Lorelei awoke with the sun in her eyes and immediately regretted doing so. Her head was full of cotton. Her belly was full of syrup. The taste in her mouth was sour and unpleasant.
“Ah-ehh.” Unwisely, she stood, wobbling. The resulting wave of nausea was abrupt and crippling. She collapsed like a marionette handled by an incompetent puppeteer. She remained for a few moments in the position of her fall, hoping that her body would recuperate of its own accord.
Her ceremonial headdress, with its chromatic feathers and its single, jutting horn, sat lopsided on her head. Odd; why would she had been wearing it prior to the –
Her world came into sharp and terrible focus, and with newly clarified awareness came the full shameful impact of memory. The apprentices had persuaded her, against her better judgment, to accompany them into town for a drink or two. She had single-handedly consumed a bottle of port, which accounted for the cloying taste in her mouth.
“You idiot,” she groaned, forcing herself to stand. “Oh, you idiot.”
Lorelei was very tall and enviably buxom, her skin a ruddy walnut hue, so that people who hadn’t known her for long often mistook her for an islander. Her ample breasts hung loose and heavy in her unlaced chamois corset. Her long ears were currently askew, her silver hair badly disheveled.
“Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.”
She stumbled toward the door.
What room was this?
The temple that had housed the cenobites and apprentices of Lorelei’s Order of Summoners was a looming sandstone presence on the hill overlooking the small coastal hamlet whose welfare the Order ensured. As a girl apprentice Lorelei had been both intimidated by the size of the edifice and the labyrinthine complexity of its interior. The catacombs beneath the ancient structure held within unimaginable strata of her Order’s dark past and the bodies of its martyred priestesses. The fraternal orders of two hundred years or more ago had feared and hated the growing matriarchy of the Summoners. The bloodshed had been quite appalling. Those men had long since withered and died, as neophobes inevitably do.
The old sanctuary’s elaborate architectural flourishes and the richness of its history were not, however, foremost in Lorelei’s mind as she hurried, staff and headdress tucked beneath her arm, along the winding corridor in which her small room was situated.
As expected, Terra waited anxiously within, her slight body seeming more congruous with her monastic surroundings than Lorelei, whose abundantly voluptuous curvature had inspired several of her more traditionalist sisters to label her “wanton” – however that was meant.
“Where in all the world have you been?” Terra was Lorelei’s junior by two years, but she sometimes spoke – particularly when roused to anger – as if the opposite were true, and more.
“I can’t honestly say,” Lorelei replied, then added, sheepishly, “The inn, I think. At least that’s where I woke up.”
“At the – “ For a moment Terra was speechless. Her frustration was palpable. And understandable, Lorelei supposed; any failure on her part would reflect badly upon her mentor as well. “We’ll have time for that later. Put this on.”
She thrust a necklace of brightly colored clay beads into Lorelei’s hands. Lorelei stared dumbly for a moment, unable to recall the beads’ significance.
“Put them on?” she repeated. “Over my corset?”
“No,” Terra said, snatching the headdress from her and shoving it roughly onto her head. “Take that off, and then put the beads on. We’ve done this before, Lorelei. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten, because I know you haven’t.”
Not wishing to provoke further argument, Lorelei fumblingly removed her corset and freed her large breasts, which were heavily tattooed with serpentine glyphs and ciphers. These would serve to focus her power when she began the ethereal channeling – provided she herself could maintain her focus. Donning her necklace, Lorelei was unpleasantly conscious of the feel of cold clay against her breasts, and of the chill air upon her bare thighs, around which Terra now draped an opulent net of cut gems and feathers. She hefted her staff in her hands, feeling its weight.
“You shouldn’t make light of it,” Terra chided her. “When a woman takes up the mantle of Summoner, she takes it upon herself to become the avatar of all aspects of creation, male and female. What the hell is it you think that horn represents anyway – a banana?”
“I see.” Lorelei blushed deeply, adjusting her headdress.
“Sometimes I wonder if you do,” Terra muttered, stepping back for a better look at her pupil. “Presentable. At least. Top-heavy enough without the headdress, I’d say. Come. We’re expected.”
The knot in Lorelei’s belly grew larger as she and Terra approached the summoning atrium. The temple had been appropriated for use by the Order from its previous occupants, who had kept caged beasts for sacrifice. Those empty cages made Lorelei nervous, though she could not have said why. The Summoners had never properly disposed of the cages, so here they were, stacked against the walls of this corridor, rusted from blood and disuse. Terra squeezed Lorelei’s hand once, and the two of them entered the huge expanse of the atrium proper.
Though she had bathed and was ostensibly sober, Lorelei was in no mood for ceremony, let alone one that would likely determine the course of her foreseeable future. Seeing her sisters arrayed in all their ritual splendor, she felt such abject terror that she very nearly fled then and there – forever to be outcast from the company of the scholars, priestesses and astrologists under whose tutelage she had spent the past six years of her life.
The atrium had been constructed around a circle of standing stones, and it was toward the hub of this circle that Lorelei now stepped nervously but with considerable outward composure. Beside each of the standing stones stood one of the Six – the eldest and most powerful of the Order. Lorelei swallowed uneasily, and with respects paid to the elders she began her rite of ascension, an exotic display that might have appeared a simple dance to the ignorant observer.
She soon found herself unable to focus. She went through the elaborate motions of the summoning ritual but later she couldn’t have said what they were or what they meant. At last she raised her staff above her head and uttered the final words she had studied for so long.
Her heart immediately lurched in her chest.
Nothing happened – nothing apparent – but she felt as if something had passed through her. Into her.
Her knees buckled, and blackness closed in as Terra rushed to catch her.
She came to in a small room like any other. She was in bed, and cocooned in heavy blankets.
The knot of apprehension in her abdomen had not dissipated; in fact it had become tangible, as though some foreign body had lodged itself there. It pressed against her lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. Lorelei sat upright in bed and was immediately nauseous. The alien mass inside her shifted its weight, tickling her spine. Surely that could not be attributed to stress. Lorelei smiled wanly as Terra entered with a jug of water.
“You’re awake!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Lorelei, I was so worried. Are you all right?”
“I don’t feel well,” Lorelei replied absently. The effort of speaking made her suddenly, violently ill. She felt her gorge rise and hurried to the ceramic basin in the corner of – whose room was this? Terra’s, she supposed, but it didn’t seem particularly important at present. Even after voiding the contents of her stomach into the basin she felt an alarming tightness in her belly. She found she was on the verge of panicking. Nearly in tears, she returned to bed, drawing the heavy blanket around herself. Something was terribly wrong with her – that much was clear – and it couldn’t possibly be the result of anything so prosaic as simple anxiety. Terra placed a comforting hand on Lorelei’s shoulder, her large eyes wide and frightened.
“You look awful,” she said, touching Lorelei’s limp pointed ears. “Oh, even your ears are drooping, poor thing.”
“There’s something inside me, right here,” Lorelei said blankly, placing Terra’s hand on the bare skin of her belly. “It’s about the size of a kitten. I think it’s alive.”
“How is that possible?” Terra breathed. “You fainted. During the ceremony.”
“I botched the channeling,” Lorelei said, choking back a sob as the thing in her belly twisted sharply. “I failed you. I’m sorry. Clearly, nothing was…summoned….”
She felt the breath sucked from her lungs. Ice filled her veins. Realization dawned on her like shattering glass. She bit her lip until she drew blood.
“Lorelei, what is it?” Terra’s voice was hoarse with fear. “Please, tell me. You’re so pale.”
“I couldn’t focus.” Lorelei swallowed nervously, tasting bile in her throat.
“I stepped this way instead of that. I said one word instead of another. What if…what if I turned the channeling inward? I – I think I’ve…impregnated…myself with something.”
“There’s no historical precedent for such a thing,” Terra said.
“There’s no historical precedent for anything,” Lorelei countered, “until it happens once.”
There stretched between the two a long and dreadful silence.
“I’ll speak with the Six,” Terra said at last. “There must be something they can do.”
“You expect me to take this lying on my back?” Lorelei crossed her arms over her breasts.
“Sooner or later,” Terra chuckled weakly, “you may have to.”
Lorelei woke late the following morning and was not so much alarmed at the pronounced bulge in her midsection – such was to be expected – as at the speed with which it had developed. Could her “child” possibly grow so quickly? She was no longer nauseous, but she felt like a python that had swallowed too large a meal. The prospect of eating was suddenly revolting to her, so she gathered her clothes and went outside to walk in the courtyard instead. She was a bit wobbly on her legs, but if any of her sisters noticed, they said nothing. Lorelei tired quickly and paused for respite at a stone fountain that had frozen solid in the midwinter air. Terra soon joined her.
“The Six don’t quite know what to make of you,” she said. “In your favor, they’ve decided to raise you to Summoner.”
Lorelei’s heart lifted for a moment.
“Something has been summoned, after all,” Terra continued. “Rather, through you, it’s in the process of being summoned. Isn’t that wonderful? You’re going to be a mother in about five different ways. Symbolic, literal, historical – “
“You try it and tell me how wonderful it is,” Lorelei sulked.
“I was being sarcastic,” Terra said.
Lorelei slipped a hand inside her coat.
“Does it show yet?”
“Of course not,” Terra replied. “You’ve only been pregnant since yesterday afternoon.”
Lorelei drew Terra’s hand to her abdomen and watched her eyes widen.
“It’s going to be huge, Terra.” She felt tears in her eyes and hoped her friend wouldn’t notice. “I’m going to be huge. I’m not ready for this. I don’t even know what’s inside me. What should I do?”
“You’re scared,” Terra said with a touch of incredulity. “I’ve never known you to be scared, Lorelei.”
“I’m terrified,” Lorelei admitted. She found herself tracing her navel with her finger. “What if it doesn’t stop getting bigger? I’ve seen the beasts the Summoners call. This poor body isn’t made to carry something like that.”
“They’ll extract the creature by way of magic, when the time comes,” Terra said. “It only falls upon you to tell them.”
“And how do you expect me to know when that time has come?” Lorelei felt a lump rising in her throat. She was not accustomed to fear, but now she felt it acutely. “I’d hardly imagine exploding to be a gradual process. Whatever it is – nngh – feels like it’s got claws.”
“Be strong, Lorelei,” Terra said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.
“Be strong?” It was a trite, meaningless phrase one used when no other option presented itself. “Is that all?”
“I’m not too good at sympathy, am I?” Terra leant her head against Lorelei’s shoulder. “Don’t be angry with me.”
“I’m not angry.”
“Good.” Terra stood, facing Lorelei, and took both her hands. “You should eat something.”
“I’d rather rest somewhere,” Lorelei said. She was exhausted. “How can that be? It’s such a little thing, but it makes me feel so cold. So tired.”
“All the more reason to try choking something down,” Terra persisted.
“It’s drawing all its strength from you. You’ll grow weak if you don’t eat.”
Lorelei tried to think of something to say in protest. Nothing immediately came to mind.
“I hate you sometimes, Terra.”
Within a fortnight Lorelei had swollen so greatly that she might by all outward appearances have been carrying twins or more, and well past full term. There was little point in trying to hide the fact of her strange pregnancy, so she did the opposite, curving her spine backward to make her growing belly appear bigger; it gave her some satisfaction to turn the heads of those sisters who had demanded her excommunication from the Order following her unconventional summoning.
Her appetite soon returned; in fact she often found herself positively ravenous. Despite occasional bouts of despair, she was happier now than she had been in quite some time. Her child – she had at last come to think of it as her child – grew at an astounding rate. It was subtly changing her body; her hips were widening, her skin becoming more elastic. The niggling part of her mind that still insisted she was not meant to birth such a creature, however, did little to detract from her newfound euphoria.
She took particular enjoyment in the attention she received from the townsfolk. The younger children of the little coastal village were singularly fascinated by her and dogged her steps when she passed through, perhaps expecting a new playmate sometime soon.
Presently Lorelei reclined contentedly on a wooden bench in the village marketplace, so enormous she could hardly move, the afternoon sun warm on her skin. Several of the village children had gathered around her. The youngest of the bunch, a girl of five, sat beside Lorelei with her chin in her hands while her elbows rested uncomfortably upon the great arc of Lorelei’s belly.
“I’m not a playground,” Lorelei said, mildly annoyed. “Your elbows hurt.”
“It’s a big baby,” the girl observed bluntly, staring Lorelei in the eye with such unwavering intensity that she could not help but laugh.
“Yes,” she agreed tiredly.
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“A girl, I think.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know,” Lorelei replied. “Don’t ask so many questions.”
“Move your elbows,” Lorelei growled. “Press any harder and I’ll pop.”
“What does it feel like?” piped one of the older girls, dragging her sister off Lorelei and holding her tightly in her lap.
“Nothing I can put into words.” Lorelei shifted her weight and the children recoiled with a collective gasp, as if she were a boulder poised to topple over the edge of a cliff. “Sometimes she grows so fast I can feel myself getting bigger.”
As if on cue she felt a ripple pass through her abdomen, an electric spasm that jolted from navel to sternum and back.
“Here!” she exclaimed, suddenly short of breath. “Quickly, give me your hand. I’m about to – ah!”
She clasped the girl’s hand to her navel as the creature that occupied her womb stirred to wakefulness and began to feed, leeching her energy to increase its own mass. Lorelei swelled like a spinnaker turned windward, swelled until her mouth opened in a silent scream, until she feared her child would force its way out of her body then and there, sloughing off her burst skin like an old coat. At last it released Lorelei from its thrall, and, recovering herself, she lay wheezing, exhausted and heavy with life.
“Oh,” she gasped, utterly spent. “Oh, that was too – ah-heh – I’m – “
Seeing the children gathered around her speechless with awe, she smiled weakly.
“I’m – nnh – I’m sorry if I frightened you. Needless to say, I think I’m going to need a little help to stand.”
She awoke in the middle of the night with the greatest sadness she had ever known eating her heart. It was an irrational and abject despair that crouched upon her like a succubus, invisible and crippling. Perhaps in sympathy – at least, in response – to its mother’s distress, the creature within her began to writhe in discomfort.
“Please don’t move so much,” Lorelei pleaded desperately, hoping her unborn could somehow empathize. “I’m very fragile. It won’t do either of us any good if I – if I….”
Unable to stop herself, she began to quietly weep. She was dimly aware that this simply constituted another of the mood swings that had become so frequent during the past few weeks, but the thought was little comfort to her now. So she cried and watched the snow fall in the courtyard outside and was embarrassed when a knock came at the door.
“C-come in,” she called, steadying her voice as best she could.
It was Terra, of course, in her nightgown and carrying a small oil lantern. Lorelei beckoned her inside, dabbing at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, forcing a smile even as tears rolled unabated down her cheeks. “I hate for you to see me like this.”
“I was sitting at my window watching the snow,” Terra explained, hanging the lantern from a nail driven into the wall for that purpose, “and I heard you. Does – does it hurt?”
“It’s enormous, and it’s doing somersaults inside me, of course it – AH!” She cried out in pain as the creature unfurled itself fully within Lorelei’s body, nearly ripping her like old cloth in its restlessness. “Help me, Terra! Oooh, I’m going to die, Terra, I’m going to burst, I can feel it scraping my insides….”
“Please, Lorelei, calm down!” Terra was barely able to keep the panic out of her voice. “It will only get more upset if you don’t get hold of yourself. Please!”
Lorelei choked back her tears, trying to control her breathing as Terra eased her back onto her pillow and covered her in a thick winter blanket that scarcely covered her mountainous belly. At last her panic and her sorrow lessened, allowing her a degree of lucid thought, then dissipated entirely as her child became restful once more. She felt it moving still, but it was languorous, sedate – its agitation had thankfully passed with her own.
“I’m sorry I – I’m weak,” she wept. “It’s wonderful but I want it to be over. I can feel it’s not quite ready to come out, it’s not wholly formed, but I don’t think it will be much longer.”
“Good,” Terra said, her brow moist with sweat. “That’s good.”
“It’s funny,” Lorelei said, caressing the taut crescent curve of her abdomen with her long fingers. “Some part of me wants this to go on, wants to grow bigger and bigger until I…. That’s maternal instinct, I suppose. It’s becoming difficult to see or think through it.”
“We’ll have the beast out of you soon enough,” Terra reassured her.
“The Six are prepared to perform that task at your command.”
“I know.” She laughed nervously. “I’m worried that when the time comes I’ll want it to stay inside me so badly I won’t tell them. I can’t possibly get any bigger. By all rights I shouldn’t be this big – just look at me – but it’s changed me so I could carry it for as long as I have. Oh, I want it to end, but I don’t. That…frightens me.”
“Don’t be frightened,” Terra said adamantly. “Please don’t. I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I’ll stay with you. Please don’t be afraid.”
“Thank you.” Lorelei felt new tears in her eyes, but this time the smile came more easily.
There was nothing else to do or say, so the two of them watched the snowfall in silence, each unspeakably grateful for the presence of the other.
The end came, appropriately enough, on the first day of spring. The snow had begun to melt, revealing shoots of new life. Lorelei sprawled massive and nearly immobile beside the recently-thawed courtyard fountain. Big as she was, a strong wind or a harsh glance might have burst her like a grape. Her young moved languidly inside her as though in preparation – for what, she couldn’t say, or was afraid to. Terra had gone to get water and when she returned Lorelei drank deeply. She had been utterly parched since morning.
“You’ll choke if you drink so quickly,” Terra said.
“I can’t help it,” Lorelei protested between gulps. “I’m so thirsty.”
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do afterward?” Terra lightly brushed her friend’s impossibly bloated belly with her fingers. “The creature can’t be unsummoned.”
“I won’t let them do that!” Lorelei said curtly, then softened. “I’m sorry. Touched that maternal nerve again. No, I haven’t given it much thought. I suppose I’ll take things as they come.”
She suddenly felt the creature stir to life within her, but it was not panicked, as it had been on that snowy night; rather it was lurching to and fro in a markedly deliberate manner, testing the elasticity of its boundaries. Mute with pain, Lorelei clutched her distended sides, struggling without success to somehow anchor herself in place, but the creature would not be denied. This was its time, and it would force itself into this world regardless of the consequences to the woman who had been its host for so long.
“No!” she choked, grasping Terra’s wrist with a strength born of desperation. “Have them take it out of me! It’s – hahh – it’s going to tear me open! It’s – ukk – “
Lorelei felt something snap inside her mind, like rubber stretched too thin, and she was drifting alone in darkness. She was vaguely aware of Terra calling for help a thousand miles away. Was she dead? No – she was being carried. She could not have said what happened in the minutes or hours that followed. Later she was told that she was taken to the summoning atrium, where the confluence of magic was strongest.
The Six, having been at something of a loss with regard to Lorelei’s condition, were forced to improvise. While the removal of a child from within a woman during a difficult pregnancy was more or less commonplace, the process was considerably more delicate when glyphs and incantations took the place of scalpels. The size of the summoned creature in relation to its mother rendered the magical operation doubly hazardous, yet the Six were skilled channelers, and the ritual was accordingly successful.
Oblivion receded, fraying like a leaf being eaten by a caterpillar. Lorelei felt her drifting mind rediscover her body and join with it. She was in bed, and she was greatly diminished; the child had been taken from her womb, and she felt an incomparable sense of loss at its absence, though she was also greatly relieved. Terra was asleep in a chair beside the bed, murmuring to herself in her restless dreams. Lorelei reached out to touch her shoulder and she jolted upright, her eyes comically wide.
“Hi,” she said faintly.
“Lorelei!” Terra leapt up from the chair and hugged her. “You’re awake! You’re – are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I think.” She touched her abdomen lightly. The skin was sore.
“It’s been sealed in a circle of binding,” Terra said. “It was upset without you and they had to do it. They’re hoping it will calm down a little when you…would…would you like to see it?”
“I’m afraid to,” Lorelei said, “but yes.”
“Here.” Terra offered her hand. “I’ll help you walk.”
It wasn’t far. One of the wine cellars used by the old clergymen had been converted to safely hold those summoned beasts that were unruly or otherwise dangerous. Here Lorelei beheld her fearful offspring with horror and delight and wonder. The creature appeared to be nothing but ghost-white tentacles and eyes of varying colors, some square and goat-like, others almost human, its body, comprised entirely of these eyes and tentacles, some six feet in diameter as well as in height. The youngest of the Six (though she was considerably older than Lorelei) stood in attendance, strengthening the prison in which the thing was being held. From time to time it extended one or more of its sinuous white appendages to test the circle, and when it did that the air rippled slightly, but its prison was otherwise invisible to the naked eye.
“That was in me,” Lorelei squeaked.
“Yes,” the attending Summoner answered. “It’s calm now. It’s never been without you. The bond between you is stronger than any I’ve yet encountered. Perhaps, when we’re able to discern what it was you did to make this happen, it will become more common in the future.”
Lorelei nodded. She understood.
“I can leave you alone with it if you’d like,” the Summoner continued.
“Yes, I’d like that.” Lorelei spread her fingers against the invisible wall. It didn’t feel like anything.
The Summoner bowed her head and made her egress without further conversation. The eyes all rolled toward Lorelei, some blinking, others lacking the eyelids to do so. She didn’t know whether to recoil or to embrace the thing, if it were possible. Such an odd thing, motherhood; until the Summoner had mentioned it, Lorelei hadn’t once considered the significance of this peculiar turn of events. She was the first. Perhaps, now, she wouldn’t be the last.
“What do you think?” Terra was, like Lorelei herself, at once awed and ultimately repelled by the summoned creature inside the circle.
“I think,” Lorelei said slowly, “that things are going to be different from now on.”