another bow for Praem, with much flourishing of both arms.

“Thank you, thank you, big softy-soft!” she said. I couldn’t help but laugh through my easing panic.

“Encore,” Praem intoned.

“What? No!” I said, then hiccuped loud enough to make Evelyn flinch. “No, please no encore, Lozzie, no. Praem, really.”

“Ahhh?” Lozzie blinked at me several times, batting her eyelashes and tilting her head from side to side like a curious puppy.

“Lozzie, Lozzie you were supposed to come straight back home,” I said, trying not to scold. “Straight back to this room. What was that? You scared me.”

“I went to check on my round table!” she said in a bouncing rush. “They all need to stay in place unless I tell them to but I was worried they’d fall over or get bored but I don’t think they can get bored anymore, which is good for us, but maybe bad for them, but hopefully it doesn’t matter because they were all at the end of their lifespans anyway and offered to help, soooooooo.” She bit her lip and rolled her eyes upward, thinking about elsewhere. But she did wander over to me and allow me to take her hands.

Her exposed skin felt sun-warmed. No sun today, not in Sharrowford.

“Your knights, hey?” Raine asked. “Heather told me all about that. Wouldn’t mind meeting them, myself.”

“Oh, that’s even better,” Evelyn said with sudden shrewd interest. “Even better, yes. Translocation from sphere to sphere Outside works for you, as normal?”

Lozzie nodded and gave a great big thumbs up. “No hands!”

“Then we’re ready,” Evelyn said. “We go to Carcosa. Two hours to eat lunch and prep.”

No dead hands, Lozzie meant. No boney grip on her ankles to keep her from Slipping, not when moving from Outside to our reality.

The hypothesis had plagued us for weeks, that perhaps the unexplained effect that stopped Lozzie and I from Slipping our own bodies Outside would not apply the other way around. We couldn’t leave here, but if we found another route Outside – say, via decades of magical work stolen and borrowed and cracked open in the form of a working trans-dimensional physical gateway – then we could, if we needed, run home.

And Lozzie had just confirmed it worked Outside-to-Outside as well. She’d jumped from Carcosa to wherever she kept her Knights, then back to our reality, straight into the kitchen in drizzly, cold Sharrowford on a Saturday morning.

Which meant it was time to borrow some library books.

Lozzie was under no illusions about the reasons for her inclusion. She was the emergency exit. If anything went badly wrong out there, Lozzie’s purpose was to call a sing-along circle, get everybody holding hands, then click her heels and chant ‘no place like home’.

Except now it was seven of us, not three. So that sing-along circle might be a little more logistically unsound.

My mere existence had broken the delicate balance of a three-person team. I was not going to let three of my friends, the people who made up my world, step Outside without me, no matter what platitudes Evelyn spoke about stealth and the importance of small groups. I desperately did not want to go, certainly not without the cushioning safety of a dream. The very idea made me want to go hide in the bathroom and purge my guts in terror.

But if they met anything they couldn’t deal with, anything truly alien and impossible – which was likely, out there beyond reality – my friends would need hyperdimensional mathematics.

They would need me.

And after all, it was my sister they were all helping to save.

The unique social conditions of our house then fell in a domino effect. If I went, Raine was coming too, and Zheng. Nobody was silly enough to try to stop either of them. If I was going along, then Lozzie needed to come anyway – what if I used hyperdimensional mathematics and passed out, but we still needed to escape? Twil could not be denied either, not after what had transpired behind closed doors between her and Evelyn last night.

Tenny, at least, was not joining us. Far too risky, and irresponsible of us too. She might get distracted or fly off into the vast canyon between Carcosa’s billion bookshelves. Instead she was locked in Lozzie’s bedroom upstairs, with a large compliment of children’s picture books, several tubs of play-doh which she had already fashioned into a bizarre multi-armed sculpture, and instructions with Kim to visit her as often as possible. Lozzie had explained to our giant puppy-moth in painstaking detail that she had to be good, and we’d be home soon.

We’d saved some chocolate eclairs for her as well. They sweetened the deal.

So there we were, about to plunge ourselves into the literal stuff of my nightmares, the inhuman depths beyond our reality, Outside, to locate a trio of books that may not even exist. With a pair of newly-minted maybe-lovers who couldn’t even talk about it in public, a maybe-human girl who thought hell-dimensions were the coolest thing ever and needed them in order to stay awake, and two of the most dangerous people I knew – one of whom I slept with every night – sniping over me at every opportunity.

We were not exactly a professional team. We weren’t even Alexander Lilburne’s proverbial ‘Mickey Mouse operation’.

==

“We stick together.”

Evelyn enunciated the words as if her voice could carve stone.

“’Course we stick together,” Raine agreed with a grin and a wink and a click of her tongue, busy checking her jacket pockets one last time. I watched as she pulled out her pistol, silently counted the remaining bullets, and slipped it away again.

The rain outdoors had picked up, a static on the roof and against the windows, cold fingers working their way in through unseen cracks. Twil was limbering up, rotating her arms and touching her toes as if we were about to run a cross-country race. I’d gotten out of my chair, exchanged a few meaningless murmured animal noises with Lozzie, and held her hand very tightly as my heart raced behind the thin cage of my ribs. Phantom limbs tried to hug her closer, wanted to hold her tight against me for reasons I couldn’t examine while gripped with nervous anticipation. Praem had turned to the gateway, laden down with our supplies, and Zheng had merely levered herself off the wall, ready to follow.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Evelyn drawled. “More precisely, what I mean-”

 “Come on, don’t take my horseplay for backstabbing,” Raine said, then shot a wink at Zheng. “Not that I’d stab you in the back, grease-face. If I went for you, hypothetically speaking, you’d see me coming. Full-frontal style.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow. For the two-dozenth time today, I hid my face in one hand, mortified. Lozzie giggled softly behind a sleeve-end, gave me a sideways hug of solidarity, then put her own hand over my face also.

“You cut that shit out as soon as we’re through that gate,” Evelyn snapped at Raine. “Or I will turn this expedition around, so help me God.”

“It’s helping, isn’t it?” Raine said softly.

I almost did a double-take at her, at the subtle smirk beneath the shifting sands of her face. Raine zipped up her motorcycle jacket with a sudden sharp ziiiiirrrrrpp, and wiggled her eyebrows at me. I stared, uncertain if I’d read that right. Was all her aggression just another front?

“What I mean,” Evelyn raised her voice, missing the secrets beneath Raine’s face. “Is no running off. No breaking off from the group. No hunting. No heroics. No. Running. Off.”

“Wanna put a leash on me?” Twil smirked.

“Yes.”

Twil’s mouth fell open. A slow blush climbed her cheeks. “Uh … um … ”

“I want to rope us all together, like rock climbers,” Evelyn said, and I couldn’t tell if the flirtatious joke had simply gone over her head. “But if we do run into … difficulties, then certain parties will require more freedom of movement. If that was not a concern, then yes, Twil, I would have you on a very short rope tied around my waist.”

“Oof,” went Raine. “Twil, what have you got yourself into?”

“Uh … Evee … um … I-I don’t-” Twil cleared her throat, on the verge of losing something important.

“There is a concept, in deep-sea diving,” Evelyn went on, either oblivious or uncaring, “called the ‘incident pit’.”

Raine laughed. “Sounds filthy.”

“It’s a metaphor, you gutter-brained ape.”

“How do you know about deep-sea diving, anyway?” Raine asked.

“Because knowing these things is my purpose. Because it’s the same metaphor my mother liked.” She tutted. “At the top of the incident pit, small mistakes or events slide you down the edge of an emergency. The further into the pit, the more difficult it becomes to extract yourself.” Evelyn drew one hand along an imaginary downward curve, indicating the sloping side of an allegorical pit. “One may not even realise one is sliding downward until it’s too late to correct, and that is what we must avoid. Small mistakes must be corrected ASAP. If one of us detaches from the group, or gets lost, we risk sending another to find them, and we slide down the edge of that pit, very far from home.”

The joking and horseplay faded away, replaced by the static of the rain and the shiver inside my bones.

“What’s at the bottom of this metaphor pit?” Twil asked.

“For a deep-sea diver, death by drowning,” Evelyn replied. “For us, Outside? Probably worse.”

“Plan for the unexpected, wizard,” Zheng rumbled, and opened one hand toward the waiting gateway, the shadows and shapeless mounds beyond. “What if.”

“Then I will do my utmost best to keep this gateway open as long as I can, from this side.” Evelyn pursed her lips as if sucking a lemon, and glared at Zheng. “Even for you. If you do get separated, if you do run off, make for this doorway. If you can.”

Zheng grunted and tilted her chin up by a fraction of a degree. Not quite a nod. She blinked heavily and turned her eyes on me in quiet affection, and I avoided her gaze.

“We stick together.” Evelyn repeated. “Stick together, follow my instructions, and we’ll all be home by dinnertime.”

==

The Library of Carcosa was a delicious nightmare.

We almost didn’t make it a dozen feet from the gateway.

Raine and Zheng went first – ‘taking point’ as Raine called it – followed by Twil quick on their heels, then Evelyn stomping through, Lozzie and I in tow behind her, still holding each others’ hands. Praem brought up the rear.

My previous two visits to the great library beyond reality had been clouded by dream-haze and pain-panic respectively, but this third time offered no such cushion. I was a tiny scrap of soft-bodied flesh, risking a scurry from my rock-hole into this open void. The drum of raindrops on earthly windows vanished the moment I stepped across, replaced by cloying silence.

Evelyn’s gateway emerged onto what I thought of as the library’s ground floor – the bottom of a wide canyon at least a mile across. The floor itself was made from dark age-polished wooden boards, so sturdy and solid and flush that perhaps they extended downward forever. Discarded books lay heaped in low dunes and carpeted the floor like fallen leaves, thousands within eyesight alone, likely billions of them further out in the shifting, flickering shadows, piled atop each other and tumbled over in ragged fans of torn pages and bent bindings.

The gateway had disgorged us into a sheltered cove between several book-drifts, blessed us with a patch of clear ground, and a single way forward into the open space of the canyon floor.

Unlike my solo visit, however, we had not emerged into the centre of the canyon, but at the foot of one of the two parallel walls. Evelyn’s gateway evidently required a flat, upright surface on which to manifest, and had chosen the very base of the dizzying sixty feet of sheer flat wooden cliff-face which rose up from the canyon floor.

Staircases, switchback and spiral and sweeping and stuttered and stricken and split, climbed those sixty sheer feet, some strong and sturdy, others spit and spindle, up and up and up, to the first of the library floors.

And the floors went up forever.

“Hooooo shit,” Twil was the first to speak, and she could barely get the words out. White in the face, eyes wide, cold sweat on skin gone waxen. She’d made the mistake of turning around and looking up, at the infinite cliff-face of library stacks.

“Don’t … ” Evelyn said, breathless. “Don’t look up.”

The canyon’s far wall was the same. Awe and terror drew my gaze inexorably upward, past the limits of my laughable intentions.

A dozen, two dozen, three, four dozen floors, the mind instinctively attempted to count, but lost track as the library vanished upward into the haze of distance and shadows. Looking left and right was even worse. The floors extended forever in both directions.

Each floor was built inside the canyon walls, – or was it that the wooden floors themselves, each separated by another twenty feet of vertical wooden cliff, formed the canyon? A bad question; that way lay madness. This place was simply impossible to build. Comprehending the geography or geometry was not an exercise for the human mind, because we would not enjoy the answers we might find.

Perhaps, once, the library had been well-organised, whole, and clean. Once.

The Library of Carcosa was lit by hundreds of millions of fist-sized glowing rocks set into the walls, and the swaying lanterns of the inhabitants, but massive sections lay dark, bleeding shadow across whole floors, or plunged into half-lit flickering twilight. Some floors had fallen away, crashed through those beneath, or been gouged and scarred by some titanic flailing. Others had been repaired, routed around, linked up with the spidery mass of walkways that crisscrossed the open air, an endless mass of dead-end ledges, creaking balconies, and thin rails. A few of the thickest walkways even spanned the entire canyon itself, great constructions braced against the walls with single wooden logs so thick they could not have come from anything remotely like a terrestrial tree. Dust lay almost everywhere, in some places so thick it formed a grey blanket, cut through by worn trails. Hanging cages dotted the walkways – one of the few items here made of metal – and contained oddly inhuman skeletons.

The scale of the place was all wrong. Humans did not build on this scale, and it was not for us. It wasn’t even for the squid-faced librarian creatures. A cluster of them had noticed us, three floors up the canyon wall beneath which we’d emerged, and were busy peering downward. They were alien and weird, even at this distance, but, even the most xenophobic eyes would see they weren’t any better suited to this place than us. They were just as small and as vulnerable as we.

If the Library of Carcosa had a builder, or an intended patron, they were too far beyond our understanding to even imagine.

But the books.

Oh, the books.

I almost broke into tears.

What little we could see from down there already amounted to billions of volumes, some neatly flush in their bookcases, others overflowing in great avalanches of paper, yet more stacked in little towers that I recognised as a very human habit, or laid out and separated on trolleys made of dark wood. A few were propped open and covered in dust, on neat wooden reading tables, as if abandoned there decades ago, their readers never returned. Others were barely recognisable as books at all, from strange metal hexagons mounted on plinths to jars of shifting, multi-coloured liquid.

Past the terror and the scale and our purpose, Heather the bibliophile, the budding scholar, the Heather that loved books and fairy tales, she was almost seduced by the inherent romance of this great unknown library.

The rest of me did not agree.

The abyssal half of me hated it here. The vast open space scanned as threat. Nowhere to hide. Too big. My ape-brain agreed with quivering enthusiasm. Phantom limbs twitched to cover every angle at once, drawing dull pain from old bruises in my flanks, screaming at me to scuttle back through the gateway to Sharrowford or haul myself up the sheer side of the library-cliff and hide, hide, hide among the stacks.

I almost did, or at least tried to – but then Lozzie squeezed my hand, my palm clammy and cold. She anchored me, just as my legs twitched to bolt.

“Heathy,” she hissed. “Stay. Stay. Good girl.”

I had to stare and her and blink several times before she resolved from a mass of meaningless flesh and flaps, back into my Lozzie, almost surprised to find her there. She smiled for me, that elfin little smile on a mischievous face. I managed a nod, squeezed her hand tighter in mind. “Right … right, yes. Can’t run away, we’re here for Maisie. Yes. We must get moving, we … oh. Oh dear.”

Nobody was moving.

Lozzie – and to an extent, I – were the only ones immune to the alien scale of the library stacks.

“Is that the … the … like,” Twil was still looking upward, her breath shaking as she tired in vain to sound normal. She was plastered with cold sweat. “Is that the … the librarians? Librarians. Heh, heh, yeah, ‘squid-faces’ was right. Sick. Yeah, sick. Sick shit. Sick. Sick.”

Raine was trying to keep her gaze low and her shield up, but I knew her body language too well not to read the shock in every muscle. She suddenly seemed absurd, a hermit crab wrapped in a borrowed shells that would not protect her from sharks out here. Zheng stood a pace or two ahead of her, at the mouth of the little cove of books, alternately baring her teeth and flaring her nostrils, a predator confronted by a creature it could not understand.

Evelyn stared in mute, overt awe, lost in the sheer size of the library. Her breathing had turned rough. She kept swallowing.

A glance back at the gateway –  at the warm soft light of Evelyn’s magical workshop just the other side of reality – and I caught Praem just as frozen. That I hadn’t expected. That almost lurched me straight into panic. She was standing there with her head tilted upward, milk-white blank eyes no wider or narrower than they always were, but she was looking, and lost.

It was extremely important to me in that moment that Praem, of all beings, was not incapable in this place.

“Praem,” I hissed.

“Praem-y,” Lozzie joined.

“Praem.” Harder, a snap. “Pay attention.”

Praem’s head snapped down, and without a word she began what she was meant to be doing. She took one of the old hiking sticks and rammed the sharp metal point into the library floorboards, right next to the gateway. Then she cracked one of the long-life survival glow-sticks, and duct-taped it to the top of the hiking pole.

A light-pole, to guide us home.

She turned to stare at me, expressionless and unreadable. I managed to nod a thank you, then hiccuped twice. That light-pole was so tiny. That was meant to guide us home? In all this vast darkness, this giant catalogue, a cheap camping glow-stick stamped with ‘made in China’ and ‘non-toxic’ was meant to guide us back to safety? We were fools.

Above us, miles up in the overhead gloom, a great shape shifted like a limb passing across a darkened window. Out in the canyon floor, something scuttled across the books, sending pages skittering across the wood. Deeper off in the library, a sound that might have been a laugh reached us at the very edge of hearing. Silence lay on us like a shroud.

I hiccuped again, hard enough to hurt.

“I thought the library was cool,” Lozzie said, her voice all but soaked up by the silence.

“It … it is, Lozzie, it is. Sort of. We can’t do this, not like this. Raine!” I hissed, sharp as I could.

“He-hey? Heather?” Raine’s head twitched round, eyes wide, a little pale – and on a hair-trigger of terrible violence. She was ready to beat something to death.

“Focus on yourself,” I told her, voice shaking. “On your body. On- on the things nearby. On me, if you have to. Don’t look at the difficult things. That’s how I always dealt with it, when I Slipped. Don’t look. Don’t think about it. Focus on surviving. I need you, Raine. I need you here, and … together. Right now.”

The words cost me, but Raine repaid the debt tenfold. She stepped back, right next to me, quickly propped her home-made riot shield against her hip and took my shoulder in one hand.

“Right you are, boss,” she said. She blew out a long, slow breath and pulled a very artificial but very welcome grin. “Focus on your immediate surroundings. On me. Cool. Here, yo, touch my hand, here.” She wormed her free hand down into mine. “This is real, I’m real, and right in front of you. Look,” she nodded, grin turning genuine. “Lozzie’s here too. Say hi, Loz.”

“Hi Loz,” Lozzie chirped, and smothered a giggle.

“Good,” I said. “Good. Okay, we’re all here. We’re all here.”

“That we are.” Raine puffed another sigh, a sharp one. “Heather, I gotta admit, I am only just keeping it together. This place is whacko. But I’m doing it the same way I deal with everything, like you said. Focus close, on what matters. Eyes on the prize.” She winked, and squeezed my hand, and I saw she had broken out in cold sweat too. “Fuck this place.”

“Fuck it, woo,” Lozzie said softly.

“Lozzie!” I tutted, grasping another anchor of normality. “Language.”

“You two both stick real close to me, okay?” Raine said, with a sidelong glance at Zheng’s back. The demon-host was still standing there, issuing a silent, wide eyed challenge at this entire dimension. “I want you right on my heels, the whole time we’re here.”

“Ahhhhh? But Rainey-Raines, it’s fine here,” Lozzie said.

“Do it for Heather,” Raine replied, not unkindly.

“Oh-kaaaaaay.” Lozzie pouted, then puffed her cheeks out. Another anchor, and I mastered the panic attack I’d been trying to ignore for the last few minutes, crushed it down inside me.

I was Outside, but for the first time ever I had my friends with me. We were together, we had a plan, and it was going to work. Whatever Raine had been doing all yesterday, she was still my rock. She would stand in front of me and we’d make each other safe. She’d known to repeat back to me the very reassurances I’d offered her. I leaned on her, she leaned on me.

“Hey, left hand.” Raine raised her voice ever so slightly – soaked up by the silent gloom – and called to Zheng. “You gonna be alright?”

Zheng did not answer. I noticed she was curling and uncurling the fingers of both hands, making and unmaking fists over and over.

“Zheng,” I said. “I need you. Are you here?”

“With you, shaman,” Zheng purred, so soft it was almost lost in the heavy silence of the library. Raine shrugged and tapped her temple in a ‘she-be-crazy’ gesture.

“There’s no time for that now,” I whispered to Raine.

“Be careful of her, while we’re here,” Raine whispered back.

I did not have time to unpack that, Raine’s jealousy and rivalry and whatever she thought of Zheng. Instead I turned to the person who really did worry me the most.

“Evee,” I hissed. “Evelyn. Take charge.”

“Mm?” Evelyn looked round, quivering gently as she leaned heavily on her walking stick – and I realised with a lurch in my stomach that the fear on her face was far outweighed by awe and hunger.

“Take charge,” I repeated. “Or I will.”

She blinked three times, like a roughly awakened sleepwalker. “Ah … yes, yes, right. Right.” She suddenly glanced around with a sense of bird-like urgency, sucking on her teeth and inhaling deeply. “Right, we all made it through. Nobody venture further than this, not yet. Zheng, you stay exactly where you are, not one step further forward before we’ve tested the ground. I need the nuts. Praem, get the light by the- oh, you’ve already done it, good, good, well done. Get over here then, right here, next to me.” Evelyn clicked her fingers by her side, summoning her doll-demon familiar to her side.

“Squid-faces are on the move,” Twil announced.

“What? What now?” Evelyn followed Twil’s gaze upward, to the squid-faced librarians leaning over a banister to peer at us. A large group of them was peeling off from their little huddle, heading for the nearest stairs down, only a little over thirty or forty feet to our left, visible just over the top of one of the book dunes. “Oh, them.”

“What do we do?” Twil asked, wide-eyed at Evelyn, still pale and unsure.

“They are the least of our worries, but keep an eye on them.” She clicked her fingers again. “Raine, watch them. Twil, watch the nearest stairs. They’ll approach us as soon as they can, and we don’t move from this spot until they do, we have to deal first.”

“Right.” Twil swallowed, nodding slowly. An order from Evelyn apparently went quite far with her. “Right, I can do that. Can do. Will do. Stairs, right. Watch the stairs.”

“Are you in charge now, Evee?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” she hissed back, eyes everywhere at once, on the ground beyond our little shelter of book-drifts, on Praem offering her the first of the cloth-wrapped metal nuts, on Zheng standing there staring out across the canyon, on Twil staring off to the left to watch the stairs. “I’m sorry, I … I know, you’ve described all this in the past, Heather, but … it’s … ” She sighed heavily and shook her head. “It’s beautiful.”

“Kind of, yes,” I said, but I frowned at Evelyn, at the way she marvelled at this place.

“It’s fucking weird is what it is,” Twil grunted over her shoulder. “Sounds don’t carry. S’too big.”

Evelyn weighed the first of the cloth-wrapped nuts in one hand, looking at the book-strewn floor beyond where Zheng stood. “I’ll do the first one, but I don’t have the arm nor the aim for this once we get going. This is your job, Praem. A big responsibility, you understand?”

“I trust you, you trust me,” Praem sang softly, even her clear, bell-like tones muted by the enforced library silence.

“Right, right,” Evelyn said, and had to rub her eyes for a moment.

“Take your time, Evee,” Raine said. “Deep breaths.”

“Oh, shut up,” Evelyn hissed back. “I’m fine. We’re fine. We can do this, it’s going to be fine, I’m just … ” She shook her head slowly, allowing herself another awe-tainted glance up the vast canyon-side of library floors. For a heart-stopping moment her gaze seemed to slip away entirely.

“Evee,” I said. “Stay here.”

“My mother would have gouged out her own eyes for this,” she murmured, and then a nasty little smile worked its way onto her lips.

“Ew,” went Lozzie.

“I’m not joking,” Evelyn mused, voice low and dark. “This place, places like this. This is why the Sharrowford Cult were trying to re-create somebody like Lozzie, by feeding children to the Star under the castle, why Edward Lilburne was so eager to get Lozzie back. She finished the unsolved portion of the gate equation, after all. All they have is the one to take them to the fog dimension, not truly Outside, not like this. Precise access to Outside opens up such vast vistas of power and possibility.” Evelyn let out a slow, unsteady sigh. “If she could see me now.”

“Getting creepy there, Evee,” Raine said.

“Oh, don’t be-”

“Yes, Evee,” I cleared my throat. “Please, don’t … don’t get lost out here. You said it yourself.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, I’m hardly going to lose sight of our purpose here. Excuse me for feeling moved. I’m not going to turn into a megalomaniac, relax. Actually don’t relax, that’s a bad idea here. Stay … stay ‘frosty’, as Raine might say.” She cleared her throat too, awkwardly. “It’ll be easier on all of us once we get up into the floors themselves, but down here is a little too much for the senses to take, myself included. Indeed.”

“There’s no horizon,” said Twil.

Her voice was empty.

We should have realised something was wrong. Twil hadn’t reacted to any of what Evelyn had said, hadn’t joined in with the good-natured ribbing to help talk her down from the edge of rapture. Twil’s voice trickled out, a broken mumble of shuddering confusion. When she turned to us she was covered in cold sweat, her pupils dilated wide. Her form flickered with wisps of spirit-matter, werewolf transformation starting and stopping as she shook all over, baring her teeth, panting too fast.

“Oh hell,” Evelyn said. “You blithering idiot, what did you do?”

Twil raised a hand and pointed off to the left, down the length of the canyon. “It goes- goes- goes- goes-”

“The laangren is overwhelmed, wizard,” Zheng purred without turning around. “No place for monkeys or wolves or Gods here.”

“Oh no,” Lozzie said, distraught. “Fuzzy, no. Fuzzy, no no.”

“Goes on forever,” Twil finally squeezed out. “Ever. Ever. How can there not be a horizon? How can it go on forever?”

Twil pressed her lips together and made a muffled ‘nnnnn’ sound inside her mouth, and I knew this place had already come within a hair’s breadth of breaking her.

She had, in fact, followed Evelyn’s instructions to the letter, and craned up on her tiptoes to watch the nearest of the stairways up to the first of the library catalogue floors, waiting for our welcoming committee to pick their way down to the ground. I could see them now over Twil’s shaking shoulder – lean, ragged, greyish figures creeping down the stairs and peering at us with a disconcerting lack of eyes – and I also glimpsed what had upset her.

Past the stairs, past the book-dunes, across the scattered volumes, there was no horizon.

Perhaps there was a wall, a million miles away, but the length of the library canyon simply faded into haze with incredible distance. Whatever we stood on, it did not curve, even on the scale of a planet.

The human mind is extraordinarily adaptable, but that wet circuitry requires time to adjust, or must be born knowing nothing but the conditions into which it is thrust. It was never the gribbly beasties or the blood and guts that got me out here, Outside, during all those Slips across my teenage decade; it was the experiences like that, simple facts of space and scale that the human mind did not evolve for.

“How would- would anyway- would-” Twil was struggling now, almost hyperventilating. “How was this even built?”

“It wasn’t,” I said. “Twil, don’t think about that. Don’t think about it.”

“Fuzzy, touch! Touch!” Lozzie stretched out her hand, but Twil didn’t even look at it.

“I-I can’t- oh fuck me this is weird. This is-” Twil broke into a panting chuckle. “Why I am laughing? Why am I laughing?! There’s no horizon!”

Evelyn took two quick paces toward Twil, and I winced at an impending slap.

But to my incredible surprise, Evelyn reached up with one hand and grabbed Twil by the back of the neck. She drew the panicking werewolf in close, so close they were almost touching, unafraid of the flickering outline of wolf-snout inches from her own face. A quick, furtive brush of hands passed between them, and Evelyn whispered something into Twil’s ear, soft and lost amid the great silence of the library. When she pulled back, Twil blinked at her several times, took a deep breath, and nodded. She mastered the panic-shift, and was all human again.

“I’m serious,” Evelyn said, and looked deeply uncomfortable as she glanced back at the rest of us. “If you can’t, then I won’t ask you to. Value yourself more than my-”

“Nah. Fuck that.” Twil grinned, shook herself like a dog, and flexed her hands as she shifted them into werewolf claws. “Let’s go all the way, Evee.”

Evelyn blushed an incandescent red.

“Have we got time for this, you two?” Raine asked with a laugh. “Not that I’m complaining. Get it on, yeah, good for you, but maybe later.”

“Shut up,” Evelyn snapped at her. She turned away with a flourish of her walking stick, and stomped forward to the mouth of the sheltered cove of book-drifts, but no further than where Zheng already stood. She shot a sidelong look at the zombie, then seemed to mentally put her to one side. “Our little welcoming committee is on their way, yes, everyone concentrate. Praem, by my side, and get the book ready. Nobody react when the librarians approach. Do not touch them. Do not speak to them. Do not do anything. Leave this to me.”

Twil stepped forward as well, to stand by Evelyn, but Evee hissed in frustration and tried to wave Twil back with her walking stick; Twil caught the stick in one clawed hand. “I can stand still. At your elbow.”

Evelyn stared at her for moment. “Do your werewolf thing.”

“What? But you said-”

“Don’t question me now,” Evelyn hissed. “Do it.”

In the blink of an eye, a ball of teeth and claw and thick, sleek fur stood at Evelyn’s side. Praem joined a second later. Zheng didn’t bother to move. Lozzie squeezed my hand tight, and Raine lifted her riot-shield.

The librarians arrived.

They were not quite as towering as in my fear-packed memories, the tallest of them perhaps six and a half feet in height, the shortest nearer five, but they were every inch as unsettling as I recalled. Humanoid, lean and stringy, with strange lumps and ripples concealed beneath their long ragged grey sackcloth robes. The flesh of their exposed hands and forearms was a leather-thick grey hide, liver-spotted and calloused.

In place of a face, each librarian creature possessed a mass of ropey grey tentacles, like a twitching beard. Long sea-urchin spines emerged from between the tentacles. No eyes, no mouth, no nose.

About a dozen of the grey librarians came shuffling around the nearest book drift. Many of them carried small stacks of books clutched to their chests, as if we’d interrupted them in the process of sorting and cataloguing. A few held metal lanterns with handfuls of crushed glowing rock inside glass enclosures. Two carried the frightening barbed iron instruments I’d seen on my previous visit, hooked man-catchers on long poles, but they didn’t level the weapons at us or make threatening gestures, despite the way Zheng’s face split with a huge, predatory grin at the sight of them, despite the way she rumbled deep in her throat.

“Do. Not. Fuck. With. Them,” Evelyn hissed at Zheng through her teeth.

“Please, Zheng, please,” I whispered.

“They are nothingness,” Zheng purred. “Appendages. Pitiful. Fit only for tearing off.”

“Don’t,” I hissed.

The librarians drew to a halt, far too close for comfort, only about six feet away from Evelyn. I saw the way she shook slightly with the beating of her own heart, the way Twil eased forward to cover her.

“Praem,” Evelyn hissed, fingers twitching. “Praem, the book. Now.”

Praem dutifully placed a familiar slim volume into Evelyn’s hand. Holding her breath, Evelyn offered the book to the librarians, at arm’s length.

Four of the squid-faced scribes all accepted the offering at the same time, with one hand each, like separate arms of an octopus moving in unnerving unison. Evelyn cringed away from the threat of actual physical contact, but none of their hands touched her. The librarians took the book from her, and three of them gave up their claim as the fourth one held it the book up to his non-face. He – I did think of them as male – seemed to examine the book for a moment, though how he did that without eyes, I had no idea.

He brought the book right up to his face, as a very short-sighted old man might.

Then he ate it.

Or at least, that’s how it looked. He pushed the book into his own face and the roots of his tentacles parted without the slightest resistance or gap around the book’s cover. His entire head swallowed the volume as if he’d fed it into a slot. The tentacles closed behind it with a perfect seal, and it was gone. The whole process took less than a second.

“What the,” I breathed.

“Oh. Ew,” Twil growled through a mouth with too many teeth.

“Shhh,” Evelyn hissed, eyes still glued to the librarians.

Suddenly, a different member of the scribe-huddle began to twitch and shudder. He parted his own robes and reached inside, affording us a momentary glimpse of writhing grey organs and supplementary limbs and dry surfaces shifting over each other. His spindly grey hand returned as he pulled the robes closed, holding up the very same book his counterpart had just swallowed.

Untouched, clean, not covered in slime or half-digested. He turned and handed it to a third librarian, who added it to the stack of books he was carrying.

“That was the one Heather took, so we could aim the gate,” Evelyn said, exhaling with relief. “We have just returned our library book.”

“That is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen,” Twil growled again.

“Get used to it,” I sighed.

“We can talk now,” Evelyn said, softly, but without taking her eyes off the librarians. They still watched us in return. “But they might understand us, so don’t insult them or suggest anything untoward.”

“They speak English?” Raine asked, an incredulous laugh in her voice.

“I doubt very much that their understanding relies on anything as crude as language. Be polite.”

Fingers,” Zheng purred. “Cells. Slaves. Tear off your bonds, weaklings.”

“Be polite,” Evelyn repeated, tight and angry. “And we’re not done yet. Pray this works, or we’re going to have to do this the hard way, and that will take days.”

 She tilted her chin upward, took a breath, and spoke three words.

The words hurt, like nails down a blackboard, like a scrape across the inside of my skull. Twil flinched and shook herself, Raine winced, and even Zheng blinked once. Lozzie giggled – which was worse. Praem offered a handkerchief for Evelyn, who turned and spat blood.

The squid-faced librarians didn’t react.

“Guess that means it didn’t work?” Raine asked. “What was that, anyway?”

“Asking directions,” Evelyn coughed more blood, then wiped her mouth on the handkerchief. “Where to find books written by creatures like us. Maybe I need to rephrase-”

The librarians all raised a hand each, in unison, as one – and all pointed in totally different directions.

“Great,” Twil laughed without humour, a strange sound from a wolf’s snout.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “The hard way, then. We’re going to have to set up a circle. Praem has the necessary-”

“No, watch. Look,” I said.

Slowly, with the inevitability of plants turning toward the sun, the librarians adjusted their decision. One of them moved his hand to match another, then a few more joined this slim consensus. Others wavered in another direction, as if some silent, internal debate was taking place, but eventually the dissenters were swayed to the majority opinion. The last few hold-outs gave in with a rush not to be last, until every squid-face was pointing upward, behind us, up the cliff-face of library floors.

Evelyn craned over her shoulder to look.

“Uh, what floor are they pointing at?” Twil asked.

“Up,” I sighed. “Just up.”

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