Zheng did not stay down.
No living thing should have moved again after that kick to the face. I was clutching at the pain inside my chest, struggling and slipping to get my feet underneath me – when her arm twitched. One hand jerked up from the pile of splinted furniture, and grabbed the back of a booth. Surely her face would be pulped, I thought, bones shattered inward and eye sockets pulverised, jaw broken and teeth lost. She was just a puppet, right? The only reason she still moved was her strings.
The zombie heaved herself to her knees and raised her head.
Not even bruised.
Twil’s kick had twisted her scarf, now scuffed with boot-print, and finally knocked down her hood, to reveal a mop of greasy dark hair. She stared past me, dead eyes boring into Twil.
“Come on, up, get up,” Twil grunted. She dragged my to my feet, hands under my armpits. I staggered and clung to her, gasping for breath as my head swirled.
Praem took a step in front of us, her pose still perfectly prim and proper. Tenny, dripping black tar from her wounds, scrambled up and over to my side, jabbing a few afterthought tentacles at both Zheng and Stack, touching neither.
“Ahhh.” Alexander smiled with the satisfaction of a man who knows he will always win in the end. He opened a hand to Twil. “The bestial provincial. Have you come for a rematch, perhaps? I think you will find us all amply prepared this time. Zheng, if you please, put this thing out of its misery at last.”
Zheng did not move.
“Zheng.” Alexander clicked his fingers at her. She turned her head to him. Blinked once. “Pay attention when I speak to you.”
“Boss,” Stack raised her voice, sharp and quick. “That made a lot of noise. This isn’t the strip, we’re in public. We need to-”
Praem walked smartly over to the wall, raised one precise finger, and pressed the regulation mandated fire alarm button, set in its neat square of red plastic.
A deafening siren wail burst across the entire shopping centre for three seconds, deep and echoing and electronic, then cut out, replaced by a smart female voice booming over the mall’s public-address speakers: ‘Attention please. Attention please. This is a fire alert. Please make your way calmly to the ground floor exits.’ Sirens thundered for another three seconds, then the recorded message again, on a loop.
Twil stuck two fingers up at Alexander, howling laughter over the din of the fire alarm. He ignored her, barking words at Zheng, no response from her except that dead-eyed stare.
“Boss,” Stack said. “We need to leave.”
Alexander’s surface irritation dissolved into a bored shrug. He nodded at Stack and gestured vaguely toward us. She frowned at him, frowned at Twil and I, then frowned at Praem as the bound demon put herself directly in the way.
Stack nodded once, body language shifting.
She reached inside her raincoat and produced another cylinder, very much like the one she’d used to summon the Servitor, cold metal stamped with painful symbols. She feinted to Praem’s left, then ducked right, her arm arcing out to touch Praem with the cylinder.
Even flush with adrenaline and clinging to Twil and deafened by the alarm, I could make an educated guess what might happen to Praem if that device made contact. I tried to cry a warning, but choked on my own spit, spluttering and coughing.
I needn’t have bothered.
Praem caught Stack’s forearm as it came, one hand on wrist, one hand on elbow. Stack’s eyes wide went for a split-second as she began to pull away, to twist into some judo throw that would send Praem flying.
Without apparent effort, Praem snapped the woman’s arm.
Stack didn’t scream, but otherwise the transformation was instant. She gasped, her face drained of colour, waxy and ashen. The metal cylinder with the horrible symbols clattered to the floor. Praem let go and backed quickly away, toward us. Stack crumpled up around her broken forearm, half of it pointing the wrong way, the wrong angle. She tried to touch it, sinking to her knees, squeezing her eyes shut and gasping in tightly controlled pain.
Alexander watched us go, an unimpressed curl to his lips. Twil flipped him off again on the way out.
Zheng was still staring at her master. Dead eyes bored into his back.
Extracting me from Swanbrook Mall turned into a debacle all by itself, even without the Cultists and the giant zombie-woman and the random acts of grievous bodily harm. Despite being barely half-full, the shopping centre turned into a shoulder-to-shoulder scrum, people trying to get out. The fictional fire and the bleating alarm whipped the crowd into one heaving mass, a single panicked beast with thousands of limbs.
Staying on my feet took every ounce of effort I had left, let alone fighting the weakness in my knees or the throbbing pain in my head. Twil all but dragged me as I clung to her, and once we made it out of the food court the flow of people threatened to pull us apart, two shorter than average teenage girls crushed and buffeted by the press of bodies. Praem vanished somewhere in the melee, lost ahead or behind us, and we didn’t find her again until we tumbled out of the ground floor exit onto Sharrowford’s main high street.
Half the road had stopped to gawk, traffic at a crawl, blocked by a fire engine parked across the pavement. Shopping centre staff and a fire crew and a couple of uniformed policemen directed people out of the building, counting shop worker heads. People were crying, some lads were laughing it all off, several others filmed the spectacle on their phones.
I had to stop to be sick on the pavement.
Twil and I had no trouble slipping away in the general mayhem. Nobody missed two teenage girls, one obviously overstimulated by panic, in need of a proper sit down for her hysterics.
Occasionally, stereotypes can work in our favour.
Tenny caught up with us shortly after Praem, ghosting out of an alleyway as we turned the corner at the top of the high street. I flinched as she appeared, not exactly difficult to startle right now. She waved her tentacles at me in a back-and-forth fan pattern; laughter or relief, or a victory dance? I had no spare energy to think. I managed a nod of thanks at her, hoped she’d understand somewhere inside that alien mind.
None of us said anything until we cleared the cluster of roundabouts, passed the little redbrick industrial district, and found ourselves halfway down one of Sharrowford’s pitiful attempts at leafy suburb.
“Those utter fucking cunts,” said Twil.
“Language,” I squeezed out, then winced and curled up around my chest.
“What? Oh, yeah sorry. Swear like a sailor sometimes. My mum’s always telling me off for it too.” Twil smiled awkwardly and then drew us to a halt. “Bloody hell, you’re really messed up, aren’t you? They didn’t make you take something, did they?”
She adjusted her supporting arm under my shoulders. Praem stopped too, but turned her head to stare back the way we’d walked, at the few other pedestrians visible at the end of the road. We’d left the chaos of the high street far behind.
I shook my head. “This is just- ugh, it’s just me. I did this. Special head magic.” I felt a wave of nausea and bent forward to retch, stomach muscles clenching but bringing up nothing. I coughed and forced myself straight again. “Thank you, Twil, thank you. You came back. Thank you.”
“Ah, it’s nothing, I-”
“We must keep moving,” Praem said. She raised a hand and pointed.
Zheng stood in the shadow of the last house in the row, hands in pockets, hood up, staring at us. Tenny shrank back and sheltered behind me, as if I offered any protection whatsoever. Twil rumbled a growl deep in her throat, a sound to make me cringe and shy away. Twil was on my side, no doubt, but that did not disarm her unsettling nature.
“I’ll have her, I swear, I’ll have her right now.”
“Not in the open,” Praem said, her voice empty of inflection. “You carry Heather. Do not put her down.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Stick to the plan, blah blah.” Twil grimaced, then snuck a wink at me. “Don’t worry, I won’t drop you. I’ll be good.”
We walked the entire way. I was ready to curl up and die, right there on the pavement; as soon as Twil let go, I was going to collapse and expire from exhaustion. I kept pulling her to a halt so I could catch my breath, close my eyes as the waves of nausea and muscle spasm passed through me. We stopped by a corner shop so I could spit bile into the nearby rubbish bin
Zheng followed us without moving. We never saw her walking, trailing us, stalking us down the suburban streets and through the connecting alleyways; she’d be already stood in the shade of a shuttered shop front on the other side of the road, or waiting in statue stillness at the far end of a street. She vanished for long minutes at a time, long enough to let us think she’d given up, when one of us – mostly Twil, with me so focused on my pain – would spot her.
Along the black wrought iron fence which marked the boundary of Osten Park, down the long hill which connected to Abbots Lane, clustered with its takeaway joints, past the Aardvark and into the student quarter. By then I could barely find the energy to lift my head, staring at the pavement, sagging against Twil as she pulled me along.
“Oh hey, heads up, your girlfriend’s here,” she said.
Raine had come to meet us.
She was still halfway down the street when our eyes met. The sweetest relief. Almost an injustice to my actual rescuers. Twil and Praem and Tenny had done the work, the violence, and in Tenny’s case the getting beaten up.
Raine sped up and jogged the final stretch to me, my own legs giving up from emotional overload. Twil let me go and I fell into Raine’s arms, utterly uncaring of the spectacle we presented for the few daytime pedestrians.
Neither of us spoke. She held me, held me up. I buried my face in her shoulder and whined.
“One tiny lesbian delivered,” Twil said, and flicked a mock-salute. “Safe and … uh, almost sound, I guess. Dunno what’s wrong with her.”
“Heather?” Raine spoke my name.
“Had to do brain-math,” I groaned. “Self-defence. Everything hurts.”
“You’re safe now, it’s okay, we’ll get you home.”
“I’m sorry, I ruined the new hoodie. Got … blood … sick … mmm.”
“It’ll wash right out, no worries.”
Raine rubbed my back and squeezed me, almost too hard. Despite the embrace – which I needed so badly – she was tense all the way through, staring over my head, down the length of the street. She’d augmented her leather jacket with black gloves and a tote-bag. I didn’t care to speculate as to the contents.
“I owe you one, Twil,” Raine said. “Big time.”
Twil pulled a goofy grin and actually blushed. “Ahh, it was a team effort, you know? Couldn’a done it without uh … ” She eyed Praem, frowning a little. “You know, I never did ask your name, did I?”
Praem stared at her with those blank white eyes.
“Tenny helped too,” I managed. “She’s hurt.”
“She is?” Raine asked, surprise in her voice. “It fought for you?”
“Mmhmm. Tenny friend.”
“Who?” Twil said. “What?”
“Twil,” said Raine. “Don’t jump out of your skin like a cartoon character when I say this, okay?”
“That’s not a person.” She nodded at Praem. “It’s Evee’s bound demon.”
“What?!” Twil almost did jump out of her skin, wide eyed and alert at Praem. She took a very deliberate step back.
“The blue skin didn’t give it away?” Raine asked.
“Her name is Praem. Call her Praem,” I mumbled.
Twil boggled at the pair of us, as if we were all insane. “Right, okay, teach me to ask too many questions. Look, we don’t have time for sodding tea and cake out here, we’ve got some lumbering jackass on our tail. Haven’t seen her for a few, but she keeps popping up, some real spooky nonsense.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Raine. “We can’t stay here.”
“Remote viewing.” Raine nodded at Praem again. “Evee’s been seeing through her eyes this whole time. How do you think I knew what route you were taking?”
“Oh, uh, I guess.” Twil squinted in a deeply confused frown, putting two and two together a little slowly.
Raine went very still. “There she is.”
For a confused moment I thought she meant Evelyn, and raised my head to look.
Zheng lurked at the end of Abbots Lane, standing in the mouth of an alleyway next to an Indian takeaway place. Hands in her pockets, eyes staring, unmoving. Raine raised one hand in a wide gesture, pointed two fingers at her own eyes, then jabbed one at Zheng.
For a moment, just a moment, Raine radiated menace. Murderous intent, the will to violence thrumming through every muscle. If I hadn’t been so utterly wiped out, I don’t know how that would have effected me – arousal or cold terror.
Zheng stared a moment longer, then turned and vanished down the alleyway.
Twil flexed her hands like claws, but she refrained from transformation out in public. “Oh I’m gonna go rip her spine out. Bitch. Still haven’t paid her back.”
“Wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Raine murmured. “Odds on that’s a trap. We’re all carrying seals against blundering into their closed-loop spaces, but you’re not.”
“ … what?” Twil looked like she’d been asked to comprehend a page of quantum mathematics. “What is even going on here? I mean yeah, the Cult’s bad business and all that, but like, stalking and kidnapping in broad daylight? Something’s up, isn’t it? Did Saye piss them off?”
Raine considered Twil very carefully, then raised an eyebrow at Praem. “You get all that, Evee? Can we let her in on this?”
Twil visibly bristled. “Hey, I just saved your girlfriend’s arse from-”
“Evelyn is unsure,” Praem informed us.
“Saye can shove it-”
I whined. “I just want to go home.”
Raine and Twil looked at each other over my head.
“What now then?” Twil grunted. “Am I coming or not?”
“You heard the lady,” said Raine.
“This … this is the Saye House? Look, I-I know was all ballsy about going in there before, but maybe I should just call it a day and go home.” Twil stared up at Number 12 Barnslow Drive and shook her head.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “It’s a lovely house.”
“Wait a sec, this is home for you? You’re living in there?”
“Yes? Well, mostly.”
“I get Raine and Saye, but … damn.”
“Whats’a matter? Too spoopy for you, Scooby-doo?” Raine said. She pushed the garden gate open, my hand tight in hers.
“S’not that.” Twil swallowed. She didn’t even rise to the dog joke. “It’s … this is the Saye House. Isn’t it full of like, ghosts?”
“Ghosts?” I said.
“Yeah, ghosts and monsters and stuff?”
“ … you’re a pretty scary monster in your own right, last time I checked.”
“Yeah, but I’m a nice one. Friendly neighbourhood werewolf. This place is a hell house.”
My physical condition had improved slightly over the final stretch home, perhaps due to the placebo of Raine’s presence. Now I could walk mostly unaided, at a pace faster than a shuffle, but I still very much needed a sit down, a large glass of water, a bath, and a sixteen hour nap.
Twil hesitated at the garden gate as Raine opened the front door. Praem did not stand on ceremony, she went straight inside. Tenny was still reluctant to cross the garden wall, but she ghosted around the side of the house, heading for the back garden.
“It’s not scary inside, at all. Either come in or go away,” I said to Twil. “Make up your mind, I must sit down.”
Twil gritted her teeth, plucked up her not inconsiderable courage, and stepped onto the garden path. She looked exactly like a wary hound, shoulders hunched, head down, each footstep carefully measured. Raine rolled her eyes and laughed. She ushered me indoors first, eager to get me out of the open.
The heat was on full blast inside, dousing me and my aching chest with a muscle-melting wave of warm air. I steadied myself against the wall.
“Get that door closed!” Evelyn snapped.
She scowled, looking almost as bad as I felt, eyes ringed with tension, knuckles tight on the grip of her walking stick, mouth a sour line. She hissed a command to Praem without turning. The demon-host stepped into the kitchen.
Twil stuck her head through the from door and peered around. “Is-”
“In or out,” Evelyn snapped. “You’re a dog, not a cat.”
Twil bared her teeth and growled, but then caught the smirk on Raine’s face and stepped inside with a sigh. Raine threw the locks and bolts and rattled the door handle, then closed her eyes, and let out a long sigh.
“That’s it. We’re all in,” Evelyn said. She let out a huge sigh too and drew one hand over her face.
A spike of guilt worked its way between my ribs, tender and raw even over the exhaustion and residual brain-math pain. Evelyn looked that way because of me. Raine had worried and feared because of me, because I made a stupid mistake and put myself in danger. Perhaps it was the delayed emotional impact of a failed kidnapping attempt – I started to choke up, bit my bottom lip and sniffed. Tears filled my eyes.
“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered, gulped down the lump in my throat. “I’m sorry Evee. I-”
She marched up to me, face set, walking stick clacking on the floorboards, and I was certain she was going to shout at me or slap me. Raine seemed to think so too, turning and putting out a hand to stall Evelyn, a gentle rebuke on her lips.
Evelyn threw her arms around me and hugged me tight.
Best as she could, with her bad posture and unstable legs and walking stick in one hand, she gave me a hug. It was awkward and difficult, and I stained her shoulder with my stalled tears, but she made it count.
“You absolute fool,” she said, face hidden over my shoulder. I think she was choked up too.
Even Twil had enough sense not to ruin the moment with dumb jokes. She and Raine busied themselves by taking their shoes off, and Raine even politely asked if Twil wanted to hang her coat up. By the time they were done pretending to be normal, Evelyn had pulled back, covertly wiped her eyes on her sleeve, and told me it was okay.
“Don’t apologise,” said Evelyn.
“I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I do. You were thinking you’re still living a normal life. You weren’t thinking like a mage. Raine isn’t bodyguard just for show.”
“Really?” Raine pulled a grin. “And here I thought you kept me around for my stunning good looks.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. I sniffed and managed a small laugh. Raine winked at the both of us, a covert hand on my back.
“Is this it?” Twil’s voice echoed from the kitchen. She was poking her head around the door frame, then turned back to look at us. “This is the Saye House? This place is a dump.”
“Excuse me? It’s lovely. Don’t be so rude,” I said.
Twil shrugged and puffed out one cheek. She padded over to the disused sitting room and peered inside there as well. I nudged limply at one shoe with my other foot, well aware I’d fall over if I bent down to unlace them properly, doubly aware that I’d never muster the energy to stand up if I sat. Raine held my hand and supported me as I shoved my shoes off. Praem reappeared with a glass of water and a blister packet of co-codamol, and held them out to me. I muttered a thanks.
“What were you expecting then?” said Evelyn.
Twil shrugged. “I dunno … spooky stuff.”
“Indulge me. Use your imagination, if you have any. Think of it as the toll for entering.”
“I dunno! Bleeding walls? Echoing voices? Weird faces in the ceiling? This is just an old house.”
“I’m so terribly sorry to disappoint you.”
Twil rolled her eyes. “Why are you always so goddamn rude to me?”
“I’m not. Thank you for saving my friend.”
Twil gaped. “Woah. You-”
“And now you’re here, do I have to have you murdered, or are you going to keep your hands off my books?”
“Evee!” I squeaked on Twil’s behalf.
“I’m joking,” Evelyn said. “A little self-satire.”
“Ha ha.” Twil snorted.
“Touch my books and I will put a leash on you though.”
“Hey! I won’t, what do you think I-”
Twil cut off first, but we all felt the change in the air, the rising of the little hairs on the back of one’s neck, the chill from a hidden door – though I was the only one who could see the cause.
Two of Evelyn’s Spider-servitors scuttled into the front room.
They’d entered at the same moment from two different directions, one hanging upside down from over the stairs and the other creeping around the kitchen doorway. Segmented limbs blurred and paused and readjusted, bunched crystalline eyes swivelled and fixed, until they had Twil flanked from both sides.
“ … what the hell is that?” Twil whispered, eyes wide and flicking over everything, apparently too shaken to move more than her eyeballs. She spoke through gritted teeth. “This place is fucking haunted, it totally is. You lot feel that too, don’t you? There’s something watching me, I can feel it.”
“You know what, I think I do. Freaky.” Raine put her hands on her hips and glanced about.
“Um … Evee?” I said.
The spiders edged closer to Twil, stinger-tips quivering, as if they expected her to run.
“Ah, hmm.” Evelyn frowned at me. “Security system, yes?”
I nodded. “Two spiders.”
“Spiders?” Twil jerked as if prodded with a cattle goad. “What spiders? Spider-ghosts? You’re kidding me.” She growled low in her throat and ceased to be entirely human, arms and hands overlaid with that flicker-wisp wolf flesh. Her face elongated into a snout.
“Stop that,” Evelyn snapped, then turned to me. “Point.”
I did. Both hands.
“Hmm,” she grunted. A nasty smirk crossed her face. “On second thought, perhaps it would be funnier to let Twil fight something she can’t see.”
“Saye!” Twil growled through her canine snout.“I swear I’ll-”
Evelyn raised her chin and reeled off a long, complex sentence of Latin, followed by a pause and another sentence. She looked at me for confirmation.
“Um … that did not work. No change.”
Evelyn scowled, adjusted her grip on her walking stick, and banged it against the floor. She barked something in Latin which was almost certainly not a ritualised command or high-minded construction, but more of a colourful suggestion. I winced too and prayed I’d never give Evelyn cause to yell at me.
The Spider-servitors jerked back and reconsidered, scuttled away to the edges of the room and slowly retreated the way they came.
“Oh.” I blinked. “I guess they decided Twil is less scary than you.”
“As they well should,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Haunted bloody madhouse, I told you so.” Twil growled through too many sharp teeth, huffing and puffing behind a veil of hair.
“Put yourself away,” Evelyn said.
Twil did, straightening up and sweeping her hair back from her face, human again. She shook herself and puffed out a long breath. “What the hell, Saye? What the hell is going on? Fucking demons and monsters and Heather getting snatched off the street? What’s this all about?”
Raine began to help me toward the kitchen, but Evelyn stood stock still, staring at Twil.
“What? What?” Twil demanded.
“I’m deciding how much I can tell you.”
“I’m sorry, Heather. I’m really, really sorry. I mean it. I tried, I really tried to stop them, please don’t hate me. I don’t think I could stand it if you hated me.”
Dream-awareness blossomed in my mind.
Lozzie was hugging me tight. She was sniffing, crying with her head buried in my shoulder. She smelled of shampoo and strawberries, but then this was a dream, she could smell however she chose to – however my mind chose for her. We were both on our knees in a dark place, arms around each other. I blinked and found I was crying too, gripped by the alchemy of shared emotional release, whoever and whatever she was. I hugged her back, patting her shoulders, feeling awkward but touched.
“It- it’s okay,” I said.
“It’s not okay!” She pulled back and showed me a face that could move a heart of stone. That fey, elfin face, running with tears and red around the eyes, wisps of blonde hair in disarray. “They’re not allowed to do those things to you, they shouldn’t! I hate them all, especially my brother. I hate him so much, I wish he would die!” She kicked out in frustration. Her foot connected with a pile of books and sent them scattering across the wooden floor.
I looked over at them. Then up.
The bookcases stretched up forever, until they vanished into the dark far above. Crisscrossed with wooden stairways and ledges, balconies and rails, looped around each other, to offer access to any of the billions of volumes. A vast canyon, which Lozzie and I sat at the very bottom of, on a polished wooden floor at least a mile across, littered with thousands of stay texts.
Vertigo touched my head. I looked back to Lozzie.
“Where is this place?”
She sniffed and looked pitiful. “The library at Carcosa. I thought it might cheer you up. You love books and stuff, right?”
“I … I do love books. It’s … ” I risked another glance up. “In a way, it’s beautiful, yes.”
“So, you don’t hate me?”
“Oh, Heather!” Lozzie hugged me again, clung to me and buried her face in my shoulder. “I hate that they scared you. I hate him so much.”
“Him … him … ” Gears turned in my mind, realisation clicking into place.
“My brother. I hate him.”
“You told me about him … before, before it happened. In a dream. How is that possible?” I muttered.
“He thinks he can stop us, thinks he can stop us going places, stop us living, control us.” Lozzie pulled back and met my gaze, her eyes burning with conviction. A smile crested her face through the crying. “But you can go anywhere you want! We can go anywhere, Heather. Like here!”
She waved up at the titanic bookcases, and I made myself look again. Made myself see the tiny shuffling figures on the walkways, with robes and lanterns and faces made of tentacles and spines. I noticed the hanging cages filled with dessicated, inhuman corpses, saw the confluence of vast meter-thick chains which held an unspeakable monster, bound high in the air between the two rows of bookshelves.
“Like here,” I echoed.
Zheng did not stay down.