45. Be Still

The last of the curse tumbled out of Angus’ mouth into a wet, sloshing sound, and the floor swung up to meet him in a perfect geometric arc, his shoulders seemingly breaking with the effort. Clothes soaked with sweat, he gasped in pain while he struggled to safe his face from a bruising, and pulled his legs up underneath him in defence. Behind him, he felt his coat pulled back as if into the hand of an insistant child, then struggled with, and then released, flopping down atop his feet. He planted his hands firmer, trying to reassert the directions of up and down, blinking and squinting as reality, with all of its colour, flooded into eyes that had wandered and wondered for literally weeks in a place where grey was all.

Around him, scattered remains of a place he couldn’t quite remember smashed and clattered. Angus was part of Grey London, while he was there – and it had left him with itself. Broken boards, a section of a door, beer mugs, broken and cast on their sides scattering the floor with broken glass, and a thick, stout-handled cricket bat still affixed to a bronze plaque that proclaimed back-to-back local championship wins, all rendered in that astoundingly pervasive grey fell around him, hitting his back like the expurgated remains from some pub dinner the Prince had liked too much to hold on to.

The Prince staggered and gripped at its chest, long spiny hands seeming to lengthen and fall into itself, filling up the hole Angus had somehow vacated. “Why… Angus you… you cheating -” the Prince gasped, its tone of wicked levity interrupted by a choked sound. “You took my body. Your body! I- I was using that!”

When Holland saw the Prince the first time, in person, it was as a singular, vast eye in the sky; a breathtaking and vast experience so huge and so inexplicable it had flashed through the mind and out the other side. A whole school had vanished in the blink of that massive eye and Holland had only barely been able to stagger to the roadsides to flee. The second time, the Prince had stalked through bedroom halls in the body shaped like a person, a humanoid representation with spindly arms and a huge sawtoothed mouth, like something out of a child’s cartoon. Nightmarish, but in a way that Holland had resisted. That Prince had touched Holland, had stepped over one boundary too many, and been beaten with a chair for his trouble. If Holland had really dedicated any thought to the discrepancy between the two forms, it only now began to rise in bubbles of worry.

As the black man in the nerdy clothing collapsed to the floor of the chamber, gripping the ground and heaving up gasps of salty water, the Prince seemed at war with hims-no. No, itself. Holland knew how hateful the impersonal pronoun could be, how it denoted something that wasn’t a person any more. What bubbled and foamed behind the newcomer was not a person any more.

Liquid and oily, it started from a human position; down upon the ground, two things like legs planted, in a rolling, bubbling pool that moved around its feet as it stepped. From its hips upwards, however, it lost cohesion; no head rested on shoulders, no breathing betrayed in its motions a semblence of life. Instead, it plumed outwards in a disproportionate shape that almost looked more like ink-painted mushroom clouds, with long, ropelike tendrils falling down, or were they raining? The shoulders rolled and tensed, the body torsioned as it stepped, flailing in ways that flickered in the eye and felt like afterimages, even while it was clearly right there. All the time, on its surface was the eternal vastness of space, the yawning maw of infinity that lurked overhead, and to stare into it pulled the mind with it, a sense of everything that was not human, that was not life, was not the world of you, hauling it within itself. Not just spots of light any more, but vast vivid nebulae, the red-golden hue of the milky way, brighter, and more coruscant. It spoke of a world before humans polluted the sky with light, of a time when even the crabs didn’t do much more than remember. It rolled its shoulders backwards, starting a strange hunch backwards while it stepped forwards, and words came from some place that was not its mouth, but were heard in all ears.

Perhaps you’re right, Angus. Maybe this is better.

The crabs teemed around Holland, running in a patterned circle, marching in perfect formation. “Barbara!” Holland yelled, “Barbara, what-”

“Barbara!” yelled another voice from the other end of the hall. “Barbara’s friend! Duck!”

At Innogen’s cry, Holland ducked intuitively. A life spent in fear was a life that taught those responses. Barbara stepped aside at the exact same moment, and the air filled with the sound of exploding powder, of raining death. Holland thought it sounded like thunder and fire. Barbara thought it sounded like a pair of handguns being fired. Eighteen rounds in a few heartbeats lanced the air, hitting the cloud of black fog and stars with the force fit to stop a horse and rider. Angus clung to the ground, his hands on his head; Enk pressed to the opposite wall, trying to find his breath. Two guns dropped from the ceiling, landing with a clatter, still smoking. Gaudy and bright, golden and diamond and ridiculous, but Cards was nowhere near it. The only thing in the world more mysterious to those teenagers than the one adult in the room was the tower of distorted, not-quite-liquid, not-quite-smoke that bubbled and roiled, growing larger and teeming with light.

It genuinely seemed flummoxed by the gunfire; confused by the bullets, as it spread its mass, sustaining, containing – the burning heat hitting its frame, the toxic entity that it was trying to deal with being physical. Innogen seized opportunity, running forwards – leaving Enk alone for but a moment – and grabbed Angus’ shoulder, hauling him upwards, away from the bubbling pool at the Prince’s feet, and throwing him towards an alcove, even as she hissed out a simple instruction: “Stay safe!” When she spun around, the muck had reformed; had taken possession of some sense of self. It spoke, and as it spoke, it seemed to be crafting its own very self in worlds.

And thus the forces of so few arrayed against the thing that they knew everyone else sought. No matter. You have been given your opportunity, and rejected it –

“What?” Enk blurted. “What opportunity?!”

Ah. The frame turned slightly. Fluid rolling like a thick cloud, without touching the ground, it extended what might have been a tendril, what might have been a head, to Enk. In one instant, the boy felt a million million stars turned to look at him, everything that was strange and alien and beyond his ability to recognise, the infinite scope of the universe before him, and lo, he was afraid. Hands spread and fingers tense, Enk didn’t even notice his backwards steps, as the looming extrusion pushed further into his personal space, but stopped short of touching him.

“Wh-what… what are you?” Enk asked, as the wall behind him came up close, too close, and the black swirl of something rose around him, spreading tendrils that filled that invisible buffer zone around him.

I am the essential other of the social species. When you first recognise one outside yourself, you recognise that other’s capacity to take from you, to bear for you, to serve you. I am that servant, the obeisance to your modern world. I am the abdication of doubt, the reassuring silence at night, the surrender of fear of tomorrow. I am the god that this world craves and I will make everything better if you but still yourselves.