conditions of absolute reality – 3.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Show me,” Evelyn said.

“Now? In here?”

“No reason to wait. I thought you’d be eager, what with your sister’s time limit.”

“Of course, yes, of course. I … ” I glanced past Evelyn to the calendar I’d pinned up on the kitchen wall. Dawn cast a rectangle of sickly grey through the windows, but hours would pass yet before the light touched those days.

Evelyn cleared her throat and pulled a face. “I know, I’ve hardly been upholding my end of our debt. I need to get a better idea of what you’re doing. Please, show me.”

“It’s not a debt, Evee. We’re friends.”

She shrugged bland acquiescence. “Please, Heather?”

“It’s far from perfect, and I don’t want to make a mess.” I looked Raine for support. She was leaning against the fridge, stuffing a half stale pastry into her face.

“You won’t mess it up,” she said. “You can do it, you’re ace. You’ve got this bastard right under your thumb now.”

“That’s not true. Not even close. You had to carry me home.”

Evelyn eased back in her chair, nursing a cup of tea with both hands. Neither of them said anything, a silent double-team. They surrounded me without even communicating.

“ … alright, okay,” I said with a sigh. “Let me go get my notebook, I can’t do it blind.”

Three weeks after Raine had moved into Evelyn’s house, and one day after my greatest experiment yet, we were all gathered once more in the kitchen, once more discussing matters of supernatural import, once more all very hungry.

Wrapped in a dressing gown and half-awake, Evelyn had stumbled onto Raine and I still recovering. My rain-spattered coat still lay by the front door where I’d dropped it, next to Raine’s mud-covered boots. We’d slept fitfully last night after a long shower. Raine had wanted me to sleep in, but I still felt queasy and a headache hovered at the back of my skull, so I’d dragged myself downstairs to sit and contemplate the effort required to keep down a sad plate of buttered toast. Evelyn had appeared, frowned at both of us, then asked why I looked wiped out and why Raine looked like I’d borne her a litter of kittens.

Now it was time for show and tell.

I trudged upstairs and fetched my notebook. Raine had a steaming mug of coffee ready when I returned, but I politely pushed it away, already regretting the breakfast which now sat like lead in my stomach.

“I’ll just bring it back up, you know that.”

“You won’t,” Raine said. “You didn’t last night.” I shook my head and sat down, flipped my notebook open and cast around for a likely candidate. Coffee mug? Used spoon? Evelyn’s plate?

“You need to be bloody careful with that.” Evelyn stared hard at my notebook. “You leave it in the wrong place … ”

“I won’t. Besides, who’s going to understand it but me?”

She grimaced at the cheap, spiral-bound notebook in my hands. I’d picked it up from the university bookshop two weeks ago and already filled it cover to cover, with endless mathematical notation stamped as neatly as I could between the ruled lines. To be fair, I’d had to rip a few pages out, paper flecked with vomit or blood, whenever I’d begun to transcribe concepts too incendiary for my fragile brain and stomach.

“Okay, so, I’m going to need-”

I glanced down at the math unprepared, winced, and averted my eyes. Big mistake.

Raine recognised the signs instantly. She grabbed my shoulders and dug her thumbs into the muscles, kneaded me hard to pull my mind away from the equations. She rubbed my neck, my scalp, smoothed my hair back from my forehead. She’d had plenty of practice these last three weeks. We’d discovered this early on; touch worked. Between her help and a few deep breaths, I fought down the wave of nausea.

“You good?”

“Yes. Thank you,” I breathed. She eased off. “So, right, let’s get this over with. I need an object we’re not going to miss.”

Evelyn frowned. “You mean you can’t bring it back?”

“Not always. I told you, it’s not perfect.”

“Not yet, maybe,” said Raine. “Should have seen her last night. Like that.” She clicked her fingers. “She doesn’t actually need all this prep, she’s just psyching herself up. She could stop a speeding train if she tried. Regular comic book superhero, our Heather.”

“Don’t, Raine. I’m- I’m honestly not comfortable doing this in here. What if I get it wrong?”

“You won’t.”

Raine rummaged in the kitchen drawers and found an old spoon, spotted with rust. She clacked it down before me with a dramatic flourish.

I stared at it for a moment, then back up at Evelyn, then at the figure behind her.

“Are you sure she should see this?” I asked.

Evelyn raised a curious eyebrow and glanced over her shoulder at Praem Number Two, standing prim and proper, silent and motionless, in the corner of the kitchen. Praem Number One was out, running some errand for Evelyn’s secret war, closing another Cult rabbit hole. Praem Number Two was identical to the first, right down to the brand of doll. Evelyn had explained they were actually the same demon, breaking causality in ways decent people like us shouldn’t think about too much.

The only way to tell One and Two apart was how Evelyn dressed them. Two wore cargo trousers and a puffy coat, totally at odds with her ice-blue skin and hair. Her blank white eyes stared at nothing.

“Why?” Evelyn asked. “Does she still make you nervous?”

“I think we’re beyond that, aren’t we? No, I just thought … I don’t know. Forget it.”

I took a deep breath, then reached out to touch the spoon. One fingertip was sufficient.

Raine was correct in some aspects of her praise. I didn’t actually need to do any of this mental prep. I could fumble through the equations at the speed of thought, though at the cost of a nosebleed and probably my breakfast.

Proper breathing helped. Preparation helped, to aid quick mental execution. The faster I self-implemented the equation, the less time I had to spend with the numbers.

I think that’s what Maisie meant, in her message: the numbers, what they do to you.

I skimmed my notebook for the necessary line. Bile rose in my throat and my stomach contracted as I slotted each piece of the equation into place, fast as I could, mind shaking as if playing with electricity and fire and radioactive waste, the Eye’s impossible principles rearing up and crashing down in a wave I had to outrun and-

Out.

The spoon vanished.

“Ahhhhh.” I let out a groan, grabbed my head in both hands, and tried to curl up into a ball around the ice-pick behind my eyes.

Raine was ready with a wad of tissues for my bleeding nose. Her other hand was already kneading the side of my ribs, trying her best to bring me back. I held onto the roiling in my stomach, forced slow steady breaths. Not going to be sick, not going to be sick. Neither of us could do anything about the ache in my chest, the throbbing, humming pain. I sat very still and breathed very carefully, until the pain ebbed away.

Evelyn got to her feet and inspected the place the spoon had existed a moment earlier.

“Impressive,” she murmured, running her hand over the table. “Didn’t take a chunk out of the wood either. Not even any varnish. Remarkable.”

“At least I’m precise.” I managed a weak laugh. Raine handed me a glass of water and resumed rubbing my back. Her hands made it easier to forget.

“Does size make any difference?”

“Hell no,” Raine answered for me as I was drinking, a proud smile on her face. “Why do you think we went down the junkyard last night? She did the same thing to an entire wrecked car.”

“And nearly passed out,” I said. “Yes, size makes a difference. And I haven’t tried it on a living thing, not since you, Evee.”

“Mm, yes.” Evelyn arched an eyebrow. “And you’ve no idea where it’s gone?”

“Not really, no. Outside. Some random dimension, I guess. I can’t target. There’s no frame of reference. Can’t even get to Wonderland yet.”

Maisie felt as far away as ever. What had I imagined, if only subconsciously? That we’d all go on a magical journey to Wonderland in the space of a week or two? Raine would punch out the Eye, I’d save my sister, and we’d all be home in time for Christmas? The real world did not work that way. Raine was a hero, but this was more logistics than heroics, especially with the lion’s share of Evelyn’s attention consumed by her shadow war against the Sharrowford Cult.

I’d bought a calendar and numbered the days, backward from the date in Maisie’s message. A countdown. Evelyn didn’t seem to mind when I pinned it up in the kitchen to remind me, to remind us. We had a year. A year to save my twin.

Or what was left of her.

Three weeks ago, before Raine even finished moving into Evelyn’s house, I’d begun my study of the pamphlet, with a sick bucket and an empty stomach.

My first attempt ended in sobbing, retching failure. I’d sat on the floor of my flat with Raine by my side in case the worst happened. It hadn’t, but I’d barely been able to struggle through a single line of formulae in the Notes.

Each mathematical principle dredged up old lessons from the Eye, nightmares I’d tried to forget and bury, ways of looking at physics and reality not meant for the human brain. I’d vomited bile and blood, suffered a migraine to end thought, almost choked on nosebleed. Three hours of trying to comprehend a single line; I gave up. Raine had to drag me into the shower and hold up me under the hot water, half-conscious and swearing I’d never try it again, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. Part of me swore I’d give the pamphlet back to Evee. I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t strong enough.

The next attempt went a little better.

The third, not as messy. I didn’t miss the bucket that time.

Little by little, night by night, I read the first three pages of maths in Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology.

I began my own notebook. Somehow that came easier – finding ways to transcribe the Eye’s impossible physics. Capture, define, limit and categorise. Centring my thoughts on specific tasks bounded the maths, made it possible to control, if only just. I borrowed math textbooks from the library, started to collate, understand the tiniest sliver of what this alien god had fed into my mind for the last decade.

Through nosebleeds and pain and herculean concentration, certain limited feats became possible.

Raine took my empty glass and walked over to the sink. “Heather’s a lot faster if you surprise her though. It’s kind of impressive.”

Evelyn frowned. “ … I don’t want to hear the details of your sex life.”

“E-Evee, that’s n-not-” I blushed; Raine laughed.

“Also true.”

“Raine!”

“But also not what I meant.” Raine clacked the glass down on the kitchen counter, turned in a flash, and whipped her arm out.

She’d flubbed the delivery: I knew it was coming, which defeated the point. I didn’t bother to try.

The ping-pong ball bounced square off my forehead. I blinked.

“Oh! Oh shit, I’m sorry!” Raine raised her hands, caught between laughter and mortified horror. “Heather, I’m so sorry.”

“Duly forgiven.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “You two can do this in the privacy of Raine’s room, you know?”

I fought down further embarrassment and kicked the ball back toward Raine. “Do it again.”

“You sure? S’not a surprise now.”

“I may as well show Evee. Go on, try to hit me again.”

Raine wound up a pitch, then held back. Perhaps she was trying to introduce an element of uncertainty, regardless of how much I was prepared. At least this was easier than banishing objects to other dimensions.

“Get on with it, then,” Evee said.

Raine tooted little fanfare from the corner of her mouth, took a step back, and bowled the ping-pong ball at me overarm, probably hard enough to sting.

I deflected it with my mind, with maths, a swat of reality-bending physics.

The ball hit the ceiling instead of me, then rebounded and bounced off the floor at an angle. Evelyn ducked and the ball hit Praem Two in the face, then landed in the kitchen sink with a sharp metallic ting. Raine put on a one-woman round of applause, Evelyn frowned in fascination, and Praem didn’t react in the slightest.

I stemmed my resurgent nosebleed with the wad of tissues, wincing around a spike of renewed headache.

“Interesting demonstration,” Evelyn murmured.

“I got the idea from the … ” I had to pause, take a deep breath, concentrate on not being sick. “The … the bullet. If I could … ” I waved a hand vaguely, withdrawing into my pain and discomfort. Raine touched me before I had to call for her, hands kneading my back and scalp, taking me away from the monsters inside my mind.

“We got the idea from the bullet-stopping trick,” Raine finished for me. “Turns out it’s pretty easy, especially if Heather’s surprised.” She leaned down to me. “You holding up okay?”

I nodded and made an effort to relax as Raine coaxed me back to normal. She reheated my coffee and slid a freshly toasted chocolate pop-tart in front of me. I sighed, gave in, and nibbled around the edges of the chocolate as the last of the nausea abated. Evelyn sat back down and considered me slowly over her cup of tea.

“You’ve been doing all this back at your little flat? Why?” she asked. “There’s more than enough space here. It’s not as if I care about ruined floorboards.”

“Psychological quarantine, perhaps. I felt self-conscious, didn’t want to make too much noise. You’ve been so busy, so stressed, I didn’t want to distract you further.”

“You two make more than enough noise anyway.”

I blushed furiously and took a bite of pop-tart. In the corner of my eye, Raine grinned, smug beyond words.

“She’s a real screamer, ain’t she?” said Raine.

“Raine!”

“One night I did wonder if you’d snuggled a hippopotamus into your bedroom,” Evelyn added.

“Evelyn! Oh my God, shut up.” I put my head on the table and buried myself underneath my arms, blushing red as a beetroot. Raine ruffled my hair and I half-heartedly squirmed out of the way, trying not to feel absolutely mortified.

“I’m joking,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Worst I hear is bedsprings.”

“Mmm.”

“You deserve to be proud, Heather,” Evelyn said. “Hold your head high.”

“W-what?” I uncovered my head and stammered at her. “E-Evee, I mean, that’s sweet of you but-”

She waved a hand and huffed. “I’m not talking about you and Raine. I’m talking about self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. No magic or magecraft can stop a bullet in the air without significant preparation. Not from a standing start. You’re performing miracles.”

“Don’t say that. It doesn’t feel like miracles, it feels like … barely enough progress at all.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, ruffling my hair. “You’ve only been at it for three weeks, cut yourself some slack.”

“Maisie has less than a year.”

We all lapsed into silence for a long moment. Raine stroked my head.

“Targeting the dimension-hopping,” she said. “There’s a way, isn’t there, Evee?”

Evelyn stared back at Raine with a sudden hard look in her eyes.

“There is?” I asked.

“Sure is,” Raine said. “Evee knows what I’m talking about. Same place the Fractal came from.”

“You want me to expose her to that, Raine? You’re seriously suggesting that? You want me to blast your girlfriend’s mind into pieces? It might leave her a gibbering wreck.”

Raine laughed. “I’ve seen it and I turned out alright.”

“Yes, by certain metrics.”

“Expose me to what? What are you talking about?”

Raine cracked a grin. “Evee’s got a map of the universe.”

Evelyn shot a darkly withering look at Raine. “Both parts of that statement are incorrect. It is not a map of the universe, and I do not have it. It is a hundred and fifty miles away in a basement in Sussex, where it belongs.”

“Yeah, but we could go take a look at it. We could make a trip of it over the Christmas break, proper road-trip down south, stop off somewhere along the way, stay overnight. We’ll have plenty of time.”

“Oh, certainly.” Evelyn lashed the sarcasm. “I’ll just leave Sharrowford for a week, shall I? Let the freaks take over.”

“What if that’s all over by Christmas?” Raine asked. “We could all go together. We’ll make it fun.”

Evelyn’s irritation drained away to reveal a layer of naked discomfort. She looked around the kitchen, as if searching for purchase.

“Evee?” I said. She focused on me, hesitated, and nodded.

“Raine is correct. It’s not a map of the universe, but … it might help you. Might give you a frame of reference. It’s a difficult thing to face, but it won’t fry your brain. I suppose you’ve seen worse, haven’t you?”

“Suppose I have.”

“It’ll be fine,” said Raine.

Evelyn swallowed. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“This … map,” I said. “It’s at your house, where you grew up, isn’t it?”

Evelyn nodded and looked away. “I don’t want to, Raine. I don’t want visit, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to go. You and Heather can go, if you must. I’ll call ahead, let my father know, but I am not coming.”

“Don’t be daft,” Raine said. “I can’t leave you here alone. It’s all of us or none of us.”

“All for one and one for all,” I said. I’d meant it as a joke, to lighten the mood, but the words seemed too real as I spoke them.

“Even if I did want to, I can’t leave Sharrowford. You think I was joking?” Evelyn gestured behind her, past Praem Two, toward the ex-drawing room. “I have miles to go, much more to do in there before this is under control.”

I hadn’t set foot in the drawing room in three weeks. She’d turned it into a mage’s atelier, and Raine had done her best to keep me away from the worst of what Evelyn was up to. The rest of the house was free game, from Raine’s new bedroom and the delights of the study, to the abandoned old sitting room on the opposite side of the house and the dank cellar filled to the brim with boxes and cobwebs.

“When it’s all over then,” Raine said. “We’ll take a trip, together.”

Evelyn stared into her tea. “I’ll think about it.”

We all had class today. Evelyn grumbled about the need to keep up a front of normality. She downed some breakfast and stood up to vanish into the ex-drawing room for a couple of hours.

“Evee?” I stopped her before she left. She turned and raised an eyebrow at me.

“I know, Heather, I know. Your quest takes first priority once I’m-”

“No, it’s not that.” I shook my head. “Are you okay?”

She regarded me for a long, silent moment. “I’m used to this.”

Raine told me not to worry about Evee. Raine certainly didn’t seem to be doing so. I sat at the kitchen table for a long time, working my slow way through a second pop-tart. I tried to focus on the essay I needed to write over the next week. Sixteenth century poetry and Shakespearean dialogue served as a weak bastion against the lessons of the Eye. By the time I’d made my way back upstairs for a morning shower, I had to pause and brace myself against the wall with one hand, scraps of impossible math struggling to the surface of my mind.

Breathe. Steady. Focus on breathing, in and out, in and out. Only breathing.

I didn’t hear Raine climb the stairs behind me, didn’t know she was there until she grabbed me by the shoulders. I squeaked in surprise.

“Raine-”

She pushed me against the wall, firm but gentle, smug look on her face as she held me there and leaned in.

Raine flushed the impossible math from my consciousness far more completely than I ever could alone, when she clamped her mouth over mine and shoved a hand down the front of my pajama bottoms.

“You need it?” she purred when we broke apart.

I managed a nod.

Turned out the trick to beating the Eye’s lessons was to bonk like rabbits. We’d done so for the last three weeks.

Intimacy was incredible. Not since Maisie had I felt so close to another person. Raine taught me the reality of many things I’d spent years fantasising over. What surprised me the most, after a week or two, is that it didn’t change me, not really. Intimacy healed wounds, lifted me up, but sex isn’t magic. ‘Eating pussy’ – as Raine so crudely phrased it – did not rewire my personality. In the morning, I was always the same Heather. I was more Heather. More me.

She hadn’t let me move in though.


==


Raine had moved into Evelyn’s house – simply ‘the house’ in our increasingly shared vernacular – the following day after Evelyn had extended the invitation. She moved back into what I took to be her old bedroom, quickly filled it with posters and her stacks of philosophy books and a few other odds and ends wrangled from the squat, including the game console, set up with a ‘borrowed’ television. Raine and I had taken the last journey from her old place together, piled into her tiny, rickety car, a miniature adventure down Sharrowford’s streets.

Her new – old – room was much bigger and comfier, with space to push armchairs up against one wall and roll off either side of the double-bed as one pleased. She dragged an old desk from one of the other upstairs rooms. Really spread out. No need for me to take another room. We could share this one, together. Evelyn made obscure jokes about lesbian second dates, which I totally didn’t understand, but to my incredible surprise she made Raine blush.

Instead, we had our first real argument.

Not a blazing row. Neither of us was capable of that.

“This place is going to fill up with monsters, Heather. Evee could turn this into ground zero,” she’d said.

“Nothing’s happened! It’s been nearly a week, nothing has happened. And if we’re all going to die suddenly, I’d rather do that in the same bed as you.”

“We’re not going to die-”

“Then why can’t I move in?”

“Because it’s too dangerous. I don’t think anybody is after you, and I’d rather keep it that way. I just want you to be safe.”

“Oh, so it’s safer to just visit here every day instead? Walk back and forth where anybody could see me, without you?”

“Heather, I’m with you as much as I can be-”

“Then I may as well be here all the time!”

We never really resolved the argument, practicality and hormones did that for us. Evelyn scolded Raine terribly for it and told me to ignore her, but I didn’t need to; Raine wanted me over all the time anyway. I spent almost every day there and vanishingly little time at my own flat, which felt cold and alien and empty whenever I went back, mostly to pursue brain-math and read from the Notes. In those three weeks, I spent every night but two in Raine’s bed, and slept better than I had in my whole life.

She was used to this impermanence, moving from place to place, but for me it was a huge change, one I could barely contain. At first I felt guilty about the way my clothes and books and the thin detritus of my life began to colonise Raine’s new bedroom, but then I realised she liked it, despite what she said, so I let it happen.

She was right though; the house did fill up with monsters.

Evelyn had been busy, up at strange hours of the night, reading and making notes from her disturbing tomes, locked away in the ex-drawing room scribbling magic circles on the floor and peering into her giant scrying pool. Praem One and Praem Two were out more often than not, and sometimes returned with torn clothes and oddly bloodless physical damage, woodgrain visible inside their wounds, from fighting monsters inside the Cult’s rabbit holes. Evelyn repaired them with magic and poly-filler.

She summoned three monsters. Outsiders, not spirits, hard and corporeal. The first one was quickly confined to the basement. I never saw it, but Raine assured me it was down there, contained and bound for a future purpose.

She called up the second monster in the dead of night on a Friday, and only emerged from the drawing room twelve gruelling hours later, wan and exhausted but smug and victorious. Raine and I had heard her talking and debating in at least four different languages that entire time, replies and questions addressed to her in an unspeakable, twisted voice from the pit.

The third monster she sent out into the city, a new front in her secret war. I caught a glimpse of it, unintentionally, coming downstairs as Raine had stood by while Evelyn directed it out of the back door and into the night. A gangly ape demon, knobbly joints and knuckles like cricket balls, jaw running vertically down its entire head.

I’d seen worse. At least it left the house.

“What can I do, then?” I’d asked Evelyn the next day.

“You can keep doing what you’re doing, work through the pamphlet I gave you. Learn. Focus on your sister.”

“ … I mean to help you, Evee. To help.”

She’d stared at me. “This isn’t your fight.”

Every day I looked at Maisie’s tshirt message, now carefully laundered and cleaned after being transcribed and photographed, though the tarry black finger-writing refused to vanish.


==


For pity’s sake, sit down, I willed. Sit down before you fall over.

Tenny wouldn’t sit.

I doubted bubbling-goo spirit-life understood busses anyway. I suffered in silence and fought a most irritating urge to whisper to her, tell her off, but I could hardly raise my voice in public to speak with a monster nobody else could see. That was beyond the pale.

The Tentacled Woman swayed and staggered in the middle aisle of the Number 37 bus, on the route from Sharrowford University to the city centre. There were plenty of open seats. I had almost the entire left side to myself.

I hadn’t grown comfortable with pneuma-somatic life. One does not get ‘comfortable’ about decade-old taboos and traumas in the space of three weeks, or even three months, even when a flash of the Fractal on my left arm was more than enough to clear my path.

But the Tentacled Woman had never left. I named her Tenny. A name made her less upsetting.

She’d hung around Barnslow Drive like a stray cat, prowling the street and the back garden, following me to campus and my flat, but she never again risked coming closer than a few feet, no matter how much I coaxed and cooed in private. I’d told Evelyn and Raine, received unhelpful jokes and a terrifying magical suggestion respectively. Evelyn had taken steps to confirm Tenny wasn’t a Servitor, and I’d settled on just letting her follow me around. After a week, I almost managed to forget she was there.

Tenny did not appear to comprehend chairs. The bus rounded another corner and she staggered, lost her balance, tentacles reaching up to anchor herself against the roof of the bus.

At least she was a good distraction from the lump in my throat.

I glanced down at my phone, at the text-message conversation with Raine.

Raine is typing …

I’d waited until I was on the bus, fare paid, sat down and committed, before I’d sent Raine a text message to let her know where I was going. I’d hoped for a ‘be safe, have fun’, but my mind had played out an embarrassing scene of her dropping everything and sprinting across campus to catch up. The reality was only marginally less upsetting. I couldn’t stop myself rereading the message log and making myself feel guilty.

‘What do you mean, into town? You’re on your own? Where are you now?’

‘Already on the bus! It’s fine, I’m going to the bookshop. I’ll only be a couple of hours.’

‘It’s not safe!!!’ Three exclamation points, I’d never seen Raine do that before. ‘I can come with you. What bus are you on?’

‘It’s fine, I’m fine, it’ll be fine. Please, it’s fine.’

Fine, fine, fine. I swallowed and forced myself to turn the phone screen off.

Two days after my demonstration to Evelyn, I was seeking a much-needed psychological balm: book shopping.

It was the middle of the day and Sharrowford’s main high street thronged with shoppers, nothing to be scared of amid the busy crowds, except for the spirits and monsters hunched atop the rows of buildings, snapping at each other as they skirmished for territory. The press of humanity somehow kept them mostly away from the busy road, the passing busses, the traffic lights and the bright window displays pretending to be clean amid the city’s grime. I stepped off the bus and Tenny followed, tentacles probing passers-by.

My phone vibrated – kept vibrating. I stepped out of the pedestrian flow next to a shop front, then sighed in exasperation when I saw Raine was calling me. I answered.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” I tried to keep my voice steady, tamp down the guilt.

“Hey, Heather,” said Raine. “You don’t need to go out alone-”

“You’re supposed to be in a lecture, Raine.”

“Ahhh, it doesn’t matter. Come on, where are you at? I’ll come join you.”

“And you have to walk Evelyn home after class, don’t you?”

Raine had spent the last three weeks juggling both of us. I don’t know how she did it. She walked me to and from campus, and she walked Evelyn everywhere. She turned up after lectures and raced back home to pick whoever was alone. She split herself both ways and somehow never seemed to tire, on top of a part-time evening job behind the bar in the student union.

But over time, inevitably, she came to prioritise Evelyn. I don’t know if it was years-old habit, or merely because she thought Evelyn was in more danger, despite the intimacy she shared with me, intimacy I was certain she didn’t share with Evee.

Which is why I was off to browse books on my own, with only pneuma-somatic stalkers for company.

Raine paused for a long moment on the other end of the phone. In my mind’s eye I saw her struggling with the decision: keep it light, or get serious?

“Evee can wait in the Medieval Metaphysics room,” Raine said, choosing the latter as her voice hardened. “It’s not safe out on your own. Let me come get you.”

I sighed, a tightness gripping my chest. “Raine, it’s the middle of the day. There are dozens of people around. Nothing has happened in three weeks. Nobody is going to clock me over the head in broad daylight. Go back to class.”

“You never-”

“Didn’t Evelyn already clear out the city centre?” I lowered my voice.

“Yeah, but-”

“Raine, I love it when you’re my knight in shining armour, but you don’t need to be right now.” Saying no to Raine was difficult. Refusing her care and attention and endless doting affection was not easy. I swallowed a hiccup. “I’ve got the charm in my pocket. It’s broad daylight.”

Evelyn had given Raine and I slips of stiff paper, stamped with a symbol very much like the Fractal, told us to keep them on ourselves. A sort of lock against wandering into another concealed entrance to the Cult’s shadow-city.

“ … Heather, please?”

“I’m fine, I’ll be fine. I’ll be home in under two hours. Please relax. I’ll see you later.”

“Okay, okay.” Raine’s tone made it clear she was fighting with herself. “Be safe, okay? Call me if anything happens. I’ll see you at home. Take care.”

We said goodbye and I ended the call; my mood was in the toilet. Tenny hovered nearby, peering at me. Pedestrians walked right through her.

The city centre was perfectly safe, nothing to be scared of. I believed every word I’d said to Raine, otherwise I wouldn’t be down here, but I still hated crowds.

I felt stiff and awkward out in public, around so many people, already regretting the decision to do this alone even without the impact of Raine’s worry. Even well-rested and together, cared for and sane, I was still a jittery mess.

Raine had first taken me down here two weeks back, to shop for clothes. That trip had been bliss.

We’d visited one of the bigger department stores together. Raine had coaxed me into trying on clothes I’d never normally have dared, things that felt like they weren’t for me, weren’t meant for somebody like me, were meant for people far more comfortable, not incomplete phantoms missing half their souls.

She’d bought me a high-waisted skirt and coloured tights – things I could never bring myself to wear in public – along with a new jumper and a wonderfully comfortable pink hoodie. Hoodies weren’t me, let alone pink – or so I’d thought. Wearing it made me feel oddly self-conscious but also safe and enclosed, feminine and warm, ways I’d always wanted to be allowed to feel. Raine’s gift helped me feel more like me.

I wore the hoodie now, under my coat for extra layers in the growing winter cold, along with one of Raine’s tshirts against my skin, plucked still warm from her bed this morning.

Down the high street and off through a side road, past The Coachman’s Arms and the tiny video game store where Raine knew the staff by name. Another turn, another, and then finally down an alleyway, thin and crooked and paved a hundred years ago.

All my trepidation and jitters fell away at the sight of Mount Emei Secondhand Books.

Sharrowford boasted three bookshops, if one did not count the obligatory student bookshop on the university campus, which mostly stocked overpriced set texts for naive undergrads such as myself. The big chain store in the shopping mall was too bright and too new, books crowded out by DVDs and endless special offers, colourful displays and unnervingly jolly staff. A charity bookshop sat like a boil at the top end of the high street, stuffed with the dregs of popular hardbacks.

And then there was Emei, tucked away like a hidden gem. Raine had shown me it as a gift.

I had to duck slightly as I entered, the doorway cramped even for me. Tenny followed, whipping her tentacles in behind and then stilling at the atmosphere inside. Even a spirit felt this.

Emei Secondhand Books was a rickety four-story structure, carved out of what had once been a terrace tenement house a century ago. Bare wooden floors, leaning racks stuffed with all manner of books, low ceilings and narrow aisles. The shop smelled of incense and paper, dry and clean, despite the huge peace lilies and spider plants on every tilted creaking floor.

The owner was a tiny old Chinese lady made out of leather and steel wool. She could often be found pottering between the stacks, attempting to impose some order on this endless mass of texts. If you engaged her in conversation – as Raine had – one discovered a sharp mind and a dirty sense of humour. The lad behind the counter this morning, pierced and tattooed like a punk band front-man, nodded and smiled a hello to me as I shuffled inside, and I actually smiled back.

Heaven. Second only to the library.

I had little money to spare, but in here five pounds could net me two or three paperbacks. I figured I’d earned it, I’d earned a moment’s respite from brain-math and horror and university essay writing. I’d be no good to Maisie if I burnt out.

I spent a lovely half-hour browsing through the books, discovering strange titles I’d never heard of, thumbing through fifty-year-old copies of classics with creased spines and dented corners. I found a second edition of Watership Down and almost purchased it right then, but forced myself to leave it behind for now and worked my way up the staircases, to the even more cramped fourth floor with the low ceiling beams and tottering stacks of specialist literature: religion and philosophy.

Raine would understand these books. Half of them went over my head. I plucked Hegel off a shelf and peered inside, lost in the text as a few other would-be antiquarians shuffled books and sniffed and departed back down the stairs to the lower floors.

My phone buzzed with a text message. Raine again.

‘Just got out of class. Please tell me you’re okay?’

Oh, she was so sweet it hurt. I felt terribly guilty. Now I’d had time to unwind, I questioned why on earth I’d done this, why had I come alone? I could have waited until later this afternoon, gone together with her. I loved doing things with Raine. Was this passive-aggressive behaviour on my part? Getting back at her for prioritising Evelyn?

It was, wasn’t it?

I need to apologise. In person. I sighed to myself and sent a reply, along with a quick picture of the row of philosophy books. ‘I am fine! All is well! Look what I found!’

A moment later, Raine sent me a huge ASCII art image of worried face. I almost giggled and felt even worse – it even looked a tiny bit like her. Had she made that?

As I puzzled over a reply, or perhaps a resolution to head home already, Tenny reappeared.

She’d followed me out of the stairwell onto to the fourth floor, but then she’d stalked off around the opposite side of the room, like an inquisitive dog sniffing for interesting scents. She’d vanished behind the shelves, perhaps to investigate the other customers in the bookshop or for some unfathomable ends of her own. I’d put her from my mind, but now I looked up as she slid around the side of the nearest bookcase.

“What do you think?” I whispered to her. “Shall I buy a book for Raine? A present to go with my apology … ”

I froze.

Tenny was pointing back down the stairs with all her tentacles.

She bobbed and weaved her strange wiry body, staring at me with those huge deep-sea eyes, black tar-flesh quivering. One tentacle whipped over her head to point in the other direction, into the depths of the bookshop shelves, then whirled back to jab down the stairs.

“ … oh that’s definitely communication,” I murmured, wide-eyed. “Hello you.”

I glanced around quick, made sure no other customers were close by. Tenny pointed again, the mass of ropey black tentacles retracting and bunching up like a squid before arcing toward the stairs.

“Trying to suggest a book I missed?” I whispered. “What do you-”

Tenny shook herself, tentacles flexing and vibrating. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn she was expressing frustration.

She stepped closer to me than she’d risked in weeks and stuck out the tip of one tentacle. I blinked at her.

“You want to talk?” I said out loud, then caught myself and looked around again in embarrassed paranoia. Nobody had heard; nobody cared. She and I were alone in this corner, secluded behind a wall of old books. I smiled at my strange spirit stalker, almost delighted, confused at my own reaction. All my life I’d hated these things.

The centre of her chest split open into that black, lipless mouth I’d seen before, slapping and flapping. A drumming noise echoed from the limits of perception.

She flicked the tentacle-tip closer, all caution apparently abandoned. A dripping tarry black pseudopod, covered in suckers. Too shocked for disgust, I reached out a finger, fought with a moment’s hesitation, and touched Tenny.

Contact.

The distant drumming sharpened in time with the slurping of her chest-mouth, first into mere sound, sucking and wet like thick mud – then into words. Non-human words through a non-human mind. I waited a beat, but they made no sense, mud-words, tar-words, wet and liquid.

“I don’t understand,” I whispered.

“-person here master leave.”

I blinked in shock.

“Bad follow person here master leave,” Tenny said through the mouth in her chest.

It wasn’t English, the shapes, the sounds, the motion of the mouth. But that was what I heard, in a slopping mud-voice, unmistakably feminine and – perhaps it was mere projection – in a tone which made me think of an eager hound.

“Bad follow person here-”

“I heard. I heard you,” I whispered, my every nerve on edge. “What- master? Me?”

“Bad follow. Leave. Leave.”

My stomach tightened. The mere fact of communication had dazzled me; the meaning had sailed right over my head at first. I pulled my finger away from the tentacle and slowly looked around, peeking through the gaps in the shelves. How many other people were up here on the fourth floor with me? Two? Three? A blob of pneuma-somatic tar dripped from my fingers and turned to smoke as it hit the floorboards.

Tenny was jabbing and pointing down the stairs again.

What did she mean, ‘bad follow person’?

I inferred the worst.

Tenny’s suggestion was easily followed and cost me nothing, except peace of mind and a sliver of my sanity. I walked stiffly down the stairs to the third floor, holding the handrail the whole way. She brought up the rear, guarding my back.

Absurdity and paranoia. On the third floor I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Tenny could have been reacting to anything – another spirit, a person she didn’t like, a figment of her imagination. Could she imagine? Do tar-flesh spirits dream of pneuma-somatic sheep?

A couple of other customers were browsing the military history and cooking sections. A harmless grey-haired man and a rotund middle aged lady. I was in a bookshop, in the middle of the day. Nobody was following me, that would be absurd. I slipped between the shelves and glanced up at the books. In public. Perfectly safe.

Tenny was having none of it. She surged around me, bobbing and weaving like a pouting octopus made of tar and rubber. A tentacle-tip touched my shoulder.

“Bad follow. Bad follow.”

“What does that mean?” I hissed, mortified that somebody might hear me talking to thin air. I pulled down a book, cracked it open and stared at the words.

“Bad. Bad. Lozzie say get you out before find.”

“ … Lozzie?” I blinked at my tentacled friend.

Why did I know that name?

Who was Lozzie?

Footsteps creaked on the stairs, descending from the fourth floor.

I kept my face buried in the book, forced myself not to turn and watch the doorway. A person entered, crossed behind me into the stacks. I waited a minute, then turned and left, shoulder blades crawling as I took to the stairs again.

Footsteps followed me, down to the second floor, then to the first.

Tenny was right.

I was being stalked.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s