the other side of nowhere – 4.1

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“At least he’s dressed the part,” said Raine, as she examined the dead man.

She lifted a flap of torn robe with her truncheon, trying to find his pockets. Twil wrinkled her nose in disgust. Evelyn was forcing herself to watch, going pale and green, knuckles tight on her walking stick.

We were only a few meters inside the gate, into the hollowed-out un-space behind Sharrowford. I wasn’t sure how to picture it. A loop, a shadow city, a pocket dimension? I fiddled with the ball of string and adjusted my weight on the crutch, to distract myself from what Raine was doing. Praem – in her two identical bodies – stood on point a little way down the shiny brown hallway, untouched by the spectacle of gore. Beyond her stood a pair of large double-doors. Little windows in their top halves showed dense grey fog beyond.

The air smelled awful – blood and excrement.

I hope most people will never have to see a corpse quite like this one. Whoever the cultist had been – a middle aged man with a comfortable paunch and a big nose – now he was pulped meat. I couldn’t look without feeling a sick catch in my stomach and clammy sweat on my back. Zheng had shattered his head, smeared brain jelly up the wall, and ripped his belly open. Snakes of ruined intestine and unspeakable fluids lay over his lap and thighs, in a smaller puddle of filth amid the crimson mess.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Evelyn asked, and swallowed loudly.

“Something Heather mentioned a while back,” Raine said. “Bloke looks like a proper cultist, doesn’t he? Robes, shiny dome head, nothing to identify him by. Except all the guts hanging out.”

“Ugh.” Twil straightened up, holding her nose. “Dunno about you lot, but he reeks. Can’t we get on? What are you even doing?”

“Looking for clues.” Raine said, still poking and prodding at the corpse. “Investigating, you know?”

“The zombie did it,” I deadpanned.

“Ahhh yes, but did she knock his head off first and then pull his guts out, or the other way around?” I saw Raine grin in the corner of my eye. Nobody laughed.

Evelyn closed her eyes and looked away, breathing carefully through her mouth. I reached over and took her hand, gave it a squeeze.

“I don’t like it either,” I whispered.

“Ah ha!” Raine shouted. She stood up and held out a wallet and keys, thankfully not soaked in the dead man’s blood. She flopped the wallet open and rifled through the cards. ““Credit cards, debit cards, junk, junk.”

“Are you robbing a dead man?” said Twil.

“Bingo.” Raine grinned and presented a card to Evelyn. “Driver’s license.”

Evelyn lit up and peered at the card. “Len Greyson,” she read out loud. “Could be fake.”

Raine shrugged and thumbed at the corpse. “Not as if we can match it to his face anymore.” She jingled the bunch of keys. “But we might find his car somewhere.”

“I knew it, you are robbing a dead man,” Twil said.

“A lead?” I asked.

Evelyn nodded slowly. “Maybe. If it’s real, this man had a real life out there in Sharrowford, not completely absorbed in the cult yet. Amateurs.”

“We all good? Right? Then let’s keep moving.” Raine slipped the loot into her jacket, for safe keeping. “Evee, keep your cuddledolls up front, don’t get too far ahead of us.” She stepped away from the corpse – a sad sack of forgotten meat now – and walked over to squeeze my shoulder. Evelyn rolled her eyes and sighed at the ‘cuddledolls’ remark, but she kept her peace and turned to direct Praem forward again. I couldn’t resist one last glance at the dead body, another nightmare I couldn’t ignore.

“Is that how they’re all going to end up?” I heard myself say. All three of my companions looked at me, but in that moment I had eyes only for Evelyn.

“If Zheng gets to them before us, certainly,” she said.

“No, I mean are you going to kill these people?”

Evelyn hesitated, then shrugged. “I don’t know. Not all of them. That Alexander fellow, absolutely, if he’s in here. The rest of them … cults generally don’t grow very big. I’d guess there’s maybe a dozen, all weak-willed, conned, or desperate. I … ” She frowned. “We can put the fear of God into them, make them shit themselves and leave. Get to the centre of their stupid little fortress, find out what they’ve been doing, and then collapse the entire pocket dimension on the way back out.”

“What if they won’t leave?” I asked.

Raine cleared her throat. “That’s what I’m for, yeah?” A shiver passed up my spine.

“Me too,” Twil said, almost a whine in her voice. Evelyn sighed and shot her a sidelong look.

“You’ve never killed a person,” she said. “You’re here for shock and awe.”

Twil opened her mouth to complain, then halted. “Shock and awe?” She grinned. “Cool.”

Zheng’s wound had left us a trail of blood. We followed it to the end of the corridor, the Praems up front and Raine and I in the rear. Strange to see Praem One and Two together in the same place, identical twins with their ice-blue hair and frost-touched skin, dressed in the same huge army boots on their feet below loose skirts and ribbed jumpers. I had to remind myself ‘they’ were in fact one being in two bodies, moving and acting independently.

Praem One eased the double-doors open. She peered into the fog beyond, then turned back to us.

I knew Praem was capable of facial expression – she’d smiled that empty smile at me once before – but I had no idea she could communicate anything more subtle, until I saw the hint of apprehension behind that impassive face.

“Oh dear?” I said out loud.

“Oh. Dear,” Praem One echoed me in her ice-wind voice.

“What? What is it?” Evelyn demanded, frowning sharply at her bound demon. Praem merely opened the door wider, fog swirling beyond. Her other body stepped through first. Twil followed but paused on the threshold, wary, shoulders hunched. Evelyn swept past her. Raine seemed unconcerned, except at my shivering, which prompted a reassuring murmur and a hand at my back.

A chasm waited for us.

The door opened onto a broad walkway, made of stone and concrete and linoleum and wood and a dozen other patchwork materials, lined by a parapet wall made of the same jumble. Stairs descended and rose, overlapping, twisting, winding up and away in uncontrolled spirals, climbing up the sheer concrete face that we’d emerged from, to join other walkways. Several of the stairs and walkways were upside down. The wall seemed to both climb and drop forever, an endless cliff-face with top and bottom shrouded in dense grey fog.

Another wall faced us across a hundred feet of yawning chasm, filled with sluggish fog like rotting treacle. Pale light lit the fog from within, casting an unreal glow over Evelyn’s face as she frowned at the vast open space.

Zheng’s trail of blood led across a bridge – the only bridge – over the chasm.

“Huh,” Raine grunted. “That looks like the Sawwell Bridge.”

“Another copied piece of the real Sharrowford, yes,” Evelyn muttered, shaking her head. “This is … a little larger than I was expecting.”

Twil leaned over the parapet and spat a glob of saliva. It vanished into the sucking fog.

“It’s a moat,” I said.

“A moat?” Evelyn squinted at me.

“This is the cult’s fortress, castle, whatever, yes?” I said. “Then this must be a sort of moat. A last perimeter.”

Evelyn shook her head, eyes tight and watchful. Her maimed left hand tapped at the scrimshawed thigh bone, then she used it to point at the trail of blood.

“If the cult lost control of their zombie, she’ll be heading back to get revenge on them. If they didn’t, she’ll be retreating for repairs. She’ll lead us right to them.”

“A hunt,” Twil growled. She sniffed the air. “At least her blood’s normal.”

I let the ball of string play out as we crossed the bridge, our footsteps dull and muffled in the fog.

Sticky with dried night-sweat, tired and aching from the aftermath of frenzied self-defence, I knew I should have been ready to collapse, should have desired nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. Raine hovered by my elbow, ready to catch me when I stumbled or sagged against the crutch, but I felt somehow stronger than I should have done.

I told myself I was strengthened by the sense of purpose, or the companionship of my friends, or maybe I felt better because I’d already passed out once, like purging rotten food from my belly.

Purpose, yes, that must be why. I was on my feet and moving forward because of the need to know, because of lost time like the absence of a tooth, a wet bleeding socket I couldn’t help but probe; because somebody had helped me, and I needed to return that trust and support and love.

Love? Where had that thought come from?

I turned my mind away from the other possibly: that I was simply becoming inured the reality-breaking contusions of the Eye’s brain-math.

I was getting used to this.

The trail of blood entered a wide doorway on the other side of the bridge. We crept through in distant pursuit.

Endless corridors and numberless crossroads wormed through this un-place; I gave up counting after the first dozen twists and turns. Each hallway was made of a different material – breeze block, wood, cement, brick, metal – each copied from a different building, schools, hospitals, office blocks, homes. Scratchy carpets transitioned into squeaky plastic supermarket floors, melted together at the edges. Wooden office block side-doors were replaced with metal prison hatches, then hospital swing-doors, then another, and another, and another, on and on, in an endless swirl of stolen architecture. None of the side doors opened. We barely spoke.

Fog filled the labyrinth, thick and still, creeping into my lungs and clothes and hair, cold and heavy. The dull light washed colour from our faces. The Praems looked almost drained, white phantoms in the mist. Twil seemed a beast from some feral fairytale, even if she refrained from full transformation. The fog made her movements appear slow and predatory. Evelyn’s face looked pinched and tight. Raine whistled, loudly.

We all stopped together when we found the paradox.

The string I’d been laying out behind us was now in front of us, running from left to right across a crossroad junction, each end vanishing into the fog. Zheng’s trail of blood – thinner now, a few wet droplets every few feet – crossed the string.

“Great” Evelyn muttered.

“Wait wait wait,” Twil said, her voice hushed in the fog. She glanced back over her shoulder. “We’ve doubled back? How did we get turned around?”

“Don’t think about it too hard. You’ll hurt yourself,” Evelyn grunted.

“Hey!”

“She’s serious,” I said. Raine nodded too as I swallowed and continued. “These places don’t conform to the physical laws we’re used to, and I don’t want to think about it too closely either. Unless you have a sick bag to hand.”

Twil puffed out a long sigh. “What do we do then?”

“Heather?” said Raine.

“You’re asking me?”

Raine grinned. “I’m in charge, but you’re the expert.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to protest. “She’s hardly-”

“I can unravel this place, if I have to.” I swallowed again. “I don’t want to, because it’ll hurt and I’ll probably pass out again, but we’re not stuck. I say we keep going, find the zombie.”

Evelyn nodded approval. Raine smiled a resigned smile at me.

We found the body of the second cultist. He’d been attacked from behind, shoved to the ground, his spine snapped and bowels dragged out, left in a huge puddle of his own blood amid the heavy fog. Zheng’s own thinning blood trail, beyond the corpse, was now joined by sticky red bootprints, her stride erratic and wavering.

I leaned against a wall and closed my eyes and thought about bed and books, as Raine repeated her ghoulish performance and extracted another wallet without getting her hands dirty. No car keys this time.

“That’s what he gets for trying to kidnap my girl,” Raine said. Nobody laughed. “Heather, how much line we got left before we’re out?”

I gathered myself, blinked down at the much reduced ball of string. “I can’t tell. Thirty feet, perhaps? Twenty?”

“Right, we get to the end of the string and then we turn back. I think this was probably meant to be some kind of trap, but Heather disarmed it when she fought off the zombie. I doubt it goes anywhere now, and-”

Thump.

We all jumped, except for Praem. My heart leapt into my throat. The impact, dull and heavy, echoed from deeper in the fog, distorted by the twists and turns of the labyrinth. Evelyn drew the scrimshawed thighbone from under her arm and placed her fingers at several precise points on the design. I felt tension flow through Raine next to me, as she rolled her shoulders. I was suddenly and horribly aware how vulnerable we were, blinded both in front and behind by the slowly swirling fog. I clutched the crutch and felt myself shrink behind Raine.

Thump.

No closer than the first time.

Thump.

We all looked at each other. Raine held up fingers and counted in silence – one, two, three, four, thump. She repeated the count and got the same result, about five seconds between each impact.

Twil bared her teeth. Raine shrugged.

Evelyn ordered Praem to go first. Along Zheng’s bloody bootprints, around one corner, following the dull thumping sound. I hesitated as the string finally ran out, and let the ragged end fall from my fingers. Raine reached down and took my hand instead. We followed around another corner into a corridor of bare breeze block and plasterboard.

Mist breaking around her over sized body, facing the wall about twenty feet from us, stood Zheng.

With painstaking slowness, the zombie pulled her head back and banged it against the wall, hard. Thump. A thin trickle of blood seeped from her forehead, staining the concrete.

Blood soaked the trench coat all down her left side, dripping onto the floor from the ragged mess of her shoulder. She held her own severed left arm in her right hand, by the wrist. Slim tentacles of skinless bleeding muscle had sprouted from the stump and her shoulder, waving in the air and questing toward each other like a mass of blind snakes.

Her hood had fallen down and the concealing scarf had twisted away from her face, to reveal unhealthy pale skin, strangely delicate features, and a slender jaw. She didn’t seem to notice us at all, paid no attention when Praem One and Two drew to a halt at a safe distance, didn’t react to Twil’s warning growl, or Evelyn’s sharp intake of breath, or my choked gasp as the sight of her brought back an uncontrollable physical reaction. My heart slammed against my ribs.

Not fear alone; an unfamiliar sensation, thick and sweet, like drugged and rotten honey in my belly. I stared at the ruin of her wounds, the severed arm, the blood.

I’d done that.

Shoving a man Outside had been undoubtedly fatal, but had left no visceral evidence, no blood-soaked proof. This monster, barely human despite the deceptive form of her body, so terrifying I’d almost wet myself when she’d come after me, I’d torn her arm off. With a thought.

Was this was power felt like? I felt a little sick.

“Shit,” Evelyn hissed.

“What? What?” Twil grunted, looking to her for help. “What the hell is she doing?”

“Self-repair. Malfunction. Probably trying to get out of that body,” Evelyn replied in a whisper, eyes glued to the zombie’s great, swaying form as she banged her head on the wall once more.

“She’s not safe, I’m guessing?” Raine muttered.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn hissed back. She raised the carved thighbone in one hand, her fingers twisting into position. “Here, I might be able to-”

Zheng lurched away from the wall. Twil bared her teeth and let out a growl. Raine slid in front of me, nightstick in one hand, that knife suddenly in the other. The Praems closed up around their mistress as Evelyn shrank back.

Zheng sagged, knees bent and back askew, head lolling. She thrust her severed arm up into the air, the stump-tentacles struggling toward each other, slapping and twisting around their counterparts. Her face was speckled with blood, dark hair matted and greasy. She reared back and I caught a flash of her eyes – hard and dead.

Then she whirled, so unsteady she almost toppled over, and hurled herself down the corridor.

We gave chase, my legs aching and Twil in the lead and Evelyn wincing, half-trotting half-running down one corridor, following the receding footsteps, then down another, then one last turning. Twil skidded to a halt and swore loudly. Raine burst out laughing.

A blank wall.

The trail of bloody footprints cut off, as if the wall had slid into place only a second ago. Zheng was nowhere to be seen. Only fog and bricks. Twil pressed a hand against the wall and shoved.

“Don’t touch it!” Evelyn snapped. She yanked Twil back by one shoulder, the werewolf blinking in surprise and almost overbalancing. Evelyn tutted and sent one of the Praems to run her hands over the wall. She scowled when the investigation proved fruitless. “Solid wall. Nothing.”

“This is so definitely a trap,” Twil said. “We are extra-level lost now.”

“No we’re not,” said Raine, radiating calm confidence. “That zombie was proper messed up, that was no trick. Let’s retrace our steps.”

We couldn’t.

We couldn’t find the spot where Zheng had been bashing her own brains out against the wall, or the dead cultist and the bloody bootprints, or the end of the string I’d dropped. It was all gone, turned around behind a blind corner or an invisible angle between the walls. We walked empty fog-soaked corridors in tense silence, until Raine called out, “Hold up.”

I should have felt lost and afraid, but I’d done this so many times before, alone in the dark on some alien plane of reality. Now, I wasn’t alone. We had each other. I took a deep breath and started thinking.

Now do you agree we’re fucking lost?” said Twil, rounding on Raine. She swallowed, eyes edged with panic.

“Possibly,” Evelyn murmured.

“It’s this place,” I said.

“Maybe this doesn’t lead anywhere,” Raine mused. “Maybe it’s just a labyrinth.”

“And we’re stuck in it!” Twil almost shouted.

“Woah, Twil, easy,” said Raine. “Last time I checked you’re meant to be a big scary werewolf. You’ve got the least to be worried about here.”

“I don’t like being lost,” Twil said through gritted teeth. “There’s nothing to follow. I can’t smell anything in here, it’s all just fog. The blood was the only trail, and now she’s gone. Fuck this. I don’t mind fighting monsters, but this is messing with my head. I want out.”

“We go on,” Evelyn said, loud and clear. “We have to find a way through. I’m not throwing this chance away.”

“How?” Twil spread her arms. “We’re lost.”

“I can do it,” I said. “I can get us out, lead us to an exit. I think. This place must run on certain mathematical principles, like the loop we got trapped in. It’ll have to conform to certain rules, even if those rules aren’t … human, or sane, or easily grasped. I’d like to try.”

“Out the way we came, right?” Twil asked.

“ … no, Twil. There’s somebody I need to help.”

Twil grit her teeth and looked away.

“You sure?” Raine asked.

I shrugged, sighed, a wave of exasperation passing through me. “What other choice do we have? Twil’s right. We’re lost.”

“You need me to hold you up?”

“If I fall down.”

Raine pulled me into a hug to help calm my nerves; I needed the contact, the moment of warmth amid the strange fog and endless corridors. I knew I could do this, grasp the principles long enough to envision how this place worked, but first I had to dredge the math from the silt-pit of my soul. The correct set of equations, the relevant lesson.

Raine rubbed my back as I closed my eyes. I couldn’t shuffle through the Eye’s lessons directly, even if I wanted to. Too many of them lay locked behind nightmare memory, repressed by terror and pain, a sure route to vomiting and passing out.

Instead, I worked backward: I thought about mazes.

The string we’d impossibly crossed, the blank wall Zheng had vanished into, our inability to retrace our steps; how to achieve those results, using more than three dimensions of space? Not a loop. A maze. In which one could take a right and a left and another right yet end up in the same spot, or take three rights and find oneself on a different path.

“Not random,” I muttered out loud. “It’s not random.”

A trickle of pain leaked in behind my eyes; I winced and gasped, then hacked and coughed and felt myself choke on the revelation. The crutch under my arm slipped. Raine caught me, her voice in my ears, pulling me away from the edge, away from the filthy, dripping levers of reality.

“Heather? Heather, it’s okay, breathe, take a deep breath.”

“A-” I coughed and blinked my eyes open to find I’d hunched up against the wall, Raine supporting me. “A conch shell. A spiral, a double spiral. It’s like a-” I winced again and felt my stomach turn in rebellion.

“A shell?” Evelyn asked.

I nodded. We spent several precious minutes waiting for me to recover, as I tried extremely hard not to think about what I’d just figured out. Eventually I could stand unaided again, though I stayed glued to Raine’s side.

“It’s a sort of spiral, with only two ways in and out. I think I know how to get to the other exit.” I hiccuped and almost laughed. “I-It’s sort of silly really, you just … ” I waved a finger back down the corridor; human words could not express the concept. Breath caught oddly in my throat.

“Heather, hey.” Raine squeezed my hand. Brought me back.

“Okay, okay.” I nodded. “I can- okay. I’m here.”

The trick was unthinkable – literally, none of us would have ever figured it out. We wandered until we found a four-way junction, a crossroads amid the claustrophobia. I directed us, voice steady as I concentrated on instructions, rather than risk contemplating what we were doing. Twil’s frowning confusion helped, the way she cocked an eyebrow at me in the middle of my seemingly ridiculous directions. I managed a smile. She was so pretty. I focused on that. Pretty girl in the mist. Don’t think about the spiral.

We went left from the crossroads, then back to it and left again, then back and left again – and found it was a different crossroads. Back and left, back and left – now the crossroads were a T-junction. Back and left, back and left.

The fog peeled away as we retraced our steps one last time. A straight corridor, no junction.

Stairs, leading up.

“Bugger me, that actually worked,” Twil blurted out. She laughed. Raine grinned and ruffled my hair.

“You’re a goddamn genius, Heather.”

“I’m exhausted, that’s what I am,” I grumbled. My head ached and my stomach felt tender. I knew Raine had painkillers in her jacket, but it was too soon for me to take more of them. I felt no sense of victory, not yet.

“Thank you,” Evelyn said, nodded to me once, then directed Praem up the stairs.

Up through the thinning fog, the soles of our shoes squeaked and scuffed against the vinyl steps. A fresh-air chill touched my face and hands, crept down the collar of the borrowed hoodie, the leeching cold of open spaces. A pair of huge oak doors, copied from a cathedral, lay wide open at the top of the stairs, showing pale grey beyond.

“That doesn’t look like sky,” Twil said.

“I … I don’t know. Maybe … ” Evelyn muttered.

Praem went first, one soul in two bodies. Nothing attacked her or made the slightest sound. One Praem stuck a hand back through the doors – safe, come on up. We ascended into open air, fog, and cold, on a sort of hilltop.

“Oh dear,” one of Praem’s bodies said.

Raine seemed least affected the by sight – other than Praem – but even she managed only a shake of her head. Twil stared, open-mouthed, but it was Evelyn’s reaction which set my my heart hammering, after I managed to look away myself. She was stunned and lost, no wiser than the rest of us.

Spread out below us in fog-wrapped murk lay an entire mile of copied Sharrowford.

Buildings and streets, road signs and pavements, every surface jagged and distorted, warped by alien pressures. It was all built with what looked like tainted jade, dark green stone shot through with creeping layers of rotten black and ashen grey. The circular mile of city was encircled by deeper, denser fog which spread away in every direction forever, horizon lost and blurred. Empty streets, dead streets; no cars, no people, no trees, no sound. Nothing grew here. The ground beneath our feet was dry grey earth.

Terrible forms hung and drifted in the fog-drenched sky, half-glimpsed shadowy jellyfish balloons trailing tentacles thick as train carriages, floating whales encrusted with gargantuan barnacles. Not spirits; I wasn’t the only one who stared up at them. Several darker globes further out were perhaps moons, or planets low in the sky, all obscured by the endless fog.

We had emerged from a copied cathedral front wrought from rotten jade, on a low hill at one edge of the bizarre mock-Sharrowford. Another hill reared up from the centre of that fog-ringed urban slice, and on it sat the only building not copied from the city.

A castle.

Built from that same tainted stone, but more grey than green, like a living thing that had died and ossified, with crenellations and arrow-slits and even a couple of towers, it seemed to float above the fog as the mist parted and swirled around the hill.

“Are we-” I swallowed on a dry throat. “Are we Outside?”

“Outside what? Sanity?” Twil whispered. She needn’t have bothered, the fog swallowed our voices.

Raine rummaged for her phone, showed us the full signal bars. “Still connected, still in Sharrowford. We ain’t Outside. This is another one of their pocket dimensions.”

“Evee?” I said. “Not what you expected? Evee?”

Evelyn opened her mouth and said nothing, shaking her head, staring at the dark fairytale castle.

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