any mortal thing – 14.18

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“No, you’re not really him.” I couldn’t keep the shiver out of my voice. “Not really.”

The King in Yellow sighed through a dead man’s lips. He tilted his chin down, as if to look at me over the rim of an imaginary pair of glasses. Alexander Lilburne’s visage wore a note of ostentatious boredom.

“Well, no,” he drawled. “Not literally. Not by your categorically inadequate definition of ‘the real’. But the events which happen on stage, when in role, really do happen. The motions of muscle and sinew are not fake, the sound of spoken words are not hallucination; the dagger in the night may indeed be made of rubber, but the fist which grips it is real flesh. But that’s not the branch of philosophy we’re here to discuss, is it?” He gestured at the empty chair with one yellow-bandaged hand. “You have had an exceptionally long journey to reach this point. No need to tire your feet further. Please, Lavinia, do sit down.”

“I told you not to call me that,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

Wrong response. Alexander’s sick amusement returned like a sunburst from behind the clouds. He showed his teeth and raised his eyebrows, relishing my irritation and discomfort.

I matched his stare. My tentacles itched to reach across the coffee table, yank him out of his chair, and throttle the life from him, or pluck his limbs off, or punch through the thin bone of his skull to scramble his brains with hook and claw. Abyssal instinct screamed incoherent urges to sink my teeth into his throat or jam my thumbs into his eyes. My bioreactor quivered, trying to shed control rods in preparation for a fight. I slipped my hands deeper into the warm yellow darkness of Sevens’ robes so he wouldn’t see them shaking. My body recalled killing this foe once before and it was ready to do so again.

Except this wasn’t Alexander Lilburne; this was the King in Yellow, and he was more than capable of defending himself against something like me.

Keeping that fact in mind was difficult, to say the least.

“ … wait,” I managed, trying to stay focused on why I was here in the first place. “Are you responsible for all this? For Alexander’s revenge? For the dead hands? For … ”

The King in Yellow managed to make his Alexander-mask look so unimpressed that the real man himself would have admitted defeat. He looked at me like I was a particularly dim child who’d just eaten a pound of glue and chased it with a pair of scissors.

“No,” I murmured. “No, the hands started long before I met Sevens, right after Lozzie saved me from Wonderland. Unless you’ve been watching me this whole time, it couldn’t possibly be you.”

Alexander-in-Yellow raised his bandaged hands and gave me a derisively delicate round of applause, fingertips against palm. His smug smile made me want to spit at him, but the clapping itself was stiff and artificial, as if the bandaged body had not quite caught up with the transformation of the face. Was he like Sevens when I’d first met her? An imitation head on an Outsider body?

“Well done, Lavinia,” he said. “You see? You can get there when you try. The phenomenon which interrupts your clever trick of stepping between worlds has nothing to do with me. I am merely wearing the visage of the cause. And such a visage it is, too. Why, just look at him.” The King spread both hands either side of Alexander’s face, striking a self-consciously noble, upward-angled pose, like a bust of a Roman senator. He ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. “This chin, this nose, these lips. This man should have been a real leader, not a con artist and a cannibal, feeding on his fellows. If I’d had my hands on him, I would have molded him into a man worth the tyrant’s death you gave him.”

“Why wear his face?” I asked. In the secret back rooms of my mind, I already knew.

The King tutted. “Lavinia, come now. That question is beneath your intelligence. Playing dumb will not get you far with me.”

I shook my head, so disgusted I could feel acid reflux at the base of my throat. “This is too accurate, this … this method acting, is that what it is? It’s vile. It’s obscene. I killed this man, you … your majesty.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “And you’re making me talk to him again? I mean, yes, I can guess why, I’m not completely stupid, but … ” Saldis’ words rang in my mind, her explanation of what the dead hands really were. “I can’t forgive him. I can’t do that.”

His-Smugness-of-Yellow nodded along, smile cutting deeper than I’d known possible.

“Indeed,” he purred.

I let out a sigh that shuddered with both anger and anxiety, trying to keep a tight grip on my temper, my instincts, and the sandwiches in my stomach, which now sat like cold lead in my guts. I forced my gaze away from the King, away from Alexander’s memory, and looked out at the crowd of 1920s-era cosplayers in their ring around the edge of the circular white room.

A few of them were watching us, but only with an occasional disinterested glance over their drinks. We didn’t present much spectacle compared with the three attractions the King had put on for them — Saldis telling a roaring tale of going a-viking, her three rats the darlings of her listeners; the forest-knight locked in an endless dance of combat with yellow tentacles, showing off his skills with his axe; Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight scuttling about and chattering through her needle-teeth as she repositioned and recombined the actresses in her web of imaginary sapphic romance.

Sevens’ voice seemed so far away, like I was standing backstage.

“This is not a good first impression of my … ” I swallowed and steeled myself. “Of my future father-in-law.”

The King in Yellow shrugged with every ounce of Alexander’s self-importance. He gestured at the chair again. “Sit, please. We have so much to discuss.”

Fighting my disgust, I yanked the chair out with one tentacle and sat down, gathering the mass of Sevens’ yellow robes and smoothing them over my backside as I lowered myself into the chair. I managed to keep my eyes locked with the King, but unfortunately he did not care; his imitation of Alexander’s superiority complex was far too complete. Once I was settled, I fought against the urge to slip my squid-skull mask on over my head — somewhere deep down, I knew this was an unfair contest. If I wore my mask, I would forfeit my opportunity.

“I’ve taken the liberty of making you some coffee,” he said, his smile giving away the game, the set, the match, the whole damn sport. He nodded at the steaming cup on my side of the little plastic table. “I didn’t know if you prefer it black, or heavily sugared, or with milk, so I went with the safe option. Mediocre.” He rolled his eyes. “Boring, but safe.”

“I thought you knew everything about me,” I said, trying to sneer.

Alexander’s eyebrows shot up in carefully controlled surprise. “Why, no. That’s my daughter’s prerogative. I have no interest in stories such as yours, not beyond the proficiency of their technical execution. You and I do not know each other yet, that is the point of this friendly chat. However, I do know that you were bold enough to stand up to me when I wore my armour and carried a sword. Which is why I’ve done my homework, and … voila!” He gestured at his face again.

Hope fluttered behind my ribs. He said it with Alexander’s cloying, oily tones, which invited suspicion and derision, but that was actual praise. How much could I trust?

“You mean Hast—” I cut myself off, biting my lips before I could say the full name.

Alexander laughed at my expense, a stomach-churning sound. He tapped the coffee table with his fingertips. “Hastur, yes. I was impressed, oh, quite, very impressed. Very few beings attempt to defy that. Humans, lesser still. Most would run, screaming, fouling themselves, mere bit-parts to be quickly discarded or used to illustrate some point. A few might get down on their hands and knees and profess their allegiance. But you? You threatened to give me indigestion. That’s front-of-stage material.”

“I’ve been swallowed by worse.”

He smiled and it was all Alexander. All smug self-importance, the look of a man sizing up a prospect to be flattered just enough to ensnare and exploit.

I couldn’t stop myself. I opened my mouth wide and hissed at him.

He just took it, raising his eyebrows and smiling all the wider. When I finished, panting and glowering, he gestured at the coffee again.

“Please, don’t hold back on my account,” he said.

I didn’t even bother looking down at the steaming coffee. “When the real Alexander offered me a drink, it was probably drugged. And I didn’t fall for it then either.”

“Very smart. Very sensible.”

“I am not the same creature I was when I sat at the real version of this table,” I said slowly, letting my tentacles drift outward from inside Sevens’ yellow robes, allowing the hint of a hiss into my words from my twisted, knotted throat. In truth, I did not feel one hundredth as intimidating as I was trying to look. I was a fragile insect trying to flare the imitation snake-eyes on my wings; but this predator was too canny, too intelligent. He saw through everything.

“Hello, not the same creature,” said Bastard-in-Yellow, “I’m dad.”

All my fronting slammed to a halt, mouth hanging open. “ … did … you just … what?”

“Indeed, you are not the same creature you were back then,” the King continued seamlessly after his awful joke. He reached across the table with one bandaged hand and picked up the steaming cup of coffee. As he sat back, Alexander’s mannerisms flowed through his bandaged body, shoulders flexing, one leg crossed over the other, relaxing into a pose of unassailable confidence. He took a long sip of the coffee and smacked his lips. “You have become so much more, Lavinia. After all, when you spoke to the real Alexander at this table, you were not yet a murderer.”

Murderer. He drew the word out, savouring the three syllables like caviar, watching me for the slightest reaction.

I didn’t give him any satisfaction — I looked away, toward Sevens in her weird little blood-goblin mask, scuttling about between her lesbian volunteers. She didn’t return my gaze, too lost in her father’s trick, but I caught a flash of those huge red-black eyes like shadowed rubies, that strangely wide mouth full of tiny sharp teeth, those delicate cheekbones and petite nose. Her bare arms and legs vibrated with energy, like she was mainlining caffeine, cocaine, and cortisol all at once.

I’m not sure why I looked away from the King. What was the point? I knew what he was up to, and what he was trying to get me to do. I knew what this was about. I knew and acknowledged and accepted that I had committed murder. Furthermore, he was wrong in one important detail. He didn’t have me complete. Did he not know?

“This is cruel,” I said. “You know that?”

“Oh, Lavinia,” he sighed with Alexander’s voice, losing patience. “Cruelty is hardly my intention. If I was being cruel, would I have invited you to a friendly sit down? You cannot even imagine what cruelty from me looks like, you—”

“Not this.” I turned back to him and tapped the table with the tip of one tentacle. “That.”

I pointed out at the crowd, our uninvited and unexpected audience. I pointed at Saldis and the forest-knight, at the silently laughing onlookers, the ones making bets, the ones whispering to each other, the ones clapping with delight. But mostly I pointed at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

Lilburne-in-Yellow raised his eyebrows at me. He knew exactly what I meant, the worm, but he was going to make me say it anyway. He wanted to make me say it out loud.

“Ah? Cruel?”

“Yes,” I hissed. “It’s cruel. To put people on display against their will. Saldis, well, probably not her. I’ll bet she’s having the time of life right now. The knight, you’re probably stressing him out, though I don’t know him well enough to be sure. But Sevens?” I shook my head, anger building inside my gut, a head of steam making ready to burst. “You’re mocking her. If that’s how you treat your own daughter, how you treat her passions, the meaning of her life, then perhaps you really are just like Alexander. Perhaps I should pulverise you like I did to him. I’ve stared down the Eye, your majesty. I know how to observe truth. What will I see if I turn that look on you?”

Alexander’s smug amusement drained away, leaving behind a cold landscape of wordless arrogance. I had offended him with that, with a threat that I suddenly realised was not a bluff.

“Are you prepared for what you might see?” he asked, unsmiling. “There is no little man behind the curtain.”

“Stop treating her like that,” I hissed. “Or I’ll claw your face off.”

Kingly Alexander held my gaze for three heartbeats — perhaps waiting to see if I would really do it. I let my tentacles twitch outward, I pulled a control rod out of my bioreactor, and I tensed up to spring out of my chair and across the table, ready to give it everything I had yet again, to defend a friend — or more? — from this abusive monster, even if he was only a mask. A hyperdimensional equation suggested itself in the back of my mind, whispered to me: see.

But before I could pull the trigger, Alexander sighed and looked away. He raised one hand in the air, moving it from side to side to cover the whole room as he clicked his fingers three times. How he clicked his fingers wrapped in bandages, I had no idea.

His clicking got the attention of his yellow children, the entire audience. Hundreds of faces paused and looked toward him.

“Leave,” he said, voice filling the white room. He waggled a pair of fingers at the far side, where we had entered earlier. “Go on, out. Off you go.”

I was expecting them to vanish like dawn mist, like the illusory projections they were. But a chorus of disappointment rippled through the crowd, faces falling, frowns blossoming, big sighs and over-dramatic shrugs and performative stomps. Some gestured toward the display of their choice — most of those were watching the forest-knight’s gladiatorial showdown, though to my eyes the fight was locked in a never-ending stalemate. A few even opened their mouths and began to voice complaints, the first they’d spoken out loud since their chants of “No mask!”

“But father—”

“You can’t be serious!”

“We’ve only just begun—”

“Dear Seven is going to solve this one, I know it, I—”

The King in Yellow clicked his fingers again and jabbed toward the door which had appeared in the white surface of the curving wall. “Now. You will leave.

In his words I caught the faintest hint of the magical compulsion that the real Alexander had used in life, when we’d faced him on the battlements of his grey jade castle, and later when he’d tried to bring Lozzie back to his side. It hadn’t worked well for him then, but the King in Yellow held an authority that Alexander could only have dreamed of. As one his yellow family gave up on the triple show. Drinks were drained, currency changed hands, arms were linked and kisses given and off they went in one great departing wave, sulking and striding and strutting out of the white doors, into the corridor barely visible beyond. Some of them tossed me winks or meaningful nods or just shook their heads. A few of the women blew me kisses. One particularly ancient old man — who was not an old man at all, I had to remind myself — saluted me with a mahogany walking stick, in utter sombre respect.

The King in Yellow clicked his fingers a couple of times more, still holding his hand high over his own head.

“Orbit, Melancholy, Steel,” he said, “you three stay. I may have need of you.”

Three figures detached themselves from the departing crowd, though I saw that all three had not been making the best effort to leave in the first place, perhaps expecting this retroactive summons. The three resumed their places around the edge of the circular white room, roughly equidistant. I recognised Melancholy — she still wore the same face as earlier, brown and weathered and more than a little grumpy, though I hadn’t spotted her in the crowd, dressed in a simple, unflattering black dress from throat to ankle. Perhaps my nap in Sevens’ bed had given her time to return from her trip to the library.

I had no idea who ‘Orbit’ and ‘Steel’ were. One appeared to be a small boy with an ugly smirk on his face, the kind of smirk that told you he’d just tortured a puppy to death. He was dressed in a tiny dinner suit, blonde hair slicked back, slightly overweight. The other was an older lady who looked more like she should be commanding troops on a battlefield than dressed for a party, with close-cropped grey hair and a severe, strict expression, hands clasped behind a very straight back, eyes forward, feet planted.

The rest of the audience finished filing out. A young man with messy hair was the last through the doors. He turned on his heel and pulled them shut behind him with a wistful sigh.

The doors vanished, sealing us inside the white ballroom. Then Melancholy, Orbit, and Steel all changed.

Melancholy didn’t surprise me. In the blink of an eye she was the grand sphinx once more, ten or eleven feet of feline muscle settling down on her haunches to watch the unfolding drama. She caught my eye with her electric yellow gaze, rumbling a deep purr and blinking once in recognition, but offering no encouragement.

The horrible little boy was replaced by a creature which I swear was just a five-foot rectangle of yellow sponge, but then he seemed to change his mind, becoming something not unlike a centaur — if a centaur was one third praying mantis, one third slug, and one third chimpanzee. Slime-coated yellow muscle flowed into bristly arms and green plates, topped by a head with twitching antennae and massive compound eyes. Whatever it was, it was barely Outsider, could have easily been a spirit back on Earth.

The severe older woman, however, donned a true nightmare.

Humanoid, wrapped in a black carapace, shiny like a beetle; tall as Zheng, but all angular and sharp, as if skin was pulled taut around ribcage and hips and every bone of the limbs. All tooth and claw, a living bundle of black razor blades. Elongated head, smooth and black, no eyes. Strangler’s hands. Tail like an anchor-chain tipped with a blade as big as a spade. It curled up on its haunches, squatting like an ape, but moving with the grace and fluidity of a serpent.

As pure visual data it was no more disturbing than half the pneuma-somatic life I saw on a regular basis, but something about this creature was different. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, my bowels clenched in terror, and my tentacles drew into a protective ball around my core. The thing clearly showed it was relaxed, squatting and watching, but a hiss rose in my throat all the same, prompted by a desperate need to signal that I was not prey and I would fight back.

But it was right next to Sevens. She was still chattering on to herself, adjusting her actresses, currently deciding the exact angle at which two of them would kiss. She didn’t even notice the grim reaper crouched next to her.

Abyssal instinct started to scream: that thing had to die, right now, as quickly as possible. I couldn’t even take my eyes off it, because it might move, and somehow I knew that when it did, it would move so very fast. I would lose track of it and it might scoop up Sevens and Sevens was so very small, smaller than me, and could not defend herself. That thing was an infection, a plague; it had to die.

I started to jerk forward out of my chair, skin blossoming with toxins, tentacles plating themselves with molecule-thick iridium and silicon.

“No,” drawled the King in Yellow, most unimpressed. I flinched round to hiss at him, but discovered he was not talking to me. “Steel, no,” he repeated.

The horrible man-beetle-death-thing gave a low hiss to rival one of my own. I bristled and hissed back, but then Steel obeyed her father. In a flicker, the unacceptable aberration was gone, replaced by an actual human — the same grey-haired, strict-looking woman who had stood there before, but dressed in lumpy, shapeless, brown military fatigues. She raised an eyebrow at the King.

“You are here to provide a counterpoint,” he told her, “not antagonise our guest into a life-or-death fight. Have I made myself clear?”

“That is my counterpoint,” she said, voice hard and clipped, not quite human.

Yellow-Alexander pursed his lips, most displeased.

Steel rolled her eyes, but she nodded.

The King in Yellow turned back to me at last. I eased back into my chair, swallowing down the dregs of the killing instinct. With Steel back to her human mask, the desperate need to defend Sevens drained away, surprising me with its intensity. But the dregs of adrenaline still sluiced through my bloodstream.

“Better?” Alexander asked, spreading both bandaged hands to indicate the whole room.

I managed a nod. “Yes. Thank you.”

“I do apologise, Lavinia. It’s this mask.” He let out a haughty sigh, taking another sip from the coffee on the table. The cup hadn’t stopped steaming. “I’ve been wearing it for hours, you see, ever since you stood up to Hastur.” The King gestured at his own face — at Alexander’s face. “He was an exceptionally cruel man, wasn’t he? Classical sociopathic sadist, even if he told himself otherwise.”

“He was,” I answered tightly, still trying to bring my tentacles back in and slow my racing heart.

“Do you think he really believed his own justifications? Was he working to protect humankind, by leaving it behind?”

“I … I don’t know,” I admitted. It was the truth. “I don’t think it mattered, in the end.”

He nodded, slow and smug. “You’ve had your fun, Lavinia—”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Then stop avoiding the subject,” he snapped, suddenly angry, no longer amused — Alexander’s loss of control at loss of face. “You killed me, Lavinia. Little Lavinny. You became a murderer, because of me. Was it worth it?”

“I was a murderer before I killed you,” I said before I could stop myself. “Him. Before I killed him, I mean. You’re not Alexander, not really.”

“Ahhhhhh yes,” Alexander purred, steepling his bandaged hands together. A new kind of smile crested his face: the smile of a successful flanking. He’d expected me to say that, damn him, he did know everything. “The young initiate I sent with Amy Stack, to deliver your invitation to the real version of this friendly little chat. As I seem to recall, you killed him in one of the most horrible ways possible, a fate not even a dog should suffer.”

“I sent him Outside,” I admitted — and my voice cracked as I said it.

For a moment my mind returned to that dirty back alleyway, and to my ill-considered trip to the bookshop in the centre of Sharrowford, unprotected, unaccompanied, without Raine, before my tentacles, before the abyss. I’d run into Twil, but Stack had lured her away and I’d been left alone to be found by one of the cultists, by Alexander’s man. For a split second my body recalled the feeling of being pinned down by somebody bigger and stronger than me, the horror of being helpless, the writhing, twisting, kicking animal sensation as I’d tried to get free. I’d had to get rid of him, get him off me. Tenny had helped, distracted him for a moment, just long enough for me to free my hand. And then I’d sent him Outside. Gone. Long before I’d gained the knowledge to pinpoint location. Even if I had known how to retrieve him, back then one forced translocation left me shaking and spent, empty and exhausted, ready to pass out. I could not have performed another.

“Tell me, Lavinia, do you even remember his name?”

“Jake,” I said without hesitation. “You said it— he said it,” I hissed my correction. “In the coffee shop, the real one. I’ve never forgotten.”

“But that wasn’t murder, was it? You don’t think of it as murder. My blood is on your hands, but only metaphorically, not literally. You killed me without even pulling a trigger, Lavinia, but still I haunt you. You dream about me sometimes, don’t you? I turn up in your nightmares, though you often forget them by dawn. But poor Jake? You don’t dream about him, and you had to touch him with your actual hand, you had to press it into his face to kill him. But it wasn’t murder.”

I tried to wet my lips, but my mouth had gone dry. “It was a murder, technically it—”

“Technically? No, manslaughter at best. Any jury in the land — well, not this land, I mean England — would take one look at you and one look at him and rule in your favour. Reasonable force, belief in imminent attack, all that. No. It wasn’t murder.”

“It was self-defence,” I squeaked.

“Exactly,” Alexander pressed, smiling wide with victory. “And I wasn’t?”

“I mean it was a reflex!” I snapped, losing my temper, losing my cool, everything flooding out. “I wanted him off me, so I sent him elsewhere, but I didn’t mean to kill—”

I slammed to a stop. Alexander leaned back, smiling like a cat with a mouse trapped between his paws.

“But you did mean to kill me,” he said.

“Yes. Obviously, yes!” I turned away, angry and humiliated, having to admit this to the face of the man I’d murdered. I sought refuge in Sevens instead, her diminutive form scuttling about between her living dolls. She was totally absorbed, enjoying every second — not as fun, but as the creative flow of somebody doing what they really loved. That grounded me for a second, brought me back, gave me something to hold onto. I huddled down inside her yellow robes, warm as sunlight on my shoulders. I was shivering.

“Do you regret it?” Alexander asked.

I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it again. I focused on Sevens as hard as I could.

“Would you kill again, to protect your friends?” he went on. “Your family? Your lovers? Your sister?”

“Of course I would,” I said, still staring at Sevens to keep my head clear. “I had to. You were a monster, Alexander. If there had been another way, if I could have put you in prison for life, have you make some kind of restitution, then maybe I would have done that instead. But I’ll never know. Because you didn’t give me a chance.”

“Oh?” he asked, his mocking tone a twisted knife in my gut. “So I am responsible for my own murder? I am both victim and perpetrator? You said it yourself, Lavinia, there were other ways. You chose to kill me, to murder me, when you had other choices. You chose.”

“You were going to kill me and my friends.” I turned back to him at last, the heat in my chest like a runaway nuclear reaction, burning bright and hot and destructive in ways I couldn’t track anymore. “You were giving Zheng a command. We wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“You don’t know that,” he said, calm and cool. “Perhaps I was freeing her, like a final wish for a genie.” He laughed, well aware of the absurdity of his own words.

I swallowed hard, surprised to find a lump in my throat. My hands were shaking and my head was throbbing. Was this what it felt like to confront a person you’d murdered? Even a monster like Alexander Lilburne? There were no psychological guidelines for this, no tried and tested coping mechanisms. No coping mechanisms at all. Nobody in all history had done this before, not outside of dreams and nightmares and waking hallucinations.

This isn’t really him, I told myself.

“Is this … ” I croaked, had to clear my throat. “Is this all to get me to forgive him, so I can overcome the dead hands? Because I can’t forgive him. I can’t—”

“No, not particularly,” drawled the King in Yellow, suddenly Alexander but bored with all this. He leaned back with a sigh, all amusement gone. The tonal whiplash was too much, too unrealistic; I’d barely known Alexander, not for real, but in that moment I glimpsed the Yellow Ocean behind the mask, the player beneath the role, the man in charge.

I blinked at him. “ … what? But I—”

“We can conclude this right here. End this whole charade, this farce, this poorly written slapstick comedy. The nature of your tale does not interest me, Lavinia. My personal expertise, my art, my brilliance — is all in tragedies.” He allowed a thin smile to creep back onto his face. “And a particular kind of tragedy too, not the futile grubbing of worms in the poisonous dirt, but the tragedy of greatness brought low by its own flaws, blinded by lust for power, by ambition. I deal in great men devouring their own intestines, not … whatever you are.”

I puffed out a humourless laugh. “So what, you prefer King Lear? Would you be more interested if I gouged out my own eyeballs?”

A note of interest sparked in Alexander’s eyes, quiet and sudden and very still. “Will you?”

“No.”

He laughed too, a derisive snort. “I thought not. Well then, Lavinia. I have a deal to offer you.”

“A deal?”

“A deal, a contract, a royal writ. I can solve your problem, these so-called ‘dead hands’ which grasp at your ankles and block your path.” As he spoke, the King in Yellow began to unwrap the bandages from his right hand, starting with his index finger. I expected to see the soft palm and manicured fingernails of Alexander Lilburne, but the yellow bandages fell away to reveal flesh the colour of dying sunlight. No wrinkles, no fingernails, no little hairs on the knuckles — just smooth gold, glowing softly from within like the banked heart of a star.

“And I do not merely mean to brush them aside,” he continued as he revealed the hand. “I will brush them aside for all time, for you and Lauren Lilburne alike, and any other miscreants you care to pick up. I will remove the issue. You need not raise a finger but to shake my hand.” He finished the unwrapping process and held out the hand of the King, halfway across the coffee table.

My breath stopped in my throat. One of my tentacles twitched, but I controlled the impulse. “Alexander tried to make a deal with me too.”

The King in Yellow split Alexander’s face in a grin so smug it made me nauseated. “That he did, didn’t he?”

Then he waited. I rolled my eyes. “What’s the catch?”

“Shake my hand, take my deal — and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight cannot go with you.”

A sheet of ice settled in my stomach. “Ah.”

At the edge of the white room, Melancholy tossed her great sphinx’s head, mane ruffling in the air, and snorted through her nose. Steel, still closest to Sevens, sighed with a long-suffering exasperation. Orbit, the boy who had turned into the slug-centaur, made a sound like wet gravel poured into sewage — a laugh.

“You will remove that cloak.” The King nodded at my warm yellow robes, Sevens’ portable embrace, her symbol of affection. “And hand it over to me. It was, after all, never hers to give, not really.”

Something hard and spiky bristled inside me. “Sevens is an adult, as far as I understand, she—”

“She is, but this is a royal family, after all. Inheritance and all that. She is making a youthful mistake and it is my duty as her father to correct her. Don’t worry yourself, she won’t come to any harm.” He smiled, still speaking with a reasonable and mild tone, Alexander with the knowledge that he’d already won. The lie dripped from the gaps between his words. “I’m not going to lock her in her room or take away her possessions or force her into some partnership she doesn’t want. I’m not going to backhand her across her face as soon as you’re out of the picture.”

“Says you,” I snapped. “I can’t believe this. She’s free to make her own decisions.”

“She is making a mistake.” He nodded at the yellow hand, extended halfway between us. “All this deal will do is ensure the pain is minimal. That it happens at home, where she is surrounded by her family. That it is early on in the process, not late, not deep, not scarring. After all, you’ve already done enough damage, haven’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You have forced her against her own nature. Twice now.”

I stared for a moment, with nothing to say to that. I was caked in cold sweat, shivering despite the comfort of the yellow robes. I glanced down at the golden hand waiting for my assent. Tried to slow my thoughts, tried to step back from the situation and think it through. The King in Yellow loved tragedies. Would he sacrifice his own daughter for the sake of a play? Or was it all a lie, was I on the stage right now? I looked over at Sevens, playing with her dolls, but she was insensible to all this.

“This is obviously a test,” I murmured, nothing obvious about it.

Alexander sighed, so unimpressed he was getting bored. “No, the deal is quite real,” he drawled, flexing the fingers of the golden-yellow hand. “This is not Alexander’s, this is the hand of the king. Open your true eye and check if you must, little watcher. You of all beings should be able to verify that.”

I whirled back to him. “Little watcher?”

He shrugged.

“What does that mean?” I pressed. “Is that a term you made up just now, or have you seen something like me before?”

The King in Yellow shook his head. “I told you already, Lavinia, I am not interested in your tale. For you, there is only this deal, this way out. In fact, this is a step too far in the first place, I shouldn’t even really be offering it. I am indirectly helping you in your struggle. But if it will get you to go away, then that is a fair price, and I must pay it like all others.” He sighed, as if affronted at this ‘fair price.’ “Besides, you cannot seriously think that a human being, even one as changed as you, is a suitable romantic partner for one of us?”

“You took a human woman as your wife.”

I blurted it out before I could stop myself, the words tripping off my tongue.

Alexander’s smug, oily smile drained away, replaced by the truth beneath — the cold anger of narcissism challenged. The King was not impressed by my bleating. Despite how far I’d come, despite every change I’d gone through, despite my tentacles and my bioreactor and my yellow cloak and the fact I’d killed this man once before, suddenly I was back there, not in the coffee shop, but in the moment I’d confronted Alexander in his castle, right at the second before I’d killed him. Except this time there was no Lozzie at my side, no hyperdimensional equation burning and ready, no friends coming to rescue me.

“Do as I say, not as I do,” he said.

“So you’re not just a sadist, you’re also a hypocrite,” I managed to squeeze out.

“Lavinia, you do not love my daughter. Not really.”

I had no clever answer to that.

Guilt twisted inside my chest like a parasite made of knives and acid. He — Alexander, the King in Yellow, whatever was speaking — was correct. I did not love Sevens. Did I even respect her? Did I have a single shred of respect for the value and fragility and tenderness of what she felt for me? I barely even understood it; how could I possibly return those feelings?

The King in Yellow was offering me a significant advantage, the removal of an obstacle which stood between me and Maisie, even if I found some other way of getting home in the meantime. The deal would bring me that much closer to my goals: it would get me home, it would ensure Lozzie’s safety. It would take me back to Raine and Evelyn and Zheng, everything I loved. And all I had to give up was the love of a being I didn’t even really understand, the affection of a woman so complex and contradictory that her feelings for me had already damaged her fundamental nature.

All I had to do was shake the King’s hand. That was the sensible thing. The rational choice. The safe decision.

My right arm twitched.

“What is it to be, Lavinia?”

“Shut up,” I hissed.

Abyssal ruthlessness was silent. This was a higher-order function. But I barely functioned at the best of times.

Everything the King had said in Alexander’s voice was disgusting — not just because Sevens was my friend, but on principle as well: that she didn’t have the right to decide for herself, that her love was not her own to give, that father knew best. I turned to stare at Sevens. She scuttled about between her dolls, a weird little twisted thing all mushroom-pale skin and hot obsession.

I wanted to protect that creature. An ugly duckling full of passion and delight. There was something supremely beautiful about her like that.

But even that was not the real her. Even that was a mask. The real her was abyssal. The King’s domination and abuse would not be remotely human, not even physical, material, not here — so not valid?

All of this, even the deal, even his words, were play and pretend. That was what these yellow beings were. Play and pretend.

And suddenly I knew what to do. He’d said it himself.

We are what we pretend to be.

I whipped out one tentacle and slapped away the King’s golden hand.

“Don’t insult me,” I hissed.

Heart in my throat, lead in my belly, adrenaline surging through my veins, I managed to sound an awful lot more confident than I felt. Bioreactor thrumming, legs ready to throw myself out of the chair, I was prepared to fight over this — over Sevens. Abyssal instinct zeroed the path between me and Sevens as I hatched a plan to sprint to her, scoop her up, and take us elsewhere, anywhere, any other Outside dimension — before Steel could turn back into that death-beetle-thing and reach her first at the King’s snapped command.

But to my incredible relief, the King started laughing.

Sadly, it was Alexander’s laugh, an oily, self-satisfied chuckle, with narrowed eyes of mocking disbelief. He withdrew his offered hand and picked up the coffee instead, taking a long sip to douse his laughter.

“It’s not funny,” I snapped.

“It’s not, of course it’s not! Oh, Lavinia, courage is never comedic,” he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm. He placed the coffee back down with exaggerated care. I was fired up now; I wanted to slap him across the face as well. One of my tentacles twitched in that direction, and he mockingly raised a hand ready to bat it away, as if playing with a feisty kitten. “Oh, Morell. Would you have taken a deal if the real Alexander had offered you one?”

I hissed through my teeth, aching to hit him. “What? What sort of deal? What are you talking about?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He gestured airily with his unwrapped golden hand. “Say, free passage home for you and your friends? Plus, of course, an iron-hard certainty that he would cease all his experiments, never raise a finger again, never touch a single hair on some poor runaway’s head.” Alexander’s voice hardened as he spoke, springing the trap. “Would you have let him live?”

“ … I … no. No, he had to die. He had to. Everything he’d done, and with Lozzie, he—”

“So it was revenge?” His words were hard now, flying at me like spears as he leaned forward over the table, eyes boring into me. “You are judge, jury, and executioner?”

“Not revenge, no. Everything he was doing in that castle, his cult, the dead children, all of it was wrong, he had to—”

“Did you have that right?”

I blinked, frowning hard, feeling like I was sinking in quicksand. “Right? Right doesn’t come into it. Look at what he was the head of.”

“You are so close to understanding. These things are institutional,” Alexander all but growled. “Killing one man, even a leader, does not stop the exploitation, the evil, the suffering. Is that your justification? You are not that naive, Lavinia. You grew up sheltered, but you have learned since then, from your comrades if not from books. Killing me stopped nothing, the act merely dispersed it. My uncle, Edward, he is out there right now, continuing the horror and the abuse, and you know that. And you will not kill him as easily as you ended me.”

“But, everything you were doing—”

“How many protegees have I made, even in death?” Alexander ran on, face a mask of righteous obsession. “Can you be certain Sarika will not turn, in due time? Better kill her too, yes? And all the others I taught, all the rest, they have to go as well. And what about you, what about the cult that is gathering around you? Will you be like me one day?”

“No. Never. Never, I—”

“Killing one man has not stopped the process,” he hissed.

“He had to die,” I murmured, voice shaking.

“Did you have the right?”

“Right isn’t—”

Alexander Lilburne slammed his hand down on the coffee table so hard it made the cup fall over. Brown liquid sloshed out and over the edge and onto the floor. Eyes blazing with the fury of arrogance, he shouted over me.

“Did you have the right, Lavinia!?”

I knew that goading anger too well. It was the exact same way he’d looked the moment before I’d killed him, screaming at me that I wouldn’t do it. An anger that would never admit defeat, never admit wrong doing, never admit what it really was.

“Killing isn’t what mattered!” I screamed in his face. “Keeping my friends alive is what mattered! That’s building something real! Something better. Not just for sentimental emotion, but for community, for mutual support, for each other. Greater than me alone. A whole.” I felt myself dial down with every word, anger leaving me like spent steam. “And to save that, you had to die.”

Alexander’s eyes bored into me.

“ … yes,” I whispered. “For that, I had the right.”

And with that, a mote of guilt left me. I’d been holding onto it all this time. A weight so tiny, so insignificant. The true meaning of the murder I’d committed.

A few stray tears rolled down my cheeks. I sniffed hard. Alexander sat back, suddenly impassive. I stared at him and did not see the King.

“I’m sorry I had to kill you,” I said. “But I don’t regret it. You can’t hurt anyone anymore. You’re dead. Just rest.”

I felt no forgiveness. Only responsibility.

The King in Yellow nodded. “Goodbye, Lavinia.”

And then there was no Alexander Lilburne. Gone quicker than I could draw breath.

Sitting in his place on the other side of the coffee table was a man I’d never seen before. Tall and gangly in an awkward and apologetic way, as if a tree had uprooted itself to relocate, but had been invited to a tea party halfway through, too polite to refuse. The yellow bandages were gone, replaced by a set of comfortable white robes and a pair of sandals on his feet.

His skin was the colour of coffee with too much milk, warm brown but rarely exposed to the sun. Perhaps middle-aged, his curly black hair showed some grey at the temples, cut short around a pair of comically large ears. A matching salt-and-pepper beard and heavy moustache were both neatly trimmed and lightly oiled, which framed a gentle mouth and an overly large nose. High, noble cheekbones highlighted thick dark eyelashes and carefully plucked brows.

The only yellow was in his soft, puppy-like eyes, with irises the colour of burning brass.

I’d never been attracted to a man — and I wasn’t then either — but even my decidedly lesbian self could tell this mask was the King in Yellow at his most handsome and approachable.

“Really?” I sighed, unimpressed.

He lit up with a warm smile which crinkled the corners of his eyes, like a friendly uncle who’d just seen me enter through a rarely used door.

“I am sorry, but it is one’s nature,” he began, in an accent which flattened all tonal stress, vaguely Middle Eastern but which I couldn’t place. “Your— ah!” He noticed the fallen coffee cup and the brown puddle still spreading across the table and the floor, quickly righting it with one long-fingered hand and fussing over the mess, though not actually bothering to wipe it up. “Ahh, I can be so clumsy, so clumsy, what a terrible display. Oh, no, no no.” He threw up his hands, laughing at himself, looking around the room to his three yellow children — Melancholy snorted, Steel pointedly ignored his silent request, and Orbit stuck out a three-foot long barbed and steaming tongue.

“But I have sent all my help away,” the king laughed. “It seems I am alone with the mess I have made.”

“That’s not a very subtle metaphor,” I blurted out, still reeling.

“Not a metaphor, not at all. Well, perhaps a little.” He shot me a wink, scooted his chair back from the puddle, and rummaged around in his robes until he produced a battered paper bag. He dug out some kind of sugar-dusted dough ball and popped it into his mouth, then held the bag out toward me, speaking as he chewed. “Would you like one?”

I stared at him, then into the bag full of baked sweets. I could barely summon the coherence to shake my head, the whiplash was too great. I tried to huddle inside Sevens’ yellow robes, folding my tentacles around me for support, clinging to the real.

“Really?” He seemed surprised. “They are delightful. Very light, very fluffy, not heavy on the stomach.”

“No. Thank you,” I grunted. He shrugged and retracted the offer, plucking out another treat for himself and chewing with relish.

All I could do was stare, my catharsis turning to rot in my belly. He’d brought me to a genuine conclusion, lifted the weight of murder from my shoulders, opened my eyes — and this was how he reacted?

“I can’t … I … how can you do this?” I asked. “Right after you were being him? What if I hadn’t done what you were waiting for? What if I hadn’t reached your desired conclusion?”

“Desired?” He blinked at me. “It was a collaboration. We were writing it together. You and I.”

“My life is not a story.”

“Every life is a story.” He smiled like an indulgent uncle, the genuine affection undeniable, battering against my outrage. “It is how we are made, how we are structured. Structure is everything, you know? It is born up here.” He tapped his forehead with his fingertips. “And we impose it on the world. Otherwise, we are animals, without narrative.”

“ … what if—” I cast about and found Sevens again, still flitting between her playthings, now in the process of making three separate couples kiss. “What if I’d decided differently? What if I’d decided to kill you? Or kidnap Sevens to save her? Because I would have done. I was inches from doing that. Would you have stopped me from writing the wrong story?”

“Oh, no. No, far from it. Then we would inhabit a very different story to the one we find ourselves in.”

I boggled at him. “Are we still in a play? Is this still your bloody stage?”

He shrugged and smiled all the wider, eyes glistening with admiration. “Not mine. Yours.”

That smile was worse than any mockery from Alexander Lilburne. The King in Yellow wore his kindly guise, but I suspected he would wear it just the same if I had been reduced to a mental breakdown, never able to overcome the reality of murder. The smile was a mask. Power lay behind it. I had narrowly avoided disaster, at nothing more than his whim.

“Then how much of what you said was true?” I demanded. “How much was an act?”

The Gentle King spread his hands and almost dropped the paper bag of sweets, making a comical recovery at the last second. I snorted a non-laugh and shook my head, disgusted at the display of slapstick harmlessness.

“What about the dead hands?” I asked. “I feel … I mean, what I felt just now, that was real, but they—”

“I think you will find no trouble from them now, miss Morell. I think Mister Lilburne’s ghost will understand.”

I tried not to thank him for that. He had not done all this for my sake, merely for his own amusement.

“Everything is a play to you people,” I hissed.

“Guilty, always guilty, yes. The play’s the thing, haha!” He spoke the laugh out loud, grinning like he’d offered me a present.

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king?” I spat the rest of the Hamlet line back at him. “I doubt you have one. Now what about Sevens?” I demanded, pointing with one tentacle at where she continued her one-woman play. “How much of that was real? If you’re still going to confine her and stop her from—”

The Kindly Monarch in Yellow flourished one floppy white sleeve and tried to click his fingers, but the dramatic gesture was thwarted by the sugar dust all over his hand. I doubted his power relied on the sound itself, but he still fussed and tutted, licking his fingertips clean before trying again.

Click.

All at once, the three private plays across the stage of the white room came to a halt.

The forest-knight reacted with the least surprise; his duel with the endless yellow tentacles ceased as his opponent suddenly drew away in a quivering ring, then transformed back into the 1920s caricatures. Laughing and slapping each others’ shoulders, the imitation-humans linked hands and took a bow toward the knight, who was paused in the act of bringing down his axe. He held the pose for a moment, then straightened up and returned the bow. I didn’t think he was in on the play, just being polite.

The murmur of Saldis’ nautical tale stuttered out in confusion as her audience suddenly stopped paying attention. All of them turned toward the King with the look of actors interrupted by their director, eyebrows raised and hands spread in silent question, though the ones currently holding the rats kept petting and fussing over them.

Saldis looked so very crestfallen. “I … was just getting to … excuse me? Ladies and gents?”

“We’ll carry on,” one of the young women called to the King, “if that’s all the same to you, sire?”

He waved permission. Saldis got her attentive audience back, but she seemed more than a little shocked, blinking at them, at me, and at the King, as if she’d just realised she’d been hoodwinked all along.

But I didn’t have attention to spare. Sevens was tugging my heartstrings.

The moment the King clicked his fingers, Sevens’ tableau sprang out of their carefully selected poses, ruining her work in one fell swoop. They all stepped back from her with giggles on their lips, smiles hidden behind fluttering hands, making teasing eyes at each other. Sevens let out a noise like a cross between a surprised toad and a steam kettle, sprawling onto her skinny bum in shock before scrambling back to her feet, shoulders hunched and hands drawn in close to her chest.

Flushed bright red with embarrassment, showing all her needle-teeth in a grimace, black eyes bulging, she twitched and spun about with all the nervous energy of a frightened rodent. Lank and greasy hair trailed behind her. She snapped her teeth at Steel and boggled at Melancholy, then finally noticed the King in Yellow, her father.

Gurgling between her teeth, pattering on the balls of bare feet, she rushed over to him with those spindly pale legs, face burning.

“Daaaaad!” she yowled with all the force of a betrayed teenage girl, between teeth like pins. “Fuck!”

“My jungle rose,” he said, smiling that ingratiating smile. “You were wonderful, well—”

She slapped him across the head, a clumsy open-palm mash. He took it in his stride, laughing and putting up his hands in surrender.

“Fuck you! You shit!” she screeched, not amused.

Perhaps she’d forgotten I was present. Her red-black eyes flickered around, searching for more targets on which to vent her embarrassment — but then she juddered to a halt at the sight of me, mouth hinging open, eyes wide as night.

There was no time to think. If I’d thought, I would have failed. I acted on instinct.

I reached out quickly with a tentacle and grabbed one of her small, translucent-pale hands, almost curled like a claw. It was clammy and bony, but very solid.

“No!” I blurted out. “Don’t change!”

She grimaced at me, cringing so hard she almost curled up in a ball. From the back of her throat she made a hissing gurgle like some kind of sunless cave-lizard. “Nooooo—”

“Yes! Sevens, this is you as well. Look!” I squeezed with my tentacle, adding one of my actual hands too, wrapped on top of hers, clinging on hard. “Look, I’m holding your hand. Nobody is forcing me to.”

“Nnnnnnnnnn … ” She grumbled, still blushing bright red, but she didn’t run away. She didn’t change, didn’t switch to a different mask. She shuffled away from her father and got close to my side on little tip-toe footsteps, then grabbed a nervous handful of my yellow robes. She hung on tight, staring at the floor, too mortified to speak.

The King in Yellow uttered a long sigh. “I see it is too late to break this bond. As it was with myself.”

“So you really did have a human wife?” I asked.

“Did!” Sevens rasped at him. “Don’t lie!”

The King nodded. “I bound myself with that decision. I loved her, and love limited my scope, my range, my creative vision. But!” He raised a finger. “Limitation is the mother of invention. Boundaries give us shape.” He gestured at himself, then at Sevens. “You see?”

“And you don’t wish the same for your daughter?”

He sighed with undeniable sadness. “I love all my children, but few of them are mature enough to move beyond imitation, beyond plays, to change their nature in truth. The three you see here?” He gestured outward with arms wide, at Melancholy and Steel and Orbit. Melancholy yawned a cat’s yawn. Steel inclined her head, eyes narrowed, disapproving. Orbit, still a slug-centaur, clasped his ape hands together and raised them over his insectoid head in celebration. “They,” the King continued. “They are the only ones who have gone beyond plays. And two of them—” He glanced at Steel, then at Orbit, with a strange pride in his eyes, half admiration and half terrible sorrow. “Their forms of love would be alien to you. Horrifying, most likely.”

“There is no horror in bearing new life,” Steel raised her voice, cold and certain. “However it is achieved.”

The King winced slowly, with a sad smile.

“Melancholy,” he said, “she knew human beings, like I did, and she knew what she was doing. And it hurt her. But you, miss Morell, or may I call you by your first name?”

“ … if you want. Just not Lavinia.”

“Heather, then. You may live forever, if you play your pieces well. Perhaps you will be good for my daughter.”

“I don’t care about living forever. I’ll settle for saving my twin. You know that already, and I won’t lie.”

“That is what I am afraid of,” he sighed.

“I want to help her!” Sevens said in that chittering gurgle-voice. Her fingers tightened on my yellow robes. “Dad, I want to help!”

He raised his hands in surrender once more, but had nothing left to say from behind his kindly smile.

“That’s it then?” I asked. “We’re just … free to go?”

“If you wish,” he said.

Making sure I had a firm grip on Sevens’ sweaty little hand, I stood up from my seat. My tentacles flexed outward and several of my vertebrae popped as I straightened my spine. Every muscle was sore with tension and my t-shirt was stuck to my skin. This entire encounter had probably shaved a few years off my life.

Sevens hopped from foot to foot, as if unsure if she should break away or toward me, run or snuggle. She was a few inches shorter than me and wouldn’t look at my face. For the first time ever, I think I understood how Raine felt about me.

I turned to her and caught her with eye contact, as if pinning her to a wall. She went stiff and still, black eyes staring back into mine, red pupils dilating wide. Her face was so sallow and pale. It was like looking into a pair of shadowed rubies set in cloudy ivory. There was a dangerous beauty to this mask; my ape instincts told me to stay away from this opportunistic predator, but there was something in her scent, her nature, the urgency of her movements. It drew me in. I wanted to run my fingers along the razor blade. I’d never felt anything like it before.

She cringed away from me, as if expecting a blow.

“Sevens, will you come home with me?” I murmured.

“Like this?!” she rasped. “After you saw … nnnuurrrggggg … ”

“Yes, like this,” I laughed with relief. “Like however you want. However you are. Please?” I took a handful of the yellow robes in my other fist. “I accept. I do. I mean, maybe we can’t get actually married, that’s a technical question for later. A big, complex, messy one. But I accept you. Come home with me?”

“Rrrrrrrrr,” she made a noise like an uncomfortable dog, but she nodded.

I blew out a slow sigh of relief, then turned to the King once more, still sitting comfortably.

“And you,” I said. “Can’t you help me against the Eye, if I’m with your daughter?”

The King raised his eyebrows in surprise, then laughed softly. He gestured around again. Steel was shaking her iron head. Melancholy had raised her eyebrows. Orbit curled up on himself, slug-safe.

“Look around at my court,” said the King, suddenly growing grim and serious. “Look at me, examine me, daughter-in-law to-be. To you I might seem as a god, but in truth I am only a single step removed from you and yours. For all the beauty and pageantry of Carcosa, for all the latent cruelty in my children, for all that I have shown men the hells of their own creation, though I was once the ruination of cities and the coming of the red death … I could no more stand unprotected before Casma than you. There is no help I could render unto you that my daughter has not already gifted.”

“Daaaaaad,” Sevens hissed between her teeth, cringing with embarrassment.

“But if you ever find yourself trapped Outside again, little watcher,” he said. “My house has many rooms.”

“ … thank you.” I nodded as politely as I could manage, still completely overwhelmed. “‘Little watcher’?”

He shrugged. “Poetic license. The Casma watches. You are its heir, but you are not as it. Only little. In the good way. I make my peace now, with the little watcher, that I may be observed favourably in the future.”

“If you say so.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I squeezed tight on Sevens’ hand, to make sure she wasn’t about to run away, then turned to gesture to Lozzie’s forest-knight, but he was already approaching my side, towering over us in his chrome armour. He lowered a hand onto my shoulder, properly anchored. The King nodded politely to him, but he didn’t nod back. When I checked over my shoulder for Saldis, I received only a wave in return, over the heads of her adoring audience.

“I think I’ll stay and get to know these wonderful people!” she called.

One of her big black rats was perched on the shoulder of a man facing away from us. The rat caught my eye and I swear it laughed as only a rat can. Saldis would be fine on her own, I guessed.

“I will come visit, sister,” Melancholy purred, head lazing on her paws. “Keep a bed fresh.”

Sevens couldn’t even look at her, still flushed with embarrassment, eyes downcast.

“Are you ready?” I whispered to Sevens.

“ … no,” she croaked.

“Time to go home, regardless. I’m exhausted.”

The familiar old equation spun up in the back of my mind, burning hot and toxic. The King rose to his feet and gave me one last smile, too sweet and too warm to be real. I knew that if things had worked out differently here, he would have smiled just as warmly at my steaming corpse.

I executed the equation, and took Sevens home.

Out.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.17

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Whatever I had become over the previous seven months, however deep I delved into occult secrets, whoever I befriended beyond the boundaries of imagination, I was still a human being. I had mixed my flesh with the invisible glory I’d brought back from the abyss; I’d grafted tentacles to my flanks and re-purposed neurons to run them; I’d grown a reactor in my belly, an organ which could ruin the career of any biologist; I’d spoken with creatures not unlike gods, stared down things worse than the devil, and apparently made impossible creatures fall in love with me.

Some people might call me a monster, what with all these tentacles waving about and a hiss in my throat and my skin flushed with tetrodotoxin, but they’d be using the word incorrectly. All these additions were still me, still Heather, still part of the human being at my core — not a corruption or an invasion. I carried a brain inside my skull. I got hungry and tired and cried sometimes. I had to sit down to use the toilet. I was fleshy and soft and scrawny, I bruised easily, and I got terribly sore whenever I sat hunched up in a chair for too long without stretching.

None of that was anything to be ashamed of, despite the moments of terrible dissociation when I looked down at myself and saw rotting meat wrapped around a glugging chemical factory. I felt sunlight on my skin, I filled my lungs with air, I ate chocolate and strawberries — those not earmarked for Praem, anyway. I snuggled up in bed alongside Raine and laughed with my friends and melted under the stream of a hot shower; all of those things were worth experiencing. Worth holding onto. Worth existing for. Praem and Zheng agreed, it was better than the abyss. If I didn’t believe that, then why try to rescue Maisie at all? Why try to give all of this back to her? Whatever I looked like and wherever I’d been, I was still human.

And the royal palace of the King in Yellow was not designed for human minds.

When Sevens and I stepped over the threshold, hand in hand beneath the stone arch and past the massive wooden doors, my senses came under assault.

“Are we going directly to the King?” I asked from behind the false safety of my squid-skull mask. I stared out through the eye-holes at the twisted stone corridor, hoping it was just an optical illusion. Perhaps it would resolve as we drew closer. Then again, perhaps Raine would appear with a chocolate ice cream for me. Both were equally likely.

“You need food.” Sevens answered, soft and calm as she guided me the first few steps into her father’s palace. Her voice drowned out the sounds of the distant party — the muffled music and the hubbub of a crowd. “Water too. Perhaps a short rest.”

At the mention of water, I swallowed on reflex. I hadn’t hydrated in hours and my throat felt dry as a desert. We’d had a long walk and several frightening confrontations, and I hadn’t stopped in all that time. Sevens was right — if it wasn’t for the bioreactor pumping away in my belly, I’d have already collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. Even entertaining that thought made my eyelids droop and my feet drag like lead weights.

But the King in Yellow was close. Once I reached him, either he would help me or he wouldn’t. And if he did, home beckoned.

“No,” I croaked. “Straight to your father. Rest when I’m home.”

“Heather—”

“Rest when I’m home,” I repeated.

“If you do not schedule time for rest, your body will schedule it for you,” said Sevens.

“I don’t need rest,” I lied. My free hand crept into my hoodie’s front pocket, bumping the golden pendent Saldis had given to me. I pressed my fingers against my belly through my hoodie and t-shirt, against the inner warmth of the bioreactor. I concentrated on drawing out another control rod, edging toward the red zone of overload, but not quite there yet. “Don’t need … rest … ”

I made it six steps before the assault on my senses grew too heavy to ignore.

The stone corridor ahead of us was all wrong, twisting and kinking like a novelty hallway in a haunted house. The floor ended up on the ceiling and the ceiling became the floor; the walls jinked one way and then the other, but somehow did not occlude the view further on, a spacial paradox; the width of the corridor shrank down to a single hand-span, impossible to squeeze through, before expanding out into unclear lines, the walls themselves wavering like melting wax. For a split second I started to sigh an unimpressed laugh and shake my head — was this really the best the King in Yellow had to offer? Funhouse mirrors? But this was no comedy illusion.

Trying to follow any straight line made my eyes itch, then burn, then ignited a deep ache behind my eyeballs, a throbbing pain in my optic nerve.

Blinking away stinging tears behind the eye-holes of my squid-skull mask, I tried to focus on the transition points of the hallway — the place where stonework gave way to elegant plaster inlaid with golden-yellow scroll-work, the beginning of the rich red carpets and intricate rugs, the first of the side-doors made of heavy polished oak. But that went no better. Stone was replaced by plaster, yes, that was undeniable, but the transition between materials eluded my sight. The point where one ended and the other began seemed to slide away from my attention like a cluster of exposed cockroaches, accompanied by a giggling on the edge of my hearing. It was the same with the doors: in my peripheral vision I could see one door, sensibly shut, singular — but when I looked at it there were suddenly a dozen doors lining the corridor, some of them massive, some tiny, some ten feet off the floor. Coals glowed in braziers and glow globes shone from the walls, but some of them were upside down, clinging to the ceiling, or cast negative-light which struggled against the illumination of their fellows, multiplying or vanishing when I looked their way.

My eyes throbbed like bruises and I started to feel sick before I realised. The issue was not with the architecture, it was with the capacity of my senses. I could not process the reality of this place. Funhouse mirrors and haunted-house hallways were the best metaphors my mind could summon.

And those metaphors were too fragile to protect me.

“Everything is going to be all right,” whispered Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. She must have picked up on my tension through my clammy palm, but I doubted she saw as I did.

Another couple of steps and my inner ear went haywire at the twist of the corridor beneath my feet; my head span and my balance routed, tentacles whirling in panic to catch myself on empty air. Not a single angle was correct, not even those of my own body; this space was not designed for anything even remotely like me. When I gasped, the corridor captured the sound of my own voice and hurled it along the trajectory of a dozen different echoes, returning to my ears as jagged whispers reflected from surfaces complex beyond my comprehension. My head whirled with alien pressure, the unreachable canals of my ears itched like fire, and my stomach clenched up to purge the toxin of illusion.

Sevens caught me, hand in mine.

Her other arm looped around my waist, tight and strong. All my tentacles wrapped around her, clinging to her like driftwood in a storm. I whimpered in pain and disorientation.

“I’ve got you, kitten,” she whispered, cool and dry.

But the palace architecture had infected my hearing.

Sevens’ voice reached my ears as a jumbled mess of overlapping sound, three or four sets of the same words mangled and shredded and recombined. Even stranger was a doubling effect — below the calm, collected tones of Seven-Shades-of-Sober-Soothing, other voices writhed: a twitchy, breathy rush of hyperactive nervous energy; the crack and cackle of an ancient crone mocking my discomfort; a dozen others less easily identifiable; and a noise that was not a voice at all but an abyssal howling, not real sound but something else, something other, processed through human sensory apparatus.

The Heather of seven months prior would have recoiled in screaming horror; the be-tentacled Heather of then, wearing a helmet made from an Outsider squid and seriously contemplating romance with a dangerous shade of yellow, sighed through her teeth with mounting frustration.

“Dangerous architecture, really?” I said.

“Take a moment, find your feet. I am here,” Sevens said with that awful screech that lay behind her words. “Literally, look at your feet. I will guide you.”

“Don’t know if that’ll help,” I croaked. “Also you sound awful.”

“ … excuse me?”

I was already staring down at my feet, my scuffed dirty trainers next to Sevens’ neatly polished black shoes, but the angles on those were all wrong as well. Enclosure by the walls of the palace did not exempt anything from the corruption of my senses. My trainers were jagged one second, then elongated in another, then gone in a blink and back in the next, along with my feet.

The vision of my own ankles twisting and jinking made my stomach do a back flip. I retched, but held on, perhaps because my stomach was empty.

Afraid of what I might see if I looked at Sevens, instead I sagged against her and craned back over my shoulder, at Saldis and the forest-knight. Both of them had entered the palace a few steps behind us.

Saldis was peering out of the opening of her sphere, gawking around at the corridor like a country bumpkin in the big city. Her rats scurried about her shoulders, over-stimulated and unafraid. I’d half expected to see her buttoned up tight inside her sphere, but it was easy to forget how little of the human remained in Saldis. The knight had never been human, but he had been Earthly. He was no more meant to be out here than me. But Lozzie’s modifications had gifted him the metaphysical tools to survive. Imperishable armour or Outsider biology, he stood tall, axe over his shoulder, unperturbed.

“Just me then,” I squeezed out, stomach turning over and ready to hurl. Why was I the only one experiencing this effect?

As soon as I dared ask the question in the privacy of my own mind, the truth presented itself, a dark leviathan wallowing in the black swamp at the bottom of my soul. The Eye’s lessons readied the answer for me, began to supply the hyperdimensional mathematics behind this architecture, burning white-hot inside my skull.

I slammed my eyes shut with a gasp, sealing myself into the dark.

Sevens was saying, “I will get you to my father, but first you need—”

“I am five hundred percent too hungry and too tired and too small for this,” I groaned. “I want out of here, Sevens. The King, your father, first. Now.”

“It’s incredible,” Saldis breathed in genuine awe, voice quivering at me from fifty different directions as it bounced and reflected and reconverged. “And this is just the foyer! I feel like I’m standing at the gates of Miklagard all over again.”

“Shut. Up,” I hissed, eyes still clamped tight. “Please shut up. Every sound is wrong.”

“Lady Morell? You—”

“Shh!” Sevens hushed her. The sound was like a blowtorch in my ears. I heard a flump, presumably Saldis flopping back into her seat with theatrical obedience, but no more words.

I hoped for merciful silence, but the walls of the palace whispered with the sounds of the distant party — tinkling laughter and hearty guffaws, a skipping record player hastily reset, snatches of classical music and jazz played atop each other, all muffled behind miles of wall, all distorted into jagged nightmares.

And the screams, even more distant. Screams and gurgles and strangled cries.

I shivered and tried to draw Sevens’ cloak tighter around my shoulders, but it wasn’t big enough.

Sevens squeezed my hand. She had to do it three times before I finally caught on and squeezed back. She pulled me gently, with my tentacles still clinging to her for support, and led on.

For the next twenty minutes, Seven-Shades-of-Seeing became my eyes. Without the sensory assault of the architecture and our own mangled voices, I regained most of my sense of balance, but my inner ear sometimes glimpsed snatches of truth. Sometimes I could feel we were walking at an impossible angle, mounting a slope where the wall should be, or that the ceiling should be touching my head, or that we’d turned in a spiral despite walking in a straight line. We passed into vast open spaces where our footsteps echoed among stars, down corridors my stomach told me were suspended over bottomless pits, and over walkways which I knew in my gut were exposed to the open air, upside down over the misty landscape below. I felt rugs beneath my shoes of such luxuriant texture they must have cost a king’s ransom, but I was spared exposure to any other decoration.

Thrice on our short journey, we encountered the dangling tendrils of the party, like the snares of a jellyfish waiting for unwary prey.

The first time, I heard a door open ahead of us, a loud click followed by a sudden swelling of the distant laughter and music. Sevens hissed, “Stop.” I obeyed, frozen in sudden terror.

Thankfully the sound was quickly sealed away again, the door closing once more with a gentle tock of wood-on-wood. Sevens waited several heartbeats. I felt like a rodent crouched beneath a log, uncertain if the predators had moved on, but then Sevens squeezed my hand twice and her confidence flowed into me. Even with my eyes closed I could feel her chin held high, her shoulders set back, her eyes intense and wide.

The second time was much worse.

We were in some kind of junction, perhaps a crossroads, caught right in the middle when it happened — I have no idea how I knew that, perhaps gut instinct, perhaps the echoes of our footsteps, or perhaps I didn’t need eyes to see in that place. From our left, far away down a corridor, a cacophony began on the edge of my hearing. Voices all a-jumble like a hundred people talking over each other in excitement, the slap and squeak of hurrying feet and stumbles and little hops, laughter too, high and rich and low and manic with pain. And screaming. Lots of screaming. Pain-screaming and fear-screaming and the screaming of lost minds.

It was like an approaching wave, at first a gentle trickle on the edge of perception, easily mistaken for one’s imagination, then building to an onrushing torrent in the very moment of listening, faster than one could react.

I had the horrible sense of crossing a ford at the exact moment of a tidal swell. I almost opened my eyes and looked, but I am endlessly thankful that I did not.

Sevens didn’t bother to say stop. She grabbed me in a hug and clung on tight.

“Don’t move a muscle,” she whispered in my ear.

The tidal wave of people — and I suppose they were people, by my definition, though not human — hit us a split second later in a torrent of voices, a few perhaps speaking human languages, but none of them English and most of them painful. A mass of stampeding feet stomped and clattered and rattled past us, many of them audibly not feet at all, but hooves or suckers or other things I couldn’t identify by sound. Several shadows passed over us, blocking what little light filtered through my closed eyelids. Other shapes slithered and bumped and rolled across the floor inches from my feet. The screaming came from several distinct points amid the wall of sound, held aloft or muffled behind bars or stretched out by unthinkable mechanisms.

Scent got inside my squid-skull helmet — cigar smoke and sickly perfume and unnameable spices; sweat and blood and excrement. A whiff of roast pork teased my nose. That was too much for my empty stomach, roiling so hard I felt sick, a trickle of drool running down my chin. But I was no idiot. I knew what that smell really was.

When the crowd passed and the screaming departed and we were left alone again, I did not ask Sevens if I could have some bacon.

She let go of me very slowly. I was shivering and shaking all over, feeling drained despite the power of the bioreactor still thrumming away in my belly; the sheer density of sensory processing issues as the crowd had passed by had left me exhausted on a deeper level than the mere physical. I felt like I was turning grey. I clung to Sevens with all my tentacles, desperate to curl up in a ball and go to sleep, dreading the effort of taking another step.

“Can’t … ” I croaked.

She squeezed my hand. You can, it said.

“Oh, oh goodness me, goodness me,” Saldis breathed in awe, her voice like a broken radio broadcast. “Now that is a party I truly wish to join in with. Well, assuming I wouldn’t end up on the menu.”

“Shhh,” Sevens hissed.

The third and final brush with the party was barely contact at all. A minute or two after the encounter in the crossroads, when I was walking with a dragging step, breathing too hard, and covered in a sheet of sweat beneath my squid-skull mask, a fourth set of footsteps joined us.

Behind mine and Sevens’ and the almost imperceptible scuff of the forest-knight’s march, beneath the occasional clicking of Saldis’ sphere-machine whenever we passed over stone or wood — footsteps, tapping. Tap-tap-tap. At first the footsteps followed far behind us, easily lost amid the distant sounds of the party, but they quickly caught up. Smart dress shoes rapping along wooden floors, each step precise and measured. My heart juddered in sudden fear as I realised what I was hearing.

“Sevens!” I hissed.

“Keep walking,” she whispered back. “We are safe.”

I winced at the mangled sound of her voice, but I did as I was told.

The footsteps caught up with Sevens and me, then matched our pace and walked with us. I expected Saldis to say some inane greeting out loud, but when she didn’t speak my shoulder blades began to itch, cold sweat on my back. What exactly was walking alongside us? I felt no imposing presence, no displacement of air, no furnace-hot blast of attention, murderous intent, or predatory instinct. One of my tentacles began to inch outward, driven by the need to locate and identify a potential threat, but I reeled it back in with a force of will.

Seconds lengthened to minutes and nothing happened. Exhaustion dragged me back down into the false relaxation of hazy consciousness and micro-sleeps. The human body might go on forever when supplied with limitless energy, but the human mind needs rest, recuperation, and reorganisation. Defragmenting, Raine had once called it, like a computer. It didn’t matter how much raw energy my bioreactor dumped into my bloodstream, I was truly fatigued. A headache cocktail of sleep deprivation and stress lulled me into a stumbling walk, breathing too hard, hanging off Sevens’ arm to keep myself upright, half-asleep behind my own eyes.

I jerked awake when the owner of the footsteps increased their pace and pulled ahead of us. I almost opened my eyes on reflex, but by a miracle of luck, I kept them shut. I was about to breathe a silent sigh of relief, when a single irregular note disrupted the departing metronome of our unseen escort, a footstep out of place as they turned.

A noise split the air, a sound like a rusty saw dragged back and forth through frozen meat.

Good speaking to you, sister,” it said.

I barely resisted screaming at the assault from that awful sound. My tentacles whipped away from Sevens to wrap around my torso in a protective ball; I felt the sudden emptiness as my body tried and failed to dump more adrenaline into my system. Like a knee collapsing under one’s weight.

The footsteps trotted off but the damage was done: the creeping corruption of the palace reached my sense of touch.

Perhaps it was the fault of that unspeakable voice, or perhaps it was the end result of keeping my eyes shut, heightening the focus of my other senses, my awareness of sound and scent and the sensations on my skin. More likely it was a speedball of exhaustion and hunger that left me vulnerable. Too long propped up by abyssal approximation of human biology.

Suddenly, Sevens’ hand in mine was both right here, fingers laced together, and miles away across a void of cold vacuum. My weight against her side was both a close snuggle between two vaguely human-sized creatures, but at the same time it felt like the grinding of a pair of tectonic plates. My shoes were open mouths wrapped around my feet and my own skin was too constricting, a strait jacket suddenly crushing my lungs with my own flesh. My hair follicles ached and my eyeballs were too large and my fingernails needed to come out, had to come out, had to go, right now, right now.

I think I choked on thin air. I think I opened my eyes. I think a strong pair of arms scooped me up around the back and behind the knees and hoisted me in a princess-carry as I whimpered and spluttered. I don’t recall precisely, because that’s when my consciousness flickered and went out.

The last thing I heard was Sevens, sighing. “I did ask him not to speak.”

==

Silk pillowcase.

That was my first coherent thought when my mind ebbed back. I was no stranger to this process, this drip-feed of pain and awareness, sensation leaking in until the pilot-sapience was awake enough to piece it together.

Cheek cradled by luxurious softness, hands wedged beneath the pillow in an instinctive hug, shoulders and waist and hips and legs cocooned by soft layers. Silken and gentle and cool. Silk pillowcase; the height of luxury.

I don’t think I’d ever touched silk before, but somehow I still knew.

Consciousness breached the waves of oblivion, registered these impressions, then began to sink again, like an orca who had tasted air and decided the deep ocean was better. My limbic system whispered sleep, recover, nothing to worry about. I snuggled closer into the pillow and the embrace of my own tentacles, thick ropes of muscle wrapped around my torso and belly to keep me warm and snug. Distant worries and blurred impressions demanded executive function, but the executive was asleep at her fancy desk, drooling on her suit.

Silky smooth, soft and warm, cool and dry.

Where am I again? my mind asked before I went under.

Then cold and wet and wriggling and stinking of rot, grinding bone-grit into my face.

Sleep ripped apart with a gasp. I choked down a shriek, pushed myself up, heart racing like a hare, and scrambled back, away from—

A silk pillowcase.

Panting, covered in a sheen of cold flash-sweat, I sat blinking and confused for a long moment as my mind caught up, as I took in my surroundings, as my heart rate eased back down.

I was on a bed — a very fancy bed, quite possibly the fanciest bed I’d ever seen, let alone been deposited upon and allowed to burrow into like a drowsy rodent. It was large enough to sleep six or seven people — or perhaps four of Zheng — with about half a dozen crisp white sheets beneath a thick butter-yellow duvet. A small hill worth of pillows was piled against the reddish oak headboard, all of them different colours, though the one I’d been snuggled up with was a very deep, soothing, sunset yellow.

“ … Sevens?” I croaked at the pillow through cracked lips, then felt very silly when it didn’t answer.

Only a small corner of the bedsheets were peeled back, right where I’d been asleep, just enough space for me to snuggle my face into the pillow. A little patch of my drool had dried on the yellow pillowcase. The rest of the bed was immaculately smooth and plush, untouched but for the divot left by my body weight. I felt like I’d violated the bed, as if I’d wandered onto a set that was never meant to be truly used, a show-piece or an artwork now forever damaged by my bodily needs.

Four wooden posters stood at the corners of the bed, with dark, heavy drapes gathered back by little ropes. Beyond those drapes was a room equally absurd, like something meant for a fairy-tale princess, all soft white walls with fancy wainscoting and little flourishes of yellow-gold leaf, the kind of interior decorating that didn’t exist outside of stately homes or people with more money than taste. Imitation candle-shaped light bulbs draped soft illumination over every surface. Overlapping rugs covered a floor as large as a sitting room, though there was little other furniture — I instantly spotted my squid-skull mask and my blood-stained pink hoodie neatly placed in the middle of a small white-and-gold table, along with three matching chairs far too fancy to ever sit on. Beyond that was only a single door leading out, the same white-and-gold design with a little golden door handle. A trio of huge wardrobes flanked a makeup table, and an absolutely gigantic full-length mirror stood next to that, easily eleven or twelve feet tall.

I caught sight of myself in that mirror, so very tiny.

“I look terrible.” I coughed, raising a sleep-clumsy hand to poke at my face.

Somebody had cleaned the worst of the blood, removed my hoodie, and taken away my shoes. No prizes for guessing who, I told myself, far too groggy to feel embarrassed. Sevens had seen worse; for all I knew, she watched me on the toilet.

I was wrapped up warm and snug in Sevens’ yellow cloak, which seemed to have grown about three sizes and gained a hood large enough to lose myself inside, more like robes. My tentacles were wound about my body in a tight self-hug beneath the cloak, my very own portable sleeping bag, but I regretted that as soon as I started to unwind them — they ached like arms after sleeping at the wrong angle, knees kept bent for too long, muscles sore and stiff. I arced them outward slowly, wincing and hissing as I worked the life back into my extra limbs.

My mouth was bone dry and my eyes were gummy and thick. My fingers were stiff and my head was full of cotton wool. I could still taste blood and I ached all over, but I’d slept for several hours. I’d come back from the brink.

But I stared at that yellow silk pillowcase. Where had that sensation of wet rot come from? A nightmare? It had felt too real for that. But this place was solid now, solid enough to run my hand over the duvet.

“Sevens?” I raised my croaking voice, casting about the room, shuffling on my knees. “Seven- ahh!”

I jumped, hand to my racing heart, at the sight of Lozzie’s forest-pattern knight standing at attention on the other side of the bed. Shining chrome and star-metal axe, tall and silent. He was a welcome sight.

“Oh, I wish you’d said something before I saw you,” I wheezed, my heart dialling back down again as I took several deep breaths. My head swam with the adrenaline spike. The knight didn’t respond. “How long have I been asleep?”

The forest-knight raised his metallic gauntlet. Four fingers.

“Four hours?” I gaped. “Oh, blast and fiddlesticks and … that … that is hours, yes? Not four days. Please not four days.”

The knight lowered his hand.

Couldn’t be four days.

“Well, okay, well … thank you for standing guard,” I managed, then coughed several times in a futile effort to clear my throat. I felt like I’d swallowed a bottle of glue. “Sevens can’t be here herself? I suppose that’s something she has in common with Raine, at least, not being there when I wake up from a fugue state. She could at least … ”

I trailed off as my eyes found the bedside table next to the knight’s knee.

An angel had left food for me.

A cut-crystal pitcher full of water stood next to an empty glass and a plate of sandwiches wrapped in clingfilm. My stomach rumbled so hard it hurt, nauseated with hunger. My hands shook as I pulled the plate onto my lap and ripped off the clingfilm — clingfilm? Outside? My mind filed that away for later, too focused on the ravenous need to eat. Shaking and panting, my salivary glands tingled and ached at the scent of ham and cheese, butter and mustard, tomato and pickles and fresh-baked bread.

My tentacles were ready to shove the entire first sandwich down my throat; I actually had to swallow my own drool as I picked it up; but then I paused, mouth open, desperate.

Holding back took more will I’d expected. The soft machine of my body demanded fuel. Now. It didn’t care about the bioreactor. Now. Now!

I looked at the knight. “ … Sevens?” I had to slurp back drool. “Sevens left these for me? Not somebody else? I know you’re not big on talking but I have to know, she said nobody but her but I’m—”

The knight dipped the chin of his helmet. Good enough.

I inhaled one sandwich and got three bites into the next before I regained enough self control to pour myself some water. I drank so fast I spilled some down my t-shirt, panting and swallowing and almost getting food stuck in my throat. These sandwiches were fit for royalty, wasted on me scarfing them down like a starved pig. I licked crumbs off my fingers and picked every fallen scrap of cheese and meat off the plate. I drained the pitcher and ate until it was all gone. My jaw hurt and my stomach felt fuller than it had in years.

After the food, I sat there for a good few minutes, dazed and sleepy. I upended the pitcher and swallowed the last few drops of water, then placed it and the plate back on the bedside table. For some reason I felt it would be a crime to leave them on the bed.

Stretching my legs and wiggling my toes proved that everything still worked. The rugs on the floor were even softer and thicker than they looked. Sevens’ yellow robe was so long it dragged behind me as I trudged over to the makeup table and the mirror, which showed me just how much of a mess I was, eye bags and all. The wardrobes were full of clothes. The floor was horizontal. The walls were sensibly upright. When I padded over to the table, I picked up my squid-skull mask, but didn’t put it on. That was solid too, actually here, not a trick. The gold pendant from Saldis was still inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I tapped it on the table. It didn’t vanish.

I walked back to the bedside table and scooped up the clingfilm. It crinkled, just like clingfilm should.

“This can’t be real,” I murmured, then glanced at the knight. “Well, no,” I explained, mostly for myself. “Of course it’s real, but it’s also … I don’t get it. This is clingfilm. We’re Outside.” I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m too tired for this. Where is Sevens, anyway? Don’t tell me I have to go find her?”

The knight turned his head to look toward the only door out of the bedroom.

“Great,” I sighed. “All right, but if I open that door and there’s a bottomless pit on the other side, or a brick wall, or … I don’t know, Melancholy’s mouth wide open for me to walk into, like I’m a mouse in a cartoon, then I will be very upset. I might cry.”

Carrying my squid-skull mask in one tentacle and tugging Sevens’ robes snug around my shoulders, I padded across the rugs and over toward the door, pausing to retrieve my hoodie from the table. The garment was badly stained with blood, but it had been a present from Raine; I’d rather eat my own toenails than abandon it Outside.

I crept up to the door and was about to touch the golden-yellow handle. But then I heard voices from the next room.

One first, laughing and jovial. I recognised it instantly — Saldis. The walls of the Yellow King’s palace were too well-made to make out what she was saying, but her tone rang true, amused and fascinated, in full flow.

The second voice took a moment to answer, but then slammed along like the chatter of a typewriter, a nervous run-on sentence that ended clipped and juddering.

Female, young, scratchy and blunt, grumpy as sin and twice as jumpy.

I didn’t recognise it. Whoever it was, at least it wasn’t like any of Sevens’ relatives from earlier. Consumed by curiosity but too groggy and full of food to realise what I was hearing, I pressed the door handle down as slowly as I could and inched the door open, peering through the widening gap.

“—and there’s only so much give, so much slack before they break, especially with a trio, with poly. It’s so much more complex to balance, so you have to give them as much slack as possible—”

The room beyond was sister to the bedroom, a parlour decorated in the same style, all in white with gold highlights. Light fell from a pair of massive floor-to-ceiling windows along one wall, illuminating a trio of low sofas around a wooden coffee table, on which sat a full tea set in beautiful butter-yellow. Some half-eaten cake lay on matching plates. A reading desk and an armchair, complete with a lamp, stood off to one side of the room, next to a row of neatly organised bookcases filled with the cheap cardboard of early twentieth-century consumer hardbacks, some little soapstone Buddha statues, and a glass case which contained a massive preserved butterfly. My shoes lay next to a door on the other side of the room, laces neatly untied.

“—reel it out, shove it into their hands, force it down their fucking throats for all I care—”

Saldis’ grey sphere-machine — complete with Saldis sitting comfortably in her pilot seat — was next to one of the sofas, as out of place as a giant snail at a tea party. She was facing the door as I peered inside, her eyes widening, eyebrows shooting up as we looked at each other.

“—the important thing is that they don’t break. I mean fuck, who cares about me? If they stay strong, I’m strong, and—”

Her trio of massive black rats were on the coffee table, among the cups and saucers, nibbling at cake on three little plates.

“—strength leads to strength. That’s how it works with three or four or fifteen partners; screw it up and you screw everything up. But keep it strong and you’re invincible. You’re immortal.”

The speaker was facing away from me, squatting barefoot on one of the rugs. She looked exactly as young as she sounded, perhaps my age or even a little younger. She was so bony and scrawny she must have been malnourished, so pale her skin was almost translucent, so thin I could see the tracery of blue veins beneath the surface. She wore only a black tank-top and a pair of matching black shorts on her pale legs. Her hair was the brown of an unwashed dog, hanging limp past her grubby neck.

A set of dolls and action figures — all thankfully human — were strewn across the rug in front of her, in various stages of child-friendly undress. All of them were female, but there was a great variety between them, the hand-downs and knock-offs of a dozen different families. No Barbies though, nothing so recognisable.

As she spoke, she held a doll in each hand and mashed them together as if trying to make them kiss, so she didn’t notice when Saldis spotted me.

When she finished talking, I realised what I was seeing.

“ … Sevens?” I croaked.

Seven-Shades-of-Sad-and-Scrawny jerked around like I’d hit her with a cattle prod, feet going out from under her, hands dropping the dolls.

Beetroot blush blossomed across mushroom-pale skin. Wide eyes bulged, twice human size; red irises, black sclerae. A mouth full of tiny sharp needle-teeth hinged open in wordless embarrassment.

She scrambled to her feet, rubbery and twitchy like a ferret — but by the time she got there, Seven-Shades-of-Secret-Shame had vanished, replaced once again with the quiet confidence and cold exterior of her princess-mask. Dirty rumpled tank-top was replaced by crisp white blouse, lank hair by ruler-straight blonde fringe, inhuman features by enigmatic turquoise eyes and perfect skin. She clasped her hands behind her back and fixed me with a piercing gaze.

“Heather,” said Seven-Shades-of-Surprisingly-Unsubtle, calm and collected. “I did not hear you wake.”

“ … obviously,” I croaked. “Sevens, what was—”

“An old mask. That is all. It is good to see you awake. How did you sleep? How do you feel? Did you find the food?”

“I— yes, thank you, Sevens. I … slept, I guess. Still feel pretty terrible though. I’d love a bath, but … not Outside.” I spoke slowly, well aware she was trying to distract me with questions. “That … that other mask, that was … you?”

“Old and unimportant. Did you like the sandwiches? I made them myself. I hope I predicted your tastes; I expect I did. I know them all, of course.”

“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight does herself a disservice!” Saldis barked a laugh from inside her sphere. She raised a teacup in casual salute, accompanied by a very smug grin. “Old and unimportant, indeed! We were having the most fascinating conversation. A real strategy meet—”

Sevens turned with icy slowness and fixed Saldis with the silence of a descending guillotine blade. Saldis covered her mistake with an ostentatious display of sipping her tea and rolling her eyes.

“Sevens,” I croaked, “if that was some kind of real you—”

“There is no real me. Only masks.”

“You wear masks like moods!” I huffed, too groggy to be polite. “That means every one of them is the real you. Right? So don’t be embarrassed.” I tugged on a corner of the thick yellow robes which held me like an embrace. “You were happy to show it to Saldis. You gave me a piece of yourself and you want me to accept you? Then show me all of you. Don’t hide important bits of yourself.”

Sevens’ expression was unreadable behind those wide, intense eyes. She tilted her head, neither a nod nor a shake. Behind her, Saldis looked like she was going to asphyxiate if she got any more smug.

I huffed out a sigh and closed my exhausted eyes. This was not the time for this battle.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” I said. “I passed out, I was overwhelmed. Too tired. What’s going on? Where is this?”

“These are my chambers,” said Sevens. “You have slept in my bed. Though, perhaps not in the way we would both prefer, kitten.”

She was trying to make me flustered, but her tried-and-tested tactic did not work. All I could see in my mind’s eye was that bony little blood-goblin she’d been moments ago, with the weird black eyes and the tiny sharp teeth, so mortified and ashamed to be caught playing with dolls, to be caught existing at all. I wanted to take the hand of that mask and tell her not to be embarrassed, not by any part of herself. I would not mock her for playing with dolls. I would not deny that she was real.

But maybe I had Sevens all wrong. Maybe that’s not what she needed from me.

“This is still inside the palace?” I asked, glancing around the room. My vision was all fine here, no funhouse mirror distortions. When I looked out the window I felt a wave of vertigo — the view showed a tangle of jumbled towers and battlements, upside down and right way up and sideways and backwards, all wreathed in sky-mist. Impossible to estimate how far up. But no distortion, no sickness, no screaming wrongness in my head. “Why is this all so … human?”

“Human?” Saldis asked, laughing. She gestured around the room with her teacup. “A poor joke, lady Morell. Especially from you.”

“This looks pretty human to me.” I waved the piece of clingfilm I was still holding. “This is clingfilm. But we’re Outside. Forgive me for assuming, but I don’t think Tesco delivers out here.”

To my surprise, Sevens and Saldis shared a glance. Saldis shrugged. Sevens gave nothing away as she turned back to me.

“This room is merely a comfortable space for myself and those I invite,” she said, “and I have very much invited you. What you perceive here, that is your responsibility. Your perceptions are adjusting. This means that speed is of the essence. We must get you home.”

I stared at Sevens, then down at the clingfilm in my hand. “ … so, not clingfilm?”

“Not exactly.”

I swallowed and felt vaguely sick. “What were the sandwiches, then?”

“Sandwiches.”

I frowned at Sevens. “But—”

“Lady Morell,” Saldis spoke up, “I have been beyond Midgard for much, much longer than you have. Allow me to offer you some advice: when you encounter a paradox out here, accept it. Questioning these things leads to madness.”

“So, I ate sandwiches,” I said. “All right. Sevens, getting home, yes. Is the King still waiting for me?”

“I have spoken with my father on your behalf,” she said.

My heart leapt. “Oh. Oh, great, did he—”

“And I have secured for you an audience chamber which will present as little challenge to your senses as possible.”

“ … you couldn’t talk to him for me? Get him to help us?”

Sevens shook her head, expression gravely serious, eyes boring right through me. “He wishes to meet you himself. He is in a suspiciously good mood.”

“You don’t sound very happy about that,” I said. The King wanted to meet me, personally. Those sandwiches suddenly lay like lead in my belly. What did ‘good mood’ mean for a being that had worn Hastur as a mask?

“No,” Sevens said. “I am not happy about it.”

“You think he’s planning something?” I asked. “Is that what he’s like?”

“I think,” Saldis announced, voice quivering with barely concealed excitement, “that he’s going to put on a show for us. I simply cannot wait. Chance of a lifetime!”

“He is like everything,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

“Great. Great, okay,” I said, trying to remain calm. I snuggled down inside Sevens’ yellow robes. “Well, it’s too late to turn back now. I’ll just have to hope he likes me, I suppose.”

“I will protect you,” Sevens said. “Even against my own father.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” I forced a laugh I didn’t feel. “I don’t have a great track record meeting with important people in castles.”

Sevens didn’t acknowledge my weak joke. She reached into the pocket of her long yellow skirt and drew out a piece of yellow fabric. For a moment I thought she’d detached a fragment of herself, similar to the cloak, but then she held it out to me and I saw it was quite mundane.

“A blindfold?” I asked.

“Not for play, sadly,” she said, cool and dry, and almost got me with that one. “The walk to the audience chamber is not long from here, but this time I will shield you properly. I will remove the blindfold when we arrive. Are you ready?”

“No. But the sooner we get this over with, the better.”

“Good. Hold still.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight raised the blindfold to my face and gently wrapped the soft yellow cloth around my eyes, plunging me into darkness. Her hands moved over the back of my head to tie it in place. For a moment there was nothing. I was in a void. Then her hand found mine.

She led on.

==

The walk to the audience chamber was mercifully short, only two or three minutes from leaving Sevens’ parlour. Her blindfold did the job; I couldn’t see anything, not even a crack of light. Somehow the blindfold protected my hearing as well, but I wasn’t deafened, I could still hear Sevens’ footsteps, the gentle metallic ring of the forest-knight’s boots, and the slow ticking of Saldis’ sphere, but those sounds were normal, undistorted, not an assault on my senses.

The din of the distant party had fallen silent. Perhaps I’d slept through the end of the festivities.

When we passed into the audience chamber, I felt it in my gut and in my bones. I did not need eyes to see that we had stepped into a void; I did not need Sevens to stop to know we had reached our destination; I did not need to hear the subtle click of a door behind us to know there was no going back.

Sevens’ hand tightened on mine. I realised with a sudden sinking feeling that her palm had gone clammy.

“Oh,” Saldis breathed, not even a whisper, in wonder. “Oh my.”

“Sevens?” I murmured. “Sevens, what’s wrong?”

A gentle hand reached up and undid the blindfold, fumbling slightly with shaking fingertips. The yellow darkness fell away as Sevens returned my sight. White flooded in, making me blink and squint. Then I saw what was wrong.

The audience chamber was a large round room — merely large, not some giant Outsider-scale space, perhaps big enough to count as a ballroom — all in white and completely featureless. There weren’t even any lamps or light bulbs or fireplaces; the illumination seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, leaving scant few shadows.

In the centre of the room was a little brown table on a single leg, with a wide base at the bottom, the sort of cheap table you might find in any coffee shop back on Earth. A steaming cup of coffee waited at one edge. Two chairs sat either side of the table.

A man was sitting in the chair opposite, facing us. At least, I assumed it was a man. He was bandaged from head to toe, every inch of him concealed behind rough yellow fabric. Like a mummified Egyptian Pharaoh.

Rail-thin, unmoving. Bandaged hands propped on the table.

He was, however, not the most worrying thing about the room. We had an audience.

A crowd was arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, three or four people deep. Humans — or at least currently imitating humans. All of them were dressed as if they’d stepped straight out of a 1920s period-piece, all elegant flapper dresses and black-tie dinner suits, cigars and cigarette holders, flutes of champagne and glasses of red wine. Some were dressed like stereotypical gangsters, others like precocious children. All ages were represented. Men, women, and those in between too, overt non-binary people, butch women, feminine men.

None of them made a sound, but all of them were amused, grinning or winking at us. Many raised silent toasts with their drinks. Some licked their lips in anticipation or mimed silent clapping. More than a few were practically vibrating with excitement.

My tentacles inched out from beneath the thick folds of my yellow robe. Abyssal instinct screamed fight! My bioreactor thrummed in my abdomen.

“Sevens,” I asked, my voice tight and high. I nodded at the bandaged man in the centre of the room. “Is that your father?”

“Yes,” was all she said. She was staring at him, intense with blank fury.

“Oh, oh dear, oh my poppets,” Saldis was saying, panting softly. “Are we to be … the subject of a play?”

“Father,” Sevens raised her voice. She took a step forward, hand still in mine. “Father, I do not understand. Why are you unmasked?”

Our unwelcome audience exploded into roaring cheers, sudden enough to make me flinch and hiss.

“No mask? No mask!” they shouted and jeered and laughed, sharing sudden toasts and elbowing each other in the ribs, falling over themselves with glee. The words turned into a chant. “No mask! No mask! No mask!”

Sevens stared from face to face, wide-eyed.

The bandaged man at the coffee table raised the fingers of one hand.

The chant died instantly. But we were not to be spared. A section of the crowd to our left surged outward from the ring of onlookers, like a piece of amoeba undergoing binary fission. They pulled forward until they were clear of the audience, then adopted different poses, expressions of rapt listening, eyes full of admiration and flattery — all turned toward Saldis.

Inside her sphere, Saldis suddenly lit up with delight. Her machine moved toward the detached display and she leaned out of the front, a hand extended in greeting, her rats on her shoulders.

“Saldis Solveig Nyland!” she introduced herself brightly. One of the little crowd, a fat older man, shook her hand with friendly glee on his ruddy red face. “Delighted, yes, delighted. I see you’ve heard of me.” Another hand was pointed at her, a young woman in a silken dress. “And who is this delightful creature? And oh, I think we’ve met before. Here, why don’t we—”

The crowd around Saldis all started talking at once, drowning her in a sea of chatter. She laughed along, talking utter nonsense. Her rats flowed off her shoulders and into waiting hands, to be petted and cooed over, passed from admirer to admirer. Saldis started to tell some long, winding story about a sea journey.

“Father!” Sevens raised her voice, furious, losing control. “Father, you cannot be serious. Stop this, right now.”

The bandaged man waved his fingers again.

A second blob of people detached themselves from the crowd. I expected a slight variation on what we’d just witnessed, that they would adjust their roles to the needs of the moment, wear new expressions and wield new temptations.

They exploded into a mass of yellow tentacles, rushing at us. I screamed and hissed.

The forest-knight stepped past Sevens and me, levelled his axe, and waded in.

Weapon whirling and flashing against the walls of the white chamber, moving with grace despite the incredible weight of the armour and the unwieldy way he held it together inside, the forest-knight chopped and sliced through yellow tentacles. They bounced off his armour and feinted through his guard, but never did any real damage, never hit hard enough to leave a dent. But no matter how many he cut down, more always rose in their place. The still-human crowd craned to watch, grinning and shaking their fists with silent pugilistic suggestions, making wagers between themselves.

“Sevens,” I said, voice quivering. “What is going on?”

“Enough, Father,” she called out. “You have made your point. Heather and I shall speak with you alone, but not until you dismiss—”

A third group of 1920s imitations stepped forward from the ring of the crowd. Targeting me, I assumed. I was the Outsider here, I was the human interloper, I was the problem.

But then I realised the third and final group were all women.

They all suddenly froze in place, in various over-dramatic poses — some glaring at each other, some gazing upon another with unrequited desire, others turned away in the act of crying. One had a knife ready to plunge into another woman’s back. Yet another still was pushing down a smaller woman with an expression of glee on both their faces, but watched by a third who looked aghast.

Sevens’ hand slipped out of mine.

Before I could grab for her or say her name, she was no longer the Princess in Yellow, Seven-Shades-of-Supreme-Confidence, elegant and cold. In one step toward the group of frozen dolls, she transformed into the unwashed, jittery, black-eyed girl I’d glimpsed in her chambers.

She skittered over toward the group of women and began to chatter to herself, pointing at them and adjusting their poses, swapping them from partner to partner, recombining and reordering, rewriting the playtime romances. The women — her siblings? Her family? — obeyed like living dolls, moving at her orders.

“No no, you here, her there. You won’t go at all,” she snatched out between those needle-teeth. “You’re useless but useless people need love too so wait a moment and I’ll get to you. Shit. Fuck, this one won’t do, you need a third. A third!”

“ … Sevens?” I said. “Sevens!”

She didn’t even glance back at me.

The crowd of imitation humans was completely absorbed in the three separate shows. None of them had attention left for me, or for the bandaged man in the middle of the room.

He raised his head and looked at me from behind his yellow bandages.

“Just me then,” I whispered to myself.

My heart was racing and my mouth was dry, my body was ready for fight-or-flight, my tentacles kept trying to drift wide. I itched to jam the squid-skull mask over my head, or turn and run, or hiss at the top of my lungs.

But this audience was for me. All others had been given amusing distractions. I steeled myself, and approached the King in Yellow.

He didn’t acknowledge me when I stopped a few paces away from the battered old coffee table, just staring from behind his yellow bandages. I couldn’t make out anything beneath the fabric, no scrap of skin or glow of strange light, just the contours of a vaguely male face, deep in medical dressing.

I bowed my head and pinched the corners of my yellow robe, doing the best curtsy I could under the circumstances.

“Your majesty,” I said.

My eyes lingered on the steaming cup of coffee and the empty chair. Deja vu crept over me; I knew these objects, I knew this place. But I never went to coffee shops. Raine took me to pubs or cafes, greasy spoon places, and the occasional curry house, but I always drank coffee at home. Where did I know this from?

I risked raising my head and looked at the King again. He said nothing, so I forced words past my dry lips. “Your majesty, thank you for this audience. I believe you already know why I’m here and what I have come to request, but I will gladly do you the respect of repeating myself if you so wish.”

The King in Yellow said nothing.

“I have been stranded Outside,” I went on, “by … well, by a force I don’t fully understand. Your daughter, Seven—”

The King in Yellow reached up behind his own head with his bandaged hands and began to unveil his face. My breath stuck in my throat, my body tried to prepare for anything, but how does one prepare to be face to face with something not unlike the Eye?

Inch by inch, strip by strip of yellow fabric, the King in Yellow showed me something far worse.

A human face. Shiny, young, male, white. Chin perfectly shaved, angular but not blunt, a little puppy fat still in his cheeks. Tousled blond hair, thick and expertly styled, not cheap. An all-knowing smile on his thin lips, self-satisfied and sickly-warm. Eyes full of amusement at the expense of anything he cared to look at. Assured in his own power.

The King in Yellow finished revealing his mask. Strips of yellow bandage hung loose. He leaned back in his chair and smiled at me, enjoying the moment.

“You’re not him,” I managed, shaking with something akin to rage.

The Yellow King tutted and laughed, a single puff of unimpressed air. “Oh, Lavinia—”

“Don’t call me that,” I snapped.

He raised both bandaged hands in a mock-placating gesture. “You would do well to learn a lesson which most of my children never seem to understand.” He gestured out at the audience, his yellow children.

Then he waited, watching me with a smug, oily smile that made me sick.

“You’re even doing his irritating pauses,” I hissed, swallowing disgust. “What lesson?”

“We are what we pretend to be,” said the King in Yellow. He smiled wider, showing perfect pearly-white teeth. “Right now, in a very real way, I am Alexander Lilburne.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.16

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My family didn’t keep any pets when Maisie and I were little; after Wonderland — or, from our parents’ perspective, after my schizophrenia manifested at nine years old — they had enough on their hands dealing with me, without adding further complications to our household. My father had owned a dog in the years before we were born, a noble-looking German Shepherd by the name of Alfred, though I only knew him from a handful of low-resolution photographs. He’d died at a rather advanced age when Maisie and I were only six months old, which invited a nameless melancholy whenever I thought about it too much. During my teenage years, three different child psychologists had suggested animal-assisted therapy, or that my parents should consider getting a small dog. That experiment lasted less than a week and ended in a massive relapse; thirteen year-old me got her hopes up at the fantasy of a big friendly dog who would bark at her hallucinations and scare off the monsters nobody else could see. Which didn’t happen. Dogs couldn’t see spirits either.

So, I wasn’t good with animals. I was not used to them.

But I had once been fascinated by a cat.

When Maisie and I were perhaps six or seven years old, our neighbourhood in Reading had played brief host to a bold stray. A marmalade-and-white tabby cat had taken up residence in the streets. She was sleek and muscular and graceful. Our parents called her Ginger, which Maisie and I mangled into Gins, in the private language that young twins sometimes develop.

Gins the orange cat developed a habit of begging for scraps outside peoples’ doors by rolling on her back and looking cute. She sunned herself on garden walls and promenaded up and down the pavements without a care, but she was also the terror of all the local domesticated cats. At night she would poach pet food from unattended bowls by sneaking in through unlocked cat flaps. More than once somebody else on our street woke up to the sound of their own pet hissing and yowling in a secret nocturnal confrontation. To a pair of small children this was the height of excitement and scandal.

She didn’t visit our back garden much, probably because we lacked any pet food to give her. On the rare occasions she did appear, Maisie and I were beside ourselves with delight. Gins was a very proud cat, all strutting and preening, somehow both fluffy and elegant at the same time, dignified and commanding, queen of her adopted domain. Our parents forbid us from trying to stroke her, which caused a little disappointment at first, but we accepted it as the natural order of things — no feline that noble would be interested in the attentions of a pair of over-curious six year old girls.

But once, she’d stolen into our back garden in pursuit of a big fat black rat. She’d caught it right in front of Maisie and I as we’d pressed ourselves against the glass of the back door in horrified awe. She’d cornered it on our little patio, toyed with the poor thing, then snapped its neck and taken her sweet time with her meal. She’d eaten it head first, crunching the delicate bones, smearing blood and gore all over her oh-so-fluffy orange face and paws.

I always remembered the shared realisation that Maisie and I had whispered to each other as we’d watched sweet little Gins dismember and devour her prey, as she’d watched us back with those shining feline eyes: if we’d been as small as that rat, she would have gladly eaten us.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realised poor Ginger had probably been slowly starving, covered in fleas, and riddled with parasites. Strays rarely have a good life.

Her beauty and dignity had been an illusion.

But as the yellow sphinx padded up the rose-brick road on silent paws, making for Sevens and Saldis and the knight and myself, that memory of predatory beauty came flooding back.

The sphinx must have weighed thousands of pounds, but it trod like a dancer with muscles that flowed like butter, slinking and strutting with the grace of a poem as it strode through the pale mist which covered the ground. Its mane was a halo of dark gold, its velvety fur the colour of fresh wheat, the swishing tail a lightning bolt ready to strike; its great wings were folded down against its back, the rival of any roc. The skin of its human face was a rich, dusky brown, with plush lips in a natural pout, wide soft cheeks, and a pair of slender, arched eyebrows in stark black.

Yellow eyes showed a hint of bronze slit-pupil on the background of dying sunlight sclerae. The sphinx’s gaze passed briefly over Sevens and the sealed ball of Saldis’ machine, then settled on me. Those pupils widened, as if fixed on prey about to scurry away.

“Stand your ground,” Sevens murmured. Her hand, cool and dry, found mine again. She laced her fingers between mine.

I hiccuped, loud and painful. “In front of that!?”

“She will not attack us.” Sevens tilted her head, watching the sphinx approach. “Not if she knows what’s good for her.”

“Oh, great,” I hissed. “I think I preferred the giant screaming gemstone.”

I did my best to stare down the sphinx as she finished her approach — more difficult than I’d expected, considering I’d stared down the biggest stare of all, but I suppose that had been in Lozzie’s dream, whereas my physical body was literally here, Outside, trying to lock eyes with a seventy-foot lion. A trickle of adrenaline turned into a steady pump of animalistic fear. The control rods in my bioreactor instinctively inched out of their channels, trying to supply me with raw energy to compensate for the gnawing hunger in my belly. I itched to slip the squid-skull helmet over my face, but it would make no difference against something this size; if the sphinx was indeed going to pose us a riddle, the last thing I wanted to do was risk muffling my voice. My fingers clutched at Sevens’ yellow cloak about my shoulders.

My six tentacles crept outward to make myself look big, flushing their surface layers with toxins to make myself poisonous to eat. A hiss rose in my throat as the giant sphinx finally drew to a stop in front of us. She settled on her haunches and regarded us with heavy-lidded eyes, from seventy feet up.

I tried to remind myself that this was also a form of illusion; the sphinx was a mask, the same as Sevens. But that thought died under a torrent of fight-or-flight. All I could do was stand transfixed. If I moved, I would break.

“Sister,” Sevens spoke first, cold and polite. “What are you doing?”

The sphinx blinked with feline lethargy, then lowered her head and shoulders into a crouch so we did not have to crane our necks quite so high to meet her gaze. Her face alone was gigantic enough, and too close despite still being a good thirty feet away.

Claws the size of battleship-engine propeller blades slid out from between her paw-pads.

Threat! Threat! abyssal instinct and savannah ape screamed in unison — and I broke into a hiss. Long and loud and shaking, my tentacles rearing like stingers. It was that or curl up inside Sevens’ cloak and choke on my own hiccups.

The sphinx turned lazy eyes toward me. I hissed again, so hard it burned my throat, until my lungs were empty and my head was spinning.

Her gaze lingered for a moment, but then she looked away. If it wasn’t for Sevens’ hand in mine, the relief would have buckled my knees.

“You are eating from the refuse heap, sister,” the Sphinx said to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in a voice like silk drawn over razor blades. That sound made me shiver and swallow, my throat all twisted inside from the hissing. The sphinx’s voice was far too high for something so large, and far too human, far too knowing and mocking and teasing. She indicated me with a tiny sideways tilt of her gigantic head, dark mane ruffling in the air as she moved. “Then again, I already am eating from the refuse heap all the time.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight raised her chin. The adjustment was tiny but it conferred upon her an instant air of icy arrogance, a full-on aristocratic transformation.

“You may insult me at your leisure,” said Sevens. “But—”

“—too true I may,” the sphinx interrupted.

Sevens spoke right over her, “But you will show better manners toward my betrothed.”

The sphinx inched her head forward, shuffling her paws toward us; the motion made me flinch. The giant human lips curled with amusement, showing a mouth of giant, blunt teeth, human teeth. The effect made me feel vaguely sick.

“Or what?” she asked.

“Or I shall take a spray bottle to you.” Sevens raised the handle of her umbrella and extended one finger around an imaginary trigger. “Ssppt ssppt.”

The sphinx’s smile widened, acid and steaming. Sevens planted the tip of her umbrella back on the ground, chin high, eyes cold as a winter storm. I prepared to let go of her hand and leap away, my heart racing with terror, half my tentacles wrapped around me in a protective cushion. There was no way we were going to get lucky twice, was there? She’d driven off the flying trapezoid, but that had just screamed and bellowed with impotent anger, easily dismissed between Outside beings of this order. The sphinx wanted to play, as cats played with their prey.

But rather than pounce on us or sideswipe me into paste with a flick of her claws, Sevens’ sister settled her gigantic maned head onto her outstretched front paws in an unmistakable pose of feline relaxation. Her huge tail stood straight up behind her, the tip curling with playful amusement.

“I always enjoy your jokes, Seven-Shades,” the sphinx purred.

“It is not a joke. I will chastise you,” said Sevens, then turned to me. She indicated the sphinx with a tilt of her umbrella. “This is Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands. Her name is a mouthful, so you may shorten it any way you wish, even to something insulting. Preferably to something insulting. Moggy, mouser, fleabag, as you wish.”

The sphinx blinked with all the speed of an advancing glacier as our eyes met again. My heart slammed in my chest and I fought off both a hiccup and a hiss as I gave her a polite nod, my lips sealed against saying anything silly. But both of them waited. Sevens did not give me any help when I glanced at her. Neither did the forest-knight when I risked a tiny look over my shoulder. He was standing very still, axe poised like a pike, as if to ward off a cavalry charge. Brave, but even he couldn’t stop the sphinx if she decided to crush us.

Her tail swished, once.

“Um, Melancholy … Mel?” I croaked, my throat still raw.

‘Mel’, all several thousand pounds of her, rumbled a purr in grudging approval, a purr that made the ground shake. I’d passed whatever test the yellow sisters had set, but I just flinched again as she flexed her claws a second time. I couldn’t stop myself from scowling at her.

“Why are you being so large, sister?” Sevens asked her. “Cease this pointless intimidation. You know it does not make any difference to me. Only to Heather here.”

As Sevens spoke, Mel reached out with her opposite paw toward Saldis’ closed sphere. She nudged it like a cat with an unfamiliar new toy, then planted her gigantic paw on top of the ball and tried to drag it toward herself, totally undeterred by the spiky exterior formed by the grey blocks. When the ball refused to move, Mel bared her human-like teeth in a silent grimace. Only at the sound of my name did she turn her attention back to us.

“She is named after a bush?” Mel asked. “And I like being large. I should ask you to justify your current smallness. I’ve seen you much larger before and I think it suited you better.”

“This mask is human,” Sevens said. “They do tend toward smaller sizes.”

“Then swap to a larger one. These instincts are difficult to suppress, they keep prodding me to pin you and bite your legs off.”

Sevens sighed softly. “Don’t make me come up there, Melancholy. You do not want me to do that. I am wearing a human mask because I am with a human. I will not leave her out of a conversation. To do so would be exceedingly rude.”

Mel nodded toward me — and gestured at me with one gigantic yellow paw as well, though her claws remained sheathed. I flinched so hard that I stumbled back. My hand almost slipped out of Sevens’ grip, but she clamped her fingers around mine tight as iron, hard enough to grind flesh against bone. My stumble and her strength almost dislocated my wrist and shoulder before I caught myself, but my hiss of surprise and pain was lost in the razor-sharp song of Mel’s voice.

“This is not a human,” Mel was saying as I recovered my composure. “I should know, I’ve spent more time among them than you have. I was being worshipped in adoring terror when you were just a half-formed notion lost in rat-infested brothels in the cradle of Rome.”

As soon as my hand was secure in Sevens’ once more, her grip went back to normal, but she didn’t acknowledge what she’d done. She didn’t even look at me.

I was not to let go of her hand in front of this creature, sister or no.

“Melancholy,” said Sevens, cool and calm, “you are not actually the Sphinx of Thebes. Shut up and shrink yourself.”

Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands let out a snuff noise, the feline equivalent of an exasperated huff. She reared back up to her full height, sitting on her haunches and looking down at us with a most sour-lipped expression, her thick, dark mane framed from behind by the drifting sky-mists and the dimly visible upside-down castle piled in the sky.

Then, in less than the blink of an eye, she was suddenly a sixth of her size. The sphinx went from a seventy-foot colossus — which my brain said should not even be moving — to a mere ten-foot giant blocking our way down the rose-brick road.

“Thank you, dear sister,” said Sevens. “Now I will ask you again: what are you doing here? Are you escort, or obstacle?”

Mel yawned, slow and lazy, raising a front paw to her mouth in a very un-cat like gesture. “Goodness me, you can be such a bore. I think I preferred you during your Grand Guignol phase. Don’t you remember how much fun that was? Recall that party of jesters we had skinned, what a great show!” She stood up and padded silently over to Saldis’s closed sphere, now only about four feet taller than the grey machine, like a cat with a beach ball. She sniffed the top of the sphere and batted at it with one paw, but it still refused to budge. “Why can’t you put your favourite human though some good old blood and guts, some proper ultra-violence?”

“She does enough of that to herself,” said Seven-Shades-of-Quietly-Boastful.

Mel’s attention flicked back to us for a second, a cat distracted by a dancing string. “Does she now?”

“Look at her, sister,” said Sevens. “I am not responsible for any of that claret.”

Mel ran her bronze-on-yellow eyes up and down my body, taking in the blood all over my sleeves and down the front of my hoodie and crusted around my nostrils. Her wide, dusky-chocolate face was so expressive, eyes scrunched in curiosity, nose twitching with interest, lips pouted in consideration. I stared back, feeling disgusting but defiant, straightening my spine as best I could to show off my trophies, though they were all my own blood. Look all you want, I thought. I survive this and more, regularly.

“Mmmm, hmmmmmmm-mmmmm, a bloody mess, yes!” Mel grinned. “Has she been feasting upon her enemies? I approve!”

I sighed under my breath. “Something like that.”

“That only means she would be even better suited to your former style, sister,” Mel purred. “Why not make a grand return? We can dress the stage with her glistening entrails, paint the boards with her pretty brains. What say you, sister? How about a collaboration?”

“Try me,” I hissed. Mel glanced at me, unconcerned but curious.

“One does not do violence upon the object of one’s heart,” said Sevens, measured and calm.

“Oh, tosh and nonsense!” Mel huffed. “I did plenty of that to plenty of strapping young things, though mine were admittedly more carnal. They usually ended up in my belly.” She returned her attention to Saldis’ closed sphere, suddenly raising a paw and batting quickly several times against the unyielding grey surface. “And what is this? Why won’t it move?! This is intolerable!”

“Our methods of expressing love are very different,” said Seven-Shades-of-Unerringly-Polite. “If you presume to critique mine, then I shall return the favour.”

Melancholy paused in her futile attack on Saldis’ sphere, shooting a suspicious look at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. “Love? Stage-infatuation is not love. As soon as the play is over, she becomes immortalised in the moments of the performance, but not beyond that. You are wasting her potential. You wish to repeat a story forever, sterile and incomplete. Let us use her properly. You want the milk, not the cow, and have mistaken the latter for the former.”

“Cow?!” I blurted out, outrage overcoming intimidation. “Excuse me!”

“What if the performance itself continues forever?” Sevens asked.

Melancholy snorted. “These creatures are short-lived, they do not last, not even uplifted like this scrap of muscle and bone.” She nodded at me again. “But pain? Pain lingers forever. I should know. You want to critique my love, with your head full of rainbows? I am a vision of how you will end up.”

Sevens shrugged delicately, slender shoulders rising along with her crisp white blouse. “You never understood love. I do.”

Melancholy rolled her razor-sharp, yellow eyes and then returned her attention to Saldis’ sphere, peering around the sides for a hidden opening. She reared up on her hind legs and tackled the machine with her whole body, all ten muscular feet of herself, trying to roll it along. The machine did not oblige, but stayed firmly fixed to the ground. She took a moment to bite at it, then grunted in frustration.

“Besides, I do not think she loves you, sister,” she purred.

“I know,” Sevens answered, without a second’s hesitation.

“Not yet,” I spoke up, tired of being a bystander. Melancholy spared me a glance as she let the sphere go and fell back to her feet, the interest of a cat toward prey making a mistake during a clumsy escape. “I’m thinking about it. But I can hardly think it over properly when I’m in the middle of an emergency. Which you are adding to. Are you barring our way?”

Melancholy stared me down for several heartbeats, but I refused to squirm or shrink. She gave up on the sphere and padded back to Sevens and me, tail swishing slowly, bronze pupils dilating, making no effort to hide her predatory body language as she crept closer. The forest-knight’s axe inched past my shoulder in a futile effort to ward her off. My tentacles drifted back and forth, ready to strike or curl into a protective ball. Inside, I was shuddering and swallowing down a hiccup, but I did my best not to show my fear. I was a predator too — or at least I could be, at my most abyssal and ruthless. I tried to channel that into my stare, into my body language. Melancholy stopped six or seven feet away and tossed her head.

“The strange hybrid’s heart belongs to another,” she said.

“Several others, yes,” Sevens sighed. “And that is acceptable. Encouraged, even. Sister, this is getting tiresome. May we pass?”

“That is not what I mean. Her heart belongs to another. Completely.”

“May. We. Pass?”

“You may not.”

Sevens had no quick retort to the refusal, which made my heart pound against my ribs with sudden worry. I shot a sidelong look at her, but her face gave nothing away. Instead I cleared my throat and asked, “Is that why you’ve chosen a sphinx as your mask? To bar my way?”

“It is not for your sake, hybrid. I wore this for so long it began to feel more real than my own face,” she purred, slinking closer on silent paws. “I am the Sphinx of Thebes, for she is no more, her bones worn away to dust and joined with the sands. There is only me left to keep the memory alive.”

Tail swishing, eyes flashing, she peeled back her lips and ran her tongue along her exposed teeth. I think it was meant to be a threat, but it was somehow mis-calibrated.

“I thought you’d have sharper teeth,” I said, but wasn’t sure why I wanted to irritate her.

“And I thought you’d have a sharper mind,” she shot back.

“Let us pass,” said Sevens. “Or you and I will come to blows.”

“Not without a riddle,” purred the sphinx. “One to open your rainbow-clouded eyes, sister.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” I hissed. “Really? Really, this is what we’re doing? I’m so hungry I could eat you, so get it over with.”

“You are the one who chose to be here, Melancholy,” said Sevens, her calm voice dripping with understated reproach. “This is not your usual haunt. You can’t declare this is a toll road based on your whims alone. This road is the property of the king.”

“Who do you think sent me?” Mel growled. “Our geometry obsessed brother was the one here of his own accord.” She tossed her head to indicate the glowing trapezoid which had vanished up into the jumble of the castle. Her lips curled into a dark smile. “Though I would not say I am here under duress. I am rather enjoying this.”

“Then you are to be my object lesson?” Sevens asked, airy and unconcerned. “Consider the object presented, the lesson acknowledged. You have performed your function. Now stand aside.”

Melancholy’s smile did not diminish. “Still, I must ask the riddle. It is the nature of the mask.”

“I am afraid that Heather is a student of literature,” said Sevens. “She knows all your riddles.”

“Do I?” I snapped, losing control at last. Then I hiccuped, loud and awkward. “Do I really? And you!” I blazed at the sphinx. “What are you going to do if I answer incorrectly? I’ve escaped the jaws of much larger creatures than you. I can melt your digestive system if you even try.”

“Then so be it. I will melt.”

“We do not have time for this silliness,” Sevens said, with a tone that would have sent me into stuttering apologies if she’d turned it my way. “Heather is exhausted and hungry and has already secured an audience with father. Stand aside, sister.”

“No exceptions,” Mel growled. “And you cannot help her. No hints, or I will change the riddle to a harder one.”

“Try me,” I huffed.

Sevens turned to me, an ice-cold severity in her eyes. “Do not answer. Whatever she asks, it is not your responsibility.”

I flinched — but also scowled. Sevens’ mask was so severe, so impossible to resist. Under any other circumstances I would have been a very good girl and done exactly as I was told, yes please, thank you ma’am. But I was beyond exhausted and beginning to get quite angry.

“Are you ready, hybrid?” Mel purred, padding another few steps forward, closing the gap to arm’s reach. My heart tried to escape through the front of my ribs. Try as I might to restrain them, my tentacles whirled back up into a defensive posture, a ring of muscled threat ready to whip and punch and lash. Mel eyed them carefully and stopped her advance. “Greater warriors than you have fallen beneath my claws.”

I snorted out a laugh, almost hysterical, at my wit’s end. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not a warrior. I’m a university student.”

“ … students today are truly impressive,” Mel purred, raising an eyebrow at my tentacles. “Ready or not, here I come.”

“Do not answer,” Sevens repeated, cold and hard. It took an effort of will not to meet her eyes.

“She must,” Mel purred.

“A wrong answer will bind you. Do not.”

“Nothing can bind me that I do not choose,” I murmured. “Ask your riddle, sphinx. If I get it wrong, I will be the one eating you.”

My words came out calm only because I was beyond tired, beyond caring, but also a little curious.

Melancholy settled back on her leonine haunches, watching me with deceptively sleepy eyes. In that moment of stillness she looked like a statue carved from yellow standstone. When she spoke, it was with lyrical rhythm, soft and slow, an assassin’s dagger of oiled silver drawn from a scabbard of human leather. Each syllable lingered in the milky, pale air.

“Begun together, but forever parted. The same in form, but not inside. Mistaken for one alone, sometimes for mischief, but never for another. What am I?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“ … why would you ask me that?”

Melancholy just stared, heavy-lidded and inscrutable.

“Do not answer,” said Sevens. “You do not have—”

“I know the answer,” I snapped, unsure if I should feel humiliated or furious.

“You have heard this one before?” Melancholy purred, making no effort to feign surprise.

I sighed. “Of course not, I suspect you made it up on the spot. But it’s obvious. Why ask me that?”

“What is your answer?”

I glanced at Sevens; she was watching me. Her intense, unreadable expression showed a tiny flaw, a faint tightness around her wide and staring eyes. This riddle was written for me, but we both knew it was aimed at her.

“What if I refuse to answer?” I asked.

“Mmmm,” Mel rumbled. “Then you may not proceed.”

“What if I say I’m willing to fight you instead of answering?”

Mel tilted her head, the exact gesture of a cat considering a particularly stupid dog. “Then perhaps you do love Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, but in the wrong way. And for that I will eat you, bones and brain and all, correct answer or not.”

Guilt stirred in my chest. Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands was correct. Love without respect was not love at all.

But I didn’t want to hurt Sevens. And I didn’t know what that desire implied.

“Your answer?” Mel prompted.

“Twins,” I surrendered. “The answer to your riddle is twins.”

Sevens tightened her grip on my hand. Melancholy did not react, staring down at me from ten feet up with all the languid illusion of a predator at rest. But I didn’t raise my tentacles, I didn’t tense up, I didn’t even hiccup.

“Correct,” Melancholy purred.

“Of course it’s correct!” I snapped. “Of course I would know that answer. As if I’m not consumed by it every day. In everything I do for the last ten years there has been a gaping hole, an absence, a missing presence by my side. And maybe that makes me not an ordinary twin at all, maybe I’m unhealthy and obsessed with her, but I don’t care about that. It doesn’t matter how happy I can feel in the moment or how many friends I make or how many people sleep in my bed with me. She is not here. Of course I know what you’re talking about, and it is a cruel trick to use that fact in this way. You are a horrid thing.”

“See, sister?” Melancholy asked. “She loves another.”

True guilt spread through my chest and belly like a web of rot. I’d forgotten how the Yellow King’s progeny made everything into a performance, made every emotional point with endless theatrics, and knew everything they required about the subjects of their plays. Melancholy had made a good point: I was using Sevens. Not just right now to help me deal with this emergency, to help me reach her father and get home, but ultimately to help me rescue Maisie.

The same way I was using everyone else in my life.

It was true. I loved another, and I would do anything to get her back. Even exploit the love of an Outsider godling daughter.

I turned my eyes away, staring down at the rose-pink bricks and the pale grass beyond the road. Dry words stuck in my throat. I wanted to hide inside my squid-skull mask again. My tentacles bunched around my torso in a protective ball and I moved to slip my hand out of Sevens’ grip. I didn’t deserve what she was offering, I didn’t deserve any of this, I was using her, lying to her, manipulating her. But she tightened her grip again.

“ … no,” I murmured. “Sevens, no, I—”

“I am enlightened, sister,” Sevens said, cool and calm, her words cutting through my guilt like a red-hot scalpel, cauterising healthy flesh to burn out infection.

“Mm?” Melancholy purred.

“I have been enlightened as to why you remain in that form after so many years. If you donned a mask which required clothing, you would struggle to dress yourself in the morning, for you are so very stupid.”

“Sevens!” I squeaked. “She isn’t wrong, she—”

“All relationships contain a transactional element,” Sevens continued smoothly. “The existence of the transaction itself is not a negative, or a corruption of pure intent, or a flaw in a perfect diamond. It is a prerequisite. Only the content of the transaction can be negative. Observe.” She turned to me. “Heather, may I kiss you?”

“What?” My mouth fell open. I glanced at her lips, soft and pink and stern. “Now? Here?”

“Here and now.”

I started to blush. “Um … Sevens, I—I—”

“It is not necessary, but we both desire it.” She turned back to Melancholy. “I wish to claim her lips and feel them against mine. She wishes the same toward me. We make a transaction of pleasure, and further enjoy the pleasure inflicted upon each other.”

Inflicted?” I whined.

“This principle is fractally nested and can be applied at any level. But it is not equal, it can never be equal. I would enjoy the kiss more than her,” Sevens explained to Melancholy. “Love is not rainbows and fairy-tale endings, sister. It is messy and hard work, constant and unrelenting. The rescue of her sister will bring her joy, which will bring me joy. And she will benefit more than I, and that I accept. That is love, sister.”

Melancholy’s human face twisted with slow disgust, tail swishing, claws flexing. She even began to show her teeth in a silent snarl.

Sevens drove home the knife, “Only a romantic fool convinces themselves’ otherwise. A dreamer who ends up pining for something which they imagined as pure, but was only pure because it was stillborn, never tested, never admitted. It was not real.”

“It was real!” Melancholy bellowed. I flinched. Sevens did not.

“Then why do you wear her face?” Sevens asked. “When you could wear the one with which you loved her?”

Melancholy huffed through her nose and rose from her haunches, sliding her massive claws out from between the furry toes of her paws. For a second I was terrified we had provoked a fight, but she tossed her head and slid the claws away again, then padded over toward Saldis’ sphere machine. “The riddle is answered, your way is clear. When you see father, tell him he is a whore’s pox-ridden slit.”

Sevens and I shared a glance. I let out a shuddering breath as the tension left me. She shrugged minutely.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“Anything for you,” Sevens murmured, for my ears alone.

“But this one may not proceed,” Melancholy growled, sniffing the blocks of the grey sphere machine, a dark frown on her face. “Hiding in a shell, pretending to be a ball of stone. My nose is not so easily led astray. I was not sent for you, but you have irritated me. You must answer a riddle too, whatever manner of soft meat lies within.” She sat back on her haunches, adopting a haughty and unimpressed expression. “Open up, coward.”

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Saldis did not open up — but I gasped in shock when her sphere-machine began to roll forward, the grey blocks click-click-clicking against the surface of the rose-brick road, heading straight for the sphinx as if to brush her aside.

Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands let out a lion’s roar.

She launched herself at the grey sphere, battering it with hammer-blows from her paws, raking at it with claws as long as knives. The sphere stopped, but nothing could penetrate the imperishable material; Saldis’ shell was far too well-made to be breached by a cat, no matter how big. The sphinx landed a dozen more blows, then rocked back on her paws to catch her breath; the sphere moved forward again but Mel threw herself at it with renewed frenzy, stopping it in its tracks.

“I may not be able to rend you limb from limb,” Melancholy growled, “but you may not pass without a correct answer, snail-thing!”

Sevens bent down to my ear, her ruler-straight blonde hair brushing my cheek, and whispered, “Let’s carry on. Leave them to their fun.”

“But, Saldis … ”

Saldis tried to inch forward again. Mel threw herself at the sphere, slashing and slamming. She couldn’t actually stop it from moving, but Saldis seemed unwilling to run her down or ram into her. Like this, it would take days for Saldis to inch to the open invitation of the palace doors, still a half-mile’s walk further down the rose-brick road.

“Better she doesn’t come with us,” Sevens whispered. “After all, don’t you want to visit my room? Just the two of us.”

I went wide-eyed at Seven-Shades-of-Seriously-Seductive, my cheeks flushing bright red, my palm suddenly clammy in her hand. Her wide, staring, intense eyes were unreadable as she looked down at me, just that tiny bit taller than myself.

“W-why—”

“You can sit down and rest before your audience with my father. Have something to eat. Nap. I’ll keep you company, kitten.”

I very nearly left Saldis behind. Can you blame me? I wouldn’t have blamed me. I’d have given myself a pat on the back.

Suddenly, a little black dot came scurrying over the pale grass beyond the rose-brick road; it seemed to have come from nowhere, burst from some hole hidden by an invisible fold in the flat landscape. Before anybody could react, it shot across the ground and onto the surface of the road, right beneath Melancholy’s whirling paws.

“Kyaaa!” the sphinx let out a shriek, a cartoon scream completely unsuited for her predatory elegance and power.

Yellow eyes gone wide, she backpedaled away from the grey sphere, paws flailing in the air with the ungainly comedy of a cat with all grace discarded. She fell onto her side and scrambled back to her feet, wings flapping uselessly, hissing and spitting at—

A rat.

A sleek, fat, black rat, up on his hind legs in the middle of the road, staring down a sphinx hundreds of times his own size.

“Coward!” Melancholy bellowed again. “You—”

The rat scurried at her a second time, looping around her feet and past her rump, unafraid of the weight of her paws as she danced on the spot as if suddenly standing on hot coals. She yowled and screamed and backed away again, fleeing from the rat in cringing disgust. But he followed, forcing her back with nothing except paradoxical fear.

“Oh my goodness, oh!” I blurted out, struggling not to laugh as I raised a hand to cover my mouth. It was horrifying — Melancholy could have crushed the poor rat to paste if she’d tried, but seeing such a massive, dignified feline act like a spooked kitten was too much.

Saldis’ grey sphere machine suddenly blossomed open down the front. She came out laughing too, leaning through the opening with one foot up on the lip of the machine, her other two rats perched on her shoulders.

“That’s right, Mótsognir!” she cheered through her laughter. “Give her the ol’ one-two knockout!”

For a split second, Melancholy’s yellow eyes blazed past her tiny opponent to fix Saldis with a look of impotent rage. Her whole body tensed, wings cracking the air, ready to pounce with her powerful back legs — but then Mótsognir the rat leapt at her face and she yowled, scrambling back on skidding paws.

A strong hand caught the rat mid-leap.

No more sphinx. No more ten-foot monster born from Earthly myth. In her place stood a woman, undoubtedly human, with dark skin and darker hair in long messy curls, dressed in sandals and sun-bleached, loose-fitting robes over mismatched pieces of bronze armour, which left her muscled arms exposed. She wore a sword on a belt around her waist, in a scuffed, unadorned scabbard. Past middle-age, her face was lined by care and weather, but her eyes were sharp and intelligent — and very yellow. She scowled at Mótsognir as she held the rat at arm’s length.

Mótsognir twisted and turned, but Melancholy’s new mask had him firmly by the scuff of his neck.

“I wouldn’t suggest irritating him,” Saldis called out, gently mocking as she struggled not to smile too hard. “He can be most vicious when roused.”

Lips pursed, with a scowl of such thunder it could have given Evelyn a run for her money, Melancholy marched up to Saldis and held out the rat.

“Your property, I believe,” she said, in an accent I’d never heard before, an accent that probably didn’t exist anymore, of lilting vowels and sharp consonants.

“Why thank you, lady of the sands,” Saldis said, grinning wide. She accepted Mótsognir back and cradled him against her chest. The rat looked particularly pleased with himself. Melancholy did not; she put her hands on her hips as Saldis said, “And with this demonstration, I take it there’s no need for further riddles?”

“I always hated the damn things,” Melancholy answered, tight and hard, with an expression like she wanted to punch Saldis square in the face.

“I-” I blurted out. “I’m sorry for laughing! I couldn’t help it!”

Melancholy waved me away with an irritated flick of one calloused hand, not even bothering to meet my eyes. “I laughed at her enough in life.”

“It is good to see you being honest again, sister,” Sevens spoke up.

“Tch!” Melancholy snorted. Apparently this new mask was not one for banter. She turned away, showing us a cold shoulder as she stalked past Saldis’ machine and the forest-knight, his weapon now slung over his shoulder again. She headed up the rose-brick road, away from the palace, leaving us behind. She threw words back over her shoulder, “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Seven-Shades, but I’m afraid you’re staring into an empty grave.”

“Where will I find father?” Sevens called after her, soft yet sharp.

“At the centre of the party,” she shot over her shoulder without turning back, sandals slapping on the rose-brick road. “Where else?”

We watched her leave, rolling her shoulders to pull her robes tighter, until she dwindled to a figure trudging across the pale landscape, half-lost in the milky mist.

“What a delightful woman,” Saldis sighed with genuine admiration. “I would like to meet her again, though not when she’s barring my way.”

“Is she going to the library?” I asked Sevens.

Sevens shrugged delicately. “Unlikely.” She looked at me, a lingering and meaningful look with those intense eyes. “Shall we?”

“Quite!” Saldis said, settling back into her seat.

“Not you,” Sevens said to her. “Be quiet.”

Nothing now stood between us and the palace gatehouse except half a mile of rose-brick road across the pale plain. A pair of huge wooden doors waited, wide open, large enough to admit the sphinx herself with double the room to spare. I nodded, gathering myself as best I could and matching Sevens’ step as we walked on.

The palace loomed over us as we drew closer, but I tried not to look up. The way it was piled up on itself in endless layers drew the eye inward in a dizzying spiral, as if looking down into a pit without a bottom. The forest-knight marched behind us without a care. Saldis trundled along at our rear, chattering nonsense about the sphinx and other half-animals, but I wasn’t listening, I was trying to focus on what I was going to say to the Yellow King — if indeed he decided to adopt a form that would listen to me at all. My guts churned and my head swam with growing nerves.

Without the fearful distractions of giant lions or screaming geometry, I stared ahead, past the palace doors. A massive corridor was visible beyond, but it seemed to shrink tight after only a little way, perhaps a hundred meters — then it stretched and kinked and turned at angles which made my eyes itch, even at this distance.

As we drew close, I caught snatches of laughter and little snippets of piano music on the air, barely on the edge of hearing.

“Sevens? Why can I hear … a … party?” I asked.

“There’s always a party,” Sevens said, with an unmistakable hint of disapproval in her already cold tone. “Some best not attended.”

“I adore a good party!” Saldis announced. She even sniffed the air, though I could smell nothing beyond the grass and the mist. “Good ale and roast meat, my favourite. As long as there’s plenty to go around.”

As we approached the threshold of the palace doors, the corridor inside twisted as if seen through a fun-house mirror. With shaking hands I jammed my squid-skull mask on over my head, taking refuge behind the eye-holes.

And then, beneath the snatches of music and laughter, a distant, stone-muffled scream drifted through the air.

“Yes,” Sevens added on the last step as the palace loomed over us, “we would do well to avoid this party.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.15

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Hand in hand, with the forest-knight at our heels and my heart in my mouth, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight led me out of the dark.

At first I was rendered speechless, but not merely because of Sevens’ new and intense mask, her princess-mask of starch and stares and silent implications. Despite the perpetual motion machine of my abdominal bioreactor, I was beyond exhausted — between panic, fear, adrenaline, whirling anxieties, confrontations with multiple Outsider beings, a moment of Eye-like observation, and almost blowing myself up, all topped off with the cherry of a genuine emotional crisis, I was spent. My mind was running on fumes, my emotions were worn down to a stub, and I was probably suffering some kind of short term adrenal fatigue.

Not to mention the hunger. I would have eaten week-old chips right then. I would have risked Tenny’s first attempt at cooking, or gladly scarfed down one of Zheng’s offerings of raw squirrel.

After the first minute or two of walking deeper into the dark void, when it became apparent that the living darkness was not impudent enough to encroach on Sevens’ eight-foot bubble of warm candlelight, my mind wandered into a waking doze. My footsteps grew heavy, my eyelids heavier, my brain slipping into automatic. A pair of my tentacles clutched the squid-skull mask to my belly like a comforting plush toy. I tugged Sevens’ yellow cloak snug around my neck and throat, seeking refuge in warmth.

Safe now, my instincts whispered.

Sevens’ neat black heels went click-click-click against the floorboards in an unwavering rhythm, her long yellow skirt swishing at her ankles, now and again revealing snatches of white tights on her slender legs. I kept sneaking sidelong glances at her new face in profile, her sharp cheekbones and unsmiling eyes, her clear skin and the straight line of her mouth.

On the fifth or sixth lingering glance, I met those wide turquoise eyes staring back at me.

“ … s-sorry,” I blurted out.

Slender eyebrows climbed toward her ruler-straight fringe.

“I’m just very tired,” I explained, under duress from that look. “Having trouble focusing. I can’t get used to you like this.”

“Does my countenance help keep you alert?” Sevens asked. Her new voice was like a slice of lemon dipped in chocolate, sharply sweet and precise, leaving one unsure as to which flavour was the truth.

“Um … ” I squinted, more with tiredness than confusion. “I’m not sure what you mean?”

“Does gazing upon me make your heart rate climb? Does it tighten your chest? Does the sight of me stop your breath in your throat?” She waited a beat while I was unable to reply, staring dumbfounded at her unreadable intensity. I would have stumbled as we walked along if it wasn’t for her hand in mine. “Regardless, Heather, you may feast your eyes to your heart’s content. Be assured, I am not self-conscious.”

I had to look away, blushing like I’d been sunburned, no longer the least bit tired.

“ … Sevens, you are doing this on purpose,” I managed.

“Doing what on purpose?” she asked.

“You know very well what I mean,” I hissed.

“Alas, I am but a young and sheltered princess,” she said, still measured and cool and not sounding sheltered at all. “I am too far down the line of inheritance to merit training as a proper lady, and far too uncanny to bother with sending me to balls and galas in the hopes of marrying me off to some nouveau riche merchant. I am unschooled in the ways of the world. So you must tell me what you mean, kitten.”

I had been ready to face her again and roll my eyes at her absurd act, but that last word made me stammer and splutter.

She still didn’t smile. Not even a hint. She hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d said this mask was good at self-control.

“Ah, here we are at last.” She turned her eyes ahead and nodded into the dark, leaving me unfinished and raw. “The way begins to open.”

I let out a shuddering sigh, expecting another flirtatious trick, but quickly discovered that Sevens was being serious.

All around us, the corridor itself had finally become visible, as if seen through a deep haze on the edge of sight, like the world lit by the first feelers of a grey and rainy dawn. Ceiling and walls loomed out of the gloom, much closer than I had expected, perhaps only twenty feet away and rapidly tightening as Sevens strode on with her unwavering click-click against the floorboards. I squinted in confusion, for the walls were not the same tessellated wood as the floor, but appeared to be made of bare, packed earth, wormed through with gnarled tree roots, some as thick as my entire body but some mere finger-width feelers.

Staring out into the grey haze, I realised that Sevens’ soft light was going out.

Her halo of warmth was shrinking and contracting, fuzzy at the edges as the grey pressed inward, grown so dim that the rainbow glow of my tentacles had begun to overtake it once more.

“Sevens!” I hissed, heart leaping into my mouth, my free hand gripping the sleeve of her perfectly starched blouse, one of my tentacles looping hurriedly about her shoulders. “Sevens, the light!”

“Shhhhh, shh-shh-shhh,” she hushed me gently. Somehow her casual dismissal stilled my nerves better than any actual explanation. “The light is no longer relevant. This is ordinary gloom.”

“Oh. Oh, um, okay, I—”

Blushing and embarrassed, I started to remove my hand from Sevens’ shoulder, but she caught it with her own before I could retreat. Wide, staring eyes bored into mine.

“You are perfectly safe by my side, kitten,” she said.

“ … don’t,” I whined. She let me go.

That kept my mind firmly occupied for the rest of the journey out of the Library of Carcosa, a mercifully short three or four minutes through the steadily tightening corridor of bare earth and visible roots. Sevens’ light faded, replaced by the faint glow of my tentacles and a milky, pale luminescence filtering in from somewhere up ahead, shrouded by a thickening bramble of roots. The corridor tightened to ten feet wide, then six feet, then barely wide enough for the two of us to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. We were forced to press ourselves together if we didn’t wish to snag our clothes on the hooked and gnarled roots. My legs tangled with Sevens’ yellow skirt; her scent stole into my nose — starch and soap and simple shampoo. The poor forest-knight had to stoop, carrying his axe low in both hands.

Then, as if stepping from a deep wood onto a lonely moor, the roots opened like petals, disgorging us into light like watered milk.

Blinking, blinded, struggling to adjust to the weak daylight, I held my arm up to shield my eyes. I think I missed Sevens stumble, but I couldn’t be sure.

“Oh there you are, poppet,” Saldis’ voice greeted us. “And you’ve found a new friend! How delightful. You certainly do know how to make them, don’t you?”

“You could have stopped or come back for me,” I muttered as I peeled my eyes open — still strangely raw and tender from my desperate experiment with the Eye’s observational theory, despite the watery texture of the light. “Saldis, why didn’t … you … ”

But as I blinked away pink-tinged tears to clear my sight, my words trailed off, my mouth hanging open. My head spun with vertigo.

Our escape from the darkness had placed us on a vantage point, on a hillside at the head — or perhaps tail — of a wide road paved with rose-pink bricks. A moth-eaten blanket of pale moorland unrolled at my feet, covered in grasses the white of mature fungus, the purple of dying flowers, and the yellow of mustard gas. The landscape was punctured through not with one lake — the Lake of Hali, Saldis had called it — but dozens of lakes, shining pools of bright blue liquid that looked more like they’d been cut into the ground than formed naturally, each one ringed by steep banks of pale, bare, wet earth. Little copses of things that were meant to be trees dotted the high places of the moors, but they looked too fungal and moved too much to be anything like earthly plant life. Some of them were penned in with barbed wire, a rusty red at odds with the other colours of this place.

The ground was coated in a thin, ankle-deep mist, wispy and ethereal, not dense enough to obscure details unless one looked toward the horizon, where one was met instead by the tall, dark, craggy impression of ancient leering trees at the edge of the fog.

The rose-pink road meandered over the little hills and wound between the lakes, passing a massive signpost made of black stone, which was festooned with dozens of boards pointing in every direction, some of them straight up into the sky or down at the ground. Further on, the road was flanked by a collection of metal gibbet cages, containing inhuman skeletons long-since picked clean.

At the other end of that rose-brick road, all the way down at the foot of the mouldy, rotten blanket, stood the palace of the King in Yellow.

I sighed, trying to cover my sickening vertigo with exasperation.

“Oh, really?” I hissed. It did not help.

The structure could not have been mistaken for anything else, because it was everywhere and it was impossible.

Fairytale spires and rings of fanciful battlements reared hundreds of feet into the sky, far taller than anything possible under Earth gravity; many of them vanished into the omnipresent milky fog which hung in the sky in place of cloud cover. Great grey walls were punctured by decorative arrow-slits and indefensible balconies, covered with mile-wide carvings and gigantic stained-glass windows — though the scenes in the stonework and the glass were too far away to make out. Built from a dozen different types of stone — granite block, white marble, yellowed sandstone, red slate, and types I could not name — the castle was piled up on itself like a layered cake, but the layers appeared to recede forever, never reaching a crescendo, drawing the eye ever inward until one had to blink and look away.

Far weirder were the spires and walls that emerged from the foggy sky, upside down, as if the castle somehow wrapped around on itself in a gigantic sphere which cupped this landscape in its hollow core. Bits of crenellation and clusters of towers stuck out at wild angles from every possible place in the milky firmament. If one squinted and waited for the shifting mist to briefly thin, one could see the layers of the castle piled up in the very sky above our heads.

If there was a sun, it was obscured behind stone. Where the milk-pale light came from, I had no idea.

When I glanced back over my shoulder, I expected to see the Library of Carcosa rearing up behind me. But instead I found a dark hedge of roots and brambles, thick as night and twice as impenetrable, covered with ebony thorns of all sizes from pinprick to spear. A twelve foot wall of half-dead plant-life, impossible to scale without tearing oneself to shreds.

And visible beyond that hedge, more palace.

It was all around us, as if we stood not on the moors but in a castle courtyard bounded in every direction by a world-ball of a building. The eye of the storm.

My brain was like a skipping record; it kept insisting that the Library of Carcosa was so tall, practically infinite, surely it should have been scraping the heavens? Where was it? Where had we been only minutes earlier? We could not be standing here and not be in the shadow of the library, that was impossible, my senses were playing a trick on me.

I crammed that thought into a pressure vessel. I was Outside. I had to start thinking Outside thoughts, or lose my mind.

It had been easy to forget, hidden away in the void of the dark passage, and even in the all-too-familiar alien infinity of the library, just how strange Outside could be.

“Learned behaviour,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Just learned behaviour. Nothing to be afraid of.”

That was a lie. There was plenty to be scared of out here — we were not alone.

Carrion birds wheeled in the sky and perched on the towers, little smudges of dark against the pale air; I guessed that up close they were unlikely to look anything like real crows or ravens. On distant hillsides, pinkish creatures with too many legs and rubbery eyes on stalks paused to watch us, like crosses between cows and spiders, before thankfully going about their business once again. A few hundred feet down the rose-brick road a tall, spindly figure was tending to a clutch of the strange fungus-trees; dressed in a yellow smock, barefoot and bald and without any facial features, like a human being stretched out to twelve feet in height and scrubbed of detail. It wielded a huge pair of clippers, snipping off a branch here and a bud there with glacial slowness, occasionally slapping one of the fungal trees when it tried to wander off like a slug inching away.

The palace itself was visibly inhabited. I kept my focus on the portion in front of us, where the structure wore skirts of stone, flaring out into petticoats of overlapping walls and spindly walkways. Dim figures lurked behind the windows and on the battlements, little more than shadows or memories, accompanied by scraps of half-glimpsed yellow.

Two nightmares perched above the palace gatehouse, where a pair of massive wooden doors stood wide to receive any visitor brave enough to enter.

The first was too painful to look at for more than a second — a gigantic yellow trapezoid shape was balanced on one point, on the lowest of the palace towers, rotating slowly to reveal facets shining with inner light like a gemstone. But the geometry of the object was all wrong and my eyes burned with an afterimage even when I’d looked away.

The second gatehouse guardian was a sphinx.

It was yellow, and the size of a building, but in every other aspect it was just a sphinx. Body of a lion but with a human face, with a pair of massive white-feathered wings lying in repose. It would not have looked out of place in an illustration of ancient Greek or Egyptian mythology. Lounging directly above the gatehouse, massive tail slowly swishing through the air, it watched us at a great distance with deceptively sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes, set in an elegant, androgynous face. Yellow eyes, the colour of lightning.

I had the most powerful urge to put my squid-skull mask back on, that I might hide from that stare.

“And who are you, poppet?” Saldis was saying as I was busy trying not to have a panic attack about answering riddles. “Can’t say I’ve seen you before. Not in the library, anyway, and I wouldn’t forget that face in a hurry. Oh no, no indeed, I would remember those eyes. I would immortalise them.”

I tore my attention away from the soaring towers of the Yellow King’s palace and his worryingly large pet. Saldis’ sphere was parked just at the edge of the pale-pink road, open down the front. Milky fog lapped at its base, and at the feet of the forest-knight, who was standing at a polite and safe distance. Inside the sphere, Saldis herself looked none the worse for the experience of navigating the dark. Her pair of rats sniffed about her lap as she leaned forward to peer at Sevens.

Sevens stared back at Saldis with the same wide-eyed intensity she’d used on me, eloquently unreadable, plainly elegant. She’d let go of my hand so she could clasp them behind her back, radiating mild contempt.

Rather than answering Saldis’ question, she raised her eyebrows by a fraction of an inch. A question of her own.

“Neither would I forget such a bearing,” Saldis went on. “Should I be addressing you in any particular way, my lady?”

I rolled my eyes. “I do not have the patience for you two playing games with each other. Not now. Stop it.”

Saldis glanced at me, faintly irritated. “I am not playing a game, lady Morell, I am being serious. Who is … this … ?” She trailed off, mouth forming a little ‘o’ as she turned wide eyes back to Sevens. “Ah.”

“Ah,” Sevens echoed.

“Your royal highness,” Saldis said as she lit up, voice turning oily, delight cresting across her face like a fangirl before her favourite teen pop idol. She put both hands to her own chest as if trying to contain her wild heart. To my surprise, the pair of rats in her lap flopped and rolled in something approaching exasperated boredom. I frowned at them and could have sworn that both of them turned those little black eyes on me in silent solidarity.

“None other,” said Sevens.

“I do beg your forgiveness, ma’am, I should have realised,” Saldis drooled out. “Should have realised! I can be such a dunce at times, I do apologise. Well! I am honoured that you have blessed us by deciding to join us formally and openly.”

“No you’re not.”

“And may I congratulate you on your betrothal? I understand you have felt somewhat shy in the past, and— oh! And you emerged holding hands with lady Morell!” Saldis clapped her own hands together with girlish excitement. That wasn’t an act, of that I was sure, she was actually losing control, for real. “You have reconciled then? No, no, wrong word!” Saldis hissed at herself and bit down on one of her own knuckles. “Damn this English, it is so clumsy at times, is it not?” She gave a nervous laugh and pulled an oily, fake smile for Sevens. “I meant to ask if you and lady Morell have indeed agreed to marry?”

“No.”

“ … no?”

“No,” Sevens repeated herself. “ No, you may not congratulate me.”

Saldis blinked three times, slowly. “Ma’am? Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, your royal—”

“Why don’t you take your machine and roll it back into the library, you vile little slug?”

Sevens’ voice, sweet and sharp, held not the slightest hint of disgust or disdain. Somehow that made it all the more intimidating. If she had turned that venom on me with those intense eyes and that aristocratic bearing, I would have transformed my own blood to acid and melted myself to escape the crippling embarrassment. Even at the periphery of her gaze, I felt the blow-back like an emotional heatwave. It made me want to curl up and hide my face behind my hands.

Saldis was dumbfounded. Her mouth moved but no sound came out. Her eyes bulged as if she was on the verge of terrible anger.

Sevens tilted her head to one side, turquoise eyes shining with esoteric promise. All of a sudden she was holding a closed umbrella in one hand, the tightly wrapped canopy a subtle lilac caress, the handle made of polished wood. She planted the metal tip against the road surface and tilted the umbrella at a jaunty angle.

A threat, but so absurd I couldn’t process it; she was threatening to hit Saldis with a lilac umbrella.

“Stop,” I raised my voice. “Stop, or I will … get very upset and probably cry.” My tentacles, all except the one still holding my squid-skull mask, rose in silent menace, as if I had any chance whatsoever of restraining these two inhuman beings if they decided to fight. “I need all the help I can get right now. That means both of you, I don’t have anyone else to—”

But then Saldis, to my great surprise, broke into a manic grin, ear-to-ear, delighted beyond words, with eyes only for Seven-Shades-of-Wildly-Offensive.

“Again!” Saldis cried out. “Again, oh please, ma’am, again.” She tapped her chest with her fingertips. “Insult me again.”

Sevens obliged. “Overstuffed sow. Bitch in heat. Knot-bait.”

“Ahh!” Saldis spread the fingers of one hand, face deep in the rapture of true art.

Mesu buta.”

“Oh! Oh, yes!” Saldis cheered, then stopped dead with a frown. “Wait, no, that wasn’t English. What was that?”

Sevens answered by tilting her head the other way and adjusting the angle of her umbrella.

“Japanese, I think,” I sighed, trying to straighten my back — the subconscious pressure of this Outside place was making me want to curl up and stoop, make myself small so I could hide. “I understood some of that. What are you two doing?”

“Rest assured, my dear,” Sevens turned and spoke to me. “I take no pleasure in the act. The insults are real.”

“And that is what makes them shine!” Saldis announced, rocking back in her seat and slapping an armrest. Her rats jumped. “Bravo, bravo! Oh, I am honoured to witness such a display, let alone to be the target of it! Sublime!” She laughed, free and genuine, no longer oily and repulsive, grinning like a madwoman fresh from the attic.

“It is no display,” Sevens told her. “I do not wish for you to accompany us, you pile of offal.”

Saldis controlled her laughter but not her smile. She rolled forward in her seat, sinuous as a snake, and winked at Seven-Shades. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, ma’am. You can’t seriously expect me to back off now, not when you’ve shown yourself and you’re heading for one of the greatest shows I’ll ever see. Besides, I don’t think you would be able to stop me.”

“I could,” I raised my voice, staring at Saldis. She raised her eyebrows at me in surprise. “I could. I could probably find a way to crack your shell, you know that? And I’m betting Sevens could too.” I shot a sidelong look at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, expecting her to be death-glaring at Saldis, but she was already looking back at me, intense and unyielding. My words stuck in my throat at her scrutiny and I almost didn’t get them out. “But I’m asking her not to. Please.”

Seven-Shades-of-Superfluous-Superiority stared back at me for a heartbeat, then closed her eyelids in a glacial blink. An affirmative.

The chill of that gesture made my heart climb into my mouth. She made her disapproval clear even as she acquiesced.

“Thank you, lady Morell,” Saldis said with a cloying tone and an irritating wink. “While I am not certain in your ability to best me, I respect your confidence.”

“That is not license to antagonise Sevens either,” I said to Saldis, keeping my voice firm. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is my fiancee.” My face burned, but I held her gaze. “You keep your fascination with her at arm’s length. No touching.”

Saldis held her hands up in surrender. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Then she nodded at Sevens, a twinkle in her eye. “Besides, I see you’ve already left your mark on the young princess.”

“What? What are you talking about? I … ”

I followed Saldis’ pointed nod back to Sevens, then to the creased sleeve of Sevens’ otherwise immaculate white blouse. That was where I’d grabbed her in my panic earlier, when I’d thought the dark was closing in again.

Sevens followed the look too, turning her head to stare down at her rumpled sleeve.

It wasn’t the only flaw in her austere aesthetics — a few wisps of her blonde hair had been plucked astray by our passage through the roots, part of the hem of her yellow skirt was upturned from her brisk stride, and the low mist was forming condensation on her black shoes. Sevens’ mask was not artificial perfection. I had a sudden and confusing impression that she would be just as collected and elegant if she was covered in blood and sick, like I still was.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly uncomfortable for some reason I didn’t understand. “Oh, yes, that was … that was me.”

“Made time for a spot of sneaky necking before you caught back up with me, yes?” Saldis asked, voice full of tease.

I shot her a look. “No—”

“Yes,” Sevens said. I boggled at her, speechless and blushing. Saldis cackled like the old crone she was.

“Sevens!” I whined.

Seven-Shades-of-Unsubtle-Insinuation watched me with those wide, staring eyes. “You made the mark. Correcting it is your responsibility. Or your choice.”

I huffed, muttering under my breath as I stomped across the three paces that separated Sevens and me. “Can’t believe this, we’re in the middle of Outside, I’m exhausted beyond words and starving hungry, and you’re trying to mark your territory.” I grabbed her crumpled sleeve, straightened it out, and smoothed it down. But I couldn’t make it quite perfect again. Sevens just watched me, her face far too close, until I looked up and scowled at her. “And I am not your territory, as you are well aware. You’re already sharing.”

Sevens glanced down at her sleeve, then back up at me.

“That’ll do, kitten,” she whispered.

I spluttered and turned away, blushing beetroot red. Saldis was beside herself, both hands to her mouth to smother a squeal, practically rolling around in her seat.

“And you can stop that!” I snapped at her. “We did not make out in the dark! Or do anything else!”

“Yes we did,” Sevens countered me, sharp and cool. “For several minutes. Heather is an expert. I had to sit down afterward.”

Saldis squealed so hard I thought she was going to burst from the top of her sphere-machine. Her pair of rats almost fell off her lap. She kicked her legs and laughed and went red in the face, fanning herself with a hand — though not as red as me. I turned away and folded my arms. My tentacles followed suit.

“For somebody you said you dislike, you certainly seem to have no problem amusing her,” I muttered.

“I do it for you,” Sevens said.

We stood there for a minute while Saldis got her breath back and I stopped glowing like a space heater.

“Oh dear, oh my dear, oh goodness,” Saldis was saying. “You two are a riot. Riot? Riot, mmm, crunchy. I like that word, oh yes. I think I threw a riot once, but we didn’t call it that.”

“Cease your prattling,” Sevens told her.

“Yes, yes, of course ma’am,” Saldis answered off-hand, letting out a big sigh. “Oh, it has been a while since I was last out here. Doesn’t look quite the same without all the pennants and pavilions, not to mention the destriers and cattle and the great big whale carcass. Whale? No, that’s not right. Oh well, I suppose English lacks the word, never mind. The King’s servants have done a grand job cleaning up all the gore, though!”

I finally got over my lingering embarrassment and turned to frown at Saldis. She was gazing out across the unearthly landscape with genuine nostalgia.

“How long were you waiting for me out here?” I asked.

“Ten or fifteen minutes. Don’t you worry yourself about fifteen minutes, poppet, that’s a blink of an eye for me.”

“Yes, Saldis, I was very worried about wasting your time,” I said, surprising even myself with the sarcasm in my voice. “Why didn’t you come back for me? I almost got eaten. Sevens had to come rescue me.”

“I never doubted you for a moment, Lady Morell!” Saldis protested, looking taken aback. “Besides, you had your fiancee watching out for you the whole time. You just said, she rode to your salvation.”

I glanced from Saldis to Sevens, both of them watching me, and narrowed my eyes as a cold feeling crept into my chest. “ … you two didn’t plan this together, did you?”

Saldis laughed. “I wish I had!”

“Never,” Sevens said.

“Never?” Saldis asked, a little sadly.

“N e v e r,” Sevens said, slow as ice-cold venom.

“Oh well,” Saldis sighed. “I suppose there’s your proof.”

“All right then,” I said. “Sorry, Sevens, I just … this is too much. Can we concentrate on reaching your father?”

“As you wish,” Sevens said.

“And I’m very glad your gentleman friend made it out in one piece too,” Saldis went on, nodding at the forest-knight still standing a few paces away, his axe held casually over one shoulder. She even shot him a wink and coquettish little smile. “Such a waste when men like that fall to things they shouldn’t have to face. I truly think men should not be involved in war at all, they’re far too pretty to waste on death in combat and besides, they’re not—”

Sevens and I made eye contact with each other and silently agreed to completely ignore Saldis.

Sevens held her hand out to me again, the umbrella in her other hand held at an angle with the tip against the ground. She didn’t need words, but just raised her eyebrows a fraction of an inch. I sighed and slipped my hand into hers, wrapping my tentacles closer about my own body. Then I tugged her yellow cloak tighter around my shoulders too, the best protection I could hope for in this Outside place. But I left the mask off for now.

Sevens tilted her head at me in silent question.

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s be off.”

We set off down the rose-brick road, hand in hand with the knight following after us. His metal boots made a gentle ringing sound with each step. It took Saldis a moment to break off from her musing about the nature of men — which had descended into a treatise about nudity — and realise we were walking off without her. Her grey sphere caught up a few paces later, Saldis herself peering out the front with a grin.

“Ma’am, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” she said, resuming a fraction of her oily tone from earlier. “How may I address you in this most … graceful of forms?”

“As your royal highness,” Sevens answered without missing a beat.

“No name?” Saldis struggled not to laugh; she was enjoying this far too much.

“Don’t start again,” I hissed. “This might be normal for you two, but I am constantly on the verge of freaking out in this place.” I gestured upward with my eyes, at the world-palace in the sky beyond the mist, all around us.

“Have no fear,” Sevens announced, swinging her umbrella with each step. “This is my home, after all.”

The journey along the rose-brick road was tortuously uneventful; my nerves, frayed thin by exhaustion and hunger, told me that I was Outside, exposed, in the open, screaming in the back of my mind that I should be hiding behind a rock or digging a hole in the ground and waiting for the Slip back to reality. Abyssal instinct whined and twitched at the slow ramble across this open moorland, over the crests of mushroom—coloured hills and along banks of pale yellow grass; I wanted to slink into a dark hole and hide from the immensity — not to mention the slow, steady stare of the giant sphinx lounging on the distant palace wall. It watched our every step.

But nothing else jumped out at us. Nothing descended from the clouds. No Outsider nightmare came roaring over the hills. Paradoxically, that made my nerves worse. Half of me would have preferred to fight something with my tentacles.

We passed the strange gardener creature I’d seen from the hillside. He — I thought of it as masculine, though in truth it could have been anything — paused in his achingly slow work of pruning the pale, fungal trees as we passed by. He turned to us, raising a spindly hand in greeting, twelve feet up in the air. Saldis rattled on, ignoring him; I tensed up and tried not to look at the blank expanse of flesh where his face should have been, or the slug-like motions of his fungal charges trying to creep away while his back was turned; but Sevens nodded politely and touched the handle of her umbrella to her forehead in a makeshift salute.

“What was that?” I whispered once we were safely past.

“A grounds keeper,” Sevens said, unconcerned. “What else would it be?”

We walked on past the huge black signpost with its dozens of suggested directions. Sevens did not pause to consult it, which was a relief, because trying to read the signs themselves made my eyes water and my head throb, though I was surprised to see at least two signposts which were very definitely written in French. We followed the rose-brick road onward, to where it wound closer to the steep-sided banks of several of the unnatural-looking lakes. The road itself never dared violate the halos of oddly bare and packed wet earth around each small lake, but it ventured tantalisingly close. I couldn’t resist the urge to stare down into the waters, if only to distract myself from my nerves and Saldis’ constant stream of one-woman conversation.

“—and the last time I was here there were all sorts throwing themselves into the lake of Hali,” she was saying, “in hopes of rebirth. Despite the fact it’s never worked! Can you imagine? Most of them died before they got a chance to begin drowning and—”

The steep sides of each lake were vertically ridged, as if beaten flat by giant rolling pins, or worn smooth by animals sliding into the water. It made me think of seals or penguins slipping down the banks.

As I stared into the sapphire-blue waters of each lake we passed, I began to see that that Saldis had not lied to me earlier — the depths of each lake seemed to extend beneath the margin of the banks themselves, vanishing into shadow under the curve of the earth before joining with the brighter spots of other lakes further off.

They were not lakes at all. Each hole was a puncture in the land. The true lake was subterranean, beneath our feet.

Each opening allowed a narrow shaft of light to penetrate the gloom-filled waters. I squinted into those depths, able to see so much further than I would through earthly liquid, hampered only by the shadow of the land itself.

And far, far below, hundreds of feet down, I caught a faint hint of sinuous folds shifting over themselves. A bed of snakes at the root of the world.

“ … Sevens, what are we walking on?” I asked in a voice much smaller than I’d intended.

She turned to me, eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch, then followed the direction of my gaze.

“Solid ground,” she said.

“Then what is that?” I whispered. “Down there?”

“A distant relative.” She surprised me with a sigh. “Best not stare.”

“ … right. Right you are. Of course. Very rude to stare.”

I decided to keep my eyes firmly ahead until we were clear of the lake and its hidden inhabitant, but that was not much better. As we left behind the dark punctures in the skin of this world and emerged onto the relatively open final half-mile of flat ground before the great doors of the palace, the sphinx which had been lounging above the gatehouse climbed to its feet.

Even at this distance the creature was truly gigantic. It was easily as large as the Great Sphinx of Giza, the statue back on Earth, sixty or seventy feet tall and well over two hundred feet from nose to tail. Unlike the statue, however, it possessed a rough muscularity that made me think more of an actual animal than anything I’d previously seen Outside. Yellow light from the slowly rotating trapezoid nearby caught the sphinx’s glossy yellow fur and fluffy mane, the roll of powerful legs and the swish of the tail. That light glinted in massive all-yellow eyes, set in a human face as big as a car.

It stood up and spread feathered wings, flexing massive pinions in the milky mist, staring at us.

“Oh dear,” Saldis said, in the exact same tone one might use to comment on a slightly fatter than usual cat.

“Yes, oh dear indeed,” I hissed, stumbling to a halt though the creature was still almost a half a mile away. The knight stopped at my shoulder, but Sevens kept going for a couple of paces, still holding my hand until I dug in my heels and made her pause with me. “Sevens, what is that? We can’t— it’s huge— I’m not big enough to deal with that.”

“You will not have to,” she said, cool and unruffled. “My siblings are my responsibility, not yours. I will shield you from their questions and their disapproval.”

I stared at Sevens for a moment, then up at the sphinx again, then back at Sevens. “ … siblings?”

She gave a single, tilted nod, elegant and concise, coupled with a gentle closing of her eyes as she tucked a stray lock of blonde behind one ear. An embarrassing admission.

“Oh, lovely. I get to meet the family.” My head felt light and my heart skipped a beat.

“News of our coupling has already spread. Doubtless, some wish to offer their opinions. Those I will disregard. Some I may mock.”

“The sphinx of the hundred gates,” Saldis murmured from inside her sphere. “I thought it was an illusion until it moved. I … I wish to meet this beast, very much. But also not to meet it, if you take my meaning.”

“My protection does not extend to you,” said Sevens.

Saldis laughed. “Of course it does, your majesty. But just in case, that’s why I take my home with me wherever I go. Snail I may be, but snail I am proud.” She wrinkled her nose. “That sounded better in my head. Ugh.”

“There is nothing to fear. Come.” Sevens gently tugged on my hand. With fear and reluctance in my heart, I picked my feet up and walked onward, trying to resist the urge to throw my tentacles wide to make myself look as big as possible. I locked eyes with the sphinx, but it did not look away.

We passed the metal gibbet cages full of inhuman skeletons, and two spots where the rose-pink road branched off to head left and right around the castle walls, and still the sphinx stared us down.

“Nothing will befall you,” Sevens said. She must have felt how my palm had turned clammy.

I managed a puff of breath, not even a real laugh. “Yes, all safe here. All like a fairy tale.” I slipped into a snatch of song, “We’re off to see the wizard.”

“My father has been a wizard, at times.”

“It was just a joke,” I said, heart hammering in my ribs. That sphinx was massive, it could swat me dead with one paw, pneuma-somatic tentacles or not. “Wrong colour of road, anyway. And this place is much worse than Oz.”

“Not every place Outside is savage, Heather,” Sevens said. I detected the tiniest hint of pride in her voice, so little as to not break plausible deniability. “Some are much more refined than Earth. Such as here.”

“Glad to hear it. Sevens, is there any food to eat in the palace? Human edible food?”

“ … only from my hand, kitten,” she answered after a beat.

“Excuse me?” I blinked at her, blushing again. On her other side, Saldis lit up with glee at getting a front-row seat to this flirting.

“Accept food from no other,” Sevens said. “Even my father. Only I may feed you.”

“Oh, I really have been kidnapped by fairies, haven’t I?” I sighed. “This is absurd, Sevens. I’m so hungry that I can’t think straight, I don’t want to keep walking, I want to stop right here and—”

I got my wish.

One of Sevens’ siblings chose that moment to make clear their displeasure — but it wasn’t the sphinx.

We’d all been watching the gargantuan feline as it had begun to pace slowly back and forth on the palace wall, huge paws padding with impossible silence for something so large, waiting for those wings to split the air and for the creature to glide over to meet us.

The shining yellow trapezoid shape ceased rotating, detached from the tip of the tower where it had been waiting, and boomed through the air toward us like a jet breaking the sound barrier.

It was like being bull-rushed by a piece of architecture.

The trapezoid was far larger than the sphinx and my body simply had no idea what to do, no more than it would if an asteroid was about to hit me. The thing bellowed as it raced through the air, a deep ringing sound like a gemstone screaming, blotting out thought and blurring the senses. I had only a second or two in which to react, but that moment was consumed by slamming my hands over my ears and wrapping my head with my tentacles to block out the awful noise. I stumbled and tried to duck, as if I could do anything to avoid the force of a meteor about to smash us all into paste.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight took two precise steps forward, opened her lilac umbrella, and levelled it at the onrushing trapezoid.

It halted an inch from the tip of her umbrella, decelerating to a stop instantly, still howling.

I actually fell over onto my backside, cowering in unspeakable terrified awe, trying to hide myself inside the yellow cloak. The yellow gem-creature was the size of a skyscraper. Something that big should not have moved, nor stopped so suddenly, nor make those awful sounds.

Saldis had closed her sphere up tight. The ancient mage was playing it safe. Perhaps she was just concerned about her rats.

The forest-knight had fallen to one knee. He was struggling to raise his axe.

The trapezoid unfurled a dozen wings of glowing light, each one easily a hundred feet long; it sprouted a halo of golden yellow, made of esoteric magical symbols which I couldn’t even look at without feeling a nosebleed drip down my face. It howled and bellowed like a jet engine had learned how to perform death metal vocals, wordless sounds that couldn’t possibly be communication. I crawled on the ground, trying to keep it out of my head. But it did not advance past Sevens’ umbrella.

Sevens just sighed. Somehow I heard that over the din.

“Yes, brother,” she said, cold and sharp. “But it is none of your business.”

More bellowing, more noise like being shouted at by a mountain.

“If you would cease being so rude, I would introduce you to her,” Sevens answered. “But you are being a boor. I shall slap you if you continue.”

A crescendo of planetary rage. I thought my eardrums would explode.

“Father took a human lover once,” Sevens said. “Without that, none of us would exist.”

A ding like a bell the size of the milky way.

“Why yes, I am comparing myself to father. Lord knows, you can’t.”

Silence.

I looked up, shaking and shivering, tears running down my face with loss of control. The trapezoid had departed even quicker than it had arrived — reduced to a yellow spot in the sky as it fled upward into the castle.

Sevens sighed with the tone of one who had dispatched an unwanted caller. She carefully rolled up her umbrella, dusted off her skirt with one hand, and adjusted the angle of her headband. Then she turned and offered me a hand. I took it without hesitation and all but clung to her when she helped me to my feet, wrapping three tentacles around her arm with instinctive need. She was so slender and slight beneath her clothes, but she was like iron where I was shivering.

“Shhhh, kitten, shhhh,” she murmured, gently drying my eyes with a handkerchief she had produced from somewhere. “I told you not to be afraid.”

“That is a bit difficult when getting yelled at by a piece of a moon!” I squeaked, and finally managed to peel myself off her, embarrassed and self-conscious. Next to me, the forest-knight slowly levered himself up to his feet, none the worse for wear.

“The King in Yellow took a human lover?” Saldis asked as her grey sphere bloomed open again. “Was that a bluff, ma’am?”

“It is none of your business,” Sevens told her. “Besides, you had better get back in your ball, you rancid pustule.”

“What?” I asked, my stomach dropping. “Why?”

But Saldis was already closing up. I caught the whites of her eyes, gone wide in terror.

“Because that was the easy one,” Sevens said. She nodded toward the palace. “Here comes trouble.”

During the commotion with the trapezoid, the sphinx had hopped down to the ground. It trotted up the road toward us with dainty feline strides, each footstep the length of a house, tail swishing, eyes blazing with feline curiosity.

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any mortal thing – 14.14

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

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

But choice was almost my undoing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we ran out of time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pinprick of light shattered the darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sigh of shaking relief floated through the air.

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

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

“Sevens,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sevens, can you get me home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Eye?”

Sevens-as-Distraught-Me nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, I know—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I almost choked. “Your … room?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Obviously,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re the boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” she murmured.

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

She shrugged. “Not sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you mean it as such?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, she was acting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” she murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

“He might,” Sevens said, nodding seriously.

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

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

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

“I suppose so … ” Sevens murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That would be helpful. Thank you.”

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

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

Maybe that was what Raine saw in me.

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

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

“Do what you need to do, Sevens.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh … um … ”

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

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

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

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

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

Sevens blinked. “Not intentionally.”

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

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

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

“Er … ” I hiccuped. Sevens did not.

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

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

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

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any mortal thing – 14.13

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

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

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

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

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

Hastur had come with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get off him!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

Hastur was most certainly not intimidated.

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

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

I hiccuped, loudly. The yellow tentacles flinched.

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

Saldis’ sphere-machine lay inert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please?” I added.

Hastur waited, but I had nothing more to say.

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

And with that, the dripping yellow mass collapsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, little miss snail, get up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ahhh, ow,” I hissed, stumbling back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, he tried to fight.”

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

“No. I’m not.”

“You’re not?” Saldis’ eyes widened.

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

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

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

“Trash … talked?”

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

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

“Saldis.”

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

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

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

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

“I … I can’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mostly faded by now, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to go through that?”

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

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

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

I blinked. “But you said—”

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

“A … receptionist?”

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

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

Saldis nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you, before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

==

Darkness.

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

In the dark passageway, all suns had gone out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this was no mere darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Saldis?” I whispered.

She wasn’t coming back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But The King in Yellow was fiction.

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

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

Isn’t real?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which you are most certainly not—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what would I be going to meet?

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

I was going to meet Sevens’ dad.

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

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

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

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

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

“Other guises?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could have warned me,” I spluttered.

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

Dangerous eyes? I filed that one away for later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ … excuse me?”

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

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

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

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

“You do carry your home on your back.”

“But still!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The librarian hadn’t even flinched.

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

“Yes, but how can I reach it?”

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

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

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

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

“Quite understandable, Lady Morell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saldis and I looked at each other.

“What does this mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” she asked brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hastuuuuuurrrr.”

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

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

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

Has … turrr?

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

“Hastur,” one of them gurgled.

Third time’s the charm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I … I have no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hissed at it. Long and loud.

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

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

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

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

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

The Library collapsed.

Out I went, with an unwanted passenger.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.11

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“A marriage proposal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiancee,” I spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lady Morell?”

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

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

“Don’t,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clank.

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

“Sevens?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind me, Saldis gasped in awe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No sunburst eye lit up in the shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You still doubt—”

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

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

“And yellow is also a synonym for coward.”

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

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

“Stop it, please,” I sighed.

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

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

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

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

Saldis prattled on.

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

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

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

“Show you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out.

Cold hands closed around my ankles.

==

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Forgive?” I hissed. “Absolutely—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saldis shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The … the what? I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was like being suffocated.

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

==

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

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

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

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

“ … what … what on earth—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out.

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

This time, the hands did not flee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I was alone, trapped Outside.

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

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

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

Not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at the ground again and frowned.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” I asked.

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

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

I turned back to the ground, talking to nothing.

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

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

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

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

No reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of them responded.

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

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

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

It held on tight.

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

Out.

The quiet plain collapsed in a spinning kaleidoscope.

==

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had.

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

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

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

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

==

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

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

I couldn’t keep doing this.

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

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

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

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

Because they were infinitely expanding, a fractal explosion.

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

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

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

I needed a mage.

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

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

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

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

No time to waste.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jammed both hands into the black swamp at the bottom of my soul.

This operation required not only the familiar old equation to force passage through the membrane between worlds, targeted via the indelible memory of the Saye map, but needed me to perform exact translocation with only meters of allowable error. I had to take us to the right spot, a place I’d known only at the height of stress and panic, a place with no real landmarks I could think of, no distinguishing features, just memory and mathematical data. The effort to attain that level of precision might fry my brain.

But I did have the emotions.

One of the most important moments of my life had happened there, the moment I pulled a beloved friend back from the brink. Could emotion be processed into mathematical input? How bleak, how cold. I hated the notion, but it was the truth. Just because we’re all mathematics and brain chemistry in the end does not make our experiences any less valuable.

I built an equation at the speed of thought, piece by exact piece, through the all-too-familiar construct of the intentional Slip and the sickening, impossible directions of the map, then onward into my own memories of cradling Evelyn’s bruised and battered self-worth. I rendered experience down into the raw materials of hyperdimensional mathematics, until I knew the exact spot where it had happened.

Out.

My head flared with blinding pain. I was out cold before reality folded up.

==

The scent of books and dust and aged wood teased me back to consciousness. Those old friends let me know I’d gotten the destination at least half correct.

I groaned and opened blood-gummed eyes and found myself curled into a ball on my side, cold drool pooling on the floorboards next to my slack lips. Bookcases towered in front of me, marching off into the distance, stuffed to overflowing with all manner of volumes in all shapes and sizes, scrolls and leather-bound tomes and things that didn’t seem like books at all, with leaves of metal or ridged spheres with hexagonal openings. Down a row of bookcases I spied grey robes fluttering past, dragged by the shuffling stride of leathery grey feet, on the eternal task of cataloguing and sorting.

A pair of chrome boots stood off to one side of my peripheral vision — the knight, unmoving, facing outward, guarding my unconscious body. I looked up at the helmet and the axe. The knight seemed untouched. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

“ … how long have I been lying here?” I croaked, coughing. My throat was dry, my head thick with sleep, my muscles stiff. The knight did not answer.

Neither did the jumbled deeps of the Library of Carcosa.

When I tried to sit up, I discovered that I’d wrapped myself in my tentacles, like a cat nuzzling into its own tail, or an armadillo or pangolin tucking itself tight within layers of armoured scales. Disentangling myself was like stretching sleep-addled limbs, coupled with the slow-to-wake feeling of the thrumming reactor warming up in my belly. I felt stupid and guilty and disoriented. Oversleeping Outside, how absurd.

I also found the cephalopod skull hugged tight to my stomach, safely brought with us during the transition. Didn’t want to lose Lozzie’s gift.

Eventually I got myself into a sitting position and then clambered to my feet, using the forest-knight’s chrome elbow for support that I didn’t really need. Rubbing the crusted blood out of my eyes and filling my lungs severed to sharpen my senses, but looking around us granted no sense of recognition, no relief.

“Well,” I said to the knight, to myself, to nobody. “We made it, but I don’t know if this is the right spot.”

The Library of Carcosa swallowed the sound of my voice, the quiet itself like a thick, cloying blanket around my head and face.

We had made it to the library, of that there could be no doubt. I’d managed to deposit the knight and myself on a broad concourse of open floorboards which ran parallel to the vast canyon between the two walls of library floors. The dizzying open space yawned wide to our left, separated from us by a mere waist-high banister. The gap was crisscrossed with spindly walkways and creaking bridges. A touch of vertigo made my head swim when I dared glance down at the canyon floor far below, with its drifts and mounds of discarded books. The far wall tempted me to look up at the infinite height, worryingly familiar now — how upsetting, how strange, that an Outside place could seem familiar.

To our right lay the depths of this library floor, rows of bookcases that appeared ordered from the edge, but revealed their bedlam and chaos if you dared peer around a corner. Little stacks of books like balanced rocks lay between the avalanches of dislodged texts. A few squid-faced librarians went about their business in ones and twos, but none of them close to us. Had the imposing presence of Lozzie’s knight kept them away?

I swallowed and blinked and tried to remember — was this the place that Evelyn had almost been taken away by the library’s catalogue system? I glanced up and down the open space between the library stacks and the canyon edge, but there was no sign of my quarry.

If we were in the right place, then all trace of that event had been cleared away. No bizarre macrophage creature down in the canyon below, no scrum of librarians.

And no grey sphere-machine. No Saldis.

“Every part of this library looks the same as all the other parts,” I hissed, frustration and fear rising in my throat like acid reflux. “Oh, what was I thinking? Even if this is the same spot, she would have moved on by now. Why would she stay?”

My shot in the dark had gone wide, my slim hope turning to ash in my hands. My tentacles were restless, curling about the knight’s arm and reaching out to poke at loose books on the nearest shelf, nervous actions to occupy my overtaxed mind. A lump was growing in my throat again, fear returning and clear-headed logic fading fast. Locating Saldis in all the unknown vastness of the Library of Carcosa was almost as daunting as trying to find Lozzie among the infinite alien spheres of Outside.

“ … but she is here,” I said. “We know she’s here. That means … ”

I trailed off as my eyes wandered down the length of the library floor to the nearest squid-faced librarian, currently occupied in a strange re-shelving process with a fallen pile of books. It looked like the work of several days to come. The creature wasn’t going anywhere soon.

“That one.” I glanced up at the axe-knight’s helmet. “Will you follow me? I’ll do my best to protect you out here, but … I can’t do this alone, if I get overwhelmed, I … ”

The knight answered me with a disarmingly human response. It — he, I was starting to think of it as — rolled one shoulder as if limbering up, and adjusted his grip on the massive axe.

“Right. Thank you,” I said, nodding pointlessly. “I’ll have to lead the way. We don’t have Evelyn’s scouting tools, no nuts and bolts to throw ahead of us, so … I’ve got the longest reach. We’re only going fifty feet or so. Step where I step.”

The journey to the squid-faced librarian only took a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours. I inched along, watching for distortions in the air, for discoloured patches of floorboard, or any other tell-tale sign of the anomalies we had previously encountered in the library. Last time we’d had Evelyn’s bag of cloth-wrapped nuts to throw ahead to test our path, but now I simply stretched out a tentacle, feeling the way ahead, trying to still my racing heart with the knowledge that I could regrow the pneuma-somatic flesh if I really had to. The knight followed behind me on surprisingly silent feet, sticking close.

I stopped about six feet from the squid-faced librarian creature. If we had left any ill-will or hard feelings behind when we had departed last time, it didn’t show any. It stayed focused on its task, bending at the waist to pick up books from the fallen pile, feeding each one into its own head like a library return-slot made of sharp spines and writhing grey tentacles. A few seconds passed after it ate each book, and then its raggedy grey robes would twitch with horrible sinuousness, prompting the creature to reach inside the robes and withdraw a book — sometimes the same one, sometimes totally different — before finally slotting the book into the proper place on the shelves.

“Hello,” I raised my voice into a stage-whisper, then rolled my eyes at myself. Now was not the time to stand on library etiquette. Nobody was going to tut and frown at me if I spoke up and made some noise.

Well, I certainly hoped they wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to meet whoever was in charge here.

“Excuse me,” I tried again. “Hello. Hi. Hello? I need, um, assistance. I think that’s what you do. Sometimes.”

The librarian carried on working. I frowned and was about to huff and turn to the knight at my back, but then Lozzie’s own technique surfaced from my memory. I could have kissed her for that.

With one tentacle — after all, I didn’t want to risk brushing the creature with my bare skin — I picked up a single book from the low drift of fallen tomes and held it out to the squid-faced librarian. At first it ignored my offering, but when it finished processing the current book it was on, it didn’t bend down to retrieve another volume. It turned to me instead.

“Here. For you,” I said, feeling terribly awkward. Between the forest-knight and the librarians, I was practically a chatterbox by comparison. “Please take it, and please listen to my request.”

The squid-faced librarian accepted the book in its gnarled grey hands and promptly fed it into its own face, engulfing the book within a second or two.

Then it waited, facing me.

I felt the most sudden and unaccountable urge to take the Outsider cephalopod skull and place it over my head and face, to hide my true identity in front of this tiny, detached appendage of whatever intelligence truly managed the library. With fumbling hands I did exactly that, despite the lack of padding or cushioning for my head. I lowered the mask over my own face. The metallic skull was a little large for the task, and ridges inside dug into my scalp, but it weighed barely anything and the eye sockets lined up perfectly with my own eyes. The sound of my own breathing echoed in my ears, but I felt safe and secure. Shielded.

“Saldis,” I said out loud. The mask didn’t muffle my voice as much as I’d worried. “Saldis. The mage in the grey sphere. She’s not part of your catalogue, but I bet you know where she is. Saldis. Show me where she is. Please.”

For a second, the squid-faced librarian did not respond. My heart pounded in my own chest with anticipation of failure. But then out whirled one of its arms, to point off down the clear concourse.

“Take me,” I said.

The squid turned, abandoned its task, and led the way.

“Well, here we go then,” I said to the knight behind me. “I hope you like walking.”

My stomach was clenched into a tight knot of anxiety, but I picked up my feet to follow the ragged grey robes. What choice did we have? Saldis could be very far away indeed; we might be about to walk for hours and hours through the mad labyrinth of the library. I needed food and water. Could my bioreactor compensate for those? Worry set in quickly, but I had to keep going. There was no way back.

==

To my incredible relief, Saldis turned out to not have ventured that far since our last meeting. The squid-faced librarian led us along the wide concourse, then deep into the library stacks themselves, past towering bookcases and shattered wooden floorboards, over mounds of jumbled books and around patches of deep darkness where the glow-globes had failed in times long past. It didn’t once look back to check if we were following, and didn’t respond when I raised my voice to ask it how far away Saldis might be. I gave up after that, settled into a rhythm of walking.

Up a spiral of maddening stairs that seemed to turn back on themselves if one dared look down, across a section of floor populated by lecterns with books chained and bound and roped shut on top of them, past a trio of corpses that looked like dried and shaved gorillas with too many mouths, and then finally deep into the rear of this library floor, almost to the back wall of dark wood.

The journey took almost an hour, but just when I was beginning to despair, the librarian led us into a tiny clearing among the bookcases. The clearing contained a sort of tapestry strung between four poles, covered in tiny script in green ink in a language I didn’t recognise. The text itself was normal enough, but the way the tapestry was hung made my eyes hurt — it was between four poles, but a casual glance made it seem as if it only had two sides, a front and a rear. But there were four poles in a square formation.

Even inside the shelter of the cephalopod skull, I had to blink my watering eyes and look away.

And there was the grey sphere-machine, sitting opposite the tapestry.

“Oh,” I breathed out as relief flooded me. My heart soared and my head felt light. “Oh, thank you. Thank you.”

I glanced around for the librarian, but the creature was already leaving, robes rustling off down a row of bookcases. Probably for the best — I had not forgotten what those things were capable of, in large enough numbers. Best avoid the attention of the library catalogue as long as possible. I looked over my shoulder instead, at the forest-knight.

“This is her,” I told him. “In the sphere. She’s … well, maybe not a friend, but close enough.”

If the knight understood, it did not respond.

I turned back to the sphere. It was no less bizarre than the first time I’d seen the unearthly machine, six feet in diameter and made of thousands of hand-width rectangular prisms, all matte grey and blank and smooth. It was balanced on the floorboards as if given unnatural buoyancy by invisible physical forces, instead of crashing straight through the ground with all its massive weight.

It was also closed.

“ … maybe she’s sleeping,” I murmured. I cleared my throat, straightened my hoodie — absurd habits, I knew — and then reached out with one hand to knock on the sphere, like I was dropping in for an unannounced visit at the flat of an acquaintance, rather than deep Outside and standing before some impossible machinery which I knew contained a person who hadn’t been entirely human in a very long time.

Knock knock knock, three times with my knuckles. Then I cleared my throat again and added, “It’s me, Saldis. Um, Heather Morell?”

I waited. Nothing happened.

“Oh, don’t make me wake you up by getting the knight to hit your silly hamster ball with his axe,” I hissed in barely contained frustration. I was tired from the walk and more than a little hungry, without the patience for her games. “I need help, Saldis. Wake up.”

I gave the sphere an angry thump and skinned a knuckle, then hissed in pain and stuck the hand beneath my mask to suck at the spot I’d grazed.

Then, before I could so much as step back to think, the sphere emitted a ripping, tearing, pulping sound, like meat being pulverised and shredded. I jumped about half a foot in the air, tentacles whirling before memory caught up with me. I’d heard that sound before, back when we’d first met Saldis.

The sphere opened, rectangular prisms sliding back like the petals of a mechanical flower of extreme precision, folding up and back and away to reveal the well-lit interior of the sphere and the soft flowing curves of grey that formed the pilot seat.

“Saldis!” I said in relief.

And there she was, long and slender and neat like a dancer, dark-skinned and gentle-eyed, hair woven into thick masses of braid which fell about her shoulders. Lounging on her comfy seat, she wore an expression half surprised and half bored, blinking slightly with poised and practised interest, as if woken from a pleasant nap by an over-enthusiastic songbird.

Like the first time the sphere had opened, she was completely naked from tip to toe and covered in a steaming layer of crimson blood.

“Oh,” she sighed, rolling her eyes at the ceiling then down at herself. “I am hardly dressed for visitors, you really must give me a moment to ready myself if you’re—”

“I don’t care about that, it doesn’t matter!” I blurted out, though a tiny part of me was very impressed, not only with the sheer fact of Saldis’ nudity — she was remarkably beautiful, even if not my type — but also with how she was completely unselfconscious. She carried herself with the attitude of a queen. “Saldis, I need help!”

“Help, help, yes, of course.” She smiled as she spoke, a teasing crease in the corners of her eyes. She finally looked up at me and winked. “But when you ask for assistance, you usually let the … one … petitioned … ”

She trailed off, eyes widening. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, staring at me.

“Oh, for pity’s sake, it’s me!” I snapped, pulling the cephalopod skull off my head, making a mess of my hair. “It’s Heather. Don’t tell me you don’t remember, or something silly like that. You don’t lose all your memories every time you … ” I nodded at her gore-soaked nudity and whatever unthinkable process that implied.

“No, no no, of course not, don’t be absurd.” She tutted, but her awe did not abate. She wet her lips — tasting blood with a little smack of appreciation — and gestured at me with both hands. “Lady Morell, forgive me, but you have rather changed since I last laid my poor, plebeian eyes upon you.” She paused and pulled a face like she’d bitten into a rotten lemon. “Plebeian, really? Is that the best word you little Englishers have for it? Well, I suppose you’re more than a little Englisher, now. My poor, lowly— oh no, no that won’t do. My mere gaze?” She experimented with a flourish of one hand, then tutted and waved it away like a bad smell.

“I know,” I said, raising one tentacle. “But I can tell you all about the pneuma-somatic additions later. Right now, I need help. I’m stuck and—”

“What?” Saldis squinted at me like I was an idiot. “No, I don’t mean your arms, Lady Morell. I mean, well, should I be addressing you differently? I know I have a reputation to uphold as a deliciously cheeky and dangerously illegal woman, but I do owe you at least a modicum of proper respect.” She gestured at me, up and down. “Especially if your raiment came from where I suspect it did.”

I boggled at her. “I never asked you to call me Lady in the first place.”

She brightened with a hesitant smile — I suspected the hesitancy was an act, but the smile was real. “Ah, yes, we are on first name terms, are we not? Delightful! I suppose that means you might be willing to introduce me to your … well, as I said, should I be addressing you differently?”

“Saldis, what are you talking about?”

She gestured at me again, pulling a perplexed expression, as if it was obvious. “You have donned the purple. Or the yellow.” She laughed, a bubbly, relaxed sound. “Same thing! I assume it was from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Oh what am I saying, of course it was, who else would you have met?”

I blinked at her, dumbfounded, and finally realised what she meant — she could see the yellow cloak Sevens had gifted to me. I tried to draw it tighter, to rub the fabric between my fingers, but it proved as intangible as always.

“You mean you can see the … ?”

But Saldis wasn’t listening. She rattled on. “You must tell me everything, I am all ears and a terrible gossip, though I promise my lips are sealed. Oh, this is delightful. Have you had some kind of ceremony yet, or is this only a betrothal?”

My eyes went wide. My mouth opened but no sound came out.

Saldis came up short too, then curled her lips in a wicked smile like a scandalised teenager. She put her fingers to her mouth. “Oh. Oh dear.”

“It’s … it … it—” I hiccuped hard enough to hurt. “She gave it to me to protect me!”

“I’ll bet she did,” Saldis laughed. “You may not have said any vows, little Englisher, but that mantle around your shoulders is an invite to the family. Her family. And I very much doubt that Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is looking to merely adopt you. You are too much of a catch for that, my dear.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Lozzie took a heartbeat to absorb my foolish request. Perhaps she couldn’t believe her ears; I could hardly blame her, not when I’d been so adamant in my rejection only minutes earlier, so horrified, so afraid.

It’s not every day somebody offers to dive head first into their own trauma.

Eventually I looked away from the knight inside the open suit of armour, away from the fleshy, tea-stain coloured, living core of intent that had set itself the task of protecting us. We broke our tentacle handshake by silent mutual agreement and the knight slowly retracted its feelers too. Lozzie was staring at me, blinking sleepy eyes, mouth open but stalled. One of her hands was bunched in the pastel fabric of her poncho. Her goat-skull mask hung from the other by one horn.

“The trip elsewhere,” I repeated. “Let’s do it. Together.” My voice quivered but rang unbroken, gentle echoes lost across this endless quiet plain of yellow grass, beneath the soft purple light of a whorled and spiralled sky.

“You really mean it?” Lozzie asked, her voice barely louder than her breath.

I nodded, then wiped the threat of tears on my sleeve and held out a hand toward her. “Yes.” A hiccup got in the way and made me roll my eyes. “Don’t make me repeat it again, please. I’ll lose all my courage.”

“Heathy … ” She accepted my outstretched hand. Lozzie’s elfin little smile bounced back onto her face as she rocked on the balls of her feet, but the smile was extinguished again when she bit her bottom lip. “I don’t want to force you! You said, you said you’re not like me and you’re right we’re really not, not really, not in the way it really matters out—”

“We might not be exactly the same thing, yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice free of quiver and shiver. “But since when does that matter? A-and if I … oh, for pity’s sake, if I don’t do this now then I’ll never do it. I might never have the courage again. I might never find the guts to ask you a second time. And Lozzie, I need every edge I can find. You’ve given me one — given us one — a hundred and fifty ones.” I gestured at the knights of Lozzie’s imaginary round table, spread out across the yellow hillsides, and at our specific friend still standing there and holding its armour apart like a shelled mollusk. “But if I can find another by facing— f-facing—” My voice began to shake. “I’m not a scared little girl anymore. You’ve been out there and you’ve come back fine.”

Lozzie pulled an awkward toothy smile and did a little bird-like bob of her head. “Fine is relative?”

“You are fine,” I almost snapped. “No matter what anybody says about you.”

Lozzie scrunched her eyes up like a cat. “Mmmmmm!” she went.

“I need every edge I can acquire if I’m going to take Maisie back from the Eye. I need to find my limits. I thought this was one.” I glanced at the knights again. “But it’s not. Take me elsewhere, Lozzie, please. To interesting places. Show me. Because I might learn something, maybe about myself.”

“Oh, Heathy!” Lozzie her arms around my neck in a sudden hug. I hugged her back, as much to still my racing heart as to acknowledge her joy, and briefly felt her heart beating inside her own chest against mine. I could not have asked for a better source of comfort. She pulled away as quickly as she had embraced me, squeezing my arms and then my hands, nodding enthusiastically. “Yes! We can do it! And it doesn’t have to be long because you want to get back for dinner but it’ll be real and I promise it’s safe and yes!” She laughed and bounced back on her heels, but held on tight to one of my hands.

I smiled back as I let out a long, slow, shaking breath, marred only slightly by a loud hiccup at the end. Truth was, I was still terrified and I didn’t try to hide it. What was the point? I knew what I was doing, and why I was doing it. I’d made my choice. It was time.

Lozzie dipped her head in a wave of wispy blonde hair and slipped the goat-skull mask back over her features, then straightened up, once more tucked away behind shadow and bone, topped with horns, fey and alien.

“You’ll have to get me one of those,” I said, purely to distract from the fluttering in my stomach.

“We could! I think! I don’t know! Maybe!”

I forced out a tiny laugh and pulled my hoodie tighter around myself, drawing my six tentacles inward toward my body; I wrapped two of them around my torso in a self-hug and allowed another to creep down my own arm to grasp Lozzie’s wrist. I would not lose my grip on her, no matter where we went.

“It’s okay, I won’t let go, I promise,” she chirped. I managed a nod. “Come come!” she called out, and the two knights she’d called over previously now got into position again, flanking her shoulders. The one which had opened its armour set about retracting the metal back into place, pulling muscles tight like a clam to seal itself away inside the shell of perfect chrome once more. A tendril flicked out through the final closing gap between cuirass and pauldron, angled up and pointing at me, then slipped inside before the armour closed completely. Once again, a knight in shining armour stood there, with no hint as to what roiling flesh lay hidden inside.

I burst out laughing in a release of tension. The absurdity was too much.

“Heathy?” Lozzie twitched her head side-to-side like a curious puppy, another gesture she shared with Tenny. The re-armoured knight stepped into position and placed a metal gauntlet on Lozzie’s shoulder to mirror the one on her other side.

“It gave me a thumbs up,” I said through the laughter. “Very sweet.”

Lozzie beamed up at the knight, but it did not react, sealed as it was in metal once more. Perhaps it did respond, inside the dark privacy of that armour. Perhaps that’s why they seemed so impassive, all talking mind-to-mind without the need for external expression. I hoped they were happy.

“Ready?” Lozzie asked with a teasing lilt. My heart hammered against the cage of my ribs and my mouth was suddenly very dry. I almost said no.

“Keep … keep it moderate, please,” I said instead. “Nowhere too extreme. Places we’ve been before, perhaps.”

“Mmhmm, mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded along, the goat-skull mask bouncing up and down.

“And whatever you do,” I blurted out and felt stupid, “don’t actually take me to Wonderland.”

“Heatherrrrrrr,” Lozzie purred.

“I know! I know, I didn’t need to say it, I’m sorry, it just scares me, it’s always in the back of my head. I know you wouldn’t.”

“I don’t want to go back there either,” Lozzie said. I could hear the wrinkled nose in her tone even through the weight of the bone mask. Quite right.

“Then I’m ready,” I said with butterflies in my stomach. My tentacle squeezed tighter on Lozzie’s wrist. I had to resist the urge to armour-plate myself.

Lozzie swung our joined hands up into the air with my tentacle along for the ride. Her goat-skull mask turned to meet my gaze. In the second before we departed I felt a brief flicker of dissociation, a sense of looking in the mirror and not seeing oneself — but in reverse; I felt as if I was looking at Lozzie’s real face, or the closest thing possible.

“I love you!” she said, then, “Wheee!”

Reality folded up.

==

Mile-long god-worms digested endless lava flows of molten metal and defecated it out as living, green biomass that exploded into verdant plant-life, while Lozzie and I watched from an outcrop that had already ossified into bone; a sky filled with plate-creatures each the size of a continent, all of them with unique ecosystems riding on their backs, singing songs in the upper atmosphere loud enough to shatter rock, and we tiny little apes protected inside a bubble of air which Lozzie conjured from her knight’s shields as she sang in response; the castle where she’d taken me before, wrapped in a thick blanket of snow and tucked away in a mountain valley, beauty sublime enough to break to my heart, but quieter than before, as if the snow had never stopped falling and the inhabitants had grown fewer, under the watchful eye of the giant bird which perched on a distant peak and watched the fortress, as if laying siege with the power of thought; a giggle and a huddle and a game of noughts and crosses in the dancing sand of a place far too hot for unprotected human flesh, but where Lozzie kicked her shoes off and trod without a care, and I coaxed my bioreactor to power a pair of heat-sink sails and pad my outer dermis with coolant.

I did not come away from that last one unscathed, back bruised in new places and skin tender, all aching and raw from growing fresh pneuma-somatic body parts. Lozzie massaged my muscles as we lay in a cradle of vines, high up in the canopy of a rotting jungle beneath a sun the colour of dead peach.

“We can go back if you want,” she chirped from beneath the bone-mask. She did not take it off in these depths. “It’s been hours and hours and hours.”

“Not yet,” I croaked, and forced my hand back into hers, past my better judgement.

She sang to beetle-backed crustaceans with heads of writhing fingers, that talked to each other in a language of colour and pheromone. She convinced them we were only there to watch the distant mushroom towers unfold like giant sunflowers, though the towers pointed not at a sun, but at a mass of sub-orbital glowing bone like a giant tumour of the sky. There was another castle, one I liked less, built for things shaped so much larger than we little monkeys, with no windows and no doors, only endless dark pressing in on the tiny bubble of light cast from the tips of the knights’ lances. We left there quickly when things began to move in the shadows, shapes that made me want to scream and bristle and cover myself with warning spines and toxic compounds, despite Lozzie’s protests that this was a friendly place. We stood on a frozen shore opposite moving mountains of black mold, Lozzie singing to them in alien language as they split and recombined, eating and disgorging each other in an endless chain as they flowed downriver — though that river was not water, and the sea which served as their ultimate destination was beyond my imagination.

And yet, no matter how beautiful or how awful, every one of these visitations was a kind of subtle, self-inflicted torture.

Lozzie could giggle and dance and sing out here — and she did, with relish and relief, even in places I could not comprehend, the ones where I had to close my eyes and press my palms over my ears and wrap myself in my own tentacles, or the ones where I simply had to swallow a scream. Though, to Lozzie’s credit, as soon as I did those things she whisked us away to the next whistle-stop location, and her knights guarded me like the loyal hounds they were.

But even the beautiful places — the ones that floated in the heart of glowing nebulae, or where the air itself was braided like woven silk, or where all was shimmering dust and bone-white leftovers — even those, I could not fully endure.

Every Outside dimension we visited felt wrong — was wrong. The light was an impossible hue, or the colours shifted along the spectrum just enough to make my vision swim. Or the gravity was incorrect, my own footsteps warped, the processes of my organs confused. My skin tingled, the air a foreign sensation in my lungs. Any surface I touched felt wrong, even through my shoes, and forced nausea down my throat as my body tried to reject the sensation; all Outside was formed by the alien rules and logic that ran riot beyond the ordered walls of the castle of Earth. My thoughts twisted this way and that under ineffable conditions, held fast only by the inviolable core of abyssal being I had become.

We had not evolved for these places. Apes were not meant to be here, Outside. Here was soul-death amid sublime beauty.

No. Lozzie was meant to be out here. I wasn’t. Even with what I had become, these places were not meant for me. Enduring them was an act of sheer willpower and self-discipline that I could not keep up for long. Even an abyssal thing is only adjusted for one set of conditions, not all possible climates at once. Lozzie and I huddled inside pink hoodie and pastel poncho amid the black seas of infinity, but she loved it out there.

I peered through my fingers at iron-blue intensities and void-dark infinities; I groped for Lozzie’s hand in the middle of whirl-storm winds that pulled not at flesh and bone but at thought and memory; I tucked my tentacles in close to avoid the attention of snuffling intelligences and blind immensities. And by the end of it I felt sick, sick, sick.

“Do you want to go home?”

“No,” I lied.

I was an alloy of ape and abyss, testing the limits of my endurance. And I found myself wanting.

But it was not merely a matter of physical confrontation. Here was the other half of my childhood and teenage trauma, and I was attacking myself with it, over and over, until I quivered, bleeding, on the edge of my own sanity. It was self-harm, but I did not admit that at the time.

“Heathy Heathy, Heathyyyy, come, come, time to come home, come—”

“We’re not done.”

“Yes we areeeee.”

Lozzie squeezed my hand one last time, skipping back to me in a place where even she did not look remotely human, an inside-out place of coal-black meat and fluttering tissues.

“No, I have to keep going, have to keep—”

Lozzie did not take no for an answer. She pulled me home by one hand.

==

We touched back down on the quiet plain of yellow grass, like an antechamber between our reality and the true depths of Outside, the continental shelf before the deep dark of open ocean. The first thing I did was sit down very suddenly on the ground, my hand slipping from Lozzie’s as my knees gave out; the second thing I did was flinch about a foot in the air at the skull staring up at me from my own lap. I choked out a yelp and flung the twisted thing away in surprise.

“Oop!” Lozzie squeaked as she lunged for it. She caught the skull in both arms before it could hit the ground, tottering on both feet to regain her balance. “Heathy! It’s not unbreakable, you might crack it!” She giggled and shook her head, her voice and face still hidden inside the shadow of her own skull-mask.

“What— what— I-I don’t—” I panted for breath, blinking in utter confusion.

Lozzie cradled the twisted skull in her arms like a skittish cat. She hopped forward on tiptoes, tilting her upper body to peer down at me, her hair spilling out from her mask in a waterfall of blonde. “Heathy?”

“I … give me a moment,” I managed, trying to gather myself. “ … confused. I don’t … ”

The last hour — or twenty minutes, or three hours, or three days — formed a blur of pressurised memory. It was akin to the feeling of coming up for air after being glued to a book. Nothing seemed real, even myself. I grasped my own hands and squeezed to check that I could still feel pain.

“Tch, ow,” I tutted. That was a yes.

Lozzie squatted down so she was level with me, then pulled her goat-skull mask off and placed it on the ground. Freed from shadow and bone, her face was creased with care and she was biting her lip, big blue eyes like twin sapphires of happy exhaustion after our journey. Her two knights, the two we’d brought with us on the dizzying trip Outside, stepped back from their flanking positions, as if to rejoin the round table spread out across the yellow hillsides. But they did not fully retreat just yet, waiting to be dismissed.

“Heathy?” Lozzie murmured again.

“I’m … I’m okay,” I lied. I was very far from okay. I was caked in cold sweat from head to toe, wrapped in my tentacles like an infant sucking her own thumb, and shaking all over. My stomach felt like a black hole and I had a headache — not a brain-math headache, for once, but simple dehydration and stress, a constant throb that pounded harder whenever I moved my head. “How … Lozzie … what?”

“We were out there too long for you maybe,” she murmured, biting her lip again. “Heathy?”

“No, no,” I said. “My fault, my request.” I managed to blink up at her, at her elfin little face framed by the deep purple night. “I think I’m having a panic attack. Or coming down from one.”

“I know!” Lozzie squeaked, then reached out her free hand and took mine. She squeezed hard, and I squeezed back, trying to get the weight off my chest. “You didn’t have to. You didn’t have to come if it was going to—”

“I didn’t have to,” I echoed. “I chose to. Bad choice.” I forced out an awkward laugh. “Aversion therapy, my hat.”

“You don’t have a hat,” Lozzie murmured and puffed her cheeks out. I almost managed to laugh.

“Exactly,” I croaked.

We stayed like that, hand-in-hand on the yellow hillside, until the shaking and the panting and the worst of the fear passed. I hugged myself with my tentacles and held on tight, forcing out slow breaths, trying to feel normal again.

You made it, I told myself. You went Outside, for hours — or days? How much time had passed? You went Out by choice, to some of the most inhuman places you could ever imagine, you endured them, and you came back. You did it.

I did not feel proud; I felt damaged.

“You did it,” Lozzie said with a teasing smile through her worry. My little mind-reader.

I nodded at the skull cradled in the crook of her other arm. “Lozzie, what is that?”

“You don’t remember?” She blinked at me, then held out the alien skull. “Here, it’s yours! We said we’d get you one as well, remember?”

“I … I do remember that conversation, yes.”

The skull in Lozzie’s hands, the skull we’d brought back from the nighted depths, her sisterly offering to me, was a strange and twisted thing, a fluted, metallic grey, bell-shape, shaped not unlike how I imagine an octopus skull would look — if cephalopods possessed internal skeletons. Six eye holes stared with blind nothingness behind them, ringed with ridges of protective bone. If the creature had a jaw in life, it did not anymore, only a strange horizontal structure like a slash of mouth, which looked as if it had once been ringed with other appendages or bone supports. The implication made me shudder. I was glad it was dead, and that I was not meeting it face to face in the flesh. The bottom of the skull flared out into a skirt of bone, making it perfect for converting into a mask or helmet.

As Lozzie held it out, the skull caught the purplish light of the skies above the quiet plain. The surface shimmered like oil on water, with ripples and rings. The bone was neither clean white nor dirty yellow, but a strangely smooth metallic grey, like a metal that should not have been a solid at normal pressures and temperatures.

“Where did we … ?” I let my question trail off.

“We took it from the seabed, eight or nine jumps ago, among all the others in the graveyard jumble. You really really don’t remember? It’s suuuuuper super old, from near the bottom where none of the scavengers go because all the flesh has been picked off the bones long ago. And it’s beautiful! You said so yourself! Here!”

She offered it to me again, but I flinched back, two tentacles rising as if to defend me from assault.

“I-I-I can’t, Lozzie, I— did I really say it’s beautiful?”

“You did! I can hold on to it for you if you don’t want to take it right now, after all it’s going to need some padding inside for your head and face and you might need to file down the bits around the eyes because they’re still kind of rough despite being in the sea for so long, which is odd and I think it means it used different kinds of metal to reinforce different parts of itself. Isn’t that cool?” She beamed at me, more in love with the thing in her hands than I could ever be.

But her passion convinced me to try. Gingerly, I reached out with both hands to accept the mortal leavings of a creature I could scarcely imagine.

Lozzie beamed even wider, and placed the skull in my hands with all the delicacy of trying to dress a cat. From the metallic appearance I expected the skull to be heavy, but it weighed barely anything at all. Lozzie giggled at my surprise.

“It’s like carbon fibre,” I murmured. “So light.”

“Probably really strong too!” Lozzie chirped. “Look look, up the top there in the back!” She pointed to the underside of the Outsider skull. I turned it over gently, as if it was made of spun glass which might break apart in my hands. Lozzie hadn’t been exaggerating; on the back of the skull there was a set of faint indentations — tooth marks, sharp and raking, from teeth that had once pierced whatever hide and flesh had clothed this creature. The teeth had been turned away by the diamond-hard surface of the skull.

I brushed hesitant fingers over the bite mark. No crack, no weakness, no flaw radiated out from the wound. “I wonder if this is what killed it?”

“Don’t think so!” Lozzie chirped. “Too hard for that! Probably won and bit back!”

I turned the alien cephalopod skull over again, to stare into the eye holes and run my fingers over the contours — though it wasn’t strictly a cephalopod. I had learnt plenty about that particular biological niche, from months of pining while watching youtube videos of squid and octopuses. Whatever earthly analogue I imagined for this creature, it was not truly of that class. The same as Lozzie’s goat-skull mask, which had likely not come from a true goat at all.

The surface was smooth and cool and somehow soothing, and I felt the sweat finally drying on my skin and sticking my t-shirt to my back. The gentle wind of the quiet plain ruffled my hair. Six empty eye sockets stared up at me, unseeing and long dead. The metal felt so unfamiliar, but did not make me shudder with disgust; when I tilted the skull, the metal caught the light and showed me a ripple of colours for which I did not have names. Memory dribbled back, of Lozzie and I in a bubble of air on some nighted sea floor, picking through bones; that had happened, and I had called our find beautiful, if only because it seemed so real down there in the dark. On an impulse I did not understand, I put a finger into one of the eye sockets.

What manner of creature had you been? I asked it in the silence of my mind. Mortal, certainly. Mortal enough to die, to leave a body behind, for one like me to find. What kind of thoughts had filled this skull in life? Outside thoughts, alien to me? Or could we have communicated? You weren’t like the Eye, or the other giants of Outside, or the things in the abyss. Were you male or female? Or perhaps you did not have biological sex at all, perhaps you propagated by budding, or cloning, or some other, unthinkable process. What was your identity, did you have family? None of these questions would ever be answered. But you had flesh, once. I have flesh now, I thought. And one day I will be like you.

But not yet. And not Outside. I will die old, in bed, I told myself, and I have miles to go before then.

It was an oddly comforting idea. My lingering panic attack finally faded away into mere echo. The skull was a connection, a bridge, proof.

“Heathy?” Lozzie’s voice crept into my rumination.

“Thank you for the present,” I said. “I was right the first time. I think.”

“The first time?”

“It is beautiful.”

“Yay!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air, which was not a sustainable pose while also squatting, at least not with her lack of muscle tone. She wobbled and laughed and had to accept falling back onto her bottom with a little “oof,” legs wiggling in the air.

“We still do need to talk,” I said, feeling oddly emboldened. I had conquered my oldest fear — well, with the exception of the Eye. What was a chat with Lozzie by comparison? Nothing to be afraid of. Lozzie and I loved each other.

“Oh.” Lozzie sat up from her sprawl, blinking at me. “We do? We doooo? I thought we did. We did!”

“We never finished. Not about the part that really matters, to me. The part that hurt me.”

“Oh. Oops.” Lozzie bit her lip.

“Not oops. It’s okay.” I sighed. “I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not very good having big serious talks.”

Pfffffft,” went Lozzie. “You so totally are! Duh.”

“Thank you, I think? In any case, I don’t feel like I am. But I’m not going to manipulate you into anything, or browbeat you, or attack you, I promise. I’m not even going tell you off. Maybe I was going to do that at one point, but it feels silly now. We’re friends, and I’m hoping if I express this then you’ll understand.”

Lozzie nodded with enthusiastic urgency, head going up and down like a cartoon donkey, expression that blinking po-faced seriousness that was impossible not to find sweet, but which meant she really was listening. I found myself winding two of my tentacles around each other, a new nervous behaviour.

“You put me right in front of the Eye, without warning,” I said.

Despite everything, my voice cracked. The memory of burning pressure flared up inside me, of the unstoppable force of the Eye’s gaze.

Lozzie lit up, as much as she could do with her damaged extraocular muscles, and her mouth flew open. But I held a hand out to stop her. I needed her to understand, not just apologise.

“And I prevailed,” I added. “I won, I made it out, I learnt I could make it out. I learnt that the Eye is not impossible to escape even once it has me in its sight. Which is invaluable. Invaluable. But, Lozzie, you put me there without warning. You made me face my … my … ” I sniffed hard and had to wipe my eyes on the back of my hand. “You made me face it. And I need you to understand what that means.”

Lozzie nodded.

“Do you understand?” I asked.

Nod nod.

“You can speak now,” I said. “I didn’t mean to silence you, you can—”

“I’m sorry,” Lozzie said, and she said it without biting her lip, without upturned eyes, without any cutesy affectation, except her hands gripping the fabric of her poncho.

“Okay. Okay. I forgive you,” I said. “I can do that, I—”

“But it was still the right thing to do,” Lozzie continued.

“ … pardon?”

Now Lozzie bit her lip. She wasn’t shaking with fear, but this sudden reversal took courage. “You needed me there and you needed me to do that because you just said yourself that it worked out in the end, you needed it!”

I started to shake my head. “Lozzie—”

“I made a decision and it was my decision because you don’t have to do everything yourself all the time. You were missing! Missing something important and I had to step in because I’m your friend and I get to protect you too!” Lozzie raced ahead, voicing her runaway train of thought. “What would have happened if I hadn’t? You would have killed Badger or the Eye would have had him and you wouldn’t have learnt anything at all and we wouldn’t be here talking about this because you might have done something you couldn’t take back. And it worked out.” She slowed down all of a sudden. “And now we’re here.”

I gaped at her. “You’re … trying to justify intentionally exposing me to—”

“No!” Lozzie squawked. “No it wasn’t justified! Of course it wasn’t!”

“ … well, we agree on that much.” I sighed, shaking my head. “Lozzie, it worked out, but it might not have done. There were so many possible things that could have gone wrong, things that could have failed. Because of you deciding something on your own, about me, without asking me.”

“But it was the only thing I could do,” she said.

“So you’re saying it wasn’t your fault?” I asked.

Lozzie shook her head, sending faint wisps of blonde hair out from her like a glowing halo. “Of course it was my fault because I did it but if we could rewind time and do it all over again I would still do the same thing but—”

Lozzie did something she so rarely could: she stopped.

She stopped totally dead, then looked up and away from me, at the spirals of purple light in the unnatural night sky. “But I would ask you first? Okay. Okay! Oki-doki-doos. I would have to ask you first. I wish I could time travel, it’s so much easier that way.” She looked back at me with an expression like a goblin caught with her hand in a biscuit tin. “And I won’t do it again. I won’t. I’m sorry.” She held a hand out toward me.

Hesitant at first, I accepted her hand, small and cool and soft in my own. I sighed and tried to share a smile with her too.

“Don’t hate me,” she added in a small voice.

“I don’t,” I sighed. “Apology accepted. Even if we don’t agree, it matters that you understand.”

“I’m smarter than I look!” She chirped, then let go of my hand with a giggle. “You really seriously for real thought I wouldn’t?”

I shrugged, a touch of colour creeping into my cheeks. I cleared my throat, feeling horribly awkward. “My turn to apologise, I suppose. Lozzie, with the way you act back in reality, sometimes it’s difficult to keep in mind you’re not actually a thirteen year old or something.”

Lozzie mock-gaped at me, scandalised and outraged, but she wasn’t a good enough actor to sell the drama. I still rolled my eyes and had to look away, half in embarrassment, half in guilt.

“We’ve talked about plenty of non-childish things!” she chirped. “All sorts! You’d never talk to Tenny about half of what we’ve talked about, and especially in the dreams but ahhhhh no no you don’t remember that all properly, right, yes, okay-okay. Do you remember telling me about how Raine figured she can make you pop twice in a row if she—”

“Lozzie!” I squeaked, my outrage quite real. Lozzie burst into a peal of giggles. I glanced at the knights a few paces away, as if they gave a hoot about overhearing the details of my sex life.

“They don’t think about those sorts of things!” Lozzie announced after following the direction of my flustered gaze.

“Yes, but it’s still a bit weird to have it said out loud.”

“You didn’t care about that in the dreams. Just relax, Heathy! You know you can talk to me about anything at all, I don’t judge, what have I got to judge on anyway? You know all the things about me and I know all the things about you.”

I let out a little sigh, almost sad. “I don’t, actually. Know all the things about you, I mean. Because the dreams are still hazy.”

Pbbbbbt,” Lozzie made a sad sound and flopped sideways on the pale yellow grass. “That’s true but it doesn’t have to be true. New promise! We’ll do a new promise.”

“There was an old promise?” I asked, somewhat liking this notion.

“Many many manyyyyy,” Lozzie chanted from the ground. “But new promise now. I promise not to make decisions that affect you without asking you first, including—” She stuck out a finger. “—including more dreams.”

“I would love to dream with you again,” I blurted out. “But I’d like to remember them this time.”

“Mmhmm, mmhmm, and in return, you promise to ask me things if you wanna know them.”

“Agreed,” I said, easily and softly. “Do we need to do a ritual to seal the promise?”

Lozzie wrinkled her nose, which looked extra silly with her face sideways. “Promises are promises, the words make them happen and not when you rub your blood together or something. If it’s a true promise then you know because it gets kept and if it was false then it doesn’t.”

I felt unaccountably playful when I asked, “And which is this?”

Lozzie grinned wide, impish and teasing. “A true one.”

“All right. All right.” I felt a mischievous flutter. “Lozzie, do you fancy Twil?”

“Whaaaaaaaaaaa?!” Lozzie burst into laughter, kicking her legs and smacking the ground with both hands before flailing herself back up into a sitting position. I was blushing enough for both of us, mortified at my own question. “Fuzzy? No! No, no, no way. Not mine, not my … type? Typing? Style? I don’t know if I will ever have a type but fuzzy is fuzzy and not like that.”

“A very comprehensive answer,” I hurried to say, trying to manually rub the blush off my own cheeks. “Yes. Thank you. Okay. Ahem.”

I actually said ahem out loud. I could be such a gossip, but I couldn’t take the heat.

Lozzie giggled at my self-inflicted discomfort and then shuffled to cross the gap between us. She settled in beside me and propped her chin on my shoulder, so we could both look down at the metallic skull in my lap. She reached down to stroke the strange Outsider’s skull.

“I think it’s really pretty,” she said.

“It is, in its own way.”

“It’ll make a good mask!”

“And why would I need a mask?” I asked. Lozzie shrugged and puffed her cheeks out.

“Maybe it’s not a mask then,” she said.

I sighed and leaned my head against hers, thought-to-thought.

“I wish you’d told me in the first place,” I said, “about Badger coming to apologise to you. We could have approached everything differently, at least.”

“But then you might not have been able to do it, which is fair because it was a hard thing to do and hard things are hard.”

“Still.” I pulled back so I could look her in the eyes. “I wish you’d just told me that you had a problem with his death. I always assumed … well. I saw you stab a man to death with a scalpel once, you were wild, you were … what’s … oh … ”

As I said those words — as I recalled what Lozzie had done back when I’d murdered her brother, recalled her palming a scalpel and slitting the throat of one of her brother’s cultist minions — Lozzie squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, jerky and cringing and blocking it out, shrinking down inside herself to hide from the memory.

“Oh,” I repeated, and realised what I’d been missing this entire time. “Oh, Lozzie, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay—” she hissed to herself, then opened her eyes again, panting softly and trying to smile. “I’m okay I’m okay just don’t don’t don’t—”

“Okay, okay! I won’t, I won’t bring it up, not now, not now.”

Lozzie clung to me, squeezing my hoodie into tight handfuls in both her fists, shivering and shaking inside her own skin. I held her gently, stroking the back of her head, trying to tease her hair into a semblance of order. After a while she stopped shaking quite so badly, and slowly, ever so slowly, to give us something to focus on, I set about the intimate process of braiding her hair.

None of us — not me, not Evee, not Raine, not Zheng, to my knowledge — had ever addressed the fact that Lozzie had committed murder to escape her abusive brother. I’d blasted Alexander Lilburne into a broken mess of pulped meat and shattered bone, yes, and that had changed me forever. Over time I had discovered, to my twinned horror and fascination, that perhaps I was built for this after all. Not like Raine, but enough not to be destroyed by the act.

Lozzie was not built for murder. Lozzie didn’t even like to hear talk of violence. And she’d stabbed a man in the throat because that was her only option. I’d gotten so used to thinking of her escape as a rescue, but she had participated along with us.

She’d been mentally unwell back then, unwell because of abuse, but that did not make her immune to what she’d had to do.

We sat huddled together on that quiet plain, allowing the minutes to stretch out beneath the soft purple light as I braided Lozzie’s hair and one of my tentacles slipped around her waist in a hug; gentle wind teased stray strands of blonde out of my hands, which I dutifully gathered back in; the fairy tale knights of her round table kept their own council; she did not want to talk about this right now, so I kept my mouth shut, because I’d already done enough damage.

I finished braiding her hair and held up the unsecured end.

“Pretty,” Lozzie chirped. The bounce was back in her voice, even if weak. I thanked whatever gods would listen.

“We don’t have anything to tie it with, though,” I said.

Lozzie rummaged beneath her poncho. I’d always suspected she had secret pockets sewn into the lining, and my suspicions were heightened when she lit up with an, “Aha!” and wriggled and arm out to present me with a little pink hair tie. I bound up the end of her braid, nice and neat.

“Thankeeeeee,” she purred, and we shared a hug.

“Lozzie, if you ever want to—”

“I will!” she chirped before I could finish. “But not … ”

“Not now,” I finished for her, nodding. “Not now. It’s okay.”

A herky-jerky smile twitched back onto Lozzie’s lips. She twisted around, bounced to her feet, and offered me a hand. I accepted, hugging the Outsider cephalopod skull to my chest with the other hand as Lozzie helped me up. She retrieved her goat-skull mask from the ground too.

“Time to go home and have dinner?” I asked.

“I need to decompress,” she said, smile teasing, eyelashes fluttering. “You said not to take you to extreme places Outside but there’s places I haven’t seen in months and months and I want to go see them. I can go by myself!”

My heart dropped into my stomach, but I tried not to let it show on my face. I failed miserably. “ … all right,” I said.

“Oh, Heathy, I’m not going anywhere!” She threw her arms around my neck and squeezed me quickly. “I’ll be back soon enough, I promise!”

“How soon?” I croaked out, my throat closing up.

Lozzie danced back a couple of paces, closed one eye, then the other, then opened both. “I dunno! The morning? Like I’m going out for a night! You don’t do that but it’s a thing that people do a lot and I want to. Ple—”

“You don’t have to ask for my permission,” I blurted out. “I’m not keeping you from … going out and partying? Oh my goodness.” I rolled my eyes and felt absolutely absurd. “I’m like a droll, stick-in-the-mud older sister, aren’t I?” I hiccuped, because otherwise I might cry again. “Keeping you from going out and having fun.”

“Not droll!” Lozzie directed a serious little frown at me. “Indoor fun is fun too.”

“But sometimes you need to see your other friends. Your Outside friends. Right.”

Lozzie nodded up and down, her braid bouncing.

“I … I need you with me, Lozzie,” I said. “For Maisie, and for … ”

“I am with you!” she declared, pointing one finger at me. “And I’ll be back for breakfast! Smoke me a kipper!”

I frowned and spluttered out a laugh. “A what?”

“A kipper! You know. Actually I don’t know what a kipper is. I think it’s a fish but I just heard it somewhere so cereal is fine.”

“I’ll find out what a kipper is and smoke you one,” I laughed, trying to hold back everything else I felt. Lozzie was just going out for the evening. Outside. To all those nightmare vistas and impossible places, because that was her natural environment. “What shall I say to Tenny? Mummy’s out for the evening?”

“Mmhmm! She’ll understand! I’ve told her allllll about Outside, she knows what it means.”

“Do you maybe want to take her along sometime?” What was I even saying? Trying to make this seem normal, make it less terrifying?

Lozzie’s good humour hit a speed bump. She sighed and flapped her poncho. “Tenny’s not a child of Outside.”

“ … oh?”

“She was made on Earth! With all Earth parts and Earth thoughts and stuff. There’s places I really really wanna show her, but she’s not built for it like we are.”

Like you are, I thought, but did not say out loud.

“That’s, well, that’s fair enough,” I said. “She’s going to need room to fly, eventually.”

“And she will get it!” Lozzie spread her arms to indicate the quiet plain, goat-skull mask dangling from one hand.

“Ah. Yes.”

“Anyway. Heathyyyyy, you can see yourself home, yeah? I’ll be back in the morning, for real, I promise!”

I managed a nod. My throat was dry, my palms clammy, but I did not reach out for Lozzie. I chose to trust her.

She slipped the goat-skull mask back over her head, transforming into a pixie from the underworld once more, then skipped across the few feet which separated us and hugged me once more, squeezed me hard until I choked out a laugh and squeezed her back. Then she let go, our hands touching at the fingertips as she stepped away.

“Laters!” she chirped, so undeniably happy.

And then with a hop and a skip, she ran and leaped into the air.

And vanished.

I stood there for several long minutes of silence and peace on the quiet plain, trying to fight down a lump in my throat, twisting my hoodie in one hand and hugging myself with my tentacles. I did trust Lozzie. She wasn’t Maisie, she wasn’t being kidnapped or taken away, she was my friend and she was going out for the night, to places that she’d been to many, many times before.

“A night on the town,” I said out loud, and laughed a sad laugh at myself, then let out a big sigh. “Heather, you’re so silly. She’ll be fine.”

I bid a goodbye — only for now — to the knights, though none of them responded in any visible fashion. I even patted one of them, the one who had opened its armour to me. I located Evelyn’s blue bucket a few feet away, picked it up, and tucked the Outsider cephalopod skull under my arm. Then I took some deep breaths, closed my eyes, and executed the familiar old equation. Time to go back to where I belonged. Time to cry into Raine’s shoulder and endure a sleepless night waiting for Lozzie to come home.

Out.

Space folded up around me.

And boney hands closed around my ankles in a vice-grip of iron and ice, to hold me fast before I could cross back to reality.

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