Praem brought me round by slapping me in the face.
Consciousness returned, sharp and cold. I gasped, and Praem stopped. It was neither the most painful nor the most panicked awakening I’d experienced, but it was far from pleasant. At least it beat waking up in a puddle of my own sick.
Spluttering for breath through the taste of bile, I peeled my bloodied face off the floorboards and flailed as I tried to sit up, confused, unsure where I was, lost behind blurred vision and eyelids sticky with blood. Halfway to a sitting position a gasp of pain seized my raw throat; my diaphragm ached like my insides had been flayed and my head pounded so hard each throb made me want to vomit again. I curled up around my stomach, wheezing, struggling to look up at Praem and wipe the blood-stuck hair out of my face.
She’d rolled me into the recovery position and covered me with my coat. Good demon, yes, thank you Praem.
The doll-demon straighted up and quickly looked away, her attention elsewhere. Her right hand was smeared with crimson where she’d been slapping my cheek. I reached out, numb and woozy. Had to get to my feet. Had to get up. To find- to find what?
Where were we? My mind whirled, fuzzy and slow. Outside, yes, the test, the plan to bring back a book, the library of Carcosa, then-
Memory slammed back into place and I pushed my feet underneath me, forced shaking legs to take my weight. I could barely stand, and blundered into Praem. She was fast enough to give me her arm for support, a handhold to cling to, but my head still swam with throbbing pain, vision edged with black. I hung on to Praem for what seemed an eternity, head down, fighting the pain. She picked up my coat again and draped it over my shoulders.
“Leave,” Praem intoned, loud and clear. I winced through clenched teeth.
Leave, now? Absolutely not.
Lozzie was here, just beyond the shadows and my own blurred vision. She’d turned and walked away, up into the winding maze of the library staircases, but I’d seen her, I’d seen-
I’d seen a face twisted into alien emotion. Barely her.
Lozzie’s facial muscles had all pulled in the wrong directions, tensed and relaxed in the wrong order, at the wrong angles, like an inhuman hand puppeting her from beneath the skin.
No no no, Lozzie, no! If I hadn’t been wracked with brainmath-fumble aftershocks and a headache fit to kill a bear, I believe I would have wept.
How could this happen to her? She’d insisted she was meant to be out here, to be Outside. She was supposed to be safe, from her uncle, from the cult, at home in the inhuman wilderness – and what had happened to her? Even worse, too unthinkable, had she invited this change?
I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear what it implied, for both of us.
I had to find her.
If I’d had a clear mind, I would’ve posed myself a much more pertinent question: how had I seen all that detail at half a mile distant? Impossible. A side-effect of the throes of brain-math? If so, that was new.
Should have been paying attention.
Frantic, still not certain what I’d seen before passing out, I heaved myself round, desperate to find any scrap of Lozzie, and managed to almost fall over again. Praem caught me under the shoulders to stop me landing on my face, and hauled me as upright as I could stand.
“Need to leave,” she said, voice clear as a silver bell.
We had company.
Several inhabitants of the library of Carcosa had descended into the bookcase-canyon, to see what all the fuss was about.
Four figures, maybe a hundred meters away. Tall, perhaps six or seven feet, lean and humanoid beneath long ragged robes – but lumpy and rippling, as if they possessed unspeakable concealed appendages in addition to their grayish hands and forearms. Great masses of ropey grey tentacles hung and twitched in place of faces, set between long spines like those of a sea urchin, no eyes or mouths or noses, though their faces pointed at Praem and I as if watching through human eyes.
The boldest of the librarians, creeping forward at the head of their group, carried a large book tucked into its armpit – and a barbed metal cattle-crook in the other hand.
The others didn’t look as confident as they approached. They were empty-handed except for one carrying a pair of books, as if the tentacle-face had been busy sorting volumes, its work interrupted by a human girl noisily passing out on the floor. The rearmost figure seemed wary, craning to look over his companions’ shoulders. Another knot of the creatures was descending a staircase at the edge of the canyon, a couple of them pointing toward us.
“How did they-” I croaked, forced myself to swallow. “How long was I unconscious?”
“Thirty seven minutes, twelve seconds,” Praem said.
“Half an hour? Oh, oh God, I … ” My stomach turned over.
“Leave,” Praem intoned.
“But- but Lozzie, she- she was right there- I have to-”
I lurched out of Praem’s grip, toward the stairs where I’d seen Lozzie. Half a mile distant, through some of the most bizarre creatures I’d ever encountered, on legs that could barely carry me half a meter, while bleeding from my eye sockets. The plan lay in tatters.
None of that mattered. It wasn’t courage, or stupidity, but a kind of desperate selfish panic; I had to find Lozzie, I needed to know what had happened to her.
I made it two paces before Praem threw her arms around my waist.
She held on tight, hugged my back. I squirmed to pull free, but in my current state I couldn’t have escaped a wet paper bag, let alone Praem. Raine was strong, much stronger than me, all well-trained toned muscle; she could hold me down without breaking a sweat, pick me up without much effort, and swing a bat hard enough to break bones. Praem’s strength was so far beyond Raine, they weren’t even comparable. She had bad leverage and a poor angle, but she gripped me like a granite statue.
“Praem, I- she was-” I heaved with nausea for a moment, on the verge of emptying my guts a second time. She understood, let me bend forward. “Lozzie, it was Lozzie! Didn’t you see? I have to- I have to!”
“We must leave.”
“But didn’t you see? Damn you-” I pulled at her arms again, on the verge of hysteria. “That was her, wasn’t it!?”
Praem stared past me, impassive, up at the spot Lozzie had so briefly occupied, then at the approaching tentacle-faced people.
“I saw,” she said.
“Then let me- Let’s go after her! Please, Praem, please! You can fight these monsters, can’t you? I know you can. I have to get her- I have to- I have to know-”
“Promised,” Praem intoned. “Best look after her.”
That dumped a bucket of cold water on my mounting hysteria: Raine’s words to Praem, back in Sharrowford.
The doll-demon had promised to look after me. Raine and Evelyn were waiting, with no idea why I was overdue. Raine would be worried sick. She’d never show it, never let on in the moment, and as soon as I got back she’d be all practical care and tender smiling encouragement. She loved me, and perhaps the way I felt about Lozzie right now was a shade of how she worried for me.
“You can’t- you can’t make me,” I muttered. Voice weak, my heart wasn’t really in the words.
I did hold the real power here, I determined our return. I’d dropped the notepaper with the equation, now lost amid the mess of discarded books on the floor, but I could perform it all from memory, at the speed of thought, at the cost of a little more agony.
Praem said nothing, arms tight around my waist, taking my sagging weight on her front. Together we stared at the approaching tentacle-faces, the librarians. They’d reach us in a minute or two, and even though they looked uncertain and wary I would rather they keep their distance.
A crazed part of me wanted to refuse, make the doll-demon choose between fighting the tentacle-faces or picking me up and running, give her no option but to help me find Lozzie.
I couldn’t. Didn’t have the heart, couldn’t stop thinking about Raine. Left my sister behind for ten years, and now Lozzie’s lost herself Outside and I can’t even go after her.
I choked back a sob.
“Leave,” Praem repeated.
“Okay. Okay, yes, yes. You- you have the book, don’t you? I’m not doing this again.”
Praem waggled one of her hands to show me, the book still firmly in her grip.
“Hang- hang on tight, okay?”
“Snug,” she said.
I closed my eyes, shut out the library of Carcosa, the tentacle-faces, the spot I’d seen Lozzie, my own wordless horror, and began once more the set of mind-searing, neuron-shattering equations to take us home.
“It wasn’t her,” Evelyn said.
Slowly, eyelids still heavy as lead, I blinked up at Evelyn from where I sat on the floor, propped against foot of the sofa in the ex-drawing room. Raine looked up too, another piece of dark chocolate in her hand, paused halfway to my mouth.
“Mm?” I tried to grunt, managed only a slightly louder puff of breath. Felt like I was dead.
“It wasn’t your Lozzie.”
I blinked again. My eyes ached, my head throbbed with every beat of my heart, and my chest felt like a gaping hole where my lungs should be.
Upon returning from Outside – slumping against Praem and spitting blood as reality crashed back – I’d spent the last shreds of my energy trying to explain what I’d seen. I’d blurted out sentence fragments, spluttering and coughing, even as Raine had jumped out of her chair to take me from Praem’s arms.
“You’re late!” Evelyn had snapped, sitting bolt upright, face a mask of thunder.
I’d managed to say Lozzie’s name, summoned enough numb-lipped incoherency to mutter about ‘something in her skin’, and ‘have to find her, all wrong’, before I’d all but collapsed onto the floor, with Raine’s hands cradling my head.
Praem had come to my rescue. As Raine had propped me against the sofa and checked my airways were clear, Praem had turned to Evelyn and begun to explain in her clipped, clear tones.
“We saw Lozzie,” she’d said. “Awaiting us. She was all wrong.”
“Wrong?” Evelyn had snapped, glancing between the doll-demon and my vacant expression, Raine already tending to my face with a warm towel and a tub of water. She clicked her fingers at Praem. “Explain. And hand me that book, that’s it? That’s what you picked up?”
I’d drifted. Not the pleasant oblivion of long-awaited sleep, but identical to the first time I’d returned from an intentional slip: numb, distant, my body a shell I inhabited at whim, a whim I was on the verge of forgetting. All my panic about Lozzie turned to mist in the wind. I felt Raine’s hands on my face and forehead, wiping the blood and the bile from my lips, telling me I was home, I was safe, and it was all okay – but I wasn’t really there. She tended to a thin veneer over a void. The void was me, I was it, and it was all.
She lifted strong lukewarm coffee to my lips and forced me to sip, fed me tiny nibbles of dark chocolate. The taste – and perhaps the caffeine and serotonin – began to drag me back up into my own body, into my senses. I took a deep breath and coughed once.
“Hey, hey there Heather,” she murmured, stroking my hair. “You did good, you did real good. I’m really proud of you. You’re not hurt anywhere, are you? Heather?”
“Everywhere,” I croaked. Raine smiled and sighed with relief. She recognised a joke when she heard it.
Evelyn entered my field of vision, frowning down at me with rare naked concern. She tapped Raine with her walking stick. “Don’t stop feeding her, you negligent reprobate. Give her the whole bar if you have to, there’s plenty more in the kitchen.”
“Yes ma’am, don’t have to tell me twice.” Raine lifted the square of chocolate to my mouth again.
“Feed myself,” I muttered. I tried to take it from her, but raising my arm all that way was too difficult. I let my limp hands fall into my lap, let Raine feed me, concentrated on the taste and the orchestra of aches and pains reminding me I was alive.
Evelyn had resumed her chair, and that’s when she decided I hadn’t seen Lozzie.
“It wasn’t Lozzie,” she repeated, frowning, tight and thoughtful, as if watching my reactions very closely.
Raine nodded at Praem. “She sounded pretty conclusive to me.”
Evelyn shook her head. “Am I the only one here with two brain cells left to rub together?”
“Unfair,” I croaked.
“You saw what looked like Lozzie, yes, that much I accept, of course I do,” Evelyn said. “Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but the chances of her and you running across each other Outside are infinitesimally small.” She paused and spread her hands. “Am I talking to myself here?”
The horror of seeing Lozzie in that state came creeping back, a cold hand up my spine, digging fingernails of ice into my flesh. I shook, breathing harder. “But she- what- what-”
Raine placed a hand on my forehead, cool and soft. “Shhh, shhhh, Heather, we can figure all this out, I promise. Evee, this can wait.”
“No, it can’t,” I spluttered. “What do you mean?”
“I mean it wasn’t her.” Evelyn frowned at me like I’d turned into an idiot. Perhaps I had. “Think it through, for five seconds. You saw her at that exact spot, a place you chose from dozens of possible locations you’d visited with her. And she was waiting for you? At the exact minute you chose to go Outside? And she doesn’t call out for help or run to you, she walks off, into the unknown? And you really believe that was her?” She glanced up at Praem. “What about you, you believe this nonsense?”
Praem offered no opinion.
“She was there-” I had to pause for breath. “Because it was somewhere we went-” Pant, pain. “Together. She was … waiting to … ask for help.”
“It was an anglerfish. It was bait.” Evelyn spat the word.
“Evee, hey now, come on.” Raine raised both hands. “Heather, you need a hot bath thirty seconds ago. I know how much Lozzie means to you, and I promise we-”
“It was her!” I yelled at Evelyn, but managed only a wheeze and an awful, body-racking coughing fit. I curled up around my aching chest and whined through my teeth.
Evelyn didn’t deserve my anger. I was lashing out in fear and frustration. She was merely the closest target. She looked taken aback, blinking at me and averting her eyes. She opened her mouth but I waved one weak hand at her, trying to apologise.
Lozzie’s fate mattered to me on so many different levels I could barely unravel them while lying awake in bed, let alone in pain and infinite numbness, eyelids still sticky with blood, trying to sort through what I’d seen.
Lozzie and I had shared so much, experiences I couldn’t share with anybody else, even Raine. She’d shown me Outside through eyes unclouded by horror, filled with wonder and otherworldly beauty, a vision I still couldn’t reach on my own. And I cared about her, deeply, on a level I didn’t fully get. She was like a little sister or a cousin I needed to take care of. She’d been abused and used and hurt and I wanted her to be safe, she had to be safe, I needed to make her safe.
Because she was like me. And if she could lose herself Outside, what did that mean?
“Heather, hey, hey, it’s okay, just try to breathe, focus on your breathing.” Raine helped me sit up again, stroked my hair uncaring of the blood, gentle fingers rubbing the back of my neck. “Just focus on breathing.”
“Am I going to end up like that?” I wheezed. “Is-”
I couldn’t voice the rest, the real question.
Raine and Evelyn shared a glance.
“There’s no reason to think like that,” Evelyn said quickly. “Of course not.”
“You’re right here with us,” Raine added, voice that soft purr just for me. “You’re completely safe, Heather. The only reason you’re ever going Outside is to get your sister back, right?” She grinned, all brimming confidence. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. And I’m sure Lozzie’s fine.”
“What you saw was not Lozzie,” Evelyn repeated. I squinted at her.
“Not her,” Praem echoed.
“See?” Evelyn thumbed at Praem. “It was something native to the library, most likely. It plucked a relevant fear, a relevant desire from your mind. An anglerfish’s bait, a light to lure the unwary. Why do you think it was Lozzie, hm?”
“Anglerfish,” Praem echoed.
I shrugged, drained, utterly exhausted.
“Because if it had been Raine, or myself, you would have known instantly it wasn’t real,” Evelyn said, as if explaining a principle to a very slow child. She sighed heavily. “You’re obviously worn out. You panicked. Any of us would, of course. Whatever it was, it chose Lozzie to lead you on. It wasn’t her, not the real one.”
“She’s probably on some tropical beach with her feet up. Or playing with spirits,” Raine said, and cracked another grin as she glanced up, at the house, at the Sharrowford cold and the Sharrowford rain beyond the walls. “If I could go anywhere, it’d be the south of France for both us, not this.”
“Somewhere hot,” I croaked, nodding.
Their argument made sense. Praem agreed too. Bait, a thought plucked from my mind.
My eyes burned, hot and wet, vision blurring again. I sniffed hard, and felt tears run down my cheeks. I choked back a sob, crying because I missed Lozzie, and didn’t know where she was, if she was safe, or dead. Or worse.
By the following weekend – and two days after my twentieth birthday – I’d not forgotten about Lozzie one bit, but I had managed to convince myself that Evelyn was correct.
I couldn’t sleep right. Not the bone-shattering exhaustion of the terminal weeks before I’d first met Raine, no nightmares or terrors, not reluctant to face what lurked on the other side of unconsciousness. Instead I found myself restless and awake in Raine’s arms, an unquiet mind in the night, or getting up to wander the house and sit in the still darkness, reading in Evelyn’s little private library, or watching Tenny out in the garden before the cold drove me back under the covers.
Lozzie alone wasn’t enough to keep me up at night.
I was terribly worried about her, yes, of course I was, even if that thing I’d seen Outside wasn’t her.
When she’d left, after we’d freed her from her brother, I’d tried my best to accept her decision, but now I’d been Outside again, lost to my friends for half an hour, Raine and Evelyn left behind to wonder what had happened to me. That sharpened the hurt all over again. I missed her.
That vision in Carcosa, Lozzie puppeted by an alien presence inside her skin – even if it wasn’t real, please don’t let it be real, God, please – I couldn’t get it out of my head. Couldn’t stop thinking about what it implied.
Months ago, when we’d first sketched our plan to save my sister, Evelyn had cautioned against hope. The memory of her words kept me up at night.
Nothing human can survive out there for long, she’d said.
How much of Maisie was left to save?
Despite the supernatural underworld we inhabited, in the end I was still a university student, with few responsibilities except lectures and essays. Lucky me. I caught up by sleeping in late, or napped at Raine’s insistent encouragement.
I was worrying her, especially on the two occasions she woke and came looking for me at night, uncertain where I’d gone, uncertain – perhaps – if I was still present in reality at all. The second time that happened she made extra sure to remind me that I was very much accounted for in the physical. I got even less sleep that particular night, but I didn’t mind.
And so, that’s why I was curled up in bed at eleven in the morning on a Sunday, two days after my birthday, dozing and fretting, surrounded by Raine’s lingering scent, when I managed to embarrass myself.
“Heather!” Raine called up the stairs. There was a laugh in her voice, floating through the open bedroom door. “Wakey wakey, sleeping beauty. Somebody down here’s got a present for you.”
I rolled over, certain that the ‘present’ was Raine’s metaphor for bacon and eggs, or at the long odds that Tenny had brought a dead mouse to the back door, or Praem had sewn me a maid uniform. It couldn’t be that Evelyn had made any progress with the doorway-portal; that would hardly warrant a laugh.
“Heather? You awake up there?” Raine called again.
“Awake,” I echoed back. “I’ll be down … in a minute.”
Still, I was most unwilling to exile myself from the warm bed. Eventually I sat up, rubbed at my face, and grumbled most ungratefully about how breakfast in bed would be easier. I didn’t really mean it though. I wasn’t that spoiled.
At least now I had a new and wonderfully comfortable method to keep the cold at bay. No need to pull on thick socks, or wrap myself up in a hoodie. I took my heat with me, carefully guarded. I even popped the hood up and set the ears standing, playful for Raine’s benefit, as I padded quietly down the stairs, across the front room and into the kitchen, following the scent of fresh coffee.
“Here she is, queen of the hour,” Raine said, from over by the kettle. One coffee for me, and tea for her – and one mug for our guest.
“Hey Heath- … er-”
Twil did a double-take at me.
At my luxurious, brand-new, calico-pattern cat onesie.
“Oh.” I yanked the hood down, blushing terribly, trying to smile. “T-Twil. Good morning, yes, hello. Hello.”
Twil looked me up and down, mouth open, then back to where Praem stood in her maid uniform by the door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. “ … Oh … ‘kay. One I can deal with. Two, I ain’t so sure.”
“It was a present!” I blurted out, blushing red as a tomato, trying to sort out my terribly messy hair all bunched down the back of the onesie. “A birthday present. And it’s warm! And- and really comfy. Really.”
“A present, right.” Twil glanced at Raine, looking very uncertain, ready to bolt. “From you? … is this some weird furry shit? And why is the demon dressed like a porn star again? No uh, no judgement, though. You do you, all’a you.”
Raine burst out laughing, shaking her head and almost dropping the teabag she was extracting from a mug.
“From Evee,” I corrected her with a huff. “It’s absolutely not a sex thing. It was because of a bet, but it’s actually really comfortable. It’s … ” I shook my head and sighed. “Raine, why didn’t you tell me we had company? I would have gotten dressed properly.”
“I did tell you,” Raine said with a smirk, placing the mugs on the table. I sighed and reached for my coffee. “And hey, Twil doesn’t count as company-”
“Oi!” Twil barked.
“- she’s one of us,” Raine finished, with a raised eyebrow at Twil.
“That’s- yeah, right, that’s better.” Twil cleared her throat.
“And Praem,” I said with a gesture toward the doll-demon. “Is dressed in the clothing she prefers. She discovered that herself, while we were visiting Evelyn’s house. Doesn’t she look good? It suits her.”
“Uh … uh, yeah.”
“Much preferred,” Praem added, staring straight ahead.
“That’s the only reason. We’re not doing anything funny,” I said. Twil held her breath for a long sceptical moment. I sighed and put one hand on my hips, trying to disregard how silly I must look dressed as a giant cat. “Twil, this is me we’re talking about. You know me by now. Would I willingly dress up as a cat for … weird sex, and then let you see me?”
Twil frowned, then seemed to let go of the breath. “No, no you wouldn’t. Right you are, totally not your style. Cool onesie, actually. It’s kinda cute.”
She lit up with a big, unguarded smile at last, and my goodness, I had forgotten how beautiful Twil could be.
I wasn’t attracted to the werewolf on a personal level, but I hadn’t seen her in several weeks. Absence can have quite the effect with a girl as good-looking as Twil. Her dark curls fell over the collar of her clashing blue and lime green coat, and she’d picked up a new hoodie somewhere, a deep cream colour that went well with her angelic features and sharp amber eyes.
Twil’s unintentional illusion of delicate femininity had been shattered long ago for me – or perhaps accentuated, in some obscure way – by seeing her turn into a whirling ball of tooth and claw, break most of her own bones, and pull zombies apart.
I was always quite relieved the werewolf was on our side.
“Cute as hell, isn’t it?” Raine added with a smirk. “I like the little ears on the hood.” She snuck past my guard to flip the hood back up, messing my hair, before darting away beyond range of my swatting hands.
“Raine!” I flustered and yanked the hood off my head. “Stop it!”
She shot me a wink, sat down, and gestured for Twil to make herself at home. Twil pulled out a chair, then remembered something and dug around inside her coat. She presented me with a garish little glittery gift-bag, only slightly squashed.
“’Cos it’s your birthday,” she said. “Or, it was. Yesterday, right?”
“Friday,” Raine corrected her gently.
“Oh, oh you shouldn’t have, Twil.” I accepted the bag with a gentle frown. “I really mean that, you shouldn’t have. There’s little I want for.”
She shrugged. “We’re mates, aren’t we? Happy late birthday.”
“We are friends, yes.” I beamed at her. “Thank you, Twil. You’re sweet.”
I swear I saw her blush as she sat down.
Twil had bought me a bright pink and white scarf, the nice thick ribbed kind of scarf good for securing over one’s mouth and nose on the coldest days of midwinter. A little flashy, too much colour for the Heather of six months ago, but I had much more courage in self-expression than any past version of myself.
“I shall wear it to campus, tomorrow,” I said.
Raine had pulled out all the stops on my birthday, two days ago. She’d made me breakfast in bed and baked me a cake when we’d gotten back from lectures, a thick slab of chocolate and cream that tasted of bliss and clogged arteries, introduced with a rousing – if mortifying – round of ‘happy birthday to you’, which even Evelyn had joined in with, though quietly, and all washed down with full-fat milk.
When Evelyn had given me the cat onesie, I’d blushed like a beetroot. I’d completely forgotten about the bet we’d made in the heat of the moment, on that afternoon when Twil’s mother had turned up at the house. Events since then had rather overtaken my attention, but Evelyn hadn’t forgotten, and the loser’s punishment was still very much on the cards.
I loved it regardless. She knew I was having trouble with my body heat, always feeling the cold, and we set the cat onesie to work right away, after a bit of token resistance and awkward embarrassment. It was so very warm.
Raine bought me two thick jumpers, a pair of fancy reusable gel hand warmers, a box of chocolates, a video game – one I’d apparently like, but had never heard of before, the cover an illustration of an attractive witch leering over her bubbling cauldron – and an item of clothing that I will absolutely not relate to anyone else, ever, as long as I live.
I’d return those kindnesses when the time came, because it mattered. Evelyn’s birthday wasn’t until spring, and Raine was a summer child. I hadn’t had a birthday so nice since I was little, but not because of the pampering and the presents, not even because of being surrounded by my friends.
For the first time in ten years, it wasn’t my birthday alone.
Outside, somewhere, Maisie was turning twenty as well.
“Where’s Saye at, then?” Twil asked, blowing on her mug of tea. I was playing around with the scarf, trying it out underneath the fluffy collar of the onesie, but my attention perked up at her question. Twil nodded at Praem. “She’s never too far away, right?”
“I think she’s in her workshop at the moment, but she could do with some light exercise. You should go say hi, Twil,” I said, trying to sound as innocent as I could.
Twil eyed the door to the ex-drawing room, exactly like a wary hound. “What, in there, with the giant invisible creepy-crawlies and the portal to the fog-dimension?”
“That’s been closed for weeks. Go say hi!” I said. Twil frowned at me like I was bonkers. “She’ll … appreciate the polite gesture. You are in her house, after all.”
Good save, yes. Go on, Twil, I willed, she wants to see you.
“Heather?” Raine said my name, a curious quirk to her eyebrows. I made eyes at her when Twil glanced at the door again. Don’t spoil my match-making attempts!
“She must be able to hear us out here,” Twil said, “she just doesn’t wanna say hi. It’s cool, I don’t wanna rile her up or anything.”
“You won’t. Twil, go and knock on the door. Really.” I nodded and smiled. Nod and smile.
Twil narrowed her eyes at me. Oh damn, she smelled a rat. Did werewolves possess a heightened sense for danger? If so, hers was misfiring. I smiled wider.
“You’ve set up some kind of prank, haven’t you?” Twil asked slowly. She turned to Raine to check her expression. “I’m gonna knock on that door and a ruddy great praying mantis is gonna fall on my head.”
Raine laughed and raised her hands. “I’m none the wiser here. I dunno what Heather’s playing at.”
“I’m not playing at anything. I’m just saying it doesn’t hurt to be polite and say hello. I’m sure Evee would love to see you.”
The door to the workshop cracked open. Out peered a very unimpressed Evelyn.
“The only prank here is your … ” she snapped, but her sharp tongue trailed off, staring at Twil. She swallowed.
“My face?” Twil completed the insult, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, hey to you too, Evelyn. Told you she could hear us out here.”
“Good morning, Evee.” I beamed at her. “Look who’s turned up. It’s Twil.” I felt like leaping up out of my seat and clapping my hands together, but I restrained myself. Raine raised her mug in greeting.
“I do have eyes, yes.” Evelyn shot me a withering look, stomped into the kitchen, and glanced around the mugs on the table.
“You want a cuppa?” Raine asked. “Didn’t want to interrupt you. Kettle’s still warm.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, and stared at Twil again.
The werewolf shrugged. “What?”
“It’s nothing,” Evelyn hissed, and turned away, as if trying to remember what she’d stepped in here to do. I tried to catch her eye.
“What?” Twil repeated, frowning, bristling at the unexplained scrutiny. “Fuck’s sake, Saye, I thought we were cool, you sent a merry Christmas text and everything.”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn snapped. “We’re ‘cool’, we’re fine, nothing is wrong.”
Twil spread her hands and looked at me for help. “What did I do now?”
“You can call her ‘Evee’, you know,” I said, forcing myself to pretend I was none the wiser. “Friends can use pet names for each other. Surnames are a little too formal, a little too distant, don’t you think?”
“Idiot mongrel,” Evelyn muttered.
“Hey! Come on, Evelyn- Evee?” Twil attempted, looking at me out of the corner of her eye for approval. I gave her a covert thumbs up. “You like me really, we’re friends now, aren’t we? We were getting on great. That was you sending me messages from your phone last night, right? You’re not like … ”
“Just drink your bloody tea,” Evelyn said, and thumped over to the fridge. She opened it and rummaged around, loudly.
I felt like squealing. Messages? What was going on? Oh, Evelyn, well done!
“Drink your tea,” Praem echoed.
Raine blinked theatrically several times. “I can’t believe I’m witnessing this. Heather, quick, pinch my arm, I think I’m dreaming.”
“Witnessing what? Did you all go off your rockers down in Sussex?” Twil looked so lost, I felt sorry for her, but they had to do this on their own.
I bit my lips together and silently swore I’d only step if a a genuine misunderstanding unfolded, or one of them was at risk of getting hurt. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t talk to Twil in private later, plant an idea or two in her head, perhaps. I caught Raine’s eye and somehow managed to communicate my intention, because she clacked her mug down, cracked her knuckles, and leaned forward to change the subject.
“You turned up right on time, by the way,” she said to Twil. “I was about to give you a ring, ask a favour.”
Twil tore her eyes off Evelyn’s back, still frowning and confused. She blinked at Raine for a second, putting her thoughts back in order. “Yeah? What’s up?”
“How’d you fancy a spot of B&E?”
“B and E?” I echoed softly. Raine pulled a half-smile, half-wince.
“Breaking and entering, right?” Twil supplied before Raine could answer, and started to grin. “What’s going down, we gotta smash some place up? What have you lot got into this time?”
“Yes, Raine, what’s going on?” I said, my voice somewhat sharper than I’d intended.
Raine raised both hands in stalling surrender. “Nothing. Yet. Probably.”
“Yet?” I gave her a bit of a look. Undoubtedly weak, dressed as I was in a fluffy cat onesie.
Raine tilted her head to me. “I haven’t been keeping anything back from you, cross my heart and hope to die. S’only this morning I got wind of this.”
Twil leaned back slightly in her chair, as if she sensed invisible tension in the space between me and Raine. Evelyn peered at us as she shut the fridge. I cleared my throat and blushed slightly. “I didn’t mean to imply … I mean that you were … ”
“It’s okay, Heather, I know,” Raine said softly, then took a deep breath. “Long story short, do you remember our wayward friend, little Miss Poundland necromancer?”
“Oh, her, yeah,” Twil said. “The one you put the wind up, right?”
That got my attention. I recalled her all too well, the prisoner we’d dragged out of the Sharrowford Cult’s pocket dimension, a mousy, scrawny young woman who I’d been determined to let live. I remembered her face, terrified of us, and the way she’d looked at me with fear and awe.
“Her name’s Kimberly,” I said. “If I recall correctly. Why?”
“Kimberly Kemp,” Raine said. “Got her full name out of her, and a bunch more stuff besides.”
“Cute name,” Twil added. Evelyn snorted in derision.
“Anyway,” Raine continued. “I’ve been checking up on her, a couple of times. Once before we left over Christmas, then once the day after we got back to town.”
“You mean you’ve been intimidating the poor woman,” I said. “Raine, she was terrified of you the most. That’s so cruel.”
“Bloody right, damn,” Twil said. “Psycho.”
“Had to be done,” Evelyn grunted. “What’s the bitch done now?”
Raine laughed it off, and I almost bristled at her. She pulled a what-could-I-do type of shrug. “Nothing, nothing. I think. Hey, I made it clear as day I wasn’t going to hurt her. Like Evee said, it had to be done, we had to be sure she wasn’t gonna get picked up by the cult again.”
“Oh … oh, I suppose so, yes, from that angle.” I dialled down. Fair enough.
“Helps that you got to play Knight Errant, I’ll bet,” Evelyn muttered.
“Duty of care and all that,” Raine admitted with a tilt of her chin. “Anyway, so, I called her, went round her little flat – over on Whingate and Headly, she’s in one of the towers – and I didn’t threaten her, I swear. I was there five minutes, no more. Asked her how she was, if any of her old comrades had been in contact, told her to come to us if she had any problems like that.”
“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ll bet you did.”
“Evelyn,” I almost snapped at her. Raine was a lot of things, but unfaithful she was not. Evelyn grimaced a silent apology and waved Raine on.
“Second time, I drop by uninvited the day after we got back from down south. All was well. She was a bit surprised, and yeah, okay, probably shit scared of me, but it had to be done. Then I tried a third time, last Friday. And I couldn’t.”
Raine paused, let that hang.
“What happened to her?” I said.
“She wasn’t there, was she?” Evelyn asked, a dark turn in her voice. “Fuck.”
“Fuck is right,” Raine said. “Didn’t think anything of it at the time, she’s a busy girl, got things to do, life to live. So I called her, left a message to call me back, but got nothing. I called her again on Wednesday. Still nothing by the weekend, so I go round there yesterday, knock on the door, thinking maybe she’s sick of us now, moved on. No harm, no foul. No answer.”
“She could be doing anything,” Evelyn hissed.
“What if she just left?” I asked, but my voice felt weak. A sinking feeling dragged at the pit of my stomach.
Raine raised two fingers. “Hold up, this isn’t the end of it. This morning, while Heather was having a lie in, I got the bright idea to go round her workplace, the Poundland on Castle Street. They open early on a Sunday, for some dumb reason. I pretended to be her friend, turned the charm on max for the girl behind the till. Turns out Kimberly called in sick last Friday, and then not a peep. Nobody’s heard from her since.”
Last Friday – a week and two days ago. The same day I’d been busy slipping Outside. The sinking feeling settled as a ball of lead in my gut. A coincidence? It was on Raine and Evelyn’s faces, but nobody voiced it. How could that be a coincidence? What were the odds?
“Oh,” I bit my lip. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”
Raine nodded. “Could be. Could be she just did a runner, shacked up with a guy somewhere, or she’s dead in a ditch. But that flat’s still occupied, I’ve checked. Curtains drawn, front door locked. Don’t know who’s in there, if anybody, but they’re not answering the door.”
“It’s our fault. It must be. It’s the cult again. Or perhaps she’s just terrified of us.” I shook my head, groping for any reason, anything that wasn’t connected to me.
“Shiiiiit,” Twil said. “Could be, could be anything though.”
Raine nodded. “Either way, our Poundland necromancer’s gone missing. You and I, Twil, we’re gonna break into her flat.”