conditions of absolute reality – 3.10

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Spared a morning hangover by the thin mercies of biology, and with the worst of my mood lifted, Evelyn and I coaxed Tenny into the house.

We shared a strong pot of coffee, tucked away in the utility room as we waited for Tenny’s erratic circuit of the property to bring her into the overgrown back garden. Raine was still upstairs, soaking in a long bath and subjecting herself to a gruesome hangover cure by eating a pair of lemons.

When Tenny appeared, slinking along the perimeter of the sagging wooden fence, I walked out to speak with her. The sky glowered at all Sharrowford that morning, dark and gravid with the threat of rain. Heavy clouds were the only thing keeping the temperature up.

I was finally wearing my new pink hoodie again, feeling warm and much more like myself. It had been clean for a week, but only felt right again after the release of last night.

“Tenny, Tenny, over here. Here … here girl.”

I still felt ridiculous raising my voice to a creature only I could see, even in the seclusion of the back garden. Tenny stopped, turned, and came toward me. Good doggy. I think she liked the sound of my voice.

Her wounds showed as jagged rents in her tarry black flesh, holes and chunks bitten and ripped out of her. They’d been inching shut over the last few days, the edges trying to knit together. Her tentacles bobbed and waved like seaweed, but the severed ones were not regrowing, mere waggling stumps.

I almost choked up; she’d suffered those wounds to protect me.

I wasn’t afraid of her anymore, or disgusted.

Good doggy.

Parts of the house had to be systematically de-warded to allow her passage, a task which involved lots of paper sigils slapped on the door frames and Evelyn muttering entire pages of Latin at the junctions between walls. She’d locked the ex-drawing room to keep the downstairs Spider-servitor inside, like a big dog which might scare off a skittish stay.

Even with my vocal reassurances, and one jarring moment of unexpected hand-to-tentacle contact, Tenny still took almost an hour to approach the back door. She crept across the garden by my side, beneath the huge old tree swaying in the tortured wind. Evelyn watched from the back doorway. Raine reappeared with a damp towel draped over her shoulders, swigging from a sports drink. She couldn’t offer any help, except to stand around and look pretty, though she supplied plenty of peanut gallery commentary with her customary gusto.

“Safe? Safe? Safe?” Tenny repeated in that wet-mud voice, touching one tentacle-tip to my shoulder as we walked together across the uneven matted grass.

“Safe, yes.”

“She thinks it’s not safe?” Evelyn huffed. “It’s the safest place in the city.”

Once inside, Tenny seemed to relax – if a creature made of ectoplasm and soul-flesh could relax. She investigated corners, peered around doors, and turned her eyes on Raine and Evelyn as I directed them around her. I felt uncomfortable at the thought of them simply stepping right through her. She studiously avoided the ex-drawing room door; perhaps she could sense the Servitor inside.

The old sitting room, our intended destination, was located on the opposite side of the ground floor from the ex-drawing room. It lay abandoned and empty in a much sorrier state than most of the house.

No lovely piles of books here, no beautiful aged oak table, no eighties holdover appliances, just a trio of dusty armchairs, and a huge sofa which probably weighed as much as a dead elephant. About as comfortable to sit on, too. The carpet was a century old, worn down almost to the lattice-layer in places. The front end of the room was occupied by a pile of wooden storage crates and three dismantled vacuum cleaners, abandoned partway through some bizarre process of recombination.

“Meaningless,” Evelyn had said. “Probably something my mother was doing twenty years ago.”

Evelyn had spent all morning and some of last night prepping the old sitting room. She’d unrolled a huge piece of canvas across the floor, then painted a massive double-layered magic circle. This circle was twenty feet across and contained a miniature copy of itself in the very middle. For paint she’d used chicken blood cut with coal dust, applied with a brush taped to the end of a broom-handle, so she could do it herself without bending over or kneeling, both postures very difficult for her. I’d offered to work under her directions to save her the effort, but she’d insisted.

Evelyn hurried ahead of us to take up her station in the outer layer of the circle. I followed her into the old sitting room and Tenny drifted after me. Her tentacles explored the door frame, the storage crates, the feel of the carpet and the texture of the curtains. She padded around the edge of the room, satisfied this was indeed a safe place.

“I assume she’s in here now?” Evelyn asked.

“Yes, she’s right there.” I pointed. “Tenny, Tenny?”

Tenny waggled a clutch of tentacles at me. Evelyn stared at a point several feet to Tenny’s left, frowned, and sighed at the interlocking symbols and whorled designs of the magic circle.

“A swing and a miss?” Raine asked from the doorway. She started stretching her back muscles, hands reaching up against the top of the doorframe. “Got your wires crossed?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “No, it hasn’t worked, but that’s only the first stage.”

“How come I could see the big nasty gribbly Spider that one time? With a much smaller circle, less voodoo and all that?”

Evelyn shot her a bored, unimpressed look. “Don’t ask questions when the answer would hurt your brain.”

“Evee,” I scolded, gently as I could. “It’s a fair question. I’d like to understand as well, actually.”

Evelyn cleared her throat and frowned down at the circle. “Oh, I’m just winding her up. The Spider is a Servitor. Some theories say that means it’s made of different stuff. It’s embodied intention, whereas pneuma-somatic life is just life. I thought … oh, damn and blast, never mind what I thought, it was wrong.” She tapped the smaller magic circle with the tip of her walking stick and pulled an awkward smile to herself, forced and half-frozen. “She needs to stand here. Right here.”

“Evee, are you okay?” I asked.

“What?” She blinked at me. “Of course, of course I’m okay. I’m just tired, Heather. I’m very tired. I … here, right here.” She tapped the smaller circle again. “Then we can all see her.”

“You wanna make bet on that?” Raine asked, a carefully innocent look on her face.

“You’re on. Ten pounds.”

Raine blinked. “Oh. You’re, uh, confident.”

“You can’t back out on a bet,” I said, a smile on my face. “That one was your fault, Raine.”

Raine crossed her middle and index fingers on both hands and struck an action pose. I almost giggled.

“In the circle, if you please,” Evelyn said. “Just lead her right through it.”

“Um … Evee?”

“The circle is perfectly safe for you,” she said. “It’s not connected to anywhere, it’s not summoning anything, it’s entirely local. You can step over the lines, you can step on the lines, nothing will happen.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. My last experience with one of these wasn’t exactly positive.”

Manoeuvring Tenny to cross the two-foot wide inner circle became quite the task. Holding my hand out or calling to her didn’t work; she much preferred to cross the room by stalking around the edge, tentacles exploring the furniture and walls as she went, like a blind groping squid. I tried to explain to her what we needed, first out loud and then while holding the tip of one tentacle for mind-to-mind contact, speaking slowly and carefully so she might understand.

“Please, Tenny? Please?”

“Take your time, no need to spook her,” said Evelyn. “We have all day.”

“She’s not spooked, she doesn’t comprehend. I don’t even know if she understands me.”

In the end I led her by a tentacle, pulling ever so gently, the rubbery flesh uncoiling and stretching, my skin crawling at the gooey feeling under my hand. She stared with those huge glossy all-black eyes, dumb and blank, but she followed me onto the canvas step by slow step as I walked backward over the inner circle. Tenny placed one foot inside, then the other, tentacles trailing after her.

Evelyn gasped, sharp and short. Raine let out a low whistle.

“You can see her now?” I asked.

“That is one gnarly wee beastie,” Raine muttered.

“Yes, yes, it’s worked perfectly … perfectly.” Evelyn swallowed, visibly shaken, and stared at Tenny. “Well … well. I’d um … I’d thought you were exaggerating. About the tentacles, I mean.”

“I try not to exaggerate.”

“Still.” Evelyn gathered herself and took a deep breath. “Still. The possibilities this offers … ”

Tenny began to take another step forward, to leave the circle again. “Oh, she’s-” I let go of the tentacle. “Tenny, stay, stay girl. You-”

Suddenly her humanoid body halted at an awkward angle. Her tentacles bunched and flattened, right at the line of the inner circle, as if against a curved invisible wall.

The tentacles spread out, sliding and tapping across the surface of an invisible cylinder. She turned, tried to head back the other way, but her probing tentacles quickly found the limits of her prison, two feet wide.

“Evee!” I squeaked. “You didn’t say you were going to trap her in there.”

“Did I not? I explained this, all of this. And it’s not a trap, it’s like a cat carry box. You have to restrain the animal if you’re going to do surgery.”

“This thing helped save Heather,” Raine said. “You make a good mad doctor, sure, but don’t you play guinea pig with this thing.”

“She has a name, Raine. Please use it?” I asked.

“Sorry.” Raine raised both hands. “S’cute, you know, you giving cute names to gribbly monsters.”

“She’s not a monster. At least, I don’t think she is.”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes, utterly exasperated with both of us. “I’m not Josef bloody Mengele. I told you, this for her own good. That’s why you need to stay here, Heather, keep her nice and calm.”

“You promise?” I asked – and instantly regretted the word, the lack of trust. “I mean-”

Evelyn frowned at me. Not the expected glare, the prologue of a snapped comment or a withering insult, but a flicker of uncertainty, almost guilt.

“I am trying to help,” she said, slowly.

“I’m sorry. I just … I’m paranoid. Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she said, almost pained. “It’s fine. Let’s get on.”

Tenny didn’t seem to need a lot of calming down. I reached into the circle – no barrier to real flesh – and took hold of a stray tentacle-tip. She curled it happily around my hand and wrist, holding on gently.

“Safe? Safe?” she asked in her sucking mud-voice.

“Very safe,” I said, hoping it was the truth. “My friends are going to help you, okay? Just stay still for now, don’t worry, you’ll be out of there soon.”

“She spoke?” Evelyn frowned. “I didn’t hear a thing. Raine?”

“Nope, nothing here either.”

I explained. Evelyn then spent several awkward minutes attempting to hold the end of a tentacle, as Tenny flopped them about and explored the inner dimensions of the circle-pen. Evelyn’s fingers passed right through her, like trying to grasp thin air. I couldn’t quite express the trick.

“I’ve never had to think about it before,” I said. “You have to focus on believing it’s there, more than on touching it. It’s just … natural, to me.”

Evelyn grumbled and kept trying. She eventually established a brief hold with thumb and forefinger only, but apparently Tenny didn’t want to speak to her. Or perhaps had nothing to say.

“So much for communication.” Evelyn dropped the tentacle. She couldn’t see the pneuma-somatic tar-goo dripping from her own fingers. “I’ll get started, get a better look at those wounds. Keep her calm and relatively still, best you can. Must she touch every last surface like that?”

“I think she’s just curious. Seems to be in her nature.”

“As am I!” Raine announced. “When do I get a turn to play with her? She looks like she needs a good belly rub and some treats. You never were good with animals, Evee, no wonder she won’t warm up to you.”

Evelyn sighed and directed a withering stare at Raine. “When I am done. This is an important piece of research, and potentially medical care, not playtime with a pet.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Evee. S’always playtime where I come from.”

Evelyn got down to work, pad of paper over one arm, chewing at her lower lip in concentration. Tenny seemed to understand what was required of her. She tried to cooperate at first, turning face-on as Evelyn sketched. Details of Tenny’s wounds filled the pad in pencil drawing, their positions, estimated size, shape, all noted down in neat handwriting. Counting her tentacles proved a strange obstacle; Evelyn listed six of them severed down to stumps and another two damaged or cut further up, but each count of the healthy tentacles resulted in a different number – fourteen, seven, twenty three, sixty five. We gave up after a dozen goes.

Raine stifled a laugh at the result on Evelyn’s pad, and even I had to smile. Evelyn wasn’t much of an artist.

“It’s not meant to look aesthetically pleasing,” she said. “It’s a reference.”

“A reference to your terrible skills, maybe,” said Raine.

Evelyn glared and pointed with her pencil. “Go. Kitchen. Fetch me a drink. And get Heather some coffee.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Get her some anyway.”

Raine returned with coffee, juice, and hastily assembled bacon sandwiches – two for her. She seemed to need it this morning, along with downing prodigious quantities of water and energy drink. I didn’t blame her after last night’s vodka consumption. At least she wasn’t clutching her head or calling for silence. She held a plate next to me while I ate, so I could hang onto Tenny’s tentacle as Evelyn worked around us.

A third magic circle began to take shape under Evelyn’s slow and meticulous brushwork, in that revolting combination of chicken blood and coal dust. She propped her notebook open on the nearby sofa, glancing at it and mumbling under her breath as she added the jagged lines of a interlocking double pentagram, the angles cupped by Latin commands.

“This is all so riveting,” Raine said after a mouthful of bacon and brown sauce. “Can’t we play hide and seek with her, or at least fetch?”

“Nobody is making you stay,” Evelyn drawled.

“I am,” I said. They both looked at me. “What?”

Evelyn smirked and went back to her painting. Raine turned away to hide a similar look.

“What?” I demanded.

“She’s got you wrapped around her little finger, Raine.”

Excuse me?”

Raine laughed. “I know, right? I love it.”

“I have not!” I whined. “Our relationship is completely not like that. Evee!”

“I’m only calling a spade a spade.”

I fumed silently, unwilling to let myself get peevish while trying to keep Tenny calm.

Evelyn straighted up and propped the broom-handle brush against the wall, then nudged the low dish of blood-mix-paint away from the canvas. “Right. Both of you step away, I don’t want to burn your eyebrows off.”

“Burn? Is this safe for Tenny?”

“I have complete control and understanding of everything here.” Evelyn swept one hand to indicate the magic circles. She made very pointed eye contact with me. “I am neither going to invoke an unexpected effect, not allow a runaway process. I can promise you that.”

I nodded. “Okay. I-I’m sorry, Evee. I don’t mean to doubt you.”

She swallowed, broke eye contact, and turned away with obvious discomfort. “I understand. Please step out of the circle, let me work.”

I turned to Tenny, for all that she seemed to understand me. “I’ll be right back. Be good now.”

Her tentacle slipped out of my hand. At first she tried to follow, bumping her head off the barrier, but then she returned to her never-ending process of exploring the inner dimensions of the invisible cylinder. The sight tugged at my heart. I’d never had a pet, but I think I understood now. Evelyn stepped up to the edge of the outer circle and cleared her throat.

Icito alacritas.”

Nothing happened.

“Wish I’d bet on that one instead,” Raine said.

“Wait for it,” Evelyn murmured.

“Eh?”

“Wait for it.”

One glance at her told me everything was not as it seemed; this was suddenly all very wrong. Evelyn was holding her breath, jaw clenched, knuckles white on her walking stick. Cold realisation settled in my gut.

“Wait for what?” I asked. “Evee? Wait for what? What’s going to happen? Evee!”

Evelyn swallowed hard. She refused to look at me. “ … I’m sorry, Heather.”

Tenny’s flesh began to smolder, steaming and smoking, as if her pneuma-somatic body burned with unseen internal fire. She went still and stiff, tentacles suddenly all straining at the invisible barrier. Panic shot through me. I took one step toward Tenny before Raine threw her arms around my waist to hold me back.

“No! Let me- no!”

“Evee!” Raine yelled. “Turn it off!”

Evelyn wouldn’t look at either of us. She shook her head.

Tenny exploded into motion, tentacles whipping and slapping against the invisible wall, body thrashing, human hands scraping at the circle’s barrier. She twisted and kicked and went down in a heap on the canvas, jerking and flopping, huge clouds of thick black steam rising from her body and vanishing as they touched the ceiling. She was being boiled away.

I went limp in Raine’s arms, staring with horror at my faithful spirit. “Wha- what … I … ”

“Evelyn, you call this shit off right now,” Raine said. “I swear I’ll pick you up and-”

“Shut up!” Evelyn snapped, stamping her walking stick on the floor. “Shut up and watch.”

I did not have to be told; I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

The great billowing clouds of black steam ran thin and finally guttered out. Relief filled my chest as Tenny curled back into a standing position, nothing like a human being getting up. She flowed to her feet and stared at Evelyn, then at me, and then her tentacles fanned out to resume tapping at her prison walls once more, as if nothing had happened.

Evelyn let out a huge shuddering breath. She almost laughed, a low, hesitant, half-hysterical sound as she cast about. She didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. She wiped her mouth on the back of one hand, and sat down quickly on the huge uncomfortable sofa. Her eyes flicked to Tenny.

“You pass, little ghost,” she said.

“I think that means she’s alright,” Raine offered. “She is alright, isn’t she, Evee?”

Evelyn nodded. She stared at the floor, taking deep breaths and rubbing at her hips. I watched Tenny for a moment until I was satisfied she wasn’t going to keel over and expire.

“I … I thought you said this was safe,” I managed.

Evelyn puffed out an utterly humourless laugh and shook her head. “I think you will find I never said it was safe for her.”

“You mean you lied, on a technicality, by omission. Evelyn, I can’t believe this.” I found I was almost shouting, a lump in my throat. I forced my voice down. “Are you absolutely sure you haven’t hurt her? She’s-”

“Completely fine,” Evelyn said. She reached forward with her walking stick to bunch up part of the canvas and rub away some of the pentagram. “Look closely. Should be some fresh regenerative growth in her tentacles.”

She was right; Tenny’s stubs showed knobbly regrowth at the tips, glistening and shiny. Less than an inch, but it was a start. Tenny waggled them at me when I approached.

“Can we at least let her out now?”

“Of course, of course, yes. Just scrunch up part of the canvas to break the circle, it’ll collapse the field. Raine and I won’t be able to see her anymore, but I might have a permanent solution to that soon enough.”

“Um … break the circle, right.”

“I’ll do it,” Raine said. “Anything jumps out at me, I’ll put it in a headlock.”

Raine folded part of the canvas over on itself. Tenny didn’t pounce at anybody but she did leave the inner circle very sharpish. She touched my shoulders and the back of one hand with her tentacles, then returned to her prowling route around the walls, a curious animal stuck on some long-forgotten routine.

I turned on Evelyn.

“What if you’d lost control? Evee, what if you’d made a mistake? That- that looked like it could have killed her, you … ”

Evelyn met my eyes, somehow sad and defeated. She spoke very softly. “I would not have lost control.”

“But what if you had?”

“It took very little control. That was incredibly easy, pretty much out of my hands once I spoke the words.”

“It … it didn’t look … ”

“I intended it to be lethal.”

I gaped at her, lost for words.

“Trojan horse?” Raine murmured.

“Exactly,” Evelyn admitted. She flexed her back, popping compacted vertebrae and wincing. “That spell was potentially lethal – if our mysterious tentacled friend was anything other than what she appeared to be. Trojan Horse, walking time bomb, demon in disguise, whatever, it would have boiled her like a lobster in a pot. I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have agreed. Measures had to be taken. As she is what she appears, she is unharmed.”

I cast about for help and shrugged uselessly, betrayal burning in my chest. “Why can’t you simply tell me these things? You’re still treating me like I’m … an idiot. A child.”

“She’s got a point there, Evee,” Raine said. “I feel a bit sore too.”

“You’d been in direct mind-to-mind communication with the thing, exposed, in contact, possibly subverted without knowing it. She began speaking to you on the very same day, the very same hour that the Cult tried to kidnap you.” Evelyn’s voice rose in sour certainty, snapping and biting off her words. “I have not been exactly well predisposed toward her. She has, in fact, been at the top of my list of potential vectors for the Cult stalking you.”

“Why couldn’t you just tell me?” I spread my arms. “Because you’re the big bad scary magician? You have to do everything alone? You don’t have to! You-”

“If I’d told you,” Evelyn barked over me. “And she was something else, then she might have gotten it out of you. Or detonated. Or done God alone knows what. Put you in danger. I’m not going to apologise, dammit, I’m not. It was a necessary deception. I will not allow some Outsider to hollow out your head because I dropped my guard.”

I swallowed and half-turned away, hurt – but not confused. I hated to admit it, burning with indignation and insult, but Evelyn was right. I would never have agreed to this, and if my good little spirit had been a demon or a Trojan Horse, she would have gotten it out of me, very easily.

“I will not apologise,” Evelyn repeated. “But I will-”

“Hey, Evee, maybe drop it for now,” Raine said softly. “I think we’re all a bit-”

“I don’t want an apology!” I snapped out at nothing, at the world. “I get it, okay? I get it. I just feel … small and vulnerable and useless again. Kept in the dark.”

“We’re all in the fucking dark,” Evelyn said. To my surprise, I heard her breath catch in her throat. “All right, fuck it, I’m sorry.” She swallowed hard, sniffed, and controlled herself with a visible act of pure willpower. “The whole reason I did this is because I’ve been getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere. No progress, no ideas, no leads – I can’t crack the Cult’s extra-dimensional bullshit, I can’t finish building that door, I can’t even find the bloody people who tried to snatch you. It’s like none of them exist. Grasping at straws. I thought Tenny, maybe, she might be the vector for the Cult stalking you, at least I could figure that out, trace her back to them. I can’t even stop these vermin from harassing my friend.”

She ended in a shouting rant, a long intake of breath, and her face in her hands.

“It was necessary,” she said to the floor.

Raine held my shoulder with a gently restraining hand. Perhaps she believed she was holding me back from more anger, from snapping at Evelyn, from digging us all deeper. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I frowned at Raine and shrugged her hand off, then went to sit down on the sofa next to Evelyn.

“Evee. Evee, look at me.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted.

“Evee, for pity’s sake.” The aftermath of anger lent me a little brash courage; I awkwardly peeled one of her hands away from her face, to expose her guilty, battered expression.

“You can say whatever you want, I know, I’m-”

“I don’t want necessity to make monsters out of us,” I said.

“That’s what magic does.”

“No. This is going to sound crazy and probably technically wrong, but I think you should have told me. You’re not in this alone. You’re not under siege alone. If Tenny had been a … Trojan Horse, we could have dealt with it together, because I trust you. Or, at least, I want to.”

Evelyn sniffed and looked at Raine for help.

“She’s got you dead to rights there,” Raine said.

“Look.” I sighed. “You’re so afraid of becoming like your mother – and no, I don’t know all the details – but I can add up the pieces. I’m not going to let you be something you don’t want to be. Next time something like this happens, you tell me. We’ll deal with the consequences together.”

Evelyn nodded slowly. “I’m … I’m sorry, Heather.”

“Good. I forgive you.”

She grimaced and looked away sidelong, at nothing. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“Accept my forgiveness or I shall … bloody well slap you one,” I said. Evelyn quirked a frown at me. Raine laughed. I huffed. “Well, it’s not like I have much else in my toolbox of persuasion.”

“Your ultraviolence is rubbing off on her, Raine,” Evelyn muttered.

“Oh, no.” Raine mock-frowned. “Don’t say that, she’d be lethal.”

Evelyn accepted my forgiveness with an awkward nod and a mumbled word. She sighed and leaned back, the worst of her self-loathing dropping away in layers of stress and tension. “I’m surprised,” she said. “Lying made me feel awful. I’m quite good at that, you know, when I want to be. Had to be. But it’s never made me feel so … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “I need a bath.”

“I hate to stir the pot again, but none of that explained why you didn’t tell me,” Raine said.

“You expect me to believe you’d have kept that from Heather? You two share bodily fluids without provocation, let alone secret plans.”

They both fell quiet, and after a moment I realised they were watching me watch Tenny. I blushed in a moment of intense self-consciousness, and almost gave in to the urge to shelter my face with one hand. “Don’t. That feels weird.”

“I like making you feel weird.” Raine grinned.

“Shut up.” Evelyn tapped her on the back of the knee with her walking stick, which drew a mock-yelp from Raine as she hopped out of range. “We’ve done all we can for … ‘Tenny’, I think. Those wounds don’t seem to be causing her any distress.”

“I don’t know if she can show distress,” I said.

“Mm, quite. Unfortunately, I’ve still no idea what she is.” Evelyn frowned. “You’re quite sure she called you master?”

“Yes, absolutely. She used that exact word, twice, definitely in reference to me.”

“Maybe she just took a liking to you,” Raine said. “I can get behind that.”

“That’s very flattering, but not everybody thinks like you, especially not about girls like me. If they did, the world would be a slightly odd place.”

“A better place. Except for all the competition I’d have.”

“It’s as good a guess as any, at this point,” Evelyn muttered.

“But you never know about the tastes of a tentacle monster, right?” Raine looked around as if she could still see Tenny, who was now nosing along the far wall. “Absolutely disgusting, but mega cool. And she … slorp, with the tentacles, right?” Raine mimed the moment I’d told about her, Tenny defending me. “Wish I could have seen that.”

“I hope you never have to.”

“Well yeah, she won’t need to do it again, because I’ll be there.”

“And she’s not disgusting,” I said. “She’s kind of cute.”

Cute?”

Even Evelyn gave me a doubtful side-eye.

“Yes, cute. Maybe I’m just imprinting favourably because she saved me.”

“Am I cute?” Raine asked.

“ … do you even have to ask that? Let’s not talk about that right now.”

“Hmmmm.” Raine squinted one eye and pulled a thoughtful face, then performed a theatrical turn toward an imagined adversary – Tenny was nowhere near the target of Raine’s exaggerated look. “Seems like you and I need to have a serious talk, Tentacle Lady.”

“Tch, Raine.”

“No, I’m serious. I need to thank her, for rescuing you, then make it crystal clear you’re mine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Raine, I’m not going to get seduced by a blob monster.”

“Just gotta make clear who’s boss here. Establish dominance. As long as we understand each other, right Tenny?”

Tenny actually reacted to that last one, staring at Raine. She pulled a double-loop with a bunch of tentacles and wiggled them up and down, then turned back to examining cracks in the wall.

“What?” Raine saw the look on my face. “What did she do?”

“I … I’m not sure. I think she may have laughed. Maybe.”

Raine threw her arms in the air and whooped. “Universal language!”

Evelyn paid no attention to our antics. She sat forward with her chin in her hands, back badly bent, focused on the Latin inscriptions and repeating whorls of her magic circles, eyes far away.

“Evee.”

“Mm?” She looked up.

“Could the Cult have sent her, somehow?”

Evelyn studied me for a long moment, half bent-up like some sluggish, unblinking bear fresh from hibernation. She sighed and shook her head with a grimace. “That’s what I thought, but no. She’s not a Servitor, she’s far too complex for that. She appears to be a completely ordinary spirit, which means she either is – or she’s so advanced I can’t tell the difference. It’s almost as if … as if she’d been trained. Or raised? Domesticated.”

A lost memory snagged in the back of my mind.

“She said a name.”

“What, just now?”

“No, no, when I was in the alleyway, or … in the bookshop?” I frowned down at my hands, digging for memory. “I must have forgotten about it in all the panic afterward. She said a name. She said somebody had sent her … no, told her? Told her to get me out, get me out of there. Lozzie. That was the name.” I looked up at Raine and Evelyn’s mystified faces. “Lozzie.”

“Lozzie?” Raine repeated.

“Short for Lauren,” said Evelyn, shaking her head. “I don’t know any Laurens.”

“I’ve known a few, but none of them relevant. Secret admirer?” Raine cracked a grin.

“I know of no mages by that name. Doesn’t mean a thing, of course. Could be false, a fake, throw us off a scent. A red herring.” Evelyn’s eyes went down to her maimed hand, frowning hard.

“Mean anything to you, Heather?” Raine asked. “Somebody you used to know?”

“I feel as if I’ve heard it in passing, but … no.”

Lauren. Lozzie? The memory of a dream teased on the tip of my tongue, a ghost lurking in the depths of my memory.

We asked Tenny. All three of us, while I held a tentacle for the answer – but she didn’t want to tell us anything. At the sound of that name – Lozzie – she pulled her tentacle out of my hand and resumed her unfathomable routine. We attempted another two times, my only answers blank stares and mind-silence.

“Not exactly a rare name, Lauren,” said Raine. “Real popular about thirty years ago, if I remember right. A cover, maybe?”

Evelyn stood up suddenly, teeth locked together, brow furrowed. She marched halfway to the door, then turned back and got halfway to the sofa again before halting. Her expression was exactly the one she might adopt if forced to eat excrement.

“God, I really do not want to do this,” she hissed.

“Evee? Oh.” Raine smiled a grim smile.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“She’s gotta make some phone calls.”

“Oh, don’t make it worse than it already is,” Evelyn snapped, then focused on me. She waved a hand vaguely at the rest of the room. “A trained, raised spirit, like a hound? Somebody sent her. To Sharrowford, to me, to you, I’ve no idea. No idea at all.” She almost spat, furious.

“I can do it,” Raine said. “Gimme your phone. Lemme help.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Evelyn stomped toward the door. “We’ll do it together. In the kitchen. At least we can get out of this dust hole and have some tea.”


==


Evelyn’s mobile phone lay on the kitchen table before her, next to a second steaming mug of tea. She’d drained the first so quickly I’d feared for her throat, but she didn’t seem to feel the scalding heat. She stared at phone’s dimmed screen, open on a sparse contacts list.

“I can do this for you, just say the word.” Raine leaned against the fridge. I sat at the table, slowly nursing my own cup of tea. Tenny lurked in the doorway, more interested in the front room.

“I assume these people you’re going to speak to are other mages,” I said. “You’re not calling your dad or something?”

Evelyn’s eyes flicked to me. I felt a trickle of guilt, smothered beneath a tsunami of fascinated curiosity.

“Other mages. Yes.”

A wider world, beyond Sharrowford’s sordid little conflicts and bizarre happenings. Other mages. Other people like Evelyn?

People like her mother?

I didn’t need to wonder why she felt uncomfortable.

I reached over and took her hand, her maimed hand, the one she’d grabbed me with when she was sucked Outside. She blinked, surprised at the sudden intimate finger-locked contact, and nodded a silent thanks. We didn’t need words.

“The two people I’m about to call both tried to kill me, in the aftermath of my mother’s death,” she said.

Raine opened her mouth; she didn’t get past the intake of breath; Evelyn silenced her with a raised finger and a glare.

“They did,” Evelyn said. “I know what you’re about to say, and they did try. You scared Aaron off just by being you, that’s why you think he’s harmless. Fliss, I said some things to her you never heard, things I will not repeat. Either of them would have put me in a shallow grave.”

Raine smiled in defeat and raised her hands. “Aaron wouldn’t hurt a fly. Last I checked he’s a pacifist vegan, works for a charity. Fliss, yeah, I’ll give you that, she’s … odd.”

“She’s a sociopathic pederast demonophile.”

Raine shrugged. “Just trying to be diplomatic.”

“These sound like reasonably scary people.” I sighed in exasperation. “Why can’t you have a nice friendly mage who wants to, I don’t know, magic ice cream out of thin air? Are they always like this?”

“Mostly,” Evelyn grunted. “All right, I’ve had enough tea, my back teeth are floating.”

She switched the phone to speaker and placed the first call. Soft ringing filled the overcast dark of the kitchen, the phone a patch of brightness on the shadowed table. Clouds sat fat and grey in the sky beyond the window.

A click and a buzz – call answered. Background noise, chatter, a busy place. A lively male voice piped up, full of amusement, open and friendly even over the artificiality of the phone connection.

“Hello hello, who’s this calling me then, hey?”

“You know who it is,” Evelyn said, staring at the wall with her arms folded. “Hello, Aaron.”

“And a very good afternoon to you as well, young lady. Caught me on my lunch break, you did, but I’d have made time anyway. Haven’t heard from you in well over a year, Evelyn. How’s-”

“One question. That’s the only reason I’m calling. Answer it truthfully or I’ll send an Outsider to kill you in your sleep.”

Aaron started laughing, a real laugh, a little derisive, exactly as a normal person might react to such a threat delivered via phone call. “Evelyn, Evelyn, you always were over dramatic. What’s the matter, hey? Do you need-”

“I think she’s serious, Aaron,” said Raine. “Hi, by the way.”

Aaron went quiet. Background noise filled the call. Raine raised her eyebrows and spread her arms, surprised at the power of her own voice. I nodded, had to admit, that was pretty obvious.

“Oh, uh, hi, Raine. Hi. Glad to know you two are still close,” Aaron said.

“Did you or did you not send something to Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked.

“Send something? No, no, I’ve not sent anything your way, nothing at all. Swear it, serious, I wouldn’t wind you up on this.”

“Goodbye, Aaron.”

“Hey, you do believe me, right? I wouldn’t-”

Evelyn killed the call.

“He was telling the truth,” Raine said instantly. “Also, wow, he really is scared of me, isn’t he?”

“Told you so.”

“And here I thought he was actually sort of a nice bloke.” She shook her head, mystified.

The second call went unanswered. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, a full minute of ringing. Evelyn hung up and tried again. And again. And again.

“Who doesn’t have voice mail these days?” I wondered out loud.

“Felicity uses a landline. No reception out in her rotting manor house.”

“Manor house?”

“Long story, never go there,” Raine said. “For serious.”

“Pick up, you evil bitch,” Evelyn muttered.

Click. Line connected. Dead silence on the other end.

“Felicity? It’s Saye.”

Silence crept from the phone, like black waves, filling the room.

“Is that you or your pet?” Evelyn asked.

“Pet? Is that what you think I am?”

The voice from the phone was not remotely human. A nightmare approximation of young girl, squeezed through sulphur and darkness, high and giggling. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“I’d take offence if you weren’t so easy to tease,” it rattled on. “My little beurre sucré. Bet you thought I’d forgotten all about you, didn’t you? You-”

Evelyn slapped a hand over the phone’s speaker. She rolled her eyes and waited for the sound to stop, then removed her hand.

“Evelyn? Evee? Evee?” A different voice was asking, low and soft, a hushed half-mumble. “Are you still there? Evee? Please-”

“Yes,” Evelyn hissed

“It’s me, I’m sorry about that. I was napping, she got to the phone first.”

“I have a problem,” Evelyn snapped. “Are you the cause?”

“Never. For you, never. Can I help?”

“No.”

A long, long pause.

“Goodbye, Felicity.”

“Be safe, Evee.” A small choke entered Felicity’s voice. “Can I see you-”

Evelyn killed the call with a jab. Her shoulders shook ever so slightly. More history lurked here than I’d imagined, dark things or tender things, things I didn’t know how to touch.

“You holding up okay?” Raine asked.

“I’m fine.” Evelyn huffed. “That’s the worst of them. I suppose I could call Gabrielle too, she’ll probably offer to post us a cake, or something equally as stupid.”

Raine’s phone went off and made us all jump. She laughed at herself and fished it out of one pocket, then frowned at the screen.

“It’s not her calling back, is it?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with contempt. “I just blocked her again. She doesn’t even have your number.”

“Nope. It’s our friendly neighbourhood shape-shifter.” Raine answered the call and tried to say hello, cut off instantly by agitated werewolf. “What? Twil, slow- what do you mean, you’re outside? Yeah, we’re all here. What are you up to? Oh.” Raine lowered the phone. “She hung up.”

A loud, polite knock sounded at Evelyn’s front door.

We all shared a look. Evelyn rolled her eyes and muttered something about Twil’s irredeemable idiocy.

“I’ll get it.” I stood up, wanted to stretch my legs anyway, get out of the gloom and claustrophobia in this kitchen, with these dark words and dark thoughts. A dose of Twil might be exactly what we all needed right now.

“Tell her to go away,” Evelyn called, not entirely sincere.

Raine followed me into the front room, of course. In the back of my mind I was dimly aware this might be serious, another chapter of panic and madness to add to the last few weeks. I hung back and quashed my frustration as Raine stepped forward to unlock the door. Twil was standing on the doorstep, with an awkward smile on her face.

“All right, you two?” Twil said by way of greeting. “Uh, can I have a word with Saye?”

Twil was utterly incapable of concealing even the mildest of emotions, let alone the deep discomfort and social anxiety written all over her body language. She looked like a dog about to be put through a degrading training session. In addition to her usual big coat and white hoodie, she wore warm fingerless gloves and a scarf, with her great mass of dark hair tucked down the back of the coat.

“Hi Twil!” I said, bright as I could manage. I’d come to rather enjoy the sight of her. More positive imprinting after she’d rescued me, I guessed.

“All right, yeah.” Raine frowned past her, missing nothing.

Twil had not come alone.

A great big four wheel drive was parked in the road, sides splashed with mud. Two figures stood at the end of the garden path, this side of the wall, inside the property boundary – the supernatural boundary too, if spirit behaviour was anything to go by.

One was a tall man with close-cropped hair and muscles like he knew his way around a gym. The other was a short tidy older woman who shared an unmistakable family resemblance with Twil. She had her hands folded demurely before her, waiting patiently as she watched Twil on our doorstep.

“I see you’ve ignored my request.” Evelyn thumped across the front room to glare daggers at Twil.

Twil grimaced like a beaten dog. “I’m sorry, Saye- Evelyn, I mean. I told them you wouldn’t like this. That’s why I came too, please don’t go out there and get violent. Please.”

“Nobody is going to get violent,” I said. A gut reaction. Twil nodded at me.

“Yeah, thanks. Listen to big H, yeah?”

“‘Big H’?” Raine grinned. “What?”

“Uh, Heather.”

“Who are they?” Evelyn asked, voice flat and hard. She stared past Twil at the pair waiting at the end of the path.

“Uhhhh.” Twil looked like a deer in headlights. She pointed vaguely over shoulder. “That’s my cousin, Ben, and um, my mum.”

“Your mother.”

“Yeah, my mother. Yeah.”

Evelyn’s gaze swivelled back to Twil.

“High Priestess of the Brinkwood Cult, your mother?”

Twil winced. “Please don’t get violent. She’s my mum.”

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