Keeping up with Praem, let alone catching a live fox, was far beyond my pathetic physical limits. I don’t know why I even bothered stepping off the patio.
Well rested, wearing comfortable running shoes, beneath warm sunlight, with some form of Raine-based reward at the finish line – then perhaps I could have finished a distant third in this foot race, albeit with much huffing and puffing and stopping to rest. Woken in the middle of the night, barefoot on freezing wet grass, surrounded by moonlit darkness and whipping cold, alone except for a demon rapidly out-pacing me? I stood a snowball’s chance in hell.
I staggered to a halt a quarter of the way across the lawns, bent double with my hands on my knees. The sudden exertion had wrenched something loose inside my chest. Delicate muscles long-bruised by brainmath flared up into a terrible ache.
I wheezed for breath, shaking all over, teeth chattering.
Praem plunged ahead, sprinting after the scurrying fox. Legs pumping, long black skirt fluttering behind, loose hair caught by the wind. She was like a machine, each stride exactly the same as the last. No lungs to heave, no muscles to tire. How could any animal move faster?
The fox slid across the ground, a blur in the moonlight.
The chase headed for the lake at the rear of the estate, toward the dark halo of trees which surrounded the silver water.
I clutched myself, shivering so hard I thought I might have a seizure. The chill had wormed its way inside me, soaked into my bones, turned my feet into blocks of ice. With a petite frame and low muscle mass I’d always been susceptible to the cold; ever since the strain of killing Alexander I’d struggled even more to stay warm. Brainmath had somehow leeched a fraction of a degree from my body’s core temperature.
I straightened up – a considerable effort – and accepted I was not going to catch them. This was in Praem’s hands now.
I had to wake my friends, I had to get Raine out here, Evee had to figure out what was going on.
That plan expired when I turned back to the house.
Dark reptilian shapes and twitching insect shadows were detaching themselves from the Saye mansion, descending from the exterior walls or unfurling gossamer wings as they hurled themselves from the roof. Moonlit pneuma-somatic life – spirits or servitors, I couldn’t tell the difference – skittered and galloped across the lawns in a bedraggled wave of half-formed nightmares. I gaped at them and flinched as several passed me by. They raced after Praem and the fox.
“What are you-” I stammered into the cold darkness. “Where are you all going!?”
A mantis-limbed monster brushed past me, low to the ground, so close I felt feelers trail across the back of my calves. I shuddered, gasped down a mouthful of lung-searing cold air.
I doubted the Saye family servitors were hurrying to assist us.
“You!” I raised my voice, jabbing a finger toward the nearest spirit – a mass of rubbery grey tentacles attached to the back of a lean hyena-like quadruped. “Stop running! Stay!”
To my immense gratification the spirit stumbled over its own legs in haste to obey – or perhaps mere surprise. It tumbled over in a tangle of limbs and tentacles, sliding to a halt at my feet, before staggering up and backing away. A cluster of goat-like eyeballs on a stalk whirled between me and the chase. Trying to decide who to obey?
Against the biting cold, I pulled myself up to my full height – not much – and fixed the spirit with the best glare I could muster, imitating Evelyn.
“I said stay, and I mean it,” I snapped out as best I could, between chattering teeth and panting for breath. I turned on another passing spirit, at the tail end of the wave. “You! St-”
A distant yip from the fleeing fox cut through the air, and confirmed my worst suspicions.
The first spirit I’d halted relocated its courage and shot past me.
“Hey! I said … ” I huffed. “I said stay. Oh dammit.”
Praem had run the fox right to the tree line before the lake. They vanished into the woods. I caught one last moonlit glimpse of Praem vaulting a bush, and then darkness. The wave of spirit life bundled in after them.
Panic in my throat, I half-turned back to the house; in the time I’d waste stumbling indoors and raising the alarm, the spirits would reach Praem.
Would they try to hurt her? Would they even be able to touch her? Could she fight back?
I could – I could threaten them.
“Raaaine!” I cupped my hands around my mouth and screeched at the top of my lungs, hoping my voice would penetrate both the thick walls of the mansion and Raine’s sleepy head.
Then I turned and ran after the doll-demon.
Struggling my way across the damp lawns, puffing and wheezing, plunging into the heavier shadows beneath the trees, I was keenly aware how insane this was. A few months ago, back at the start of the university term, a situation like this would have left me paralysed. I’d have curled up in a ball, retreated beneath my bedsheets, praying for the monsters to go away.
That Heather still lived in the back of my mind. She was screaming bloody murder, telling me to turn back so bigger, stronger, braver people could take over.
I wasn’t that person anymore, not really; I had things to protect besides my own fragility.
I could, however, have made a better show of my resolve than blundering into the woods in the middle of the night. Visibility plummeted to almost nothing, moonlight dimmed by the tangled winter canopy. In seconds my feet were filthy, slick with mud, grazed by twigs and bits of stone. I skinned one elbow on a tree and scratched my forehead along a hanging branch, then skidded and almost toppled onto my backside.
A pair of spirits whispered through the undergrowth and I stumbled after them, pajamas snagged on branches, ferns clutching at my ankles, cobwebs in my face and hair.
An instinctive terror as old as biology gripped my heart, no magical explanation necessary. My brain stem shouted in the language of cortisol and adrenaline that I was a vulnerable little ape and the woods at night were not safe.
“This is a tiny copse of trees in rural England,” I hissed to myself, the sound of my own voice staving off animalistic panic. “You’ve visited infinitely worse places, Heather, you are probably one of the most dangerous people within a hundred miles. You are fine.”
My words failed to convince my own evolutionary history. My hands shook and I broke out in cold sweat. My legs almost refused to move.
I gasped with shaking relief when I finally burst through onto the far side of the trees. The ground sloped down toward the shining expanse of the lake, a stone’s throw away.
Relief crashed out and I scrambled to a stop. This time I did slip over, thumping my backside onto the wet grass.
Servitors and spirits thronged the clearing. Dozens of them.
Though so eager to answer the fox’s cry, the spirit life was apparently too scared to rush the doll-demon. They hung back in a rough circle, jerking forward in ones and twos before veering away again, scythe-arms and sucker-tentacles menacing but never connecting.
The fox must have tried to hide in the undergrowth on the edge of the trees, giving Praem the opening to catch up. The animal – or not-animal – had failed to account for Praem’s inhumanly accurate senses. Through the crowd of pneuma-somatic life I caught the aftermath of her second or third unsuccessful lunge toward the fox. She dived and rolled, once-immaculate uniform smeared with dirt.
The fox slipped away inches from her fingertips. Yellow eyes flashing in the moonlight, it bounded away toward the lake.
In that moment, I finally processed the meaning of what I’d seen the do fox earlier. When Praem had it pinned, it had simply vanished from her arms and reappeared again at a distance – but I didn’t believe it went Outside. The trick had been instant, a click of the fingers. Foxes don’t do math.
Perhaps that gave me an angle to exploit.
“Praem!” I yelled from bursting lungs as I picked myself off the ground. “Th- behind- there’s servitors everywhere!”
Praem paid neither them nor I the slightest scrap of attention. She jackknifed to her feet in one fluid motion and sprinted after the fox. Could she even see the spirits?
They crammed after her in a shoving scrum, a wall of ectoplasmic flesh.
One servitor shouldered through the mob and hurtled toward Praem on four galloping legs, a bizarre fusion of horse and lizard topped by a human-esque head without any eyes. It reared up behind her, to a full eight towering feet.
Perhaps I’d learnt the signs from so much time spent with Raine, the foreplay of real violence etched so indelibly on my sexuality. Or maybe year after year of exposure to spirits had taught my subconscious to read them better than I suspected.
This one wasn’t bluffing.
The horse-lizard servitor lashed out with a clawed hoof.
I yanked my left sleeve back, exposed the clean black lines of the Fractal on my forearm, and threw my arm into the air.
“Part!” I yelled, shocking even myself.
Eight in ten of the spirits threw themselves aside, parted at my command. The rest were swept away by the others, knocked down or sent flying.
I harbour no illusions of real authority. I’m neither big nor scary enough for that. I hadn’t expected the command to work, but fear compacted my voice into a hard-edged shout. The magic of the Fractal undoubtedly did most of the work.
Blinking dumbly at my own success, shaking with cold and adrenaline, I barely took the opening before the spirits began staggering back to their feet.
“You! Stop!” I shouted, still too far from Praem to make any difference. Success had robbed my voice of the unstudied steel, and this time nothing listened to me. “Praem, behind-”
My warning came too late; Praem wasn’t listening, anyway.
The spirit slammed into her from behind – rather than passing through as it would a human being. The weight of pneuma-somatic flesh bore her down in a tangle of limbs. They rolled, horse legs and maid uniform and slicks of muddy lake bank and all. I scrambled to catch up. I think I was shouting something inane, ‘get off her’, ‘leave her alone’, probably a threat to send it Outside.
Silly me. None of that mattered.
When they rolled to a stop, Praem was on top. Completely unshaken, except for her hair now in terrible disarray.
She jerked a fist back with machine-piston speed, and slammed it into the spirit’s face.
It made the most terrible sound. Half screech, half pulverised jelly under a pneumatic press. My eyes went wide, bile clutched at my throat, and I had to turn away as Praem wound up a second punch. Hoofs flailed at her head, buffeting her side to side, but she didn’t even blink. I didn’t stay to watch.
The other servitors lost their nerve also, scattering before the doll-demon’s sudden violence.
I stumbled after the fox.
Amid the confusion, the animal had reached the water’s edge and turned to stare, decided I was less of a threat than Praem. No need to run from out-of-breath Heather, confused and slow, a mere human being lost in the dark.
“Stop running,” I panted. “Stop running, I have to … I have to … either we catch you here, or we’ll have to get rid of you. Just- stop.”
The fox began to slink away. Despite the impossibility, I lunged for it.
A worse than useless gesture. All I managed to achieve was to lose my footing.
I slid and slipped, feet going out from under me, bumped both my backside and head on the thankfully sodden ground, and squealed as I slid bum-first into the icy cold lake.
Luckily the edge of the water was less than a foot deep. I splashed down, gasping in the cold, pajamas soaked and muddy, freezing my unmentionables off. I think I swore, rather loudly too. Second time falling over in one night, chasing a magical fox. Some holiday.
The fox stopped less than four feet away and turned to stare down at me. Most animals cannot laugh, but I swear it looked amused. Was I really so little of a threat? A slapstick joke?
Slowly, deliberately, never looking away from those yellow eyes, I placed one hand against the slick earth of the lake’s edge.
“Got you,” I said through chattering teeth. “Got you now.”
The fox tilted its head.
Only seconds to pull off this trick – the fox would flee as soon as Praem stood up again. She was still busy beating the spirit to death, the sound of pounding jelly reverberating through the air.
“I can think faster than you can run.” I hoped against hope it understood English. “And I can teleport everything within twelve feet Outside. You, me, the mud, the water. Outside. Outside, you understand what that means?”
It did. Oh, that fox understood me loud and clear. I saw comprehension in the blink of its eyes, in the single raised paw, the sudden tensing of muscles.
“T-then I can teleport myself back,” I hurried, shaking all over in the freezing water as I climbed to my knees, hand still pressed to the muddy bank. “And I’ll leave you there. I will, I will do it, to protect my friend. If you’re what I think you are. I will.”
I was bluffing, but the not-fox didn’t know that. Myself I could certainly zap Outside. The fox, yes, if I could touch it. But a sphere twelve feet across, ground and all? I’d give myself a brain aneurysm.
The fox suddenly craned its neck to where Praem still straddled the beaten spirit.
“Excuse me, I’m talking to you,” I said. The fox jerked back to me, ears swivelling. “You don’t believe me? All right, I’ll demonstrate.”
I’d executed more complex hyperdimensional mathematics under far more stress, and paradoxically the lack of preparation cushioned my mind again the white-hot searing pain – a little. I slipped the equations into place, winced so hard my vision blurred, and shoved the levers of reality just enough before my nose began to bleed.
Beneath my hand, a football-sized chunk of mud and grass vanished Outside. Water slopped into the sudden gap on the bank. The fox stared, eyes wide and alert. I bent forward to empty my stomach into the lake.
Praem slammed into the animal with a diving tackle while I was busy being sick.
The gambit had worked, given the fox just enough pause for Praem to creep closer. She landed in the water with a huge splash and came up with the fox pinned length-ways, both of them dripping with greenish lake mud and soaked through to the bone. The fox tried to snap at her wrists but she pulled it taught from forepaws to back legs, drawing a horrible pained yelp from the animal’s snout.
It went very still.
“No! No escaping, no,” I spluttered as I pulled myself upright and thrust a hand toward the animal. My head pounded, I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes, but I had to make this credible or it would just teleport out of Praem’s grip again. “I’ll do it, I swear, I will.”
The fox moved again. It whined and writhed, foaming at the mouth. Yellow eyes rolled to fixate on my hovering hand.
It twisted to bite. I flinched, and yellow teeth snapped shut on empty air. Praem shook it.
“Stop, stop, Praem stop!” I said. “Just stop. Oh, God.”
The doll-demon looked up from the fox. I could barely make out her expression in the moonlight, but her milk-white eyes were clear enough.
“Victory,” she intoned, voice carrying across the dying ripples on the lake.
“Yes.” I heaved a huge breath, teeth still chattering, and wiped my mouth on the back of my arm. Even the vomit was cold. “Victory. Right. What do we do now?”
Praem looked down at the fox, then back at me, then down at the fox again.
“No! No, Praem, we don’t know what it is, not really, we don’t. We have to-” I went to push my hair out of my face, but managed only to smear more cold mud on myself. “Ugh, tch. We need to get back to the house. You don’t even feel the cold, do you?”
I glanced past the trees, to the looming bulk of the mansion in the middle distance. The spirits had mostly fled, but a few lingered to watch from a safe distance.
“Why did you all try to help it?” I yelled at them, but no answers were forthcoming. “Why?”
“Removal,” Praem repeated in her clear bell-like voice.
I shook my head, rapidly going numb, and sniffed back a slow nosebleed.
“No!” I whirled back to Praem, my toes sinking into the disgusting mud. Praem’s maid uniform was ruined, skirt bedraggled, the frilly crosspieces limp, top twisted sideways, smeared with mud and lake silt. “It- it- … it helped us, back in the house, remember? The fox led Raine and I to where Evelyn was brooding on her own. We don’t know what it is. We have to … to take it back … oh, damn.” I focused on the fox, caught in a decision I didn’t want to make. The animal was panting hard, twitching and flexing to search for the tiniest bit of slack in Praem’s grip. “There’s no way to tell. No way to tell.”
“We can’t just make the decision on our own.” I squeezed my eyes shut, shivering all over. My head was killing me and I felt like being sick again. “We have to show it to Evee.”
Praem didn’t answer. Only the fox’s panting and the slow slap of water broke the silence of the night.
“She was so happy,” I hissed. “Evee was so happy. I can’t- I can’t bring this to her.”
I bit my bottom lip and nodded. “We both will. I can’t kill that fox and pretend this didn’t happen. I can’t lie to spare her feelings. Or I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”
“It’s not my mother.”
I tore my eyes from the caged fox. My teeth started chattering again. “You’re certain? How can you be certain?”
Evelyn sighed and shook her head. Puffy-eyed from sleep, she hunched in the spindly old chair like a hibernating toad, blanket draped over her shoulders. “A single animal brain is too small, not complex enough to contain the human soul, mind, whatever you want to call it. It would just … ” She opened her fist and made a dismissive squelching sound with her mouth.
“But you said- by her grave- you said- about worms? Didn’t you?”
“Heather,” Raine purred, encouraging my drooping hand back toward my mouth. “More drinking.”
I nodded, took Raine’s advice, and took another sip from the third steaming mug of hot chocolate she’d pressed into my hands.
My fingers burned with that unique sensation, skin warmed too quickly after exposure to the cold – as did my nose, toes, cheeks, and the back of my neck, all reddened and chapped. My skin stung all over, buffeted by the warm air pouring from a portable space-heater. Where Raine had found that I had no idea, but she’d wheeled it into the echoing magical project room and parked me firmly before it, brooking no complaints.
The fox – or not-fox – watched us from inside a makeshift cage, constructed in a hurry from parts of an old chicken coop subjected to the tender mercies of Raine’s quick thinking, lashed together with duct tape and garden twine. The prison sat atop one of the tables, swept clear of assorted junk.
An equally hasty magic circle surrounded the table, drawn onto the floorboards with marker pen and crayon.
After Praem and I had blundered back into the house, raising the alarm, I’d barely been able to stammer out an explanation. Between the shivering and the adrenaline, the vice of cold gripping my body, and my muddy dripping clothes, stringing together any words at all was challenge enough. Faced with Raine’s confusion and worry, I found it nearly impossible to express the truth of my suspicions.
My absence had woken Raine before my shouting. My tone had prompted her to grab the handgun from her bag. My state – covered in mud, frozen to the bone, out of breath, next to Praem clutching a semi-catatonic fox – had left her momentarily speechless.
Such a rarity. Not one I relished.
I’d nodded and shuddered with relief when Raine had grinned, called me a ‘brilliant mad bastard’, and leapt straight into practical problem solving mode.
Vindication quickly turned to guilt.
Stupid Heather, what did I expect? How would I react, had the roles been reversed? Raine had one priority above all others, but she controlled herself and took charge, as Evee stomped down the stairs to glare and frown, as I repeated my threat to the fox and impressed on my friends that we couldn’t dry off or warm up until we had it contained.
Praem and I had stood side-by-side in the cathedral-like space of the project room, surrounded by the half-cleared magical detritus of Evelyn’s mother’s long-ago halted work. I was filthy and shaking, despite the towel Raine had wrapped around my quivering frame. We held the fox – physically and metaphysically – as Raine and Evelyn built cages of matter and magic.
As soon as the animal was properly incarcerated, Raine’s attention had turned to me.
Not a word of admonishment passed her lips. Not a frown, not a single tut. That wasn’t her way.
She did all but manhandle me to a bathroom, despite my protests that we needed to stay and see what happened, that Evee needed our help, we couldn’t leave her alone with that thing.
Raine had laughed, more amazed than amused, shaking her head. I hadn’t understood, shivering and frowning. She gently shushed me and I was too cold to resist. She stripped off my sopping wet clothes and got to dunking me in a lukewarm bath as quickly as possible. My skin began to tingle and my toes started to ache, and only then did I realise how terribly worried she must be.
“Warm water, not hot. Warming you up too fast is a mite dangerous,” she’d said. “Don’t you dare touch that tap, Heather. You sit, right there, and I’ll be back in a jiffy. Stay right there. Wave some soap around if you like, but no rush.”
“Raine, I’m sorry, I-”
“Woah, hey.” Raine raised her hands and half-shook her head. “No apologies in order, not that I know of. Should there be?”
“I’ve made you worry. I’m- I’m sorry, I-”
That made her laugh again. I boggled at her, confused, wracked by guilt and wilting in the overlarge bathtub, my head still pounding from brainmath. Muddy runoff had stained the water brown.
“Heather. Heather, words don’t do it justice. You don’t even realise how brave you are. I’m proud.” She shrugged. “Hell, what am I gonna do, tell you off? I’d have done the same. Probably swam after the thing on my own and nutted it one in the skull. Let’s get you warmed up, hey?”
She’d been grinning, but she’d also run upstairs and back in quite a hurry. She returned with fresh clothes – hers, a size too big but none more comforting in all the world – and a large fluffy blanket liberated from some forgotten bedroom. It smelled of dust, but at least it was clean.
“We really do need to go help Evee,” I’d complained.
“Mmhmm, we will, sure. Hundred percent. Lower your head, love, close your eyes.”
She’d showered the mud off me, hand in my hair, then rinsed the nosebleed from my face, cleaned the cuts on my forehead and elbow and feet, drained the bath and filled it all over again, until the water finally ran clear.
“Raine, if the fox is … we can’t leave her to deal with it alone.” I’d tried to stand up and blunder out of the room, half-dressed and woozy. Raine had smiled and sat me down on the floor, hands on my shoulders.
“Evee’s got Praem. Praem’s a lucky girl, she doesn’t get frostbite. Sit for a moment, yeah?”
“Frostbite?” I squinted at her.
“Please, Heather? For me?”
She personally inspected my feet before slipping socks over them, pinching my toes to test for sensation and wrapping my cuts in antiseptic gauze. I sighed it off at the time, impatient and worried, but later on I realised I’d run a very real risk of bacterial infection. That lake was filthy, and I’d been wading around with open wounds.
Praem had fared both better and worse than I.
Her skin was, after all, a type of illusion, tactile pneuma-somatic flesh wrapped around a wooden core. Immune to frostbite, untouched by the cold, easily repaired with wood glue. She didn’t even have goosebumps.
The mud and water was a different story. She stood off to one side of the echoing project room in a bedraggled mess, wrapped in a mantle of old towels – entirely for our modesty, not hers. I don’t think she cared about being naked. Her blonde hair hung in dirty rat-tails, splashes of mud on her face and hands.
Her wonderfully bizarre maid uniform was ruined, dumped in a corner.
“Evee. Evee, Praem’s still filthy,” I’d blurted out when Raine had led me back into the room. “Aren’t you going to-”
“Later,” Evelyn grunted. She was scrawling in a notepad, staring back at the fox. It sat on its haunches, watching. “She can wait.”
I watched Praem, trying to catch her eye. She stared straight ahead, expressionless, hands folded as if nothing had happened.
“Praem?” I tried. “What about your- what about your maid uniform? We can clean it.”
Praem turned her head to stare at the sad pile of clothes.
“Necessary sacrifice,” she intoned.
Raine was trying to get me sat down in a chair, but second-hand outrage brewed strong and wild in my chest. I wasn’t going to let Praem linger filthy and cold when we’d just had each other’s backs out there in the confused midnight melee. The only thing she’d ever shown personal interest in had been ruined, she’d thrown it away to protect her mistress, to protect Evelyn, and now it sat in a sad sodden heap.
“Can’t you go wash yourself? Evee, can’t she at least wash herself?” I’d asked. Praem swivelled her head to stare at me. “Order her to? Evee.”
“What? What are you on about?” Evelyn’s head jerked up from her work.
“Wash myself,” Praem echoed.
Evelyn waved Praem away with a huff. “Yes, yes, off with you, whatever you want.”
Praem traipsed out, towels and all. I finally allowed Raine to manoeuvre me into a chair and tuck the fluffy blanket around my shoulders.
“Is it safe now?” I’d mumbled. Evelyn grunted, waved me quiet.
I drifted, nodding with exhaustion, adrenaline finally wearing off. Evelyn added twisting symbols to the exterior of the magic circle. Raine returned again to rouse me with hot chocolate and heat.
Brainmath aftereffects and mild hypothermia fed on each other. My head was killing me, a tight ache as a counterpoint to the dull throbbing around my diaphragm. I sipped hot chocolate when told, drowsed heavy and slow, though I woke a little when Evelyn’s father blundered around outside the room. Evelyn stomped out there, stern-voiced, told him nothing was happening, go back to bed.
Perhaps he was used to that kind of treatment. Ignore your wife and daughter doing strange things at odd hours, if you wish to retain your sanity.
I made a fuzzy mental note to apologise to him personally in the morning. We needed to clean up all the mud we’d tracked in; somehow I got fixated on that, drifting on the edge of sleep.
Ah, but Raine was two steps ahead of me, ushering Evelyn back into the project room and apologising to Lewis. No need to worry about this mess, all our fault, we’ll clean it up first thing in the morning. Promise. Don’t want to make more work for your house keeper, after all, do we? Always so smooth, my Raine, always with the right thing to say.
A third mug of hot chocolate, fuzzy blanket tighter around my shoulders. Raine stroked my hair, rubbed the back of my neck. I roused myself from the edge of sleep as Evelyn slumped into a chair nearby and slapped her notebook down on the floor.
That she’d announced her verdict.
I finished that sip of hot chocolate and repeated myself.
“Evee, you said about how worms could … i-in dead flesh, a-and-”
“We’d know if the worms had gotten to my mother,” she snapped. “Because they’d be walking.”
I looked down and focused on another sip of hot chocolate. Evelyn sighed and made a wide gesture with both hands, trying to indulge me but lost for words. I could only imagine her turmoil right now.
“Also because we’d all be dead, right?” Raine added with a grin.
“Right,” Evelyn grumbled. She nodded toward the fox. It stared back at us, very unlike a caged animal. Unblinking, still except the occasional twitch of an ear. “If that was her you’d be dead. Or worse. I don’t know. It’s not her.”
“Then what is it?” I asked gently. Evelyn shrugged. I shook my head, confused. “You mean you can’t find out?”
“Short of vivisecting it, no.”
“Bottom line for me: is it dangerous?” Raine asked. She stroked my hair one last time and took several steps toward the caged fox. The animal regarded her with quick yellow eyes. She leaned forward and bared her teeth at it in a mock-growl.
“Oh yes, absolutely lethal, a deadly mortal foe,” Evelyn said. “If you’re a rabbit.”
I blinked at her. Raine snorted and shook her head, then made a rapid tongue clicking noise at the fox. That made it react more like a fox, tilting its head and swivelling those big ears.
“You … um, Evee,” I struggled. “Er, what?”
“It’s a fox.”
“It teleported. It understood your name. I’m pretty certain it understood English too. Half the spirit life in Sussex ran to defend it. How can it be just a fox?”
“Yeah, look at it now, hey?” Raine added. She moved to watch the stoic animal from different angles, and the fox tracked her as she circled the cage. “I’m not exactly Ray Mears but I’m gonna bet this isn’t normal fox behaviour right here. Shouldn’t it be having a bit of a panic?”
Evelyn sighed and spread her hands. “It’s not a fragment of my mother, and it’s not anything else. The very first thing I did was have Praem see if it’s one of her kind, a simple demon riding an animal body, a spy, a … I don’t know. But it’s not that either. It’s not an illusion, it’s not an Outsider, it’s just a fox.”
“But y-your m-”
“Heather, we are not the centre of the world. Not everything we encounter is about us.”
“Teleporting magic fox, then,” Raine said.
“Sure, great. Why not?” Evelyn glowered at everything and nothing.
“Could … could Lozzie have sent it?” I asked, mouth dry, headache making me wince.
Evelyn shot me a withering look, and despite myself I shrank down before her glare, wishing I could vanish inside my blanket. Suddenly I felt small and stupid. Perhaps I’d caused all this ruckus for nothing, gotten wrapped up in a fantasy of protecting my friend, dug up her past and pulled Praem along with me. Heather Morell, a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Who’d have ever thought?
Raine gave up inspecting the fox, with a final mock-growl at the caged animal. Perhaps she’d noticed the emotions I tried so hard to keep from my face, because she crossed back to behind my chair and reached down, firm hands slowly rubbing my shoulders. Feeling awkward, I almost tried to move away.
“I don’t think it’s from Lozzie, no,” Evelyn said, her voice more gentle than I’d expected. “Look, this place is much older than my mother. There are things underground that probably even she didn’t understand, from my grandmother’s time, or earlier. Who knows. This fox, this … whatever the bleeding fuck it is, it could be anything. Perhaps it’s always been here, and I never noticed. Or maybe it’s just a fluke. Too much exposure to my family. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“It did help us,” I added in a hesitant voice. “That first night here. It led us to you.”
Evelyn nodded and pulled a resigned smile. “I don’t think it’s any threat. It can’t even escape that circle, and that’s not exactly my best work. If it wanted to hurt me, or take over my brain, it would done so when I was … ” She cleared her throat. “Feeling worse.”
“Good. Poor little bugger.” Raine cracked a grin. “You must have given it the fright of its life. Heather, master of the hunt.”
I sighed. “Oh, don’t call me that, I … I know. I … ”
Evelyn glanced at me sidelong. “You over reacted.”
A terrible little wretched voice whispered in my chest. I’d made trouble for my friends, caused a huge mess, assumed everything was about us. Jumping at shadows. I couldn’t concentrate past the headache and the pain, the echoes of cold in my bones, the sense I’d gotten this wrong, but I tried to pull myself up and look Evelyn in the eye. “What was I supposed to think? I can’t tell what’s dangerous and what isn’t anymore. Frankly, since I met you two, erring on the side of caution appears to be a requirement for merely staying alive. I … ” I lost my train of thought. Hadn’t realised how strongly I felt that.
Evelyn started laughing.
Slowly at first, a suppressed chuckle, then a full-body laugh which made her put one hand over her eyes, that usually so-sour mouth curling into a real smile. She laughed quietly in her chair, panted for a breath, leaning forward in a vain effort to control herself.
“E-Evee?” I stared at her.
“Woah,” Raine whispered.
“Oh, do shut up,” Evelyn barked over her own mirth. She forced down a deep breath and shook her head, carefully controlling her smile until it faded to an amused echo. “I am capable of seeing the humour in all this, you know. I’m not made of stone.”
“She’s never had a proper laughing fit,” Raine said to me. “S’a first.”
“It is most certainly not a first. You don’t see everything I do in private, Raine.”
Raine shrugged in theatrical defeat. Evelyn cleared her throat.
“A requirement for staying alive”, she echoed me. “Quite right, Heather. ‘You over reacted’ was not critique. You’re learning, at last. It’s my fault too, I filled your head with horrors, and you acted on them, because … because you have a good heart.” She cleared her throat again, and I think I even detected a tiny blush in her cheeks. She shrugged.
“Damn straight,” Raine added.
“Praem did all the hard work,” I said, shrinking inside my blanket again, but for the opposite reason from before. “She actually caught the fox, I just threatened it.”
“She has no independent initiative,” Evelyn said. “She wouldn’t have gone running off into the night without you putting the idea in her head. She doesn’t have ideas in her head.”
“I don’t know about that … ” I distracted myself with a long sip of hot chocolate. Now was probably not the time for this conversation.
“I do,” Evelyn grunted.
I glanced over to the ruined maid uniform, a sad sodden pile in the corner, and chewed on my bottom lip.
“She did rock that look,” Raine said, following my gaze. “‘Specially the tits.”
“Raine.” I rolled my eyes. “She- yes, she did, but I was thinking more about how much she enjoyed it.”
“Yeah. Pity, I was gonna get you to try it on as well.”
“Me?” I squinted up at Raine, almost choking on a mouthful of hot chocolate. What on earth was she thinking? I could never pull off that look. For a start I was far too scrawny, not to mention inelegant; not only would I barely fill out the uniform, I’d be mortified. I blushed and stammered. “R-Raine, d-don’t be absurd.”
“You’d be dangerously cute.” She shot me a wink. Despite the cold, I squirmed inside, and not in a bad way.
Evelyn rolled her eyes let out a big sigh. “Don’t make me get the garden hose. And for the record, Praem cannot enjoy anything.”
“I-I- Evee.” I rounded on Evelyn, half at Praem’s defence, half to avoid my own squirming embarrassment. “Is it possible you could be wrong? I still believe she was making this her identity. She liked it. It’s the only thing she’s shown any organic interest in.”
Evelyn huffed, exasperated but still trying to indulge me. “She can’t have interests.”
“She went after the fox because I thought it was threat – to you,” I said quietly, but my words stopped Evelyn cold. “She did it for you. The least we could do is clean the uniform for her. Or get her a new one, somehow? Please, Evee?”
“She is good eye candy,” Raine muttered.
Evelyn grumbled low in her throat. “That lake is filthy. It’s been stagnant for years, probably more rat piss than water. God alone knows what bacteria are breeding in there.” She looked at the pile of crumpled clothes. “Those are a bio hazard. We should burn them.”
I folded my hands around my empty mug and waited. Evelyn frowned into her lap, then risked a glance at me. She averted her eyes and shrugged heavily.
“I suppose my father could … ” she muttered quietly. “He knows some proper tailors, in London. I could … you know.”
“Evee,” I murmured. “Thank you. I’m sure Praem will thank you as well.”
“She bloody well better not,” Evelyn snapped.
The little side-door into the project room opened, admitting the whisper of soft feet against the waxed floorboards. Raine craned around to look first.
“Speak of the devil.” She lit up in a crooked grin. “Here she – heeeeey, what. What?”
Raine burst out laughing. Evelyn stared, open-mouthed with disbelief. I smiled in delighted surprise.
Praem rejoined us. Freshly showered, I assumed, as her skin shone and her blonde hair hung clean but badly in need of brushing. She strode back into the room with precise but oddly gentle footsteps, deftly avoiding every hint of the muddy footprints from earlier. Not surprising. She had good reason to take care.
She’d found another maid uniform.
It wasn’t identical to the first outfit. The skirt was an inch or two longer, with a hem of folded lace and a high waist showing off the flare of her hips, while the sleeves ended in tight cuffs around her forearms. No shoes to go with this one, unfortunately, but she had located some very high denier-count black tights to warm her feet and legs. I rarely wore tights, but in that moment I felt the ghost of envy – they looked rather comfortable.
“What. What. How-” Evelyn spluttered. Raine couldn’t stop laughing. I lit up inside and out.
“Oh Praem, oh, oh that’s wonderful. Good on you.” I clapped my hands together, excited despite myself.
Praem marched over to her customary spot, diagonally behind Evelyn. She resumed her usual pose, hands folded before her, staring straight ahead. I put a hand to my mouth, almost giggling.
“Where the hell are you finding these?” Evelyn demanded, outraged.
“Maybe she’s making them!” Raine supplied.
“Answer.” Evelyn clicked her fingers. Praem turned her head to stare at her mistress, blank white eyes betraying no emotion.
“Around,” she intoned.
Evelyn huffed and shook her head. “Sod the tailor then.”
“Evee, please, try to be happy for her,” I said. “She likes it! She’s trying to be human, I’m pretty certain of that.”
“Succeeding,” Praem intoned. “At being fabulous.”
We all stared at her, I with a giggle on my lips, Raine and Evelyn both amazed.
“Well, sometimes you can’t solve every mystery,” Raine said eventually. “Where does Praem get her fetish gear? Is this animal actually just a fox? As long as nobody’s attacking either of you, I’m good. I’m great. Two thumbs way up.”
“You would be,” Evelyn grumbled, glaring at Praem. She turned back to me. “We’ll release the fox in the garden tomorrow, if it hasn’t teleported itself away before then. You need to get some sleep, Heather. You’ve got an ordeal ahead of you tomorrow, unless we want to spend all week in this house.”
“Ahhh, right you are,” Raine said, and squeezed my shoulders again.
“What?” I blinked. “I have?”
Evelyn’s eyes inched downward, toward the floor, and what lay beneath. “We’ve got to go back down into the cellar, deeper this time, and I’d like to get it done before any of us lose our nerve.”
“Hey,” Raine said, mock-offended.
“Yes, yes, we all know you’d crawl across broken glass for a pretty face,” Evelyn said, and cut Raine’s joking retort off with a raised finger. “The map, Heather. That’s where my mother kept it. Her life’s work.”
“Oh. Oh, yes. That is why we came.” I swallowed.
“Comprehending the map is not a … gentle experience,” Evelyn said. “And I have no idea what it’ll do to you in particular, but if we want to stand any hope at all against your ‘Eye’, you need a way to navigate the Outside, rather than random teleporting.”
“It’ll be fine,” Raine murmured, one hand soft against my forehead. “I’ll make it fine.”
I nodded, a sober chill running down my spine. “Yes, yes of course. To … get to Wonderland.”
Evelyn shrugged. “Time we all got some more sleep, if you two can keep your hands off each other for five minutes.”
“Hands off,” Praem intoned.