nostalgia for infinity – 9.3

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We’d expected a derelict.

Even Evelyn had privately predicted an empty hulk, despite her dire warnings and sensible precautions; the cult’s unyoked creatures fled to the outer wild, the infernal apparatus gone cold, intrusion replaced by an eternity of silence and fog.

Instead, the ruins of the Sharrowford Cult’s great experiment echoed to a million alien calls and scuttles from down in the copied streets. A cacophony of strange sounds floated through the empty windows, muffled by fog and distance and the castle walls. The ever-present orchestra of whale-song and flutes washed over it all. Whatever otherworldly jungle of spirit the cult had slashed and burned, cleared and colonised, it had since flowed back in, regrown, reclaimed.

“Life finds a way, huh?” Raine whispered. She stared at the row of empty windows.

“This is not the time for movie references,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She’d turned pale, a little green around the gills, and I couldn’t help but note how close she stood to Praem. Her throat bobbed with a nervous swallow. “Actually, sod it, I would rather be in Jurassic Park than here.”

Raine experimented with a smile, but she couldn’t make it stick. Deep, sonorous cosmic whale-song filled the moment of silence, a sound that was not true sound, merely the closest analogue our fragile meat senses could invent.

“This doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” I tried, thinking as I spoke. “Maybe … ”

I trailed off at Evelyn’s incredulous look.

“Stay here,” Raine said, unquestionable command in her voice. She crept toward the row of windows, her hands deceptively loose and relaxed on her gun.

“Oh yes,” Evelyn whispered. “Great plan. Stick your head out, why don’t you?”

Raine,” I hissed, but I couldn’t reach forward to stop her, occupied as I was by Lozzie slumped against me, holding her up.

Raine reached the windows and looked out – and went very, very still. Not the coiled-spring tension of my beautiful Raine ready to leap into action, but the heart-stopping animal alertness of instinctive fear.

“ … Raine?” I whispered.

With obvious effort, Raine exhaled a long, steadying breath. She edged closer to the windows, quickly checked right and left along the exterior of the castle walls, then up into the sky – at which she paused again, though for only a heartbeat – and finally down, into the fog-choked streets. All the while, a chorus of ethereal whale-song filled the air. Something down in the fog hooted. A reply came from deeper off, a chittering, chattering, snicker-snacking.

“Alright,” Raine whispered, and finally backed away from the bank of windows.

“Raine? Raine, what was it?” I asked as she rejoined us. Calm, collected, focused, but with a sheen of cold sweat on her brow.

“Strongly suggest we stay away from the windows.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, very informative. Thank you.”

“What?” I adjusted Lozzie’s weight as she moved in her half-sleep. “Why?”

Raine glanced back at the open gateway behind us, then at me, her face a mask of concentration. On the other side, back in Sharrowford, the spider-servitor still fretted and stared.

“So we won’t be seen,” she said. “How long?”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“How long do you think Lozzie might need? I know you can’t be exact, I know we’ve got nothing to go on, but can you guess?”

“I, um … ” I tried to look down at Lozzie’s sleeping face. She hung off my arm like an exhausted child, slumped against my side. She didn’t show any change yet. If anything her breathing seemed deeper and slower. I shook her very gently. “Lozzie? Lozzie? Wakey wakey, rise and shine? No?” I sighed. “No, I don’t know how long. I haven’t the foggiest.”

Raine laughed softly. Evelyn tutted and rolled her eyes.

“Um, sorry,” I rushed to correct myself. “Maybe not the best metaphor right now. Raine, what’s out there? What did you see?”

Raine opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I’m not sure. I think maybe we should call this off, get back through the gate.”

“Surely we can give Lozzie few minutes, can’t we?”

Raine finally managed to pull a proper smile. She shrugged, and her eyes slid back and forth between me and Lozzie, her protective instinct short-circuited by the conflicting needs. “I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t know. You don’t know your arse from your elbow here,” Evelyn hissed, then jerked her head at Praem. “Go look.”

Without pause or complaint, the doll-demon marched over to the windows.

Raine winced. She put an arm out as if to stop me following, as if to encourage me and Lozzie back through the gateway. When nothing reached through the windows to pluck Praem from her feet, Evelyn bustled up alongside her and took a good look as well. She didn’t freeze like Raine had, but she frowned up a terrible storm, her face dark as thunder.

“Yeah,” Raine said with a sigh. “I don’t think we should stick around here.”

Evelyn swallowed. “It’s just wildlife. I’ve seen worse.”

“Wildlife can still take your head off, if you wander alone in the bush. Never get off the boat.”

“We’re indoors,” Evelyn muttered, gritting her teeth. She eyed the edges of the window, the grey jade walls, the horrible osseous fibre that made up every surface. “For all this counts as indoors. Those things are too big to get in here.”

“Raine, let me see,” I hissed.

“I really do think we should leave.” Raine laughed once, without humour, and gestured at nothing with her handgun. “This is sort of useless. I can’t protect either of you here. Evee, please.”

“Raine!” I snapped.

She glanced down and I saw it in her eyes; Raine would not allow me past. In fact, she’d pick me up and carry me home if she had to, and I had no say in the matter. For a moment, protection trumped respect. She’d been so gung-ho before, about taking the castle for ourselves, even planted the notion in Evelyn’s mind, and her rapid transformation both terrified and infuriated me.

“Evelyn is perfectly safe by the windows,” I said, cold and a little too sharp. “Why not me?”

The flash of outrage in my eyes must have been too much. Raine paused for a heartbeat, then lowered her arm. Instead, she placed a hand on my back in a gesture of support. “See for yourself. But quietly, yeah?”

“Quiet as a mouse,” I whispered, not entirely happy with her.

A moment later, with Lozzie’s weight dragging on my arm, I peered out and saw what lay beyond the castle, and understood.

From back by the gateway only the very tops of the most distant of the grey jade structures had been visible, the rooftop outlines copied from a square mile of Sharrowford in some bizarre alien mimicry, blurred by fog and distance. Up close, one could see the way the castle’s hill fell away toward the copied streets, the streets themselves choked with fog, the limitless fog stretching out into the distance forever. Above, the wide sky was a soupy grey sea.

I’d expected a distant glimpse of the planet-creatures, the vast sphere-like entities that Alexander had summoned from their rookery in the sky, the children of the crippled, trapped Outsider far below our feet. When I’d first seen them during that encounter, I’d mistaken them for moons. Their cosmic song reached us now, and I expected to see them far out in the fog, lost in the shrouded deeps above.

They’d landed.

The sheer size of the things took my breath away.

“Heather, hey, breathe,” Raine whispered. “I’m not going to pretend it’s fine, but if they could see us, I think they would have reacted by now.”

Three of them had settled on the ground, two within the limits of the copied city itself and one further out in the fog beyond, a vague sphere in the mist. The closer ones had crushed the dead jade buildings under their incredible weight, cracked the ground itself, made shallow craters for themselves.

Marbled in ochre and cerulean and violet, their outer shells slowly shifted through a spectrum of colour, in bands and rings like the surface of Jupiter. Each one was easily larger than the castle, a sphere hundreds of feet across, with no visible features, except orifices for tentacles. Tentacles the width of train carriages, grey and pitted, armoured in stony hide.

A high-note counterpoint accompanied the cosmic whale-song, like a hundred frantic, atonal flute players. Perhaps it was the wind, whistling through tiny gaps in those giant tentacles.

Each asteroid-sized being possessed somewhere between eight and twelve tentacles, half of them waving in the air – not with the listless vegetable motion of seaweed, but active, a complex dance that never seemed to replicate into a comprehensible pattern, displacing great slow waves of fog – and half sunk deep into the ground.

Anchors? Or were they digging? Digging for the core of their parent, far below?

I felt, in that moment, a bizarre, unspeakable kinship. A physical empathy beyond words, beyond any human expression. The bruises in my flanks, my own tentacle anchor-points, itched and throbbed as I recalled my own abyssal beauty.

“More things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I murmured.

“Heather?” Raine hissed my name.

“What’s wrong with her?” Evelyn asked.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” I lied. “Just … um, coping.”

“Swear I’ve heard you say that line before,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Shakespeare. It’s one I come back to again and again. Given me some comfort over the years, that’s all.” I nodded at the vast asteroid-things out in the fog. They made me feel so very small. “Seemed appropriate.”

“Huh. Quite.”

“More things in heaven and earth,” Praem echoed, softly.

The thought of these giants lurking just behind Sharrowford made me profoundly uncomfortable. Separated from our reality not by the near-impenetrable barrier of the abyss, like Outside, but by a membrane so thin even our jury-rigged gateway could get us here. Like descending into one’s basement to discover hyper-intelligent blue whales had taken up residence. As we stared out at the things, the deep, rumbling whale-song intensified, changed direction, and a fourth sphere-thing floated into view. Low in the sky, orbiting the castle at a distance so close I could see the individual pockmarks in its trailing tentacles. The fog parted and swirled back before its vast bulk. It passed across the sky at a crawl. None of us breathed until it vanished around the side of the castle again.

“Evee,” Raine said. “Professional assessment then, are they dangerous?”

Evelyn shot her a look that spoke volumes.

“I mean, actively dangerous,” Raine corrected herself.

“I’ve seen worse, Outside,” I managed with a shrug. “I mean, they’re just sitting there, being all … plant-like. If they were actively hunting us, I think we would know. I think. Alexander isn’t here to control them anymore. Perhaps they don’t care.”

“Too big to give a toss, right,” Evelyn grunted.

The planet-creatures were far from the only life which had re-colonised the foggy dimension, but all the rest paled in comparison.

In the sky, the huge jellyfish and sky-whales scudded and floated, gathered in shoals and clusters up there in the fog, trailing long ropes of tentacle, opening wide jaws to filter-feed on whatever sustenance they drew from the fog itself. On the ground below, in the copied streets and across the roofs of the imitation Sharrowford buildings, all manner of strange life flopped and flapped, slid and slithered, with all the chaotic variety of pneuma-somatic life back in actual reality. Striding vegetable things made of green sticks, coral structures that appeared to breathe, barnacles of brilliant gleaming metal, bubbling mollusks and scuttling crustaceans.

“Was it not like this when Praem came here before?” I asked.

Evelyn shook her head, then paused and glanced at Praem. “You told me it had gone wild, you didn’t mention those things.”

“Aloft, then,” Praem sing-songed.

“They hadn’t yet landed,” I murmured. “Something drew them down?”

“We can talk theory later,” Raine said. “Right now, I still think we need to leave. I doubt Alexander’s lot made sure the front door was closed and locked on their way out, and I don’t much fancy the idea of that jungle party in the streets getting indoors with us.”

“Mm, point,” Evelyn grunted.

“I would say we could check the front door, but this place is a labyrinth and the lights are all out.”

I tore my eyes away from the spectacle and looked straight down, to the rise of the hill on which the castle sat. “I don’t see anything by the outer curtain wall,” I said. “Maybe they don’t like it in here.”

“We can bloody well hope,” said Evelyn.

“Still, let’s step back toward the gate, yeah?” Raine said, very carefully keeping her voice measured and calm, but I heard right through it. She was pulled wire-tight. “If we’re not secure, we should leave. Give Lozzie five minutes, see if she improves, and then-”

A shadow passed over the windows. Flitting, writhing, announced by a sudden burst of that mad fluting sound, loud and close.

And all of a sudden we met the musician.

In the split-second before Raine bundled Lozzie and I back, before Evelyn shrieked in shock, before Praem moved to cover her, before any of that, Lozzie opened her mouth and cracked open her eyes.

Before any of us reacted, she trilled back at the thing which peered in through the window.

Moments such as these never make sense as they happen, a whirlwind of instinctive flinching retreat, surprised screams, spiking heart rates. The ancient lizard-brain takes over from the conscious pilot of the neocortex, hijacks the visual input and dumps a pint of adrenaline into one’s bloodstream. And that’s merely when surprised by mundane physical threat.

All hell broke loose. I nearly tumbled over with Lozzie. Evelyn would have fallen over too if Praem hadn’t caught her. Raine, cool as ice, pointed her handgun.

Only once the moment had passed did my brain process the sight: a cross between a cactus, a cone, and a flying squid. It was very green, maybe eight or nine feet tall, with a long head and a tapering cone-like body made of distinct curved staves of tough, leathery plant material. The body ended in a skirt of long tentacles. Recognisable eyes – maybe two dozen of them, with yellow, side-slit pupils – but no mouth. In four of its many, many tentacles it held a long rod of bone, punctured through with dozens of irregular holes. One end of the rod was plugged into its flesh like the junction of a horn. With other tentacles it gripped the edges of the window, peering in at us.

My body reacted in the worst way possible. With pain.

Self-defence, before I could even think. Abyssal memory attempted to sprout spines and flash warning colouration and arm me with tentacles and claws and razor-sharp teeth. Pain raked at my sides and my back, in my gums, in my eyes – and a hiss, a loud, resonant hiss of warning, of go-away, of I’m too difficult to eat, ripped out of my mouth, left my throat raw and stinging.

At that – or perhaps our screaming, or Raine’s shout – the Flutist’s eyes went wide. Its tentacles raced across the bone-rod, produced a frantic burst of piping, a screeching crescendo of discordant music.

And as suddenly as it had appeared, it let go of the window and scudded away on jets of air squirted from the ends of thicker tentacles. Jerking, bobbing, it turned and regarded us once more, then quickly jetted off back toward one of the planet-creatures.

For a long moment, nobody said a word.

“ … Heather?” Raine turned to me. “You alright?”

I almost hissed at her. The instinct still lingered in my throat. I clutched my side with one hand, clinging to Lozzie with the other, throat muscles aching and sides throbbing, abyssal echoes of the body I did not have wracking me with shuddering and quivering.

“No, not really,” I croaked. “Oh, I can’t keep reacting to everything like this. Ow. Oh, this is absurd. That was the stupidest thing.”

“Stupidest thing?” Evelyn spat. “No, I think violent reaction to that makes perfect sense.”

“Unn-nuuuh?” Lozzie made a sleepy noise, eyes half open. She pulled at my arm, trying to take a step forward. My sudden pain made her seem so much heavier than normal.

“No, it doesn’t,” I croaked.

“Oh.” Raine lit up. “Oh, right, yes.” She started laughing.

“What the hell are you laughing at?” Evelyn demanded, boggling at her.

“Evee, we just got jump scared by a cat in a closet.”

“We surprised it as much as it surprised us,” I croaked. “The way it turned around and looked back? It was only curious. I think. We- I-” I gestured at my throat, coughed hard. Muscles and tendons felt out of place. “Didn’t you hear Lozzie?”

“Wanna- mmmm,” Lozzie mumbled. She tried to pull away again. I had to lurch to catch her, sending a spike of pain ratcheting up my ribs. Praem and Raine both stepped in to help, propped Lozzie up and into my arms.

“What?” Evelyn asked after I had recovered. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“She replied to it, when it appeared. Lozzie made a noise at it. A weird hoot or something.”

Evelyn blinked at Lozzie, then me, than Raine.

“I think she knew what it was,” I said. “Probably from her time stuck here.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Evelyn said. She frowned at me, but then sighed and shook her head, readjusting her clothes. “Some jump-scare cat. That thing was ugly as sin and I swear it knew what it was looking at. At least it’s too big to get inside.”

She was right about that part – the reason we’d all screamed and jumped out of our skins was how the Flutist had been so distinct and direct. I was used to bizarre pneuma-somatic life, terrifying amalgamations and mutations; I’d been dealing with their unwanted attention for a decade. But whatever the Flutist was, it had been intensely curious.

Before any of us could suggest a course of action which included not getting ambushed by the Flutist again – such as going home, which sounded increasingly sensible – Lozzie made another sleep-addled noise, puffed her cheeks out, and tried to lurch away from me.

“Ah- Lozzie? Hey- please, Lozzie?” I croaked.

She didn’t stop, trying to take another step as I held on, down the corridor toward parts unknown. If I let her go, she’d drop, but I could hardly allow her to wander off into the depths of the castle. She grunted and pulled, and only relented when Praem stepped in to restrain her more firmly than I was capable of. She hung in the doll-demon’s grip, limp and grumbling like a petulant child.

“Fresh air and exercise,” she mumbled. “Fresh and washed and farm to table.”

Raine and Evelyn and I all shared a glance.

“Maybe she knows what she needs?” I ventured. Evelyn huffed and grit her teeth.

Raine glanced out the window, down the corridor, and took a deep breath. “Executive decision. Time for real quick poke around. Just down the hallway. Follow Lozzie’s footsteps. Five minutes, tops.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to object, then caught my pleading look. We couldn’t give up on the reason we came here. Couldn’t give up on Lozzie.

“Immediate surroundings only,” she hissed through clenched teeth. I noticed she was gripping the head of her walking stick extra tight, knuckles almost white with pressure. “And you stick close,” she added to Praem.

“Thank you, Evee,” I said.

“No fear,” Praem intoned. Raine allowed herself a small laugh. Evelyn shook her head.

We strayed not far beyond sight of the gateway. To the sound of our footsteps echoing along the castle’s hallways – Lozzie’s dragging, sleepy feet, the click-click-click of Praem’s heels, and the clack of Evelyn’s walking stick – accompanied always by the ethereal cosmic whale-song and the mad flute playing, we spent a few minutes shuffling through the wreckage of the Sharrowford Cult’s great experiment.

Detritus lay everywhere, equipment and incongruous everyday items abandoned by the Cult as they’d rushed to leave before getting cut off here – food wrappers and empty plastic boxes, an overturned telescope, a discarded robe, burnt-out candles, a heavy wooden bat, a dead mobile phone with a cracked screen. We passed one of their own inactive gateways, far more elaborate and precise than Evelyn’s work. She stopped to take pictures on her phone.

As she did, Raine picked up the telescope and settled it back on its tripod. After a moment’s thought, she pointed it out of the nearest window, at the closest of the asteroid-creatures.

“Are you certain that’s a good idea?” I asked. Lozzie pulled at my arm, trying to drag me onward. She felt so heavy compared to usual. Was I weak from sleep deprivation last night?

“It’s cool.” Raine shot me a wink. “Takes more than a giant marble to upset me.” She bent down, squinted one eye shut, and looked through the eyepiece. “ … huh.”

“Huh?” Evelyn echoed, slipping her phone away. “‘Huh’, what? Raine, don’t go ‘huh’ in this place. Explain.”

Raine looked up at the asteroid-creature with her naked eyes and gestured for us to take a peek too. “Looks like our wibbly-wobbly flute-playing octopus has got friends.”

“What?!” Evelyn’s eyes went wide. “You mean it’s coming back? It-”

“No,” Raine said with a grin and a knowing kink in her eyebrows. “If it was heading back with a posse, I’d be carrying Heather to the gateway ten seconds ago, not talking about it. Take a look for yourself.”

Evelyn followed the suggestion, and bent down to peer through the telescope’s eye-piece. Bending forward looked hard on her spine. Too much weight on her walking stick. She sucked on her teeth, and straightened up.

“Hmmm. Huh, indeed.”

I managed to take a look as well. Praem held Lozzie still for a moment, sleepy heels scuffing at the ground as she tried to walk on.

The Flutist had a whole herd of friends.

Dozens of them flitted and bobbed through the air around the nearest of the asteroid-creatures. Specks when seen with the naked eye, obscured by thick fog and the omnipresent glow. The telescope showed them weaving and dancing, playing their flutes, oblivious to us.

“ … at least he’s not lonely, I suppose?” I tried. Evelyn huffed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Heather’s got a good point actually,” Raine said.

“What, that it has friends?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Yes, wonderful, I’m sure we’re all very happy for it.”

“Evee, Evee, think tactics for a moment,” Raine said. I could see Evelyn wanted to snap at her. “If it’s got a lot of mates out there, and it wanted us gone, they’d be coming for us already.”

“Yes, obviously. I’m not a complete idiot, despite the state of my life. That doesn’t answer the question of what the hell they’re doing, why they’re here, why any of this … this fucking zoo is here.”

“I think that creature was from Outside,” I ventured.

Evelyn frowned at me. “Explain.”

“Look at all the stuff down there, in the fog. That’s all pneuma-somatic life, but in the flesh, somehow, something to do with this place. This isn’t Outside. But those things,” I nodded at the huge colour-shifting sphere in the middle distance. “They’re the young, the children, spawn, whatever, of the thing below the castle, and that was – is – an Outsider. It taught Lozzie hyperdimensional mathematics, like the Eye did with me. Which means, maybe it came from the abyss. Maybe it made all of this, maybe before the Cult got here. Maybe they drove it all out.”

“Like panspermia,” Raine said.

“I’m sorry?” I asked. Evelyn raised an eyebrow too.

“The theory that life came to earth on a comet. Didn’t Lozzie say something about the Outsider down below having crashed here? Like this is an impact crater.”

“This sub-dimension is an impact crater in reality itself,” Evelyn muttered. “Behind Sharrowford. Good metaphor. The thing below seeded this place with life? But from Outside instead of outer space?”

“Yes!” I felt myself light up inside, despite the shock. “Yes, exactly.”

“‘I want to believe’,” Raine laughed. “We should put pictures of this online. Send the conspiracy types up the wall.”

Evelyn shot us both a dark look, then turned to stare through the nearest windows once again, at the asteroid-sized lifeforms out in the fog. Her dark frown faltered, and for once Evelyn’s Saye’s leathery exterior gave way to a hard swallow, a worried brow, and nothing to say.

“Evee?”

“We absolutely cannot let Edward Lilburne have access to any of this,” she whispered.

==

Lozzie led us to two corpses.

The first we found in a short corridor, just around the corner from the gateway. The remains of a man were slumped against the wall, little more than a bundle of sticks and dry leather wrapped the cult’s distinctive cream-coloured robes. The corpse was dessicated, denied the natural process of decay, mummified by the air in this unnatural place.

The second corpse was in the throne room where I’d killed Alexander.

It was the body of the heavyset man Lozzie had knifed in the throat during the fight. Alexander’s chief disciple, the one who’d been tending to his wounds. He’d been left to shrivel and dry where he’d fallen, surrounded by the cracked stain of his own blood.

“I’d really rather not go in there,” I said at the threshold, but Lozzie dragged me on, as if she’d been searching for this place specifically. Why come back here? This was the stuff of nightmares.

Raine went ahead first, just in case.

The throne room was much as I recalled it. A wide space flanked by ceiling-height empty windows which let in plenty of the colourless light, with a sort of raised dais area at the rear. Off to one side sat the cult’s bizarre magical experiment – a series of interlocking circles, chunks of the green-gold matter mined from deep underneath the castle, and pieces of dismantled medical machinery pilfered from some hospital back in reality.

The rear of the room looked like a bomb had hit it. Which, in a way, it had.

I’d retained only seconds of consciousness after I’d used brainmath to kill Alexander. Hardly time to get a good look at the physical result.

Nothing had been touched, nothing moved out of place since. The folding tables at the rear were still covered in bags of drugs, bottles of strange liquid, hypodermic needles, much of it smashed aside by the blast. Alexander’s blood was still all over the floor, dried to a brown crust. Some of the blood-soaked towels had survived. I even spotted the pair of pliers he’d been using to dig Raine’s bullet out of his ribs, knocked to the ground along with the table they’d been sitting on, contents scattered wide.

A crater of cracked grey jade, slightly oblong from the direction of force, marked where he’d stood. The wall directly behind – a good twenty feet away, my goodness – was punctured by a gaping hole where I’d blasted him through. The edges of the hole were torn, ragged, splintered like bone.

Raine crept over and scuffed the ground with the tip of one boot. Alexander’s dried blood flaked away to dust.

“Almost nothing left.”

“Good,” I said.

“Admiring your own collateral damage, hey?” Raine grinned back at me. I shook my head and her grin switched off instantly. “I’m sorry, Heather.”

“It’s alright, I just … I don’t like being back here.”

Understatement of the year award, first prize, Heather Morell. Truth was, I tasted bile in the back of my throat, felt a shaking in my belly and my limbs. To commit terrible violence in defence of one’s friends or community is one thing, but to return to the scene and contemplate the aftermath, accompanied by that unceasing cosmic whale-song from beyond the walls, made me feel sick to my heart.

Not to mention the faint nausea. The brainmath I’d done here had been brutal, blunt, violent. The memory of it ghosted at the back of my mind, prodding at that bloody socket I dare not touch. What I’d done here had left an echo.

Was this what Lozzie had been struggling to reach? Even now she pulled at my arm, making sleepy noises, trying to walk deeper into the room.

“Me neither,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She’d hung back in the doorway and Praem had stuck close to her. “These windows are too big, not to mention that hole in the wall. We’re exposed here. Raine, get back in the corridor.”

“No! Noooooo- … oooouuuu … ” came Lozzie’s reply, strident denial trailing off into nothing. Her eyes struggled open, lids uneven and heavy.

“Lozzie? Hey, Lozzie, look at me,” I tried. “What are you looking for? Please, try to tell me, what-”

As if on cue, a giant shadow fell across the hole I’d blasted in the back wall. It drifted past the upper reaches of the windows, blotting out the diffuse light in a glacial whirlpool of shifting colour, a giant marble of which we could see only a tiny portion. The cosmic whale-song touched us like a foghorn. Vast tentacles trailed behind the asteroid sky-child as it orbited the castle. I suddenly felt extremely small, a rodent inside a rotten log as an elephant strode past. Even Raine seemed to hunch, the gun in her hands a hopeless nothing as the creature passed by.

And pass by it did, off to complete the orbit of the castle. I let out a shuddering breath.

“You know what, going back sounds good,” Raine said, backing away toward us. “I think we’ve had enough.”

“Lozzie?” I bent around again, tried to look in her eyes. “Lozzie, can’t we go back to the gate?”

“Mmmm-mmm!” she shook her head.

“What do you need, what are you looking for? Lozzie, tell me, let me know.”

She smacked her lips and made more sleepy noises. I felt so helpless. Couldn’t tell if this was doing any good for her at all. In my secret heart I’d imagined her waking up after thirty seconds here, or that the atmosphere might act like a bucket of water to the face. With disappointment I began to accept that she’d probably need to spend a whole night in this awful edifice.

She needed to dream again. I hoped she might take me with her, Outside.

“If she needs to stay here longer, we can return better prepared,” Evelyn said. She must have seen the look on my face. “I can whip up a protective barrier, set something up on this side of the gateway.”

“Better prepared,” Praem echoed.

“Maybe,” I sighed. “I don’t know what she needs. She won’t speak.”

“Help,” Praem intoned – but kept her voice nice and low.

“Yes, that much is clear … o-oh.” I flushed as I realised Praem had not been competing for the title of Captain Obvious, but was offering to help with Lozzie. “Thank you,” I said, and passed the struggling, sleepy girl off to her. Praem hoisted Lozzie from her feet, ready to carry her back to the gateway.

“Right, yeah, we’ll go back, make a new plan,” Raine said, smiling with her beaming confidence as she rejoined us. “Figure it out. Hey, maybe we can just bring Twil, sic her on anything that tries to get in here. She can go fight a whole moon.”

“Yes, wonderful,” Evelyn drawled her sarcasm. “That’s exactly how I’d love to spend a weekend with her.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow. Evelyn flustered, blushing hard when she realised what she’d just implied. “Don’t you say another bloody word. We need to leave, we don’t have time for this. Come on, get-”

Like a cat that had decided it had enough of being held, Lozzie woke up.

She woke up, limbs flailing, baffed Praem in the face with a loose hand – the doll-demon didn’t even react – and as if by some miracle of grease and contortion, extracted herself from Praem’s grip. It was like watching a weasel break from a trap. I’d seen Praem restrain a possessed fox, but Lozzie all but fell out of her arms.

“Lozzie-”

“Hey!”

“Praem, grab her.”

Lozzie got three paces, stumbling, head loose, hair a wild mess, eyes still closed in sleep, before she opened her mouth.

And sang.

It was not the most horrible sound in the world. That trophy goes easily to another. But it was one of the most eerie. Lozzie opened her mouth and sang, wordless sounds, tuneless notes, rising and falling like religious chanting. With a shudder we all realised exactly what she was doing: imitating the cosmic whale-song of the asteroid-creatures. Those sounds had not been made for a human throat, and Lozzie did not exactly do a good job of replicating them, high-pitched and whiny and gummed up  by passing air over all that inelegant human meat.

But she sung her little heart out. The only reason Raine didn’t grab her was shock, as Lozzie stumbled into the throne room and fell to her knees, raised her head and belted out alien noises.

“Grab her!” Evelyn hissed again.

But the shadow was already returning.

The orbiting sky-child thing had changed direction at the sound of Lozzie’s voice, at a familiar call from an unfamiliar throat. A vast shadow of shifting colours fell across the room once more. Panic gripped my heart, and my bowels. We did not want that thing’s attention on us. Hide, screamed every cell in my body.

But I didn’t.

I went for Lozzie.

So did Raine, and Praem. Another pace and we would have stopped, Raine would have bundled me back while Praem retrieved Lozzie, and we would have scuttled away back into the corridor of the castle, back to the gateway, away from the attention of this floating giant.

But the sky-child was faster. Before any of us could reach Lozzie or stop each other, a pitted grey tentacle as thick as a train car probed at the hole in the rear of the throne room. My legs turned to jelly at the size of that thing. My bladder almost let go, an involuntary animal reaction. But it couldn’t get in, it couldn’t. Too big, its own size worked against it. Raine grabbed me by the waist, made to drag me back.

The tentacle split. First in two, then in four, then eight, on and on in a dizzying multiplication that suddenly surged into the room like a shoal of hunting squid. Grey armoured tentacles filled the air.

Raine dropped me and pulled her handgun.

Praem reached Lozzie, who smiled as she sang, eyes still closed.

I think Evelyn screamed, I don’t remember. Maybe it was me.

The sky-child’s tentacles reformed, recombined down into three, each as thick around as a oak tree; one went for Lozzie, the second for Praem. The third hesitated, poised; Raine’s finger tightened on the trigger of her handgun, and the third tentacle darted for her.

I never had a choice. Raine broke her promise, didn’t she? She’d told me she’d make sure I’d never be put in a situation again where growing my own tentacles seemed a like a good idea. That’s how I justified it later, but in the moment I followed only instinct, only the need, the body. Pure survival.

Right then, at that moment of the unknown, possible violence, growing my own tentacles seemed like a very good idea indeed.

One variable of hyperdimensional mathematics, just like before, just like yesterday. At the speed of thought I pictured exactly what I wanted to do, where I wanted to reach, what to touch and push and grab and slam. Pictured the limbs in my mind, felt them where they should be attached to my body. One variable, from non-existence to reality.

I didn’t even think about the pain. That was for later.

Six tentacles of shining pneuma-somatic flesh sprouted from my sides, straight through my clothes again. I felt their anchor points deep inside my torso – three where they’d been before, and three new.

First pushed me up off the disgusting bone-substance of the floor, righted me. Second grabbed Raine’s gun, turned it to the side with a flick so her bullet hit the wall. Third stretched out and wrapped around Lozzie’s middle, held her with tight affection, a safety harness.

I had only seconds. Moments of energy reserves with which to ward off this vast creature.

Had to make myself understood.

My remaining three tentacles, slender as my wrist, ghost-pale beneath the strobing rainbow bio-luminescence, I threw wide. Body language of the predator, the abyss, of marine display and threat. Loud and clear – I am poison and toxin and acid and I will fight you.

I opened my mouth and hissed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Dawn took us unawares.

Heather?”

Raine’s voice drifted down from the upstairs hallway, sleepy and heavy, muffled by the labyrinthine acoustics of the house. I snorted awake, blinked out of my doze on the sofa, confused for a second, and found the ex-drawing room aglow as faint sunrise peeked through the curtains and the kitchen windows.

“Heather?” Raine called again.

“Oh,” I croaked, mouth dry, and pulled my arm out from underneath Lozzie, filled with pins and needles. She made a sleepy sound and cuddled closer against my side.

“Shouldn’t you …  say something?” Kimberly asked, frozen in mid-motion in front of her work spread out across the table, her eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark circles. The upstairs floorboards creaked under Raine’s tread.

“Yes,” I hissed, heart in my throat and awkward guilt where my heart should be. “Yes, I should have gone back to bed. Tch.”

Raine’s feet hurried down the stairs, searching for the presence that should have been in bed next to her – or at least in the bathroom, or answered her by now. I struggled free from the blanket-nest I’d been sharing with Lozzie, pulled my hips from her insistent grasp, and almost fell over onto my face as the bruises in my sides seized up. I lashed out for a grip with tentacles that I didn’t have, winced and hissed through my teeth, but managed to stay vertical. Just.

“Heather? Heather, where are you?” Raine hurried through the front room, her voice tight with focus.

“In here!” I choked. “I’m fine.” I hopped up onto one foot, forcing myself to look calm and presentable. Kimberly had gone wide-eyed, ready to bolt, as if Raine might blame her for my absence. Raine appeared in the doorway seconds later. She stopped as soon as she laid eyes on me.

“Heather.” She let out a big sigh. “There you are.”

“Hey, hi. Morning. I’m sorry I wasn’t in bed, I should have woken up you or something.”

An uncharacteristic flicker of hesitation crossed Raine’s face – then she grinned and leaned against the door frame, at casual ease once more.

“You being up before me is a minor miracle,” she said. “Where’s my morning cuddle-bug?”

Still dressed in the black tank-top and shorts she’d worn to bed, flushed and warm from sleep and search, Raine radiated limitless confidence and easy physicality – especially when compared to my own numb-footed groggy stumbling. Weak sunlight glow slowly filled the kitchen behind her, like static fuzz laid across the textures of the world. In the liminal space between night and day, the house held its breath. Raine was a vision from a fantasy on the edge of sleep, half-dressed and hot to the touch, an invitation to stop thinking and come back to bed. Almost enough to smooth over her moment of incongruous hesitation.

“I’m really sorry you had to come look for me,” I blurted out.

“Hey, hey, Heather, it’s fine. Last place I expected to find you, tucked away down here, that’s all.” Raine’s jaw stretched in a huge yawn. She blinked her eyes to clear sleep-clogged vision. “Morning to you too, Kim. And same, Praem, looking sharp.” She sketched a little salute at the doll-demon. Kimberly nodded a jerky hello from her chair, too uncomfortable to turn back to her notes. She sensed it too; Raine was on alert.

“Good morning,” Praem intoned.

“I couldn’t sleep,” I said. I took a step toward Raine, instinct calling me for a morning hug, but my heart told me something was wrong. “Neither could Kim, we decided to work on something, we … Raine, you’re not okay with this. I can see that you’re not okay with this.”

Raine opened her mouth with a grin, and I knew what was coming – a clever bit of affectionate misdirection. But then she sighed. Her smile turned self-deprecating.

“You know me too well,” she said. “Just, you know, couldn’t find you for a good couple of minutes. Spooked me out cos’a yesterday, that’s all.”

I tripped my way along the last few paces toward Raine, and fell against her. She pulled me into a hug and kissed the top of my head. Kimberly finally took the opening and turned away, focused on her notes and diagrams.

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise,” I murmured into Raine’s shoulder.

“Yeah.”

After a minute of warm, post-sleep hug, Raine pulled back and cast a curious eye over the room – over Kimberly with her magical diagrams and slack, stoned expression, over Lozzie drowsing on the sofa, over Praem standing ram-rod straight as if supervising us.

“I would ask if you wanna come back to bed,” Raine said slowly, as if experimenting with the idea. “But you lot seem busy. Like, interesting busy.”

“We’re doing a project,” I said, then blushed. “I mean, Kimberly’s doing the project. It was my idea, but I’m only helping.”

Truth be told, for the last two hours I hadn’t even been doing that. I was a bit of spare wheel until Evelyn woke up.

At first, in the wee hours of the morning, I’d provided moral support. Kimberly had begun by drawing up diagrams of the mural, tried to identify the pieces of it she understood, to pinpoint the part of the design which defined the output location of the gateway. I’d supplied her with regular infusions of coffee and a useful ear off which to bounce concepts I didn’t understand. I’d nodded along as she’d explained, stoned and slow and thinking hard, muttering disconnected bits of Latin, testing how angles of magic circle might look when drawn on paper – papers that now covered fully half of the tabletop in a mass of rejections and possibilities.

One time, I’d made the mistake of asking how something worked – why this angle for the interior lines of that circle with those words of Latin?

“It’s all relative,” she’d said, her eyes bloodshot and heavy with the THC in her bloodstream. She seemed calmer when high, made all this easier to face.

“Relative to what?”

She gestured at the sketches, the walls, the room, us. “Everything. That’s how magic works. Works, that’s a joke, ha,” a sad non-laugh. She cast a sidelong glance at me, embarrassed by her tiny outburst.

“It’s okay, go on, please.”

“Mm, well … one object or symbol or angle has no effect by itself. It’s just a thing in the world, normal. It’s only when you bring these things together, they work in relation to other angles or shapes. Stuff interacts in ways we can’t see or understand, at a level beyond physics. Sympathetic resonance.”

“Loopholes in reality,” I muttered.

“Yes.” She puffed out another humourless laugh. “Did you just make that up?”

“Those are Evelyn’s words, actually. She once described magic to me as like ‘exploiting God’s shoddy workmanship’.”

“I wish,” Kimberly said, hollow and sad. She stared down at a mess of squiggles on a sheet of paper. It all meant nothing to the untrained eye. “It’s nonsensical causation. Magic doesn’t make any sense, none of this should work. You have to … fit your mind around it, and it always feels wrong. I hate it. I hate it so much.”

“Thank you, for doing this, for Lozzie.”

She sniffed, shrugged, and carried on.

After that, I did not ask again.

I did glean one detail of real meaning; Lozzie’s additions were completely beyond Kimberly’s understanding. In all the possible adjustments and replacements she sketched out, never did she change a single one of the dried lines of finger-smeared paint and ink. When Evelyn had removed a section of the mandala in order to deactivate the door, she had done the same, left the unexplained dream-additions untouched.

Eventually, in my uselessness, I’d been relegated to serving as Lozzie’s pillow. She’d nuzzled my side, flowed into my lap, and sleep had claimed me.

“It might not work,” I finished my explanation. “But I think it’s worth a try, if it helps Lozzie. I just want her to be well again.”

“You’re amazing, you know that?” said Raine.

She gave me a smile of beaming pride. I blushed, confused. “R-Raine? I’m barely doing anything, I told you, Kim’s doing all the work. Don’t heap praise on me.”

“L-look, please don’t,” Kimberly stammered out, even more embarrassed than I was. “I-I’m only doing what I can.”

“It’s cool, Kim.” Raine gave her a serious, curt nod. “Keep it up.”

Somehow, Raine knew exactly the right thing to say. Short and blunt worked on Kimberly in a way that effusive thanks or affectionate inclusion didn’t. She nodded several times and turned back to her papers, to sketching out one of her increasingly refined possibilities. Raine reached up and ran her fingers through my sleep-matted hair, and lowered her voice.

“What I mean, Heather, is that you had one hell of a day yesterday,” she murmured. “Thought you’d need to recover, sleep in. Was gonna get you breakfast in bed, run you a bath. But hey, here you are, right back at it. You’re right about Lozzie.” She pulled an almost regretful smile. “None of us were paying attention to her. My bad too, yeah?”

“Thank you, I think,” I sighed, and smothered a bubble of guilt low in my gut. I wouldn’t have done any of this if I hadn’t snuck out of bed to hurt myself in the bathroom, if I hadn’t broken my promise. I swallowed, and told myself I’d confess that to Raine later. “Although, I don’t think Evelyn will agree with your positive assessment when she’s up and about. I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do. And convincing.”

“Ahh, she’ll be cool.” Raine grinned and ruffled my hair. “She’ll get it, she’ll understand. Don’t worry about it.”

“Raine,” I sighed.

“You’ll see.”

==

Raine’s confidence was soon put to the test.

The sun spent an hour struggling up into a layer of thick grey cloud, orange sunrise glow quickly smothered by another overcast day of heavy leaden skies and sputtering rain. We’d taken a disorganised break. Raine had whipped up breakfast, scrambled eggs on toast all round with more to come for Evelyn when she woke up. Raine was busy crunching her way through an apple, lounging on the sofa with Lozzie and myself, when Evelyn finally stirred.

Heavy footsteps stomped about upstairs. Floorboards creaked. We all looked up.

Kimberly went white in the face. “I should- should go wait in the … in the kitchen?”

“Um, maybe,” I said. My own lingering exhaustion was not a good state in which to face a potentially irate Evelyn. I stood up, out of Lozzie’s grip again, and brushed a few stray crumbs from my lap. “We should brainstorm what to say. Oh, why didn’t I think of this already?”

“It’ll be fiiiiine,” Raine said. “She’s gonna be fine. It’s not like we’re not allowed in here. We’re not naughty kids.”

“We shouldn’t be allowed in here,” Kimberly muttered. “I-I can’t stay here, I-”

“Stay,” Praem intoned.

Kimberly jerked around to stare at her, transfixed by indecision as Evelyn’s heavy tread clomped down the stairs. Raine leaned back on the sofa, projecting a complete lack of concern. To my surprise and delight, Lozzie transferred her sleepy affections to my girlfriend, slumping into Raine’s lap. Raine stroked her hair, which triggered the tiniest, silliest twinge of jealousy I’d ever felt.

The clack of Evelyn’s walking stick crossed the front room, then changed pitch against the flagstones in the kitchen. She appeared like a drifting ball of wind-blown fuzz, framed by the doorway in dressing gown and pajama bottoms, heavy-eyed and hunched, her hair all askew and flat at the back from sleep. She was muttering under her breath, something about chocolate and breakfast pop-tarts – which was odd, because I knew for a fact we didn’t have any of those.

I cleared my throat. Evelyn turned, saw me through the workshop doorway, and stopped dead.

“Um, good morning, Evee.”

“Come in and join us,” Raine added. “We’ve been up for a bit already. Plans are afoot.”

“Afoot,” Praem said.

I think Kimberly squeaked. Wasn’t sure. Might have been a floorboard.

Evelyn frowned as if she’d just discovered a whole herd of talking horses. Slowly, with incredulity written on every line of her face, she crossed the kitchen and stood in the doorway. Raine greeted her with a wave of half-eaten apple. I tried a smile, started to speak, then stopped. Kimberly visibly shrank, as if before a very angry school mistress. Praem stared. Lozzie let out a snore.

“What the bloody hell are you all doing in my workshop?”

“Working,” Praem intoned.

“I had an idea,” I said.

“Nothing, nothing,” Kimberly blurted out.

“It’s fine, Evee,” said Raine. “They’re all on their best behaviour-”

“Pffffft,” Lozzie made a sound like a beached seal, trilling and puffing. Everyone stopped talking over each other and looked at her instead, but unfortunately she didn’t continue, only smacked her lips and dropped back into deeper sleep.

Heather?” Evelyn said my name through gritted teeth.

“Yes, this was my idea,” I said quickly, drawing myself up. “I couldn’t sleep, and I had an idea. And I’m sorry for intruding on your private space. I wanted to start as soon as possible. I didn’t think about that when I came in here. I’m sorry.”

“You think that matters?” Evelyn asked – low and strangled. I’d never, ever heard her speak like that before. She stared at me, as if in disbelief. “You think that’s what matters here?”

“E-Evee?”

“Evelyn? Hey,” Raine said, scooting forward to get up. We exchanged a worried glance.

“I don’t believe this,” she hissed.

In the corners of Evelyn’s eyes, I saw tears.

“Evee, I- I’m sorry. I had an idea in the night, let me explain.”

And I did, as quickly and on point as I could, trying to keep the worried shake out of my voice. As I spoke, a change came over Evelyn. The dark horror of tearful disbelief left her, replaced by a reassuringly familiar angry Evelyn scowl. She scrubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, then scowled at me and at Raine, and especially at Praem. Only Lozzie escaped her silent wrath, a strange sympathy on her face as she glanced at the semi-comatose girl on the sofa.

As I trailed off toward an unpolished apology, she hunched her shoulders and transferred her ire to Kimberly.

“And you know how this works?” She jabbed the head of her walking stick toward the gateway mandala.

“ … a … a tiny … tiny bit.”

“You know how this works,” Evelyn growled at her. “And you didn’t tell me.”

“She was afraid,” I said. “She’s helping us now.”

Evelyn sniffed the air and narrowed her eyes. “And you’re high as a fucking kite. I can smell it from here.”

“You can’t blame her for being a little bit spooked by you,” Raine put in. “You gotta admit, you’re pretty scary when you’re angry.” Raine got to her feet. As she stood, Lozzie clung on, dragged to her feet by Raine’s considerable strength. She put an arm around Lozzie to steady her.

“And you,” Evelyn ignored Raine and jabbed a finger at Praem. “You should have woken me up. The moment they started, you should have woken me up. What were you thinking?”

“More sleep for you,” Praem sing-songed at her mistress.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted like an angry goat, face contorted with frustration. She scrubbed at her eyes again, wiped away the tears that hadn’t quite blossomed, and then turned on me. “You absolute idiot, Heather, you-”

“Evee, that’s not fair,” I said, feeling a lump grow in my throat.

“Yeah, hey, come on,” Raine said.

“- you can’t sleep, you have an idea, you come wake me.”

“ … I … I’m sorry?”

“I don’t care what kind of bloody awful day we’ve all had. I don’t care if I’m unconscious and have a demon in my head – you need help with magic, you come to me. God dammit, just ask me.” She turned to Kimberly, who flinched like a startled sheep. “And you, stop being so bloody afraid of everything. We’re both … ” Evelyn ran out of steam suddenly, huffed, and composed herself with some difficulty.

She stomped right past us and over to the table to examine Kimberly’s work, leafing through the loose papers and half-completed magic circles, tossing several aside with unimpressed grunts, glancing up to compare others to the mural on the wall.

“This is wrong, this one is awful, try this one again.” She shoved a particular sheet to the other side. “I don’t know what the hell you think this one will achieve, it may as well send you to the bloody moon for all I know.”

“Sorry,” Kimberly squeaked. Evelyn looked at her and she flinched again, shrinking into herself, eyes bloodshot and scared.

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake. We’re both mages, even if you are far less experienced. Do you know how often I’ve actually been able to share any kind of practice with another mage? Hm? Take a guess. Wild guess. Go on.”

“ … mm?” Kimberly managed a squeak, wide-eyed and bewildered.

“Zero. None. And now we’re both right here. We may as well work on it together. Sit down.” She jerked a nod at a chair. Kimberly hopped into it without question.

Evelyn looked around at us again, at my surprise and Raine’s barely concealed laughter and Praem’s po-faced observation.

“Well?” Evelyn demanded. “What are you waiting for? I smell eggs, and I haven’t had breakfast. Both of you are surplus to this task, go put some tea on. Hop to it.”

==

“Evee, I just want to say sorry again. Just between me and you, where it matters. You’re right, I should have waited, or woken you up. But I’m also really glad you think this is a good idea.”

Evelyn studied me for a long moment, sighed, then glanced back into the magical workshop. Back in there, Kimberly had her head down, puzzling over the final piece. Evelyn lifted a mug to her lips and took a careful sip of the piping hot tea.

“I don’t.”

“ … you don’t?”

She studied me again, sighed and shrugged, her shoulders slumped.

Evelyn and I stood together in the kitchen, hours and hours after she’d first rattled down the stairs and had a good shout at everyone. Dark clouds glowered down at us through the kitchen windows and a cold wind blew through the trees in the distance. Evelyn had since replaced her pajamas and dressing gown with a long skirt and comfortable warm sweater, while I’d had a shower and gotten dressed, but all of us felt a touch chilly today, even me wrapped in my pink hoodie and two layers of tshirt.

Kimberly had taken a long nap in the late morning, but Raine and I both had class today, so we’d gone out. At first I’d toyed with the idea of skipping entirely, but getting out of the house had been good for me. A touch of normality injected into the whirlwind of implausible events that was my life. Sitting in a lecture hall for an hour and then waiting for Raine in the library had made me feel almost normal – though I’d had to dose up on painkillers first, and even then still endured a twitching in my sides, in my abused muscles, whenever I spotted an interesting library book I wanted to reach for.

We’d returned home after lunchtime to find Evelyn still hard at work, with Lozzie curled up on the sofa next to her. To our surprise, Evelyn and Kimberly had been thick as thieves, heads almost together as they pored over the details. The topic of their discussion was far beyond my understanding – the correct angles, the right esoteric words, which parts of the mural to attempt replacing. Kimberly still sounded mousy and hesitant, but at least Evelyn didn’t snap at her.

“It’s necessary,” Evelyn said to me with a resigned smile. “Not all necessary things are good ideas.”

“Ah. Necessary. Okay.” I nodded.

Evelyn held my gaze for a lingering moment, then looked away. I struggled for the right words, any words. A odd barrier still lay between us.

“Evee,” I tried. “When you came downstairs this morning, and you saw us, you-”

“I blew up. I’m sorry.”

I blinked in surprise. She cleared her throat, put her tea down, picked it up again, and couldn’t meet my eyes.

“Well, that’s a rather transparent lie,” I said.

Evelyn frowned at me, then sighed. “How could you tell?”

“A straightforward apology, without preamble, from you? Of course I could tell.”

“Ah. Right.”

“Then … what was that about? You looked like you were going to cry. Evee, I don’t want to make you cry. You’re … I mean, you’re my closest friend.”

“Don’t flatter me. Raine is your closest friend.”

“Raine’s my lover. That’s different. At least, I’m pretty sure it is.”

“What about Lozzie?” she grunted.

“What about her?” My turn to sigh. “Evee, this is about you.”

Evelyn didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then she sucked on her teeth and shot me a look. “Thought I’d walked into a fucking assisted suicide.”

“ … you … I’m sorry?”

“Your tentacles. Thought you’d enlisted Kimberly, with Raine’s encouragement, to … I don’t know, to mutilate yourself with inexpert knowledge.” She sighed, shrugged, and covered by sipping her tea.

“Oh. Oh, well, no.”

“Yes, obviously I was wrong. Jumped the gun.”

“I won’t lie and say I’m not going to try to find a way, but I won’t do that to myself. If I was going to do that, I’d get the best mage I know. Wouldn’t I?” I added a note of irony at the end, a joke. Evelyn caught it, and huffed a tiny laugh.

“One would hope. Look, I jumped to a conclusion. I’m … sorry, about that part. Alright?”

“Apology accepted.”

“I need to control my bloody anger better.”

I smiled. “You said it, not me.”

“Somebody needs to tell me off more often,” she muttered.

“Could you let Twil do that?”

She waved that suggestion off. “Now’s not the time.”

“Speaking of Twil, have you called her?” I gestured at the magical workshop again. “She’s going to come with us, yes?”

Evelyn drew herself up, much more comfortable with the logistics of a mad magical expedition than the intricacies of her own emotions. “Yes, and no.”

“ … yes and no?”

“Yes, I called her. And no, she’s not coming with us. She’s in school today. I don’t want to completely fuck up her life. That would be a wonderful cherry on top of my personal shit sandwich, wouldn’t it? Twil gets expelled for truancy, fails to get a university offer. My fault. Teaches her what happens if she spends too much time around the likes of me.”

“Evee, you don’t mean that.”

Evelyn shrugged in irritation. “As if I could ever possibly be good for anyone.”

“Well, this is just a suggestion,” I ventured, putting on my best social worker voice. “But you could start by trying to refrain from insulting her or snapping at her.”

Evelyn gave me a withering look, but I refused to wither. “You think I haven’t tried that?” she asked. “This is just how I am. What? What does that look mean?”

“I do think you haven’t tried it,” I said. “Not really.”

Evelyn let out a huge sigh and shook her head. I didn’t press the issue further, not right now, in the middle of all this.

“Besides, I doubt we’re going to get the gateway working today,” she said eventually. “It doesn’t make sense. Can’t decipher what Lauren’s additions actually do, and they’re the anchor, the bit that makes it really work. They do something, that’s for certain, but … ” she shrugged. “Maybe we wait until the weekend. Maybe Twil does come with us. Maybe I play nice and polite, mm?”

“I do hope so. Just talk to her, Evee.”

“Yes, yes.”

“So, how dangerous it is, really, over there in the … ” I cast about for the right name. “The fog?”

“Sounds about right.”

“The fog, then. You sent Praem there one last time, before it closed off, didn’t you?”

“Mmhmm, I did.” Evelyn paused to sip her tea, then sucked on her teeth for a moment before she answered. “It’s uncontained. You were unconscious on our way out, weren’t you?”

“Mostly.”

“Well then, you might not recall that Twil ripped up part of their fencing, whatever was keeping the presumed fauna at bay, further out in the fog. It’s possible the place won’t be quite as we remember it, whatever they were doing out there might be uncontrolled, or spent itself, or … anything, really. You had the right idea, basically, which is what we’re working on. Getting into the apex of the castle is our best bet at a safe place. Praem can go first, Raine can bring her handgun. Either we make a little safe pocket quickly, or we leave, also quickly.”

I nodded. “I don’t know how long Lozzie will need.”

Evelyn shrugged. A noncommittal expression passed across her face, made it clear she didn’t have much hope.

“ … you don’t think I’m right, do you?” I asked. “But you said this is necessary.”

“Checking the … urgh,” Evelyn sighed. “Checking the ‘fog dimension’, is necessary. Curing Lauren’s condition would be a nice bonus.”

“I … don’t follow?”

“If Edward Lilburne wants it, we should take a look first.”

“Ah.”

And suddenly it all made sense.

Evelyn frowned at me, her cheeks flushed. “Don’t look at me like that. I have to be cynical, that’s how I’ve survived this long. Don’t treat me like I’m heartless.”

“I wasn’t, I’m just … ” I sighed. “Practical consideration trumps everything else? I don’t like thinking that way.”

“Practical considerations keep us alive.” Evelyn tapped her walking stick to emphasise her point. “For the record, I do hope it works, I do hope this helps Lauren – Lozzie, whatever. She is … ” Evelyn lowered her voice and glanced into the magical workshop, to verify that Kimberly wasn’t listening. “Her state, her past family life, I … I understand. A little. That’s all.” She cleared her throat awkwardly.

“Ah, yes. Thank you, Evee. I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”

Evelyn grunted and waved me off.

“You know, I think we should push it further,” Raine’s voice interrupted. She sauntered through the kitchen doorway and leaned on a chair, then reached over to ruffle my hair.

“Were you eavesdropping out there?” Evelyn grumbled.

“Never!” Raine grinned. “Only the last bit. We should push it further.”

“Which means?”

“We should take the place.”

“‘Take’ the place?” I echoed. “You mean the castle?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

Evelyn gave her a very unimpressed look. “With what fucking army? Don’t be absurd, Raine. What are you suggesting we do, occupy territory?”

Raine rolled her shoulders in an eloquent shrug, let her expression do the talking. Evelyn frowned harder in deepening thought.

“Oh no,” I said. “You two aren’t serious? This is about Lozzie, for pity’s sake.”

“It is,” Evelyn murmured. “Yes, it is about Lozzie. But if Edward wants this so bad, we should probably keep it out of his hands. If we can’t find him and
can’t counter him, perhaps we can deny him what he wants? Which means Lozzie, and the fog, both.”

“Now you’re thinking like a general.” Raine winked at her, and got an Evelyn glower in return.

Speak of the devil and she shall appear – with a rustle of dragging sheets and a patter of bare feet. A groggy-faced Lozzie stumbled out of the magical workshop and into the kitchen, where she stopped and stood still, swaying gently like a sapling in the breeze, her hair all a-waft about her, willow fronds of blonde.

“Ro-tay,” she mumbled.

“What? What’s she saying?” Evelyn asked, taking a step back from the sudden apparition.

“Nothing, I think. Most of what she says is sleep-talk. Lozzie? Are you awake?”

Lozzie nodded but closed her eyes, then bumbled toward us. Evelyn took another step back, but before she could do anything Lozzie walked right into her and put her head on Evelyn’s shoulder. Evelyn froze.

“That means she likes you,” Raine stage-whispered.

“It’s not funny!” Evelyn hissed. She looked intensely uncomfortable, like she’d been trapped by a large, affectionate dog. She turned her walking stick an awkward angle, stiff and stuck. “I can’t hold unbalanced weight as easily as you two, if she drops, I’ll drop with her.”

Grinning, shaking her head, Raine stepped forward and took Lozzie’s weight. She hefted the smaller girl like a sack of rice. Lozzie mumbled under her breath and clung to Raine, sleepy Koala bear style.

“Ro-tay … tiiii,” Lozzie said out loud. “Ro-tay-tit.”

“ … ‘rotate it’?” I echoed.

“Rotate what?” Raine asked Lozzie’s sleeping face, raised an eyebrow. “Rotate you?”

“Ah!” A eureka moment, an exclamation of discovery – from Kimberly.

“Kim?”

We all hurried over to the doorway of the magical workshop just in time to see Kimberly reach down and place two fingers on opposite corners of the piece of paper she’d been puzzling over. Mouth open in awe, eyes wide as saucers, she rotated it one hundred and eighty degrees.

“Kimberly?” Evelyn ventured, then frowned over at Lozzie.

“It works,” Kimberly said, but not to us. Her voice sounded so far away. “Rotate it in place.” Quickly, hands shaking, eyes bloodshot with cannabis and sleep deprivation, she pulled other sheets of paper from nearby and sketched in a frenzy, connecting disparate parts of the new design, pencil flying across the paper. Evelyn and Raine and I all shared a glance.

Suddenly, Kimberly stopped mid pencil-stroke, as if broken from a trance. A hysterical hiccup of laughter stole up her throat. She stared at her work, breathing unsteady.

“Could have finished it hours ago,” she muttered.

“Kim?” I said her name as gently as I could and edged forward into the room. Her head jerked up, a sleepwalker disturbed, one eye twitching.

“Rotate it. How did- how did she know that? She didn’t even look at this!” Kimberly’s voice rose to a shout, then she seemed to catch herself, and let out a long, shuddering breath. She pushed back from the table and put her face in her hands, moaning softly.

“Kim, are you-”

Before I could finish, Evelyn marched forward and around the side of the table. She glanced over Kimberly’s work, eyes moving quickly across the whorls and scribbles and conjoined circles, and – with obvious and hesitant effort, hovering once and then completing the motion with a suppressed grimace – she put her hand on Kimberly’s back.

“You’ve done well,” Evelyn said.

“I hate this. I hate this so much,” Kimberly whined into her hands.

“Then stop thinking about it. Praem.” Evelyn tossed her head in a unspoken order. Praem turned and marched out into the kitchen.

“It’ll work. It’ll work now.” Kimberly was muttering to herself, voice pitiful and small. “How did she know? It’s like she was in my head.”

“Stop thinking about it,” Evelyn repeated, hard and sharp.

With a lump in my throat and a churning in my guts, I slipped out of the room and went after Praem.

I think Raine must have said my name as I left, but I was too numb in that moment. Praem was busy pulling a thick bar of dark chocolate out of one of the cupboards, but I reached up and found another one as well, part of our special supply in case of moments like this. Praem turned to look at me, and my sudden crippling guilt projected justified accusation onto her blank expression.

“Just … Praem, just let me take it to her. Please.”

I’d convinced Kimberly, to immerse herself in magic, to help Lozzie, for me – but Kimberly wanted out.

I knew that. I’d argued for it in the past. And still I’d convinced her to do this thing which was crushing her already fragile mental health.

Why? I searched myself but found no answer. Had I ignored that knowledge because of how much I cared about Lozzie? Or was it abyssal coldness, uncaring calculation? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell which ‘me’ had made that decision. I couldn’t even find the distinction between the ape and the abyss anymore.

“Heather? Wooo?” Raine called.

“I’m fine,” I lied, because this wasn’t about me. I forced a smile onto my face with as much acting skill as I could muster – probably didn’t convince Raine – and walked back into the magical workshop before Praem could stop me.

“Kim, here, you should eat some chocolate,” I said, and tried to make amends.

Wasn’t enough.

==

An hour later, we opened the gate.

We carried out our little experiment with all due precaution, as if about to breach some ancient sarcophagus with no notion of what awful survival may emerge.

Praem did the honours, filled in the final sections of mandala under Evelyn’s instruction, as we prepared. Raine dressed in jacket and boots, fetched her handgun and her knife, held the pistol in both hands, ready to raise and point it at the doorway. Evelyn found her coat and her strange, carved thighbone. Between us, we got Lozzie into outdoor clothes, draped a spare coat over her shoulders and helped wiggle her feet into her shoes.

Kimberly had long since retreated, first to the kitchen to put her head on the table, then to the utility room to roll herself another joint and blow the smoke out of the back door.

“Are you sure you don’t want to watch?” I’d asked. “It’s the fruit of your work, after all.”

Kimberly had shaken her head, twitchy and jumpy. “No. No, thank you. I’m … I’m done. I want to sleep.”

“I’m sorry … ” I tried to call after her as she shuffled away, but my words emerged as a whisper, because I wasn’t entirely certain if they were genuine. Part of me wanted to follow her, half to apologise, half to flee from my own growing self-disgust.

Instead I took more painkillers, washed them down with water, and tried to quell the unease roiling in my belly.

 My body was mounting a rebellion. It did not care why were going to the castle, nor about helping Lozzie. My nervous system remembered only terror, murder, and the unnatural disgust of the place to which we were about to return. Earlier, in the abstract, I’d felt okay about it, but now abyssal memory demanded armour plates and toxic flesh and protective spines. My flanks quivered and ached with phantom limbs, my skin crawled with biology I did not possess. I had to grip the kitchen counter-top and squeeze my eyes shut, fight the pain down until the pills did their job.

Evelyn and Kimberly were absolutely certain the gateway would open into the fog-choked dimension behind Sharrowford, and ninety percent sure it would open into the castle – somewhere.

Aiming at a particular point was apparently much more difficult. According to Kimberly’s limited comprehension – filtered through my uneducated interpretation of her words – the Cult had used simultaneous rituals here and in the fog as a sort of anchor between two points, allowing them to open several precise gateways. We didn’t have that luxury. We had guesswork and an emergency firearm.

How the Cult had gotten over there in the first place, Kimberly had no idea.

Another question for Lozzie. I filed it away for now.

We all stood ready as Praem drew the final set of lines on the wall with a washable green marker. Evelyn leaned heavily on her walking stick with one hand, brow furrowed as she studied the doorway for the first flicker of motion. Raine watched too, alert and ready. I fetched Lozzie from the sofa, pulled her up without difficulty, featherlight weight on my arm. Her sheet of wispy blonde hair hung down in a messy wave in front of her face, so I swept it over her shoulder, loose hairs clinging to my hand like bits of cobweb.

“Out?” she mumbled.

“Yes, hopefully,” I whispered back.

“Either it’s safe, quickly, or we leave, quickly,” Evelyn said to nobody in particular. “We are not getting stuck there again. This is not an expedition.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“Sure thing, boss,” Raine added.

“All done,” Praem intoned. Neat and precise, she stepped back three paces, capped the marker pen, and placed it on the table.

Raine opened her mouth to ask a question – perhaps a ‘what happens now?’ or ‘how long does it take?’ – but even her bravado and bluster faltered before the sensation that crept through all flesh.

The first time I’d witnessed the gateway open, I’d just been shocked awake from a sleepwalker’s nightmare, a shared dream with Lozzie, and was faced with a kidnapping attempt moments later. Hardly the right conditions to appreciate the terrible beauty of unnatural magics. This time I was wide awake, with full knowledge of what was about to happen, but it still sent a shiver down my spine and into my bowels.

On the edge of awareness, before any visible change, a distant window opened. Sounds beyond human hearing teased at our ears, made my eyes water.

The ambient temperature suddenly dropped. Not quite enough for a flash-freeze, but enough to mist our breath in the air. I hunched, huddled up tighter inside my coat and hoodie, and pulled Lozzie’s borrowed coat closed around her front.

A ripple passed through the plaster inside the doorway’s outline, as if solid had become water. Slow concentric ripples passed through the matter – the first ripple turned plaster to smooth, oily, featureless black. The second, an inch behind, produced an image as if seen through frosted glass.

The third brought clarity. Sharp, crystal-clear, unobstructed.

“Ding ding ding, what’s behind door number one,” Raine murmured. She stared into the gateway, pistol held low, every muscle taut and tense, coiled like a spring.

The view through the open door showed several feet of clear ground and terminated in a view of a blank stretch of wall – dead grey, rough and osseous, shot through with black veins and an ethereal memory of jade green. A curl of fog edged through the gateway and into the magical workshop.

My skin crawled and I broke out in cold sweat, automatic response. I clutched Lozzie closer.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. She nodded behind me, at the corner of the ceiling.

“O-oh, right, yes.” I turned to check on the spider-servitor. Thankfully it had reacted as expected, as required. The dog-sized spider stared right at the doorway, its mass of crystalline eyes fixed together on a single point, stingers rigid and poised. A faint heat-haze poured from the bio-mechanical vent stacks on its abdomen, as it spun up pneuma-somatic engines, readied itself for rapid motion. “Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, he’s on guard, he doesn’t like it.”

“Good,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t want any of this crap getting into my house.”

“It’s cool. Be cool,” Raine said, forcing calm into her voice. Worked quite handily on me. I let out a long breath. “Be cool, Heather. I won’t let anything happen. In and out, right?”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. She jerked her chin toward the open doorway. “Praem.”

The most durable of everyone present, Praem went through first. A lifetime of movies and television and silly special effects still had me trained to expect a crackle or a pop as she crossed the threshold, but the doll-demon stepped through as easily as if into an adjacent room. She paused just over the threshold, looked quickly left and right, then took another three paces and turned around to face us. Creepers of fog wound around her legs and long skirt.

“Nobody home,” she intoned.

Raine went next. I didn’t like that, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the way she moved, a flowing of muscle and tendon, the quick-snap of her head and eyes as she double-checked Praem’s assessment. The way she carried herself made me feel a little safer.

Evelyn stomped into the castle as if she owned it. Perhaps she intended to. Clutching walking stick in one fist and carved thighbone in the other, she marched up next to Praem, looked about, then frowned at something off to the left.

Lozzie and I went last. Raine offered me a hand of support to step over the threshold. I took it, my palms clammy and my heart unsteady, and stepped into that soft, clinging fog-light.

And like that, we were back in Alexander Lilburne’s castle.

“Heather, you holding up alright?” Raine asked quietly.

“Just about.” I tried to smile. Couldn’t quite.

We’d emerged into a short, wide section of corridor, cut – grown? I tried not to think about it – from that dead grey jade substance, the dessicated outer shell of the thing which lay in the chasm far beneath our feet.

The Cult had strung light bulbs along the ceiling here, on bolts driven into the material, but they all sat dark. Whatever portable generator they had brought here was long cold by now. The light through the gateway cast a warm rectangle on the floor, but quickly faltered, soaked up by the fog – the fog which crept in through the long row of glass-less windows off to the left.

Of the copied section of Sharrowford below, we could see only imitation grey-jade rooftops blanketed in fog. None of us doubted where we were, the apex of the castle. Perhaps close to the throne room where I’d killed Alexander.

But none of us said it. All of us were too busy – listening.

“Nice aim,” Raine whispered eventually. “Have to buy Kim some good weed.”

“What is that sound?” Evelyn hissed, eyes wide, knuckles white on her walking stick.

“Singing,” Praem said, and even she whispered.

We all knew exactly what that sound was. We’d heard it once before, amplified and directed at us like a weapon, but it was different this time. Deep and low, passing though the air and the walls and our very bodies in slow waves like undersea currents. A calling, a marine chorus, a cosmic whale-song.

When Alexander had directed the vast planet-things down from the sky of the fog-dimension, their voices had been battering rams of mental force. What we heard now was more like the wind, flowing through us. Omni-present, rising and falling, with a million gradients and subtitles of tone – and undercut by other sounds outdoors, down there in the fog. Chirps and chatters and skitters; wet popping and soft clicking and furtive rustling; mad musical piping as if from a dozen separate flutes.

The gateway must be proof against sound, for surely we would have heard this back on the far side, back in the light and sanity of Sharrowford. Goosebumps rose on my arms, even wrapped up inside my hoodie. My own breathing seemed far too loud. I swore I could feel Lozzie’s heartbeat against my arm.

With the Sharrowford Cult in residence, this place had been dead, silent, empty except for themselves.

But now?

Lozzie mumbled a word.

“Life,” I echoed her out loud. “It’s life, I think.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

My promise barely outlasted the day.

That night, the night which followed the meeting and our trip to the hospital, Raine and I slept especially close.

We usually did, ever since the very first time we’d slept together, tangled up in each other’s arms and scent and body heat beneath the bedsheets. I’d had precious little opportunity for skinship over my decade-long purgatory between Maisie and Raine, but these days it all came out. Often we spooned – with Raine always the big spoon – or I’d snuggle up against her side and she’d put an arm around me. In the night we’d shift, semi-conscious, sometimes part and rejoin. Often we’d awaken together for a while before returning to sleep.

Even moreso since my return from the abyss, and the insatiable physical needs I’d brought back with me.

But after the day we’d had, and the strain placed on my body by the seconds-brief demands of my pneuma-somatic tentacles, sex was the last thing on my mind. Raine tucked herself in behind me, gentle and slow, careful to avoid pressure on my bruises. She nuzzled the top of my head, but I’d already slipped through the wall of sleep.

I didn’t stay there for long.

A few hours later I struggled up from the depths to find myself adrift in the dead of night. Sore and cold even in Raine’s arms, my flanks throbbing and burning, the painkillers worn off, an exhaustion headache churning in the cavity behind my eyes where my brain should be. Try as I might, sleep would not return. I lay awake and listened first to Raine’s breathing, then the noises beyond our bubble of warmth.

A chorus of nocturnal sounds crept through the building, as they do in any house as old and as badly maintained as number 12 Barnslow Drive. Snatches of mournful wind whistled under loose roof tiles, aged beams creaked inside the walls as they contracted from the night’s cold; the boiler gurgled softly to itself in the basement, and copper pipes carried the almost imperceptible hiss and glug of hot water to the iron radiators in every room.

Unspeakable need tortured me, tempted me with an opportunity for furtive fulfilment.

I wriggled free from Raine’s arms – then held my breath as she murmured and turned over in bed, but she didn’t wake.

On silent feet, I cracked open our bedroom door, and padded out into the dark corridor.

The darkness in this beautiful old house is never quite total, unless one cares to venture down into the shallow basement. Only real blackout curtains can hold back Sharrowford’s distant light pollution, not to mention the closer glow of the streetlights along the pavement, no matter that two of them within sight of the house had been burnt out for weeks. Diffuse orange seeped around the edges of the windows, provided just enough light for me to shuffle my way to the bathroom.

Just enough light as my eyes adjusted, to outline the doors in the upstairs hallway.

And the dark misshapen thing which lurked there.

A white oval turned to face me.

In the split-second before I recognised Praem – the wide skirt of her maid uniform had complicated her human outline in the dark – a hiss rose in my throat. I almost jumped out of my skin. Phantom tentacles and spines reacted in panicked defence, triggered muscle spasms in my sides, and a gasp of pain cut off the hiss. I winced and curled up, clutching at my flanks, gripping at myself, trying to hold still my own quivering, abused muscles.

“Ahhhhh, ahhh,” I hissed through my teeth and crouched down, all but sat on the floor as the wave of pain passed through me.

Praem just watched.

“Praem- ahh,” I winced. “That’s the second time you’ve surprised me in the night! Why are you standing here in the dark?”

Dressed in her full maid uniform, Praem had seemed like some moth-winged black ghost caught in the shadows of the hallway. She stood outside Evelyn’s bedroom door, as if on guard. I knew she didn’t need sleep. At night she usually sat on one of the sofas in the magical workshop, and over the last month I’d taken to giving her books. She did go through the physical motions of reading, most nights, but I had yet to extract a response from her about the content of anything she’d read.

What she didn’t habitually do was lurk up here, spooking me on my way to the toilet.

Praem declined to answer. I eased myself up from the floor. “Is something wrong with Evee?”

“No,” Praem intoned – at full volume. I winced and put a finger to my lips.

“Shhhhh. Praem, everyone else is still sleeping.”

“Not you,” Praem said in her musical, sing-song voice, thankfully much quieter this time. My spine still itched at the way her lilting words might carry through the closed doors and old walls. Guilt crept into my chest.

“Yes, because I need to use the toilet,” I whispered, an easy lie, one I’d told myself as I’d gotten up. “Praem, what are you doing standing around in the dark?”

Blank white eyes stared back at me.

I sighed. “Alright, have fun standing there, I suppose? You do know there’s nothing stopping you from taking some blankets and having a lie down? I’m sure Evelyn won’t mind. Sleep is relaxing. No? Well, um, I do need to use the bathroom, so … ”

As soon as I made to move, Praem stepped forward. She didn’t quite block my way, nothing so obvious, but the intent was clear. Up close now, her perfectly smooth artificial skin looked like milk in the darkness.

“ … P-Praem?”

“Promised,” she intoned.

My heart skipped a beat. Mouth went dry. How did she know what was I thinking about?

“ … I’m … Praem, I’m not-”

“Promised,” she repeated. “Heather, you promised you would not hurt yourself. You promised everyone. Don’t break promises.”

I blinked in surprise. Praem hadn’t spoken such a complete statement since our strange encounter just before Christmas, in the kitchen of Evelyn’s family estate.

She put me to shame. My cheeks burned with guilt and my sides burned with dull throbbing. I wanted to curl up and vanish.

“I’m not going to … Praem, I’m not going to try to summon the tentacles again. I just … I want to look at my bruises in the mirror. I want to … I need to … I don’t know. I want to think about them. Picture them. It’ll hurt a little, I guess, but not much and-”

“Promised you wouldn’t hurt yourself,” Praem repeated.

“Praem.” I tried to huff, but couldn’t get it out. I looked away, felt tears prickle in the corners of my eyes.

“Promised.”

“Okay!” I hissed. “Okay, okay, I won’t, I won’t hurt myself. I just want to look. And I really do actually need to use the toilet as well. I’m … I’m sorry, Praem.”

Praem stepped back. Blushing with shame, I slipped past her, past her wide, rustling skirt, and into the bathroom.

For a long moment after I closed the door I pressed my back against the thin wood, in the dark, the closest I could attain to true peace, the abyss echoed in absence.

Then I flicked on the light. Removing my tshirt was made harder than usual by the stiff bruising in my sides, difficult to raise my arms above my head. I finally got free, the night air cold against my naked skin, and looked at myself in the mirror.

The Heather in the mirror examined me in return.

My skinny frame, my pale and pasty skin, an ape kept from the sun. My hair which I hadn’t cut in months, now almost as long as when I’d been a child. The bold black lines of the Fractal inked on my left forearm, a secret tattoo hidden from the world. The bruises on my flanks, angry and inflamed.

Scrawny and weird, that’s how I’d always thought of myself. Never had much pride in my body, never liked it much, never felt beautiful or even notable, no matter how much Raine told me so. As a teenager, looking in the mirror had hurt. Alienated from my own body, but at the same time defined by it; seeing my own face reminded me of Maisie. I saw her, looking back.

For the first time in my life, something else crept in.

I had the most bizarre urge to photograph myself.

Not for sexual purposes, oh no, not at all. I wanted to capture the Fractal, record my bruises. A slightly mad, paradoxical part of me hoped that the bruises would leave scars or permanent discolouration. History, written on my body. I liked this, this physical proof that I was defined by something other than how I saw my body in relation to others. Scrawny and slight, reedy and flat – somehow that all mattered less, now.

I raised and flexed my right arm, thought about the way the tendons pulled and the muscles bunched. Tried to flex my side too, but stopped and winced.

Raine had been kind to describe the bruises as ‘not too bad’. Already they seemed darker than before, almost black, ringed with angry inflamed skin where the pneuma-somatic flesh had passed through my own.

My own – the tentacles had been my own as well.

With my breath held, ashamed and furtive and hoping Praem was not listening at the door, I thought about my tentacles. I didn’t try to summon them again. Such splitting of hairs served as my excuse – I wasn’t really doing it, not for real, no promise broken here.

Pain did not care about promises kept or broken.

I recalled the way the tentacles had felt, imagined them stroking the edge of the mirror, touching my own reflected image – and the anchor-points, deep inside the core muscles of my torso, seized and shuddered with searing pain, a throbbing bruise far deeper than the surface of my skin. I could almost visualise them, almost see them, but the pain was too much. I bit down hard on my lips, scrunched up my eyes as my breath shook. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I gave up.

“Ahhh … ahhh, ow, ow,” I whispered to myself, crouching down and clutching at my sides, tears of stinging pain in my eyes. “Heather, you idiot. You idiot. Idiot. Why?”

Because I wanted it. Because an abyssal body made me strong. Defend my friends. Rescue my sister. A mad part of me, a growing hybrid of abyssal creature and tribal ape, wanted to fight the Eye, pull it apart like a giant squid might fight a whale. Even in the rapture of my moment of glory, I knew that was simply impossible.

Shivering on the bathroom floor in secret, hurting myself in private, breaking my promises, spinning fantasies of impossible revenge. One of my lowest points in months.

Suddenly, the bathroom door handle rotated. The door cracked open.

“I’m- I’m still in here,” I croaked and staggered to my feet. I grabbed my tshirt off the side of the bath and clutched it to my naked front. “I- oh.”

Light spilt out into the upstairs hallway to reveal Praem supporting a sleep-addled, heavy-lidded, curious Lozzie. Her long wispy blonde hair hung down in a curtain of gold.

With obvious difficulty, blinking and bleary, Lozzie managed to focus her eyes on me. She broke into a smile. “Heatherrrrrrr.”

“Lozzie? Did you wake up?” I asked, and scanned Praem’s face for an explanation. Had Lozzie stumbled into the hallway after a random awakening, or had she somehow felt my pain? Or, more likely, had Praem decided to wake somebody up to stop me from hurting myself?

Before I could pull my tshirt back over my head, Praem stepped forward and deposited the sleepy warm Lozzie straight into my arms. She slumped against me in a rough hug, warm from sleep, soft in her borrowed clothes.

“Mmm-mmmmmm,” Lozzie made a sleepy sound and rubbed her face into my shoulder. She weighed so little that I had almost no trouble holding her steady, even as Praem withdrew to the doorway again.

I sighed and gave Praem a look. “Emergency Lozzie, is it?”

No answer.

“Sleeeeep?” Lozzie murmured. “Come bed?”

“Maybe. Maybe, I- I should be in bed with Raine right now, I-”

Lozzie’s nose twitched. She blinked several times and forced her eyelids wider, but couldn’t quite overcome her natural heavy-lidded look. She slid down me. For a moment I thought she was going to slump to the floor, but she stopped at my side, clinging to me for support, her breath warm on my chilly skin.

She stared at my exposed bruises. Tilted her head back and forth, her little elfin face like some sprite conjured from the night.

“L-Lozzie? I’m fine, I’m okay, they don’t hurt too badly. Something happened earlier today, but I’m fine.”

“Growing little helpers for your help,” she mumbled, to herself or my side or just the empty air. “A helping hand, happy helping help hand … hand.”

“Lozzie?”

“Mmm?” She sniffed and blinked and jerked upright again like a Jack-in-the-box. The light of consciousness glowed in her eyes. For a moment, she was all there, excited and smiling. “You’re growing new parts! Yay! Did you have trouble, was it easy?”

“ … no, no it wasn’t easy. Lozzie, how did you know what happened? You’ve been asleep the whole afternoon.”

“Mm-mm.” She wobbled her head, blinked heavily, and was gone again, her mind deficient after so long denied whatever sustenance she drew from Outside.

I gripped her shoulders. “Lozzie? Lozzie do you … do you understand what happened to me? You know what’s happening?”

Potentials raced through my exhausted mind. Lozzie knew how to make spirits – make things like Tenny, like the barely recalled monstrosity that had been revealed inside her Knight’s suit of armour as it had defended us from the Eye. She could craft and shape pneuma-somatic flesh, though I’d had no chance to ask her how, not since she’d slipped into her semi-conscious state over the last couple of weeks.

Maybe, just maybe, she might know how to stabilise my tentacles.

That is, if she could hold onto a coherent train of thought for more than ten seconds.

“Gotta take all the rubbish and put it in the rubbish bin and take the bin out,” she mumbled, sleep-talk nonsense.

“Lozzie? Lozzie, please concentrate. I need your help.”

Lozzie squinted and strained with effort, and let out a grumble of frustration. She blinked at me, her brain addled, trying so hard. From all our abortive conversations over the last couple of weeks, I knew she’d never get a full answer out. Her consciousness would drift away, like she’d been starved of oxygen.

“Mmmmmm-mmmm.” She slumped against me again, dragging at my shoulders with her feather-light body weight. “Heatherrrr.”

“Yes? Lozzie?”

“Take- take me home, home where … where … ”

“Home? Lozzie, what do you mean?” I tried to heft her up onto her own feet, the bruises in my sides complaining all the while, but she was like a sack of potatoes, all loose and bony.

A single choked sob escaped her lips. “I can’t live like this anymore.”

I froze. Glanced at Praem for help. The doll-demon’s expression showed nothing, so perhaps I only imagined my shock mirrored in her eyes.

“Lozzie?”

She sniffed, eyes unfocused. “I want to help, I do. Heather? Heather, I can’t think. Can’t. Can’t. Heather fix me. Fix please … nnn-mmm … ”

Eyes fluttering shut, she trailed off into a snore.

My heart felt fit to burst.

When Lozzie had saved me from the Eye, and then returned to reality, I’d been overjoyed to have her back. Since my own return from the abyss I’d been too preoccupied with myself, my phantom limbs and abyssal needs and the wrenching heart-pain of speaking with Maisie again. Hadn’t thought too closely about Lozzie’s slow deterioration.

We’d all treated her condition as almost cute. Cute sleepy Lozzie, flopping around the house. She ate, she kept herself clean, she wasn’t wasting away; I could cuddle up with her in the dark and feel right. A life-sized cuddle toy. A temporary replacement for my sister. Couldn’t get Outside, didn’t know how to break the interdiction, so Lozzie’s issue was something to solve for later, something to put off until tomorrow. We’d decided without discussion. We could fix it by killing her uncle – except that had failed.

Cute Lozzie, sleepy and bumbling around the house – trapped inside a brain that had stopped functioning.

I was a horrible friend.

“ … Lozzie? Oh, Lozzie, we have to get you Outside,” I whispered, furious with myself for letting this continue for so long. I managed to lower her to the bathroom floor where we slumped together, her head lolling on my naked shoulder.

“Mmmm,” she made a sleepy noise.

“This is killing you, isn’t it?” I felt hot tears threaten in the corners of my eyes.

She made another sleepy noise, child-like, a tiny mewl of sadness.

“There has to be a way.” I glanced down at the Fractal on the bare skin of my left forearm, then up at Praem, as I cast around for an idea. “There has to be some way of getting through to Outside. If only … ”

If only the lightest touch of hyperdimensional mathematics didn’t feel like jamming my fingernails into a barely scabbed-over wound. If only I was smarter, stronger, if only my thoughts would move faster. If only I could define the dead, grasping hands that had fastened around my ankles when I’d tried to Slip, if only I could tear them apart.

If only there was somewhere else I could take Lozzie.

“Somewhere else,” I whispered out loud, as a light bulb went on inside my head. “Somewhere else.”

A different place, a substitute; a place in which Lozzie had once been confined, without access to the Outside, and had retained her faculties.

“Lozzie, you’re going to be okay. I have an idea.”

“Idea,” Praem intoned. I nodded at her.

“Yes, an idea. One her own uncle gave me.” I hefted Lozzie’s semi-conscious form. She weighed so little, like a bunch of feathers, but my sides ached with the deep throb of abused flesh, and I was more than a touch worn out. I gestured at Praem with an elbow. “Praem, pick her up and carry her downstairs, please?”

Praem didn’t move. I sensed the unspoken question and let out a little sigh.

“I can’t sleep and my own body is torturing me. The least I can do is have a good think about a practical problem. I’m not going to do anything rash. In fact, I’m not going to do anything at all, certainly not without Raine or Evelyn awake and helping. I promise. I only want to look, and think it over. Then, maybe I can get some sleep.”

Another heartbeat passed and I thought Praem wasn’t going to help, but then she stepped forward and bent down to take Lozzie’s weight in her arms, pulling her up to her feet in one effortless motion. Lozzie let out a sleepy sound and clung happily to Praem, burying her face in the doll-demon’s chest.

I allowed myself a wince as I eased myself to my feet as well, then took Praem’s elbow when she offered it in support.

“Thank you,” I muttered, and set about the difficult process of manoeuvring my tshirt back over my head with my currently limited range of motion. Oddly, I didn’t feel at all embarrassed in front of Praem. She didn’t care if I was topless. I’d seen her naked before. More than naked, disembodied.

“Downstairs,” Praem said once I was done.

Before I could second guess myself, I leaned over and gave Praem a hug, with Lozzie in the middle. It was most comfortable.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, Praem. I … needed that. Emergency Lozzie was a good call.”

Praem did not respond. Both her hands were busy holding Lozzie up, and besides, no matter how human or well-developed she’d become, Praem wasn’t exactly the touchy-feely type.

Which is why I was so surprised when she gently touched her head against mine, her smooth flat blonde hair against my bird’s-nest mess. A laying together of human skull and illusion-wrapped wood. A surprised smile crept across my face.

“Praem?”

“Bonk,” she said. I pulled back and blinked.

“Bonk?” I echoed. “Praem, you-”

“Boooonk,” Lozzie sleep-mumbled.

“Downstairs,” Praem repeated.

“Yes,” I sighed, and put aside the issue of Praem’s learnt affection for now. “Downstairs. First things first, I need more painkillers.”

==

Despite all my determination, I was still no mage. I didn’t understand the first principles of the thing I was looking at.

Mostly it made my eyes water.

“Evelyn said she was going to rebuild this to take us to the library of Carcosa, with that book I brought back,” I said, as much to myself as to Praem. She already knew this. I was merely thinking out loud. “Which means it still functions. Will function.”

I glanced back over my shoulder, down the length of Evelyn’s magical workshop, at Lozzie curled up on the sofa and wrapped in a spare blanket, her heavy-lidded eyes open just a crack. Praem stood by the table, her hands folded demurely in front of her, right next to the open box of strawberries I’d fetched from the fridge. Behind and above them, Evelyn’s resident spider-servitor clung upside down to its corner of ceiling, stingers waving in the air like lazy fronds of seaweed, its mass of crystalline eyes looking nowhere in particular.

“Lozzie?” I said. “You completed this in the first place, do you remember that?”

“ … mmmmm-mmmhmm.”

“Do you remember how? Could it take us back again? Back to the castle?”

“Mmm … mmm?” Lozzie squinted one eye shut with the effort of thinking, then closed the other, then chased with a snore. I sighed and turned back to the gateway.

Evelyn’s door; Lozzie’s collaboration. The Sharrowford Cult’s inept trap. The doorway-portal-thing to the foggy emptiness behind the city, where they’d carved their citadel from the protective scab-shell of a fallen, stranded Outsider. I cast my mind back to the moment I’d watched it open, the matter peeled away by an oily darkness, then replaced by a vision of a long hallway, on that night the still-enslaved Zheng had snatched me through by the head.

Afterward, Evelyn had deactivated the gateway, removed a specific portion of the massive ink-and-paint mandala.

Now it was just the outline of a doorway, scored into the paint and plaster of the wall.

The rest of the fan-shaped mandala was still intact, a complex interlocking mass of magic circles, esoteric symbols, bits of Latin and non-human language, with Lozzie’s – or my, depending on how one thought about it – finger painted additions in rough streaks, left to dry where we’d made them. Looking too closely hurt my eyes, made me wince, stirred the echo of nausea in my belly.

In theory, the door could be opened once more by simply replacing the piece of the design that Evelyn had scrubbed away. She’d even photographed it and made a sketch, just in case.

In practice? The pockets and folded spaces the cult had dug were gone now, closed up, had slowly collapsed in on themselves after Alexander’s death. Only the foggy sub-dimension itself remained, the wound in reality around the cult’s captured god.

Evelyn had sent Praem back there, once, before the cult’s hidden byways had vanished completely.

It had, in Evelyn’s delightful metaphor, ‘gone native’.

Not a place for human beings.

Perhaps we didn’t have to stay there for long, especially if we could get straight into the castle. Just long enough to get Lozzie what she needed. Five, ten minutes?

I knew I was bargaining with myself, trying to find a way to help Lozzie, but I lacked any other distractions to occupy my mind.

“Question number one,” I muttered, “is can we connect the doorway to the castle directly? Question number two, how dangerous is it there?”

Without answers to my questions, my eyes wandered down and to the left, down to the magic circle on the floor which still contained the horror in clay.

The vessel in which Felicity had trapped the Eye’s minion had all but dried up. It still looked like a bunch of rotten squid covered with an old sheet, but now it was a husk, barely able to move its many tentacles without the clay cracking, shedding fragments all over the floor.

“You’re next on the list,” I whispered, but of course it didn’t respond.

How similar were my tentacles to the ones of this Outside creature? In fact, why tentacles at all? Was the uni-directional tube of muscle some kind of universal principle, more simple and more widespread than the humanoid arm?

A pang of dull pain throbbed in my sides. I clutched myself and tried to suppress a wince. Thinking about my tentacles was a bad idea, unless I wished to overwhelm the painkillers I’d downed ten minutes earlier.

I cast about for a distraction, but kept looking down at the squid-thing in the magic circle.

Was that where my metamorphosis would lead?

“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem said. Her sing-song voice carried like a clear bell.

“Ah, alright, okay,” I said, and privately wondered if Praem had recognised my distress. I went over to her and selected another strawberry from the open box on the table. Faint traces of juice from the last two still lingered on her pale lips. “Open wide.”

Praem opened her mouth with a wet click and I pushed the third strawberry of the night onto her tongue, trying not to blush at the intimacy of the action. She ignored my faint discomfort, and chewed slowly.

“I still don’t understand why you can’t do this yourself,” I told her.

Praem looked me in the eye – somehow I could tell, despite the lack of any pupil or iris in her milky-white, empty orbs – and continued to chew. I sighed.

“I mean, you’re my equal,” I said. “Evelyn’s equal, too. I don’t care if you’re not human, you’re still a person, whatever you were before. You’re no slave. You can take a strawberry, or anything else from the fridge, whenever you like.”

Praem swallowed. Her lips parted again.

“I enjoy.”

“But, enjoy what?” I mused. “The act of being served?”

“I like strawberries.”

“That doesn’t explain the … ” I waved a hand. “The ritual.”

“Kiss my arse,” Praem intoned, in perfect, sing-song voice. My jaw fell open.

“What.” Had my ears deceived me? “Praem, I’m sorry? Excuse me?”

Praem declined to expand on her point. Perhaps my imagination was playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn I saw the slightest crinkle of a smile in the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t smiled since that one time before Christmas, and I didn’t particularly wish for her to repeat the performance.

“Well, alright then,” I said. “I’ll take that as ‘please stop asking stupid questions.’ I’m sorry for prying.”

“No,” Praem said. I frowned, increasingly lost.

At that moment we both heard the soft creak of footsteps making their way down the stairs. Not clunky enough to be Evelyn, and too light for Raine, there was only one person left in the house whose tread that might be. A handful of seconds later, the kitchen light guttered on, visible through the gap we’d left in the workshop doorway. A splashing from the sink, the sound of somebody fetching a glass of water.

Praem opened her mouth.

“Shhh,” I hissed. “Don’t make her jump.”

Praem closed her mouth and looked at me. I shrugged, a little embarrassed, then turned and spoke up.

“Kimberly?”

A gasp, a clatter of mug dropped into the kitchen sink: mission failed. I’d startled the poor woman.

“Kim, it’s only me.” I crossed to the door and pushed it wider as Kimberly’s surprised face hove into view. “I thought you might have noticed the light was on, I’m sorry.”

“I-I, n-no, you made me jump. That’s all,” Kimberly stammered, blinking at me and then at Praem. She had one hand raised to her own chest in an unconsciously defensive posture.

“Kim? Kim it’s me, relax.”

“ … I’m sorry.” She swallowed and made a visible effort to lower her hand. She seemed even more skittish and jumpy than usual.

“Are you alright? I’m sorry I surprised you.”

“Yes. Yes, sorry.”

Kimberly was dressed in her pajamas, and I must say she had a very exacting taste in nightwear – bottoms patterned with little round cartoon dragons, and a tshirt with a print of a fairytale castle on the front. Big fluffy socks protected her feet from the cold flagstones of the kitchen floor. She tucked her auburn hair behind one ear, looking self-conscious and trapped. Behind her, the kitchen windows stared out into Sharrowford’s light pollution, Tenny’s cocoon illuminated sidelong in faint orange hue. Around us the house seemed a warm, dark cocoon of its own.

I smiled and tried to crack a joke.

“The last time anybody surprised you in … your … pajamas … ” I trailed off. Stupid, stupid Heather, I tutted at myself. The last time anybody surprised Kimberly in her pajamas, yes, she had stabbed Twil in the hand. “I’m sorry, that’s really insensitive of me. I wasn’t thinking, I was trying to tell a joke to … calm you down?”

“Oh. Oh, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m just … I only came down to get a glass of water.” She tried a nervous smile too. “Can’t sleep.”

“Me neither, actually. Want to talk about it?”

She shrugged. “What’s to talk about?”

“I’m sorry?”

Kimberly swallowed and looked guilty. “I just … what you all did today. Yesterday. I don’t want to risk getting tangled up with Edward Lilburne again. I don’t ever want to see that man again, any of them. I’m scared, alright? I’m just scared. Of everything.” She sighed heavily. “Story of my life.”

“Ah. Yes, good point.” I tried to formulate an apology, but couldn’t summon the right words. Sorry that you’re still involved? Sorry you have to be here?

“I was going to … you know. Light up for a bit. N-not that I’m smoking in the house!” she hastened to add. “I’ve been blowing it out the window.”

I smiled at that, despite myself. “Care to join us for a bit?”

Kimberly glanced over my shoulder, at Praem and the contents of the magical workshop, then noticed Lozzie on the sofa. A note of worry crept back into her voice. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, actually.”

“ … ” She stared at me, worrying more.

“Um, I mean, I’m just thinking over a problem.” I frowned in sudden thought. “Actually, you know, you’d be the person to ask about something that just happened.”

“About what?”

“Why might Praem tell me to kiss her arse?”

Kimberly blinked twice, paralysed. I think she was attempting to figure out if I was joking.

“I mean, you rebuilt her – put her back into her body,” I said. “You know a little bit about these things, yes? I was feeding her a strawberry, and asked why.”

I hurried to relate our bizarre exchange, glancing back at Praem, but the doll-demon silently declined the invitation to provide her side of the story. Kimberly chewed her bottom lip in thought. A visible relaxation passed over her shoulders.

Osculum infame?” she said.

“Latin?”

Kimberly blinked at me as if surprised to find me there, then to my immense surprise, she blushed. “Um, I mean, I don’t know why she can’t eat strawberries herself. I’m … ” She swallowed. “Despite what I … learned, I’m no expert. Demons should be able to take what they want after they develop enough, the binding doesn’t hold for long. It’s enough to draw them here initially, that’s all. But um … what she said, it reminds me of osculum infame.”

“Which is?”

Kimberly blushed harder. “’Shameful kiss.’ Medieval Christian mythology stuff. They used to believe that in order to make a pact with Satan, or a demon, a witch would have to kiss the demon’s … um … ” She pointed awkwardly downward. “Rear end.”

“Oh. Huh.”

“I-I only know that because of reading books about Wicca and stuff.” She fidgeted with her fingers.

I looked back at Praem. “Makes you wonder how much truth made it into those myths.”

“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.

“Another one?” I asked. “You’re insatiable.”

“Maybe that’s her equivalent,” said Kimberly.

“Maybe, yes,” I agreed. “Do you want to feed her?”

“I- oh, that’s okay, I-”

Praem twitched her head and looked right at Kimberly. “Feed me a strawberry.”

“Looks like you need to kiss the devil’s bum as well,” I said, and couldn’t help but smile. Kimberly blushed and hesitated, so I stepped back into the room and left the doorway as an open invitation. I crossed back to Praem and the box of strawberries, selected one and held it up toward Kimberly. “Have you ever done this before?”

Kimberly ventured into the room, casting a curious look at Lozzie asleep on the sofa. “No, um, no I haven’t.”

“You should try. It’s almost relaxing.”

“She’s not a pet.” Kimberly briefly met Praem’s staring eyes. “She’s a demon.”

“A demon that likes getting fed strawberries. Also very friendly.”

“She is kind of nice, I suppose.” Kimberly sighed as my peer pressure broke through. With a touch of Evelyn-esque huffiness she accepted the strawberry and held it up, unsure where to put the thing. “What do I- oh.”

Praem opened her mouth. Kimberly popped the strawberry inside, then withdrew her hand as if she might lose a finger. She, much like I had done my first time, flushed in the face as two fingertips brushed Praem’s lips. Praem closed her mouth and focused on chewing.

“ … that was … weird.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh. “Sorry, I had to share it with somebody. Also helps keep my mind off the pain in my sides.”

Kimberly gave me a look of sad sympathy. “Is it really bad?”

“It’s tolerable. Just trying to take my mind off thinking about my body, that’s why I’m down here.”

“Do you … do you want some cannabis? You don’t have to smoke it, I could put some in a brownie or something for you. It really helps with pain. I got into it originally for period cramps, when I was a teenager.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Not yet, but I’ll give it some thought.”

“Think about it,” Praem said. We both looked at her.

“So, Kim,” I said at length. “I’m working on a problem here, and you might also be the person to ask about that too. Well, you or Sarika, I suppose.”

“Sarika?” Kimberly’s voice caught in her throat. “I-I had very little contact with her, I-”

“It’s okay. It’s not about her.” I pointed at the mandala on the wall, at the inactive gateway. “It’s about that, and Lozzie.”

I took my time – and why not, neither of us could sleep – to outline my thoughts, my theory about Lozzie’s condition, and the open questions about getting through the gate and back to the castle.

“You were involved with this stuff for a long time. Do you have any idea what-”

“I don’t,” Kimberly blurted out. “I was never involved with that part. You know what I was … what I was doing, what I dealt with. Making … ” She nodded at Praem instead of saying the words. “I don’t know how they made the portals, or the weird pocket dimensions, and I don’t want to know, I don’t want to think about it.”

“Nothing at all?” I asked, my heart falling.

She looked at the mural – and gave herself away. A second of hesitation before she shook her head, guilt in the bob of her throat and the shift of her eyes. Kimberly took a halting, half-step back.

In a moment I’m not exactly proud of, a stabbing pain lanced into my sides – my phantom limbs, the tentacles that weren’t, had tried to reach out and block Kimberly’s retreat, hold her here, grab her by wrists and ankles. A gasp ripped out of my throat and I curled up, squeezed my eyes shut with the sudden pain.

“Heather?!”

“I’m fine,” I hissed. “Fine. Just a- twinge.” I panted for breath, swallowed hard, tried not to think. Guilt filled my chest; I’d tried to stop her leaving. Brute instinct had taken over, triggered by the hint of a lie in her eyes. Thankfully, I’d had nothing to work with.

“If you say so,” Kimberly said, but she sounded far from certain.

“Flowsie,” a sleepy, bubbly voice floated from the sofa. “Flowsieeeee.”

We both turned and looked at Lozzie, curled up there like a cute, sleepy little woodlouse. Even Praem turned to look. Lozzie had one eye half open, the lid twitching and fluttering.

“Flowsie,” she repeated. “I know you know that you know. You know. Know. Don’t be a liar, or you’ll get … layered.”

I don’t know if it was the content of Lozzie’s words, or her ethereal tone of voice, but Kimberly looked terrified. As Lozzie’s eyelid finally slid shut, Kimberly turned to me, stunned with nervous guilt.

“I … um … I … ” she stammered.

I straightened up from my pained crouch. “Why does she call you Flowsie?”

Kimberly all but rolled her eyes, a shudder of relief passing through her. I felt like a snake in the grass, biding my time. “I don’t know, it’s just a pet name. She had funny names for all the people at the castle. Worse ones for those she disliked.”

“So she didn’t dislike you?” I asked, and sprung my trap. “She trusted you, a little bit?”

Kimberly’s face froze. She nodded slowly, then swallowed.

“Because, well,” I carried on. “What she said-”

“I do know some,” Kimberly snapped. Her hands shook. “Just- just bits and pieces I picked up, things I overheard. Once I- I read a book I wasn’t supposed to, notes partly by one mage, and partly by Alexander. I can’t make those pocket spaces myself, you have to be … well, not human, really, to do that. You have to speak to the thing in the pit, under the castle. I can’t- I can’t do that, please don’t ask me to do that, Heather, please-”

“I won’t, I won’t. It’s okay, Kim, I’m sorry, I thought you were holding back on me.”

“I was.” She sniffed and swallowed.

“But can you re-route the gateway?”

Kimberly stared at the mandala for a moment, then let out a shuddering sigh, and shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe. It would take time, and- I don’t have the notes. I- I didn’t want to tell Evelyn I knew any of this, she’ll hate me more than she already does. She- you’ll suspect me! I never did anything I haven’t already told you all about, I swear-”

“I believe you. And Evee doesn’t hate you. We’ll explain to her together. Please, Kim, I need to help Lozzie. I need to take her back to the castle, if only for a few minutes. It might make her well again.”

Kimberly swallowed. She closed her eyes and nodded. “Alright. I’ll try.”

“Will it be easier if we get Evelyn to help too?”

“ … yes,” such a small voice. “I suppose this is better than you bringing Sarika here.”

“Indeed.” I sighed too. “Kim, I can get you anything you need, if you want to start now.”

“Now?”

“The sooner the better.”

She sighed, shoulders slumping. “Not as if I’ll be able to sleep now, anyway.”

“You want some coffee? Tea? I’ll get you some food.”

Kimberly shook her head. “No way I’m doing this without getting stoned first. I need a smoke.”

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