eyes yet to open – 22.5
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Fire
References to burns, wounds made by flames, etc

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Taika Eskelinan — a goat-eyed ‘witch’ with hair like a pyroclastic flow and the voice of a volcanic caldera in her throat, with the molten core of an industrial forge roiling beneath her pale skin, with a dozen black iron swords levitating in a protective cage around her body — had just proven that she could counter-equation my hyperdimensional mathematics, that I was not the sole abyssal dredgling to walk the confines of reality, and that there were more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in my philosophy.

We did not, however, have time to sit down and digest those implications over a cup of tea and a biscuit (both of which I could very much have done with right then), let alone discuss them — not only because I was halfway around the world, thousands of miles from Sharrowford, England, and everything I had ever known, minutes after committing a home invasion upon the most expensive dwelling I had ever set foot within, but also because Taika was now trying to turn me into a char-grilled calamari kebab.

I spluttered an incoherent noise, something highly inelegant, probably ‘buh?’ or ‘weh?’ But Taika didn’t care. Two of those black iron blades separated from her protective sphere and whirled toward me, their enveloping black flames flickering like ghostly fire.

“Don’t!” I squeaked. “I— hic! —don’t want to fight! I—!”

“Too late, calamari,” Taika purred through an ember-glow smirk. “Fight or flight time. Decide.”

Her strikes were lazy and showy, relaxed and slow, just like the blow she’d used to prove her initial point; Taika was more interested in showing off and intimidating me than in actually trying to kill. But the blades were still heavy and sharp, more than capable of putting a mortal wound through my chest or gut; we might regrow our tentacles at will, but we did not wish to experience the pain and horror of such a separation.

My back was almost to the kitchen wall, with nowhere to run — but Taika’s penthouse apartment was a wide open space, with very high ceilings, lots of empty air, and plenty of room to move.

Fight or flight?

How about both?

Instinct guided us. We rocked backward, caught the surface of the wall with all our tentacles, and then launched ourselves sideways like a grasshopper. Barbs and hooks gouged fragments of plaster and paint out of the wall, flinging them behind us in a shower of grit; we didn’t feel too bad about the damage, not in this temple to minimalist modernity, this show-piece home of chrome and cream.

We rolled through the air, ungainly and awkward, and landed ten feet away in a skittering heap of tentacles, upside down and facing backwards. We tore a massive gash in the plush sea of the carpet as we landed, a teeth-grating riiiiiip sound from our tentacle-hooks biting deep. I got my feet back underneath me, wobbly and unsteady with a bucket-load of adrenaline in my veins, panting with panic and surprise.

Taika’s black swords cut the empty air where I had stood.

“Tssss-hey!” I screech-hissed at her. “Stop!”

Taika just smirked; fire glowed behind her teeth like magma through a row of stalagmites. Her swords whipped back into position around her body. Dawn sunlight poured through the long bank of windows along one wall, haloing her from behind, blotting out the city beyond the glass.

“Nice trick, calamari,” she purred, looking me up and down again with new interest in her goat-like eyes. “Thought those tentacles might just be for show, but you’ve got real muscle packed into those tubes. You’re for real, huh?”

Two swords detached from her sphere again, rising into the air, preparing for a plunging attack.

“Wait!” we yelped, raising both of our human hands. “I don’t want to fight! I don’t actually want to fight you! I just wanted to talk, to ask—”

“Hahaha!” Taika laughed, big and open-mouthed and full of joy. The swords shot out of the air like falling spears.

We dodged again, tentacles bunched like a giant spring, pushing off the carpet with a squeaking yelp. We misjudged the angle and smashed into the side of a sofa, tentacles flailing everywhere. But we managed to catch ourselves, clinging onto the sofa like an octopus wrapped around a rock in a storm, digging into the plush pale leather and ruining all the cushions.

The swords went thunk-thunk into the carpet behind us.

Taika laughed again. “Then leave!”

Those two swords had not only penetrated the carpet — their tips were buried six inches deep in the concrete floor beneath. Taika had gone from showy intimidation to a killing blow; she wasn’t just not pulling her punches, she was willing to put a sword right through me.

My heart was going a thousand miles an hour. Flash sweat had broken out on every inch of my skin. We were panting, fast and hard and rough.

Worse — we were starting to change, provoked by danger and threat and real violence.

Abyssal instinct flowered upon my skin, blossoming in blooms of chromatophores, plating my tentacle-tips with extruded bio-steel, strengthening my muscles and tendons with substances and enzymes which had no place in a human body, at least not on this side of reality. My bio-reactor shuddered and seized down in my abdomen, squeezing out the control rods, ramping up energy production. We were not supposed to change so deeply, not if we weren’t Outside; such transformation placed a huge strain upon my body and soul.

“Hey,” Taika said. She clicked her fingers three times, a noise like the snapping of fire-hardened branches. “Hey, calamari. Kid? Hey? Heather.”

We looked up from the swords buried in the floor. They began to withdraw, lifting into the air again.

“What?!” we hissed at Taika. “What?!”

She nodded at my body. “Nice light show.”

“Tsssss!” we hissed at her — our throat was rapidly leaving behind any semblance of human shape, our teeth sharpening and lengthening, our tongue getting longer too. This was very bad.

“You can leave, right?” Taika asked. “You can teleport out, the same way you teleported here? You’re not stuck on a cool-down timer, or need to pound back five thousand calories before you can do that trick again? You don’t need to sketch out a magic circle on the floor? It’s just something you can do with a thought, right?”

The two swords circled back toward Taika, going the long way around the apartment’s main room, keeping well clear of me. They rejoined her orbiting sphere of protective iron. She stood half-naked inside that orb of blades, barefoot, utterly relaxed, dressed in tiny white shorts and a tank top like she was ready to go back to bed.

I tightened my grip on the sofa, tentacles hard and tense.

Taika chuckled. “Damn, you really are like a cuttlefish.”

“ … w-what?” I could barely think through the changes to my body. I needed to go Outside, or move, or withdraw. I could not stay like I was, not for long.

“Just staring like that,” she said. “You gonna answer my question or not? Can you leave, at will?”

“What? I— yes,” I said. “I mean, yes, of course. It’s just … it’s hyperdimensional mathematics.”

Taika raised her eyebrows. “Maths, huh? Creation as numbers? Not my style, but fair enough, if it works for you.” She grinned wide, showing all her teeth beneath those fire-glow eyes. “Then leave. Go on. Run. I won’t follow. Shit, I don’t think I can follow. You don’t wanna fight? Then now’s your chance. Any time is your chance, right?”

“I need answers!” I screeched at her. “And the photograph of Maisie! And I said I’m sorry! I apologise for bursting into your apartment, I just—”

Six swords detached from Taika’s sphere, a full half of her blades. They spread out either side of her and pointed their tips toward me. She grinned like a maniac arsonist amid her own flames. The orange of her eyes was brighter than the heart of a bonfire. I pursed my lips in frustration and gave her quite a look.

“But you won’t fight for those answers?” she purred.

“I’ve killed mages before! I’ll fight, I’ll fight for a lot of things, but there’s no need, there’s— this is absurd, it’s—”

Taika snorted. “That’s not the same, and you know it, calamari. Killing’s easy. Anybody can do it. Fighting? Fighting is a skill.”

I huffed. “And I’m no good at fighting!”

Taika looked me up and down again. “You don’t look it.”

“This is just— just me! I’m sorry, you’re frightening me and I’m reacting! And I can’t stay like this for long, not without going Out—”

Six swords slammed through the air without warning, missiles aimed at my heart and brain; the black flames around the blades sizzled and hissed, whipping back like arrow feathers in flight.

We lost our collective temper.

We ripped Taika’s stupid leather sofa off the floor with all six tentacles and hurled it toward her. The cushions caught two of the blades, edges slicing into the fabric, stuffing exploding like pale entrails. Four blades got through, jerking to avoid the sofa. We sprang from the floor again, going left, rolling in a ball of tentacles like an octopus on the ocean floor, scrabbling for purchase on the thick carpet, wishing we could dig into it like loose sand. Two swords slammed into the ground at our heels. One hit the wall just after we scrambled past. We heard the almighty crash of the sofa smashing into the floor on the opposite side of the room, scattering other furniture. We hoped Taika had caught the falling sofa with her stupid face.

My shoulders slammed into the skirting board. One sword was still in the air, still aimed at my ribcage, about to slice into my flesh and end the fight right there.

I whipped out with a tentacle, barbed and hooked and armoured, coiled for weight and width, and slapped the sword away like a persistent hornet.

And I tried again.

Out!

Again came that flash of blue, like metal hitting metal, as Taika’s own magic — or maths? — cancelled out the familiar old brain-math equation. That time I witnessed more details: a layered halo of concentric circles, like the glittering rings around a planet in deep space, like the glare of the sun on bronze, spreading outward from the point of impact. My own equation was negated, folded back into zero by an equal and opposite counterpart. Nothing went Outside except a few unlucky molecules of nitrogen and oxygen.

I scrambled to my feet, tentacles spread in a protective cage of my own, panting hard, body racing with adrenaline — and with less nameable, more esoteric substances. I was streaming with sweat now, panting harder than I should have been, bio-reactor pounding away in my gut. My vision was blurring, senses aching, head growing fuzzy; I was not meant to be like this in reality, not for long, not without consequences.

Taika’s swords yanked free from the floor and walls and raced back to their mistress.

The sofa I’d thrown now lay upside down against the far wall. I’d knocked over a bunch of chairs and shoved the big table off-centre.

Taika herself was untouched, but she had been forced to step or dive out of the way. She was breathing a little harder, presumably with the effort of countering my brain-math a second time. Her own skin was running freely with sweat on her exposed shoulders and belly. She whipped her flame-coloured hair back out of her face and smirked at me.

“Not good at fighting, huh?” she purred. “Telling lies?”

“No!” I screeched back. “I’m not! I’m panicking, thank you! This is what panic looks like! And I don’t want to kill you or—”

“Are you good at thinking?” Taika’s voice filled the air like the crackle of a bonfire too close to my face.

I blinked with four sets of eyelids; that was a very bad sign. “W-what?”

“Are you good at thinking?” she repeated. “You’ve got the knack, calamari. You’ve got true magic, the witch’s touch, the head-jack to reality’s back doors. Whatever you wanna call it, however you came by it. You just showed it off, twice, when you tried to throw one of my girls here out into the Beyond.” She gestured at her rotating knives. “That’s how you did the teleport in the first place, isn’t it?”

“That’s hyperdimensional mathematics, yes,” I said. “Isn’t that what you did to stop me?”

Taika laughed softly. “Maths? Nah. I’m terrible at maths. Can’t even remember my times tables. You know what I am good at?” She wiggled her fingers. “Sticking my hands in a fire.”

I huffed and shrugged. “Fine. So? What does that mean?”

“Whatever you call it, I don’t care.” Taika said. “You’ve got the keys to the universe, calamari. Just like me.” She nodded at me, up and down. “And I like your look, I like what you’re doing with yourself.” She eyed my abdomen. “You’re not cooking your insides with radiation, are you?”

We blinked at her in shock. Could she see the reactor? “I’m … I’m immune,” we said. “Sort of.”

“Mm, very cool. Very cool.” Taika nodded. “But you’ve got tunnel vision. Doesn’t take a mage to guess where you’re going, if you’re looking for info on your sister, on your own past. I remember your case well enough now, and I can guess where you’re going, and it’s fucking insanity to even try. You can’t fight? You’re gonna have to do a lot more than fight. A scrap like this is easy mode. You’re gonna try to out-think a god, aren’t you?”

“I … yes,” I said. “I’m going to Wonderland, to where the Eye took me and Maisie. I’m going to bring her back.”

Taika sighed. Her twelve swords orbited around her body, slow and stately. A melancholy ghost passed across her face for just a moment.

She said: “You don’t need info, calamari. You need to learn to walk.”

I huffed, panting, rapidly losing my temper, feeling the heat glowing inside my core; if I didn’t stop this or go Outside soon, I was going to pass out or collapse, or worse.

I said, “If you’re proposing to help me, then stop trying to dictate to me. I do need information, that’s the whole point, then we can—”

 “Things like you and me, calamari, we either learn fast or we die young.”

Taika’s brief melancholy flash-boiled from her face like steam beneath a blowtorch. She smirked. Three swords detached from her sphere and lined up in front of her, like a trident, pointed at me.

I squeaked, “Don’t-!”

The makeshift trident separated outward with a flicker of motion, the blades going wide, flanking me from both sides. The swords shuddered, jerked, and slammed forward.

Taika wanted a fight, with hyperdimensional mathematics, with no holds barred? She wanted to push me to the edge, to see how far I could go?

Fine.

Out!

We bounced off the surface of the abyss like an anvil thrown at a lake of mercury — then burst back into reality ten paces ahead of where we’d been standing. The three swords were already behind us; they slammed into the wall of Taika’s apartment, slicing through the plaster and brick. Our body quivered inside with brain-math aftershock, but we shunted the pain and the nausea down into our tentacles, and ripped all the control rods free from our bioreactor.

No limits, no safety, nothing off the table.

Taika roared. “More teleport tricks?! Come on, cala—”

Out!

We flickered across the surface of the abyss once again; this time we dipped pieces of ourselves into the oceanic dark, dumping heat into the void, like trailing rearward fins in super-cooled water.

I exploded back into reality a few paces to the left, clouds of steam roiling off my skin. We grabbed another one of Taika’s sofas with all six tentacles, pulled it from the floor, and hurled it at her smirking face.

Out!

Another dip, another dump of heat into the abyss, another bounce-bounce-bounce like a flat stone skimming across the water’s surface.

We landed back on the right side of Taika’s apartment, before the sofa had even finished falling. Taika was diving out of the way, finally forced to move properly, her fire-bright hair whipping out behind her like a waterfall of magma. Her swords were still pointed at where I’d been standing, not where I was. Now we were right next to her ridiculous table. We picked up a wooden chair which probably cost more than the entire contents of Number 12 Barnslow Drive.

“Throwing shit is so 90s, girl!” Taika laughed as she found her footing once more, skidding across her carpet on bare feet. “Come on, try something—”

Out — and we took the chair with us.

We flickered twenty paces across the apartment, a skimming bounce across the surface of the abyss, soaking our super-heated cooling fins in the endless dark.

We dropped the chair halfway, shoving it back into reality a half-second before we popped back out into Taika’s apartment.

We appeared right next to the massive bank of windows.

Taika almost fell for the chair trick; if she was less athletic and muscular, she may have gone flying, tripped up by the object I’d dropped into her path. But she turned the stumble into a kick, slamming the chair aside with one foot, laughing at the top of her lungs.

“Now we’re getting somewhere!” Taika cheered. “Look at you, calamari!”

At first I thought she was congratulating me on my silly little trick, my octopus-level mischief of trying to trip her with a chair. But then I realised she wasn’t looking at the chair, she didn’t care about that — she was looking at me, at my body. At us, Homo Abyssus.

I did not look very human right then, and I felt wonderful about it: tentacles plated and spiked and hooked, skin blooming with warning colouration in strobing bands of yellow and orange and red, teeth made sharp and gleaming, eyeballs covered with protective membranes, leg tendons made strong and stretchy, with a voice like something dredged out of an ocean trench. The end of my spine had even sprouted into a bladed tail. I was streaming with sweat, steaming gently in dawn’s light, my bioreactor making my abdomen pulse and glow.

None of this was possible to maintain for long in reality; I was only achieving this by dumping heat into the abyss with every Slip. My head and tentacles ached with the backwash of brain-math pain and a constant quiver of nausea. My legs were shaking and wobbly and weak. I could not keep Slipping forever — but I would probably vomit the moment I stopped.

Taika was changing too. She looked less and less human with every passing moment, though her transformation was more subtle, less squirmy and meaty. The colour of her hair deepened like melted rock beneath the earth’s mantle; heat haze rose from her skin, the pale flesh of her legs and arms threatening to bubble like super-heated mud; a terrible light glowed behind her teeth and tongue, like she was a dragon ready to breathe flame.

I paused for a moment, suddenly worried. “Are … Taika … are you going to trigger a fire suppression system in here? If you, uh, keep going?”

“It’s alright, calamari. It’s not that kind of fire,” Taika purred. Her breath smelled like smoke and cinder. “Not unless I want it to be. And I don’t think I need real flames to kick you up the backside.”

Taika’s swords twitched, as if mocking me.

I stuck all my tentacles to the window, ruining the glass with scratches and gouges, and pulled myself back like a spring.

Taika’s face ripped open with a grin from ear to ear. “Losing your temper?” she purred in a voice like a welding torch.

Her swords whirled open to cover her front, step-spaced to fill the air for meters in either direction, daring me to pincushion myself on their black iron points.

“Yes!” I hissed — and leapt.

Out!

I ignored the blades, the spaces between the blades, the narrow gap behind the blades, everything to do with the blades — and just Slipped back in right on top of Taika, my face inches from the glowing firelight coals of her goat-like eyeballs.

She’d figured out what I was trying to do a second before I grabbed her with half my tentacles. She smirked, teeth like red-hot knives.

I plunged all eight of my metaphorical hands into the toxic black ooze deep down in the sump of my soul. The Eye’s machinery, the levers and flywheels and ratchets of hyperdimensional mathematics, clicked and whirred and spun beneath my touch, burning my fingers and paralysing my tentacles. But I held on and ran the equation over and over, repeating it like a musical refrain — or like a series of punches to Taika’s head.

Out! Out! Out! Out!

Each time a flash of blue halo-light flickered around Taika and I, bound together in this combative embrace, with her frozen flame-tongued smirk right in my face. I could feel her own mind working to push back against mine, her own ‘hyperdimensional mathematics’ writhing and flexing like a free-flowing flame, eating at the edges of my own equations, negating each attempt to send us Outside, together.

“Nuuurgh!” I hissed with frustration; time resumed with a jerk. I considered just biting into her nose at close range, but that would be the height of rude behaviour.

Taika panted as well, fast and hard and rough, just like me, sweat pouring down her forehead, soaking the front of her thin tank top and running down her exposed abdominal muscles. She smelled like burning oak and high-quality coal.

“Keep going, calamari,” she moaned. “I’m almost there.”

“Hisssss!” I went.

I tried something different: I tried to define her with hyperdimensional mathematics, see her with my abyssal senses, pin her down with definition and observation until I could finally understand what exactly I was fighting.

Folly.

At first she was the dancing and flickering of a live flame, always moving, always changing, impossible to outline, slipping away from my attempts at definition. But I pushed the equations further, increased their complexity, used them to predict and pre-configure every possible angle of that dancing flame, every shape it might take, every angle from which to observe Taika, the woman, the mage, the witch, whatever she was, whatever she—

Abyssal senses blossomed; flame was defined.

‘Taika’ towered over me, seen through abyssal senses. Twenty feet of shaggy woman-goat hybrid, furred in flame and breathing with the mouth of a volcano, with hooves and horns of obsidian and a tail of lava, coiled around a hydrothermal vent in the very depths of the abyss.

Homo Abyssus. But not mine.

However, this Taika, this truth behind her body, dared not touch me directly, dared not reach out and make contact, for I was a sharp and venomous little cephalopod. I was alien and dangerous and weird and nasty in my own ways.

Taika’s flame caught the black toxin in the sump of my soul and burned away the fumes, scouring the protective oil and gunk from the machinery, forcing me to submerge the parts once again.

We gave up with another hiss, snapping back to physical reality, out of abyssal senses, still clinging to Taika. Here, she was just a woman with goat-like eyes and a fire raging inside her body. But what I’d seen, that was abyssal truth for her, as much as tentacles were for me.

She was also smirking again. “Like what you see, calamari?”

“You’re like us!” we screeched, more excited than afraid or shocked. “Like me! Like all of us! You—”

She slashed at my back with a pair of her black iron swords; I smashed them both away, not with a tentacle but with a flicker of brain-math itself, turning mathematical potential into kinetic energy. She could block the brain-math against herself but she couldn’t negate pure force. The swords went flying; one of them pinged off the granite kitchen counter tops.

The air around the witch was growing thicker with heat haze. Her hair and eyes were smouldering with flame. It was like having my face pressed to the mouth of an open oven. My tentacles were stinging where I touched her, even through the armoured scales and toughened skin.

The other ten swords turned inward, ready to skewer me. I let go of Taika and shoved myself backward, stumbling over the carpet and halting myself with a pair of tentacles.

Taika opened her mouth wide and drew air into her lungs, to breathe fire.

Before she could, I reached out and defined the oxygen molecules in a six-foot bubble around her body.

Out!

No blue flash, no trick of negation; the oxygen was not hers, it just happened to be nearby.

Taika gasped in surprise; her inner fire dimmed like a candle trapped beneath a bowl. Her hair darkened, her eyes dulled, the heat pouring off her dialled down from ‘burning building’ to ‘open forge-mouth’. Her swords rushed to her sides, their own black flames guttering and flickering.

She hurled herself backward. Her flames reignited the moment she hit oxygen-rich air. She needn’t have bothered, since the molecules were already rushing back into the space I’d cleared in the first place.

“Nice trick, calamari,” she said with a little bob of her head. “Now that was something new. Can you breathe in a vacuum? Gonna find out?”

“Air doesn’t work like that!” I snapped, almost laughing. “Are we done yet?! You’ve proven your point, you’re like me! I’m like you, whatever!”

Taika smirked again, slender and hot, eyes narrowed in pure pleasure. “Not yet, calamari. Come on, think harder.”

From there the fight descended into a kind of madness I had never experienced before; I bounced myself off the surface of the abyss at least two dozen more times, sustaining my physical changes by dumping reactor heat and stress and reality-shock itself into the dark waters, as if all three were physical constraints and the abyss was a physical place, which was pure absurdity. Taika flung swords at me with no care for the damage she was inflicting upon her own apartment; I threw objects at her in return — chairs, bits of furniture, appliances from her overstocked kitchen. But the physical contest was not the real fight. Her greater athleticism would have won out eventually, even with my six tentacles and my reactor, for she had an abyssal well of her own, rooted in the subterranean heart of a volcanic chamber.

She goaded me into brain-math experiments I never would have considered before: I observed her from new angles, turning over her abyssal fire-goat form inside my mind, trying to see my way into her thoughts, her past, her present, her next move; I tried to freeze her flames solid; reached out with abyssal senses to grab her ankles and plunge her into the dark waters below; cut her out of reality without touching her flesh; reach into her definition and smother her flames. I tried to peel back her layers with pure observation and cut to the heart of what she was.

She countered every move, sometimes skilfully, sometimes clumsily, but always with a heave of effort and a flare of the fire inside her flesh, her own form of ‘hyperdimensional mathematics’.

I leapt around that apartment like I was eight years old again and had just discovered the concept of a bouncy castle. She hurled swords and I hissed and smacked them aside.

And slowly I came to realise.

This was play.

I’d never done this before. Not with something or somebody similar to myself. Certainly I could fling myself bodily at Zheng with all my tentacles, but she couldn’t counter the brain-math. I could define anybody I liked and examine them with abyssal senses, but nobody else could confront me with a similar hybrid of abyssal potential. All seven of me ran together in a riot of something very close to joy.

Taika and I were a pair of apex predators, bumped into each other in the night. With no territories to defend and no prey to fight over, here we were, testing our strength.

And she was so much stronger than me. She made it obvious in every casual dismissal of my brain-math, every side-swipe with her blades, every burning smirk and fire-choked laugh.

We finally stopped, days later, by silent mutual agreement.

In reality only twelve minutes had passed. Dawn was still pouring through the windows.

Most of the non-tentacle muscles in my body were quivering with overexertion — and our tentacles weren’t feeling so good either, like big rubbery tubes. I was coated in sweat from head to toe, hair wet with perspiration, panting for breath. I had a nosebleed from the repeated brain-math, something I had not experienced in months and months — and I could feel a sticky moisture around my eyes. Blood! I’d pushed myself right to the edge.

Twenty feet away, across the now terrible mess of her apartment’s main room, Taika looked much the same. The sweat sizzled on the heat of her skin. Her hair was the colour of clean, fresh flame, like it had burned away layers of soot, but it was soaked with damp at her scalp. She kept wincing and huffing, her own aftermath of deflecting my hyperdimensional mathematics so many times. Her swords floated in the air, all at different angles, their perfect symmetry shattered by all the effort.

We both stared at each other, folding away our inhuman modifications. I wiped my nosebleed on my sleeve. I couldn’t keep this up much longer, not without burning out. Taika was much the same, or so I assumed, her flames dimming slightly within her body. Seconds passed and she looked a tiny bit less like a piece of cinder wrapped in burning cork.

She was smirking, though. I felt like pouting.

“Are you done yet?” I rasped, my throat decidedly non-human. “This is absurd. I can’t keep up with you. I can’t do this forever!”

Taika straightened up and ran a hand through her flame-bright hair. She shook her head. “You joking, calamari?”

“Ahh?”

“I’m the one who can’t keep up with you,” Taika said.

I shook my head slowly. “I … don’t … understand?”

“Hey, kid,” she said, so much more gently than before, her voice the hiss of a gas fire turned low. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

Any lingering anger turned to wet ashes in my mouth. “What do you mean?”

But I knew what she meant.

Taika sighed. “After you came back from Beyond. Sorry I wasn’t there to hold your hand or whatever. I’m real bad at staying in one place for a long time. I’d make a shit mother, surrogate or otherwise. Never been a good mentor either. Tend to just leave a trail of sad women behind me. And you were a kid. I mean, a real kid, not like you are now. I thought you wouldn’t last a year, not after a trip back from Beyond. Not at, what, nine years old, was that it? I forget.”

“ … yes,” I murmured. My throat tightened. “Nine … nine years old. Um. I’m not looking for an apology. Unless you … unless you were the one who sent Maisie and I to the Eye?”

Taika shook her head. “Nah. Just too slow to help. Hesitated too much. I’m sorry about your sister.”

She sounded like she really meant it. A lump grew in my throat. “I … thank you.”

Taika sighed again; heat rolled out of her mouth. “But I can’t save every single dead kid in the world. I’d go mad if I tried. Care too much and the guilt will eat you from the inside, worse than any flame. Couldn’t hang around to make sure you grew up. Your parents didn’t want to hear it anyway.” Taika straightened up to her full height, lowered her swords at last, and stuck out one hand. “I respect you, Heather, even if I don’t agree with what you’re doing here. But I don’t have the right to judge. I left you for dead. Probably shouldn’t have done that.”

I stared at her hand — not because I didn’t trust her, or because I thought her words were a trick — but because those words hurt more than any sword. They hurt in a good way.

“I … um … ” I blinked and found tears in my eyes. “I … you didn’t have to … ”

“Sure, I don’t have to,” she said. “But you’re grown into something scary. And I can’t take responsibility for that. Don’t think I could put you down even if I tried.”

I snorted a little laugh, the best I could do under the circumstances. “Really? I think you could. You know, with the swords? The swords that you’ve been throwing at me? I don’t know about you, Miss Taika, but I am not immune to sharp objects going through my body.”

Taika frowned, vaguely amused. “Really?”

“Really,” we said, and could not decide if she was being serious or not.

She smirked though. “You would have gotten better.”

My turn to sigh. “What would you do if this was really a life or death situation? If I was set on killing you? I get the feeling you’re holding back.”

Taika chuckled. “So are you, Heather. You want a serious answer?”

“Yes.”

Taika said: “I would set myself on fire. For real. You ever seen fire that burns without oxygen? You ever seen white phosphorus burns?” She pointed at the floor. “I’d burn right through the whole building, down to the ground, into the soil and then the bedrock. It’s not a nice trick, but you wouldn’t be able to follow. I’d light the air itself behind me. Boom-boom-boom. You wouldn’t even be able to touch me.”

“Okaaaaay,” we said. “Okay. That sounds plausible.”

“And what about you, Heather? I’m sure if you really wanted to kill me then you’d be trying something else.”

We chewed our bottom lip and considered the question. Then we nodded slowly. “We could blast you through the back wall of the apartment with pure force. Same with your blades.”

“We?” Taika asked.

We shrugged, with both shoulders and all six tentacles. “There’s seven of me in here. Cephalopod neurology.”

“Cool stuff.” Taika smirked. “We’d still stalemate.”

“Mm, probably.”

She nodded to me, as if we finally understood each other. “And that’s why we don’t burst into other people’s apartments without warning.”

We sighed. “And what would you have done if I’d not let your companions leave first? I don’t think you’d burn the building with them inside.”

Taika’s expression darkened, just a little. She didn’t like that line of thought. “You and me, out the window together. Melt the glass. Falling comet style. Put you through the side-walk. I’d take some wounds, real wounds, but we’d be outdoors. I’d try to burn your eyes, your face, your windpipe. I assume you can regrow those, but it might slow you down enough. Then things get messy. Lots of bystanders. Lots of cops. You can deflect bullets?”

“Sort of. Um. Sorry for asking. I wouldn’t want to hurt innocents. Really.”

She smirked. “Glad you didn’t try. I sort of like living in this city, don’t wanna move any time soon.” She stuck out her hand again. “Come on. Make peace, squid girls. We’ve got lots to talk about.”

I tried to smile. “Okay. But you have to tell me—”

With a floof and a floff of pink-white-blue, four familiar figures materialised right between me and Taika.

Lozzie was in the middle, with her pentacolour poncho flaring out like the skirts of a jellyfish, her long blonde hair floating downward as if caught in the updraft of an ocean current. Holding her right hand was Raine, booted and jacketed, pistol tight in her other fist. Holding Lozzie’s left hand was Praem, wearing her full maid dress, impassive and alert. And clinging to Praem’s arm, eyes crammed shut, was Evelyn, with her scrimshawed bone wand clutched tight to her chest.

“Lozz-!” I managed to blurt out.

Then everything went badly wrong.

Taika reacted much as anybody would to four additional strange women appearing in the middle of her apartment. She raised her swords once again, points outward, her skin roiling with heat haze and caged fire, her hair flaring like flames beneath the bellows.

Raine lurched away from Lozzie, blinking and shaking her head, coated in cold flash-sweat — the aftermath of Lozzie’s uncomfortable teleport. But her gun came up, held in both hands.

Taika responded in kind — she jabbed a sword toward Raine.

Praem shoved Evee into Lozzie’s arms, then whirled on the spot, the skirts of her maid dress flaring outward, ready to intervene, but a second too late.

Raine pulled the trigger of her handgun three times — bang, bang, bang!

Taika’s swords bunched and whirled. One bullet went ping, ricocheting off the black iron and thumping into the floor. But two bullets got through.

Taika flicked her fingers; a wave of furnace-heat slammed across my face. Two melted blobs of bullet-lead dropped at her feet.

“Raine, stop!” I screeched.

To Raine’s great credit she did exactly as I ordered — she stopped pulling the trigger of her pistol. But Taika was already reacting, already slinging a pair of those black iron swords back toward Raine, to cut off her wrists or bisect her hands, to stop her from shooting.

Praem stepped neatly in front of Raine, hands out, and caught both swords mid-flight.

The swords twitched and jerked in her fists, cutting through the delicate fabric of her lace gloves and snarling in the smooth linen of her sleeves. But Praem ignored them, staring straight at Taika.

“Bad girls,” said Praem.

The other ten swords leapt upward, as if eager to free their sisters. Taika’s eyes had gone wide with alarm. I bunched my tentacles behind me, to fling myself forward; I could not knock all those swords aside but I would not let Praem or Raine come to harm, not because of this misunderstanding, not because of my own stupid mistake. I would put myself between the participants, as penance for my stupidity.

But then Lozzie opened her mouth and sang three notes that made everyone stop.

High and light and more than sound, a trilling, tripping, transcendent one-two-three. Beyond language, beyond thought, a gut-meaning impulse of stop-now, all-friends, or-worse.

Taika snapped a hand toward the floor. Her swords dropped, point down, and went inert. She stared at Lozzie in surprise.

“I’m done,” she crackled like a dying fire. “Yeah. Okay. We’re cool.”

The two swords in Praem’s fists stopped fighting; Praem gently placed them on the floor as well, then straightened up and dusted herself off. I uncoiled my tentacles and let out a shuddering breath. Evelyn straightened up, still half-leaning on Lozzie for support, clutching her bone-wand in a white-knuckled fist. Lozzie beamed at everyone, flapping the sides of her poncho.

“Hello!” Lozzie chirped. “Hello Heathy!”

“H-hi,” I croaked. “Um. Lozzie. Hi. Yes.”

Raine still pointed her gun at Taika, but she addressed me without looking away from the witch: “Heather, you okay? You hurt?”

“I-I’m fine, Raine! I’m fine! Please, I’m— this is all my fault. Please, stop. Yes, I’m fine.”

Taika pointed a finger at Raine without looking away from Lozzie. “I’ll melt that gun right out of your hands, bulldog.”

Raine laughed. “Bulldog?”

Evelyn snapped: “Raine, lower the fucking gun! For pity’s sake.”

Raine hesitated.

I spoke up too. “Raine, please. It’s fine. We’re … friends. Sort of.”

Raine took a deep breath and finally stopped pointing the pistol at Taika.

Before anybody else could say another word, Evelyn drew herself up, winced at the pain of her kinked and damaged spine, and barked at the rest of us: “Are we actually still in a fight here? Is this still going? Miss … ?”

“Taika,” Taika said, still locked in curious eye-contact with Lozzie. Lozzie was wiggling her eyebrows.

“Taika, thank you,” Evelyn said, as if gratitude felt like a kidney stone. “And Heather, you as well. Are you both going to start fighting at any moment? Or are we done here? Yes or no, do not bother explaining.”

Taika smirked. “Somebody’s in the dog house.”

Evelyn snapped: “Answer.”

Taika said, “Sure. We’re done. Heather and me, we’re friends now.”

“Y-yes,” I hurried to add. “Yes, Evee, yes, we’re definitely done. I’m sorry, I—”

“Stop,” said Evee, in a voice that made it very clear we were all to shut up. She huffed and winced like she had the world’s worst migraine. Lozzie went ‘oh!’ and rummaged under her poncho for a moment, then produced Evelyn’s walking stick and pressed it into Evelyn’s free hand. Evee straightened up, stood on her own two feet, then turned and stomped right over to me.

Apparently she was completely unintimidated by the fact I still looked like a swamp monster, plated with armour and bladed all over, my eyes the colour of moss and my skin a toxic rainbow. I had not yet quite finished folding all of myself away.

“E-Evee—”

She exploded in my face. “Heather, what the fuck are you doing?! What is this?! What the fuck is this—”

“I—”

“No.” Evelyn’s eyes blazed. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“I—”

“You run off alone. You don’t call home to let us know where you are. You make Sevens fucking cry—”

My heart lurched. “I-I did what? Hic! Oh, oh no. Hic— ow.”

“—and then we come to help and find you fighting a mage—”

“Witch,” Taika supplied.

Evelyn ignored her. “—by yourself! I should have Praem feed you cod liver oil and make you sit in a corner reflecting on your actions. I thought we got past all this months ago, but no! You always have to run off and put yourself in danger. I don’t even care what justification you give it this time—”

Taika cleared her throat and said: “She was never in real danger.”

Evelyn whirled on her too. “She doesn’t know that. And don’t butt in on this, whoever the fuck you are. This is between Heather and me. Shut up.”

Taika smirked and raised her hands. Lozzie giggled. Evelyn turned back to me.

“Evee,” I said.

“Don’t you dare, Heather. Don’t you dare. This is the last time you ever put yourself in danger alone.” Evelyn ground her teeth so hard I could feel it — but suddenly she whipped away from me and jabbed her bone-wand toward Raine instead. “And you! Since when do you start shooting without asking questions first? What the hell was that?”

Raine shrugged. “Always ready to back up my girlfriend. And hey, no harm done.” She winked at Taika. Taika bowed her head toward Raine.

Evelyn looked like she wanted to beat both of them to death.

We attempted a peace offering, swallowing another hiccup. “Evee, may I say something?”

Evelyn glared daggers at me. “The first word out of your mouth better be—”

“I’m sorry,” we said. “I made a mistake. A foolish one. I should not have done this alone. You are correct and I am wrong. I … I keep doing this. I believed I had extenuating circumstances, but … I didn’t.”

Evelyn made a face like she was chewing a marble, but the rage behind her eyes simmered down a little. Praem stepped over to us and produced a trio of lemons from somewhere within her maid dress.

“Oh, Praem, you shouldn’t have,” we said. “Thank you.”

Evelyn tutted. “Bloody right she shouldn’t have. Eat those. Calm down. Fucking hell!” Evelyn cast her eyes at the huge glass windows and the view of the city beyond. “Where the hell are we, anyway? Lozzie? Raine?”

“Chengdu,” we answered around a mouthful of lemon flesh.

“Cheng-what?” Evelyn snapped.

“China. Apparently.”

Evelyn boggled at me. Raine laughed. Lozzie made an excited little ‘ooooh!’ noise.

Taika said: “Yeah, in the middle of my apartment.” She shook her head and took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Let one English rat in and suddenly you’ve got a whole pack living in your walls. I am on the other side of the planet and you inselaffen manage to turn up uninvited anyway. Don’t suppose Gabs sent you, then?”

Evelyn shot a very tight, suspicious look at Taika. “Who is Gabs?”

“That’s a no, then,” Taika said. She shot me another smirk. “Looks like I misjudged you, Heather.”

“A-ah?” I said.

Taika rolled her neck from side to side, making bones go pop and crack, like sticks in a bonfire. She pointed at Praem. “An unbound.” Then at Lozzie. “A Beyonder titan, crammed into human skin.” (Lozzie did a little flutter-bow with her poncho, quite delighted.) “And apparently having a great time with it,” Taika added. Next she gestured at Evee. “A mage who appears to give a shit about your health and well-being. And … ” Her goatish eyes slid to Raine. “Fuck me, a human.”

Raine shot her a dangerous grin. “That’s me, goat-face.”

Taika chuckled, low and soft. “Looks like I got the wrong end of the stick. I thought you were scrambling up the metaphysical ladder, straight to megalomania or serial killer, or worse. It’s usually worse. But, well, you don’t need friends and lovers to do that.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “Uh. Y-yes. We have a whole … ‘found family’, I think it’s called? I … ” I sighed, blushing terribly, suddenly embarrassed. “I just didn’t want them to see, if it turned out I had to kill you or something. And I was all fired up, I … ”

I trailed off because Evelyn was giving me a look which could have shattered granite, frozen the shards, and then ejected them into space.

Taika raised an eyebrow and said: “Is that right? Not because you didn’t want them to see you looking like that?”

She indicated my body with an up and down flick of her eyes — my tentacles covered in barbs and hooks, my skin glowing and shifting and changing colour, the nictitating membranes over my eyes, the bladed tail poking from the bottom of my spine, my sharpened teeth and strengthened bones and springy joints, the heat rolling off me as my bioreactor churned away inside my gut. Homo abyssus, as fully summoned into reality as I had ever achieved. Much of it was vanishing now, folded back into my flesh, but I still looked mostly inhuman.

“No?” I said, slightly confused. “We don’t—”

Evelyn turned her death glare on Taika instead. “Is that meant to be an insult? Are you insulting my— insulting Heather?”

Taika chuckled, raised one hand in surrender. “Far from it. I’m no different.” She gestured at her own heavily altered body, at the glowing flame inside her flesh. She was doing the same as me, slowly returning to looking more human, as she had when I’d first appeared in her apartment. “And I think I look fucking great.”

Lozzie chirped: “You doooooo! Ooooh! And your eyes are so pretty. They go waaaaaay down.”

Taika raised her eyebrows at Lozzie, as if surprised by the compliment.

Evelyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Alright. Fine. Now, Heather, what exactly is going on here?”

“Um … ”

Raine cleared her throat and said: “Don’t worry, Heather, love. Sevens filled us in, sort of.” She jerked a thumb at Taika. “Goat girl here knows stuff about your sister, right?”

Evelyn hissed: “And what the hell were you fighting over?”

Praem said: “Bad girls. Naughty girls.”

Mortified almost beyond words, sore from head to toe, and beginning to shake with the aftermath as I slowly stepped down my bioreactor, I explained what had happened, speaking through rapid, desperate mouthfuls of lemon-flesh. I briefly introduced my friends and lovers, as best I could under the circumstances. Taika did not help, she just stood there, watching and listening, sharing occasional little smirks and odd looks with Lozzie.

Evelyn did not look any more impressed by the time I finished. When I completed the process of folding away most of my pneuma-somatic additions, Raine came over and squeezed my shoulder.

“And— and then you turned up,” I finished. “Taika and I were done. I think? And … and Taika, will you … will you tell me … ”

Taika shrugged. “Already said I would.” She glanced around at the absolutely atrocious mess we’d made in her sitting room, furniture all over the place, carpet and cushions absolutely ruined, walls scorched and gouged and ripped and dented. “I’d invite you to sit down, but … ”

We blushed again, wishing we could roll up into a ball and roll away. “I’m so sorry.”

Taika laughed. “Don’t be! This place looked like shit anyway. Minimalism makes me want to burn things down.”

“Oh!” we lit up. “Me too. I mean, um, maybe with less burning?”

Praem intoned: “Sitting is good for naughty girls. Naughty girls will sit.”

Taika peered at Praem. “Why are you in a maid dress, unbound?”

“Praem,” said Praem.

“Praem,” Taika corrected herself. “Why the maid dress?” She pointed at Evee. “You mum there make you wear it?”

Evee went wide eyed and pale with embarrassment. She spluttered: “I— you don’t— how did you—”

“Family resemblance,” Taika said. “Seriously. Why the maid dress?

Praem intoned: “Maids are unstoppable.”

Taika nodded as if this made perfect sense. “Cool.”

The six of us spent a few minutes trying to put Taika’s apartment back into some semblance of order. Praem, Raine and Taika herself flipped the sofas back over and placed them in roughly appropriate positions around the now very broken coffee table; I couldn’t even remember when we’d shattered that. Everyone else kept their shoes on in case of broken glass, but Taika didn’t care, staying comfortably barefoot. The sofas had suffered quite badly, punctured by blades and torn up by tentacle-hooks, but they would still suffice for sitting on, if only for a little while. I was too shaky and weak and burnt-out to help with that, but I pottered around the edge of the room picking up the objects I’d hurled around earlier, and did my best to put them mostly back in the kitchen. Lozzie kept staring at Taika from different angles, then helped me tidy up a bit. Praem plugged in the extremely dented air fryer, did something to the inside with one hand, and the appliance beeped back to life.

Evelyn scowled out of the windows the city beyond. “This is the most stupid thing,” she hissed. “China. Really?”

There was a single tense moment when Taika made all her swords float into the air again, but she only did so in order to put them on the big table, all lined up, neat and spotless. She touched them one at a time, with a single fingertip, whispering something to the swords.

Evelyn gave that display a very sour look, lips pursed, vaguely disgusted for some magical reason I didn’t understand.

Eventually there were enough places for everyone to sit down. Taika threw herself down on a sofa and put her feet up on a chair, then gestured broadly at the room. “Make yourselves at home, girls. Long time since I entertained anybody I wasn’t fucking, so sorry if I’m a bit rusty.”

Raine said: “Does that mean I can raid your fridge?”

Taika narrowed her eyes. Raine stared back with one of those shit-eating grins she reserved for a certain type of person. Then Taika smirked back. She said: “Sure. If you bring me a beer as well. ‘Hair of the dog that bit you’ and all that. That’s what you English say, isn’t it?”

Evelyn cast a disapproving eye over all the empty alcohol bottles, some of which I had hurled around during the fight. Then she frowned at Taika, perhaps at her general lack of clothes or her ostentatious muscles, but she didn’t say anything.

Raine went over to the absolutely massive standing fridge in the kitchen. One shelf appeared to be nothing but beer. Raine extracted two cans, peered at the label, and raised her eyebrows. “Tsingtao? Never heard of it.”

“Provincial,” Taika drawled. “You should get around more.”

Raine smirked right back at her, then tossed Taika’s beer across the room, just too hard and too fast for comfort. But Taika snatched it out of the air, somehow without having to get up from her seat.

“Raine!” I tutted through a mouthful of lemon-flesh, finishing up the last of the trio Praem had handed me earlier.

“Yes,” Evelyn hissed. “Please, stop the dick-measuring. Not now.”

Raine flashed me a grin and then winked — at Taika, who was busy cracking open her beer and taking a long swig.

“Ahhh,” Taika sighed. “Nothing like a beer after a sparring match. You want something too, calamari?”

I shook my head. “Lemons,” I said, almost done eating.

The rest of us started to sit down too; Praem helped Evelyn into a seat and Lozzie fluttered around before sitting surprisingly close to Taika. Raine and I took up position on the sofa opposite the witch. Praem did not sit, but began to cast her gaze over the still-messy wreckage of the room.

“Don’t clean for free, Praem,” Evelyn told her.

“I can pay,” Taika said.

“Don’t,” Evelyn repeated. “And you, ‘Taika’, I doubt that’s even your real name. I looked it up before we left. It just means ‘magic’. Whatever you are, you are ridiculous, by choice.”

Taika toasted her with the beer can. “Same to you, English mage girl.”

Evelyn ground her teeth. Something about Taika had her on edge, even more than the situation warranted. It wasn’t awareness of danger, or caution of a strange being, or any of Evelyn’s usual attitudes.

Then I realised. It was jealousy.

Raine leaned back on the sofa and said: “Got a question for you, Taika. If you don’t mind.”

Taika raised her eyebrows. She looked so utterly relaxed now, leaning back on her sofa, beer in one hand. Like we hadn’t just been having an all-out, no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out fight. She said, “Heather’s the one who gets to ask questions.”

I cleared my throat. “Please?”

Taika nodded.

Raine said, “Like Evee said, what are you?”

“Goat!” Lozzie chirped. “Like Heathy! But bigger? Or smaller?” Lozzie tilted her head back and forth at Taika, like she couldn’t quite decide. She closed one eye, then the other, then gave up with a shrug.

“She’s like me, yes,” we said. “Homo Abyssus.”

Taika took a long drag from her beer, thinking for a moment. Raine copied the gesture — until Lozzie silently pestered her for a sip. Raine obliged, handing Lozzie the can. Lozzie tried the tiniest little sip, smacked her lips, and pulled a squinting, pinched-face look of distaste. No beer for Lozzie.

Taika finally answered.

“Homo Abyssus?” she drawled. “Weird terminology. But you’re not wrong. I’m like your Heather, here. She’s been down in the pits, too, hasn’t she? Swallowed by the flow, just like me. Swam back to the surface, unburned, unconsumed.” She smirked. “But you don’t wanna hear about any of that. That’s not what you’re here for. Heather came to hear about the Reading Twins, the Morell case, her case. One of my many, many, many screw-ups. Yet another time that I failed to save somebody.”

“Actually,” I said softly. “Taika, I’ve never met somebody else like myself. I do want to know what you are, as well.”

“Huh,” Taika grunted. “You already know, calamari. You saw, straight up. What more is there to say?”

I hurried to add: “But, yes, mostly I want to know about the Eye, about my sister, about what happened to us. And if you have the photograph you showed my father, ten years ago. Anything. Please, anything at all. What happened? Tell me what happened to me and Maisie.”

Taika let out a little sigh, wetted her mouth with a little sip of beer, and began to tell us a sordid, sorry, sad little story.

Announcement

Fire-goat-lady danmaku fight passed successfully; introspection queued; exposition(?) incoming.

You know, Heather was really, really, really lucky to run into Taika here, somebody who could make her slow down and think for a minute, mostly by having a bullet hell battle in the middle of a fancy penthouse on the other side of the world. Let's hope that not all Heather's emotional and psychological mistakes require such expensive and destructive lessons. Especially not how badly she's probably hurt Sevens; that's going to be some major fallout for both of them, and hopefully some hard self-examination from Heather. But in the meantime, Lozzie sings the fight to a stop, Evelyn is justifiably pissed off, and Raine is trigger happy. Praem just wants to maid.

No patreon link this week, because this is the last chapter of the month! If you do want to subscribe, feel free to wait until the 1st. In the meantime, maybe go check out the Katalepsis fanart page, over here; there's been a bunch of new stuff there lately, including a full set of comedy stick-figure illustrations of the opening arc, this incredibly cute mini-Heather hiding in a pile of laundry (by skaiandestiny), and this sketch of Taika (by Cera) drawn within hours of me posting this chapter to the patrons, and this full pixel art of Taika (also by Cera!) And there's also the memes page, absolutely crammed with esoteric jokes. I do actually have a shoutout recommendation pending, but the author in question has asked me to wait until after the 1st of December, so!

But! You can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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And thank you! Thank you so much for reading Katalepsis, and spending your time on my little story; I often say this, but it's still true that I could not do this without you, the readers. Thank you so much!

Next week, Taika tells tall tales of teasing titans. What really happened, all those years ago? Heather needs to know.

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