“We- we should leave before I pass out.”
I was trying very hard not to look at the twitching, skeletal shapes descending from the ridge, creeping toward us through the mist.
“Leave?” Evelyn’s voice shook. She took a deep breath and used the stone pillar at her back to pull herself up. She was unsteady on her feet, all her weight on her right leg. “Yes, you can do that, can’t you? You-”
Thunder interrupted us.
A rolling crash shook the ground, so deep and so loud it rattled my bones. Evelyn slammed her hands over her ears. I winced and screwed up my eyes. The rotten-apricot sky boiled and bubbled, clouds like sea-tossed oil. The stalking figures in the fog stopped and crouched, as if the skin of the world threatened to buck them off.
Evelyn lowered her hands as we both watched the sky.
“That wasn’t happening earlier,” she whispered. “You can get us out?”
I opened my mouth to explain and a wave of dizziness passed through me. My vision swam, black around the edges. My knees buckled and I struck out with one blood-smeared hand to break my fall, felt my feet slip out from under me.
Evelyn lurched forward and caught me under the armpits.
She hissed with pain as her left leg buckled and we fell together on our knees, instead of face down on the rocks.
I clung to her shoulders, squeezed my eyes shut as my consciousness ebbed back, along with the throb of pain in my head. Evelyn did her best to hold me up as I sagged, but she wasn’t very strong.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I let go,” I said, gripped by an urge to explain myself, explain why we were here, like I was embarrassed to be rescuing her from this nowhere-place. “This morning, when I felt your hand, I wasn’t strong enough. I-I didn’t know I could do this, I thought it was all insanity, I wasn’t- didn’t think it was real.”
“Oh, I probably wouldn’t have saved me either.” Evelyn’s voice quivered beneath the veneer of cynicism. I pulled back and she looked at me with mouth agape.
“What? What is it?”
“Are you aware you’re bleeding from around your eyes?”
I wiped my face. My sleeve came away smeared with sticky crimson. “Huh. That’s new.”
Evelyn looked at me like I was mad. Which I wasn’t. Not anymore. Too numb to panic over blood from the eyes. One more misfiring bodily process wasn’t worth my attention.
We had to get out.
I had to do it all over again, in reverse.
A second peal of thunder ripped through the landscape, juddering our bones and shaking my brain. Evelyn suppressed a scream and dug her fingers into my upper arms. The rotten-apricot clouds bulged downward, a swell in an inverted ocean, surrounded by a churning vortex widening by the second.
“Something knows we’re here,” Evelyn said. She nodded toward the creatures in the mist. They were less than forty feet from us now, frozen again in the wake of the thunder, clutching at the ground. “They certainly do.”
“It’s okay, it’s fine, it’s-” Not real?
Evelyn stared at me, wide eyed. “We are most certainly not fine.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know.”
“Then do it, get us out of here, before-”
Thunder, deeper and longer and louder, the voice of an angry god. We clung to each other, two tiny soft vulnerable apes surrounded by stone and metal and sharp bladed things. The thunder rolled and rolled, ten seconds, twenty seconds, and just when I thought it was never going to stop, it began to ebb away.
Evelyn wasn’t looking up. She didn’t see the sky.
The cloud bulge parted; a black rope of tentacle reached through.
The distance, the scale. Thick as a train tunnel.
I tore my eyes away.
“Okay, okay.” I felt sick as my mind touched the Eye’s lessons. “Just hold onto me. I think I can move both of us, I dunno but it’s-”
“You think? Oh God, can you or can’t you?”
“I can. I know I can. It just hurts so much and-”
I never got to finish that sentence, because the world reared up and shook us from its back.
The thunder roared and the ground shuddered. Evelyn and I scrambled to find something to hold onto, slipping and sliding across the floor of the pit, barely clinging to each other.
The great black tentacle rushed down toward us. Displaced air washed away the mist, revealing the knife-and-bone-creatures all around. They were screeching, screaming as they crouched low to the ground, long claws dug into the rock, hind legs locked against the stone.
They’d anchored themselves, like fleas in the hide of a dog.
I realised, in that moment of clarity, exactly what we’d been standing on all along.
Whatever it was, it was scratching its back.
The ground shook side to side in a sudden burst of motion, so fast neither of us had time to brace. The first shake threw us against the floor, bruised my hip and the side of my ribs and drew a sharp cry of pain from Evelyn.
The second shake sent us flying.
The ground span beneath us as we were tossed out of the dip in the landscape like rag dolls. It was a miracle neither of us passed out or suffered whiplash. Evelyn’s hands clawed my arm and she screamed over the rush of air as we fell, her hair lose and streaming out in the wind.
I wasn’t letting her go this time. I tightened a death-grip around her shoulders.
People with much more courage than me don’t have time to think while they’re falling from the sky. I certainly didn’t think. That might be what saved us. I groped with my mind for the right formula, the correct equation to take us back home.
My head exploded. For a second I thought we’d hit the ground and this was death, but Evelyn was still screaming.
Then I saw it, grasped it, had it. Not with my eyes, but with my soul, or what passes for a soul in creatures as small as us, compared to the black, dripping truth of the engines and gears of reality I was trying to manipulate.
“Close your eyes!” I screamed, hoping Evelyn could still hear me.
Reality folded up.
Evelyn and I landed with a soft thump on the floorboards of her front room.
We didn’t let go of each other for a very, very long moment, even when Raine scrambled to her feet from nearby.
“Evee! Heather! Fuck, yes!” She laughed with relief. “How- what- you know what, I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth, this is amazing, I don’t care how you did it.”
I managed to meet her eyes but I couldn’t form any words. My body felt distant, a shell I inhabited on a whim. Evelyn gingerly rolled off me and sat in a heap.
“You two, holy shit, I can’t believe that worked,” Raine continued. “Heather, wow, I-”
“I don’t know what you’re laughing at,” Evelyn said. Her voice croaked, thin and strained, but she cleared her throat and out came the barbed tongue. “This is all your fault, you realise that?”
“What?” Raine blinked, a goofy smile on her face.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, you know perfectly well what you’ve done.”
“Me?” Raine spread her arms. “Evee, come off it, you’re the one who decided to try untested magic without me here.”
“Well you should have been here to stop me, shouldn’t you?”
Evelyn turned to look down at me. She dropped the scorn she’d used on Raine and met my eyes with naked concern. I tried to blink. Eyelids were heavy as iron.
Raine laughed. “I don’t believe you. Come off-”
“This is no time for auguring.” Evelyn clicked her fingers at Raine. “Get a glass of a water, the chocolate in the tin, and some of the painkillers – the good stuff, the co-codamol, and be quick about it.”
Raine opened her mouth to argue but then finally realised I wasn’t sitting up or saying anything. She all but ran out of the room. Good Raine, could always rely on her. Shouldn’t have distrusted her. It was all real, wasn’t it? All of it.
“And you did kill the thing that came through in my place, yes?” Evelyn called after her.
“It’s under the bin bags!”
Evelyn returned her attention to me. “Heather, Heather can you hear me? What you did there was very brave. Oh dear,” she whispered. “Please don’t die now.” She reached down and awkwardly patted my cheek. I realised she was trying to slap me to keep me conscious.
With great effort I managed to turn my head to one side, then heaved with every last ounce of energy I had and rolled myself over into the recovery position. The world went dark for a moment.
Directly across from me lay the dead monster, underneath some black bin liners Raine had draped over the shattered corpse. Poor, lost thing, transported to another dimension where nothing made sense, unable to go home, then confronted by two terrifying apes and beaten to death when it had responded in fear. Not fair, was it?
Raine returned and helped pull me into a sitting position, though I whined and resisted, just wanted to lie down and sleep forever. She held a glass to my lips and made me drink drink small, sharp sips of cold water as I stared into middle distance. She broke off a piece of dark chocolate and held it up.
“It’s okay, Heather, you don’t have to eat a lot.”
“You need it for the serotonin,” Evelyn said, breaking off several squares for herself. “Best medicine after too much exposure.”
I just stared at it. Didn’t register as food. Raine shot a wordless glance at Evelyn.
“No, Raine, I have no idea what’s wrong with her,” Evelyn said. “She did all that with nothing except her own brain. Even my mother couldn’t do that. Heather, open your mouth.”
I accepted being fed, too distant and dissociated for embarrassment. Sip water, eat bite of chocolate; the process went on for ten, fifteen minutes until I begun to feel merely exhausted instead of dead.
“ … the … ” I coughed – a spike of headache pain – and tried again. “The painkillers would be nice.”
Raine lit up and sighed with relief.
“She’s back, she’ll be fine,” Evelyn said.
Raine grinned. “I’ll bet. Here, courtesy of Evee’s supply.”
I swallowed the pills with a mouthful of water, licked my lips and realised I was still smeared with my own blood. I made a half-hearted attempt to wipe my face on my sleeve. “What … what-”
“Shhh, don’t worry about it right now.”
“Go run her a bath, we’re both filthy,” Evelyn said. “And fetch my stick, I’m sick of cowering on the floor.”
By the time I woke, night had fallen on Sharrowford.
The hour after we’d returned from the Stone-world was a soft blur of bodily need and bare consciousness. Raine had helped me up the stairs and into the bathroom. I was barely able to undress myself, all my movements slow and stiff, clothes stuck to skin with half-dry cold sweat. I’d pushed away Raine’s well-intentioned help, far too embarrassed to let her strip me. In the end it took me ten minutes just to get my clothes off while she waited outside.
In the bath, I’d drifted off for a long time, soaking in the hot water. Couldn’t recall the last time I’d had a bath. Always showers. Less dangerous. Eventually I summoned the energy to wash the blood off my face and the iron tang of that other world off my body. Raine left me clean clothes, a baggy tshirt and plaid pajama bottoms which I assumed belonged to Evelyn. Took an awfully long time to get into them.
I let Raine guide me to Evelyn’s bedroom, where she told me to lie on the bed. She’d draped a blanket over me and said to sleep as long as I needed. If I’d been tucked into bed by a girl like Raine a few days ago, I’d have been over the moon, too excited for sleep, but I passed out the moment my head touched the pillow.
Nothing like a supernatural near-death experience to disarm anxiety disorders. I wouldn’t recommend it though.
Only now, sitting up on the mass of quilts and sheets on Evelyn’s bed, did I feel a distant twinge of embarrassment.
A little streetlight glow filtered around the edge of the curtains, but otherwise the room was dark. The door had been left ajar. I tested the strength in my legs, then wobbled over and peered out into the corridor. A light showed from downstairs.
I descended the stairs slowly, one at a time like a small child, clutching the old wooden banister to hold myself up. My head still ached with pain’s echo and my legs trembled as I walked, but that was nothing; weakness radiated from my core, as if I’d pulled a muscle I hadn’t known about. Halfway down I smelled greasy food and my stomach grumbled. Soft muttered conversation broke off as the stairs creaked.
In the front room the magic circle was gone. Cleaned away. A dark stain lingered nearby.
I found Evelyn and Raine sitting at the kitchen table.
“Heather!” Raine stood up and took my hands. “How do you feel? You slept okay, yeah?”
“I’ve been better,” I mumbled.
“I bet, I bet,” Raine said. “Come on, sit down. You hungry?”
“ … extremely.”
Evelyn sipped from a mug of tea and met my eyes with quiet regard. She was freshly scrubbed, hair washed and pinned up behind her head. She had a fluffy blanket draped over her shoulders, tshirt and shorts underneath.
I tried not to stare at her – at her problems.
The kitchen was all cracked tiles, wooden counters, and a massive metal stove, rustic and cosy and very much my kind of place. An antiquated survival into the modern world. Heat poured from a naked iron radiator bolted to the back wall. Raine settled me in a chair and set about reheating some of the chicken stew they’d been eating.
Sitting hurt. I took a moment to probe my left hip and the side of my ribs, left elbow and shoulder. Bruises from Outside.
”Starting to feel the aftermath, are you?” Evelyn said. “It’ll be worse in the morning.”
She was bruised too, a nasty purple welt on her chin and I assumed more underneath her clothes. I tried to give her a smile.
“You can look, if you want. No need to pretend you don’t see,” she said.
“Wait ‘till she’s got some food in her, hey Evee?” Raine said, spooning rice into my bowl of chicken and setting it in front of me. The greasy smell made my mouth water.
“I think Heather is more than capable of fending for herself.” Evelyn turned to me, expression softer than the one she kept for Raine. “I don’t let people see me like this, but I assume our relationship is rather past that point.”
“Nothing like saving a girl’s life to break the ice,” Raine said. Evelyn shot her a withering look.
In tiny, selfish way, I agreed with Raine; I felt guilty, as if I’d taken a dirty shortcut to Evelyn’s heart.
“I was only being polite,” I said. “It’s rude to stare at … “ I gestured with my eyes at her bare legs.
Well, what remained of them.
Evelyn’s left leg was twisted at the knee and ankle, the muscles thin and withered, as if it had once been broken in multiple places and healed at the wrong angles. She flexed her left foot as if to show me it still worked.
Her right leg, the good one, was artificial.
A pale rubber socket ringed the stump of her thigh, attached to the matte-black curve of a modern prosthetic limb. It terminated in a blade-shaped support-structure inside a plastic foot. It looked wrong, a blunt piece of machinery attached soft flesh, but it was far less weird than everything else so far today.
“Carbon fiber,” she said.
“State of the art stuff. Costs an arm and a leg,” Raine said, and cracked a huge grin. Evelyn rolled her eyes, and I could tell by her expression she’d heard that joke a million times before. A tiny pang of jealousy pricked at me, but I was too hungry to care.
“I have to eat.”
Evelyn just stared level at me, so I dug in.
Rice and chicken. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was the first proper home cooked food I’d eaten in weeks. Not a cereal bar or a microwave ready-meal or coffee. The empty, bruised space inside me responded with the most intense hunger of my life, and I had to force myself to go slow. A wave of animal gratitude passed through me. I asked who made it. Raine had. Salt and pepper, oregano and cumin. Real food, made by a – friend?
Raine busied herself clearing up the table, but Evelyn watched me and sipped cold tea. Raine kept giving her meaningful looks, which drew worse and worse counter-glares from Evelyn until I was sitting in the firing line of an emotional cold war.
“I have not forgotten, Raine,” Evelyn said eventually, thumping her mug down. “The severity of my-” she bit the words back and took a sharp breath. “The moment requires significantly more gravity.”
“Iiiiif you say so.” Raine sat back at the table, turned a smile on me and touched my arm. “Let me know if you need anything, okay? There’s brownies in the fridge, if you fancy one for afters.”
“Do you really think I’m that callous?” Evelyn carried on. “That much of a bitch? Your confidence in me is touching. We’ve both been through rather a traumatic experience today, Heather and I. Give me a moment.”
Raine held up both hands in surrender, a barely controlled smile on her lips. “I didn’t say anything.”
I swallowed a mouthful of food and put my spoon down with a clack. “Will you two stop it? Please? I can’t deal with you bickering on top of … everything else. Not right now.”
Raine had the good grace to look sheepish. Evelyn nodded and took a deep breath. She sat up straight and a suppressed wince passed over her face. She struggled with her posture for a moment before she caught my eye and spoke.
“Heather, I want to thank you, for rescuing me. You have my gratitude, and I am in your debt.”
I blinked at her.
“That’s her way of being friendly,” Raine said.
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “You have no sense of gravitas, Raine. Absolutely none.”
“Uh, sure, you’re— you’re very welcome?” I shrugged. “I don’t even know what I did, not really.”
“Mm, yes, so you say.” Evelyn leaned back in her chair with obvious physical relief.
“I’m not interested in the what. I know what you did. You breached the membrane between here and Outside, and you did so without any magical tools or devices, no access to the relevant books, no knowledge, no training, no history. Your mind, alone. I want to know how.”
I held up a hand – the how presented itself to me in a flash of the Eye’s lessons, and suddenly the food in my belly turned to lead. “I can’t- it’s very difficult for me to talk about this. I-I-”
“Hey, Evee, maybe drop this?” Raine said softly.
“Raine filled me in on the basics, the things you told her about,” Evelyn said. “But I need more, I need the details. Yes, there’s some entity out there feeding you hyperdimensional mathematics in your dreams, but-”
I curled up, cold sweat beading on my forehead, nausea roiling in my belly. “E-Evelyn I-”
“- what I don’t understand is how you executed it, any of it-”
“Evee, drop it, seriously,” Raine raised her voice. “She’s exhausted and I told you this makes her ill.”
“Will you stop babying her?” Evelyn turned on Raine. “Not everybody needs your bloody ministrations twenty-four seven.”
I lurched out of my chair, shoved my face over the kitchen sink, and vomited.
The edges of my vision throbbed black. My knees buckled. My body had nothing more to give. Gentle hands touched my back and Raine murmured in my ear, talked me through each deep breath. Clear mind. Just breathe.
I groped for the tap and washed my mouth out, then turned on Evelyn. She was frowning at me, confused. Same expression I’d seen on a dozen would-be friends in my early teens; oh dear, turns out little Heather Morell is crazy. Better handle her like blown glass.
“I don’t know anything,” I snapped. “This is what happens, when I try to think about it. Well done, thank you for that, Evelyn, thank you. Why do you think I was bleeding so much when I came for you? Bleeding from my eyes? It’s not supposed to be in my head, it’s alien, and it’s killing me.”
I forced myself to hold her gaze, to stand straight, hanging onto Raine for support. I wasn’t really angry at Evelyn. I was angry at everything, life, reality, the Eye, all my certainties crumbling beneath me. No outlet for the frustration.
“Heather, hey, let’s get you sat down again, okay?” Raine purred.
Evelyn swallowed and looked away.
I allowed myself to be sat back down, rubbing my tender stomach muscles. Raine put a glass of water in front of me. I drank slowly.
“Some of us never had the luxury of fragility,” Evelyn said.
“Evee, for fuck’s sake,” Raine said.
I gave Evelyn a very unimpressed look. She cleared her throat. “What I mean to say is, it’s difficult for me to place myself in your shoes, Heather. I’m quite used to all of this.”
“What, almost dying in other dimensions?”
“Well, no, not that, that was new.” Evelyn looked awkward and took a long sip from her mug. She settled it back on the table and stared at it for a moment before she continued. “I suppose you need it right from the top. Very well. I am a magician, and Raine is my bodyguard.”
Raine slapped the table. “Come on, at least upgrade me to companion. Champion, even! Childhood friend, at the very least?”
“You might not believe in what you’ve seen today-”
“She’s been practising this for hours,” Raine stage-whispered. Evelyn stopped and glared daggers at her.
I glanced between their faces, trying to gauge if this was serious. Of course it was. Did I doubt everything I’d seen today? The blood, the sweat, the choice I’d made, to save Evelyn?
A tiny, screaming part of me refused to accept this was real.
I’d ignored the most important implication.
If this was real, then —
A great tightness seized my chest.
Had to distract myself. Deny, deny, deny.
“Magician?” I repeated, struggling to keep my voice level.
“Yes. Magician. Mage. Wizard. Whatever term makes most sense to you.”
“So, what, you … ” An unbidden laugh entered my voice, the leading edge of hysteria. “Throw fireballs and talk to black cats? Do you have a cauldron in the basement? Dancing brooms?” A hiccup slipped out as I fought to control myself. “Is that what the Medieval Metaphysics department is all about? A secret magic school in Sharrowford university?”
Evelyn sighed and sagged heavily in her chair.
“Not that sort of magic,” Raine said with a sad kind of smile. “It’s a bit more difficult than that.”
”The department is a convenient bureaucratic fiction,” Evelyn said. “Protective colouration. It did exist, from 1902 to 1954, for the study of the sorts of things I do, but it wasn’t in the open, you understand? Respectable academia was a cover for a tiny coven of men from the university – professors Ambleworth and Wakeley, and a few hangers-on – who founded the department when they encountered certain books they shouldn’t have been in possession of, things they shouldn’t have seen. Ambleworth went mad in 1948 and died in a mental hospital. Wakeley blew his own brains out two years later. The others limped on for a little while but there was another suicide and a scandal, that ended it.
“All that’s left is the book collection in the university library, rare things, things you can’t find anywhere else unless you’re part of the right clandestine cliques. I know all this because my family was involved — is involved. Now the department is just me. When one’s family has donated as much money to an academic institution as mine has, they sort of let you do what you want, as long as you keep it quiet and appear respectable.” She pulled herself up, looked me in the eye. “And what I do there is study the books. Officially I’m getting a degree in Classics.”
A battered spark flickered inside me. “Classics? You’re learning Latin and Ancient Greek?”
“I don’t need to learn them, I was taught them as a child. Came with the family obligations. I turn in a few essays every term and the university turns a blind eye. I’m even lined up for a postdoctorate program afterward. They don’t have a clue, it’s just me and Raine. If you meet any other magicians in this city then it’s too late, you’re already dead.”
The way she spoke the last words made my skin crawl. I blinked at her.
“Yeah, it’s more Hannibal Lecter than Harry Potter out there,” Raine said, then caught the look on my face and put her hand over mine. “Hey, that’s why I’m here.”
“There is no community of mages,” Evelyn went on. “There’s my … family,” she made the word sound like an insult. “There’s a few dangerous cults worshipping things they shouldn’t – a couple of them right here in Sharrowford – a few lone madmen, maybe even one or two others like me, and there’s things out there in the city we try to avoid. And you, apparently.”
I shook my head slowly.
“No, no this isn’t real.” My voice quivered. I had to convince myself. The alternative was unthinkable. “You’re just … this is just a story. This is some fantasy nonsense play-acting. It’s not real.”
Evelyn frowned. “You need more proof than what happened today? You provided your own proof quite handily, I thought.”
“Yes, but what if I’m crazy?” I had to bite my lips for a moment to control my voice. “What if you two have been watching me and stalking me, cataloguing and recording my behaviour, and you’re both perfect improv actors pulling some sick joke on me, riffing off whatever I’ve hallucinated today?” Evelyn blinked in surprise but Raine nodded sagely. “These are the sorts of questions I have to ask myself.”
“Didn’t Raine kill the tick in front of you? Wasn’t that real enough?” Evelyn asked.
“The tick, the thing which came through in my place, when I completed the swap. That’s what I’ve decided to call it, unless I find it properly described and categorised elsewhere. I think that’s what those things were. That, or fleas. The proof is still right over there.” Evelyn gestured at the kitchen doorway.
I looked round and saw what I’d missed in the front room. Several black bin bags bulged next to the stairs, double-wrapped, sealed with duct tape.
Dissociation washed over me as I imagined the contents of those bags, as I looked back at my new friends and noticed other details I’d missed earlier: the shiny clean nightstick on the kitchen sink draining board, next to a butcher’s cleaver.
“Hey, somebody’s gotta do it,” Raine said, smiling awkwardly. “Don’t be scared of me, yeah?”
“That’s okay, I’m not scared.”
Raine’s violence had turned me on earlier, the rush and the romance of it, but the thought of her chopping up a body and stuffing it into rubbish bags left me ice cold.
This couldn’t be real, because if it was —
Traitor, weakling, coward.
The void yawned wider.
“It’s not real,” I whispered.
Evelyn steepled her fingers and considered for a moment. “Raine, pass me the fade stone.”
Raine fetched something from the kitchen counter and pressed it into Evelyn’s palm – the chunk of white quartz I’d seen her holding twice before.
“Pay close attention,” Evelyn said.
I stared at her, not sure what to expect. She held the piece of quartz in her lap and closed her fist around it, then lowered her eyes in concentration.
She wasn’t there.
Oh, I thought, I missed her standing up and going into the other room. I looked up and around, caught Raine smirking at me. I cleared my throat and frowned with mounting confusion. “Wait, wait, I was supposed to be watching Evelyn.”
“Heather, look at the chair,” Raine said, barely able to hold back a laugh.
“And don’t laugh at me. I still haven’t forgiven you for earlier, Raine, laughing at me when I was on the verge of a panic attack.”
She cleared her throat, sheepish now. “Take a look at the chair, seriously.”
I glanced back at Evelyn’s chair. The blanket she’d had wrapped around her shoulders lay draped over the back. Her walking stick was propped against the armrest.
“And nothing,” Evelyn said.
She was sitting exactly where she’d been before, and somehow I simply hadn’t seen her. The blanket was wrapped around her shoulders again.
I blinked at her, felt a dislocation of time and space, like reality had just failed and glitched out.
“Where- where did you go? What just happened? Don’t- don’t try to confuse me, I … ”
Evelyn held up the quartz chunk. “This stone, a little piece of inheritance. The right sequence of thoughts, personal silence, a little practice, and the user is edited from the sight of an observer. I don’t quite know where it came from, but I suspect my family made it somehow. You’ve seen it before, I was using it Outside, to hide from the ticks, and from you, when you barged into the Medieval Metaphysics room.”
“Hiding from me? I’m not exactly threatening.”
“I told you. There are things and people in this city we want to avoid. You could have been anybody.”
“Okay, that was … okay.” I swallowed, throat dry. My hands were shaking.
Raine stood up, stepped behind my chair, and started to rub my shoulders. I shrugged her off and pushed her away.
“Heather, hey, it’s good for you, I promise I’m not-”
I turned on her as the ground began to crumble beneath my feet. I groped for a way out, anything to hold back that one thought.
“Are you even real?” I demanded.
“ … Heather? Of course I’m real.” Raine grinned and spread her arms. “I’m flesh and blood, you can touch me as much as you like.”
“No, this isn’t real, neither of you are real. You—” I clamped down on the lump in my throat, the wrenching in my chest. “You’re too good to be true, Raine. You’ve everything I need, you’re a walking, talking fantasy, my brain telling itself a fairytale about being accepted and wanted. About a cool older girl taking me under her wing. You’re not real.”
Tears were rolling down my cheeks. I fought to keep speaking.
“No! How can you be real? What a coincidence, that you’re here in Sharrowford, that you happen to go to the Aardvark on the exact morning I did, at the exact time I did. What a coincidence that I have a breakdown and you just happen to see me. You’re not real. This is my fantasy and I’m sitting in an empty house in the dark, talking to myself.”
Evelyn and Raine shared a glance. Evelyn looked like a deer in headlights.
I knew I was being unfair, scrabbling for the slimmest handhold I had left to deny, deny, deny.
“Heather,” Evelyn said. “You performed a technical miracle today. You can’t-”
I rounded on her. “And you, you’re even worse. You’re the unspoken promise that my insanity means something. That being crazy has a purpose. You’re the beginning of paranoid schizophrenia, persecution complexes, banging my head against a padded cell wall for the rest of my life.”
“Have you finished?” Evelyn asked. I tried to stare her down, but I felt like a sick child.
“Why Sharrowford? Why are you even here?” I said. “Can either of you answer that?”
“The Eye has been feeding you knowledge for a decade,” Evelyn said. “The most likely explanation is that it wanted you in Sharrowford, so it nudged you to choose the university. I’m not surprised, considering the nature of the city, the sorts of things that happen here.”
“Heather, it’s okay.” Raine tried to take my hand but I flinched away from her.
“That still doesn’t explain you two,” I said.
Raine leaned down so I couldn’t avoid her face. “Heather, hey. Sometimes you get lucky. The nightmares stopped, didn’t they? Even if we’re not real, that’s a pretty good trade off.”
That look on her face – the kindness, the understanding, the bloody-minded stubborn refusal to give up on me – shattered my last line of defence, and I started crying.
I wrapped my arms around my head and rocked in place on the chair, great big wet sobs ripping out of my throat. Ten years of bullshit and lies. Ten years of being this and the whole thing fell apart around me and I couldn’t keep it out anymore. I scrubbed at my eyes, hid my face behind my hands, drew my feet up onto the chair and tried to curl into a ball. “It can’t be real it can’t be real it can’t be real.”
Raine put her arms around me, held on tight. I tried to push her off but I didn’t care anymore, gave up and buried my face in her shoulder. She could cut me up and shove me in bin liners like the monster if she wanted, because I was living trash.
“Shhhhh, it’s okay, Heather, it’s okay.”
“It’s not, it’s not, it’s never okay,” I cried.
“It will be, it-”
Couldn’t deny it any longer. The truth came out in a wail, at last:
“I left her behind.”
Neither of them said anything for a long moment, but I could picture it. The shared look over my head, Evelyn’s frown, Raine’s realisation. I kept going, pouring it all out between the wracking sobs and the horrible pain in my chest.
“My sister. Maisie. My twin. I left her behind in Wonderland. If she was real then I left her behind. I left my sister behind.”
“Here, Heather? Try to keep something down, you really need it.”
“I don’t feel like eating.”
I’d cried until empty but the wound still ached. Twin-shaped hole in my chest, ten years in the making.
Evelyn had brooded in silence as Raine held me and hugged me and brought me tissues to blow my nose. Eventually I’d uncurled, sat up and tried not to feel like the worst traitor and coward in the world. A glass of water and long minutes to calm down and think.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think I’d-”
“Heather,” Raine said before I could bury myself under a mountain of apologies. “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to let it all out. That’s some burden, you don’t have to bear it alone.”
“ … so, are we real now? Gotta start somewhere.”
I shrugged. “What choice do I have? At least I’m not lonely. Imaginary friends are better than dying of a brain aneurysm.”
Raine put her hand over mine and gave me a smile, an it’s-going-to-be-okay smile. “Real friends are even better. Promise you that.”
I shook my head. My throat tightened up but I had no more tears to cry. “I left her behind.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Raine said. “Right, Evee? Could that have been her fault?”
“ … no, of course not. A child, Outside, in a face-to-face encounter with a … with something beyond our comprehension. No. Raine is correct.”
“Survivor’s guilt,” I said. “I know. A ten-year dose all at once. Knowing what it is doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Difficult, I understand,” Evelyn said, with such conviction.
I looked up at Evelyn, this mage with her fluffy golden hair and missing fingers, stolen limbs and spinal problems. I wondered what her history was. What could she do, what were her limits?
A seed of an idea took root in my mind.
A seed only possible after a day like today. I didn’t dare give it light or water.
But I started to ask the questions anyway.
“Why were you even over in … wherever that was?” I gestured at the air, at the Outside places. “You did a spell, took yourself there?”
Evelyn looked away, failing to conceal her discomfort. “In a manner of speaking. You saw the circle, the methods I used. Yes, that was magic. Of a kind.”
“Why go there?”
“She was jealous,” Raine said.
“Oh for pity’s sake, Raine, that is such an ugly word.” Evelyn turned back to me. “I was … intrigued, by what Raine said about your ‘Slipping’ episodes. I didn’t believe it was possible. There were a few relevant passages I recalled from Unbekannte Orte, and an incantation in Stellhoff’s Unfinished Book, but I’d never risked the procedures before. And … well, as it turned out, there was no way to bring myself back again. Hubris and arrogance. Raine should have been here to stop me.”
“There’s nothing about me to be jealous of,” I muttered.
“That wasn’t heroism. I’m a coward. I just had to know if it was all real.”
Raine opened her mouth, probably to stop me beating myself up, but Evelyn spoke first.
“Hardly the act of a coward, to voluntarily put oneself through such a test. I should know.”
I said nothing, took up my food again, just to fill the roaring silence inside my head, but it tasted bland and chewy now. Raine kept trying to catch my eye with another smile, and after a few moments I let her.
At least I had that. At least Raine was real.
If a bit weird.
Raine was busy saying something about a permanent solution to my nightmares – but I paid another sliver of attention to the dangerous seed in my mind.
“Evelyn,” I said. “Tell me about magic, please.”
Evelyn started to speak, but Raine raised her voice and took my hand.
“Look, Heather, you’ve been through a lot today. You can worry about all that tomorrow.”
“No,” I said, and pulled my hand away. She was pretty and she was dashing and the memory of the earlier violence still sent a thrill through me at the sight of her, but not like this. “I’m not going to be treated like a child. If you’re going to treat me like that, I’m going to just go home and … and forget about both of you.”
It was an obvious bluff, but I kept my poker face. Raine smiled all the same. Evelyn let out a dark laugh.
“Perhaps you were right, Raine,” she said. “Heather and I are a little alike.”
For the next hour, with the wind picking up outside, they told me truths.
Magic, according to Evelyn, was not throwing fireballs or waving pretty wands, it was not casting the runes or reading the future in tealeaves. It was blood and bone and the application of human willpower onto the secret workings of the cosmos. It was stolen half-remembered scraps of Latin and Greek and older, inhuman languages from a time we best left forgot. It was to scream the names of alien gods and their unseen workings in the hope a fragment of knowledge would yield a result. It was frequently unclean and dangerous and potentially obscene.
As I came to learn, her words did not do it justice. No words can.
Raine and Evelyn had known each for years. Evelyn became terse and evasive over the details, but I gathered that she’d had problems with her family’s expectations of her, and Raine had stepped in to help. I found out later what exactly those expectations were, but at the time I left Evelyn to her privacy.
Raine convinced me to eat again as we talked, and this time I kept it all down. She fixed me a mug of hot chocolate and offered to add a slug of vodka from the fridge.
“No, thank you.”
“It’ll help, promise. It’s hardly the devil’s juice, it’s not even Tesco Value, and I’m only gonna give you a little drop. You’re not allergic or anything?”
”No, no, I’m not.” I sighed. Why not abandon another foundation? “What the heck. Go ahead.”
Peer pressure. Not something I ever experienced back in school. Never went to parties, never had any real close friends, never got offered a cigarette or stolen alcohol. That had always been for bad girls, people going off the rails, and I hardly needed any extra help to do that.
The hot chocolate went down smooth, chased with a sharp aftertaste and a slow warmth radiating out from my chest. I drank more, sighed, and realised I’d never done this either – sat in a cosy, comfy room with people my age. Friends? My soul was weak and sputtering, but I felt it. I wanted more.
“Where do I fit in to all this? What happened to me? Maisie and I?”
My throat caught when I said her name, but I had to say it now.
“I don’t know,” Evelyn said, shaking her head. “I could make an educated guess, but I don’t know what it was that took you, what it wanted, anything about it. This Eye — I guarantee we’re all much happier in ignorance of the motivations of such a being.”
Raine got up and crossed behind my chair as Evelyn spoke. She went in for the shoulder rub again and this time I let her touch me, stiff and tense at first, wincing as she melted the knots out of my muscles. Evelyn looked on with barely concealed distaste. I wondered if it was jealousy, but I didn’t have the extra mental bandwidth for that right now.
“Why do I see the things I do? If they’re not hallucinations, then … “
Evelyn studied me for a quiet moment. “I have a theory.”
“Theories for everything, our Evee’s got,” Raine said. “One for every day of the year.”
Evelyn fixed Raine with a dagger-stare. “Will you stop that? And I am usually correct.” Raine held up one hand in surrender and Evelyn continued. “I suspect your waking visions are the ability to see pneuma-somatic fauna, without aid of trance-state or device, likely an intention or side-effect of the Eye’s changes. I’ve never heard of it before, I have no idea if it’s possible, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Pneuma-somatic fauna,” I echoed, deadpan. “Means what, exactly?”
“Well … a less technical term … that is-”
“Say iiiiiiit,” Raine said, lighting up with a grin. “You know you want to.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and huffed. “Spirits. You can see spirits, anima, kami, whatever you want to call them. Though I suspect you of all people don’t need to be told that doesn’t mean bedsheet ghosts and headless ladies.”
My menagerie of horrors? I nodded.
“And there was that Servitor following me, don’t forget,” Raine said, a hint of smug pride in her voice.
“Yes yes, we’ll have to look into that,” Evelyn waved her down and fixed me with a penetrating gaze. “More importantly, Heather, as Raine has made it abundantly clear to me, you want the nightmares and the visions to stop, to go away. Correct?”
‘Yes’ died on my lips. Evelyn saw more than she let on.
She saw the seed, growing.
“Heather?” Raine prompted.
“Because that is not the only option,” Evelyn continued. “You deserve to know that. You did things today, with nothing but your mind, and that-”
“I think now’s a little too late at night, Evee,” Raine said. “And uh, practical issues first, right?”
“You see? Raine would have me coddle you.”
“Evee, come on, you promised,” Raine said.
“I did no such thing.”
“You did! And hey, she saved your life today, don’t be a shit about this. You’re not the only one who can sulk.”
“Stop it. Both of you,” I hissed, shrugged Raine’s hands off my shoulders. “Stop talking past me and over me like I’m not here. Promised what?”
“I’m gonna put the warding sign back on your hand,” Raine said. “And under your pillow, and on your door. And Evelyn here, my lifelong friend and ally,” she said with an unexpected twist to her tone. “Is going to help look into a more permanent solution. Aren’t you?”
Evelyn looked unimpressed, arms folded.
“If you can make the nightmares stop, then … ” I swallowed hard.
It had been ten years. One night in Wonderland had ruined me.
Not the only option?
I dared not touch the idea too closely. White hot and impossible. Ten years? Couldn’t think this way, I’d drive myself over the edge. My resolution must have shown on my face, because Evelyn took a deep breath and answered me.
“Yes, yes I believe we can stop the nightmares. Using the warding sign will buy us time for a more permanent solution. We’ll have to see.”
“There you go, wasn’t so hard, was it?” Raine asked. Evelyn huffed.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I muttered. “In more ways than one.”
“It’ll be okay, I promise,” Raine said, and squeezed my shoulders.
“Yeah, damn, right, says me. Welcome to the real world, Heather.”
And then there were three.
I suppose you want to hear about the rest of it, don’t you? About the events in Sharrowford the following year, the ones which made the national news, the ones you don’t know half the truth about. And after, about how we turned back the clawing at the rim of reality.
But first, about those in Sharrowford my new friends were so eager to avoid.
And about my twin sister. About Maisie.
Don’t come here.
“We- we should leave before I pass out.”