the other side of nowhere – 4.5

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“Zheng!”

It was the tone in Lozzie’s voice that stopped me.

Not fear or warning, but relief. Lozzie broke into a huge beaming smile at the giant zombie woman.

She hadn’t noticed or understood what I was doing, spinning up my reality-breaking mathematics, setting fire to my mind. As far as she knew, I’d sagged and stumbled against her in pure shock at Zheng’s arrival.

Perhaps we weren’t so similar after all.

One heartbeat of hesitation; hyperdimensional mathematics stalled, stuttered, guttered out, blinking and flickering across the surface of my consciousness. My eyelids spasmed and my jaw locked up. I shuddered, snorted down a tide of nausea. Curled up around my belly, almost fell over, but Lozzie held me up.

It felt like holding back a sneeze – or an orgasm.

I’d worked for weeks to smooth the flow of the impossible equations as much as possible, an inevitable sequence from first principle to the end result, to spare me the pain. Now I strangled  an equation at the last moment, fought it back down into memory and brain-stem.

“Heather? It’s okay, she’s fine if I’m here, I can tell her to do whatever I want.” Lozzie beamed at me, then back at the impassive, staring zombie. “What happened to your arm?” A silent pause, except for my whining. “ … Zheng?”

“That was me,” I croaked out. I hung off Lozzie’s shoulder, my knees shaking. At least I wasn’t bleeding, yet.

“What? Heather?”

“The arm,” I said.

“Ahh? No, they wouldn’t send Zheng, that- oh.” Lozzie’s face fell and she looked back at Zheng with a sudden shake to her smile. She rattled out something in a language I’d never heard before. “Ta bidniig dagaj baisan uu? Zheng? Has he … oh, oh no. Namaig sonsooch!

Whatever she’d said, Zheng wasn’t listening. The zombie raised her right hand and pointed with one long finger, over our heads, up.

“That looks like an order,” I managed.

“Zheng? Come on, please, listen to me. It’s me!”

“Walk,” Zheng rumbled. Dead lips barely moved. Voice like granite.

Lozzie swallowed and wiped filthy hair away from her face. “I think my brother’s got her. Like, fully. He’s not supposed to, no! Zheng, you’re not supposed to listen to him!”

“Walk,” Zheng repeated. She took a step forward and we both stumbled back, still clinging to each other.

“I think your brother wants to see us,” I said.

“Yeah. Yeah,” Lozzie whispered.

Zheng took another step.

Lozzie tried to back away again, a tight animal whimper caught in her throat – but I held onto her and held my ground. My stomach hurt, my head throbbed, my lungs ached. I stared Zheng right in the eyes, watching those dead, glassy orbs for any reaction.

“Heather!” Lozzie hissed. She tugged on my arm.

Zheng stared back at me.

“You don’t frighten me. Not right now.”

Took me a moment to realise I’d spoken, those were my words – and they were true. Goodness, I’d actually said those words to this hulking seven foot demon-host monster-thing.

The calm in my own voice surprised me, but this wasn’t courage. I didn’t feel brave or defiant. This calm grew from somewhere else, a cold, slow, numb place. Perhaps I’d feel the raw terror later, like a bruise. I let my eyes drift over to the cages once more, and the dessicated, bound corpses inside.

Back to Zheng, back to those eyes. May as well be empty sockets.

She took another step forward, loomed over us, body language as empty and mute as the rest of her. Lozzie dug her fingers into my arm and shoulder, breathing in panicked jerks.

“Why don’t you just grab us?” I asked the zombie.

No answer.

“You’re strong enough and fast enough. We’re two, but we’re both small. And apparently I didn’t wound you that badly.”

Zheng lowered her right arm, the one she’d been pointing with, but that could have meant anything. I wasn’t sure if my words were getting through, but then she twitched the fingers of her reattached left arm. Once, twice, three times. Her mangled shoulder spasmed.

“That’s right.” I nodded slowly. “That was me. You remember, don’t you?”

Twitch, twitch. She managed to bend her thumb inward.

Beneath the coating of drying blood, Zheng’s exposed left arm was covered in the most detailed and complex tattoos I’d ever seen. Looping, whirling, spiralling lines in a jumbled thicket upon the corded muscle, each line formed from thousands of tiny letters, overlapping so many times that her skin was like re-used parchment, each layer of inscription faded or improperly erased. I didn’t want to get close enough to find out, but I suspected the pattern covered her whole torso.

“I might not be able to zap you Outside from here,” I continued, low and quiet. “But I can hurt you again. You understand that, don’t you?”

“What?” Lozzie murmured. I glanced sidelong at her, found her eyes as alarmed as they could be under those permanently droopy lids. The bruise on her face was so livid up close.

“You can’t do that? With your mind? With the math?”

Lozzie shook her head. “Please don’t. Heather, please. She’s … sort of my friend.”

I shook my head too, still numb inside. “Not right now she isn’t.”

“She is,” Lozzie hissed. “She is. She’s still in there. Zheng?” Lozzie tried again, voice weak.

The zombie just stared.

“I hope you’re thinking what I’m thinking, whatever you are,” I said to Zheng. “Can you even give me a reply?”

I wasn’t thinking about those dead children in cages. I wasn’t angry about them or motivated by them, nothing so clean and clear; that came later, a retroactive justification. A good one, yes, the right thing to do, but it wasn’t why I made the decision in that moment, numb and shaking from the suppressed brainmath, in silent, unspoken negotiation with a demon inside a barely human shell.

Zheng looked up, the way she’d been pointing. A good enough reply for me.

“Okay. Lozzie, I think it’s time we went to see your brother,” I said. Lozzie stared at me for a moment as if I was the mad one. Perhaps I was.

==

My resolve didn’t hold.

The zombie herded us along the metal walkways, down the route we’d have taken anyway. Or perhaps she was merely following us now, though I found I didn’t care. I didn’t care if my impulsive, half-formed idea had worked or not. I had no real plan, just a drive.

Zheng wouldn’t have needed to tackle us or grab us anyway, there was only one path and she was too large, too strong, too fast to dodge around or outrun, even if I hadn’t been clenched up tight around the echo of pain in my guts and head.

“Don’t you wanna get out of here too, Zheng?” said Lozzie. “Zozz! Tuniig khaya!

Lozzie was being a very good sport, arm under my shoulders as we hurried ahead of the zombie’s advance. She didn’t complain when I stumbled and clutched at her for support.

Zheng didn’t even really watch us, as she forced us away from the metal platform and back among the spars and spears of green-gold rock. She stared at a point above my head, expression empty. I felt a guilty relief in getting away from those cages, those corpses, that evidence of cruelty, when the platform finally vanished out of sight behind too many twists and turns. But I knew it was still there, unrecorded and unmarked, and in some ways that was worse.

“You don’t have to listen to my brother,” Lozzie whined to Zheng, voice returning distant echoes from the vault above and below. “Remember all the things we said to each other, when I took you to Lemuria, in the dream? Weren’t we supposed to be … you know … you and me, right?” She tapped her ribs, just over her heart, face torn back and forth between fear and betrayed sorrow. “Use your own willpower. Come on … please … ”

“I don’t think she’s listening,” I croaked.

“But- she-” Lozzie shook her head, almost in tears.

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “Everything will be okay.”

I was terrible at reassurance. I was no Raine, all smiles and confidence and heroic gestures. I knew I sounded cold and hollow, but as I spoke I realised I was talking to myself, shoring myself up. My numb conviction was beginning to ebb.

What on earth was I thinking? I had no real plan, no idea where my friends were, no idea if I had the resolve to see this impulse to the end. The journey through the cave gave me too much time to think, to second-guess myself, to realise what I’d done.

In a moment of shock and fear I’d gone straight for the hyperdimensional mathematics. A reflex, self-defence.

My certainty hollowed itself out as we tracked through the cave, less in touch with that moment of instinctive mathematics, that tension held tight on the edge of the possible, ready to break physics in a dozen ugly ways, with no care for consequences. Could I really do it – pulverise Zheng into steaming meat? Maybe, yes, and I’d pay for it with vomiting and pain and unconsciousness, but that wasn’t the question.

Could I do it in cold blood?

“No, no it won’t be okay. Oh, Heather, she was so close.” Lozzie sniffed and wiped at her nose. “We’d gotten her so close to ignoring him. I don’t know how to break it, but I had her so close. She was going to strangle my brother for me, if you couldn’t, you know.”

“Mm,” I grunted.

Zheng forced us around a final right-hand turn. A monolithic wall of green-gold towered above us, wounded by an entrance to another cult-cut tunnel, rough steps vanishing upward through the glowing rock.

The way up was far less regular than the first tunnel. I guessed this one had been dug as exploration rather than access, with long straight stretches, tight hairpin bends, a snaking progress upward out of the green depths. The walls slowly lost their brilliant light, faded into the dead grey of the castle-corpse, until the tunnel finally burst through the floor into open air.

Lozzie and I stumbled to a halt together; my legs burned with the effort of climbing, knees trembling and stomach clenched.

She’d had to almost drag me the last few dozen steps, her twitchy energy holding out where mine was spent. I hung onto her shoulders for support. At least keeping me standing seemed to take her mind off her own fear.

We’d emerged into a long gallery with a high ceiling, the walls more open window than grey jade – though without any glass or glass-analogue to fill the openings. Tendrils of fog lapped at the windows. We were high up above the copied mile of Sharrowford, sunk in the mist far below.

Vast planetary shapes stirred in the shrouded firmament above, and I realised with tentative relief that the cosmic whale song noise had stopped.

Lights, bedrolls, a bucket of tools, a closed laptop on an overturned crate; this part of the castle was obviously inhabited. Another gallery marched off on the other side of a connecting doorway. Muffled sounds of soft conversation floated through from beyond.

A cultist scrambled up from his vantage point at one of the windows, where he’d been bent over a cheap telescope.

“You!” He said at us. “Oh, oh hell, uh.”

He looked more like a student teacher than an evil cultist, a young man with mousy hair and a baby face, his cream robes open on a shirt and trousers, as if he’d come straight from work. A distant part of me wondered if Alexander imposed a dress code on his underlings.

The cultist slapped at his robes, then at his trouser pockets. I couldn’t help but notice he had a bloody bandage around one hand.

I gave him the best stink-eye I could.

“Don’t try it. I’ll kill you. You know I can,” I said, heaving for breath.

He stared at me in utter confusion.

“Yeah, fuck off, Lucas, ‘less you want me to bite you again!” Lozzie screeched at him.

We never had to find out what Lucas was not going to try, because he sighed with sudden relief; Zheng emerged behind us. She stopped as soon as she stood free of the wound in the floor, a robot waiting for further input.

“Oh thank the gods beyond, you found her,” he said to Zheng. “Wait, down there? Bloody hell … ” He rubbed his hands together, then thumbed over his shoulder. “Go on, he’s through there, he’ll want to … I don’t know … oi, can you hear me, or what?”

Zheng made no response.

Was this my moment?

Flagging resolve fumbled against years of habitual conflict-avoidance, against the timid, reclusive Heather, against the me that wanted to sit in comfortable libraries with beautiful books and forget about the rest of the world, against the me curled up in bed waiting for Raine to get home. I tried to focus, numb and cold and slow – but this wasn’t Alexander, this was not the head of the snake. Not yet. That was my excuse.

The young cultist – Lucas – glanced over his shoulder at the doorway, and Lozzie took the opening. She let go of me, no warning, and I almost tumbled to the floor as she flew at him, one hand raised to claw out his eyes or throat.

She was half his size, but she was ready to bite his face off.

Zheng moved like quicksilver. She lashed out and caught Lozzie by the wrist. Lozzie yelped, like a dog on the end of a choking leash. Her feet left the ground with her momentum and she scrambled for purchase. Zheng held her struggling at arm’s length.

“Zheng! Zheng no! Come on! Argh! Let me go, let me-”

Zheng shook her, rattled her brains, Lozzie’s feet skittering against the floor and head whipping around. I flinched at the violence. Lozzie yelped and spluttered, then stared at Zheng, panting in quiet panic.

The cultist let out a sharp sigh. “Crazy little bitch,” he said, then glanced at me. “Are you going to give us trouble too?”

I shook my head.

“Good. Now, we’re all going to go talk to Mister Lilburne. Nice and slow, and nobody does anything stupid. Got that? Right?” I nodded. He pointed at the doorway to the adjoining gallery. “Good. You go first.”

I tried to catch Lozzie’s eyes, but she’d shut down. She hung limp from Zheng’s grip like her strings had been cut, hidden by a curtain of hair. I murmured her name.

“She’s faking it,” the cultist said. “Come along now. You first.”

Alone, alone, even Lozzie had left me behind, in a way. Alone – except for the Eye, always in the back of my head. I had nothing else to hold onto.

The next gallery had fewer windows, corners lost to the shadows unfilled by weak electric light. At the far end, carved into the grey surface of the wall, surrounded by expanding concentric rings of white-paint magic circle and layers of jumbled, mad inscription, stood a gateway.

Just like the one Evelyn had built to bring us here. It was closed right now, deactivated, showing only blank stone in the wide door-shaped middle.

“Where does that lead?” I asked out loud. No idea how I found the courage.

“What? That’s none of your business, is it? Turn right, through the door there. Go on.”

I did as I was told, hobbled along, half crouched for support, wanting so desperately to sit down. Zheng dragged Lozzie along behind me. I stepped through a wide doorway, pulled myself up a short flight of stairs, and emerged into the Sharrowford Cult’s true inner sanctum.

“Ahhhhhh, Lavinia, there you are.”

A sigh, deep and satisfied, made my skin crawl.

It was a throne room, or maybe an audience chamber, with a raised area toward the rear, flanked by tall ceiling-height empty windows. Grey light flooded through the windows, lit everything with a half-dead look.

Magical workings dominated one side of the room. A series of interlocking magic circles and looping Sanskrit words had colonised the floor and part of a wall, as if projected at an angle. Glancing at it made my head swim far worse than before, like I was standing on a wall and looking down at the floor.

Several large chunks of the green-gold stone formed fulcrum points or anchors for the pattern. A mess of partially dismantled medical machines lay in a pile nearby, stolen from a hospital or some disused dental office, pieces of their mechanical guts added to the magical design – radioactive sources, bits of laser lens? Somehow I doubted even Evelyn could make sense of this one.

A pair of folding tables stood at the rear of the room, littered with hypodermic needles and bags of drugs, bits of hand-drawn map and bottles of unspeakable fluid, a ceremonial knife and a human skull, a closed book and an open first aid kit.

Two cultists looked up as I entered, as Zheng pulled Lozzie up alongside me. A small, wiry gentleman with glasses and brilliant ginger hair was bent over the tables. The heavyset man with the squashed nose, the one who’d been on the battlements with Alexander, had been speaking softly. He wore medical gloves, hands full of gauze, bloody towel over one shoulder, as he tended to his master in the middle of the room.

Alexander Lilburne himself sat on a stool, stripped to the waist, digging around inside his own chest with a pair of pliers.

“It’s me, it’s me,” our cultist guide, Lucas, said as he trotted past us. “She just came up from the core with them, but no sign of the rest. Boss?”

My mind clung hard to those last few words – no sign of the rest!

“Oh, my wayward sister, how you always return to me,” Alexander said.

His mouth curled into a smile as he regarded us, as if delighted to see old friends. His cheek twitched as he pulled the pliers from the hole in his chest with a sucking sound. “And Lavinia, I see you have decided to join us. Yes, very good, very good indeed. I think it’s high time we turned this unpleasantness to our mutual advantage.” He turned to the young cultist. “Thank you, Lucas. How are the god spawn?”

“Calmed, I think. They’ve stopped wailing, at least.”

“I can hear that part for myself. Or – not hear it, as it were.” Alexander smiled at his own terrible joke.

“ … bullets won’t kill you, right,” I said, very quietly.

No calm voice now. That numb illusionary courage did not survive the sight of him.

Alexander was covered in his own blood, smeared across his soft, flabby chest and down his belly, all over his hands and hairy forearms, in fingerprints and palm-marks. Some sensible soul had spread towels underneath him, but they were soaked through by now. He’d widened the bullet-hole Raine had put in his chest, peeled back his own skin and strips of muscle, exposed the white of his rib bones and the bellows-fluttering of a lung, just visible through the ragged wound. Fragments of shattered rib lay discarded at his feet, dug out from the bullet’s path.

He showed no pain at all.

With exaggerated care, he placed the pliers on the table next to him and raised his eyebrows at me.

“I’m sorry, what was that? I didn’t quite catch your words. Do speak up, Lavinia, please, I am not feeling my best at present, and I am understandably a little distracted with concern for my poor sister here.” In the corner of my eye, I saw Lozzie shiver and try to make herself smaller.

“I said … ” my voice shook. I clamped down hard on that tremor and forced myself to straighten up, to look him in the eye.

‘No sign of the rest’, which meant Raine and Evee and Twil were still free, unaccounted for.

Stand up straight, Heather.

“Bullets won’t kill you, will they?” I repeated.

Alexander’s trio of cultist underlings found this rather amusing. They laughed silently, shook their heads, shared sidelong glances. Alexander went through a laborious performance, looking down at himself and acting surprised at the gaping fist-sized rent in his chest.

“Oh, this?” He asked, then laughed, that horrible blubbery baby-laugh. “No, no, far from it, indeed. Don’t you worry about my health, Lavinia. I will still be up and walking around when the bones of all these fine fellows here have fallen to dust.”

The wiry cultist and Lucas both looked uncomfortable, but the stocky one tending to Alexander’s exit wound merely rolled his eyes, as if he’d heard that one a hundred times before.

“Still, rather irritating,” Alexander continued. “I already know everything there is to know about the workings of my own body, self-repair is such a bore.”

“I hope it is as irritating as possible,” I said. I tried to feel that anger, cold and slow, but it wouldn’t come. “I hope you get shot many more times.”

“Regardless.” Alexander waved a hand. “That is all beside the point right now. Shouldn’t get too far off topic, should we?”

I was not vulnerable; that’s what I told myself, that’s what kept me on my feet and my spine at least vaguely straight. I could kill everyone in this room with a thought, I could, I told myself I could, I knew I could.

Couldn’t I?

“First off, I think some congratulations are in order. Well done, Zheng.” Alexander reached over to the table and picked up a small metal cylinder, covered with occult runes. A stopper of black wax at the top showed a hole in the middle. He waggled it in her general direction, an amused smile playing across his lips. “I’ll just get rid of this, shall I? We won’t be needing it, will we? Or perhaps … I’ll hold onto it for now. We’ll see what happens next.”

If Zheng felt anything she didn’t show it. The zombie stared at a point on the far wall. Every now and again, Lozzie twitched or struggled in her grip, eyes glazed over, breathing hard and ragged.

“Now, sister?” Alexander clicked his fingers twice. “Pay attention now. Lauren,” he snapped, and Lozzie’s head whipped up as if slapped. She blinked and panted, staring at her brother. He sighed and shook his head, gave her one of those sickly-warm smiles that turned my stomach. “I am very unimpressed with you. I’m sure you know that already, as I am certain you anticipate punishment. You do deserve punishment, for bringing these people here. You know that too, I hope?”

Lozzie’s teeth chattered. She tried to shrink back, but Zheng held her fast.

“Now, Zheng, if you would bring her here, I-”

“I’m going to kill you,” I blurted out.

I didn’t just want to hurt him, I wanted him to know I wanted to. I told myself I wanted to.

Alexander glanced at me, blinking several times in mock surprise.

“Why isn’t she restrained?” The wiry copper-haired cultist asked. “I thought this one was meant to be dangerous?”

“Not here, she ain’t,” the big one grunted. “Can’t do zip, can you, dear?”

“Try it,” I managed to squeak.

“Ah ah ah ah.” Alexander raised his hands. “As we have already discovered, Lavinia does not respond well to physical encouragement. In fact, it gives her the courage to defend herself. Isn’t that right, Lavinia?”

“Stop calling me that.”

“You can’t kill me,” he said, raising a finger. “In here you can’t send me – or anyone – to the beyond. You are powerless, exactly as you would be in the real world against somebody of my place and standing and wealth. You must learn to listen, Lavinia, to negotiate, even from a position of weakness. Threats will get you nowhere.”

They didn’t know.

Lozzie hadn’t known I could do anything except teleporting, dimension-hopping. They must have remembered I could turn away a bullet, but I had a wrecking ball in my mind and they didn’t know.

Was that an advantage, or not? I had no idea what to do with this secret. I needed to use it, somehow.

Alexander must have taken my quiet hesitation as acquiescence.

“Now, Lauren, sister,” his voice gentled but never lost that smug undertone. “Despite the things you do, despite the things you have done to our family, I am still, as always, your loving brother.”

Lozzie whined, sniffed, hanging from Zheng’s arm.

“I forgive you,” he continued. “I forgive you for letting these people in here, for betraying me, for getting me shot by one of them, for causing me problems. As I have always forgiven you, for our parents, for … yourself. For you and I are all we have, aren’t we? Aren’t we, Lauren?”

That worm in the brain, that catch in his words. I suppressed a wince and glanced over at Lozzie. She gulped and bit her lip, small and dirty and cringing. She jerked her head up and down, once, twice. A nod.

“Lozzie, you don’t have to listen to him,” I hissed. She shook her head and looked at me sidelong, guilty and afraid. I could almost see the lump in her throat.

“If Zheng lets you go,” Alexander said. “Will you be good and come here, come to your brother?”

Nod.

“Zheng, if you please.”

The zombie did as she was told. Lozzie crumpled the moment she was free, fell to her knees, sobbing gently. I moved to catch her shoulders, to put my arms around her before she could give in and go to her brother, but Alexander twitched a finger in command and Zheng’s arm shot out like a snake to bar my way, so quick I flinched back in surprise.

“Come here,” Alexander repeated.

“Lozzie, don’t,” I hissed.

“It’s nothing compared to family, Lavinia. Nothing at all,” he said.

Lozzie nodded, wiped her nose on her sleeve, then picked herself up and slunk over to her brother, head down like a whipped dog. Now it was my turn to feel a lump in my throat. I couldn’t bear the sight of this.

“Now, now, there was no need for any of your earlier behaviour, was there?” Alexander said to her. “No need for all that tantrum and nastiness. You’re such a sweet girl when you simply relax and allow yourself to be.” He reached out and cupped her bruised cheek – the bruise he’d left on her. His bloody hand left a crimson smear on her skin. Lozzie shivered, her eyes down. I’d never felt such indignant disgust. “I know what you really want, what you really crave, and I will give it to you. You will have as many playmates as you desire – in time. Now, sit at my side. No, not on the blood, no need to get messy. Just there, there we go.”

Lozzie folded herself cross-legged on the floor by his side, hunched over with arms folded to protect her belly, eyes lowered in shadow.

In the last moment as she sat down, in the split-second that Alexander’s eyes left her and began to move back to me, her hand darted out and palmed something glinting and sharp out of the open first-aid kit on the table. She slid it up her sleeve.

I froze, inside and out, expecting one of the trio of cultists to raise a voice, or tackle her, or Alexander to notice what she’d done.

None did. They’d been looking away, embarrassed by the exchange of sickly-sweet false sibling affection. I’d seen, Zheng must have too, but the zombie didn’t react. I let relief flood me.

We were still on.

Equal parts disgust and hope – pretend courage. I forced my trembling fingers to pull the brainmath notebook from my hoodie’s front pocket. I felt the glow stick in there too, but what use could that be?

“Ahh? What is this?” Alexander asked. “Are you going to take minutes?” He reached down and stroked Lozzie’s hair, without taking his eyes from me, leaving another bloody streak on her.

“This is what I’m going to use to kill you,” I said, and forced my chin up.

Defiant, confident, unafraid. I was none of those things, but I pretended.

He sighed. “And I supposed that’s how you managed to do serious damage to Zheng? You hit her with a book?”

“Yes, I hit her with a book.” Completely straight faced.

Alexander’s amusement dimmed. “You understand it is very important to me that I learn how you and your … associates, managed to inflict real damage to a mature revenant. I assume the same method was used to kill the two men I sent with her? You can answer me now or I can find out in other ways, but I will know, all in good time. I will know everything, all details, relevant or otherwise. Nothing can hide from me, not for long.”

“I did it,” I said, flush for one wonderful moment with power over this man.

Very quickly, I wished I hadn’t spoken. Alexander stared for a moment – then a shrewd fascination lit up his features, staring at me with something akin to awe. I felt a terrible shiver.

“You are telling the truth,” he breathed. “Tell me.”

I swallowed, tried to hold onto that moment of confidence. “I can kill everyone in this room with a thought.” A bluff? I didn’t know. As I glanced at the other three cultists, they certainly seemed to share their master’s belief, faces clouded with concern. “That’s how I hurt your zombie.”

“Then do it, please, show me,” Alexander leaned forward, dripping gore from his chest wound, deep desire written on his face. “Show me! I have waited so long for my sister to show the slightest ability of true control, of manipulation, of understanding. Show me!”

I stared back at him.

“ … no? Lavinia, I know you are not lying, but … ahhh.” He frowned. “I see. You can’t.”

“I can.”

“No no.” He raised a finger. “You can, that is the truth – but you can’t. How odd. You do perplex me, Lavinia.”

“Good.”

“You tell impossible truths, at least ones that you yourself believe, and then lo and behold I discover that some of them are rooted in fact.” Alexander raised his chin, that shrewd, questioning exterior crust over a barely-concealed ocean of self-assurance.

“Is this conversation going how you imagined it would?” I managed to say. “Why do your whole megalomania act? Because you get off on it? Does it make you feel big and powerful? Why not just take what you want from me?”

He didn’t take my bait – it was weak, I was scrambling for time, playing catch-up. Hoping my friends would turn up, that Raine would rescue me. The more this went on, that clean, clear impulse felt further and further away.

I had a plan, I just couldn’t do it, not without the protection of that soul-numbness I’d felt earlier. Not without the need for self-defence. I wasn’t Raine.

“You see, it is entirely my fault we are at this unfortunate loggerheads with each other,” he continued. “I misunderstood you. Your desires, your drives – your personal history. If I had known, I would have taken a very different approach to you, Lavinia. And now I know you have gained some measure of real control, well, I would have told you what we are doing here, the importance of our work, what it means.”

“You mean the importance of dead children in cages?” I asked, and finally felt a good clean anger – that was better. “I saw your dirty secret down there.”

“The ends justifies the means, Lavinia. I’m sure you, of all people, will agree, once you understand those ends.”

“I don’t want to know what this place is for.” A lie. “I can guess.”

“Ahh?” Alexander still seemed genuinely fascinated. “And what is your guess?”

“You’ve forced people to talk with that thing you have underground.”

“Thing? Thing. A very precise word, Lavinia. That thing is a yoked god. Caught, drawn here by my – our,” he gestured at the trio of cultists, “trap, twenty years ago now. To learn from it, to take all that outside knowledge for our own. But, I am getting ahead of myself.”

“It’s a scab,” Lozzie muttered.

“Yes, yes, a favourite word of our little Lauren’s. More like an impact crater than a scab. All this, this place, this dimensional pocket is like … mis-aimed camouflage. A wounded chameleon with misfiring neurons, trying to hide itself.”

“I don’t want to know,” I repeated.

“It is important you understand. You see, I have done a little more research into you, Lavinia.” A sickening smile crested. A triumph, a trump card flourished from a rhetorical sleeve. He paused, savouring the moment.

I stared. Said nothing. Didn’t give him the satisfaction. Considered spitting on the floor, but nineteen years of being a good girl sort of ruled that out, even here.

“You see, I have asked relevant questions of those entities correctly placed to know,” he continued. “I assumed – ah, so wrongly, such arrogance on my part – that you were mentally ill, or misled, or had constructed an elaborate interior life that never really was. But then I discovered.”

“Discovered what?” I hissed, to cover the pounding of my heart.

“You do have a twin sister. Or, did.”

Violation.

Maisie’s space in my heart, my greatest source of strength, the one thing this horrible man hadn’t known about me, hadn’t torn bleeding from my past, lay open for all to hear.

My head felt hot, tight, a pinching pain in the back of my mind.

The other three cultists, they knew as well now, they’d heard those words, and it meant nothing to them. The big man was too busy fussing over the exit wound on Alexander’s back. Violation, my most secret thing casually exposed without so much as a fanfare.

“What was her name, Lavinia?” Alexander asked.

I blinked, swallowed, forced myself to focus through the impotent anger. I wanted to punch him, but that wasn’t enough.

“Her reality,” I said, haltingly, then swallowed and forced myself onward. “Should burst your eardrums, make you bleed from the eyes, kill you. Where we went, where she still is, I can send you there, you know? If you want to learn her name.”

“Not from here, you can’t. Her name, if you please?”

I had no more comebacks. I’d never felt so angry, but that wasn’t enough – my fingers opened the brainmath notebook, but I couldn’t look down at the pages. He had me hooked; in the back of my mind, in a quiet, selfish place that I would never admit, I knew where he was going with this.

“I know what happened to you and your twin,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath and leaned back, then winced, the first sign of pain I’d seen on his face. The cultist tending to his wound grumbled, tore off a piece of gauze and set to his work again.

I hoped it hurt.

“No you don’t,” I said. “Or you’d go mad.”

He laughed, bubbly and disgusting. Lozzie sniffed behind her curtain of hair. She started to speak, a half-word.

A crash, distant and very loud, somewhere below us in the castle. Like stone on stone, and a muffled shout.

Alexander frowned. The cultists all glanced at one another.

“Lucas, Adam,” Alexander said with a flick of his fingers toward the doors. Lucas and the wiry cultist hurried out of the room together, footsteps vanishing into the passageway beyond.

“My friends are coming to kill you,” I said.

“No, I will have Zheng kill them all,” he said. “And yes, I do have some vague, sketched general idea of what happened to you. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to understand what it’s done to you.”

“Shut up. Stop talking.”

“You have experienced first hand how vulnerable we really are – we human beings, all of us – when exposed to that outside our limited sphere, the reality of the universe, the wolves that lurk just outside the door, a door that ninety-nine percent of the human race cannot even see. We’re so short-sighted, so wrapped up in our animal concerns, we barely see fifty years into the future, or to the country next door, let alone into the spheres beyond our own fragile little globe.”

He loved the sound of his own voice – but he was right, about that part. Wasn’t he?

“Get to the point.”

Alexander nodded. There was something serious about him now, a glint in his eye.

“What happened to you can happen to anybody. Wouldn’t you want to stop it ever happening again? To all humanity? Because that is what we are doing here. We are growing strong, we are stealing secrets from the gods, we are making difficult sacrifices for the greater good. We do not have to bow to these outside principles as gods, we do not have to accept a future as ants. Imagine, if you will, that the things you have experienced, one day, come to our reality en masse. What would that look like? What would our future look like, Lavinia?”

He raised an eyebrow when I didn’t answer, gestured for me to speak. I shrugged.

“I am serious,” he continued. “It is a serious question. I don’t know, yet, exactly what you experienced beyond the boundary of our reality, as a child, and I would like you to tell me, in time. But we are all children here. Imagine, all of us, all the people you know, exposed to the same thing. What would our future look like? Please.”

“ … there wouldn’t be one. Where are you going with this?”

“You are a vision of a different future, a glimpse into the potential future of the species.” He leaned forward, earnest, face brimming with zeal. “Do you understand what I am saying? Our future, human future, is a choice between eventual destruction and madness, or change, evolution, into … ” An open hand, a smile. “Something very much like what you are becoming, what my sister is halfway toward. Do you understand? Answer, please. I am trying, so very hard, to make you understand.”

I wanted to say ‘and I am trying to kill you’, or spit at him, or tell him he was wrong.

He was wrong. Wasn’t he?

The anger, the relief, all of it was flagging now, gnawed by a scared part of myself, a part that wanted more than anything to feel safe and strong. My greatest unsolved problem was how to combat the Eye, how to actually rescue my sister. I was weak, small, fragile.

What if there were a dozen of me, or a hundred? What if I knew how to make this dripping-black mathematical hell work for me? What if I could be strong?

Would the end justify the means?

He saw it on my face, and smiled. “I’m not going to treat you like some stupid, petty little follower, to be expended for a temporary advantage. I’ll even let your friends live – Saye may prove difficult, she won’t agree with this, but I promise. I will make it work. Join me in this effort, try to understand, and I won’t kill them. Do you understand what I am offering you?”

I shook my head, numb, trying not to answer. Trying to focus.

“I am offering you a chance to make sure that what happened to you and your sister never happens again.”

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