pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.12
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Self harm
Torture
Psychological breakdown
Religious torture

[collapse]

On a low island of jagged grey rock, amid an endless swamp of soupy, sucking, stinking grey mud, ringed by tall grey trees with swirls of grey branches reaching up toward a leaden grey sky, I broke the minds of two innocent human beings.

I wasn’t going to enjoy this. I didn’t relish the banal mechanics of what I was about to inflict. Initiation into the eldritch truth was a kind of torture. I knew that better than anybody.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But from the moment the four of us arrived Outside, on that outcrop of dry rock in the middle of a vast, otherworldly, inhuman wilderness, something deep down inside me began to purr with bitter satisfaction. Something made nasty and vindictive by a very different kind of long torture, warped by old scar tissue and kept suspended in pain by unhealed wounds. It had been kept in peaceful sleep for a long time recently, soothed by the love and care of friends and more, compensated by the shining abyssal truth of bodily euphoria, comforted by a place to call home that was neither hospital nor filled with hidden minefields and tripwires. But in sleep it had grown in both size and sharpness — and Natalie’s plight had stirred it from dreamless slumber.

I had not expected it. I had denied it for so long, I’d never thought myself capable.

So when we arrived Outside, and I kept my feet while Stephen and Isabella Skeates went sprawling on the rock, skinning their hands and knees, heaving for breath, eyes rolling, limbs malfunctioning in the post-Slip after-effects, unable to process where they were or how they had gotten here, that long-buried part of me purred a darkly satisfied laugh.

Believe me now?! Need to see more? No? Too bad, because there’s an infinity more to see, but you are sadly finite.

Those thoughts didn’t reach my face, let alone creep into my words; I was horrified at myself. The sudden impulse to gloat, to mock their pain and confusion, was one of the ugliest and most nonsensical urges I’d ever felt. And it wasn’t abyssal instinct trying to lord it over these clumsy apes; abyssal instinct didn’t care about this at all. I had no idea where this feeling had bubbled up from, hot and acid in my throat. To mock Edward Lilburne or another mage, somebody in the know, somebody who had chosen to do evil, that was one thing, even if it was inelegant and self-serving. But to mock these lost wretches as their souls and minds struggled with initial exposure to Outside? What was wrong with me?

I crammed that impulse into a bottle, rammed a cork into the neck, and sealed it away for later; if I was going to make Natalie’s parents useful to her, then I could not afford the luxury of satisfying displaced personal grudges.

I could not afford to project my own parents onto these two.

Focus, I told myself. You must stick to the script!

At least my aim was good. I managed to land us on the same outcrop of low rock that Natalie and Turmy had used to hide themselves, where the Shambler had laid out the corpse of the poor young man, in what I assumed was her territory. Much better than dumping all four of us into the waist-high muddy water. I didn’t want to risk the parents falling over in the muck, swallowing mouthfuls of Outsider swamp-mud, and contracting some bizarre infection or exotic disease. I didn’t want them sick — or worse, dead — I wanted them to believe, to adapt, to accept.

Stephen and Isabella did not react well upon arrival Outside, amid the grey mud and grey vegetation and grey skies of the Shambler’s home dimension. But who would blame them, except somebody without empathy?

When the Slip spat us back out, I managed to brace myself, lock my knees, and cling to Zheng, to stop myself from falling over or vomiting, which would risk ruining the fragile dignity and intimidating act that was such an important part of this whole performance. Zheng grunted and groaned like a gut-punched mountain with the impact of the Slip, but other than a brief sagging in her muscles and an audible roiling of her stomach, she managed to stay upright and together. My rock in the storm.

Natalie’s parents both went sprawling, gasping for air, struggling to even stay on their hands and knees rather than collapse face-first onto the filthy ground. They both vomited, unfortunately enough, all stringy bile from stomachs kept empty by stress, though Stephen seemed to resist the urge for a few seconds longer than his wife.

Shaking and quivering, covered in cold flash-sweat, wracked with the inexplicable pain of the Slip, they both tried to gather themselves and get to their feet, or at least to their knees.

Neither of them got very far.

Zheng and I stayed silent at first, watching and waiting to see what might happen. That was also part of the plan. When Evelyn had voiced her many doubts about the safety and practicality of this entire process, she’d made a good point: we didn’t know these people. We didn’t know how they might react, or what kind of psychological mechanisms they might employ to justify or excuse what they were seeing. There was no reason for us to talk over the evidence of their own senses. I allowed Outside to do the talking for us.

Stephen, Natalie’s father, exerted raw stubborn muscle power and managed to struggle halfway to his feet, scuffing the knees of his trousers on the rough surface of the rock. But halfway there he must have located his wits, because he froze, staring out at the endless mud flats beyond the thinning trees to our left. He stayed like that for several long seconds, unblinking and gaping, as if trapped in a vision. Then he turned, slowly, taking in the things that weren’t quite trees, the leaden sky like a ceiling of grey weight, and the vast towering vegetation far away to the right, where the trees grew taller than earthly redwoods. His eyes fixed on the faint hint past even the trees themselves, the vague outline of a tower made from grey blocks. The thing must have been taller than a skyscraper. I could just about make out a dark opening near the tip of the structure.

As if struck in the middle of his chest, Stephen sat down heavily on his backside, mouth agape, staring, lost.

One hand groped for his wife’s side, seeking support. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Should I have isolated them from each other?

Isabella got marginally further than her husband. She spat the taste of vomit from her mouth, wiped her face on the back of her sleeve, and hauled herself to her feet as if pulled on a set of puppeteer’s strings. Only when she gained her feet did she peer about at the impossible swamp, the grey mud, and the imitations of trees, draped with their swirls of vegetation that seemed to suck one’s attention inward. Shivering, hunching, wringing her hands together so hard that it must have hurt her finger bones, Natalie’s mother visibly struggled against onrushing hyperventilation.

Stephen tried to speak, but it came out as little more than half-formed un-thoughts, animal reaction to confusion. “Where … wha— wha—”

Isabella placed one hand on her husband’s shoulder, She squeezed, hard enough to hurt him. He winced and stopped trying to talk.

“I don’t … don’t know,” Isabella said. Her voice had gone high and reedy, on the edge of a personal abyss.

The contact seemed to help them both, grounded them in each other. Isabella swallowed so hard I thought she was going to do herself an injury in her own throat, baring her teeth and shaking with the muscular difficulty of the motion. Stephen groped for her arm again, found it, and she helped him to his feet.

Neither of them moved for a long moment, just staring out at the swamp, clinging together, listening to the distant sounds floating through the trees. The strange hooting I’d heard before — the language of the Dimensional Shamblers, I assumed — was audible from far away, a back-and-forth chorus of calls and responses, soaked up by the trees and the mud, muffled by miles of swamp. They were more active than when I’d first visited, as if they were having some kind of debate out there among the muddy wallows and brackish flows.

That was a very good sign. If I was right, then Sevens was already out there, wearing my face, buying good will with meat and bone.

Stephen and Isabella didn’t appreciate the music of the swamp, however. They flinched at the loudest of the hooting, clutching each other in terror. A pair of hairless apes, stranded beyond their wildest nightmares.

That bitter part of me whispered a question: What would happen to them if I just left them here? That would be quite a lesson, wouldn’t it?

That part of me, the part of myself I was trying desperately not to acknowledge, the tinny voice whispering from inside the corked bottle, it judged Stephen and Isabella. It judged these stupid monkeys and found them wanting. It judged them as pathetic.

My conscious mind had to admit that bitter-Heather had a point there, even if it was too harsh and unyielding. The Shambler’s swamp was hardly the worst place Outside had to offer. It had nothing on some of the inhuman nightmare realms that I could have exposed them to, let alone the kinds of places that Lozzie would happily spend time for fun. In the end it was just a grey, weird swamp, filled with ambush predators — dangerous, perhaps, not a nice place to spend a sunny afternoon or attempt to read a book, but hardly a vista to threaten one’s sanity. Part of me wanted to say something like “Yes, you teleported here, get over it.”

But intellectually I knew that was not the whole truth.

It wasn’t the grey mud or the alien horizon plaguing their minds, or the effluvial stench of sulphur and brine that was getting to them. It wasn’t the weird trees or the distant redwood-sized versions far away, or the massive impossible tower at the limit of vision, or the hooting in the swamp, or even the fact they’d arrived here via an inexplicable teleport. It was none of those things, and it wasn’t the sum of those parts either.

Right then, as they gaped out at the grey swamp, Natalie’s parents were feeling the true effect of standing Outside — the soul-wracking sense of wrongness, of displacement, of every cell in one’s body screaming you are not supposed to be here. Human beings were not bred for this, not evolved to deal with that sensation. I’d spent so much time Outside, between my nightmares and the Slips and the journey through Carcosa, that it was all too easy for me to forget what that felt like. To even stand here was a kind of torture, for those who did not belong.

On a level I did not wish to fully acknowledge, I was meant to be out there. They were not. They were feeling that now.

Zheng had never been here either, but she didn’t care. Despite her magnificent clothing of skin and muscle, she was a thing of the abyss burrowed down deep inside that flesh. Different rules applied to her. She stood tall beside me, wrapped in her trench coat like an extra from a noir movie, waiting for the next move.

Through the eye sockets of my squid-skull mask, I scanned the nearby trees for any sign of the Shambler — our Shambler. But she didn’t seem to be watching or lurking, unless she was hiding too well for me to discover. I didn’t know if that meant Sevens’ part of the plan had succeeded, or failed. I wouldn’t know until I called out to her, but it was still too early to play that card.

Finally, Stephen found his voice.

“This can’t be … ” he started, then trailed off, shaking his head. A stocky, well-built man, he was starting to bristle, muscles flexing beneath his clothes, choosing fight instead of flight. His sweat-stained, rumpled shirt was sticking to his back with sudden sweat. “It can’t … can’t … ”

“Then where are we, dear?” Isabella said in a tiny voice, still clinging to her husband’s hand.

“Can’t be real,” Stephen managed to say.

“It’s real,” I said.

My squid-skull mask warped and amplified my voice into an almost inhuman warble. The mask was playing along, giving me the extra edge of intimidation I might need, that last little piece of implied inhumanity. But I needed them to hear and believe, not scream in terror. Not yet, anyway. So I cleared my throat and dragged my voice back upward into a human register.

“It’s real,” I repeated, somewhat more normal.

To his great credit, Stephen found an ounce of courage. He turned toward Zheng and me, shaking his hands free from his wife’s grip so he could ball up his fists. He half-raised them like a boxer getting ready for a fight, ready to lash out in fear and confusion. Grief and horror were boiling away to leave behind powdered rage. His eyes bulged in his face, fists getting ready to swing — and then he sputtered out as he saw me. Isabella turned as well.

They came face to face with the daughter of an alien god.

Well, an adopted one.

I was doing my best to look as intimidating as I possibly could, short of actually going full homo abyssus, sprouting toxic spines and armour plating all over my body. If I’d done that, we would have been on a strict — and short — time limit, before I burnt out.

I was holding all six of my tentacles fanned out wide, a sunburst of slow-strobing rainbow bioluminesence, a marine star in this realm of grey mud. Standing tall — well, as tall as I could at five foot nothing — with my squid-skull helmet hiding my sweating, worried face, my arms folded over my chest, and my tentacles spread, I must have looked like quite the weird little mutant monster.

Stephen was not about to rush me, not when he saw that. But Zheng growled low in her throat regardless, a warning not to approach the Outsider goddess.

“Know your place, monkey,” she rumbled at Stephen.

He flinched, badly, barely resisting the urge to fling himself away from this towering threat. But he kept his fists raised, which was sort of impressive. Courage or madness, which was it? I had no idea, not yet.

“Zheng,” I said softly. “There’s no need for that.”

All an act. We’d agreed on that, too. Though I suspected Zheng’s offence was quite real. She didn’t like even the suggestion of violence directed toward me.

“We’re very sorry,” Isabella said, dipping her head, voice robotic and tight. “We’re very sorry, very. I apologise for my husband.”

“What’s to apologise … ” Stephen tried to say — but he was staring at Zheng, finally taking in the seven feet of demon-host muscle that had pinned him to his own sitting room wall only minutes earlier. I could almost see the awe struggling against the need to ask the relevant questions.

Then he saw the corpse, lying a few feet away on the rocks. His eyes went even wider, his teeth bared in horror.

“Yes, that is a dead man,” I said, as gently as I could. “He’s no concern of yours. I’m going to give him a proper burial shortly.”

Isabella saw the corpse too, but looked away from it quickly. Her eyes stared at Zheng for a second, but then settled on me, on the dark, unknowable eye holes of my squid-skull mask, and whatever lay behind them. She knew I was in charge. She was also a lot more coherent than her husband. Her eyes were wide with desperation, her shoulders were hunched as if beneath the eye of some great beast, and her skin had gone grey with stress and fear, but as she stared at me she seemed to pull herself together inside, draw upright just a couple of inches, and focus her mind. She blinked hard, staring at me through the pressure of madness.

That was a very bad sign.

“Oh no,” I whispered to myself inside my mask.

I knew what was keeping her together — love for her daughter, the desperate need to get her back. That’s how she was clinging to sanity, to normality, how she was avoiding truly looking at her surroundings. If only she could endure this nightmare, her daughter lay at the end of it. She was telling herself that, using it like cement or like armour, hiding inside love to avoid the truth.

But I had to break her. I didn’t want to have to drag these two further out, to worse places. I had to break them here, to avoid worse torture.

Why avoid it? whispered that bitter voice, bottled up but not yet back asleep. They will never believe, not without pain. Would you, if you had not endured it? She’s not even looking! None of them ever will!

Isabella opened her mouth.

“Where’s my daughter?” she asked. “Where’s Natalie?”

Her voice was high and light, a singer’s voice, used to laughter and bedtime fairy tales and soft words in well-lit rooms. She stared at me with such burning intensity, such need, such desperation. If this situation devolved into violence, she would be the one to watch out for, not Natalie’s father. She would do anything to get her child back. I knew the look all too well.

Stick to the plan, I told myself. Stick to the plan, keep going.

“In order to save your daughter,” I said, “first you must absorb where we are standing. Stop looking away. Both of you.”

“How can this be real?” Stephen demanded — pleaded, voice shaking. That’s it, he was going quickly now. Maybe he’d drag his wife with him. Eyes watering, lower lip quivering, shoulders hunched and shaking. “How did we even get here? This is some kind of trick!”

“Dear, please,” Isabella said, on the edge of a very different kind of panic. “The lady— the— she’s trying to help. To help. Please—”

Stephen pointed a stubby finger at me. “You’re doing something to us. Drugged us, or … or a projection or—”

“Then step into the swamp waters,” I said. “Wade as far as you like. I can protect you from the local wildlife, I think, if you need that proof.”

Inside the privacy of my squid-skull mask, I silently prayed that he wasn’t going to take me up on that offer, because wading through the swamp could quickly devolve into a farce. He might fall over. Or something might take an interest in us.

Instead, Stephen tore his eyes away from me and stared out at the swamp again, then down at the corpse. He poked the dead man with one toe, felt the yielding of soft, rotting flesh, and cringed as if sick inside. Then he cast about the surface of the rocky outcrop, as if looking for something. For a moment I didn’t understand what he was doing, but then he picked up a few loose pieces of stone, weighing them in his hands, before nodding in satisfaction.

“Dear,” Isabella said, “now is not the time for—”

“It is!” he hissed, staring at the stones in his hands. “It is. You can’t make this up. Can’t make it up. Can’t fool me with this. Cheap crap can’t fake it. Nonsense! Nonsense.”

Stephen selected a stone and threw it into the swamp. It landed out in the mud with a wet plop. He threw a second little stone, further this time, to splash down in a patch of thinner water.

Then he took the third stone, relatively flat and smooth, and flicked out his hand in a practised motion.

The flat stone hit the surface of the swamp and skipped back up into the air, spinning as it went, once, twice, three — four times total, before it hit a tree with a loud thwock sound and fell into the swamp at last, to be swallowed by the mud.

Stephen stood there, breathing hard, staring at the path of his skipping stone. His hands were shaking uncontrollably.

Isabella sobbed once, into her hand.

“Where are we?” Stephen said eventually. “Where is this?”

Something was wrong with his voice. Struggling, tight, starting to collapse. He sounded more like a little boy than a grown man.

“We are currently in a parallel dimension,” I said. “It’s one of many. Collectively we call them ‘Outside’, because they are outside our own reality. Not very creative, I know, but that’s what we call them. I haven’t given this particular place a name, not yet. I brought you here with magic.”

Stephen, to my great surprise, hiccuped. Almost exactly like I tended to in moments of great stress. He hiccuped, then made a sort of gasping, laughing noise, like he was struggling not to giggle. It was not a reassuring sound.

“Who gets to name it?” he asked.

Isabella turned away, as if resigning herself to doing this alone, without her husband’s madness.

“Where’s my daughter?” she repeated to me. “Please, how is this going to save her?”

“Your daughter was kidnapped by an evil wizard,” I said — then I sighed. The sound must have carried through my squid-skull mask as some barely human hiss, because Isabella flinched, one hand flying to her throat as if to protect herself from a monster. I felt a strong urge to reach up inside my mask and rub the bridge of my nose. “Yes,” I said, struggling not to sound utterly exasperated. “Yes, I know how that sounds, which is why I am trying to show you some proof. She was kidnapped by an evil wizard.”

“But … ” Stephen said, still staring out at the swamp. “But Nat’s just a … we’re just … ”

I froze, then went off-script. That sounded important to dig. “You’re just what?” I asked.

“Nobodies. Nobody,” he said, half-mumbled.

Falling fast. Good. Keep pushing.

“Natalie is just a normal little girl, yes,” I said. “She was taken purely by chance, just bad luck, in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s not a chosen one. This isn’t a young adult novel. She doesn’t have special powers or a unique fate or destiny to fulfil. An evil wizard kidnapped her to feed her to a monster. That’s all.”

Stephen finally turned away from the swamp and looked at the metallic visage of my squid-skull mask.

He was all the way out.

All the colour had drained from his face. Waxen, pale, as grey as the swamp around us. Covered in cold sweat, eyes wide, pupils dilated, lips quivering with the frozen effort of trying to form words but finding none adequate to the task. The armpits of his shirt were soaked with sweat. His hands were shaking as if in the grip of some palsy. He looked like he was on the verge of a heart attack.

“Evil wizard?” he echoed with a hysterical laugh in his voice. When he grinned, it was one of the worst expressions I’d ever seen on a human face, lips pulled back by pure mechanical action, spittle and drool leaking from between his teeth, a man pleading from behind a clown’s mask, tears carving tracks into his cheeks. “Evil wizard. My daughter was kidnapped by an evil wizard? What am I supposed to do with that information?”

Zheng took a half-step forward, to shield me. Stephen Skeates looked about ready to fight God.

“Steve,” Isabella said, without even looking at her husband, “sit down. You’re losing your temper.”

He was doing a darn-sight more than losing his temper. And Isabella was too calm, way too calm, as if petrifying inside. Their reactions could not have been more divergent.

“What good—” Stephen managed to say. “What possible good— what— no, no no no no—” He started shaking his head back and forth, gritting his teeth, squinting his eyes shut. A final line of resistance, thrown up in haste, trying to deny the truth.

Isabella wasn’t breaking anywhere near as fast as her husband. Or maybe she was already broken. She was still staring at me.

“And what are you?” she asked, her voice full of rapture and awe.

Was that good? Or bad? I stuck to the script, played the next card.

“I’m the adopted daughter of an alien god,” I said. “I happened to be passing by, that was all.”

Stephen bunched his fists and pressed them against his own forehead, as if suffering a terrible migraine. “No— no— this can’t— unnh!” He hit himself in the head, once, then twice, hard enough to hurt, grunting and panting. “This isn’t real! All of this, it’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare! It’s not real!”

Zheng rumbled under her breath, speaking out of the corner of her mouth, so only I could hear. “Shaman.”

“It’s working,” I whispered back.

“This monkey will shake his own brain apart. Saye warned us of this.”

I almost broke character in front of Natalie’s parents in order to stare up at Zheng in surprise — I couldn’t recall her using Evelyn’s name ever before. To Zheng, Evee was always just ‘wizard’ or ‘mage’. But there was no time to consider the implications of Zheng’s sudden softening of the heart.

Isabella was already speaking again, with quivering desperation in her voice. One hand reached out toward me, imploring, fingers shaking. Zheng raised a hand to ward her off before she could grab the front of my hoodie.

“And what did you do with Natalie?” Isabella was saying. “Where is she?”

Behind her, Stephen screamed.

An open-mouthed howl of incoherent rage, down at the ground as if imploring it to open up and swallow him alive. Every muscle in his arms and neck and face was pulled tight with tension that had nowhere to go, clenched so hard he was shaking all over. He punched himself in the skull again, heaving for breath through clenched teeth, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, his face turning red.

Zheng was right, Evee had warned us that one possible response to the eldrich truth was self-harm. The ultimate rejection of reality, a retreat to the one place the sufferer still had agency, control over causing damage to one’s own body. Even if it wasn’t conscious or intentional, there was always the risk of harm during some kind of breakdown. And Stephen Skeates was breaking fast.

His rage had nowhere to go, directed inward, shoring up the crumbling walls of his reality.

This was hardly ideal, but it wasn’t a worst-case scenario, not yet. One parent was losing his mind in the anger of rejection. The other was clinging so hard to the promise of her daughter that she’d rendered herself capable of ignoring what lay in front of her own eyes.

But I couldn’t afford mercy. These two had to break before I could help reconstruct them.

I filled my lungs and raised my voice. “Your daughter is … is … ”

But I trailed off in fresh horror.

Isabella, stately and fey, perhaps tall and proud in better times, with the willowy body of a dancer and her long dark hair flowing down her back, lowered herself to her knees before me. She put her hands together and bowed her head in prayer.

“Please,” she sobbed. Tears ran down her cheeks, dripping onto the rock. “Please. I’ll do anything. Anything. Please. What— what do you ask of me? Please, please, please.”

I stared down at her in horror, then had to swallow a hiccup.

My act had been too good, too convincing, perhaps too real. She was begging me, imploring me, treating me as the Outsider godling daughter that I had been unwittingly presenting myself as. We hadn’t planned for this, Evee hadn’t predicted this, I had no contingency in place for being worshipped.

Stephen fell to his knees too, but not in supplication. He screamed at the ground, strings of drool leaking from between clenched teeth, so red in the face that he must have been close to bursting a blood vessel. His screaming must have carried for miles through the grey swamp around us.

“No … ” I whispered. “I didn’t mean … I’m not … ”

That bitter slice of my heart laughed with spiteful hate.

How does it feel, casting yourself on the mercy of something inhuman? How does it feel to be lost?

This was a worst-case scenario beyond anything I had prepared for.

What had I expected? That this was going to unfold like Nicole’s initiation into the occult truth? Nicky had already been primed, though none of us had known it at the time, back when we’d ended up with her bound and gagged in our old sitting room. A police detective who had already begun the long, slow, torturous process of turning against the illusions of her own profession, disgraced and discarded by a bureaucracy that cared nothing for her very real ideals of justice, she was already part-way there, a seeker after the truth behind the veil, even if that truth was worse than she’d ever imagined. And Shuja, the father of Amy Stack’s little boy, Evelyn had been right about him too; he’d seen his society pulled apart by unimaginable violence and destruction, he’d seen all comfortable realities fall away in the face of another kind of truth. He’d been primed for this, too.

To accept the truth without going mad, one had to already be a little bit broken.

But Natalie’s parents were ‘ordinary’ people. Maybe they’d never questioned their beliefs before. Never doubted. Never wondered. Never looked up.

And I had just unmoored them from reality.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred.

“I— I know—” I hissed back. “I don’t know what to do, I—”

“Call for your yellow godling, shaman. Pull the ripcord. Now.”

I turned to look up at Zheng, turned away from Isabella. Who cared about the illusion of power anymore? But the poor woman went on babbling out her prayer to me, clutching her hands together so hard that she was tearing her own flesh with her nails. “Please, please, whatever you are, whatever you want me to call you, please, return my daughter, I’ll do anything, I’ll give anything! I believe, I never did before but I do now, please, please, anything, anything—”

Stephen rocked back and forth on the ground, screaming, spittle drooling from his chin, heaving for each breath between his incoherent animal noises. He started speaking too, but it was nothing but wordless rage at the world collapsing around him.

“I can’t!” I said to Zheng. “Sevens was meant to wait until … until it was right, until it was time to show them the Shambler, but— but—”

Zheng grunted, taking a step forward. “It is too late, shaman. We have failed.”

“Wait! Wait!” I reached for Zheng’s arm, to hold her back from drastic action. I had no idea what she was about to do — shake the parents apart, throw them into the swamp, kill them as a failed experiment?

And then a voice whispered in my ear.

Like sunlight through golden honey, like the trickle of warm wind through ears of wheat beneath the baking summer sky, like butter melted by body heat.

“Embrace it,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

I froze. Luckily for Natalie’s parents, so did Zheng, rather than continuing forward to throw Stephen into the swamp, or whatever other violence she’d been about to inflict.

“W-what?” I whispered back. I half-turned to look over my shoulder.

Sevens wasn’t actually there, not as a physical presence, a human mask like usual. Nothing stood on the rock behind me. But I felt a warmth press against my back, like the gentle pressure of sunlight on cloth and skin. A breath tickled my ear, as if inside the private confines of my squid-skull mask. Gentle hands, immaterial and soft and firm, took my wrists and held me up.

“Embrace what they think you are,” whispered Seven-Shades-of-Not-Really-There.

“But I’m not!”

“You are the daughter of a god,” she whispered like gold over hidden thunder. “You are betrothed to a god. You walk the long path to apotheosis, and we are your disciples. Embrace it. These people need it, or they will not return from the pit.”

Inside my mask, I gritted my teeth. “I’m not a god! Sevens, stop!”

“No, but to them, right now, you need to be one.”

“I-I can’t! I don’t want to be worshipped! Sevens, I’m not a god, or a messiah, or a—”

“Not to me, not to us,” she whispered. “Not to those close to your heart. But to those beyond, you could be. This is your role, my beloved. These people need a god, a merciful one, to deliver them from evil. Little Natalie needs a god to save her parents from themselves, to mend the break in reality. Embrace it, and they will pull through.”

I almost sobbed. “I can’t. I’m just me.”

“Here,” whispered golden truth. “I will guide you.”

A familiar soft embrace flowed up and over my shoulders, wrapping me in liquid sunlight and silk — Sevens’ cloak, the mantle of her love, the piece of herself that she’d given to me as protection from the Eye, and which I’d asked her to hold for me since we’d returned together from her father’s house. The yellow robe, the marriage promise, proof of divinity.

Ah yes, just what I needed to prove I wasn’t an Outsider god, a full-body halo of glowing light that Natalie’s parents had no explanation for.

Isabella must have seen the glowing cloak, because she raised her head at last. She looked up at me in awestruck rapture. Stephen stopped screaming, his wild eyes rolling until they found me. Zheng stepped back, gave me room. And Sevens raised my arms, spreading them wide, her invisible touch gifting me the poise and pose of something I was not.

She whispered to me again, “Embrace it. Tell them the truth.”

“What truth?” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“That you have already saved their daughter. Pull them from the pit, they will never climb out by themselves.”

Behind my squid-skull mask, I opened my mouth.

I was not an Outsider godling, no matter how certain people kept looking at me. I was not a daughter in waiting, held in reserve for the mantle of the Eye to fall across my shoulders. I was not a saviour or a messiah or something to be worshipped, no matter how Badger or Zheng looked at me. I was just me, Heather Morell, born in Reading, a weird scrawny English girl who read too many books and wanted to kiss ladies.

But here I was, standing on the lip of an alien swamp, with two people desperately in need of salvation. And I’d put them there, I had brought them to this. They were now my responsibility.

I realised, in that brief pause, that we had attracted quite an audience.

The Shambler had returned, perhaps drawn by Stephen’s screaming, or by the departure of Sevens from her original task. She was standing about forty feet away from the little rock outcrop, waist-deep in the swamp waters, beneath one of the strange, twisted trees. In both massive knobbly hands she held half a cow carcass, dragging it through the waters behind her like a child with an oversize pillow. She was gnawing on one end of the thing, chewing through meat and cracking bones with her angler-fish teeth. Lozzie’s gift, lifted from the back of a Sharrowford butcher’s shop via the untraceable magic of the Slip, and then delivered via Sevens wearing my face, the highest-class delivery girl in all Outside.

But she wasn’t alone.

Dimensional Shamblers were everywhere. They lurked behind the thick boughs of the twisted trees, or eye-deep in the muck, or crouched on low rises of drier ground further out. Most were partially submerged, showing only the black discs of their massive eyes and the tops of their leathery heads, or crouched so one could see their shoulders humped like grey mud amid the grey waters, well camouflaged in the depths of the swamp. A few larger specimens stood tall and unmoving, impossible to see if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

Dozens of them. I hadn’t sensed them arriving, either appearing out of nowhere or wading through the waters. Some were clustered within arms’ length of each other, family groups or rough alliances. Some were small, shorter than myself — children? Many of them were scarred in minor ways, with old claw-rakes down their hides or on their forearms. A few were missing digits or even a limb here and there.

Two particularly massive Shamblers stood very close to each other, actually touching, and they were terribly scarred with old battle wounds. One of them was even missing an eye. The other carried something in a fist — a length of steel pipe. Stainless steel, not rusted by the swamp waters. Now where had he gotten that from?

Almost every Shambler had a hunk of raw beef off the dead cow Sevens had brought here. They had shared.

Despite that, each group kept their distance from the others, like rival predators gathering at a watering hole, in witness to a brief truce.

Or to witness a revelation.

What might one do with an army of these creatures?

And they weren’t the only things watching. Further off through the tangle of grey trees, I could just about make out the vast outline of some grey leviathan, some wallowing swamp-dweller with a neck that could stretch higher than the trees, currently surfaced from a life of mud-burrowing, paused to listen to this godling seed who had appeared in its swamp.

Further out, past the tall trees to the right, I could feel the attention of something up in that stone tower.

I had such an audience.

Temptation seized my guts and my throat, trying to squeeze words out of me. I wouldn’t even have to think very carefully about what exactly to say, because my audiences were primed and ready. Out in the swamp, I had brought a bounty of fresh meat, and asked nothing in return. I had fed a multitude so used to long starvation and stringy meat. Closer at hand, Isabella and Stephen were begging for the deliverance of their child, and I was about to answer their prayers. At my side, Zheng already had faith, even if she didn’t call it that out loud. At my back, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight lifted me up with true Outsider divinity.

My tentacles strained and strobed. My trilobe reactor ran hot in my gut. So much potential. All I had to do was speak.

Standing on a fulcrum that I might move with the lightest touch. For a moment, I almost believed it myself. After all, the Eye had taught me the language of the gods, the keys to shape reality, hyperdimensional mathematics. I had dived into the abyss and returned as more than human. I had faced down the worst that Outside had to offer. I was clad in royal Yellow, on the cusp of something greater.

Here was the beginning of a real cult, trans-dimensional, ready to worship what they did not understand.

And I would be a gentle deity, a kind godling. I would never push my flock to self-destruction. I knew I could never do that, it wasn’t in me. How much better could I protect my friends, if I had a real cult at my back? How many willing souls to throw themselves into the task of recovering my sister? How much security could I buy, for the price of this one lie?

That spiteful, bitter part of me reared up in triumph, smashing the bottle inside my chest, a serpent in my heart.

I will make them see! I will make them believe! They lied to me and locked me in a mental hospital and told me she wasn’t real, for years! I’m right! I know I’m right!

And who would object? Raine? Raine’s words echoed in my memory, total acceptance of whatever I might become, back when we’d first gotten together.

“So maybe you learn to cut through solid steel with your mind, or command demons, or fight a god, but at the end of the day you’re still gonna need a hug. You’re still going to be shorter than me, and I’m still going to be able to pick you up and princess carry you, and you can’t do a thing about it.”

Lozzie? Lozzie was already halfway to godlike herself, barely human, and I accepted her fully, totally, anything she decided to become. Surely she would do the same for me?

Homo abyssus was the truth. I was the truth.

Nobody could complain if I just pretended, and then over time pretend might become real; no, it was already real, I was—

I was inviting Evelyn’s disappointment.

That was like a bucket of cold water over my head. All the quivering potential collapsed into ugly ashes, and suddenly I was just Heather Morell again, sweaty and sticky inside a mask of bone, terrified of failure.

What was I thinking? Set myself up as a god? That was the path taken by so many mages before, the path that led to people like Alexander Lilburne, or to entities like Ooran Juh. I was not a thing to be worshipped, I was not an object, I was just Heather Morell, no matter how good I could be for my friends. Evelyn would take one look at me acting like that, and slap me across the face. And I would deserve it.

These two were not my parents. This wasn’t my fight. It wasn’t for me.

That shut the bitter voice up, for now.

But I still had to speak.

If I wasn’t very, very careful, I was about to found a religion out here. No matter how much these two needed it, I had to tread carefully, or I was going to hand an entire race of Outsider sapients a god powered by exhaustion, caffeine, and painkillers.

“No!” I snapped, and shook my arms free of Sevens’ embrace.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stumbled on the rock surface behind me, an audible clack-clack of smart shoes on stone. A quick glance back showed the Yellow Princess, now physical and fully embodied. She sighed gently and gave me a slightly ruffled look, like a tropical parrot who’d been picked up unexpectedly.

“Kitten,” she warned me softly.

“Stop!” I hissed back. “Stop, right now.”

“The shaman says stop,” Zheng purred. Sevens shot her a sharp look. For a moment the two otherworldly ladies locked eyes with each other, but then Sevens looked away first, with a tiny huff. Zheng cracked her neck from side to side, thrumming with hidden tension.

I turned back to Natalie’s parents. They were looking rather confused at this exchange, not to mention Sevens suddenly appearing out of nowhere. She probably looked like she’d just stepped out of thin air behind me. More proof of strange miracles, the last thing I needed right now.

I faced Isabella and Stephen, lowered my tentacles from their sunburst spread, and killed the yellow glow of the Princesses’ mantle, smoothing it over my shoulders, just yellow fabric now.

“I have already rescued your daughter,” I said, clearing my throat to make my voice more normal. “Natalie is in a safe place. I can take you there in a moment. And Turmy, he’s okay too. Yes, I saved the cat as well. Or, well, he sort of saved himself.”

Isabella lit up with the internal glow of true rapture, crying openly now, babbling. “Thank you! Thank you, yes, thank you!”

Stephen shook his head in shock, consciousness rising from the depths of animal rage. But he turned toward me too, lowering his head in mute submission.

“No!” I snapped again, hard and angry.

Isabella fell silent, stumbling over a bitten-off word, waiting for my instructions. Stephen flinched and half-raised his head.

“I need you to believe,” I said. “But not in me. Stop that! I need you to believe in where you’re standing, in the evidence of your own eyes. I need you to stop looking at me. Look around.”

Isabella swallowed, hard and difficult, suddenly struggling to breathe. There it was, the buried horror which her spontaneous faith had been concealing. Stephen sighed like all the strength went out of him, sagging with denial, hanging his head.

Back to square one. I swore quietly, inside the privacy of my squid-skull mask.

“Keep going,” said Sevens, quiet and soft, a voice at my back.

“This is real,” I said. “And I need you to accept that. Your little girl needs you to accept that. Try.”

Isabella drew in a sobbing breath. “No, I—”

“Why?” said Stephen.

“Good question,” Zheng purred. “Shaman?”

I only had one tactic left.

With both hands and one tentacle, I reached up and hooked my squid-skull mask off my head, exposing my face. Dank swamp air stuck to my skin, the stench of sulphur and salt filled my nostrils, and my exhausted eyes suddenly stung with the sheer weight of this long, long day. I wiped my hair back out of my face and clung to Zheng’s side with two tentacles, just for the extra support.

Then I hiccuped, loudly and painfully. “Ow,” I sighed.

Natalie’s parents stared at me like they were seeing a space alien stepping down the ramp of a starship. Their brief vision of god had a human face.

“Why?” I echoed. I tried to address them directly, but I couldn’t stick to it. My eyes wandered off, looking at the loose ring of Shamblers, at the distant horizon of the swamp, at the vast trees off to our right, and up at the tower. Something was watching from up there, no doubt, and it had not turned away when I’d revealed my humanity, or what was left of it.

“You’re … ” Stephen gathered himself. “You’re just a girl. A young woman, I mean.”

Sevens clicked her tongue. “Smart, this one, isn’t he?”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “The shaman is the shaman.”

“Why?” I echoed again. “Because once upon a time, something similar happened to me, when I was nine years old. A little younger than Natalie right now, yes?” They nodded. I continued. “I was kidnapped, taken Outside, by … well, something from out here. Not this dimension, but another one, a much worse place. My parents didn’t believe me, and why should they? You two can barely believe, and you’re seeing it with your own eyes.”

“I … I’m trying,” Isabella whispered. Her husband nodded, but he was still frowning, still needed more.

“Try harder, monkey,” said Zheng.

I carried on. “I spent years in and out of mental hospitals. The doctors diagnosed me with schizophrenia, but they were wrong. All because of something that really did happen. Do these look like a hallucination to you?” I pointed at my own tentacles.

“I felt them … ” Isabella said. “I felt them, when you touched … ”

“So, when I saved your daughter from death by exposure or starvation out here, I saw myself reflected in her. You want her to grow up healthy, don’t you? You want her to have a chance at a peaceful, fulfilling life? You don’t want her to doubt her every thought, her every experience?” They were nodding along now, I had them, somehow, even though this wasn’t what I’d expected or wanted — I needed them to acknowledge the swamp, Outside, not me. I wasn’t important here. But I spoke on. “Then you need to see and believe. Don’t look at me. Certainly don’t bloody well worship me. Look at where you are. Look, and stop denying the evidence of your own eyes. Stop trying to rationalise it away or mythologise it into something palatable.”

Stephen screwed up his eyes and gritted his teeth. For a moment I thought I’d failed, I’d lost him to that final denial.

“Look up,” I said. “For Natalie.”

In the end, Isabella went first. Hesitating, confused by her own internal reactions, she finally stopped pressing her hands together in prayer, and looked away from me. After a moment, Stephen did the same, raising his eyes from the rock to the sky.

It took them a long time to get to their feet, but they got there in the end. They held hands and sobbed quietly for a while, but they did their best to look, even if they struggled, even if it hurt. Sevens and Zheng and I watched them adjust, staying out of the way of something which, in the end, was none of our business. As long as they accepted it, that was all that mattered.

Eventually, Isabella pointed at one of the Shamblers. She could probably only see the eyes, floating in the swamp muck. “What is … I can see something, what is that?”

“Just some friends,” I said. “I think they came to watch the show.”

“Is it over now?” Stephen asked.

“It’s never over,” I sighed, staring up at that distant tower, wondering who was also watching. “Once you’re in, you’re in for good. And your daughter is in, whether anybody likes it or not. She adjusted, she survived out here alone for nearly twenty-four hours, and she kept her mind together, and kept her little cat from getting hurt, too. Though, maybe Turmy kept her from getting hurt, I don’t know for sure.”

“That does sound like Turmy,” Isabella said. “He’s a good boy.”

They still won’t fight for her, said that bitter voice in my chest. The moment you leave their world, they’ll revert.

I looked back down at the pair of them, these two cowering apes who I had exposed to the inhuman truth with such cruelty. They were barely holding together, their sense of reality in tatters. I had them in the palm of my hand. I could shape them any way I wanted. That bitter voice demanded revenge.

But none of this was about me.

“So, are you in?” I asked. “Are you on your daughter’s side, or not?”

Announcement

Breaking minds for fun and profit! Unfortunately this is neither. At least Heather avoided explicitly becoming a cult leader, though she's doing less well at implicitly avoiding that. No thanks to Sevens. At least the Dimensional Shamblers got a nice beefy snack, though some poor Sharrowford butcher is gonna be one cow carcass short come sunrise.

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Next week, time for a reunion, perhaps in a slightly less terrifying locale? And what was Tenny's part in this plan?

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