Story no. 42. I’m doing the thing again, i.e. POSTING WITHOUT AN ILLUSTRATION. Alas! But I’m making solid progress in finishing my novella illustrations, so I should be able to come back with illustrations for this story and the last one soon.
As before, you can pre-order the novella ebook of Monsters, with nine new black-and-white illustrations, on Amazon.
I released the first part of this story way back at the end of 2014, which you can read here.
Edited to add on July 22, 2018: Illustration! Exists! You can get prints from my Society6 shop!
The Lady looked at Aunt Thompson and said something that neither Bill nor I could hear. She then did the thing where she didn’t exactly vanish, but between one moment and the next she was suddenly very far away from us, on the top of the next hill.
“We’ve got to fetch that jewel, wherever these cousins have taken it,” Aunt Thompson said.
“We?” I said.
“Why?” Bill said.
“Do you want someone setting up a new Lathustra?” she asked. She rose to her feet and gestured for us to follow with a jerk of her antlers.
“It’s none of my business if they do,” I said piously. “To each their own demise.”
“You’re an idiot, Teapot,” she said. “Come along.” She was suddenly much taller, taller than her house or the trees that surrounded it, while Bill and I were still just a gremlin and a hobknob. She held out her great hands. With worrisome sighs, we each sat astride one of her wrists.
“Where are we going?” Bill asked pitifully.
“To see the Lady in the oak on the cliff by the ocean,” came a resolute voice from far overhead. “I want to get a look at her stone.”
As I said, travel in Lathustra is tricky. It should have taken each of us a week to walk to the oak that grows on the cliff that looks over the ocean, but given that Aunt Thompson was now thirty feet tall, and we were each about two, the terrain couldn’t decide whether to stretch itself out or press itself together. It shuddered with every one of her footsteps, and a shadowy image of what might be kept flickering into view over what currently was. I could feel her convincing the land that we were gifts she was bearing to the Lady in the Oak, and it didn’t have to adjust for us. With some grumbling, the land acquiesced and settled into a single line of trees, mountains, swamps, and meadows.
Some time later—I suppose about a week, though I think the land might have tacked on a day or two just to be contrary—we came up over the top of a hill and saw before us a path winding up through a grassy field. The field rose steadily to a sharp edge, upon which grew a massive old oak. It is always midsummer in the corner of Lathustra held down by the Lady in the Oak; not the blistering heat one experienced in the Yellow World, or the multitudinous combinations of sun and cloud and dust and humidity found throughout the Blue World, but the crisp, timeless summer found when one stands on a cliff and looks out over the ocean.
Aunt Thompson let us down facing the tree, for which I was thankful. Hobknobs have gotten trapped staring at that sea before, stuck in the moment between one wave and the next. There are any number of suspiciously-shaped lumps of rock along the cliff edge.
The Lady herself sat in the tree, holding a pork pie in one hand and a bottle of milk in the other. She’d just come back from somewhere. She’d always just come back from somewhere, no matter when you visited. I was relieved to see the Green Cabochon flashing from the depths of her hair. I had started to worry that maybe the stone that had been stolen off my boss’s desk had somehow impacted it. Lathustra’s a miserable, logic-impoverished place, but it’s my miserable, logic-impoverished place, and I didn’t particularly relish the thought of watching it come apart at the seams.
You can’t exactly look straight at that Lady, or talk straight to her either; you sort of just stand by the tree with you intentions foremost and hope you walk away knowing more than you did when you walked up. (There are reasons why Aunt Thompson, and by extension Bill and I, belong to the Lady in the black rock.)
When Aunt Thompson picked us up again, I had received the unpleasant knowledge that I probably was more responsible than I wasn’t for the murder of my old boss. I supposed I had known that, but I hadn’t particularly wanted to think about it.
Aunt Thompson did not, as I expected, turn around and walk back down the path that cut through the golden grass. No, instead she did something utterly bat-brained: she walked past the oak tree and leaped into the ocean.
Sometimes Lathustra makes you do this sort of thing, but that doesn’t mean I was happy about it. I hate being wet. I liked a lot of things about San Francisco—chiefly the immediate availability of Chinese delivery food—but the constant fog was not one of them. I go a bit melty in water. Nothing permanent, mind you.
Being dunked in the ocean put me in a decidedly atomized state of mind, neither here nor there nor anywhere, so I wasn’t entirely paying attention to where Aunt Thompson took us. There are, of course, Fae of the sea, who attended our progress with some malicious amusement. They all had laughs like the tinkling of bells and the breaking of bones. I wished I could take a couple of them back home and nail them up in the garden by their nasty fishy tails. I still might, if I get the chance.
Suddenly the sea ended, and we were not in Lathustra anymore, but in a spare bit of nothing. I thought it tasted rather more like the Blue World than the Yellow World, but the water dribbling out from my ears and eyes made it hard to be sure.
Aunt Thompson had grown even larger and had resumed walking, covering the nothingness in great loping strides. She had gone a bit like a deer all over, if deer had great grasping hands with claws and ranks of burning eyes.
We came rather close to something very hot, though I couldn’t quite see what it was, and I finally dried out. Bill howled, and I smelled charred hair. His tail must have gotten a bit toasted.
“We’re going round the Red World,” Aunt Thompson boomed from overhead. “Too much trouble to go through. The Demonae think themselves far too clever.”
“Did the Lady in the Oak tell you where they’d gone with jewel?” I shouted up at her. “Is it in one of the proper worlds or a pocket one?”
She didn’t answer.
Some time later—or no time at all, depending on what sort of physics you’re using—we arrived. Aunt Thompson marched out from the crevasse between two rocks. Suddenly she was not a great deal taller than a human sort of woman, and Bill and I were not a great deal shorter than human men, and all of us seemed a great deal less pointy and less made of disparate parts than we were really were. Aunt Thompson still had a deer’s head, but it was the sort of deer’s head that might actually be on an ordinary sort of deer, the kind that eats cabbages and craps in your lawn, not the sort that hunts your children and makes blood sacrifice by the light of the moon. Bill looked like a disagreeable child whose face had permanently screwed itself into a scowl, and I knew, from extensive experience, that I looked like an equally crotchety old man.
This was definitely a pocket world. The sky didn’t go on long enough. If I had to guess, I’d say that the narrow mountain valley we looked down on comprised the entirety of the thing. The mountains didn’t seem to continue on either side. This sort of thing is quite common in pocket worlds; material things tend to take suggestions from immaterial ones, and if a bit of reality is feeling squeezed then it makes everything in it feel squeezed as well.
We were standing partway up a mountain face, and a stony path wound its way down below us. The valley was filled with tall, pointed houses, all of them very narrow because of the stony footings on which they were built, all of them many stories high to catch what little light they could. There was light, though there was no sun (another tell for a pocket world), and it glimmered on the thousands of glass panes in the porous upper stories.
Aunt Thompson set us down. “This feels about right,” she said. “Teapot, you tell me if you smell any of those damn cousins.”