If a team of expert psychologists drew up a list of the worst people from whom to seek stable emotional support, then after the obvious abusers and narcissists and sociopaths, I would rank pretty high on that list.
Evelyn did not have anybody else in that study with her. She had me. I did what I could.
My first instinct – were I capable of such courage – was to throw myself at her, hug her, tell her it was okay, whatever it was; Evelyn was my friend and she was in pain, and I felt it too. But I had a distinct impression she would lash out like a wounded animal.
“ … I … I’m not here to yell at you, Evee.”
She narrowed her eyes, confused, lost. A half-shake of her head.
“I came up here to look at the books, actually,” I said. “I thought you were still asleep.”
“I don’t deserve sleep.” She jerked a hand at the notes on the desk, gritting her teeth and grimacing. “At least this way I’m not a complete waste of skin.”
“Evee, no, you … ” I groped for the right words. I had only Raine to imitate. “J-just take a deep breath. Breathe slowly. It’ll be okay. Start at the beginning, tell me what’s wrong? D-did something happen?”
“Did something happen?” she echoed, voice dripping with bitter mockery. She didn’t take that deep breath. “You saw it all. Where am I supposed to begin? You want an itemised list of my failures? Want to rub it in?”
“Evelyn,” I snapped her name, scared by her distress. “Stop talking like that about yourself. Stop it. Right now.”
She blinked at me as if slapped, eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot. “Why?”
“Because … ” I swallowed. “Because it’s not healthy.”
“Why should that matter? I’m a useless waste of effort, and I know it. I can’t get a single thing right. I messed up everything, I always do.”
“I’m just a leftover shell. I should have been there last night with you and Raine, I could have prevented- but I couldn’t, could I? I couldn’t even follow, because I’m a cripple with a stump.” She thumped at her own thigh, and only then did I realise she wasn’t wearing her prosthetic.
The right leg of her pajama bottoms flapped lose and flat. She’d hobbled here from her bedroom on her stick and withered left leg.
She’d probably been hurting herself all night.
“I screwed up, okay?” she snapped. “I know it, I know I screwed up. I always screw up. Can’t get anything right, can’t do a single thing correct. You warned me about the Eye, oh yes, I but thought I knew better, smart little Evelyn Saye with her twisted education and her need to prove herself right and her fucking mother issues.”
She shouted the last three words and slammed one hand across the desk, scattering papers into the air, sending a notebook flying, almost toppling the lamp. I flinched. Stray pencils clattered to the floor.
Evelyn began to sob. She hid her eyes behind a hand, sagging, defeated, spent. “Go away, for fuck’s sake. Leave me alone.”
“ … no. Evee, no, I won’t. I- I can’t leave you like this.”
“Go away,” she whined out between sobs. She threw a balled-up sheet of note paper at me. It bounced off the floor and rolled to a stop against my foot.
I’d never dealt with a crying person. A crying friend. I’d listened to a fair share of weeping and wailing in psychiatric hospitals, often much worse than this, but I’d never had to comfort somebody. I’d never wanted to before, never wanted to make a friend’s pain stop.
My mouth worked silently through a double-dozen empty platitudes, words Raine would have made brilliant and meaningful, but in my head they all rang hollow.
“Y-you know, this house is really amazing,” I said. “It’s- it’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been.”
Evelyn peered out from behind her hand, eyes red and full of tears. “What?”
“I mean, it’s so old and it’s not been renovated. It’s full of these cosy little corners and decades of stuff. I-it’s amazing, I love it. I’m sort of jealous, in a way. You’ve seen my flat, it sucks, it’s horrible, a concrete box. I grew up in this awful modern semi-detached, freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer. Tiny, tiny square-footage compared to this place. You could fit five, six people in this house and it’d never feel cramped. There’s a basement and an attic too, isn’t there?”
“ … uh, yes, yes there is.” Evelyn sniffed and wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve.
I kept rambling.
“Take this room. A study! You have an actual study. A personal library. I’d kill for a study, a room just for reading. It’s the sort of thing I used to fantasise about having one day, my own study. Professor Morell and all that nonsense, it’ll likely never happen.” I shrugged and forced a little laugh. “It’s incredible. You could probably do with a more comfortable chair than that though.” I nodded at the ancient wooden swivel-chair, no wheels on the feet. “And … um … do you have blueprints, floor plans of the house? I’d love to see them sometime, if you do. Often those get kept, for older buildings like this, if you’re lucky.”
Evelyn blinked at me. I thought I’d lost her, gone too far, but then she waved a limp hand. “Top shelf, one of the box files, I think.”
“That’s great. I’ll take a look later. Thank you.”
Evelyn’s tears had stopped. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. Score one for distraction Heather.
I looked away as she blew her nose and dried her eyes, then I patted her shoulder, careful, gentle. Besides her circa-1950s desk chair, only a tiny stepladder and a rickety old wooden chair offered anywhere to sit. I pulled up the chair – cast adrift from a kitchen table, probably – and sat down, my knees weak from tension.
“I’m sorry you had to see me like that,” Evelyn said. She stared at the floorboards, voice low and dull. “Years since I cried in front of anybody. Pathetic.”
“No, Evee, please. It’s so bad to keep it bottled up. I know I’m hardly one to talk, but it’s fine to cry. You’re only human.”
Evelyn shrugged. “I barely count as human.”
Evelyn continued before I could tell her off. She looked up into my eyes with a sad, defeated expression. “That makes three times. Twice you’ve rescued me from my own idiotic mistakes, and now you’ve dealt with me having a tantrum.”
“Don’t call it that, that’s not fair on yourself.”
“I couldn’t even call the Noctis Macer back. Couldn’t keep up. Evelyn Saye, her mother the best in a generation, having a tantrum. You keep helping me, Heather, and I can’t repay you because I can’t get anything right. Because I keep failing. I am a failure.”
“You shouldn’t say those things about yourself.”
Evelyn sighed. “Why not? It’s true.”
“Well … well, I don’t actually know, but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t.”
She puffed out the faintest imitation of a laugh. “At least you’re honest. I know it’s unhealthy. Everything I do is unhealthy.”
At least she’d calmed down. I’d snapped her out of the emotional crisis, but I had no idea how to help. I wasn’t Raine, I didn’t possess the right words.
We were, however, in a library.
Bookcases lined the walls of the study, full to bursting, with space left for only the door, the desk, and a small high window which admitted a shaft of grey dawn light across the ceiling. The study was a shade closer to my imaginary picture of an occult library, except ninety-nine percent of the literature here was completely mundane.
I glanced up and saw textbooks of natural history wedged next to modern novels, collections of plays stacked with back issues of mid-century magazines and comic books. Leatherbound, hardbound, floppy dog-eared paperbacks. Some shelves had been left to gather dust for years, but cleaner patches showed through where Evelyn had cleared space, re-organised, re-colonised.
An emotional handhold presented itself with the clarity of a light bulb illuminating above my head: a three-volume complete works of Shakespeare. I stood up and eased one of the books out from between its siblings, blew the film of dust off the top, and cracked it open.
“What are you doing?” Evelyn asked.
“One … one second. Ah, here … ” I wet my lips and raised my chin, muttered the first few words of the passage I’d located, then warmed as I went, into full, flowing speech as I quoted: “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty, to strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up …”
I trailed off, looked up, and bottled it completely at Evelyn’s puzzled frown. At least my antics had banished her surface depression.
“Was that meant to be a comment on me?” she asked.
“No. On myself, actually.” I shook my head and closed the book. “That’s Richard the third, talking about his deformity. I used to … I still do, sort of, identify with that. It’s comforting. Sorry, that probably made zero sense to you.”
Evelyn shook her head. “No, I get it. I do.”
I smiled at her. “Evelyn, Evee, I was actually ready to be a little angry with you. But not for the reasons you think. Mistakes don’t matter, we’re friends. I was angry when you sprung Wonderland on me without warning.”
Evelyn stared at me for a long moment, mouth half-open, then looked down at her hands and let out a huge sigh. “I’m just like my mother.”
Oh dear. No, reverse course, wrong direction, back up, back up.
“I very much doubt that,” I said quickly. “And you can make it right, by apologising. I would like an apology, for that, specifically.”
She jerked her head up, blinking, frowning, only halfway there, as if I’d presented some radical, alien concept. For a moment I thought I’d lost her, that she’d shuffle back into her pit and never come out. But then she swallowed and nodded slowly. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Heather. I know, it was … disrespectful. I don’t want to treat you like my mother treated me. I’m sorry.”
“Then I forgive you.”
She looked at me as if I’d slapped her, vulnerable and blinking.
We shared one of the most awkward hugs humanly possible. I don’t think Evelyn was made for comforting embraces. I put my arms around her shoulders and she hesitated to do the same, stiff and cold, but it seemed to do the trick. When we let go of each other, she took a deep breath and nodded slowly.
“Would you do me a very big favour, Heather?”
“What is it?”
She cleared her throat and gestured at the door. “Would you please fetch my leg? It’s on the floor in my bedroom.”
“Of course I will. Don’t, um, don’t self-harm while I’m gone.”
Evelyn’s prosthetic wasn’t difficult to find. It lay just inside her bedroom door, below a small dent in the wall, the source of the loud thump I’d heard last night, the final word in Raine and Evelyn’s argument.
Heavier than I’d expected, six or seven pounds of matte-black carbon fiber and shiny articulated knee. White rubber thigh-socket stuck out from the open end. I tried not to stare, equal parts embarrassed for Evelyn and overcome with delicate care as I cradled her leg. This was one of the most intimate things I’d ever held. This was, in a way, part of her body.
Evelyn’s bedroom spoke of a very different side to her; I’d not gotten a good look the first time I was here, half conscious as I’d been.
Pastel sheets and blankets turned the bed into a den of pink and lilac. Plush animals conferred together on the chest of drawers, some of them old and tatty, childhood memories perhaps, but several of them new and expensive-looking, along with a handful of stylised anime figurines, all girl superheroes with candy-coloured hair and outfits. Not something I’d expect Evelyn to enjoy.
Back in the study, Evelyn accepted her prosthetic with both hands, murmured a thank you, and began to roll up her loose pajama leg.
I gestured to the door. “I’ll just … ”
“Watch if you want.” She shrugged. “Raine’s seen it often enough. I don’t care.”
Leaving felt ruder than staying, so I watched with mounting fascination as Evelyn reattached her leg. It was quite a process.
Her stump was an ugly gnarled knot of old scar tissue, crisscrossed by angry red stitch-marks and indents from surgical staples. Not a clean amputation. She rolled her pajama leg up to the middle of her thigh, then reached into the socket on the prosthetic and extracted a sort of thick truncated sock. She pulled the sock onto her stump.
“Did-” I started, then stopped. “Sorry. I’m curious, but I don’t want to intrude.”
“You’re going to ask how I lost it.”
“Oh, no, not at all. I assume that wasn’t … normal. Actually I was surprised by the scarring. Did they try to save it and make it worse?”
A smile tugged at the corners of Evelyn’s mouth – that’s when I knew she was going to be okay. “Could put it like that. The doctor was drunk.”
“ … I’m sorry, what?”
Evelyn leaned back, the unattached prosthetic held across her lap. She tapped her stump. “This wasn’t done in a hospital. No NHS guidelines for me. I was nine, and the last thing my mother wanted to do was present me for treatment. She’d have been arrested in a heartbeat, I’d have been taken into care. But the leg had to come off. Gangrene, mostly. The doctor was an old associate of my grandmother, good at keeping her mouth shut, willing to take payment under the table. They pumped me full of morphine, got me to hold a pillow up so I wouldn’t see the bone-saw going back and forth.”
“Oh Evee, I can’t even imagine … ”
She waved me down. “I don’t need pity. I took my revenge, for that and worse. It’s just the way it was.” She rapped a knuckle against the carbon fiber prosthetic. “I’m lucky, in fact. My father paid for this, for previous versions of it, for physical rehab. Not everyone who loses a limb gets to be a cyborg, you know? Some make do.”
“Your dad? Is … I mean, I don’t want to pry again.”
Evelyn considered, then sighed and shrugged. “A weak fool who couldn’t stand up to my mother. It’s mostly his way of dealing with the guilt, but at least he tries to do right. I don’t talk to him very much.”
She set the prosthetic on the floor and wriggled the rubber socket up around her stump, making a dozen minor adjustments as she pulled the contraption snug.
“Do you want me to ask?” I said. “Why you lost the leg?”
“Why do you think?” She set her artificial foot down with a clack. “Same reason I can’t straighten my spine. Same reason the muscles are withered in my other leg. Same reason I’m short a few fingers and hooked on painkillers. My mother did not merely teach me magic, she used me for it. I … I don’t want to talk about it. Ask Raine if you must, she knows.”
I smiled a little. “She told me to ask you. Said it wasn’t her place to divulge.”
Evelyn’s eyebrows attempted to leave her face. “Really? Well, fancy that. What have you been doing to her, Heather?”
“I-I think it was because I told her off.” I almost blushed. “Nothing else.”
“And she listened to you?”
“Yes. I think. Maybe. It’s hard to tell with Raine.”
“Mm. I’m sorry I left you two to your own devices last night. I take it she put you up in her old room?”
“Her … old … room?”
“Ah, that didn’t come up? Never mind, forget I said anything.”
“Oh, not on your life, Evee.” I almost laughed. “Raine used to live with you, here? Are you absolutely sure you and her didn’t have a thing together?”
“Absolutely.” Evelyn made it sound very final. “Living together was only sensible, when we first came to Sharrowford. She had the room on the other side of the hall, out there. Then we had a … ” She struggled, grimaced. “A disagreement, about six months back. She moved out. I thought she’d told you all this.”
“Not a word, no.”
“Typical Raine.” I smiled involuntarily. “What was the disagreement about?”
“ … I didn’t want her around.” Evelyn paused and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Possibly a mistake. Maybe I should have people in my life more, not less. It goes against every instinct I have, but here you are.”
I smiled, felt blessed, flattered. “I have it on pretty good authority that’s what friends are meant to be for.”
Evelyn huffed a minimalist laugh and we shared a glance. We weren’t so different.
“Maybe yesterday didn’t go exactly to plan,” I said, before she could shore up her self-loathing again. “But one way or the other it delivered to me the first proof in ten years that my sister might be alive. You did that. Thank you, Evee.”
Evelyn’s expression frosted over. “The tshirt.”
“Yes, the tshirt.”
“Wait,” I held up one hand. “I found more words inside it this morning. The rest of her message. I think I should show you, you need to see.”
Evelyn squinted, then sighed heavily and nodded.
“It’s downstairs, I’ll go fetch it.” I rose from my chair.
“No, I’ll come down with you,” Evelyn said. “I can’t fester in here forever. Besides, I have something to show you as well.” She reached over and slid a bookmark into one of the crumbling leatherbound tomes on the desk, then folded it shut. “Help me up, will you? My hips are sore as hell.”
Maisie’s tshirt caused a huge argument. I hadn’t prepared myself for that.
Downstairs, we found Raine had just woken up. She was stretching in the kitchen, halfway through a routine, yawning as she pressed both hands against the kitchen table, muscles tensed and one leg braced out behind her. She carried on while we talked and it was exquisitely distracting, but I wasn’t about to complain.
“Hey!” She straightened up and flashed a smile as we appeared, rolling her neck and shoulders. “I was just coming to find you. Surprised you’d gotten up, everything okay?”
“Sorry I left you there on the sofa,” I said. “I had a thought. I had to do … a thing.”
Evelyn stomped past me, the big leatherbound book clutched to her chest with one hand. She grunted.
“S’fine, I needed the sleep,” Raine said. She pantomimed a duck-and-cover as Evelyn passed her. “So uh, Evee, am I still in the firing line?”
Evelyn avoided her gaze, filled a glass of water and muttered a barely audible apology.
“Don’t gimme the grumbly face.” Raine grinned. “I can tell you’re in a better mood.”
“Oh, I suppose I am,” Evelyn said. “Look, Raine, I’m sorry I blew up at you last night.”
Raine blinked as if Evelyn had grown an extra head. Her mouth fell open. I almost giggled.
“We had a bit of a heart to heart,” I said.
Evelyn winced. “Don’t call it that.”
Raine grinned from ear to ear. She carried on through her stretching routine, hooked one arm and then the other behind her head, pulling on alternate wrists to stretch her deltoids. I stared.
“And wipe that stupid grin off your face,” Evelyn told her.
“No chance!” Raine laughed as she stretched both arms over her head, side to side. “How’d both of you fancy going out for some breakfast? My treat.”
“Wouldn’t say no,” I muttered, far more concerned with the way that pose showed off Raine’s hips and waist.
Our kiss earlier seemed to have knocked a screw loose in my head. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t looked at Raine before, admired the way she moved, appreciated her toned athleticism and clean-limbed flexibility, but I hadn’t felt exactly like … this. Whatever this was. She stretched her quad muscles, by lifting each ankle in turn and grabbing it behind her backside with one hand, balancing herself against the kitchen table with her other. I felt the most unaccountable urge to reach out and goose her hipbone.
Clarifying the nature of our relationship had awakened an aspect of myself I wasn’t very familiar with. I turned away to hide a rising blush.
We had bigger things to deal with right now than my libido.
“I thought we needed to play at being hermits for a day or two?” Evelyn said.
Raine shrugged and pulled a self-mocking face. “I think I jumped the gun. My fault, my bad. Nothing’s happened. Odds are they had no idea who we were. Might not even have been the Cult. Also, I could eat a horse. What do you say?”
“I assume dog-brain made it out alright?” Evelyn asked.
“Twil? Yeah, she’s fine. Sore head’s about the worst of her problems.”
“I have something I need to show you, Raine,” I said. “Both of you.”
We gathered around the table in the ex-drawing room. The big overhead light was missing a few bulbs, lost to the ages, casting fuzzy illumination up the walls and across the floor. Evelyn munched her way through a cereal bar, but Raine was too focused on me to eat anything. She’d picked up on my tension.
I unfolded the filthy tshirt on the table, hiked up the front, showed them Maisie’s hidden message.
I didn’t need to say a word.
Raine’s lips moved as she read the first line, then she trailed off and shook her head. Evelyn stared in silence, sucking on her teeth.
“Bloody hell,” Raine muttered. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Surprisingly enough, yes. Maybe I’m just numb, or maybe nothing shocks me after yesterday.”
The truth was too hard to phrase: I felt a steel ball of resolve in my chest. Pain had been transmuted. Raine shook her head again and swore softly as she stared at Maisie’s message, at the crazed scrawl, the plea for my help.
“You’re absolutely certain it’s hers? ‘Maisie’?” Evelyn pronounced my twin’s name with exaggerated care.
I nodded. “Some things you never forget.”
“Bloody hell,” Raine repeated. She hooked her hands behind her head and started to pace up and down. Evelyn levelled a very steady gaze at me, and I knew what she was thinking. For a moment I thought she might not say it, might try to be gentle with me, hold back.
She came through, respected my intelligence.
“It’s bait,” Evelyn said.
“I accept that possibility. It’s not hard for me. You forget, Evee, I’ve spent ten years intentionally crushing my own hopes on a semi-regular basis. I’m quite used to the psychological discipline.”
“Oh, well, good-”
“But I still want my sister back.” I took a deep breath as my veneer of stability cracked, as a lump formed in my throat. “You can’t know how it feels. Nobody else even remembers her. She’s not in any photos, it took her bed, her clothes, everything. My parents they- … they didn’t forget, but the Eye made it so they never knew. As far as the world is concerned, Maisie Morell never existed. Except for me. I’m the only link she’s got. I miss her so much. I miss my twin. I owe it to her, even if this is bait.”
Evelyn thumped the book she was carrying down on the table, almost glaring at me.
I tried to steady my voice. “And if it’s not bait-”
“The Eye knows your mind inside out, Heather. It knows your desires, your needs, your darkest secrets and fears, it knows the exact object with which to bait you into throwing yourself onto its hook.”
“Hear her out,” Raine said.
“What’s to hear?” Evelyn spread her hands in a dismissive shrug. “What I said yesterday still stands, we can’t fight this thing. My idiotic mistake should have proved that, at the very least, or have you already forgotten what it felt like to have that thing rooting around in your skull? It didn’t even need a stable gate to do that.”
Raine raised her hands. “But what if-”
Evelyn ignored Raine, turned to me. “I know its name.”
“… I’m sorry?”
“Your ‘Eye’. It has a name. The experiment yesterday was an abject failure, yes. I’d intended to find out how it was contacting you, find a way to close off those pipelines, identify and categorise and lock down. That fell apart when it saw us – God alone knows how it did that. But now I know what it is. I sat up all night trying to salvage something from my own failure, trying to figure out how it sent the Noctis Macer through, trying to find anything, anything at all. And I found it.” She tapped the huge leatherbound book. “It’s in Unbekannte Orte.”
She flipped the tome open and turned the page toward me, jabbing a finger at the relevant passage. “There’s your Eye.”
The book was a horrible thing.
I didn’t think it possible for a book to feel wrong; it seemed so lovely. Heavy yellowed parchment pages, many repaired and held together with special tape, between cracked leather covers so very old and strangely pale, with handwritten notes in the margins and beautiful illustrated initial letters. There was only one problem.
“I can’t read German,” I said.
“Oh, right, yes.”
Evelyn cleared her throat and began to translate.
“Of the seventh and final inhabitant of the outer rim I have little to tell,” she read, finger tracing the words. “For such a thing is terrible and awesome to behold and left me bedridden with shaking and sweating for weeks thereafter. Though Malthus carried me swiftly through that place, his wings beat upon such a thinness of air and could not find purchase to leave once more and the very Earl of Hell himself dared not look upward upon the countenance which fixed us with its gaze. Malthus-”
“Who’s Malthus?” I interrupted. “And who’s the speaker here?”
She shrugged. “Malthus is the name of a demon, probably not a true name though. This part of Unbekannte Orte is an account by a medieval monk, claimed to have bound a demon to show him the limits of creation. The book is generally pretty sound about most things, but I’m not just working on trust. Here.” She continued.
“Malthus put aside his usual attempts to tempt me from the safer path, and advised me not to look upon the lord of this realm, for he knew well as I that neither man nor damnation could escape this place alone. I made a mistake of such grave proportions that to this day of writing I often dream of a giant eye, not of the godly ordained form of man but rather akin to a vast beast of the sea, Leviathan itself in the waters before the word. I can only be thankful to God almighty that in my terror and haste, I failed to apprehend the form of a body behind the single eye. Like those I have summoned to teach my poor mind natural law, this eye whispers the secrets of mathematics to me and I must purge myself after any such visitations.”
“Oh,” I breathed. “Oh. Right. I-”
“There’s more,” Evelyn said. She wet her lips and spoke slowly. “Malthus informs me that the being is properly named-”
It was not a word.
It was an un-sound that made my eyes water and my ears pop. The temperature dropped by a perceptible few degrees and a crackle passed through the air at the edge of hearing. Raine flinched shook her head like a startled dog. Evelyn coughed and winced.
“A true name,” Evelyn said.
“Does that give us power over it?” I asked. “Somewhere to start?”
Evelyn shook her head slowly. “No. But I can use it for the next step of what I was planning in the first place. Sealing you off from the Eye. It won’t be as elegant as what I had in mind, but it will work.” She watched me, the implication plain.
“That’s not as important to me anymore,” I said very quietly.
Evelyn sighed and leaned heavily on her walking stick, fixing me with the sort of look one gave to a child who wanted to play in traffic.
“This isn’t the kind of monster you summon to do your bidding,” she said. “It’s the kind people build religions around, the kind that ends civilisations. I felt that stare on me yesterday, we all did. Across the membrane, from Outside, and it still almost scooped our minds out on a whim, in a second. I had the strongest, most complex magic circles I know, the fruits of my mother’s work and more. Magic is not enough, magic is pissing into the wind.” Evelyn punctuated her words by rapping her walking stick against the side of the table. “This. thing. cannot. be. fought.”
“What about by me?” I said.
Evelyn halted and narrowed her eyes.
“Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics,” I said. “What do you imagine I’ve been thinking about all morning?”
“What’s this?” Raine asked.
“My uh, brain-math.” I gave her an awkward, guilty look as I tapped the side of my head. “Apparently that’s the technical term.”
Evelyn frowned up a thunderstorm. I managed to hold her gaze, but then my eyes flickered over to where I’d left the pamphlet on the table. She followed my look.
“You’d need a lot more than that,” she said with a huge sigh.
“Probably.” My voice shook far worse than I’d hoped it would, gave away how frightened this line of thought made me. I touched my fingers to my forehead. “But it’s all up here, isn’t it? You say the Eye is like a god, that it can reach from one dimension to another? Well, so can I. It taught me everything, a million things I didn’t want to know. I can dimension-hop. Who knows what else it showed me how to do?”
Evelyn ran a hand over her face. “I shouldn’t have told you anything. Should have kept you at arm’s length.”
“I deserved to know.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Not if you help me, Evee.”
Evelyn opened her mouth on harsher words, but stalled out, emotions fighting across her face. She looked away and scowled, then closed Unbekannte Orte and tugged at the bookmarks as she thought. Raine picked up the pamphlet, flicked it open and peered inside.
“I’m not talking about rushing into this,” I said. “Even if … even if there is a time limit.” I eyed the last line of Maisie’s secret message: her deadline, a year from now. “I mean … it seems absurd right now, but I have an essay due next week. The real world moves on without us, I can’t just abandon university for magic. Besides, I have you and Raine, don’t I?”
“I can hardly refuse you,” Evelyn said. “You saved me twice already.”
I felt a spike of terrible guilt. “That’s not-”
“Shut up. Let me think.”
I did. I looked to Raine for support, but she stared at Evelyn in equally deep thought, arms folded, the pamphlet in one hand. I was rapidly sinking beyond my depth, once again painfully aware of how much better these two knew each other than I ever could. I was on the verge of a minor outburst, of saying forget it, I’m sorry, I’ll drop it, I’ll do it myself, and a hundred other excuses.
“Assuming the tshirt is genuine, and therefore your twin is alive, we are presented with three problems,” Evelyn said. She stared at the tabletop as she talked, then paced to the head of the table, pushed a stack of books aside, and sat down with her chin in her hands. “One is the Eye itself. It can’t be defeated or killed, not in the way we define such concepts. I would need to find – or more likely, develop from scratch – a way to avoid the thing’s gaze, to hide, to be unseen.”
I nodded. “R-right.”
“Second.” She counted off on her fingers. “Is locating your sister. Which will either be incredibly easy or incredibly hard.”
“Because of the third problem. Nothing human can survive out there for long.”
I blinked at her. “What … what do you mean?”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “It’s not impossible that Maisie sent the Noctis Macer herself. I’m not entirely sure what that would imply about the state of her humanity.”
I nodded, slowly. “Okay. I understand. I still want to try.”
Evelyn pulled a funny expression at me, half-smile, half resigned fatalism. “I don’t even know where to begin. This is beyond uncharted territory. Beyond anything … anything my mother ever did. I suppose I need to hit the books, do some experiments, but the heavy lifting will be on you, on self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.”
“And you’re not even in a state to begin.” She jerked a finger at Maisie’s shirt. “It’s lucky we have a year, because you’re going to have to do that part yourself, and I don’t really know how to help you.”
“I can start small, read that,” I pointed at the pamphlet – still in Raine’s hand – and forced a smile, forced myself to feel confidence I didn’t have. “And … and face some of the things in the back of my head, m-maybe.” I swallowed down a bubble of nausea. The Eye’s impossible equations reared their many-mawed heads inside my mind.
Back down, I told them, I’ll deal with you later.
“Hold up,” Raine said. “You’re suggesting Heather root around in more of this shit the Eye crammed into her head?”
“Hardly my suggestion,” Evelyn said. “Perhaps you should listen to her.”
Raine turned a concerned frown on me, all worry. I stumbled over my words, over my own forced enthusiasm.
“Yes, yes. Fight fire with fire,” I said. “It’s given me all the tools, even if they’re awful to use. I can try- I-I have to try, I can’t just leave Maisie out there. I can’t.”
Raine waited for me to finish, then smiled as gently as she could.
“Last time you did it, it nearly killed you,” she said. “You didn’t see yourself, you were dead on the floor. I’ve … well,” her smiled turned self-conscious. “I have been that worried before, about a certain other person.” She nodded toward Evelyn. “But it’s not an experience I wanna repeat, not with you, Heather, you get me?”
“M-maybe that doesn’t have to happen again,” I said. “I can start small, I can-”
Raine said the worst possible words. The last thing I ever wanted to hear from her. The culmination of all my paranoia and repressed self-loathing.
If I hadn’t spent the last 16 hours dealing with one of the worst shocks of my life, I probably would have been able to talk it through. But I was still emotionally exhausted, the ache throbbing through my diaphragm in the background, hungry and in need of real food, probably a little dehydrated as well. My legs were weak and I needed a shower, sticky and greasy and stressed and holding myself together with the power of my friends’ support, masking the most terrifying suggestion of my life with bland optimism that I didn’t really believe.
“Let Evee and I deal with this. Leave it to us,” Raine said.
“I-I can’t, Raine. She’s my sister, my twin. She needs me. I-I can’t just-”
“Oh dear,” Evelyn muttered under her breath.
“Evee, I thought you had my back on this one?” Raine said.
“Excuse me?” I said, horrified at Raine’s tone.
“I owe her, Raine,” Evelyn said. “She’s saved me twice so far, clearly her judgement’s sounder than mine.”
Raine sighed and turned back to me. “You heard what Evee said, we can cut this thing off, give you your life back. Leave it to us.” Raine smiled and reached out for my hands. Comforting Raine, safe Raine, all the support in the world I’d ever needed.
I pulled away from her.
“Is that what I am to you?” I swallowed hard, lump in my throat.
“Heather? Evee and I can handle this-”
Evelyn huffed a laugh. “No we bloody well can’t.”
“- there’s no need to hurt yourself for this.”
“Some things are worth it,” I said, drawing myself up straight, gathering my battered dignity. “Some things in life you try even if they might kill you.”
”I sure as hell know that,” Raine laughed. “But you’re hardly out of options. Your back isn’t up against the wall here. You don’t have to blow up your own head to get this done.”
“I’m sick of being useless! I’ve run away and hidden for ten years!” I snapped. “I’m sick of it, I’m sick of hiding! I left her behind, Raine! I’m scum. I can’t just let other people do this for me. It’s not- it’s not just about-”
It’s not just about Maisie.
I couldn’t say that, of course. I could barely face it myself.
I needed this.
Raine tried to smile, explain herself, but I didn’t give her time. In my own private hell of paranoia and pressure, I didn’t give her time.
“You called me brave,” I spoke over her. “Was that a lie?”
“No! Heather, no, not at all. I just don’t want you to get-”
“It doesn’t matter what you want me to do. I’m not your damsel in distress.”
I marched over to the sofa and grabbed my coat, but ruined my hasty retreat by my need to scoop up Maisie’s tshirt from the table. I crammed it into my coat pocket and turned to Evelyn, trying as hard as I could to control the lump in my throat and the heat in my face and my eyes.
“Evelyn, t-thank you, for-”
“Heather, hey-” Raine moved to take my arm, to put a comforting hand on me, but I jerked away from her.
“Oh bloody hell, the pair of you,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t do this.”
I all but ran for the front door, mortified and humiliated. Raine followed me the whole way, only a few steps behind as I stamped into my shoes and burst out into the wan grey Sharrowford morning. Raine struggled into her boots and shut the door behind us, hurrying up the broken garden path to catch me.
Out in the street, spirit-life roiled in the thin morning fog, a mirror up to my heart. Wolf-things snapped and prowled and stretched snake-necks to the sky, gibbering tentacled slop lurked in the alleyways between the houses, packs of ghoulish creatures furred in burnt moss and topped with skull-faces danced and capered. They seemed reluctant to cross the wall of Evelyn’s overgrown front garden.
Raine reached for my shoulder. I folded my arms and turned away from her.
“Where are you going? I’ll come with.”
“Home,” I grunted. “Alone.”
She hadn’t meant half the things my own mind had supplied, I knew that.
Didn’t I like it when she treated me as vulnerable, in need of protection, saving, to be looked after and helped and supported? I did. I loved it. She cared. She was afraid I’d hurt myself – and she was right. Digging up the Eye’s lessons and playing with impossible physics did mean hurting myself. Badly. Perhaps irreversibly. Maybe I’d die choking on my own vomit, or pulled apart inside by the impossible black machinery of reality, or maybe my head would explode.
The kiss, the romance, had made it that much worse – had given me something to hold onto, filled me with a hundred new doubts.
I was scared, and I’d lashed out at the nearest target.
“I wish they’d all just move,” I said.
“Not you,” I frowned at Raine, then looked back at the monsters, the ghouls, the faces of bone and flesh and staring eyes, the lizard-heads and dripping ichor. “Them. My hallucinations. I wish they’d just get out of the way,” I snapped, raised my voice on the last few words.
They did. Parted. Scattered. At my command.
For a long moment I just stared at the street, shocked out of everything by the effect of my own words. My anger. My will.
Raine took my hand. I shook her off.
“Leave me alone.”
“Do you really mean that?” she asked softly.
I shrugged, then shook my head.
I’m so easy.
If a team of expert psychologists drew up a list of the worst people from whom to seek stable emotional support, then after the obvious abusers and narcissists and sociopaths, I would rank pretty high on that list.