Zheng’s question made perfect sense, both rational and reasonable – why had this trembling scrap of humanity decided to set her free?
My brain, held in a death grip by fight-or-flight response, cowering and cringing beneath a seven-foot tall monster leering over me with a mouthful of bloodstained razor-sharp teeth, squeaked an answer through my closing throat.
“Personal space, please.”
Zheng tilted her face-splitting grin and leaned closer. She sniffed me – fear-sweat, dried blood, and the lingering ash taint of Wonderland.
“Scared?” she purred, as a tiger would.
My head jerked in a nod. “I … I n-need you to straighten up, or … personal space.”
Zheng placed one huge hand on top of my head. “Hmm,” she rumbled.
How did I stay standing? How did I, tiny weak Heather, not collapse to the floor and curl up in a ball?
Because Wonderland had acted as a paradoxical inoculant.
Zheng was terrifying, yes, but her terror was all reassuringly bodily and terrestrial. She moved with the barely-veiled violence of a predatory cat at rest, but like a living being should do, not the awful click-clack ratcheting of the Lozzie-thing. Big – very, very big – and dangerous and scary, but not an affront to my senses or an invasive dismantling of my consciousness.
With every passing second my lizard-brain arousal liked Zheng more and more, and that probably helped too, loathe to admit it though I was. If we’d met under any other circumstances she’d have easily reduced me to a stuttering, blushing mess.
I closed my eyes, felt my fingers twitch, and took my mind to the edge of the equation to send her Outside.
She let go of my head.
“Personal space. Room to breathe. That enough for you, little wizard?” Her voice was like granite wrapped in silk. I opened my eyes and found her still far too close. She’d straightened up and eased back, kept only one hand against the concrete wall.
I took a shuddering breath and felt a sudden deep appreciation for still having all my vulnerable extremities attached.
“Still scared?” Zheng purred.
Somehow, from the God-forsaken black pit in my soul, born of a death-wish or sheer exasperation, or perhaps with fear blotted out by my worry for Raine, I managed to level a capital-L look at Zheng.
She laughed, a low-throated chuckle of real amusement.
“Of course I’m scared,” I managed. “You’re huge.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“And you’re not what I expected.”
“Hmmmm? Expected something more like your little demon? Barely awake, an idiot and half-mute? I’ve been here a long time, you monkeys have rubbed off on me.”
A long time? I almost asked her age. Was that a rude question, when speaking to a demon from Outside?
Still clutching the reflective space-blanket Marcus had thrown me a few minutes ago, trying not to think about the poor man’s cooling corpse several feet away, and also trying to ignore the overwhelming urge to inch away from Zheng, I did my best to see through the crimson gore on her face and read her as a person, as I did with Praem.
Sharp-edged intelligent eyes, a wide and mobile mouth, and that thatch of greasy dark hair sticking out in all directions.
She didn’t make it easy, almost like she was showing off. As I watched, Zheng looked away and unhinged her jaw, working it from side to side as if the muscles were sore from disuse. She swallowed, grunted, and ran her tongue over her bloody teeth – a tongue easily twelve inches long, tapered to a point, a wet red tentacle of muscle.
The tongue retracted back into her mouth, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
“Praem. You mean Praem,” I said. “And she’s not an idiot.”
Zheng’s awful grin widened again. She made a head-tilt radiate more threat than a entire room of professional thugs. “What does it matter what I call your pet demon?”
“Because-” I swallowed. My mouth was so dry. “Because it’s her name. I gave it to her. And she’s not my pet, she’s my friend.”
Zheng made a ‘hmm’ noise that sounded like a tiger turning over in its sleep.
“Don’t … don’t you have a name? Zheng? T-they’ve been calling you-”
“Zheng is a name. And we’re both mangling it.” Her grin faded to sullen boredom. “No ‘zz’. More like ‘jyung’, quicker.”
Her pronunciation sounded vaguely Chinese to my ears, though the amount of spoken Chinese I’d heard in my life amounted to almost nothing. Zheng did look somewhat East Asian, but in a way I couldn’t place. Her skin, light chocolate with a hint of red, gave me few clues. Not Chinese, I’d thought, but then again China is a very big place.
“Then I apologise,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean to say your name wrong. I-”
“Doesn’t matter. Call me whatever you want.” She grinned again. “Could teach you my real name, but I’d have to break your jaw in three places and split your tongue, or you’d mangle that too.”
“Of course,” I sighed, unable to control my exasperation. “Of course your true name would collapse my windpipe or blow out my eardrums or something. Obviously.”
“Smart monkey,” she purred.
“You are a demon, yes? The same as Praem?”
She shrugged, a huge gesture from her. “I’m not from here.”
“Clearly. Zheng, then?” I did my best to say it right.
“Mm. Can you answer me now, wizard? Have I satisfied your little monkey brain that I’m not going to eat you too? Is your heart pumping a few paces slower?”
“ … yes, yes, no,” I almost squeaked. “In that order.”
That extracted another grin from Zheng. She liked it when I shot back, and that gave me a few more scraps of courage to work with, to keep me on my feet, to keep up with her.
“Why free me?” she rumbled. The grin grew across her face once more, toothy and bloody.
I allowed my eyes to flicker toward the door, the now-unlocked door, the key presumably still in Marcus’ pocket. I tried very hard not to look at his ruined corpse on the floor with its burst-melon skull. “Aren’t you worried they might … come back? You … we … ”
Zheng stared at me, grin fixed like the smile on a skull.
“ … no?”
“No, as in you and I are doing this right now, little wizard.” She leaned in close again, slow this time, a snake hypnotising a quivering mouse. I tried very hard not to be that mouse, to keep my spine upright and my knees straight. “You freed me, and we’re in trouble, you and I. Deep in enemy territory, both woefully friendless. I need to know why, so I can choose between picking you up and carrying you out of here, or crushing your skull against the wall behind you.”
A lump in my throat. My limbs turned to water. I couldn’t control the shaking.
“A-alright, I- b-because you were guarding me. And I need to get out of here. That’s why.”
The grin widened. “No, that’s not the real reason,” she purred. “I’ve seen what you do, little wizard. You-”
“Heather,” I squeaked.
“Hmm?” A tilt of the head.
“That’s- that’s my name. Heather. Not ‘little wizard’. I’m not even really a mage.”
Perhaps I was merely buying time for the moment I would brainmath her into oblivion, but I told myself that if she knew my name, she might be less inclined to murder me.
Zheng tilted her head the other way, thoughtful. “Exactly. I’ve seen what you do, watched how you killed the old chief of this pathetic milk-blooded rabble. I’ve been gagged for years, but nobody’s been able to blind me for decades. I remember you, Heather, and I think you could have dumped this body” – she tapped her own chest, bloody fingertips sticky against the crimson-stained tshirt – “anywhere you liked. Exploded my head. Taken my arms and legs off, left me to roll around like a turd. But you didn’t. Why take the risk?”
“I … I don’t know … I-”
Twitch my fingers, get ready to reach out and grab her. All I needed was a second. Oh, this was such a terrible mistake. Why was she demanding an answer to this question? This was more like it, wasn’t it? A classical demon wrapping the summoner in riddles, toying with me like a cat with crippled prey.
“Not good enough,” she purred.
“I freed you to … to free myself!” I blurted. “Because I’m trying to escape, a-and I thought maybe you would want … ”
“Naive, or stupid? Not stupid, no. Naive? Maybe. Why did you free me, little wizard? Dig deep, and speak truth. I can’t defang you, your magic works differently, but I can shatter your brainbox faster than you can touch me with that little hand.”
My eyes went wide. Zheng made her point – she grabbed my wrist just to show me just how unafraid she really was. She held me like a gentle vice, iron-strong but without squeezing.
“The things you were saying to me mere minutes ago, Heather. Those assumptions. I liked those. I liked those very much. Were they lies?”
I could have executed the equation right then, with her skin touching mine; despite all her threats I knew I could unweave the fabric of reality at the speed of thought.
She was bluffing.
Terror peeled back. A seed of doubt sprouted.
The shark-toothed grinning, the lazy intimidation, the riddle-like question she’d accept no rational answer to – was this her survival strategy?
She knew I could obliterate her with a thought, send her Outside and strand her in some alien dimension, even if that’s where she was originally from. So the only way for her to live through the next few minutes, after murdering – perhaps justifiably – one of her former slave-drivers, after giving into her hunger for meat right in front of me, was for her to intentionally trigger all the animal fears in my soft mammal brain, remind me that I was small, keep me guessing, make me think she was totally unafraid – all while skirting the line at which I’d resort to self-defence.
She was trying to forge an understanding. And doing an awful job of it.
“Oh, dammit,” I swore softly, right in her face, shivering all over. “If you’re going to kill me, at least I’m going to die warm.” I huffed and shook off her hand – luckily, she let me go. I would have been rather out of face if she’d decided to hang on. I tugged the space-blanket around my shoulders and pulled it tight, hugging myself against the interior cold.
Zheng did this thing with her eyebrows, a quizzical kink so deep it would have been comical if she wasn’t covered in blood.
“I freed you … ” I started, then made myself meet her eyes and stand up straight. All my body rebelled, but it was either this or murder her. “I freed you instead of getting rid of you, because you were a slave. Nothing that can think for itself should be a slave.”
The grin returned, a wall of teeth. “I’m no djin, no friendly genie,” she rumbled. “Freeing me doesn’t win you infinite wishes.”
I glared at her as best I could, a mouse staring down a tiger, as I wriggled one arm free and pointed at the door. My hand shook. “Then go. Go wherever you want, do whatever you want. I have things to do.”
Zheng shook her head. “No wizard would ever say that to me. I’m the greatest prize this side of the Volga.”
“And I barely even know where that is. I’m serious.” I waggled my finger at the door. “Go. Go on. Leave. I won’t stop you.”
Zheng’s grin faded to nothing. She clacked her teeth together, still shaking her head. Her breathing turned rough and urgent, halfway between confusion and desire. She squinted at me, incredulity and wonder around her eyes.
“I’ve been a slave for a very long time,” she purred. “The leash, sometimes short, sometimes long, often muzzled, but never withdrawn. Until now. Any other wizard would want me.”
“I already told you. I’m not even really a mage.”
Zheng nodded slowly, regarding me with a strange fascination in her eyes. Her silk-and-stone voice dropped to barely a breath, to caress an ancient reverence.
“Shaman, then,” she said.
Shaman; that word meant something important to her. If she’d been human, she would have shivered, her arms covered in goosebumps. I got the shivers instead, and they had nothing to do with how cold it was in that room.
I stared back, eyes wide at the awful, hungry way she looked at me.
“Z-Zheng, I’m not-”
“Prove it,” she grunted. She yanked up the hem of her bloodied tshirt in one fist, to bare her tattoo-covered washboard abdomen and heavy breasts. It was like being flashed by an Olympian Goddess, she was big in every sense of the word. I swear, my eyeballs almost popped out of my face. “Take it all.”
“ … I … uh.” It took an effort of will to close my gaping mouth, to look up at her eyes again. “I … what?”
“The binding. Take it all,” she said between clenched teeth.
“ … your tattoos?” I swallowed and tried to see past Zheng’s impressive physique, tried to ignore the boobs shoved in my face.
The mass of semi-faded, layered tattoos on Zheng’s torso really did cover every square inch of her dusken skin. One could spend hours unravelling and cataloguing even a single hand-span. I saw Chinese or Japanese in there, and stranger writing-systems which while not alien, were so foreign in time as to be utterly unknown today. My parents had taken me to museums when I was younger – Maisie and I, when we were little girls – and the artwork on Zheng’s flesh reminded me dimly of the relics of a lost antiquity, seen under the harsh electric lights of the modern age, robbed of all their context and culture.
Zheng was a work of art in more than one sense.
I shook my head, lost for words. “It’s beautiful, I-I can’t destroy -”
She leaned in close, fast enough to make me flinch. “It is a chain,” she growled. “You freed me, shaman. Either you want me free or not, or was that talk about slavery so much flapping meat?”
I focused on the tattoos again. Wet my lips. Trying to think. I’d been right about Zheng, despite everything. Despite the gruesome cannibalism and the ugly threats, I’d been right. ‘Zombie’ was a fancy mage word for slave. How could I blame her for asking this?
“Zheng, Zheng I can’t.” I raised a hand to stall her snap-toothed rebuke. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m freezing cold. I’m dehydrated, I’ve been through an ordeal, and if I push myself too far, I could pass out and die.”
“I will catch you,” she purred, softly. “I will look after you. I know this place, this tower. They have rooms up here, their usual mess, but there’s a heater, emergency supplies. Food. And you won’t get out of this building intact, little monkey, not without help. Not past the corruption downstairs.”
I cast about for some way to explain myself. “But we need to get out of here first, we-”
“No.” She edged even closer, almost pressing herself to me. “Not later. Now. You remove this, all of this, because as long as this remains I can be re-bound with the right spells, the chains laid again, and I cannot trust you or yours yet, little shaman. I want to believe you, but I would sooner take my chances crushing your skull and slipping into obscurity. I will live under rocks and eat rat-meat, naked and free, rather than risk it again.” She bared her teeth. “Finish cutting my chains.”
“I can’t!” I shouted back in her face. Couldn’t believe myself, not courageous but desperate. “I have to rescue my friend – my lover. You heard what they were saying, the- the- them! The Eye cultists! She might be here right now, and they’re going to hurt her. I have to help her now, not in an hour after I pass out.” A spark of thought snagged in the back of my mind. “And Lozzie too, don’t you remember her? She liked you, she said you were her friend. She might be here too.”
“Lozzie … ” Zheng rocked back, blinking, dropping the hem of her tshirt as a strange confusion came over her features. She looked away, at nothing. “Lauren, little Lauren. Yes … I … I dreamed of her. I was free in my dreams.” Zheng’s attention whipped back to me. “Is she here too?”
“I don’t know!”
“Then trust me, damn you, you hooting ape. Unchain me and I will find her, and your lover too. I will kill in your name. We’ll have a deal, I’ll be yours, in the old way, not in this false flesh.” She grabbed a handful of her own skin.
I ran my eyes over her imposing frame, over the tattoos beneath her flimsy tshirt, over her muscles and what she represented.
I couldn’t find Raine by myself. Zheng was our best chance.
“Alright, okay. What is the minimum amount I can remove to make it safe? Safe for you, I mean?”
Zheng bared her teeth in a growl, a sound to make the bowels quake and the knees weak. She yanked up her tshirt again, craning her neck to look down at herself – then she exploded with frustration. She shrugged her trench coat from her shoulders, dumped it on the floor, and then ripped the tshirt off over her head in the most impressive act of disrobing I’d ever seen.
I’d like to say I found nothing sexual about Zheng’s nudity in that moment, but that would be a lie.
Stripped from the waist-up, she twisted and turned and lifted her arms to examine her skin, flexing the chords of toned muscle beneath. Quite a sight.
“Here, this spiral here,” she circled a portion of her belly with a fingertip, then traced upward and across. “To here, under my armpit, and here, below, that needs to go too. The shoulder blade, this stuff, and this, and these.”
I stared at her, trying to follow all the twists and turns she mapped out across her own flesh.
“This one as well, this is the root, this has to come out. And-”
“Wait, wait, stop,” I held up a hand. “Slow down, I need to … I’m going to have to do this in one go. I need a mental picture. Turn around again, let me start from behind.”
Zheng grunted her acquiescence and twisted to show me her back. The part I hadn’t said out loud was that her back was easier on my libido, less distracting. My eyes traced the patterns she’d indicated, and my hand wandered up, throat dry with anticipation. Could I really do this? It would be far more complex than selecting only the ink under my hand.
Gingerly, I touched Zheng’s muscled back, and began to nod as I linked the various structures together in my mind. Her skin felt hot, as if her body temperature ran several degrees above human.
“Alright. Turn back around. Show me again, slower, and trace some connections too. I don’t think I can do multiple places at once unless they’re part of the same … pattern. Object. Thing.”
Zheng nodded. She turned around and I tried not to marvel at her breasts. “Here, this spiral is the root,” she pointed. “And here, and here, then up here. And here, then here. That is the minimum. After that, any wizard wants to bind me, they’ll have to find a way to pin me down and write their name on my flesh. Can do you this for me, little shaman?”
Already half-rummaging through the necessary equation in the black abyss of my mind, I nodded, distracted by the technical questions of the task. “I think … I … how do I know you’ll really help me afterward? That you won’t just leave?”
“You don’t. I’m a demon.” She grinned. Combined with her top-half nudity, the effect was a little too heady for me. “You have to trust me, monkey.”
I made myself frown at her, made myself look like what she thought I was. This wasn’t my life on the line – who cared about me, what happened to me? At least if I died of exposure in this concrete room, I’d never see the Eye again. This was about Raine, this was about my friends.
Zheng’s grin died. I’d made my point.
“You’re Lozzie’s friend,” she purred. “You killed my former master, and freed me. I owe you, in the old way, the real way. Finish freeing me, and I’ll repay the debt.”
A tiny and intensely rational part of my mind screamed that Zheng was a demon, an Outsider walking around in an ancient corpse, that her expressions and words were mere imitations of human communication. She’d follow her own unfathomable ends as soon as she’d gotten what she wanted. Perhaps she was lying to me, perhaps every part of this was a trick toward some incomprehensible end. She was alien. She wasn’t supposed to be here.
Praem was a demon. I trusted Praem, I stuck up for her, and she’d come through for me.
Before I could second-guess myself, I pressed my hand against Zheng’s abdomen, just above the waistline of her jeans, and stared at her tattoos.
“Should I do anything?” she rumbled.
“Stay still,” I hissed. “And quiet. And … and if I go, catch me before my head hits the concrete.”
Hyperdimensional mathematics with my eyes wide open, trying to describe the delicate tracery of Zheng’s tattoos in mathematical terminology, to excise specific chunks of ink, was infinitely more difficult than I’d imagined. To remove what lay under the shape of my own palm was one thing, but the math required here made my eyeballs ache and an ice-pick headache tingle at the back of my skull before I’d even begun.
I needed a better way to define Zheng’s chains.
I closed my eyes. Chains, bindings, ropes around her soul – that’s what I was really removing. The ink needled under her skin was only outward representation. I dug with my mind, tried to define and see Zheng in mathematical representation, the same way I had done during my ill-fated attempt to track the Lozzie-thing in Kimberly’s flat.
The ink itself, old and faded, in a hundred languages; Zheng’s skin, hot and supple; thick muscle and iron bone, cords of sinew and tendon, appropriated from her vessel and adjusted in a million-million inhuman ways too deeply biological for me to understand, filled with new structures and cells and impossible additions.
Deeper, much deeper, past matter and blood, I found Zheng.
A writhing shard of starlight, in chains.
The whole picture, every layer described in hyperdimensional mathematics, held still in my mind. In that final instant before execution I felt hot crimson dripping from my nose and across my lips.
I really needed to start taking iron supplements.
“You’re ble-” Zheng said.
Warm temptation lulled me back to the edge of sleep, but I found only shark-toothed grins and terrifying giants waiting there.
I struggled up through layers of unconsciousness and jerked awake, gasping for air and scrubbing at my own eyes.
“Welcome back to meat-world,” Zheng’s voice greeted me.
“Where-” I croaked, pulling myself into a sitting position as my feet found the floor. I’d been curled up in a low chair of some kind, wrapped and warm, loose canvas cradling my weight – a beach chair? A jumble of shapes and colours faded back into focus through my blurry vision. More plain concrete walls, but not the same room as before. “I don’t rememb- … I need water.”
A shape detached itself from the corner, rising and unfolding, and Zheng walked over to me. Rough but gentle hands took mine and pressed an open bottle of water into my weak, shaking grip. I didn’t care if it was stale, drugged, or actually a bottle of lighter fluid, I put it to my lips and drank like my life depended on it. Which, to be honest, it probably did.
Coughing, spluttering, my vision returning, I looked up – and up, and up – and met Zheng’s eyes. Blue. She’d washed the blood off her face while I’d been out.
“I feel like death,” I groaned.
“You’ll live,” she purred. “Seen plenty of you monkeys die, and you’re not there yet.”
Zheng looked like a wheat field after a UFO visit – her tattoos were covered in crop circles. She’d donned her blood-stained tshirt again and draped the trench coat back over her shoulders, but that couldn’t conceal the transformation I’d wrought on her body-art. Wide circles of blank untouched flesh now punctuated the black mass of ink, each circle connected by at least one clear line of unblemished skin.
Whatever I’d achieved with brainmath at the end there, it had erased almost all the spirals from Zheng’s tattoos.
She grinned, the same unnerving shark-toothed grin as before. “Thank you, little shaman.”
“You’re welcome, I think?” What on earth does one say to a newly liberated giant zombie animated by a spirit from outside reality? I cast about the room instead, squinting through a real monster of a headache and trying to figure out where I was now. “Sick of passing out and waking up in other places,” I muttered.
I tipped a little of the bottled water into my cupped hand and splashed it on my face, rubbing the corners of my eyes, before I downed the rest to wash the taste of blood and bile out of my mouth.
Zheng had wrapped me in a pair of filthy blankets, apparently warm enough to stop me from freezing. A hissing gas-powered space heater poured warmth into the concrete room, rubber hose plugged into a free-standing cannister, like some sprawling industrial spider dredged up from a nightmare of the 1970s. Well done, Zheng.
“Where … ” I gestured vaguely.
“One of their lairs,” Zheng purred. “Top floor. You passed out, easy to carry though. You weigh nothing, shaman. Need to eat more protein.”
One of the cult’s lairs – the Eye Cult now, I suppose – and it looked the part as well. Another stripped concrete flat in Glasswick tower, whether the same unit or a nearby one I couldn’t tell. Once a sitting room, perhaps. Light entered through two filthy windows in the longest wall.
The room was full of supplies and equipment: a first-aid box, a plastic tote full of bottled water and cereal bars, a couple of crowbars against a wall, binoculars on one windowsill, rolls of tarpaulin, a tin of paint, and a dozen other innocuous everyday items, though I did wonder at the expensive fishing rod propped up in a corner. A magic circle had been inscribed onto the floor at the far end of the space, in black paint, surrounded by a few odds and ends – a bundle of feathers, a small knife, a single leather glove. An empty glass bottle stood in the middle of the circle. Whatever magic had been performed there, it wasn’t active anymore.
Another two beach chairs stood near the one Zheng had placed me in. Along with the space-heater and a small stack of paperback books, they gave the distinct impression of a sort of watchtower or guard room.
Zheng had caught one of the guards.
A thin young man with a face like a seagull, wearing jeans and a zipped-up athletic hoodie, had been roped to the room’s radiator much like I had, but with far more medieval sadism. A rope ran from each of his wrists to loop down under his groin, then up around his neck from behind, then to the radiator pipe and up to an old rusted curtain rail. The arrangement forced him to stand on tiptoes if he wanted to keep breathing. A dark blotch of urine had stained the front of his trousers. Terrified eyes met mine.
“Help me,” he whined, tears on his cheeks. Appealing to a fellow human being. “Please!”
“ … are you one of them?”
He stared, half-shaking his head, not understanding my question.
“He is. I remember him well enough,” Zheng grunted. “Jacob something. Unimportant.”
“She- she’s going to eat me!” Jacob pleaded.
“Will you?” I asked Zheng.
“Be a waste if I didn’t.” She shrugged, and turned a nasty grin on the bound man. “Still full after the first course, but I’ve got room.”
Jacob closed his eyes in mortal resignation, trying not to weep. I looked away, didn’t have the bandwidth for this right now. I was painfully aware I’d made an unspoken pact with something cruel and violent, which liked me for reasons I didn’t entirely understand yet.
My eyes alighted on a bundle of discarded clothes and a coat on the floor nearby, wrapped around strangely curved and spiked pieces of polished wood, lying as if dragged there. I blinked, couldn’t quite make the connection, a sick feeling in my stomach.
“You want the bad news or the good news first?” Zheng rumbled.
“What?” I blinked up at her, my jumbled thoughts all lining up suddenly. “Raine! Did you find-”
Zheng shook her head. “Bad news. She’s not here. Neither’s little Lozzie.”
A wrenching emptiness settled in my chest. “What? No, they said … ”
“Top two floors.” Zheng squatted down in front of me, lowering her incredible height so I didn’t have to crane my neck. She looked almost apologetic. “Been right down to the line where the corruption starts, but no further. I don’t have safe passage through that anymore. You’ve seen that place?”
I nodded urgently. “I-I know what you mean.”
“Good news: he was the only thing here,” she nodded toward the bound man. “Sarika and her sad hound must have left, gone downstairs, gone home. Doubt they’d keep any prizes below the line, besides the dead master’s corpse itself.”
“No, no they must have her somewhere else, you … you know all their safe houses, all the places they use, don’t you? You know where she might be? You know how they think, you-”
Zheng pulled a shrug with her face. “Less than I know you, shaman. Furniture doesn’t get the need-to-know.”
“You mean you don’t know anywhere they might be?” I started to shove the filthy blankets off me, wanted to stand up, felt so drained and weak, but had to do something. Had to find Raine, get back to Evelyn, call Twil. Something, anything.
“Not doors I’d knock on without knowing what’s behind them,” she rumbled. “But yes, three ‘safe houses’ I can think of, maybe, perhaps, if we’re very lucky.”
“Where? Zheng, tell me, where?”
The grin crested her features again. “Why don’t we find out for certain?”
“ … what?”
She stood up without explaining herself, and met the eyes of the terrified man tied to the radiator.
“No, please!” Jacob blurted out before either of us asked him anything. “I don’t know anything! I don’t know- I don’t- I don’t- I-”
His pleading dissolved into babbling as Zheng did what I suspect she’d first been designed for. The grin spread on her face as she opened her jaw, wider and wider, taking each step toward him with slow purpose. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth, inch after obscene inch, fat and thick and wet, extending far below her chin. The man cringed, closing his eyes and trying to press himself back from her without choking himself on the rope around his neck.
“Zheng!” I snapped. The tongue whipped back into her mouth, and she turned to regard me, oddly neutral. I had the sudden and unmistakable feeling of getting between a dog and its food. “What are you doing?”
“You want to know where your lover is?” she asked.
“Yes, of course I do, but … don’t … ”
“Do you have a better suggestion?” She took the final step toward the terrified man, and grasped his chin in one huge meaty fist, ignoring me once more. “First I will take one of your eyes,” she hissed. “Then a hand. Which do you use to wipe your arse, worm?”
Zheng only did her thing for a few seconds, but it made my stomach turn and my blood run cold. She slid up close to the shaking, cowering cultist, her hot breath in his face, hissing something between her teeth about how he had to open his eyes, an obscenity I will not repeat here because I don’t wish to think about it ever again. Her teeth in his face, her frame radiating animal threat and lust and hunger all at once – she was going to eat him. She wanted to eat him, every cell in her body screamed it out loud. He was crying, panting, babbling denials, when her tongue extended again, a rough tentacle crawling up the side of his face, daring him to close his eyelids.
“Actually,” I managed to say out loud. “Yes.”
She stopped. The tongue whipped back into her head again. She didn’t look at me. “Yes?”
“Yes, I have a better suggestion,” I said. My voice shook, but I got the words out. Zheng tilted her head one way, then the other, a low hiss of frustration in her throat. “I’m not- I’m not telling you what to do, but I’m going to politely request that you not eat parts of that man. Please.”
Zheng sighed, shrugged, and let him go.
The cultist – Jacob – looked at me like I was an angel. I glared back. “I’m not saving you from her,” I said, only half a lie. “I’ve got an ultimatum.”
“Anything, anything- I- they just pay me!” he said. “I’m hired to watch the room, I-”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“But it doesn’t matter,” I continued. “I assume you’re not a mage, at least, or Zheng would have pulled your head off by now.”
“Mmhmm,” the zombie grunted.
“Well, believe it or not, I’m worse than her. I can do a lot worse than kill you or torture you.” I managed to get to my feet, hugging one of the blankets around my shoulders. I felt wobbly and ill, a hollow pain inside my chest, bones fragile as fine porcelain. “Do you know who I am? Tell me the truth, or I’ll … I’ll … or Zheng will eat one of your eyeballs.”
Had to swallow, to keep the bile down.
He glanced at Zheng, then back at me, feet adjusting to keep the rope from closing his windpipe, and nodded once.
“Then you know what I can do,” I said. “I will send you to meet your new God, the Eye, whatever you people call it now. I will send you there, and you will not come back, unless you tell me what I want to know.”
A horrible realisation dawned on his face. Zheng had terrified him, but the prospect of meeting his God sent claws of soul-horror raking across his beaten mind. His face went grey and his jaw went slack.
“I don’t-” he choked out.
“Don’t is not the word I want to hear,” I managed. Deep down in the back of my mind I felt like a monster, like something hatching from a misshapen shell, but I would do anything to find Raine.
“I don’t know!” he almost screamed. “I don’t know where they took the other girl, I swear! I swear, oh God, please no, no, I swear, I-”
“You must know, or you’re going to meet your God.”
His eyes darted back and forth, sweat on his brow, shaking all over.
Then he tried to kill himself.
He did a little hop on one foot and kicked his own legs out from under him; the rope snapped taught with his weight, and almost snapped his neck. Luckily for all of us, Zheng had seen this coming. She moved like greased lightning, and hit about as hard, grabbing the ropes that ran from the cultist’s wrists and under his groin in the split-second before his entire body weight slammed through his spine.
Instead of breaking his neck he jerked and writhed, choking for air, squealing like a stuck pig. Zheng reached up and unhooked the top rope from the curtain rail, and poor Jacob crashed to the floor in a sobbing, retching heap.
I stared, numb, lost for a moment, trying and failing to convince myself he had deserved that. My threat had made a man want to die.
“So eager to leave this mortal coil, monkey?” Zheng rumbled down at him, grabbing a handful of his hair. “At least let me do it for you.”
“Alright,” I snapped out, before Zheng could pick him up and eat his fingers. “Alright, I believe you, you don’t know where Raine is.”
The cultist nodded, clutching at his bruised throat, trying to squeeze himself away from Zheng. His eyes found me like a drowning man clutching for a piece of driftwood.
“But you’re going to tell me every place your cult has, every place she might be. Addresses, details, any-”
He didn’t take much convincing. I suspect he was broken long before Zheng tied him to that curtain rail. As he babbled out a trio of targets – a place on the riverfront, an old pub out west I’d never heard of, a suburban address he swore was Sarika’s – he broke down slowly, all energy fleeing his body until Zheng finally let go of his hair and he curled up on himself like a wounded insect. He slowed, words deadened, eyes drained of vitality.
“That’s all? Just those three places?”
He nodded. “Those are the only- only ones I know. I know they took another girl, I don’t know who, I never saw. If I had, I would … I … I-I never agreed with … with … ”
He trailed off at the look on my face. “Whatever you have to tell yourself,” I said quietly. “You’re not worth killing.”
“She’s not going to kill you,” Zheng corrected me. The man flinched, but that was all. The horror of the Eye had drained the life from him. He’d given up. Zheng tutted, unimpressed with the lack of reaction.
“What about Praem? Where is she?” I asked.
Tink. A clink of metal on glass, a fragment of gravel on a window, too faint to notice beyond the subconscious.
“Who? What?” The cultist blinked at me.
“The zombie. Who came here last night? Sarika told me you people captured her too, unless that was another bluff. She’s my friend, where is she?”
Blink blink. Incomprehension. “Last night? Oh, you- you mean that.”
He nodded past me at the floor, and for a moment I thought he was being funny or we’d pushed him so far he’d lost his mind. He was nodding at the bundle of clothes and polished wood.
A sick pressure mounted in my chest. I took a shaking step toward what resolved itself as a splayed figure, wrapped in a pair of ugly cargo trousers and a big puffy coat. The boots. I recognised the boots, I’d seen them so many times before. Another step and I fell to my knees, shaking my head. Reached out with one hand, but stopped, confused. To touch would be only further desecration.
“Shaman?” Zheng purred.
“It’s her,” I managed.
A wooden mannequin, ball-jointed, of the kind only found in the most expensive and exclusive boutiques or the workshops of fashion designers. Evelyn had spared no expense in making Praem, but the wood had been warped by the effects of Praem’s inhabitation. Little spars and anchor-spikes jutted from the limbs, threads like a nervous system or frozen blood vessels lay just below the surface, and many of the joints had been added to with sheaths of wooden sinew or strange adjustments to their ranges of motion. The head was a blank oval, the wood grain twisted in impossible ways.
I shouldn’t be seeing this. It was like looking at a friend’s bones.
“Praem?” I whispered.
Only in the silence of impending grief did I hear the little clink of metal on glass. I cast about with sudden wild hope. “Praem? Pra-”
Clink. Clink clink.
“Ahhh,” Zheng purred, and pointed at the magic circle, at the empty bottle standing within. “Found her.”
Careless of the danger, stupid and rash, I scrambled over to the magic circle on freezing feet and scooped the bottle up in shaking hands. A cork filled the neck, trapping a piece of fishing line so it dangled down inside the glass enclosure. A bead of lead, like a fishing weight, hung at the end of the line.
Inside the glass, I could see the faintest suggestion of a rainbow discolouration shifting and curling, like oil on water transmuted into the slimmest wisp of smoke.
“It’s-” Jacob spoke up. I stared at him with too much anger and steel, made him flinch and cringe; right then I wanted to murder him. I wanted to get my hands on the person responsible for this and slap them.
“This is an obscenity,” I hissed at him.
Zheng snorted mean-spirited laughter. “Got herself corked.”
I whirled on her and, without meaning to, vented cold anger at the target she’d presented. “Don’t you dare laugh. You were like this, an hour ago! You were as good as in a bottle!”
She blinked once, and lowered her head to me in acknowledgement.
“It- it’s one tap for yes, two for no,” Jacob stammered out, nodding at the bottle. I turned back to it, shaking my head in denial.
“Praem?” I whispered.
The piece of lead jumped, as if caught in a breeze, and clinked against the side of the bottle.