The mitten saved me. Raine helped.
The Dark Hand gripped my wrist, but simple screaming terror wrapped around my heart. No need for paralysing supernatural force to immobilise me. Here was an unspoken fear from the darkest nights of my ruined childhood: Wonderland reaching out to snatch me away.
Bone-freezing cold soaked through the mitten and into my flesh.
The Dark Hand pulled.
Raine already had me, arms hooked under my shoulders from behind.
She’d reacted first, faster even than the Hand. Beating my reaction times isn’t exactly a challenge, but I’d thought we were all slow and sluggish after the soul-battering from the Eye.
She held on, planted her feet and tried to haul me back as the Dark Hand tightened its grip.
It was much, much stronger than Raine. For one heart-stopping moment I became the rope in a tug of war, shoulder wrenched near out of the socket. I snapped out of paralysis, kicking and screaming, trying to scramble away.
Then my hand slipped out of the borrowed purple mitten. I yanked my arm back, left the Dark Hand clutching nothing but the glove.
Raine and I won the tug of war and crashed into an armchair. I elbowed her in the stomach and our heads cracked together. She let out a winded oof of breath, but didn’t stop, quickly disentangled our legs and jumped to her feet. I stayed half-collapsed in the chair, too shaken to get up.
The Dark Hand snapped open and dropped the mitten.
“What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that?” Twil shouted from behind us. Evelyn backed away in panic, shaking her head.
A Dark Arm followed the Dark Hand, reaching across the table until it found a grip on the edge. A shoulder emerged, made of glistening black night.
The owner of the Dark Hand began to climb through into our reality.
Raine slid something slender and sharp out of her jacket pocket. I wasn’t paying much attention to her, or the yelp from Twil. I only figured out much later that Raine had palmed a silver letter opener. Didn’t matter much anymore.
“Evee,” Raine raised her voice. “Hope I don’t need to say this, you should probably close that gate.”
“I can’t!” Evelyn said. “There’s no gate, there’s nothing to close! I don’t … I don’t understand.”
Our uninvited guest slid out of the aqua vitae in the silver plate, inch by slow inch of dark oil-slicked flesh, contorting itself to fit through the eighteen-inch opening, like a rodent cramming itself through a crack in the wall.
A nightmare parody straight from the imagination of any medieval diabolist.
No face, no sense organs, no skin – just one flowing surface of pure darkness, without blemish or break. No claws, no hairs or rough patches, no knobbly joints or bunched muscle. Humanoid, but gangly and so tall it assumed a crouch atop the table as it emerged. Limbs as long as my entire body. Head a blank tapering ovoid big as an anvil, topped with a pair of curved horns. Huge wings stretched from its back and a long sinuous tail lashed behind it, thick as a mooring cable.
This was nothing like the Bone-thing Raine had killed in Evelyn’s house. That had originated Outside, belonged to some alien taxonomy, but it had been material. It had bones and skin and a mouth. It had bled and it had died.
The Dark Visitor wasn’t even remotely biological.
Not eyes, but I knew it was staring at me.
“Nuh-uh,” Raine said to it. “She’s not for you.”
She put herself between me and the nightmare, and slid into a knife-fighter’s stance. Until that moment, I couldn’t have told you what a knife-fighting pose was meant to look like, but Raine made it seem second nature. She raised the silver knife in one hand and thrust her other palm forward.
A grin played across her lips. Tension in every muscle. I couldn’t believe she wanted to fight this thing; it was simply too large, too other, too intimidating. Her knife looked so small.
In that moment, I loved her for it.
The Demon – I couldn’t think of it as anything but a classical demon – finished climbing through into our reality, planting both slab-like feet on the table and squatting in a gargoyle’s crouch. The wood creaked under its weight. It leaned forward and craned its head to look around Raine, to look at me.
“Back off,” Raine said, loud and clear.
An echo of alien thought brushed against my mind.
I swallowed a gasp, but the thought slipped off, like an oil-soaked hand trying to grip my consciousness.
Raine shifted her balance onto her back foot; I scrambled up and cringed away from the impending violence.
“No, no, don’t touch it, don’t touch it!” Evelyn cried. “I think I know what it is. Do not touch it.”
Raine froze. Didn’t take her eyes off the demon. It bobbed its head to stare at me over Raine’s other shoulder.
“It’s-” Evelyn swallowed hard. “Kerykeion nichta, uh … Noctis macer. I’ve seen one before. Once. I think.”
“Don’t care what it is,” Raine almost growled. “It needs to leave.”
“Yes, yes, I think it will! It’s a messenger, that’s what they do. Look, it’s not attacking us. Don’t touch it.”
Another phantom thought skimmed the surface of my brain, wordless impulse and sense-impression: crushing cold, bone-shattering, blood-freezing cold; entrapment and imprisonment, such a tiny, tiny space and no way out, no way out; the human mind turned inside out and put back together piece by piece. Loneliness, abandonment, darkness.
“I-it’s in my head,” I stammered. “It’s trying to get in my head.”
“A message, it’s trying to deliver a message,” Evelyn said. “Maybe we let it, maybe it-”
“Bugger that,” Raine said. “Take your message and shove it up your arse. Get out of my girl’s head.”
Evelyn swore under her breath. “From The Eye? There was no gate! I don’t understand!”
“Fuck this,” Twil said. “Just fucking kill it already.”
The Messenger made its move.
With one huge hand wrapped around the edge of the table, it leaned forward and reached out for me. I squealed and stumbled backward from the grasping fingers.
Raine lashed out so fast I don’t think even the Demon knew what happened.
She rammed the knife into the Messenger’s night-black arm and twisted the blade on the way back out. Three times in quick succession. She made it look effortless, a quick repeated motion, practised a thousand times, executed with perfect precision. On a human being she’d have opened arteries and veins, torn flesh and cracked off bone.
She may as well have stabbed a bucket of sand.
The night-flesh didn’t even need to suck back together, it closed seamlessly after the blade. No wounds, no response, no sound greater than a gentle hiss.
The Demon stopped reaching for me and paused for a moment, as if trying to work out what just happened. Raine yanked the knife out a final time, grinning in full flow. She rocked back in a sort of predictive feint and then went for the Demon’s throat.
It took the knife from her. Plucked it right out of her fingers and made it vanish. Raine was so surprised she almost baffed at it with her empty hand.
“Raine!” I yelled.
She snapped back, quickly hopped away from the creature, one arm out to shield me. She took a great shuddering breath, still grinning but now shaking her head in disbelief. Evelyn was reciting words in Latin, shouting commands, instructions, insults. Inviting it to afternoon tea for all I knew.
“Okay, back up, keep away from it-” Raine got out, before before Twil bounded past us.
Twil didn’t look very human, but I didn’t exactly have the presence of mind to catalogue her wolf-form. All I saw was a blur of fur and teeth, mid-leap.
The Demon Messenger travelled without moving, two feet to the left. The trick made my eyes hurt, drew a pained gasp from Evelyn and a wince from Raine. Twil flew right through the spot it had occupied a moment before. She crashed headfirst into the old bookcases on the other side with a horrible thwack of snapped bones.
“Exitus. R-revertere, a-a quo f-factum est.” Evelyn’s voice shook and stumbled.
The Demon reached for me again. Raine, in one of the bravest and stupidest gestures I would ever witness from her, put her fists up.
It moved her aside.
The motion was impossible to comprehend, at least with human senses. One moment Raine was between me and it, then the Messenger reached out with a dark hand and adjusted her position. Suddenly she was fifteen feet away, on the other side of the room.
Raine reacted instantly, picked up her feet and ran for me.
That dark hand reached for my face.
The backs of my legs hit the chair and I very almost fell over in blind panic. Nowhere left to go, nobody left to stand behind, only a split-second to think. I’d never had to defend myself before. I was weak and slow and unarmed. Best I could manage was to bat ineffectually at the Demon’s hand, probably invite the awful freezing grip around my arm once more.
The mitten hadn’t saved me; Raine hadn’t broken the creature’s grip in a tug of war; my solitary resistance to the Eye had not come from prior experience or presence of mind.
The Noctis Macer’s hand closed around my face, inches from my skin. Alien thoughts found purchase on my mind, sick, freezing sense-impressions screamed the loneliness of the void into my heart.
I tugged my sleeve down with shaking fingers and held up my forearm.
Showed it the Fractal.
The Demon stopped, statue-still.
“Go away,” I hissed in a rush of panic and fear, more an animal sound than real words, but it did the trick.
The Demon, the Messenger, Noctis Macer, whatever it was and whatever it intended, retracted its hand and rocked back on its heels, as if considering a polite request. The probing thoughts withdrew. Evelyn’s stream of Latin and Greek and worse stuttered to a halt, and Twil hauled herself up against the bookcase, shaking herself like a dog.
Raine almost slammed into me, skidding to a halt and brandishing a heavy book she’d pulled off the shelves in lieu of a real weapon. She gaped at the Fractal on my arm, then broke into a huge grin at the creature.
“Yeah, that’s right, go on, off with you!” she shouted.
Raine put her free hand on my elbow, her other around my waist, held me and propped me up. I’d never been so glad for the support.
She gently eased me forward.
“Raine, no!” I hissed.
The Noctis Macer flexed like a cat rising from a nap, unlimbering gangly limbs and unfolding itself from the table, too tall to stretch to full height indoors. Its other hand uncurled and flicked a crumpled ball of fabric onto the floor at my feet.
We all watched in razor-sharp silence as the Demon stepped down from the table and backed away from me – from the Fractal.
“It’s okay, it’s shit-scared of you, see?” Raine muttered. I managed a terrified nod. I don’t think it was scared at all.
Raine and I backed it all the way to the windows. The creature’s tail probed behind, tapping at the floor and the heavy blankets over the windows, finding no egress. It paused and flexed its wings.
Twil growled through a mouth not all human. “Don’t corner it, for fucks sake.”
“It’s not animal, you idiot,” Evelyn said.
“Twil, pull the curtains down.” Raine said softly.
“Just do it. Rip them if you have to.”
Twil grunted as she understood what Raine was getting at. She slid down the edge of the room, at the boundary of my peripheral vision, a hunched figure with far too many teeth in her snout. She reached out slowly with a fist made of claws, took a good handful of the blankets over the windows, then jerked it sideways with one swift tug. Thumbtacks and pins popped out of the thin plasterboard wall and the whole mass of makeshift curtain tore away.
The last dying rays of the day’s sunlight bathed the room in deep orange glow. The Messenger turned to look outside, across the deep concrete shadows of the campus and the city beyond. Its tail tapped and slid across the surface of the glass. Could it even sense light? A tiny, ever-curious part of me filed that question away for later.
Most of me, however, just wanted it gone.
“Twil, get the window latch,” Raine said.
“Are you mental?”
“Stop whining. You’re the most robust here.”
“Look,” I said.
The Demon Messenger fumbled with the window, as if it didn’t know how glass worked. Which, to be fair, it probably didn’t. Huge hands roved across the edges of the window, looking for a catch or mechanism. When it found the latch it paused, touched, paused again, those horrible long fingers cupping and pinching and probing the metal.
“It’s going to break the window,” Evelyn huffed, as if this was any concern at all.
“It can break the wall for all I care,” I said. “As long as it goes away.”
Finally, it figured out the latch, clacked it down and spent another moment sliding the window wide. Cold evening air flooded the room, blew past the Messenger and touched my face. The Demon mounted the windowsill with one huge toe-less foot and paused again, turned its head to look at me one last time.
“Shoo,” Raine shouted, and threw the book at it.
The Demon leapt into the air and fell like a brick. The book sailed out the window. A moment later a crack of leather sounded below – unfurling wings catching the air – and the Demon Messenger soared off between the spires of Sharrowford university, toward the heart of the city, an ungainly, heavy smudge of darker colour against the dimming sky.
I let out one long shaky breath, my whole body a lightning rod of tension and disbelief.
“Heather, hey, it’s gone, it’s gone,” Raine said.
“I know. I can see that.”
Raine eased my elbow back down. My arm ached terribly, despite her support. I’d clenched my fist so hard my nails had drawn blood from my palm.
“Are you okay?” Raine asked.
I was about to say no, obviously, I’m not okay, we just faced down a true monster, some unthinkable thing from Outside, sent by the Eye to kidnap me or wipe my brain or do God alone knows what. I was shaking and exhausted and far beyond fear. Twil slammed the window shut and Evelyn sagged as she examined the broken magic circle on the table.
Raine had thrown a book at it. For me.
I sketched a very shaky smile, the best I could manage under the circumstances. “Actually, yes. Yes. We won, yes?”
“That we did.” Raine grinned. “Sure you’re okay? You should sit down.”
“Well, no, but … ” I glanced around the room, unable to phrase it while so emotionally drained. Turned out facing down your darkest fears was a lot easier with a little help from your friends. Even if Twil wasn’t quite a friend. Yet.
“Where the hell is it going?” Twil asked. She peered out of the window after the dwindling dot. “I can’t believe you did this, Saye. Let something like that loose in the city. What were you thinking?”
“It wasn’t me.” Evelyn sounded as exhausted as I felt. She gestured at the silver plate, the aqua vitae, now inert. “There was no gate. The window was already closed. Somebody or something else opened that, sent it through.”
“Yeah, right.” Twil squinted at her in disbelief. “You lost control. Face it, you’re not the hot shit you think you are.”
Evelyn sighed and shook her head.
“What are you gonna do about it, huh? This is your fault. You can’t leave that thing out there, it-”
“It will leave reality by itself,” Evelyn raised her voice. “That’s what they do. Noctis Macer. Messenger of Darkness. Unbekante Orte has a dozen such names for them. Bigger, more powerful beings use them as messengers, errand-runners. I’ve seen one once before, I told you.”
Raine put a hand on my back, steadying, warm, here. “What if it doesn’t leave?” she asked. “What if it comes back for Heather again?”
“It won’t.” Evelyn almost spat. “It’s a messenger, not an assassin. It’s been refused. Quite comprehensively.”
Twil raised her voice again. Raine told her to shut up. Evelyn started in about ritual process and gates and magic, but I wasn’t following. Past the shaking exhaustion and the after-shocks of fear, I realised that Evelyn was right. If that demon – the Noctis Macer – had really wanted to hurt me or kidnap me, it probably could have, Fractal on my arm or no. If it needed skin contact, it could have snuck that tail up from behind and wrapped it around my throat.
I remembered, all of a sudden, that the Demon Messenger had delivered something after all: it had dropped a piece of fabric.
Amid the argument and the blame and the yelling, I looked down and found it. I stepped away from Raine and bent to pick it up.
Intellectually, I recognised the item of clothing before I touched it.
My mind fled from the implication.
I lifted the child-sized tshirt off the floor and stared at the faded strawberry design.
Maisie and I had this game we played as children. We had a lot of games. All kids who grow up close have private, secret games, but the games twins play with each other are built on a special understanding, that unique bond between two people who the world confuses with each other. Sometimes even mum and dad couldn’t tell us apart. Mum tried all sorts of techniques: different haircuts, dressing us differently, even clothes with our initials on the front or back. Nothing worked because we swapped everything, shared everything, became each other.
One day – I think when we were six or seven years old, I didn’t remember exactly because I’d spent so many years convinced those memories weren’t real – we decided to finger-paint our names on our tshirts. Mum was furious so we produced crocodile tears and giggled about it later. We kept the ruined tshirts and used them to have silent conversations across the room, writing more and more words in every blank space. We swapped them back and forth, so my words became Maisie’s and Maisie’s words became mine and in the end we couldn’t remember whose thoughts had belonged to who.
A child’s pajama top. Thin and faded. Collar and cuffs ragged.
A single word was written on the front, letters daubed with a fingertip dipped in a dark and tarry substance, still sticky-fresh.
Her tshirt. The one she wore that night. Some details, you never forget. I brought it to my face and sniffed, but there was nothing of her – of me – left there, only the black ash and ruin stench of Wonderland.
I blinked back slow tears, numb to my core.
“Heather? Hey, Heather?”
I jerked my head up, shaking all over. Raine stared at me with naked concern. Evelyn and Twil were still yelling at each other. How did the world continue to turn, how did we not all simply fly apart into atoms, if this thing in my hands was real? The most horrible promise, the worst kind of proof.
“Look.” I held the tshirt up, to her, to the room, to reality. My hands shook, my voice did worse. “Look. Look at this. What is this? How- how-”
Raine looked down at the thing in my hands, this obscene, beautiful living proof in my grasp. I imagined ugly thoughts in her head. I’d spent so long, so many years denying Maisie even existed that now I projected that outward, confused and lashing and incoherent.
It wasn’t real, it was a trick, you can’t be certain, Heather. You can’t be certain of anything, can you? You little damsel in distress, you let Raine deal with it for you. Keep your head down and stay safe. Forget what you saw. Coward. Coward. Coward. You left her behind, you left her behind and she’s not dead.
Raine met my eyes. She reached out and folded her fingers around my hand, held on hard. Nodded once.
“We will,” Raine said.
Her meaning failed to penetrate my survivor’s guilt. I blinked at her, shook my head. “I-I don’t-”
I let out a huge, choking breath and scrubbed my tears on one arm. I hadn’t realised how badly I’d needed Raine to believe, in that moment. She gave me so much more than bare belief.
“How- how- how can we possibly-”
“Don’t think about that part yet. We’ll figure it out.” Raine cracked a smile, a notch down from her usual rakish grin. “I doubt it’s something we can do in an afternoon.”
Evelyn and Twil had fallen quiet, my distress cut through their argument.
“Look.” I held the tshirt out to them as well, my hands shaking.
“ … ah,” Evelyn murmured.
“What?” Twil frowned. “What am I looking at? What the hell’s wrong with her now?”
“Long story. Shut up,” Raine said.
The full meaning of the Demon Messenger’s visit began to weigh on me, as I realised what had just happened.
“How do they deliver their messages?” I asked Evelyn.
She shook her head. “I don’t … there’s only speculation.”
“How? Just tell me, I don’t care if it’s speculation. How?”
“I don’t know,” Evelyn said, frowning at the proof in my hand. “Some kind of mind-to-mind contact, I assume. Communication means different things to different orders of being. It could-”
“It was trying to touch me,” I muttered. “It needed to touch, because of the Fractal, blocking. It had a message from her and we chased it away.”
That crushing cold, that endless isolation, that darkness. Was that Maisie?
“Heather?” Raine wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed, to keep me here, keep me grounded. It didn’t work. “It doesn’t matter what-”
I pulled away from her and hurried over to the window, clutching the soiled old tshirt to my chest. Raine joined me, but I had no attention left for her, too busy peering out after the Messenger – Maisie’s Messenger. It had vanished into the light pollution and shadows of a Sharrowford evening. I scanned the sky with mounting frustration greater than I’d ever felt, gritting my teeth, the thread slipping through my fingers.
“Heather, hey, look at me for a second.”
“I can’t- I-I have to find it.”
“There are easier ways to track than with the naked eye.”
I turned to her and got a full-face blast of Raine at her most focused. No grin, no patronising I-know-better, no humouring the hysterical poorly-adjusted girl. Not even a please-calm-down. Here to solve problems. It was beautiful. I could have thrown my arms around her, kissed her, if I wasn’t so messed up.
She nodded sideways at Twil.
“Oh, tracker dog,” I said.
“Hey!” said Twil.
“Stuff your pride,” Raine said to her. “You’re so worried about Heather, well then, it’s time to help. You can track that thing by scent, right?”
“What?” Twil was still lost, way behind. “I guess so. Shit, I don’t want to, it reeked like a chemical factory.”
“Yes or no,” Raine barked. “Can you do it?”
“Why are we after it now? We only just got rid of the thing.”
I thrust the tshirt toward Twil, holding up Maisie’s message. “My sister isn’t dead! Maisie isn’t dead!”
Without a doubt, the most beautiful and terrible words I’d ever spoken. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry. I made a compromise and hiccuped.
“Okay, yeah, sure, that explains everything,” Twil said.
Evelyn spoke up. Two words.
My mind edited them out, unwilling to hear. I was too busy glancing out the window again, along the route the Messenger took toward the heart of Sharrowford.
The exact route.
I broke for the door without a second thought, pulled at the latch and stumbled out into the top floor corridor of Willow House before the others realised what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to leave them behind; the only thing I cared about was getting out there before the aftershocks passed, before the trail went cold. Raine called my name, right on my heels.
Lucky for us – and my dignity – that Willow house was almost empty this late in the day. Classroom doors yawned open onto the darkness outside. The stairwell lights flickered on as I plunged down the steps two and three at a time.
“Heather, slow down, you’ll trip.”
I didn’t stop until I hit the ground floor and pushed my way through the brown glass double-doors. Cold evening air ran whispering fingers through my hair as I craned up at the sky. I must have made quite a sight there in the middle of campus, wearing one purple mitten and a half-unravelled scarf, flushed in the face and out of breath, eyes red from crying. Raine and Twil bundled out of the building behind me.
“Want me to grab her?” Twil said.
“Heather, speak to me. Tell me what you’re doing. If you have plan, I need in.”
“There. Right there.” I pointed across campus.
The Messenger’s wake had driven the spirit world into a frenzy. Where it had passed, pneuma-somatic life writhed and twitched like bugs in wet earth under a lifted stone.
A blue-and-red lizard the size of a house lay curled around itself in a protective dome, huge swivel-eyes dilated in fear. Bone-faced figures hunched along the campus walkways, clutching their heads and wailing, tripping over each other and sprawling across the ground. One of the insectoid leviathans on the library roof kicked and jerked limbs in the air, as if fighting ghosts. In the sky, a Roc of fire and stone flapped and hissed and spat, hurling sparks and trailing loose feathers of flame.
Then I remembered nobody else could see them.
Falling prey to one of my lifelong fears; here was the crazy girl gesturing at invisible monsters in public, imbuing them with private meaning, following their secret ways.
I realised I didn’t care anymore. Maisie was more important.
“The spirits, they’re reacting to it. It went that way.”
Twil looked at me, then at Raine, as if we were both mad.
“Just trust her,” Raine said. “She knows what she’s doing.”
They couldn’t have held me back. I’d have hissed and spat and clawed just to be allowed to follow that spirit trail across the sky. A near-fugue state gripped my mind and heart, and we followed a track that would have been schizophrenic delusion a month prior.
We left campus quickly, heading west into Sharrowford proper.
Bluebell Road roiled with spirit life, howling at the sky and clawing at each other in overstimulated distress. A thousand scuttling shapes mobbed and packed in the shadows and dusk between the pools of orange streetlight.
I led us down into the student quarter, across suburban streets littered with spine-covered mollusk shells, their inhabitants retracted inside to shelter from the Messenger’s passing.
On Downtruff road, a giant form shifted uneasily against the sky overhead, adjusting pillar-legs and plates of chitin to carry it away from the Noctis Macer’s destination.
We climbed cobblestone streets up Mercy Hill where I spotted a nightmare of eyes and tentacles clutching the distant spires of Sharrowford Cathedral, against the backdrop of the city centre lights.
My knowledge of the city ran dry beyond the student quarter, but Raine knew Sharrowford inside out. Our leadership began to switch back and forth. I’d point, she’d forge the way, then I’d change direction and she’d know a shortcut, a better route. When the tortured spirit life gave out and the trail ran cold, Twil sniffed the air and bounded down the streets until she caught the scent on the night wind.
Raine did her best to hold my hand but I wasn’t the most affectionate partner right then, always pulling free to point in the next direction, my other hand too busy clutching Maisie’s soiled tshirt to my chest.
I only realised much later that Raine was trying to minimise our bizarre spectacle, to make sure my behaviour didn’t draw the attention of the curtain-twitchers or a passing police car. A crazy girl staring and gesticulating at the air, leading the way as two other college girls hustled after her, hanging on her every move.
It was a miracle nobody stopped us.
On the edge of the city centre the Demon Messenger had turned north, skirted the shopping district and the ring of roundabouts, brushed up against the fringe of industrial development walled off with red brick and razor wire. For a long moment I stood on the edge of a pedestrian crossing, next to one of the larger roundabouts, cars passing and lights changing from red to green, because I couldn’t work out where the Messenger had gone.
Raine laid a hand on my shoulder. “Heather? Take a moment, you’re out of breath. We’re going to catch it, one way or the other, I swear.”
She was right – I was out of breath. The ache in my chest, the soul-gap below my diaphragm, was on fire. I rubbed at my sternum, but the pain didn’t matter. I’d never felt so driven in my entire life.
“We look like a bunch of fucking nutters,” Twil said. “Bet this’ll do wonders for my rep.”
“Let Heather do her thing,” Raine warned.
We were about to look much worse.
A spirit squatted on the concrete island of the roundabout.
A gorilla crossed with slime mold, leaning on fists the size of wrecking balls. A mouth of slab teeth hung open, drooling black mist onto the ground. Long thin fleshy tendrils sprouted from its back and waved in the air. A few tendrils had gripped the roundabout’s signage, rooted there and begun to spread a kind of throbbing meat-moss across the metal.
It was disgusting, the exact sort of thing I’d spent ten years going out of my way to avoid. If it had stared at the sky, I could simply have followed the direction of its gaze, but its bull-shoulders were hunched tight at the Messenger’s passing, head down.
Any other day, any other cause, and my courage would have failed me.
I hurried over the road onto the roundabout; hardly green cross code compliant. Raine dashed along after me. Twil was a second too slow, got stuck waiting for traffic to pass.
“Heather, holy shit, slow down!” Raine called.
“It’s fine, I looked both ways.”
I walked right up to the hunched Gorilla-spirit.
Raine caught up, put one hand on my waist and looked around, waiting for the inevitable shout from a confused motorist. Two college girls standing in the middle of a roundabout, obviously drunk or playing some immature prank – or insane. She didn’t hurry me.
I opened my mouth, closed it again, hiccuped twice.
Let the world think what it wanted. I pushed away a decade’s worth of taboo. My sister was alive.
I spoke to the spirit.
“Where did it go? What direction?”
A shudder passed through the Gorilla-plant-thing, a reluctant quiver of muscle and tendon. Those giant shiny black eyes swivelled to look at me. It was a huge, hulking beast of intimidating power, ugly as sin, ridged and gnarled. An instinctive animal part of me screamed about running away and climbing trees. I shook very badly. Raine spoke my name and squeezed my shoulder.
It didn’t matter. It was immaterial, literally. I had flesh. It didn’t.
I stared back.
The me of a month ago would be mortified beyond thought. That other, younger Heather, she still clung to the safety blanket of insanity in the back of my mind, the little voice which still denied that all this was real. I think that moment finally ended her. Here I was, standing in the middle of a traffic roundabout under the streetlights, demanding answers from a monster that nobody else could see, clutching to my chest a message from my kidnapped twin.
Yes, sceptic Heather gave up on that concrete island. I told her it was all going to be okay.
“I demand you tell me where it went. Point.” I tried to sound commanding, to summon up a little of Evelyn’s tone of unquestionable contempt. My voice emerged in a squeak.
The spirit lifted one wrecking ball paw toward the north.
The mitten saved me. Raine helped.