conditions of absolute reality – 3.3

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Monsters. Monsters everywhere. Everywhere I turned, more monsters. I’d spent ten years seeing monsters around every corner and lurking in every shadow, convinced they weren’t real, trying to unsee them, forget them, ignore them. Now I’d accepted they were real, and I seemed to be getting to know them a lot more intimately than I’d ever wanted. In my dreams, in the street – in my bed too, I suspected, a very different kind of monster.

Another waited for us in Evelyn’s house.

At least this one was cute.

Raine helped me to the door and unlocked it without bothering to knock. The ache throbbed tight in my chest, like the worst case of heartburn in the world. A wave of comfortable indoor heat greeted us. Raine shut the door as I stepped gingerly out of my shoes. Floorboards creaked from deeper in the house, followed by the clack of a chair and the muffled but unmistakable sound of Evelyn’s voice.

I had to steady myself against the wall and rub my sternum, massage the ache down. With adrenaline draining away I realised once more how brain-math afterglow and two days of sleepwalking had taken a lot out of me, left me weak and shaky. I needed to sit down. I wanted a nap.

“Evee, it’s us,” Raine called as she walked across the front room. She stepped over the stain on the floorboards, from where she’d killed the Bone-thing. I wondered if it would ever fade.

A woman stepped primly and smartly through the kitchen doorway.

Not Evelyn.

Blue.

Skin and shoulder-length hair shaded in the most subtle blue of glacial ice. Perfect skin, no expression, spine ramrod straight. Heels together, shoulders back, hands clasped daintily in front of her like a 19th-century maid. She was dressed in Evelyn’s clothes, a thick soft pullover and long comfy skirt, huge army boots on her feet. Age impossible to guess, anywhere from fifteen to thirty.

Blank eyes; no pupil, no iris, no veins. Only milk-white sclera.

Despite the obvious artificiality, my first thought was how darned cuddly she looked. She filled out Evelyn’s clothes very substantially.

Raine didn’t agree. Her eyes widened in disbelief, muscles tensed, feet backpedaled.

“Hello?” I ventured.

“Evee!” Raine yelled at the top of her lungs. She reached into her jacket and drew the handgun.

“Raine! Oh my God.”

I’d managed to briefly forget about that little nugget of illegality. Certainly didn’t suspect she was carrying the thing. It looked so wrong and blunt in Raine’s hands, weird stubby twist of black metal. She pointed it at the Blue Lady.

“Back up,” Raine said.

No reaction. The Blue Lady stood stock-still and unresponsive, a servant awaiting orders.

“Back. Up.”

“Stop shouting, you absolute bonehead,” Evelyn called.

She thumped out of the kitchen doorway and into the front room; Raine jerked the gun away and pointed it at the floor. Evelyn tapped the Blue Lady’s leg with her walking stick and muttered ‘shift yourself’. Words proved more powerful than Raine’s pistol; the Blue Lady sidestepped from Evelyn’s path.

“Put that nonsense away before you blow a hole in the floorboards.” Evelyn frowned at the gun. For me, her expression softened. “Heather, I’m so glad to see you up and about. I never doubted your constitution for a moment.”

“Uh … thank you? Evee, who is this?”

“This?” Evelyn side-eyed the Blue Lady, then snapped at Raine. “Close your mouth, you look gormless.”

Raine shook her head in disbelief and puffed out an unimpressed laugh. “Evee, have you lost your mind? Did I step into backwards universe this morning?”

“Apparently. You seem to think that spud gun would make a blind bit of difference. Put it away. Makes me nervous, you’ll do one of us an injury.”

“I never took the safety off. It was a … bluff … ” Raine frowned hard at the Blue Lady, as if expecting sudden movement, but then she sighed and shrugged and tucked the pistol back into her jacket. “I hope I’m not gonna have to do more than bluff.”

Evelyn walked over to peer at my face. Dark bags ringed her bloodshot eyes. “You do look pretty rosy-cheeked. I’m going to assume that’s a good sign?”

“Oh, um, I think so? I-”

“Any lingering effects?”

“I do feel quite fragile. My chest aches more than before … Evee, who is this?” I opened a hand toward the Blue Lady. Evelyn used the tip of her walking stick to poke our discarded shoes into a neater position by the front door.

The Blue Lady stood stock still, unmoved by all.

Raine put hands on her hips. “Evee-”

What? Well, what, Raine? I needed help, didn’t I? You’ve been busy – rightfully,” Evelyn added an aside nod to me. “I needed muscle, protection. I had to send something out there to figure out what those bastards are doing to my city. In my back yard. What was I meant to do? Sit and wait for you, pretend everything was normal? Is that what you’re going to tell me? The same sort of thing you’ve been feeding Heather?”

Raine blinked at her. “I didn’t think you’d make a zombie though.”

I cleared my throat. “When you two have quite finished, can one of you please explain who … this … zombie?” Exasperation crept in at the sides of my head and I let out a huge involuntary sigh. I met the Blue Lady’s eyes – no small feat, eye contact with blank white. “You did not just say that word.”

Raine winced. “Best not do that. Don’t get its attention.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous.” Evelyn marched back over to the Blue Lady and pinched her cheek like she was a small child. Zero reaction. “If it was at all dangerous, we’d already be dead. You think I would make that sort of mistake? Your confidence in me is touching, Raine, thank you.”

“It?” I echoed, faintly disgusted. “She looks like a human being to me.”

“Believe me, it’s an it,” Raine said. “If I’m right about what I’m looking at here, Evee?”

“Oh, stop being so bloody dramatic,” Evelyn said. “And no, it’s not a zombie. Nothing so crude. Where on earth would I even get the corpse? Can you see me slipping into a morgue and dragging a body out? I’d end up on the evening news.”

“Will you two stop pulling another Twil on me? Who-” I bit down and huffed out a sigh. “What is this woman?”

Raine smirked. “Pull a Twil?”

“Keeping important facts from me.”

“Over to you, Frankenstein’s daughter.” Raine deferred to Evelyn with a raised eyebrow.

“I used a mannequin,” Evee said. She stared hard at Raine, as if daring defiance, then glanced at me. “It’s a demon, from Outside, bound in a shop window display dummy. I know what you want to say, Raine. I’m getting more like my mother every day.”

“Hey, no, never.” Raine’s voice softened, the same voice she used for me. “I’d never say that. You know that.”

Evelyn sighed and looked away, suddenly interested in the pile of old cardboard boxes along the edge of the front room.

A demon?

“Does she have a name?” I asked.

Raine opened her mouth, then paused and raised an eyebrow. “Does it? Evee?”

Her,” I insisted.

Evelyn frowned at both of us. “What?”

“Did you name it – her?” Raine caught the look in my eyes and corrected herself.

“W-what? No, of course not. Don’t be obscene.”

Raine laughed and raised her hands in surrender. “It’s not such a leap. You’ve made an anime character, Evee. You even gave her blue hair.”

“I thought it was comforting, alright?” Evelyn stared at the floor and poked a box with the tip of her stick. “I have enough bad memories of these damned things without making them like my mother did, understand?”

“ … you made an anime girl. I mean, no shame no blame. Whatever floats your boat.”

“What? You think I’m going to sleep with the dammed thing?”

Three days deprived of Raine, and Evelyn had made herself a new companion. Literally. A soft, feminine, cuddly companion, bound at her will. Guilt and embarrassment fought in my chest – second hand embarrassment on Evelyn’s behalf, and guilt on my part for monopolising Raine’s time and attention.

All through the escalating argument, the Blue Lady – the bound demon – hadn’t moved a single muscle or blinked once, though she did appear to breathe, heavy chest rising and falling in slow rhythm. I peered at her, then stepped closer for a better look. She didn’t seem anything like a mannequin.

Raine broke off. “Hold up, Heather, don’t get too close to it.”

“Your doubts really do wonders for my self-esteem, too,” Evelyn carried right on. “Thank you for this constant stream of support. You … I … ” Evelyn juddered to a halt along with Raine. Probably at the very unimpressed look on my face.

“So, she’s a demon, an Outsider, whatever,” I said. “Possessing a life-sized doll?”

“Yes, a very minor demon,” Evelyn said. “The technical term for this thing is a Gelus Praeministra. The demon doesn’t look like that in its natural state, it’s bound and piloting the vessel at my command. It follows my orders, but it has some room for creative interpretation and problem solving. It’s quite a feat, actually, perfecting this sort of work on dead wood or plastic.”

“Gelus? Gelus. Or … Praem. That’s a good enough name. Praem. Sounds a little French.” I shook my head, trying to assimilate all this.

Raine and Evelyn both spoke at once.

“You can’t give it a name-”

“Please don’t-”

I folded my arms and waited for the complaints to subside, spoke into the opening of silence which followed. “You cannot have something that looks like a person and treat it as an object. I refuse. Tends to be a rather bad idea? Tends to lead to treating other people like objects too? Bad things happen?” My other protest went unsaid: Evelyn didn’t need a doll, she needed friends.

Raine shrugged and nodded. “Fair enough. She’s got a point, Evee. That is sort of unhealthy.”

“It’s not a person,” Evelyn said with a grimace. “It’s from Outside.”

“But you said it thinks, right?” I asked. “It … you’ve enslaved this thing and-”

“It’s not slavery. I commend your sense of ethics, but it’s not slavery.”

“Was last time I checked.” Raine began to laugh, but the laugh died young. “Evee … it is, right?”

“This one wants to be here. I made sure.”

Raine’s expression froze.

“We made a bargain,” Evelyn said.

“Evee-”

“You think I’d sign my soul away? I’m no idiot. I am a Saye, after all, we know how to do these things. I made a specific, limited bargain. Cheap and easily fulfilled.”

“Feed me a cat,” Praem said.

We all stared at her – at it – at such an inhuman voice. High, whispering, icebound, like the rustling of snowflakes on winter wind. She stared straight ahead, hands folded in perfect poise.

“It’s winding us up,” Evelyn said. “Wait here.”

She stomped off into the kitchen and returned with an open plastic tub of supermarket strawberries. She fingered one out and held it up. “Hand.”

Praem raised one hand with mechanical precision, palm up. Evelyn gave her the strawberry. Praem paused, then very slowly and very carefully she placed the strawberry in her own mouth.

This was a wooden mannequin? I saw lips, teeth, a tongue – all tinted that same ice-blue – and she certainly seemed to relish the taste of strawberry, chewing with measured slowness until a visible bob of her throat indicated she was done.

“See?” Evelyn allowed herself a smug smile. “You try finding a demon that wants to eat strawberries. I think I’ve outdone myself.”

“Where did you get the mannequin from?” I asked. Evelyn gestured at a very big amazon delivery box flattened out by the door.

“Evee, that was … crazy cute,” Raine said. “I’m still not convinced you aren’t sleeping with it-”

Evelyn made an angry grumbling noise.

“- but for real, there’s no way this thing is safe to have around.”

“Pity’s sake, see for yourself.”

Evelyn grabbed the hem of Praem’s sweater and hiked it up over a soft human belly – a belly covered in looping, winding Arabic script which surrounded a magic circle, all drawn in marker pen. The circle contained a set of angular symbols painful to the eye. The doll, the demon, whatever she was, didn’t react. I turned away, suffering terrible second hand embarrassment.

“The binding is perfect,” Evelyn was saying. “Any interruption and it gets sent right back where it came from.”

“I dunno. Don’t these things get … twitchy?” asked Raine.

“Yes, of course, when you use real flesh and live subjects. My mother’s corpse-puppets had a much greater range of sensory input and expressive output, but she had far less control over them.”

Raine laughed, humourless and dark. “I remember that part.”

Evelyn tapped the side of Praem’s head. “This is still just wood underneath the glamour. It’s got barely a better sensory setup than a normal human. Slow speed of thought, too. My control is perfect. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”

“I-I’m sorry, Evee,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “I’m really sorry.”

Evelyn looked blank. “What?”

I stumbled on, caught between mortified embarrassment and heart-aching sympathy. “I mean, this. You didn’t have Raine, she was busy with me and you … you made a friend … I … ”

Evelyn blinked tired eyes at me, utterly lost. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I trailed off and felt exceedingly small, muttered a tiny apology.

“That’s not what this is about, Heather. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got you, haven’t you? We’re friends.

“We are, yes, yes. Why- why make Praem at all? What … ”

To my surprise, Evelyn’s lips creased in a knowing smile, back in her element.

“I’ve been busy.”

Praem the demon-maid stayed on guard in the front room. We circled through the kitchen and the back of the house to the ex-drawing room where I’d spent an exhausted night asleep on the sofa. Seemed like only yesterday. Lost time ghosted on the edge of my consciousness. I barely felt coherent enough for this, even less so when Evelyn stopped short of the door to tell me a giant spring-loaded spider lurked inside.

“You made it very clear I am to warn you. I wish to honour that request.”

“ … do you think it’ll jump out at me like the other one?”

“No, no I don’t think so. Took six hours of shouting just to wrangle it down from the attic. Can’t get the blasted thing to go back. I don’t think it gives a damn what goes on around it. Might have gone senile.”

“You moved it here on purpose?”

Evelyn shrugged.

“Giant spider?” Raine grinned.

“You won’t be able to see it,” Evelyn waved her away and hustled me into the ex-drawing room. “Just don’t stand in the circle unless you want a nasty shock.”

She’d turned the space into a war-room.

Both the sofas had been pushed back against the walls, the floor cleared for a half-full inflatable paddling pool and two magic circles drawn on huge sheets of stiff card. One circle was very complex and contained a sort of entry port on one side, corners weighed down with bricks. The other was only half-finished, attended by a detritus of candles, a ritual knife, two bottles of strange powder and what looked like a human femur bone. I recognised Evelyn’s books – both Unbekannte Orte and Inprencibilis Vermis – lying open on one of the sofas, copious notes scattered on the cushions..

The state of the far wall left no question as to what piece of magic took pride of place. Evelyn had mutilated the wall with a screwdriver, scored the outline of a doorway into the paint and plaster.

Surrounding the imaginary door in a fan shape, like a madhouse mandala, she’d covered the wall with magical symbols, bits of Latin, scraps of non-human language, interlocking magic circles, sprawling mathematical formulae, and a dozen other unclassifiable additions. All seemed to refer back to the blank space of the doorway.

I had to look away. My head swam.

A giant Spider-servitor was indeed clinging to the ceiling, wedged in a corner. Smaller than the one in the library basement, more dog-sized, it shared the same clustered head of crystalline eyes and body of hard black chitin, studded with heat-exchanger stacks, though this one was free from scars and old battle-damage. It seemed somehow distressed, legs drawn up tight at an awkward angle.

I suppose I’d have been distressed too if Evelyn had shouted at me for six hours.

“Poor thing,” I muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing. Sorry.”

Evelyn walked over to the table, gait unsteady. She put more weight on her withered leg than her prosthetic, and leaned heavily on her walking stick.

How many hours had she been awake?

Gone were the piles of books on the table, unceremoniously shuffled off into the corner under the spider. In their place, a huge ordinance survey map of Sharrowford lay unfolded on the table. A date printed in the corner proclaimed the map was about twenty years old, so Evelyn had pencilled in corrections and missing housing developments, but the real work she’d done on the map was in red highlighter pen.

Evelyn tapped the map. “That closed space you two walked into was not an isolated aberration.”

City centre landmarks highlighted in red, linked by kinking lines that corresponded to no physical roads. Entire suburban streets circled and numbered, cross-referenced on a nearby pad full to bursting with scribbled notes. Odd twists and turns down Sharrowford’s back alleyways, seedy estates, industrial wastelands, all traced with red highlighter, question marks, no entry signs. Red for danger. Red for blood.

The whole mass of map-work was crowned by a great question mark hovering over the south of the city.

“Why red?” I asked.

“Seemed appropriate, under the circumstances,” Evelyn muttered.

“What are we looking at here?” Raine asked.

“I think I can take a guess,” I said.

“It’s a whole network.” Evelyn jabbed at at the map, at one of the spiderwebs of interconnected red highlighter.

“Of what?” asked Raine.

“I don’t know. Extra-temporal, extra-dimensional spaces. I don’t have the language for it. This is new, undocumented. It’s a fucking nightmare, is what it is.” Evelyn shrugged as her earlier gloss of smug satisfaction fell to exhaustion and disgust. “Portions of the city copied into looping spaces. Buildings, streets, but imperfectly, out of different materials, and they lead somewhere deeper.” She tapped the huge question mark to the south. “I haven’t been able to get down there, not through the loops. They keep shutting me out, pinching routes off, shoving monsters in my way.”

“You’ve been investigating this alone?” Raine asked. “Going out, alone?”

Evelyn gave her the sort of withering stare which only comes with hard sleep deprivation. “Yes, after what happened to you two, I thought the best course of action was to wander around by myself and poke my head into magical rabbit traps.”

“Ah, uh.” Raine cleared her throat and smirked. “Sorry, sorry.”

How could Raine smirk, in front of this? I couldn’t look away. The map was a nightmare. A shadow-city.

“Of course I didn’t go out myself. What do you think the huge bloody scrying pool is for?” Evelyn waved a hand at the half-full paddling pool. “I’ve had the Gelus Praeministra remote sending.”

“Praem,” I corrected her softly, more to have a handhold to clutch than to insist on names.

Evelyn suppressed a tight huff. I left it at that, but already felt guilty.

“Is that what you were trying to use the Spider-servitor for?” I pointed into the corner, at the awkwardly cowering spider.

“Um … yes. Sort of.”

Raine followed my finger. She looked at the corner, then down at the circle with the entry port on on side.

“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” Evelyn said. Raine grinned and stepped into the circle, then furrowed her brow and squinted.

“He’s a bit … fuzzy, isn’t he?” she said.

“It took me four hours of meditating just to see the outline. I told you not to bother.”

“Evee, why not just make a Servitor?” I asked. “Why make a … Praem?”

Evelyn looked awkward, then sighed and shrugged. “I barely know where to start with Servitors. I can make one that would fall apart in a strong wind, but I needed something physical, mobile, capable of independent thought. I can’t even make that blasted spider move outside.”

“Hmm. That does make sense.”

“I started on … on ‘Praem’ the minute after Raine called me, after you and her escaped. It- … she can sense more than I can, and faster. Sent her to Willow House as soon as I got the first couple of strawberries down her. No trace. Nothing there. So I had her walk about.” Evelyn gestured at the map, traced some of the circled streets. “Imagine my bloody surprise. Lots of these lead nowhere, but some of them are linked into a greater whole, a warren that runs deeper than I’ve reached. Not all of them are properly concealed either. That car-park you two blundered into, chasing your sister’s message, that was one of them. You’re lucky you didn’t go any deeper, you may never have come back out. Likely there’s been an uptick in missing persons cases, homeless people vanishing, that sort of thing.”

“Is this … ” I started, then trailed off, an idea tugging at the back of my mind. “Is … I mean … is this naturally occurring?”

“Absolutely not. This is the Sharrowford Cult’s doing. Didn’t Raine tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“Yeah, tell her what?” Raine added, genuinely mystified.

“The woman who shot at Raine, we’ve seen her before.”

“Hey now,” said Raine. “I didn’t exactly get a good look at her. I was too busy duelling a giant zombie.”

“How many murderous psychopathic women with shaved heads do we know?” Evelyn asked. “Take a wild guess.”

“If the answer is more than one, I want out,” I said. I’d intended it as a joke, but my own dry swallow undermined any humour.

“Exactly,” said Evelyn. “We had trouble with the Cult when we moved to Sharrowford. Raine butchered some zombies, put a few other things down. The woman with the shaved head, she was there, as were some others. She’s the link. It’s the Cult.”

“So … so w-what do we do?” I asked. My voice felt so small, out of my depth.

“I’ve started shutting down the entrances I can, closing them off or collapsing them, but some of the principles … escape me. It’s like an excavated space behind the real Sharrowford, in the existing bedrock of Outside.” Evelyn gritted her teeth in disgust and anger as she stared down at the map, at the shadow city. “These people, these fucking vermin should not be able to do things like this. This is a major working, a huge project, the kind of thing a mage could spend a lifetime bringing to fruition, and they’ve slipped it under my nose in the space of months. I don’t even know how long. In my city.”

“Evee,” Raine said, a little too bright and loud. She stuck out her thumb and little finger, waggled them in the universal telephone gesture. “Did you … ?”

“Yes, I called my father. No break-ins. Nobody’s been down there since us.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I blinked at Evelyn.

“Don’t worry about it, Heather, ancient history,” said Raine. That earned her a miniature glare from Evelyn.

“She has a right, Raine, she’s as involved as either of us.” Evelyn turned to me. “Raine told me the thugs you met inside the loop had vests with the warding sign on.”

“Oh! Yes, the Fractal. But it wasn’t the Fractal.”

“I know. It wasn’t the warding sign, but it came from the same source. Which meant either somebody burglarised my childhood home and stole my mother’s … legacy, or the Cult has done to some poor sod what my mother did to me.”

“Ah. Uh, okay.”

“I don’t know which is worse.” Evelyn shook her head. “That kind of magic, the kind on your left arm, it’s extremely stable and very useful. That’s the only way I can explain what they’ve achieved.”

A thought teased at the edge of my mind. What if the Cult had a person like me? A brain-math dimension-jumper, to dig out their shadow-city behind Sharrowford?

“Heather?”

I blinked, frozen verge of speaking. “Ah, s-sorry.”

Raine peered at my face. “You holding up okay, Heather? Wanna sit down? Hell, this is pretty heavy stuff, shall we go make some coffee, have a snack, take a break?”

“I’m … fine.” I shook my head.

A person like me? Where had I gotten that idea?

Evelyn was working herself up again, staring down at the map with a darkness behind her eyes. “Bastards, utter bastards. Could have left us all well alone after you stumbled onto them in that underground car-park, but no, they decided to try their hands at assassination, bump me out of the way so they could complete this insane work. Bit off more than they could chew when they met you though, didn’t they?” She shot me an approving glance.

“I didn’t do anything, Evee.”

“Raine told me you stopped a bullet with your mind. That’s not nothing.”

“It mostly just hurt.” I didn’t want the approving glance. I didn’t want to think about what I’d done with my mind.

“Well, now I’ve got them. All this has been going on right under my nose, like rats in the walls, but I’ve got them now. No more hiding, eh?” She spoke to the map, not to us.

I felt terminally out of my depth. I hadn’t bargained on any of this. Evelyn was fighting the opening moves of a shadow war and Raine was treating it like an everyday occurrence. Terrifying people had tried to kill all of us; in the world I grew up in, that meant you called the police, probably? I’d never called the police for anything.

Raine was staring at the ceiling in thought, arms folded. She nodded to herself as Evelyn spoke, apparently arriving at a conclusion.

“Maybe we should leave Sharrowford for a week or two,” she said.

“What?”

“Oh, maybe that’s a good idea,” I said – but they were off.

“You cannot be serious,” Evelyn snapped at Raine.

“Well, we could skip town, or call your dad again, ask for help?”

Evelyn looked at Raine like she’d suggested we all join the circus. “So he can do what, come up here and cluck at me?”

“What’s your suggestion then? Lay it out for me.”

Evelyn jabbed her walking stick at the far wall, at the madhouse mandala and the fake doorway, the great unfinished work. “That. That is my suggestion. The more of their intrusions I shut down, the more I learn, and that is going to take me straight to the heart of whatever nonsense they’re building down there.” She tapped the big question mark on the map, over the south of the city.

“Straight to the source? Decapitation strike? Kill all their leadership and blow up their shit?”

“Exactly!”

“You and what army?”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes. Raine didn’t say a word, just fixed her with that genuine-question, zero-judgement look she’d deployed so accurately against me, used to batter down all my resistances.

It didn’t work the same way on Evelyn. She glared back.

Raine sighed. “I know what you’re thinking of doing.”

“You haven’t the faintest idea.”

“I can take an educated guess.” Raine nodded at the half-finished magic circle. “I don’t know the jazz voodoo half as well as you do, but even I can guess what that’s for.”

“You-”

“Disco gorilla or Mister teeth?” Raine asked. Evelyn shut her mouth and swallowed. “Come on, Evee, gotta share your plans, even if they’re crazy. What are you gonna summon?”

“ … Haeretis decollatio,” Evelyn muttered, guilty and averting her eyes.

Raine pulled a face. “The thing with the huge scissors? Damn.”

“Probably more than one.”

“Evee.”

“I don’t know what’s in there.” Evelyn gestured at the door again. “You don’t get it, this has to be shut down before it gets worse, before-”

“It’s too dangerous. You know that. You know I’m only trying to stop you from hurting your-”

“Oh, you want me to send you through, with your pop gun and swear words?”

And like that, the argument was off to the races. I sighed inside and stepped back from the table, out of the firing line as Evelyn snapped and shouted and stamped with her walking stick, as Raine laughed and shook her head and did, indeed, try to coddle, slowly losing her own steadfast temper.

“I’ll go make some coffee, shall I?”

Neither of them paid the slightest bit of attention as I left the room, even when I closed the door to keep their argument contained. I wandered back into Evelyn’s kitchen, into the dusky light of a Sharrowford afternoon falling through the window.

I could still hear them. I sighed and ran my hands over my face.

Too many things to think about, on top of listening to those two argue: the spirits, my magical coma, the loop, scary cult people, brain-math, Maisie …

Yes, that’s why I was here, who I was here for. My twin sister.

Well, the fact I’d slept with Raine did factor into my decisions too. And I did have a friendship with Evelyn, she was right. But I’d had enough of intervening in arguments, in wondering when those two were going to finally break at each other. Raine didn’t seem to need my support on this. They needed to work this one out for themselves.

True to my word, I did brew up some coffee, from the ancient tin of instant tucked away in the back of a cupboard. I reminded myself I must buy Evelyn some real stuff, if we’re going to be friends. Boiling the kettle at least drowned out the noise of the shouting match for a minute – still raging back there, but now punctuated by short, brooding silences.

For the sake of peace and quiet, I took my mug of coffee into the front room. I half intended to go upstairs and browse the collection in the study, centre my mind with the help of Shakespeare and whoever else I might discover.

Praem stood right where we’d left her.

I stopped and looked at her. Really looked at her – at it? At her blue-ice complexion and all-white eyes and perfect proper prim poise.

“Uh, hello again.” I waved awkwardly.

No reply, of course.

“Praem,” I said. “That’s your name now. If you can understand what I’m saying?”

Silence.

“Do you have any idea how I can get those two to stop clawing at each other? It feels like herding cats.”

Praem did not have any suggestions, about that or any other matter.

I hadn’t time for a good look earlier, not with the hustle and bustle and Raine pulling a gun, but now I peered a little closer. As close as was polite. She did have doll-like ball-and-socket seams, under her chin and on her hands, but only when examined very carefully.

“I’m … I’m going to poke your cheek, is that okay? Okay then.”

I reached up and pressed a fingertip gently against one cheek. Very soft, very smooth, very human. I pulled my hand back and muttered an apology.

My musings turned uncharitable. Praem was built so very voluptuously, with wide hips and a rather heavy chest. Had Evelyn used the word ‘mannequin’ to avoid other, more accurate connotations? I decided not to check the details on that amazon box.

“You know, those are really impressive,” I said, staring at her chest and shaking my head. I caught myself, blushed and blinked and turned away, asked myself what the hell I was saying.

What had come over me? Was it because I’d lost my virginity last night, or because I wasn’t treating this demon-possessed doll as a human being?

Odd to stand in front a person who doesn’t react at all. An immature, horrible, weaselly little part of me wanted to hug it – her – give it a nice big squeeze, consequence free. The comfy clothes didn’t help. I frowned and told myself off. She was a person, sort of. There was a thinking, sentient being in there. Which was neither human nor strictly alive.

My carnal reaction raised a far more important question.

“Is Evee a lesbian?” I asked out loud. Praem offered no opinion.

I knew Raine was. She’d proved that last night with her head between my thighs. A goofy smile worked it’s way onto my face again.

But what about Evelyn?

I’d assumed not, after she’d assured me she wasn’t into Raine. Perhaps subconsciously, I’d drawn a line between ‘not into Raine’ and ‘not into girls’, which raised some interesting avenues of inquiry about my own tastes, but Praem’s appearance made me reconsider.

Evee had made herself a soft, thick, motherly cuddle-doll. Motherly? Oh dear. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t think about this. That wasn’t a depth I wished to plumb, not without permission and a dry-suit.

“Is she sleeping with you? Does she hug you?”

Praem did not reply.

“Suppose you only take orders from Evee, hmm?”

“Feed me.”

I blinked in surprise and almost fell over.

Oh, but that voice. That was not a human voice, no fool could mistake it for one. She whispered in the rustle of ice crystals and the tickle of wind.

Two minutes later I held the tub of strawberries in front of Praem. I took one out, then paused and pricked up my ears, listening carefully to the sounds of the ongoing argument in the front room; Raine and Evelyn had stopped shouting but the house still murmured with a background of angry conversation.

“Alright, give me your hand.”

Praem didn’t move.

“You have to hold your hand out.”

I asked myself what I was doing. Having fun? A bit of harmless play? I clamped down on that thought. Bad Heather. This wasn’t harming anybody. She’d asked to be fed, she’d made the request.

“At least open your mouth. Hurry up.”

Praem obeyed that one. She parted her lips with a soft click. I frowned at her. Was she-? No, she couldn’t possibly be. She was an Outsider. Not human.

I reached up and fed her the strawberry. Pushed it past her lips with a fingertip. A fleeting moment of contact.

When I finished, I was blushing and flushed.

“Oh,” I muttered. “Oh dear. Well, uh-”

Praem chewed and swallowed.

“Oh, I don’t think I should do that again.” I swallowed on a dry throat and focused on closing the lid of the plastic tub, a tremor in my hands. I was terrible. Absolutely terrible. Why couldn’t I stop blushing?

Why was I aroused by feeding a strawberry to a demon?

“Are you at least going to answer the question? Does Evee hug you and … stuff?”

Praem answered with a smile.

That smile was a bucket of cold water over my arousal. A mere tugging of muscles and curve of mouth. Nothing in the eyes; cold and empty.

“ … right. You’re not human. Right.”

“Heather?”

Raine spoke my name and I almost jumped out of my skin, fumbling the box of strawberries. I narrowly avoided dropping them all over the floor. She tilted her head at me from the doorway. I hadn’t noticed the argument wind down, but now I could hear Evelyn grumbling to herself and thumping about.

“Oh, oh goodness you made me jump.”

Raine half-grinned and nodded at the box of strawberries. “That thing isn’t a pet, you know? It might look cute, but it would eat you if it could.”

I blushed all the harder and let out a huff. Raine was exactly the sight I needed right now. She was much more attractive than some unrealistically thick doll.

“I’ve just learnt that, I think. Thank you.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow in silent question, but I didn’t want to elaborate. Explaining to my girlfriend of literally one day that I’d been turned on by feeding a strawberry to her physical opposite was not a smart course of action. Even I knew that, as inexperienced as I was.

“So,” I started instead. “Have you and Evee patched things up? Come to some kind of … ” I trailed off. Raine’s face made her answer plain. “You haven’t, have you?”

“I just wanted to come check on you.”

“Raine, I’m fine. You need to go talk to Evee.”

“Ah? Heather?”

I did the only thing which made sense; I put the box of strawberries down and marched right up to Raine, took her by the shoulders and tried to turn her around. She laughed but offered only token resistance.

“Heather, what? What- what is this?”

I put my hands on her back and steered her toward the front room. I felt like a Terrier pushing a Great Dane. “You and Evee need to talk. Talk.”

Raine sighed, her amusement flagging. “We did, we-”

“Raine, you’re wonderful and I think I might be falling in love with you.” Goodness me, did I really just say that? “But you and Evelyn need to stop arguing. Deal with each other. Right now. Go back in there and sort this out. You’re old friends and she needs your support and … go. Back in there. Go. Go!”

I shoved Raine the rest of the way, under no illusion that I’d be able to if she’d resisted. She grinned and shook her head as I pushed her through the door. I caught a glimpse of Evelyn’s thunderous frown and deep confusion, then shut the door on them.

“Don’t come out until you’re friends again!”

I waited a beat, my heart hammering, but neither of them burst back out to tell me off or shout at me.

Had I just done that? Where had that courage come from? Was this me?

I think it was.

I sighed and rubbed my sternum, then wandered back into the sitting room to return the tub of strawberries to the fridge, then picked up my lukewarm coffee and took a sip, frowning at Praem.

“So, orders from Evee only,” I muttered.

I froze on a crazy thought, mug halfway to my mouth. Did I have enough courage to try that? Was it even a worthwhile experiment? If Evee needed an army to take on the Cult, what might I need to rescue my sister?

Because I did know a monster or two which might listen to me, didn’t I?

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