and less pleasant places – 6.1

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I’ve been told, repeatedly, that I must possess a rather high tolerance for pain.

This is not true.

“I really do think Praem is too big for this,” I said, then shot a guilty look at the doll-demon. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offence by that.”

Praem turned her head to stare at me, but if she was capable of interpreting my words as a comment on her plush physique, she didn’t say anything. What did an immaterial creature from Outside care about body weight? I assumed pain also meant nothing to her.

No, the approaching pain was going to be all mine.

A lump in my throat, a tremor in my chest, a churning in my gut – my body knew what to expect. I twisted my hands together inside the warm gloves borrowed from Evelyn, watching the soft white leather bunch and crease. Strange, how the mind can magnify attention on such tiny details, when one is trapped in on the precipice of panicked anticipation.

“She’s no larger than me,” Evelyn said with a shrug.

“’Cept up front,” Raine muttered.

She smirked, but even Raine couldn’t quite conceal the worry behind her expression. I saw it plain in the tightness around her eyes, the way she jiggled one knee up and down, her tight grip on the edge of the table. If I shied away now, Raine would support me all the way, she’d let me put this off for another day, three days, a week, a month.

She’d let me, but that wasn’t what I needed.

I did love her for trying, but even lewd comments about Praem’s chest couldn’t take the edge off my nerves right now.

“Yes, Evee, but bringing you and I back from Outside took quite a … ” I forced myself to swallow. “Quite a toll on me, if you remember? What if I can’t- on the other side, what if I can’t-”

“That’s why you’re going to take Praem,” Evelyn said, calm but blunt. “I remember what it felt like, yes, like being run over by a bus. Praem won’t feel that. If you’re incapacitated, we don’t want you to be alone.”

She shared a glance with Raine, who nodded and pulled a reassuring smile for me.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Raine said, then added, to Praem, “You best look after her if she needs to sit down and get her breath, right?”

“Promise,” Praem intoned.

Get my breath? Oh for the- I- oh, dammit all to hell.” I huffed and stripped the gloves off, shoved them in my coat pocket, and unzipped the coat down the front, desperate for fresh air as I unwound the scarf from around my neck. I felt trussed up like a small child about to venture outdoors to play in the snow. “I’m burning up in all these layers, this isn’t necessary.”

Not entirely true. Nerves and stress raised the heat under my collar, not ambient temperature. We had the ancient iron radiators cranked up to full, but Evelyn still wore a big heavy jumper and nursed a steaming mug of tea at her fingertips. Even Raine wore two tshirts, one long-sleeved, to banish the dense January cold gripping Sharrowford.

Freezing wind, scudding clouds, barely a scrap of sun all week. I wasn’t used to this, soft southern girl.

Sometimes it really is grim up north.

We – myself, Evelyn, and Raine – were gathered in the ex-drawing room, Evelyn’s magical workshop. Not exactly the warmest place in the house with it’s broken radiator and clutter and half-working lights. We all itched to get back upstairs or at least into the kitchen, but if everything went to plan none of us would have to sit here for long.

Yes, the plan. I wished I’d never committed to it.

I longed instead to resume the anime marathon Evelyn and I had finally begun two days ago, ensconced in front of the television, watching her bootleg dvds of Symphogear – all brightly coloured transformation sequences and plucky teenage girls punching monsters. Most uplifting. Or perhaps I could get back to working through the new term’s reading material, Frankenstein’s Monster and Wuthering Heights, prepping for next week’s lectures.

Who was I kidding? Right now I’d settle for curling up in bed with Raine, shutting out the world for skinship and affection.

Instead I stood in the middle of a mage’s atelier, with a sheet of painstakingly transcribed hyperdimensional mathematics to hand, shaking in my cheap trainers.

Praem didn’t care about the cold. She did what she was ordered to do, and right now she’d been ordered to accompany me Outside.

“Heather, hey.” Raine left her spot by the table and gently took my frantic hands in hers. “You said it was cold there, right?”

“What I said was ‘I thought it might be chilly’. I also went there in a dream, does that mean I should wear pajamas?” I bundled the coat down my shoulders. Raine relented and helped me. “I’m only going to be there for a couple of minutes. I don’t need this.”

“All the same, just in case, yeah?” Raine smiled that maddening smile, the one she kept in reserve purely to make me feel better. She handed my coat off to Praem, and the doll-demon folded it over her own arm without question.

“I can do this alone,” I said in a quiet voice. “It’ll be easier that way. The less I have to teleport, the less strain on my mind. We know that by now, you know I’m afraid of … of passing out.” Of choking on my own vomit, I meant.

Raine smiled again, indulgent but unyielding. She shook her head. “You gotta take Praem with you. Simple choice, it’s her or me.”

“It’s not as if you could stop me,” I snapped, and instantly regretted my words.

“Oh, sure, you’re right about that,” Raine purred. A dangerously playful tease reared up in her tone. I quivered at that sound – that certainly took my mind off the coming ordeal.

“R-Raine, now isn’t … Raine.”

Raine leaned in close and put a hand against the wall, boxing me in from above. Sometimes I forgot how tall she was compared to me. “I might not be able to stop you, sure, but when you get back, I’ll have a punishment waiting for you, for being a little brat and putting yourself in danger.”

My breath stuck in my throat. If this had been any other moment, if Evelyn had not been sitting ten feet away rolling her eyes out of their sockets, I probably would have replied with a squeak and said something deeply embarrassing. Yes please, Raine, please punish me for being bad.

Under the current circumstances I stared right back into Raine’s eyes, transfixed like a mouse in front of a snake, and managed to swallow. “Raine, I am in c-charge here.”

She let me go, backed up with a smirk and both hands raised. “Right you are, boss. In charge it is.”

“Good. Good.” I had to take a deep breath.

“Won’t be when you get back through.”

I tried to play that off by rolling my eyes, but I felt more than a little flushed in the face.

How much of that ultra-aggressive flirting was solely to take my mind off all this? I didn’t care. It helped, a lot. I thanked Raine silently, but I’d thank her properly later. When I got back.

“If you two have quite finished your mating ritual,” Evelyn drawled, “are we doing this today or not?”

“Just … just let me think for a moment. All right?”

Squeezing my eyes shut and focusing inward wouldn’t help at all. I had no more thinking to do, only procrastinating, so instead I paced.

Over to the heavily curtained window, with my arms folded across my chest, where I could peek out into the damp Sunday morning in the street beyond. A few distant spirits roved across the Sharrowford rooftops, going about their ineffable business. Onward, to the end of the room, to the wreckage of the cult’s doorway-portal-mandala, and then back to the table, where my neatly printed sheet of deadly notepaper lay safely contained beneath a heavy book.

“Putting it off isn’t going to make it any easier,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Let her think,” Raine said.

“Evelyn’s right,” I whispered, and moved the book aside. The sheet of notepaper lay face-down, another thin barrier between me and the clarity I’d spent three days inscribing in cheap biro. “Putting this off is pointless. I know that. I’m just … ”

Terrified.

One could be forgiven for thinking hyperdimensional mathematics had become routine for me, that it didn’t – shouldn’t – scare me anymore. Hadn’t I mastered it? Used my ill-gotten powers to defend myself, to resolve crises, to kill an evil wizard? I could threaten spirits and monsters from Outside, I could deflect a bullet, I could commit murder. This power was mine now.

What nonsense.

The scraps I could wield without frying my own brain were the deceptive shallows of a black sea of infinity. Evelyn’s cosmic map had reminded me how small I was.

My fingertips brushed the notepaper; warm to the touch, like fevered flesh.

This equation – or set of equations, a conch shell of hell-math, re-contextualised by the map’s insight – teetered on the edge of the abyssal currents. Merely writing it down had taken hours. I could only form one or two figures at a time, as the full impact always threatened to overwhelm what little mental control I could muster.

I’d had to cover my previous work with a book to stop me seeing the whole. Raine had to keep dragging me into the kitchen, forcefully distracting me, feeding me hot chocolate, mop up the leaking nosebleed. At one point she’d taken me to bed and kept me there for three hours, and that was the only thing that really helped, kept it all at bay.

I’d used this equation once before, yes, but that had been in a dire situation, driven on and protected by the heat of the moment.

Now I had to perform cold. I was desperate for any excuse to put it off; do it tomorrow, do it next week, wait until February. My birthday was soon, on the 17th. Why not wait until I turned twenty, finally out of my teens? Surely I’d feel different, this wouldn’t be so daunting, a real adult wouldn’t feel so scared?

I didn’t really believe any of that, but I still entertained the thought, if only for a moment or two.

The 17th was Maisie’s birthday as well.

I forced myself to pick up the sheet of paper – and turn to the bucket next to it.

“I’ll take Praem,” I said, to nobody in particular. “It’s just a test. Just like sitting an exam. I’m good at exams.”

“You can do it,” Raine said, suddenly loud and clear in the close quiet of the ex-drawing room. “This is nothing, Heather, this is a flick of the wrist for you. You’ll be right back, and then we’ll go take a bath. Together, yeah?”

“Don’t forget to bring something back,” Evelyn said. “Or you’ll have to do it all over again. A book off the floor will be fine. Half a book.”

I nodded; didn’t need telling that again, she’d repeated it enough times over the last week.

“Praem, come here please,” I said, hand outstretched, not trusting my legs to carry me to her. Praem joined me, heels clicking, my coat still over her arm, her skirt swishing around her ankles. I’d pinned her long blonde hair up in a braided bun for her earlier than morning. I think she liked it. She stared at my proffered hand for a moment. “You have to take my hand, or this doesn’t work. And hold on.”

She unfolded her hands and slipped her warm little palm into mine. All too human.

“Don’t you get any funny ideas now,” Raine warned her, still trying to crack jokes.

“Okay, I’m ready, um … ”

“You want a countdown?” Raine asked.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Oh for all the-”

“Yes,” I blurted out. “Yes, yes I would. Please, Raine, go ahead. Do that. Count me down.”

“On zero? Cool. Here we go then. I’ll see you in a minute or two, Heather.” She held up three fingers. “Three. Two.”

I counted with her, chest tight, palms sweating, animal terror crawling in the back of my head.

“One,” we said together. Evelyn joined in too, and even Praem spoke the word.

My mouth was so dry. Raine closed her hand, made a fist.

“Zero.”

My courage held. I flipped the piece of notepaper over. I read the equation.

My mind plunged into boiling tar. I grit my teeth, ignored the nosebleed that streamed down my face, and forced myself to concentrate on each piece of molten truth as I slotted it into place. Shaking hard, wincing, throat raw. Preparation and experience helped – but only to a point.

I hunched forward around my clenched stomach, holding on hard and trying not to vomit. I wasn’t going to use that bucket. I was not. I was better than this, I was stronger, I was-

The equation burned, rose to a shining crescendo of pain, an expanding iron vice instead in my head.

I had to use the bucket.

Praem held me up, an arm under my shoulders, as I shook all over; but I made it, I got there in the end.

Last piece. Exactly the same feeling as the first time, the same violation of natural law, the same slipping black levers under my hands. A snapshot of insane kaleidoscope before I slammed my eyes shut.

Reality crumpled under its own weight, and went out.

The difference?

This time I knew where I was going.

==

When we’d arrived back in Sharrowford at the end of the previous week, we discovered that number 12 Barnslow Drive had not been raided, vandalised, marked, egged, or otherwise violated by the Sharrowford Cult.

Evelyn was correct, they hadn’t come anywhere near the house. We couldn’t find hide nor hair of them.

That hadn’t stopped Raine from making us wait in the car. I’d felt increasingly ridiculous as Raine crept up the garden path and unlocked the door, slipping her handgun from inside her leather jacket once she was over over the threshold, but I suppose it was necessary. She’d checked over the house, the back garden, and even up the street. Nothing.

Once inside, the familiar scents – exposed floorboards, old iron radiators, tiles in the kitchen – had coaxed a bizarre feeling from me, an emotion out in the no-man’s land between nostalgia and heartache. Two weeks away from the house had lent it a touch of the welcome uncanny.

Raine had bustled about and Evelyn set to making tea, but I’d crept around from room to room, waved hello to the spider-servitor in the ex-drawing room, and even opened the door onto the back garden to check on Tenny. She wiggled her tentacles at me, but wouldn’t come inside.

The Sharrowford house smelled like home.

How very strange, after spending time at my parents’ house, my childhood home in Reading. That was supposed to be home, wasn’t it?

A few days with my parents had felt exhausting.

They’d been effusive with their protestations that my friends were very welcome, but I’d picked up on their caution, their one-step-remove, their exaggerated politeness. Or was that me, projecting my own feelings? I hadn’t had time to consider that, let alone think about the abstract concept of ‘home’, between worrying about every little thing Raine did, fielding my mother’s endless questions, and dealing with the uncanny sensation of my new friends in my old house.

That was the most exhausting part – not fretting over drama, or being amazed when Evelyn got to discussing actual medieval philosophy with my father. I had to deal with all the memories of my sister rushing back again, with Raine and Evelyn aware and my parents oblivious.

Raine got it, or at least pretended she did. We talked it over, alone in the old back garden, recounting all the little things I remembered about my twin.

Evelyn did a magical test in my old bedroom, of course. The bedroom where Maisie and I had wiggled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland a decade ago, where every trace of her had been erased. Whatever had happened to us had left no echo, no clue.

Recovering from the map, at least that was easy.

In the end, Evelyn had let the fox go, with much grumbling.

I’d been weak and disoriented that afternoon, sat on the patio as she’d freed the animal on the back lawns of the Saye mansion, sipping from my hot chocolate and trying not to think about the structure of reality. The fox had scarpered off right quick, as Raine put it, and left Praem holding the empty cage as it bounded toward the lake and the trees. It hadn’t looked back.

We spotted it twice more before we left the following morning for my parents’, a russet snout watching us from the bushes, a tail whipping back into the gates of the estate as we’d pulled away down the cramped country lane.

I wished it well, if it was indeed what Evelyn thought it was.

==

Two days back in Sharrowford, with the new university term about to start, we’d had a meeting.

None of us had ‘called a meeting’, nothing so formal. We’d drifted toward it naturally, after a day of recovery from too much socialising with my parents.

“I could get some paint, cover the whole thing up,” Raine’s voice drifted into the kitchen. I bit into a pop tart and followed the sound as she spoke. “Wouldn’t take five minutes. Might need a second coat though, some of this looks pretty thick. Is this bit carved into the plaster? That needs some polyfiller.”

I poked my head around the open doorway to Evelyn’s magical workshop, and saw Raine standing with her hands on her hips as she surveyed the wreckage of the cult’s doorway-portal-thing. The huge mandala, complete with Lozzie’s modifications, still dominated the entire wall.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn grunted from a chair by the cluttered table. “I’m keeping it.”

“You aren’t worried they’ll like, bust on through one night?” Raine turned and saw me peeking, two freshly toasted chocolate pop tarts on a plate in my hands, half of one already in my mouth. “Hey you, did you get bored? Come and join us, we’re talking shop.”

“Mmm-mm,” I grunted, then swallowed, with some difficulty. “I was waiting, I thought you were coming back upstairs.”

Raine pulled this big theatrical wince. She’d taken to doing that sometimes that in lieu of saying sorry, and it worked quite handily on me, because it was incredibly attractive. “I got totally sidetracked when I saw Evelyn talking to herself in here. My bad.”

“Talking to yourself is entirely healthy, thank you very much,” Evelyn said. “You know what isn’t healthy? Leaving your girlfriend alone in bed in the middle of … whatever it is you two do behind closed doors. Go on, shoo, the pair of you.”

“We were playing a video game, that’s all.” I felt myself blush, but only a tiny bit, and shook my head as Raine laughed.

“Yes, and I ran a marathon yesterday,” Evelyn muttered. “And no, Raine, I’m not worried about the cult using this again. The network it connected to is collapsed, there’s nothing left. I’ve got Praem out on Bowder’s street now, poking her nose into the last of their pocket spaces. They’re done. But this, I can re-purpose this, I’m certain, if I can figure out the last few bits of Akkadian.”

I crossed the threshold into the ex-drawing room, feeling curious and attentive, though I’d much rather return to watching Raine seduce video game girls who were also dragons. I glanced up at the spider-servitor, upside down in its corner, watching the room with that head of crystalline eyes.

The sight of it still unsettled me on a visceral level – the black carapace, the heat-exchangers, the poised stingers – but then again so did Tenny, and I felt a measure of odd affection for the spider. It had, after all, crouched on guard over my unconscious body after Zheng had tried to kidnap me, and I had no illusions about who would have won if she’d decided to come back and fight it.

I gave it a little wave of greeting, but got nothing in return.

“Heather?”

“Mm?” I blinked around at my friends, and then flushed when I remembered they couldn’t see what I was waving at. “T-the spider, I was just … saying hi.”

“Oh yeah, big leggy up there,” Raine said. “How’s he hanging?”

“Fine. Healthy. I mean, as far as servitors experience health?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Good question.”

“Y-you said Praem’s gone out?” I hurried to change the subject. Even now, after all these months, the old instinctive habit still held a lot of ground inside my head – don’t let on that you see things other people don’t. “Is she still wearing her- oh. That would be a no, then.”

Evelyn answered by pointing to the back of a nearby chair. Praem’s beloved maid uniform was neatly folded over the back. “Certainly not. I’m not sure psychological self-correction can account for a maid wandering around Sharrowford. I ordered her into jeans and a coat.” She caught the look on my face and sighed. “She’s free to wear whatever she likes when she gets back.”

“That’s okay, I-I wasn’t being-”

“It’s fine,” Evelyn grunted.

It obviously wasn’t fine. Still sore about her demon’s sartorial tastes. I busied myself chewing on another mouthful of pop tart.

“If I saw her walking around in that getup, I’d hit on her,” Raine said.

“So would I,” I said softly, and Raine spluttered with laughter. I blushed and shrugged and took another bite. Of course I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have the courage, but I’d like to. I swallowed and spoke into the silence that followed, asked the question that had been lurking in the back of my head, the real reason I’d stepped into the room. “So, what do we do next?”

Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “You wanna head out for some lunch before it rains again? That Indian deli place is open again.”

“Don’t be so bloody obtuse,” Evelyn snapped at her. Raine had the good sense to look mock-sheepish. She’d known exactly what I really meant. Evelyn turned in her chair to regard me. “I thought the answer to that was obvious – you need to test what you can do.”

I stepped up to the table and put my plate down, stomach turning, sugary breakfast treat sitting like lead. That was what I’d been afraid of – the fear itself. “I know that part. I mean … how ready are we?”

“For Maisie?” Raine asked.

“For Wonderland,” Evelyn corrected her. “Not in the slightest.”

“Yes, yes, I know, I know. I’m asking … ” I sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know what I’m asking.”

Evelyn held up a hand, four fingers, and lowered them one by one as she made her points.

“One, you can get there, in theory.”

“In theory,” I agreed.

“Alone, spewing your guts out, and bleeding from your eye sockets. Hardly ideal. And you haven’t tested it yet. Two, some of the circles and methods I used to allow Raine and I to perceive Tenny might function to conceal us from the Eye’s awareness. For how long, how effectively, that’s anybody’s guess, fuck knows,” she shrugged. “Three, we still have no way to locate your sister, on an entire Outside plane of reality. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy a hike over that terrain we saw.”

“True ‘nuff,” Raine added softly.

“Four, if the Eye resists our interference, itself or with its minions, we don’t have much to fight back with. You absolutely aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe – or mind-to-mind, as it were – with the Eye, are you?”

“Right,” I nodded, deflating inside. “Definitely not.”

“So, I would say we’re not bloody well ready at all.”

When she put it like that, I struggled to see light at the end of the tunnel. We had, what, eight or nine months? How on earth could we achieve all that in eight or nine months?

I’d proposed to fight an alien God for my sister’s life. I’d found it’s address in a cosmic phone book. Now what?

“What if we ding-dong-dash it?” Raine asked.

“What?” Evelyn squinted at her.

“You know. Ding-dong-dash. Knock and nash,” Raine said. “Knock on its front door and run away? Good way to see how it reacts to us rocking up to mess with it, yeah?”

Evelyn gave her such a look. Raine shrugged, don’t-blame-me style. I was barely paying attention, lost in my own thoughts.

I should have been listening. Raine’s idea was golden, but none of us would work that out for weeks yet.

The map had gifted me with insight, but not an insight I cared to examine in too much detail.

The afternoon after I’d exposed my mind to the map, we’d tried a couple of small experiments. Raine had fetched a couple of small stones from down by the lake on the Saye estate. She’d wanted me to wait, to recover until I didn’t feel sick and shaky, but I’d insisted. I had to try it then, see if it worked, see if I could put this knowledge to use. Grasp a rock and send it Outside – send it somewhere specific.

The first rock I sent to the grand winter-bound castle which Lozzie had taken me to in the dream.

It hurt like hell.

Dialling in a specific location – plane, level, dimension, whatever flimsy inadequate human word we use for Outside – took a toll on my concentration. I’d dredged up the geographic principles from the map and wedded them to the Eye’s impossible physics. The rock had vanished from my hand, and I’d curled up around my aching stomach and lungs for an entire hour, nursing my pounding head and bleeding nose.

The rock had gone exactly where I’d intended.

How did I know that?

It was like throwing an object down a long, lightless corridor, through a doorway I knew stood at the end, deep in darkness.

The second rock, I sent to Wonderland.

A risk, certainly. Would the Eye notice? How all-encompassing was its awareness? Could it somehow trace an inanimate object back to me? Let it try. I was protected, by the Fractal on my arm and my friends and Evee’s magic and my own growing mastery.

Right?

None of that sheltered me from the thought of that rock. Lying awake in bed snuggled between Raine’s arms, still cold inside despite her borrowed body heat, it haunted me. A pebble from a lakeside in rural England, lost beneath that rotten sky, amid the broken walls and otherworldly monsters of Wonderland. And it would never, ever come back. Who could find a tiny, pointless pebble, amid all that madness, beneath the gaze of the Eye?

I will award no prizes for unravelling the subconscious metaphor.

“If Raine is quite finished with her helpful suggestions,” Evelyn said, the sound of her voice bringing me back to the ex-drawing room. “I may have a solution to that first problem.”

“Which one, sorry?” I asked with a sniff. Raine crossed the room and pulled a chair out for me, encouraged me into it and started rubbing my shoulders. She’d probably seen the look on my face, figured out I needed physical contact.

“Getting to Wonderland and back,” said Evelyn, and gestured at the doorway mural. “The door. If you bring an object back from Outside, anything at all, I believe I may be able, in theory, to re-purpose the doorway to connect to that particular point.”

I blinked at her. “Um … ”

“Window on ye olde Eye didn’t go so well last time,” Raine said before I could.

“Yes, absolutely. It was a disaster,” I agreed, frowning with concern. “I thought that was the entire purpose of showing me the map. So I could … get us there.”

“Alone and passing out, as I said,” Evelyn repeated. “Look, I’m certainly not suggesting you … what do you call it, Slip? Don’t Slip to Wonderland, that’s stupid and you’ll probably die, or worse. No, we need to test this first, in as controlled conditions as we can get. Where can you go? We need somewhere safe.”

“Safe, Outside?” I sighed. “Mm.”

“Relatively.”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “There’s places Lozzie and I went in the dreams which weren’t that bad, or at least quiet, but I always got the feeling that Outside was less dangerous when accessed via dreams. I don’t know.”

“You’ll have to ask your Lozzie about that one, I have no idea,” Evelyn said.

“I suppose … ”

But I couldn’t ask Lozzie, could I? She’d been gone for weeks. I’d hoped, in my own childish way, that she might return for Christmas, come back all smiles and giggling. I didn’t even dream about her anymore. The thought of her Outside formed a lump in my throat.

Raine squeezed my shoulder. “She’ll be back, Heather, I’m sure she will.”

I nodded, chewing on my lip. Raine couldn’t possibly be sure, but I let her convince me for now. My mind finally alighted on the sort of place I associated with safety and quiet, security and pleasure.

“There was the library,” I said.

“Library?” Evelyn’s eyebrows pinched together, sudden sharp interest.

“She took you to a library?” Raine asked, and mock-tutted. “Trying to get one up on me. I’ll have to have a word with Lozzie about that, muscling in on me.”

“One of the places Lozzie took me in the dreams, yes. She called it the library of Carcosa, I think. It didn’t seem too … ah, Evee?”

Evelyn squinted at me in fascination. I hadn’t seen that look on her face since she’d marvelled over my self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.

“Carcosa?” Evelyn breathed. “Carcosa. You’re certain she used that name?”

“I think that’s how it was pronounced, yes. I take it that’s important?”

“Potentially,” Evelyn said, with great care. Her eyes bored into me. “I wish you’d told me before. Can you get back there?”

I shrugged. “In theory, I can go anywhere. Why’s this important, Evee?”

Evelyn took a deep breath and banished the worst of her fascinated look with an obvious effort of will, bringing herself back down to the level of us mere mortals. “Carcosa is a city, of a sort, mentioned by name in more than a few of the grimoires I have access to. There’s a whole five page passage in Unbekannte Orte.” She wet her lips, and I swear I saw her tremble slightly. “The library. There may be … relevant books. Ones lost here, lost to reality.”

“You want to visit a library, Outside?” I tried to laugh, but the look in Evelyn’s eyes told me she was dead serious. She opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again, clamping down on something inside herself. “Evee?”

“I can’t.” She took a deep breath and forced a humourless laugh. “You need to understand, Heather, this presents me with a dangerous temptation. A selfish part of me, perhaps the part I inherited from my mother-”

“Evee, no.”

“- very much wants to visit that library and pilfer as many books as I can,” she carried right on, raising a hand. “If I was being … mercenary, I would tell you there might be books there we can use, things that might help us locate your sister, even more so if you’re not going to be able to pit your mind against the Eye. And that wouldn’t be a lie.”

“Oh.” That pang of guilt.

“Evee, come off it, that is being mercenary,” Raine said. “But hey, if it might help?”

“Perhaps,” Evelyn admitted. “But you do need to test the map, and I need to test the door. The library, well … ” Evelyn shrugged.

“What Evee’s saying,” Raine added, still rubbing my shoulders. “Is that it’s your choice, this is your circus, Heather.”

I took a deep breath and tried to sit up straight, tried to feel big. I did not.

“I am large and in charge,” I said, closed my eyes and nodded. “I’ll do it. A trip to the library.”

==

Head throbbing like an open wound, diaphragm aching, guts throwing a terminal-stage riot. Praem caught my weight as I sagged forward.

My feet skittered for purchase against the polished wooden floor, kicking at stray books and loose pages, the sound echoing into the vast space overhead. A sticky, gummy feeling seeped around my closed eyelids as I hacked for breath and heaved again. Praem quickly pressed a plastic bag into my hands and I voided my stomach once more, wiped my lips and dropped the bag, and failed to stand up as my knees gave out. Praem had to catch me again. She held me up with effortless ease.

“We are here,” she intoned, voice echoing off into nothingness.

I didn’t need her to tell me that.

I was Outside, under my own power. My second ever intentional Slip. Went off without a hitch – except for all the pain and the vomiting and the bleeding.

“Book,” I croaked. “Need a book. Back- back out.”

That was right, back out, back to reality, back to Raine and that bath together.

“Book,” Praem acknowledged, but then I realised she couldn’t bend down without letting me tumble to my knees.

With stinging effort, I eased my eyelids open, rubbed at the blood around my eye sockets, and squinted so I could see.

Mercy of mercies, I had at least brought us to the right place.

The library of Carcosa looked exactly as I remembered it from the dream Lozzie and I had shared. We stood at the bottom of a wide canyon of bookcases at least a mile across, the floor covered with thousands of discarded texts. The bookcases vanished into the dark, far far above, crossed and looped by hundreds of wooden walkways and balconies. Billions of books. Beyond counting.

Without the cushion of the dream, I did not like it one bit.

All was shrouded in soft, unnatural light and deep amorphous shadows. I concentrated the floor, at the discarded books – not at the tiny robed figures shuffling along the walkways above, their faces made of tentacles and spines, or at the hanging cages that contained inhuman skeletons, and certainly not at the giant chains and the nightmare shape they held suspended in the far middle of the canyon.

“Book, book, any book,” I croaked, and bent forward, scooping up the first volume that came to hand. Praem helped me straighten again, and I stared at her for a second. “None the worse for- for wear at all, are you?”

“None the worse,” she echoed, milk white eyes steadfast, uniform utterly unruffled.

“Shhh, shh, don’t want to … ” I gestured vaguely, but nothing out there seemed to respond to the echoing sound of Praem’s voice.

My stomach turned again, knees wobbling as I struggled to stay standing. Quickly, I let the book flop open in one hand – no language I recognised, but it was indeed a book, black marks on white pages, rather than something else disguised as a book. I handed it to Praem and lifted the piece of notepaper again, now crumpled and squeezed, stained with nosebleed and a few flecks of vomit.

Strictly speaking I didn’t need the equation on paper to get back. I could run through the whole thing from memory, from instinct, from a decade of the Eye’s lessons. But the notation would help, make it gentler on my mind.

I needed so badly to sit down.

A little more pain, and it would be over, I told myself; back to Sharrowford, home, and my friends.

I turned the paper over and my eyes flickered down the equation, the first red-hot iron pokers slamming into my skull.

That’s when I spotted her.

Maybe half a mile away. How did I see her so clearly across the floor of that library-canyon? Half hidden behind a banister at the edge of a staircase up into the stacks? Staring at me. Maybe it was the long blonde hair, messy and unkempt, or the way she folded the ends of her sleeves over her hands, or simply the outline of her skinny form against the shadows.

Lozzie.

My eyes jerked up from the paper, halfway through the equation; her name on my lips, certain she hadn’t been there a second ago.

Her face half a mile distant, but inches away; every feature in the right place, but nothing like itself.

Something wearing her skin.

I lost my train of thought.

Hyperdimensional mathematics fell apart inside my head, a nuclear meltdown which made me clench every muscle in my body, vision throbbing black around the edges. I cried out, pain and blood in my mouth, eyes stinging like acid. My head felt it exploded.

Praem caught me as I passed out. The last thing I saw was Lozzie. She turned, and walked away.

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10 thoughts on “and less pleasant places – 6.1

  1. New arc! With a less-than-promising title… But I’m sure everything will be just fine!

    Oh my god a Symphogear reference. Between that and Raine playing Atelier I’m pretty sure you have very similar taste to me! 🙂 On that note, big Tower of Latria vibes from the description of the Library and its residents…

    • Ah, but Symphogear and Atelier are merely Evelyn and Raine’s tastes, respectively …

      Who am I kidding, of course I’m some dropping references to things I like! I’m delighted somebody noticed.

  2. I’m a bit amused that Heather has managed to make herself into the leader of this group almost without noticing.

    …Crap, Heather’s absolutely going to try and rescue Lozzie…again. Good thing she has Praem with her!

  3. Lozzie’s my favorite character in the story, but she has never been getting much written time. Seems like a tease at this point that she always shows up to disappear 2 seconds later. REALLY hoping she isn’t already dead at this point, but will stick with it at least until we find out what happened to her. Here’s to hoping she comes back and joins the main cast soon.

    • I’m delighted that Lozzie is somebody’s favourite! And I’m equally sorry she hasn’t gotten much screen time so far – she’s a little elusive, isn’t she? I don’t want to accidentally spoil the story, but I do hope you’ll keep reading.

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