and less pleasant places – 6.5

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I’d built an equation to find Lozzie – via locating Kimberly’s mysterious uninvited guest – jury-rigged from scraps of half-understood hyperdimensional mathematics, so certain that the worst possible outcome was mere failure and pain, vomiting and unconsciousness. Not exactly unfamiliar. A risk worth taking, a punishment worth subjecting myself to. What kind of friend was I if I wasn’t willing to endure that for her sake? How could I ever hope to rescue my sister if I couldn’t muster the courage to find Lozzie?

But the subject of my search had found me first. An awareness, staring back at me through the cracks in the equation, summoned by the act of giving it definition.

It was not Lozzie.

I didn’t see it with my eyes, of course. I saw nothing. I suspect I’d have gone screaming mad on the spot if I had. My physical eyes still looked at Raine as she reached for me, frozen in an elongating moment as if caught on the edge of a black hole, the time inside my mind stretched out to infinity by the instant of terrible contact.

Meaning coalesced out of the mathematics, greater than the sum of the equation’s parts, true definition found in the spaces between. Like the moment an autostereogram – a magic-eye picture – resolves into an image, or one flicks on the light at night and does a double-take at a coat over a chair, thinking it’s a person.

I see you, it said.

Not in words, but via that unspeakable feeling crawling inside my skull – the feeling of being caught looking.

I felt like a mouse, wedged inside a rotting tree trunk on the forest floor, peeping out through a crack in the wood at the undergrowth and damp leaves, as something huge and reptilian slithered along the ground outside and put a great, unblinking eye to the window in my hidey-hole.

Such sensations were sadly – and fortunately – not alien to me. The Eye’s attention, in my horrid memories and the old dreams, had felt much the same way, except magnified a thousand times more than this, a scrutiny that peeled away one’s skin and bone and neurons and atoms. I was perhaps the one person in the world who could endure this attention without losing my mind, because I’d had worse before.

How it saw me, I had no idea, but I knew what to do: I let go of the equation, let it unravel, like cutting a fishing net loose when you’ve accidentally caught a shark.

Then I felt the rest, the trailing sensations behind ‘I see you’: recognition, familiarity, knowledge.

I see you, Heather.

And I can dance like that too! Watch!

The Lozzie-thing, the Outsider in her head, whatever in God’s name it was, it came scuttling up through the equation I’d built, using the collapsing strands of my own work as a ladder to reach into my mind, spanning the gaps with its own hyperdimensional mathematics. Like a spider spinning webs to mend the holes in a rickety scaffold, it scurried across the fabric of reality, toward me.

A trap.

This whole thing was a trap, aimed at me.

All that happened in a split-second, at the speed of thought, in the time it took me to blink, as Raine reached across Kimberly’s little table to grab my shoulders.

“Stop,” I wheezed – and slammed the brakes on the equation.

Bits and pieces of hyperdimensional mathematics span off like an exploding combustion engine inside my head, seared my mind with fragments of white-hot metal, shook my soul like a storm in a bottle. The throb of a truly earth-shattering headache washed over me in a wave of pain.

I jerked forward, an involuntary spasm, banged my face into the table, then reared back up with a ragged choking gasp, and noticed I’d left a bloody smear on the cheap wood.

“Holy shit,” said Twil.

“Oh Goddess, oh, what, oh-” Kimberly stammered, scrambling to her feet.

With the equation dead, that scuttling awareness finally receded into the abyss.

“Toilet,” I squeezed out between my roiling guts and the icepick lodged in the back of my skull. My mouth tasted of blood. My vision swam, black at the edges. My legs shook as I tried to stand up, banging my knees on the table and sending my empty measuring jug of tea skittering across the carpet. Even Tenny sensed something was desperately wrong, bunching and retracting her tentacles like a panicked squid. “T-toilet-”

Then Raine had me. She pulled me to my feet and into Kimberly’s cramped bathroom.

She held my hair while I vomited.

Only once, only a little, and that only bile and tea. I clenched up so hard I strained my stomach muscles, determined to keep my breakfast down, to master this. It hurt, but I didn’t give in, though I did kneel in front of the toilet for a long few minutes, breathing slowly and trying to process what had happened, what I’d seen.

“That’s it, breathe real slow, Heather. Take it slow, take all the time you need, I’m right here.” Raine’s free hand rubbed the base of my neck.

“The hell was she doing?” Twil asked from the bathroom door. “Shit, Heather, you alright?”

I gave her a sarcastic thumbs up from down by the toilet bowl.

“Give her a minute,” Raine warned.

“You found her, didn’t you?” Kimberly asked, voice barely a whisper. “You found Lauren, and it wasn’t her, was it?”

“I said, give her a minute,” Raine repeated, but I shook my head, wiped my body nose on the back of my hand, and felt tears threaten in my eyes.

“It worked,” I croaked. “And it was her. It was Lozzie.”

==

Three glasses of water for the lost fluids and to wash out the taste of blood, a blanket around my shoulders for the clutching cold inside me, and a bag of frozen peas from Kimberly’s tiny box freezer for the bruise around my right eye. That last one would be interesting to explain if anybody at university asked, let alone any concerned staff. Yes, I head-butted a table, thank you for asking, and no, my girlfriend doesn’t hit me.

“It was Lozzie because it sounded like her,” I repeated for the third time. “I’m certain.”

“I thought you said it was just like, maths?” Twil squinted at me. I’d lost her minutes ago, but I was too drained to come up with a proper metaphor. “And hey, Kimberly, you said this thing didn’t sound anything like Lozzie at all, right?”

Kimberly nodded to Twil, but her eyes watched me. For approval.

She’d been staring at me with renewed awe since the moment Raine had helped me stagger back out of the little bathroom. It made my skin crawl, especially after spending minutes on my knees, delivering a technicolour yawn into her toilet. How could she look at me like I was some kind of pagan idol? She understood even less about what I’d done than Twil did, but incomprehension didn’t stop Kimberly hanging on every word I’d said in my halting, confused effort to explain what just happened.

Didn’t want to know any more about magic, did she? Kimberly was lying – perhaps to herself, too. Moth to a flame.

She couldn’t hold my stare though. If I hadn’t been so emotionally wiped out, I probably would have avoided her eyes in sheer mortified embarrassment. Instead, I stared back, dull and frustrated, and she had to look away.

I pulled my knees tighter against my chest, so small and vulnerable. We were all tiny, squishy, fragile little mammals compared to that thing which had seen me looking, that construct of pure mathematical principles; even Raine seemed fragile right now, by comparison. An awful thing to feel.

Raine had insisted I sit in the beanbag chair, the comfiest place in the whole flat, save for Kimberly’s own bed. I wasn’t so bad that I needed to lie down. After all, I hadn’t actually gone through with the equation, not the whole way. Raine rubbed my shoulders, on her knees behind me, trying to massage the tension out of my stress-knotted muscles, and Tenny crouched nearby, an attentive dog to her wounded master. Her ropey black tentacles kept drifting down toward my head and face, touching my hair or brushing my cheek, concerned, confused.

Sweet, yes, but getting on my nerves.

I eased the closest tentacle away with one hand. “Tenny, stop that for now, please?”

She tilted her head left and right, and her tentacles drifted up, toward the ceiling. Yes, quite, you don’t understand what happened either, do you? At least you listen to me though. I gave her a smile, though I still wasn’t certain if she could read human expressions. “I’m fine, I’ll be fine,” I muttered to her.

Kimberly stared at me again, wide eyed at the empty air to which I’d spoken.

“She talks to invisible monsters sometimes,” Twil informed her, with a very serious nod. I didn’t have the energy to correct Twil before she continued with her theory. “So, uh, maybe it wasn’t Lozzie here in the flat, but it was Lozzie you found?”

“It sounded like her,” I groaned again, and winced at the bruise on my face. The makeshift ice pack wasn’t doing much good, and I tossed it onto the table in frustration.

And I can dance like that too!’ – so undoubtedly Lozzie, the exact phrasing she might use, her bright mind and playful expressiveness bent to alien purposes. It had been her voice, but she hadn’t been the one speaking.

“Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing?” Raine asked with a softly indulgent laugh, her thumbs kneading the muscles of my shoulder blades. “Could have gotten Evee to help, back home, could have been ready for it.”

I shook my head and waved a dismissive hand. “Lozzie needs me.”

“Mmhmm. She also needs you conscious and healthy, if you’re gonna help her.”

“I know!” I snapped at her, wallowed in guilt all over again. My impatience and self-loathing wasn’t Raine’s fault. She was the best antidote to it all. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m being awful.”

“It’s okay, I know how it feels,” Raine said, so softly that only I could hear. At least that’s one thing we shared completely: was this how she felt about me, all the time?

“I have to find her,” I muttered, but all my certainty was gone. I could try the brainmath again, but that thing would be waiting for me this time. The thought made me shudder inside.

“We have to find her,” Raine corrected gently. She stopped rubbing my shoulders and moved around to my side, so I couldn’t avoid her gaze. She raised a hand to my chin and gently tilted it to examine my face. “Hooooo, that bruise is gonna be a nasty one, you really nutted that table.”

“First class head-butt,” Twil added with a nod. “Coulda knocked somebody out with that.”

“As if that helps anything right now,” I muttered.

“Heather,” Raine said, her voice pitched low and serious, the kind of tone that made me sit up and pay attention. “I’m going to ask you a hypothetical question, alright? Pure theory here, it’s not a request or a suggestion. The brainmath you just used, how you made contact with Lozzie – or not-Lozzie – do you think you could do it again?”

“Yes,” I answered, then hesitated. “But … it fought me. With the math. The same thing I can do. I don’t know if I can- if I’m good enough to- I don’t know, fight back? I have no idea how that would even work. If I hadn’t stopped, it would have reached me.”

Raine nodded slowly, her face etched with deep focus. I knew that look all too well. She was making a plan.

I loved her for that – but I hated myself for wanting it. Raine cooking up a way to save the day, to save me, yet again. To save her useless girlfriend, again. Because I couldn’t do it myself, because I was an unprepared coward, and a terrible friend.

“I guess Lozzie wouldn’t try to fight you, would she?” Twil asked. “Or is that something you two did?”

“It’s Lozzie because it tried to fight me,” I said, patience running thin. “It knew how to use hyperdimensional mathematics. I’ve never felt that before, anything like that. It must have learnt from her mind. And it knew me, it recognised me, it was expecting me. It’s her – it’s got her, I mean. Everything she is.”

Twil shrugged. “I remember what that … that bloody great Eye felt like.” She shook herself once, a theatrical shiver, but I didn’t blame her. She’d been exposed, once, to the briefest moment of the Eye’s attention, filtered through Evelyn’s magical observation window, across the boundary between here and Outside, when we’d performed that ill-fated experiment in the Medieval Metaphysics room, so many months ago. “Who’s to say it couldn’t send something here, with all its stuff, to get you, like?”

“If it could do that, I think it would’a done a long time ago,” Raine said for me. “And why wander around Sharrowford, why come to Kim? Unless it was Lozzie, trying to say hi to an old friend.”

“I was never her friend,” Kimberly murmured. “P-please don’t- I didn’t- never did … ”

“Or setting a trap for me,” I hissed.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.” Raine’s voice dropped to a low growl. She stared at me with a kind of slow contemplation. If I’d been less bruised by brainmath the attention would have made me feel self-conscious. “Heather, I want you to make me a promise.”

“Now?”

“Right now, yeah. Promise me you won’t do that again. Don’t try to find Lozzie a second time.”

“But … no, Raine, I can’t. I have to-”

Raine put a finger to my lips. “You have to do one thing, for me: be careful. Whatever this thing is, it wants you. It’s not getting you. Promise me.”

I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t deserve to. Raine was giving me exactly what I wanted – a way out, a refuge, an excuse not to dive back in and confront that vast, slithering awareness I’d felt. Raine didn’t need my promise, I knew she was right, and secretly I was terrified and disgusted on a level I couldn’t process: I’d never had hyperdimensional mathematics turned on me before. I felt so violated and offended on Lozzie’s behalf. That was her gift this thing was abusing, and I was powerless to take it back.

Raine offered me a way out, and I felt like a coward.

“Please, Heather? You were taken by an Outsider once, perhaps there’s some desirable quality in you.” She cracked a grin. “Hey, I know that part’s right. Worked on me.”

“Raine.” I muttered her name and rolled my eyes. “It’s hardly the time for that.”

“It’s always the time.”

“ … I won’t try again. I promise.” A lump formed in my throat, and I sniffed back the threat of more tears. Coward, you useless coward, backing away from this. “I doubt I’d win, anyway. I can’t help her.”

Raine leaned back and took a deep breath, completely unembarrassed by our shared private moment. Twil was still frowning at me, but Kimberly had at least pretended to look away.

“I wouldn’t say that yet,” Raine almost purred, a twinkle in her eye. “If we can’t find Lozzie ourselves, we need to enlist somebody who already did.”

With deliberate slowness, Raine turned to regard Kimberly again.

“M-me? What do you- what do you mean?”

“Ahhhh,” Twil grinned, and underneath the table she stretched out one foot to poke Kimberly.

The poor woman almost jumped out of her skin, flinching and jerking up.

“Steady on. S’just playing,” Twil said, hands up. “Relax, damn.”

“I-I-I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“Kimberly,” I croaked. “Stop apologising.”

“Yes, yes, I’m s-” She stopped, swallowed, staring at us.

“So, Kim,” Raine said, easy and relaxed as she leaned forward to put one elbow on the table, idly playing with an empty mug. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten in all the excitement, did you?”

“I’m- pardon?”

“Where did you ‘go’? Where’d Amy Stack see you?” Raine asked, then smirked.

Kimberly froze up again, but only for a second; perhaps the experience of seeing me do brainmath, the awe and reverence I’d inspired, had some bizarre effect on how much she trusted us. Trusted me. Or maybe she’d merely decided our mercy was a better bet than Amy Stack.

She’d be right, of course, but Raine’s stare implied otherwise.

“Yeah come on, what were you up to?” Twil asked, a little too hard.

“Nothing- nothing bad,” Kimberly blurted out. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, reached for the stub of her reefer but then decided not to light up. She cradled her hands in her lap instead. “I went back to the Wiccan coven. That’s all. But I shouldn’t have.”

“The what?” Twil squinted

“Wiccan coven?” Raine asked.

“Wicca. Right,” I muttered.

I should have guessed, considering the new agey pagan books lining Kimberly’s shelf. I tried to keep my exasperated sigh to myself, told myself not to judge, but my reaction must have shown on my face, because Kimberly suddenly gave me a wounded look.

“Coven?” Twil repeated. “You mean like witches?”

“Yes, like witches,” Kimberly said, the hurt plain in her voice.

Back to the coven?” Raine asked.

“Hey, hey.” Twil pointed at Kimberly. “I thought she said no more magic. I thought that was bloody point, you-”

“It’s not real magic, Twil,” I said gently. “Wicca’s a new-age pagan revival movement. A religion. And not like yours.”

“Oh. What, like the druid guys who go to Stonehenge?”

Raine smirked and nodded. “Yeah, like druids.”

“I know it’s not real,” Kimberly hissed. “How can I believe in anything anymore? After … after everything?”

As she trailed off, eyes downcast, she seemed so small and lost, and in that moment I think I understood Kimberly a little better.

I’d never really believed in anything much before I met Raine and Evelyn – except the power of a good book. My parents weren’t religious. Having faith is challenging when you believe your brain is broken, and you’ve spent half your short life terrified of the unimaginable monsters that nobody else can see. A merciful God would not curse me so.

Kimberly had believed in something – kooky nature Goddess something. Easy to scoff at, perhaps, but it had clearly been important to her. Meaningful. Comforting. Real.

Then the Sharrowford Cult had shown her the truth behind reality, and taken all that away.

“Kimberly, I didn’t mean to insult you,” I said. “I apologise.”

“Apology accepted,” she muttered.

“You don’t have to accept it. Why not tell me I’m rude?”

She blinked at me, as if this might be another rhetorical trap, and I hated that. I hated that I made this woman afraid. I smiled at her, best I could through the residual headache pain and the guilt.

“ … y-you’re not,” she managed. “It’s only fair. None of it was ever real. I even don’t know why I went back, I just wanted some … some community again. Anything.”

“Stack saw you going there?” Raine asked. “But not to work? Why?”

“Because the coven is how I found the Brotherhood,” Kimberly said. “Because one of them must have told her I came back.”

“Ahhhhhh,” Raine sighed. “Now, I did wonder how a person ends up in the Sharrowford Cult. Guess that’s one way.”

“Yes.” Kimberly nodded. Beneath the hurt and the exhaustion and the fear of us, I saw a black smoky curl of real bitterness in her eyes.

“Tell us about this Wiccan coven then,” Raine said. “The truth, all of it. Because we need to find Stack.”

“Wait what, we do?” Twil asked.

“We … yes, yes we do. Raine.” I felt myself light up inside as I put the pieces together. I could have hugged her, but Raine stayed deadly serious, staring at Kimberly.

“We do, yeah,” Raine nodded. “Because she was here, at this flat, less than twenty four hours after Lozzie. And from the sounds of it, Lozzie just popped in right outside Kim’s door, yeah? If we find Stack, and I get my hands on her, then we discover how she knew Lozzie was here. And hey, if I get to Stack fast enough, maybe she won’t be in any state to come back for you, Kim. So tell us the whole truth. You might get to live.”

Kimberly let out a shuddering breath and nodded. “The coven, they’re completely normal, except for one person, that’s who you want, I swear. Uh, there’s this shop off St. Helen’s Road, the-”

Grey Magicks, right?” Raine asked.

“ … y-yes. How did you know that?”

“Checked it out before.” She looked to Twil and I. “Back when me and Evee first moved to Sharrowford. Had to make sure it was regular old occult stuff, not a front for the real thing. Full of stuff like this.” She gestured at Kimberly’s pentagram-stuffed bookcase, the crystals, the dragon statue, the wolf posters.

“It is, it is,” Kimberly agreed. “Except for one person, the woman who leads the coven. Everyone else there is normal, I-I think, even the owner of the store. It’s just where we meet.”

“How’s a nice girl like you end up casting spells?”

“I joined a couple of years ago, and it was really nice, really nice. I never used to take any of this stuff seriously, I just liked the aesthetics, but I was going through- I mean, I needed … people. And they were really welcoming. Really positive.”

“So you did what, rituals and stuff?” Twil said.

“Mmhmm.” Kimberly nodded, earnest and open. “Nothing scary at all. Candles, chanting. We had these little ceremonies for the lunar cycle, it was lovely. It was really good energy. And I got really into that side of it, the witchcraft. I knew- I mean, I thought I knew that none of it really worked, but I sort of wanted to believe, and it helped. I led a few circles, made sigils and stuff, for health and- a-and I made friends. One member, she was so sweet, her name was Hannah, she ended up in the hospital, pregnancy complications. I went to visit her and we did a spell together, for easy delivery and- I know, I know it didn’t do anything, but she pulled through. She had that baby, and it felt good to … ” Kimberly stopped herself, took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “This isn’t what you want to hear.”

“It’s cool,” Twil said. “I get it.”

“Mm,” Raine grunted, nodding seriously.

Kimberly gathered herself. “The … uh … the High Priestess, that’s what you call a coven leader, an experienced witch. She’s still there, Catherine Gillespie. She took an interest in me, took me under her wing. Told me I could go further, that I had a special knack.” Kimberly’s voice dropped, quiet and bitter. “Told me she wanted to introduce me to some people.”

“The Sharrowford Cult,” Raine said.

Kimberly nodded. “Their magic really worked, but it … it hurt. The um … ” She glanced at Raine. “The woman you killed in the castle, her name was Sarah Pince. She taught me … well, taught is being a bit generous. She showed me. A-and then when it got too much, she made me.”

“Magic,” I croaked, then swallowed to clear my throat. “Real magic requires you to already be broken. Already exposed. That’s the knack. How did you have that?”

Kimberly stared at me, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I saw a ghost once, when I was little. Does that count?”

“Maybe the High Priestess,” Raine suggested. “Maybe one of those rituals was real, did something, maybe that’s the point, using an overt Wiccan coven to find fresh meat.”

“I was already broken. I know that much,” Kimberly muttered, then realised we were staring and struggled to regain her composure. “I mean- I was going through a bad time. I-I had a stalker, an ex-boyfriend. I wasn’t well. I’m not well now, I know.”

“Maybe that was enough,” I said.

I failed to sound comforting – because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

Now we discussed the Sharrowford Cult once more, I couldn’t shake the memory of what I’d seen in their castle, what Kimberly had been a part of, no matter how small or how unwilling. Had she really been pressured into doing magic because she had the talent, abused and used up? Or was this a sob-story, an attempt to absolve herself of her involvement? Everything so far pointed to the former, that she was a victim too. Why couldn’t I fully accept that?

Because we were scary, and we had her in a corner – she’d tell us whatever we wanted to hear.

“This coven, they have a name?” Raine asked.

Kimberly nodded eagerly, climbed to her feet and went over to the bookcase. She returned with a cheap looking pamphlet, little more than a few pages stapled together like a student magazine. She handed it to Raine and we all leaned over to see. The front cover sported a stylised design of a statuesque nature goddess, wearing wreaths of blossom, stood in the centre of a pentagram made from living ivy. A title crested the top of the page, in a fanciful, flowery font.

Shadow of the Moon, introductory workings for any Sisterly Coven, by Catherine Gillespie.

Twil wrinkled her nose. “Crap name.”

“What did you do?” I asked. “In the Sharrowford Cult?”

My question caught Kimberly in a half-crouch, straightening up from handing Raine the little book. She stared at me for a second, as the question reached deep down inside her, how I’d intended it to. She stood up, but didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands, letting them flop against her unicorn-print pajama bottoms. But she did meet my eyes.

“I raised corpses from the dead,” she said, a choke in her voice. “You know that.”

Such a surreal phrase, in these surroundings – a cramped high rise council flat in northern England – and even stranger to know it was the truth. I sighed without meaning to, at the never ending parade of impossibility my life had become.

“Mostly homeless people, yes?” I asked. I did know that already. What was I doing? I couldn’t stop myself.

Kimberly’s face fell, slowly, as she tried desperately to keep it together. She nodded, but only halfway, an odd downward jerk of the chin.

“And what about those cages I saw?” Cold fingers crept through my gut, and came out through my mouth. “The dead children in the cages. Did you know about them as well?”

Kimberly didn’t look up. She nodded again, and mouthed a word or two under her breath.

Why was my heart racing? It made my headache so much worse, why was I doing this? Surely Raine or Twil were about to interrupt. Raine was going to put a hand on my shoulder and get me to ease down, back off, let this go, because I was too weak from the brainmath, too addled by my panic over Lozzie, and deep down I knew she’d be right. I was wound up and frustrated, displacing my helplessness, finding a person to blame for the very real crime I’d witnessed.

I’d punished the man responsible, the head of the snake. I’d killed Alexander.

Wasn’t that enough?

To my surprise, Raine stayed silent, watching me carefully, and Twil looked on with all the attentiveness of a wolf waiting for her pack’s cue.

“I didn’t quite catch that,” I said.

“I know,” Kimberly choked out.

“Did you know about the dead children? Kimberly? Did you?”

“I know it’s my fault!” She shouted in my face – the clearest and strongest thing she’d said since we’d broken into her flat – then she coughed, her throat not up to the task as she fell apart again, eyes full of tears. “I know, I know! I should have taken a knife and stabbed them all, I know! I could have strangled Pince, or- or stabbed Alexander, something, anything! I would have died, but I should have put my body in the way. I should have help Lozzie escape. Or gone to the police. They would have thrown me in the loony bin, but at least they might have saved a couple of those kids. I know I’m a coward. I should died instead. I know.”

Kimberly’s confession drained what little strength she had left. She down down suddenly, almost a collapse, drew her thighs up to her chest, and wept behind the shield of her arms.

Raine gave me a look, a sympathetic shrug which said it was my show, my choice, fair enough. Twil pulled a pained grimace, and silently mouthed ‘wow’.

I sat there blinking at Kimberly like the idiot I was. What had I expected? Her wet sobbing and collaborator’s guilt didn’t sound fake, but how could I know?

A insidious voice whispered in the back of my head: of course there’s a way to be sure. I could drag Kimberly back to the house, and have Evelyn interrogate her with magic. Evelyn was no stranger to that, she’d done it before, she’d probably agree with the idea. Or do it myself, threaten to send Kimberly Outside and leave her there until she told the truth. That would be just as effective, because in the end it amounted to the same act, the same monstrosity.

Torture.

Lying or not, Kimberly was not very robust anymore, if she had ever been. She was a fragile young woman suffering a loud and messy kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, and there were no therapists who’d listen to her, not on this side of reality.

If I wanted to believe she was lying, and I hurt her enough, she’d tell me anything I wanted.

I cut that impulse off and dug out the root, disgusted with myself for considering it, even for a fleeting moment. My natural inclination to help this poor woman made me uncomfortable, because I couldn’t know for sure what she’d done.I wished I had an authority to turn to, a ‘real adult’ to take this off my hands, absolve me of the responsibility.

I thought back to what Evelyn had said to me, all those months ago, after I’d pulled her back from the underside of reality.

There is no community of mages. There’s just us.

And right now I didn’t have a clear mind or a clean heart, filled with guilt over Lozzie, and worse guilt over being useless, and I’d taken it out on Kimberly without knowing what I was fishing for.

Maybe she was right, she was responsible, on some level. But her pain was real enough. I decided to believe her.

“You didn’t deserve that,” I said with a sigh at myself, the words oddly difficult to say. “I’m sorry.”

Kimberly didn’t respond at all. She kept crying into her knees, her thin frame shaking from the sobs.

Raine gestured toward Kimberly with both hands, and raised her eyebrows at me in silent question. I nodded, embarrassed at what I’d caused. Raine was much better at this sort of thing than me. I should have left it to her from the start.

“Hey, hey, Kim,” Raine murmured, low and soft, the same voice she used with me sometimes. She crossed over toward Kimberly, knelt down, and reached out slowly. “I’m gonna touch your shoulder, okay? Don’t jump, it’s only me.”

Kimberly flinched anyway, hard, the precursor to fleeing, but Raine quickly took her by both shoulders, gently rubbing her upper arms. I clamped down on a bizarre spark of jealousy, hardly appropriate right now.

“Kim, it’s okay, it’s alright,” Raine purred. “None of us think you’re a criminal, none of us think you killed anybody.”

“Yeah,” Twil said. “Me neither. Right.”

Raine gave Twil a slyly unimpressed look. Twil shut her mouth and cringed.

“Surviving alone was hard enough,” Raine continued, her soft tone more important than the words themselves. “And you managed that, you don’t have to feel guilty. Heather’s just very cautious. She saw more than us, most of the same things you probably did. We’re not gonna use you up and then decide to get rid of you for something that wasn’t your fault. That’s something I can promise, at the very least.”

Kimberly managed a jerky nod, still hiding her face. Her crying had dried up, except for the occasional sniff.

“Need a tissue?” Twil asked, jumping to her feet. “Here, uh, um … there!”

She bounced off and back again, returning with a half-empty box of tissues, and slid them across the table.

Slowly, carefully, Twil and Raine pried Kimberly back out of her shell. She blew her nose and wiped her puffy eyes, as Raine rubbed her back. The weeping seemed to have cleaned her soul, at least for the moment, changed her in a way I couldn’t identify. When she risked eye contact with me again, she seemed empty, calm, waiting.

I frowned when I realised why.

“I’m not going to pass judgement on you,” I said, feeling vaguely disgusted. “Don’t look at me like that. For pity’s sake, I’m, what, five or six years younger than you? How can you look at me like I’m going to decide your fate?”

“Because you are?” she ventured.

“Hey, only you decide your own fate around here,” Raine said, cracking a smile.

“Quite right,” I said. “I’m not a … I’m not whatever you’re looking for, Kimberly.”

Kimberly nodded to herself. She pulled more tissues from the box and blew her nose again.

“So, Kim,” Raine said, gentler than earlier. “This High Priestess, this Gillespie woman, she’s the one in contact with the Sharrowford Cult? You’re sure about that?”

Was,” Twil corrected before Kim could answer. “We smashed them, right? Heather killed their boss and the rest of them are – poof! Scattered.”

“Amy Stack’s still lurking about, at the very least, and don’t forget Lozzie’s creepy uncle.”

“He left the city!” Twil said.

“People can come back into Sharrowford, you know?” I said. Twil grumbled and shrugged.

“Yes,” Kimberly said. “Yes, Catherine Gillespie, she’s the one who introduced me to the … um, the cult.”

“Better get used to that word,” Twil said. “They call my lot a cult too.”

“Don’t suppose you’d happen to know where she lives, would you?” Raine asked. Kimberly shook her head. “Worth a shot. So, the Sisterly Coven, Shadow of the Moon, whatever they call themselves – when do they meet?”

“Usually Saturday evenings, but also sometimes alternating Tuesdays. This Tuesday too, I think,” Kimberly said. “You’re going to go there, aren’t you?”

Raine’s face split with a dangerous grin.

“Oh, Goddess. Please, I- there’s good people there, f-friends I had, normal people, they don’t have anything to do with all this … this awfulness.”

Twil barked with laughter. “What, you think we’re gonna go in there and slash everyone up?”

“That is what we did last time,” I deadpanned.

“Yeah, but this is like, in public, in the middle of Sharrowford,” Twil said. “Not in some weird spooky fog-world.”

“That’s it then,” Kimberly said, her voice resigned and hollow. “I’ve lost everything, haven’t I? I’ve probably gone and lost my job by now as well. No more friends, no more coven, it’s all gone.” She put her face in her hands, but this time she didn’t cry. She looked dead.

“We’re not going to kill anybody,” I said. “We’re not.”

Kimberly nodded, but I could see she didn’t really believe me.

“Might be able to square things up at your job,” Raine said. “They already know me, I went round there and told them I was your mate. Here, come on, you go back to work tomorrow morning and I’ll come with you, have a little word with your boss. We’ll figure something out. Say you’ve had awful flu and you’ve been delirious for days, and I found you asleep on the toilet, yeah?”

Kimberly shook her head. “You won’t be … oh.” She shuddered at the look in Raine’s eyes.

Raine nodded slowly. “When I say ‘have a little word with your boss’, I mean I’ll have a little word with your boss.”

“Raine does have her uses,” I said. “Nice to have somebody like her on your side, isn’t it?”

Kimberly swallowed. “Oh-okay. Thank you, very much. Please don’t hurt anybody though.”

“I won’t. Promise. But in return, you’re going to do something for us,” Raine said.

“Raine,” I tutted, but she held up a hand.

“It’s cool, nothing crazy. In fact, it’ll let us find Stack easier, and the quicker we do, the better, yeah?”

Kimberly nodded, hesitant and afraid, her eyes seeking help from both me and Twil.

“This Catherine Gillespie, Mrs High Priestess,” Raine said. “Do you think she’d recognise any of us three?”

“Um … I … I don’t know,” Kimberly frowned in thought. “Maybe she’d know about Twil, but … probably not yourself, or you, um, Heather. But maybe she does, I’m not sure, please don’t rely on what I say.”

“We can still work with that, oh yes we can indeed. Now, listen close, ‘cos I’ve got a cunning plan.”

“Why don’t I like the sound of that?” I asked.

“Ooooh, she’s got a plan, has she?” Twil said, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m game, been a few weeks since I got some real exercise.”

Even Kimberly followed the undertones, and managed a shaky smile.

“You’re gonna go to that Tuesday coven meet, Kim,” Raine said, squeezing Kimberly’s shoulder in a gesture that made me irrationally jealous. “And you’re gonna pretend to be Heather’s new girlfriend.”

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11 thoughts on “and less pleasant places – 6.5

  1. oh man there’s a lot going on here but once again i am struck by raine’s potential cult leaderness she is *very* good at manipulating vulnerable people and while i dont think she’s turned it on heather the same way its not entirely dissimilar either

  2. Gillespie, eh? There was a reference here. It’s gone now.

    Back to ruining the Sharrowford Cult’s day, week, and year. This time with 100% more zany fake girlfriend shenanigans!

  3. ` A merciful God would not not curse me so. `
    Unnecessary double ‘not’.

    ` something that wasn’t you fault. `
    you -> your

    ` have a little world with your boss. `
    world -> word

    ` Raine said, squeezing Kimberly’s shoulder in a gesture that made me irrationally jealous. `
    Heather: *internally* Raine…
    “And you’re gonna pretend to be Heather’s new girlfriend.”
    Heather: *externally* Raine!!!
    Because I feel that Heather will feel “funny” while pretending to NTR her real girlfriend.
    Just as she feels “funny” when the Raine’s look of ‘imminent violence’ is directed at Heather’s general direction.

    • Goodness me, thank you very much for pointing out all those typos, my proof-reading was not attentive enough this chapter. Well spotted!

      Perhaps Heather might feel a very different sort of funny, indeed.

    • Yay! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the story so far, and I’ve enjoyed seeing all the little comments you made as well. Thank you so much.

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