Contrary to Evelyn’s dire warning, confronting the map was only the second most terrifying challenge I had to face that following day.
“Before you hit call, let’s hash out a plan, yeah?” said Raine from next to me on the bed. She even raised a hand to stall me, as if I’d located my courage somewhere between my quivering pile of nerves and my inability to grip the mobile phone straight.
“A plan,” I managed. My mouth felt so very dry.
“Yeah. You’re not just gonna shout ‘hey mum, I’m super gay’ down the phone, right?” Raine couldn’t keep the amusement off her face. I failed to see the humour in the situation. “You know me, I tend to leap before I look, but I figure you’d be more comfortable with a bit of a script.”
I gave her the best glare I could muster. Weak and shaky, under the circumstances. “Oh yes, good idea. Great idea. And here I thought I’d just say whatever, muddle through. You know me,” I echoed her.
Raine snorted with poorly concealed laughter. I attempted to glare a hole in her head.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, it’s just so cute.” She reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “Heather, it’s gonna be fine.”
“What if it isn’t?”
“Then I’m right here. Always.” To her credit, Raine killed the smirk at last.
I forced out a shaky breath and gestured limply with the phone.
“It’s alright for you,” I said. “You don’t have to make the call. I hate making normal phone calls, let alone dramatic ones.”
“I totally can, if you want.” Raine held out a hand for the phone, and I knew this was no rhetorical gesture. She’d do it if I asked. “Hell, it was my idea. I’ll rip the plaster off, you can do the aftercare. We’ll one-two punch ‘em. We can show off how we make a great team, as well.”
“Raine, I don’t want my parents’ first impression of you to be a voice on the phone asking ‘Guess who’s banging your daughter’.”
Raine lost her composure and started laughing again. “I won’t say that! I won’t. Cross my heart and hope to die. Best behaviour.”
“Your face tells me otherwise.”
Her offer was extraordinarily tempting. I really didn’t want to do this, however much sense it made. My guts churned and my chest felt like a vice, my heart fluttering in my ribcage like a dove trying to escape. If I delayed much longer, I was going to get light-headed.
Let Raine shield me from reality, from unpleasant tasks, from life itself? No, she was here to help but I had to do this myself, I couldn’t avoid it forever.
I still wasn’t all recovered from last night, a little wobbly and unsteady, drained inside, even after several hours wrapped up warm in bed with Raine as a hot water bottle. She’d helped change the dressings on my feet this morning, but they still ached from all the little cuts and scratches. I’d eaten too much breakfast – great big slabs of toast and jam and a helping of scrambled eggs – but now the food sat like lead in my stomach.
I stared at my phone’s contact list, trying to decide between my parents’ land-line number or my mother’s mobile. Slim choice.
According to our original rough itinerary, my parents were expecting us at their leafy suburban house in Reading tomorrow morning. They expected myself and two friends, for a little stay in the few days leading up to Christmas.
I doubt they were prepared for their only daughter to stage a full-blown closet evacuation.
Nor could anybody prepare for Raine.
I could just about picture myself stammering out to my mother that I was a lesbian, and yes it’s not a phase, and fielding the inevitable invasive questions and idiotic assumptions, but deep down inside I was terrified of what they’d think of Raine.
Even if she passed muster as a ‘normal’ person – rather than a dangerous sociopath entangled with an occult underworld – I was afraid they’d see the leather jacket, the short hair, the cocky smile and rippling athleticism, and see a predator who’d poached their vulnerable, mentally ill daughter. The same assumption I’d first made, the assumption I’d liked and gone along with.
If either of them said anything like that to Raine’s face, I don’t know what I’d do. I hated confrontation. I might be able to kill an evil wizard with my mind, but a shouting match with my parents? Absolutely not.
I think Raine figured that out before I did. That’s why she suggested the phone call.
After breakfast that morning, Evelyn had said she wanted to try a further magical experiment on the caged fox. A boring experiment, to hear her tell, which would involve a lot of reciting Latin at the poor animal, and drawing several more magic circles, in an effort to tease out whatever supernatural shard had embedded itself in the fox’s brain. I’d been all ready to go with her, as a peanut gallery or to sit quietly, but Raine had declared quite firmly that she and I had a matter to attend to.
“Ah yes, I see, starved for each other’s attention,” Evelyn had drawled. “Don’t let me get in the way of a good shag.”
Raine had burst out laughing. “I wish, but no dice. We gotta call Heather’s mum.”
The bottom had dropped out of my stomach. “We- we have? We?”
“I think we better. Give her a bit of advance warning. Only fair.”
“Ah. Good luck. Shout if you need … help, I suppose.” Evelyn shrugged.
She took Praem with her instead, all prim and proper in her new uniform, after assuring Lewis we’d all still be here when he and his lady friend returned from London that evening.
So that’s how I ended up cross-legged on the bed, cradled by residual warmth, rubbing my feet through thick socks to ease away the little pains. Raine had sat me down, rubbed my back as she explained her rationale: it would be easier on them and me if I told my parents now, give them a day to process – or let us read the signs that we shouldn’t turn up at all.
Better to avoid the cliched soap opera moments. Parcel things out in bite sized chunks. Fair warning.
None of that helped the crippling anxiety.
“Then you gotta have a plan,” Raine was saying. She leaned against the bed’s headboard, one foot rubbing my shin. “Do you wanna hit them with the big shock first, a rapid attack, and then flank them up with some softer stuff so they can’t over-focus? Or go in nice and slow, lead them on with a couple of gentler strikes before you drop the hammer?”
I squinted at her. “Raine, this isn’t a battle. What on earth are you trying to say?”
“What’s going to shock them more, that you’re gay and have a girlfriend, or that you’ve moved out of your old bedsit?”
“I … I don’t know. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“What’s the worse case scenario?”
“Raine, please don’t. I don’t need that on my mind.”
“You absolutely do, so we can defeat it,” she said. She wasn’t joking. She’d finally wiped away even the shadow of an amused smirk, replaced by sober concentration. She met my eyes and I couldn’t look away from that all-knowing certainty, that confidence burning like a bonfire. “What’s the worse case scenario? Try to put it into words. As clumsy as you like.”
“They … they could shout at me. Tell me not to go visit them. They wouldn’t though. N-no, wait … the worst thing would be if they treat it like it’s not real, not legitimate, something you’ve pressured me into, a thing girls do at university, something like that.”
“Gay ‘till graduation. Right.” I could hear the eye-roll in Raine’s tone.
“Exactly. That would hurt.”
Normally Raine would take a cue like that to pull me into a hug, tell me it’s all going to be okay, play the bold angel on my shoulder. Instead she fell silent, looked up at the ceiling, nodding slowly.
“That would be the worst, yeah. Thinking about whether I should tell you a little story or not. Last thing I wanna do is put the wind up you, but … ” She shrugged with lazy theatricality.
I sighed at her. “You could not be more obvious with your bait if you tried. Go ahead, say what you have to say.”
“Who says I’m not trying?” Raine shot me a slow, knowing smile, but then she pressed her lips together and brought it under control. Her tongue lingered at the corner of her lips. “I never had to come out to my parents. I was way too obvious.”
I blinked at her in surprise – Raine never talked about her family. She waited a beat, watching me, and I thought she wasn’t going to continue.
“You’re rather obvious these days, as well,” I said, hoping it would prompt her.
She nodded and laughed softly. “Yeah, just the way you like it, huh?”
“I won’t deny that part.”
Raine looked up at the ceiling again. “I think my mum and dad liked to pretend I’d grow out of it, but I can’t be sure. Never mentioned it, never brought it up. Never got the bird and the bees speech either, any of that.”
“Tch,” I tutted. “That’s so irresponsible.”
“Par for the course round where I grew up. By the time I ran away from home, maybe a third of the girls in my school class had gotten themselves knocked up. Like thirteen, fourteen years old. Place was a shit hole. Probably still is.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I’m drifting. Point is, my parents didn’t know even half of what I was up to. What they did notice, they pretended not to.”
“Things you were … up to?” My imagination raced, filled in the details of Raine as a young teenager. She saw the look on my face and laughed, reached over and goosed my knee.
“Yeah, you best believe I was a walking scandal,” she said with a grin. “The tween dyke terror of Beetham Comprehensive. Watch out, Raine’ll get you alone in the changing rooms and pop your cherry. Don’t call her a lesbo or she’ll deck you. Don’t you know she fought a dog once? Scary bitch, that girl.”
“Are you … you’re serious?”
She shrugged and half-shook her head. “All teenage crap, but it feels different at that age, you know? Though I did fight a dog when I was twelve, that really happened. Long story. I did make out with girls at school a few times, and I got in a scrape – twice – over other girls. I had this whole love-hate thing going on with one of the preppy crowd. She was trying to hide it from her friends. Super repressed, I was trying to help, you know, my Robin Hood act? Doing it even back then.”
“Raine.” I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or not. “Goodness, I’m glad I didn’t know you. I would have found you terrifying.”
She laughed again, almost self-conscious. “Stupid drama, you know? Nothing serious, nothing permanent. Until my parents caught me necking with a girl, and everything blew up. In my own bedroom, mind, not in public. She was half-naked, I was, you know. Not the sort of thing they could pretend not to see. That was about a week before I ran away from home.”
“That was why you left?”
She nodded. “My dad said some things nobody should ever say to their own kid.”
“Oh, Raine.” For once it was my turn to lurch into a clumsy, reassuring hug.
“Ahh, it’s fine, I’m fine.” She laughed and rubbed my back. “I broke his nose for it.”
I pulled back, staring at her. “You what?”
“I broke his nose. Er, not exactly my proudest fight. Had to use a chair.”
“You broke your own father’s nose? With a chair? At fourteen years old?”
“Yeah.” She cracked a grin. “Hey, I gotta have some talent in life other than making you happy.”
I sat back and nodded, still processing these scraps of my lover’s history. “You deserve so much better than that.”
“Got it now, haven’t I?” She winked at me.
I sighed and felt myself deflate a little again. “Flattery will get you everywhere. How much of that story was told in aid of taking my mind off calling my parents?”
“Some,” she admitted. “Point being, there’s no way your parents are gonna react worse than mine did. If your mum gets ugly, you can put the phone down. Just put it down. Block her for a couple of days, give them time to think it over. You’re not a teenage girl trapped in her bedroom with her dad about to hit her. You’ve got us, and you’re free.”
I sniffed back the edge of a threatening tear or two. “Okay. Thank you, Raine. I’ll … ” I waved the phone vaguely, trying to control the tremor in my hand. “Stay here, okay? Please don’t wander off while I do this.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Here I uh … here I go then.”
I selected my mother’s mobile phone number, took a deep breath in a vain effort to control my racing heart, and pressed the call button.
She picked up on the fourth ring.
“Heather dear, is that you?” My mother’s voice, higher-pitched than my own, a little pinched with age and stress, practised and smooth from almost two decades of a customer-facing job.
“Yes, of course, um, hi mum.”
I glanced sideways at Raine, received two thumbs up and a big grin of encouragement. My pulse throbbed in my throat, so hard I was certain my mother would be able to hear it down the phone line.
“And how are you, little miss gallivanting around the countryside?” my mother asked. “Are you having a nice time with these friends you still haven’t told us about?”
Truth be told, my mother and I didn’t look that much alike. Samantha Morell was bigger boned and a little heavyset, especially around the waist, where her twin daughters were slight and petite. My and Maisie’s phenotype had apparently jumped a generation from my grandmother. I could picture her perfectly from her voice, the practical and serious expression on her face, the slight frown of curious attention, the hint of ironic disapproval behind her words.
“Yes, uh, y-yes, we’ve been having a really nice time. My friend, um, she’s got this really big house in the countryside. It’s nice here.”
On top of the messy lie, my words sounded lame and limp. I felt myself shrivelling already.
“Well, you should send your father and I some pictures, shouldn’t you? You do have a camera on that phone, and you almost never use the thing. Sometimes it’s as if you’re on the moon, dear, rather than at university.”
I let out a little sigh, trying to rally. “Yes. Sorry, mum. L-look, I have something I need to tell you about. It’s important.”
A moment of silence, then: “Yes?”
One word, and I set off shaking again.
My mother’s tone was all too familiar, the same detached waiting she’d always used when I was struggling to deal with a particularly gruesome hallucination, when I was on the verge of expressing the horror out loud, whenever my mental illness threatened to issue forth into the real world.
Raine was right, I should have planned. I needed a script, a set of correct pronouncements.
“Mum, I-” I swallowed.
I almost pulled the phone away from my ear and handed to it Raine. Almost. My arm twitched. Dammit, Heather, you’ve faced otherworldly monsters and alien gods. You’ve saved friends from hell dimensions and out-thought evil wizards. You’re friends with magicians and werewolves and your lover is a murderer. Dammit.
“Mum, I’m- I’m gay. As in, a lesbian. I thought you should know.”
Halting and hesitant, but once it was said I felt such a weight lift inside me, head throbbing with adrenaline, light with release. I let out a slow, shuddering breath.
For a long moment my mother didn’t say anything. I began to tense up again, braced for the worst.
“Don’t be stupid, Heather, of course I know you’re a homosexual.”
I blinked, at nothing, then over at Raine. She was close enough to hear my mother’s voice from the phone – grinning like a maniac, she mouthed ‘homosexual?’ in real or feigned outrage, I couldn’t tell which. I shook my head, struggling to concentrate on what I’d heard.
“B-but, mum, y-you-”
“Parents know things about their children, dear.” My mother actually tutted. “Of course we know. The signs aren’t exactly subtle, if one is merely a little attentive.”
“What- I- signs? I-I showed signs?”
“Of course you did. All sorts of things down the years. Don’t you remember that one trip to the hospital, when you were, oh, about twelve, I think, and you really liked that one nurse? You kept saying you hoped she would come back, you wanted-”
“Mum!” I flushed beet-red. “Oh my God, that’s so embarrassing, stop.”
Raine was laughing so hard she had to roll her face into the pillow to contain the noise. She kicked her legs against the bed.
“Or the sorts of posters you used to put on your bedroom walls,” my mother went on. “Never boy bands or strapping young men, absolutely not, no boy-crazy years for you. Really, you think your own mother wouldn’t notice these things? I deserve a little more of your faith, I think. You must get this from you father, he’s likely to be a little confused by all this too, but read my lips, it’s obvious.”
“O-okay, um, g-give me a moment. I didn’t expect … ” I took a deep breath, and a vindictive part of me reared up inside. “Mum, also, I’ve moved out of the flat you and dad picked at the start of term. I’ve moved in with a friend, and my g-girlfriend.”
This time I felt my mother’s frown before she spoke, a hundred miles away. “Heather!” she snapped, and I flinched. “You … I can’t believe you, you moved out without telling us? What were you thinking? Who are these people you’re living with, the same friends you’re with now?”
“Yes. Yes, mum it’s fine, it-”
“You know how you get, you know you can’t let peer pressure dictate your behaviour.”
“Of all the irresponsible things. Heather, I thought we had a handle on this.” She huffed, tight and exasperated. “Between your medication and the-”
“I’m not taking my medication any more,” I blurted out, before I had time to think.
“ … Heather?”
Oh dear. I sat there on the bed, head pounding, at a sudden loss. I almost flinched again when Raine took my shoulder. She nodded once, gently. I swallowed and opened my mouth, and let the words flow.
“I know you don’t like it when I talk about being mentally ill, but … mum, listen, I don’t see things anymore. At all. Not a single hallucination, for months now. No more lost time. No more nightmares.” Technically every word of that was true. I’d never hallucinated in the first place. There was no need to tell her the truth of what I saw every day, or that a magical symbol inked on my forearm held the nightmares at bay. “I’m healthier than I’ve been since-” Since before I lost Maisie, before the Eye. “Since I was little. I’m well, for the first time ever, and I owe part of that to … to taking steps for myself.”
“ … well, well, that is … good news, certainly.” My mother slipped into silence for a long moment, then sighed down the phone. “Perhaps it’s something hormonal, perhaps the end of puberty. Changes to your brain chemicals. Well, I’m very glad you’re having fewer problems, but I really want you to go back to doctor Merile before you flush all your pills down the toilet.”
“I know, I know, but-” I felt a little steel enter my voice. “Mum, I’m never going back to the hospital. Not Cygnet. I don’t need to, and I won’t.””
“Mm, we’ll see about that.” From my mother, that was as good as surrender. “So, don’t keep me waiting, what’s her name?”
“Her … ” I blinked. “Um, I’m sorry, whose name?”
In the corner of my eye I saw Raine light up with a cheeky, knowing grin. She kept far better track of this conversation than I could.
“You used the word ‘girlfriend’, very distinctly, and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t notice, and you’re not one to make up things to brag about. So. This girlfriend of yours,” my mother said. “What’s her name? How long have you been going out? How did you meet? Is it serious?”
“Very, very serious. Uh.”
Raine radiated smugness. She cracked a cheesy open-mouthed smile and pointed both index fingers at herself. I went to swat at her but she wriggled clear and hopped off the bed.
“And what’s her name?”
“Her name’s Raine. Raine Haynes.”
Raine struck a pose, hands on hips, chin inclined.
“Well, your father and I are going to have to meet her, aren’t we? Don’t you have any pictures of her? You can keep us informed about things like this, you know, you don’t have to hide them. We get very nervous when you hide things, you know that.”
“Uh, I-I don’t have any. She’s right here though, I can-”
“Oh? Put her on the phone then, I want to talk to her.”
My throat closed up and I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. I covered the mouthpiece and stared at Raine with mounting panic. “She wants to speak with you! What do we do?”
Raine stuck her hand out. “Wow her with my sheer charisma.”
“Raine! Don’t you dare use any innuendo. Please.”
Raine feigned with her right hand, then swiped the phone from me with her left, dancing back beyond my reach.
“Raine!” I hissed, but she gave me a capital-L look, which under any other circumstances would have me melting at her feet. Instead I shut my mouth and clamped my hands in my lap, about ready to vibrate out of my skin.
Raine drew her spine up straight, composed her expression, and put the phone to her ear.
“Mrs Morell? Good morning. I’m Raine, and first I must apologise for any unintentional eavesdropping on my part. Oh, no no, that’s quite alright. Let me say though, even if we’re not face to face, it’s a delight to meet you.”
For one mind-bending moment I thought Raine had been replaced with a doppleganger, so artificial was her good-girl voice, then I heard the tinny sound of my mother asking a question and Raine flashed a huge grin at me, wiggling her eyebrows.
“Yes,” Raine replied, voice still imitating a bright-faced innocent maiden. “Yes, more than anything. I am taking very, very good care of her, I promise.””
Burning with embarrassment, I buried my face in the bed and crammed the sheets over my ears.
Raine was talking to my mother! Ninety percent of what Raine and I did together was absolutely not for parental consumption. Even the non adults-only stuff. I’d rarely felt so awkward, desperate to drown out the one-sided conversation. After a minute or two of agony, Raine gently tapped me on the shoulder and waggled the phone at me.
“I’m to leave the room,” Raine said with a controlled smile. “Your mother wants to talk to you alone.”
I accepted the phone and Raine went to the door, then turned back and mouthed ‘I think she likes me’. I waved her away, still flushed in the face.
“A sweet young lady, very well spoken. We will still have to meet her, Heather, I’m not entirely comfortable with you doing this sort of thing on your own.”
“Mother, I’m an adult,” I hissed, surprised at myself. I’d never spoken to my parents like that in the past. “I can make friends and l-lovers by myself, thank you.”
“Mm. Has she left the room?”
I glanced up. Raine waved at me from just beyond the doorway.
“She knows your … ” My mother lowered her voice, as if the neighbours might overhear. “About your issues, yes?”
“Yes, she knows all about my history of mental illness. She doesn’t care about that. She’s helped.”
Raine beamed at me.
“Mm. Well. You and her are dropping by tomorrow morning, yes?”
“And my other friend too. She’s called Evelyn, we’re very close.”
“Oh yes. Making friends.” My mother sighed. “Heather, I know I’m an old worrywart, but I do like that you’ve spread your wings a little. You’ve grown. You never used to play well with others as a child, you were always on your own. You seemed so happy, until … well, until all the unpleasantness.”
I wilted inside, lost for words in the moment. This minor victory, this understanding from my mother, passed beneath the shadow of a far greater dislocation; I’d never been alone as a child. Me and Maisie, always, always together. I bit my tongue.
It didn’t matter how accepting my parents were. They remembered the wrong history.
“I have a theory,” Evelyn said.
“It’s your theory really.”
“I’m sorry, a theory about what?”
“About fantastic mister fox, what else?”
Evelyn looked resigned, that same slow acceptance she sometimes displayed when her guard was down. She adjusted her feet and her weight on her walking stick, and returned to peering down the cellar stairs.
We stood side by side in the dusty sitting room at the far end of the mothballed east wing, the concealed cellar door wide open before us, weak illumination creeping up the wooden stairs from below. Raine had insisted we remain up here while she checked on the doors we’d have to pass on our way to the map, and Evelyn had sent Praem along with her. The work of a few minutes, apparently, so Evelyn and I waited, kicking our heels and feeling surplus to requirements.
“My theory?” I said, terribly awkward at bringing this up again. “My theory was that it was your mother.”
“Contamination, pollutant build up, all that stuff.” Evelyn waved a hand. “I still can’t tell what that fox is, only what it isn’t, and that got me thinking. With the tools I have I can find pneuma-somatic life, demon possession, translocated minds, stray Outsiders, all the stupid brute stuff of magecraft. Whatever’s in the fox is too subtle, below my notice, not in the old books. Not worth the time and attention of a power-hungry magician to study and record, because it’s not useful.” She shot me a glance and cleared her throat. “My mother isn’t the only Saye family mage buried in that graveyard.”
“You mean it might be somebody else?”
“A piece of some ancestor, or perhaps all of them, accreted over time. My mother, she … the things I found in her notes, about failsafes against death, those were intentional. She wanted to be immortal, she wanted to come back. The fox, it’s hardly brimming with power. And I’d like to think not all my ancestors were monsters. Perhaps the spirits around here think so too. Whatever’s in the fox probably doesn’t even know it was human once. Like a gut parasite.”
“A disgusting metaphor,” I said with a bit of a forced laugh. “I’m quite sure they weren’t all monsters. They produced you, after all.”
Evelyn smiled ruefully. She shrugged.
“Have you set it free yet?” I asked.
“The fox? No.” Evelyn frowned, hesitated. “I’m trying to decide on killing it or not.”
“Oh, that’s … that’s your call, I suppose.”
“I’d rather not. Can’t be certain.”
“Maybe it’s best not to anger the ghosts of your ancestors?” I suggested, half-serious.
“No such thing as ghosts,” Evelyn grumbled. I relented. I could barely imagine the difficulty of the decision, but I wanted to be here if she needed a sounding board.
“Praem did seem quite intent on killing the fox last night,” I said. Evelyn regarded me with a pinched frown, and a sudden sinking feeling tugged at the base of my stomach. “Oh. Oh you don’t think she knows more than she’s letting-””
“Absolutely not,” Evelyn snapped. “I can compel truth out of her, understand? She doesn’t know what it is either. She said she wanted to kill it? God dammit, the last thing I want is a trigger happy demon. Where’s she picking this up from?”
“From-” I swallowed. “From you?”
Evelyn huffed and waved me off. “Maybe.”
“Evee, I- what if-” I took a deep breath and tried to put all the pieces together in my mind. I had them all to hand, but expressing this in the face of Evelyn’s ire was not easy. “I think Praem’s just being protective, of you.”
Evelyn’s expression fell into unimpressed gloom. “Heather, how many times do I have to repeat it? She can’t care. What possible motivation would she have?”
“She did hear everything you told me, Evee.”
Evelyn squint-frowned at me.
“When you told me all about your mother, at the graveside yesterday,” I said. “Praem was standing there behind us the whole time. She can overhear conversations, yes? And then down there,” I nodded at the open cellar door. “She heard every word from you. Everything you told me. Is it so implausible she might have felt the same way I did? Jumped to the same worried conclusions about the fox?”
Evelyn frowned tighter as I spoke. “She can’t feel, Heather. They don’t think like that.”
“A-and,” I tried my best to forge on through Evelyn’s scorn. “She has us for role models.”
“What? Role models?”
“Whatever monsters your mother made, they only had her as an example. The … demon, the one she put in you, the impression it had of human beings was entrapment, hate, torture. I’m no expert – that’s your area – but Praem’s had us. You, me, Raine. She met Twil, she helped us save Lozzie. We’re not so bad.”
Evelyn stared at me for a long moment, frowning hard. I assumed I’d lost her again, though I believed every word I’d said. Eventually she grumbled low in her throat and shrugged.
“I’m not surprised she might want to protect you. You brought her here. To her, maybe you’re … sort of … a … surrogate-” Evelyn frowned like thunder and I cut off the final word of my sentence, put my hands up in surrender. “Sorry, that’s a little distasteful, yes.”
“Bloody right it is.” She tutted.
“Hullo!” Raine called from below, voice echoing up the cellar stairs. “You two still up there?”
“We are!” I called back in relief.
“Dead zombie storage is clear and locked,” she called. “Come on down.”
“Dead zombie storage.” I raised an eyebrow at Evelyn.
“Semi-literal,” she grunted.
The cellar vaults extended much further beneath the Saye mansion than was entirely sensible.
Praem took a vanguard position and Raine held my hand, a heavy-duty lantern torch in her other. We quickly left the main cellar room behind, with the stacks of metal kegs and pretension toward modern concrete. Raine had to duck as we passed underneath the open stonework archway at the back of the room. Our cluster of footfalls echoed off the centuries of stone, vanishing into the subterranean darkness of the T-shaped hallway beyond.
Dank air seeped into my clothes, but this time I was prepared for the journey – three tshirts, two of which were Raine’s, my pink hoodie, and a pair of very comfortable gloves Evelyn had lent me. I’d tucked my hair down the back of my hoodie too. Every little helped.
I still shivered, but not because of the cold.
We clattered down the short stone corridor. Half a dozen heavy wooden doors led off on either side, all shut tight, then we crossed what seemed like a much older storeroom – filled with the rotten stubs of ancient barrels and some shattered pieces of furniture.
The only modern object was a huge cork pin-board mounted on a stand, covered with the corners and scraps of once extensive notes and anatomical diagrams. Bulbs struggled along the ceiling on metal brackets hammered into gaps in the stonework, half of them dead and the other half too weak to matter.
“This certainly is appropriately creepy. I’ll give it that much,” I muttered.
“It’s fine,” Evelyn said, at full volume, the depths returning her voice as a dozen twisted echoes. “Everything down here is dead or deactivated. We’re almost there. Praem,” she called a few paces ahead. “Don’t touch anything.”
“No touching,” the doll-demon confirmed.
The door loomed up out of the shadows. The Door, capital D.
“Oh, you have to be kidding me.” I let out a long-suffering sigh. “That is absurd.”
“It does look kinda overkill,” Raine admitted.
The door which barred our way to the map was straight out of a dungeons and dragons adventure, or one of those role-playing video games Raine is so fond of.
Hewn from a slab of oak, banded with black iron, sealed with a trio of huge stainless steel padlocks, it looked ready to withstand a battering ram. A magic circle ringed the door frame, spilling onto the stone floor, cut directly into the surface with a chisel or acid. Whatever was in there was not getting out, and nobody unwelcome was getting in.
“I hate magic,” I muttered under my breath.
“So do I,” Evelyn grunted, and set to work.
Unlocking the door was quite a performance – thirty seconds to remove the padlocks, the clunk of their mechanisms echoing in the stone confines, followed by a long drawn-out two minutes as Evelyn traced her fingers over precise points of the magic circle, muttering Latin and worse beneath her breath. Some of the words hurt my ears, made me wince. I felt my heart in my throat, and took a steady, calming breath.
Eventually Evelyn stepped back and spat a gob of bloody saliva into the corner.
“Evee?” Raine asked. “You okay?”
“It’s nothing,” she grunted. “It’s unlocked now. You first,” she nodded at Praem.
The doll-demon grasped the door’s iron handle and shoved it open. Raine raised the lantern, squeezed my hand, and we shuffled inside.
I’d expected an actual map, perhaps something pinned up on the wall. Or a huge scrawled mural, a magical design so complex and so insane it would make me quiver inside with disgust and recognition in equal parts.
Instead, the underground chamber contained a kind of secret study. A small, neat desk sat against the back wall, a pair of thick modern notebooks stacked before an uncomfortable chair. Evelyn flicked at a light switch and a few sad little bulbs guttered on above us, chasing the shadows into the cracks between the stones. One low table contained some magical detritus, a half-finished circle on some canvas, stubs of chalk, a sheaf of notes.
A second low table played host to a box. A tall, rather intricate box, standing on its end.
Dark lacquered wood, decorated with floral gold leaf. Tiny brass hinges crowned the top and split the design at regular intervals down the length. A puzzle box, closed and locked.
“Right, the trick is not to look at it in your peripheral vision,” Evelyn said as she crossed toward the box. “Either keep it in full view, head on, or don’t look at it at all. If you have to look away, it’s easier to close your eyes first.”
“Is that it?” I glanced from her to the puzzle box.
“This? No, this is some old Chinese tourist trap nonsense my grandmother picked up in Shanghai. Simple good fortune it’s about the right size to hide the map from an accidental glance.” She tapped the black wood with the head of her walking stick, then met my eyes. “I’ll open it up whenever you’re ready.”
“Wait, wait, I need to- that’s- We’re just going to- I’m just going to go ahead and look at it?” I swallowed, throat dry, and glanced between Evelyn and Raine for help. Praem stood prim and proper by the doorway, no help at all. “W-what should I expect? I’m feeling a little intimidated here.”
“S’a sculpture, basically”, Raine supplied. She let go of my hand and unfolded a pair of extra-large plastic food bags from her back pocket.
I stared at the bags. I didn’t even have to ask the question. “Right. Sick bags. Great.”
“Just in case.” Raine made a pained smile. She slipped her arm around my waist, for support.
“This is the fruit and purpose of my mother’s demon summoning,” Evelyn said quietly. “This, in this box, this is the great secret she traded my health for, the truth she wrung from an unwilling demon, over the course of years. It’s … ” Evelyn glanced away and took a sharp breath. I caught an odd, almost wet look in her eyes. Gone when she tilted her face back into the light. “I’d never considered before that it might actually be worth something. Something real. If this works, if you can locate Wonderland, if we can save your sister … well, it’s the only good that’s ever come from that dead bitch.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, the faster we do this, the faster we get out of this hole. It’s freezing down here.”
“O-okay.” I tried to take another deep breath, but my lungs quivered.
“Heather,” Raine said my name softly. “I’ve seen it before. It’s tough, it might mess with your head, but I wouldn’t let you do this if I thought it was genuinely dangerous.”
“But if you two have seen it already,” I said, struggling to resist the urge to back out, to panic. “What am I meant to-”
“I don’t know exactly what effect it will have on you, I admit,” Evelyn said. “But from what I know about how the map works, and your self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics, I think you’re going to understand this in a way I never could. In a way my mother never could. An Outsider made this thing, with my hands, but with Outside logic. You have those principles living in your head. Read the map, Heather. See if you can.”
This time I managed to suck down that deep breath, nodding slowly. I leaned back into Raine’s arm. I reminded myself why I was doing this, the reason I was even here: Maisie.
“Go ahead, open the box.”
Evelyn nodded, and grasped one of the hidden seams on the puzzle box. “I’ve stared at this thing enough in the past. I’m going to look away, alright?”
“I’m going to stare into the sun right along with Heather,” Raine announced. “Nothing to it.”
“Do it,” I said. “Before I lose my nerve again.”
Evelyn opened the box. Folded down the dark wood. Let it splay itself like a flower.
Inside was the most intricate and most delicate sculpture in all the world.
Metal, perhaps stainless steel, shining and bright – but could any steel be wrought as thin as spider silk? Three feet tall, a foot and a half wide, it contained a hundred million feet of space, folded and folded and folded again.
Spars and bridges of metal connected tiny perfect spheres, razor-edged cubes, fluted columns, in such fragile miniature, all embedded in a base of more metal flowing outward like a slug’s foot. My eyes roved across the structure almost as if I couldn’t control my hunger for more detail. Thousands of those little spheres and cubes, a hundred thousand spider-webs linking them. Rough metal joints, scratches, pieces bent out of shape – none of it could mar the perfection of the whole.
For five or six seconds, I merely stared, amazed at the detail and beauty of the object – then I began to feel queasy.
Beautiful, yes, but deeply unnatural. Angles of metal vanished in on themselves. Spans of silk-delicate steel threaded behinds spheres and cubes, seemingly connected to nothing. Spirals of spheres and cubes ascended or descended, yet formed perfect loops. A million optical illusions all at once.
I felt Raine tense up next to me with the same gut-sick reaction. To run one’s eyes across the shining bridges of metal, to consider the sheer number of little spheres, try to count them or to trace a route from one spot to the next was to invite a head-spinning nausea. Cold sweat broke out on my face.
“I don’t-” I said, as I tilted my head to look from a different angle.
And I saw what I was really looking at.
How could one possibly describe the majesty of a sunset to a person who’s never seen the sky?
This sculpture, made by a tortured captive demon, held a layer of meaning that only I – and perhaps Lozzie, and somewhere out there my twin sister – had the contextual framework to comprehend.
Oh, it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
My eyes ran faster along the metal, tracing routes with increasing speed, tripping and skipping ahead as my mind completed the leaps before the structure expressed them. There was the Fractal, a part of the map, and wasn’t that funny? A piece of the structure of reality was inked on my arm, keeping the Eye at bay. And there was Wonderland, represented by one of those little spheres. How small, how unimportant, compared to the whole.
Raine tried to hold me back as I leaned forward, stumbled toward this shining truth, but I barely felt her grip. I saw the ways between the spheres, and it was so obvious. How had I not realised this before? How had I not figured out the maths by myself? All reality lay here, at the tip of my brain, for the taking. All I had to do was reach out.
I slipped along, faster and faster. I was panting, cold sweat soaking my clothes, hands shaking uncontrollably – and I didn’t care.
I could find Lozzie with this. I could go anywhere. If I could just memorise every single link, run my eyes down every single filament of wire, the mathematical perfection would complete me, in some fashion I’d never known I was lacking. Who needed friends, or help? Who needed to live, or be human? With this in my brain, I wouldn’t even need my twin back, I’d be-
It wasn’t Raine’s hands or Evelyn’s panicked voice which ripped me back. It was that thought – I wouldn’t need Maisie?
That was stupid. I wasn’t a person without Maisie. I was half a person.
I reeled away from the map, spluttering and gagging, and for a fraction of a second I saw the sculpture in my peripheral vision.
The shining metal expanded, building more of itself in the blink of an eye, unfolding to fill all space, all time, until it crowded around the edge of my vision and filled all the world with a cacophony of endless complexity, except for a tiny tunnel left to my fragile human perception. Black and dripping on the utmost rim of reality, the insight a red-hot bolt of pure pain in the centre of my head.
That was the real map – of Outside.
I ripped my eyes away from it.
Raine caught me, held me up as I scrabbled for one of the plastic food bags in her hands. I got it in front of my mouth and doubled up and squeezed every muscle tight and screwed my eyes shut. I think I made a keening noise through my teeth. I’m not sure, and I certainly don’t recall what Raine and Evelyn were saying, because for once, for the first time ever, I held on.
I shook and my stomach muscles clenched up but I held on.
I didn’t vomit.
I refused to let that feeling master me – that illusion of true comprehension I’d felt, the seductive temptation of understanding it all, of mapping Outside. Such arrogance. To try was to burn out my senses. I’d grasped enough.
“Heather? Heather? Hey, come on, deep breaths, try to stand up straight. You’re okay, you’re completely okay.”
“I got- I got it- I did,” I gasped, eyes closed as I made absolutely sure I was not facing that infernal sculpture. “I saw it. I can- I saw it.”
“Saw what? What did you see?” Evelyn snapped.
“Let’s get out of here first, yeah?” Raine said. I felt her hands, strong and firm, on my back and around my waist.
“It worked?” Evelyn snapped. “Raine, wait. It worked?”
“Sight. Gave me sight,” I muttered, nodding.
“Sight? To where? Of what?”
“Evee, come on, let her-”
“Outside. To anywhere,” I panted, and knew with sickening certainty I held that map in my brain now. The byways and secret passages of the castle we all lived in. “To Wonderland.”