and walked a crooked mile – 16.9

Content Warnings

None this chapter.

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“Geerswin farm! Twil’s farm! Okay maybe not actually Twil’s farm — but Twil’s farm, yaaay! Fluffy llamas yes I love them yes I doooooo! Hihihihi, hi, hi!”

The moment we arrived back on the surface, Lozzie wriggled out of our collectively collapsing grip and sprang away, bouncing on the balls of her feet, fluttering her pentacolour poncho in the leaf-dappled sunlight, giggling and rambling as she skipped over to the curious and friendly alpaca sticking its head over the nearby fence.

Alpaca, not llama, I thought to myself, but there was no way I was getting those words out.

The rest of us were mere passengers on the Lozzie-train, alighting at this terminal station — myself, Evelyn, Praem, Nicole, Sevens, and poor little Marmite. We all but collapsed onto the crumbly, weathered tarmac next to Raine’s car.

Nicole was the only one who actually lost her footing and went down. She staggered as if sea-sick, then doubled up, slammed to her knees, and vomited noisily onto the ground. She groaned, clutching her stomach, spitting stringy bile. I would have winced with sympathy — I’d been there so many times before, hurling my guts up as my body rejected the brutal exposure to supernatural truth. But right then I was busy wrapping my arms and tentacles around my swirling, pounding, spinning head. I almost crumpled as well, knees buckling and giving out, wracked by the stress of Lozzie’s translocation-Slip. But Sevens stood tall and confident, holding me up with one strong arm around my waist, silently enduring the way I lashed myself to her with my tentacles. The Princess Mask was apparently unaffected by the pressure of skipping across the membrane between here and Outside.

I held my squid-skull mask to my stomach, a poor substitute for a pillow, but it sufficed.

Evelyn hung limp and moaning in Praem’s grip, eyes squeezed shut, face gone pale and grey, coated with cold sweat. Her pain was more than physical. Praem stared into blank space, her demon mind still rebooting. Too human to avoid the aftershocks.

Marmite curled into a ball and covered himself with shadowy membranes, terrified and sick.

Riding along with one of Lozzie’s intentional Slips was always an ordeal.

Whenever I Slipped on purpose, the bulk of the damage to mind and body was not actually from the transition itself, but from direct interface with the necessary brain-math to etch the equation upon the surface of reality. The damage was from touching the levers, not the outcome of pulling them. Slipping was disorienting and disgusting, yes, of course. Popping through the membrane between here and Outside was like having one’s soul slid partway out of one’s body, then jammed back in at the wrong angle. One was forced to wait for the parts to shift and adjust until container and self lined up again, like the tight and uncomfortable feeling of shrugging your coat on too quickly, but a hundred times worse. For a few seconds, a Slip always made you feel misaligned with your own body.

But Lozzie’s Slip hadn’t taken us Outside at all; if I’d been the one to pull us out of Hringewindla’s core, I would have taken us to Camelot first, then back to Twil’s house, a long-distance slingshot. Lozzie took us straight there, a no-stopping service, express route. Choo choo.

It was like being dragged across the membrane at high speed, skipping and bouncing like a flat stone upon the surface of a lake, one’s soul jarred and juddered and shaken out of place. No human being could experience that and stand up straight afterward. Even Praem was shaken. I suspected Sevens hadn’t actually gone along with it at all, but had used her own, personal, Outsider methods of locomotion, and then just pretended she’d piggybacked Lozzie along with the rest of us.

But we were out of Hringewindla’s shell. We were back on the surface. Firmly back in reality, whatever that meant.

Late afternoon sunlight, the colour of fire on bronze, filtered through the gently swaying ring of trees that surrounded Geerswin Farm. The tarmac was solid and earthy and crumbling at the edges. The air smelled of pollen and grass and rotting leaves. Shafts of light glinted off Raine’s car, the faded red paint dappled by long, leafy shadows. The overgrown fields were matted with weeds and dotted with the tall, proud spikes of thistles, but the landscape was green and healthy and very, very normal. The old farmhouse squatted right where we’d left it, peering back at us with dark windows. The front door showed only a gaping shadow, as if the building itself was surprised by our return.

No more living nightmares, no more absurd spooky alpacas with human faces, no more reality warping around our senses.

Hringewindla was back in control. And so were we.

The only physical evidence that anything untoward had happened here was a lump of pulped grey meat and broken carapace, still lying on the tarmac a few feet away, a miniature copy of the leviathan monster Hringewindla had pulled from his snake-knot core, complete with little barbs and hooks and grasping legs. The parasite I’d ripped out of Sevens’ throat had not resurrected itself and wandered off, or melted through the ground to contaminate the local water supply, or turned into a ghost or a vampire or something equally silly. I’d half-expected it to do that. Can you really blame me?

Of course, I couldn’t enjoy the relief. My head was spinning, my senses were filled with a high-pitched whine, and my skin felt thin as rice-paper, ready to burst and let me float away into the woods, dispersed and forgotten. Only Sevens’ grip kept me on my feet. I had an overwhelming urge to jam my squid-skull mask back on over my head and curl up in a tight ball of tentacles, like an octopus protecting herself against the dragging currents.

And it wasn’t only the Slip; the whiplash was too sudden. Had I really been a mile underground only minutes earlier, talking to an ancient Outsider god via my own neuroelectrical signals?

Reality felt unreal.

But then hurrying feet and voices and chaos filled the air, the undeniable weight of other people.

“Heather! Hey! Hey, they’re all out here! Twil, get out here!”

My heart soared at the familiar chord of Raine’s voice. I heard the sound of her feet leaping down the brick steps of the house in one bound, racing to join us.

“Raine … ” I croaked, groping for her even with my eyes screwed shut. “Raine?”

“It’s alright, kitten,” Sevens purred from right beside me. “She is here. Everyone is here.”

“Oh shit, fuck me!” said Twil a second later, another voice hurtling from the open front door.

“Twil!” her mother scolded, not far behind, little shoes hurrying down the steps. “Oh, but thank heavens, thank goodness, they’re all here. They are all here, aren’t they? I am so sorry, Miss Saye, Heather, d-detective, and … and … um.”

“Good evening, high priestess,” said the Yellow Princess. “Do not worry yourself about me.”

“I told you they would show up!” Amanda said from the doorway, her voice filled with equal parts pride and relief. “He told me they were okay! I told you! You never listen!”

“Amanda,” Christine said, voice a bristle of smothered irritation. “Do not get into this right now, please.”

I reached blindly for Raine with one tentacle, found her, and hung on tight. She laughed, wrapped me in a hug, and kissed my forehead.

“She is safe, but there has been much brain-math,” Sevens informed her.

“You got us out of that, hey?” Raine asked me.

“Got you out,” I croaked, face cushioned in her chest. “Everyone out.”

“Everyone out,” Praem echoed.

We spent the next few minutes going precisely nowhere; Evelyn, Nicole, and I were in no state to be standing up and walking in straight lines, let alone climbing the steps to the house or explaining everything that had happened, down there in the dark beneath the earth. Praem wasn’t doing too well either, though she wasn’t about to fall over any time soon. Raine opened the back door of her car again, so Evelyn could have somewhere to sit. Twil helped Nicole stagger to her feet, though the detective looked punch-drunk, and grumpier than a cat after a cold bath. Twil didn’t look too great either, more than a little pale and haggard. I felt my own mind piecing itself back together, but it was painfully slow, eased along by the pressure of Raine’s hands on my arms when she started rubbing me like I’d just come in from a snowstorm.

“Is every— everyone—” I slurred and mumbled, held between her and Sevens.

“Everyone is fine, Heather,” Raine said, staring into my eyes. She held up one hand. “Here, open your eyes up proper, okay? How many fingers?”

“Three,” I groaned, trying to laugh, delighted by the simple, familiar sight of Raine’s chestnut-brown hair raked back from her forehead. “I’m not concussed, Raine, I’m post-Slip. Blame Lozzie.”

I batted at Raine’s hand with a tentacle. She jumped, then laughed. No glasses, not Outside. She couldn’t see all of me.

From inside the back of Raine’s car, Evelyn made a sound like she was ordering Praem to execute a war criminal. Her eyes were still scrunched up against the lingering after-effects, head bowed with pressure, both hands on her walking stick like an old woman who couldn’t find the strength to rise from her chair. For once, even Praem couldn’t make sense of her request. The doll-demon stared at her own mother with blank-faced incomprehension, more empty-eyed than usual.

“Kids,” Sevens echoed. “She was asking about the children.”

“Oh!” Amanda said. “My boys are fine, yes, thank you. They’re right here, Miss Saye. Well … right … ah, up there.”

Zheng chose that moment to join us, ducking low through the front door of the house. Her eyes found me with a dark twinkle. “Shaman,” she rumbled. I managed a nod, though she deserved more for what she’d so obviously done.

Zheng looked like she’d been having the time of her life.

Her lower half was splattered with blood, as if she had kicked a spooky alpaca to death. She had three bubble-servitors following her like hounds trailing after their master, and an additional, actual, flesh-and-blood hound in the form of Bernard, Amanda’s golden retriever. He was currently doing his good-boy best to look fearsome and protective.

Zheng was also carrying two small boys, one on each shoulder. They clung to her head and neck with both arms like marsupials to a mother. Amanda’s boys — Richard and Oliver, as I later learned — looked about five or six years old, both of them po-faced and serious and utterly unafraid of the giant zombie whose shoulders they were riding on.

“Whee,” said Praem.

A man I’d never seen before was doing his best to emulate that lack of fear, following as close to Zheng as he could without cringing in animal terror. Gareth — Amanda’s ‘gentleman friend’ that she’d told us about earlier — had obviously been through quite an ordeal. He was rail-thin in the way of a professional runner, with salt-and-pepper grey hair and a concerned, intelligent look on his face, framed by a neat little goatee. He was splattered with blood too, though it looked like back splash from Zheng’s violence. A rolling pin shook in one of his hands, held like a club. To the man’s credit, he didn’t look like he was about to break and run.

Everybody was accounted for, quickly enough to still my worried heart and soothe Evelyn’s guilty conscience. Raine was practically untouched — she hadn’t even needed to use a weapon while trapped inside the spooky nonsense house. Christine Hopton, Twil’s mother, was faring similarly, though obviously shaken and upset. She kept her arms tightly crossed, shoulders squared, chin drawn inward. Amanda was none the worse for wear at all, still sporting a bubble-servitor on her shoulder like the world’s largest and gooiest parrot; she was also beaming at me.

Benjamin, Twil’s cousin, the ill-fated and rather useless ‘muscle’ of the Church, had apparently found the shotgun he’d gone searching for earlier, an old-fashioned double-barrelled thing with a wooden stock. The gun hung loose in his hands as he guarded his aunts. For all his imposing bulk and carefully shaven head, he looked utterly out of his depth, like he’d seen a ghost. Maybe he had.

The bubble-servitors slowly oozed out of the house as well, squeezing themselves through the windows and gathering once more on the roof, floating through the air to take up their guard-post positions out in the fields and down the driveway. Bernard the dog watched them go. Amanda hadn’t been exaggerating, I realised. He could see pneuma-somatic life quite clearly.

Lozzie was away with the alpacas, arms entwined with the fence, petting their fluff with both hands.

“Who’s a good fluffy-fluff lad?” she cooed. “Yes, it’s you, you big llama, yes! You’re like a pillow!”

“They’re alpacas, actually,” Twil called to her, but Lozzie didn’t seem too worried by the distinction.

“Twil, are you okay?” I tried to ask, still hanging on to Sevens and Raine. What I actually said was a slurred mess. It was a miracle Twil understood me.

“Eh?” Twil blinked several times, then wiped her mouth on her coat sleeve. “Eh. I guess. Was hurling real bad when things all … snapped back, like.”

“Her body,” said Sevens. “Purging the parasite. Her unique physiology would be capable of that.”

“Parasite?” Twil frowned at Sevens. “Also when the fuck did you get here, did I miss something?”

“When you weren’t looking.”

“The parasite is a long story,” I said. “Sevens is helping.”

Twil shrugged. “What is all this shit about, anyway? What the fuck just happened? Did we just get stuck in a Scooby-Doo episode?”

“Probably need to compare notes,” I sighed.

“Hringewindla is very thankful and very pleased,” Amanda said in a floaty and formal voice. She turned to gaze at Lozzie. “And very impressed.”

“Yes, that’s wonderful for him,” Christine said, looking somewhat small and reduced, shoulders more hunched and face more pinched than I’d ever seen her before. I didn’t blame her. That was her house this little invasion had violated and twisted. “I, on the other hand, would prefer a clear explanation for what has just happened. I gather you have all visited our god, somehow. But I don’t … I don’t understand.”

“He is explaining as clearly as he needs to,” Amanda replied. Did I detect the tiniest bristle in her words? Christine certainly did, frowning sidelong at her sister.

“Err,” Ben said, clearing his throat and gesturing with the shotgun. “Sorry, I’m with aunt Christine on this one. I’d love to know what the hell that was all about, right? Also maybe get us out of the open and back indoors, in case something else happens.”

“Word,” said Raine. “Smart man.”

“You wanna go back into that?” Twil scoffed.

He shrugged. “It’s over, right? I mean, like, that part of it. House is back to normal. Hringewindla seems … alright. But he doesn’t know what else might be lurking, does he? He’s not omniscient. We need to get indoors, ‘case something else turns up. And call Mike, call your dad.”

Twil grimaced, but she nodded along.

“Ben,” Christine tutted his name, one hand forcing the shotgun barrels to point at the ground. “I told you to put that back. Stop waving it about.”

“It’s not even loaded,” Ben grumbled. “And I wasn’t waving it.”

“Yeah, fair’s fair,” Raine added. “He was keeping it pointed at the ground. Good trigger discipline too, mate.”

“Cheers. I think.” Benjamin frowned at her, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here. He eyed the road and the tree line, clearly on edge, but not for show. I had a gut feeling that the man knew exactly what he was doing when it came to precautions for violence.

“Everybody shut up and stop talking nonsense,” Evelyn rasped in a voice like sandpaper. With superhuman effort she rose to her feet, squinting as if the fading sunlight was too strong for her eyes. Praem offered her arm, Evelyn took it, balanced between doll-demon and walking stick. She stomped forward a few paces, so she could address Amanda and Christine directly.

“Miss Saye,” Christine said, getting there first, suddenly straightening with the effort of polite regard. “I’m very glad to see you are okay as well. This has been … this was all so … ”

Christine trailed off, lost for words, shaking her head.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “You owe me a cup of tea.”

Christine blinked several times. “ … I’m sorry?”

Benjamin nodded along. “Girl’s got the right idea. Indoors, cup of tea, wait for the counter attack or—”

Christine tutted. “Ben, stop, please.”

Raine pointed at Ben, eyebrows raised in agreement. Muscle nodded to muscle.

“You owe me a cup of tea,” Evelyn repeated. “And some biscuits.”

“O-of course,” Christine said. “I’d be happy to, I just—”

“We just met your god and helped de-worm him. In the process, I have had to perform some deeply inadvisable magic, to discourage the giant moron from crushing us all to death.”

Benjamin’s face flickered with a scowl when Evelyn said ‘moron’, but he kept his peace when Evelyn jabbed at him with her walking stick and squinted like she would poke his eye out.

“Hey, Evee,” said Raine, voice suddenly tight. “What do you mean, ‘inadvisable magic’?”

“Yes,” I added, suddenly worried on a level I hadn’t acknowledged until that moment. “What does that mean? Evee, are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Evelyn grunted without looking at either of us. That didn’t help, but the conversation was already moving on.

“It’s true,” Amanda said. “Hringewindla is very pleased now. And clean. So clean again. This is good. This is a good thing, we should not be hostile or vindictive.”

“Speak for yourself,” Nicole grunted, eyeing Amanda with lingering suspicion.

“Mm,” Evelyn said. “Which means you owe us all some tea and biscuits, and … ” She trailed off, frowning at Zheng. “Whatever she wants, I suppose.”

“Meat,” Praem suggested.

Zheng grinned the grin of a deeply satisfied carnivore. “The worm has been very thankful.”

The boys on Zheng’s shoulders shared a glance. One of them spoke up, high-pitched with childlike offense. “Don’t call mummy a worm.”

“Your mother is a worm, your father is a worm, you are both worms.”

The boys shared another glance, rather nonplussed.

Gareth finally cleared his throat and spoke. He had the voice of a gentle and bookish librarian, not the sort of man who should be tangling with gods and monsters and getting splattered with blood. But then again, I suppose plenty of people would make the same assumption about me.

“I don’t think that’s a good thing to be saying to small children, to … um … ”

The poor man withered under Zheng’s smouldering gaze.

“Worm,” she added.

“Zheng, don’t insult children, please,” I croaked. “Especially not right now.”

“Can I be a snail instead?” asked the younger boy. “Like Hingey?”

“Hringewindla,” his mother gently corrected him.

Evelyn cleared her throat as loudly as she could manage, which unfortunately involved coughing spots of blood onto her own sleeve. “Tea, food. Yes?”

Christine Hopton nodded slowly, still shell-shocked and gathering her wits.

I spoke up. “What Evee is trying to say, is that we would like to come inside and have a sit down, and a rest. We’ve all been through rather a lot. Maybe we can share experiences. Figure out what happened. Clear this up. All that … diplomacy stuff?”

Benjamin nodded at me in silent approval.

“ … yes,” Christine said after a moment. “Yes, of course. You’re all very welcome. We should sit down and … and, well, I assume the danger is past? Hringewindla seems certain.”

I nodded. “It’s over. For now. I think.”

“Assuming none of this was intentional,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Yeah,” Ben grumbled. “Fucking right.”

“Intentional by whom?” Christine asked. Her eyes flickered left and right suddenly, as if she would catch the culprit lurking behind a nearby tree. Benjamin sighed out loud, drawing a hand over his face.

“That’s something we should probably discuss,” I said.

“Edward Lilburne,” Evelyn said. “This is all his doing, his trap, his creation run out of control.”

“Assumption,” said Praem.

Evelyn snorted. “I think it’s a bloody safe assumption,” she grumbled, then caught herself and shot a guilty grimace at the two little boys perched on Zheng’s shoulders. “It’s a safe assumption.”

Christine drew herself up and clapped her hands together, putting real effort into re-assuming the role of sweet and welcoming older lady, her schoolteacher visage slipping on as certainly as my squid-skull mask. “Yes, you’re all welcome to come inside and have some food. We could all do with a proper explanation. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. My husband will be home soon too, I’ll call him right away, yes. We can get this all cleared up. I hope.”

Lozzie looked back over her shoulder while still petting the alpaca. “Jan’s gonna be wondering where I am!”

Nicole sighed heavily. “Can somebody please, please go check on my dog?”

Evelyn raised her walking stick and pointed at the smashed lump of grey meat, the dead parasite on the ground. “Before we go anywhere, that needs to be burned. Right now.”

“Ben, if you please?” Christine said.

Benjamin Hopton sighed and shrugged. “On it.”

For a moment he seemed to share a look with Evelyn, one of understanding that went deeper than muscle and mage. Apparently we weren’t the only ones used to disposing of evidence.


Almost two full hours after our return from the inside of Hringewindla’s shell, I couldn’t stand the way his cultists looked at me.

They tried not to be obvious about it, but they couldn’t conceal it completely.

We were all sitting in the Hoptons’ dining room, in the rear of Geerswin Farmhouse, gathered around the large wooden table covered in decades of chips and scratches. The fireplace lay cold and unlit, but the heating from the kitchen kept the room comfortable in the early summer evening. Mugs of now-cold tea sat atop the table, along with plates of biscuit crumbs and the remains of two sandwiches, the evidence that we’d been breaking bread with the Church, well into the growing dusk. It was all very domestic, very normal, very human. Except for the topics of conversation.

“These glasses are a miracle,” said Twil’s father.

Michael Hopton held Evelyn’s modified 3D glasses up to the back doors looking out onto the patio, handling them like an exposed circuit board. He peered through them again, at the bubble-servitor perched on the nearest fence, bathed in dying sunlight.

“Just magic,” said Evelyn.

“We’ve never been able to make anything like this. Even the old man—”

Christine Hopton cleared her throat, loudly but politely. Michael caught himself and grimaced under his wife’s sidelong look. So much like Twil, I thought. She really did take after her father.

“Even my late father-in-law,” he corrected himself, “Clive, he—”

Clive?” Raine interrupted from ‘our’ side of the table, unable to keep the smirk off her face. “‘Scuse me, sorry,” she added with a wink when everyone looked at her. “Just, you know, big-shot intimidating cult-wizard guy, but he was called Clive? Kinda undercuts him a bit, you know? No offense meant, though. Very normal name.”

Christine looked none too pleased at the mockery — the ‘old man’ had been her father, after all. She pursed her lips, but she was too polite to complain. Amanda shrugged, still fuzzy-eyed, bubble-servitor still perched on her shoulder as she sat in her chair. Michael worried at his lower lip.

Twil growled. “He wasn’t intim—”

But I got there first. “He wasn’t intimidating,” I blurted out. “He was more like you than you realise, Raine.”

Raine turned a smirk on me without missing a beat. “You’re saying I’m not intimidating?”

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

Raine laughed and nodded a silent apology to the Hoptons, raising her hands in surrender before taking a long sip from her tea. Twil huffed, putting up with the implied insult for now.

But Amanda and Christine were both staring at me in muted awe.

I looked away, seeking Raine’s hand under the table. I tightened my clutch of tentacles around the chair I was sitting in, gripping tighter and tighter. Maybe if I gripped hard enough, I might splinter the wood.

“As I was saying,” Michael Hopton resumed, making a show of peering through the glasses again. “Even old Clive, rest his soul, couldn’t have made something like these glasses, Miss Saye. Even with all the contacts he had, all the things he did achieve, the second sight was beyond him. Beyond any of us.” He lowered the glasses and nodded respectfully across the dining room table, at Evelyn — though he couldn’t resist a little flicker at me too, like a tiny petition to some aloof idol in the corner of the room. “I am very glad that we are not in conflict with each other any longer.”

Evelyn stared back, half-squinting, curled in her chair as if her back hurt more than usual. At any other time, I would have read her attitude as hostility, but we all knew how exhausted she felt. She let the implied question hang in the air.

“Mm,” she grunted eventually, then looked at Amanda. “I know you have pneuma-somatic sight. How is that beyond you?”

“So does the hound,” Zheng rumbled from behind us, from her more comfortable seat on the sofa, sprawled out like a tiger at rest. She was still chewing her way through the dried rabbit meat that Gareth had found in the fridge. She raised one hand and pointed at Amanda’s dog.

Bernard looked up at the sound of Zheng’s voice, panting at her with approval. I’d never known an animal to approve of her before. He was sitting very calm and comfortable on the little rug by the back door — right next to Marmite, who he’d apparently decided was a member of his pack now. Of the dog and the huge squid-spider thing, Marmite was the one who looked slightly unsure, still half-wrapped in his shadowy membranes. Bernard was perfectly happy, panting softly with his tongue out, watching us humans — and other-than-humans — talk ourselves out.

At least the dog wasn’t looking at me like I’d descended from the heavens.

“Huh, yes,” Evelyn added. “Thank you for that information, Zheng. A dog seeing spirits. I can only imagine how that works out.”

“Very well, actually,” Amanda answered, voice floating away as she spoke. “He’s kept my boys safe.”

“Good boy,” Praem said to Bernard, from where she stood at Evelyn’s elbow. Bernard looked up at her and tilted his head sideways, ears flopping about.

“Yes, but how?” Evelyn grunted, wincing harder as if fighting off a sudden spike of headache. “Rather contradicts all this praise for my magic eye glasses if you can just … ” She waved a hand vaguely, gesturing at her own head.

Michael shared an awkward look with Amanda, turning the glasses over in his hands. “Being god-touched is not enough to grant the sight,” he said.

“Yes,” Christine spoke up. She was sitting very straight-backed and formal in her own chair, trying to appear calm and in control. She’d spoken very little compared with her sister and her husband, more shaken by these events than I’d suspected at first. And constantly distracted by me, of course. “My sister’s position is special, it … she … went through a very different experience, in her communion with our god. Please understand, this is not a normal thing for us. We do not all see beyond the veil. We are not gifted, not as … ”

Christine met my eyes. She tried a smile, a warm, welcoming smile, but the sweetness was soured by worship.

“It’s not a gift,” I said. I tried to sound normal, but I couldn’t keep the disgust out of my tone.

“Of course,” she hurried to add. “Of course, my dear, I apologise.”

“There’s no need to say sorry,” I added, feeling horribly awkward.

Evelyn just stared at that exchange, exhausted down to her bones. “Still doesn’t explain the dog,” she grumbled.

“I asked for a dog,” Amanda said. “I prayed and pleaded. A dog, to see with me. When I was little. Hringewindla has always honoured the request. Bernard is the most recent of my friends to have the sight. There were others before him, all passed away in their own time.”

“Awww,” Nicole said from her place on the other sofa. “You know, that’s almost enough to make me forgive you for threatening to hollow my skull out.”

Amanda nodded to the detective, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to say.

A dull pang of jealousy gnawed at the roots of my heart. If only I’d had a dog as a companion all these years, a spirit-seeing canine friend who could understand.

“Hringewindla has never extended that favour,” Michael explained. He reached across the table to return the glasses. Raine accepted them in Evelyn’s stead. “Those glasses are a miracle, I mean it, really. Having something like that, even one or two pairs of them, it would seriously improve our safety and security.” He swallowed. “The security of the church, I mean. The safety of my family.”

Christine sighed and closed her eyes briefly. “Mike, you can be so indirect sometimes.”

“Yeah dad,” Twil tutted. “These are my friends, not like, a fuckin’ weirdo mage or something.”

Christine sighed again, sharper. “Twil, please. Stop with the foul language. Not in this house.”

“Thank you for the inclusion,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Weirdoes,” said Praem.

Michael Hopton huffed and looked away, exactly like Twil would do when challenged like this. It was a bit different coming from a man built like a compact lumberjack, with a face like a granite outcrop, radiating physical readiness. But he and his daughter shared the same total inability to conceal their emotions. He was terribly embarrassed by all this.

“I’m trying to be polite here,” he said to the mug at his elbow. “These people have just saved us.”

Heather saved you,” Evelyn hissed. “As I have already explained.”

“Yeah, and Big H is the big ace, yo,” Twil said with a grin. I ducked my head and looked away, struggling to deal with Twil’s effusive gratitude, on top of the way her family looked at me. “And Evelyn is a big softie, and Raine’s … fuckin’ … Raine, you know?”

“Fuckin’ Heather, actually,” Raine corrected, totally unembarrassed. Evelyn sighed, I blushed and hissed under my breath, Raine cracked a shit-eating grin.

“Language, dear, please,” said Twil’s mother, tone turned hopeless.

“My point is,” Twil went on, “if we want copies of the glasses, we can just ask. Evee, hey, can you make more of those glasses?”

“In theory.”

“Caaaaaan we have some?”

Evelyn turned a look on Twil, more plain tired than grumpy. Twil pulled a ‘obviously-I-am-asking-a-rhetorical-question’ face. Evelyn sighed and turned back to Michael, Christine, and Amanda, the current ruling triumvirate of the Church of Hringewindla.

For just a moment, instead of keeping their attention on the grumpy mage in their midst, all three glanced at me. As if I was the power behind the throne.

I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to put my squid-skull mask on and hiss at them to leave me alone.

The awestruck behaviour had started earlier, when we’d sat down and explained everything that had just happened, matching our experiences and putting all the pieces together.

We’d had ‘official’ meetings with the Church twice before — once when Christine Hopton had visited Evelyn’s house in Sharrowford, to offer Hringewindla’s ‘help’ with the gateway spell, then a second time when they’d joined the fraught and dangerous détente between us and Edward Lilburne, though that second time had not included either tea or biscuits. But this time was different, we’d just been through an ordeal together — for a certain value of ‘together’ — and had come out the other side with a very different perception of who these people were and what exactly they worshipped.

And they’d come out of it with a completely different perception of me as well.

Geerswin Farmhouse was entirely back to normal. On the inside, the walls stood sensibly upright, the doors led to where one expected them to go, and the view through the back patio windows was of dying sunlight, overgrown fields, and the shadow-haunted forest. Wind dragged through the trees outdoors, sounding the leaves in a slow, all-pervasive rustle. The long shadows crept across the farm, past the sheep and the pair of alpacas huddled outside, and over the roof of the house, covering the dozens of bubble-servitors keeping watch up there, in case Edward Lilburne should decide to make a move. But it was a natural darkness, long welcome after the cartoonish fears of Hringewindla’s nightmare.

It was hard to believe that giant shell lay buried underground, only a short walk away. As we all talked, I kept staring out of the window, thinking about that pressurised bubble of Outside, here on Earth.

Some things that sleep in English soil should never be disturbed.

At first, Christine and Amanda had done their best to show real hospitality, helped by Gareth and ‘helped’ by the boys once Zheng had put them down. We had cups of tea all round, plenty of snacks, and an offer of painkillers for Evelyn.

“Thank you, but I have my own,” Evelyn had grumbled. She had accepted a glass of water to wash down the pills she’d produced from inside a coat pocket.

“Mind if I have one?” Nicole had asked from the sofa.

“Mm. Sure. Praem?”

Praem had to take a pill to the detective, because Evelyn didn’t want to stand up again. I wasn’t sure if she could stand up right then.

Evee really was faring the worst of any of us. At first I wasn’t sure how much of it was the after-effect of the Slip, and how much was the price of her magic. The crackling, electric blue shield she’d created earlier, down there in Hringewindla’s guts, was by far the most pyrotechnically impressive piece of magecraft I’d ever seen from her. Real, physical, tangible magic, with a twist of her hands. And she’d done it to protect us — to protect me. I told her so, as we’d gotten settled in waiting for the kettle to boil.

“I thought you said magic was never fireballs and broomsticks. Evee, that was incredible,” I’d murmured to her, squeezing her hand beneath the table.

“It was stupid and costly,” she’d grunted back, then coughed more crimson into a borrowed handkerchief. Praem picked up her glass of water and put it down six inches closer. Evelyn obeyed, taking a sip to wash away the taste of her own blood.

But where Nicole and I slowly recovered from Lozzie’s overenthusiastic slip, Evelyn did not. As we and the Hoptons talked, she hunched in her chair like a gargoyle, dark-eyed and clutching her walking stick. I stayed close. At one point I even wrapped a tentacle around her wrist, which unfortunately made her flinch. She couldn’t see that part of me without the glasses.

But after the flinch, she hung on tight.

Her bone-wand lay on the table before her throughout the entire conversation, like a loaded rifle. I wasn’t sure what that meant; I even toyed with the idea of asking her to put it away, as a show of good faith. But then the Hoptons started looking at me like I was an Outsider god, and I was thankful for the shelter of an implicit threat.

The rest of us weren’t doing too badly. Nicole sat on the other sofa, first nursing a mug of tea, then a glass of beer. It wasn’t as if she was going to operate a vehicle any time soon. Somebody would have to go with her to recover her car, but not today, not after all this. She was still lucid and speaking clearly, her parasite very much dead, but she looked shell-shocked and exhausted and said very little. She looked how I felt.

Zheng had put the boys down, much to their pouting disappointment. She had also consented to have several towels spread out on the sofa so she didn’t smear the cushions with blood.

“Llama,” she said when I asked, grinning with satisfaction.

“They’re alpacas,” I sighed. “And I don’t think you actually killed one. It was a nightmare-thing, a piece of living fiction, a ghost, sort of.”

She chuckled, placed one huge hand on my head, and purred so deep it made my entrails vibrate. “Ghosts don’t bleed.”

The Hoptons looked far more shaken, but none of them were actually hurt. Twil’s father turned up about half an hour after we’d returned, racing home after his wife had called him. Their home had been invaded, their god violated, their physical safety threatened, and they were powerless to do anything about it themselves, except wave useless shotguns around and hope the bubble-servitors would help.

Benjamin was relieved of said shotgun by Twil’s father, gently but firmly. Once it was clear the threat was past, Ben sulked off home himself. I gathered he had a life of his own, things to do, places to be, despite his dutiful bodyguard work. Gareth, Amanda’s gentleman friend, seemed eager to get out from under our feet, or perhaps just happy to get away from Zheng. He excused himself by saying he needed to go upstairs and change his blood-stained trousers, then spent most of his time shepherding the boys out of the dining room and pottering about in the kitchen. I got the impression he was on the periphery of the cult, not privy to the inner workings of the leadership, even if he was sleeping with one of them.

In fact, Michael, Christine, and Amanda all seemed to engage in a wordless agreement not to begin discussing any serious details until the two boys were upstairs, Benjamin was off in his car, and Gareth was firmly out of the room. But then came some awkward deliberation over Twil’s presence.

“She’s an adult now, Chris,” her father had said. “She’s our daughter, and she’s involved. She’s got a right to be involved.”

“She is not part of the decision making process.” Christine had huffed. “Michael, you know this, you know the rules.”

“We make the rules!”

“Yes, and they exclude her.”

“Mum!” Twil had whined. “For fuck’s sake!”


“Hringewindla doesn’t have an opinion on this,” Amanda added from one side. The other two ignored her.

“She’s my daughter, and she’s staying,” Michael crossed his arms, trying to look stern, but the man almost flinched under the grey wrath of his wife’s piercing stare.

“Either we stick to the rules, or we—”

But Evelyn had cleared her throat and banged her tea mug on the table. The Hoptons all looked at her instead, though Amanda had spared a glance for my twitching tentacles. She could still see them.

“Twil is with me,” Evelyn grumbled. “If she has to leave the room, then I go too, and everyone else comes with me.” Her exhausted stare dared any to argue.

Twil stayed, but didn’t say much, looking intensely awkward.

Lozzie and Sevens did not stay, however. As soon as it was clear we weren’t going to light up or play video games, Lozzie vanished — literally, just vanished when nobody was looking. I was worried for about ten minutes, until she reappeared on the sofa and started gushing to Nicole about how cute her dog was.

“Husky! Husky husky! Hucky! Hucksie!”

“Not a husky, actually,” Nicole had said, still squinting over a mug of tea. “He’s some kind of cross. Husky, German Shepherd, something. He was a stray.”


“And he’s—”

“Watered and fed and given many pets please please Nicky please can I go see him again? I won’t even call you a pig, please?!”

“Sure. Fine. Knock yourself out, you little goblin.”

But Lozzie did not zoom through time and space to go spend the rest of the evening with Nicole’s dog, partly because I requested she stay close after that. None of us wanted to risk Edward Lilburne making a move amid all this. We were exhausted as it was. But Lozzie wasn’t sticking around to listen to all this serious talk. She declared she hadn’t been here for any of this, had little to add, and went to find Amanda’s boys to see if they wanted anything. The Hoptons watched her go, somewhat awkward and unreadable. I didn’t understand why they looked at her as if she was on another plane of existence. To them, she was just some random teenage girl, wasn’t she? Just another friend of Evelyn and Twil.

We called home before we got down to business. Raine called Kimberly, to check that the house had not burned down and nobody had started doing anything more dangerous than cannabis. I had half a mind to speak with Kimberly myself, to request a word with Jan, and to put Tenny on so I could hear the comfort of her familiar, trilling voice. But I was so exhausted by this long day that I just sat there with Evelyn, and let Raine handle the details.

Seven-Shades-of-Proper-and-Prim followed Lozzie upstairs as well, but she stayed in the dining room long enough to confirm her earlier assessment — the parasites were all dead.

“That’s why you were vomiting so badly, little puppy,” she said to Twil.

“Puppy?” Twil spat. “Hey! And you still haven’t explained this ‘parasite’ thing.”

“I still don’t understand where they all went,” Nicole said.

I cleared my throat. “I think I can explain that, but only because I’ve watched too many marine life videos on youtube. Certain parasites secrete anti-competition chemicals or hormones, to kill smaller members of their own species that might compete for hosts or resources. I think the big one inside Hringewindla killed off all the others, when it got too big. Just a natural consequence.”

“I’m sorry,” Michael said. “Big one, inside Hringewindla? I am going to need a serious explanation, please.”

“I already told you,” Amanda said. “I told you all.”

Michael and Christine both suppressed pained winces. Clearly, Amanda was not very good at relating direct communication from their god.

We all shared what had happened to us, right back to the moment Hringewindla’s nightmare had begun to isolate us from one another, leaving us to wander inside the suddenly expanding labyrinth of the farmhouse. We even drew up a basic timeline of events so we were all on the same page. Michael Hopton handled that, playing secretary for the rest of us with a pad and pencil, as the only one who hadn’t been here in person.

Everyone except me had experienced a true maze, doors opening on hallways and rooms that shouldn’t exist, blood-grinning mutant sheep peering in through the windows.

“When I dropped down out of the window,” Raine explained, “you were just gone, Heather. I took my eyes off you for a second. Scared the hell out of me.”

“Me too,” I admitted.

“Eyes, yes,” Evelyn muttered, thinking out loud. “Heather saw what others didn’t. She was the only one it didn’t work on. She saw through it.”

“But why would that be?” Christine asked. “You’ve mentioned that Heather here has … unique powers, yes. But Hringewindla, he is a god. How could any mortal have avoided his thoughts?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

What nobody understood was how Zheng had broken the rules of the maze; other than people bumping into me — Raine, Amanda, and Nicole — she was the only one who had apparently been able to gather others to her. Bernard the dog, then the boys, then Gareth, like she was a magnet for protection in the false darkness.

“Maybe it’s because she kicked one of the fake alpacas to pieces?” Raine suggested.

“You didn’t burst through a wall, did you?” Evelyn asked.

“Oh yeah,” Praem deadpanned. Evelyn frowned up at her.

Zheng rumbled from the sofa. “No gods and no masters can keep me bound,” she said. “The shaman’s blessing frees me forever. Even from your worm-filth.” She directed those last few words at the Hoptons.

Christine bristled, but Amanda reached out and placed a hand on her sister’s arm.

“Zheng,” Amanda said. “Thank you. Again, thank you, for looking after my boys. I think they have become fond of you.”

“Shut up, worm,” Zheng rumbled. Amanda quivered. “It was not for you.”

Things became more complicated when we tried to explain how I had escaped, let alone the nature of the parasites, how we had removed them, and why I was immune. At first the Hoptons asked a lot of questions about every assumption we made, but all three of them grew quieter and quieter as Evelyn and I explained what details we thought were safe to share.

I made a silent and private executive decision not to explain Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. As far as the human members of the Church were concerned, she was just another magically inclined friend of Evelyn Saye, the local mage of note.

I was too emotionally exhausted to realise the impact of my own actions. There were too many things to address, too many things to think about — the fallout of the duel between Raine and Zheng, the nature of Sevens’ terrifying and beautiful new form, the words Evelyn had spoken down inside Hringewindla’s shell, not to even mention the possible involvement of Edward Lilburne in all this. But I was wiped out, everyone was wiped out. All I wanted to do was stop thinking for a week.

So we just told them. We told them that we went to talk to their god and journeyed into his shell. We told them that I woke him up by force, spoke to him inside my own mind, and cast him out when I was done.

The nightmare had indeed broken as soon as we’d woken up Hringewindla. According to everyone we’d left behind in the house, the transition had been a sensory kaleidoscope of collapsing walls and melting doors, the nightmare sloughing off like shed snakeskin, depositing them back into the heady and raw textures of the real. They hadn’t known what to make of it at the time, though Raine and Twil had deduced it quickly enough when they’d realised who was missing.

That was when the awe started.

Christine, Michael, and even Amanda, they all started to look at me with shell shocked reverence, with the kind of eyes that Badger had turned on me after he’d seen me defeat Ooran Juh.

I was worried they would look upon me as a profane interruption, as an outsider who had insulted and bullied their god. Though the very idea that I could ‘bully’ a god was rather worrying in the first place.

But what happened was far worse. They stopped asking questions. Michael and Christine kept looking at Amanda, as if for confirmation of what I was telling them. She nodded, floaty and numb, as Hringewindla’s distant communication matched up with my own.

“All I did was speak with him,” I said, struggling to look them in the eyes as they watched me. “It wasn’t difficult. Well, okay, no, that’s a lie, it was difficult, but it wasn’t … a … ” I sighed and looked away. “He’s just an Outsider.”

“He spoke to you, directly?” Christine asked me. Her voice quivered. “And then … you made him leave?”

“Yes. Sort of. Lozzie encouraged him to leave.”

None of them knew what to say.

“The little one is a marvel of creation,” Amanda said after a moment, voice a heavy mumble. Christine and Michael both turned to look at her, half-alarmed. Evelyn perked up too, frowning hard.

But Hringewindla had nothing more to say.

Little one? That was the same way Sevens always referred to Lozzie. Was Hringewindla talking about her, or about me?

From then onward, they did not look at me as a human being again. I couldn’t stand it.

“You did … de-worm him,” Christine said, clearing her throat delicately. “And without that, we would all have been trapped. You have rendered an invaluable service to us, and to Hringewindla. You took his blessing and then … left it. For this, I thank you.”

She bowed her head. Her husband did the same. I shrugged, feeling deeply awkward, hands around my mug of tea.

“The shaman dispenses her own blessings,” Zheng rumbled.

“Heeeeey,” Raine added. “That’s that. Heather does that by herself. No need for a higher power.”

Michael snorted. Christine frowned at him sidelong. Amanda nodded, the only one who understood how Hringewindla himself really felt — or so I assumed. The bubble-servitor on her shoulder seemed to agree, bobbing up and down.

In a misguided effort to re-normalise myself in their eyes, I told them about Hringewindla’s gift. The soapstone coin was still in my pocket, weighing as heavy as a fragment of neutron star. But I was completely wrong, this was not the right move. I passed it across the table and Michael accepted it with both hands, like it was the relic of a saint. He bowed his head and couldn’t look me in the eyes.

There was much ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the coin as they passed it from hand to hand.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “You do understand that object might be dangerous, yes?”

“How could it be of danger?” Michael said in a hushed voice, holding the coin up to the light so he could inspect the strange five-dot design on the top — or was it the underside? “Hringewindla gave it to … human … hands … ”

He trailed off, flicking a worried glance in my direction.

Zheng snorted. “The shaman is no monkey. What burns your hands may not burn hers.”

“Ah,” he said, blinking in frozen alarm, like he was holding a piece of radioactive meteorite. “Yes, um.”

“Yeah, Heather is protected against a lotta crap,” Raine said. She nodded at the soapstone coin. “Let us know if your skin peels off in a couple of days, yeah?”

Michael shared a sudden and worried glance with his wife.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said.

“I’m joking!” Raine laughed.

“It is only stone,” Amanda said. That seemed to settle the worries.

“But still, from his hand directly … ”

When Michael passed it back to me, he averted his eyes from my gaze. He handed me the stone like he was making an offering to a dangerous god at some dark and forgotten shrine.

I decided to ignore it as best I could. I didn’t want to start a fresh argument with the Church, with Twil’s family, not when we’d finally reached some kind of understanding at last. Even Evelyn was being diplomatic.

But after Evelyn shared the modified 3D glasses, Michael and Christine both stared at my tentacles like I was a hidden revelation. And then after they handed the glasses back and made their request, they looked at me for the answer, not at Evelyn.

I snapped.

“Stop it!” I blurted out. I think Evelyn had been about to answer them seriously, because she half flinched and frowned at me as I scraped my chair back and stood up. My cheeks were burning and my tentacles flared out, I couldn’t stop it happening, couldn’t stop the hiss clawing up my throat.

“Heather?” Raine said my name.

“Whoa, whoa, what, what?” Twil was up on her feet too, panicking at my sudden anger. Bernard let out a soft ‘wuff’, which made Marmite flinch. Praem tried to place a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged her off.

“Stop looking at me like that!” I snapped at Hringewindla’s cultists. All three of them stared at me, suddenly ashamed and shocked, but more awed than put off. “I am not like your god. It was just an old man in my head! He’s in all of yours, isn’t he? Isn’t he?!”

Shocked silence. A gentle hand took my wrist. This time I allowed it. Raine, holding me softly.

The Hoptons all looked at each other. Amanda just bit her lip and shook her head. Michael and Christine looked exactly like shepherds being shouted at by a biblically accurate angel, afraid to express their fear. Twil groaned and put her face in both hands. I think she swore under her breath.

“It was just an old man in my head … ”

“It’s not like that for us,” Michael said, averting his eyes from mine. “You spoke with him. As an equal. You’re a … ”

“I am a twenty year old university student with tentacles,” I said, trying very hard to keep my voice steady. My cheeks burned and a hiccup forced itself up my throat. “I am not an Outsider god. Stop looking at me like that.”

“You rejected him,” Christine said, shaking her head, as if this explained anything. “You … you’re … how can we … you’re on his scale, his … ”

“Heeeeey,” Raine said, trying to lighten the moment with her tone. She pointed a jokey finger gun at the Hoptons. “Stop looking at my girl like that, yeah? She says stop, so stop. I’m the only one allowed to ogle her, alright?”

Zheng purred from the sofa. “How can they help themselves, little wolf? They are right. The shaman is more than flesh.”

“Great,” Twil grunted through clenched teeth. “Just what I fuckin’ need.”

“Reformation,” said Praem.

“She’s just a kid … ” Nicole added, but her tone gave away that she didn’t really believe. She’d already been awed by what I was and what I could do.

I started to turn away from the table, peeling my tentacles off the chair, itching to go upstairs and find Lozzie. I did not want to be looked at like this. I was a thing of the abyss, a creature of the oceanic darkness between the spheres, but I was not a god, not a thing to be worshipped. I sniffed and hid my face, pulling Raine with me.

“Wait,” Evelyn grunted. “Wait a second.”

“We’re so sorry,” Christine hurried to say. “Try— try to see this from our perspective. I’m so sorry we’ve caused offense, but nothing like this has ever happened before. We don’t—”

“Shut up,” Evelyn said. “Listen. Seeing as we have met your god, I would like to propose a formal cessation to any hostility between us. Any suspicions. We’re allied against the same man, the same one responsible for all of this. I would like to make this explicit, before you lot go off and have a religious crisis — without Heather here, thank you very much.”

Evee, oh Evee. My heart hurt.

“Of course,” Michael said, pulling himself up. “But this Lilburne man, we still don’t know where he is. Was this a move against us?”

Evelyn shrugged. “I don’t think so. I think it was an accident. But I also think we now know where he is.”

I turned back, as surprised as everybody else. “Evee?”

A thin, deeply satisfied smile creased Evelyn’s exhausted face. She gestured at Nicole. “Why did the parasite scramble Nicole’s short-term memory? Any takers?”

Nicole sighed. “Because I must have subconsciously figured out where Edward Lilburne’s house is, right. We’ve been over this. I don’t remember anything. It’s like I had the worst drunken night possible, but without the fun part.”

“You may not remember, but your feet do.”


Twil lit up first, getting it before anybody else. “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.”

“Twil,” her mother tutted.

“Why did Nicole end up here?” Evelyn asked. I heard that familiar old tone in her voice, the aloof professor, waiting for a slow class to catch up. “Why did she walk all the way here while under the influence of the parasite?”

“What are you saying, I figured out where the house is, and went to it, on foot?”

“Exactly, detective.” Evelyn nodded to herself. “It’s just a theory, but I think the parasite didn’t walk you here. You walked here. You figured out where Edward Lilburne’s house is and set off to find it, which triggered the parasite to begin gestating. By the time you reached it on foot, the parasite was fully grown, to knock you off course and make you forget.”

“Then why’d I end up here?” she asked.

“You’re a professional detective. You’re also a very special kind of paranoid idiot. I should know, because I’m one too. You’re telling us that you never looked into any of us, after our difficult first meeting, months ago?”

“Ah.” Nicole cringed. “I mean, yeah, I did. Just to … you know, confirm you weren’t all using fake names or something.”

“And you looked up Twil’s address.”

Nicole cleared her throat and scratched the back of her head. “So what, it was lodged in my subconscious?”

“Yes. With the parasite scrambling your mind and your ability to walk, you made for the nearest place you knew you could somehow get into contact with us. So, sometime between the moment you stepped out of that graveyard in Manchester, and when you stepped out of the woods and onto this farm, you found Edward Lilburne’s safe house, somewhere between there and here. Or close enough. Which means we know where it is, we know where he’s hiding, because it has to be somewhere you could have reached, on foot, within the window of time you went missing.”

“That’s our Evee,” Raine said into the stunned silence. “Got a theory for everything.”

“Theory of everything,” said Praem.

Evelyn’s smile got thinner and darker. She was so very pleased with her hypothesis.

“I hope you’re right,” Nicole said, sounding very sceptical. “What do we need to figure this out then, a map?”

“Of course it’s right,” Evelyn grunted.

But she didn’t look at Nicole for approval. She allowed her eyes to creep and flitter upward, searching for my face. She was so tired, so drained, lips still stained with a little of her own blood.

Evelyn looked at me with more love and worship than a legion of cultists. And nobody else could see that.

“Good idea,” I managed to say, staring back at her in surprise. “Good idea, Evee. I … I think you might be right.”

She nodded and looked away again. “Of course I’m right. Now, let’s figure out how to hunt a mage.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather doesn’t want to be treated like a godling child, she’s not an Outsider, not like Sevens, or Lozzie, or all those mages who’ve slipped over the edge of their own humanity. Right? Right. Glad that’s settled. So stop looking at her like that. On the other hand, Evelyn must be using everything she’s got to stay this diplomatic and reasonable. And who knew that Zheng could be good with kids?

No Patreon link this week! It’s almost the end of the month and I never like the idea of Patreon charging readers twice in quick succession, so if you feel like subscribing, feel free to wait until the 2nd of the month! Instead, if you haven’t been over to the fan art page in a while, go take a look! There’s a few new pieces nestled in there, and even a short youtube video at the bottom of the page, which you might give you a giggle!

But, please, if you have a moment:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, like Evee says, it’s time to hunt the most dangerous game of all, an old and experienced mage, hiding in his lair. That is, if she’s right about her little theory. Though there’s a lot of other things going on right now too, and not of them about Heather.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.8

Content Warnings

Human sacrifice

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Alone in a cabin deep in the woods, far from the paved roads and familiar signposts of civilisation, in the dead of night beside a crackling fireplace, a pair of comfortable armchairs, and a butcher’s toolbox of knives displayed on a bare wooden wall. Some of the knives are chipped and scratched from years of use, from biting into bone or sawing through cartilage. Others are worn down to nubs of their former glory from decades of re-sharpening. But every blade is free of rust, clean and cared for, trophies of the hand that made the stroke and sliced the meat and severed the tendons.

Alone with a disabled old man, bent-backed and shrunken, skin dry and papery and yellowed like parchment, his hair and beard a scraggly mess, his legs braced by steel and plastic to support his crumbling bones, with crutches under his armpits to help him hobble about his reduced and narrow world, the inside of this single cabin.

Alone with an old man, clutching a well-used knife in his hand, asking why I didn’t want to be his friend.

It was like a scene from one of the horror movies that I refused to watch with Raine, not the silly, comfortable, over-the-top Hammer Horror style at all.

Except I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t experiencing any of that with my real senses. These images were merely my human imagination doing the best it could to frame and process the wordless conversation I was holding with Hringewindla. This was how my mind interpreted direct contact between me and an Outsider god.

My physical body, the ‘real’ me — whatever that meant anymore — was still standing inside the heart of his vast and ravaged shell, next to the shrivelled remains of his fleshy core, the gigantic snake-knot inside the purple membrane, and the three tentacles he had extended beyond that final barrier.

The kindly old man gripping the knife was actually a blob of Outsider flesh the size of a football stadium.

He was inside my head in a very literal sense — Hringewindla’s contact medium, a slug of black ooze, had slipped along the inside of one tentacle and crawled up my spine until I’d let it past my own final barrier. Now it lay across the physical fabric of my brain, soaked into my grey matter like a film of oily slime, sluicing between my neurons. It should have felt disgusting enough to make me retch and scream; on the edge of my awareness, abyssal instinct twitched and flexed with a desire to scratch at my scalp, bore a hole in my own skull, and remove this infestation. But Hringewindla had quieted that disgust, wrapped me in warm comfort and reassurance, and made having a brain-slug seem almost normal.

Alone with an Outsider, in my head.

Except I wasn’t alone, not really. I was never alone anymore, not unless I chose to be.

Evelyn must have seen the flare of panic behind my eyes, the sudden alarm when Hringewindla turned to me with that metaphorical knife in one hand. He wasn’t the only one holding a weapon. Evee brought her bone-wand up in both hands again, contorting her fingers across the surface of scrimshawed magical symbols. She stumbled, mishandling her own walking stick, but Praem was there to catch her and hold her tight.

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed between gritted teeth, eyes blazing. “He doesn’t know how to leave? Then I will make it very clear to him. You hear me in there? Do you?”

I knew very well she wasn’t talking to me.

“Ah,” said Sevens, with a wet click of her lips.

Marmite tightened his grip around my left thigh, like a hound trying to stay close to his master.

“Hey, what?” Nicole said, suddenly alarmed again. She turned away from the sight of Hringewindla’s removed and dead parasite, lying far off to one side like a slowly blackening mountain range of grey flesh and cracked carapace. It lay beneath deep drifts of bubble-servitors still cooking the thing to make sure it was inert. The sound of sizzling meat still filled the air. “What’s the panic? What’s going on now?”

“Our new friend has overstayed his welcome,” said Sevens. “Which is a pity, because he deserves the company.”

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed my name again. I swear she moved like she was going to bonk me on the head with her bone-wand.

“Wait, wait, please, wait!” I snapped at everybody, putting my hands and several of my tentacles up to get them to stop talking at me for a second. “I can’t concentrate on two things at once. Let me talk with him, please.”

Evelyn looked at me like I didn’t know my own mind, like I was suggesting I should go walking alone in an abandoned and semi-flooded mineshaft. She looked ready to knock me out and solve this herself, probably with far more violence.

“Evee, I’m going to be fine,” I blurted out. “If the worst comes to the worst, I can always—”

“Everybody grab a tentacle,” Evelyn spoke over me, then glanced at Nicole. “Mostly you, detective.”

“W-what?” I blinked in confusion.

“In case of emergency,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth. She nodded sideways at the trio of giant white tentacles far up in the air above our heads, still dripping with vile fluids from Hringewindla’s dead parasite.

It took me a moment to catch on.

What Evelyn meant is that I might have to Slip us out, and quickly.

The old man inside my mind tilted his head to one side. He didn’t understand that at all. He didn’t understand how I could leave.

“O-oh!” I said out loud, for the others. “Um, go ahead, yes, uh, feel free, tentacles for everyone, I suppose … ”

We then commenced what had to be one of the most awkward group hugs in all history, still plagued by that toxic purple light making every exposed inch of skin itch. I wrapped a single tentacle around Evelyn and Praem combined. Evee helped by pinning it under one armpit, like I was securing her into the seat of a roller coaster. Nicole grimaced and politely allowed me to coil a tentacle around her arm, a firm handshake to anchor her if I had to leave in a hurry. Sevens shrugged minutely and said something about being fine on her own, but she graciously accepted the tip of one tentacle in her free hand, like a dancing partner. Marmite already had a very firm grip around my thigh.

“Well?” Evelyn said. “Speak to him, then.”

“I think he’s just confused, just doesn’t understand. He’s never left somebody’s head before, he doesn’t have the concept … ”

What need for confusion? We’re friends now, we’re getting to know each other, and I can tell you’ve got so many interesting and fascinating stories to share. You’ve been to all sorts of places and met all sorts of strange people, people I could never even imagine. The others, my other friends, they’re all very interesting and sweet and Amanda is very affectionate, but I would also like to hear your stories. Stay by the fire? Why do you need to go back out into the dark?

The old man still held the knife, staring at me with eyes sunken in great masses of wrinkled flesh and liver-spotted skin. He smiled and showed the stubs of his teeth.

“Those aren’t my thoughts,” I sighed out loud, staring up at the vast bulk of the real, physical Hringewindla, to keep myself grounded.

But they could be my thoughts, couldn’t they? They could be our thoughts. Like Amanda’s thoughts are my thoughts and your thoughts and—

“Stop, please,” I said out loud. “I’m not one of yours.”

Alone with an Outsider in my head? Even Evelyn didn’t really understand what that meant.

I’d been here before.

Inside the image that was both metaphor and reality, the dialogue of electrical impulse and pneuma-somatic mind-link, the cabin in the woods that was not real but also more real than my physical body, I unfurled my self-image.

Unlike physical reality, there were no boundaries, no limits, no pesky bone structure or blood vessels or nerve endings to worry about, no risk of massive haemorrhage or organ damage or strangling myself on my own umbilical cord. In here, I was unbounded.

I uncoiled six, then twelve, then two dozen tentacles, creating for myself a halo of barbed and venomous threat display. I blinked three sets of eyelids, layering species of vision than no human eyeball could receive, no human brain process. I plated my soft and vulnerable skin with bio-steel and chitinous carapace, flushed the gaps with toxins, and coloured myself with warning pigments in pink and red and yellow. I rammed my muscles full of excess fibres and anchored them beneath a growing exoskeleton. I sharpened my teeth to razor points and hollowed my tongue for a darting stinger and felt a tail sprout from the base of my spine as the vertebrae extended into spikes. Spines sprouted from my skin, the gaps between my fingers filled in with webbing, and my voice became an abyssal hiss from the darkest pit of my own childhood terrors.

Hringewindla’s little gutting knife shook like a leaf; I reached out with one tentacle and took it from him.

“I already told you,” I said in a voice not remotely human, “you’re inside my head on sufferance.”

The little old man ducked and cringed, fumbling his crutches as his knees quivered. He wiped grey parasite blood on his jumper with shaking hands. He hobbled away from me and all but collapsed into a chair, burying his face in his arms.

In reality, I breathed out a shuddering breath; I wasn’t sure if any of that was going to work until I’d taken the risk. After all, the real Hringewindla was very large, no matter how much scary-squid I could channel. He could have called my bluff.

But he really was a terrified old man.

Evelyn was looking at me with terrible alarm, eyes wide, lips tight. Nicole seemed a little worried too.

“Ah?” I croaked.

“I know you make strange noises sometimes,” Evelyn said, “but that was a little disconcerting, even for you.”

“Ah?” I blinked several times and cleared my throat — which felt like untying a knot. “Oh, um, did I say that part out loud?”

Nicole forced a very awkward laugh. “Less ‘say’ and more ‘gargle with acid’.”

Sevens nodded with gentle agreement, though I got the sense she somehow approved.

“Pretty voice,” said Praem.

I cleared my throat again, blushing and fussing with my hands at my neck, like I wanted to reach in and straighten out my vocal chords.

“Well?” Evelyn snapped.

“Uh … I’m pretty sure he’s absolutely terrified of me,” I said. “He genuinely doesn’t understand how to leave my head. I think I can do it myself though, but as soon as I do, we’ll lose the connection. No more communication. And he’s so … old.”

Nicole pointed at Hringewindla, the real Hringewindla, the giant tentacle monster cone-snail from Outside. “That, that is scared of you?”

“Sort of. Yes.”

She sighed and pulled a very odd smile. “Remind me to bring you along on my next dodgy job, I guess.”

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn said.

“Hey, hey.” Nicole put her hands up. The gesture pulled one of my tentacles with her. “It was a joke, yeah? A joke. I’m not gonna take a uni student on a stakeout. Even one of you lot.”

“ … right. Yes. Of course.” Evelyn cleared her throat and looked back to me. “Well, Heather? Get on with it so we can leave.”

“Um … ”

I’d made it sound too simple.

Back in the deep dark forest of the mind, I was staring down at that withered old man, huddled in an armchair that dwarfed his twisted body. I couldn’t hate him, or even be afraid of him, not really. He was barely even still here, just a scrap of memories and leathery old flesh, hanging on in this hole in the ground for a few more centuries. He was desperate for experience, for a life beyond this. He’d found it in the companionship of creatures so much smaller than himself. Who were we to tell him that was wrong? Nobody was being coerced here. Were they? I didn’t think they were.

In a distant and difficult way, he reminded me of Maisie.

So I told him about her.

Not with words, of course, but in a slew of emotions and images, human principles and human thoughts. I told this Outsider god about my twin sister. I told him all about how we’d grown up together, so very similar and alike, physically identical twins wearing each others’ faces. He looked up as I began to explain, the fear on his face replaced with a hungry look, ravenous for information and experience. But when I told him what had happened to us, his curiosity turned grey. His lower lip quivered. His hands clutched at the arms of his chair. I told him a little about Wonderland. He ducked his head and shivered, whimpering. I told him about the Eye and he mewled, please no.

I told him about the bad years of madness and pain, but then I also told him about Raine, and Evelyn, and the others, and how far I’d come, and what I was planning to do. He listened, nodding slowly, staring up at me with those glassy eyes filmed with cataracts.

And that’s why you don’t want to come with me. You don’t want to go to Wonderland, even inside my head.

You know what I am.

I wasn’t quite sure if that was my thought, or his, but his liver-spotted head bobbed up and down in his chair.

He was really trying — and not just because he was terrified of my razor-tipped tentacles and my maw full of sharp teeth. He was trying to absorb, to comprehend, to relate. But as he nodded his head and blinked those shrunken and rheumy eyes and smiled a papery little smile, I got the impression he didn’t really understand at all.

Hringewindla did not understand what a ‘twin’ was, or why I cared; I had a vague sense that to him we were as difficult to tell apart as a pair of ants. Can a human tell if two gnats are identical twins?

But he listened anyway, fascinated and deeply interested, trying to imagine what life was like for me. Even if he failed, the attempt was real.

When I finished, Hringewindla the old man opened his dry and thin-lipped mouth with a sound like dusty parchment, behind the tangle of thick grey beard.

And he told me a story too. A story of jumbled sense impressions and powerful, raw, unfiltered emotion.

Outsiders — true Outsiders, beings dredged from the deeps of the abyss to impose their self-hood upon the myriad worlds beyond Earth — do not experience memory or sensory processing in the same way as a human being. They don’t even experience those things in a consistent way to each other. But I had stretched my own sense of self so far beyond human baseline. Hringewindla’s stuttering, halting, rambling tale built his own perspective for me, from elements he did not understand. Any other human mind may have frayed under the strain, found it impossible to separate the sensory inputs into ones that we could actually process.

But I did. So he told me a story.


Half a mile up, through senses that had no human analogue, Hringewindla looked down on a gathering of his friends.

The inside of his shell was identical to how we had found it, but the human was different. There was no portaloo back then, no little petrol-driven generator, no modern camping supplies. The tents were a much older design as well, archaic two-peg style shelters from the blasting light of his presence.

One small scrap of thinking flesh stood forward from the gathering, past the line of red paint. They’d used red paint back then, too.

Amanda Hopton, nine years old, dressed in a scarlet robe, hands bound and eyes blindfolded, the kind of bloody-altar-and-ritual-chanting business that Evelyn had been so certain the cult must still practice. And they had, only a few decades earlier.

Hringewindla did not understand terms like ‘human sacrifice’.

Amanda Hopton, a tiny shivering figure, no older than I had been when the Eye had taken me and Maisie away from reality. Hringewindla had already soaked deep into the whorls and wrinkles of her brain; he knew her, he’d known her since she was six months old, he’d cradled her and rocked her to sleep and not understood any of it, except this weird mewling puppy needed to be held and encouraged to exist. But now her head was full of enforced devotion, the religious fervour of other friends that he didn’t understand either, a feedback loop of the darkest corner of human culture dumping toxic waste back into this Outsider god. Our toxicity. Our madness. Not his.

Hringewindla’s memories didn’t identify the other members of the cult there that day, not as individuals. But I could.

I spotted Christine Hopton, another little girl only a few years older than her doomed sister, hiding her eyes in a woman’s skirts, a woman holding a third baby in her arms and trying not to weep.

Two figures led a rising chant by the stone altar in the ancient church, a man and a woman, both of them old and sinewy, stripped half-naked, painted with symbols in black tar on their flesh. Others joined them in praise for their god, urging him to accept their offering of new flesh for his ravaged form.

The family resemblance was unmistakable, but I didn’t need to rely on human facial recognition. I could dip in to Hringewindla’s memories with senses I did not possess, I could read their pheromones, their bodily history, their DNA.

The man and the woman, screaming and chanting, were Twil’s great-grandparents.

But then everything had changed, very quickly. Several of Hringewindla’s friends had gone away. The noise had spiked, then stopped. The urging to eat eat eat had faded.

The images he fed me made no sense to him. He held them out to me like photographs of a strange dance from a foreign culture he’d only ever seen in badly explained television documentaries.

A man with a very old rifle in his hands, who looked like he knew how to use it.

A striking family resemblance to Twil, in the face and the compact frame, but mostly the sheer physical confidence.

An argument — the man with the gun on one side, the half-naked great-grandparents on the other, going red in the face with rage at his interruption. Everyone gesticulating at the tiny, shivering child, Amanda Hopton, past the red line and waiting for the final communion with their god.

I watched Hringewindla’s memories as he showed me Twil’s grandfather shoot his own parents.

There were six corpses that day. The old heads of the cult. Patricide, matricide. Nobody else had guns. The cult, cowed.

There would be no more human sacrifices.

The man with the rifle stepped over the red line too and scooped up little Amanda in one arm. A new prayer blossomed in Hringewindla’s mind.

Hringewindla lowered the photographs and stared at them again, lost in memories he didn’t understand. He didn’t know why several friends had gone away, or what ‘murder’ was, or why a parent might slaughter the most repulsive elements of their own community to save their child’s life. All he knew is that Amanda touched his outstretched tentacle with a little hand and he wouldn’t be fed any more thinking flesh.

He knew this was important. That’s why he told me. But he had no idea why.


“Heather?” Evelyn hissed.

Out in reality, only a moment or two had passed.

“Ah … ”

“Heather, you’re crying. What is happening in there?”

“Crying, yes, I know,” I said, sniffing back tears and scrubbing my eyes on the back of my already bloody sleeve, smearing the earlier blood-tears around even worse than before. I was already a mess, more didn’t matter right now. “I’m learning just how much Hringewindla doesn’t understand, that’s all. It’s … well, he’s telling me a story.”

“Stories can be lies,” Evelyn said gently.

“Not from one so old, I think,” said Sevens. She was gazing up at the real Hringewindla, her face lit by that purple light, shifting like oil on water. Evelyn kept scratching her own scalp and hands, but Sevens seemed largely immune to the irritating quality of the light.

“He doesn’t understand anything,” I said. “About us, I mean. He’s … oh, um.”

Hringewindla’s confusion was not over.

Inside my imagination, the extended and slightly tortured metaphor of the old disabled man did the equivalent of reaching beneath his chair and pulling out a photo album. He opened the cover and held the album up to me with shaking hands, asking a question that my mind could not even process into human terms, a question so wordless and ultimate that I felt a pang of sympathy deep in my chest.

Twil, it was all Twil.

Being born, growing up, seen from the eyes of every single person in her family, a scrap of thinking flesh that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t know. He knew her because he knew all her family. He knew all these people who loved her, everyone in her life. She was wrapped at the core of so much care. But he didn’t know her.

Why? I managed to form the question, as best I could.

He’d tried to, once, a long time ago. But the man with the gun — Twil’s grandfather, I realised, old and grey in this memory, leathery and sinewy with age and determination — had done something to her, made her poisonous to him. He recoiled from a memory of snapping canine jaws and sharp, raking claws, hiding within her like a secret second self ready to tear his connection to shreds.

But who is she? He asked me the question and my answer was not enough.

“That’s Twil,” I said out loud. “It’s just Twil.”

“Heather, what?” Evelyn said.

“Sorry, I … he … he doesn’t know who Twil is.”

Evelyn gave me a scrunched frown. “What? Don’t talk nonsense, she’s … oh. Oh.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Then I was right.”

“About her grandfather’s motivations, yes.” I sniffed hard, but tears were running down my cheeks.

Twil did not become a werewolf as a teenager. The seeds were planted when she was barely an infant, against her parents’ consent, to keep the god out of her head. She wasn’t a footsoldier at all. She was an experiment in freedom.

I did the one thing I’d been resisting this whole time, assured at last that it was not a trap. I walked over to the crackling fireplace and sat down in the other armchair, opposite the metaphor of Hringewindla.

That wasn’t even his real name, just a description of him in Old English, the best that some intrepid fool had managed to choke out upon first discovering him down here. His real name wasn’t a word, obviously. Trying to speak it with a human mouth would have caused terrible pain, and probably hurt the ears to hear it said aloud. But it meant something like ‘spiralled explorer’. He’d chosen it himself, a long time ago.

He showed me other relics that lay about his isolated cabin in the woods, not just the knives. He had a piece of shell wrapped in a handkerchief — not a piece of his shell, but that of his best friend, or mate, or double, I couldn’t quite understand. He had a coin, a little five-pointed star made of greenish soapstone, taken from somewhere that had used currency, somewhere he’d once visited where the locals had liked him very much. He had a dead rat preserved in a jar, an old pet from somewhere else, never buried because she had asked not to be left for the worms. He had a collection of dice carved from the bones of a mentor, a cracked and chipped cup that had held the blood of a saint, and a wooden puzzle box that he still didn’t know how to open, gifted to him by a sinister figure in his youth.

Were these physical objects, held somewhere within his snake-knot core? Or were they just metaphors for memories?

I asked the question but it made no sense to him. I decided not to think too hard.

Eventually I made the mistake of asking how he had gotten here, to Earth.

The story was a blast of incomprehensible memory, of a fight on a scale I could not comprehend, not without totally abandoning my person-hood and plunging into the abyss. I listened politely, nodding along to an old man’s war story that meant nothing to me, full of sound and fury but no sense.

Out in reality, a hand squeezed mine, and pulled me back.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, peering into my face, far too close for comfort. “Heather, that is all well and good, but he needs to leave your mind, now. Are you listening to me in there, Hringewindla? You need to leave Heather’s mind.”

I pulled back from Evelyn, suddenly self-conscious at our faces being only inches apart.

But Hringewindla didn’t understand. It was like asking one of us to cease all communication — not just to stop talking, but to stop body language, all sound, even the reflection of light on our skin and clothes.

“He’s not going to resist or try to hurt me,” I said. “But I am going to have to remove him by force. If at all.”

“If at all?” Evelyn echoed back at me.

“He’s just lonely … ”

“He’s not a dog that’s followed you home,” she snapped right in my face. “Heather, he’s messing with the inside of your head. He’s not meant to be in there. Sevens, for pity’s sake, help me here.”

But Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight merely blinked slowly and sighed a sigh full of melancholy. “I cannot deny others the balm of her attention. You should understand that better than myself, Evee.”

Evelyn slammed to a stop, mouth working but no sound coming out. It was the first time Sevens had called her ‘Evee’.

“You best be bloody sure he’s not going to resist,” Nicole said, leaping in before I could start blushing at the deeper meaning of Sevens’ words. Nicole pointed up at the three giant tentacles standing tall as skyscrapers above us.

“He’s not … what we thought,” I managed to say. “He’s not.”

But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t crush us in confused pain.

Could I remove the oily sludge from between the neurons of my own brain? Absolutely. All I had to do was allow my own abyssal immune system inside my grey matter. Modifying the selective permeability of my own blood-brain barrier was not beyond the limits of abyssal biological modification. I had purged Ooran Juh’s influence with relative ease, and that had been a fast-growing rot in flesh and soul. Hringewindla’s contact surface was nothing by comparison, a gentle hand on my shoulder. I could melt and re-metabolise it in seconds, I had no doubt.

But he was old and sweet and very confused, very tired, very curious. It would burn him, scorch his flesh, make him retract his hand. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do it, but I had to. My mind was my own, no matter how much I had enjoyed this little chat.

I tried to tell him I had to go, tried to explain this might hurt. I asked him please not to lash out.

He stared at me with gummy, sunken eyes, and did not comprehend. He wanted to show me more of his special treasures, hobbling around his cabin, animated and happy now.

“You know, you should really visit my father,” said Sevens.

“A-ah?” I turned to her, my eyes brimming with tears. She nodded to herself.

Inside my mind, the old man paused, as if hearing a voice from nowhere.

“My father does not get many chances to spend time with those of his own calibre,” Sevens went on. “And a good show can always invigorate a degraded mind. What do you say, Hringewindla? Would you like to visit the palace?”

Inside my imagination, an image floated forth, a gracious refusal, an embarrassed old man being modest about his social circles — that being, none at all.

“Sevens,” I hissed, “I-I need to concentrate, I need to make him understand this might hurt, it might be a kind of severing, a—”

“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Just take us all Outside.”

“But then we’d be abandoning him!” I blurted out. “And I need to make him see, before I do it.”

“A visit to the stage,” Sevens purred. “To the backstage, to back rooms of—”

“Whoa, hey,” Nicole said. “Outside again?”

Evelyn snapped. “You owe this thing nothing, Heather. Get us out of here.”

I almost sobbed. “If I can’t communicate properly with him, then what hope do I have for communicating with the Eye? I can’t just leave and—”

With a gentle puff-pop of displaced air and a tap-tap of pink converse shoes on the surface of Hringewindla’s shell, a floaty jellyfish flutter of blue, pink, and white appeared in front of us.

“Lozzie!” I cried.

“Heathy!” she cheered, throwing her hands in the air. “There you are! Found you found you!”

Lozzie was a splash of vibrant colour against the bone-white dead surfaces of Hringewindla’s shell, wrapped in her pastel poncho, her hair all fluffed up, blonde strands all over the place like she’d been dancing outdoors in a storm. She had the goofiest grin on her face, eyes so bloodshot she looked ready to sleep, hands bunched in her poncho to flap it about. Hringewindla’s toxic purple light did not seem to touch her, as if she was lit by some other, invisible source, her hues and shades inviolate from exterior interference.

She was also wearing nothing on her lower half except her shoes. Luckily her poncho was long enough to cover her hips. Bare legs poked out below the hem, unselfconsciously nude.

“Oh shit,” Evelyn snapped, eyes whipping over to Nicole and then the giant, dead parasite that Hringewindla had ripped out of himself.

“Calm yourself, magician,” said Sevens. “The little one is untouched. The parasites are all dead.”

Lozzie didn’t give a hoot about parasites, dead or otherwise. She was too busy throwing herself at me in the most wriggly, fidgety hug I’d ever experienced. She somehow got in between everyone else, avoided all my tentacles, and wrapped her arms around me, but then wouldn’t stop moving and making purring noises and jiggling one leg. It was like being hugged by a cat which wasn’t sure if it wanted to be picked up or not.

“Loz- ah- Lozzie!” I hugged her back, laughing but concerned. “What- how did you—”

“Raine called me!” Lozzie chirped, then hopped back a step like a bird considering a curious worm, tilting her head to one side, giggling all the while. “She didn’t know where you’d gotten to! Then she called me and Jan but Jan didn’t want to come so I went beeeeeeep and went on my own to Raine, because I know Raine so well it’s easy to find her. And it’s chaos! Everyone is there. Twil’s family too. So then I came to find you! And … ooooh, hello-hello!”

Lozzie ducked her head and waved to Marmite. The huge squid-spider pressed himself lower to the ground and more firmly behind me, as if suddenly shy.

“This is Marmite, yes, um, Lozzie—”

“Hi Marmite!” Lozzie waved with both hands. Marmite bobbed one bony tentacle back at her.

“Lozzie,” Praem intoned. That got her attention, head up, eyes sleepy and bloodshot, but listening clearly. Praem gestured at me and Lozzie’s eyes followed the gesture to the end of Praem’s fingers, again like a cat.

“Lozzie,” I said, trying not to explode with worry, “are the others okay? Raine and Zheng and Twil? And Twil’s family? There were kids there, too, little children trapped in the nightmare.”

“Mmmm-mmmmm!” Lozzie closed both eyes and nodded like she was a bobble-head figurine, far more than necessary. “Nobody was bleeding and nobody was crying. Bubbles everywhere though! Zooming about!”

“The bubble-servitors,” Evelyn said, jaw clenched tight. “Lozzie, you’re certain there wasn’t anything untoward happening?” She didn’t even wait for an answer before turning to me. “We have to get back right now, before something else goes wrong.”

“Y-yes,” I said, trying to feel confidence that I didn’t believe.

“It’s fiiiiiiiiiine,” Lozzie said, eyes still closed, as if she could see without sight.

“Lozzie,” Evelyn said sharply. “We are in the middle of a crisis. Are you still high?”

Nicole sighed, sounding sort of wistful. “Looks like it to me.”

“Yes!” Lozzie shot one hand into the air like an overeager student ready to answer an easy question. I started laughing, all the tension of the last few hours peeling off me under the force of the Lozzie pressure-washer.

“Wish I wasn’t sober right now,” Nicole added. “Don’t suppose I could get some of that good stuff later, hey?”

Turning to Evelyn had finally forced Lozzie’s eyes out across the rest of the plain of bone-shell and twisted pillars, out toward the vast mountainside of dead parasite, still sizzling gently as the bubble-servitors cooked every inch of grey meat to make sure it was dead. Lozzie’s mouth opened, slack with sleepy-eyed fascination as she took in the surroundings, as she stared at the distant hole in Hringewindla’s shell, and the vast scorch and claw marks that had ruined his once great flesh, so long ago.

“Oooooooh,” she went, as if we were standing in a theme park.

“How are you not freaked out by this?” Nicole asked. “Is it the weed?”

“Be gay, do crimes,” Lozzie whispered as she looked up at Hringewindla himself, the vast purple dome and the snake-knot inside.

“Oh yeah, sure,” Nicole scoffed. “That explains everything.”

“Be gay,” said Praem. “Be polite.”

“Usually better than my solutions, sure,” Evelyn muttered.

“Hey hey!” Lozzie suddenly flapped her poncho high in both hands, shouting up at the real, physical Hringewindla. Luckily we all discovered she was not nude beneath the poncho, but was wearing a pair of pink shorts I’d never seen before. I had the sudden and unshakable knowledge that those shorts belonged to Jan. “Hey you! Woooooo, you’re big! Yeah!”

Inside my mind, Hringewindla-the-old-man stood up out of his chair suddenly. He smiled like he was seeing an old friend he hadn’t clapped eyes on in decades.

“Um, Lozzie?” I said, clearing my throat. “Do you and Hringewindla know each other?”

“Mm?” Lozzie turned back over her shoulder to look at me, chin popping up over the corner of her poncho, sleepy-lidded eyes blinking like an owl in the light. “No? I’ve never seen him before, not until riiiiight now.”

Second-hand pride welled up inside me. The old hunter, his knives worn down, his bones like dead wood, his flesh failing, drew a breath deeper than he had in centuries. Something about this meeting was revitalising him.

“Wait, wait a second, please,” I said, struggling to keep up. “Lozzie, are you communicating with him?”

Lozzie answered with a song.

She turned back to Hringewindla, opened her mouth, and tilted her head back so she was facing directly upward. Her eyes fluttered shut as she let out three long, high-pitched, ethereal notes of warbling beauty. For one strange moment she was frozen on the spot, neck stretched upward like a swan, body held poised like a statue as the notes trailed off. Her angelic voice made me blink back tears. Nicole gasped in surprise. Evelyn cleared her throat.

Then Lozzie adjusted her posture like a dancer switching to a different freeze frame, or a puppet yanked into a different configuration. She swayed to one side, stopped, and sang again, a ghostly and almost inhuman sound, but still girlish and sweet.

Inside my mind, Hringewindla was nodding and crying.

“The little one has that effect,” Sevens murmured. “There is a reason she is so beloved by the kami.”

Lozzie’s singing went on for several minutes, stop-start as she paused to sway and lurch, as if she was searching for the right acoustic angle. The old man inside my head stood up straight and put more strength into his arms to pull himself up on his crutches. The clouds in his eyes seemed to clear away.

Eventually, Lozzie trailed off and sighed a little sigh. She gazed out at the distant hole in the shell for a moment, her giddy high transmuted into slow and soft melancholy.

“It’s okay,” she murmured to nobody in particular. “It’s not that big.”

“Lozzie,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat and wiping a stray tear from her eyes. “We do need to leave. Sooner rather than later. And Heather has to get Hringewindla out of her head. Can you make sense to him for us? Communicate this?”

“I’m really afraid of hurting him,” I said. “Were you speaking with him just now? Is there anything we can do to make him understand?”

Lozzie bobbed her head from side to side, flapping her poncho like a stingray’s wings, building up steam again after her bout of melancholy. Then she pivoted on one foot, spun toward me, and reached out to press my nose with her thumb.


I laughed, tutted, and rolled my eyes. “Lozzie, that’s very cute, but it’s hardly the time for … uh … ”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight took my arm quickly. I suddenly gripped everything I could with my tentacles — Evee, Lozzie, Praem, the ground, my own legs. My eyes bulged and my stomach clenched up like a fist. I gasped and heaved, flailing in panic.

The oily slug inside my brain was on the move.

Hringewindla’s contact medium gathered itself, leeching its own slick and slimy matter from between my neurons, sliding across the inside of my skull. I have felt a great many disgusting sensations in my life, from the sensory violence of Outside, to mage nonsense here in reality, from things I don’t understand growing inside my own body, to biting infected flesh away from the wounds of a lover. But the brain-slug won an award, a round of applause, and almost overpowered my no-vomiting techniques. How many people can say they’ve felt an alien god physically crawling across their brain?

Inside my imagination, the withered old man waved me a friendly goodbye. He turned toward somebody more his own size, somebody wrapped in a pentacolour pastel poncho.

But as the contact medium peeled away from my grey matter, the metaphor in my imagination collapsed like reality itself unravelling.

I was not talking to an old man at all, I was communicating with something so vast and so alien that the human mind could barely process the information. The warm blanket was pulled off my shoulders, the crackling fire went out, the walls of the cabin fell away, and I was in a void of churning self-hood that threatened to swamp me and drown me.

It was a good thing Sevens was holding me, and that Evelyn was wrapped in one of my tentacles. If I’d been alone, I think I would have ripped my own head open to get Hringewindla out.

Instead, Sevens held me like a steel vice. Somebody was shouting my name — Evelyn, probably — before being soothed by Lozzie’s giggling reassurances. I heaved and flailed and wanted to vomit up my entire digestive tract to purge this sensation. A pair of very strong arms found my waist and helped to hold me up as I retched.

With a noise like unsticking a melted shoe from hot tarmac, Hringewindla’s oil-slick brain-slug contact-medium detached from the inside of my skull and found its way through cells and tissue, down into my esophagus.

I hacked and coughed and choked, until Praem bent me over and slammed her hand against my back.

A glob of purple and white mucus shot from my mouth and splattered on the ground.

I hung there, wheezing for breath, watching the little blob of Hringewindla twitch and flex, like a deep-sea mollusc dragged up to the surface to die. Inside my mind, he was gone. The cabin in the woods, the surrounding night, the crackling fire, all of it was gone. Just me again, alone inside my own head. The relief was like a pulled tooth.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I wheezed as Praem and Evelyn both tried to handle me in different directions.

“Yay!” went Lozzie. She threw her arms up.

Before anybody could make a sensible suggestion, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight let go of me, took a half-step away, and ceased being human.

Hastur’s Daughter reared up all of a sudden, beetle-black armour plates and yellow frills covering her body, her front a downy mat of soft fur, pincers and needle-legs braced against the shell-surface ground.

It had been bad enough when she’d been standing at a safe distance, but this mask change was up close and personal. Evelyn recoiled so hard she nearly sent us all sprawling with her. Nicole flinched and yelped and covered her mouth. Marmite yanked back and almost took my leg with him. Luckily Praem didn’t care, she kept us anchored. Lozzie stared in open-mouthed awe and appreciation — I’d seen that look on her before, but it took me a moment to remember when. It was the exact same way she’d looked at Zheng’s boobs.

Seven-Shades-of-Slick-and-Spiky reached down with one bone-like hand, plucked the dying purple slug-thing from the ground, and popped it past her facial mandibles.

Small chitin plates moved in her throat. Her mouth-parts closed. She swallowed.

Then, just as suddenly, she was back to the Princess Mask, unruffled and starched. She shot us all a cool and collected look.

“My apologies,” she said. “I have sent that to my father.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Evelyn said, dripping with sarcasm. “Perhaps next time you transform into an eight-foot alien monster, you can warn us all first?”

“Very pretty,” said Praem.

Lozzie was looking at Sevens like she was a pin-up model, biting her lower lip and twisting on one foot. I didn’t blame her. If we’d been anywhere else, I would have been having a very difficult and embarrassing conversation with Sevens right then.

But Sevens turned to Lozzie with a strict and unimpressed look. “Little one, you must warn us about this sort of thing in future. Not everyone has multiple breathing holes. Heather was in very mundane and boring danger.”

“Fucking right!” Evelyn snapped. “You could have choked her!”

“I didn’t know it would happen like that!” Lozzie protested, gone shrill, hands suddenly fluttering everywhere. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Heathy, I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay, Loz,” I croaked. Praem helped me to straighten up. Evelyn caught my eye, still brimming with misplaced anger. “Evee, she was just doing her best to help. She got Hringewindla out of my head. It worked.”

“Yes, and, well, good, okay!” Evelyn huffed, gritting her teeth and looking like she wanted to belt something with her walking stick — probably Sevens. Lozzie did a nervous, slow flinch away from her, hands curled into the fabric of her poncho.

I opened my mouth quickly. “You’re not actually angry at—”

“I’m not actually angry at—” Evelyn said at the exact same time.

We looked at each other. Evelyn sighed and averted her eyes.

“We love you,” Praem said, speaking to Lozzie.

“Mmmmmm,” went Lozzie, more than a little confused, heavy-lidded eyes flicking from face to face.

Evelyn cleared her throat loudly and turned to Lozzie. “I’m sorry I snapped. I’m not actually angry at you, I’m angry at Hringewindla. I’m angry at this entire damn situation, and I’m angry with your uncle, who is subhuman filth for risking even a sliver of this in the first place by creating this kind of monster.” She spat the final word and gestured at the vast, dead parasite, the low mountain of blackening flesh and cracked carapace.

Lozzie had brightened when Evelyn had begun to apologise — she knew that Evee was sweet on her, really — but her face froze in stoned, bleary-eyed paralysis when Evelyn explained the true and final target of her ire.

“ … Edward did all this?” she said, in a tiny voice. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”

Evee froze too. “Oh, bugger,” she hissed.

“We’re not sure,” I blurted out. “Probably. Maybe.”

Lozzie bit her lower lip, but there was nothing coquettish about it now. She suddenly looked much worse for wear, high and confused and far from secure. I reached for her with a tentacle. She accepted it with both hands, hugging it tight to her chest.

“You’re safe with us, little one,” said Sevens.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Evelyn added awkwardly, trying her best, clearing her throat again. “He’s not directly involved, I think that’s for certain. You’ve nothing to fear. We’re all together. Aren’t we?”

I nodded along, smiling at Lozzie. She puffed out her cheeks.

“And Tenny is safe back at the house with Jan and July, yes?” I asked. Lozzie nodded at that. “Then we’ve nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about, she says,” Nicole added, deep in habitual sarcasm. “I think we’ve got plenty to worry about right here and now. What are we doing about … him?”

She gestured up at Hringewindla.

Luckily, whatever Lozzie had actually done to eject his brain-slug from my cranium, it hadn’t hurt Hringewindla — or at least she’d somehow communicated enough to stop him from lashing out in alienated pain. The three vast scaled tentacles hung placid in the air like a trio of seaweed fronds waving in slow current. The snake-knot inside his core slithered over itself in an endless dance of leviathan flesh. The bubble-membrane poured out toxic light, but had fully sealed itself once more, healing the self-inflicted parasite-removal wound.

“I don’t think we need to do anything?” I said. “I … think?”

Lozzie turned to look up at Hringewindla, still hugging one of my tentacles like it was a plushie. “I’ll come see you. Yeah.” She glanced back at me. “Can I come see him?”

“Do you want to?”

Lozzie nodded enthusiastically. “He’s smart! He’s got a loooooot of smarts, and he’s feeling a lot better now! I think I can help him walk, maybe!”

“Walk?” Nicole echoed. “Uhhhh.”

“It’s a metaphor,” I said.

“Nope!” Lozzie chirped.

“Like I said,” Evelyn grumbled. “Don’t think about it, detective. You’ll be happier that way.”

“Look, I’m trying my best not to think about much here,” Nicole replied. “But that thing is still a giant squid-monster, alright? Can I think about that?”

“If you want,” Evelyn grunted.

Lozzie was skipping around my side, trying to get close enough to pet Marmite. The squid-spider wasn’t quite sure about her yet, but he didn’t flee. But then Lozzie caught a hint of something in the air. She sniffed loudly.

“Why does it smell like chickens here?” she asked.

“I’ll explain that part later,” I sighed. “I think it’s high time we left.”

“Indeed,” Evelyn agreed. “What are we doing, a round-trip through Camelot, or—”

“Ooh, ooh!” Lozzie bounced up on her heels, which made Marmite flinch. “I can take us straight back to Twil’s farmy-farm farm-place!”

Evelyn wanted to give her a look. I could see it in the tightness of her jaw. But she resisted, and I adored her for that.

“All right,” Evelyn said, sounding covertly unhappy about this. “We’ll take Lozzie’s way, it’s quicker and more direct. Nicole, be warned, this does tend to be a little more rough than Heather’s technique, so brace—”

Hringewindla wasn’t done yet.

With a deep thump of displaced air, one of his three vast tentacles descended toward us once again. Everyone froze in shock and horror; for a moment Evelyn scrambled for her bone-wand and Sevens went very still, about to switch masks. But then Lozzie cried out “It’s okay!” and she turned out to be right. Hringewindla’s tentacle slowed as it dipped, buffeting us with wind from above, but far gentler than before.

Down and down and down it came, until the skyscraper of white flesh hung level with us once again, facing us with a blunt tip of thick scales.

Lozzie let go of my tentacle and skipped forward. For one horrible moment it seemed as if that wall of flesh would swallow her, like she was vanishing into the distance. But then she stopped and bowed, as if with great respect. She held out both hands and touched the end of the tentacle, bowed again, and skipped back over to us, her poncho flapping as she came.

“For you!” she announced, and pressed an object into my hands.

It was the coin.

A little five-pointed star, made of greenish soapstone, about the size of a fifty pence piece. Hringewindla had shown me this, inside my imagination, a relic of somewhere he’d once visited. But that was all a metaphor. Wasn’t it?

I stared at the coin, then up at the snake-knot, and ached to ask him a dozen more questions.

“He says you might need it more than him, one day!” Lozzie chirped. “Because you might meet the people who gave it to him!”

“People … ” I murmured. “Outsider people?”

Lozzie shrugged, giggling and flapping her hands, still stoned out of her mind.

“Sevens,” I said. “Do you know … ?”

But the Yellow Princess shook her head. “To you I may seem well-travelled, but compared to the old man here, I have never ventured beyond the village where I was born.”

“Is he done?” Evelyn asked. Lozzie nodded, then turned to wave at the white scales of Hringewindla’s tentacle. He did not wave back, which was lucky because the pressure wave would probably have knocked us all over. “Good,” Evelyn said. “Then let’s get out of here before he changes his mind. Everyone grab onto Lozzie.”

“I’m popular!” Lozzie giggled, turning on the spot and swaying from side to side. Sevens gently took her shoulder to stop her wriggling about.

“Hey, one more thing,” Nicole said. “Just before we go.”

“You want to delay this even further?” Evelyn asked with a huff.

“Nah. Just … can somebody please, please go check on my dog after this?”

“We’ll make sure your dog is safe, yes,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Doggy!” said Lozzie.

“Good doggo,” said Praem.

Marmite shuffled behind me, unsure if he was the subject of this unexpected praise. Nicole sighed with a great weariness and joined the Lozzie-circle. Evelyn made sure to be holding one of Lozzie’s hands. Praem helped me stand up straight as we all braced for the journey.

I cast one last glance up at Hringewindla, at his shrunken and shrivelled glory, then closed my hand around his soapstone gift.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Lozzie to the rescue! Well, sort of. Lozzie to the interrupting-actual-communication-with-an-Outsider-god. Still, Heather’s come away from this experience with knowledge she didn’t have before. She can talk to something on this scale, even if it’s challenging! Though ol’ Hringle-wingely has been around humans for hundreds of years, so he’s kind of used to it. Maybe she can apply this elsewhere, in due time. And now she knows the true story behind the Brinkwood Cult, and Twil’s mysterious grandfather … 

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Next week, the girls need recovery, rest, reconciliation … and perhaps revenge, against the mage responsible for all of this.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.7

Content Warnings

Parasite removal
Mind control
Ableist language

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Alarm clock.”

My lips moved in the private darkness behind the metallic bone rampart of my squid-skull mask, forming the words once again. Accurate pronunciation, clear meaning, without adornment. I gazed upward at the gigantic soap-bubble membrane as I spoke, watching the surface swirl with spirals inside spirals, liquid and smooth like oil gliding across water. Toxic purple light poured from the oily sphere, like a blazing fire of biological heat. My eyes and hands and scalp all itched like crazy, as if I was covered in sea-lice.

Vast white snake-forms slithered over each other inside the bubble. That knot of otherworldly flesh was all that remained of Hringewindla, a living god who had once filled this barren cavity at the heart of his shell.

“Alarm clock … ” I whispered once more, then bit my lower lip.

“Alarm clock,” Sevens echoed from beside me, her own voice so much more precise and formal.

But no amount of precision or detail would help me with this task. Sevens could have spelled the words forward and backward, recited the etymology of the term and the entire history of alarm clocks. Or she could have called Evelyn and Nicole up here so we could play a trio of mobile phone alarm noises. None of it would help.

Alarm clock was just words, not the thing itself. The words had no relation to the thing except for those of us who used language, and a specific language, too.

Did Hringewindla speak English, except through Amanda?

Did he even speak?

I shook my head, my confidence draining as I waded through miles of swamp. “Sevens, I don’t think I can do this,” I said. “What am I supposed to do here, summon a giant alarm clock?” I forced an awkward laugh behind my mask.

“If you like,” said Sevens.

“I suppose I could always spin my tentacles together and bob through the air, like one of those novelty alarm clocks you have to catch to turn it off?”

“Exceptionally cute, kitten. But no.”

I sighed. “You could rise to my bait on occasion, you know that? Raine would.”

“Raine would tell you that signifier and signified cannot be—”

“Yes, yes, I know what Raine would say. She would start talking a lot of philosophy that goes over my head. Besides, neither signifier nor signified is relevant here. Somehow I doubt that making a loud enough racket is actually going to wake him up, or drag him out of the nightmare, or whatever it is we’re trying to do.”

In the corner of my eye, Seven-Shades-of-Stressful-Pedagogy nodded her head in graceful surrender.

“Alarm clock,” I huffed, trying to steel myself. I kept scratching at my hands. My cuticles itched.

“Heather!” Evelyn called in a very silly stage-whisper from behind us, from the relative shelter next to the ancient church, along with Nicole. “Heather, what are you two doing?”

“Is it not obvious?” Sevens replied.

“No! You’re just staring at it! Keep us in the loop, for pity’s sake!”

“We’re building an alarm clock,” I called back to her, then cast a look upward at the slowly orbiting halo of bubble-servitors. Would too much noise bring them crashing down on our heads? “Let me concentrate, please, Evee.”

The Eye’s lessons lurked in the deepest parts of my subconscious, the parts I preferred not to examine too closely. I used to think of that as a series of back rooms, cobwebbed and lightless, full of stalking monsters eager to jump out at me and drag me off into the dark. But over the last nine months of my increasingly confusing and dangerous life, that metaphor had become useless. It wasn’t applicable anymore, not when I reached down there so often to drag those lessons forth, to put them to my own uses. Nowadays the Eye’s teachings were more like infernal machinery, stored in a lake of toxic black oil to stop their reactive nature from running out of control when exposed to light and air. And when I was willing to burn my hands and forearms with caustic chemicals, I could use that machinery to perform miracles.

But the Eye had taught me only the principles, the mathematics which described the angles of an alien yet universal physics. Light, heat, kinetic force, these were all simple things. Gravity, nuclear attraction, magnetism. Even the act of sliding matter through the membrane between here and Outside was just another kind of force, in the end.

If I was willing to endure pain and risk permanent damage, I could put a lance of energy right through Hringewindla’s body, no matter how big he was. That would certainly wake him up, as would a thousand slightly-less-violent solutions.

But none of those were an alarm clock.

I’d made a beacon for Evelyn earlier, to guide her out of the house-maze, and I hadn’t even thought about that. But a beacon was just light, turned to the purpose of guidance. My body had an analogue for the concept, in the rainbow strobing of my tentacles.

And an alarm clock was just sound, turned to the purpose of waking somebody up.

Something clicked into place in my thoughts; I didn’t need an alarm clock, I only needed Hringewindla to wake up.

“Sevens,” I murmured, trying not to break my concentration even as I asked the essential question, still staring up at the god-bubble before us. “What happens to the others back at the house, if we wake him up?”

“Nothing, I think.”

“ … you think?” I resisted the urge to turn and look at her. I had to hold on to this concept.

“The nightmare will not end until we extract the parasite and kill it. The parasite is the one projecting the confusion. I think.”

“Again, you think?”

“I am not an expert on Outsiders.” She paused. “That would be you, my dearest.”

I sighed and tried to ignore the clenched fist in my belly. “I’m hardly an expert.”

“My father would probably disagree. As would I.”

“Well, thank you for the vote of confidence.” I tried not to sound too sarcastic. “I’m … I think I’m ready. Ready as I’ll ever be.” My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow. “I’m going to try something. It might not work, I have no idea what the result will be. Do you need to step back?”

“Do you wish me to do so?”

Unable to summon the words, I stuck out my hand, clammy with the fear of pain and failure. Sevens took my hand in hers.

We stepped back together, away from the line of red paint. Nice and safe.

I didn’t do anything so cheesy or obvious as give us a countdown, but Sevens could probably tell I was about to dive by the way I took three short, sharp, nervous breaths.

And then I plunged in, face-first, full-body, and falling, down into the vat of black oil where I kept the things I did not want to know.

It would not be enough to simply locate the correct lessons from the Eye and put them together in the right order to achieve a desired effect. Even dragging Sarika from the Eye’s grasp had been a matter of motion and force, even if I’d had to leave my body to attain enough leverage to perform the equation. But this equation was not brute strength, not a giant gulp of cold waters, no deluge of information overwhelming my tiny ape brain; this was delicacy and dexterity. I had to swim through the waters of the sump, like cave diving in pitch darkness, surrounded by sharp rocks and jagged steel, with the toxic gunk and the burning acids, to forge a human concept from the mathematics of the gods. I had to use the abyssal logic of star-shine and electron mass to build an alarm clock.

My last coherent thought before the pain was that perhaps the Eye had intended this all along. Perhaps this was the point. The pupil must learn to apply herself.

My brain was on fire from the first figure of the equation, white-hot and melting through my neurons, but I couldn’t just slam the pieces into place like with every other hyperdimensional equation. I had to stop and examine each one, select the next piece from the depths and fit it together, then turn the shape over in my mind to see if it looked right. Like building a real clock, with springs and winder and hands.

For some absurd, subconscious reason, I clung to the memory of an egg-timer that my mother had possessed when I was little, shaped like a rooster about to crow. Once, feeling mischievous, Maisie and I had set it to sixty seconds, then peered over the kitchen counter with nervous anticipation, waiting for it to ring out and irritate our parents.

I rebuilt that little egg-timer, piece by piece, from repurposed infernal machinery.

Extrapolating from first principles took seconds. That doesn’t sound like long, but at the speed of thought that may as well have been hours.

I think I screamed. I know I squeezed Sevens’ hand hard enough to hurt her, grinding her fingers together. Lucky it wasn’t Evelyn who’d offered to hold my hand through this messy and imperfect delivery, because I could have hurt her badly, broken a finger or dislocated her wrist. But Sevens was made of sterner stuff. My six tentacles flailed, slapping the ground. The equation-building process went on so long that I felt blood start to drip down my face.

A final piece burned and hissed in my hands, melting my flesh and turning it black. A tiny hammer to ring the bell, to waken. I screamed myself raw with a sound like a beached dolphin as I slid it into place.

An angel was born.

In the open space halfway between me and Hringewindla’s dome, a twelve foot high golden rooster burst into reality, like a sudden flare of molten gold dust. The centre of its body was a giant clock.

The abyssal cockerel filled his lungs, scale-feathers puffing up, glinting black-gold in the purple light. He raised a snapping squid-beak, spread diaphanous wings of glinting crystal, and gripped the shell-surface with rending claws, like an artillery piece anchoring itself to the ground.

He crowed so loud that he exploded.

Later, the others told me that nothing visible had happened, other than me flailing about like a wounded octopus and crumpling to my knees, hissing and spitting blood as I tried not to pass out. Not even Sevens actually saw the giant golden rooster-squid or heard the ear-splitting cock-a-doodle-doo.

The only evidence that I hadn’t hallucinated the entire thing was a small ‘news of the weird’ article a few days later, in one of the local Sharrowford newspapers. Every domestic and farm rooster between Manchester and the Pennines had all screamed their tiny little lungs raw in unison, at about four fifteen in the afternoon that day, for no discernible reason. Some of them had gone on for almost an hour, wearing themselves to exhaustion in an effort to see off some invisible challenger. Farmers irritated, locals baffled. Enthusiasts of the paranormal pointed to a Civil War battle that had taken place on this very same day, in the year 1643, in a field not too far from the south end of Sharrowford. Roundhead ghosts are a better explanation than squid-girls summoning giant imaginary egg-timers, so I’ve never made an attempt to correct them.

My abdominal bioreactor flared to life as the squid-rooster exploded into nothingness. I crumpled and banged my knees on the ground, struggling to stay standing even as the reactor worked overtime to hold me up and keep me conscious. The delicacy of that brain-math had taken every ounce of concentration and intellectual power I could muster. My head was stuffed with cotton wool. I wanted to stop thinking and stare at a wall for twelve hours. Sevens’ held my entire forearm, just to keep me from landing on my own face.

“I’m alright—” I tried to say, but my lips slurred the words and my mouth tasted like blood. My eyes were thick and gummy, tears running down my cheeks. My head hurt like a band of iron was expanding inside my skull.

My stomach tried to punch its way up my throat and out of my mouth — but something stopped it, held it back, kept it in place. I was physically incapable of vomiting into the squid mask.

I reminded myself to thank the donor, somehow, one day.

Sevens was saying something, a low purr of congratulation, calling me a good girl. Stomping footsteps hurried to join us. Another voice floated from behind, perhaps saying my name, maybe scolding me, I couldn’t be sure. My ears still rang with that rooster’s crow.

And then a wet slooooruuummph filled the air.

It was like the sound of an entire sewer system being unblocked with clean sea water all at once, or perhaps a power-generating dam being switched on for the first time and sluicing its internal machinery with muddy silt. I raised my eyes from the surface of the shell.

Hringewindla was awake.

A trio of those vast snake-like shapes breached the inside of the oil-on-water membrane, punching through from inside like sensory tendrils reaching out from the confines of a shell. Blunt-ended, covered in glistening, glinting, glittering scales, millions of tiny points of light reflecting the purple illumination. Each one must have been as thick as a skyscraper.

And all three lashed toward me, crumpled and cowering on the ground.

In that exact same moment, the halo of bubble-servitors gathered and swirled downward, like a tornado forming in a stormy sky.

I raised a hand, pure instinct and panic, my bruised mind spinning together the familiar old equation. Out! Out, all of you Out!

But then something made of black armour plate and white flesh grabbed my hand in a gentle claw. Hastur’s Daughter towered over me, shrieking and wailing up at the awakened god. Yellow spores covered her back in a cloak of deadly promise. Hands tipped with black razor-blades made right-angle signs with each other, rotating back and forth in some unknowable symbolism. Seven-Shades-of-War-and-Ruin stood over me like a bodyguard.

And on my other side, a familiar drag-thump of foot and walking stick heralded a crackle in the air.

A discharge of static electricity rippled out across the shell-surface and terminated in a visible bubble of blue-on-blue that seared my eyes like living fire, surrounding myself and Sevens with a ten-foot bubble of our own. Evelyn stood next to me, hands contorted into painful angles on the surface of her scrimshawed bone-wand, sweating buckets and gasping out a torrent of jumbled Latin. Praem had both arms around her waist, holding her up.

In the corner of my eye, I spotted Nicole too, still sheltering in the cover provided by the ancient church. She’d gone white as chalk. Marmite had joined her, cowering behind her legs.

Nicole had her pepper spray out, held aloft in one shaking hand.

Sevens was hissing and screeching up at the giant descending tentacles. Evelyn was almost panting her Latin chant, but she couldn’t resist darting a terrified look at Seven-Shades-of-Spikes-and-Blades.

I lurched to my feet, spread my tentacles wide, and hissed.

Hringewindla hesitated.

The trio of vast snake-tentacles halted in their descent, whipping outward with sheer muscular momentum. A wave of displaced air buffeted down on us like storm winds, pulling at my hair and plastering my hoodie against my body. The whirling threat of bubble-servitors slowed, circling and bobbing, but not yet returning to their halo formation. We were mad to think that a line of red paint on the ground could ever hold back something that large.

“You mad bastard!” Evelyn shouted up at Hringewindla, sounding like she’d just smoked an entire packet of cigarettes. Blood flecked her lips. Her eyes were wide with barely suppressed terror, her pupils dilated with pain and effort, the side-effect of real magic. “We’re trying to fucking help— you— shit—”

“Do not try to speak,” Praem said, clear as ever.

Sevens made a sound up toward Hringewindla too, a bit like the sound a crab might make if it was losing a game of chess and decided to flip the board. She clacked several claws and did a skirts-to-tip muscular strain, as if threatening to release something from within herself. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the intention was clear enough.

“No, no,” I croaked, groping to brace myself against the floor with my tentacles so I didn’t fall over again. “He’s just trying to smash his alarm clock. Woke up cranky.”

Seven-Shades-of-Chitin-and-Iron turned her bulb-tip head toward me — at least I assumed it was a head, what with the various void-black eyes and razor-sharp mouth-parts surrounded by armour plates.

“He’s terrified of you,” she said in a voice like the god of all wasps.

“Fucking hell!” Evelyn shouted. I couldn’t tell what spooked her more, Sevens or Hringewindla.

“We need to talk to him,” I croaked. I had to clear my throat, tasting mucus and iron, eyes itching and sticky with my own blood beneath the squid-skull mask. Hringewindla’s vast white tentacles floated hundreds of meters above our heads; my abyssal instinct bridged the gap of species and nature and time, reading his body language in those giant feelers — fear and shock, held back for only a brief moment by our barely credible threat display. “He doesn’t know why we’re here, he’s confused.”

“We’re talking to him—” Evelyn tried to say, but then coughed and wheezed like she was having an asthma attack. Her hands held the bone wand in a death-grip, refusing to halt the spell. “Talking to him—” she wheezed out, “right now!”

“We’re not here to hurt you!” I yelled up at the giant purple soap bubble, waving my hands in the air. “You’ve been infected by a parasite!”

The three vast snake-tentacles pulled upward — retreating to gain momentum, to smash us to paste.

Sevens screeched like a banshee crossed with a hornet. Evelyn whimpered in pain. Even between their doubled threat, I doubted they could hold back the fist of a god.

“He doesn’t communicate with language,” I murmured inside my mask. “He doesn’t even have ears. Oh, damn it all, Lozzie would know how to talk to a god. What would she do?”

Lozzie wouldn’t be afraid. Lozzie would make contact, with open arms and a joyous heart.

I raised my voice so the others could hear. “I have to let him into my head!”

“What!?” Evelyn choked on the word.

“Kitten,” Sevens warned me, a sound I did not care to hear again from this particular mask. Her voice made my bowels shiver.

“He doesn’t even understand what we are,” I said. I took the first step toward the line of red paint and the edge of Evelyn’s protective bubble. “He doesn’t get it, he has no eyes to see, no ears to hear. We have to make contact.”

“Wait, wait!” Evelyn snapped. She somehow found the reserves of energy to strain forward in Praem’s grip. “Heather, no! I can do that better than you can. I’ve had demons in my head before, remember? Let me.”

“Denied,” said Praem.

Above us, Hringewindla’s tentacles twitched, as if eager for our defences to fail. We were some horrible irritant or infection, not meant to be here inside his shell. To be repulsed, like others before. He didn’t recognise us.

I turned back to look Evelyn in the eyes. My tentacles worked like extra feet, pulling me toward the boundary, to where I would be exposed to the Outsider god. “Evee, I can’t. What if he doesn’t leave your head afterwards? I can’t risk that.”

“What if he doesn’t leave your head, Heather?!”

“I can force him out,” I said, almost laughing with the absurdity of the statement. “That would be easy. I’m the Eye’s adopted daughter, remember? I can do anything to my own body. Anything.”

Heather,” Evelyn said my name like it was a desperate curse.

“But forcing him out of you?” I hiccuped, loudly, but I wasn’t sure why. “I can’t do brain surgery on you like I did with Badger. Evee, I can’t risk hurting you. I can’t, I can’t. I can do this but I can’t do that.”

Evelyn started at me, eyes bulging, panting with the effort of maintaining her spell, relying entirely on Praem to stop her collapsing. She looked more openly distraught than I’d ever seen her before. Evelyn was a woman of surly, self-directed disdain, even in her darkest moments, not naked horror as I saw now.

“P-Praem, stop her. Stop her!”

“I cannot drop you,” said Praem.

Evelyn glanced at Sevens, all eight feet of towering war machine, and found half her courage again. “Say something, you useless B-movie rubber monster!”

Seven-Shades-of-Scary-Silicone turned her array of glistening black eyes on Evelyn, then on me, then ceased to be.

She vanished without a flicker, like dropping the rubber monster suit and stepping out of the remains. The Yellow Princess stood there instead, umbrella tip against the floor, face calm and unreadable.

“Heather is correct,” she said. “Hringewindla lacks the means for communication. This is not coffee with my father.”

Far up in the air, Hringewindla’s tentacles jerked, a hundred thousand tons of smooth mollusc muscle trying to decide if now was the time to crush us flat. Evelyn flinched and gritted her teeth, knuckles going white on her bone-wand.

“Heather!” she croaked. “Heather, for fuck’s sake. You might not be the same person after this!”

I staggered sideways toward the crackling blue surface of Evelyn’s protective spell, supported more by my tentacles than my shaking knees, unwilling to turn away from Evee’s vulnerable, naked fear.

“Evee, it’s going to work, it’s going to be fi—”

“Take that fucking mask off!” she cried, her eyes filling with unspent tears. “Let me see you!”

The request made little sense, but I didn’t hesitate. With my tentacles occupied in keeping me standing, I pulled the squid-skull mask off my face with shaking hands, then sniffed back the blood dripping from my nose. I must have looked an awful mess after the brain-math, with my own blood smeared around my eyes and dripping off my chin, mucus and snot all down my face.

Evelyn stared at me, eyes scrunched with more than physical pain. Hringewindla’s oil-bubble cast purple light on her horrified face. Vast tentacles bunched and coiled. Bubble-servitors descended in a slow, spiralling wave.

Evee opened her mouth but she couldn’t find the words, even with Praem holding her tight.

She thought I was about to leave.

“Heather … I … ”

“I know,” I said, croaking through the blood and mucus in my throat, smiling for her. “Evee, I know. I know. And I’m not going to stop being me. I promise. This will be nothing.”

We were out of time. Above us, Hringewindla’s skyscraper-thick tendrils reared up like a nest of cobras about to strike. I lurched toward the edge of the electric blue bubble, finally turning my attention away from Evelyn.

Static electricity crackled across my clothes and tingled on my skin. I shouldered my way through Evelyn’s spell. The bubble offered no resistance, then collapsed behind me as Evelyn screamed with frustration and gave up, hands finally slipping from the bone-wand.

She said something to my back, something she couldn’t say to my face, something that made Sevens turn and stare at her with surprise, right at the limit of the Princess Mask’s emotional range.

But a boom of displaced air drowned out Evelyn’s words; Hringewindla’s tentacles cracked like thunder and raced toward me like meteoric buckshot.

I was exhausted beyond thought, despite the bioreactor working overtime in my abdomen, like a sweat-shedding infection in my gut. Between the revelations and duels this morning, the emergency of Nicole’s mysterious appearance, the absurd and spooky house, and the descent into Hringewindla’s shell, I was about ready to crawl into bed and cuddle in Raine’s arms and stop thinking for the rest of the month.

So I lurched over the painted red line and stopped with my arms wide open.

Hringewindla stopped too.

His tentacles drifted to a halt. The bubble-servitors floated, aimless and uneasy. I held my tentacles wide too, as many of them as I could spare without falling over. Inside, I was shaking with adrenaline as my gamble paid off.

I was right; the red line wasn’t the danger line at all. Hringewindla could likely reach into every nook and cranny of his shell-core with those vast appendages.

The red line indicated how to commune with him. How to get close enough to whisper hello.

One of the three giant tentacles split off from the other two and descended toward me, but gently and slowly this time, pushing displaced air down against me like a slow rolling storm. I held my ground, but had to grit my teeth to keep from screaming or hissing or scrambling back. Instinctive fear made me want to cower and hide at the approach of the largest limb I’d ever seen.

Hringewindla dipped his tentacle, down and down and down, until a wall of white, scaled flesh drew level with me, only a few feet away.

“Right,” I whispered, hoarse and frozen. “Hello. Okay, so, how do we do this? How do we do this … ”

I already knew, even as I asked the question. I stretched out one of my own tentacles — a final concession to caution and reluctance, not to use my own right hand — and touched the very tip of rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic flesh against Hringewindla’s scaly hide.

An intrusion, probing, slick and wet and wriggling, like an injection of living fluid flowing back up my tentacle and into my core of true flesh.

My abyssal immune system gathered itself to repel the invader, assembling macrophage and tetrodotoxin, flooding my veins with white blood cells and raging up my spinal column in a red-hot flash-sweat of internal fire. But I clamped down on the reaction, forcing control rods back into the reactor.

I pulled my tentacle away from Hringewindla’s touch, like I’d grasped bare metal in a snowstorm, but the intrusion was not severed. It was inside me now, wriggling upward, seeking contact.

Shaking, shivering, gasping in the throes of a fever, with a black liquid slug inching up my brain-stem, mouth-parts feeling along the surface of my hind-brain for a way inside. A wave of terrible disgust and sickness rocked me. I wanted to vomit, purge my body, get this thing out of me.

But this was what I wanted, wasn’t it?

There was no choice. If I couldn’t talk with Hringewindla, then what hope did I have of communicating with the Eye?

I opened the gate of my mind and let him inside.

The moment of transition was like dunking my head in a bucket of cold coffee. I felt something ooze across my cranial membrane and settle into the wrinkles of my brain, filling the creases like oil. Suddenly I was wide awake and panting, my heart racing, my skin tingling all over. I smelled alien pheromones — but then my nose filled with the scent of fresh-cut grass and dandelions, a forest glade in spring. I tasted strong tea and lemon cake, felt an enclosing warmth around my shoulders and on the small of my back, and imagined a whispered welcome on the edge of my hearing.

“Oh, oh, that’s … weird,” I panted. “Is that you? Hello, yes, nice to meet you. I think?”

A question suggested itself, as if I was listening in on somebody else’s subconscious. It wasn’t words, just a jumble of sense impression and deep curiosity.

“Heather Morell,” I said out loud, though I doubted it was necessary to speak my answer. “You know me, we’ve met enough times.”

The slug-oil in my brain slid deeper, soaking into the tissues and staining the grey matter. I retched and almost lost the contents of my stomach, but then suddenly the disgust vanished like a lifting fog. A feeling like a warm blanket settled on my shoulders, tucked itself in around my neck, and took my hands, patting them with papery, dry reassurance. My eyelids drifted shut. I felt completely and utterly safe, like I’d wandered out of the woods on a dark night and found a little old cottage, with a crackling fire and a single occupant, welcoming me to this oasis in the endless dark. All in return for whatever tales I could spare of the lands beyond the woods. Warmth, safety — and acceptance, a glowing wave of rightness, of knowing that something more powerful and much older than me was offering me protection and purpose, unlike any I’d ever known before.

No human being could have resisted that opiate.

I wasn’t really a human being anymore.

Abyssal instinct screeched and hissed and thrashed. I forced my eyes open and wide, like I was trying to avoid nodding off.

“Excuse me!” I snapped, shrugging and waving my hands to force the imaginary blanket off my shoulders. “No, I’m not here for that. I’m not one of yours. Stop it.”

Gentle now, rest your feet, sit down by the fire. I want to hear all about you, please, dear. I know you little people out there love to talk about yourselves.

“Those aren’t my thoughts!” I shouted.

They are now, and that’s okay, isn’t it? I’m a lot bigger than you but I won’t blot you out. I wouldn’t learn anything new if I blotted you out and sat on you and ate you up, so that’s not what I do anymore, I promise. Just stay and talk, please stay and talk. Here, I’ve got coffee with spices, and more cake, and we can put on reruns of Home and Away. Or do you prefer cartoons? Spongebob is a favourite of mine.

“Stop it!” I snapped, hissing the words. “I’m going to assume those are Amanda’s tastes, and I’m not Amanda, I am Heather Morell. I am the adopted daughter of the Eye and soon to be daughter-in-law to the King in Yellow. You are in my head on sufferance.”

The strange thoughts went quiet. Quiet and sad, like a little withered old man standing there with a full teapot, confused about why I didn’t want to have a drink with him.

That image sharpened, as my mind took over again and interpreted what it could from the jumble of information spewing forth from the connection with Hringewindla. A little old man, hobbling about his cabin in the woods with his crutches, wearing leg braces to keep himself mobile. But vital and full of energy.

“I can etch the surface of reality with my mind,” I went on, softer now. “I am a master of hyperdimensional mathematics. I can send your physical body Outside with ease. So, don’t make me do that, please.”

The old man went quite still.

The brain-slug was still nestled in my cranium.

I turned away from the massive scaled tendril and back toward the others. Sevens looked calm and unruffled. Evelyn was slumped against Praem’s side, staring at me in mute horror. Praem didn’t seem too worried. Further behind them, Nicole was watching me with a deep frown, still pale and covered in cold sweat, utterly uncomprehending. Marmite crouched at her feet.

“Evee, I’m fine! It’s me! I’m fine!” I said, stumbling back toward my friends, almost tripping with my tentacles.

Evelyn lurched out of Praem’s arms before I could reach her. She let her walking stick clatter to the ground and grabbed my face with both hands, staring into my eyes with a piercing scowl. I had to catch her with my tentacles to stop her from falling over.


“It’s you,” she hissed, hoarse and raw. “It’s you alright. Alright.”

“Of course it’s me, Evee. I’m fine. I’ve had worse in my head for my whole life.”

Evelyn sniffed deeply and wiped her face on her sleeve. Suddenly she couldn’t meet my eyes, watching the floor and then gesturing at Praem to help her once again.

“Greetings,” said Sevens. “Good afternoon.”

She was speaking in my direction, but it took me a moment to realise she was not talking to me.

“Uh … he says hello,” I replied. “I think. It’s not words, it’s just a jumbled impression of … stuff.”

“We are not here on a social call,” Sevens went on. “We are solving a crisis.”

I did my best to stand up straight, even if she wasn’t talking to me exactly. We had to be formal now, sensible, business-like; at least that’s what I told myself, the wrapper I used to process this increasingly absurd situation. Praem took Evelyn’s weight from me as Evelyn fussed about with her walking stick. Nicole slowly approached us as well.

“He … doesn’t understand?” I said slowly, trying to sort through vague impressions. “I … think. He just wants to … sit around with us, hear about us.” I shook my head and sighed. “He doesn’t understand any of this.”

“What the fuck is going on?” Nicole asked, still at a safe distance from us. She eyed Hringewindla’s great drifting tentacles, and the one white tendril down at ground level, like a skyscraper on its side. “Did you tame it?”

“No, he’s in my head. For now.”

Nicole boggled at me. “Like with Amanda?”

“Not quite the same. More like I’ve broken into his house to interrogate him.”

The little old man in my mind hobbled to a chair and eased himself down, hands shaking in his lap, confused and afraid; at least, that’s what it felt like, the closest my human sense-impressions could approximate.

I sighed again and glanced over at the gigantic purple bubble with the roiling snake-monster inside, partly to remind myself of what we were actually dealing with here. “Stop trying to be so pitiful. You were about to crush us to death.”

“Why is it always tentacles?” Nicole sighed.

“Outside has carcinization too,” Evelyn grunted.

“You good, Morell?” Nicole asked. “What’s it feel like?”

“Like being invited for tea,” I answered without thinking, then shook my head. “Never mind.”

“You have a medical condition,” Praem said, clear like a silver bell.

Hringewindla sat up and paid attention to that. He stirred inside my mind, a sudden innocent attention behind rheumy old eyes.

“We are here to deworm you,” Praem explained.

That was apparently the wrong thing to say. The vast white tendril of scaled flesh that had descended for me to make contact with now began to lift from the ground, as if unsure.

“Wait!” Evelyn snapped, stamping once with her walking stick.

All her horror and dismay was gone, or at least crammed inside where she didn’t have to examine it for a while. She still leaned on Praem’s arm for support, but she straightened her spine as much as she could, and raised her chin. She did not address me, but spoke to the soap-bubble-and-snakes of Hringewindla’s physical form.

“Now you listen to me,” she hissed, simmering with anger. “And listen good. Because if you’re going to use Heather’s ears to hear, then you better bloody well be paying attention.”

“Evee,” I whispered. “There’s no need for aggression.”

“I have no love lost for you, you … thing,” she carried on, ignoring me. “So believe me, I would not be here if this was not a very serious emergency. And when we’re done, if you don’t leave Heather’s mind again, I will have your entire cult slaughtered, then come back down here with fire and acid until you’re gone. Do you understand me?” Evelyn took a shuddering breath and turned to me, swallowing down a burning anger that she could not hide. “Heather, does he understand?”

“Actually, I don’t think he does,” I murmured. “He’s already terrified of me in the first place.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “He’ll still have me to answer to.”

“Yes, yes, I think he understands that part, a little.”

Evelyn turned back to the soap-bubble. “You have a parasite, Outsider. You caught it from Amanda Hopton, who caught it from Nicole here, who caught it from … well, we don’t know where from. Not yet. But I have my suspicions.”

Calmly but sharply, Evelyn explained what we knew about the parasite, the information-scrambler. She recounted what had happened back in the house, from our human-level perspective. She related what had happened to the physical parasite inside Sevens, and the fact that Amanda and others were very likely still infected. As she spoke, I felt the brain-slug-ooze-thing shifting inside my skull, a kind of pneuma-somatic parasite itself, a link back to the vast creature that sat in front of us.

“The nightmare exists because of the parasite inside you,” Evelyn said. “It has jumped the species gap, hijacked whatever higher-dimensional nonsense you’re capable of, and is now running wild. We have to get it out of you.”

“Yes,” I echoed softly. I couldn’t tell what Hringewindla was thinking, he had gone very quiet inside my mind, like a placid pool of black water. “We need to get it out, somehow.”

But my mouth had gone dry and my hands were shaking inside the front pocket of my hoodie. Hringewindla was not anything like what I had expected when we’d decided to venture down here. Reaching into Sevens’ throat to remove a physical parasite was one thing, but this? Hringewindla was simply too large, unless I was prepared to step inside his soap-bubble membrane, like some kind of miniature medical robot inside a giant body. Brain-math was an option, but the last time I had attempted to comprehend an Outsider god via direct brain-math, I’d plunged into the abyss with the sheer effort. I did have anchors now, but if Hringewindla was even a fraction as complex as the Eye, it might be too much of a risk.

And how big was his parasite, anyway?

Evelyn finished explaining and looked over at me. “Does he comprehend?”

“I … I don’t know. He’s gone rather quiet.”

Evelyn frowned harder, clenching her jaw.

“Pretty shocking,” Nicole said with a forced casual tone. “I mean, being told you’ve got a parasite. I’d be pretty freaked out if a doctor told me I had a tapeworm, you know?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Hringewindla,” I said out loud, voicing my thoughts. “I’m not sure how I’m going to get this thing out of you. I-I do want to help. I don’t know what trying to share my blood— m-my immune system, I mean. I don’t know what trying to share that with you would actually do. It might not be good for you. If there’s some other way, we can try to—”

Hringewindla’s trio of exposed tendrils suddenly whirled into motion once more, including the one he had extended to the ground in order to make contact. It was like standing too close to an ambulatory crane; the white scaled flesh shot upwards, the sheer size and strength buffeting us with a gale of wind. Praem had to hang onto Evelyn. Nicole’s coat flapped out with an audible crack. I stumbled and clung to the shell with all my tentacles, swallowing an instinctive hiss. Sevens stood unmoved, hair ruffled by the breeze.

The three tendrils of pale flesh arced high above the dome of purple liquid, then curled inward like fish-hooks. The spiralling mass of bubble-servitors shot upward to join them, moving as if caught in high winds, then pulling into a tight circle.

“Heather, what the hell is he doing?” Evelyn spat.

“I don’t know!”

“Self-surgery,” said Praem.

Evee looked at her in slowly dawning realisation.

“Mm,” went Sevens. “I strongly suggest that none of us move. He knows where we’re standing. He will take care. If I am correct.”

“What?” Nicole turned wide-eyed terror on Sevens. “You don’t mean … oh you massive cu—”

Nicole’s colourful insult was drowned out by the noise of three giant snakes plunging through the world’s largest and messiest soap bubble, a vast, ground-shaking splooooort that sounded more scatological than I had expected. The sound probably would have made Lozzie giggle, if the sight wasn’t so overwhelming. Above us, Hringewindla jammed his three tendrils right back through his outer membrane and into the writhing-snake core of his own body.

The purple membrane split open at the top, where he’d inserted the three tendrils, peeling open like a flower made of flesh, but instantly trying to wrap itself closed again. Great ripping and tearing sounds rolled from within Hringewindla’s depths, like a distant earthquake grinding below our feet. The snake-knot inside him suddenly stopped moving, then seized hard as if with a great muscular spasm.

I couldn’t help but cower at this vast spectacle, hiccuping and cringing and trying not to hiss. Evelyn was the same, huddling in Praem’s arms and gritting her teeth, hands clamped over her ears. Sevens was unaffected, but Nicole had curled up, arms over her head. Marmite was clinging to the ground like a spider in a hurricane. We weren’t built to experience something on this scale. It was like standing too close to the fury of a volcanic eruption.

But deep down inside, I recognised this moment; an abyssal leviathan, exerting all its strength.

I yearned to join in.

Hringewindla’s muscular clench ended with a meaty ripping sound worse than the innards of a thousand slaughterhouses. His bubble membrane seemed to flex and bend, as if something inside him was moving in the wrong way, bulging outward. The three vast tentacles went taut with strain.

“Reel it in,” said Praem, her voice clear as a bell amid the chaos and cacophony. “Almost there.”

Inside me, I felt Hringewindla nod a thank you for the encouragement. Perhaps we should have had Praem doing the talking all along.

With one giant muscular pull, Hringewindla’s three tendrils hauled their catch up from inside his own body, wrenching it past the membrane and up into the open air.

A parasite, a grey slug-shrimp thing plated with thin beetle-like carapace, covered with little barbs and hooks and wriggling legs.

Except Hringewindla’s parasite was the size of a cargo ship.

Sheets of rank mucus fell from the parasite like rain. Hringewindla’s tentacles gripped it so hard that flakes of carapace cracked off and fell through the air, large enough to flatten us all; we were only saved by the sheer sizes and distances involved, and perhaps by Hringewindla’s care toward the weird little apes who had ventured inside his own body.

“Fuck me blind,” Nicole whimpered.

“No thank you, detective,” said Sevens. “You must find a special friend for that.”


Sevens’ moment of absurdity helped short circuit Nicole’s instinctive panic, which was lucky because I couldn’t help. I was lost deep in the rapture of shared victory, a feedback loop from Hringewindla’s own sense of violation and rage. He was very, very angry, with this thing that had the gall to invade his body. He’d seen off much worse in the distant past, nightmares this little gnat couldn’t even dream of. In my mind’s eye, the old crippled man with the crutches and the bent back was clutching a gutting knife.

Hringewindla slammed the parasite against the ground with two tentacles, like a man killing a fish by smashing it against the side of a boat. It was like a bomb going off. The ground shook. Grey meat splattered like an earth-slide of blood and guts. Fragments of grey carapace cracked off and spun away in all directions — except toward us, carefully blocked by the third tentacle.

Far off to our right, the parasite was like a new mountain range of ruined shell and pulped meat. It writhed and shook, pinned by two vast tentacles, making a pitiful effort to drag itself away.

But then the bubble-servitors descended upon it, like a cloud of bees, or perhaps a shoal of piranhas. They swarmed every exposed scrap of flesh, pressing in close, covering the parasite with semi-transparent bubbles.

A horrible hissing, popping, fizzing sound filled the air, louder and louder. Moments later, the parasite stopped struggling, and lay still.

A smell like cooked meat filled the air, rancid and rotten.

Silence slowly returned, like the world filtering back after an avalanche. The crackle and pop of carbonising meat went on like a distant bonfire, joined briefly by a long, slow slurping sound, the sound of Hringewindla’s membrane repairing itself, sealing his snake-knot core inside once again. Our own panting, shocked breathing finally filled my ears. Nicole looked like she wanted to curl up in a ball and stop thinking. I was thrumming with sympathetic rightness and shared disgust, nodding at Hringewindla even though he probably had no idea what the gesture meant.

Praem raised a fist.

“Kaiju fight-o,” she said.

Nicole burst out laughing, a bit too hard, grimacing through her teeth. Evelyn sighed and groaned into her hand.

“I … ” I croaked more like a lizard than a human being, then cleared my throat and tried again. “Well done, um, well done Hringewindla. Thank you. I … uh, I don’t know what I was expecting.”

“What need does a god have of mortal help?” Sevens asked. She shot me a sideways look and I read it instantly. Except me, she seemed to say.

“Exactly,” Evelyn managed to squeeze out, wrinkling her nose at the terrible meaty stench. “Hringewindla is much larger than us, for a start. Though, Heather, he hasn’t hurt himself doing that, has he?”

I blinked several times as the idea descended through my subconscious.

An image returned like a bubble of swamp gas floating up from the murky depths: the crippled old man, cleaning his knife, licking fresh blood from his yellowed teeth. He winked at me.

“I think he’s just fine,” I said.

We all took a moment to gather our wits and share exhausted looks. Marmite slowly crept out from beside the ancient church and got close enough to wrap a bony tentacle around my leg.

“Good boy,” I murmured, absently patting him with a tentacle of my own.

“So … is that it?” Nicole asked, putting her hands on her hips and staring out at the massive dead parasite, like a beached whale. Beneath the semi-transparent layer of bubble-servitors, the grey carapace and burst flesh were slowly turning black. “That lifts the whole nightmare, that’s it?” She snorted and shook her head. “Listen to me, wow, ‘is that it?’ like we didn’t just watch a kaiju fight.” She shot me a look. “And you were so certain this wouldn’t be a Godzilla situation.”

“Kaiju fight,” said Praem. She almost seemed excited, though no less impassive than always.

“I have been known to be wrong,” I said, still a little dazed.

“Why is everything so bloody big?” Nicole asked. She gazed up at the huge soap bubble with its three tendrils, still towering over us and pumping out that purple light. “Your great big caterpillar thing, in Camelot, that was big too. Why is everything so massive?”

“Gods are big,” said Praem.

“Not always,” said Sevens. Then she added, almost like an afterthought, “The nightmare is lifted.”

“What about all the others?” I asked. “Oh, Raine!” I fumbled my mobile phone from my pocket, hands still shaking with adrenaline. Inside my head, Hringewindla leaned over my shoulder to have a look. But there was no signal, not down here in the bowels of the earth and half outside of reality. “Oh, oh no. If she’s been freed, she’ll be looking for me.”

“I suspect we’ll be hearing from them soon enough,” said Sevens.

“Wait wait wait,” Nicole said. “What about all the other parasites? Or is this like a Dracula’s castle thing?” She thumbed at the giant dead parasite.

“Dracula’s castle?” I asked, blinking in confusion. “And, no, um … Hringewindla is dealing with the ones inside his family. His cult, I mean. Right now. I think. It’s hard to process what any of this means, I’m sorry.”

“What about the one inside me?” Nicole tapped her chest.

“It’s dead,” said Sevens. “Parasitic proximity.” She gestured at the mountain of blackening meat with her umbrella. “The larger one took precedence. No doubt it would have tried to re-jump the species gap, back to us, if we had continued to communicate.”

“So … so I’ve got a dead thing wedged in my chest?” Nicole swallowed, going pale, one hand pressed to her breastbone.

“No. It has reverted to information.” Sevens nodded once to her, a slightly amused look in the arch of her eyebrows — or was that just my imagination. “If it had died while you were Outside, that would have been different.”

“Then where are we now?” Nicole gestured around us.

“Inside Hringewindla,” I answered on reflex.

Nicole gestured angrily at the dead parasite again. “Then why was that one not information?!”

Evelyn sighed. “I keep telling you, detective. Don’t think about it.”

Nicole threw up her hands, but she laughed with undeniable relief.

Inside my mind, down in a subconscious place I’d never known about before, Hringewindla and I were having a kind of conversation.

It wasn’t conducted via words or speech, but images and ideas. I didn’t have to vocalise, and he didn’t have to explain himself. The withered old man with the leg braces and the gutting knife was busy dicing up the grey-fleshed parasites that had invaded the minds of his friends.

I asked him if he wanted help. Real help. He was terribly disabled, after all, and even if I couldn’t stretch brain-math that far, I felt compelled to offer. He was alien and gigantic, had almost killed us by mistake, and infested human minds with an irresistible need for information, but he was hardly comparable with the worst that Outside had to offer.

He turned me down with a twinkle in his eye and a creased smile on his papery face. Even if I patched the hole in his shell, there was so little of him left now. So much flesh to re-create, so much of him lost. And would it really be him? He wanted safety and security now, not more risk. He was so very old and very tired, but very comfortable here.

Was there any other way I could help?

Yes, oh yes, little ape. Little squid, I am sorry, I apologise. These old eyes are not what they once were. Little squid, you can help, by not cutting off Hringewindla from his friends. His interface with the world. His eyes and ears and life beyond this shell. Don’t be so cruel to them. Please.

In an imaginary space that was not a space at all, I patted the hand of an old and slightly confused man. He went on slicing up dead meat, angry with the person who dared to meddle with his people.

Mages. Dealt with plenty of them before, haven’t we? Edward Lilburne? Mm. No idea where you might find him. Good luck though.

Back out in reality, Evelyn was frowning at me. Her face was lit by that oily purple light.


“Mm, I’m here. Just … communicating.” I blinked at her, pulling myself back from the crackling fireside.

“Time to go, I think,” she said.

She wasn’t talking to me.

The oily slug-ooze in my brain did not move. I swallowed, suddenly worried. The old man went on chopping and chopping and chopping.

“I … I don’t think he knows how to leave,” I said. “I’m going to have to use brain-math, like I said, to remove the connection. I … ”

Why would you want to leave, little squid? Don’t you want to be my friend too?

The old man turned towards me, inside my imagination, with the gutting knife in his hand.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Giant cone snail, or kindly old man in his isolated cabin? In any case, Heather managed to communicate with him! And briefly summon a giant abyssal rooster-thing which exploded so loudly it freaked out every normal rooster for miles around, oh dear! And what was that Evee said back there???

No Patreon link this week! (Though please feel free to head over there and subscribe if you like, of course!) Instead I want to shout out a very new story, by a long-time reader and fan of Katalepsis. Noctoseismology, in the author’s own words, would not exist without the encouragement and support of the Katalepsis discord server, and is apparently planned to go in a direction that readers of my story will very much like. Go check it out, it’s still on the first few chapters and shaping up great!

 Ah, but, please consider:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

And last, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, it’s brain-slug removal time. Somebody brought the salt, right? Right?

and walked a crooked mile – 16.6

Content Warnings

None, I think.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

In retrospect, I probably should have used hyperdimensional mathematics.

Instead of relying on the Outsider-granted mind-powers that I could literally weave at the speed of thought, I threw myself at a pneuma-somatic angel-bud creature — which looked like a collection of angry soap bubbles imitating the shape of a mutant slug, while we were inside the ruins of an ancient church which housed the entrance to the angel-bud’s god-hive-father-nest, with thousands of the bubble-creature’s friends hanging in a mass above our heads, like a inverted glob of giant frog-spawn, clinging to the underside of the forest canopy, ready to fall on us like the world’s most disgusting waterfall.

This was not the smartest move I’d ever made. It wasn’t the worst, but it was, in Evelyn’s words, ‘far from optimal’.

Brain-math probably would have worked better, too. I was maybe ten meters from the bubble-servitor when it shot toward Sevens, well within range to smash it away with a jumbled physics-breaking flail of maths. And brain-math worked at the speed of thought; there was no risk of the bubble-servitor slamming into Sevens before I had time to lash out with the first tool I dragged out of the oily deep. It would be like braining an assailant with a spanner — not a perfect self-defence weapon, but it would have gotten the job done all the same.

But hyperdimensional mathematics was higher-order thinking. Brain-math required intention and planning, even if that planning happened in a split second of thought etched upon the frozen membrane between reality and the abyss.

Planning? When a monster was about to engulf Sevens’ head and digest her like some giant pitcher plant of skinned muscle and toxic slime?

Ape and abyss were in agreement, hands joined, heads together. No plans. Defend the pack.

Which is a long-winded way of justifying why I lost control. I hissed and screeched and sprang off the ground like a coiled spring — forgetting, of course, that Evelyn and I had our arms linked. I think I made her stumble, but luckily Nicole was there to catch her while I was busy playing Humboldt Squid. At least I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of knocking poor Evee to the ground. I think I would have grovelled at her feet for that.

I spent less than half a second airborne, passing Praem and Sevens in a blur of whipping tentacles.

Half a second was more than enough time to realise that I had made a mistake.

Instinct had failed to take into account that I was not a four-hundred pound abyssal creature of fanged maw and razor-sharp spines, that I was not in fact what half my mind said I should be. I was neither armour-plated nor smeared with my own toxic mucus. If I had been, my friends might have had some choice words for me. I wasn’t even ready for a fight, not as I had been against Ooran Juh, with rapid alterations and additions to my core of true flesh. I was still five foot nothing and weighed all of a hundred and five pounds, pneuma-somatic tentacles or not. When I leapt, my mind said I should be sharp and graceful, like a steel spring, but I probably looked more like a chewed dog-toy thrown onto a soggy trampoline. This was not the first time I had followed my abyssal instincts, these grafted-on drives and urges which felt so much more vibrant and real than the muted colours of swallowing my desires. But it was the first time they had led me to do something I was not even remotely prepared for.

My body did the best it could. In that half-second, the bioreactor in my abdomen spun up like a turbine, pumping heat out into my belly, energy surging into limb and core, every muscle suddenly running hot. Five of my six tentacles whipped forward to concentrate the impact on my target. The pale, smooth, rainbow-lit pneuma-somatic flesh erupted with hooks and barbs, toothed suckers, sharp scales, and bio-steel blades.

One tentacle curled tight into my side, holding onto my squid-skull mask. No time to slip it on.

The bubble-servitor never touched Sevens, so at least I was a successful protector. I slammed into the thing in mid-air and brought it down, like a cricket ball hitting a water balloon. We hit the ground together in a rolling mass of tentacles and limbs and trailing bubbles, me hissing at the top of my lungs, the bubble-servitor like a wet sack of rotten potatoes.

Evelyn later described it as like watching a threshing machine dumped into a bowl of pudding.

Pity it didn’t feel that way. I would have preferred pudding.

Touching the bubble-servitor made my skin crawl; the thing felt exactly as I had imagined. Each translucent, iridescent bubble had the texture of raw meat, but wriggling and flexing, oily and warm. I didn’t fight with any intent, just lashing out with feral response, pushing the thing away, ripping at it with hooked and barbed tentacles, slicing bubbles apart with my appendages, getting it away from us, away from me. Hissing and screeching warning noises, animalistic challenges to make this thing leave, I was completely beyond control.

Pieces of the bubble-servitor came away like ropes of rotten meat lashed off a carcass, clumps of bubbles tearing away from the central mass and trying to re-join like water droplets under surface tension.

The bubble-servitor fought back, stabbing at me with makeshift pseudopods and clubbed masses of bubbles, but it was hard to tell how much was intentional response and how much was wild flailing. Perhaps the thing was simply flaring outward like a blob of slime beaten with a whisk. The creature was clumsy, inaccurate, without proper force or killing intention behind each blow. So, we were evenly matched, pretty much. It even whacked me a couple of times, ineffectual slaps that made me screech all the louder.

The fight — really a slap-fight between two creatures that hadn’t expected this — probably lasted only four or five seconds, tentacles whipping the air, bubble-monster whirling in confusion. Other voices shouted around us as I rolled on the hard-packed mud floor of the ancient church.

Then something else stepped in and pulled the bubble-servitor off me.

For a split second, lying on my back in the depths of abyssal instinct and adrenaline-haze, I thought it was Praem, resplendent in her maid uniform with ruffled skirts and frilled shoulders, black and white and perfectly starched, exerting demonic strength as only she knew how.

But Praem wasn’t wearing her maid uniform.

It wasn’t Praem.

The bubble-servitor splashed against the wall of the church, flung there by an engine of war.

Eight feet of black, sharp-edged, armoured plates, flaring outward in a cone, ridged with yellow membranes like toxic frills. A creature of curving carapace and many-jointed limbs, with hands like bill-hooks. A razor-sharp tail whipped past my face; a sensory bulb like a wobbling head turned back to check I was okay; poison stingers and fighting claws poised to repel Hringewindla’s angel a second time.

And yellow, yellow everywhere, in tiny tendrils rising between the plates of the figure’s carapace, in the spore-dust that shed from its back in a golden wave, in the soft downy fuzz down its front.

“ … Sevens?” I said — or tried to, unknotting my throat, raw from screeching like a wild cat.

The bubble-servitor decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Or perhaps it realised it shouldn’t have messed with Seven-Shades-of-What-The-Hell-Is-That in the first place. As soon as it had reformed into a more coherent shape after splattering against the wall, it scooted upward, retreating from us like a spooked sea-slug.

Somebody whimpered in a desperate attempt not to scream. I think that was Nicole.

But before I could say “Sevens, is that you?”, Hastur’s Daughter vanished quicker than the blink of an eye, replaced once again by the prim and proper Princess Mask. Her starched white blouse and yellow skirt were all rumpled and askew, exactly as if she’d just plunged into a bar fight and dragged me clear.

She offered me her hand. I blinked at it, insensible and half-mute, still raging with adrenaline and waist-deep in abyssal instinct. And also still lying on my back like a confused tortoise.

“We must move,” said the Princess. “Up, now.”

I took her hand. She pulled me to my feet as I found my voice. “S-Sevens,” I croaked, throat still raw. “What was—”

“An old mask, from elsewhere,” she said, quick and collected. “We must move, now.”

“That was beautiful,” I mumbled. The crustacean-machine was stark and clear in my mind, like I’d seen a real angel out here in the ruined church deep in the woods. “Thank you, thank you, that was beau—”


Sevens span her umbrella in one hand, pointing upward with the metal tip. I followed, then felt like a bucket of cold water had been dumped over my head. Suddenly I was very sober.

The mass of bubble-servitors up in the trees had not taken kindly to our act of self-defence.

They had concentrated themselves in one central blob, directly over the shell of the old church, then begun to droop downward like a giant raindrop dangling from a leaf. The individual angels roiled and bubbled over each other, reminding me of a nature documentary about army ants. Strength in numbers, stick together, shoulder-to-shoulder to repel this strange and alien threat in their midst.

“Oh. Um, whoops.”

“Whoops is right,” Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth, unsteady on her feet as she peered upward through her modified 3D glasses. She had her bone-wand out in one hand, but didn’t seem to know what to do. “God dammit, Heather.”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“It’s not your fault,” she added in a rush, grabbing at Praem’s arm for support. “Sevens is right, we need to move, right now. In or out, what are we doing?”

“What the fuuuuck was that?” Nicole finally spoke. Her voice quivered on the edge of hysteria. She was wide-eyed with pale terror, staring at Sevens like she’d seen a ghost. Or more accurately, a giant Outsider monster. “Your fucking … what was … please just—”

“Very pretty,” Praem intoned. “But not the time to discuss outfits.”

“Nicky, she’s on our side!” I blurted out. “We have to move, right now. She’s right.”

“—just tell me you’re not—”

Evelyn whipped the 3D glasses off her own face, stuck them over Nicole’s eyes, and forcefully jerked her chin upward.

Nicole stopped talking. Her jaw hung open.

“Right,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth. She’d gone green around the gills. Her other arm was wrapped around Praem’s elbow like a limpet. “In or out, what do we do? Run, or go deeper? Quickly now.”

“In?” Nicole looked at her like she was mad. “Into that … that shell? No, no, no way.”

“It might be the only way to make contact with Hringewindla,” I said, glancing up at the descending droplet of bubbles again. They were halfway to the church now, the dangling blob thickening like a droplet of honey about to fall. The sight made me hunch my shoulders and duck my head, skin aching to sprout armour plates and spikes, instinct telling me to flee as if before a predator I couldn’t possibly understand. “W-we need to move, we—”

Three things happened at the same time.

Sevens pulled my hand, urging me toward the entrance of the chalk-white shell-tip poking from the soil, where the church altar used to be.

Nicole raised her voice in protest. Praem spoke too, a sudden sing-song of warning — “Bad doggos,” — interrupted by a yelp from Evelyn as Praem scooped her off her feet.

And Marmite, plucky little Marmite who apparently didn’t care one whit about the Mask of Hastur’s Spawn, scurried past us all in a blur of terrified scuttling limbs and threw himself into the open mouth of the shell.

“Run!” shouted Sevens.

We had deliberated for too long.

Sevens all but lifted me off my feet as she dragged me into the opening of the spiral shell, shoving me deeper into the cave-like darkness, our feet ringing against the cold, smooth surface, so solid after the mud of the church. Sevens turned back to make sure the others were hurrying too, then she leaned out of the shell-mouth and flicked her umbrella open, raising the lilac canopy as if to shelter them from a sudden downpour of rain.

Praem bustled inside with Evelyn in her arms, half-dragging her. Evelyn’s eyes were screwed shut in terror, knuckles white on her walking stick.

“Detective!” Sevens called, her composure cold with alarm.

Nicole Webb was slow to find her feet — or perhaps her courage. For one critical moment she fumbled with the 3D glasses on her face, unsure if she should join us or turn and run. But then she found her resolve, pushed the modified glasses against her eyes, and sprinted for the entrance, long coat flapping out behind her.

Too late.

The bubble-servitors began to fall like hailstones the size of dogs. These were not natural spirit-life, but hard pneuma-somatic flesh, more akin to the Saye family spiders than wild spirits. They hit the ground with real physical impact, slamming into the mud, sliding down the walls, filling the air with alien muscle and meat.

Nicole screamed when one fell directly in front of her path, but she didn’t stop. She tried to vault over the thing but tripped and went sprawling in the mud, her legs still not entirely recovered from the effects of the parasite. She scrambled beneath Sevens’ umbrella. One of the bubble-servitors actually bounced off the lilac fabric, which would have amazed me under less dazed and confused circumstances. Nicole took the offer of Sevens’ hand.

Panting, wild-eyed behind the glasses, Nicole lurched to her feet and stumbled into the shell with the rest of us. “Oh my fu—”

“Deeper, now!” Sevens commanded, snapping her umbrella shut and drawing it inside.

No sooner had she voiced the warning than the entire mass of bubble-servitors finally fell onto the church.

It was like being buried by an avalanche. The creatures pummelled against the outside of the shell, the walls of the church, and the ground itself. They blotted out what little sunlight crept around the curve of the shell’s interior structure. They started to flow into the mouth of the shell like loose rockfall at Sevens’ heels. Sevens grabbed me again, but she needn’t have bothered, I was already pulling myself deeper with my tentacles, running on pure animal instinct to avoid being engulfed by that wave of vile bubble-flesh. Praem dragged Evelyn. Nicole followed close. Marmite scuttled sideways along the wall.

We only stopped when the sound of giant hail ceased drumming all around us.

Three sets of shuddering breath filled the close darkness — myself, Evelyn, and Nicole. So little light penetrated this deep, past the mound of bubble-servitors, that I could make out only the faintest outlines of everyone else. The walls of the shell were cool and smooth beneath my tentacles. My chest hurt with adrenaline and panic.

Somebody swallowed on a dry throat. Evelyn. “Is everybody … intact?” she asked.

“I-I think so,” said Nicole.

“Present and correct,” said Sevens from my other side. “For now.”

“Here,” said Praem.

A hand bumped against me, then held fast. “Heather?” Evelyn hissed my name.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I said between panting breaths. “I’m here, Evee, are you okay?”

“For a given value of ‘okay’”, she said. “Fucking hell.”

“You can say that again,” Nicole agreed.

“Praem, here.” Evelyn clacked her walking stick against the floor, against the material of the shell, then rummaged in her coat in the dark. “Here, hold this, please. Yes, there you go. Just flick it.”

“Let there be light,” Praem said as she activated the flash-light function on Evelyn’s mobile phone.

Harsh light burst from her hand, held up high, casting ghostly illumination across the off-white walls of the shell’s interior. Deep fingers of shadow danced across the curved floor, cast by our bodies.

Nicole and I copied the idea. I found my mobile phone and switched the flash-light on as well, trying not to dazzle anybody. Nicole produced a tiny hand-held torch from inside her coat, the exact sort of thing a competent private eye might carry. The torch shook in her grip and her face was coated in cold sweat. She pulled the modified 3D glasses off her face and knuckled at her eyes as we looked around.

“I can still see … still see it, without the glasses … ” she said. Her voice was quivering. Bad sign.

“Because we’re inside it,” Evelyn muttered, taking the glasses from her with surprising gentleness. “Stop trying to think, detective.”


“Stop thinking. I will do the thinking for you.”

Nicole took a deep breath, but it stuck in her throat. She’d gone almost grey in the last few seconds, her face washed out by the light reflected from the walls of the shell. She made a fist, clenching too hard, about to break.

“Nicky?” I said her name, but she was staring back up the way we’d came, at the pile of bubble-servitors blocking the way back. “Nicky?”

But then she noticed that Sevens had somehow caused the raised tip of her umbrella to glow with soft blue light.

“Like a magic wand?” Nicole said, voice raw and shaking, but trying to sound plain old unimpressed. “You’re kidding right? Screw that.”

“It is functional, under the circumstances,” Sevens replied. “You have a problem, detective?”

Nicole snorted, forced and artificial, but she unclenched her fist and let go of her breath. “Alright. Alright, I’m holding it together.” I caught her eye. She gave me a jerky nod and an ironic smile. “Nice tentacles, Morell. On display now, eh?”

I smiled back, trying not to show how terrified I felt. Evelyn and I shared a glance, silently agreeing not to voice the obvious conclusion.

Being able to see the inside of the shell was one thing, we were standing in it, after all. But if my tentacles were visible, then wherever we were standing was more akin to Outside than to our reality.

Between two mobile phone flash-lights, one hand-held torch, and the twee fantasy-glow of Sevens’ umbrella, we took stock of the inside of the shell. We were crammed together in a sort of narrow tunnel, perhaps seven or eight feet wide and ten or eleven feet in height, with a gentle curve to every surface, making it more like an oblong tube, although the floor was relatively flat. The exterior of the shell had looked chalky, sun-bleached, and aged, but the inside was pearlescent white, the surface full of tiny veins like crystal that soaked up the light and reflected it back in shimmers and iridescent flutters. Spiral patterns curled across every inch of surface, white-on-white, looping back into themselves and leading downward, down the shallow incline into the dark, down the helix toward the heart of the shell.

A pile of bubble-servitors blocked the way back up, heaped on top of each other like the aftermath of a rock slide, blotting out the light. They weren’t coming after us, but there was no way back through them.

Evelyn stared at the mass of revolting creatures for a few moments, leaning on Praem’s arm, then sighed and ran her hand over her face.

“It’ll be okay, Evee,” I said. “We’re not stuck. We’re not.”

“Er.” Nicole swallowed hard. “How do we get back out? I would really like to know if there’s a plan.”

“God,” Evelyn hissed. “We can all be so fucking stupid sometimes.”

“That was as much my fault as any other,” said Sevens. “I did not practice self-restraint.”

“No, this is what we get for messing about!” Evelyn snapped.

“It was my fault,” I said. “Evee, it was my fault, I threw myself at the bubble-servitor.”

Evelyn gave me a sidelong look. I tried to look contrite, which wasn’t hard because I was absolutely mortified. I’d brought the gathering of Hringewindla’s angels down on our heads and all I had to show for it was muddy clothes, dirt smeared all over my hoodie, and the ragged remains of an adrenaline high.

“I lost control,” I blurted out. “Back in the house earlier, when I found Raine, I didn’t jump up to the window to join her. I feel so stupid I didn’t, like I could have used my tentacles better, I should have followed the urge, so this time I just … I gave in, I’m so—”

“Don’t you dare,” she said. “Don’t you dare apologise. Shut the fuck up.”

I opened my mouth and shut it again, unable to overcome Evelyn’s glare.

“Uh, the way out?” Nicole prompted. “Please?”

Evelyn gestured at the pile of bubbles. “Remind you of anything, Heather? How do we end up in the same situation twice, hmm?”

“I’m sorry?”

“This is just like with Alexander’s bloody castle. We’re inside, no way back.”

“Oh,” I sighed. “No, Evee, this is nothing like that time. It’s not like we’re trying to rescue anybody.”

“Aren’t we?”

“First as tragedy, then as farce,” said Sevens, a few paces further down the spiralling slope. Marmite clung to the wall next to her, his tentacles trailing out across the surface of the shell, exploring this strange cave. “I am glad to be present for the farce. And you are all glad I was not here for the tragedy.”

“Not a tragedy,” said Praem.

“Hey,” Nicole said, sharper than before. “Are you all ignoring me?”

“I can literally Slip us all back out if I have to, Nicky,” I said. “That’s how we can escape. And rescuing Lozzie from the castle was not a tragedy, Sevens!”

Sevens nodded minutely, acknowledging my point.

Nicole held her hand out to me. “Alright, let’s go then. I’m ready, let’s go.”

Evelyn snorted. Sevens raised her eyebrows. I swallowed and stared at Nicole’s hand.

“Going down,” said Praem.

Her bell-clear voice echoed in the confines of the shell, vanishing downward into the spiralling dark.

Nicole studied our faces one by one. The light in her hand shook slightly. “You’re kidding.”

I winced. “Well … this is what we wanted.”

“Wait here if you like,” Evelyn grumbled. She turned to peer down the spiral. “Praem, I need a hand, I can hardly balance on this floor as it is.”

“Courage, detective,” said Sevens. “You have more than you believe. You are no coward.”

Nicole grit her teeth and lowered her hand. She looked ready to either curl up in a ball and start sobbing, or shoot somebody dead.

“Sorry,” I murmured.

“Cowards generally live longer,” she said. “Just don’t put me in the vanguard, alright?”


‘Down’ went on forever, plunging into the dark beneath the world.

Sevens led the way down the long spiral, umbrella held against her shoulder, sensible heels click-clacking against the calcium carbonate of Hringewindla’s shell. If indeed it was calcium carbonate at all. What did Outsiders use to make shells? Was this part of his natural form, or had he grown this shell after arriving on Earth, for protection and safety? If the shell was pneuma-somatic, how had it come to be embedded so deeply in the ground? Clearly we had crossed some invisible threshold and stepped into a bubble of Outside, like a bulb of pressurised water from the ocean depths preserved in a reverse-Bathysphere.

I took Evelyn’s advice and tried not to think too much about how this all worked. As Sevens had told me, Outsiders have an odd relationship with notions of reality.

Marmite scurried along the wall next to Sevens, happily keeping pace with her and probing the darkness with his long, bony, segmented tentacles. It was the first time I’d seen him uncoil them from around his body, using them like he had when he’d been Edward’s remote-controlled puppet. The darkness and the close confines suited him well. Perhaps he felt safe here, at home in the dark. At least one of us did.

I followed in Sevens’ wake, my own tentacles wide and waiting, in case something was about to rush out of the darkness. I kept my squid-skull mask hugged against my belly, unwilling to hinder communication by seeking refuge inside the bone-metal, for now. Evelyn and Praem followed behind. Evelyn struggled a little with the smooth, shallow ramp of the shell innards, her walking stick betraying her on the polished surface. Praem acted as her support, the mobile phone raised in her other hand like a lantern in the dark.

Nicole brought up the rear, courage bolstered by purpose.

For the first five or ten minutes, we crept slowly downward without saying much, holding our collective breath. I didn’t know about the others, but my mind was filled with images of Hringewindla, of what he might be like — some kind of giant mollusc at the core of this spiralling shell? At least he and I might have something in common.

But after ten minutes, the change became undeniable.

“It’s getting wider,” Evelyn said, looking at the opposite wall.

“Yeah,” said Nicole. “I noticed that too. Weird, hey?” She toyed with her little can of pepper spray in one hand.

“Well,” I said, trying to sound bright. All I did was make myself flinch at the volume of my own voice echoing down the tunnel. “It is a shell, after all. I think they tend to get wider, on the inside. I think.”

“Stick to the right hand wall,” Evelyn said. “That’s the exterior.”

The shell got wider and wider as we descended further down the helix. The slope of the floor got steeper too, tilting us downward. The left hand wall drew further and further away, until it was barely visible even when we pointed the light directly outward. By the twenty minute mark, we walked at the edge of a black and echoing void.

“It’s okay, it’s going to be all right,” I said now and then. “I’ve been in worse places, much worse places. This is going to be okay.”

“Is this real?” Nicole hissed from the rear. Her voice echoed off into the dark beside us. “Is this another nightmare? This can’t be real. We’ve been walking downward for twenty minutes. Twenty. Minutes. How deep are we?”

“Don’t think about it,” Evelyn said between her teeth.

But Nicole couldn’t stop. Her teeth were chattering. “There was a video game with something like this. Horror game, I think. Played it back when I was a teenager. These stairs kept going down and down and down. Impossible.”

“What was at the bottom?” I asked. “In the game?”

“Hell. Sort of.”

“Well, there’s no such thing as hell,” I said, trying to sound confident. Also a lie. There were many hells, Outside. “And at least there’s no branches here, we can’t get lost.”

Evelyn hissed. “And don’t you jinx us, Heather. So help me God, don’t you jinx us with that.”

I shut my mouth and kept it that way.

Just when the gradually steepening incline of the shell was becoming a problem for those of us without tentacles, Sevens found the stairs.

“Oh, how unexpected,” I said as I joined her. We briefly paused on the narrow, rough, rectangular stairs cut directly into the material of the shell. They followed the right hand wall. Whoever had been here before had the same idea as us: don’t wander off into the dark.

“Stairs,” Praem announced.

“Oh, thank fuck for that,” Evelyn grunted, covering her discomfort with complaints as she rubbed her hip.

“Hringewindla’s home needs disabled access,” said Praem. Nicole started laughing, a little too much, too loud, too shrill. Praem turned to look at her. “I am not joking,” she added.

Nicole ended her laugh with a cough. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”

After almost half an hour of walking, half an hour of worrying about the others, about Raine and Zheng and Twil, half an hour of my gut clenched up like a fist, half an hour of being ready with adrenaline and barbed tentacles and brain-math, half an hour of descent in the dark — we stepped into the heart of Hringewindla’s shell.

Light filtered around the curve from up ahead as the helix levelled off and the stairs gave up. Diffuse, dark purple light washed over everything and made my eyes ache, as if a toxic sun hung veiled behind thick clouds. The light slowly revealed that we were walking huddled along one wall of a massive smooth tunnel; the left hand wall was easily three hundred feet away, and the ceiling climbed up and up and up.

The tunnel ended like an estuary opening into the sea.

We all stopped there, on the edge of the possible. Marmite came down from the wall and huddled behind my legs, his recent courage sputtering out. Sevens put out her light and touched the shell-floor with her umbrella. Evelyn wet her lips and tried to speak, twice, but failed to find the words. Nicole’s jaw hung open. I struggled not to coil my tentacles inward and cradle myself like a frightened child.

A plain of bone curved away from us, so wide it seemed flat. The distant walls must have been several miles away, indistinct boundaries of mottled chalk-and-grey, curving back upward toward an unseen ceiling. The cavity in the heart of the shell was so large that it possessed weather; thick dark clouds hung far up in the false sky, still as a dead ocean, lit from below by that strange dark purple glow.

Towers of curving, curled, spiked shell rose from the surface of the plain at regular intervals, in a spiral pattern, as if to provide anchors to something that had once filled the entire space. Some of them were cracked and broken, pieces of them missing, snapped off and lost.

The ground — the surface of the shell itself — was marked and scored here and there with meter after meter of jagged, black scorch mark, clearly ancient now, worn smooth and begun to blend in with the grey-chalk of the shell. Some of the marks had depressions down their middle, as if dozens of giant claws had once scraped across this surface.

The scorch marks and claw-wounds all radiated from a hole, clearly visible far, far to our right, halfway up the distant wall. The hole opened on darkness. It must have been gigantic, tall as a skyscraper.

But the crippling wound in Hringewindla’s shell was dwarfed by what remained of the Outsider god himself.

Directly ahead of us, perhaps half a mile away, a dome bulged upward from the surface of the shell; a soap bubble the size of a football stadium. The shifting, semi-translucent veil poured out that strange purple light, like oil on water reflecting the sun. Inside the membrane of swirling purple I could just make out a slow shifting motion, like a mass of gigantic pale snakes coiling over each other, a never-ending slither of scale against scale, soundless and vast, as celestial mechanics in the void of space.

Angels — Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors — floated above the oily purple soap bubble in a distant halo. Thousands of them, docile and still, a court attending their crippled god.

A few feet away from us, a short metal rod had been driven into the ground. A blue nylon rope was tied to the top of the rod, with the other end tied to another rod about twenty feet further on, and then another, and another, leading toward Hringewindla.

Guideposts, left here by human hands.

Somebody whimpered.

“How … ” Nicole barely breathed the word. “How does all this exist … down here?”

“We can … we can … we can … ” Evelyn kept trying to start a sentence.

A single tear was running down Sevens’ cheek. I doubted that she was overcome by the alien strangeness of this place. Hers was some unknowable sympathetic melancholy.

“I’ve seen worse,” I said with a sigh.

Nicole boggled at me. Evelyn frowned in my direction. Sevens wiped her cheek and turned her attention to me instead. Praem kept staring at the big ball of giant snakes, but I don’t think she was that bothered. Marmite gave no sign he’d understood, but he touched one of my tentacles to demand a hand-hold.

“You what?” Nicole said.

I shrugged. “I have. I mean, it’s weird, yes. Very weird. But I’ve genuinely seen much worse, Outside. At random. As a little girl.”

Evelyn forced herself to take a deep breath, steadying herself by leaning heavily on Praem’s support. “Heather is right. She’s seen much worse than this. This isn’t actually that bad. We must keep this in perspective.”

“Worse than that?!” Nicole gestured at the Hringewindla-dome and the wound in the shell. “Fuck me, Heather. You’re made of sterner stuff than I am.”

“I’m just used to it. It’s not a big deal.” I took a deep breath, oddly embarrassed by the way Nicole was looking at me, then I shouldered ahead, taking the lead as I made for the first of the guideposts driven into the shell-surface. “Come on, it’s not that bad.”

Somehow, I managed to sound like I was telling the truth.

This was very bad, in ways I wasn’t sure I wanted to comprehend. We didn’t even understand what we were looking at; I cursed my own lack of foresight, we should have had one of the Hoptons here with us to explain. I hadn’t been aware of my expectations until they’d been dashed. I had imagined Hringewindla as some tentacle-monster in a stone-walled church cellar, with a bloody altar at his feet, and a taste for riding along in human minds, something that could exist on Earth without breaking too many natural laws.

I’d met Gods face-to-face twice now, and I had to admit that Hringewindla was more akin to the Eye than to the King in Yellow.

But I wasn’t about to admit any of that in front of Nicole or Evelyn. Nicky was barely holding on. Evelyn was an unaltered human, however grumpy and brilliant she could be. Sevens and Praem and I may have been equipped for this encounter, but we had to protect those who were not.

Then again, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this either.

I grabbed the blue nylon rope with a tentacle, just for something to anchor myself, and then forced one foot in front of the other. The alternative was to give up. We’d come too far for that.

To my deep and lasting relief, the others hurried to join me. My gamble had worked. Phone flash-lights were switched off, Nicky’s torch went out, and Marmite scurried up beside me, holding tight to one tentacle.

“And you said you hadn’t read any Lovecraft,” Nicole hissed.

“Old Howard was full of shit,” Evelyn muttered. “Mostly.”

“I think I preferred the spooky house,” said Nicole. “Alpacas and all.”

Crossing the half-mile of open ground took about ten minutes, flanked by those massive twisted pillars of shell, over the remains of scorch marks as wide as a bus. Our feet clacked and echoed across the smooth plain. The rubber tip of Evelyn’s walking stick went squeak-squeak. Making our way toward the semi-transparent purple dome full of giant writhing tubes was not the most intimidating thing I’d ever done, but it was probably up there in the top ten.

The landscape was not simply alien — it wasn’t a landscape at all. The curvature of every surface, the blunt tapering barbs on the towers, the looming hole far off to our right, all of it was undeniably biological. Even the thick grey clouds were not true clouds, but some kind of clinging internal moisture. I tried not to think about the implications of that.

“Why the safety rope?” Nicole asked after a minute or two. “I don’t like that, not one bit. Why do you think they need a safety rope?”

Evelyn answered before I could think of how to soothe Nicole’s worries. “Confusion, disorientation, brain fog,” she said. “That sort of thing. Hringewindla gets into people’s minds, detective. I would wager whatever acts of worship take place down here, sometimes they leave a worshipper … unwell.”

Nicole let out a big sigh. “Fuck me, I hope we aren’t gonna need it.”

“We won’t,” I said.

“ … excuse me?” Nicole sounded even more worried than before. I sighed at my own poor choice of words.

“I mean, I’ll Slip us back out, once we’re done here. We’re not climbing back up the shell. Evelyn would struggle, for a start.”

“Bloody right,” Evelyn grunted.

Nicole snorted and shook her head. “For a second there I thought you meant we weren’t going back at all.”

“It won’t be like that,” I said. “We’re here to help him. Then we’ll leave. That’s all.”

Help him is doing a lot of heavy lifting there,” Nicole said. She nodded ahead, at the low purple dome like oil on water. “You gonna reach into that with a tentacle and pull out a parasite?”

“She might,” Evelyn answered for me. “Stop thinking about it, detective. Let Heather and I do the thinking.”

Nicole puffed out another sigh, but she stopped complaining.

The Hringewindla-dome revealed its true size as we drew closer. The shape wasn’t really a dome at all, but actually a sphere, lying in a sort of socket in the landscape, slightly loose like a shrunken and withered eyeball, as if this core organ of his being had once been healthy and flush against the supporting tissues. About one hundred meters from the lip of the socket was some identifiably human detritus, where the guideposts terminated. The shapes came into focus as we got nearer. A trio of modern tents were pitched next to a low stone building.

“Is that … a church?” Nicole asked.

“The real church,” Evelyn said between gritted teeth. “Inside his body. Thing must be ancient.”

But one of us was not watching Hringewindla at all. As we walked closer to the little human encampment, Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight was gazing outward across the plain of dead calcium carbonate, her cool and collected features undeniably tainted with distant melancholy.

“Sevens?” I asked, as much to distract myself as to reassure her. “Are you all right?”

For a long moment the Yellow Princess did not respond. I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then she turned to gaze past me, the other way out across the inside of Hringewindla’s shell.

“He must have been such a grand thing,” she said.

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. Nicole went “eh?” But I nodded, because I knew what Sevens was talking about. I hadn’t tried to put it into words, but it didn’t take a marine biologist to understand.

“A fortress,” Sevens continued, voice soft and far away. “Secure within his shell, bringing his home with him wherever he went. How many worlds did he visit? What sights has he seen? But now he cannot move. He cannot risk leaving, not with his protection ruined, or he might be devoured. He is stuck in the heart of his own shell, alive but immobile, marooned.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Nicole said.

“Big hole,” said Praem.


“The hole in the wall, Nicky,” I said. “It’s a drill-hole.”

Nicole boggled at me, too. I saw her throat bob. She was very focused on this conversation, so as not to look up at the dome looming over us as we crept closer, like ants before a whale.

“Hringewindla has a shell, yes?” I said. “Like a marine mollusc. That hole in the wall over there, it’s like the kind of hole made by a predator, the kind with a drill-tongue, a rasping tongue. Like a starfish or a sea snail or something similar. That kind of predator pins the shell down, so they can drill a hole through, to get at the mollusc inside.”

Nicole stared at me, wide-eyed with dawning comprehension. Slowly, like a woman forcing herself to acknowledge a bleeding spectre in the corner of her bedroom, she turned to gaze at the vast hole in the wall of the shell, the leviathan scorch-and-claw marks across the shell’s surface, and the barbed towers that looked like they were meant for anchoring flesh.

Evelyn put her face in her hand. Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “Thank you for that explanation, Heather. Detective, don’t think about it.”

“Looks like he won the fight, though,” I said quickly, trying to cover for my mistake. Nicole had not wanted to know any of that. “But he’s been reduced. That’s what they meant by ‘crippled’, I suppose. Sorry, I only know all this because I’ve watched so many marine life videos on youtube … ” I trailed off and cleared my throat.

“This entire space was once filled with his flesh,” said Sevens. I winced. Evelyn rolled her eyes to the false sky.

But Nicole just laughed, shaking her head. “Giant sea-creature gods, wounded and napping. And you said Lovecraft was full of shit.”

“Reduced so far from his peak,” said Sevens. “Stuck here, trapped in his own body. It is no wonder he rides along in the minds of his mortal friends.”

Evelyn snorted. “Friends. An Outsider with—”

She didn’t quite manage to course-correct before the Yellow Princess gave her a sudden, sharp look.

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Present company excepted. You’re different.”

Seven-Shades-of-not-so-Smooth stopped walking, which was a problem because she was right next to me, with Evelyn and Praem behind us. Evelyn was forced to stop as well, arm-in-arm with Praem. Nicole halted too. Marmite paused at my side, confused by the sudden palpable tension.

“Am I?” Sevens asked Evelyn, ice-cold, umbrella resting point-down. “What about Praem?”

“Sevens, please,” I whined, and felt like banging my head on the ground. “Not now?”

“Praem is a demon from the abyss, in a human form, that’s different altogether,” Evelyn said. Then she huffed. “Look, I’m sorry, I apologise, I didn’t mean to offend you. But you’re a … you wear a human form. That makes it easier.”

“I’m different because I am small, is that it? Because I’m not large? Because I choose to present in this form, rather than one like this?” She gestured around us with a flicker of her fingers. “Because I am not crippled?”

Evelyn’s turn to sigh and give her a look. “I’m crippled.”

“Disabled,” I said — but gently. I wasn’t actually correcting Evelyn’s choice. But the word was there if she wanted it.

“I know what it’s like,” she said to Sevens. “And I apologise. It’s hard for a human being to have sympathy for something the size of a dozen whales.”

“Yeah, cut us some slack, hey?” Nicole said, wide-eyed and confused by the whole situation. She wasn’t just left behind, she was practically on another planet. I was amazed she could keep up with this at all. “And can we maybe not have this conversation while we’re in the middle of a giant underground shell? Maybe? Please?”

“We are about to speak with him,” Sevens replied without looking away from Evelyn. “Now is the perfect time to make sure we all understand what we are speaking to.”

“I’m trying,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.

“She is trying,” said Praem.

Sevens waited another beat, then nodded, ever so slightly. “I know you are, madam magician. I apologise for my fiery temper.”

Evelyn frowned at her, incredulous. “Fiery temper? No apology necessary. I was in the wrong.”

Did I detect a hint of sarcasm in Sevens’ tone? This wasn’t the time to investigate what was going on with her, so I filed that away for now, worried that all was not well with my Yellow Lover.

We covered the final stretch of guide-posts and blue rope, which led us to the little human encampment, about a hundred meters away from the edge of the oily purple sphere. This close, the tube-like shapes below the surface were almost clear enough to see in full, a tantalizing suggestion of snake-like motion, ropes of clean white flesh sliding over each other in an endless dance, without head nor tail to demarcate end or beginning. The surface of the sphere itself was dizzying to watch, oily motion swirling in millions of tiny spirals, across a soap bubble larger than any object any of us had ever seen.

Well, except for me. It wasn’t larger than the Eye.

Purple light spilled from the surface of the great oily bubble. It made my skin feel oily too. My eyes and scalp both itched, as if I hadn’t washed for weeks. As if by unspoken agreement, we all sheltered in the thin shadow cast by the strange old church.

“Who the hell do you think built this?” Nicole asked. “How? I don’t even … ”

“Down here in the corpse of a god,” said Sevens.

“People,” Praem said.

The Church of Hringewindla, the Brinkwood Cult — and the mad fools who had come before them — had established a semi-permanent camp down here. The church building was truly ancient, made of grey stone blocks, roughly cut but expertly mortared. It contained nothing except a few low stone benches and a badly stained altar, the exact thing I had expected, though the stains looked ancient by now. The foundation stones were affixed directly to the shell’s surface, though the building was short and squat, without a roof, and with one open end facing toward Hringewindla himself. What need of a roof when you were sheltered by your god?

“Anglo-Saxon, maybe?” Evelyn said. Her jaw was clenched tight. She shot a look at me. “Does our resident castle expert have an opinion?”

I shook my head, stunned by the age of the structure. It was untouched. No weather down here. “I don’t know. It’s not a castle.”

The modern additions to the permanent encampment were far more practical. Three sturdy tents were fixed to the ground with steel spikes, looking ready to endure an Arctic storm. A large camping stove was set up nearby, ringed by some cheap lawn chairs. Some kind of stout plastic cabin stood a little way from the tents; Nicole laughed when we realised it was a portaloo, complete with the smell and everything.

We kept low as we explored the tents, trying to keep out of the purple light as much as possible.

The cult had food supplies here too, in a big chest next to the tents. Dried food, cereal bars, bottled water, and even a few MREs. Nicole peered at some of the bars, declared they were well within their best-by date, and then started eating while we poked around. The tents contained bedrolls, emergency changes of clothes, a first aid kit, all the things you might want while spending a season contemplating the divinity of a giant sea-snail.

The modern cult had even set up a small petrol-powered generator, currently switched off. Several full jerry-cans sat next to it. Lines ran from the generator to a little heater, some flood-lamps, and — hidden away inside one of the tents — the bulkiest and blockiest laptop I’d ever seen.

Nicole grabbed the computer, shaking her head with amusement. “Rugged conditions laptop,” she explained as she propped it up on the food chest and pressed the power button. It awoke instantly, but only to a password screen for a user labelled as ‘Amanda’.

“No prizes for guessing who spends all their time down here,” Evelyn muttered.

We exhausted the encampment quickly, there really wasn’t much to see, unless we planned on spending the night here. I wasn’t about to suggest that even as a joke.

About twenty feet out from the back of the tents and the open end of the church, the cult had painted a line on the ground, in red. It stretched about a hundred feet to the left and right. A second, closer line, was marked by rocks placed at regular intervals. Perhaps that line had been here for a much longer time.

“Do not cross?” Nicole suggested.

We were sheltering between the tents and the church, like a clutch of tiny fishes afraid to venture out into the open water with the sleeping leviathan. Purple light swirled and flickered over our hands and faces. I was starting to itch all over. Marmite wouldn’t follow us, crouched by the tents.

“Smart money would say that indicates the minimum safe distance, yes,” Evelyn said. “But why the second line? Why the rocks?”

“Maybe he’s gotten weaker, over the years,” I said.

“Sad,” said Praem. Sevens nodded in agreement.

“Why’s he not reacting to anything?” Nicole asked. “Can it … see us?”

“He is having a nightmare,” said Sevens. “Not dead, but dreaming.”

Nicole gave her such a dark look I was afraid the detective was going to draw her pepper spray and unload it on Sevens’ face. “I don’t care what the fuck you are, lady,” she said, “but you make another Lovecraft joke and I will lay you the fuck out.”

“Fair,” said Sevens.

“What now?” Evelyn asked between clenched teeth, staring up at Hringewindla. “If he’s gone full hikikomori here, how do we wake him up?”

I frowned at her. “Full what, I’m sorry?”

“Never mind.” Evelyn shot me a look. “Any ideas?”

There was nothing else for it. I didn’t feel in any kind of fit state for a conversation with a god, let alone a wake up call; my clothes were covered in dirt from rolling around on the floor of the church, I was hungry and tired and mentally exhausted, my skin itched all over and my eyes ached from the oily purple un-light. But I took a deep breath, slipped my squid-skull mask on over my face, and stepped out from beside the church.

Hringewindla loomed like a cliff-face rising from the land.

Don’t worry, I told myself. If the worst happens you can always Slip him Outside. Though that would probably kill him, wouldn’t it?

Evelyn hissed my name, then a plea to be careful. Praem said, “Heather knows what she is doing.” Nicole stayed silent. Sevens followed at a distance, I could hear her shoes clicking behind me.

I spread my tentacles wide and opened both my hands. Unarmed, without guile. We come in peace.

Hringewindla’s halo of bubble-servitors turned above me like moons around a gas giant. Behind the oily veil, giant white tubes shifted and slithered.

I reached the red line, toes stopping inches from the stripe of paint. Behind my mask, my mouth was dry as a bone. My heart was hammering inside my chest. My legs shook. I was the adopted daughter of the Eye, but I was also very, very small.

“ … please wake up?” I said out loud, then sighed when nothing happened, feeling like an idiot. “Wake up!” I yelled, but shouting was not enough to rouse a god. “What do you need here, an alarm clock made of hyperdimensional mathematics?”

“Possibly, kitten.”

I almost jumped out of my skin; Sevens had walked up right beside me. She was gazing up at Hringewindla’s surface, both hands on her umbrella, tip planted on the ground before her, lit all down her front by that purple light.

“Oh my goodness, Sevens, don’t do that!” I hissed, one hand over my pounding heart.

“Alarm clock,” she echoed. “Is that within your limits?”

“I … I don’t know. Alarm clocks are a human concept. I don’t think the Eye had anything to say about them, somehow.”

“Do you have anything to say about them?” She turned to look at me, cool and collected, even amid all this.

“ … maybe?”

“Then try.”

“Alarm clock … alarm clock … alarm clock,” I muttered behind my mask, staring up at Hringewindla’s core. “Alarm clock.”

Sevens was asking me to forge something with mathematics that I had not been taught by the Eye.

She was asking me to create.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Turns out that Hringewindla isn’t quite what anybody was expecting. Surprise(?!), it’s cosmic horror! Or cosmic tragedy, if you ask Sevens? Disabled planeswalker cone-snail Outsider? Doesn’t seem like that blood-stained altar has been used in a long time, and at least he’s got some human friends? Must have been down here a long time, that’s for sure.

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Next week, Heather turns herself into a squid-themed novelty alarm clock.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.5

Content Warnings

Spiders, touching spiders

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Find Hringewindla?” I echoed the suggestion. A sinking feeling settled into the pit of my stomach. “‘The parasite might be bigger’? Sevens, what does that mean?”

I tried not to look at the smashed remains of the grey shrimp-slug parasite, lying on the tarmac in the dappled sunlight next to Raine’s car.

“Bigger,” said Sevens in her habitual goblin rasp. She licked flecks of her own blood off her lips, from where I’d dragged the parasite out of her throat.

“ … bigger?”

“Bigger. You know. Large. More size.”

I struggled very hard not to give Sevens a nasty look as she coiled there in the embrace of my tentacles.

“Yes,” I said, “I do know the literal definition of ‘bigger’, but what does that mean in the context of an Outsider god? Pardon me for being rather concerned here. How much bigger? The size of a cat, or a horse, or are we about to have some kind of Godzilla incident? Do I need to show you one of those giant robot shows so you can wear an appropriate mask for this? Should we be calling your sister, Melancholy, so she can turn into a giant cat and eat it for us? Help me here, Sevens. How much bigger?”

Buuurrrrlll,” Sevens gurgled, clearing her throat very loudly — I couldn’t blame her for that, considering what had been lodged in there only minutes earlier. She ducked her head, avoiding my frown. “I dunno? Bigger.”

Nicole gave me the kind of look that I like to imagine she would have given other police officers over an unexplained dead body. She looked about ready to call in the army, jumbled words and wobbly legs or not.

“It’s all right, Nicky,” I said. “It’s probably not a Godzilla situation. I don’t think that can happen.”

Nicole gave me another look that said, You think!?

“I’m … I don’t know what I’m doing, okay? We need to … to think. Does … does Hringewindla even have a throat?”

Sevens shrugged again. “I’unno.”

On the plus side, I was finally able to pronounce Hringewindla correctly, by copying Sevens. I learn something new every day, even if it’s something I’d rather not know.

At least the sky wasn’t turning to ash and darkness anymore. The optimistic sunlight of mid-afternoon was flooding back through the ring of trees that surrounded Geerswin Farm. The only patch of darkness left was Marmite and his imitation shadow-membranes, still half-crammed beneath Raine’s car, trying to hide from the open spaces and the sunlight, and probably from me too, after he’d just seen me ram a tentacle down Sevens’ throat. The grass was green and healthy, laced with low moss and tall thistles and thick clumps of weed. The wind had died down to a mere whisper through the woods, and no longer carried the scent of burning alien meat. The ash had vanished, as if absorbed into the ground.

One of the alpacas had wandered all the way up to the edge of the nearest fence, probably to investigate what we were up to. Alpaca snout, fuzzy and cute, with normal, wide-set, black eyes beneath a big tuft of brown fur, exactly as an alpaca should be. No human face, no bloody teeth.

Geerswin Farmhouse was dead silent.

“Are we certain that we’re back in reality now?” I asked.

Bleeeeeee, went the alpaca.

“Yaaaah,” said Sevens. She cracked her neck and bared her mouth of sharp little needle-teeth — at which Nicole managed to go even wider-eyed with concern. “Amanda doesn’t know where we are, so Cringe-winge-face doesn’t either, so we’re not all jumbled up. ‘Cept … mm … hmmm … ”

She raised one pale, long-fingered hand and pointed up at the trio of bubble-servitors on the roof of the farmhouse. They were still poised at the edge, craning toward us like giant marine molluscs from a lip of rock, spooked by the presence of Seven-Shades-of-Unexpectedly-Powerful.

“Might be bad,” Sevens explained.

“Oh. Oh dear. You think they have direct communication with him?”

“Can’t do.” Sevens had to clear her throat again. “Else we’d already be back in his nightmare.”

“His nightmare?”

Sevens nodded. She wavered for a moment, visibly thinking, then bumped her head against my tentacles, like a cat nuzzling a person’s hand. “He’s having a nightmare. Parasite symptom. That’s what all that was, kind of. I think.”

I sighed. “At least your metaphors are easier to understand than Lozzie’s. So we find Hringewindla, wake him up — whatever that means for an Outsider in this context — and remove his parasite? With the three of us? And Marmite, of course.”

“Ship of fools,” Nicole spat.

I winced. “Yes, I couldn’t agree more. We’re alone, in the middle of the woods. Nicole can hardly walk without stumbling. Sevens, you’re very powerful, but you’re … self-limited, and with good reason. I don’t want to do any more damage to you than I already have done.”

Murrrrrr, no damage. And no choice. We gotta.”

“And we’re going to introduce ourselves to an actual Outsider, a real one, something that self-describes as a god, and … what, de-worm him?”

“Mmmm, yeah.” Sevens cringed into one of my tentacles, using me like a pillow.

Nicole laughed. Apparently she could still do that without getting scrambled.

“Besides, do we even know where he is?” I ran my eyes along the edge of the tree-line, where the shadows gathered between the trunks. “I think Evee mentioned something about an old church out here in the woods, once. But that was months ago, I can hardly recall it now.”

“Schismatic prismatic,” Nicole said. She sucked on her teeth, a serious frown on her brow.

“Nicky? You … you might know where the church is?”

Nicole huffed and shook her head. “Quakers and quackers and diggers and levellers. World turned upside down. The King’s head on a spike of obsidian, but forgotten amid the ruckus.”

I stared at her, blinking in shock. Her words had shaken a memory loose inside my head. “That almost made sense. Evee said something about Quakers, once.”

With a great deal of effort, I cast my mind back all the way to last year, to when I’d first met Twil and we’d discussed the Brinkwood Cult. That was more challenging that it sounds, because the last nine months of my life had been a whirlwind of change.

“My grandmother had them well-documented,” Evelyn had said, back then. “From a safe distance. They probably started as a group of Quakers, tried to rebuild the abandoned church out in the woods, where Lowdon village used to be. That’s about three miles north of Brinkwood.”

“Lowdon village?” I said out loud.

Nicole pulled a thinking face, but she seemed doubtful.

“I think Evee said it was three miles north of Brinkwood itself,” I said. “But finding an old church in these woods? We could walk right past it and never know. And that’s not even accounting for what’s actually inside. Or guarding it. Evee knew things about the Brinkwood Cult, but she’s … not here right now. We need her. Or Twil, I suppose.”

“Leeches and poultices,” Nicole said. “Bone-setting into the sunset beyond the furthest waves.”

“Nicky? Oh.”

Nicole wasn’t deep in thought anymore. She was staring at Sevens with a different kind of worried frown. Marmite had gone very still as well, all his cone eyes fixed on my sweet little faux-vampire.

Sevens was pulled tight in my tentacle-embrace like a bat in the roof of a cave, her limbs pulled inward and her shoulders hunched, a pair of tiny red points deep in the coal-black of her eyes. She had retreated behind the curtain of her own dark, stringy hair, but that could not conceal the animalistic fixation on her face as she stared at me. Her jaw hung open, her breathing a steady hiss between rows of needle-sharp teeth.

“Sevens? O-oh, right, right, um … ”

She wasn’t making eye contact with me — she was staring at the blood, my blood, smeared across my face from my earlier nosebleed, and from the bloody kiss we’d shared.

I put a hand over my lower face to spare her the awkward temptation. Also to hide my blush.

Sevens blinked hard, like a sleepwalker coming around from deep dreams. She swallowed with a little upward tilt of her head, rasping deep in her throat and forcing her shoulders straight. “Sorry … um … leggo?”


“Let go, pleaseeeee.”

“Oh, of course, of course.”

The moment I unwound my tentacles from around Seven-Shades-of-Sanguine-Solicitation, she quickly stumbled back with a little hopping motion, bare feet scrunched against the sun-speckled tarmac. On the third hop-step-skip the Blood Goblin vanished, replaced instantly with the Yellow Princess once again.

Seven-Shades-of-Regained-Composure let out the tiniest sigh, smoothed her yellow skirt over her hips, and clicked her fingers. Her umbrella appeared in her hand. She did a little flourish and clicked the tip against the ground.

Nicole actually flinched, then looked at me for some kind of explanation. “Circus tents filled to the brim with rotting fish?” she asked.

“Sorry,” I said. “Sevens is not what you see here. But she also is. It’s complicated and you probably don’t want to know. Also this is absolutely not the time to explain.”

“I am exactly what I appear to be and I arrive precisely when I mean to,” said the Princess Mask, cool and confident, addressing Nicole. “Though perhaps I ought not to claim kinship with that particular expression. I am no wizard, after all.”

Nicole gave her such a look, deadpan and unimpressed in the extreme.

“Ah,” said Sevens. Did I detect a hint of sarcasm beneath her tone? “Are you not one for the ‘mommy dommy’ vibes, detective?”

Nicole clenched her jaw and made a fist.

“Sevens,” I said a little too firmly, trying to regain control of the situation before my only support decided to either fight or flirt with each other. “I’m so sorry about the blood.” I gestured at my face. “I should have accounted for it being tempting. I apologise.”

“Worry not,” said Sevens. She sounded perfectly fine, but it was always hard to tell with the Princess.

I took a moment to gather myself and scrub the rest of the blood from around my nose and mouth. I couldn’t tell how much had come from my Slip-induced nosebleed and how much from the strange blood-kiss with the princess. A trace of my blood still graced her lips, glinting in the sunlight like obscene lipstick. I finally pulled in the tentacle I’d used to fish the parasite out of her throat, and carefully cleaned off the tip with some wet-wipes from inside Raine’s car, not wanting to leave any trace of the disgusting creature on my flesh, pneuma-somatic or not. But Seven’s saliva I just wiped on my hoodie. Why not? I was already stained with blood, yet again.

“We can’t confront an Outsider god by ourselves,” I said as I cleaned up.

“We have two options,” Seven-Shades explained into the momentary quiet. “We can attempt to find Hringewindla himself, as I said, or we can plunge back into his living nightmare and attempt to retrieve the others.” She gestured at the house with one perfect hand.

“I thought you said we’d have to bump into Amanda for that?”

“In theory. I suspect we could simply wander around the house and be drawn in. It is the current location of his nightmare. However, it would get us nowhere. As the parasite grows, so will the nightmare.”

I bit my lip. North, three miles. But we could walk right past the church. I didn’t even know what it looked like, what to expect, what to prepare for. We knew nothing.

“Nicole can barely walk in a straight line,” I repeated, mostly to myself. But then I looked at the detective, wearing her long coat and worried frown. “What do you want to do, Nicky? Should we leave you here while we try to deal with this?”

Nicole puffed out a sigh, shrugged, and took an experimental step forward.

She managed three paces before almost losing her balance, wobbling on the spot and wind-milling her arms. I stuck out a tentacle to help keep her on her feet, which made her flinch and almost fall over the other way. She caught herself, hissed with frustration, and shot me a frown.

“Sorry, sorry!” I blurted out when she was finally safe, mortified and blushing. “Sorry, that was me, I just … I … oh, goodness.” My voice cracked. “We’re not the team for this. This is farcical. I’ve got to get Nicole back on her feet, at least. Sevens, are you sure that I can’t somehow remove the parasite from her?”

Nicole pulled a grimace. Sevens fixed me with a cool, level stare.

“Attempting the same procedure on a human being — a real human being — would cause a lot of damage to their throat, oesophagus, mouth, tongue, possibly teeth. Remember what I am. My flesh is … ” Sevens paused with the merest hint of melancholy. “My flesh is not true, though I treat it as if it is.” She pointed at the dead parasite on the tarmac with the tip of her umbrella. “Pull the same thing out of the detective’s throat and her own blood will begin to pool in her lungs. Not to mention the pain. Considerable pain.”

I shared a horrified look with Nicole.

“Then … then how are we ever going to get it out?”

“There may be magical methods,” said Sevens. “To remove it without making it physical. Not every situation is an emergency, kitten. The detective is alive and well, and will remain so.”

I ignored that kitten for now. “Does this mean everyone else in the house has one of these parasites in them now? I can’t just leave everyone here, not Raine and Evelyn, they’re both only human. Twil, Zheng, Praem, maybe they’ll fare better, but … ”


“Stop kittening me!”

“Listen to me, kitten.” Sevens clacked the tip of her umbrella on the tarmac and took two smart steps forward, until she was inches from me. My tentacles whirled up in surprise, as if she was an unknown attacker, but she didn’t blink or flinch. “The detective’s parasite has already re-activated, although the primary effect is wearing off. Her balance is returning. Zheng and Raine will be immune due to the presence of your blessing in Zheng’s blood—”

“Then why aren’t they here?! Where is everybody?”

“Inside the nightmare of a god.”

“But what does that mean?”

The Yellow Princess blinked once, slowly. “You know this. True Outsiders are not meant to be here, on Earth. Those who have swum the abyss have a strange and unstable relationship with notions of reality. You and I. Precious little Lozzie. Ooran Juh. Hringewindla. It is the same. The others are stuck in his nightmare, a nightmare built by the memories and life of his human companionship. That is all.”

I chewed on my lip. Nicole sighed, making a spinning motion with one fingertip over her temple.

“Raine and Zheng will be immune to personal infection,” Sevens continued, fixated on me like a searchlight. “But they are still stuck in the nightmare. Praem, I do not know. Her soul may not possess the right pneuma-somatic architecture to be infected. Twil and Evelyn, very likely. But none of them know the location of Edward’s house, none of them have been exposed to the parasite’s trigger, like the detective here.”

Nicole’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. She finally understood. Yesterday, standing in an unrelated graveyard, many miles away, her subconscious had put together the clues from the documents she’d stolen, and the parasite had whirled to life to stop her consciously realising the location of Edward’s house. Pure chance.

“Evee … ” I murmured. “She’ll be terrified by this, even if she is with Praem. I can’t go, I can’t leave her here, not in all that. There has to be a way to get her out.”

“I know how you feel, beloved. Believe me, I know.”

I turned back to the house, so placid and normal now, a lovely old farmhouse deep in the woods, covered in shifting bars of sunlight through the dense canopy of leaves. But inside was a raging nightmare of jumbled corridors and phantom hallways, unnatural darkness and spooky alpacas with human faces, the sum of all the absurd fears of Amanda Hopton, projected by the powers of a god.

“Oh gosh, I do hope her children are okay in there, too … ”

“We could wander the nightmare for months without finding each other,” said Sevens. “Without finding anybody. But it will collapse without Hringewindla’s parasite.”

“Evee would be able to help us,” I said, trying to convince myself. “She is a mage, remember? And when I glimpsed her, she was trying to get out, she was trying to figure something out. Maybe she’s already trying.”

I bit my lip and focused on the house, clenching and unclenching my hands, subconsciously preparing myself for pain.


“Shhh. I’m trying to think.”

I wished I could pull everyone out of that house, but the others weren’t mages. If Evelyn was already working on escaping, perhaps I could light a beacon for her to follow.

Evelyn was a better mage than she gave herself credit for. Though I had few comparisons and terrible experiences with other mages, I had faith in her. Faith in her drive to survive and escape. The Evelyn of today was not the defeated and broken woman who had tried to throw herself away in the Library of Carcosa. She would not curl up in a ball and sob to herself in a dark corner, certainly not with Praem at her side. And not with me to light her way.

I stuck one of my tentacles straight up in the air; strictly speaking the gesture was not necessary, I was not going to create a physical beacon by flashing my rainbow-strobing flesh at maximum brightness, though Lozzie would probably be delighted at that idea. It was a sympathetic gesture, like taking a step forward when Slipping, like ancient Latin intoned for a spell, like bowing one’s head in supplication to an Outsider god.

Except, I was only trying to remember a lesson.

Beacon, I thought — and I plunged down into the oily black darkness of my own repressed nightmares, the memories of the Eye’s nightly instruction, the toxic machinery held in suspended animation in my subconscious. The equation was mercifully simple, far easier and more straightforward than Slipping, a mere blip-blink across the surface of my mind, a piece of loose driftwood bobbing to the surface of the abyssal ocean.

But my raised tentacle did indeed pulse like a beacon, a triple-flash of rainbow, an alien light beneath the terrestrial sun.

I think Marmite tried to hide from that, poor thing. I winced through a spike of headache and felt a single bead of blood leak from my right nostril.

I’m getting better at this, I thought. Sevens grabbed my arm to steady me and stop me from crumpling to my knees.

“Heather, beloved,” she said, cool and crisp and clear. “You are a guide post of flesh, and that is beautiful, but even you cannot reach into the dreams of a—”

The front door of Geerswin farmhouse banged open so hard I was afraid it was going to fly off the hinges.

Praem lowered her boot, marched down the brick steps, and joined us on the tarmac.

She was carrying Evelyn, piggy-back style.

“Evee! Praem!” I tore myself out of Sevens’ grip, stumbling as I relocated my kneecaps, then rushed forward to greet the latest escapees from the nightmare.

“Oh thank fuck,” Evelyn said out loud.

She looked and sounded ready to collapse, even though she was already being carried. Evelyn had her arms over Praem’s shoulders, but her bone-wand was clasped tight in both hands, fingers twisted into a precise configuration across the scrimshawed magic designs. She was deathly pale as if heaving with effort, sweat beading on her forehead, blinking hard in the direct sunlight. The modified 3D glasses perched on her nose did nothing to protect her eyes. Praem carried her effortlessly, hands beneath Evelyn’s knees, Evelyn’s walking stick wedged beneath her armpit.

“We’re out?” Evelyn called to me over Praem’s shoulder, her voice a breaking croak. “Are we actually out?”

“You’re out, you’re out!” I confirmed as I ran up to them. Evelyn nodded, then slumped against Praem’s back, letting her bone wand hang from one hand. I felt a crackle of static across my clothes and a rush of warm air, the after-effect of Evelyn’s spell. “Evee?!”

“M’fine,” she grumbled, head on Praem’s shoulder. “Not going to pass out. Fuck this.”

I wanted to hug both of them, explain everything, and get Evelyn back on her feet, all at once. Instead what I did was flap back and forth and whirl my tentacles like an octopus with too many enrichment activities, babbling at high speed about beacons and brain-math, as Evelyn muttered a thank you and flopped one hand toward me.

“Heather,” said Praem, interrupting my flow.


Praem locked eyes with me, milk-white and not quite as unreadable as always. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the doll-demon was almost on edge.

“Safe?” she asked, one bell-clear word ringing out.

“Of course it’s bloody safe!” Evelyn grumbled from her back, though she didn’t let go of Praem’s shoulders. “The sun is out, Heather’s here, so is … alright, Seven-Shades of whatever is here too, that bodes well. Put me down, come on. I can stand.”

“We are beyond the localised effect,” said Sevens. “I believe we are quite safe here, as long as nobody steps back into the house.”

“Wishes and fishes, birds and bitches,” Nicole said with a grim smile — saying hello, I assumed.

Praem waited, staring at me.

“It’s safe,” I said, then added, “I think.”

Praem waited.

“I’ll make it safe,” I said.

Praem crouched, going down on one knee so Evelyn’s feet could touch the ground. I fussed around trying to help, getting the walking stick into Evee’s hand and steadying her with a tentacle as she found her balance, which seemed more difficult than usual. She was still pale and caked in cold sweat, hair plastered to her forehead. She struggled to get the bone-wand away, poking out of her coat pocket.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Evelyn hissed, half waving me off, half clinging to my hand for support. She held on hard, unwilling to let go.

“It hasn’t got you too, has it?” I asked. “You’re not having trouble walking?”

Evelyn shot me a dark frown. “What hasn’t got me too? Heather, a prosthetic leg can do a lot of things without support, but dismounting from a piggy-back is not one of them. No matter how strong Praem is.”

“Strong,” Praem echoed, straightening up. She turned to stare upward at the trio of bubble-servitors on the roof, which were craning down to examine us. “Strong.”

“But why a piggyback in the first place, then?” I asked. “Are you all right?”

Evelyn pursed her lips and gave me a dark look. “I was doing magic, in case you didn’t notice. Besides, you try wandering around a labyrinth for half an hour after the morning we’ve had. My hips are killing me.”

“Oh. Oh, of course. Evee, I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“It’s alright, Heather,” she grumbled, bumping against my side as if we were a pair of cats sharing our scent.

“Good doggos,” Praem said, apparently talking to the bubble-servitors up on the roof.

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “Bad dogs. All of them. All of this nonsense! Heather, what the hell is going on? Do you know?” She nodded at Sevens. “Does she know? What is all this?”

“The nightmare of a god,” said Sevens.

“Oh yes, that explains everything,” Evelyn spat. “Thank you.”

“We do know what’s going on,” I said. “Sort of, it’s kind of … disgusting, though. And complicated.”

“Well you better explain it then, because I assume everyone else is still stuck.” Evelyn peered past me, taking in Nicole — who gave her a polite nod. But then she flinched and dipped her modified 3D-glasses, to confirm that Marmite was indeed pneuma-somatic life, invisible in the normal human spectrum. Her throat bobbed and her hand went clammy in mine. “Heather? That’s a servitor. It’s lifting the car. There’s actual matter interaction, that is a servitor. Not a spirit.”

“Oh, that’s Marmite, it’s fine, he’s fine, he’s not involved. I think. Well, of course he’s involved, but not responsible. He’s the thing we freed from Edward, back at Stack’s house, remember? Um, Stack’s boy’s father’s house … yes.” I cleared my throat.

Evelyn gave me a look like I’d gone completely off my rocker. “Marmite. The giant spider thing under Raine’s car? You’ve named it Marmite?”

“For now.” Evelyn kept staring at me, so I started to blush. “I needed a name, okay? I couldn’t just keep calling him ‘you’.”

Evelyn squeezed her eyes shut and lifted the 3D glasses so she could pinch the bridge of her nose. She hissed a wordless sound between her teeth. “If somebody doesn’t tell me what’s going on, I’m going to start belting people with my stick until words fall out.”

“Marmite is a fine name, for a fine creature,” said the Yellow Princess.

Praem turned to look at Marmite too. Marmite looked back at her with his metal cone-eyes.

“Good boy,” said Praem, patting one thigh through her skirt. “Come here.”

Evelyn was in desperate need of a sit down, but going back inside the house to fetch a chair would rather defeat the point of escaping in the first place. Praem coaxed Marmite out from under Raine’s car, crouching and speaking in soft musical tones, like he was a nervous dog. With Marmite out of the way, Evelyn sat sideways on the back seat, feet firmly on the tarmac, hands leaning on her walking stick while we filled her in on what had happened. At first she was very concerned with Marmite and had me explain, in detail, that he wasn’t under Edward’s control anymore. He was wild, that was for certain. Praem petting him seemed to go a long way to soothing Evelyn’s worries.

She listened patiently, recovering from her magical efforts, asking only a few questions.

“They’re all high? Did I hear that right? They’ve gotten high? Lozzie, Jan, July, Kimberly? On weed?”

“Most enjoyable,” said Sevens. “My apologies.”

“Tenny and Whistle were excluded,” I said. “Lozzie was very clear about that.”

“Bloody right,” Evelyn grumbled. “Alright, fine, go on. This can’t possibly get more absurd, not after the alpaca.”

She was wrong, of course.

By the time I finished explaining the parasite and how I’d fished one out of Sevens’ throat, Evelyn had gone from a baseline level of frowning to looking like a woodcut of a priest at a witch-burning. She stared at the smashed lump of grey meat on the ground, the dead parasite, one hand pressed to her own breastbone.

“There’s one of these things in Praem, too?” she asked. “And in me?”

I swallowed hard, about to explain how we couldn’t remove it right now — how I couldn’t remove it right now. Sticking a tentacle down Sevens’ throat was one thing, she could regenerate her flesh with little more than a flicker of mask. But I couldn’t risk serious harm to Evelyn. Even pushing a tentacle into her mouth would be too much of a risk. I knew deep down that I couldn’t do it.

“No,” said Seven-Shades-of-Certainty, before I could speak.

Evelyn and I looked around at her. Nicole did too, leaning on the car next to us to save her legs. Sevens was watching Praem petting Marmite, an extremely bizarre sight even by our standards; the doll-demon was squatting, skirt neatly tucked up over her knees, using one hand to stroke and scratch what passed for Marmite’s ‘head’, just past his bank of swivelling, twitching, metallic cone-eyes, which were currently scrunched up exactly like a dog getting some very satisfying pets.

To Nicole, it must have looked like Praem was petting thin air.

“No?” I echoed.

Sevens looked up. “Praem is clean. I do not know why.”

“Personal hygiene,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn snorted. “She doesn’t process information like a human being does, not exactly. That may give her natural immunity. But then again, neither does Sevens here, or Hringewindla, obviously.”

“I am strong,” said Praem.

“Indeed,” Evelyn sighed. “What about me?”

“You are clean too,” said Sevens. “I do not know why.”

“Oh,” I sighed in relief. “Oh, that’s good news. One less thing to deal with.”

“Hmm,” Evelyn grumbled. “Too broken to be infested.”

“Evee!” I tutted. “Don’t say that about yourself.”

Evelyn waved me off, vaguely embarrassed. “I mean it literally. I’ve been possessed twice in the course of my life, remember? I might be … shaped wrong. Inside. That’s not a value judgement.”

“You’re shaped just right, Evee,” I said. “And I don’t care if it’s a metaphor.”

Evelyn actually blushed slightly, huffing and grumbling, waving me away with an irritated flap of one hand. “We don’t have time for all this. I’m exhausted already, after this morning. What a day for this to happen.”

“How are we going to get everyone else out?” I asked. “My beacon-thing only worked because you were already on the right path, so to speak. Nobody else has responded or turned up.”

Evelyn considered me for a moment, then looked to Sevens. “Do you think the others are in physical danger?”

“Hard to say,” Sevens replied. “I would wager not, considering Heather’s experiences.”

Evelyn sighed. “Sevens is right. We need to deal with Hringewindla, shut this down at the source. Though I’d rather not.”

Sevens gave her a little nod of acknowledgement.

“Are you sure?” I tried to keep the quiver out of my voice. “What about Raine, Twil, Zheng? What if this is intentional, what if Edward is behind all this? What if we’re being watched right now? What if Raine is in trouble, or if Edward’s going for Lozzie back at home? There’s children in there too and I—”

“Heather,” Evelyn snapped — then grimaced and nodded an apology. “Sorry. Heather, I know. I’m trying to stay calm too. One thing at a time. We need to cut the phenomenon off at the source. Between myself, you, and Sevens, we stand a pretty good chance, I’d say.”

I blinked in surprise. “I’m not discounting us here, but … Evee, this is an Outsider, a … god.”

“It’s not a god,” Evelyn said, with surprising patience.


“It’s an Outsider, exactly. And we’re not going to fight him, we’re going to talk.” She grimaced at that word. “As Raine might say, we don’t need the tanks for this.”

Nicole snorted a laugh.

“Tanks?” I echoed.

“Never mind. My point is, Heather, all we have to do is get you in front of him.”

“Evee, you’re putting too much faith in me. I don’t even know what I’m doing. De-worming somebody with a tentacle is one thing, but this is an Outsider we’re talking about. I don’t even know what he is, not really.”

Evelyn nodded, taking me seriously. “Do you remember why Hringewindla was afraid of you, back when the cult—” She paused, smiled awkwardly, and corrected herself. “Back when the ‘Brinkwood Church’ tried to convince us to come here?

“ … because of … hyperdimensional mathematics?”

“Exactly. You need to reach inside him and de-worm this dog for us. I’m pretty sure this will work.”

“Good boy,” said Praem.

I boggled at Evee. “How? On what basis? What if he doesn’t want us to? What if he’s confused? What if he’s terrified of me?”

“Heather, we don’t have any other choice.”

I tilted my head at her when I realised. “We don’t know what we’re doing, do we?”

Evelyn winced. “I’m hoping it’ll make sense when we get there.”

Nicole laughed again, throwing up her hands.

“It’s the best shot we have,” Evelyn raised her voice. “And we need to stop this before it grows.” She gestured at Sevens. “Unless you have any other ideas?”

Seven-Shades-of-Superficial-Modesty raised her chin. “I could sacrifice everything I am becoming and wear a mask on the same scale as this ancient god-thing. It may work.”

“No, absolutely not,” I said, then sighed heavily. “I’ll do it. I’m on his level already. I’ve had coffee with the King in Yellow, I can do this. Well, okay, I rejected coffee from the King in Yellow. Same principle.”

Nicole boggled at me like I’d grown a second head. I shrugged an apology.

“Should we call Lozzie?” I asked. “She might know how to talk to it.”

“I would not take that risk with the little one,” said Sevens. “She may not be immune.”

I nodded, trying to fight down my nerves. De-worm a god?

“We won’t need muscle for this,” Evelyn said, with a tone of final planning. “I know where the Church is, as well.” She pointed with her walking stick, off into the trees parallel to the road. “There should be a path, sign-posted by the cult itself, if my grandmother’s notes still hold up.”

“If you say so … ”

“Heather, I don’t like this either. Think of it as practice for the Eye.” To my massive surprise Evelyn reached out and groped for my hand, finding it and squeezing hard. “And you might have to do it alone, because I don’t think I can hump it through three miles of woods.”

I squeezed her hand back. “Magic is difficult, yes … ”

“I will carry you anywhere,” Praem intoned. She stopped petting Marmite and stood up, still holding one of his segmented bone-tentacles.

Evelyn opened her mouth to argue, then sighed and nodded. “Fine.”

“Any taste of indignity would be worth the presence of a mage of your calibre,” said Sevens. She didn’t seem to be joking.

But Evelyn shot her a frown all the same. “Being carried by Praem is never undignified.”

Nicole cleared her throat and gestured at her legs. “Sole pretender to the throne of bones, left without jester or attendant or court.”

“Marmite is also strong,” said Praem. “And a good boy.”

The rest of us shared a worried look. Even Sevens didn’t seem to understand that one.

“Praem?” I said.

“Marmite is strong.”

Evelyn barked with sudden rueful laugher and put her face in one hand. “She’s telling you to ride the invisible spider, detective. That, or we leave you here, alone.” Evelyn slipped the 3D glasses off her face and held them out to Nicole. “Here, you’ll need these, at least to … how do they say it?”

“Mount up,” said Praem.

Nicole looked absolutely horrified, though only for about five seconds. She gritted her teeth, shook herself, and accepted the glasses, slipping them over her eyes with a dubious grimace at Marmite.

“Time to get going, then,” said Evelyn. “Giddy-up, Webb.”

Evelyn clambered out of the car with my help, while Nicole gingerly approached Marmite, still unsteady and weak.

Sevens was watching the bubble-servitors on the rooftop.

“Do you think they’ll come with us?” I asked as Evelyn settled her coat and got her bone-wand tucked firmly under one arm.

“They can’t reach their god right now,” said Sevens, watching the pneuma-somatic froth-creatures as they all stared back at her. “He is lost in his nightmare.”

“Well grab an air horn,” Evelyn said. “Because we’re going to wake him up.”

As we gathered ourselves to leave, I nodded at the smashed remains of the parasite on the ground, a smear of grey meat and thin, cracked carapace. “Evee, do you think we should do anything with that?”

“Burn it. When we come back.”


The Church of Hringewindla — the physical building which enshrined the presence of a living god — was not actually three miles walk away through dark and forbidding woods, trudging through rotting leaves and muddy wallows and scrambling over fallen tree trunks. In the end it was perhaps one mile north of Geerswin Farm, along a well-trodden and properly cleared path, lit with leaf-dappled sunlight, past some delightful bluebell patches. There was even a wooden signpost at a tiny crossroads, pointing to Geerswin, Lowdon, Brinkwood, and somewhere called Bedham, though the wood of the sign was old and slimy and covered in green lichen.

Nothing ambushed us on the way there, not even a kink in the path, which surprised me more than I expected. After all, this was the secret core of an inhuman Outsider cult, the last refuge and retreat of a crippled god from beyond our dimension. Shouldn’t the path through these woods be warped and twisted beneath our feet, as if we approached the metaphysical weight of a black hole? Shouldn’t it lead us into a confrontation with some nightmarish guardian? Shouldn’t the woods behind us be vanishing in thick fog?

I voiced as much to Evelyn, as Praem carried her along in a piggy-back.

“That sort of thing is for cults that don’t last,” she said. “Hringewindla’s been around long enough to have some idea of human normality. I assume.”

The only sign we were approaching somewhere of supernatural significance was the total lack of spirit life, except for Marmite. I spotted a few furtive spirits further off in the woods, things that scuttled or scurried away before I could get a good look at them, but that was all. It was like an oceanic dead zone, deprived of oxygen or nutrients, a pneuma-somatic barren plain.

Whatever was wrong with the place, it didn’t affect Hringewindla’s angels. A smattering of bubble-servitors hung in the treetops, bobbing and rolling across the underside of the canopy.

“It’s like they’re security cameras,” I said.

“Good doggos,” said Praem.

“Keep a bloody close eye on them,” Evelyn said.

We must have made quite the spectacle, traipsing through the woods. Evelyn was too exhausted and shaky for a mile’s walk, so Praem carried her the whole way. At least she wasn’t wearing her maid outfit right now. I still had blood smeared on my hoodie and an alien squid-skull cradled in my tentacles. Seven-Shades-of-Aristocratic-Poise looked totally out of place, more suited to a tea-room than the mud and leaves, though she strode with unwavering confidence, using her umbrella as a walking stick. Nicole rode on Marmite’s back with her eyes closed, gritting her teeth, her hands in a white knuckle grip on fur she couldn’t see. I kept one of Marmite’s tentacles wrapped with my own, in case he tried to wander off, but he was content to follow at my heels.

I was very concerned about running into other people, walkers out for a stroll, that sort of thing, because untrained eyes would see Nicole floating, cross-legged in the air, about two feet off the ground. We’d already had enough absurdity for one day, between spooky alpacas and artificial night, not to mention the duel this morning. I could do without a screaming, panicking bystander. My tentacles kept twitching in anticipation, though I dared not acknowledge what I might do to keep us from being interrupted.

But we didn’t run into anybody. Not a soul. Even the birds were quiet, in this part of the woods.

Trees thickened, canopy darkened, bubble-servitors multiplied above us — and the path led us right to the ruins of Lowdon.

“Well, this is more like it,” I said as we drew to a halt at the edge of what had once been a clearing.

The ancient and forgotten village of Lowdon was nothing but a few stubs of stone and brick poking out of the leaf-mulch. The tallest remnant of wall was no higher than my waist, covered in wet lichen and ivy, the mortar eaten away by time and weather. The vague outlines of half a dozen houses were spread out across a wide area that had probably been a true clearing four hundred years ago. Now it was just more forest floor, with slightly smaller trees rooted where hearths and walls had once stood.

One building was intact, in the centre of the ruins; the Church of Hringewindla looked exactly as I had imagined it might do, a long one-story structure made of that distinctive Northern red brick, raised perhaps a couple of hundred years ago and fallen to ruin not long after. The roof was missing, leaving a half-complete steeple naked to the elements, without a bell or a fire or whatever was supposed to be up there. Tall, narrow windows contained neither glass nor shutters, long since shattered or rotted away. Weeds and moss grew in the cracks between the bricks. The front entrance was under the steeple, a low arch of brick, plain and unadorned.

“What do you mean, ‘this is more like it’?” Evelyn asked, giving me a look. “And put me down now, thank you Praem. I should be on my feet from here.”

“I mean it looks like the centre of an Outsider cult,” I replied, helping Evelyn down again. She found her feet and got her weight firmly on her walking stick. “It’s all ruined and spooky.”

“Spooky,” Praem agreed.

“And well guarded,” said Sevens, very softly, looking up at the trees.

“None of this should be here,” Evelyn said. “Think about what this is, this is local history, somebody would have excavated it by now. Hringewindla has been keeping people away for centuries.” Evelyn adjusted the 3D glasses on her eyes and followed Sevens’ gaze upward. “Ah. Hm.”

The woodland canopy above the ruined village was packed with bubble-servitors, roiling and twisting and flowing over each other, like a mass of slugs suspended upside down.

“That’s … a lot,” I said.

“There must be thousands of them,” Evelyn murmured. She swallowed and found my hand, holding on tight. “Ten thousand?”

“Walk with care,” said Sevens.

“We must be allowed to be here,” I said. “They would make us leave otherwise, wouldn’t they?”

“Hringewindla is having a nightmare,” Sevens repeated. “They are cut off.”

“Walk with care,” Praem agreed.

“Sevens,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. I could feel her quivering. “If they break and descend on us … ”

“I will do what I can,” said Sevens.

Evelyn swallowed hard. “Then come on. And tread carefully.” She gestured us ahead with her walking stick.

“Can I please get off this giant spider now?” Nicole hissed — then opened her eyes and lit up with a grin. “Hey, words! I’m speaking words!” Then she looked down and turned a little green. “Oh, I’m floating. Oh, I hate that, I really hate it.”

“Nicky!” I sighed with relief.

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted.

With a hand from Praem and a tentacle from me, we got Nicole off Marmite’s back and onto her own feet once more. She wobbled a bit, but kept her balance well, straightening her coat and smoothing her hair back.

“That was an experience I don’t care to repeat,” she said. Behind her, Marmite waggled two of his bony tentacles.

“I think you’ve offended Marmite,” I said.

“Eh?” Nicole boggled at me. “Um … er … sorry, Marmite?” She tried to look at him, but being unable to see him meant she just talked to a patch of ground. “Very smooth ride, very strong back. Just a bit weird, ‘cos I can’t see you and all. No offence meant?”

Marmite lowered his offended tentacles and crept over to my side. His eyes kept swivelling and twitching, trying to take in every corner of the ruined village and the church and the bubble-servitors at the same time. He did not like it here, no more than we did.

“This isn’t necessarily a good sign, detective,” Evelyn said, sucking on her teeth. “I’m glad you’re back with us, but this could mean we’ve stepped inside some kind of effect that renders the parasite useless, or has killed it.” She looked to Sevens. “Any ideas?”

Sevens shook her head. “You are the mage here.”

“And you’re the daughter of the King in Yellow,” Evelyn grumbled. “You can’t tell us anything?”

“Please don’t get into this now,” I hissed.

“I am barely a fingernail’s width above you,” Sevens replied. “Because I have chosen to be.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. She looked at the church again. We all did. “Nothing else for it.”

“I’ll take the lead,” I said, mouth going dry. “I can feel ahead with my tentacles.”

“Praem, with her,” said Evelyn. “And both of you be careful, for pity’s sake.”

Bubble-servitors roiled and rolled far above our heads as we picked our way through the corpse of the village. Marmite clung to one of my tentacles with two of his own. Sevens gave Evelyn her arm for support. Nicole drew a highly illegal hand-held pepper-spray device from inside her pocket; she kept glancing at Sevens, but managed to keep her curiosity under control, for now.

There was no invisible force-field or magical trap blocking the front entrance to the church — Evelyn went over the whole thing with the 3D glasses and I stuck a tentacle beneath the arch to test. Nothing happened.

“How is a god inside this thing?” Nicole hissed between her teeth. “It’s just a shell.”

“Shells contain worlds,” said Sevens.

“Both of you shut up and stop thinking,” Evelyn said. “Okay, maybe not you, godling. Webb, you stop thinking about it.”

“Right you are, boss,” said Nicole.

We crept beneath the arch to join the weeds and mud and fallen bricks inside.

The interior of the old church was in an even worse state of repair than the exterior — if indeed there was any distinction between in and out, without a roof and nothing in the windows. The woodland canopy filled the sky, bubbling with Hringewindla’s angels. No wonder he didn’t need human protection. An army waited to descend on anything that dared threaten his resting place.

Nothing remained inside the church, not even the floor, just hard-packed mud. A few weeds straggled at the edges of the walls and some ancient bricks and roof tiles lay scattered about where pews and altar must have stood, once upon a time. Moss clung to the walls, along with some spots of healthy white fungal growth. No bird nests sat atop the old bricks, nor any remains of bee hives or wasp nests. Not a single fly or mosquito buzzed past.

The only sign that people had been here at all in the past two centuries were a pair of wooden beams braced against the ground, their top ends bolted into the bricks on opposite sides of the church, apparently helping to hold the walls up.

“I was bloody right,” Nicole said. “There’s nothing in here. It’s empty.”

The rest of us didn’t reply. Marmite shuffled behind me, cone-eyes peering around my legs. Wordlessly, Evelyn removed her modified 3D glasses and held them out to Nicole.

“Uh … ” Nicole went very still. “Am I going to see a god if I put those on?”

“Just look,” Evelyn hissed.

Nicole fumbled the glasses onto her face. Her jaw fell open when she saw what the rest of us were looking at.

Where the altar had once stood, a white mound emerged from the mud, like a hill of chalk, about ten or twelve feet in height and perhaps seven or eight feet across, flaring out like a natural hummock to meet the ground and disappear below the soil. But this structure could never be mistaken for a natural occurrence — it was ridged with a spiral pattern of impossible complexity, carved into the material itself, like shell or bone that had been worked over and over and over by an obsessive artist, carving the spirals within spirals, recurring downward and downward so one’s eye seemed to be drawn into an infinite depth on a flat white surface.

A dark opening yawned on one side of the white mound, curving down and away, large enough to admit a person.

A single bubble-servitor sat over the opening, leaning toward us like a mollusc performing a threat display.

“ … what am I looking at?” Nicole whispered, as if the bubble-angel might pounce if she spoke too loudly.

“I have no idea,” Evelyn said. I could tell it took her considerable effort to say those words.

“This is pneuma-somatic, isn’t it?” I murmured. “Otherwise Nicky would have seen it. Right.”

“Sevens,” Evelyn said, “what are we looking at?”

“I have no idea either,” said Sevens. “I am not familiar with Hringewindla, or where he came from, or his nature.”

“Are we looking at a piece of him?” Evelyn asked through her teeth.

“It’s a shell,” I said. A sinking feeling settled into the base of my stomach. “It’s the mouth of a shell.” I looked down at the earth beneath my feet. “The rest of it must be below ground, this is just the tip.”

Nicole laughed — or tried to, a nervous flutter in her throat. “Just the tip, she says. Ha.”

“Shut up, detective,” Evelyn snapped.

“You don’t think we’re meant to step in there, right?”

“We’re not meant to do anything here,” Evelyn said. “There isn’t a guidebook for this.”

“You think he’s gonna come out of that opening?” Nicole’s voice was starting to quiver, her breath shaking. “What’s even gonna come out? What- what—”

“Give me those.” Evelyn snatched the 3D glasses off Nicole’s face and put them back on herself.

“Hringewindla?” I called out loud, to the shell-tip.

I don’t know what I expected.

Evelyn grabbed my arm. Nicole flinched. Sevens raised her umbrella like a handgun. The bubble-servitor on the shell-tip craned toward us.

“Bad dog,” said Praem.

Nothing else happened.

“He will not give us an audience,” said Sevens. “He is dreaming, deep in his nightmares. The detective is correct. We may have to enter if we wish to wake him.”

“Enter? The shell?” Evelyn gritted her teeth. “We don’t even know what we’re looking at.”

I shook my head, wetting my lips and trying to think. “He is crippled, remember? What does that mean for an Outsider, for a god?”

“I wish we had Twil with us,” Evelyn hissed.

I patted her arm. My fingers were shaking a little too. “She wouldn’t be able to tell us much, I think. Didn’t you say they always kept her away from all this? Because she frightened him too. A little like me.”

“I don’t care,” Evelyn said. “I still wish she was with us.”

Sevens lowered her umbrella again and took a step forward. “I will see what I can see.”

“Be careful!” I said. “Oh Sevens, please be careful.”

Evelyn gripped my arm with near-panic as Sevens strode toward the spiral shell-tip. Praem walked forward a little way too, to provide unspoken back up. Above us, the bubble-servitors in the treetops rolled over each other like masses of giant slugs. The one atop the shell leaned forward, flaring and narrowing its front like the flat of a spade. It leaned directly toward Sevens.

She stopped about eight paces away, locking eyes with the angel.

“Bad dog,” Praem repeated.

“Praem, what does that mean?” I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.

“Bad dog.”

Sevens peered into the mouth of the shell-structure, craning her neck to see further inside without getting within range of the bubble-servitor.

“It goes down,” she said. “Down and around. A spiral.”

“I am not going in there,” Nicole said. She swallowed loudly. “I am not going in there. You can pay me any money you like, I am not going down there. No way. Just not.”

“Then you can stay here, detective,” Evelyn hissed, nodding upward at the trees and the thousands of bubble-servitors above us. “With them.”

“Our small friend here may have something to say about that,” said Sevens, watching the way the bubble-servitor was leaning toward her.

“You think it doesn’t want us to enter?” I asked.

Sevens didn’t respond for a long moment, locked in silent communion with the creature. Then she sighed a tiny sigh. “I may have to wear a different mask.”

“Maybe I can communicate with it? Let it know we’re not here to do any harm? I don’t know how, though.”

Sevens turned to look back over her shoulder at me. “Beloved, it is not a matter of communication, these little ones are not for speaking to. They are cut off and confused.”

Hringewindla’s angel rocked back suddenly, bunching and coiling like a dozen springs all bound together. Bubbles frothed and boiled — then shot out like a rubber band.

Sevens was caught in the act of turning her head, too slow when reduced to a mere human being.

Praem darted forward to knock her out of the way, but the bubbles were faster, unhindered by the messy business of joints and limbs. Evelyn fumbled with her bone-wand, far too late to respond in time. Marmite flared his tentacles and stood up on his legs, a threat display that went almost unnoticed. Nicole couldn’t even see what was happening.

Rationally, I knew that Sevens was not in any real danger. She was a god-thing from Outside. Even if the bubbles melted her face off, she could just switch masks. Couldn’t she? Or would this count, would this be real? I had no way of knowing.

What I did know is that ten thousand bubble-servitors hung over our heads, and that an act of aggression against one might bring the whole mass down on us.

Instinct did not care. A monster was going to smash into Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. No time to think, so I didn’t.

I hissed at the top of my lungs, braced all my tentacles against the ground, and flung myself like an angry squid.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Entering the fortified nest of an Outsider god is no small feat, even if that god is ‘crippled’ (whatever that means for an Outsider of this scale), non-hostile, and currently trapped in a nightmare. Still, at least they’ve got Evee, a mage who kind of knows what she’s doing, and an Outsider of their own. Heather’s using brain-math and modifying herself on the fly again, too. That’s good, right? Right? … right? These bubble-things might have something to say about that though.

No Patreon link this week, as it’s the final day of the month. If you were to subscribe today, Patreon would charge you once today and then again tomorrow! Very unfair! If you’re thinking of subscribing for a chapter ahead, wait until Monday, yeah?

But you can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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Next week, is Heather going to slam straight through this nightmare angel, or is it made of acid and tar, too much for her flesh to handle? And there’s a looming mass above their heads, and only one avenue of retreat … 

and walked a crooked mile – 16.4

Content Warnings

Drug use
Self harm
Blood sharing
Parasite removal

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Nicole, Marmite, and I arrived in Camelot on our feet, but we didn’t stay standing for long.

It had been a while since I’d used hyperdimensional mathematics for anything more complex than subconscious speculation, let alone a manual Slip, not since my return from Carcosa. The aftermath of the inhuman equation crackled and hissed across the surface of my mind, like water droplets flung on a red-hot metal plate. A stabbing headache blossomed behind my eyes and my stomach clenched like a fist. My body tried to reject the logic and lessons of the Eye. I doubled up so hard that Nicole’s arm slid off my shoulders and I lost my tentacle-grip around her waist. Marmite scurried to give us space, pulling his own bony tentacle free from around my thigh, moving with such haste that it bounced off my opposite shin.

Nicole staggered and slumped to her knees on the grass, bundled in her long coat. I hugged myself with all my tentacles, drooling ropes of saliva, heaving with the effort of holding back a wave of vomit.

But I refused to give up the contents of my stomach. A Slip is just a Slip, and I’d Slipped so many times before.

I croaked and gurgled and spluttered, but I wasn’t sick.

By the time I straightened up and wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my hoodie, Nicole was staring about us in slack-jawed wonder.

“Welcome to Camelot,” I croaked, then had to clear my throat again. “We are currently Outside.”

Nicole wore an expression like a palaeolithic woman dumped on a London pavement, open-mouthed and wide eyed at sights for which she had no context. I watched her take in the whorled purple sky and the soft yellow hillsides, the rough circle of Lozzie’s shining knights spread out nearby, and the vast, humped bulk of the caterpillar, still standing where we’d left it only hours earlier. The off-white carapace-bench lay where it had fallen beside the massive machine-creature — and if my eyes did not deceive me, Jan’s little polystyrene box of chicken lay on the bench.

“Tch, littering,” I said under my breath.

A dried patch of crimson marked the nearby grass, where a little of Zheng’s blood had soaked into the soil.

Nicole looked up and found me with numb eyes, blinking up and down my body with growing confusion. She was not taking this well.

“Um, Outside reality, that is,” I added. “Not ‘outside’ as in outdoors. Obviously. You can see that.” I cleared my throat again. Nicole blinked very hard, as if trying to wake up from a bad dream. “It’s perfectly safe, I promise.”


Nicole and I both jumped at the sudden booming noise — a miniature version of the caterpillar’s booop-wooop alarm, like the tiniest touch of engine plates on some vast machine, followed by the long, muffled dial-down whine from inside the pitted bulk of the giant.

“It’s just the catty saying hi,” I explained quickly, more than a little shaken myself. I turned and called out to all our extra-dimensional friends. “Hello, everyone! Sorry for the confusion. We’re back again. Only for a moment though.” Then I glanced at the caterpillar again, raising my voice across the yellow-grass plains. “I don’t suppose you can get a message to Lozzie? No?”

The caterpillar did not reply. I took a deep breath, my stomach beginning to churn with anxiety.

“We really must keep moving,” I muttered to myself. “Get back to the house, get, um … Sevens. Right, yes.”

“Camelot.” Nicole finally spoke, then huffed a humourless laugh, her voice stretched thin.

“That’s just what we call it. It’s a silly name, I know.”

“You have got to be joking,” she said, still huddled on her knees beneath her long coat. She looked much more vulnerable than I’d ever seen her before, which was quite a feat, considering I’d seen her tied up and begging for her life. There was something pitiful and broken about her, out here. Stands of her blonde hair had escaped her bun, and she looked like she was in pain. That, or constipated. “Knights in shining armour. Where’s the castle, huh? What next, we gonna recruit a gender swapped king Arthur? Totally expect you lot to have something like that up your sleeves. At least that would make sense.”

“We have a castle in a different dimension. Sort of,” I said with off-handed embarrassment — then I did a double take down at Nicole. “Nicky! You’re talking normally!”

“That I am.” She puffed out a big sigh and a wince, rubbing her sternum with one hand. “Feel like total shit though, like I’m gonna hurl. Is it alright if I hurl out here, or is that gonna unravel my soul, or something equally stupid?”

“Um, yes, be sick if you need to. I’ve done it plenty of times.” I awkwardly reached for her with my tentacles. “That’s just what Slipping feels like, I’m sorry.”

“Better than a teleporter accident, I guess,” she grumbled, but then she shied away from me, eyes going wide at my approaching tentacles. “Um. Hey.”

“Sorry, sorry!” I recoiled, mortified. “I keep forgetting people can’t see them normally, back in reality. Sorry. You’ve never seen this before. I’m sorry. It’s just me.”

“Ah, don’t worry.” She waved a hand. “I gather you saved me from getting some experimental brain surgery back there, so, hey, thanks. Don’t worry about it.” She nodded behind me. “What’s that though? That meant to be here too?”

Nicole was talking about Marmite, of course.

The poor squid-spider thing was taking to Camelot far worse than we apes. He was pressed low to the ground, his shadowy black membranes standing out like spilt ink on clean parchment, the purple light of Camelot reflecting from them like iridescent beetle-wings. His legs were tucked in below his body and his segmented bone-tentacles were wrapped in a ball around his core. Cone-eyes swivelled and twitched in every direction.

Marmite was a creature of dark corners and shadowy recesses, not wide open spaces and grassy steppe. Poor thing was cowering and exposed.

“Oh, Marmite! I’m sorry!” I reached out and touched him with a tentacle. He reached up to meet me, locking the end of one bony appendage with mine. “Nicky, I’m sorry, this is Marmite, he came with us just now but you couldn’t see him.”

“Right. Invisible monsters. I’ll try not to think about that, thanks.”

“I’m sorry, this is always so confusing.” I sighed. “Evee’s right, we really need more than one pair of those magic glasses.”

“Last thing my senses need right now is more bloody magic.”

“Nicky, it’ll be okay,” I said — but I was really talking to myself, my own worry clawing up my throat, making my voice quiver. “But we have to get back, as soon as possible. I-I’ve left everyone else’s safety in the hands of Hingle- Hingey—” I huffed. “The Brinkwood Church. Evee would kill me if she knew. Oh, wait! You were with Evee and Praem! What happened, were you in the room with them, what—”

“Yeah,” Nicole said with an exasperated sigh, giving me quite a look. “Evelyn Saye was doing … I don’t know. Some magic. Some bullshit with a notebook and sticking paper on the walls. Then I closed my eyes and she and the … Praem, right? They were gone. You were out in the corridor. You know the rest, you were there for it.”

“ … okay. Okay, that explains absolutely nothing.” I swallowed too hard, which made my throat hurt. “Okay, Nicky, we’ve got to get back. Uh, I need— I need us to Slip again—”

Nicole raised both hands in surrender, wincing hard like she had a hangover headache. “Heather Morell. Slow down. Please.”

“I can’t! Everyone is in danger!”

“And you’ve got tentacles!” Nicole laughed, right up on the edge of hysteria. “Give me a moment here, okay? I’ve been babbling all day. I don’t know how I got where I was, and now I don’t know where I am. And that is an understatement.”

“We should just go, I can do it—”

“Yeah,” Nicole’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “And when I go back, am I gonna be talking in riddles again? Gimme a sec to gather my thoughts. Your friends are scary enough, they can look after themselves for a couple of minutes, okay?”

Abyssal instinct pulled both ways at once. Get back to your pack, they need you, it screamed — while at the same time it demanded whatever information I might glean from Nicole. One of my tentacles twitched with the urge to just peel her head open and extract what I needed directly, but that urge was so absurd it flickered out as soon as it crossed my mind.

“Okay,” I forced myself to say, blowing out a deep breath. “But we should get moving as soon as possible. Everyone else might need help.”

Nicole nodded, still wincing and rubbing her ribs, looking like she was suffering the onset of food poisoning. “Help me up, yeah? My legs are … well, I would say they’re fucked, but I think they’re getting better. A hand, please, not a tentacle.”

I did as she asked, though it was easier said than done; Nicole didn’t weigh that much more than me but my noodle-arms were not up to the task, so I instinctively braced myself against the ground with half my tentacles, using them as leverage. The detective stumbled to her feet, then stared at my tentacles as they adjusted with my balance.

I wasn’t sure if it was a subconscious reaction, but I made them strobe slightly brighter when she stared.

“Of course they’re rainbows,” she muttered, not quite laughing.

“Lozzie once called them my ‘lesbian limbs’.” I pulled an awkward smile. The detective arched an eyebrow, hunched in her coat, still using me as a handrail.

“So, you’ve got tentacles, all the time? Just invisible normally?”

“Yes. Well, sometimes I have to put them away, it does take effort to keep them out.” Except, not anymore, not with the bioreactor in my abdomen, but I decided not to complicate Nicole’s mind further by telling her about the pneuma-somatic reactor inside my body. “They’re just a … reflection of what I’m meant to be. I’m sorry, I’ve scared you a bit. I should have said something first.”

“Nah, nah.” Nicole straightened up and pulled a smile, tired and confused, but draping herself with the aura of professionalism once more. “They’re very impressive. I won’t lie and pretend I understand, but you do you, Heather. But uh, why not anchor them in your back instead of your sides, though? It looks awkward.”

I sighed. “Are you an expert on tentacles?”

“No! Sorry. I just … hell, I’m just trying to hold onto something concrete right now. We’re out here standing on the bloody ethereal plane getting booped at by giant slugs, and you’ve got a set of rainbow tentacles. Cut me some slack, yeah? I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to say something offensive. I think.”

“Apology accepted, please don’t worry about it.” I felt just as awkward as Nicole looked. “I suppose there’s no accepted etiquette for this, is there?”

“Young women growing tentacles? Eh, not really.”

“Well, um, they’re in my sides because this is what I went with first, on reflex. Over time I’ve gotten used to it. I know it’s not optimal, but it’s what I’ve made. It’s mine. That matters more.”

Nicole nodded along. “Yeah, sometimes you’ve just gotta roll with what works. I’m, uh, happy for you? Is that appropriate?”

I nodded back. “Thank you.”

As if putting weight on a tender injury, Nicole stepped back with exaggerated care, letting go of my hand at last. She moved slowly, until she was standing on her own two feet. She didn’t look very steady. Her breathing was deep and slow, but shaking with pain and discomfort. She pressed a hand to the middle of her chest again. “Why are we talking about your tentacles anyway, huh?” She tried to laugh but couldn’t quite get there. “Oh shit, this really hurts.”

I tried not to show any alarm. “That might have something to do with being Outside. Did it hurt like this back in reality?”

“Nah. A bit. Not like this though.” She cast around again, up at the whorled sky and around at the knights. “This ain’t what I was expecting. So what are these guys, the knights of the round table?”

“Lozzie made them. It’s a long story. What were you expecting?”

“I dunno. A lot more wibbly-wobblies. Not blokes in armour and giant insects that go boop.” She huffed a laugh, but she sounded like a heavy smoker all of a sudden. “I’ve tried reading a bunch of Lovecraft since we met. Trying to get my head around the real world. He was probably onto something, but too far up his own arse.”


Nicole straightened up by force of will, wincing through her teeth. She blinked at me. “You’re telling me you’ve not read any Lovecraft? You’re a squid person, your sister was kidnapped by an alien god, and you’ve not read any Lovecraft?”

“ … oh, him.” I tutted. “No, it’s all just stories. Well, Evee says so, anyway.”

“Still. Might have been onto something, right? Fragments of truth in fiction, yeah? S’what I think, anyway. Or maybe that’s just how my mind works. Looking for details.”

I shrugged. “I am dating a daughter of the King in Yellow, so I can hardly speak.”

Nicole went very still.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, wincing with embarrassment. “I didn’t tell you about that. We’re going to ask her for help now, with whatever on earth was going on back there. That’s my plan, anyway.”

“You know what? Forget I said anything.”


“Actually wait, unforget.” Nicole frowned, tilting her head, discomfort briefly forgotten. “Aren’t you already with Raine? And Zheng, at the same time?”

“Um, yes.”

“So now you have three girlfriends?” Nicole managed to make this question sound like So now you’ve won the lottery three times?

“One is technically a fiancée. Maybe two.” I cleared my throat.

“Fucking hell.” Nicole laughed. “What have I gotta do to get pussy like that? Is it the tentacles?”

Nicky,” I hissed, embarrassed and blushing. I even glanced down at Marmite behind me, as if a giant pneuma-somatic spider-squid was going to have his delicate sensibilities scandalised by talk about pussy. He didn’t care, he was mostly just afraid of the sky, and holding onto my tentacle very tightly.

“Ahhh, sorry,” Nicole said. “You didn’t deserve that. Look, I’m a crude old bitch in private sometimes, and right now I’m kinda fucked up.”

“Evidently,” I said. “We need to get back and get help, and figure out what happened to you. Are you ready now?”

Nicole held up a hand. “Whoa, whoa, can’t we … like … regroup? At least tell me what the hell was going on back there?”

“With the darkness? And the spooky stuff? I have no idea, I’m sorry. Something similar to this happened to us a little while back, but it wasn’t quite the same. This big guy was trying to eat us.” Nicole’s eyebrows shot up her forehead. “Well, he wasn’t a guy, he was a mage. Or had been a mage, once. But he’d been in the abyss, like me.” Nicole’s eyes kept getting wider. “Actually, never mind. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah that’s a bit above my pay grade.”

I tried to laugh. “You get paid for this?”

“If Miss Saye will give me danger money, I’m not gonna turn it down. Though I’d prefer knowing what the hell was happening.”

“I just don’t know. It’s like we were in one of those Hammer Horror movies or something, it was all so silly. Hardly scary.”

“Well I’m glad you fucking thought so!” Nicole snapped at me. I flinched, blinking, confused. She eyed my tentacles, the way they curled back in, protecting my vulnerable core of true flesh. “Look, Heather, the last time I had to deal with supernatural stuff because of you lot, it kind of changed my life. Okay?”


Nicole was concealing it well, with all the professionalism of a lifelong public servant — a real one, no matter the realities of what she’d actually done while with the Sharrowford Police. But tucked away beneath her physical discomfort, her flippant comments, and her shock at being Outside, Nicole Webb was terrified of going back.

“Sorry,” she said, trying to pull herself together. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget you’re just a uni student.”

“Nicky, this is nothing like that house we went to, where the cult had—”

“Yeah, okay, yeah,” she spoke over me, and quickly. “I don’t want to think about that. I get it.”

“It’s not the same, this is not the same at all. I won’t let it be the same.”

Nicole stared back at me. I finally noticed how she was sweating, gone pale and waxen beneath her otherwise healthy complexion. “Alright, chosen one. So, what do we do?”

“We go back to the farm. Not straight back inside the house, but next to Raine’s car — I think I can pinpoint that. Then we see what we can see. Maybe without you it’ll all have collapsed, be back to normal.”

“And if not?”

“Then I’ll call Lozzie. I’ll talk to Sevens. She might be able to help.”

But she’ll have to break the rules she’s set herself, won’t she? I bit my bottom lip at that thought. She had offered.

“Muddle through it from there, hey?” Nicole pulled a rueful smile. “I get the picture this is how you lot always operate.”

“Not always, sometimes there’s planning. But this is an emergency.”

“Yeah, right. Okay, so, hold up a sec, because if we go back and I can’t talk, then I can’t tell you what happened to me, right?”

“Oh, yes, of course. Please, explain. Please.”

Nicole blew out a long breath. A change came over her, a calming and quietening of her mind, visible in the tension of her facial muscles and the angle of her chin. She even closed her eyes briefly, then glanced around Camelot once more, perhaps anchoring herself in the undeniable reality of what she could see.

“It was yesterday afternoon,” she said, with a flicker of her tongue over her lips, squinting a little with the effort of recall. She stared at the caterpillar as she spoke. “I was in Manchester for a job, like I told you lot. Well, okay, actually I was in Stockport, but same thing. Don’t let anybody from Manchester know I said that, though.” She added a forced chuckle. “Just didn’t want to confuse Miss Saye with more shaking my head. I was in the suburbs, supposed to be looking for this guy cheating on his wife — his lady-friend’s place is round there. But the husband is also paying me to counter-spy on the wife, because he’s certain she’s stealing money from his business. Whatever, probably doesn’t matter. I parked just off the A6, next to this old Church with a great big graveyard. For all I know my car’s still there. Hope it is … ”

She trailed off, eyes lost on the horizon.


“Mm?” She blinked hard. “Sorry, yes. I was thinking. It’s … a little hard to think, right now.”

“Outside is difficult to endure, I understand. We can go back as soon as you’re ready.”

“So, I parked up,” she went on. Her voice faded as she spoke. Her attention couldn’t seem to find me, eyelids blinking too much as she focused out at Camelot, or up at the whorled purple sky, or down at Marmite, cowering behind me. “Then I walked into the graveyard for a little bit, to think.”

She fell silent again, sharp blue eyes staring out at nothing, gentle wind plucking at the hem of her long coat and the few strands of blonde hair that had escaped her bun. My gut clenched with worry. Nicole was not meant to be out here. Even the comparatively gentle effect of Camelot was too much for her mind.

“To think about the house we asked you to find?”

“Well, no, that’s the weird part. I was thinking about the job, making a plan. Not about you lot at all. Then I looked at the graves and the trees, and there was this one grave with a little statue of an angel, kinda tacky, it was naked, and … and … ”

Nicole blinked very slowly and put her hand to her chest again, rubbing as if pained.

“And I did think about the stolen documents,” she said. “But only for a second. Maybe my subconscious was chewing on the puzzle, I dunno. I remember turning away and leaving the graveyard, and crossing the A6, but … nothing after that. Not until I was on the edge of that farm. Exhausted, must have been walking all night. Doubt I slept.” She snorted. “They did feed me, you know? Nice people, the Hoptons. As long as their god doesn’t take an interest in you, I guess.”

“They’re … all right.”

“So, Heather. Miss Morell. Any idea what happened to me?”

I bit my lip and shook my head. “I’m sorry. If I use brain-math, I might be able to unravel what’s happened, or where you’ve been, or something, maybe. But first I have to use that to get us home.”

Nicole puffed out a long sigh, ending in a cough. She nodded and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I just gotta hold on to you, right?”

“Tighter than that, please. You too, Marmite,” I added over my shoulder.

Nicole and I linked arms, firm and close. Marmite wrapped one segmented bony tentacle around my thigh again, a solid anchor.

“You’re gonna call the rest of your friends, right?” Nicole asked.

“For help, yes.”

“Don’t suppose you could swing somebody to my flat to go check on my dog? He’s been alone overnight. He’s got water, of course, but, you know. Dogs.” She pulled a pained wince. “Preferably before we get sucked back into a Scooby-Doo episode.”

“Um, I’ll see if somebody is free? I’m surprised you can think about that, out here.”

“Eh.” Nicole shrugged, but her shaking breath gave away her fear. “I got used to it, being a copper. Always gotta take your mind off how the sausage is made, you know?”

“It’ll be okay, Nicky, we’re going to solve this.”

“Easy for you to say, you’re not about to be reduced to verbal diarrhoea again.”

“Once we’re back, I’ll fix it. We’ll find a way.”

Nicole shared a sidelong look with me. Our faces were far too close. She sighed and rolled her eyes, though I got the impression it was unintentional. “Hey, thanks, wonder tentacles. I appreciate it.”


“Nah. What we really need is a cunning plan and a talking dog for a mascot. Or a firearms team loaded for ghosts. Or a priest.”

“Marmite can be the mascot,” I said. “Ready?”

“All right. Take us away, teleporter girl.”



Geerswin Farm was back to normal.

Shafts of mid-afternoon sunlight fell through the tangled canopy, dappling Raine’s car and the other two vehicles. Brown tree-trunks marched away in every direction, but stopped at the edge of the road back to Brinkwood. Green grass reflected the warm, bright, welcoming day. Out in the fields, two very normal alpacas stood amid their cluster of sheep, watching as Nicole and I heaved and panted, as I doubled over and tried not to vomit. The old farmhouse stood silent and still, the front door sensibly shut.

Three bubble-servitors were perched in their guard positions on the roof, but nothing else lurked in wait. Quiet, rural, picturesque.

“Oh, oh no,” was the first thing out of my mouth once I pulled myself together and straightened up. My stomach roiled with anxiety.

“Isn’t this— a good— thing?” Nicole panted next to me. She’d stumbled a few paces away, blinking and shaking her head, wincing slowly with the shock of being shoved through the membrane from Outside, but she was keeping it together. “It’s back to normal, that’s good, right?”

“Not if there’s nobody here.” I watched the front door, praying it would open and Raine would step out. “I don’t even know if we should go inside or not.”

Part of me wanted to sprint at the door and knock it down, calling for my friends. Another part of me wanted to curl up in the back seat of Raine’s car and hide from the implications of all this. My tentacles certainly agreed. They were gripping Raine’s car like a rock in a storm, like I was a delicate deep-sea mollusc amid strong currents and threatening tides.

“Your nose is bleeding, by the way,” Nicole said.

“What? Oh.” I sniffed hard and realised I could taste blood. Two Slips in quick succession had indeed given me a terrible nosebleed — a droplet rolled off my chin when I tilted my head forward. I scrubbed the mess on my sleeve and rummaged inside my hoodie for my mobile phone.

“Your tentacles are gone too.”

“Don’t remind me,” I said, oddly pained by the fact Nicole couldn’t see them. I held up my phone. My heart leapt — I had a signal.

“So’s the little spider guy.” Nicole put her hands on her hips and glanced behind me.

“You just can’t see him. He’s right there,” I mumbled up a throat full of my own nosebleed. “It’s okay, Marmite. It’s okay, boy.”

Marmite was still right behind me, taking shelter in the gap between the tarmac and the underside of Raine’s car, trying to keep well clear of the high-visibility patches of sunlight. He couldn’t quite fit under the car though, he was too large. His black shadowy membranes weren’t doing too well out here either, making him look like a big splotch of dirty laundry to any passing pneuma-somatic sight. But the bubble-servitors on the roof paid him no mind.

“Look, I dunno about you, but I’m much happier out of whatever that trap was,” Nicole said, hands on her hips, frowning at the house. “Maybe it didn’t even have anything to do with me.” She raised her hands and cupped her mouth. “Hello! Hey! I’m out here with Heather! Hello!”

We waited for a long moment, but the only reply was the rustle of leaves and the creak of tree-trunks in the gentle wind.

I jabbed at my phone, found Lozzie’s number, and hit the call button.

“Look on the bright side,” Nicole went on. “My chest doesn’t hurt anymore, and I’m still speaking like tiger refracted but without seals upon the lips of the Buddha.”

She paused, shared a look with me, then let out a gigantic sigh.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Screen thought to fractal process,” she huffed, exasperated beyond words — literally. She threw her hands in the air and took a couple of experimental steps forward, then wobbled as her balance seemed to give out. Nicole tilted her head to look at her own feet like they were very naughty children about to get arrested and given an official caution. “Noodle!” she spat.

“Noodle, indeed,” I whispered, phone to my ear. “Please pick up, Lozzie, please please—”

With a click and a squeal, my prayers were answered.

“Lozzie?! Lozzie?”

All I heard from the other end was distant giggling and somebody going ‘shhh, shhh,’ barely audible over the sudden rustle of leaves in a gust of wind. My heart sank — were we still in the trap? Was the phone call corrupted, the same as it had been when I’d called Evelyn from inside Orange Juice’s mouth?

Then Lozzie’s voice slapped against the phone.



“Hey hey hey heeeeeeey,” she said, floaty yet heavy, as if half-asleep. “Everything good? Goody-good-goodies? Heathy-Heaths?”

“Oh, she sounds worse than me!” a voice slurred somewhere behind Lozzie, more distant from the phone. Was that Jan? She sounded impaired somehow, speaking too slowly. “Get her off that.”

“I will not enforce anything here,” said a third voice, stern and cold. That was July, no doubt about it.

“Lozzie? What’s going on?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I winced, bracing for a torrent of nonsense, for this voice on the phone to not actually be Lozzie, but an imitation about to pour vile insults or horrifying suggestions into my ears.

But Lozzie just giggled, as if she couldn’t help it. “Nothiiiiing!”

In the background, somebody gurgled, sleepy and irritated.

Nicole was staring at me with mounting disbelief. She tried to say something, stopped, and mimed a drinking action. I just shook my head, there was no way.

“Lozzie, I’m sorry,” yet another voice said, much closer to the phone, quivering with nervous tension. “May I talk to Heather? Please, yes, thank you, mm.”

The phone changed hands with a soft rustle.

“Hello! Hello?” I snapped, starting to lose patience. “We are in actual trouble here, I need help!”

“Heather, hello, I’m so sorry about this.” It took me a moment to recognise the anxious quiver and habitual fear.

“Kimberly? Is that you?”

“Yes, yes, it’s me. I’m sorry.” Her voice was trembling with worry, as if she was afraid of getting slapped. “I’m so sorry, I tried to enforce some responsibility on this situation but—”

“My fault!” Jan called from somewhere behind the phone, ending her words with a slap of flesh on flesh. “My fault, blame me, I put down the cash!”

“ … Kim, what is happening there?”

A swallow, dry and hard. “I couldn’t say no. This … January—”

“Jan! Just Jan for you, sweet pea,” said Jan.

“Jan,” Kimberly corrected herself with a pained sigh. “She offered me five hundred pounds. I couldn’t say no!”

“For what?” I boggled at Nicole over on this end of the conversation. Nicole just rolled her eyes.

“Some … you know. Some green.” Kimberly’s voice dropped to a murmur. “Some cannabis.”

“ … you mean … you’re all … high?”

I couldn’t quite process this information. My brain lacked the slot for this shape. Kimberly gushed with apologies and stammered to explain herself. But then she went, “Oof,” and Lozzie’s voice returned, close to the phone again — I assumed Lozzie had jumped on her back.

“Not Tenny!” Lozzie informed me, proudly. “Tenn-Tenns and Whistle are upstairs playing video games! No mind-altering substances for Tenns until she’s bigger! And not for dogs!”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Kimberly agreed all in a rush. “Not for dogs or Tenny, that was very important, I wouldn’t have said yes if it wasn’t for that and I’m so sorry, Heather. I’m sorry, I—”

“Kim,” I said, snapping harder than I’d intended. “Kim, is Sevens there? We need help, something has gone badly wrong, and I don’t have anybody else to turn to. Please don’t tell me she’s high as well.”

“Ummm. A little bit.”

Guuuuoobluuuuuurrrrr,” came a long and irritated gurgle. Somebody yelped, at least two voices giggled, and something clacked loudly against the phone. “Heatherrrrr?” came Sevens’ raspy voice a moment later, thick and fuzzy with relaxation. “What happened?”

“Sevens!” I snapped her name too. “I … I left you there to be the responsible one! We’re in trouble, I need your help. But you’re … impaired! How can you be … look, I’m going to come and get you, with a Slip, we need help—”

Three things happened at once.

On the other end of the call, the phone clattered to the ground, hard enough to make me wince.

Jan raised her voice in sudden alarm. “Whoa, whoa, okay, what!?” Lozzie was babbling something about “doing a big whoopsie.”

And a split second later, appearing like a glint of dawn on brass, The Yellow Princess stepped from nowhere and stood just in front of Raine’s car.

A splash of gold amid the green and brown, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight wore her aristocratic mask like a well-fitting glove, a second skin over flesh that none but I had ever seen. Impassive blue eyes framed by knife-sharp features, hair cut level and straight at her neck. She wore a crisp white blouse and long yellow skirt, expertly curved and starched and without a single crease. The metal tip of her umbrella clacked against the tarmac, as if she was just stopping by in the middle of a casual stroll. She greeted me with a tiny widening of her eyes.

“Sevens!” I sighed with relief, letting my phone drop from my ear. On the other end, Jan did not sound too happy. I killed the call without bothering to inform them that Sevens had joined us. Lozzie could figure that out, I was sure.

“You call and I come, kitten,” said Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-by-my-Side, calm and cool. “In more ways than one.”

“Tch!” I tutted, but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “It’s hardly the time for that! We’re in a lot of trouble and I think you might be able to help.”

“Am I your last resort? Is that my role in your life?”

I juddered to a halt, suddenly horrified. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight gazed at me with that ice-cold expression, unreadable and unknowable. Had I hurt her? Was she joking, or was this serious? Had I ruined all the progress she’d made in her long process of self-redefinition? I studied her face, but I was suddenly reminded that what stood before me was a mask.

“ … no,” I managed to say. “I mean, you … you offered to—”

“And I always will,” she said, ice-cold precision in every word. “I should have come with you.” Her eyes flickered first to Nicole, then down to Marmite, then back to me. “The detective and a spider. Interesting companions. Where is everybody else?”

Nicole gave me a dubious look, pointed at Sevens, and shrugged a silent question.

“This is Sevens,” I explained, “the lady I mentioned before, the daughter of the—”

Nicole waved that down and shook her head. She didn’t want to know.

“I know of you, detective,” said Sevens. “I respect your craft and your experience. That is all we require for now. We have a problem to solve. Issues of identity can be addressed later. Even yours, if you wish it so.”

That set an additional alarm bell ringing in my head, but I muffled it for the moment.

“Sevens, thank you. Thank you for coming so quickly. I had no idea you even could. I hope this hasn’t … hurt you. I meant what I said about retaining your progress, I don’t want this to … ” I sighed, rubbing my chest, trying to still my nauseating worry. My tentacles tightened their grip on Raine’s car. “I didn’t know you could teleport from place to place,” I added, awkwardly. “I suppose you’ve done that before, though.”

“I cannot,” Sevens said. “But I can come to you, my beloved. Wherever you may be.”

Nicole laughed at that, a slim relief amid this growing confusion. I blushed and resisted an urge to roll my eyes.

Quickly, with the minimum of confusion that I could achieve, I informed Sevens about what had happened — she wasn’t a literal mind-reader, after all. She listened closely, without nodding, eyes boring into me, the sunlight shifting and fluttering across her face as it filtered through the leaves above. When I described the absurd and spooky alpaca, she turned briefly to consider the animals in the field. They were slowly trotting across the grass and mud to come look at what we were doing. They looked perfectly normal now.

As I spoke, I realised that the alpaca and the sheep weren’t the only parties interested in Sevens. Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors, the three of them which hadn’t entered the trap, had all gathered at the front of the roof, craning forward like rearing slugs made of soap suds. They had neither faces nor eyes, but somehow I could tell they were focused on Sevens. Yet they were unwilling to risk warding her off, like guard dogs staring through a fence at a stray komodo dragon.

“And then we came back from Outside,” I finished. “Nicky’s speech is all jumbled again.”

“Typists and secretaries writing with invisible ink,” Nicole said. She threw up her hands.

Sevens stared at her for a moment, then back at me, then over at the house, as if considering nothing more important than what blend of tea to select for her afternoon repast. She said nothing, but blinked once, slowly. Sunlight moved across the clearing. The sheep in the field nosed at the fence. It was so peaceful here, but my chest hurt and my stomach roiled.

“I’m really worried about everybody else,” I said. “I don’t understand where they physically are. And there’s children in there, too, Amanda’s children. Bystanders.”

“You took something Outside,” said Sevens. “When you removed the detective from the situation. Outside, that thing became different. Pain in the detective’s chest.”

“Oh,” I said. Nicole shared a worried glance with me.

“Outside, it ceased to work as it does here, above the surface. Upon return, it resumed. The detective’s pain stopped. Her language fails once more.”

“That makes … sense,” I said, swallowing hard. Nicole was starting to look very worried indeed.

Seven-Shades-of-Serious-Suspicion turned to watch Nicole, tilting her head to one side. The detective spread her arms and did a little sarcastic bow with her head, asking if Sevens wanted her to do a twirl.

“No, detective, that is quite all right,” said Sevens. “I suspect this is not a matter of combat, it is a matter of—”

Sevens slammed to a halt mid-word, lips quivering on an unformed thought. She blinked several times, eyes looking right through Nicole, face gone pale and waxen, as if a wave of sudden nausea had gripped her stomach. She even leaned forward slightly, as if preparing to vomit. I knew that pose and that feeling all too well.

But I’d never seen the Princess Mask like that.

“Sevens?!” Instinctively I grabbed for her with my tentacles, letting go of Raine’s car and wrapping one around her waist instead, then another around her shoulders, creasing her perfectly pressed outfit.

Seven-Shades-of-Deep-Distress turned to me, breathing hard and unsteady.

“I have been infected,” she said.

“ … what? I’m sorry?”

“We may as well be standing waist-deep in tidewater mud. My nature has not afforded me any immunity.” Sevens took a deep breath with considerable effort, then nodded at Nicole. “She is carrying a parasite. Everyone in contact with her has been infected. I am no exception.”

Nicole stared back at Sevens, wide-eyed with horror. Her hand went to her own chest.

“A-a parasite? Sevens, what do you mean?”

“Not a physical creature. A parasite of information, designed to infect the mind that was looking for the hiding place of Edward Lilburne.” She paused, still sweating and pale, turning almost grey with effort or fear. “It has cornered me. I have no options. Let go of me, kitten, please.”

“Don’t call me kitten at a moment like this! Sevens, what do you mean, what are you going to do?”

“I must go Outside, where the parasite becomes a physical thing, and assume a form it cannot inhabit.”

Nicole gripped her own chest, where she’d been feeling the pain while Outside. A physical thing? A parasite inside her chest?

Sevens wouldn’t look at me, but I knew her too well to be fooled. Seven-Shades-of-Subterfuge was hiding something, or leaving something unsaid.

“Sevens? Wouldn’t going Outside and changing be cheat—”

“I must remove this thing before it takes root,” she said, precise and cold. “It has found fears in a language it understands, albeit childish ones. The darkness, the altered animals, these are coming from a human interface, but implemented via something greater. Amanda Hopton’s fears, with Hringewindla’s powers as the implementation. I would wager that Amanda Hopton does not like horror fiction.”

“Wait, wait, you mean all of that stuff is coming from her mind?”



“There is no time to be certain. I must be quick.” Sevens placed her free hand on the tentacle around her waist, gently trying to peel me off her. But her hand was weak and shaking, her skin clammy and cold. “Let go of me.”

“Sevens, if you go Outside and change—”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight finally looked at me. “I am both human and not human. If this thing takes root inside me, it will have access to far worse fears from which to weave its false world. And greater stages on which to play them out. I am cornered.” She tried to explain carefully. “I must turn and fight.”

“Great ones, but not the apes alone?” Nicole asked, frowning hard. She was trying to keep up.

Sevens nodded at her, curt but respectful.

“That … kind of made sense?” I said.

“Yes,” Sevens explained. “This parasite is information, not intent. It was designed to obfuscate for human minds, not Outsider ones. It has spilled over into something it was not meant to touch and is rapidly metastasising. With you, detective, confusion was the aim, and would likely have worn off once you had moved on. But then you met Amanda Hopton, and the parasite now grows in fertile flesh it should never have had access to, that of a God. It is our good fortune this God understands human fears as the sum of black and white horror movies, because his current mortal paramour hid behind the sofa as a child. But now it has me.”

“Oh. Oh no,” I said, mouth going dry as I finally understood.

“I must assume another form. Let go.”

“Sevens, no!” I snapped, holding her even tighter. “What about me!? I’m not really human any more, either, what’s it doing inside me?”

Sevens opened her mouth with a wet click. Her spine straightened, ready to shut me down, to deploy just a sliver of that aristocratic bearing to overrule me. I wondered if this was why she’d appeared as the Princess, not the Blood-Goblin.

But then she paused. She looked me up and down with admiration and appreciation, and said, “Ah.”

“Ah? Ah what? Sevens!”

“You are not infected. You are immune. You have been subject to the projection only, via Hringewindla’s own infection, not the jumbling of direction and meaning.”

“Oh. I couldn’t see the jumbled doors and stuff! You’re right!”

Nicole raised a fist in mute, provisional triumph.

“This is not all a good thing, kitten,” Sevens purred. “It means you are subject to the effect, leaking from others, without ever being able to identify the cause inside yourself. Immunity denies you access. Without cause, how can one observe?”

“Okay, fine!” I huffed. “But what do we do, practically? I’m not letting you go Outside and changing yourself, Sevens, I’m not letting you undo all the progress you’ve made with finding yourself, even for an emergency, even for this! How do I … ” My throat went dry and my words trailed off as I realised what I was about to suggest.

“Yes.” Sevens nodded, very matter-of-fact. “The other method of removal would be for you to share your immune system.”

“I’ve done that with Zheng before! I know that’s a thing I can do, I think?”

“And Zheng shared hers with Raine, earlier today. They may both be immune, too. Lucky ladies, little kitten. Will you include me among their number?”

I huffed and rolled my eyes. “You don’t have to make it so sexual.”

“Because if you don’t do so, and quickly, then things are about to get a lot spookier. The spore is germinating. Look around, my beloved.”

Seven-Shades-of-Seriously-Scared was correct — Geerswin Farm was beginning to change once again, but not like before.

The golden-yellow sunlight filtering through the leaves was turning a wintry grey, thick and heavy with the threat of snow. As the four of us looked up — including Marmite peering out from beneath Raine’s car — the wind went still and a few flakes began to fall, drifting through the quiet air. Not just out of season, but the wrong temperature. It was not growing cold. Several flakes dusted my hair and my shoulders. I reached out and caught one in my hand.

It wasn’t snow at all. It was ash.

A smell of burning meat tickled my nose — not the dreaded pork-like scent of human flesh, but something utterly wrong, the stench made by an alien funeral pyre. My stomach clenched in disgust and I shivered as I brushed the ash from my hair and flipped my hood up.

The farm house itself seemed to leer at us, as if the tight, latticed windows had become empty eye sockets. A giant skull on an ash-strewn plain. The grass, the weeds, the plants, all turned slowly pale, withered by drought and cracked soil, the ash piling up to obscure everything. Off in the field, the pair of alpacas and the little cluster of sheep slowly sat down, lowering their heads and going very still. Ash began to cover their bodies.

Nicole looked horrified. She was seeing this too, clear as the suddenly fading day. Marmite tried to cram himself deeper beneath Raine’s car, but he couldn’t quite fit. His clawed climbing-limbs scrabbled and scratched at the tarmac.

“ … Sevens?” my voice came out in a squeak. “T-this isn’t real, this is an illusion, correct? You said it was a parasite, making us see things, warping reality with Hringy-cringe-whatever’s power, yes? So this isn’t—”

“What happens on the stage is always real. The hand holds the knife and makes the stroke, even if the intent is pure invention. Your immune system, your white blood cells. Now, little kitten, or the struggle will be worse.”

“Okay, okay! But how?”

I felt a twitch in the tip of one of my tentacles, the merest suggestion of bio-steel delivery system, needle and fluid. But that wasn’t my immune system, that was something else, something I barely understood yet.

“Blood,” said Sevens. “For myself, a droplet or two should suffice.”

“Oh!” I lit up with relief. Blood would be easy enough. “Do you want to bite me, as your vampire mask—”

“No,” she said, gentle but quick. “Never mix business and pleasure. Speed is of the essence.”

I nodded and got to work. With a flicker of one of my free tentacles, I turned the tip into a millimetre worth of razor-blade, then braced, winced, and forced the sharp edge against the pad of my own left thumb. I had to close my eyes and not look at the moment I sliced into my flesh. Nicole watched in mounting horror, though all she could see was a tiny cut suddenly open on my thumb. I raised the miniature wound toward Sevens.

“Here, here, take whatever you need.”

Before I could consider the necessary logistics of feeding my abyssal white blood cells to an Outsider Princess of the Yellow Court, Sevens grabbed my hand in hers, cool and quick, cradling my wrist like I was made of sugar glass. Ashen flakes fell upon her yellow-blonde hair as she raised my hand to her mouth in the gathering darkness. I blushed and made to look away as her lips pressed to the blood dripping from the pad of my thumb — but she had other ideas.

Sevens lapped a droplet of blood from my skin, then yanked my wrist so I fell against her. I yelped. Then she pressed her lips to mine, kissing my own blood back into my mouth.

She tasted of iron under sunlight, wheat soaked with rain, and blood-thickened butter.

I broke away from her in shock, though I didn’t let go with my tentacles, I did not reject her. “Sevens!” I squeaked.

“One would think you were used to the flavour of your own veins,” she answered, cool and collected, as if we hadn’t just snogged in the middle of a serious emergency, rapidly getting covered in meat-ash.

Her lips were red with my taste, the impression of her still on my mouth. Ash fell behind her and around her, piling on the ground. The house had gone grey and old, forgotten and barren.

“Yes, but that’s rather beside the point now! I thought you said don’t mix business and pleasure?”

Nicole was watching us with confused shock, with the kind of expression that said ‘Why are these dykes making out when the air smells of burning flesh and the world is turning dark?’

“With you, kitten, it is all pleasure,” Sevens said. She licked me off her lips.

Even amid all this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Fine! More importantly, is it working?”

“I believe so. Give your blessing a moment to … to … ”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stopped again, the same as she had before, as if wracked by a sudden wave of carefully concealed nausea. This time I was already holding her in my tentacles, ready to assist.

But this time, the base of her throat bulged outward.

Something was inside her.

For a split-second, the Yellow Princess lost all her calm, all her composure, all her perfect poise. She grabbed at my arm, eyes bulging with panic — and then she was gone, replaced, mask stripped away.

Sevens the Blood Goblin lay wrapped in my tentacles, panicking and choking, something writhing inside her throat.

The Princess Mask had encountered an emotional state it could not support.

Nicole actually stumbled back in surprise. Of course, she had no explanation for this, she’d only just met Sevens, let alone witnessed her transition from one mask to another. Sevens couldn’t even speak, eyes bulging, choking past the suddenly very physical parasite.

I did the only thing that made any sense.

I whipped a tentacle through the air and slid it smoothly down her throat.

I didn’t stop to consider the implications; if a bystander — say, Raine — had suggested the slightest innuendo about this moment, I would have slapped her, well-meaning or not. This was pure instinct, the need to get this thing out of my friend, my partner, my beloved, the need to protect her body. Whether she was real or abyssal illusion or anything else, it was her and it had been invaded. Abyssal instinct demanded I remove the source of the infection.

Having a tentacle down Sevens’ throat was a unique and bizarre experience. She gagged and shook. I felt myself slide past thin lips, needle-sharp teeth, raspy little tongue, then bumped down into her trachea. Then I felt something else, lodged in her flesh, coated with cold slime and hooked barbs.

Sevens gagged and tried to retch, thrashing against my tentacles. I gripped her harder, trying to get this over with as quickly as possible, the tip of my tentacle wrapping around the parasite in her throat. But it wriggled lower, slipping downward into her body. Sevens grabbed for my arm and dug her fingernails into my skin.

I squeezed another six or seven inches of tentacle past her lips. This time I didn’t apply half measures. Inside the wet darkness of her throat, I made suckers and adhesive enzymes and slapped my tentacle against the wriggling parasite, melting its spikes and trapping a dozen tiny limbs with my own precise muscles.

With a horrible wet slooorp noise, I dragged the parasite up Sevens’ throat, out of her mouth, and into the open air.

“Sevens?! Sevens are you okay?!”

Seven-Shades-of-Shock-and-Spluttering whined and sagged in my grip, leaning against me and drooling from slack lips, exhausted and spent. “Mmmnnnuuuhhhhh,” she rasped. “Didn’t expect … that would make it … physical.”

“Are you okay, though?”

“Mm. Will be. Kill it, please.”

“What? Oh. Ew.” I finally looked up at the thing I was holding in my tentacle, and wrinkled my nose in disgust.

It was like a big grey limbless shrimp crossed with a slug, about the size of a hot-dog, dotted with half-melted spines and hooks, curling and flexing in a futile attempt to escape my grasp. I was vaguely aware that it was, on some level, not real — it had been forced into physicality by my abyssal immune system, borrowed by Sevens.

My head hurt when I thought about that too closely; I’m sure the Eye’s lessons contained the exact mathematics to explain how that all worked, but it was hardly the time to go dredging.

Instead, I slapped the parasite on the tarmac, hard enough to kill it. The thing stopped wriggling and went still.

Ash slowly ceased to fall. The sky began to brighten. Out in the field, one of the alpacas stumbled to its feet.

“Uuuurrrrrrrgggg,” Sevens gurgled. I helped her stand up. Red-on-black eyes blinked heavily, first at Marmite, then at Nicole.

“What now?” I asked, looking up at Nicole, at the centre of her chest and her throat.

The detective shook her head, eyes wide with terror, clutching her own chest.

“No,” Sevens rasped. “Same procedure would kill a human. Don’t try with her.” She tilted her head to peer at Marmite, still half-crammed under Raine’s car. “He’s safe though. Come out, come on. You ain’t got nothing in you, little one.”

Marmite stayed firmly under the car, not convinced by a gurgling, drooling, sagging vampire girl upon whom I’d just performed emergency surgery.

“Sevens, what do we do now?” I asked. “How do we get everyone else out of the … spooky-house?”

“Find Hringewindla.”

“ … pardon?”

Sevens looked up at me, pulling quite the pained grimace, lips covered in blood-speckled drool.

“Find Hringewindla. Immunize him. Pull out the parasite. His might be a bit bigger, though.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Well, that was quite messy. Parasites in gods? Outsider-hijacking? Good thing Heather was immune. Or maybe not a good thing, seeing as it prevented her from figuring out what was happening. But hooray for tentacles, they’re so useful! Sevens thought she was coming to the rescue, but it was her who needed help in the end. At least Jan and Lozzie are having, um, ‘fun’ … right.

I’ll be making the links to my patreon and TWF really really small this week, because just like last week I want to shout out to another really cool story!

Dragon’s Dilemma is at least partly about “a strong romance storyline between a shapeshifting genderqueer dragon and a human woman”, so you might like it! Go check it out!

Next week, it’s off to find Cringley-wingley and administer emergency parasite removal. To a god. Yup, this isn’t going to go wrong at all. No problems here. Just like de-worming a dog. You know, on second thought, maybe Heather needs more help.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.3

A small note!

I don’t often do pre-chapter notes, but I have to say something before this one begins!

At the request of several of my patrons and the suggestion of many other readers, I’m going to be placing a very short content warning note before each chapter from now on. This note will be behind a spoiler tag, so if you don’t want to be spoiled on potential content, don’t look at it. I won’t be content warning for blanket genre-typical content — i.e. violence, blood, tentacles, etc — but only for specific issues. Sometimes there won’t be anything inside this content warning spoiler, but it’ll be there anyway.

I am pretty much copying the technique and attitude of the wonderful author Thundamoo, outlined in more detail in the pre-chapter note of Vigor Mortis, over here.

Content Warnings

Mental possession/corruption
Drug use metaphor

That’s all! On with the show!

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Alone in a haunted house, surrounded by the wailing wind of an oncoming storm, the tree-trunks of a forest that had marched from nowhere, and the dark claws of a premature, unnatural, cloying night. Separated from my comrades and lovers, taunted by space that made no sense, left with only my wits and my meagre strength to see me through. The lamp-lit corridor beckoned, lined with watercolour mountain vistas and doors that could lead to anywhere.

My whispered threat to have Raine put Edward Lilburne’s head down a toilet did not summon the owlish old man from around one of the door frames, like a puppet-master stepping out from behind the curtain.

I would have preferred if he had appeared; at least then I’d have something to slap.

“Oh, I’m as bad as Raine sometimes,” I hissed to myself, inside the safety of my cephalopod mask. “Can’t solve a problem unless you can punch it, really?”

The me of nine months ago would have found a cupboard or perhaps the space under a bed, curled up in a ball, and sobbed myself to sleep, in the hope that I would be safe and home once I woke up. Like a cut-price Dorothy who couldn’t even be bothered to tap her magic slippers together. Even the me of six weeks back, prior to my unplanned outing to Carcosa, would have been paralysed with fear at being cut off from Raine and Evelyn, scattered to the far corners of this bizarre trap.

But that Heather was not in charge anymore. She was not forced to make decisions in the grip of terror, buffeted by ineffable forces beyond her understanding. My squid-skull mask, my abdominal reactor organ, and my six beautiful, rainbow-strobing tentacles were only the outward heralds of a much more meaningful alchemy, deep in my heart, where the old me was wrapped tight and cradled safe.

Which is a fancy way of trying to explain why I huffed, stamped my foot, and shouted at the top of my lungs.


I drew out the word right to the edge of a scream. My voice echoed away down the long spinal corridor of Twil’s house, unanswered by bare wood and old wallpaper, soaked up by lino and carpet, but more than loud enough to penetrate every corner.

Nobody answered. I stood there panting, getting my breath back.

“All right, so there’s nobody here but me,” I said out loud. “As if I believe that for a single second. This is absurd.”

Thump went a heavy knock against the wood of the front door, right behind me.

I strangled a yelp, spinning on the spot, then had to grit my teeth and swallow hard to stop myself from hissing like a goaded lizard at the inside of the closed door. All my tentacles were out wide, making me look big and intimidating to whatever shadow-spawned nightmare was about to burst the latch and splinter the wood.

But nothing did. Not even a second thump. Wind howled, tree-tops rustled, beams creaked — so I couldn’t be certain, when I thought I heard something padding away from the door on bare feet.

I stood there panting like a fool, scared out of my wits for a long minute as my tentacles retracted and my heart rate lowered.

“I am not putting up with this!” I snapped. “I am not! You stop this right now!”

I dosed myself up with my own irritation like a hit of diazepam to chase away the fear. It partially worked, though it was mostly for show, in case hidden eyes were watching from dark corners. Abyssal instinct whispered imperatives to stay defiant, show no weakness, do not hesitate, as if I was deep in a warren of predators, among the rocks with the flesh-eaters, puffing myself up to convince them that attacking me was too much of a risk.

Maybe that instinct was right. Perhaps we were among hidden predators.

Raine was right too, about our mobile phones not working. That didn’t stop me from trying. The phone dutifully told me that I had no signal, that I was out beyond the borders of civilisation, but I called Raine’s number all the same, just to see if the line would connect. It didn’t, giving me the usual ‘out of service range’ tone.

“This farm isn’t that isolated,” I said with an irritated sigh, tucking the phone away and talking to the walls again. “It’s fifteen minutes on foot to a small town. There’s probably a mast within jogging distance. This isn’t exactly convincing, do you understand that?”

I faced the mute corridor, chewing my tongue behind my mask, weighing my options.

Slip, or stay?

If I Slipped out — preferably to Camelot as a slingshot to take me back to Sharrowford and home and help — then I might not be able to return, even if I fetched Sevens and Lozzie and came back to this house all over again. I might be stuck on the exterior surface of this trap, whatever it really was. That is, if this was just a trap, rather than the conscious working of some Outsider mind, poised to fight me if I tried to leave. If I did decide to flee to get help, I might only have one shot, one chance to Slip away before the jaws closed around my leg.

And I wouldn’t leave my friends and comrades to that fate. If this was anything like that night with Ooran Juh, if we were in something’s gullet, then the threat of my toxic abyssal poison might be the only thing stopping the trap from swallowing us whole.

No, I had to stay, in case the others would die without me here to poison the dish.

“This doesn’t feel anything like mister orange juice, though,” I muttered behind my mask, gathering my courage to creep down the corridor. “Come on, Heather. Bottom floor first. Let’s find a spooky door and … and … slap some ghosts.”

Slap some ghosts? I winced at myself. Raine would be proud.

Twil’s home, Geerswin Farm, would have been a lovely old house to explore by the light of day, preferably with Raine or Evelyn or anybody else at my side, but it was significantly less lovely during this artificially imposed fake night, complete with winds making the beams creak and the roof tiles rattle, like I was inside a ship at sea. Still, at least this wasn’t a modern house, that would have been even worse: a true nightmare of anonymous walls and inhuman angles, work surfaces never used or touched by human hands or care, every architectural turn suggesting habitation but never quite invoking the reality of living presence. At least tip-toeing down this spinal corridor felt like I was surrounded by a house that somebody loved.

And then I stopped tip-toeing, because why bother?

“I’m here, I’m here, and you are going to have to deal with me!”

I checked the doors on the left and right as I made for the sitting room at the end of the hallway, hoping against hope that I would come across one of the others, passed out or something — which would explain why nobody had answered my shout. Or perhaps I would run into one of the bubble-servitors. At least then I could remotely interrogate Hringewindla. Failing those, I might find some clue as to what was going on, or at least provoke a reaction.

My tentacles stayed poised and ready, hovering like scorpion stingers, edging around each door frame. I kept my mask on, my hands free.

The ‘den’ — as Twil had called it — was still empty, just armchairs and the television and some books, and the limitless, thick night pressing in on the back door to the patio. The other doors revealed equally empty domestic absences: a cloak room full of waxed coats and wellington boots, exactly suited to a walk in the woods; a boiler room with one of those ancient standing water-heaters, a washing machine, tumble dryer, and a big chest freezer — I checked inside that, in case a meat-monster was about to leap out, but it was all just frozen vegetables and chicken nuggets. A spare downstairs bedroom looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, boxes and packaging piled up at one end. I found a tiny study with neatly stacked papers atop a broad wooden desk, along with a truly ancient computer which even I could tell was about twenty years out of date. The final door led into the kitchen, which seemed to wrap around to join the large sitting room.

Their kitchen was beautiful, straight out of one of my teenage fantasies of living in a combination castle-cottage in the Cotswolds. Slate and tile surfaces, pots and utensils hanging on the walls, sideboards of pale stone rather than modern Formica — a true holdover from another age. The room’s centrepiece was one of those huge multi-purpose combination oven-boiler-things, made of cream-painted metal. Pipes ran from the massive oven into the ceiling, pipes that had once provided central heating for the whole house, feeding the iron radiators I’d spotted in some of the other rooms. It even had a little door where you could choose to fuel it with wood rather than gas or oil. I reminded myself to ask Twil’s mother about that oven, if we came out the other side of this bizarre incident in one piece. I wanted to know how old it was. It was like a visitor from the distant past.

“You’re beautiful,” I told it.

But my pleasure drained away as my footsteps tapped across the pale terracotta tiles of the kitchen floor, heading for the connecting door into the sitting room.

What I’d thought was a sitting room was more of a dining room. A large wooden table dominated the space, probably quite fancy once upon a time, with little ribbed carvings down the legs and a smooth expanse of varnished cream-orange wood for the top, though now it was chipped and pitted and scratched from decades of use, but still given pride of place, along with the matching chairs. The rest of the room boasted a pair of sofas, a traditional sideboard cabinet full of crockery, a huge fireplace that seemed to have been used recently, a wonderful pair of enlarged photographs on the walls which looked like pictures of the very woods that lay beyond the house — and a bank of windows, split down the middle by a pair of glass patio doors.

Night loomed beyond the windows, as impenetrable as the abyss.

I glanced around the room to make sure nothing was going to ambush me. I even looked under the table and poked my head into the little closed cubbyhole style cupboard, which was full of random junk, a vacuum cleaner, and some wrapping paper. Only then did I creep over to the windows.

They were supposed to be looking out over the back patio, but I could see only a scrap of ground.

The artificial darkness outdoors pressed in like a wall of fog. Barely three or four inches of the back patio was visible in the overspill of light from indoors. I could hear the tortured creak and moan of trees and the storm-tossed sound of the leaves in the high winds, but none of it was visible beyond the wall of night.

“It’s mid-afternoon in May,” I sighed. “You’re not fooling anybody. In Carcosa I almost got eaten by sentient darkness and I responded by trying to cause a nuclear explosion. Do you want me to do that here? Yes? You want me to blow you up?”

Nobody and nothing replied.

“You’re not listening to this, are you, Sevens? If you’re here, if you followed us, please show yourself? I need some help. I won’t be angry that you followed us, just … please.”

Sevens was not here.

I tried to set my shoulders and look irritated, tried to channel Evelyn at her worst — or best, depending on what one thought of her — but it didn’t quite work. I was very thankful for my pink hoodie, the armour of my soul. I even rolled my left sleeve up a little so I could run my fingers over the Fractal on my forearm, my original safety blanket.

“Fine,” I hissed. “I’ll check upstairs. If I don’t find anybody, I shall unravel this place with my mind. You think you’re strong enough to fight that? I am the daughter of an Outsider god, this … nonsense is beyond me.”

Barely believed the words I was saying, but I had to keep up appearances.

Then, thunder split the night.

I was just about to turn away from the window when the crash of the storm hit — one of those split second crack-boom thunderclaps that comes from roiling silence and makes you jump like a startled rabbit. Or maybe that’s just me.

Lightning flashed in the same instant, as if the storm was right above the house, throwing everything into stark illumination. The lashing trees, thick as a primordial forest; the writhing, wriggling un-grass, out there between the tree-line and the house; the potted plants, meat pretending to be vegetable matter; the mud, thick and cloying, like soil mixed with blood.

And one of the alpacas, from the back field.

It was standing barely ten meters from the house, out in the open, staring directly through the patio doors, right at me. Black horns curved from the sides of its head, coal-dust dark. A human face with blank, fish-like eyes caught the flash of lightning. Bared teeth held a lipless grimace.

Then the darkness slammed back down, concealing all.

Adrenaline pounded through my head.

“Oh, very original,” I spat, though to my surprise I wasn’t actually afraid, more annoyed. “What, am I supposed to be scared of an alpaca with a human face? I’ve spent half my life seeing worse monsters around every corner. You’re going to have to do better than that. A spooky alpaca, really?”

As the adrenaline drained away, my anger grew. I genuinely had been lost and alone in scarier places than this. There was something parodic about this situation — the darkness, the being cut off from each other, the unexplained storm, and now a lightning flash at the exact moment I was looking outdoors. Like we were trapped by the logic of a Scooby-Doo episode. I was a little afraid, of course I was; I didn’t want to have to fight off a weird alpaca with my tentacles. But deep down, I’d seen far worse. I’d been Outside. I’d been to the court of the Yellow King.

“It’s like this is all a bad … joke … um?”

After the lightning flash, the shadows had regathered around the patio doors, but they had also disgorged a curiously coherent shape. Or maybe it had been there all along, and the lightning had ruined its concealment.

Diaphanous skirts of ruffled rippling flesh — translucent camouflage to blend in with the shadows — surrounded a creature the size of a small pony, currently clinging to the outside edge of the patio doors with a set of eight thick, hooked climbing-limbs. Part funnel-web spider, part deep-sea giant squid, part lizard, the thing was armour-plated in pus-white, covered in scales and bristles, looking like an abandoned war machine. A big bulbous abdomen was tucked in close to the body, like a hound tucking its tail between its legs.

A dozen cone-shaped metallic eyes, situated like a spider’s, stared back at me, half-retracted for protection against the whipping winds.

A sharp beak was buried in there somewhere, working up and down with nervous energy, surrounded by a set of seven segmented tentacles — and the stub of an eighth.

“What the … what are you doing here?”

I recognised this creature.

It was Edward Lilburne’s amalgam-servitor, the very same one I’d fought off at the home of Amy Stack’s son and his father, Shuja Yousafzai.

Back then, Edward Lilburne had piloted the creature directly, like an animal with some kind of cartoon-logic control-collar. I’d had to make contact with it and then use hyperdimensional mathematics to chase Edward out of its mind and break his control over the poor thing. In the aftermath, we’d surmised that it had probably started life as an actual pneuma-somatic creature, just another spirit, but it had been experimented on and modified, its own willpower hollowed out and supplanted by the old mage himself. Evelyn believed he probably didn’t have the techniques to construct a true servitor, so this was the next best solution to the lack of spirit-muscle.

The last I’d seen of the thing, it had been fleeing across the rooftops of Sharrowford, running on pure instinct, free of the evil wizard making it do his bidding.

“Are you trying to ambush me?” I said out loud — but I didn’t think this was a repeat attempt.

The first time the amalgam-servitor had ambushed us had been perfect, like a spider from an invisible trap. Now it looked more like a spider stuck in a bathtub, out of its context, exposed and threatened by the unnatural darkness, same as me. The seven jointed, segmented tentacles were not extended in a search for prey, but wrapped around its own body in a protective ball.

The thing was terrified.

In response to the sound of my voice, it shuffled closer to the patio door, which was a little disconcerting because I was looking at the thing’s underside, and it was very large indeed.

Metal cone eyes swivelled to look out at the darkness, then back to me. The creature’s tentacles pulled tighter, re-armouring itself against the whipping winds and the lurking alpaca with a human face.

“Yes, you and me both,” I said in sympathy, shaking my head. “Are you asking to be let indoors?”

It click-clacked further to the side, clear of the door handle. The big sharp beak opened and closed several times.

I bit my bottom lip, caught between natural sympathy for something so much like myself — those tentacles were impressive and beautiful, in their own way — and wariness of the amalgam-servitor, not to mention what might lie in the darkness beyond.

“You’re definitely not with Edward anymore, right?” I sighed heavily. “I’ve no way of being sure.”

Cone eyes blinked. The thing looked so pitiful.

Under Edward’s control and direction, it had been a thing of meticulous planning. The moment I had set it free, it had reverted to instinct. What I saw now was not a perfectly poised trap, but a frightened arachnid.

“I don’t know … ” I murmured, squinting out at the darkness. “If I open the door, is something going to rush in here? Are you … no, no, you’re terrified, you’re still free.”

The amalgam-servitor pressed itself tighter against the glass. The wind pulled and dragged at its delicate black membranes. That looked painful.

“Oh, fine,” I hissed. “Praem would never let me live it down if I left a spider to die. But if this is a trick then you’re going Outside. Understand?”

The brass latch turned without resistance. The wind reached inside like a fist, slamming me in the front and face so hard that I had to anchor myself with my tentacles. I huddled behind the door, safe inside my mask, as the amalgam-servitor scurried inside, a mass of clawed limb and segmented tentacle wrapped in black membranes and shivering all over. Try as I might to suppress the gut reaction, I still flinched as the thing shot past me. Anybody would, so close to a squid-lizard thing the size of a pony.

I had to use half my tentacles to slam the door shut again. My noodle-arms weren’t enough to defy the force of the unnatural storm-winds. As I slapped the latch back into place, another rolling crack-boom of thunder made me jump and hiss.

The lightning in the clouds lit the landscape — and revealed the alpaca with horns and a human face, now only six feet from the patio doors.

Before the night rushed back in, I saw crimson smears and scraps of flesh between its grimace-grinning teeth.

Then all was darkness and wind once more.

“Oh … oh, bugger off!” I snapped at the window. Then I turned, rather absurdly, to the amalgam-servitor, and added, “Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean you. Sorry for swearing.”

I wasn’t even sure if the pneuma-somatic creature could understand me, but I didn’t need to be an expert in supernatural body language to see that it was still terrified. The spider-squid thing had crammed itself against the back wall of the sitting room, trying to jam itself into a secluded corner and wrap itself about with those black, floating membranes of false shadow. All its metal cone-eyes were turned on the patio doors and the darkness beyond. It wasn’t interested in ambushing me, not in the slightest. It wanted to hide.

Stepping toward it and away from the window, I extended my hand, palm-up, shaking only a tiny bit.

It recoiled, trying to make itself smaller. Metal cone-eyes whirred and clicked at me, like camera lenses.

“Okay,” I sighed. “Fair enough. I was responsible for you pulling off one of your own legs, after all. You haven’t fallen back under Edward’s control or anything, have you? If you had, you would be the lethal secret in the trap, not scared out of your wits. Correct?”

Cone-eyes withdrew into mottled flesh, then poked back out. Was that a yes, or a no, or a please-stop-talking-ape-thing-and-let-me-hide?

“Your presence here doesn’t actually answer anything, you know that?” I snapped, huffing with irritation. “In fact, it only raises more questions! Were you the thing that Amanda Hopton saw in the hallway? How did you get past the bubble-servitors? Or have you been here — I mean here, inside this … cartoon haunted house, all along? This doesn’t make any sense!”

The spider-squid crawled slowly up the wall, trying to wedge itself into the corner between wall and ceiling, watching me like I was its natural predator.

“Unless … unless you went back to Edward,” I mused. “For revenge. Or because it was the only place you knew. And then … Nicole comes along, and you follow her back out, you follow her here, from Edward’s house. Maybe?”

Mister double-spider — or Miss double-spider, I couldn’t actually tell — provided an answer by curling up even tighter, segmented tentacles wrapped around itself like a ball of armour.

“Fair enough,” I sighed. “Well, stay here if you want, but I am going to check upstairs, before a spooky alpaca crashes through that door.”

Crack-boom went the thunder. Lightning split the darkness a third time.

The alpaca was right up against the glass. A human face with fish-like eyes and a bloody mouth, smearing crimson on the window.

The lightning flash passed. The alpaca stayed, staring at me.

I crossed my arms, lifted my chin, and tried to ignore the pounding of my heart.

“Shoo!” I said, waving my tentacles. “Go on, off with you! Or break the glass and try me. Go on. What’s the point of this, otherwise? What are you doing?”

The alpaca backed away, slowly vanishing into the darkness.

“Mmhmm.” I tutted. “Thought so.”

When I crept back out into the corridor, the squid-spider decided to follow me.

He kept at a polite distance in the rear, hook-claws feeling his way along the wall, hanging sideways. My own relief surprised me. The thing was incredibly weird and had once been piloted by a horrible mage, but right now it was the only other living thing I’d found in this cursed house.

“I can’t just keep thinking of you as ‘that squid-spider’,” I murmured as we crept back toward the front of the house, past the open doorways. “You need a name. I suppose that’ll have to wait until you’ve communicated in some fashion.” I glanced back at the thing, clinging to the edges of a door frame. “For now … I don’t know, you’re more cat than dog. What do people call their cats? Marmalade? You’re not marmalade coloured though, you’re more like marmite and curdled cream. Marmite the spider, how does that sound?”

Marmite did not reply. He — I decided it was a he, for now, though prepared to correct myself later — scissored his beak up and down, all eyes on me, hunched and close to the wall. I was reminded of a timid animal following its owner into a scary place.

When we passed the open door to the den, a strange thing happened.

First I glanced inside, just to check that Nicole hadn’t reappeared in her armchair, but the room was still empty. Then, as I turned away, a door appeared in my peripheral vision, in the back wall of the room. Plain wood with a neat handle, like all the other doors in the house.

“Oh, that’s … ah?”

But when I looked directly at it, the door wasn’t there. I sighed and slipped one hand inside my squid-skull mask, so I could pinch the bridge of my nose with exasperation.

Marmite and I then commenced several fruitless minutes of trying to find the door again. Well, I did. Marmite just watched. Perhaps he wondered what on earth the little ape-squid was up to, running her hands and tentacles all over the wall, hissing in frustration and taking her helmet off, putting it back on, taking it off again, and putting on all over again. Try as I might, the door was not there, not even invisible. There and gone again.

“Fine. I give up,” I said, stepping out of the room — and then the door appeared again in my peripheral vision.

This time, I didn’t move my head or my eyes, though I hissed with the stupidity of the moment. If I could edge all the way up to the door without looking directly at it, perhaps I could grab the handle and exit this absurd fake space.

Then a shape moved across the door. Blonde hair, rounded shoulders, stomping with her walking stick, scowling and chewing her lips as she stared at a notepad in one hand.

“Evee!” My heart leapt.

And the door was gone. Evelyn wasn’t there either.

“Oh for—” I forced myself to take a deep breath. “If there is a mind behind this, I am going to give you such a … a … telling-off! I am really not in the mood for this. I’ve spent all morning watching demons fight and I am tired. I don’t want to be doing this right now, I want to be at home, taking a nap or reading a book!””

I didn’t waste any more time on the door-that-wasn’t. Back to the corridor. Marmite scuttled along behind me.

We almost reached the stairs before I noticed an extra door. And this one was not running away.

It was opposite the stairs themselves, flush up against the door to the little cloak room, identical to all the other doors in the house, plain wood painted an off-white cream colour.

“That wasn’t there before,” I sighed, more irritated than spooked by now. “Is this meant to be scary? The first one was a bait-and-switch, but this one opens on a bottomless pit, right? This is dumb. What do you think, Marmite? Pretend we haven’t seen it? Oh, I suppose it’s a way deeper into this … whatever this is all meant to—”

The door opened and disgorged a woman being eaten by a blob monster.

At least, that’s what it looked like for the first split second. I recoiled like a cat faced with a snake, hissing at the top of my lungs and whipping all my tentacles forward in self-defence as I scrambled backward. I think I bumped into Marmite on the wall, because somebody or something helped catch and right me on my own two feet again so I could keep hissing.

“Miss— Morell? H-Heather?”

My hiss died down to a pant of adrenaline and confusion as my eyes made sense of what I was looking at.

Amanda Hopton waved at me awkwardly with her free hand, the one that was not engulfed in bubble-servitor.

“Uh … hello,” I croaked, forcing my throat back into a human configuration with an effort of willpower. It felt like swallowing a pine cone. “Sorry … I thought … um … ” I gestured with one tentacle at the collection of massive soap bubbles attached to Amanda’s arm and head.

One of Hringewindla’s angels was perched on her like the world’s largest parrot. Iridescent bubbles piled up around her head and neck, spilling over her shoulder, and clinging to her left arm — which was entirely buried within the shifting mass of the bubble-creature, visible through the translucent layers, warped by multiple angles of refraction.

“Oh,” Amanda reacted quite slowly, glancing over at her bulbous passenger. “It’s quite safe. I’m fine. I needed help, in all this … confusion.”

“Help … right.” I cleared my throat again.

“Is that yours?” She nodded past me, at Marmite, who was still clinging to the wall.

“Um, in a manner of speaking,” I sighed. “Long story. I think he might be what you saw in the corridor earlier, but he’s not responsible for all this. He’s safe too. I think.”

“Mmmmmm,” Amanda made a low humming, nodding along, heavy lidded eyes blinking slowly — then snapping open to fix on Marmite. “Yes. He is allowed to be here.”

I let out a big sigh, trying to straighten up and shake off the adrenaline. “That door you came from, that wasn’t there a moment ago.” I peered over her shoulder. “Oh.”

It was just another cloak room, identical to the one I’d been in earlier. Same coats, same shoes, same boxes.

“Ahh?” Amanda turned, confused, the bubble-servitor turning with her. She half closed the door with one hand, which revealed that the other door, the one to the cloak room I’d been inside, was now nowhere to be seen. Blank wall.

I sighed a great big sigh and wanted to put my face in my hands. Only my squid mask stopped me. “There was another door,” I said. “It’s gone now.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve been experiencing that too,” Amanda said, nodding along. “New doors. Corridors all tangled, going in circles. It’s awful. I’m so glad to see somebody else.”

Her voice held a mesmerised, floating quality; back in normal reality that was just how she sounded, but surrounded as we were now by cloying night and howling winds beyond the walls, the way she spoke almost gave me the creeps.

I’d never been alone with Amanda before. I’d only met her twice. She possessed the same neat features and dark curls as her sister, but with significantly more grey in her hair and much heavier bags under her eyes. Oddly, I couldn’t quite tell her age. She could have been in her fifties or her thirties, run-down in some ways but preserved in others, as if she rarely saw the sun. She had more fat on her frame and more lines in her face, backed by a slack exhaustion that came from a lifetime of terrible stress or an acute period of no sleep. I suspected the former. I knew it well.

But her eyes danced with alert intelligence.

“You’ve been experiencing all this as well, then?” I asked. “You left the den, went upstairs with Twil? What happened?”

Amanda nodded. The bubble-servitor adjusted as she moved her head, a disgusting flowing motion of hundreds of tiny bubbles. “To see my boys, yes. We went upstairs, but then I turned a corner and Twil was gone. I thought she was just doing something Twil-like, you know? Run off somewhere.” She tried a smile, nervous and soft, like a puffball mushroom.

“Yes. It would be very Twil, doing that amid all this.”

“But then my boys were missing too. And Gareth — he’s my gentleman friend. He wouldn’t leave the boys after I told him to stay with them, he simply wouldn’t do that. And Bernard was gone, too. That’s my dog.”

“We’ll find your children, I’m sure they’re safe. I don’t think this place is … serious. Sort of.”

Amanda sighed. “I’m afraid you and I both have better protection than most, miss Morell. Heather?”

“Heather is fine,” I said.

“ … what is it? What’s wrong?”

I felt myself blush, suddenly deeply awkward. She must have seen the way I was watching her face. “Excuse me for saying this, it’s not an accusation, but under the circumstances … well, Amanda, you’re not very afraid, for somebody trapped in a haunted house.”

She really wasn’t. The sleepy-eyed look, the strung-out exhaustion, the strange floating of her words. Her children were missing, wasn’t she supposed to be in panic?

Amanda nodded. “I am fortified and protected in my hour of need. Fear would not help. The hand of my god is on me.”

“Ah,” I cleared my throat. “Literally, yes. I apologise. I’m … ”

“We didn’t do this,” she said, though she didn’t sound offended. “I speak with the voice of my god, and this is not our doing.”

“Well, it’s not ours either.”

She nodded. “I believe that.”

I shuffled my feet and tried to smile back. Not easy in this place. Behind me, Marmite was twitching and adjusting on the wall, as if listening to the sounds of the wind or the creaking of the beams.

“So … we’re all cut off,” I said. “But how have you and I bumped into each other? If we can replicate that, we can probably find everybody else. Maybe get out of here.”

Amanda smiled. “I am receiving direct help.” She wiggled her fingers inside the bubble-servitor. “But I don’t think that’s actually helping. You’re the first I’ve found. All I’ve done is wander around this labyrinth.”

“Labyrinth? All I’ve seen is the house, like normal. Save a phantom door or two.”

Amanda shook her head. “It is a jumble.”

“Well, not for me. Have you seen outdoors?”

“Oh. Yeah.” She cringed a little — that helped remind me she was still a person too, not just a mouthpiece for an Outsider. “I’m sorry, Heather. It’s very strange talking to you through your mask, though it is very beautiful. I might not show it but I am quite perfectly terrified right now, for my safety, for my boys’ safety, for everyone else. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

It was only once I took off my squid-skull mask that I realised how much security and comfort I’d been drawing from being cradled in metallic armour. Naked, exposed directly to the walls of the house and the wind beyond, uncovered and unprotected. I silently thanked the strange Outside creature that had donated its remains, which had become my mask.

“Is that better?” I asked Amanda.

“Thank you. Sorry.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said automatically, frowning at her though I didn’t mean to.

“If we work together, we may be able to find the others,” she said slowly, slack lipped and squinting. “Or … I am not unaware of your many blessings from the Beyond. Can you go for help?” When I didn’t answer right away, Amanda swallowed. “Heather?”

“Amanda, am I speaking with you right now or … well, him?”

“Both,” she said without hesitation. “My god is in my head, all the time. I make no secret of this. He is present, he is listening, he speaks to me. But not through me, not directly.”

I chewed my lip, watching her carefully, trying to see into the backs of her eyes, brown pools like thick mud set in flesh the colour of sunless fungus. Abyssal instinct whispered dark suggestions, ruthless suggestions — maybe this woman was lying, maybe she was the bioluminescent lure before the jaws of the creature that held us in its jaw. Maybe this was all Hringewindla’s trap, but he had none of the strength of Ooran Juh.

“And he doesn’t know what’s going on?” I asked. But my words came out like ice.

Amanda must have read the look on my face. She swallowed hard.

“I am no puppet, I am … loved. Especially so. Please don’t repeat this in front of the others, especially Christine, she doesn’t like to be reminded of it, but I am Hringewindla’s special one, in this generation, this life. I am his closest. I have been with him since before I could speak. He is always with me, and he does not understand what is happening here. Please. I’m terrified too.”

“I … I do want to believe you.”

“He would not leave me in this as bait, miss Morell.”

I reached out with a tentacle and brushed her arm, a subconscious gesture of connection and acceptance. Strangely enough, Marmite copied the gesture — bony, segmented tentacles reached past me, hovering in the air.

“I don’t have any choice but to trust you regardless,” I said. “The only other option would be to … hurt you, I suppose. Which I won’t do. But if this turns out to be a trick … ”

I stared into her eyes, to make clear who was the intended recipient of my implied threat. My voice shook more than I wanted.

Amanda nodded, a little jerky and shaken. I blew out a slow breath and retracted my tentacle. Marmite did the same, mimicking my action.

“However, I can’t just leave,” I said. “It’s too much of a risk.”

I quickly filled Amanda in on my assumptions so far — that my toxic presence might be the only thing stopping this trap from swallowing us, that Raine had suggested this is not intentional but instead some kind of natural phenomenon, and about where I’d found Marmite.

“Marmite?” she echoed, blinking at me.

“Marmite. Provisionally. For now. I just needed something to call him.”

But when I explained where he’d come from originally, Amanda bit her lip, staring at his black-shadowed form clinging to the wall.

“As far as I’m aware, he’s clean now,” I said. “I don’t even know what he’s doing here, he’s basically just pneuma-somatic life.”

“A kami, yes … ” Amanda moved her head left and right, as if examining the squid-spider from different angles. The bubble-servitor attached to her head and arm did the same, much to my suppressed disgust.

Hring—,” I stopped, cleared my throat, and decided not to try that pronunciation again. “Your god really has no idea what is happening here? How we might get out?”

Amanda sighed, glancing down the spinal corridor of the house. “Sometimes his thoughts are difficult to interpret correctly, even for me. But he is concerned about … contamination. Infestation. Hidden germination. These words do not capture the concept he is worried about, but they are close enough. I do not have the right language for it, none of us do.”

“Ah,” I sighed. “Well. Good try, regardless.”

“He does think we should find the private eye again, Nicole Webb.” Amanda hesitated, wetting her thin, cracked lips. “He suggests that I allow one of his buds—” she gestured with her left arm inside the bubble-servitor “—to clean her.”

Cold seeped into my belly.

“ … clean her?”

“Spiritually.” Amanda held my gaze, guilty and pained. She knew exactly how that sounded.

“I think … you should hold off on that, if we run into her. Please.”

Amanda didn’t nod. She just looked away from me. “Do you want to stick together, to try to find her? I would appreciate not doing this alone.”

“Of course,” I said, swallowing and forcing a polite nod. “We best stick together now.”

I couldn’t be certain, of course, but I think Amanda had just asked me to help her defy her god, without saying the words. If she found Nicole first, and alone, then her god was very interested in rooting around inside Nicole’s head.

“Whatever it means to ‘stick together’ in all this,” Amanda said with an awkward smile. “I suspect the maze will separate us again, the moment we’re out of sight of each other.”

“How is your god helping you, exactly? We might be able to work with that, somehow.”

“Directions, of a sort. But even he is confused by the tangle now, by the extra doors, the corridors duplicated, the rooms that shouldn’t be there. This is not within his understanding, as vast as his mind may be.”

I bit my bottom lip. “I haven’t seen any of that, just the house. All except the door you emerged from.”

“Curious.” Amanda tilted her head at me. The bubble-servitor on her shoulders flowed with the motion, like a bag full of silt. “You could find the detective in an instant though, could you not?”

“I … maybe. With the right maths.”

Cold fingers crept into my belly again. Behind me, Marmite eased backward along the wall, retreating with painful slowness.

“I’ve heard about what you can do,” Amanda said. When she blinked, her eyelids were out of sync. “From Twil. I think your friend, Raine, yes? She was right, and Hringewindla agrees. The detective was the start of this. She carried the infection in. If we can find her, we can … diagnose. Identify. Trace.”

I took a step back as well. Abyssal instinct flared warning signs inside my head. “You sound more certain than a moment ago. Amanda.”

“This could all be over quite soon, if you would please—”

“Stop,” I snapped.

Amanda flinched. She blinked several times, eyelids in sync once again. “I’m sorry. S-sorry, I—”

“Just, stop.” I swallowed hard. Abyssal instinct was screaming about lures and marine canyons and the giant things that lurked down there, waiting for prey to stray near to the edge. “You’re not very subtle, are you?”

Amanda gaped at me, gormless and lost. “ … I’m sorry?”

“I’m not talking to you, Amanda.”

“Oh … ”

I forced myself to let out a slow breath. “Look. Look, I understand you think Nicole is the cause of all this, but she’s also our friend, and we’re responsible for what happened. I’m not going to lead you to her if you’re just going to scoop out her mind. If we find her and you try to overpower me … well,” I paused, swallowing awkwardly. “You know what I can do to your followers. And your angels.”

Amanda shook her head, shocked and frightened. “Please, please, I-I won’t— I don’t mean to—”

“I’m sorry,” I sighed, running one hand over my face, trying not to shake so badly. “Besides, I don’t think I can just picture Nicole in my head and rotate the house like one of those puzzles full of ball bearings, it’s never as simple as … that?”

Don’t think of a black cat, one tells oneself, and instantly one pictures a black cat, no matter how hard one tries. The negation of the object contains within itself the definition of the negated. The black hole defines itself against the background of stars. Observation does not fail when faced with an absence — absence itself becomes definition.

So for a moment, I pictured exactly what I described — Nicole like a ball-bearing in a puzzle, and how I might use hyperdimensional mathematics to rotate the dimensions around her, to bring her to us.

And then, from behind Amanda and Marmite and I, came a scuff-stumble of unsteady feet.

Marmite whirled on the wall, backing away in fear, almost bumping into me. My tentacles fanned out with instinctive shock. Amanda gasped and her bubble-servitor flowed upward, as if it was trying to make her look bigger too.

Nicole Webb, private eye, stumbled out of the den and slumped against the wall.

“Salute and advance and by all that is unkept,” she said with weary relief, struggling to stay standing. “But there’s no window for delay, no time for entrenchment, no whistle of shell.”

“You found her!” Amanda sighed with relief. “Detective, hello.”

“ … Nicole, right,” I murmured. “We … found you.”

There was just one problem — I hadn’t actually executed any equations. I hadn’t performed any hyperdimensional mathematics. I had not done this.

But there was no time to stop and think. Amanda was already stepping forward, maybe to take Nicole by the arm and help her stand up, or maybe to inject bubble-servitor into her skull through her ear canal. The bubble-servitor started to crane forward on Amanda’s shoulder like a cresting wave, flowing over itself with naked interest.

I shouldered past Amanda, half-turning with a display of my tentacles thrust out to block her way, my left arm showing the Fractal. The bubble-servitor recoiled and Amanda stumbled. I groped for Nicole with my other three tentacles. Nicole, of course, could not see the wordless confrontation. The detective yelped in surprise as I dragged her to her feet with unseen limbs, grabbing for my physical, human hand when I reached her.

Amanda stood there with a cowed, blinking expression. But the bubble-servitor on her shoulder roiled and rocked, like a giant unshelled mollusc working itself into a frenzy.

“Nicky, hi, Nicky,” I said all in a rush. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s just my invisible tentacles picking you up. It’s just me.”

Nicole gave me such a look when I said that. I sighed and rolled my eyes. At least she didn’t let go of me though, hooking her arm around my shoulders so she could stand up almost straight.

“What now, miss Morell?” Amanda asked. “What do we do now?”

We were at an impasse, an unspoken stand-off, facing each other across this wooden corridor, myself and Hringewindla, surrounded by the whipping, whistling winds and the pressing night beyond the walls. Amanda had gone glassy-eyed, barely even here. To my side, poor Marmite was cramming himself into the junction between wall and ceiling, unwilling to run but trying to stay clear of the confrontation between the avatar of a crippled god and the daughter of the Eye.

“We can’t just stand here all night,” Amanda continued when I didn’t answer.

“It isn’t really night,” I said. Keep up the facade. Play along that we’re not in conflict.

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m not handing Nicole over to you.”

“Parley and sally,” Nicole blurted out. “A hilltop world of whippoorwills and stone circles. Which way to Canterbury?”

“I’m not going to harm her, I promise.” Amanda sighed, frowning in a long-suffering kind of way, the way I would have frowned this time last year. “We need to get rid of this, clean away the cobwebs, and she was the start.”

On her shoulder, the bubble servitor suddenly split itself into six distinct strands, feelers formed by roiling soap bubbles. They fanned out to touch the walls, the floor, and the ceiling, creeping toward us in a web that extended from its main body.

“I should Slip,” I said.

Amanda stopped and tilted her head at me. The bubble-servitor kept inching toward us. Nicole frowned harder, panting with the effort of pointing her feet in the right direction.

“I thought you said you didn’t want to try, in case … ?”

I wet my lips carefully, trying to consider my options. I could not let Hringewindla get his bubbles on Nicole. The way she clung to me proved that much — she did not consent. If he had wanted to harm her for some other reason, then he’d had hours to do that before we’d arrived. I didn’t know how to read the mind of an Outsider, let alone through a human avatar, but I didn’t think I was being lied to.

“If Nicole is the origin of this, then removing her from the house may unravel the effect,” I said. “I can take her Outside.”

The bubble-servitor paused.

“ … that may work,” said Amanda.

“I am afraid of not being able to get back,” I explained. “If this is some … separate, unconnected space, I might not be able to return, not cleanly. But it’s worth trying. And if this is a trap, if I am the only thing stopping it from closing, then I leave the responsibility to you.”

Amanda nodded slowly. Her eyes were full of fog.

“Do I have your word that you will help my friends, if anything happens when I leave?” I asked. “And I’m not talking to you.”

Amanda blinked twice. Behind the glassy, cloudy orbs of her eyes, a vast shape adjusted itself, a leviathan bulk seen through a crack in the earth’s crust.

“You have my word,” something else said with her mouth.

“Exit stage left?” Nicole asked. She might be talking nonsense, but her tone was terrified.

“It’s safe,” I said to her, our faces uncomfortably close. “I mean, it feels bad, yes. And being Outside at all feels … weird. But Raine’s been through it, she’s a totally unaltered human being like you, and she’s fine.”

Nicole gave me a very dubious frown.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “That’s just Raine being Raine.”

“Imbriglicated,” Nicole muttered.

“I will stay here with my angels,” Amanda said. “I will attempt to find your friends.”

“I think that’s best. If you did come Outside, well, I don’t know what that might do to your connection with your god.”

Amanda shrugged. “Hringewindla is with me always.”

I did my best to ignore her fanaticism, glancing up at Marmite instead. He was now firmly wedged into the ceiling, wrapped in his shadow-soft membranes like an upside-down blanket fort.

“Do you want to come with me? Get out of this?” I asked.

Marmite pulled his segmented tentacles even tighter, but then his cone-eyes swivelled to look at the extended tendrils from the bubble-servitor.

“That’s a no, I presume?” Amanda asked. “I don’t speak any kami language.”

“Neither do I,” I sighed. Amanda looked briefly confused, blinking at me. “But uh … oh.”

Marmite slowly crept down the wall, took up a position behind me, and tapped the back of my thigh with a segmented bone-tentacle.

“A yes?”

“A yes,” I said. “Well then. If this works, I’ll be back in a matter of minutes. Be safe, I suppose.”

Amanda nodded politely and stepped back, as if hyperdimensional mathematics had a minimum blast radius. The bubble-servitor flowed after her, deciding to let us go.

Nothing else for it, no time for second thoughts, no other preparation needed. This was the only way to defuse the situation.

“Hold on tight and close your eyes,” I said to Nicole. “This can be stressful. Also I may vomit on the other side, so … watch out. You too, Marmite.”

The squid-spider wrapped his grip around my leg.

The familiar old equation spun up inside my head, rising from the inky depths like a machine preserved in sticky, corrosive black oil. Each piece slammed into place, red-hot with speed and precision, burning a path through my brain.


The house folded up, shrank to a point, and stepped sideways.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather is neither impressed nor intimidated by these Scooby-Doo level scares. She’s used to so much worse! Almost as if all this stuff isn’t aimed at her … Cringewindlas on the other hand, he’s potentially dangerous, right? Gotta look out for his cultists, even if it means doing a little brain-altering to bystanders here and there. Let’s hope snatching Nicole Outside was the right move.

Rather than the usual link to my patreon and TWF, I’d like to briefly point you all towards another story that might be of interest!

Feast or Famine, written by the very talented VoraVora, is a fascinating little story coming along at a rapid pace now. And it is explicitly inspired by some of the themes from Katalepsis! Some of the darker, mental health themes, with a wicked twist. Give it a look!

Next week, with Nicole at her side, can Heather figure out what the hell is going on? What’s even causing this? Mage, Outsider, info-hazard, natural phenomenon? Is this all just a misunderstanding? Or is Edward sharpening the knives?

and walked a crooked mile – 16.2

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A scream, deep in the woods beneath the leaf-dappled sunlight, from inside the rambling old farmhouse, muffled by red brick and dark slate and heavy beams. No neighbours within earshot, no busy road of passing cars, no Good Samaritan on the path. Only trees and weeds and a handful of sheep to hear the chilling cry.

And us, of course.

Oh you’re joking,” I hissed before the scream could finish.

This was too obvious, too cliché, too much like one of those cheesy black and white horror movies that Raine sometimes got me to watch with her. Those were only enjoyable because I got to snuggle up in her lap, though I did appreciate the sheer enthusiasm she showed for the rather obvious progression of overwrought spooky nonsense.

And now here we were, deep in the closest thing to a real forest in the North of England, potentially less than a mile or two from a real Outsider buried beneath an ancient Church, off-balance and tired after supernatural sports day, facing down a tense-but-not-dangerous situation with some very suspicious ‘angels’ which looked more like frothed bleach than ladies with wings, when what should interrupt our relaxation of terms but a blood-curdling scream?

Was a giant bat about to burst from the chimney and go flapping off into the woods? Would bony hands erupt from the soil, clutching for brains? Were we about to hear the clank of chains and the moaning of a ghost?

Perhaps Edward Lilburne was a fan of Hammer Horror classics too.

The scream cut off as suddenly as it had started, but thankfully not with a gurgle of ruptured windpipe or bloody vomit. A beat of stunned silence descended on the woodland clearing, the old farmhouse, and our patch of crumbly tarmac, broken only by the rustle of leaves, the creak of trees, and some distantly confused bleating from the handful of sheep.

“You can bloody well say that again, Heather,” Evelyn whispered between her teeth, still holding tight to my arm, her forearm linked through mine. She must have heard my exasperated hiss.

Then we lost control.

“Amanda?!” Christine shouted. She started hurrying back toward the open front door of the house, which seemed to yawn on an infinite black depth, an illusion caused by the bright day outdoors. “Amanda!”

“That’s my aunt, shit!” Twil said.

Twil picked up her feet like a sprinter and raced past her mother before anybody could stop her. She took the front steps in one leap, already half-werewolf by the time her feet touched the bricks. Wisps of ghostly canine form whirled about her arms and upper back.

“Wait!” Evelyn snapped. “Twil, you wait!”

But Twil was already slipping inside the house, vanishing out of sight in the cool darkness. Her mother trotted up the steps and followed her indoors.

“In for a penny, in for a pound, hey?” Raine said, wheeling backward to face us as she moved to catch up with Twil. She nodded to Zheng as well. “Come on, lefty, tanks up front. Praem, you watch the rear, yeah?”

“This is obviously a trap!” Evelyn snapped.

“Well, it’s a stupid one, then,” I huffed, covering anxiety with exasperation. “More than a bit premature, I think.”

“The shaman is right,” Zheng rumbled, baring her teeth in a distasteful grimace. She didn’t like the look of this either. “Our help is not needed.”

“Good doggies,” Praem intoned.

“What?” Evelyn squinted at us all, bewildered.

“Uh, Heather?” Raine asked.

“They’re going inside,” I said, as if it was obvious. “Not much of a trap if you get … I don’t know, dissolved.”

I pointed at the house before I remembered that neither Evelyn nor Raine could see what was plain to myself, Zheng, and Praem. Evelyn fumbled the modified 3D glasses back onto her face as I huffed with embarrassment. She cringed and went pale before passing the glasses to Raine.

“We really need more than one pair of those,” Evelyn muttered.

“Siiiiick,” said Raine.

Most of the bubble-servitors were rapidly oozing their way inside the farmhouse, passing directly through the glass of closed windows, each one like a wet sponge squeezing itself through the neck of a bottle. They made no sound, but the motion of bubbles sliding over each other and compressing as they squished themselves indoors filled my imagination with the noise of raw meat sliding through mud. It reminded me of a video I’d seen of a whale fall — the miniature ecosystem of scavengers which formed on the sea floor around the carcass of a dead whale, the soft-bodied cephalopods and pale molluscs of the ocean trenches worming their way through decaying flesh.

A few bubble-servitors stayed on the roof as lookouts, but all the rest slucked and slippered and slid indoors. We stood watching as they vanished behind the walls of the house.

Amanda Hopton, Twil’s aunt, the woman who’d apparently just screamed her head off, had once been described to us as the one member of the Church of Hringewindla who had spent the most time learning from their god. And now all Hringewindla’s angels were rushing to her defence.

If this was indeed a trap, then her attacker was in for a very nasty surprise.

“Zheng is right, we’re probably surplus to requirements here,” Evelyn said with a sigh. But she put her walking stick forward and tried to straighten her shoulders, pulling her chin up and setting her jaw. She almost managed to cover for the pale, blood-drained look in her face. I squeezed her arm, proud of her efforts, but not wanting her to push herself. “But we should show we’re willing to help, regardless. And Twil did just run in there, bloody fool.”

“I don’t hear any shouting or crashing about,” Raine said. She turned back to the house with a smirk. “Guess we’re in the clear.”

“Eyes up, little wolf,” Zheng purred. “We know nothing.”

“Probably just saw a spider under the sink.”

“Spiders are lovely,” Praem intoned.

Nothing leapt out at us as we approached the house, neither from the distant tree-line nor the lingering shadows beyond the front door. No red eyes peered from the upper windows, even when I watched for slightly longer than necessary. No maddened screams echoed from inside the house, no gibbering and meeping, no rattle of bones or cackling laughter.

“Why does so much of my life after meeting you two involve entering haunted houses where spooky things are happening?” I said. I meant Raine and Evelyn, of course.

“Better than doing magic in a bedsit, isn’t it?” Evelyn shot me a sidelong look, heavy with meaning.

“Besides, it’s not haunted,” Raine laughed.

“Of course it’s fucking haunted,” Evelyn said. “Are those glasses broken or are you blind? It just happens that the ghosts are neutral. For now.”

“Into yet another haunted house,” I sighed.

“Another?” Evelyn asked.



My full complement of tentacles unfolded from my sides as we crept up to the front door, blossoming from phantom limbs into rainbow-pulsing pneuma-somatic flesh. My bioreactor edged out part of a control rod, preparing me for what might lurk indoors, beyond the dark threshold.

A little cephalopod, inching toward the whale fall. I resisted the urge to put on my squid-skull mask. I didn’t want to frighten any of Twil’s family.

Raine still had the 3D glasses pushed up the bridge of her nose. She must have caught me in her peripheral vision, because she turned and let out a low wolf-whistle.

“Raine,” I huffed. “This is hardly the time.”

“It is always time for tentacles, shaman. Keep your claws sharp,” Zheng said, on the opposite side of me — and then bounded ahead, taking the brick front step in one hop and ducking her upper half inside the house, checking for predators or trap-door spiders or worse.

Raine was up beside her in an instant, gun pointed at the floor, black knife concealed back-hand in her opposite palm. She covered Zheng’s back as the demon host peered into the house.

They were in sync, working together as one organism. The beauty of their momentary coordination made me feel so much safer.

Had they always been like this? Not two hours ago they’d been locked in combat, but not a trace of that remained in them now, as if the tension between them had been heated and hammered into a more flexible alloy. The blood which Zheng had smeared on Raine’s face was washed off, and the shallow cut across Zheng’s belly had closed to nothing more than a thin red line of scar tissue. But something remained, something wordless and unspoken. The previous me would have wanted to step between them, to act as that link, but now they were doing it on their own.

Their linkage was far from perfect, however. Raine had to duck Zheng’s elbow; Zheng bumped Raine’s knife hand. But they shared a look, then carried on.

“Hey!” Twil’s voice came from deeper in the house, half-muffled by too many canine teeth, calling back to us. “It’s fine! It’s fine, come on in!”

“Then why the bloody scream?” Evelyn called back as we mounted the steps.

“Saw something!” Twil shouted. “It’s fine, there’s nothing here!”

“Nothing here, she says,” Evelyn hissed. She shook her head and shared a look with Raine and me.

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” Raine said, tapping the 3D glasses.

“Peeled and sliced,” Praem added, sing-song like she was reciting a line from a child’s nursery rhyme.

Zheng ducked through the front door of Geerswin Farm. The rest of us followed, traipsing up the bare brick steps and over the painted wooden threshold. Raine kept her handgun pointed at the floor. Evelyn held her scrimshawed thigh-bone under her armpit. I tried to still the racing of my heart, squeezing harder on Evelyn’s arm.

Twil’s home surprised me a second time. I had expected to step inside a renovated farmhouse, like one of those optimistic 1990s converted barns, all structurally pointless dust-trap beams set between patches of bare plaster, complete with awful lino floors and an expensive kitchen that clashed with the rest of the building. I’d seen one or two examples of the type before, lovely old houses out on the rural fringes bought up by people with more money than sense, then gutted and hollowed out, their innards replaced like they’d been parasitised, so they were merely a shell over cold and sterile interior design.

But instead, the inside of Geerswin Farm’s main house looked like it hadn’t been remodelled in a very long time. Bare wooden floors had once been waxed and polished, but were now mostly stripped by time and the passing of feet, hidden beneath heavy rugs that at least kept the heat in and cushioned one’s tread. Pale orange wallpaper was peeling at the corners and edges, cut back where it could not be saved or repaired, like a ragged sunset. The skirting boards were scuffed, the iron radiators spotted with rust, the door handles tarnished and scratched — but the hinges were well-oiled, the screws-plates tightened, and the floors clean and tidy. The building smelled of old wood, cooking scents, and fresh linen.

Rustic, nothing fake about it.

We found ourselves in a long corridor which ran the length of the house, well-lit and homey, with a few mountain-peak landscape paintings on the walls — nothing fancy, just cheap watercolours, but very nice, very tasteful. Doors led off to the left and right and the corridor terminated in what looked like a sitting room. Some carpeted stairs led upward on the left.

“Oh, it’s not spooky at all.” I tutted. “I mean, not that I’m disappointed. Far from it.”

“Do we take our shoes off at the door?” Raine called down the long hallway.

Twil’s head — thankfully human now — appeared around a door frame, halfway down on the right, long curls hanging down. “Nah. Shut the front door though, yeah? And get in here, this is weird.”

She vanished into the room again. Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. Praem was already shutting the door behind us. Zheng rumbled deep in her throat and craned her head to peer up the stairs, putting one hand on the banister.

Evelyn tapped Zheng on the leg with her walking stick. “No.”

Zheng rounded on her slowly, a tiger poked in the backside. “Wizard.”

I steeled myself to jump in, but to my surprise, Evelyn held her ground and held Zheng’s gaze. Perhaps that had something to do with how we were literally arm in arm, though she didn’t strictly need the support.

“There are children up there,” she said to Zheng, flat and uninterested, as if the matter was already decided. “Don’t go scaring them.”

“Besides,” I added, trying to be diplomatic, “you’re the strongest here, Zheng. If you run off now, we’ll have to carry Nicole ourselves.”

“Strongest,” Praem echoed, peering around to catch my eyes with her accusing, milk-white stare. I blushed and spluttered and managed to get a ‘sorry’ in there somewhere.

Zheng chuckled. “The wizard’s daughter knows better, shaman. And I am not giving in to wanderlust. Instead, I wonder.”

Raine went visibly tense at the tone in Zheng’s voice. “Wonder?” she asked.

“Quit with the poetry,” Evelyn hissed. “What are you talking about?”

Zheng spread her arms as she stepped past the stairs. “Where have the angels gone?”

“Ah,” said Raine, peering through the 3D glasses again. “Good point. House should be full of them. Where’d they go?”

“Busy doggos,” Praem said.

Twil’s voice echoed down the hallway again. “What are you lot doing? Get in here!”

“Let’s go talk to their handler then,” Evelyn grunted, tightening her arm on mine. “Everyone stay alert.”

“If something does jump out at me, I shall scream,” I said. I took a deep breath and tried to look scary. It probably didn’t work.

We found the current nexus of Hringewindlaist shenanigans halfway down the house’s spinal corridor, in a smallish room that Twil insisted on calling the ‘den’, a sort of supernumerary miniature sitting room with a large television, some wooden bookcases, and a bank of soft armchairs. Children’s toys were scattered across one corner and a large glass-filled door looked out onto the back patio, filling the room with reflected green light from the rustling leaves outdoors.

Twil and her mother were clustered around a third woman who I vaguely recognised as Amanda Hopton, Twil’s aunt. She’d been at the pub meeting with Edward Lilburne, though she hadn’t left much of an impression. Thin-faced and sallow from stress, yet also overweight around the middle, she still shared the family resemblance to her sister and niece, with dark curls and a compact frame, but tainted with shaking mania in her eyes.

She was also terrified, recoiling as we entered the room, panting in near-panic.

“Mandy, Mandy there is nothing here,” Christine was saying, trying to catch her sister’s panicked arms. “There is nothing here. There is nothing inside the house, nothing got past the angels. Mandy, you’re safe. Look at me, please.”

Past the Hopton trio, propped up in an armchair with a blanket over her knees, was Nicole Webb.

She looked up at us, making what seemed like perfectly lucid eye contact, though frowning with deep and worried concern. The armchair was much too large for her, robbing the former detective of her usual imposing posture and striking confidence, though her blonde hair was neatly pulled back in its usual professional bun. Her eyes flashed with quick observation, counting us with a flicker, lingering on Zheng. She was dressed for walking, though not for the woods, in a long coat and dark trousers. Her white shirt was dirty and rumpled from her journey through the countryside.

Raine cracked a smile as soon as we saw her. “Eyyyyy, Nicky. They ain’t got you trussed up?”

Nicole sighed, as if very tired indeed.

Evelyn raised her voice, speaking to Twil and Christine, gesturing at Amanda. “What did she see? Excuse me, what did she see?”

Twil shrugged, grimacing through her teeth, clearly embarrassed. “I dunno, uh, it’s weird.”

“Usually important to voice these things,” I said, “in case there’s something unexpected about.”

Putting theory into practice, I quick scanned the corners of the room for dark spots or hanging spider-webs or other tell-tale signs of pneuma-somatic trickery, but there was nothing here except old wallpaper and a few stains, though the bookcases were respectably interesting, mostly full of paperback novels and some large-format photography books about nature. Zheng peeled off to stalk around the edge of the room, doing the same thing but with greater accuracy than I could achieve. Nicole turned her head to watch Zheng go, a little perturbed when the demon host passed behind her.

“It was only a flicker!” Amanda said to all of us, batting Christine’s hands away. “It was only a flicker, but I know what … I … saw … ”

She trailed off, staring directly at me, all her fear draining away.

I suddenly felt awfully self-conscious.

“Um … hello?” I said.

Amanda’s cloudy, dazed eyes travelled up and down my body, over my tentacles, her mouth hanging open. “Godspit and heavens-light,” she murmured. “You’ve gone far..”

I went red in the face, horrified by the way she was looking at me, eyes full of religious awe. “They’re only tentacles.”

“Mandy,” Christine said, gentle but firm. “Now is not the time. Can you concentrate for me, please?”

“Nobody told me you’d transcended … ” Amanda took a step toward me, as if in a trance, one hand reaching out, fingers trembling.

Instantly Raine was between me and her. Behind the enraptured woman, Zheng’s hand suddenly came down on her shoulder.

“Be still, worm,” Zheng rumbled.

Amanda jumped about a foot in the air, whirling around and staring up at Zheng with almost equal awe. Zheng stared back down at her, baring her teeth.

“Hey now,” Twil warned, edging closer to Zheng.

“Do not interfere with the shaman, worm-thing,” Zheng purred in Amanda’s face. “Do not presume to touch.”

Rather than collapsing into a puddle of melted butter, Amanda nodded slowly, wetting her lips and taking a moment to breathe. “I apologise,” she said to Zheng. “Are you her messenger? She is beautiful.”

Zheng rumbled between her teeth with naked disgust, but then let Amanda go with a — for her — gentle shove. Christine caught Amanda’s stumble and shot a frown at Zheng, but Zheng ignored the look and continued her circuit of the room.

“No, it’s my fault,” Amanda said, staring at the floor and gathering herself. “I was overcome. Overcome. I apologise.”

She didn’t seem that afraid. Perhaps when one spent a significant portion of one’s life in direct contact with an Outsider god, one did not spook easily, even by seven-foot tall demon hosts with mouths full of knives.

“Who was that speaking just then?” Evelyn asked slowly. “You, Amanda Hopton? Or the thing in your head?”

Amanda raised her eyes to meet Evelyn, then glanced at me, guilty and ashamed.

“I think we should leave that question unanswered, for now, please?” Christine said, gently, with an awkward smile. “This isn’t what we’re here for. Amanda, are you alright now?”

Amanda straightened up and sighed, smoothing her dark curls over her head. She had such awful bags under her eyes, too much like I had once been, a wreck on the edge of the abyss. “I did see something,” she said. “Out in the corridor. Just a flicker, but it was right here and it wasn’t one of ours.”

Twil jerked her thumb at the ceiling. “The boys, upstairs? Playing pranks?”

“Gareth already ran up there to check on them,” Christine said.

“Puh,” Twil snorted. “Making himself useful for once.”

“Bernard’s up there anyway,” Amanda said, sounding very certain. I recalled Bernard from our meeting at the pub — Amanda’s large and friendly golden retriever. She seemed to have more confidence in the dog than she did this ‘Gareth’ fellow.

A funny thought crossed my mind, one I’d had so often as a young teenager, trapped and alone in a world inhabited by inexplicable nightmares.

“Can dogs see spirits?” I asked out loud.

“Bernard can,” Amanda answered with a sudden proud smile.

“Where’s Ben, anyway?” Twil muttered, sticking her head out into the corridor.

“I thought he went back out to his car?” Amanda replied.

“Oh dear,” Christine sighed.

“Hey, Nicky,” Raine said, heading over to Nicole at last. She put away her pistol and her knife inside her leather jacket. “They said you were delirious, but you’re being real quiet now.”

“She’s improved a little bit,” Amanda said. “I have no idea what’s wrong with her though. I’m sorry.”

Nicole pulled a pained, embarrassed face, and opened her mouth.

“Three score and eighteen, but not without reversals. You know the grass on the pitch is not always fed by worms? Truth, lies, pies in the sky. I was never told which way to walk but always how to step. Don’t you think this looks strongly broken open already, why go further?”

She spoke so confidently that it stunned us all to silence.

“Am I having a fucking stroke?” Evelyn asked.

“No,” Praem intoned.

Nicole sighed and shook her head, making an exasperated shrugging motion with both hands. Raine laughed, then covered her mouth and said sorry for laughing. Zheng watched Nicole carefully from across the room. Twil blinked as if she’d been slapped with a glove made of pepper spray.

“Her language processing is all … ‘messed up’,” Christine said, and I could hear the conditional quotations around her words. “And she can’t walk in a straight line. She stumbles into the walls when she tries.”

“I’ve heard of non-supernatural conditions that can cause this,” Evelyn said thoughtfully. “But I doubt this is anything normal. Too neat for a physical cause.”

Evelyn finally disentangled her arm from mine, patting my hand in silent thank you. She rolled her shoulders beneath her coat and cream-soft jumper, and stomped across to peer down at Nicole. The detective frowned up at her with the exact expression of a patient with an obscure disease, hoping this doctor would be the one to find a cure.

A spiral-bound notebook lay on the arm of the chair. Evelyn frowned down at it. “You tried writing instead of speaking?” she asked.

“Accidental inversionary principle,” Nicole sighed, but her tone made her meaning clear.

“Pretty much the same result,” Amanda said. “There is something in her. In her voice and her tongue. Broken her.”

“Alright,” Evelyn said to Nicole. She pulled her scrimshawed thigh-bone out from beneath her own armpit, slipping the gruesome magic wand into her hands, settling her walking stick against the chair. “Just nod or shake your head. Can you do that?”

Nicole nodded. She sighed again, sharp and harsh, irritated at her own inability to communicate.

I opened my mouth to reassure her, though I didn’t know what to say, but Evelyn got there first.

“It isn’t your fault,” Evelyn snapped. “Well, it might be your fault that you got into this situation in the first place, I don’t know yet—”

“Jam and butter and dead snails—” Nicole argued back.

But,” Evelyn said, making a motion like she wanted to bop Nicole on the nose with her bone-wand, “the verbal diarrhoea is not your fault. You can’t control your body, whatever this is. Now stop with the self-pity and answer my questions.”

Nicole nodded, rolling her eyes.

“Did you stop the investigation into Edward Lilburne’s property?”

Nicole nodded.

“Did you pack away the stolen documents like we asked?”

Nicole nodded again.

“Did you look at them at all after that phone conversation we had?”

Nicole shook her head.

Evelyn and Nicole, the mage and the private eye, went on this way for about two or three minutes, a one-sided conversation punctuated by short pauses for Evelyn to frown and suck on her teeth and formulate the next question. Through careful phrasing, she rapidly drew out most of the relevant details, at least the ones that Nicole could communicate without further explanation. According to her increasingly encouraged nodding, she had done exactly as we’d asked — she’d packed the stolen documents away, put them from her mind, and turned her energies toward other paying work. She had expected a phone call and visit from us tomorrow, perhaps to pick up the documents and ritually burn them to exorcise whatever influence they were exerting.

“And you don’t remember how you ended up in the woods?” Evelyn asked.

Nicole sighed and shrugged, but would neither shake nor nod to that one.

“Where were you, Sharrowford?”


“Nearby? The countryside?”

Shake again, lips pursed.

“ … Manchester?”

Nicole nodded.

Raine let out a whistle. “You went pretty far in a fugue state, huh?”

Nicole huffed a non-laugh. She was not amused by any of this.

“Your car is still up Manchester way, you think?” Raine asked.

Nicole nodded, pulling a very exasperated face.

“Hmmmmm,” Evelyn grumbled. She began moving her hands slowly over the scrimshawed designs in her bone wand. My stomach tightened at the sight of that. Whenever she’d used that thing before, the effects had caused terrible backwash. But then she paused and gestured with vague irritation back at Raine. “Give me the glasses, I need to look at her properly.”

“Oh, there’s nothing strange about her,” I supplied, as Raine handed Evelyn the glasses. “I can’t see anything abnormal.”

“Still,” Evelyn said. “Let’s see what we can see. Right, detective?”

Nicole pulled a dubious face, but held still as Evelyn leaned in close, examining her through the absurd red-and-blue lenses of the modified 3D glasses. We all stood awkwardly watching for a moment before Evelyn sighed again.

“Don’t all watch me, please,” she grumbled.

Christine cleared her throat, shuffling her feet. “Right, of course. Twil, would you be a dear and go check on Gareth, please?”

Twil shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”

“I’ll come up too,” Amanda said. “I’d like to reassure the boys. This has frightened them.”

“Bring Bernard back down, hey?” Raine said with a wink and a laugh. “I wanna meet the dog again.”

I wasn’t really paying attention as Twil and her aunt left the room. I was so focused on Evelyn and Nicole, on the way Evelyn kept adjusting her position around the detective’s chair, as if she hoped to reveal a secret door in the poor woman’s head which she might reach out and open and so discover what had happened to her. I squinted at Nicole, but my natural pneuma-somatic sight revealed nothing — no runes scrawled on her skin, no ghostly apparition clinging to her back with boney fingers inserted in her language centre. But Evelyn kept adjusting her grip across the symbols and circles on her bone-wand. The sight made my skin crawl. I was uncomfortably reminded that I had no idea of the true intricacies of what I was looking at.

The house creaked gently in the wind, soft and slow, at one with the trees beyond.

“The hounds are still missing,” Zheng rumbled at the back of the room.

“ … hounds?” Christine asked. “You mean … Hringewindla’s angels?”

“Uh huh, that’s right,” Raine grunted. “They were all cramming themselves into the house after you and Twil.”

A pause. I was still watching Evelyn.

“That is … strange,” Christine said. “You’re certain? And they’re not in here with us now? One moment, I’m sorry, I must check.”

I heard the sound of her stepping out into the corridor, footsteps swallowed by the angles of the house. Then another pair of footsteps followed her, quick and tripping, as if hopping out not to follow, but just to check which way she was going.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

I snapped up and around from watching Evelyn and Nicole — the tone in Zheng’s voice was full of warning.

She was frozen stiff at the back of the room, watching the doorway to the corridor with the fixed expression of a tiger staring down an armed hunter. Praem stood a little way from her, hands clasped, back straight, also staring right at the open door.

Nobody else was there. Christine had left the room, of course. Had Raine ducked out into the corridor after her?

“Zheng?” I said, my belly going cold and my blood suddenly full of adrenaline, though I didn’t know why. “R-Raine? Raine!” I raised my voice slightly.

“Something is wrong here, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

“Where’s Raine?” I demanded, stepping forward. But Zheng held out a hand to block me.

“All is calm,” Praem intoned. “All is quiet. This is bad.”

“What are you lot going on about?” Evelyn straightened up, huffing and cursing under her breath. “Will you shut up and let me concentrate for—”

“Raine?!” I called past Zheng’s arm.

“The hyena cannot hear us. None can,” Zheng purred. She turned to look at Praem for a moment. “Watch them,” she said.

Then Zheng stalked forward, out through the door and into the wooden hallway with its heavy rugs and tasteful paintings. She slunk like a stalking cat, ready to spring left or right at the slightest movement, at the first sign of danger or challenge or unexplained presence. I had no idea what was going on, but even if Raine hadn’t suddenly vanished into thin air, the set and pose of Zheng’s shoulders, the ripple of her muscles beneath her clothes, the silent creep of her feet, it all sent a shiver of adrenaline and fear up my spine. In her long coat, she was some avenging devil from the pit, and I was very glad she was on our side. My bioreactor shunted an entire control rod free and my tentacles arched out, making myself look big, following an instinct to back Zheng up against some unseen predator.

But nothing happened. Zheng stepped into the corridor, looked left and right, then grunted, eyes flashing like pools of dark oil.

“Zheng?” I hissed, heart racing.

“There is nothing here, shaman. There is nobody else breathing in this house.”

“You cannot know,” Praem said.

“There is nobody else in this house,” Zheng repeated.

“ … what?” I boggled at her. Behind me, Evelyn swallowed on such a dry mouth that I heard her throat bob. “Zheng, what is going on, this is just a doorway. There’s nothing—”

Zheng made to move left, to take a step down the corridor.

“No!” Evelyn snapped in panic. “Stay together! Stay in the room!”

The fear and terror in Evelyn’s voice shocked me into unthinking action. I darted forward to grab Zheng with my tentacles, to anchor her here, to keep her close, but I was too late; Zheng stepped to the left, around the door frame.

She was out of line of sight for less than a second, obscured by the angle of the architecture for less time than it took me to stumble forward, barrelling after her, out through the doorway.

I felt Praem’s hand, firm and strong, try to grab one of my tentacles. But I slipped away, too intent on Zheng.

To say I am not steady on my feet is rather an understatement. I bounced and staggered out into the spinal hallway, expecting to round the door frame and hook my hands into the back of Zheng’s coat.

She wasn’t there.

Nothing was there, just empty hallway and open doors, terminating in the large sitting room. Sunlight arced in through the windows. The trees rustled beyond the house.

I almost crashed right into the opposite wall in shock, catching myself with my tentacles like an octopus floating against a rock.

“Zheng?” I said out loud. But she simply wasn’t there. “Zheng … where … ? Oh no.”

A dark pit opened in my stomach as I hurled myself back at the door to the ‘den’, all but skidding inside, eyes darting left and right.

Praem was nowhere to be seen. Evelyn was gone too. Nicole’s chair was empty.

Sunlight poured in through the window set into the back door. The woods waited beyond the little patio and the potted plants and the mud. Everything else was exactly as it should be, from the discarded toys on the floor to the silent television at the opposite end of the room. All around me, the old farmhouse creaked gently in the distant wind, in time with the treetops outdoors.

For just a moment, my breath stuck in my throat. Fear stood on a knife-edge of heart muscle and tentacle-tip, as my extra limbs coiled and curled around me, their semi-independent instinct just as confused as I was.

Then, with shaking hands, I pulled my squid-skull mask out of my tentacles and lowered it over my own head.

Metallic refuge, armour of the soul, my true face on the exterior. I stared out at the peeling wallpaper and old floorboards through the many eye sockets, and forced a deep, shaking breath into my lungs. I turned in a slow circle, taking in the whole room, just in case some lurking shadow was about to pounce on me from behind. I wet my lips, then found I was chewing my tongue, and forced myself to stop.

“Be rational,” I whispered to myself. “Stay calm. You’ve seen this kind of thing before. Heather, you know what this is.”

I stepped back out into the corridor, just to check it hadn’t extended off to infinite length — it hadn’t, thankfully. Then I went back into the den to see if anything might change, but nothing did. None of my friends and family reappeared. So much for that easy way out.

“This is like the loop trap from Willow House,” I said out loud, speaking to the air, to myself, or to the house itself. “Like the trap the Sharrowford Cult used on us. We’ve all been peeled off from each other. Into different versions of the building. Am I right?”

Nothing and nobody answered. The trees beyond the walls filled my silence with the rustle of leaves in the wind.

“Because there’s no other way Zheng could have vanished so fast,” I said. “Unless you ate her.”

A pause. I huffed, feeling absurd.

“By ‘you’, I mean the house. Are you listening to me?”

The house did not answer. I stepped back out into the corridor. My tentacles were tense and coiled hard enough to make all my back muscles ache and my stomach hurt.

“I have been lost and alone and beyond help in much scarier places than this,” I said, raising my voice so it carried up and down the spine of the building. “And I can just Slip away. I can Slip out, go back home, and return here with an Outsider godling, my fiancée, who loves me and will do anything for me. Do you want to face that? Do you want that?”

I tried to sound confident and defiant, but my heart was fluttering and my stomach was roiling.

“Who am I talking to?” I went on. “If this is your doing, Hring— Hringy—” I was so anxious that I stumbled over the stupid name. “Cringe-face,” I spat instead. “If this is your doing, then I don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate or achieve by threatening me and my friends, because you are making me very angry.”

Nothing replied. No bubble-servitor came hurtling down the hallway. No knife-shadow rose from the narrow gaps between the floorboards.

“It’s not you though, is it? You’re too cautious for this.” I sighed. The fight went out of me. “Oh, I’m talking to the walls. Always knew I’d end up like this, crazy Heather, talking to thin air.”

Speaking self-mockery out loud helped to ground me, keep my feet rooted in the normal and the real as I headed back up the length of the corridor, making for the front door.

“What is it with mages and these absurd spatial distortions? You all just love doing this, warping space. The cult did it, Alexander did it. Orange Juice did it. Wake up in the morning and warp yourself down to breakfast without moving. Perverse. You don’t see Evelyn doing this, do you? And that’s part of why I love her, no warping our house into a tangled knot of corridors. No walking through a bedroom to reach the bathroom. No absurd, tacky columns.”

I worked myself up into a rant, like a child whistling in the dark, trying to resist the urge to scream or run. I kept glancing back over my shoulder, tentacles bracing to cover every doorway I passed.

There was an answer to this place, of course. Hyperdimensional mathematics could define a dozen houses, all identical, superimposed over each other. But why? For what purpose? If this was a maze in which we’d been lured apart from each other, what lay at the centre of the maze? Maybe nothing. If I allowed myself to dwell on that question, the right equations would present themselves, oil-slick and dripping blackness, from the sump at the bottom of my soul. But I was alone. If I passed out now, with a nosebleed and a pounding headache, I had no idea what might scoop me up.

I reached the front door, slapped the latch down so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge my own shaking hands, and then grabbed the door handle.

“I swear, whoever or whatever is doing this, if I open this door and there’s another identical corridor instead of the actual outdoors, I’m going to start punching holes in the scenery.”

Snapping my words to summon courage I didn’t feel, I yanked on the door handle, tentacles poised to catch whatever gibbering monster was about to fall upon me.

Brick doorstep, crumbly tarmac, three cars — including Raine’s, sitting right where we’d left it. Tumbledown stables with the ragged fields beyond. All ringed by the dark promise of the tree-line and the deeper woods.

A sigh of exasperated relief escaped my lips.

“What’s the point of confusing us like this if you leave the outdoors the same?” I hissed, stepping down onto the tarmac with my arms folded, as if to keep my fluttering heart inside my ribs. Part of me wanted to run to Raine’s car and huddle in the back seat like a scared child, but I swallowed and forced myself to look up at the house.

All Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were gone, missing from their guard posts on the roof. Or rather, they were probably still out there in actual, unmodified reality, just not reflected here in whatever set of tangled pocket dimensions we’d been dragged into.

“Unless I’m the only one standing in actual reality,” I murmured, biting my bottom lip and frowning up at the dark windows and quiet, red brick of the Hopton family home. “And everyone else has been snatched away. All except me.”

If this was a trap for my friends, I needed to reconnect with them, fast.

Just as I was about to step back indoors, an indistinct shadow passed behind one of the upstairs windows. I froze, staring up at the dark squares of glass, half-hoping it would pass again, half praying it did not return.

Then I found my courage by spreading my tentacles wide. Let the monsters try me.

“Hello!” I shouted. “Hello! Whoever’s at the window, I’m down here! It’s me!”

The shadow lurched back into view, smeared across the glass like a misshapen parody of flesh and cloth. A fumble with a catch and the window sprang open on well-oiled hinges. I braced for a nightmare to pour out.


Raine leaned out of the window, beaming and laughing from the second floor.

“Oh, oh my goodness, Raine,” I heaved her name, going weak and shaky all of a sudden, pressing one hand over my racing heart. “Is that really you or is this some trick?”

“Really real. Real as real can be.” Raine shot me a wink. I couldn’t help but notice she had her pistol in one hand. She had to raise her voice slightly to cover the distance between us. “I would ask ‘hey, where’d the party go?’ but I’m guessing there’s some major mojo going down right now.”

“You can say that again,” I huffed, then pulled my squid-skull mask off so she could see my face clearly. “Everyone vanished one by one, as soon as we were out of sight for more than a second or two. Did you experience the same thing?”

“Yeeeeah,” Raine sighed. “Remind you of anything?”

“Exactly. This is just like with Willow House.” I nodded, finding relief in sharing the assessment. “Stupid spooky nonsense, really!”

“‘Cept this time, Zheng’s on our side.” Raine beaming with confidence. “Anything actually happened, you seen anything gribbly lurking about?”

I shook my head. “Not a single thing. It’s just empty. It’s like we’re all in the same space but can’t see each other. Or in different versions of the same building, side-by-side but separate.”

“Same here. Though uh … ” Raine cleared her throat and glanced over her shoulder, back into the house. “The corridors are getting kinda tangled, for me. Like Willow House, but worse.”


“Kinda. Also our phones aren’t working.” She tapped her jacket. “I tried calling you, but there’s no signal.”

I rummaged in my hoodie for my phone and found that Raine was correct. My phone had no signal. Did this mean we were Outside, or just very deep in the woods? I sighed and felt a very strong desire to rub the bridge of my nose.

“This is absurd,” I said. “What is the point of this?”

“Maybe there isn’t a point,” Raine said, leaning further out of the window and frowning at the ground. “Maybe this is like a natural phenomenon.”

“What on earth is natural about this?” I shrugged with all my tentacles.

“Nicole can’t walk straight or speak straight, right? Then we get in a room with her, trying to find out what she knows, and suddenly we can’t navigate straight either.”

“Oh. Hmm.” I frowned. “I suppose that’s plausible. It is a bit of a leap, though.”

“Sometimes you gotta leap.” Raine blew out a puff and shrugged at the ground. “But I think if I leap from here to join you, I might break my ankles. This is a long drop, even if I hang from the windowsill.”

“Please be careful!” I squeaked.

Raine shot me a wink. “Sure will, don’t you worry. But we gotta reassemble somehow. You think Evee is by herself right now?”

“Actually she and Praem were together, hopefully they stayed that way.”

“You still got your tentacles out?”

“Oh, um, of course.”

Raine nodded. “I can’t see ‘em, left the glasses with Evee. You think you could climb up here?”

I chewed on my bottom lip again, eyeing the unornamented brickwork and the various narrow windowsills. “I don’t know. I’ve never even climbed a tree. Even with all my tentacles, that’s a lot.”

“You certain?” Raine asked, no pressure in her voice, no value-judgement, just an honest request.

I swallowed. We did need to avoid being separated again. “I could leap, maybe. Like a spring. But you’d have to catch me, I’m not sure I can grab the window with any accuracy. Raine, why not just come downstairs and step out of the front door? Maybe if I close it first?”

“Maybe. If the house always opens to the same outdoors, that’s probably the best way to link up, but we can’t be … certain … ”

Raine trailed off, her eyes going past me. I turned but saw nothing there, no sudden monster melting out of the tree-line, no dark figure on the tarmac. Just the parked cars and the fields and the swaying trees, leaves rustling in the ever-present wind.

“Heather, get back indoors. Now,” she called down to me.

“Raine?” She’d gone stony-faced, ready to do violence. “What’s wrong?”

“Get back indoors,” she repeated. “I’ll head down to the front door and maybe we’ll be able to link up. If not … ” She paused, biting her lip too. “If not … ”

I shook my head. “Raine, it’s normal out here. What are you seeing? Your car is right there, even.”

Raine laughed without humour, indulgent but pained as she smiled at me. “Heather, you always were bad with cars. That’s not mine. None of that out there is ours.”

A cold knife slid into my belly as I turned back to re-examine our surroundings.

Raine was right — that was not her car standing on the tarmac. The shape of the body was subtly wrong, unlike any real car, as if the angles had all been flipped in such a way that was not obvious, unless one stared for a few seconds and really thought about what a car should look like. The other two cars parked out there were much the same, especially the land rover, which was the right colour — green — but the wrong shade, as if it had sat in the sun for fifty years, slowly bleaching.

The fields were worse. How often do you really look at grass?

Because none of that was grass. It was wriggling. In waves.

The thistles and little saplings and tall weeds were none of those things, they were flesh in imitation of plant, writhing and flexing and twitching in what I had thought was the wind. The little cluster of sheep with their pair of alpacas were neither sheep nor alpaca either. They had horns, black and curved and visible even at this distance, and they were all facing the house, facing us, with faces that looked all too human.

“Raine,” I murmured.

“Get indoors. Now.”

I backed up a step toward the open door, tentacles fumbling my squid-skull mask back over my head, trying to hide. “Are we … Outside?”

“I don’t think so,” Raine called down to me. “It doesn’t feel like Outside. Heather, get indoors, I’ll be right down.”

“But you won’t be here!” I squeaked. “We’re not inhabiting the same space! Where even is this? Where … ”

My mouth went dry as I realised the worst thing of all: the driveway and the road were gone, swallowed up by the forest. And it was a forest now, not merely a patchwork quilt of woodland, scattered across the English countryside, where it was possible to walk in a straight line for less than an hour and always reach a road. The forest had marched forward onto the farm grounds, with thick gnarled roots that plunged into the earth like digging fingers, or worms. I couldn’t see a scrap of light through the trees, not a single sliver of distant sky or open ground. They stood in ranks hundreds of miles deep.

“Heather. Heather, get indoors!”

“But then we’ll be cut off again!”

“Screw it, executive decision time.” I heard the sound of Raine’s feet finding the windowsill. “Stay right there!”

“Raine, don’t hurt yourself, don’t … ”

Darkness thickened beyond the tree-line, as if night was falling, out in the woods. Shadows seemed to press inward, crawling across the narrow dome of sky visible through the break in the canopy. Wind howled through the trunks and thrashed the leaves. An oncoming storm, out of nowhere.

My attention was off Raine for perhaps two seconds.

The window banged shut. I looked up, but Raine was gone. She hadn’t climbed out or dropped to the ground, she’d just vanished. Again.

“Oh for pity’s sake,” I hissed at the absurdity of it all.

I tried to stand tall as premature night rolled over the farm, swallowing up the fields and the monstrous sheep within. It blanketed the cars and pooled around their wheels, ate up the mud and the crumbly tarmac and nipped at my heels as I hopped up onto the brick steps. It pressed against the walls of the house, suddenly held back only by the semi-circle of light spilling from the front door.

“It is not night time,” I said, sounding a lot more defiant than I felt, hugging myself with both arms. “This is nonsense. This isn’t even happening.”

The darkness thickened further, as if forming hands or tentacles out beyond the house.

I scrambled inside, slammed the front door, and threw the latch. Then I backed away, praying nothing was about to thump against the thin wood.

Nothing did.

I turned back to the long spinal corridor of the house, panting to catch my breath and slow my racing heart. My tentacles were all a-whirl with frustration and panic. The lights indoors kept out the bizarre, creeping darkness, but there was no longer any warm sunlight pouring in through distant windows.

Raine did not appear, no matter how long I waited. Neither did anybody else. The corridor, mute and bland, invited me to explore.

I was in a haunted house, in the middle of the night, by myself.

“If this your doing, Edward,” I whispered, “then when we catch you, I’m going to have Raine put your head in a toilet and flush it.”

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Heather was right, this house is extremely and exquisitely haunted. All over. Big spooky. Or maybe it’s Nicole that’s haunted? Or maybe Hingle-Cringle-whatsit is messing with her, or this is his way of just saying hello? Bloody odd way of saying hello, if so. I wonder how the others are doing? On the bright side, if they can solve this, maybe Nicole knows where to find Edward.

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Next week, Heather must plunge back into the maze and find whatever lies at the core. Or perhaps discover who or what is doing this to them.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.1

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Brinkwood was not Sharrowford.

One might be forgiven for assuming a thin distinction between city and village, if one judged by a map of Sharrowford and its surroundings. The village of Brinkwood — a ‘historic’ village according to some labels, because it had once been the site of a Roman villa complex — lay only two train stops north of Sharrowford Central station. For the price of a thirteen pound return ticket, the curious traveller could be standing in Brinkwood’s own little train station twenty minutes later, beneath the shadow of the heathland hills, a stone’s throw from three pubs, one primary school, a secondary school and sixth form, a small Tesco, a regional pork-pie manufacturer — and the thickly wooded vale beyond the houses.

Brinkwood’s position on the map suggested a dormitory town for Sharrowford, just a short ride to the edge of the city and a scenic jaunt across open countryside of damp fields full of sad-looking cows. A little outpost of the English rural idyll.

But maps and numbers are only descriptions, they are never the territory. It was a minor miracle that Brinkwood station had survived mothballing at all, let alone still saw regular service. If one did wish to actually alight there, one had to catch exactly the right kind of train. Most of the higher-speed trains were diverted around the older tracks entirely. Three in four simply went straight past the tiny village platform at full speed, leaving the inattentive would-be rural explorer stranded high and dry in Manchester several stops later. And Brinkwood’s train platform was so short it could only serve the front two carriages; if you weren’t standing in the right part of the train when it drew to a halt, you would find yourself once again whisked off to parts unknown as the rotting ex-mill town vanished into the distance, hiding away in its wooded valley.

Despite everything that I had experienced in Sharrowford, I’d gotten used to the strange atmosphere of the city. I’d lived there for less than a year, but I felt as if I’d lived all my long stolen decade in a mere nine months.

I had come to know the winding streets with their untended potholes and filthy gutters; the university like a warren of different styles, always with some new cubbyhole or forgotten room to discover; the hidden gems of takeaway restaurants and exotic eateries where Raine would take me; the spirit creatures around every corner, vital and ever-present in their dozens, once nightmarish but now an odd kind of nostalgic old friend; red bricks, solid roofs, rows of terraced houses; weird little shops in the city centre, weirder people, back alleys and back routes and bridges and Churches and pubs. Sharrowford didn’t need dormitory towns, it had its own trailing edges of ragged suburbs and concrete edifices from the 1960s.

Essentially I was a city girl at heart — though Reading, where I’d been born and grown up, had not been my city. The years I should have gotten to know Reading, I spent in and out of psychiatric care instead, screaming into my pillow, or sobbing in the dark, pleading for my sister to come home.

But Sharrowford? I was coming to love Sharrowford, perhaps in the way one comes to love an oak tree undermining the foundations of a castle. Old and gnarled, beautiful in its ugliness, abused since the industrial revolution and never really allowed to heal.

I thought I knew Sharrowford’s surroundings, too. We’d been out there and walked the woods together, when Zheng had fled into the countryside.

Brinkwood was just more countryside, how bad could it possibly be?

We didn’t take the train. We had to keep our retreat open, not bound by train timetables. So Raine drove.

“I hate this place already,” Evelyn hissed between her teeth as we entered the village, peering out through the passenger-side window. “Just look at it.”

“Evee,” I sighed — not at her, but at the growing cloud of butterflies in my stomach as I huddled in the back seat, hugging my squid-skull mask like a plushie in my lap. “It’s just a village. There’s nothing sinister about it. Please.”

“Call Zheng again,” she snapped. “Try again.”

“Alright, alright,” I groaned.

“Technically Brinky’s a town,” said Twil. She was sitting in the back with me, with Praem’s wide hips squeezed into the middle seat between us, prim and proper, eyes straight ahead. “Not a village, really.”

Brinky?” Evelyn spat.

“Brinky,” Praem echoed.

Evelyn had held her temper in stormy silence for the entire journey, since we’d wormed our way out of Sharrowford’s urban heart and left the arteries of the main roads, to descend into the open countryside north of the city, crisscrossed by single-lane tarmac paths and the unpaved punctuation of farmland access routes. Wide hummocked fields dotted with distant sheep, wild hedgerows overgrown with bramble and nettle, stone walls lined by tall craggy trees; the English rural dream, marred only slightly by the sheer amount of mud either side of the tarmac, the occasional squashed squirrel or hedgehog in the roadway, and the rutted potholes which threatened the integrity of the tires.

For me, the local spirit life revealed the lie beneath the surface. The city was almost always packed with pneuma-somatic fauna in a constant state of motion and action, perhaps reflecting the lives or vitality of the people. Out here in the countryside it thinned yet intensified, but without the wild sense of freedom I had gotten from the tentacle-trees and canopy-dwellers in the woods during our previous outing, back when we’d gone to find Zheng.

We passed a creature the size of a dinosaur, half-lizard half-plant, bleeding from a hundred wounds as it limped across a distant field; a tall, silent being like a dark pylon stood next to a lonely crossroads, as if waiting for a direction, forever abandoned by its fellows; down an unpaved side-road I spied things like trees but lashed about with pale tentacles, migrating in a herd of a dozen or more, seemingly wandering into the sun-beaten, empty deeps of the countryside.

Once, this had all been forests, or at least open common land. Now it was an open-air factory, concealed behind the romance of the rural.

How long did spirits live? Did they remember what it was like out here, before enclosure? Were they lost?

Spring was in full bloom, carpeting everything with thick, deep green, but the sun couldn’t quite chase away the chill in the air. Long shadows fell across the landscape as we plunged into the village of Brinkwood itself.

Brinkwood was situated at the mouth of a long, narrow valley, which had once been part of a winding, difficult path through the Pennines, first made obsolete by the iron certainty of the rail-roads, then later by the ubiquitous brutality of the motorcar. Mill trade and textiles had kept the town alive through the nineteenth century, but now it was on the dubious life support of small trades, bookies, and local tourism. Tall hills rose either side of the town, humped pale sentinels that had watched the valley since long before human beings had made an outpost of civilisation here; always visible over the slate rooftops and rickety chimneys, their flanks were dotted with trees that thickened lower down. Their angle would make for late sunrises, but thankfully only the trees themselves would deepen the dusk.

But the valley which cut between the hills was thick with woods, almost a true forest, a deeper and more tangled offshoot of the lowland woods Zheng had fled to earlier in the year.

I watched Evelyn’s eyes flickering back and forth over Saturday afternoon pedestrians in the single shopping street, frowning at the sign for an optician’s practice, the pizza place optimistically named ‘Galactic Taste’, and the pair of grey-faced bank branches duelling over a zebra crossing. We passed one of the village pubs — The King’s Elbow — with its picturesque back garden of wooden benches and lunchtime drinkers. But to Evelyn’s glare it may as well have been barbed wire fences and minefields. Her scrimshawed thigh-bone lay in her lap, as if ready to raise it to the window and blast a would-be attacker, as if we were journeying into the dark heart of some occupied territory in our armoured vehicle — rather than bunch of university girls out in the countryside for a Saturday afternoon drive.

At least she couldn’t see the spirit life, the monkey-things of tar and rock swinging over the rooftops, the silent slug-like sentinels at the crossroads, the bulk of the faceless thing that squatted in the town’s churchyard.

“Stupid name,” she hissed. “Stupid place. Shouldn’t be out here.”

“Oi,” Twil tutted. “It’s not that bad. I do go to school here, you know?”

“It’s horrible,” Evelyn said. “No wonder you’re so … ”

“So what?” Twil bristled. “Look, Evee, yeah, we’re all in this together, and I fuckin’ love you, you dolt, but don’t keep insulting my home.”

Raine chuckled in the driver’s seat. She drove nice and slow, taking each village corner gently and carefully as we wound deeper into the town, sticking to the speed limit as we passed through thin residential streets that looked like they hadn’t been updated in decades, all full of little houses and even some low terraced flats. We could have asked for no better driver under the circumstances, which was all the more impressive seeing as Raine had been locked in adrenaline-pumping, sexually-charged combat about an hour earlier. None of us were in the right mind for this, but we didn’t have a choice. We were not about to ignore Nicole in trouble.

We couldn’t afford the slightest suspicion right then, not with half the stuff we were carrying.

I watched the trees gather as we crept through Brinkwood, as the houses thinned away to a trickle, as the thickened, ancient bark was joined by carpets of fallen leaves along the hedgerows.

“Settle down, girls,” Raine said with a smile in her voice. “Or I’ll turn this car around and take us home.”

Evelyn grunted. “Even as a joke, that is in poor taste, Raine. We leave nobody behind.”

Twil sighed, not for the first time. “It’s not a rescue operation, alright? We agreed on that, yeah? We’re not gonna leap out of the car and bean my mum over the head, okay?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Evelyn said through her teeth.

“Expert consulting,” Praem intoned.

Praem had her hands folded in her lap, atop her long shell-blue skirt. Evelyn had made her change out of her maid uniform before we’d left the house. Just in case.

“Yeah!” Twil said, nodding and pointing at Praem in the middle seat. “Yeah, listen to Praem, she’s got it right. We’re not going in guns blazing. It’s not like Nicky’s been kidnapped. I had it all wrong earlier, right? You have been listening to me, yeah?”

“Every bloody word,” Evelyn hissed.


“Hey, Twil,” Raine said, turning her head toward Twil without taking her eyes off the road — she was slowing the car at a junction, a village crossroads where the houses truly and finally ran out, replaced by heavy old oaks and beaches climbing the slopes. “Right turn here, yeah? Your place is just beyond?”

“Yeah, halfway down toward the bridge,” Twil said. “Along here, left at the fork, then it’s third on the right. First two are just fields, so you can’t miss it. The house is pretty obvious.”

Raine took the turning, car wheels soft on the pitted and water-eaten asphalt. Evelyn started chewing on her thumbnail.

Perhaps she was hungry; we hadn’t even had time to eat lunch before we’d left, nothing except cramming a few cereal bars into our faces.

I pulled my eyes away from the passing trees, the woods punctuated by distant fields that climbed the valley’s sides, and the deeper patches where the trees ran back beneath miles of deep canopy.

“Evee,” I said, and found my throat a little scratchy. My nerves were getting to me, despite the squid-skull in my lap and my one manifested tentacle wrapped around my shoulders in a self-hug. I’d tucked the other five away for now, folded them back into imagination and phantasm, as a concession to squeezing three people into the back seat. “Evee, it reminds you of Sussex, doesn’t it?”

Evelyn twisted to frown at me over her shoulder, over the back of the passenger seat. “For fu—” she started, then cut off with a sharp sigh at the look in my eyes. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“It’s nothing like where you grew up,” I said, reaching forward to pat her awkwardly on the shoulder.

“Yeah,” Twil added with a forced laugh. “You lived in a big posh house. This ain’t that.”

Evelyn huffed and turned back to staring out of the windscreen, as if we might suddenly come under attack as we plunged beneath the tall canopy of ancient woodland.

“Keep your eyes open, Heather,” she grumbled. “Especially for anything that doesn’t look like natural pneuma-somatic fauna.”

“I know, I know,” I sighed. “There’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

“So far.”

“All eyes on the road,” Praem announced. “The way is clear.”

“Yes, you as well, thank you Praem.” Evelyn sighed, rapping her fingernails on the passenger seat armrest. “And Heather, try calling Zheng again, before we get there. She bloody well better be in position. I don’t want to be sitting in this car waiting for her to turn up.”

“In position?” Twil asked. “In position for what? We’re not going to storm my own house.”

Raine laughed and shook her head. “Never thought I’d see you trusting Zheng to keep us safe, Evee. What, I’m not enough?”

“Just in case,” Evelyn grunted. “Heather, call her.”

“I’m … I’m already doing it,” I said, clearing my throat, holding my phone to my ear.

“Please,” Evelyn added, then, “Sorry. Sorry, I’m … I don’t like this.”

“None of us do,” Raine said with a grin.

“Speak for yourselves,” said Twil. “It’s only Brinkwood. It’s home.”

My phone rang quietly in my hand. The trees crawled by alongside the narrowing road. I willed Zheng to pick up. Evelyn wasn’t wrong, we needed as much protection as we could get, even if this was all above-board and absolutely not a trap, by either the Brinkwood cult — which I seriously doubted — or a distant and unknowable move by Edward Lilburne — which I doubted significantly less.


To our collective credit, we hadn’t instantly descended into a tailspin of paranoia and panic after Twil’s mysterious phone call from her mother.

Quite a feat, seeing as it had come hot on the heels of both planned and improvised duels Outside, one of the most magically and emotionally complex things any of us had done in a while. Raine and Zheng had both been covered in blood, I’d been all a-whirl inside my own head with emotional overload and quasi-sexual awe, and we’d had a stable gateway to Camelot to deal with, whatever we decided to do about Nicole’s situation.

After a bit more second-hand confused back-and-forth between Twil and her mother on the other end of the phone, we’d established a few basic facts: Nicole Webb was at Twil’s house, not being held hostage, and free to leave whenever she wanted.

But she was neither willing nor able to leave under her own power. According to Twil’s mother, Nicole Webb, private eye, had stumbled out of the woods in a semi-coherent daze, a fugue state, talking nonsense — actual nonsense, even by the standards of people in the know, who worshipped an Outsider and had a werewolf for a daughter. So, no exaggeration there. She’d collapsed on their doorstep and they’d taken her indoors.

For anybody else, they would have called an ambulance and maybe the police. After all, this wasn’t any of their business.

Except that Twil’s mother recognised Nicole, from the meeting between us and Edward’s people. Nicole was in the know, exposed to the supernatural, and as far as Twil’s mother knew, still very much a police detective.

“I think she just wants this off the family’s hands, you know?” Twil explained to us after she’d hung up. “This isn’t anything to do with them. This is the shit we’ve had super-spy Nicky doing, right? Looking for Edward’s place?”

“Maybe,” Evelyn hissed. “But maybe not. I don’t know. We don’t know anything.”

“It’s not a fucking trap!” Twil said. “My mum is freaked out, okay?”

“We go in as if it is a trap,” Evelyn said. “No complaints, no arguing. Or you stay here and we’ll do it without you.”

“It’s my home! It’s my parents!”

“I don’t think it’s going to be a trap,” I had piped up, my mouth gone dry, my hands shaking.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what Nicole had said, about the documents she’d stolen from Edward, the sense she’d gotten that the information itself had been avoiding her curiosity, trying to hide from her insight. Had she lied to us, had she carried on with the investigation regardless?

“Nah,” Raine had said to that. “For my money, Nicky’s way too sensible to stick her nose back in, not when she said she’d stop.”

“We are going to retrieve her regardless,” Evelyn said. “Nobody gets left behind.”

“Left behind where!?” Twil shouted. “She’s at my bloody house, it’s not like she’s behind enemy lines or some shit.”

Jan had cleared her throat, still flanked by the towering presence of July. “Excuse me,” she’d interjected as we’d all started melting down at each other, flapping one hand of her overstuffed coat to get our attention. “I do hope I’m not included in this ‘we’ statement of yours. I don’t know what you lot are up to, exactly, but I would rather not be involved in anything that includes a police detective, ex or otherwise.”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes. Obviously. And this is none of your business anyway.”

“She can hang out with me!” Lozzie chirped, bumping into Jan’s side like an amorous cat rubbing itself on a nearby leg.

“Oh!” Jan sort of caught her but without touching her, suddenly all delicate hover-hands and blushing cheeks. “Um, well, that’s very … kind of you, but we, uh. Um.”

“Actually,” Evelyn snapped, “I’ve changed my mind. You can help.”

July had perked up at that. Jan had looked up too, head surfacing from her coat like a seal from an ice-hole. “Absolutely no—”

“You can house-sit.”

Evelyn had not liked Lozzie’s request, as she made clear once we were in the car, but it was the only thing that made sense under the circumstances; we had already trusted Jan and July enough to let them in our home and through the gateway to Camelot. They already knew where we lived. If they were still planning a move against us, now was the time to do it regardless, and none of us actually thought they were. Jan’s aversion to complications and danger was difficult to fake.

So Evelyn had taken charge of planning. She’d shooed us out of the room while she and Lozzie deactivated the gateway. Zheng and Raine had done their best to clean the blood off their respective faces — and in Zheng’s case, her belly and hips, swapping out her t-shirt for something clean. I’d flittered around, still shell-shocked after the duels, more than a little sweaty, badly in need of a sit-down, but found myself making a cup of tea for Jan and July. But that wasn’t to last. Evelyn reappeared like a whirlwind of command.

Zheng was dispatched — with Evelyn’s instructions but by my request — to reach Twil’s house before the rest of us did, with her mobile phone firmly in her pocket and strict instructions not to pull any doors off any hinges or any heads off any necks.

“You fucking lay a hand on my mum and I’ll take you apart,” Twil had growled at her, not happy about any step of this. “I’m not kidding. I heal faster than you, don’t you forget that.”

Zheng had strode past Twil in the kitchen as if ignoring her — but then briefly grabbed her head in one massive hand, let out a chuckle, and vanished out the back door before Twil could retaliate with a bite.

“And you’re certain,” Evelyn had pressed Lozzie, “there’s no way you can just … jump there, yes?”

“There’s no singing calling me there,” Lozzie had said, sighing at the kitchen table. “I can go Out! But not like, back anywhere I choose, not unless I can hear. And I don’t know the voices out there or the reflections. Sooooo no. Okay?”

Evelyn huffed, but she nodded. “I suppose so.”

I’d caught Sevens briefly, in the front room, during the only moment we’d had alone before we’d left the house. “Please do keep an eye on things,” I’d murmured as the others got ready. “You’re one of us, you’re part of the house. I … I think I trust Jan and July, but this is all so sudden, I need somebody here who I can trust for sure, who is powerful enough to … well, just in case.”

“I wanna come too,” Sevens had rasped, clinging to my front with her hands curled into claws. “I wanna watch you.”

“Nothing is going to happen,” I said to her. “I … I hope. We’ll see what’s up with Nicky, and … and … ”

“You’re kidding yourself,” Sevens bumped her head against my shoulder, gurgling the words into my flesh, chewing gently on my hoodie. I hugged her awkwardly.

“Watching the house is important too,” I said.

Mmmuuurrrrr. Okaaaaay. But I’ll be there if you need it.”

“Don’t jeopardise your progress, Sevens.”

“Mmmmmm. For you.”

Raine, Evelyn, Twil, Praem, and I had all piled into Raine’s reliable but somewhat cramped car. We left Jan and July with Lozzie, Tenny and Sevens, and with Whistle trotting around in the kitchen, what we hoped were capable hands.


Geerswin Farm — Twil’s family home — was tucked away just past Brinkwood itself, an open secret not quite fully subsumed by the creeping mud and green rot of the deep woods, but not truly part of the village either. It stood on the borderland between one world and the next, though I had the distinct impression that not all of us could feel the lingering transition as we passed between the jumbled mass of thickening trees.

The road narrowed, the mud encroached on crumbling asphalt, and the canopy above blocked out most of the sunlight.

“You actually walk this, every day, to get to school or the train station?” Evelyn asked, her voice dropping to a subconscious whisper as if something might hear us from beyond the ever-closer tree-line.

Twil shrugged. “Yeah? It’s not that bad, it’s not like a dirt path or something. It’s only like fifteen minutes walk to school.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Evelyn laughed without humour, shaking her head.

“We’re hardly like, in the Outer Hebrides. You don’t have to get on a boat to get here. We’ve driven here from Sharrowford! In like twenty minutes!”

I still had my phone pressed to my ear, still ringing, still going unanswered. Zheng wasn’t picking up.

“It is absolutely the back of beyond,” Evelyn hissed. Her attention suddenly snapped up from the road as the trees parted ahead of us, as the house and grounds loomed out of the woods, a sudden fairy-ring among the boughs. “Is that it?” she asked.

Raine was laughing. “Didn’t know you lived in a mansion, Twil.”

“It’s not a mansion!” Twil was getting shrill, which wasn’t helping my nerves. “It’s not even as big as your house!”

“Oh my goodness,” I said, putting my free hand over my mouth at the sight of the place.

Raine must have caught the panic in my voice. “Heather?”

“Um … it’s … um … ”

“Busy,” Praem intoned, bell-clear, cutting through our confusion.

To call Twil’s family home a ‘farm’ was not really accurate — that was a sentimental anachronism, no matter what status claimed by the little rusted sign at the end of the driveway. At some distant point in the past, an optimistic pioneer had carved out a few fields here in the shadows of the tall trees, cleared the woods back to a higher ridge in the earth, erected a row of stables, added a set of fences, and then crowned their achievement with a rambling farmhouse in red brick, dark slate, and thick wooden beams.

Nature had since digested all those ambitions. The fields were overgrown with long grass, thistles, and hardy little saplings, slowly re-colonising the clearing and returning it to the forest. The fences were rotten and full of holes. Only one field still boasted intact fences, painstakingly repaired with modern lumber and treated with creosote paint, but still pockmarked with green mosses and damp lichens. I spotted a pair of alpacas far off in the corner of that field, with a small group of sheep clustered around them as they looked up at our approach.

The block of stables had collapsed long ago. Only one at the far end was kept in any state of repair, wrapped in tarpaulin as a form of weatherproofing. The stub of a black-beamed barn poked from the scrub ground beyond, looking like it had once burnt almost to the ground. At least the driveway was fresh gravel, no older than a few years since it was last replaced, not too riven with mud-holes and wheel-ruts.

The farmhouse itself was the only part of the property that obviously received regular attention and maintenance. A low structure of only two floors, it was nothing like the grandiose size of the manor house down in Sussex on the Saye estate. Twil was correct about that, it was neither fancy nor posh — but it was still much larger and more dignified than any modern new build one might find in Sharrowford. In form it was less neat and regular than Number 12 Barnslow Drive; the building looked like it had started life as a much smaller structure, then been progressively added to on one side, lending it an outline like a series of smaller boxes being pulled out of each other. But it was far better tended than our home — no ivy climbed the clean red brickwork, no tiles were missing from the slate roof, the small square windows were clean and a little back patio was festooned with healthy green potted plants.

I could tell that whoever was responsible for the building loved it dearly. And so did I. Love at first sight and more than a little bit of envy directed at Twil, for getting to grow up in a place like this.

It was real and cared for in a way I so rarely saw: on closer inspection some of the roof tiles were the wrong colour, sourced from anywhere to fill the gaps. The window panes were clean but the cross-beams had not been repainted in years. What I had thought was metal trim on the patio doors was actually masses of duct tape, holding the hinges on. Whoever cared for this place did not have deep resources to draw on, but they were mounting a desperate rearguard action against time and decay.

Whoever would willingly care for an old and venerable building in such a way was my instant friend and ally.

But that wasn’t what I was reacting to; I only processed that later.

“What do you mean, busy?” Evelyn hissed. “Praem, what do you mean?”

“Busy,” Praem repeated. “But the way is clear.”

“Heather?” Raine slowed as we approached the gravel driveway. “What do you see? Should we stop?”

“It’s just my home,” Twill huffed.

“The way is clear,” Praem repeated.

“Uh. If Praem thinks … ” I struggled to find my voice — but I didn’t have time to do more than that.

The car rounded the farm’s hedgerow border, giving us a view down the driveway, all the way to the front door of the farmhouse.

I lowered my phone from my ear and killed the unanswered call. No wonder Zheng hadn’t picked up.

The wide space between the front of the house and the abandoned stables was paved with a broad patch of cracked and crumbly tarmac, laid down as room for parking, an ugly practicality amid this grand ruin. It was currently occupied by a beefy green land rover that I recognised from our first meeting with the Church of Hringewindla, alongside a pair of more sensible looking cars, one of which was parked at a jaunty angle which screamed ‘I was in a hurry when I pulled up.’

Twil’s mother, Christine Hopton, was standing on the raised brick step before the front door, almost exactly as I recalled her from our previous meetings, like Twil but thirty years older, with long unbound grey hair and a face lined by a lifetime of genuine smiles. But right then she was frowning, her arms folded beneath a tie-dye shawl, her body language like a schoolteacher threatened with a knife.

Benjamin — Twil’s cousin, who’d we’d also met before, months ago — was standing next to her on the tarmac. For all his heavily muscled bulk and close-cropped hair and imposing looks, he was currently white-faced and open-mouthed in naked terror.

Opposite them, twelve feet away, wrapped in her long coat and fresh, unbloodied clothes, stood Zheng.

She was baring her teeth, moving her head back and forth with all the predatory intent of a big cat sizing up a rival.

“Oh shit!” Twil shouted, fumbling with the door handle. “Shit shit shit!”

“No, Twil!” I said, trying to grab for her over Praem’s lap and managing only to get a face full of Praem’s chest. “It’s fine, she’s not glaring at your mum!”

“Heather!” Evelyn snapped, fumbling inside her coat. “Praem! What are we looking at? One of you bloody well explain.”

“Zheng’s in a staring contest,” I said, panic clawing up my throat. Praem helped me sit back up. “I-I think, anyway. I think it’s okay!”

“Staring contest with what?!” Twil yelled, popping the car door even though the wheels were still rolling. The smell of the woods rushed inside the car, loamy soil and rotting leaves.

“The bubble-things,” I said. “The cult’s— I mean, your family’s servitors.”

“Doggies,” Praem intoned.

I had failed to remind myself that the people who owned this house had the strings of an Outsider god wrapped around their brains, but the bubble-servitors were impossible to ignore.

They were crawling all over the exterior of the house. A dozen or more.

I’d witnessed a single example of the Brinkwood Cult’s ‘angels’ once before, back when Twil’s mother, Christine Hopton, high priestess of the Church of Hringewindla, had visited us in order to offer the resources and help of the Church with cracking the Sharrowford Cult’s interdimensional gateways. Though that had turned out to maybe, possibly, be a trap. That seemed like so long ago now — before we’d stormed the castle, before Alexander’s demise, before I’d rediscovered what I really was. And before Zheng.

The bubble-servitors were only semi-visible, glinting in the sunlight like blobs of oversized soap suds, individual bubbles sliding over each other in a constant process of liquid rearrangement. Back in Sharrowford, I’d found it hard to gauge the size of the one that Christine Hopton had brought with her, but outlined now against the roof of the house, the background of thick woods, and the tarmac and grass of the grounds, the cult’s real muscle was much clearer.

Each one was about six or seven feet in diameter, though they took a constantly shifting, irregular shape, making it hard to standardize. Four or five of the things were perched on the roof, and it was difficult to tell them apart as they circled and bobbed. Another two floated through the little garden like silent air-bound jellyfish. One hovered over the front door, within inches of Christine and Benjamin’s heads. Several clustered around the dilapidated stables and more of them were hanging over the distant, overgrown fields. We passed one on guard duty by the driveway, component bubbles slipping and sliding as if it was somehow reacting to the car’s movement.

The motion of the things made my stomach turn over. It made me think of naked muscle with the skin stripped away.

I couldn’t help but notice there was no other spirit life here. This was a monoculture. Hringewindla’s angel-buds only.

And one of the bubble-servitors was right in front of Zheng, hanging in the air, as if locked in a staring contest.

Unfortunately, nobody but Praem and I could see that. Even when Evelyn pulled out her modified 3D glasses, I don’t think she understood what she was looking at. Everybody else saw Zheng making a face like she wanted to eat Twil’s mum, and not in the fun way.

Twil boggled at me — then leapt from the car as Raine was still pulling to a stop. She hit the tarmac running and sprinted over to put herself between Zheng and her mother.

“Oh yes, make everything worse, well done!” Evelyn shouted, whipping the glasses off her face. “Somebody help me up before this all explodes!”

Then Raine was setting the handbrake and killing the engine and the rest of us piled out of the car too, out into the loamy scent and rustling leaves of the middle of the woods, straight into a whirlwind.

“Don’t you fucking dare you—” Twil, putting her fists up for Zheng.

“Twil! Language!” Scolded by her own mother.

“Hey hey hey, what the hell is that,” Benjamin was freaking out. “What the hell is she? I am not dealing with that, I am not dealing with that—”

“Everybody. Calm. Down.” Evelyn couldn’t snap loud enough, voice lost in the creaking of the trees overhead. Praem and I got her to her feet before I realised how badly she was shaking, how much she didn’t want to be here, how risky she felt this was.

“Woof. Good dog.” Praem, talking to something almost nobody else could see.

Rrrrrrrr-rrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” Zheng kept growling, louder and louder.

“Whoa, whoa, hey, no need for violence, okay?” Raine, always brave, stepping forward with her hands out. “We’re all here to—”

“Mum, mum get indoors and—”

“I will absolutely not, this is a misunderstanding.”

“Misunderstanding my arse!” Benjamin shouted. “That’s a full-on fucking revenant. Fuck this, I’m getting the shotgun.”

A swish and a click and a low tone from Raine, her stubby black pistol suddenly in her hand. “Wouldn’t do that if I were you, mate.”

“Raine!” Twil shouted. “Fuck, put that away!”

“Then tell your cousin to—”

“You get her to back off then!” Benjamin pointed at Zheng. His hand was shaking.

Zheng rumbled between her teeth, twisting her head left and right at the revolting mass of bubbles in front of her eyes. Little sub-clusters of iridescent spheres followed her motion, as if mimicking or mocking. The colours on the bubble-servitor’s surface ran together, oil on water, forcing me to blink hard to clear my itching, stinging eyes. Evelyn’s grip tightened on my arm as the situation spiralled out of control.

I tried to speak. “She’s not—”

But Twil yelled over me. “This isn’t what we—”

“Twil, dear—”

Evelyn raised her voice again. “Everybody shut the fu—”

“I’m getting the gun!”

“Don’t you move a muscle, fella, you stay right there.”

“Raine, put it down!”


I hissed long and loud and hard, so hard that my throat ached and burned when I finally let the sound trail off, but the stunt did the trick — everybody stopped shouting and waving their arms about. I only realised after I’d done it that I’d also reached out and wrapped my single manifested tentacle around Raine’s wrists, forcing her pistol to stay pointed at the ground. We all stood there for a moment in stunned silence, broken only by the rustle of leaves overhead as I panted and swallowed and forced my throat back into the proper human configuration. In the distant field, the little clutch of sheep with their pair of alpaca guardians were all staring at us — at me, and my predator-sound.

Evelyn was shaking gently against my arm. Twil was staring at me, thankful but shocked. Benjamin looked like he’d soiled himself. Zheng didn’t care, still locked in silent confrontation with the bubble-bath creature.

Christine Hopton cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she managed to say, a little shocked but quickly recovering her poise and dignity. “Heather, if I am recalling correctly? Thank you.”

“Mmm,” I grunted, my throat now too raw for words, filled with the scent of mud and bark.

“Thank you, indeed. Now, if everybody could stay calm, please? Ben, don’t go anywhere, do not introduce more firearms to this situation. And Twil,” she added quickly, “if you could not start shouting.”

“Raine pointed her gun at us,” Twil huffed.

“She didn’t, actually,” Christine said. “She was always pointing it at the ground.”

“Safety first,” Raine said with a polite nod. “And the safety’s on, too.” Her eyes flicked to Benjamin, who was standing there like a pillar of salt, staring at me in shock, his hands half-raised like he wasn’t sure if he should surrender or not. “Just don’t go fetching any shotguns, okay?”

“ … sure,” he said. “Whatever. Alright.” He nodded at Zheng. “You’ve got a bloody revenant standing right there, though. Can somebody call it off, please?”

“Zheng does what she pleases,” Evelyn said. She caught my eye and nodded too, mouthing a silent thank you.

“Shaman,” Zheng finally rumbled, without taking her eyes off the bubble-servitor inches from her nose. Benjamin jumped. Christine blinked in surprise. I think they’d assumed Zheng couldn’t talk. “The god-spawn blocks the way. I am not to pass.”

“Wait, what?” Twil said, frowning in confusion.

“Ah.” Christine winced with implicit apology. “The angels. I thought that was happening, I do apologise. Neither I nor Ben here can see them.” She waved an impatient hand at Benjamin. “Go tell Amanda they need calming. Our guests need to come inside and see to their friend. And do not return with the shotgun.”

“What?” Ben pulled a grimace. “Leave you out here with them?”

“Oi, I’m standing right here!” Twil said.

“Yeah,” Ben snapped at her. “And you weren’t here when you were fuckin’ needed. I had to race here from my flat and—”

“Ben,” Christine said, firmer than expected. “Inside. Tell Amanda. Now.”

He sighed and shrugged, shaking his meaty head. “Fine.” He pointed at Twil. “You look after your mum.”

“Hey, fuck you too!” Twil spat.

“Twil!” her mother scolded.

I tried not to watch that exchange, mortified for Twil, for her family, for everyone involved. I felt like we’d walked in on something we shouldn’t be witnessing.

Evelyn cleared her throat loudly, shoulders hunched against the wind through the trees. Her grip on my arm was particularly tight and I didn’t blame her, not with the way the tall trunks creaked and swayed far above us.

“Where is Nicole Webb?” she asked.

Christine bowed her head as if embarrassed. “Indoors, in our sitting room. She’s safe, we haven’t done anything. Ben, please, if you could get moving?”

“Wait,” Evelyn snapped. “Before we all go exploding off in our separate directions, I would like to establish exactly what is going on here. Nobody move, please.”

From anybody else, in any other tone but long-suffering exasperation, the words ‘nobody move, please’ would probably have sent several of the people present in that tumbledown forest clearing all moving at once, at high-speed, with dangerous intent. But Evelyn was so fed up she managed to make it into a phrase of de-escalation, even as she rummaged inside her coat.

Her hand emerged with the magically modified 3D-glasses once again, their rims covered in tiny magical symbols. She slipped them on and looked around with a frown — first curious, then increasingly disgusted. “Ugh,” she muttered. “Worse than I imagined. Why are there so many of them? Praem, step away from that one, please. Don’t touch it.”

Praem withdrew her hovering hand; she’d been reaching out to one of the bubble-servitors at the edge of the tarmac, as if the invisible pneuma-somatic god-bud was just an unfamiliar dog.

“They are quite safe,” Christine said. “And I do apologise.”

“Says you,” Evelyn hissed.

I half-expected Twil to bristle with offence, but she just grimaced and looked away, out at the dank woods beyond. Christine sighed and briefly closed her eyes. Benjamin looked like he wanted to punch something.

“I count fourteen of them,” Evelyn said, then gestured with the head of her walking stick at the one Zheng was facing off against. “One right there. Heather, Praem? Is this correct? Anything I’m missing?”

“No, no.” I shook my head. “Actually there’s no other spirits around at all. Nothing, anywhere.”

“Ominous,” Raine said with a smirk.

Christine sighed and shrugged beneath her shawl, arms still folded across her chest. “I can’t see them either, but I know they’re present. We don’t usually have so many of them at the house, they stay at the Church, but under the circumstances, we thought it best to … take precautions.”

“Because of us?” I asked, my chest tightening with strange guilt.

Christine blinked at me. I was too far away to glimpse the depths of her eyes, but for a moment I remembered what I’d seen there when she’d visited us in Sharrowford — her god moving through her like a behemoth in the deep.

“Why, no, dear,” she said. “Because we don’t know what your friend was running from.”

“And we’re not a threat?” Evelyn asked — though it only sounded half like a question. I could almost hear the gears turning inside Evelyn’s mind.

Christine shook her head. She sighed heavily, hesitated, and then stepped off the little raised brick platform before the solid front door of the house, down onto the tarmac. She strode forward, short and compact, but confident with her chin held high, eyes compassionate yet guarded, arms folded but not afraid. Benjamin reached out awkwardly to stop her, but Twil batted his hand out of the way, snarling at him. Christine walked halfway toward Zheng and Evelyn and myself, until she was only a few feet away.

“You are my daughter’s friends and companions,” she said. “I like to think we can have cordial relations, even strained like this. Even if only personally, if not between our Church and your … well, coven?”

“Family,” I said before anybody could stop me. Christine blinked in surprise, then nodded politely.

“Coven is good enough,” Evelyn grunted.

“Yo, hey,” Twil spoke up. “Protection’s a good idea right now though. Mum, you keep these bubble thingys around, right? Tell Amanda to keep ‘em here. We still don’t know if this is Ed—”

“Twil,” Evelyn said, loud and clear, cutting her off.

“ … what?” Twil looked outraged. “What, I’m not supposed to tell my family? This is my home, Evee!”

Evelyn stared back at Twil, frowning hard and conflicted, sucking on her teeth.

“It would assist us,” Christine said, “if we were to know what is going on. Please, miss Saye?”

“Evee,” I ventured. “May I?”

Evelyn frowned at Twil, then at Christine, then around at the bubble-servitors again. She slowly pulled the 3D glasses off her face, then sighed and nodded.

“Thank you,” I whispered, then raised my voice. “I’m sorry we’re all so on edge, we’ve come straight from … a mess.” Raine snorted, but I carried on. “Um, Nicole Webb, the lady you have in there, she’s a private eye. She was working on a job for us, trying to locate a property that belongs to Edward Lilburne.”

“Ah,” said Christine.

“We told her to stop,” Evelyn said. “There were unexplained irregularities in the location she was attempting to find. That was yesterday. So either she didn’t stop, or something else happened to her.”

“Edward Lilburne,” Christine echoed. “Indeed.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Benjamin hissed.

“We would rather not have any further dealings with him at all,” Christine said.

Zheng rumbled like a volcano caged in stone. She finally turned her dark and brooding eyes away from the bubble-servitor silently blocking her way, and stared down at Christine instead. The bubble-servitor moved like oil on glass through the air, sliding to cover the gap between them.

“Sound judgement, appendage,” Zheng said.

“Hey!” Twil snapped, running up to join her mother.

Twil’s mother managed to look back at Zheng for all of about three seconds, then averted her eyes. “I see you’ve expanded your coven, since we last spoke.”

“Zheng,” I said, pitching my voice as firmly as I could — though it came out in a squeak. “Zheng, please do not hurt these people. They’re not our enemies.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng sighed a great sigh and turned her gaze back to the bubble-servitor itself. “This thing, this gauze, this membrane of light, I could tear it in two with my little finger.”

“Please don’t,” I repeated.

“Huh,” she snorted.

Christine took a deep breath and gestured at Benjamin again. “Amanda, now. Tell her to soothe them.”

Benjamin put his hands up, sighed like we were all making a terrible mistake, and slipped back inside though the open front door, devoured by the heavy shadows just beyond the threshold.

A moment of awkward silence passed as we stood around on that patch of rotten tarmac. The trees creaked all around us, ships in a storm. I had the distinct impression that we stood in a brief pause of light and space — literally, as sunlight poured down into this temporary woodland clearing — whilst all around us a deep darkness lurked beyond the tree line.

Superstitious illusion, the paranoia of a lifelong city girl. I’d been out to the woods before, it was only plants and animals. Even the spirits were nice.

Twil let out a big sigh, suddenly very ordinary teenager again. Raine shrugged and put her pistol away. Praem stopped staring at the nearest bubble-servitor and took up her place next to Evelyn again.

“Where’s dad at?” Twil asked.

Christine was trying to smile at Evelyn and myself. “Work, dear. He’s at work.”

“Who else is about? Is it just you and Ben or … ?”

Twil trailed off, catching the knowing look that passed directly between her mother and Evelyn. Mage and High Priestess understood why no answer was forthcoming, though it took the rest of us a moment to catch up.

Raine laughed first. I sighed. Twil went “Aw, come on.”

“Truce,” Praem intoned.

“We already have a truce,” Evelyn said, low and serious, speaking to Christine. “You don’t have to tell us how many people you have inside. You’re already quite well defended. No offence meant or taken.”

“We’re also not here to attack anybody,” I spoke up, trying to sound strict.

“Yeah, damn right,” Twil said.

Christine looked away, wet her lips, then sighed awkwardly. “William and Jowdy are upstairs,” she said.

“Ah,” Twil cringed. “Uhhhhhh.”

“With instructions to stay there until this is all over.” She looked back to Evelyn again, chin high and defiant. “They’re Twil’s little cousins, they were here to visit their mother. This is a Saturday, after all.”

“Children?” Evelyn asked. Christine nodded. “If there’s no violence from you, there won’t be any from us. I promise that.”

Zheng rumbled at the bubble-servitor. “Wizard, you make no promises for my—”

Praem reached out one delicate hand and poked Zheng in the side, beneath her ribs with one outstretched finger. “No.”

Christine stayed frozen for a second, watching Zheng carefully. But my beautiful demon host only glowered in silence.

“Aunt Amanda’s here too, right?” Twil prompted.

“ … yes,” Christine found her voice again. “Yes. Quite. She’s looking at the policewoman right now. Private eye, I mean, I’m sorry. I believe the rest of you met Amanda during the meeting at that pub in Sharrowford. She is our foremost practitioner of the divine arts, but she can’t find anything wrong with Miss Webb.”

“Vaguely remember her,” Evelyn said.

“Mm,” I agreed. I barely recalled her at all, to be honest. A dumpy woman, run to fat from stress, with bags beneath her eyes and that haunted look which came from too much intimacy with the supernatural.

Christine glanced at Twil. “Gareth is here with her.”

“Awww what?” Twil pulled a face. “He can’t tell his arse from his elbow. He’s looking at Nicky too?”

“Actually I think he’s just admiring Amanda,” Christine said in a stage whisper. Twil snorted. “Miss Saye, Evelyn, Heather, uh … Praem, was it? Praem, yes. Raine too. And … ”

“Zheng,” I supplied.

“Zheng,” Christine finished, trying very hard to look directly at the seven feet of rippling muscle standing in her front driveway. “Pleased to meet you, yes. If you’d all like to come inside and take a look at your friend, I would much appreciate it, because we don’t know what’s wrong with her.”

“Actually,” Evelyn said. “I’d prefer if you bring her out here.”

“Yeeeeeah,” Raine agreed slowly. “We’ll take her off your hands, okay?”

Christine sighed sharply. “I’m afraid that might be quite difficult. She can barely stand, let alone walk in a straight line. Between us we won’t be able to manhandle her out here. Though … Twil, dear?”

“Yeah, I could sling her over my shoulder,” Twil said, then sighed too, at Evelyn. “This isn’t a trap, hey? What proof do you need?”

Evelyn met her gaze with a clenched jaw. “I don’t believe it is, but … ” She looked upward, at the house, then lifted the modified 3D glasses to her eyes again. “Hmm.”

“There are no guardian angels inside my house,” Christine said. “This is not a trap. Your friend walked out of the woods and she can barely stand. She’s also not speaking coherent sentences.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Evelyn asked. “What’s she been saying?”

Christine shrugged. “Neither myself nor Amanda has ever seen anything like it before, and, well, we’ve both seen rather a lot. She is speaking, but it’s just nonsense.”

“She didn’t run into your god out in the woods, did she?” Raine asked, polite but serious.

Christine shook her head. “I doubt that very much.”

“How can you be sure?”

Christine shot Raine a pinched look, irritated but trying to stay polite. “I have seen my own husband embraced by the thoughts of our divine patron. I know what such a state looks like. This is not it.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “We don’t seriously think you’ve done this to her, but we need to rule it out. Twil?”

“Eh?” Twil blinked at Evelyn, then caught on, nodding along. “Yeah, right. You can trust my mum on this.”

“She didn’t visit your … Church?” Evelyn did her best to suppress a sigh before that last word.

Christine opened her mouth to answer, then glanced suddenly and sharply at me. I blinked back at her, feeling naked, like she was looking right through me.

Evelyn cleared her throat. “I do know where it’s located,” she said. “I have my grandmother’s maps. If we wanted to attack you, it would be simple.”

“I’m not going to go there,” I said to Christine — but I knew I was talking to the thing watching me through her eyes, the thing that had been mortally terrified of a visit from me, back when the Church had tried to draw us in previously. “You’ve nothing to fear from me. I’m sorry.”

Behind her, Twil pulled a face that threatened to break my heart, biting her lower lip and averting her eyes. She hated being reminded of this.

“Of course, dear,” Christine suddenly sighed, smiling again. “Nothing to apologise for. And no, Miss Webb certainly did not visit our Church. She wandered out of the woods right over there.” Christine finally uncrossed her arms and pointed out of the driveway, across the road, to where the sucking mud and mulched leaves formed a shallow ditch on the far side. “Which means she probably came off the main road somehow, perhaps the A523 or a smaller road. We have no idea where her car is, though she does have her keys on her.”

“Tracks,” Zheng rumbled, still facing down the bubble-servitor, which was shifting and adjusting in front of her.

“Oh, yes!” Christine confirmed, a little too hard when pressed by Zheng’s rumble. “We didn’t touch her footprints. The mud is very pliable this time of year. If you want to check, they’re right there, leading back into the woods. You may check for yourselves if you don’t believe me.”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

Raine raised an eyebrow at her. “Evee?”

Evelyn nodded slowly. “I believe you and I need to—”

Suddenly and without warning, the bubble-servitor that had been blocking Zheng retreated from us, rolling over itself like a modular slug. Zheng growled, a goaded tiger. I flinched, disgusted by the motion and wincing at the effect on my eyes. Praem raised a hand and waved politely. The other servitors — on the roof and dotted about the old farm — also adjusted their positions, as if adopting some modified guard pattern now we’d been confirmed as not a threat.

Christine waited a beat, holding her breath. “Have the angels relaxed?”

“Stood down,” Praem intoned.

Christine let out a sigh of relief. “Good. Good. I was half worried Ben was going to come back out swinging, he can be so difficult sometimes. You may all come inside now, if you want. You don’t all have to, I understand if you’d rather not. I do hope you can figure out what’s wrong with your friend.”

Evelyn and I shared a glance. Raine shrugged. Twil rolled her eyes, the very picture of a sulky teenager.

“We’ll all come in, I think,” Evelyn said, nodding slowly. Through my arm and my one tentacle, I could feel the beating of her heart, her pulse in her wrist, going a little too fast. “I think you and we need to trust each other.”

“Well, good!” Twil said.

“Indeed.” Christine nodded. “I agree, if only for—”

“And I’m not just talking to you, Christine,” Evelyn interrupted. “I’m talking to the thing in your head. We need not be on opposite sides. Mister Edward Lilburne could be a problem for both of us, especially because we can’t find the bastard, and he has a track record for exploiting things like you and—”

A scream suddenly cut across our little peace conference, muffled from inside the walls of the house, loud enough to make us all jump and send the sheep and alpacas in the distant field scrambling for the fence.

A woman’s scream, high-pitched with fright — but it was not the voice of private detective Nicole Webb.

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The map is not the territory, Brinkwood is not Sharrowford, and Christine Hopton is not Edward Lilburne. Right? Then how exactly did Nicole end up here? At least there’s plenty of attentive guard dogs about, if something bad happens …

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Next week, we’re deep in the woods, surrounded by monsters, and somebody is screaming. At least everybody claims to be on the same side, for now.