Fireballs and wands, black cats and broomsticks – I wish magic really was like that, sanitised and safe and suitable for small children.
I’d known Evelyn long enough now to dispel any naive notions; magic was raw and bloody, brute equations of flesh and will. How could I possibly think otherwise, when she’d been openly carrying around a human thighbone for the last couple of hours? Raine had lived in this world far longer than I, years of this, and Twil was subjected to otherworldly reality every time she looked at her own body.
Atop the castle battlements, Alexander Lilburne raised his hands to the sky, and surprised us all by almost killing us.
He spoke one word, a guttural twist of sound that scorched the air with heat haze and drew blood from his mouth. He raised his eyes with a self-satisfied smile, as if to watch the word race upward through the fog.
Raine steadied the handgun to shoot him again, unfazed by Alexander’s lack of reaction to the first bullet punching through his chest. Evelyn hissed frustration, hands playing over the scrimshawed thighbone as she muttered an incantation of her own. Twil rocked back on braced legs, as if to launch herself at the rotten grey castle wall.
And what could I do? Nothing. Useless and incapable compared to my companions. Couldn’t fight, couldn’t help, not even a decent cheerleader. All I could do in that moment was watch and hope.
Twil heard the sound first, a full second or two before our mere human senses. She stumbled, suddenly clamped her hands over her ears, and screamed through her teeth, eyes screwed shut. Made me jump, heart leaping into my throat.
“What-” Raine had time to say before the shock wave hit.
I felt it in my bones, a ripple in the air so deep and so low it shook the jelly inside my eyeballs.
Then – a tidal wave of noise, a buffeting downward torrent of howling from the sky, the reply to Alexander’s word.
The sound was unspeakable. Whale-song imitated by a mountain of steel. I thought we’d all go deaf, that this intolerable, soul-destroying noise was intended to simply blow out our eardrums in an act of petty sadism. I shrank and cowered, struggling to stay on my feet.
Evelyn screamed and tried to cover her ears, not easy when you’re carrying a walking stick and a human thighbone. The two Praems were unaffected, so one of them gently slid her hands over Evelyn’s ears for her.
Twil swore, very creatively, and I realised I could hear her perfectly over the din. Her words should have been drowned out. I heard Alexander’s laughing too, as he wiped his bloody mouth on his sleeve and grinned at the sky. Raine stared upward as well, following his gaze, arms around her own head.
Raine turned pale – the worst sign I could imagine. I looked up too, into the ceiling of grey mist.
Covering your ears didn’t help, because this wasn’t sound. Sound was merely the best way our fragile human senses could interpret the input.
The shadows of the great jellyfish and sky whale creatures were scattering through the fog, tentacles writhing and fins whirring, a shoal fleeing before a shark. Beyond them, higher in the void, the shapes at the very limit of the sky, the darker globes I’d thought were moons or planets, were moving. Circling, quivering, rocking.
My mouth hung open and I felt a trickle of drool from my numbed lips. The sound pounding inside me drained some vital force from my consciousness. Couldn’t look away. The impossible sense of scale – hundreds or thousands of meters up? Was this sound their voice? Their screaming? A product of their attention? Dread settled over my soul like rotten velvet.
“The voice of a tamed god!” Alexander shouted, arms held wide to the sky. “Is it not the most beautiful sound?”
“-know you don’t take orders, but grab her or we’re all dead,” I heard Raine shout somewhere on the edge of my fraying consciousness.
Raine broke the paralysing rapture by scooping me up. I yelped in surprise, clutching the borrowed crutch to my chest as she hoisted me in a princess-carry and ran for the metal doors of the castle, where Twil stood gaping up at the sky. Raine tumbled me to my unsteady feet below the overhanging lip of the gatehouse. She grabbed my head in both hands and forced me to look at her.
“Heather? You back with us?”
“I think so, yes.” I nodded, gasping for breath.
Raine didn’t waste a second; she turned and cuffed Twil round the back of the head. Our werewolf spluttered and jerked and shook herself. Raine shoved her at the castle doors, but Twil didn’t need telling twice, she braced her feet and put her shoulder against the metal. I tried to ignore the hellish whale-song shaking my bones. It was getting louder.
Praem One and Two had to drag Evelyn over.
She was blinking and shaking, trying to push them away, grasping at her walking stick. “Evee, Evee hey, hey,” I said as I caught her, helped to hold her up. “It’s okay, Evee, we’re- we’re going inside, we-” I couldn’t keep my voice steady, not while assaulted by this sheer noise.
A vast shadow fell over us. Raine and Twil both heaved at one of the great metal doors, but it moved barely an inch, grinding on unoiled hinges.
I half raised a hand, entertaining a mad notion that I might blast the door in with brain-math.
Praem One and Two stepped past me. I hadn’t heard Evelyn order them to do anything. They moved as one body and lent their not inconsiderable strength to the task. I had no illusions who really opened that door in the end. Raine may be strong enough to hoist me up or hold me down, but her muscles meant nothing compared to a werewolf and a pair of demons. The Praems made no sound at all as Twil grunted and heaved, and the door squealed open inch by painful inch.
My ears popped with pressure change, as if a great mass was bearing down on us, displacing the air. Evelyn stared up again, eyes wide and vacant.
Raine stuck her arm through the gap between the doors – not wide enough. Twil shoved her out of the way, braced both hands in the opening, and heaved the doors apart with a strangled cry.
We all tumbled through together, into a vast echoing hall of dying jade. Raine caught me before I sprawled onto my face. Twil tripped and went flying and cracked her head against a wall, Evelyn fell over with a thump, barely cushioned by one of her wooden demons.
A vast curl of tentacle-limb descended to touch the space we’d all occupied moments before, just beyond the doorway. Solid grey, pitted and pockmarked, the size of a train carriage. The cosmic whale-song throbbed to a final crescendo, loud enough to split atoms.
The sight of that thing blotted out all thought. I felt a tugging inside, on my soul.
Then it passed, rising again. The gap between the doors showed only swirling, disturbed fog. Vast shadows turned on the ground outside. Thick stone walls dulled the unspeakable noise, unpleasant but at least bearable now, whale-song ebbing and flowing as the planet-sphere-things moved around the bulwark of the castle.
“Ha, missed!” Raine barked. I breathed out for the first time in what felt like minutes.
“Fucking shit. Bitch ass cunt motherfucker. Ow,” Twil spluttered from the floor. She probed a nasty gash on her forehead, blood smeared down her face and her nose bent at an angle.
“Language, Twil,” I muttered. “Werewolf, not swearwolf.” She goggled at me and I managed a shrug, shaking with adrenaline and shock.
We’d retreated into a sort of grand entrance hall, devoid of decoration but for the veins of green and black reaching through the grey stone. My expectations wanted a great table in the middle of the room, a roaring fire in the back, tapestries and paintings adorning the walls, thick rugs underfoot. Instead, echoes and dust, and modern electric light bulbs strung along the floor on jerry-rigged wiring. Their weak illumination failed to reach the dark vault of the ceiling.
Arched doorways led off in all directions, into cramped stone tunnels and other rooms barely visible in the gloom. A great stairway swept upward to a balcony floor overhead. All was shaped from the same rough surfaces of rotten jade, as if extruded or grown rather than cut. I loved castles; I wanted to feel even the tiniest spark of fascination beneath the adrenaline and panic and fear.
This place was disgusting. As if we stood inside the bowels of a dried-out corpse.
Twil cracked her broken nose back into place with a throaty grunt.
“We all in one piece?” Raine asked. “Heather?”
“I’m- I’m here all. Mostly.”
Evelyn, on the other hand, was not all here. She sat where she’d fallen, breathing in jerky gasps and blinking too hard, over and over as if she couldn’t focus her eyes. Her skirt had ridden up to expose the matte black surface of her artificial leg. She’d dropped her walking stick but clutched the thighbone in a white-knuckle grip. The Praems stood either side of her as if on guard, staring off toward the dark doorways which led to the rest of the castle interior.
“Evee? Evee, what’s wrong?” I let go of Raine and knelt down next to Evelyn, one hand on her shoulder, my own crutch forgotten. “Evee? Evelyn?”
She shook her head, still blinking.
“They’ll be on us any second,” said Raine. She did something mechanical and precise with her gun, checked how many bullets she had left, then tucked her truncheon into her waistband and drew that big black knife instead.
“No kidding!” Twil said, leaping to her feet. “Shit, Saye- Evelyn, come on, get up!” She joined me, grabbed Evelyn by both shoulders. “Hey, come on, snap out of it!”
Evelyn shook her head again, screwed her eyes shut, hissed through gritted teeth.
“Come on, Evelyn, call me an idiot or something for smashing my face up, yeah?” Twil was saying. “Look- look at me, yeah?”
“Evee,” Raine added, voice soft. “It’s not that hard to kill a magician. You and I both know that. We can do this.”
Evelyn growled in the back of her throat. “God dammit all,” she grumbled – and seemed to snap herself out of the fear, back to anger. Her breath still shook but her expression hardened.
“Evelyn? Saye, come on, look at-”
“I am looking at you, you undersized mutt.” Evelyn turned her eyes on Twil. She took a deep breath and stuck out a hand. “Help me up, both of you. For God’s sake, this floor is freezing.”
Twil and I dragged Evelyn to her feet. I pressed her walking stick back into her hand. She nodded a thanks, grumbling all the while under her breath. She shook off Twil’s concern after a moment. “For God’s sake, I’m fine. Help Heather, she’s the one about to fall down.”
“W-what?” I stammered.
“The adrenaline is making you numb to your own weakness. You’re shaking.”
“I … I am.” I pressed a palm to my juddering heart, felt the weakness in my legs, realised I was half hunched up around my stomach. “Oh.”
“I can’t hold her up right now,” Raine said. “Got my hands full of sharp stuff.”
Evelyn huffed and clicked her fingers at Twil, gesturing at the crutch I’d dropped. I took a moment to steady myself, crutch wedged under my shoulder again as Evelyn spoke.
“I underestimated our opponent. Assumed he was a mere dabbler, gone too far.” Evelyn drew herself up and took a deep breath. “Likely he’s the centre of this. A real mage. I have to kill him.”
“We have to kill him,” Raine said.
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“It’ll be a good team building exercise, you know?” Raine cracked a grin. “We’re all in this together.”
“I did see that correctly out there, yes?” I asked Raine. She barely glanced away from watching the room’s many exits. “You shot Alexander in the chest, but he … ?”
“Sometimes mages get hard to kill,” said Evelyn. “Whatever Alexander Lilburne is now, he probably hasn’t been human for quite some time.” She grimaced and looked like she wanted to spit. “God dammit.” She tapped Praem One on the leg with her walking stick and gestured toward one of the doors.
The demon didn’t move, didn’t obey, just stared back at Evelyn for a moment, and then in the same direction Raine was looking, at the shadow-shrouded balcony at the top of the huge staircase. Evelyn frowned at her bound demon.
“So how do we beat him?” I asked.
“Cut his head off,” Raine said. “Scoop out the brain and heart, burn them to ash, throw the ash into the sea. Works with vampires, right?”
“That or death by volcano,” I said, and tried to smile. The weak joke failed to smother the fear in my belly. This was insane. This was far, far beyond us.
“Enough physical trauma should suffice,” Evelyn muttered, staring at Praem with a deep frown.
“What the hell was all that?” Twil asked. She wiped blood off her face, then bloody hands on her hoodie, then tutted at herself. The gash on her forehead was already closed up. “Why are you all talking like we weren’t just chased by flying tentacle moons?”
“I’ve seen weirder things,” I admitted.
“I haven’t,” Raine said. “That’s a new record.”
“I have,” grumbled Evelyn. She muttered to Praem in Latin, but the demon still refused to move.
Twil began to creep back toward the crack between the doors, craning her neck to risk a glance upward.
“We’re trapped in here, aren’t we?” I asked, surprising myself with the steady clarity in my voice. I certainly didn’t feel that stable right now. Panic edged my thoughts.
Raine and Evelyn shared a glance. Twil looked highly uncomfortable.
“Yes,” Evelyn admitted – at the same moment Raine said “Maybe.”
“Couldn’t we make a run for it?” Twil asked.
“What, you gonna distract those things out there with a headbutt?” Raine asked. “Pull the other one.”
“And get away from the door, you complete idiot,” Evelyn snapped over her shoulder. She stepped in front of Praem One and met the demon host’s staring, blank expression. “Why aren’t you moving, damn you? I’m in charge, you know that. You’re bound inside a wooden doll, you’re not getting anywhere without me.”
“Evee,” Raine warned. “Your cuddle toy hears something we don’t.”
“That’s entirely beside the point-”
“It’ll be okay,” I said, to myself. “We have to find Lozzie first, we have to rescue her.”
Twil’s attention snapped round suddenly.
“What is it, Lassie?” said Raine.
“Uh … a lot of footsteps. A dozen? Maybe? No, more than that.” Twil began to grin, showing too many teeth. She shook her herself all over and summoned her claws, flexing them and rolling her shoulders. “I think it’s rumble time.”
“Evee, get behind us,” Raine snapped, then reached out a hand and grabbed my arm. “Heather, behind me. Now.”
For a fleeting moment we stood together, with breath stilled and ears straining, Raine and Twil and both Praem’s bodies shielding Evelyn and I – a touching, perhaps instinctive gesture, but in the end only a gesture. We had nowhere to run. My heart felt like a bird trying to escape my chest.
I could hear the footsteps too now, a clunky, disordered dragging shamble echoing off the stone walls. We all took Praem’s lead, eyes on the top of the staircase.
“We need to move. We can’t stay here,” Raine hissed. She glanced left and right, but couldn’t pick a direction.
“Sod that,” Twil growled, raised her voice to anything that might care to overhear. “I’ve had enough of creeping through fog and bullshit, I wanna fight something!”
“What if they have a gun, like before?” I hissed.
“I can deal with that,” Evelyn muttered. I heard her gulp. “So can you.”
To my surprise, Evelyn wormed her free hand into mine. Her palm was clammy and her grip weak. I squeezed, hard. She squeezed back.
“Heads up,” Raine said.
Casting jerky shadows, each motion mechanical and truncated, as if their muscles were filled with sand, the first of the zombies appeared at the top of the great staircase.
Zombie. Funny word. What does it bring to mind, for those of us spared the secret truths of reality? A shuffling gait, slack jaws, drunken motions, and the occasional low moan of hunger for brains. Raine and I had watched Night of the Living Dead a few weeks back, after a debate over her use of the term. She couldn’t believe I’d never seen the film. A classic, apparently. It hadn’t really frightened me – what was so scary about walking corpses? I’d seen far worse things in my nightmares.
But these zombies made my breath catch in my throat, turned my stomach, made me heart-sick. Two or three dozen, traipsing down the staircase and spreading out to surround us, eyes empty and dead. I wanted to grab the back of Raine’s jacket just to hold on.
They frightened me because of who they’d been made from.
No question where the Sharrowford Cult had harvested their raw materials. Scraggly grey beards, unkempt hair, frames ravaged by malnutrition. Most were middle aged men, but a few young women showed among the dead faces, skin stretched and translucent, dressed in thick coats, filthy jeans, too many layers. One had been made from a teenage boy, dirty orange hair plastered across his forehead. Sharrowford’s missing homeless.
Raine raised her handgun but didn’t seem to know where to aim.
“Wait,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. Twil hissed and flexed her claws. “Wait, both of you, dammit.”
Two living people brought up the rear of the zombie mob: the pinch-faced blonde lady who’d spat at us from the battlements, and a younger woman scurrying along at her side, hunched and unhealthy. The blonde lady sneered when she saw us, and raised her chin. The younger one ignored us, her eyes rolling wild in their sockets, a constant stream of low muttering in her throat, pausing only to wipe her hair out of her sweat-soaked face.
The blonde lady opened her mouth and tried to look imposing. “Throw down your weapons and perhaps I won’t have you beaten.”
“Ignore her. Shoot the other one,” Evelyn hissed.
“Duh,” said Raine.
Raine took the shot.
I didn’t know she’d missed, not until much later. All I saw was Raine raise the gun and the scrawny zombie-conductor woman scrambling back and tripping over her own robes. Raine pulled the trigger and the crack of a bullet split the air.
Then all hell broke loose.
A general melee is impossible to recall or describe with any level of clarity. Memory simply fails, or weaves fiction to fill the gaps. A back-alley scuffle or an attempted kidnapping, those can be recreated in the mind, step by step, after much thought and careful consideration of experience best left buried, but the sheer confusion and terror of a wider brawl devours all relevant detail. At least it did for me. All those superhero movies where the characters execute perfect techniques in big set-piece battles – reality’s not like that, not at all.
The zombies rushed us, reaching, grasping, clawing. I recall unimportant things – cracked dry skin on the back of a single hand, one face with terribly bloodshot eyes, the sight of a zombie missing his left shoe.
Lots of shouting – Evelyn’s voice projecting fragments of a dead language. Raine must have lowered the gun because I remember her laying about with the knife and maybe the nightstick, pulling me by the arm to keep me in her wake. Struggling to stay on my feet.
Don’t fall, don’t slip!
Did she say that to me, or did I think it to myself?
Another gunshot, or just the sound of a skull cracking off the ground. Raine’s voice in my ear. A split-second glimpse of Twil wrenching a zombie’s head off, caught forever in freeze-frame in full bestial transformation, gore-stained claws raised and then buried as two more zombies piled uselessly atop her. Another glimpse, of Evelyn, one I’ll never forget, looking as terrified as I felt underneath her fragile defiance, pale and shaking and wide-eyed as Praem kept the zombies off her.
Raine lost her grip, and I fell over.
I remember that moment, that part, with painful clarity. What would have happened if I’d never lost my grip? A road untaken. A different history.
My hand slipped from hers as she yanked me from the path of another jerking clockwork revenant. I overbalanced and tripped and sprawled on the floor, scuffed my hands and knees and lost the crutch as it skidded away. The bottom of my stomach dropped out.
Evelyn’s shouting peaked in a trio of impossible prehuman words, and half the zombies spasmed as if in the grip of a mass epileptic fit. Some stood rigid as if struck by lightning, muscles locked iron-hard, vibrating with internal pressure. Others crumpled, thrashing limbs against the floor. One fell right next to me where it battered my head with a sudden flailing rotten hand. I screamed, I think, and tried to scramble back.
Evelyn’s trump card had come too late. Praem could barely keep the remaining zombies off her. I crawled away on hands and knees and hauled myself up against a wall, panting and casting about for Raine.
Too slow, too stunned, too stupid. I shouldn’t have been there.
A zombie lurched toward me and wrapped thin bony hands around my throat.
I remember that moment like a kick in the head, even if it didn’t last long. The zombie pinned me to the wall and squeezed, rotten breath floating from a slack mouth, dessicated eyeballs rolled into the back of it’s head. It had been a woman, once, maybe in her twenties, now bedraggled and sad with skin like paper and tendons like steel.
Somebody shouted “Not her, you idiot!” One of the cultists. They wanted me alive.
I kicked at it, squealed, pushed, hissed and spat, dug my fingernails into its hands and tried to pry them open. Too weak.
Raine came out of nowhere and tore it off me. I think she used her knife a lot, because there was blood on my hoodie afterward. She tried to get me up, my hand in hers, but another zombie barrelled into her. She threw it at the wall and knocked its brains out, kicked it away. Two more came for me, got in between us.
No time to think about what I was doing, I’d already backed into a side-passage, leading away from the great hall. I think I was calling Raine’s name, calling for help through a wall of reanimated flesh. Dead hands groped for my throat.
I must have turned the Fractal on them, because later I found my left sleeve tugged down, the angular sign exposed. Must have kept them at bay for a second, given me time to back away down the dimly lit passageway and through an open metal door. I remember cold fingers at the back of my neck. I remember shoving the door closed and throwing a bolt. I remember hearing them hammering on the other side, and the sight of the thin metal beginning to buckle.
“Raine! Raine, I’m in here!”
Thump thump crack, the door began to bend inward. The hinges looked solid enough but the grey jade stone itself was cracking and flaking under the zombies’ strength.
“Raine!” I called out again, backing up from the door.
My mind said stay here, wait for Raine, she’s two dozen feet away and she always comes for me. A dark passageway led off into the depths of the castle, ceiling low, light bulbs few and far between. It could be another maze. I needed to stay here. What did they always say to do when lost, when a friend or parent might be looking for you? Stay where you are, good little children, stay in a public place, because if you do go wandering off you really might get lost and never come back.
With a tortured screech of rending metal, one of the zombies punched through the door, shredding its own dessicated flesh as it began groping for the bolt.
“Raine! Raine, I have to run! Raine … ” My voice trailed off as I backed away. I glanced over my shoulder, at my only route of escape. “ … Twil? Evee? … nobody?”
On shaking legs, I turned and hobbled away, fleeing into the unknown depths.