conditions of absolute reality – 3.12

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Deception set my head spinning; when Evelyn stomped back into the kitchen with me scurrying behind her, to be met by polite but confused looks from our guests, I couldn’t tell how much of her ire was real and how much was acting.

Gone was her conspiratorial amusement from our private moment, replaced once more with a hunched, scowling, lash-tongued performance. Lots of “against my better judgement” and “do not mistake this for weakness”, ending on a warning not to even dream about stealing any books, an injunction which drew a snapped complaint from Twil, and earned Twil a sharp rebuke from her mother.

I was cast in the role of the bowing and scraping adviser, the voice of cool-headed diplomacy, the one to thank for this chance, and I played along as best I could, trying to look harried and put-upon and twitchy. Not exactly difficult.

Evelyn unlocked the door to the ex-drawing room and showed Christine Hopton – High Priestess of the Brinkwood Cult – what she’d been up to these past weeks.

The rest of us mere mortals – plus Twil – hovered around the doorway as the mages conferred.

“Not you, I don’t think.” Raine put out a hand. Ben stopped. He’d been about to step through the doorway after Praem, to where Evelyn was pointing at the map and muttering to Christine.

“I thought we were all friends here now,” he said.

Twil elbowed him in the ribs. “Ben you stupid cunt, give it a rest. Mum’s fine.”

Ben winced. He frowned at Twil, at Raine, over Raine’s head at Evelyn, and then lastly at me, before drawing a hand over the cropped stubble on his head. “I don’t trust any of this.”

“Likewise,” Raine said, then flashed a grin and stepped aside. “On second thought, you wanna waltz in there flexing your muscles, be my guest.”

Ben smelled a rat. He stayed right where he was. I sighed.

“Don’t,” I said. “Raine is trying to get you to aggravate the um … security.”

“Aww, don’t tell him!” Raine slapped me on the back, laughing. “Spoiling my fun.”

“Wait,” Twil said. “The invisible spider is in there, isn’t it? Don’t go in there, seriously don’t.”

“All right, all right.” Ben shook his head and wandered away from the door, back to the dregs of his tea. He took a deep breath and seemed to relax, leaning against the table. “Anything happens, you’re up, Twil.”

“I’m always up.” She rolled her eyes.

None of us risked disturbing the uneasy peace, or the slow movements of the meeting in the workshop. Snippets of hushed conversation reached us, as Evelyn explained the impenetrable tangle in the south end of Sharrowford, the city’s shadowy double on the other side of nowhere. Her map was covered with much more red than when I’d first seen it.

They puzzled together over the mandala of the inert gateway, the doorway outline cut into the wall plaster. Christine kept touching the symbols, nodding a lot as Evelyn explained long-winded concepts under her breath, answered a number of pointed questions, and tapped the blank doorway with her walking stick.

Raine leaned over to Twil, a smirk hidden beneath her face, and whispered, “Your mum’s kinda hot.”

Twil did a double-take at her. So did I.

“Raine,” I hissed under my breath, and smiled despite myself.

“You know, if you’re into the whole mommy thing. Older women. All that.”

Twil bared her teeth. “I will … fucking … end you.”

Ben snorted laughter.

The conference in the workshop came to an abrupt end. Christine gestured toward the kitchen and spoke up. “Shall we? I feel quite overwhelmed by all this. I do believe I need a little air.” Evelyn grunted and clacked her walking stick across the floorboards and back into the kitchen. We made space, Ben hauling his massive frame over to lurk by the door again. Raine slid a hand across my back and stayed close.

“I am certainly impressed,” Christine began as she lowered herself back into one of the kitchen chairs. “I had no idea of the extent of … the size … how much they’ve … ” She swallowed. “That map is accurate, of course?”

“What do you think?” Evelyn asked. She waited for Praem to pull a chair out, then sat down, as straight-backed and high-headed as she could force her spine.

“I think you are a remarkable young woman. I didn’t understand even a fraction of your working in there, that ‘gate’ you’re constructing in the wall.”

“Neither do I. That’s the problem.”

“Yes, yes, I quite understand.” Christine inclined her head. “Which is why I believe we may be able to provide the missing pieces of the puzzle.”

Evelyn’s gaze flickered to me and away again; here it comes. “Oh?” she said to Christine, and waited.

“The angular principles, the gate and the key, the ways between the spheres. This we know, or some of it, though in a different form to the one expressed in that magic on your wall. We know it, because Hringewindla knows it.”

A sinking feeling settled in my belly. The threat of dressing up as a cat for a day served to distract only very slightly from the fear this meeting was about to erupt into violence.

“I believe if you were to commune with Hringewindla, and ask honest, intelligent questions, he may be able to provide the missing pieces for your working.”

Evelyn sighed, a sardonic smile on her lips, and turned to me. I shrugged and swallowed. Raine raised an eyebrow at me and I whispered to her. “We made a bet, I just lost. Tell you about it later.”

“If you need to discuss this amongst yourselves, I completely understand,” Christine said, eyes halting uncertainly across our private exchange. “I realise it may seem daunting, but-”

“What’s to discuss?” Evelyn asked, leaning back with sneer on her face. “How long it took you to bait your hook?”

“I … I’m sorry, I don’t follow?”

“I see you, and I see your plan, you vile little thing,” Evelyn said.

“Hey!” Twil barked. Evelyn ignored her, staring at Christine. I felt myself shrink back as Raine flexed her hands and rolled her shoulders, the musculature of impending violence flowing into position. Ben had gone very still.

“I’m not talking to you, Christine,” Evelyn said. “I’m talking to the passenger riding along inside your mind, to Hingle-cringle-whatsit, even if you don’t know it’s there. I see you, and I’m no fool. If you try something like this again, I will find a way to put you down.”

Christine stared in shock, mouth hanging open. Twil wasn’t far off, more bewildered than angry. Ben was the only one ready to burst.

“How dare you?” He shouted. I flinched so hard I almost fell over. Raine steadied me. Goodness, but I was not used to people shouting. My heart rate shot through the roof. “You don’t know anything about us, you little bitch, you-”

Benjamin,” Christine snapped at him. She pointed at the door. “Outside, outside right now, you take that language outside.”

“But she-”

“I don’t care. I do not care. Go outside and have a cigarette if you must.”

Ben glowered at Evelyn but obeyed his aunt, stomped off toward the front door and banged it shut on the way out.

“Wise,” Evelyn purred.

Christine took a deep breath in an effort to centre herself. Twil seemed unsure what to do, caught between anger and confusion, one hand briefly on her mother’s shoulder, before looking away with a snarl caught between her teeth.

“I realise you don’t trust us,” Christine said. “What you must think of us, what you must assume we are. From your family, or your mother, what you think of people like us. Yes, a piece of our god enters us and we carry it with us always. That I will not deny, but my mind is my own, and this is not a ploy, not some trick to ensnare you and-”

“Okay,” Evelyn said.

Christine blinked at her. I stared. Raine burst out laughing.

“Okay, sure, I’ll come talk to your Outsider. How’s, I don’t know, ten in the morning on Monday? Too early? Is he a late riser? Does one of you do a alarm call for it, breakfast in bread and all that?”

Christine pursed her lips. “You are mocking us.”

“No, I’m deadly serious. But I have one condition. Heather comes with me.”

“What?” I blurted out.

“Yeah, what?” Raine said.

“I … don’t … see why that would present a problem?” Christine raised a polite eyebrow at me.

Evelyn let that low, lazy, sharp smile fill her face, a nasty glint beneath as she allowed the moment to stretch out, savouring her victory. That’s the only reason I didn’t raise further protest; I could tell this was an elaborate bluff, partially at my expense.

“Heather is a blinzelnzauberin,” Evelyn said.

“I’m a what now?” I felt laughter threaten in my throat, the tension of the last few minutes begging for release.

“It’s German. You probably don’t even know what the word means,” Evelyn said to Christine. “But your passenger certainly will. Do I need to say it in Latin, or Old English? I might need to fetch a dictionary for that last one, I doubt they had a word for the concept.”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, miss Saye.” Christine attempted an apologetic smile. “Your friends are as welcome as you are.”

“You think I’m bluffing? Ask Heather. Not you, Christine. I’m talking to the Outsider in your head.”

“I-I’m pretty sure she is bluffing,” I said. “I have no idea what that word means either.”

Christine studied Evelyn’s expression, then looked at me, down the length of my body and back up – the sort of look which made me feel like a piece of meat on a slab – a reducing, searching, probing look, the last thing I’d expected from such a soft-spoken, agreeable middle-aged woman. I opened my mouth on a hesitant protest, and froze as our eyes met.

A shadow moved behind her iris and sclera, there and gone again, vast and distant, like a planet hiding itself behind a cloud.

The little hairs on the back of my neck and my forearms all stood on end.

Until that moment I’d thought perhaps Evelyn really was over-reacting, maybe this was all an outpouring of her paranoia, of a worldview inculcated by her mother’s methods; I’d decided to let her play it out, that getting her to let me and Raine inside – both the workshop and her heart – was far more important than any help Mrs Hopton might offer.

“You can do magic with your mind, my dear?” Christine asked.

“Oh, t-that? I-I can.” I found my mouth dry, my hands clammy. “S-sort of. It’s complicated.”

Christine frowned at me, sceptical and a little alarmed. She turned the frown on Evelyn, who shrugged and kept smiling that sharp smile.

“So,” Evelyn said. “Monday at ten? We’d best take the train down from Sharrowford station, Raine’s car wouldn’t survive those backwood roads, certainly not this time of year with all the mud, so we’ll need picking up, of course.”

“We- we have paved roads, you idiot,” Twil said. “It’s not darkest Africa.”

For once, her mother did not scold her. Christine merely watched Evelyn, wary and silent, outmanoeuvred.

“I think, perhaps,” she said, slowly. “We’d all do better to respect your initial decision. Meeting a god can be an overwhelming experience, after all. Perhaps I can speak to Hringewindla in your place.”

“Mum?” Twil said, voice filled with confusion.

Evelyn snorted derision. “I’m talking to it right now, aren’t I? Come on, old fellow, can you solve the gate problem or not? Got the missing pieces to my equations, or was this all so much bullshit? Go on, Raine, fetch her a piece of paper an a pencil, I want to see this.”

“Right you are, boss.” Raine rummaged around in the kitchen drawers.

“I see no reason to continue this further in the face of your beliefs about us.” Christine rose to her feet. “Thank you for the tea, and thank for the tour of your work. I wish you all the best, miss Saye, and I do hope you win.”

Evelyn stayed sitting, but Praem stepped forward to usher our guests out.

“Mum? Mum, what- what-”

“Not now, dear,”

Evelyn’s smile sharpened. “Get out of my city.”

Twil scurried after her mother. I twitched a hand out to her, unwilling to abandon the trust she’d earned from me. She’d rescued me from the Cult, she’d fought a giant zombie off me, she’d dragged me home, with no benefit to herself except a job well done.

“Let them go, don’t show any weakness,” Evelyn said out loud.

“But-” I cut off at the sound of the front door slamming, winced at Twil’s raised voice outside on the garden path. “But it’s Twil. I don’t care about the other two, but she’s … that’s her mother? I saw … in her eyes, I saw … ” I swallowed.

“She’ll be alright, she’s bloody invincible,” Raine said, patting my arm as she passed. She ducked into the front room and rattled the locks on the door.

The big car started up outside, engine coughing and rumbling. I was still shaking my head.

“I don’t know what I saw,” I muttered to myself.

Hringewindla,” Evelyn grunted. “Bastard fucking thing. At least I have a name for it now.”

“And that’s Twil’s mum.”

Evelyn’s grimaced and shrugged. “It’s her problem.”

“Evee, how can you say that? When … I mean, when you-”

“It’s her problem,” Evelyn said, harder. “She doesn’t want to be helped.”

==

“What was that word you used, earlier? About me?” I asked without looking away from the sigils and inscriptions which covered the wall. “Blinzen- blin-”

Blinzelnzauberin,” Evelyn supplied, then sighed and shook her head. She stomped over to the table in the ex-dining room and sat down heavily in a chair, massaging her thigh where flesh met prosthetic. “It’s not a real thing and you’re not one. It’s German, comes from a very old book which nobody has an intact copy of, only parts, called Das Wissen um Gott. My German is a little rusty. Blinzelnzauberin means uh, I suppose, speed of thought … ” She waved a hand.

“Blink witch,” Raine said. She looked up from the map spread out on the table. “Right?”

I turned to stare at her. “Am I the only one around here who doesn’t speak eight languages?”

Raine laughed. “I know a tiny, tiny bit of German. I have to, I’m supposed to be a philosophy student.”

I sighed. “I suppose. It’s a very effective way of making me feel inadequate.”

Evelyn pulled a grimace. “Mm, ‘blink witch’ would be the literal translation. It’s used to mean a sort of prodigal child who can perform magic at the speed of will, without difficulty, usually refers … to … ” she slowed down and trailed off, staring at me. “To twins. Ah.”

“Oh,” I said, very softly.

“Well, it’s still not you. Medieval nonsense. Point is, Higgly-wiggly inside her head knew what I meant, probably terrified you might pose it a real threat, so no dice. Meeting cancelled. Verboten.”

“As long as it doesn’t get any bright ideas about Heather,” Raine murmured.

“It won’t,” Evelyn said. “It’s been stuck in a hole in the ground for several thousand years, at least. Old English, really,” she snorted. “All it wants is willing hosts and no enemies. I hate to admit it, but these bastards are far more difficult.” She gestured at the map. Raine looked back down at the web of red highlighter and nodded slowly.

The ex-drawing room drummed with the sound of pounding rain, pattering on the curtained windows and hissing soft static against the roof. The gathering storm had finally broken a little while after Twil and the Brinkwood cultists had left. Fat raindrops had speckled the cracked flagstones of the garden path when I’d stepped outside, with Praem in tow and Raine on point, on a circle of the house, to make sure their disgusting bubble-Servitor had left along with them.

Raine had brushed water droplets from my hair after she’d shut and locked the front door, then turned all questions, burning with curiosity about how I’d changed Evelyn’s mind during our few short moments in private – but Evelyn herself had answered for me, with a grunt, and said, “Three heads are better than one.” She’d pointed at Raine and then over her shoulder. “You’re going to look at my map. In.”

Raine had boggled at Evelyn, then me, back and forth until her puzzled expression teased a giggle from my lips. “Don’t look so surprised, Raine. I’m learning I’m sort of good at this.” I blushed a little, worrying I was inflating the size of my own head.

“You’re good at lots of things,” she’d said. “But, what exactly … ?”

“At changing minds.”

“Flirt later,” Evelyn had grunted, and led the way into her magical workshop.

The air in the ex-drawing room had thickened, turned stuffy and dusty after weeks with the door almost always shut; cracking a window was out of the question, so I fetched an electric fan from upstairs and pointed it out of the doorway. I dug out a dust-cloth as well, to do some cleaning, treat this room like any other, but the contents made that exceedingly difficult. Most of it I had very little desire to touch.

The human femur bone I’d seen weeks ago now held pride of place, propped up on one end with a chair all to itself. Every inch of the yellow-white surface was covered with scrimshaw markings, hundreds of tiny magical symbols carved into the ridged bone.

A large stoppered bottle of dark red syrupy liquid sat on the table. Not blood; that would have coagulated. Next to the bottle lay a series a series of feathers underneath an upturned glass bowl, too broad and flat for any earthly bird, their colours iridescent and shifting, difficult to focus on.

Several more magic circles lay on the floor and propped against the walls, inked or painted onto wide sheets of stiff card or expanses of dirty canvas. One in particular drew my attention, the largest, a ring of interlocking circles like a venn diagram, scorch mark in the middle, surrounded with writing that seemed different when caught in my peripheral vision.

“Hmm? Oh, that.” Evelyn waved the question away. “A long chat with something that would have preferred not to speak.”

Maps now covered most of one wall as well as the table, hand-drawn additions and notations everywhere, in red and green and black. Evelyn had attempted to map out isolated pieces of the Cult’s shadow city, lined them with estimates of distances and sizes, surrounded them by notes about pits and open spaces, danger marks where Praem One or Two had encountered resistance, all pinned up with thumbtacks and tape.

More of the bulbs in the overhead light had given up, plunging the room into dim shadows with the rain outside.

Only the identifiable signature in the disorder kept me from backing out in disquiet. To the uninitiated it would seem a madhouse, a schizophrenic scrawling, and to me it was further proof I’d well and truly left behind the world I’d been born into. But it had Evelyn written all over it. And she was my friend.

We’d been in here almost an hour now. I didn’t want to turn back to the designs on the wall; they made my head swim. I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my arms.

“What you’ve got here, Evee, is a classic stalemate,” Raine said into the moment of shared silence. She straightened up from the maps and stretched, hooking her arms behind her head and pulling on her wrists. A much nicer sight than all those magical symbols.

“We know that.” Evelyn shot her an unimpressed look. “Anybody could tell me that. My dad could tell me that.”

“Yeah, yeah, but hey, let me armchair this out for a moment. Take off your generalissima hat and let me try it on for size, yeah?” Evelyn puffed out a humourless laugh and made a hat-doffing motion. Raine shot her a wink and tapped the map, on the impenetrable tangle of the south of the city. “So what do you think this is?”

“It’s a thicket,” Evelyn replied. “The loops and extra-dimensional pockets are either impossible to break through, or turn back on themselves, go nowhere. I think they’ve run out of monsters, mostly chaff, but there’s no route through. I could spend months searching.”

Raine kinked an eyebrow. “But what do you think it is?”

“Drop the good teacher act. What answer are you fishing for here?”

“It’s a fortress, right?” Raine said, she glanced at me too. “Like a Japanese castle, layers and traps and choke-points and crossfire zones, instead of big walls and a moat, you get me?”

“Oh!” I lit up, sort of liking the idea, then remembered these people were our enemies. “Oh.”

“All right, and where does that lead?” Evelyn asked.

“Castles are strong-points,” I said. Raine nodded. “For protecting things, basically. Leaders or garrisons or wealth. Or for controlling territory.”

“The territory in question being Sharrowford, okay, go on,” Evelyn said, nodding in agreement.

“Ahh, but it’s a done a piss-poor job of that,” Raine said. “You’ve driven their weird pocket-dimension tricks out of everywhere else. So what are they protecting? And from what?”

“Themselves,” Evelyn grunted. “From me.”

“No,” I said, hesitant at first, then louder. “No. When I spoke with Alexander … when he spoke at me, he seemed unconcerned with you, like you were a side-issue.”

“A bluff.”

“Nah, I think Heather’s right,” Raine said. “If our crazy cultist friends can dig magical caves behind reality, then they can probably make a place like this.” She pointed up with both hands. “Any isolated house’ll do, proper wards, bing bang bong, got yourself a nice little fortress. Somewhere you or I have to walk up to the front door and kick it in to get anywhere. That’s probably why we can’t find them. And they’ve got muscle, zombie muscle, so what are they afraid of? Why build a fortress outside reality?”

Evelyn stared at Raine with a tight frown, then at the map.

We all fell silent for a long time. I listened to the sound of raindrops against the windows. Eventually Evelyn nodded and took a deep breath, then turned to me. “Any insights yet?”

“Maybe.” I glanced over my shoulder, at the wall. “It makes my head hurt. I think I’ll have to come at it with an empty stomach and a bucket. Sorry.”

Evelyn nodded, her eyes roving over her work behind me.

“You’ll crack it,” Raine said with a grin. I suspected her good humour was entirely for my benefit. “You’re a bloody miracle-worker.”

I shook my head. “Shush you. Don’t call me that.”

Raine just grinned.

The doorway mandala – Evelyn’s wall of symbols and equations and magical workings, radiating out from the blank doorway scored in the plaster – left me disgusted and frightened.

The doorway outline was intended to be a gate. The magic described how it would open, and also define the destination. A wormhole. A portal. Simple enough, Evelyn assured me, but the difficulty was connecting to the Cult’s fortress of unreality, a point that did not exist here or Outside, but in some impossible, liminal, between space. She’d had to examine how their dimensional pockets worked just to begin the definitions.

She’d spent ages trying to explain it in plain language, mostly lost on me. I’d concentrated and stared at the magic circles instead, the overlapping esoteric symbols, and felt the stirrings of the Eye’s decade of lessons, the principles behind this work floating unbidden to the surface of my mind, swallowed back down on a wave of nausea.

That wasn’t what scared me, not anymore. The mandala itself disgusted me, like looking at a dead animal sewn together from spare parts.

“There is another way, to learn any magical secret,” Evelyn said quietly.

Raine’s good humour froze, then slid off her face as she read Evelyn’s expression.

“What?” I said, loud enough to snap them both out of it. “Don’t get all cryptic on me, either of you.”

“Evee’s suggesting massive self-harm as a way of solving her problems.” Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “We might have to stage an intervention, hog-tie her in her bed, feed her wine until she forgets the idea.” She tried to crack a grin, but then looked back at Evelyn and faltered. “Damn, Evee, I actually will do that.”

“Why are you surprised?” Evelyn swallowed. “They shot at you, they threatened Heather. Fuck them. I’ll lose the other leg if I have to.”

“No you absolutely will not,” I said, almost offended at the idea. “What on earth are you suggesting?”

Evelyn turned to me, oddly guilty as she swallowed and looked away. “When I was a child, my mother … used me, for a very specific magical operation. She used it to learn certain secrets. I could … do it to myself … ” She trailed off and swallowed, a old, haunted look in her eyes.

“I can fix the gate, Evee,” I said. “Even if I can’t, you’re worth more than that. Please don’t think that way. This is … ” I gestured at the mandala and felt sick, deep down inside, but did my absolute best not to let it show on my face. “This is nothing, it’s fine. I’ll try. I promise.”

Evelyn met my eyes, hesitated, then sighed and nodded. She opened her mouth to speak.

A dull hammering on the front door interrupted us, and made me jump.

“Again?” Raine almost laughed.

Evelyn scowled up a storm and got to her feet. “I swear, if that’s them come back for another go, I’m going to have Praem walk out to Brinkwood and slash their car tires.”

It was not the cultists.

It was Twil, alone, soaked to the bone.

When Raine opened the door – backed by Praem, with me and Evelyn hanging behind – Twil stood there dripping water all over the doorstep, hair plastered to her face, clothes sodden. The storm lashed about in the wind behind her, blowing little eddies of rain across the floorboards. She didn’t speak, just stared at her feet. Evelyn opened her mouth on an angry remark, but even she faltered at the sight of Twil looking so utterly pathetic.

Twil sniffed, and blinked raindrops out of her eyes. “Can I, like, crash here tonight?”

The answer was an unequivocal yes, between Raine’s effortlessly cheery invitation, Evelyn’s grunted acknowledgement, and my efforts to fetch a towel. I’d half expected her to shake herself dry like a dog, but she slouched in a puddle on the doormat. She draped the towel uselessly over her hair as she shucked off her coat and scarf in a wet heap, followed rapidly by her white hoodie, which she struggled to pull off her head, arms stuck in the wet fabric.

We managed to herd Twil into the little downstairs bathroom before she started stripping off the rest of her clothes, then Raine hurried about fetching a spare tshirt and pajama bottoms. Twil accepted with one pale naked arm stuck around the bathroom door. I bustled about making her a cup of tea and a toasted pop tart, trying to make myself useful, to repay her help. Evelyn stared silently at the bathroom door, frowning in thought.

When Twil emerged again she slumped quietly in a chair, face half-hidden behind a towel and her damp hair.

“Here, I made you some tea, and something to eat. You must be frozen through after all that rain,” I said.

She nodded a weak thanks. “Invincible, remember?” she muttered.

“It’s kinda sweet,” Raine said, leaning on the table. “That you’d come back here, you know? Thanks, despite everything.”

Twil’s slump deepened. She didn’t touch the tea.

“So, why were you all wet?” Raine asked.

“Raining, isn’t it?” Twil shrugged.

“No, I mean-”

“I walked. For a laugh.”

“All the way from Brinkwood?”

“No.”

“You argued with your mother, didn’t you?” Evelyn asked, voice oddly soft.

Twil dragged the towel down over her face and curled up in the chair, hiding from the world.

She looked so different from her usual head-up shoulders-back swagger, in a borrowed short-sleeve tshirt and old pajama bottoms. Small like me, though a little better filled out; I could tell she’d left her bra behind in the downstairs bathroom, soaked through with the rest of her clothes, and had to avert my eyes.

Dark spirals wound across her shoulders and back, outlines just visible through the white fabric of the tshirt – her complex of tattoos which Evelyn had once mentioned and Raine had seen before. No words, no symbols, nothing which hurt my eyes. One long line spiralled and whorled and wound in on itself over and over again, a snake eating its own tail forever. The edge of the tshirt rode up, the bottom end of the tattoo peeking out from below, dark green. Jade trapped inside her skin.

Would have been vaguely erotic, if she wasn’t so distraught.

“Twil?” Raine said, almost giggling.

“Don’t laugh at her,” I said.

“I wasn’t. It’s fine. We-”

“Is there really something in my mum’s head?” Twil said, small and muffled.

Raine and I shared a glance.

“I’m sorry,” said Evelyn. “You didn’t deserve to find out like that.”

Twil shrugged beneath the towel, the fluffy fabric rising and falling. “I always knew, really. Some … sometimes … ” A hard gulp, a sniff.

Evelyn looked at Raine and me, then sighed. She got up and ushered us toward the door with her walking stick, lowering her voice. “Let me talk to her.”

“Ah. Ahhh,” said Raine.

“Are you sure?” I hissed. “Don’t you two … you know … not get along?”

Evelyn shrugged with her eyebrows. “We have certain things in common.”

“Oh! Oh, yes. Yes, I see.” I nodded. “If you need help, please.”

“Ahh, aha,” Raine continued, barely suppressing a grin. Evelyn tapped her on the leg with her stick.

“And you can shut up. Go upstairs and neck or something.”

==

Lucidity seeped into the dream in layers, across inch by slow inch of brain matter, as I wriggled out of bed and left Raine’s sleeping form behind.

I ventured into the dark corridor on bare feet, and felt my way along the wall to the stairs. Distant and floaty, my body still knew the location of each creaky floorboard, how to tread to avoid waking either my lover or my best friend, as I wound my way downstairs in the darkness.

Halfway down, my addled mind asked why I was dreaming about the house.

The question wasn’t urgent, filtered through layers of dream-logic and emotional detachment. My body felt both lead heavy and light as a feather at the same time, moving like some abstract extension of my mind; like seeing one’s own disembodied tongue wiggling in a mirror, back and forth, back and forth.

Why the detachment?

Perhaps because Lozzie was absent for this dream. Where’d she gotten to? I hadn’t seen her in a while, had I?

Had I?

My hand on the banister, my toes curling up against the cold of the front room, goosebumps on my exposed forearms and the back of my neck.

I stepped into the kitchen. The dream details were impressive, I had to admit, from the weak moonlight outside. through the dripping remains of the storm, to the the dirty plates and utensils from the late meal we’d all eaten together. Twil hadn’t been too happy, but she’d been recovering, managed a couple of jokes, a little light ribbing with Raine.

Twil and Evelyn had spoken, for over an hour, without any raised voices. Twil had seemed better afterward, if only by a very small degree.

I wondered if the dream had replicated her too. I wandered over to the utility room to check.

Yes, there was Twil, curled up on the old brokebacked sofa beneath a heaping of blankets, which Evelyn had insisted on bringing downstairs. Evee had offered her a spare room, but our little werewolf, she liked the look of the sofa, the way it sagged in the middle.

Her curly dark mane spilled from under the sheets. Idly, pretending disinterest, I did something I’d never be able to do awake, if this was real; I stroked her head and felt the luxuriant softness of that hair. Poor little werewolf. Came to us almost crying. It’s okay, I’ll be your friend, and so will Evelyn, but I won’t let you sleep with Raine. She’s mine.

I picked up a lock of her hair and sniffed it; rainwater, sweat, Twil-scent.

Not like a wet dog at all.

I giggled in the moon-touched darkness, then covered my mouth, not wanting to wake her. A good girl, yes, even in a dream, my mind reminded me. Reminded me, my mind. Minded me, it did. I giggled again and quickly tiptoed out of the room.

Raine was in this dream, she was upstairs, I’d just left her behind. How silly was that? If I was going to dream about Raine, I may as well have some fun with her, right? Maybe I could bring dream-Raine down here and-

A sniffle. A gasp. Choked sobs, somewhere out in the dark.

Layers of detachment and distance peeled off me as if flayed. I stopped giggling.

Why was I dreaming about the house?

I followed the crying sounds into Evelyn’s magical workshop, the ex-drawing room. Silhouetted against the far wall and the unfinished gateway by the backwash of moonlight, a small, slight, elfin figure glanced over her shoulder at me, eyes filled with fear.

“Lozzie!” I hissed. “What are you doing … here … ”

Her hands were covered with ink and paint, as was the wall around the gateway, a hundred corrections and additions made to Evelyn’s work in finger-paint scrawl.

Lozzie turned back to the wall. She swallowed, reached up, and drew another symbol.

“Lozzie? Hey, Lozzie?” I crept closer. She mumbled, hunching tighter, shrinking away from me, her long blonde hair limp and greasy. “Lozzie, what’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Heather, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I’m sorry!” Her voice rose to a whine, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.

“For what?” I said, then glanced up at the wall, at the doorway outline scratched into the plaster.

In the dream, I could tell; almost finished. Ready to open.

“They … he … ” Lozzie swallowed again, looked at me sidelong and cringing, as if she expected me to hit her. That look wrenched at my heart. I wanted to hug her. “They made me do it. They said- he said he’d kill you, otherwise. I had to do it, Heather, I had to. I had to.” Tears welled up in her eyes, big sad tears as her bottom lip wobbled and she sniffed, shaking all over. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please don’t- please don’t hate me.”

I shook my head, breathing faster as wave upon wave of lucidity crashed into my mind. “But this is a dream, right?”

Lozzie nodded. She finally faced me, looked me in the eyes, nodding urgently. She grabbed my arms and I held her too. “Yes! It is! You’ve got it! You have to wake up! You have to get the others, your friends. I-I don’t know their names, I can’t- the- you have to- Please, Heather, please come help me! I’ve messed it up on purpose, see? I’ve put a back door in, for you! Please, please come get me!”

“S-slow down,” I managed.

I wanted to step away from the outline scratched in the plaster, as if it was the mouth of a creature we might inadvertently wake. It seemed to loom larger next to us.

Lozzie nodded and sniffed and squeezed her eyes shut before answering.

“You need to wake up,” she said. “Before you finish.”

“Before I finish … ?”

“Wake up!” she yelped. “Wake up, Heather!”

=

I woke up.

Standing, barefoot in the dark, my shadow cast upon the wall of Evelyn’s workshop by moonlight backwash.

Blinking sleep from my eyes, my hands covered with ink and paint, sticky between my fingers.

Took a step back and bumped into the table, groping for a chair. Looked up and felt my stomach twist at the hundreds of additions and corrections I’d made, to Evelyn’s work on the mural around the gateway, the doorway, the portal, in finger-painted equations and magic circles. Breath caught in my throat. Could barely breathe.

How had I gotten here?

Too stunned to run, I watched in numb fascination as the gateway opened.

It was a beautiful thing, a subtle ripple of matter, as if the plaster of the wall had been transmuted into water, then plasma, then air, and then pierced with the smallest pebble, so the shock wave passed outward in slow concentric rings.

The first ripple removed the plaster, replaced it with smooth, featureless black, a true void. The second ripple, moving an inch slower, produced shape, colour, light. The third ripple sharpened the image from a mere blur into crystal-clear reality.

A corridor stretched out beyond the doorway, brown and vaguely institutional. High ceiling. Pipes along one wall. Shiny floor.

The Tall Woman, the zombie, Zheng, in her trench coat and hood and scarf, stood just across the threshold.

I filled my lungs to scream.

She reached through the gateway and grabbed me by the head.

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