Evelyn wound up the parable of The Castle, watching me with faint hope in her eyes.
“That’s … very comforting,” I said. I hadn’t yet constructed my own far less optimistic version. She nodded and smiled a sad kind of smile.
“It does make some sense of things, even if it’s a bad metaphor. Map isn’t the territory and all that. The other way to think of it, which my mother was fond of, is that God was a poor workman who left a lot of holes in reality, but, eh.”
All my two-week-long suppressed curiosity was leading up to one unthinkable prospect, a concept so tender and fragile that I couldn’t approach it head-on. I needed every piece laid out, accounted for and examined, before I could form the question.
“So I can do magic with my mind,” I said.
“Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. That’s what you did. I think.” Evelyn paused and looked at me with a funny frown. “Can we talk about this without making you vomit? These floorboards are no fun to clean.”
I blushed a little. “As long as you don’t expect me to write the maths down.”
“Mm. Well. Your ‘Eye’, I think it’s been feeding you hyperdimensional mathematics, an access method for the layer of reality which underpins everything, the stuff magic manipulates. When you transported yourself to that world of rock and stone, Outside, it took you minutes. Raine told me. No tools. No knowledge. No books. That spell took me over an hour. You skipped magic, went straight to the result.”
Her voice was low, serious. Admiring? It left me deeply uncomfortable.
“And lost a lot of blood. And my lunch.”
“Mm, I don’t recommend you make a habit of it. The human mind was never meant to jam itself into the gears of reality so unprotected.”
“You hardly have to tell me that.” I sighed. “Look, this contradicts everything you said before about it being impossible to apply the scientific method.”
Evelyn sighed and waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s a just a theory, one my mother dabbled in. She didn’t believe it though. There’s no way of testing it or proving it. The human mind can’t perform the necessary operations. Until you. I think this ‘Eye’ has tried to make you capable of direct access to the mathematical substrate.” A strange smile crept onto her lips. “You proved my mother wrong. Living evidence it’s possible. Though not desirable, I suppose.”
“No kidding,” I muttered.
Evelyn didn’t say anything further on the subject, but watched me with cold calculation in her eyes, one crooked finger to her lips.
This would have been the perfect moment to ask the question. We were on the subject, Evelyn was taking me seriously. Ask it, do it, I willed myself. But I circled away to safer waters.
“Can Raine do any magic?” I asked, forcing down the lump in my throat.
Evelyn scoffed. “Nothing that I don’t hand her ready to point and pull the trigger. Even the most simple magic takes long study, mental discipline, attention to detail. And you have to be a little bit broken to even start, be exposed and survive, put your mind back together. There’s a reason most mages are insane, or worse. Raine just sees everything as a problem to be solved, usually by punching it.”
“I don’t mind that about her.” I smiled and shrugged and edged closer to the core of my curiosity, trying to stay calm. “Why study magic at all, if it messes you up so badly?”
“Who knows? I’m under no illusions about myself. I know I’d make a clinical psychologist’s career if you got me in front of one. For other mages, I can only guess.” Evelyn shrugged. “Power. Knowledge. Some people just want to know the mind of God. Cultists, people messed up by things from Outside, I suspect they have less human motives. Present company excluded.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“I meant it.”
“Why do you keep going with magic? Because of your family?”
“My reasons are deeply personal,” Evelyn said in the same tone one might deliver news of a terminal disease. I waited a beat, expecting her to add ‘so I’d rather not talk about it’, or ‘you wouldn’t understand’, but that was apparently her last word on the subject. The silence lingered.
I came to learn that between Evelyn and I, much could pass without discomfort that between others would be cause for awkward feelings. Those shared minutes in an alien world, lost Outside, bleeding from my eyes and plucking her from the pit of absolute terror, counted for quite a lot. Despite her rough edges and my own poorly managed responses, our shared silences defaulted to comfortable.
“Evelyn,” I said, much softer than I’d intended. I cleared my throat. “Evee, do you think I could learn magic?”
She raised a questioning eyebrow. I wish I could tell her how much that wasn’t what I needed right now.
I could no longer avoid the reason for all my curiosity, no longer hide behind what I dressed up as grief.
“I-I think I could try. If nothing else I know I’m at least a little intellectual, I can think clearly this last week, I can get some focus. Maybe if I read the books seriously. Or maybe if I could learn to c-control the … the math … ” I tapped my forehead and trailed off. What absurdity. What an unthinkable idea. Who was I kidding?
Oh, the question, the worst question.
“Third stage of grief,” I said. “I can’t accept she’s dead. If I learned … if I … I want to find my twin. I want to find Maisie.”
My voice died as I spoke, quieter and quieter, until I whispered her name.
“Oh,” Evelyn said. “Mm. That’s-“
“Stupid notion, I know.” I shook my head and looked up. Evelyn frowned at me.
“Not stupid, no. But- oh dammit all, Heather. If I was a less ethical person, I would say yes, seek out your sister, you can do it, let’s go rescue a lost child. Let’s all aspire to be bloody heroes. That would certainly further my own aims. Having another mage on my side. But no. Absolutely not.”
The spark of hope guttered into darkness. I sniffed, suddenly aware I was holding back tears. “Why- why not?”
“Because I won’t mislead you. I won’t do that. You’re talking about going up against an alien god. Something so powerful it can reach across dimensions to alter your mind. It can’t be fought, not by either of us, not by anybody. The best we can do is wall you off and hide you from it. This isn’t what you want to hear, and it’s not what Raine will tell you: your sister is dead. She’s been dead for ten years. There’s nothing to rescue. Nothing human can survive out there for long.”
“I know,” I murmured.
Evelyn was not like Raine. In fact, I don’t think she was wired for physical comfort at all. She got up and gave me a few moments privacy to pull myself back together, and I think that moment was when I began to grieve for real.
Maisie was gone, and I was no hero.
Evelyn returned with a slender paperback book held to her chest, more a pamphlet really, a few dozen pages bound with staples. Her eyes searched mine. I sniffed and wiped my nose in embarrassment, but she didn’t seem to care.
“I’m not sure I should give you this,” she said.
“What- what is it?” I did my best to sound normal again.
She turned the pamphlet to show me the title: Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology, by Professor Wilson Stout. It looked cheaply printed, faded and battered.
“This is by one of the men who was involved in the Sharrowford coven, here at the university, the secret group of academics responsible for the Medieval Metaphysics department. Stout must have been a young man when the department existed, because he wrote this in 1974. Very small print run, for sycophants and acolytes only. And my grandmother.”
“No relation?” I asked, half suspecting some juicy tale of romantic liaison.
“No. Ha.” Evelyn barked a laugh and actually smiled in amusement. I was glad her earlier fake gravitas was long forgotten. “She tried to have him killed, actually. Long story.”
She placed the pamphlet on the table, slowly and carefully, like live ordinance.
“He put forward the theory. Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. It’s not an easy read, he was pretty far gone when he wrote it. Maybe he met your Eye too, who knows. Never made a lot of sense to me, but you might get something out of it. Also might make you chuck your guts up, but it might be worth the pain.”
In her eyes, I saw something much more complicated than pity or sympathy. I didn’t understand why she was doing this, but I didn’t care. I swallowed, about to thank her.
“He vanished,” she said. “Went missing in strange circumstances, from inside a locked office. Maybe dabbled with the maths a little too much. Understand?”
I nodded. “Thank you. I’ll-”
“Don’t. Don’t get yourself killed. Don’t try to fight a god. Just … learn, if you must.”
“Okay. I will.”
I reached out for the pamphlet, hesitated, then took it. Evelyn sighed as if she’d been holding her breath, and wandered back over to her chair, leaning heavily on her walking stick.
She could not have found better bait for me in all the world.
The pamphlet felt dry and brittle between my fingers. I peeked inside the front cover and found a line in faded, looping handwriting: ‘To Miss Laurissa Saye, I hope you will find this illuminating.’
History bled from the page, soaked into my fingers and stole into my heart. Here was proof, written down and printed and distributed, that I was not mad. I felt a strange kinship with this long-dead, vanished man. Professor Wilson, whoever he had been, had known a Saye as well, and maybe, just maybe, known the Eye.
I glanced from the pamphlet at the rest of the shelves, the row of twentieth-century hardbacks and the older volumes packed in their moisture-proof bags, and realised just how much temptation this room held.
“Is it safe to take this outside?” I asked. Evelyn sat back down with visible relief and sucked her teeth in thought.
“Probably. Nobody’ll know you have it and nobody else could ever understand the context.”
“Oh.” I frowned at myself as I realised what I was suggesting. “Oh, oh dear, no, I shouldn’t be trying to sneak rare books out of the library, that’s terrible of me.”
Evelyn laughed, a dry cough. “And here I thought you were worried about cultists trying to steal it.”
“Is that a real prospect? Could that happen?”
Evelyn shrugged. “My mother thought so. Only a small fraction of this collection is actively dangerous, and then you have to know where to look. Mostly the older stuff, the magic circles and techniques and whatnot. The most lethal stuff is all at my house.” She gestured at the book in my hands. “That’s pure theory, you couldn’t use anything in there to punch a hole in reality unless you already knew how. Which, well, I suppose you do.”
I tried to shrug off that last comment. “There’s another occult library at your house?”
“Hardly a library. Four books, to be precise, plus a few odds and ends, and unpublished notes.”
“Why not keep it all in one place, if you need a guard like Mister Spider out there in the corridor?”
The corner of Evelyn’s mouth turned up in the slightest smug satisfied smile. “My home is a damn-sight more secure than this blasted library.”
“ … magically speaking?”
It still felt bizarre to say ‘magic’ out loud, as if we were children playing make-believe.
“Also, I do have to consider the university,” Evelyn was saying. “Nepotism only gets me so far. I can’t up and steal all these rare books. Plus, splitting the dangerous stuff up helps me keep things under control if something goes wrong – this place is so well-known, at least in rumours, that the fact I have a small collection at my own house is unthinkable. Why would the Saye family risk it?” She smiled to herself.
Evelyn left me with the pamphlet. She busied herself with the reason we came down here in the first place, digging up the details she needed for her magical experiment.
I flicked through a few pages, scanned the long introduction and mentally filed away some of the technical terms for later consideration, then ran headfirst into three pages of densely packed mathematical notation. My stomach clenched and a wave of nausea passed through me. I averted my eyes. Yes, Evelyn was right, perhaps I needed to read this on an empty stomach, with a sick bucket nearby. I slipped the pamphlet into my coat pocket.
My gaze wandered over to where my new and difficult friend poked through the books.
I watched her for a long moment, openly, though she was unaware. It was innocent – I couldn’t have stared with anything less than honest thoughts.
Despite everything, I found Evelyn very endearing. Nothing remained of my initial impression, a cuddly girl tucked away with her books. She’d dispelled that in scant moments on that rainy morning in the Medieval Metaphysics room.
But watching her now, her serious expression, the way she gently handled the old, cracked books, every motion of her hands compensating for the missing fingers on her left, her posture bent around her kinked spine – I felt a connection I couldn’t define.
I liked that. A connection.
“Evee,” I said her name softly. She glanced at me across the room and I smiled. “I couldn’t help but notice earlier, you mentioned your mother several times. She’s a magician too? Did she teach you?”
She turned back to the books.
Evelyn crammed a lifetime of bitterness into that one word. I stared in shock, until she huffed and shot a dark look at me.
“Your face was like an open book. Whatever ridiculous, faux-pastoral notions you have about my family, they’re wrong.”
“I-I was only-”
“My mother is dead, a fact for which I am thankful every day I live. I mentioned her only because I have to, because what little I have on magic is whatever I pulled from her grip.”
I realised she was shaking.
“Evelyn, I-I’m sorry, sorry, it was just a passing thought.” I raised my hands in surrender, shaking my head. “I’m sorry.”
She turned back to the books without another word. I let out a shuddering breath. My heart fluttered in mortified horror. Evelyn shoved a book back onto the shelf and stood staring at it for far too long. The silence hurt. Words stuck in my throat.
Our connection had curdled. I gathered myself to stand up, apologise, and let myself out, legs itching to run away, already planning a cold walk home, alone.
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” Evelyn muttered.
She couldn’t meet my eyes. She faced me but looked sidelong at the books, expression drawn and exhausted.
“Evelyn- I-I mean, Evee, it’s okay-”
“It’s not okay. You deserve better than Evelyn Saye the hair-trigger bitch. You saved my fucking life from my own idiot decisions and I can’t even control myself.” She swallowed, hard and dry. “I don’t want you to have to walk on eggshells around me. I know, I know, Raine’s told me, you’re tougher than you look, but … still.”
I smiled, a little sadly. “I’m not tough at all. Don’t know where Raine got that idea.”
Evelyn nodded, sighed, and went back to the books. “I won’t be much longer with this.”
“I forgive you,” I said.
I don’t know where it came from. I’d tried to think of something profound or comforting or friendly, something Raine might say. The words just popped out.
Evelyn blinked at me like a deer in headlights. For a moment she seemed lost, then turned away.
Trouble found us on the way out – scowling, angry, rabid trouble.
We left room K-11 and passed back underneath the Spider-servitor. It ignored us, much to my relief, but Evelyn had barely spoken since her outburst and apology.
I tried to imagine what Raine would say. She’d know what to do. A joke or a quip or a few murmured words of comfort, to pull Evelyn back out of this dark hole. But I wasn’t Raine, however much I admired her, and all I could do was sneak glances at Evelyn’s sunken expression and thank her again for the pamphlet. She grunted in reply, locked the Rare and Restricted books door behind us, and that was that. We plodded back through the library basement corridors.
A young woman, another student, was lounging against the wall just beyond the dividing line between age-worn wood and concrete breeze blocks.
For a split-second I felt a familiar old shock and guilt; the library basement levels were usually so unfrequented, too easy to forget they weren’t some cloistered private domain.
Evelyn grabbed my elbow. “Wait,” she hissed.
The girl at the end of the corridor was death-glaring at us.
She was small and slight, maybe even a little shorter than me, with a mane of dark curls spilling down over her shoulders. She wore a white hoodie underneath a clashing blue and lime green coat.
Her posture, arms crossed, leaning on the wall, was a masterpiece in studied boredom and eloquent silence.
One did not have to be an expert in body language to read that statement. I felt it in my gut, on an animal level; she blocked our way out.
She raised her voice and turned Evelyn’s name into a sneer.
“Saye,” she called down the corridor. “What the hell are you doing, Saye?” She pushed off the wall, unfolded her arms, and stalked toward us.
“What? What’s going on? Who is this?” I hissed back at Evelyn – and caught the look on her face. Gone was dark melancholy withdrawal, replaced with naked contempt, head high. But she’d shuffled closer to my side. Her hand had tightened into a white-knuckle grip on her walking stick. She shook slightly, her breathing not as steady as her voice.
I’d once been the target of that look from Evelyn, when I’d surprised her in the Medieval Metaphysics room.
When I could have been anybody.
When I was a possible threat.
A ball of cold lead settled in my stomach. “Is this- are we-”
“That is Twil,” Evelyn muttered without taking her eyes off the girl. “And no, to your unspoken questions. She’s not dangerous, just an irritant. God alone knows what’s put sand up her arse this time.”
Twil made a show of cracking her knuckles as she advanced. I couldn’t believe my eyes at such a playground gesture.
“What do we do? This doesn’t look like nothing to me,” I hissed, then glanced over my shoulder toward the door we’d just locked. I itched to retreat, avoid, run away, but I was also painfully aware how Evelyn had closed the gap between us. She was relying on me. I could hardly flee while she stayed.
“Don’t give her an inch. Twil’s bark is much worse than her bite, but we should still get out of here before she gets any ideas. We need to reach the stairwell, that has CCTV coverage, she won’t risk anything there.”
“Risk? Risk what?” I whispered, but then Twil was upon us.
To my incredible surprise, I felt Evelyn’s maimed left hand slip into mine, palm clammy and fingers cold. I squeezed back.
Twil walked right up to us and got in Evelyn’s face, personal space be damned. She planted her feet wide, hands in the front pocket of her hoodie, chin tilted up. Her gaze flicked to me, probed and jabbed, made me want to shrink away, then slid back to Evelyn.
“Who the fuck is this?” Twil said, indicating me with a nod. “I thought we had a deal, Saye.”
Until that moment, for all of Raine’s protective gestures and Evelyn’s doom-mongering, the reality hadn’t hit home, of physical danger from cultists or mages or other semi-fictional people. Danger was monsters in the places I Slipped to, danger was the threat of choking on my own vomit, danger was my nightmares. People? People were white noise.
I’d never been in a fight. Not so much as a minor confrontation in all those long months of psychiatric hospitals, which was quite an achievement. I’d forgotten, during our little jaunt under the library, what it meant that Raine wasn’t with us.
It didn’t matter that Twil was barely as tall as me, or that there were two of us to one of her, or that she had her hands in her pockets.
Adrenaline hit me like a sledgehammer.
“I’d sooner drink piss than make a deal with you,” Evelyn snapped back. “What exactly did we agree on, Twil? Favourite flavour of dog food? Don’t flatter yourself, you know you can’t convince me of anything.”
“Oh yeah?” Twil drawled, voice slow and dripping venom. “Wanna bet?”
“Certainly, what’s the stake? Let’s put your money where your mouth is, shall we? Fifty pounds?”
Twil scowled harder. “Stop mocking me, this is serious. What are you doing taking other people back there? Who is this? What are you pulling?”
“Of course, fifty pounds wouldn’t be enough to shut your trap, would it? Can you even scrape that much together? Do a whip-round for it?”
Twil gritted her teeth.
I flinched. The sound vibrated the air, guttural and barrel-chested, not at all like an edgy teenager imitating an animal.
Up close, the effect clashed, because Twil was shockingly beautiful. She was blessed with the sort of porcelain-skinned, angelic face that launched child actor careers or got married to royalty.
Or could bite your head off.
Under other circumstances I’d have spent a day or two weaving guilty daydreams about a girl like Twil. I’d have noticed details that only came back to me later – the slow tilt of her head as she spoke, her sharp amber eyes, the way she had her hood drawn up about her neck to keep warm.
But not after that sound from human vocal chords.
She spoke like a suburban middle class girl doing her best to sound dangerous, and looked the part too, athletic and well-fed and young. I was so used to years of my own haggard face in the mirror, exhaustion-wracked, eyebags and sallow skin, that I could tell Twil never stayed up past bedtime and always ate her vegetables. And was going to punch one of us.
I had no idea what to do. I was frozen, heart going a million miles an hour.
Evelyn glanced at me. ”You know how Yorkshire terriers or sausage dogs will bite your at heels, because they still think they’re 400-pound direwolves? That’s Twil.”
“This is my friend,” Evelyn said to her. “And we are going home. Now shove off.”
Twil narrowed her eyes. “You don’t have friends.”
“She certainly does. Don’t be so rude.”
Twil scowled my way. A heartbeat passed before I realised I’d spoken.
She jerked her face toward me and I recoiled, not at all brave or confident but trying very hard not to show fear. Twil sniffed the air – sniffed me, such a bizarre gesture that I just blinked at her.
“You reek like both of them,” she said.
“Excuse me, what?”
“Yeah, ‘friend’, whatever. I wasn’t born yesterday. What’s Saye got on you? What’s she done to your head?”
“Um, I’m … Heather? Yes. Hello. Twil, is it? Why are you acting like we’re all twelve?”
Twil squinted at me in confusion. Not the response she’d expected.
“Are you going to let us past, then?” Evelyn barked. “Or are you just going to yap until you get bored?”
Twil grinned a nasty little smile and made a show of looking up and down the corridor. She shrugged. “I don’t see Raine anywhere. What is this then, a sneaky trip to show off your collection of obscenities back there?”
Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, there it is. You really must get over Raine.”
“Hey! Fuck off! I don’t-”
“Let’s get to the point. What are you going to do, Twil? Beat me up on university property?”
Finally, Twil backed up a step and stared at Evelyn, as if thinking this over. I tried to breathe, feeling myself shake. Evelyn squeezed my hand.
Was she serious? I had visions of a stupid, messy slapfight down here. Or worse? My mind couldn’t keep up with the pounding of my heart. Twil knew about the books – ‘obscenities’? – which meant she was in the know. But Evelyn had said she wasn’t dangerous, right?
Twil looked like she wanted to spit. Instead she gave Evelyn a stinkeye stare and said, “You’re lucky you’re a cripple.”
“How dare you,” I heard myself say.
Twil blinked at me, cheeks flushing. She had almost enough sense to look ashamed. As she should do, I thought. I was as surprised as her. I’d never spoken to anybody like that before.
“S-shut up, you zombie. You-”
“You think you’re so intimidating,” I said, the floodgates open now. “Swaggering over here and acting like a playground bully. Well, it’s not working. I’ve seen scarier things than you every day of my life. I deal with them before breakfast. You are not scary.” I pointed over my shoulder, behind Evelyn and I. “The thing guarding Evelyn’s wonderful little collection of books – that, that is scary, and I faced that down not an hour ago. Now kindly move out of the way, or-” Or what? My tongue had outrun my brain. I was running out of steam. “Or I shall insult you some more, you nasty little goblin.”
Twil looked as if I’d slapped her with a fish. Her mouth staggered over a comeback.
For one of the first times in my life, I felt big and clever and strong. I knew it was adrenaline-fuelled bravado.
Evelyn laughed, dirty and mean. “You always were thin-skinned. Go on, shoo, run back home. Let the adults do the real work.”
Twil lost her temper in a flash and rounded on Evelyn, teeth bared. She grabbed a handful of Evelyn’s jumper, fingers snapping shut like claws, and all my quick easy confidence vanished in a dash of cold water.
“Hope I don’t have to burn the library down to stop your nonsense,” Twil all but spat in Evelyn’s face.
“You can’t burn books!” I said, flailing for anything to throw her off-kilter, get her to let go of Evelyn, to slow things down – but why? Who was going to save us? Raine wasn’t about to turn the corner and chase this foe away. It was just us. “Who on earth do you think you are? You utter barbarian.”
Twil blinked at me and said “What?” in a most befuddled tone of voice, scrunching up her eyes in a frown of disbelief.
I was out of verbal ammunition, on the edge of panic.
I slapped her.
It stung my hand. Didn’t work like in the movies. I think I got the angle wrong, too far back on her face, catching her jaw-bone rather than the full-on flat of her cheek. It made such a loud sound in the concrete corridor.
Twil jerked back and let go of Evelyn, blinking at me, face burning red with my hand print.
I had no follow up, too shocked at myself.
“I-I-” I raised my hands in surrender.
Twil bared her teeth, growled like an animal, and pulled her fist back.
Evelyn saved me from having to come up with a next step of the plan. Which was good, because the next step was ‘get punched in the face’.
She belted Twil across the head with her walking stick.
Not once, but twice. It was clumsy and poorly aimed and weak, but it did the trick. The first strike bounced off Twil’s skull with a loud thwack of wood on bone. She yelped and staggered back in swirl-eyed shock.
The second hit broke her nose.
At least, I think it did. A crunchy, gristly crack heralded a spurt of blood, down her face and spotting the front of that immaculate white hoodie. She doubled-up, hands over her nose and mouth, groaning in pain behind a veil of hair. I gaped at the sight, until Evelyn grabbed me and pulled me forward, forcing me to put one foot in front of the other. Evelyn couldn’t run, but she marched us toward the stairwell.
“You fucking bitch, Saye!” A muffled cry followed us.
“Keep your eyes forward, don’t look back, don’t give her anything,” Evelyn muttered.
“You broke her nose!” I hissed.
“Hey!” Twill shouted. “Don’t ignore me. We’re not done here!”
“She’ll be fine,” Evelyn murmured.
“I slapped her. I slapped her.”
“She’ll be fine.”
Evelyn, however, was not fine. We got up the stairwell and onto the library floor and then out under the open skies. Her expression gave nothing away but she couldn’t stop shaking. The wind plucked loose strands from her ponytail.
“Twil will follow us, it’s what she does. We should … should go … ”
“She’s got a broken nose and there’s blood on your walking stick. She’s going to go to campus security.” Visions of real-world consequences flooded my mind.
Evelyn shook her head in irritation. “Don’t be absurd. Can’t have her follow me home. We need, uh … ”
We made for the nearest safe place – the Medieval Metaphysics room. By the time we crossed campus and reached the stairs up to Willow House, Twil was following us, a small figure framed against the concrete walkways, lime green coat flapping in the wind. She held one hand over her nose.
I called Raine.
Evelyn wound up the parable of The Castle, watching me with faint hope in her eyes.