and less pleasant places – 6.9

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That voice was an awful thing – because it still sounded like Lozzie.

Even muffled through the thick wood of the front door, it was a noise from the pit, a discordant mockery of human speech that set the little hairs standing up on the back of one’s neck. Like hearing a foreign language for the first time, the brain stumbled to render raw vocalisation into comprehensible words. The sounds were all wrong.

The inflection, the cadence, the timbre – wrong, wrong, wrong. Not merely not-Lozzie or not-human, but not even biological. A hissing of breath over dessicated meat, the crackle of static, rusted metal on cracked stone.

My brain refused to accept that I’d heard actual words. I broke out in a cold sweat. Kimberly’s hand tightened on my arm like a vice.

“Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin,” Raine called back.

For a confused, horrified moment I had no idea why she’d said that. The words made no sense. Had my language processing centre been corrupted by that terrible voice? Was Raine losing her mind, too close to that thing on the other side of the front door?

Three little piggies.

I blinked, came back to myself. The three little pigs, of course – though there were four of us in here – and the wolf at the door. Lozzie’s sense of humour.

Raine had talked back to that voice. Her eyes glued to the door, handgun held steady, muscles whipcord-tight. I could barely squeeze a breath down my constricted windpipe, but Raine had talked back.

What was the next step?

I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and blow your house down.

“Don’t open the door,” I hissed. I clutched the blanket tighter around my shoulders.

“Ain’t gotta tell me that,” Raine murmured.

A second passed, two seconds. Next to me, Kimberly trembled like a sapling in a storm. “Heather, w-we should … we should hide,” she whispered, but I was rooted to the spot.

Was it really Lozzie out there? I couldn’t imagine that voice issuing from her throat, it was unthinkable, even possessed by a demon from Outside. My skin crawled at the thought of that thing getting inside the house. A bone-deep panic settled into my marrow as I realised what was happening, as I realised what I was truly afraid of.

The cult didn’t know that Evelyn was unconscious and Praem was gone and Twil had run off – the Eye did.

Or at least, its servants did, between the graffiti and Alexander’s corpse. And now this thing pretending to be Lozzie had come for me.

“Lozzie,” I heard myself say out loud, calling to her. Where I found the courage, I had no idea. “Lozzie, please … please don’t come in … please … ”

No reply.

Three seconds. Five. Ten.

“That all you got? No comeback?” Raine called out again – and received no reply. She crept up to the door on silent feet, gun still pointed at approximately where Lozzie’s head would be on the other side.

“Raine!” I hissed. “Don’t-”

“Shhhh,” she hushed me. I bit my lips, tried to convince myself that Raine knew what she was doing. She pressed her ear against the door, then backed away again. “Nothing.”

“Y-you can’t hear her breathing?” Kimberly stammered.

“Nothing,” Raine repeated. Reluctantly, she glanced over her shoulder, at Kimberly and I. “Kim, I need you to do me a favour, quickly. Go-”

“Me?” Kimberly’s face looked like that of a condemned woman. “I-I’m not going out there, I’m not, I can’t, I-”

“Go upstairs. The corridor.” Raine said, clear and firm. “Second window on the right has a view down to the doorstep. Call out what you see.”

“I-I-”

“If I know what’s there I can shoot it through the wood,” Raine said, in the same tone one might discuss assembling furniture. “I need a spotter. Upstairs, now.”

“Raine, no!” I hissed. “You can’t-”

“Okay, okay, I’m going.” Kimberly scrambled away from me and up the stairs, unsteady on her feet but doing as she’d been asked. I stared at Raine in mounting horror, shaking my head, trying to form words.

“You can’t, Raine, you-”

“It got her to go upstairs,” Raine whispered. “Besides, that ain’t Lozzie out there. No way.”

Kimberly’s footsteps stumbled and hurried across the upstairs floorboards, then stopped. A horrible two seconds of silence.

“Kim?” Raine called.

“There’s nothing there!” Kimberly’s frightened voice called back. “S-she’s gone.”

“The back door!” I hissed.

“It’s locked,” Raine said. Her eyes roved over the house, seeing the walls beyond the room as she calculated. “Windows too. I made sure after Evee passed out. Plus, the house is warded. This is a fortress, it can’t get in.”

Cold realisation clutched at my guts. “ … I could.”

Raine raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t you remember? When I saved Evee? I could get into the house. Go around the door, around the walls, come in from Outside.”

Raine paused, assimilating this new vector of threat in a split-second. She crossed the front room to my side, eyes flicking between the doors to the kitchen and the disused sitting room and up the stairs, gun still in both hands. “Kim, get back down here,” she called, then turned to me, a bad attempt at an easy smile on her lips. “We need to stay with Evee, all together in one place. This thing comes for us, we’ll be-”

“It wants me, Raine. It’s from the Eye.” I couldn’t stop shivering. She grabbed my shoulder and squeezed – stable, firm, so confident, whatever situation we found ourselves in. I wish I could feel such courage.

“It’s not getting you,” she said, then turned and raised her voice. “You hear that, out there? You can fuck right off back where you came from, she’s mine!”

“W-what?” Kimberly clattered halfway down the stairs, blinking at us.

“Talking to the nasty, never mind. New plan, Kim, we’re all going back to wait with Evee while I make a couple of phone calls. I think we’re safe inside the house, for now, but we need-”

Heather?

My name in that thing’s mouth.

It stepped out of the corner of the room, as if it had been standing there the whole time.

In an instant, I understood why Kimberly had hidden in her flat for a week after this thing had visited her. Uncontrollable revulsion took me, every muscle responding on a pure animal level. I must have backed away, because I recall my shoulders bumping against the wall. Raine span and pointed her gun, but even she took several involuntary steps of disgusted retreat. Kimberly screamed and tripped over her own feet as she scrambled back up the stairs.

Stack had told the truth – this thing was not Lozzie. It could not be. I refused to believe such violation was possible. The alternative was to go mad with horror for my friend.

Perhaps if you’d only ever met Lozzie a few times, distracted and pressured by the Sharrowford Cult and the nightmare of your own life, perhaps if you were terrified out of your mind and alone and scared, and unwilling to examine her too closely. Perhaps if you’d only ever seen Lozzie in her wretched, abused state, rather than the bright, energetic girl I’d known in the dreams. Perhaps then, you might mistake this mockery for the real thing.

The Lozzie-thing walked toward me, limbs jerking and muscles pulling as if connected to a puppeteer’s strings. The mouth – a slash in a plastic bag pretending to be a face – pulled and twitched into an alien approximation of a smile.

Heather,” it repeated.

Skin and face like plastic, without a single blemish or pore, bunching as it moved. The hair long and straight and limp, nothing like Lozzie’s wild tail of floating gold. The clothes – jeans, tight shoes, a tshirt – moved as if extruded from the skin beneath, not fabric at all, and failed to conceal the flawed operation of the lungs in the chest. The eyes, empty and dead, pointed at me but contained nothing inside.

It was so deep in the uncanny valley, it should have flown apart or fallen down under the conditions of our reality. To breathe the air it exhaled was to risk contamination.

It stretched out one hand toward me, every fingernail a precise arc of white.

Back to school,” it sang.

I shook my head and tried to back up into the wall, willing the plaster and brick to swallow me. I couldn’t think with this abomination bearing down on me. I couldn’t even scream.

Raine stepped away, gave it clear passage.

In that moment, I didn’t blame her. The only thing worse than letting it touch me would be for it to touch her. Once it had me, it would leave. Evelyn and Raine, people I cared about, at least they would remain uncorrupted by this thing’s mere presence.

Raine took one more step to the side – yes, get away from it while it’s still ignoring you, Raine, please, don’t let it take you too – then two quick steps toward the Lozzie-thing.

She raised her handgun and shot it in the head.

The deafening bang-crack of the gunshot sent a whip of reaction through my adrenaline-tightened body.

The shot passed clean through the Lozzie-thing’s skull. No puff of blood and brain, only a jerk of the head to one side from the kinetic force of the bullet. It paused mid-step, as if it was trying to decide whether a bullet through the head was fatal or not. Raine held the gun ready for a second pull of the trigger, but even her hands were shaking. Stepping closer to that shambling thing went beyond bravery and into madness.

Then the Lozzie-thing crumpled. It clattered to the floor in a tangle of limbs, eyes staring at nothing, and lay completely still.

“Fuck,” Raine said.

My breathing returned too fast, lungs sucking down great heaving gouts of air as my head span. I wrapped both arms around my chest and squeezed, tried to stop myself hyperventilating.

“Fuck,” Raine repeated. She looked at the gun in her hand, then at the dead thing on the floor, then at me. “Heather, I’m so sorry, I had to-”

“It’s not Lozzie!” I almost screamed. “Make sure it’s dead.”

Raine nodded, levelled her gun, and shot the Lozzie-thing in the head a second time. Another bang-crack to make me jump and jerk. The corpse didn’t even twitch.

“It- it’s dead. It’s stopped moving. It’s not moving anymore, and that is great.” Raine blew out a long breath, recovering much faster than I could. “I am super happy that thing is not moving any more. Top of world, in fact. And yeah, it ain’t Lozzie. S’not her. Look at it, no way.”

“Raine,” I whined.

That pulled her together, the sound of me still in pain. She was on me faster than I’d been prepared for, half-hug, half-lift, bundling me away from the Lozzie-thing’s corpse on the floor. “Hey, hey, breathe, yeah? It’s dead, I got it. And it wasn’t Lozzie.”

“No, no no, it wasn’t, there’s no way, no way-”

“It’s okay. Don’t look at it. I know, I know, it’s not as bad now it’s not moving, but-”

“It was never Lozzie, couldn’t have been.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing. Now the animal terror was beginning to subside, the deeper fears surfaced. “Couldn’t have been. It’s nothing like her.”

“Heather, Heather? Hey, look at me.”

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I lied, nodding, pulling the blanket tight around my shoulders, shivering inside and out.

“Hey, it’s alright to admit it,” she said, and the grin – that endless, confident grin – eased back onto her face. “Neither of us are okay right now, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. But we will be. We need to deal with this.” She squeezed my hands, pressed them to my chest, and turned away. “Hey, Kim?” She called out. “It’s dead, I domed it, get down here.”

Kimberly appeared from the top of the stairs, wide-eyed and ashen-faced. She stared at the ‘corpse’ on the floor.

“You … you shot Lauren?” she asked, voice so small.

“It wasn’t her. Not really,”

“Oh.”

I shook my head, and bit down on the sob in my throat. I couldn’t be certain, but I had to convince myself that this was not Lozzie, had never been Lozzie, that such a beautiful friend could never, ever be violated like this. It wasn’t her. It was a trick, from the Eye, or the cult, or both somehow. I tried to draw myself up, not look at the thing.

“Wait,” I murmured. “Wait, why didn’t Evee’s spiders respond?”

“Hm?” Raine quirked an eyebrow at me.

“The Spider-servitors. They’re supposed to, when there’s a threat in the house. They came for Twil that one time. Where are … ah.”

The spiders had responded – two of them. One of the Spider-servitors lurked behind the kitchen door, frozen in place. The other was upside down just beyond the stairs, mass of crystalline eyes fixed on the Lozzie-thing’s corpse. Until that moment, I’d considered the spiders incapable of showing any form of emotion, but somehow in the set of their many legs and the limp, retreated poise of their stingers, I read their feelings exactly.

“They’re here?” Raine asked.

“ … as terrified as we were, apparently,” I said, then murmured, “Thanks for the assist, guys. Not that I blame you.”

“Evee’s gonna kill me for that,” Raine said, nodding at a new and prominent hole in the skirting board – a bullet hole, from the first shot, after it had exited the Lozzie-thing’s head. The round itself was likely embedded in the wall, or in the ground. Raine sighed, smiled, and turned to us, a light in her eyes. “Somebody’s gonna have heard those two gunshots. Maybe they call the police, maybe not. Maybe the police knock on our door, maybe they don’t. If they do, the one thing we don’t want them to see is that,” she pointed at the body. It didn’t look much like a corpse – it wasn’t even bleeding. The head wound was round and dark, like an unlit room seen through a hole in a piece of paper. “And I don’t think any of us wanna touch it. Right?”

Kimberly nodded. “R-right.”

“Absolutely not,” I breathed.

“Kim, there’s a tarpaulin in the corner of Evelyn’s workshop. Green, about yay high, rolled up. Grab that, check on her, call out how she looks, then come back here.” She turned to me. “Heather, the old utility room. There’s a broom and I think a pair of gardening gloves in there somewhere. If you can’t find the gloves, get me bin bags, the whole roll. Actually, scratch that, grab the bin bags regardless.”

“Got it.” I nodded. God, it felt good when Raine took charge. Her direction scraped away the outermost layers of panic and worry, gave me something to focus on.

“I’m gonna stay here, keep an eye on the kill.” She waggled her gun at the corpse. Kim turned and started for the kitchen. I hugged my arms around myself and moved to go after her as Raine called out. “Keep talking, keep shouting to me and each other, okay? We’re all here, we’re all together, we’re not going any- … ah. Ahh.”

Raine trailed off, eyes rising to the ceiling. We all heard the sound out in the road, the distinctive thrumming of a large car engine pulling up and then sputtering into silence.

A car had stopped in the street outside the house. At seven in the morning. This morning.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” I said.

“Yeah, we’re all bloody well here alright, aren’t we?” Raine growled to herself. “If that’s a coincidence, then I’m the Pope.”

“What do we do?” Kimberly hissed. “What do we do?”

“We keep the door shut,” I said.

“What if it’s the police?”

“That quickly?” Raine shook her head, a sardonic smirk on her lips. “Nuh-uh.”

“They must have been following her- it.” I couldn’t make myself nod at the corpse. “Maybe it’s Stack?”

“I hope so, I owe her a hole in the head. Kim, back upstairs, same window, tell us what you see.”

“Again?”

“I’ll do it,” I hissed, desperate to get away from the corpse on the floor. I hurried up the stairs, hands shaking, into the shadowy darkness of the upstairs corridor. Floorboards creaked beneath my socks as I peeked around the edge of the window, into the lingering night.

A long black car squatted beyond the garden wall like a battering ram. Four people were climbing out and carefully shutting the doors behind them – three men and one woman, none I recognised, age and details blurred by distance and darkness. Staring up at the house, glancing down the street, their hands in their coat pockets. No robes or magical symbols, no visible weapons or lurking servitors, just coats and gloves against the cold. Stamping feet, tense shoulders.

The woman pointed to the side of the house and spoke a few words. The others nodded. One of the men went to the back of the car, opened the boot, and lifted out a long cloth-wrapped package.

My heart leapt into my throat. My brain said gun, but then the man slipped a pair of baseball bats out of the cloth and handed them to his companions.

I scrambled back down the stairs. Kimberly had scarpered off somewhere. Raine already had her phone to her ear, still covering the Lozzie-thing’s corpse with her pistol.

“Not police,” I said all in a rush. “Four of them. They’re armed, but I didn’t see any guns. I think.”

Raine nodded at me and gestured with her eyebrows for me to get into the kitchen, get out of the way, get safe. Then her call connected.

“Twil,” she barked down the phone. “Get your furry arse back here, now. We’ve got all kinds of trouble. Need you to knock some heads together.”

I stopped in the kitchen doorway – what was I doing? Why was I going to hide? I could stop bullets with my mind, let alone a baseball bat. I could threaten those people out there with a fate worse than death, and it would be no bluff. I turned back, and took a step toward the front door.

“There’s no time, dumb-arse,” Raine continued into the phone. “You’re supposed to be a good sprinter, right? Get back here … Heather? Heather, where are you going?”

“To get rid of our visitors,” I said, and swallowed.

“Twil, hey, shut up a sec, you- Twil? Okay, cool, great, now, yeah? You don’t hurry, I’ll tag them all, none left for you.” Raine lowered the phone. “She’s on her way. We’re gonna be fine, Heather, but please, please get back in Evee’s workshop, it’s the safest place in the house.”

“I can help. Fuck these people!” I put a hand over my mouth, surprised at myself. Horror had transmuted to outrage. Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “They- they’re with the Eye, somehow. They hurt Evee! It can’t be allowed, Raine. They want to make murals to the Eye, they can all go to Wonderland and stay there.”

Raine grinned. “Sure thing, after I’ve got them gut-shot and hogtied, okay?”

I opened my mouth to complain.

Bang bang bang – a fist, hammering on the front door.

“Open up,” a man’s voice called out.

“Unless you’re police, you can stuff it up your arse, mate,” Raine replied, her grin widening. We were back in her territory now. She knew what to do, and I trusted her utterly to do it right.

“Yeah,” he replied through the door, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m a regular policeman, me. Now open the fucking door or I’ll break it down.”

“It’s a diversion,” Raine hissed. “One’ll be going round back. Think the spiders’ll go for ‘em?”

I looked around for our pneuma-somatic arachnid friends. The one by the stairs was now halfway down the wall, creeping toward the door. The one in the kitchen had vanished – toward the back door, perhaps?

“Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, they’re with us.”

“Nice.” A savage grin pulled at Raine’s face, the sort of look I’d seen on her so many times before, the anticipation of violence written in every muscle. She gave me courage, gave me something to hold myself together with. We’d get through this. In a couple of hours it would all be over. She checked her gun, then dragged the big black combat knife from her waistband and flicked it out of its sheath. Cold metal, sharp in the morning chill. “This is gonna be a huge mess, but they don’t stand a chance. Here’s the plan, you-”

The Lozzie-thing got back up.

Perhaps it had been waiting for the moment Raine’s attention wandered. Perhaps the men hammering on the front door had pressed the issue. Or perhaps it had finally chosen to give up its ridiculous attempt to pretend it was a human being. It didn’t stand – it writhed to its feet, every joint pointing in the wrong direction, as if it had never risen from prone before and wasn’t certain which bones were meant to turn which ways.

Raine reacted faster. She did everything right. She backed up, one-two, raised her gun again, trigger-hand braced on the opposite wrist.

Smooth and calm and correct. Everything she was supposed to do. The Lozzie-thing lashed out with one failing hand, fingers all turned in the wrong direction, and Raine should have been able to dodge at that distance, she was already ducking away, lining up the shot. She was good at this. She was meant to win.

But the Lozzie-thing cheated.

Elbow and wrist moved at impossible angles, writhed around into the space Raine was about to be instead of the space she’d just vacated. A miracle of instinct, really, that Raine understood what was happening, that she managed to turn and shove her big black serrated knife up and into the thing’s throat, through imitation windpipe and imitation brainstem.

The Lozzie-thing’s palm slammed into Raine’s chest.

A crack.

I remember the cracking sound – the sound of one Raine’s ribs snapping. All else was panic, contextless snippets of memory in a sea of adrenaline.

Raine sliding down against the wall, unconscious, the force of the blow more than mere physical impact.

The Lozzie-thing stepping toward me again, wheezing “back to school” through a ruined throat.

Kimberly, in the kitchen doorway, screaming and scrambling away, dropping a tarpaulin on the floor, which I promptly tripped over.

The hammering on the front door, again, again.

I think I grabbed a chair in the kitchen – no, I know I grabbed a chair from the kitchen. I grabbed a chair and tried to throw it at the Lozzie-thing, the un-thing, the thing that should not be, shambling toward me, the sheer physical pressure of its mere existence enough to crush all thought and reaction down into a singularity of disgust. Me, weak little Heather, who didn’t have the upper body strength for a dozen push-ups, throwing an old heavy chair.

The chair bounced across the floor. The Lozzie-thing smashed it aside.

It grabbed my wrist – that un-skin, fingers like alien bones, flesh without human warmth or prosthetic logic – and smiled, and wheezed “time to go home.”

Reality folded up.

==

How quickly one can lose everything. Reduced to thin clothes and lingering body heat. Friends, defences, ideologies, all shed in an instant, leaving behind an ape whimpering to itself on the ashen ground of an alien dimension.

We are home,” the Lozzie-thing said.

I didn’t need to open my eyes to know where she’d taken me.

As reality reasserted itself, I crumpled to my knees and refused to open my eyes. Perhaps if I didn’t look, I could retreat to a safe place inside myself, and everything that was about to happen would happen to another person – but I knew that was impossible. In a few heartbeats, I would be denied any coherent sense of self.

A great pulse of awareness, from the sky above. My lips formed ‘no no no no’ over and over and over.

The Lozzie-thing still gripped my wrist. A leathery shard of myself said fight, get up and fight, but any strength I had was drowned out by a childhood nightmare screaming up out of my memories. Ashen wind robbed the heat from my skin, wriggled invasive fingers through every gap in my pajamas. The smell of this ruined place filled my nostrils, and I remembered. If despair could have a scent, it would smell like this. Darkness and ash.

I felt ten years old again, and I was back in Wonderland.

My eyes wouldn’t stay closed, of course. The first teasing barbs and hooks of pressure snagged at the edges of my consciousness, flensed layers of thought from my mind, forced my eyelids open.

Rubble and ruin stretched away across an endless plain, to a horizon of broken teeth I remembered from every nightmare. Mists like shadow drifted across the wreckage, obscuring snippets of looping alien script on every broken wall, words that made me wince with pain. In the distance, life – of a sick, malformed kind – crept through the hollows and beneath the fallen monoliths. Jellyfish creatures bigger than whales pulsed the through air, and in the distance the terrible mountain-sized watchers stared upward at the sky in mute devotion.

Up, up, up – to the sky that was not a sky. To the vast ridged eyelid that filled all creation.

The sky cracked down the middle, a hairline fracture on a sea of infinite night, as the Eye began to open.

Tendrils of alien thought wrapped tight around my mind, pushed through the whorls of my brain, began to take me apart – in the most fundamental sense of me.

The word ‘pain’ fails to do justice to the Eye’s attention. It was beginning an examination, an awful rifling through my neutrons and atoms. I was naked and alone on the altar of an alien God.

Sobbing, whimpering, bleeding from nose and eyes and even from my hair follicles, tugging on the Lozzie-thing’s grip to get away, I did the only thing that made any sense. I groped inside my own mind for the familiar equation, the piece of brainmath that spelled O-U-T, that would let me wriggle free like a greased fish, escape back to reality, away from this living nightmare.

The first few pieces slipped into place, as yet beyond the Eye’s deepening reach. My head pounded with a sudden spike of pain – and then the Lozzie-thing tightened her grip on my wrist.

Stay,” it rattled, Raine’s knife bobbing in its ruined throat.

The equation fell apart, trickled through my fingers.

Writhing, choking on the pain, sobbing, I howled through my teeth in despair. That’s why the Eye had made this mockery of my friend. That was her purpose. To stop me using what it had given me.

This wasn’t how I’d imagined myself returning to Wonderland. I was supposed to be ready, prepared for anything, surrounded by friends and shielded by magic and knowledge and love, to rescue my twin sister. In the private, quiet hours of the night, sometimes I’d imagined myself armoured – though I couldn’t have defined exactly how. Nonsense, a fairy-tale to soothe a lifetime of anxiety and sickness. This was always my fate in the end, wasn’t it? Cold and terrified, dressed in my pajamas, my mind flayed down to nothing until I was a screaming ape in the dust, the same as ten years ago. No escape. Even if I’d lived to see seventy years, there was no escape.

Was this how my life ended? After not even six months of warmth and meaning. At least I’d be with my sister again soon.

We were all the way down now, from the rarefied heights of firearms and friendship, heroics and hyperdimensional mathematics.

I was just an ape – an ape with a sharp rock in its hand.

My free hand had moved on automatic. There wasn’t enough of conscious Heather left to make a plan, the Eye had already displaced too much. But a tiny, warm part of my mind held out for a few precious moments – a part nurtured and fed and encouraged by Raine week after week, day after day – the part that still believed in myself, that I deserved to live, that this scrawny messed-up scrap of flesh called Heather was going to win.

That part of my mind had found a piece of shattered masonry within arm’s reach. A leftover shard of whatever had inhabited this dimension before the Eye had arrived, or been born, or been wrought by some magical insanity.

You can sling all the alien math you want, but at the end of the day a rock can still bash your brains out.

A Raine-approved course of action.

The Lozzie-thing was busy staring up at the Eye, communing, communicating, whatever. Ape-Heather didn’t care. Ape-Heather lifted the rock up and slammed it down as hard as she could on the Lozzie-thing’s wrist. Slam slam slam! I wasn’t really there, it wasn’t me doing that, I was pure animal by that point. I spat and screamed and howled my little defiance at the Eye’s tendrils worming their way through my brain, and I shattered whatever the Lozzie-thing used for imitation bone.

I pulled free, fell back onto the ashen ground. The Eye was open another sliver – a million miles wider, up there in the firmament. Its thoughts were in my soul, the pressure of its massive tentacles strangling all thought, let alone emergency brainmath.

I believe I tried to throw the rock at it.

Then, a light.

A light that touched my mind, my soul, the tiniest bright spot from amid the vast probing darkness of the Eye. The smallest, weakest ebb against this tidal wave of pressure. It passed over me, like a lighthouse searching for a reply, and for a second I was myself again.

I did have one ally here in Wonderland, didn’t I?

I think I managed to speak my sister’s name. I’m not sure.

The light passed away from me. Only a second’s pulse of relief, and I felt the Eye’s attention gathering to crash back down. Relief had served only as false hope. Neither of us could hold this back for long.

A tiny pop of displacing air, the crunch of gravel under shoes, and a “Wah?”

Maisie hadn’t been calling to me. She knew we had no hope here. She’d been calling for help.

Lozzie – the real Lozzie – stood there on the ashen dark ground of Wonderland, five feet away from me and her abominable double, eyes wide, a chocolate brownie halfway to her mouth. She dropped the brownie in surprise.

How could I ever have mistaken a fake for the real thing? Lozzie was beautiful – though part of that was the relief speaking, the relief that she was neither dead nor possessed. She looked healthy, no more bruises or bloody scabs. She was wearing flip-flops on bare feet, a plaid skirt, and a pink poncho. Somehow, she’d had a hair cut, fringe a neat line, trailing ends tidied up. How in God’s name did one get a hair cut Outside?

“It’s me!” She blurted out at the double, then saw me. “And you!” She lit up – then looked up. Her face fell. “Oh … oh dear.”

“Lozzie!”

The Eye’s tendrils pierced my brain again, thoughts peeled back. Lozzie winced – she felt it too. The double turned toward her.

“Kill it!” I managed to scream.

She blinked, and said, “Oh, right,” in the sort of tone one might use when asked to please put the laundry on.

Lozzie raised her hand, clicked her fingers, and pointed at the imitation-thing. The gesture seemed superfluous at the time – only later did I realise it resembled the manner in which one might issue a command to an attack dog.

Lozzie’s attack dog did not disappoint.

Burning chrome and lightning-etched steel – shining armour. A bulwark of metal – a tower shield. A shining star – the point of a lance. A helmet, no visor for eyes. Seams in the armour but not cut for a human. It rose behind Lozzie, twice her height in pneuma-somatic spirit flesh.

A knight.

Under the circumstances, my brain simply accepted what I saw. A knight, why not? We were beyond the rim of the sane universe out here, it was hardly the weirdest thing around. If the knight had removed its helmet and introduced itself as King Aurthur reborn, I would not have complained.

The lance took the imitation-Lozzie full in the chest, threw the creature fifty meters to crash down in the rubble and dust.

The knight raised the tower shield over its head to shelter us both – I gasped, spat blood and bile, and drew in a shuddering breath, suddenly myself again. Bruised and bleeding, my sense of self was intact once more. The Eye’s invasive thought-tentacles had been blotted out, cut off, held back – for a second.

The knight’s shield was melting fast, its armour burning and buckling as it absorbed the weight of the Eye’s attention. As it melted, I caught a glimpse of what lay beneath that armour, what manner of creature wore that suit of pneuma-somatic metal, and couldn’t tear my eyes away.

“We gotta go!” Lozzie yelled, and bundled into me, dragging me to my feet and hugging me tight. She grinned in my face, then in an act of pure absurdity she waved upward at the Eye. “Buh-bye!”

“Lozzie! Yes!” I yelled back. “We have to-”

Wonderland dissolved into a kaleidoscope, folded up, and collapsed into nothing. I screwed my eyes shut and clung to Lozzie with all my strength.

All my strength was not enough.

Dead hands grasped my ankles.

==

Cold, hard, rough – bare concrete beneath my cheek.

I gasped awake and sat up in a rush, confused and dehydrated, eyes gummy with dried blood. Everything ached. Tried to move my right hand to my face and found I couldn’t. My wrist clinked, caught, stopped.

My right wrist was handcuffed, the other cuff attached to a radiator pipe in a concrete wall. Left hand still worked, rubbed at my face, made me wince as I touched my bloody scalp and eyes and nose. Freezing cold, shivering, one sock missing from the feet I drew up toward myself, curling into a ball, back against the wall.

“Where-” I croaked, swallowed.

For one long moment I didn’t care where I was or how much I ached or why I was handcuffed – all I knew is that this was not Wonderland. Sweet, blessed relief. Tears made tracks on my cheeks. Maisie had called Lozzie, and Lozzie had saved me.

“I love you, I love you,” I whispered, eyes closed, thinking of my sister. “Thank you, I love you, thank you.”

And then Lozzie and I had been pulled apart?

By the Eye? Dimly, I recalled a sensation like dead hands on my ankles, dragging me out of Lozzie’s arms as reality had un-blinked. We were both back in reality, but in different places? Or was this some other Outside dimension?

I couldn’t think, everything hurt and my heart felt strained, like I’d put my body through too much in the last few hours. Where was I? I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, brought my blurry sight back into focus.

A concrete room. No furnishings except for the door, the radiator bolted to the wall – to which I was handcuffed – and a second, empty doorway on the left, leading off into what looked like a stripped kitchen. A single window above the radiator let a shaft of thin winter daylight into the room. Dawn, perhaps.

A figure stood in front of the door. Guarding me. Seven feet of zombie muscle, dressed in her trench coat and boots.

Zheng met my eyes, and said nothing.

At least I was back in Sharrowford.

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27 thoughts on “and less pleasant places – 6.9

  1. I can’t stop wondering why Lozzie can use magic so effortlessly compared to Heather’s orgy of blood and pain.
    Heather you rock

    • If/when Heather finally manages to get some quiet time with Lozzie, uninterrupted and not in a dream, I imagine this will be high priority question for her. among other matters.

  2. Well, there’s worse places to wake up than handcuffed in a room with Zheng. Heather experienced one of them this very chapter!

    Interesting that not-Lozzie could stop Heather’s brainmath. I wonder what the Eye wants. It could just remain completely inscrutable and impossible to understand its logic, but I don’t feel like it will? It went out of its way to send a fake Lozzie to bring Heather back- its ‘lessons’ are deliberate, not just a byproduct of Heather and Maisie stumbling into Wonderland that first time. More than that, not-Lozzie understands what the Eye is doing as teaching Heather, comparing it to school. It really wants to teach Heather… something. It doesn’t care about her suffering as it does so, but is that disregard coming from a place of malice, or apathy, or not understanding in the first place? I kinda doubt it’s the last one, due to how Heather describes its attention as dissecting and studying her at fundamental levels…

    • Would we understand the suffering of an ant as we took it apart to study how it works? Or would we simply not care, because it’s an insect and its suffering isn’t on the same level as our own?

      Perhaps, with considerable courage, Heather needs to consider the question you’ve just asked: what does the Eye want? And why?
      (Also I am delighted to see readers thinking about these sorts of questions! Thank you!)

      • I’m almost sure it doesn’t understand the pain Heather’s going through, given that the Lozzilike seemed very confused about how it should react to physical trauma just this chapter!

        …Also, I’m now imagining the Eye as just a general teacher for hyper-d math to a whole host of outsiders, and the Eye wondering why this weirdo/Heather is having so much trouble as to commit truancy. Silly Eye, don’t you know humans have trouble with algebra?

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