Handcuffed to a radiator in an empty concrete room, in only my pajamas and underwear, dried blood crusted around my nostrils and eye sockets and the edges of my scalp, aching and cold and missing a sock, with only a terminally taciturn seven-foot tall zombie for company.
Still an improvement over Wonderland.
I stared back at Zheng, met those empty, dead-fish zombie eyes, but she didn’t move. Apparently my regained consciousness didn’t warrant a response.
“Hi, Zheng,” I croaked, then cleared my throat. So dry. “Don’t suppose you’d know what I’m doing here?”
She said nothing. What had I expected?
Reluctantly, I tore my eyes away from the huge zombie, and inventoried my various aches and pains. I probed my face, my tender hairline, my sore nose, rubbed flakes of dried blood away from my eyelids until I could blink freely without too much stinging. To my surprise I’d sustained only a couple of external bruises – probably acquired fighting the Lozzie-thing, as well as a nasty livid purple mark on my wrist from where she’d grabbed and held me.
Internally was a different matter, fragile and tender.
My soul, my sense of self, the coherency of electrical impulses in my brain, whatever you wish to call it – that felt bruised and bloodied. That was why my heart ached, why I felt so cold inside, brutalised by the Eye’s rummaging. My connection to my own body was thin and torn, and slow to repair.
I tucked my knees in closer to my chest, shivering, desperate for some warmth.
“Shouldn’t you … I don’t know, go fetch whoever’s in charge of you now?” I asked Zheng.
She stared back at me, eyes empty, face devoid of expression. No body language, like a shop dummy or a sculpture. Her statue-like inhumanity seemed worse than before, but I wasn’t in a state to catalogue exactly how. If her eyes hadn’t moved to meet mine, I’d have assumed she wasn’t in there anymore.
I sighed and tutted at her, and glanced around the room.
Shouldn’t I be terrified? Panicking? Pulling on the handcuff, sobbing and shivering? Crying out for somebody to come help me? That was what young women tied up in cellars did in television and movies. This was supposed to be everyone’s worst nightmare; kidnapped, restrained, by parties unknown. An empty concrete room, even. How cliche.
I’d just survived my worst nightmare, for the second time in my life. A sort of numb euphoria still cushioned my mind. What could be worse than the Eye? This was nothing.
Mostly I felt irritated, cold, and thirsty.
Real fear – for my friends – tickled the back of my consciousness, but I crushed that down under the practicalities of the moment.
I examined the handcuff. Shiny, new, with a rigid black plastic midsection, the metal cuff itself cinched tight around my thin wrist. I tried to squish my thumb down and wriggle free, but couldn’t squeeze through. No getting out without the key.
“Feel like coming over here and crushing the mechanism in here for me?” I rattled the cuff as I asked Zheng. “No? Didn’t think so. May I get up, then? Yes or no? Blink once for yes, twice for no.”
She didn’t blink at all. Spoil-sport. I began to ease myself to my feet. Zheng’s eyes tracked me.
“I’m going to look out of the window, figure out where I am. Shouldn’t you be trying to stop me? … alright then, don’t say I didn’t ask permission.”
Uncurling made my teeth chatter. So cold in here, inside this bag of wet meat I was dragging around as an excuse for a body. The handcuffs limited my range of motion, but I managed to slide them up the radiator pipe, stand up straight, and look out of the window.
Up – dawn. Grey skies. The North in winter.
Down, and a touch of vertigo clutched at my legs. Sharrowford spread out below like a concrete-and-brick skid mark, caught in the vulnerable process of waking itself up, shaking off the shadows and cobwebs. Streetlights flickered off and cars passed in the distance.
Below us, so very far below us, lay Headly council estate.
“Oh, great,” I sighed.
If I craned my neck to the right and pressed my face close to the filthy glass, I could see the corner of the other high-rise tower. I didn’t need to guess which one I was in, or how high up I was. Intact glass, beyond range of the concrete-warping effect of Alexander’s corpse, in a stripped flat.
Glasswick tower, top floor.
I tried the window, but they’d thought of that – the catch was closed and locked, with a key. If I found something heavy to smash the glass, I could wave my arms and shout to attract some attention, but why bother?
Time to leave.
“Well, um, nice seeing you again, I suppose?” I said to Zheng, then took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
The bravado wasn’t entirely false. Whoever had handcuffed me here had no idea what I was capable of. Physical restraint couldn’t hold me, not in this reality.
I’d have lost my nerve if I’d stopped to think about the risks. I felt more fragile and paper-thin than any other time before; I could be about to collapse and pass out in some Outside place, choke to death on my own vomit, or perhaps my body would finally give up. The alternative was to sit here, thinking about what might have happened to Evelyn and Raine. Unable to help. Far away, and alone.
No. Much better to Slip, to take the risk, than wait in this empty room for whoever – or whatever – had imprisoned me.
Considering where I was, I could make an educated guess.
Familiar by now, almost deceptively smooth, the first pieces of the equation slipped into place. Pain spiked in the back of my head. I grit my teeth, tried to hold my breathing steady, focused on the rest of the hyperdimensional mathematics that would get me out of here and my wrist out of these handcuffs. Another piece slid into place, white-hot metal burning a passage through my brain.
Dead hands found my ankles. Held on tight.
Held me here.
I gasped out loud, opened my eyes, and dropped the equation – on purpose this time, carefully, though it still stung like star-fire and made me curl up around my stomach, wincing and wheezing pained breath through my teeth. I blinked down at my feet, but no skeletal hands clutched my actual flesh. Where had that sensation come from?
“That wasn’t … you? Was it?” I asked Zheng, but she didn’t look like she’d moved in weeks.
Shaking, confused, with real panic rising up my throat, I tried again.
I got further that second time. Pushed right up to the edge, stomach heaving on nothing but bile – and the feeling of bony, dessicated hands wrapped themselves around my ankles, held on tight, clawing at the periphery of my soul.
Crumpling to the floor, hacking and coughing flecks of blood onto the bare concrete, exhausted by the effort of failed brainmath, I whined in horrified frustration. The calm and lack of fear slipped through my fingers. I scratched and scrubbed furiously at my ankles, trying to wipe away the memory of that awful grasping.
“Get off me, get off me!” I hissed. “Let me go!”
I couldn’t Slip.
My captors came to check on me ten minutes later. Felt like eternity.
Turned out the reason I’d been so unafraid was the assumption I was able to Slip away, use brainmath, get out of here. As soon as I couldn’t, it all came crashing down.
Nothing to do except think, huddled against the wall, going around and around inside my own head, faster and faster. I needed to get out of these handcuffs and break the window, but with what? How? Could I get past Zheng? Hit her with a wrecking ball of force again, like I did before? I’d pass out afterward, and then I’d end up right back where I started, unless I took the top off the entire building.
Nobody was coming to rescue me. Raine had been knocked out, maybe worse. Vulnerable. Acid burned in my throat – Raine, made vulnerable.
Chest tight, shivering in the cold. Evelyn too, in a magical coma, alone and unprotected, except for Kimberly, and she’d run away. Didn’t blame her. How long ago had those strange men been hammering on our front door? An hour? Two? I needed to get out of here, they could be anywhere, anything could be happening. The Eye could be coming back for me.
What about Lozzie? Why wasn’t she appearing to help me? Was she trapped here too? Nearby, tied up like this, unable to Slip out because of dead hands grabbing at her feet? Was she scared too?
The radiator was bolted to an exterior-facing wall, so I couldn’t hammer on the concrete. The best I could manage was to stretch out a leg and thump my heel on the floor.
“Lozzie!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, throat hoarse and raw. They should have gagged me. “Lozzie?”
Dust and echoes.
I wanted to cry, but I was alone, no heroic Raine coming to rescue me, no friend about to appear around the corner to help. Alone. I did cry, a tiny bit. I’m not ashamed to admit so.
No, not like in films or television at all. Sometimes there’s no way out, unless you cheat.
I focused on Zheng, and started thinking like a mage.
Last I’d seen the giant zombie woman was in the Cult’s ridiculous castle, in the last moments before I’d killed Alexander Lilburne. She looked as if she’d been treated to at least a perfunctory wash since then.
Clean boots, new denim trousers, greasy black hair sticking up in all directions from a pale scalp. Her trench coat was mercifully free of blood – but was still missing the left sleeve where I’d knocked her arm off, the reattached limb still exposed. The arm looked much healthier, her shoulder no longer a mass of pulped tissue, now all clean, lean, toned muscle.
Unlike every previous time we’d met, her trench coat hung open. She wore a thin white tshirt beneath, and obviously no bra.
Also unlike every previous time, I finally witnessed the true extent of Zheng’s tattoos.
I’d seen the tattoos on her left arm before, in those terrified moments when she’d confronted Lozzie and I in the cult’s castle, but I’d had neither time nor presence of mind to examine them.
Now I had nothing but time and fear, and Zheng stood there, unmoving, the white tshirt doing little to conceal either modesty, muscle, or body-art.
The looping, winding, spiralling black of the tattoos covered her entire muscled torso. Emerging from below the waistline of her jeans, reaching the rough terminus of her wrists, scrawled on her heavy breasts and washboard stomach, crawling up her throat and across her bold collarbone, in a design so complex it stung the eye not with magic but with sheer visual confusion. A thick mass of infinitely tiny text, in dozens of languages, formed into symbols, whorls, loops – but mostly spirals, so many spirals, etched into the skin over corded muscle.
All of it was faded, some more, some less, some almost to nothing – from different times, different ages, inscribed in different hands, some on top of older designs, some interlocking with them. Zheng’s skin carried a multi-generational work of art.
Among the faded, blurred tattoos, one unmistakable addition stood out, bold and clear.
On her exposed left forearm, the one I’d injured, a half-complete spiral shape interlocked with a much older part of the design. The ink looked fresh.
“That’s new,” I said to Zheng, meeting her eyes again. “And you didn’t do that yourself, did you?”
A mad and dangerous idea took root in my mind, based on too many assumptions. I wet my lips, weighed my courage. Better than sitting here. If I could only reach her.
Then, I realised I was an idiot.
“The cuff,” I said out loud, and sighed in sudden relief. “I’m so stupid. Heather, you’re so stupid.”
Heart fluttering with nervous tension, I grabbed the rigid middle of the handcuffs with my free hand. If I couldn’t go Outside, then these could – and the glass in the window could, too.
A key rattled in the door, interrupting my small nervous victory.
Jerking to my feet, heart in my throat, I rose as best I could to meet whatever had come for me – Alexander’s walking, headless corpse, or the Lozzie-thing with a hole in its chest, or robed cultists with knives and chanting. I kept my hand on the cuffs, but internally I began to prepare, painfully and with some reluctance, for a very different kind of brainmath. Whatever they wanted, whatever came through that door, I was going to fight.
The last thing I expected to step into that barren concrete room was three very ordinary looking people. A woman, and two men.
The woman was the leader, I think. She stepped inside first, with a pause at the threshold and a curious raised eyebrow at me.
“You gonna to try to kill me?” she asked.
“ … I don’t know,” I managed. “Should I?”
She shrugged and strode into the middle of the room, but stayed well beyond my reach, ignoring Zheng and watching my eyes. Short and trim, severe in the face from too much shouting in her life, perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, with a long shock of black hair and the fine-boned, classically pretty features of a British Indian or Pakistani. Long grey coat, high leather boots, and exhausted. She looked as if she hadn’t truly rested in several days, kept on her feet with a cocktail of determination and spite.
I recognised her. This was the woman who’d been outside number 12 Barnslow drive, directing the men.
The two who followed her into the room, however, had not been at the house. The first was exceptionally clean-cut and very young, perhaps no older than me, not a hair out of place on his blonde head, in a crisp white shirt and a plastic smile. He had a large notebook open over one arm and a pencil ready in the other hand, and went straight to Zheng, peering down at her exposed arm and making ‘hmm’ noises.
The second man looked like a teenage drug-dealer or pothead who’d aged badly into his twenties. He squinted at me from under scraggly twists of hair escaping from his beanie hat, and played with an unlit cigarette held in grubby fingers. For some reason, he made me think of a badger.
Neither of them looked like capable muscle. The woman scared me much more than either of them.
She sighed and cast about the room. “Well, she’s still here.”
“Mm. You owe me twenty quid,” the badger man said.
“Later,” she grunted.
They watched me for a second, in silence, though the clean-cut man was absorbed in taking notes as he examined Zheng’s tattoos. Their looks felt nothing like the pressure of Alexander Lilburne’s infinite self-satisfaction. His gaze had been like a snake waiting for a twitch. This lot looked more like they weren’t sure how to proceed.
As a second turned into two, then three, then five, I realised the look was no act – they genuinely had no idea what to do with me. If they were hoping I’d say something, they didn’t know what.
“Would you leave the zombie alone?” The woman hissed at the clean-cut man. “For five fucking seconds?”
He ignored her and lifted Zheng’s wrist, to examine the new tattoo up close. Zheng didn’t even glance down at him.
“I’m speaking to you, Marcus,” the woman snapped. “For fuck’s sake.”
“The new sigil is taking properly,” Marcus murmured. “Despite the constant changes in her binding. This is good, this is good news.”
“This is also not the time,” she hissed through gritted teeth.
“This is important work, you know that.”
“Uh, maybe we shouldn’t use names in front of … ” The badger-like man nodded toward me.
“What fucking difference does it make?” the woman asked him. He shrugged.
“Who … ” Had to swallow, my throat was so dry. “Who are you people?”
The clean-cut man – Marcus – turned away from Zheng and pointed his plastic smile at me, before the woman could answer.
“We are the favoured and the blessed,” he said, his voice floaty and not-quite-here. The voice of a missionary, or of drugs crossing the blood-brain barrier.
“We’re what’s left,” the woman answered – measured, quiet, and filled with hate.
“Left of … left of what?” I swallowed again, playing for time, for information. I couldn’t make myself confident here, but I could make myself seem oblivious.
“Don’t be obtuse,” the woman said.
“The Brotherhood of the New Sun.” The badger man snorted an empty laugh.
I glanced between the three of them, but there was no joke in their eyes. The woman sighed and shrugged.
“Just … just you three?” I asked.
“I’m not completely stupid, I’m not going to tell you that,” the woman said, then narrowed her eyes and smiled in a thin, dark way, voice turning sarcastic and mocking. “No, in fact, there’s dozens of us, hundreds even. All of us exist purely to torment you, because you’re the centre of the Goddamn universe.”
“Hey, Sarry … ” the badger-man muttered, half reaching for her shoulder, and then thought better of it. She ignored him.
Undignified, dressed in my pajamas and ugly with my own blood on my face, I tried to turn vulnerability into the only form of strength I could grasp. I pulled on my right wrist, let the handcuffs clink against the radiator.
“I’m the one cuffed to a wall.”
“Yeah, that’s right. You are. So why the hell are you still here?”
“She’s run out of juice,” the badger man said. “Too tuckered out, eh?”
“That,” the clean-cut young man raised his pencil. “Should not be possible. That never happened with the younger Lilburne. She was irrepressible. Something else is keeping our guest here. Reluctance, perhaps? Maybe she’s seen the light.”
“Maybe,” the woman drawled. She sounded unconvinced. “She looks pretty tired to me. You feeling tired, Heather?”
I blinked at her. Too many things to take in at once, struggling to hold onto every scrap. Every piece of information could be valuable, could get me out.
They didn’t know why I couldn’t Slip. They didn’t know about the dead hands.
“I’m thirsty,” I said, instead. “And how do you know my name?”
“We all knew your stupid name. Alexander wanted you on the team, so we all had to fucking know about it.”
“Then you appear to have me at a disadvantage,” I said, raising my chin.
I don’t know how I put so much haughty weight into that sentence. Half an impression of Evelyn, half stolen confidence from their petty infighting. I couldn’t see a way out, yet, but I knew there must be one. These people were tired and bitter and not what I’d expected.
“Why not, hey?” the woman said. “Why not pretend we’re all regular fucking human beings? I’m Sarika, and this is Nate. Marcus you heard earlier.”
“Call me Badger,” Nate said. “Not that we’ll know each other for long.” I blinked at him, not quite believing my ears. “Yeah, you were thinking it weren’t you?”
“I … yes.”
“This is our chance,” Marcus said, eyes shining with zeal. “This is our opportunity, to prove ourselves, to Him. She can’t leave, or she’s unwilling to go, and the construct – well, the construct is missing. So we send her, ourselves. We send her back to Him.”
“Mm,” Sarika grunted, staring at me. “Sounds good.”
“We must. We must do it!”
“Alright. We will. Hold onto your pants,” she grunted.
“What?” I asked, stomach sinking, but I didn’t really have to ask. A cold shiver ran down my spine and into my blood. “Send me where? You … you people work for the Eye now, don’t you?”
“ … ‘Eye’?” Sarika raised an eyebrow. “That’s what you call it?”
“Makes sense.” Badger shrugged.
“He has a name and His glory should not be diminished by our fragility,” Marcus said, raising his head and closing his eyes.
Then he spoke the Eye’s true name.
A not-sound with no business issuing from a human throat. My eyes stung and my ears popped as a static crackle passed through the frigid air. I assume the temperature dropped, as it had months ago when Evelyn had spoken the Eye’s name to make a point, but the bare concrete room was already too cold to notice. Sarika jerked and winced, gritting her teeth. Badger grunted and screwed his eyes up.
Marcus raised his voice, a little blood on his lips. “We speak His name and embody His will and-”
Sarika grabbed a handful of Marcus’ collar and got up in his face, bearing her teeth. “If you do that again without warning me first, you little shit, I will have her,” – she jabbed a finger at Zheng – “split you from your cock to your throat, and feed you your own steaming guts. You’ll die with a mouthful of your own shit. Do I make myself clear?”
“She’ll do it, man. You know she will,” Badger said.
“I will not apologise for my devotion,” Marcus said through his plastic smile.
Sarika let go and pushed him away – then gestured at Zheng.
My heart leapt into my throat. For one terrible moment I thought their leader was about to make good on her gruesome threat. Zheng came to life all at once, whirling into motion, one hand grabbing Marcus by the shoulder and shoving him at the wall. He bounced off – but Zheng stopped at a click of Sarika’s fingers.
“Want me to keep going?” Sarika snapped.
Marcus straightened his shirt and turned his plastic smile back on. He tilted his head down in the smallest gesture of submission. Sarika sighed, and Zheng returned to her waiting pose, eyes locked back on mine again. Badger took a deep breath and swallowed.
“Right, now that’s over, we don’t want her to die in the meantime,” Sarika muttered. “You said you’re thirsty?”
“Yes,” I answered after a moment. “Very much so.”
“Here.” She dug around in her coat pockets and pulled out a plastic bottle. She tossed it to me, and of course I couldn’t catch it with one hand cuffed to the wall. I crouched to fetch it off the floor.
Half empty. Seal on the cap already broken. I met Sarika’s eyes.
“ … what?” she huffed. “You think it’s drugged? We don’t need to fucking drug you, we can have Zheng drag you wherever we want. Drink it or not. I’m beyond caring.”
I didn’t touch the water, but I placed the bottle on the windowsill.
“So you people do work for the Eye? I don’t understand, how?”
“’Work’ is perhaps a little too optimistic,” Sarika sneered.
“What’s to understand?” Badger said with a shrug. “We’re here, and none of us are getting out.”
“We serve Him now, as we always should have,” Marcus added.
Great. The Eye, my childhood nightmare, my twin’s jailer, and the ultimate foe of everything good in my life, now had a real-life doomsday cult in Sharrowford. I could connect the dots even if I didn’t know the details – Alexander had found out about Maisie and my past, somehow encountered knowledge about the Eye. And now his former followers had decided to worship the thing as a God.
I’m certain Evelyn could have told about a worse possible outcome, but right then I couldn’t see one.
“How did I get here?” I asked.
“A wonderful question,” Sarika said. “One we were hoping you could answer, in fact.”
“ … what?”
“We found you on the floor in front of Alexander’s body. That’s what.”
“Where’s the construct?” Badger asked me.
“Mm, yes, that too. We know it came for you,” Sarika added. They were getting into the swing of this now, back and forth, hitting me with questions – but only because I’d given them the opening, ceded control of the tempo. Marcus may have been a loon, lost to the Eye, but these two had at least some brains cells to share between them. “In fact, I’m pretty certain it got you. Got there before I did, and spirited you away. So how the fuck’d you get free from it?”
“It should be coming for her right now,” Badger muttered. “Should be here already.”
“Yeah, and it’s not.” Sarika shivered. “Thank fuck.”
“It is otherwise occupied,” Marcus said, nodding to himself. “It is His creature and His ways are not our ways.”
“You mean the thing that looks like Lozzie?” I asked.
Sarika tried to laugh, but it didn’t take an expert on body language to read the shudder in her face. “Yeah, the thing that looks like Lauren Lilburne. The construct.”
“It’s dead,” I said – and relished the looks on their faces.
“A lie,” Marcus said.
I didn’t respond, though more because I wasn’t actually certain it was dead than any calculated intimidation tactic. He frowned at me.
“She ain’t lying,” Badger clicked his tongue. “It’d be here if it was still walking about. They must have killed it before it took her.”
“Killed it after it took me. The Eye can’t hold me,” I almost spat at them. “Sending me back would be pointless, because I’ll just escape again.”
“Okay, that’s obviously nonsense,” Sarika said, sighing. “If it had you, you wouldn’t be here. I’ll accept you killed the construct, or your friend with the gun did, but there’s no way you escaped the … the ‘Eye’.”
“Him,” Marcus corrected.
“You think it has a fucking gender? Really?” She shook her head.
“The Eye can’t hold me, and you can’t hold me.” I managed to sound much more confident than I really felt, shivering cold and restrained in front of these people. “I could kill all of you with my mind, right now, and there’s nothing you could do to stop me.”
Except that I’d pass out for hours and freeze to death on the floor. I didn’t say that part out loud.
“Oh yeah? Just like you and your friends did to Alexander?” Sarika’s voice twisted with disgust – and a strange touch of sorrow, a catch in the back of her throat. “Did to my friends? You gonna kill me too, now, huh? Go on. Bitch.”
“We should be thanking her,” Marcus said. “For acting as the catalyst of our revelation. Without her actions, rash and destructive as they may be, we would never have found Him.”
My turn to frown at this fanatic – what did he mean, my actions?
“She doesn’t know,” Badger said with a sad chuckle.
Sarika blinked at me. “You really have no idea, do you? You don’t think about the consequences of your actions, people like you never do. You just do violence, and then swan away. I hate your type, I really do.”
I stared at her. Couldn’t quite process the words. She was outraged – at me?
“What do you think happened, hmm? After you and your friends killed Alexander? Killed the best visionary I’ve ever known? Cut off our fucking head? My … ” She paused, pressed her lips together.
“You found a bigger monster to follow?” I tasted bile in my throat.
Sarika regarded me for a moment, bitter and silent, then spoke. “He didn’t die right away. Lingered maybe three or four hours, I don’t remember exactly. I don’t remember much of that night very well. Zheng brought him back here, he was just … limp meat … and he … ”
“He gave us a God,” Marcus said, his eyelids fluttering half-closed
“He made a deal. A shitty one, with this ‘Eye’,” Sarika continued, gritting her teeth. “With the Magnus Vigilator. It was supposed to save his body, put him back together, but I don’t think that thing understood the meaning of human biology well enough. In return he gave it raw material. His memories of his sister, I assume, to form an avatar, a puppet, a … I don’t know how it works, alright? I don’t care. Something that can move back and forth between our reality and the Beyond, the way the real Lauren had done. An abomination, no? All that’s left of him, all I’ve got left of him, and it’s a walking nightmare.”
She couldn’t keep the emotion out of her voice. I wasn’t certain what Alexander Lilburne had been to her, but it had been more than a follow-messiah relationship.
I think I was talking to the ex-lover of the man I’d killed.
“You forget the most important aspect of our ascension,” Marcus said, his plastic smile tinted with smugness.
Sarika sighed heavily, bringing her emotions under control. She displayed remarkable restraint in not thumping Marcus across the face. “Yes. Yes, how could I possibly forget? He gave it another bargaining chip too, to spice the deal. Us.”
“A God is no God if it is not deserving of worship,” Marcus said. Badger cleared his throat, lowered his eyes.
“You?” I blinked at her, not quite getting it.
“We’ve all … communed with it now, we all dream about it. That was the deal.” Sarika said. “It’s in my head, when I close my eyes. It’s in all our fucking heads, girl, and in a way that’s your fault. Yours and Alexander’s, and I can’t throttle him.”
“It is a blessing,” Marcus admonished her. “The vistas of thought that open before the human mind, if one is but willing to accept, are beyond words.”
“Sure is that,” Sarika grunted. “This thing Alexander found, when looking into you, Heather. Your background. It wants you, and I am fucking well going to find a way to give it what it wants. Nothing personal, understand?”
I almost – almost – didn’t blame her.
“You don’t have to listen to it,” I said, but my voice shook too much to sound convincing. “I’m going to … to defeat it.”
Sarika started laughing.
“Why not just park her back in front of Alex’s corpse, like we all had to?” Badger asked. “Let it in her head?”
“You want to risk touching her?” Sarika shook her head, laughter dying.
“Ehhh.” Badger shrugged. “She’s out of juice.”
I raised my chin, stood as tall as I could, and tried to stop shivering. “I can still send you Outside – Beyond, whatever you call it – if you let me touch you. You want to meet your God, in person? I can send you there.”
Marcus’s eyes flashed with a split-second of interest, but the other two merely stared at me, thinking.
“Come on, we need to hit the books, find a way to send her back,” Sarika said eventually. “And Marcus, you need to go pray again, figure out if there’s something He wants done with her. There’s got to be a way. Make another construct, I don’t know.”
“What if we get her to go willingly?” Badger muttered.
“What?” I said.
Badger wet his lips, swallowed, and played his hand.
“We’ve got your friends. All’o them,” he said, nodding. “We could hurt them, cut bits off’o them, until you just … poof, go back to the … ‘Eye’. And then we’re all free, and your mates go free too. Or we can hurt ‘em. That’s a promise.”
A sudden weight on my chest. Sick and blinking through a flush of heat in my face. They had hit the house, Raine and Evelyn had both been unconscious, and I doubted very much that Kim could have put up much of a fight. I tried to focus on the tone of the man’s voice, to read his expression.
“You’re bluffing.” I shook my head.
“No I’m not,” he replied, too quickly.
“We picked up Evelyn Saye, and her bodyguard, and the Brinkwood werewolf,” Sarika said. “We were following the construct, got brave, got lucky. You’ve got nobody left.”
Relief pulsed through my chest. A tiny, borderline hysterical smile curled on my lips. “You couldn’t hold Twil,” I hissed. “That’s a bluff. And you missed somebody else. How’d you get past the invisible spiders? How many people did they kill?”
That struck a nerve. Badger frowned and grit his teeth – perhaps Evelyn’s Spider-servitors had hurt one of his friends.
“Alright, we have one of them,” Sarika admitted with a sigh and a side-eyes glare at Badger. “You think you can do that, Nate? Torture some fucking kid? Cut off a finger?”
Badger shrugged. “Yeah. You know? Yeah.”
“No,” I said, clinging on. “No. Who, who have you got? You’re lying. That’s a lie, it-”
Sarika tilted her head, slowly. She had me now, and she knew so.
“Who?” I almost screamed at her.
“I wouldn’t tell her if I was you. This is working,” Marcus announced. Sarika sighed and ran a hand over her face.
“Torture it is then,” she grunted. “We’ll let you stew a bit, have a think if you wanna save your friend. We’ll be back with a finger, or an ear, or … fuck knows. Come on you two, out.”
They turned to leave.
“Wait!” I said, scrabbling for a handhold, for anything. If they’d broken into the house and had time to take only one person, I knew exactly who they had, and I did anything to deny that reality. “It’s Praem, isn’t it? You’ve got Praem. She was here, she came to the tower. You can’t hurt her, she’s not even human, she’s made of wood.”
Sarika squinted at me. “Praem?”
“She means the zombie we found,” Badger grunted.
“Oh, that thing. Yeah, we’ve got her too.” Sarika smirked. “Don’t worry, she won’t be mounting a rescue anytime soon. She’s in a bottle. Corked.”
My world shrunk, walls closing in, head throbbing with more than simple pain. Sarika was last out, and I stared at her as she left.
“Try to keep warm, yeah?” she said. “Don’t freeze to death up here.” She closed the door, turned the key, and locked me in.
They had Raine. I knew, in my bones, they had kidnapped Raine.
My Raine, my beautiful Raine, handcuffed to a radiator pipe like this? What would she be doing – planning a way out? She’d have a plan, of course she would, she was probably already free, right? There was no way she’d let them hurt her, I could barely imagine it. She’d fight like a cornered fox, she’d find a way, she’d break free.
Wouldn’t she? She was only human, and perhaps she was as cold and drained as I was. Unarmed. Alone.
In the dark watches of the night, in my most private, isolated moments, I’d feared a time like this would come – ever since Raine had slid into my life over the top of a bathroom stall, and made the choice to help me, defend me, become part of me. Feared that if the certainty of her confidence was ever taken away, I’d crumble to nothing. I was a half-person pretending to be real, an emotional dependent, a weakling. So afraid that without her, I’d relapse into retreat and reclusion, give up, give in.
Shaking all over, eyes wet with tears, I did the opposite.
As soon as the door was locked and I heard the cultist trio’s footsteps vanish, I didn’t even think. I grabbed the rigid centre of the handcuffs with my free hand, grit my teeth and tensed to stop myself vomiting, and jammed the familiar old equation into place so fast that my eyeballs hurt.
The handcuffs vanished.
Reeling, spitting blood, doubling up with pain as my stomach spasmed and my head pounded like an explosion, I clung onto consciousness – and my stomach acid – with pure force of will. Forcing myself to breathe, breathe, in and out, I straightened up, made my legs take my weight.
Zheng stared back at me. Seven feet of statue-still zombie muscle.
“I think it’s time we test some assumptions,” I said, voice shaking.
It wasn’t courage. I’m not a courageous person, I refuse to believe so. I simply lacked any other options. Sit in this room and wait for those awful people to return, with a magic circle or Raine’s severed index finger? Smash the window and shout and wait for Zheng to stop me? Try to Slip Outside again, and leave Raine – or somebody else, if I’d gotten it wrong – behind?
Those weren’t options. Easier to stop breathing than pick one of those, no matter how much this new plan terrified me. Not courage. Blind and unthinking, the only choice.
“Assumption one – you didn’t attack me. That night. And you … a-and you … dammit, Heather.” I swallowed, sniffed, forced steel into my voice as I spoke to the towering zombie. “And you stood by when I killed Alexander.”
I took a step toward Zheng, and she didn’t move.
That awful night when the Sharrowford Cult had mounted its last attempt to kidnap me, the night I’d knocked Zheng’s arm off, broken the integrity of her tattoos, she’d gone berserk. She’d killed two of the Cult, eviscerated them, left their corpses behind as she’d careened off into the labyrinth.
But she hadn’t attacked me.
That night, I’d regained consciousness underneath one of Evelyn’s Spider-servitors, and I’d assumed that it had protected me from Zheng. Perhaps, but perhaps not. She’d also not attacked us when we’d stumbled across her in the labyrinth. And, in those final moments in Alexander’s throne room, she’d seen what Lozzie and I were doing. She hadn’t stopped us.
“Assumption two.” My eyes flickered down to the new tattoo on her forearm, black spiral half-complete. “That’s how they control you.”
Another step toward Zheng. Her eyes tracked me.
A major assumption, that. One of Evelyn’s theories, not my deduction. Please, Evee, please be safe, please be well. I hope Twil found you in time.
Another step. God, but Zheng was so tall. An animal part of me quivered, told me to back away, out of her arm’s reach. But I stepped closer, almost close enough to touch her.
“Assumption three. You hate these people,” I hissed. “And if I’m right, you deserve this.”
I lunged for the door.
A very poor lunge, on exhausted, shaking legs and slippery feet, at the wrong angle and without enough reach. I wouldn’t have touched the door handle even if Zheng hadn’t decided to move. She didn’t so much grab me as catch me around the middle to stop me falling on my face. One huge hand whipped out like the jaws of a snake, hauling me up and back.
Quick as I could, flailing and missing once, twice, heart in my throat – third time lucky! I wrapped a hand around Zheng’s exposed left forearm. Directly over the new tattoo.
No time to plan the equation, to minimise the pain. I’d never attempted such physical finesse before, such delicate mathematical selection of what I was touching. Not skin or muscle or bone, and certainly not the whole of her, clothes and all.
Only the ink, under my palm.
The effort almost blacked me out. A second of oblivion as I reeled away from Zheng, a second of sagging and choking, as I spat a string of bile onto the floor, gritting my teeth and holding on and holding on and-
An intake of breath, sharp, surprised, deep. Not mine.
Blinking through the darkening edges of my vision, I braced myself against the radiator to avoid a rapid meeting with the floor, as I boggled at what I’d done.
Zheng exhaled, and life blossomed on her face. She blinked three times, eyes wide. Her gaze lowered as she lifted her arm, to examine the small palm-shaped blank spot where I’d erased a section of her tattoos. I’d removed the new one entirely. Good aim. Cleaner than severing her whole limb, at least.
She flexed her arms, rolled her shoulders, let out a grunt.
I’d expected a change akin to Praem’s growth over the last few months, but simply accelerated – a few subtleties of expression, a little more willingness to communicate, the power of independent decision making – but this wave of physical awakening surprised me. With every second that passed, Zheng looked more like an actual human being rather than a demon possessing a corpse.
She lifted her eyes, no longer dead and empty, but alive and alert, expressive even. The colourless pallor in her skin was flushed away with those first few hungry breaths, returning what I assumed had once been her natural colouration, a dusky light red-chocolate.
She made eye contact with me.
My stomach contracted, my entrails tried to climb up through my chest cavity, and all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
Wide, wider, baring row upon row of teeth suddenly much, much sharper than they had been a few moments ago. A shark’s grin.
Zheng took another deep breath, relishing the taste of the air. She grinned at me, and spoke.
“Yaagaad ve? Yaagaad, jijig shidten?”
Voice like granite, deep but unmistakably feminine, the question filled with confused wonder.
“I don’t-” I squeaked. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”
Her grin twisted. She flexed her jaw wide, clicking and grinding, limbering up, and tried again.
“Why?” she repeated, in perfectly accented English, as if this seven-foot monster had lived in the North of England her whole life. “Why, little wizard?”
The key in the door interrupted my frantic grasping for an answer. A click, and the door eased open. A face peered inside – Marcus, the fanatic, returned for some private reason.
Zheng didn’t bother to turn and look at him, still staring at me, still grinning like a shark. He glanced at her from behind. He didn’t see the transformation.
My heart, hammering in my chest. He must have seen the fear on my face, but misread the reason.
“Still here? Good. Perhaps we can convince you yet,” Marcus purred as he stepped into the room, carefully shutting the door behind him. He carried an emergency space blanket over one arm, the kind that you might find in a first aid box or survival kit. He stepped past Zheng, favouring me with his plastic smile.
He didn’t see the way she turned her head to fix the grin on him.
“Here, for you. Catch,” he said, and tossed me the blanket.
I caught it awkwardly in my left hand, trying to hide that I had freed my right.
“I don’t want you to die of hypothermia. Malice is not our purpose here, death is not our purpose. You must return to your benefactor, and for that, well, you need to stay warm. I can get you some fresh clothes, too, and … oh, you’ve defeated my handcuffs. Ahhhh. Yes, yes, I think we can indeed convince you to go back of your own accord, can’t we? Zheng, hold her wrists still, please, I must do an experiment.”
Zheng exhaled, warm breath through her shark’s teeth.
Marcus looked over his shoulder. Saw the grin. His eyes went wide.
“Ret-”, he managed. Half a word of Latin, I suspect.
Zheng moved so fast it confused my eyes, her limbs whirring like animated quicksilver. One hand grabbed his head. The other shot forward into his mouth, breaking several teeth. A jerk and a twist, a choking cry of pain from Marcus, and a scrap of wet pink flesh dropped to the floor from the zombie’s fingers.
She’d ripped his tongue out.
“No more chains from you, wizard,” she growled at him.
“Oh my God, oh-” I clamped a hand over my own mouth.
She picked him up by the head, blood streaming from his face. No time to look away, no comprehension of what she was doing. Zheng spun her whole body, one clean arc, and slammed his skull into the concrete wall. Once was all it took. Like a burst melon. The most awful sound.
I must have squeezed my eyes shut – and crammed myself as far back against the wall as I could – because I remember the sounds that followed, not the sights. Zheng’s breathing, huge and rough and urgent. A ripping of fabric, then of meat. A pop, a crack – was that bone? Then a sound like peeling.
Zheng grunted, through a very full mouth.
Shaking, horrified, I opened my eyes to the sight of her eating the dead man’s leg.
She’d ripped his trousers open and had somehow torn his leg off at the knee, then peeled part of the skin away to reveal the bloody muscle beneath. As I watched in abject horror, she crammed another handful of torn flesh into her mouth.
She chewed and swallowed, blood down her face and throat and tshirt and pooling around the man’s shattered skull.
“S’been so long since meat.” She almost purred, like a huge sated tiger.
Then she remembered I was there.
For a split-second I considered throwing myself out of the window. No, I reminded myself – then I would die for certain, whereas Zheng was still a gamble. A gamble with human flesh in her teeth.
No, no, she’d killed Marcus, not me. Stand fast, Heather. Don’t show too much fear. She’d looked at me and asked a question. If she wanted me dead, I would be dead.
None of that mattered when this blood-splattered giant stood up, grinning like a demon from hell, towering over me.
I actually cowered. It’s a very specific sensation. I was caught between trying to make myself as small as possible, and trying to prepare to zap her to another dimension when she got too close.
She dropped the severed leg and stepped toward me, eyes fixed on mine, turning her head one way and then the other, as if not quite sure what to make of me – or waiting for me to scream and mess myself in terror, a response not entirely off the table. The grin split her face, wider and wider. She came close enough to touch, muscles moving under her bloodied tshirt, breasts hanging downward as she loomed overhead.
She slammed both hands into the concrete on either side of my head.
Deep down in my lizard brain, an animal part of me sat up and paid attention – the same part that had paid attention when Raine had first pulled out a nightstick and called it ‘insurance’, the part that had shivered in arousal when I’d watched Raine beat a monster to death, the part I tried so often to ignore, that found violence attractive.
Oh no. Oh no no no no, not this, not this, I told it, not now. This was not Raine. This zombie had just eaten human flesh, right in front of my eyes. She was seven feet tall and terrifying. She was exceptionally dangerous and I had made a terrible miscalculation.
That part of my mind quite liked Zheng.
I told it no. Absolutely not. Not now. Down.
“Why, little wizard?” Zheng purred down at me, eyes wide with savage amusement above her bloody grin. “Why take the risk?”
“What … ” I swallowed, trying not to panic, trying to prepare the brainmath to make her go elsewhere, permanently. “What risk?”