The claustrophobic echoes of Evelyn’s voice ebbed away as she concluded her tortured confession, reflected off the dirty tiles in the horrible little cellar room. I hiccuped out loud. Disgust clutched at my guts, and I shook my head at the child-sized dentist’s chair.
“Evee.” My voice cracked.
“Mmhmm. I know,” she grunted.
Dank subterranean cold leeched residual heat from the safe embrace of my hoodie, and wormed icy fingers up the back of my neck. I wrapped my arms around myself, felt awfully sick. The crushing press of the broken magic circle above and around us seemed to hang poised like open jaws. We stood in the maw of a dead beast.
Suddenly I very much needed to be out in the sunlight, but I wouldn’t flee and leave Evelyn down here alone with her memories, not even for a half a minute. She looked rooted to the spot, set and solid, sheltering inside that over sized grey jumper and leaning on her walking stick next to Praem’s impassive form.
“ … I, Evee … that’s horrible, I-”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she grumbled.
I shrugged, quite lost for words.
“Scared of me yet?” she asked, an oddly sarcastic quirk to her lips. I blinked in confusion.
“Um, should I be?”
Evelyn sighed and sketched an uncomfortable half-shrug. She deflated, shoulders slumping, and I sensed she’d run out of carefully rehearsed words. She’d confessed, but now she needed to actually talk. “No. It was a bad joke, a bit of gallows humour – implying the demon is still in my head. Get it? Trying not to get too grim, that’s all.”
“Evee, don’t joke about that. I’d never think that about you. Why would I be scared of you? You’re sweet, and lovely, no matter what you think of yourself.”
“Yes, well.” Evelyn cleared her throat and averted her eyes. I didn’t care how embarrassed she felt when praised – it embarrassed me too, but it was true. No wonder she felt barely human half the time. “I got rid of it five years ago. Sort of what precipitated killing my mother. Trust me, the demon wouldn’t want to return even if it could.”
“Good. Good.” Unfamiliar vehemence entered my voice. “God, fu- … fuck your mother.”
“Fuck,” Praem echoed.
Evelyn raised an eyebrow, ignoring Praem. “That’s rare enough, from you.”
“I think your mother deserves a bit of foul language.” I huffed and shook my head. “Why did she even do it? Her own daughter.”
“So the Outsider she summoned could talk and think from the get go, trapped in a bound vessel. So she could force it to share it’s knowledge. It got a functioning human brain and a human consciousness to pattern itself on. The process went very fast, though I wasn’t exactly … coherent enough to observe,” she spoke with such bitter scorn lurking in her voice. “It had full sentience in a handful of hours, then found itself strapped to that damned chair, in the body of a nine year old girl, at the tender mercy of my mother.”
I wet my lips and took a deep breath, struggling to master the high-pitched ringing in my head; it wasn’t magic at work, just disgust and the anger of empathy for my friend. “That’s not the why, not exactly. Why do it at all? What did she hope to gain?”
“Real knowledge, from Outside.”
I spoke a question with my eyebrows, still stewing in second-hand outrage. Evelyn continued her explanation.
“Magic is unreliable, extrapolated from scraps in old books, written by insane monks and murderous desert cannibals, a thousand years ago. Trial and error can be lethal, you and I both know that from experience.”
“Too true, yes.” I sighed.
“I managed to teleport myself Outside, completely helpless when I got there. Remember?”
“Evee, of course I remember.”
“Mm, Well. So, my mother figured that maybe there was some kernel of truth, to the old stereotype of medieval wizards summoning demons, binding them with God’s language, forcing them to divulge their secrets – all that dark ages nonsense. Turned out she was right. Imagine an Outsider, something almost like your Eye, trapped in a weak body. Imagine it. If you had the stomach for the act, imagine what clarity you might extract from it, what magic it could teach.” She shrugged. “I think she tried other methods before deciding to use her own flesh and blood, but she didn’t hesitate when the time came.”
Evelyn seemed to run dry at last. Her breath shuddered on the final word and her eyes slipped toward the chair, like water sucked down a drain. Before I could stop her or summon the courage to pull her into a hug, her maimed hand reached out and touched the wipe-clean plastic headrest. Her fingers shook ever so slightly.
“Evee, you shouldn’t-”
Praem grabbed Evelyn’s wrist.
I froze. Evelyn shot the doll-demon a razor-sharp frown. Praem didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to our surprise and disapproval, staring right back at Evelyn. Gently but firmly, she removed her mistress’s hand from the chair.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Evelyn hissed.
Praem released Evelyn’s wrist, folded her offending hands neatly in front of her, and returned to staring straight ahead.
“She’s trying to help,” I blurted out before Evelyn could explode. She whirled on me instead. “I don’t think you should be touching it either, I really don’t. Except maybe to pull it to pieces. Isn’t that right, Praem?”
“Nonsense,” Evelyn spat. “What does she care? She – it isn’t even capable of understanding.” Evelyn rubbed at her wrist.
Praem declined to answer. I sighed at her.
“You need to learn when to help your own case,” I said. “Please?”
“No touching,” she finally intoned.
Evelyn whacked the chair’s base with her walking stick. “It’s completely inert. This whole set up is inert. It’s harmless now.”
“Not emotionally,” I said quietly. “Not to you.”
“Yes,” Praem added.
Evelyn glared daggers at the doll-demon, shot a stormy look at me, then huffed and rolled her eyes. “I suppose you’re right.”
“It’s a hateful thing. Even if I didn’t know what it was used for.”
Evelyn withdrew from the chair by half a step, shaking her head. “She never kept me in it for long. A few days at a time, four at most, then maybe a week to recover between sessions. Longer than that with a demon at the controls and the physical changes would have been too much, it would have taken over and broke free, or I would have expired.”
“You mean, died?”
“Yes. And then she’d have to procure another child.”
I reached down and squeezed Evelyn’s maimed hand. She didn’t squeeze back, but she didn’t let go either. She shot me a look of resigned understanding, then glanced down at our interlocked fingers.
“Possession,” she muttered. “Possession by a vast outer intelligence takes a heavy toll on the human body. Makes changes as it settles in, adapts the shell to suit the inhabitant, but it never got to finish any DIY on me – my mother was ripping it back out every few days. It’s nothing like – what’s that film, The Exorcist? Nothing like that, more like what we saw with Zheng. Perhaps it tries to do impossible things with human muscles, pushes them too far, breaks bones and fixes them wrong, or forgets to pump blood and lymph to an extremity.” She tapped her prosthetic leg with her walking stick, a dull clunking sound in the little tiled room. “Hardly matters with a corpse.”
“You’re not a corpse, and you won’t end up as one,” I said with all the certainty I had. Evelyn cocked an eyebrow at me and half-smiled.
“When you’re a hundred and two. Not a day earlier.”
She snorted, then frowned at me. “Have I told you I have a detached retina? I can’t recall. Here, the left eye.” She opened her eyes wide. “Another legacy of my unwelcome cranial passenger.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I can see any difference between your eyes.”
“Mm.” She turned away and resumed staring at the chair, the instrument of her past.
“We should go back upstairs, Evee. Thank you, for sharing with me, but I don’t think it’s good for you to linger down here. It creeps me out rather badly as well.”
“I haven’t reached the point yet,” she grunted.
“Um … ”
“Twil. What you asked me. My … ” She grumbled low in her throat. “I’m getting there.”
I looked at her sidelong, then reluctantly let my eyes slide over to Praem.
Ah. Finally this was all falling into place, or so I thought. Demons in her head at the start of puberty – was Evelyn about to confess that’s what she found attractive? Had I finally, after weeks of speculation, uncovered the real reason she’d wrought her doll-demon in the image of a cuddly voluptuous motherly type? I swallowed, and held my tongue.
“It had a name.”
“ … it?” I blinked, catching up.
“The demon – the Outsider my mother housed in my body. I can pronounce it, in theory, but it’d make my throat bleed and my tongue ache for a week. Probably make you chuck your guts up. Not because it’s you, Heather, sorry,” she added quickly. “The sound of its name would make anybody ill. Do you understand what that means?”
I shook my head, feeling three steps behind.
“Because it told me its true name. It hated my mother almost as much as I did. It didn’t want to be here, not like her,” Evelyn nodded toward Praem. “She’s game for a few strawberries, and apparently dressing up like a fetish object. She’s barely more complex than we are.”
Praem turned her head to stare at Evelyn.
“She doesn’t mean anything rude by that,” I said.
“Rude,” Praem echoed.
Evelyn ignored the banter. “It was like a king, or an emperor – a crap metaphor, but the closest I can get. It resented the sheer indignity of being summoned, of my mother’s demands, of being forced to speak, but most of all it resented this.” She tapped her chest. “Imagine yourself trapped in the body of an insect. It felt such revulsion.” Evelyn all but spat the word. “We came to an understanding, it and I, over the span of, oh, three, four years, in what passed for the privacy of my own head, despite … despite … ” Evelyn swallowed, hard, and screwed her eyes up for a second.
I squeezed her hand. “It’s alright. You’re not there anymore.”
“You want to know why I call Praem an it, Heather? Because I’ve had one of these things in my head. Because it is alien. It taught me things it withheld from my mother, made sure the secret knowledge it did share with her was subtly flawed. It showed me how to cast it out and keep it out, and how to kill her. When it finally left, in the space it had occupied, stuff was missing.”
Evelyn shrugged. “Bits of memory. Some bodily functions it had taken over – I was incontinent for a week after. Disgusting, mm?”
“Not- not at all. That’s hardly your fault.”
“It was disgusting. Anyway,” she sighed and waved a hand down at herself, at her abdomen. “I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve only had two periods in my entire life, when I was twelve. If anything still works down there, I don’t know. I … ” She frowned, cleared her throat. “As far as I’m aware, I’m incapable of orgasm. I don’t know who or what I’m attracted to, and I don’t know if that’s just me, or if my capacity to feel such things was ripped out, overwritten.” She turned to look at me, shrugged with her eyebrows, very matter of fact. “There’s your answer.”
I took a very deep breath, glanced around the horrible little tiled cell, and then locked eyes with Evelyn. “I think it’s high time we got out of here. I’m going to take you upstairs and give you a very big hug now.”
Evelyn started to shake her head. “Heather, I’m-”
“No ifs or buts. Up. Up!”
I held fast to her hand. Luckily she didn’t offer much resistance as I dragged her from the room and back into the main cellar, then up the stairs, clonking on the hollow wood. Praem followed smartly behind, and to my immense relief she shut the steel door. She clomped up the wooden stairs as I pulled Evelyn back into the sitting room, with the huge fireplace and the low ceiling. Already I began to shrug off the cold, the dank smell of the cellar replaced with dust and winter sunlight.
“Shut that door, Praem, if you please,” I said, and she obeyed, closing the door to the cellar.
Evelyn wormed her hand out of mine and clacked her walking stick against the floorboards.
“I’m not looking for sympathy,” she said. “I didn’t tell you all that to-”
“Evee. Shut up.”
I gave her the very big hug I’d threatened to. She made a half-hearted attempt to pull away, but I wrapped my arms around her knobbly shoulders and held on tight, refused to let go.
I’d never had a friend like Evelyn before; I’d never really had any friends before, except a few fleeting teenage moments during my least bad times. I’d never felt this way about a friend before either – shared her pain, outraged at her mistreatment, aching to help.
I wanted, in my weak, circuitous fashion, to protect Evelyn.
How silly was that? She was a mage, she was far more in control of her powers than I, she had a supernatural bodyguard and Raine and the weight of family history behind her, not to mention money. It was not in the least bit romantic or erotic – despite how soft and fluffy Evelyn could be when one got past her thorns – but I did love her.
Evelyn grumbled and I felt her blushing, but after a moment she returned the embrace, awkward and hesitant.
The handle of her walking stick pressed against my back.She let me take her weight, for once.
“I’m fine,” she muttered. “This is all old stuff, history. I’m fine.”
“You are,” I murmured.
Eventually she cleared her throat and set her walking stick against the floor, and I let her go. She turned away, sniffing and rubbing a thumb under her eyes. I spared us any further embarrassment with a bit of quick thinking.
“Praem,” I said, lifting the corner of one of the dust covers on the nearest of the two leather sofas. “Help me get one of these off, will you please?”
“Heather?” Evelyn frowned as Praem crossed to help me.
“I’d rather not sit in the dust, and I assume you wouldn’t either?”
Praem ‘helped’ by whisking the entire dust cover off with one sudden jerk of her arms, the sheet billowing out with a crack of displaced air.
I flinched; hadn’t seen her move that fast since the chaotic fight in the cult’s castle. With a wince I braced for the heavy plastic sheet to slam against the wall and slide to the floor – but, at the precise moment of maximum extension, Praem flicked her wrists to fold the cover in half in the air, her maid uniform’s skirt twirling as she turned and pinched the edges together and folded it again with a whipping motion. She caught the neatly stacked bundle on one outstretched hand, paused for a single heartbeat, and then placed it on the coffee table.
She resumed staring straight ahead. Several long strands of hair had escaped her loose bun.
“Um, thank you?” I managed.
“Bloody showoff,” Evelyn grunted, then covered her mouth as she coughed in the cloud of settling dust.
“Yes, very impressive. Though a gentler touch would perhaps have produced less of a mess?”
Praem tilted her head upward. The milky white of her eyes juddered back and forth rapidly. Was she counting the dust particles?
“Suppose I don’t have a choice now.” Evelyn coughed again, then batted at Praem’s ankles with her walking sick. “Shift yourself.” The doll-demon did as she was told. Evelyn settled uncomfortably onto the sofa, rubbing at the place her thigh joined her prosthetic. “Am I the only one sitting down or what?”
I shook my head. Praem took the question as an order, and perched on the opposite sofa, right on the dust sheet. We both watched her for a second, but she seemed content to stare into space.
“Actually, I’d like to do a thought experiment first,” I said.
“Thought experiment,” Evelyn echoed. “Why does that phrase make it sound like a profoundly bad idea?”
“It’s nothing embarrassing. Or it shouldn’t be, at least.”
Her eyebrows climbed her forehead. “I never said anything about embarrassing.”
“Just close your eyes. Please, Evee? I want to try to … get you to imagine something.”
“If you creep up and shout boo in my ear I will thump you, Heather, friend for life or not.”
I huffed and put my hands on hips. “Would I do that? I’m not Raine.”
Evelyn relented with a sceptical frown, and closed her eyes.
“Okay, now just relax, try to … try to release as much tension as you can. Breathe deeply.” I had zero idea how to accomplish this, too far out of my wheelhouse. I didn’t even have Raine’s examples to go on, but we had to start somewhere.
“Breathing deeply,” Evelyn grumbled, unimpressed.
“I want you to picture Twil.”
“Oh bloody hell, you’re serious.”
“Play along, please? Ignore the sexual aspect, all of that. Let’s pretend for a moment that none of the magical stuff exists, either, forget that she’s a werewolf, all of it.”
“Easier said than done.”
“Please try. Please.” I paused, to let her think. “How does thinking about Twil make you feel?”
“Imagine her … ” I gulped, a little embarrassed. “Imagine her hugging you.”
Evelyn cracked one eye and frowned at me. “That’s all you’ve got? Bit tame, isn’t it?”
“Just do it!” I flustered. “Close your eyes. Imagine her putting her arms around you.”
Evelyn grumbled but closed her eyes again, fingers playing with the handle of her walking stick. I bit my tongue, in case she was taking this seriously. I didn’t want to disrupt any rose-coloured imagination with the jarring of my awful scratchy voice.
Eventually Evelyn sighed a big sigh. She opened her eyes again and stared at me like I was a quack doctor.
“Well?” I prompted. “Anything?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Twil … she … she’s irritating. And stupid.”
“Oh Evee, she’s not stupid. That’s hardly fair. She’s impulsive, and passionate, and straightforward.”
“She’s dumb as a brick.”
“She’s going to university to do bio-medical science next year. That’s not stupid,” I said. Evelyn grumbled under her breath and looked away, but I pressed on. “And even if she was stupid, it’s beside the point. Do you want to hug her for real?”
“How am I supposed to know the answer to that?” Evelyn growled. I sensed I was losing her.
“Okay, how about … how about this? Imagine that you can hug her, for real – but!” I held up a finger as Evelyn scowled at me. “But afterward she won’t remember it, and nobody else would know you did it.”
I let the suggestion – rather underhanded and creepy, I admit – hang in the air for a moment, and hoped I hadn’t given Evelyn the mage any nasty ideas. She opened her mouth to reply, then stopped and frowned, then blinked twice and looked down at her lap.
“Ah.” I lit up. “Did that-”
“Don’t you breathe a word of this to Raine. Not a word,” she snapped, then frowned left and right before rubbing her eyes, an expression of mild panic crossing her features. She began to blush, and covered her mouth. “Fuck.”
“Evee, it’s okay, it’s okay.” I struggled not to giggle, to respect the moment.
“Goddammit, what am I supposed to do now?” She demanded. “What does that even mean?”
I slid onto the sofa. “Whatever you decide it means. You don’t have to act on it if you don’t want to. It’s just … something to think about. Something nice?”
She sighed and glared at me. “You and Raine make it all look so easy.”
“Oh, Evee, no, it isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Even between us it’s pretty complex, most of the time.”
Evelyn leaned back into the old cracked leather of the sofa, trying to find some physical comfort to ward off this fresh confusion. I did feel a little guilty; the last thing she needed was more dilemmas in life, but at least this one contained potential pleasure for her, and took her mind off the cellar beneath our feet.
“Does she scare you?” Evelyn said.
“Raine. Does she scare you?”
“Oh.” I blinked. “No, not at all. Though, ah, I am aware that sometimes perhaps I should find her a little scary. That’s something I’ve been discovering about myself. I don’t like violence but … when she does it, it’s different. It’s part of what I like about her. That’s terrible of me, I know.”
“She scared the shit out of me when we first met,” Evelyn admitted.
“You’re deflecting again, by the way, Evee.”
“Mm,” she grunted. “What else am I meant to do? I’ll … think about Twil, alright? I’ll give it some thought. Maybe I can … can … ” She waved a hand vaguely. “Maybe next time I talk to her, I can … see.”
“Whatever you decide, I can always help.”
Evelyn gave me a sceptical frown. “You’re not exactly a lesbian Casanova.”
I shrugged. “It’s me or Raine, and while she is lovely I don’t think she’s a reliable source of romantic advice.”
Evelyn snorted, and we fell into comfortable silence. Her gaze drifted down, until she was staring right at the floorboards. My mind wandered backward through the last half hour, through other ways I might help, might protect.
“Why is the chair still down there?” I asked, softly, loathe to ruin the moment but sharply aware we might never get another opportunity.
Evelyn shrugged. “Bolted to the floor.”
“Then smash it apart.”
She glanced sidelong at me, then did a double take when she saw I was serious. “I … how? It weighs a ton. We’d need industrial machinery to get the bolts out. It’s not as if anybody’s been down there in years. Let the damned thing rot.”
“With … I don’t know.” I cast around. “Is there a sledgehammer anywhere on the estate?”
Evelyn looked at me like I’d suggested we go skinny dipping. “A sledgehammer.”
“I don’t know, for building fences? At least one of those outbuildings is full of garden tools, isn’t it?”
“Heather, I am relatively certain neither you nor I can lift a bloody sledgehammer. We’re both noodle-arms. I’d ruin my back.”
“I can try. For that, I’d try. Praem certainly could.”
Evelyn paused mid-word, then frowned thoughtfully, an unfamiliar aspect lighting up inside her. Her eyes slid over to look at Praem. “ … I suppose she could. She could.”
The doll-demon seemed to catch wind of what we were brewing. She stared back at Evelyn, then at me, then stood up and brushed her skirt neatly over her backside.
“Sledgehammer,” she intoned in her bell-like voice.
Evelyn and I shared a meaningful glance.
“Raaaine! Over here!”
“We’re in the kitchen.”
“We’re in the kitchen, Raine!”
“We’re eating cake without you.”
“Evee! No, shhh, shhh.”
By the time Raine followed our voices, picked her way down the mansion’s spinal corridor, and rounded the kitchen door, Evelyn and I had descended into a fit of giggles – well, I had. Evelyn retained a touch more self-control than I possessed, but even she started laughing at Raine’s bewildered grin.
Raine pointed finger-guns at us and leaned against the door frame. “I see that I’m missing cake, but I hear that I’ve missed a hot-boxing session. What’s got you two so giggly?”
I shrugged, trying to control my laughter. “Just feeling nice.”
“It is a good day,” Evelyn announced, and jabbed her little fork back into the chocolate sponge cake her father had dug out of the fridge about twenty minutes ago, when Evelyn and I had bumbled into the kitchen, badly in need of celebratory food. “It is a good day to be alive, and it is a good day to eat cake. Rest’s in the fridge if you want some. And grab the strawberries too,” she added, waving vaguely at Praem behind her.
Raine, however, wasn’t listening – cake and laughter could only distract her for so long from the sledgehammer in the middle of the kitchen floor, balanced upside down so perfectly on its own steel head.
“Hello, this wasn’t here an hour ago. Think I would have remembered that. We having an emergency?”
“Only a dire lack of whipped cream to go with the cake,” Evelyn said, and flourished her fork. I spluttered with laughter again, despite the fact it wasn’t even funny – I felt wonderful. Released.
“I’ve missed some serious fun, haven’t I?” Raine ran a hand through her damp hair, grinning. She was still pink and slightly raw from her shower, wearing pajama bottoms and a baggy black tshirt with a cartoon kangaroo on the front, feet bare. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to hug her and touch her all over, but there was Evelyn and cake and explanations to linger over first, and we did have more important things to do than make out.
“Fun,” Praem echoed.
“So what’s the sledgehammer for?” Raine asked.
“For hammering!” I broke into giggles again, but spluttered to a stop when Praem’s voice echoed a half-second behind, “For hammering.”
“I smashed up the chair,” Evelyn said. She sat up straighter and raised her chin.
“The what?” Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, bugger me sideways, it’s still there? The-”
“The chair. The demon engine. It’s gone, in a hundred pieces. Heather helped.”
“Praem did most of the hard work,” I admitted. Evelyn grunted, but even that didn’t seem to dent her good humour.
Evelyn and I had landed one symbolic hit each. She’d required the extra support of my arms around her waist and Praem holding the hammer head up in the air for her. I’d barely been able to lift the hammer from where we’d found it in the garden tool shed, let alone swing the damned thing, but I’d put my whole body into the motion and managed to half-drop half-flail the heavy steel head into the chair’s right arm.
I’d squealed, Praem had to catch the hammer, it was all very awkward and embarrassing, and I’d feel the muscle strain tomorrow morning, but it had all been worth the effort. The doll-demon had done all the heavy lifting, no matter how glowing and sweaty Evelyn and I felt, after kicking pieces of the chair across the floor of that horrible little chamber.
“Blow me down with a feather,” Raine said, shaking her head at us. “I didn’t even know it was still there. You should’a told me to get rid of it years ago.”
“It’s fine. It was a bonding experience.”
“It was,” I agreed.
“Cool stuff. Anything else need hammering before we scoot?” Raine strode forward and lifted the sledgehammer with one hand, caught the haft in the other and hefted the weight, grinning to herself. I sighed inside at the way her muscles flowed and tightened, the easy strength on display. Praem had lifted the hammer just as easily, but it wasn’t the same. She was cheating. Raine’s muscles were real.
“We can be off whenever you like, by the way,” Raine said. “Shown her the map yet? Probably best to get away before dark, unless you both want to sleep in the car.”
“We can stay as long as we need.” Evelyn’s voice was suddenly sober.
“ … we can?” Raine blinked. “We can. What?”
“This is news to me as well,” I said slowly. “Evee?”
“We’re staying another night. Perhaps two,” she declared, then cleared her throat and smiled a grim sort of smile. “Got to show Heather the map, sure, but I’m also going to clear out the whole bloody lot. Everything of mother’s in the east wing. The project room, the dungeon rooms we left, the clockwork man, all of it. Destroy anything I can’t appropriate. Put some flowers on my grandmother’s grave. Have dinner with my father’s squeeze, whatever.”
“Evee. Right on,” Raine said with a surprised grin. Evelyn waved her off.
“This house will be mine eventually,” she said, and gestured up and around with her eyes. “These servitors, they’re older than my mother, they’re family property and she’s not family, not anymore. This is mine. It doesn’t belong to her bloody ghost.”
When I was a little girl I’d never been afraid of creeping to the toilet at night, because I never had to do so alone. I never did anything alone.
The constant presence of a twin blinds one to certain aspects of life. One is never alone, not really, though in retrospect I believe Maisie and I were even closer than twins usually should be. If one of us woke and needed to pee, the other would often wake without prompting. A familiar hand to hold makes a big difference to a small child groping her way down a dark corridor. We knew, in that strange shared childhood heart, that no shadow creatures or bogeymen could touch us when we were together.
That all ended after the Eye took her. Teenage Heather hated leaving the dubious safety of her bed covers at night, let alone braving the nightmare-haunted hallways of the family home. I developed a borderline complex about getting up alone in the night, and still felt a touch of the old discomfort even in the heavily-warded Sharrowford house, with its creaky floorboards and strange old corners.
So it was that I found myself shivering in the frigid air, gum-eyed and drowsy, bladder very full, as I dug myself out of a blanket nest on the armchair.
This was not going to be an easy journey, in this spooky echoing mansion drenched with century-old darkness; I couldn’t even recall exactly where the nearest bathroom was.
Evelyn was curled up right on the edge of the double bed, wrapped in a cocoon of sheets. Moonlight crept silver around the curtain, picked out the jut of her hip. I’d taken the armchair tonight, and not brooked any argument from either of them. Raine slumbered on, snoring softly, spread out on her front. I suppressed a sleep-addled urge to grab one of her ankles. Bad Heather.
I would not demean myself by waking Raine to request an escort. I was a big girl and I could go to the toilet by myself.
The hallway was almost pitch black. Moonlight struggled to reach down here with those clean silver fingers. A tired old servitor – some kind of articulated mantis-creature – shifted in the deep shadows, and I forced myself not to flinch. Suddenly I felt considerably more awake.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s the ultimate safe place, Heather,” I whispered to myself, fingertips of my left hand brushing the wall as I traced my way down the corridor. “Fortress and refuge. Castles are spooky too, aren’t they? You love castles.”
I groped for the bathroom, stepped inside and clicked the light on, blinking sore eyes against the sudden light on tarnished chrome and old porcelain – and realised what I’d missed.
Praem hadn’t been standing guard by the bedroom door.
I frowned in thought as I sat on the toilet, eyes closed, half asleep. Perhaps Evelyn had set the doll-demon to a specific overnight task. Evee had been a whirlwind of activity since our impromptu ritual exorcism of her mother’s memory.
She’d stomped all over the house, pointing at things with her walking stick, rifling through the big project room we’d found her brooding in the night before, Praem carrying bin liners and a plastic tote behind her. Lots of staring at alien objects and nodding, muttering to herself, making a list in a little notebook she’d commandeered from her father. Eventually Raine and I had let her get on with it, made ourselves scarce but available.
Evelyn even put in a proper showing when her father’s lady friend had pulled up to the house that evening. ‘Angeline’ turned out to be exactly what I’d expected – a high-flying city lawyer in her late 40s, exceptionally well-groomed, talkative and slim, all easy laughter and more glasses of wine, eager to regale us provincial college girls with tales about growing up poor and black in north London. Lewis had laughed and boomed and shared a couple of utterly ineffable legal world anecdotes of his own.
I’d even accepted a glass of red wine myself, after some coaxing by Raine. Hadn’t liked it much, but it did make me relax.
An hour of two of pretending we were all normal.
Except, of course, for how Angeline’s gaze had slid right off Praem, even though she’d stood behind Evelyn the whole time.
I finished up, flushed the toilet, and suffered the indignity of ruined night vision when I turned off the light and stepped out into the corridor. Squinting at the silvery spill of moonlight helped a little, though the window at the end of the corridor was obscured by a shifting curtain.
A curtain that turned to look at me, two milky white orbs floating in the darkness.
I almost jumped out of my skin, a half-hiccup half-squeak caught in my throat. My body screamed with a pulse of adrenaline and only the absurd maid uniform stopped me from either running or screaming for Raine.
“Praem!” I hissed, a hand to my chest. “Don’t … stand there in silence! Oh my God, you frightened the life out of me.”
Praem turned away, resumed her vigil at the window.
“Praem?” I whispered again, and crept forward, to peer over her shoulder.
Rural night and a clear sky. A beautiful sight. The thin lawns had transformed into a shadowy dream realm of half-glimpsed shapes under the bulk of the house, the trees a darker bulwark before the mirror-like silver expanse of the lake. The moonlight dusted Praem’s face with a ghostly sheen, but she betrayed no hint of wistful longing or quiet contemplation. She stared. Hard-edged and intent. Down.
Another fox. Almost invisible in the moonlight, russet fur a dark blotch against the grass.
It sat on its haunches barely ten feet from the rear of the house, and stared up at Praem.
I sighed and resisted a desire to roll my eyes. “Once, twice, maybe three times, I could have accepted as coincidence, but this is getting silly,” I muttered. “That’s not a fox, is it?”
“Fox,” Praem echoed, at full volume. I winced.
“Praem,” I said her name very carefully. “If it’s not just a fox, I think Evelyn or I or Raine should know about it. What is it?”
Praem turned her head to me, then back to the fox, then took a sudden step back from the window and marched off down the corridor, long maid’s skirt swishing around her ankles.
“Praem? Praem, wait!” I hissed, and scurried to catch up.
She made the stairs, and managed to click her heels the entire way down without thumping her feet. I felt clumsy and awkward, groping through the darkness behind her. By the time I stumbled onto the ground floor, she’d turned away around a corner. I really didn’t want to be alone in the maze of corridors, menaced by the shadows in the kinking corners, at real threat of getting lost. I hissed her name again and hurried after her.
I found Praem at the back door onto the patio, the very same one I’d led her through that morning.
She was pulling the door’s bolt and turning the key, her hands moving with exquisitely inhuman slowness of intention. Her eyes were locked on the moonlit lawns beyond the door’s inset glass, at the fox staring back at us, a silver ghost.
“Praem, what are you doing?” I hissed, hugging myself, curling cold toes against the carpet. Should have put my socks on before I left the room.
Praem straightened up, the door now unlocked, and slowly wrapped one hand around the door handle.
I saw the fox sit up, fur bristling, eyes alert and intelligent. The canine snout inched backward.
Praem eased the door handle down.
“Praem, not- … not … ” Not alone? What was she going to do, catch the fox with her bare hands? I didn’t have time to think, my head still too heavy from sleep, my guts tight with sudden anticipation.
“Not?” she asked. Her hand paused.
“What are we doing, Praem?”
“Opportunity,” she intoned.
“For what? What?”
“Hunting,” she intoned. “Opportunity.”
She was waiting for approval. The fox backed away, paws slinking across the field of moonlit grass – and slowly, so slowly, a horrible, unspeakable notion entered my mind.
Earthworms and the things which ate them. My mouth went dry, my heart fluttered in my chest; maybe we’d never get another chance.
“Okay, do it,” I hissed.
The fox bolted, a shadow in the dark.
Praem reacted so fast I flinched hard enough to almost trip over my own feet. She slammed the door handle down and shot out into the night, a dead sprint from a standing start, beyond what any human could achieve, certainly not in a full-body maid uniform. I flew to the door, staring after her. Cold night air sucked the breath from my lungs, slammed the heat right out of my thin pajamas.
The doll-demon sprinted across the grass, like a machine, going full pelt. A dark blur bounded ahead of her.
I stumbled out onto the patio, freezing my toes off, teeth chattering. The cutting cold whipped around the sides of the house, trees swaying in the distance. I was fully aware I should be yelling for Raine or Evee, or locking the door and staying inside, but it all happened too fast. The possible implication of that fox made my head spin, clutched my guts with a deep sickness.
In the back of my mind I repeated a mantra: this was a safe place. Safe place. Nothing to fear here. Just don’t touch anything suspicious.
Praem tackled the fox halfway across the lawns in a tumble of splayed skirts. A strangled animal screech split the night. She rolled twice, lay very still for a moment, then stood up and walked back toward the house.
As she mounted the stairs to the patio I put a hand to my mouth.
She’d pinned the fox with an expert’s grip, an iron hard vice, as she clutched it to her chest, back legs and head both immobilised.
The poor animal’s front legs twisted and lashed, desperate to scratch, the torso bucking and heaving, fighting exactly like the cornered fox it was, but the doll-demon’s strength came from a place other than mere muscle. The fox couldn’t move. Praem’s wonderfully pressed maid uniform was scuffed with grass fragments and a smear of dirt, and her loose bun of hair had finally given up, loops of blonde hanging down in disarray.
“Fox,” she intoned, staring at me.
I gulped and tried to think, tried to focus on the animal she’d caught. It whined, letting out these awful, pitiful yelping noises, and I think it had urinated down her.
I thought back to what Evelyn had said in front of her mother’s grave, about worms and the flesh of dead mages, about lead coffins. I thought about apex predators and mercury and DDT, about food web contamination, and imperfect hazard containment.
The fox foamed at the mouth, yellow eyes wide and rolling.
“Is it just a fox?” My heart was still pounding. “How do we tell?”
Praem stared down a the animal in her grip. “Kill it,” she intoned.
“No, no,” I held up a sudden hand. “It’s just a fox, don’t. It doesn’t deserve this. We need to … ” I swallowed, blew out a deep breath, and gathered my thoughts. This was crazy. “You stay right there, Praem. If you … hurt an innocent animal, I won’t forgive you, okay? Okay?”
Praem stared at me again.
“Just don’t hurt it.” I repeated. “I need to go wake Evee, she needs to see this and make a decision. Yes, Evelyn’ll be able to … work it … out.”
Every hair stood up on the back of my neck. My skin crawled.
At the sound of Evelyn’s name, the fox had gone still.
Not limp. Not an animal giving up to conserve strength.
“Oh,” I breathed. “Oh, it-”
With a sound like a clicking tongue, the fox was suddenly no longer in Praem’s grip. It reappeared twenty feet away, hit the lawn running, and raced off under the moonlight.
“Oh no. Oh no no no,” I blurted out.
Praem didn’t miss a beat. She whirled on the spot and sprinted after the animal. I picked up my feet and stumbled after her.