Life continues to confront me with difficult questions, over and over. Did I ever really have a twin sister? Do I have the courage and strength to rescue her? Am I willing to love a sociopath? Is magic real, or am I just insane?
Sitting on a cold stone bench before a wizard’s grave, sheltered by the skeletal winter trees, Evelyn needed answers to a question I couldn’t even begin to unpack.
Why did she still feel guilty for killing her own mother?
Doubtless she didn’t expect a real answer from me, but the weariness on her face wrenched at my heart. She was groping for a handhold, from the bottom of a very deep pit. She’d been doing so for years. I struggled to summon the right words; it wasn’t your fault, you had no choice, she forced your hand. She crippled you, she was going to kill you. She was evil.
Evelyn didn’t need to hear any of that. Raine had probably said those exact words to her a hundred times before.
I hesitated, my lips half-forming the first word of a dozen different sentences. I’d tried to play therapist and waded far out of my depth. Great job, Heather. Some friend I am.
Evelyn turned away with a little shake of her head. “Never mind,” she murmured. “You don’t need this.”
“But you do, Evee. It’s always okay to ask for help.”
“Doesn’t make much difference.” She shrugged. “Not a day goes by I don’t think about this, at least a bit. If I can’t figure myself out, how could you? It’s unfair of me to ask.”
I felt her slipping away, slipping back into performative grumpiness and the comfort of her barbed tongue. Any moment she’d change the subject, wave a hand at her mother’s grave with a bitter comment, smother the pain under sullen aggression. I had to buy time.
Luckily, my hand was still on her back; so I did the first thing that came to mind.
“Regardless,” she huffed. “At least the old bitch-”
“W-wait, Evee, don’t- don’t say anything.” I held up a finger. “Just- just stay perfectly still, don’t move, stay right there.”
“Heather?” She frowned hard, looked me up and down briefly. “What are you going on about?”
“Just, just stay. Stay sitting.” I hopped to my feet and stepped behind the bench, behind Evelyn, shivering a little in the corona of cold air. She peered at me like I’d gone mad. “Please, you can face forward, how you were. It’s okay, I’m not going to do anything weird.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I … I’m going to touch your shoulders. Please Evee, you trust me, don’t you?”
“ … that I do.” She didn’t sound very certain, but she did face forward once more. Perhaps I’d piqued her curiosity.
The next step required no small amount of courage. Evelyn was not a touchy-feely sort of person. Hugs did not come easily to her, and her body was a litany of aches and pains, old injuries, bone problems and joint issues, before one even considered her prosthetic right leg or the missing fingers on her mangled left hand. But I was committed now, I had to see this through.
Gentle but firm, so she knew what I was doing, no surprises – I wrapped my fingers around Evelyn’s shoulders. Beneath the thick grey jumper I could feel her muscles tight with permanent tension. I tried to recall the basics of Raine’s technique. I had to get this at least partially correct or it would be pointless, and I didn’t possess anything near Raine’s grip strength.
“And?” Evelyn asked. “Is that it? What happens n-”
I pressed down hard with both thumbs and squeezed with my fingers.
“Ahh!” Evelyn winced open-mouthed.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” My hands flew to my mouth, mortified. Idiot. I hiccuped. “Evee, I’m so sorry, I wanted to-”
“Don’t stop now,” she snapped. “Get on with it.”
“Oh … um, okay. Right.” Hiccup. “Right then. I’ll just start with … okay.”
My hands fluttered as I hesitated, as I touched my fingers back to the thin muscles in Evelyn’s shoulders. I pressed down hard, put my back into it. She grunted. This time I didn’t stop.
We took several minutes to find a comfortable rhythm. Evelyn growled and hissed, grumbling under her breath as I dug in with my thumbs, telling me “left a bit”, “down, no, further down”, or “press harder” when my grip slackened. Her shoulders were terribly knotted with old strain, bunched and uncomfortable. Her habitual slouch probably didn’t help.
Eventually she stopped wincing and grunting, and I felt the stress drain from her body inch by slow inch. She sighed deeply, sagged on the bench, and moved her walking stick off her lap to support her weight. Working my hands and arms chased away the worst of the chill air, or perhaps it was just proximity to Evelyn. Skinship does wonders for homoeostasis.
I’d bought time, now I needed to wheel the big guns into position. I wet my lips, weighed my options, and did the only thing I was certain of: I talked about myself.
“It’s not on the same scale,” I began quietly. “But I didn’t feel any special relief or sense of justice after I killed Alexander.”
Evelyn was silent, so I carried on.
“In the moment I won, I was satisfied, yes, I think so, in brute sort of a way. But afterward? I still suffer all the same anxieties, still feel the same way about myself. He was a monster, he kept people in cages and fed their minds to his Outsider. The world is a better place with him gone, certainly, and I did what I did to protect myself and my friends, all of you. We defeated an evil wizard in his magical castle, put his monstrous minions to fight, and freed his captive. Aren’t I supposed to feel victorious? What did I prove, in the end?”
As I spoke, a weight lifted inside my chest. I hadn’t realised it was there. I’d bottled this up for weeks, barely expressed a word of it to Raine, couldn’t make sense of it to myself. It didn’t hurt, not like Evelyn did, but I did struggle to keep a catch out of my voice. This wasn’t for me, this was for her.
“Proved him wrong,” Evelyn murmured.
“Exactly. So why do I feel this way?” I asked. “I don’t feel big or strong, I certainly don’t feel like a hero. All I did was commit murder. A necessary murder, perhaps, but I still made the decision to kill a person, clear headed, not in the heat of the moment. And I don’t feel any different. I’m still me. That was me, all along.” I had to take a deep breath. “I’m still terrified of ending up … other, different, that the brainmath will make me inhuman. All I proved in the end is that I had the strength to kill him, that’s all. It’s self-referential.”
Evelyn nodded slowly. “I know. I know exactly what you mean.”
I let out a controlled sigh and resumed rubbing Evelyn’s shoulders, simply to occupy my hands.
“It was important,” Evelyn muttered after a moment. “To me. That you were there. In that castle. You, Raine. Fuck it, even Twil, I guess. Even that thing,” she gestured at Praem with a sideways nod. “I didn’t have to do it alone. Thank you, for that.”
“That’s what friends are for.” I tried to sound bright. “Or so I’m told.”
“I’m … ” Evelyn cleared her throat. “I’m learning that too, yes.”
“I very much doubt I would have been friends with your mother, Evee. Goodness, it’s no wonder you worry about ending up like her, she tried to take over your mind. You’re not her. You’ll never be like her.”
We were deep in the core of it now, the most dangerous part, and I had to push on. “Killing one’s own mother, even in self-defence, is going to mess anyone up. Let’s forget for a moment that we’re all neck-deep in supernatural doodads, that she was a monster, a magician, all of that. Boil it down to the fundamentals: you had to kill your own mum. You had to. Even without everything else, without the magic, without all the other stuff she did to you, that’s a choice she inflicted on you. Of course you’re going to be wounded by that. Anybody would be.”
Evelyn frowned. “I suppose so.”
We slipped into silence. I focused on rubbing her back, kneading out the deeper knots.
“Serves you right,” she mumbled.
“Mm, pardon.” She cleared her throat and straightened up, nodding at her mother’s grave. “That was directed at her. She’s sludge in a box, and I’m getting a shoulder rub.”
“You’re very welcome. I think you rather needed it.”
Evelyn sighed. “Never used to like it from Raine. She gave up trying years ago.”
“You do tend to get the claws out for her.”
“She deserves it.”
“So, you’re saying I give better back rubs than her?”
“I’m saying I’m … oh I don’t know. More comfortable with you, I guess.”
“Should I take that as a compliment? I think I shall.”
Evelyn grunted, still staring at the grave. She hesitated over a word, opening her mouth before thinking better of it and lapsing back into silence. I squeezed her shoulders harder, enough to draw a wince from her gritted teeth.
“I-I’m sorry.” I blushed. “I don’t know why I did that, I’m getting carried away.”
“Then you should get carried away more often.” Evelyn twisted her back to one side, producing a trio of pops from her spine. She let out a throaty grumble. “I want to tell you how it happened.”
“How … how what happened?” I hedged my bets, though I could guess.
“Don’t be obtuse, Heather, it doesn’t suit you. How I killed my mother, what else?” She spoke in a very matter-of-fact way, like we were discussing the weather. “I’ve never told anybody. No point telling Raine, she was right there when it happened, all the way through the whole bloody business.”
“Okay then.” I swallowed, steeled myself. “I’ll try not to be squeamish.”
“Not much to be squeamish about. I stopped her heart.” Evelyn made a squeezing gesture with her left hand – her maimed hand, the one with the missing fingers. “That was the end of it, the final move, checkmate. We’d be out here all day if I told you the entire story, but that was the end. It’s not easy, forcing cardiac arrest, not something I could pull off these days, not against another mage. I was … different, then. I had help, of a kind.”
What on earth does one say to that? “Wow,” I breathed, then flustered and hurried to correct myself. “I-I mean-”
“Wow is right. It’s okay, Heather.”
I swallowed. “Okay. You had … help?”
Evelyn shrugged. She was absently tapping her artificial leg, right where the stump ended and prosthetic began. “It’s complicated. Raine, in part. It was messy, you have to understand that, not a clean dramatic confrontation. It wasn’t like I declared my intention and challenged her to a duel. We were planning to kill her, but we didn’t chose the moment, or the day. It just happened. Raine’s always insisted we bear joint culpability. Nonsense.” Evelyn sighed and shook her head. “She was too busy keeping the zombies off me. The real ones. She never put a scratch on my mother, not in a way that mattered, though I do distinctly recall Raine attempting to brain her with a log at one point, but that can’t be right, there was no fireplace in that room.”
“Sounds like Raine to me,” I added, feeling far too flippant for this subject.
“Yes, quite.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Always the enthusiast for a bit of fisticuffs.”
“Are magicians always so hard to kill?” I asked. “Alexander didn’t seem bothered by a bullet, but … and I mean this in a very good way, Evee, but you don’t seem as robust as that.”
“Good,” she grunted. “What’s the first thing a ruthless person does with power? Hm? Protect themselves, that’s what, but if you want to be invulnerable, you have to make sacrifices. Leave certain things behind.” She let out a sudden, sharp sigh. “Ahh, Heather, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted, sometimes. If it wasn’t for Raine, or … for you, maybe I would have given up on being human, just to feel a little safer.”
I squeezed her shoulders. “I for one am glad you didn’t.”
She nodded, sniffed. “My mother wasn’t like Alexander, not exactly, but she did have ways of defending herself. She couldn’t have survived a bullet through the chest though. God, that would have been so much easier. So, yes. I stopped my mother’s heart, and I had a hundred good reasons to do it. I was right, and I saved myself. But I still feel guilty.”
“It’s okay to feel that way. And to talk about it.”
Evelyn grunted. This wasn’t something one simply ‘got over’, I couldn’t ‘solve’ it for her, to presume so would be awful. She’d carry this for ever, but at least I could be here for her. At least she knew I understood.
As we’d spoken, I’d spotted furtive movement on the far side of the graveyard, in the undergrowth between the trees. Slowly, as I’d been concentrating on Evelyn, a black nose and sleek russet snout eased out from beneath the ferns. A cautious, skittish fox emerged into the cold sunlight, raising his head and looking about.
“Evee, do you see that fox over there?”
“Yes, yes, I see it too. It’s just a fox, not whatever you saw last night.”
I glanced over my shoulder, to where Praem still stood at attention with her hands clasped. “Praem? Do you see it too?”
“Fox,” she intoned.
The fox caught wind of us, or perhaps Praem’s voice carried a little too well between the gravestones. His head jerked in our direction, yellow eyes flashing in the sunlight, and then he scurried away, hindquarters vanishing into the undergrowth with a swish of his tail.
“The wall’s always been full of holes and gaps,” Evelyn said. “All sorts of things get in and out.” She rolled her shoulders with a grimace. “Thank you, Heather. You can stop now. I feel … ” She waved a hand. “Buttery.”
“Soft. Oh, I don’t know. I’m no good at this. Sit down, will you?”
I almost giggled as I slipped back onto the bench next to her, despite or perhaps because of the weight of our conversation, the release of tension in my gut. Evelyn blinked at the grave one last time, then finally lifted her eyes to the sky. I felt closer to her now than I ever had.
Close enough to ask the question that had lingered on my mind, during the unquiet night of tossing and turning.
“Evee, yesterday, in the car, you said something that got me thinking.”
“You said you weren’t very happy with Raine or I – which makes perfect sense, considering where we’ve dragged you.”
“We’ve been over this. You didn’t drag me.”
“Be that as it may,” I tried to stay on topic. Despite the strange bonding session we’d just shared, I felt I was verging on unsafe ground, but I had to clear the air. “I’ve been really selfish the last couple of weeks, completely wrapped up in myself. When I thought about it, about why you might be angry at me, I realised you’ve barely been talking to me lately, and some of the things you’ve said-”
Evelyn cleared her throat and turned her face away from me. “Heather, it’s not your fault, it’s nothing you’ve done.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Evee, you’re the last person to pull your punches, but I still get the impression I’ve angered you in some way.” I made an effort to keep my voice steady, to hold onto my courage. “You can tell me. I promise.”
Evelyn directed a tight frown at me, her lips pressed together. I did my best not to falter.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“Surely you’ve figured out by now I’m an extremely difficult person? You really want to open this can of worms?”
“Of course I know that.” I couldn’t help but smile a little. “And I’m still serious.”
Evelyn let out a long sigh. She looked off at the lake in the distance, and spoke haltingly, as if selecting each word with great care. “You’re the first real friend I’ve ever made.”
“Raine doesn’t count?”
“I don’t know.” Evelyn shrugged. “You tell me, does she?”
“I like to think so.”
“We met under rather different circumstances, and she’s always been … Raine.” Evelyn gave me a sidelong look.
“Yes. She is. Very.”
“You’re my first real friend. I think. And then your mysterious bloody dream pixie comes along and … ”
Evelyn threw up both hands and huffed in frustration. I blinked at her, and incredibly enough she began to blush, shooting me a mortified sidelong glance before averting her face, hiding her eyes behind her hand.
“Evee … you’re saying … you’re jealous? Of Lozzie?”
Evelyn shrugged, still hiding. “I don’t bloody well know. All right? I rather took your words to heart, all that stuff you said weeks back about not keeping things from you. Well. Here it is. I’m impossible, I know. It’s unhealthy, but I can’t help it.” I was about to reply, to tell her it was okay, when suddenly she emerged from behind her hand and launched off again, flushed in the face and embarrassed to her core but still strong-voiced. “Why did she get to waltz into your life, monopolise your time? Raine, I understand; you sleep with her and I want no part of that, but unless I’ve utterly misread you I’m pretty certain you weren’t going wrist-deep in your Lozzie.”
“Um, wow.” I felt a blush creeping up my cheeks too. “You’re right, no, I didn’t do, um, that.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we rescued her. She looked like a wreck. Perfect case for Raine. But … ” Evelyn sighed sharply and threw up her hands again.
“I know, I’m a bitter, twisted weirdo. Evelyn Saye, turbo-bitch. Of course you can have other friends. I have no idea why I feel this way.”
“Evee, don’t talk about yourself like that.” A smile tugged at the corners of my lips. Evelyn looked away again, so I got to my feet and stood up in front of her, tucking my hands into my hoodie to keep the cold at bay. “I don’t exactly have a lot of experience at this friend stuff either.”
“More than I do,” she grunted. I saw she was about to retreat behind her hand again.
“Why don’t we watch some of your anime magical girl shows together?” I asked.
That earned me her attention, an incredulous frown; gave me guts, for once.
“’I’ll punish you in the name of the moon.’” I said. “All that stuff?”
Evelyn squinted at me like I’d gone completely off my rocker. Perhaps I had. “That’s from Sailor Moon. I don’t even like that show. And you don’t even watch anime. What does this have to do with anything?”
“Then introduce me to it. We can do regular, normal friend things together, Evee. I’d enjoy that, I really would. Not everything has to be life—or-death magical shenanigans all the time.”
“I-” Evelyn came up short, frowning to herself. “I guess I can think of a few you might like. Something with lesbian romance in it. I suppose.”
“Good. I’ll look forward to it.”
Evelyn shook her head, still mired in disbelief.
“While we’re on embarrassing personal subjects, I’m going to take a huge risk,” I said, plunging ahead before I had time to stop and rethink. If I planned this out I’d never ask. My heart thudded against my chest and my mouth went dry. This was absolutely going to get me shouted at, but I doubted I’d get another good opportunity, perhaps ever. “This question might make you angry, Evee, but considering what you’ve said, I think I need to ask it, because you deserve some good things in life.”
“ … I’m not going to like where this is going, am I?”
“Are you attracted to Twil?”
She blinked. “What? No.”
“Because, the way you act around her-”
“No. Nullum. Twil? Have you lost your senses?”
I faltered, babbling to explain myself as my cheeks flushed. Oh dammit, I’d gotten this wrong. “M-maybe I’ve been misreading the situation, but it’s in the way you treat her. I admit, I’m … incredibly gay, so maybe I’m reading a meaning into your actions which isn’t there, maybe you like men and that’s fine and maybe we need to get you a boyfriend instead, but I can’t help-”
“Do you really call Raine ‘mommy’?”
“No! Oh God, that joke in the car. No. No … once.” I blushed beet-red. Felt like steam was coming out of my ears. “It was really weird and I doubt I’d ever do it again. Not my thing.”
Evelyn merely raised an eyebrow.
“Mommy,” Praem intoned.
“Don’t you start on that too,” I said to her. “You’ve hardly got room to talk, you’re wearing a maid uniform.”
Perhaps it was my flustered imagination, but I swore I saw a hint of amusement on the doll-demon’s face.
“Fascinating,” Evelyn muttered.
“S-stop deflecting, Evelyn. I know what you’re doing. Is that really your answer? I’m wrong, you don’t like Twil in that way, at all? Look, I-I’m sorry for asking, but I had to know.”
I saw the barbed joke gather on her tongue – but at the last second Evelyn stopped stopped, the ghost of a frown creasing her forehead. “Twil hasn’t been playing silly buggers with you, has she? Made a stupid joke along these lines? Is that what brought this on?”
I shook my head. “No. Nothing.”
Evelyn watched my face intently. “You’re sure?”
“Quite certain.” I declined to share my impressions of Twil’s private feelings. “Would it make any difference if she did like you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know any of this. Will you take that for an answer?”
“You mean, you don’t know if you’re attracted to Twil, or you don’t know what you’re attracted to in general?”
“It’s not a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about.” She sounded deeply unimpressed.
I was about to apologise, withdraw the subject, allow Evelyn her privacy – we were close friends, but maybe this was difficult for her. Not everybody felt such clarity about their sexuality as I did. Perhaps she was asexual, and perhaps that was none of my business.
Before I could say anything, Evelyn suddenly let out a huge sigh. She attempted to rally her forces once more, but then gave up and spread one hand in the ultimate lazy shrug. “I don’t know, Heather. I don’t know if I’m … ” She grumbled in her throat, covering awkward embarrassment. “If I’m into girls, like you are. It’s not as if I think about cunts all the time. But I have looked at those,” she made a wide gesture at Praem, and I assumed she was talking about the demon’s impressive chest. “Men … I don’t know. I don’t even know if I have a functioning sexuality. At all. Half my body doesn’t work, my brain’s a mess. My mother broke more than even I understand. Fuck it, do you seriously want to hear all this?”
“If you want to share, absolutely. We’re best friends, Evee. If we can’t talk about this then who can we talk about it with? If we can discuss murder and dead mages then I’m pretty sure I’m comfortable talking about what gets you off. Or, what doesn’t. I’m not going to judge you.”
“Of course you won’t, don’t be stupid, I’m not worried about that.” She huffed, then put her weight on her walking stick and held out a hand. “Help me up, my false leg’s gone numb.”
I gave her my hand. In the corner of my eye I saw Praem twitch, as if she wanted to help instead. Evelyn levered herself off the cold stone bench and brushed off the backside of her long skirt. “Was that meant to be a joke?” I asked.
“Sort of.” She shared a grim smile. “I think it’s time I showed you something.”
I stared at her. “Not a … not a porn collection?”
“I-it’s what we were talking about! I assumed … ahhh.”
Evelyn snorted with laughter. “No. But keep that lightness of spirit, Heather. It makes you wonder-… ” She cleared her throat. “It’s good. We’ll need that where we’re going.”
I asked a silent question with my eyebrows. Evelyn nodded through the sheltering trees, toward the bulk of the mansion towering over the landscape, the roof still visible even from this woodland grotto. “Raine already knows all this, she was here. She’s seen it all. You’re weren’t, you don’t understand. But you’re right, you’re my best friend, and I want you to … ” She shrugged. “Whatever. It’s time I showed you what my mother used me for.”
There was no good answer to that except to follow her.
As we left the graveyard behind, Evelyn did not glance back at her mother’s grave, but I looked over my shoulder to check Praem was following.
She was not. She was locked in a staring contest with a little russet snout that poked from the undergrowth on the far side of the graveyard. Yellow eyes glowed back at her. How bold. I suppose it had little to fear from people, out here.
“Praem.” Evelyn clicked her fingers. “Stop dawdling.”
The doll-demon turned away, shoes clicking to catch up. The fox slipped back into the wild.
I put the animal from my mind; just a fox.
Back inside, shrouded once more in the oppressive shadows of the mansion’s heavy beams and solid brick, Evelyn led the way down the kinking spinal corridor. The heavy carpet soaked up the sound of our footsteps and muffled Praem’s escorting tread. Somewhere off in the depths of the house I could the pipes gurgling, a boiler running; perhaps Raine was taking a shower after her exercise. We passed by the kitchen, Lewis happily clanging pans around inside, humming to himself as he worked on tonight’s dinner.
The locked door to the mothballed east wing didn’t look particularly special, no different to any other door in the house. Solid, stout, dark wood. A little dust had gathered on the handle.
Evelyn produced the key she’d browbeaten out of her father, and fitted it into the lock. My throat and my guts both tightened.
I forced myself to take a deep breath. Evelyn wanted to show me her past, she needed me to understand. I had to focus past my natural anxiety. There was nothing to be afraid of here, this place was dead and done. Besides, we had Praem with us. Only Raine made a more effective bodyguard.
Evelyn frowned sideways at me. “We’re not even down there yet.”
“I’m okay. I’m fine.” I smiled, a little embarrassed. “Please do lead on, Evee.”
She did. She pushed the door wide, left it open and unlocked as we ventured beyond. For some reason that reassured me.
The mothballed wing was saturated in darkness, far denser than the rest of the house. All the curtains in the corridor were shut tight, some of them double-layered, all covered in dust. What sort of prying eyes did they hope to keep at bay, out here in the back of beyond, in the woods? Evelyn found a light switch, apparently from memory. Nothing happened when she clicked it up and down.
“Tch. He’s removed the bloody light bulbs,” she grunted. “Idiot.”
“Is it safe to open a curtain?”
“Eh? Why wouldn’t it be?” Evelyn used the tip of her walking stick to sweep one of the heavy curtains aside. Dust billowed into the air. Weak winter sunlight crept over us and filtered down the long barren corridor, catching the edges of wooden door frames and metal handles. The light didn’t reach far, soaked up by the darkness.
“I thought perhaps there was a reason they’re closed? It’s hardly an unreasonable assumption in here.”
“The reason is wilful ignorance,” Evelyn muttered as she squinted along the corridor. “This’ll have to do. You,” she clicked her fingers at Praem. “Open them as we go.”
Praem stepped ahead of us to obey. She grabbed the next set of curtains and drew them wide. Sunlight touched her face, highlighted those milk-white eyes.
“Light,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, light,” Evelyn grumbled.
Most of the mothballed wing was closed up, doors shut, a couple of rugs rolled against the corridor wall. We passed a few open doors, the rooms inside stacked with furniture beneath ghostly transparent dust-covers. A stale smell hung in the air, with undercurrents of harsh cleaning chemicals and aged wood. Evelyn strode with a purpose, walking stick swinging, shoulders hunched, knowing exactly where she was going. I followed a step behind. The shadows retreated before us.
Eventually the corridor ran out, terminated by a stout oak door. This door looked older, shorter, the frame a little crooked. Evelyn clacked the handle down. “Mind your head.”
The room inside would have been beautiful under any other circumstances, a long sitting room with a very low ceiling and a wooden floor, covered in thick rugs. A pair of cracked leather sofas faced each other over a slab of glass and metal trying to pass itself off as a coffee table, all draped with dust sheets. A huge soot-blackened fireplace dominated the entirety of one wall, crowned with a marble mantelpiece, bare except for a skin of dust.
Evelyn ignored all of it, and my curious look. She stalked across the room to a door which hadn’t been apparent until she pushed it open, hidden as it was behind a column of load-bearing wall. Darkness yawned beyond.
I peered over her shoulder. Wooden steps descended between whitewashed concrete walls.
“A hidden door to a secret cellar,” I sighed. “What’s next, eyes in the back of portraits? When does Scooby Doo turn up to solve the mystery?”
Evelyn wasn’t laughing. She shot me a sidelong look. I didn’t blame her, the joke was a weak attempt to push back my own trepidation. I mumbled an apology.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Place is fucking ridiculous, I know.”
“It really is.”
Evelyn slapped a switch and a light guttered on far below.
“Too gutless to go down there and remove the bulbs, I see,” she grunted.
“Evee.” My voice caught, and I had to swallow. “I don’t mean to sound worried, but I’m getting deja vu doing this.”
“Hmm? For what?”
“You led me to a semi-secret underground magical treasure trove once before. You may recall I had a very uncomfortable face-off with a giant spider? Is there anything down there I need to know about, preferably before it surprises me with a giant stinger?”
Evelyn grunted, taking me seriously. “Nothing pneuma-somatic. My mother would never have things she couldn’t see so close to her most important work. The whole place is warded. Best not touch anything though. Raine and I cleaned up everything … ” she waved a hand, searching for the words. “Everything independently mobile, but there’s plenty of sights you won’t want to see, remnants of her constructs. Just follow me.”
I nodded. “Okay. I trust you, Evee.”
She led the way down the stairs, walking stick clacking. We were spared the cliche of ominous creaking wood – instead the stairs echoed, a hollow space beneath them. The echoes multiplied as we descended to the cellar floor.
Surprisingly spacious, the cellar was filled mostly with empty wine racks, containing only a few moldering old bottles, half-blocking several doors. A sort of butcher’s counter stood in the middle of the space, stacked with old metal kegs, casting a long shadow as the single bare light bulb struggled to illuminate the rear of the space. Modern concrete gave way to mortared stonework, open archways leading off into deeper darkness.
Dank cold air crept down the collar of my hoodie, dark and somehow unclean. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself.
“How old is all this?” I murmured. The whitewashed concrete surroundings multiplied even the beating of my heart, let alone Praem’s precise tread as she brought up the rear.
Evelyn cocked an eyebrow. “Old enough. Don’t fret, we’re not going back there.” She gestured for Praem. “Open that.”
I felt a modicum of relief as Praem headed for the nearest door, modern and clean, but stared and felt a shiver again when I realised it was hewn from a solid block of stainless steel, with several arm-thick bolts on this side. The doll-demon opened it without effort, on perfectly balanced, silent hinges, then reached inside and clicked a concealed light switch. Harsh bright florescent illumination flooded out, the bulb buzzing in the echoing cellar. Evelyn let out a shuddering breath. I realised her knuckles were white on the handle of her walking stick, her jaw clenched hard.
“Evee?” I reached for her hand, very gently. “Evee it’s okay. I’m right here, okay? We can- why don’t we got back upstairs, wait for Raine too?”
She swallowed hard and shot me a frowning look. “It’s just a Pavlovian response. There’s nothing here anymore. Not really.”
“If you’re certain. Whatever you need.”
“I’m bloody well here already, aren’t I?” she spat. “Fuck it, let’s go.”
Evelyn led me inside, through the steel door. Praem swung to follow us without instruction.
I wasn’t even remotely prepared.
It looked a little bit like one of the less savoury rooms at Cygnet hospital, and a little bit like a torture chamber. A real one. Not a medieval parody; no iron maiden, no rack, no table of rusty implements. That would have been easier, cartoonish.
No, it was a sordid little place. A sour taste filled my mouth as I took in the implications.
The floor and walls were tiled, white, sloped slightly toward a drain in the corner. Easy to hose down. A tap jutted from one wall. An interior wall of thick steel bars split the room a few feet in – a cell, allowing an observer to watch in safety. The cell door stood open, the bars buckled and bent.
Inside that tiled cell, every single inch of wall and floor was covered with a vast, intricate magic circle, in deep midnight black strokes, like dried tar instead of paint. Four layers of magic circle. Between each, entire passages had been written in a script I’d never seen before, ugly and angular.
My head swam at the sheer complexity – but it didn’t hurt my eyes or make me feel sick. The design had been ruined, disarmed. Several sections had been wiped away, smudged, a few tiles shattered.
In the centre of the circles stood a chair.
A little like a dentist’s chair. Reclined. Bolted to the floor. Plastic, wipe-clean. Leather restraints for the forehead, ankles, wrists. Somebody had torn at the armrests, ripped out bits of stuffing.
The chair was child-sized. I swallowed a hiccup.
Evelyn took three steps into the cell, staring at the chair, then turned her head to watch me, watch my reaction. Her breathing was steady, controlled, expression dark but not distressed. She seemed to have mastered her memories. I followed on numb feet. Praem stepped forward to stand a few feet from Evelyn, prim and straight-backed. Only later did I realise she’d positioned herself between Evelyn and the chair. Perhaps she felt protective.
I didn’t even have to ask the question.
“It doesn’t work anymore,” Evelyn said, matter-of-fact. “It’s defanged, no power source, and I ruined the circle.”
I shook my head, glancing around again, then back at her. “But … Evee, what is this? Was this … you were down here?”
Evelyn wet her lips with a flicker of her tongue, and I realised she’d rehearsed this moment. How many times had she relived whatever had happened in this horrible little room? How long had she waited to unburden herself? Raine knew it all, what could Evelyn tell her that she didn’t already know? I steeled myself as best I could. She needed somebody to listen.
To my surprise, she nodded toward Praem. “So, she’s started talking.”
“ … yes?” I felt a catch in my chest. “She has.”
“Why do you think it’s taken her so long?” Evelyn reached up with her free hand and tapped the side of Praem’s head with a knuckle. Praem turned to look at her. A glare? Evelyn ignored her, kept speaking. “Wood. Praem had nothing to work with. Summoning an incorporeal Outsider into a vessel is relatively easy, but Praem didn’t start with a human brain to run on. She had to bootstrap herself, mimic, learn how to think in our reality. Adaptation is slow. The visitor takes time to remember itself, even with a simple thing like Praem here. You following this so far?”
Her voice echoed off the tiles. I nodded, and in my heart I began to see where this might be going. “I think so. Okay.”
“Remember the zombies in the Sharrowford Cult’s castle? Actual corpses. Barely functional, maybe a week or two old, easy to beat and not very clever, certainly not sentient, let alone lucid. Their potential was greater in the long run, yes, dangerously so. A brain, nervous system, sinews, it all gives the demon something to work with, a framework to base itself on, though the shock is greater. With time, every single one of those zombie would have been lethal.”
Evelyn shrugged. “Perhaps. I don’t know how she was made, or how old she is. A demon that strong would need a very short leash. She might just be stupid, intentionally crippled.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry for interrupting, go on.”
“Even with a real corpse, there’s no electrical activity in the brain, nothing to hijack, nothing to communicate with, to teach it how the mouth works or what words mean, to give it context for what it’s being asked.” Her voice lowered, quiet, almost to a growl. She hunched her shoulders, leaning heavily on her walking stick. The dirty little tiled cell seemed to press in on us.
“I think I see where this is going,” I murmured. My head felt tight, almost feverish. A high-pitched whine threatened at the edge of my hearing.
Evelyn eyed me. “Do you?”
“I’m sorry.” I hiccuped, the horror of this almost too much. “I … this is … please. Tell me. I’m listening. I promise.”
Evelyn nodded. “A real Outsider, a hundred times more complex than Praem, something not far off your Eye – summon it into a corpse, it won’t be able to speak properly for weeks, maybe even months. By that time it’ll have burnt out whatever vessel you’ve crammed it into. Certainly it won’t be able to share secrets from Outside with a ruthless bitch of a mage, no matter what deals she tries to strike with it. No. You want to make deals with a real Outsider, an alien god, you need it sentient from the word go. This,” she glanced at the chair, then stared at me. “This device was made to invite possession of a living human host.”
“Evee. Oh, Evee.”
Evelyn put her maimed hand to her chest. “No prizes for guessing who.”