“It’s alright, Praem, I’ve … I’ve got you. It’s going to be alright, you’ll be alright.”
Meaningless reassurances, spoken to a near invisible wisp of oily-rainbow smoke trapped inside a glass bottle.
Tink, went Praem’s lead weight against the glass. One for yes.
One for yes Heather, I trust you, you’ll save me, you’ll get me out of here, won’t you? One for I’m helpless and tiny and vulnerable, my strength stolen and my flesh banished. One for please, don’t leave me here.
A veil of red descended inside me, along with a shaking that had nothing to do with the cold, my jaw tight and my breath coming fast and hot. I turned to the cultist – Jacob, still hunched on the floor with his hands bound.
“How do I put my friend back in her body?” I hissed through clenched teeth.
“I don’t know, I’m not trained. It’s not my … ” He trailed off when he saw the anger boiling behind my eyes. If the bottle in my hands hadn’t contained Praem’s soul, I would have smashed it across his head. I bit my lips and swallowed too hard, struggling to find an outlet for this awful rage.
I felt rather than saw Zheng’s grin, the shark-toothed smile in my peripheral vision.
She reached down and took the end of Jacob’s rope, dragged the cultist to his feet, and pulled him close. One of her hands encircled the top of his head to hold him immobile.
“Looks like the shaman is angry,” she hissed in the man’s ear. “Dangerous when she’s angry, a large bite for such a small jaw.”
Her huge tongue slid out of her mouth in silent threat, a wet pink tentacle that made my heart squeeze. Jacob cringed away, his eyes pleading with me for relief.
“And you can stop with the theatrics,” I snapped, too angry too care about Zheng’s sadistic needs. The tongue whipped back inside her mouth and slowly she turned to regard me. I ignored her, thrusting Praem’s bottle at the cultist. “Did you have anything – anything at all – to do with this … this violation? Did you?”
A tiny part of my mind, trying to calculate and analyse even now, noted that the lead weight inside didn’t swing as I moved the bottle. External force was cancelled out, only Praem’s spirit could affect the line and the attached weight.
“No! No, I don’t know how to!” He pleaded. “Really, I can’t- it was-”
“Did he?” I asked the bottle – asked Praem.
Clink-click. Two for no.
“Lucky you,” Zheng growled into his face and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“Praem, can you … I’ll get you out, I promise. I promise,” I told the bottle.
Tink, the little lead weight jumped. The oil-on-smoke wisp curled about itself, impossible false colours shifting and turning, glowing faint as a daylight moon.
“Can you … you can hear me, yes? You can hear everything I say to you?”
“What about other people, you can hear them? Things happening beyond the … the bottle?”
“Can you see?” I waved a hand in front of the glass.
No response. The lead weight didn’t move.
“When they were up, they were up,” Zheng growled in a slow, sing-song voice. “And when they were down, they were down. And when they were only halfway up they were neither up nor down.”
I boggled at her.
“Halfway up.” She pointed a finger at the bottle. “Meat-senses aren’t the same.”
“Yes, thank you so much for the metaphor. Do you know how to put Praem back in her body?”
Zheng shrugged, a performance of disinterest.
“T-there should be-” Jacob started. “There should be a way, to get it out, I mean. Marcus was saying things like- uh- telling her she’d be free if she answered- h-he was asking her questions about you- t-the Saye girl, all sorts. Really, real talk, he was interrogating her, offering her a way out. H-he would know, Marcus would know. It’s him you want.”
Zheng let out a growl of laughter.
“Marcus put her in this bottle?” I asked, and he nodded. “Praem?” I asked her.
And Marcus had died a violent and painful death. Why didn’t that make me feel any better?
Because Praem was still trapped in the bottle.
I swore, worse than I’d ever swore before, a short train of vile words borrowed mostly from Evelyn, culminating in a choice scatological paradox. In a way I was glad only the demons were here to witness that.
“I … I know where he lives,” Jacob hurried on. “I think. Or Sarika might. If you make him show you how-”
“He’s dead,” I said.
“ … o-oh.”
“I ate him,” Zheng purred, a nasty grin spreading across her mouth.
“I-I … I don’t- here!” Jacob blurted out. “You should call Sarika! Take my mobile, it’s in my back pocket, her number is on there. She and Marcus, they both know how to do things like that.”
Zheng hitched an eyebrow, turned our captive around with a shove, and extracted a mobile phone from the back pocket of his jeans. He babbled something inane about how we could keep it.
“Thank you, Zheng.” I held out one hand – but Zheng held onto the phone. She watched my eyes with the slow judgement of a predatory reptile. At any other time that look would have reduced me to pudding, but my indignant rage ran too deep and too hot right now to be quenched by even a seven-foot tall Amazonian goddess. “ … what now?” I snapped.
“You need allies, yes, but this one comes at a high cost,” she purred. Her eyes indicated the bottle in my arms.
I squinted at her like she was an idiot. “Praem is my friend, not an ‘ally’. You can eat me before I’d leave her behind. Really. Kill me then.”
Zheng growled, exasperated or unimpressed or merely thinking, it was hard to tell. “What can she do that I can’t?”
Clink-clink. Tink, went the lead weight inside Praem’s bottle. Tink-tink. Practically a tantrum.
“We absolutely do not have time for a- a- demonic territorial pissing contest,” I said. “Please, Zheng, give me the phone.”
“Time, exactly,” Zheng growled. “You make this phone call, and Sarika – I shit on her name – will move against you. She’s sharper than her predecessor. Less mad.”
“ … and?”
“Do you have a plan, little shaman?”
I shook my head, bewildered. “For what? Talking to Sarika?”
Zheng shrugged, sullen and watchful.
I opened my mouth to say no, of course I didn’t have a bloody plan. To tell the giant zombie that a plan didn’t matter. Hot anger and inner cold and intense worry ate at my mind. I had to get Praem back into her body, or out of here; I had to find Raine, get home and make sure my friends were safe. A plan? Sod plans! I was ready to scream threats down the phone at Sarika until she gave me what I wanted. The only answer was act.
Zheng hadn’t been allowed to make plans of her own for a very long time indeed. A slave, always forced into other people’s designs. Watching monsters like Alexander Lilburne stumble and crash, good intentions leading to hell and worse. All her former masters were dead. Now she was free, she could choose to have none.
She was also correct: I was exhausted, worn out, and now blind with anger.
Her approval was a tightrope.
“All right,” I said – and left.
I left Zheng and the sad, defeated cultist together by the radiator, the last thing either of them expected me to do.
Cradling Praem’s bottle gently in my arms, I padded back over to the beach chairs and settled the bottle in one of them, so it couldn’t be knocked over by accident. I had no idea what smashing the glass or popping the cork might do, and I didn’t want to take that risk yet. I regained the filthy but warm blankets, pulled them around my shoulders, and shuffled over to the tote box full of bottled water and emergency cereal bars.
Not the most appetising, but I took two, and another bottle of water to wash it all down. Then I got myself settled in a chair, folded my legs to keep my feet warm, and commenced eating.
Zheng levelled a slow stare at me. Jacob seemed confused too, slack-jawed.
“What?” I said after a swallow, and held up one of the cereal bars. “Peanut and chocolate, not bad but not terrible. Would you like one?”
“What are you doing, shaman?” Zheng purred.
“Getting more protein, like you suggested. One can’t make a good plan on an empty stomach.”
Zheng snorted a laugh. “Monkeys.”
“This monkey needs to eat.” I drank some water to drown the embers of my indignant rage. It sort of worked. Sitting still and going through the mechanical process of putting food in my mouth did drain away the hottest thoughts, give me a moment to pause and think, begin to scrape together the scraps of the plan Zheng demanded.
I was in charge here, I was in control, this was my responsibility. At least that’s what I told myself to stop anger decaying into panic.
Zheng dropped Jacob’s rope, and in lieu of tying him back to the curtain rail, she gave him a horrible silent grin instead, one that left no question as to what would happen if he dared try to escape. Even all the way on the other side of the room, I flinched as well, and the cultist cowered against the wall, curling up tighter.
Zheng grabbed a cereal bar from the box. With a dubious look on her face she peeled the wrapper, gave it an experimental sniff, and wrinkled her nose.
“Not to your taste?” I asked.
“No,” she growled. She did pour a bottle of water down her throat, though not before crushing the cap with a twist of her hand.
“Don’t suppose you have any painkillers up here? Paracetamol, anything at all?”
Jacob took a moment to realise I was speaking to him. He blinked several times and tentatively shook his head. I tutted and sighed. No longer cushioned by either sleep or anger, a splitting headache was brewing inside my skull, the product of dehydration or brainmath or stress, who knew? I settled for drinking more water. Zheng wiped her mouth and squatted down on her haunches to watch me – which almost rendered me unable to eat. Like being observed by a hungry six-hundred pound tiger.
“Before I freed you,” I said to her. “You said you’d ‘be mine’, in the ‘old way’. What does that mean?”
I’d expected a grin and a glib comment, perhaps a laugh. Instead, Zheng shrugged, and a subtle discomfort crossed her features, a twitch or a tic akin to a suppressed wince at the pain from an old wound. “Means I’m still here.”
I nodded, let it drop. “Fair enough. Thank you.”
“So what about you, do you have a plan?” I repeated her own question. “To get downstairs, past the ‘corruption’, as you called it?”
Zheng looked over at the lead-grey sky visible through the dirty glass in the room’s windows. Sharrowford lay below, hidden by the wall. “Jump out the window?”
Clink-clink, Praem disagreed.
“Right, I’ll take that as a no then.” I sighed, took a deep breath, and drew myself up. “But you know more about that than I do. You work on that part, getting us downstairs.” Zheng raised an eyebrow. My turn to shrug. “I can’t do everything on my own now, can I?”
“Mmhmm,” she grunted agreement, and her brow furrowed in thought.
“I have three problems,” I continued, letting it all flow out, the real plan assembling itself at high-speed in the back of my head. “One, getting out of here. Two, putting Praem back in her body. Three, finding Raine – my lover – and possibly Lozzie too, though the more I think about it the more I doubt she’s anywhere near right now. One is your job. Two and three, well, I need to get home, find Evee, the others, but while we’re here we have two options. Option one, we could force him,” I nodded toward Jacob, “to call Sarika for us, lure her back here, but he could spoil the whole thing with a single word.”
“If he wants his heart eaten.”
“Or,” I corrected her gently. “They might have a code phrase to use in emergencies, which means we wouldn’t even know.”
“I’m going to go with option two, which is more work and quite difficult, but may yield better results.”
“A series of threats and lies.” I held out my hand for the phone again, and to my surprise it wasn’t shaking. “Don’t say a word while I call. Don’t let them know you’re free. That could be useful later.”
Zheng grinned in approval. She handed me the phone, and I did a pretty successful job of concealing my anxiety. I felt almost like Raine, competent and clever and quick, decisive and devious and – well, no, not dashing. In my best moments I can almost manage cute, at the right angle and in the wrong light, but I will never be dashing. I hoped she would be proud of me, proud of this plan, proud of how strong I was trying to be. I hoped with all my heart I’d get to tell her about this.
Sarika’s number wasn’t hard to find among the two-dozen Jacob had in his contacts list. He stayed silent and Zheng stayed squatting before me, as I placed the call.
Sarika picked up on the third ring.
“What is it?”
That same voice, thin and tight with bone-deep exhaustion.
“He’s alive,” I answered. “For now.”
A long pause, stretching out the seconds. I think she was trying to spook me, get me to break first and offer information by accident, but I harnessed my cold anger and my cold toes, lost myself in the numb sensations inside my body.
Eventually, Sarika let out a big sigh down the phone. “Got free in the end, did you?”
“I’m going to find you. If you touch one hair on Raine’s head, I’ll do far worse than kill you.”
“Raine? That’s her name? She wouldn’t tell me that. Thank you for that one, makes my job easier.”
I mock-hesitated as I shot Zheng a tiny, wavering smile of triumph. Sarika had taken my bait. They did have Raine, no question about that now. They knew of Evelyn, Kimberly had once been one of them, and they’d never be able to hold Twil – but Raine? She’d give them nothing, not even her name.
“Let me speak to her.” I didn’t have to work hard to make myself sound nervous.
“Or what? You don’t have any leverage.”
“My leverage is that when I find you, I’ll only kill you, instead of sending you to the Eye. The best thing you can do right now is let my friend go. Drive her back to the house and let her go, and then there’s a small chance that you can get out of Sharrowford before I and Saye find you. Twil – that’s the Brinkwood werewolf to you – I know she’ll be after you already, and I doubt you want her to catch you.”
I heard Sarika cover the mouthpiece on her end, muffle a question beyond earshot. She came back to the phone and spoke quickly.
“How’d you get past Zheng?”
“Sent her Outside. If she’s not dead she will be soon. Marcus too.”
“Fuck you,” Sarika snarled. Zheng grinned like a skull, laughing through silent teeth. “God fucking damn you, Morell. You don’t understand anything. You think I put that monster up there to just threaten you, is that it?”
This time I didn’t have to fake the hesitation. I glanced at Zheng, and wondered what that grin really meant.
“What … what do you mean?” I said.
“You think Zheng’s going to stay outside, with Lauren Lilburne running about? She’ll be back here within hours, and that girl will be holding the leash. Trying to! Do you understand what that fucking means? Do you know what that thing is or what it’s capable of? Of course you don’t. Alexander could barely control Zheng, his little sister certainly can’t. That thing gets free, you and I are the least of each others problems in this city.”
Zheng winked at me. I stared back and shivered, and not in the good way.
“You’re bluffing.” I held my voice tight and steady. “You wouldn’t- wouldn’t put Zheng in a room with me and not expect me to get rid of her.”
“I expected you knew better than that. That was the whole point! She was mutually assured destruction!”
“I’m not a mage.”
“Evidently,” Sarika spat. “Thank you for the heads-up. Fuck this.”
The plan was running through my fingers. Had to think on my feet, think past the headache and the fear and the suspicion about Zheng. What would Raine say? A bombastic threat, probably. What would Evelyn do? Get angry and call these people filth. What would I do? What should I do?
Lie. I was good at lying. I’d lied to myself for ten whole years.
“Let my friend go,” I all but stammered. “And I’ll bring Zheng back from Outside and deliver her to you.”
A thinking silence, stinging sharp. Zheng’s grin twisted with sadistic mirth. She mouthed a phrase at me, one that contained the words ‘eat’ ‘skin’ and Sarika’s name. I nodded.
Sarika finally spoke again. “You’d have to provide first. Get us the zombie, then I’ll think about letting your friend go. But what happens after that?”
“We go our separate ways.”
“You know I can’t do that, Heather. The Eye wants you. How about you give yourself up in exchange for your friend? You care so much, and I can’t back down without my … ” She paused, pain in her breath. “You, of all people, you understand this, don’t you? It wants you, every time I close my eyes. Same for all of us. I can’t tell it no. I can’t even tell it fuck off. Stay where you are, we’ll loop back to pick you up, we’re not far. In exchange we’ll let your friend go, I promise. We’ll bring her with us, and we’ll let her go right in front of you.”
“No. The zombie for Raine, that’s what you get. Or you say no and I send you all to meet the Eye instead.”
Sarika sighed. “Alright, alright, but this ‘Raine’ girl is our insurance now. You come after us before we get Zheng, and we’ll hurt her, got it?”
“You-” I almost snapped out the words ‘you started it’, reduced us to the level of a playground fight. “I know where you are, and I know how to find you.”
“Try me, bitch. Zheng wasn’t the only zombie we’ve still got.”
We were both bluffing now, playing both ends; why threaten me with zombies if they would hurt Raine? I tried to think through the bluster, to predict the Eye Cult’s real next move.
“Okay, deal, as long as you don’t hurt her,” I said, heart thumping, playing this out as far as I could. “But listen, I’m going to need help.”
I heard the sneer in Sarika’s voice. “From-”
“Not from you. Don’t be stupid. Praem, I’ve found her … ” I swallowed a throat full of bile, and tried not to look at the warped-wood mannequin splayed out on the floor, tried not to think of that as Praem’s bones. “The bottle. How do I get her out, put her back in her body?”
Tink went the lead weight in Praem’s jar. I smiled at it, then recalled she probably couldn’t see my face.
Silence on the line.
“Sarika?” I prompted.
“Your zombie? Just smash the bottle, that should work.”
“ … smash the bottle?” I repeated. Zheng bared her shark’s teeth and shook her head. Tink-tink went Praem, two for no.
“Yes, smash the bottle near the vessel she arrived in,” Sarika repeated. It didn’t take a master of deception to know not to trust her. She rushed her words and spoke them flat. A bad lie.
A naked lie. Which meant the fake deal was already so much rubbish.
Zheng held her hand out for the phone. She whispered at me, silk rustling through fire. “You’ve lost, shaman. My turn.”
I hesitated, a mistake; Zheng surged up from her squatting position, a mountain of muscle in motion, and plucked the phone from my grasp. Her other hand gently gripped my head for a moment – a warning love-bite from a war-hound – then let me go. She stood tall and lifted the phone to her ear.
“Sarika,” she purred. “Sarikaaaaa. Guess who?”
Then she laughed, long and low, bowel-quaking and chest-constricting. When she lowered the phone again, the line was dead.
“Zheng!” I almost screamed at her. “I’d- she’ll- I’d gotten her to agree! To not … not hurt … ” I trailed off at Zheng’s raised eyebrow, and forced down a shuddering breath. Impressive how much this inhuman zombie could communicate with mere expression. “She was lying,” I said. “Of course.”
“Yes, yes she was lying, yes,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as agree with Zheng. “She would still hurt Raine if she needed to, she knew the deal meant nothing. Now she knows you’re free, she’ll be more cautious, she’ll be afraid.”
“Shitting herself,” Zheng growled with obvious pleasure, and dropped the phone back into my lap.
“Yes. Good … good move. Yes. She might think if she hurts Raine, I’ll let you eat her. Or something along those lines.”
“You think that’s why I did it? I just wanted to make her scream.”
Zheng grinned, wide and mocking.
I stared at the zombie for a second, trying to figure out if that was sarcasm, or something much darker. Had Sarika been telling the truth about Zheng? What exactly was this demon-possessed corpse capable of, that had made Sarika so worried? Could I trust Zheng?
Trust, maybe not, but I didn’t have a lot of choice right now, no other friends and no support, and even if I wanted to go it alone from here, I doubt very much I could have made Zheng leave.
She must have caught the incredulous curiosity on my face, because she grunted and pointed at the phone. “Why not call your friends now?”
“I can’t.” I sighed and let the phone flop against my leg. “I’m terrible at memorising numbers. I can’t even remember Raine’s number, not off the top of my head. I could call my mother at home, I guess, I still remember my home’s landline number. But that’s not going to help.”
“Sarika’s clever, you know?” the cultist said.
I turned to look at Jacob, surprised he’d spoken up. Zheng just growled, but to my surprise he kept talking, still rubbing his throat where he’d almost strangled himself earlier, sparing Zheng only a flicker of attention before he focused on me again.
“She’s kept us alive, since the … since … ” He tapped the side of his head with one blunt paw of a hand. “She’s kept us together, given us something to work towards. Stopped us from killing ourselves. Most of us. Look, I don’t have anything against you, I don’t even really care, but I can’t … I can’t live with this in my head.”
“A solution to that can be provided,” Zheng rumbled. She didn’t bother to look at him.
“The Eye,” I said.
“If that’s what you call it.” Jacob nodded.
A terrible notion wormed into my mind, a suspicion I hadn’t the time or energy to consider until now. “You dream about it, yes? That’s correct?”
He nodded, half-shrugged.
“Does it … ” The words caught in my throat. “Does it teach you things? Mathematics?”
“What?” He blinked at me. “No, no nothing like that. It just … it wants things. It doesn’t speak, it doesn’t do anything, it- it- it just is. It is, all the time, behind the- the-” He groped and gestured helplessly at the air, face contorting with the effort of expressing the ineffable. Behind the fabric of reality.
Whatever deal Alexander Lilburne had struck with the Eye, he’d given it a pipeline to these peoples’ minds – but it wasn’t using them in the same way it had spent a decade tormenting me.
Why? Why not hand them the same tools it had given to me? Why not take one of them to Wonderland instead?
“Stop. Stop,” I said. “I know what you mean. Look, here.”
Not sure why I was doing it, I rolled back my left sleeve to expose the thick black lines of the Fractal. Raine and I had last refreshed it a week ago, a shared ritual I relished every time. I held it up to show the cultist, proud of the ink on my skin. Zheng frowned and tilted her head at it too.
“This keeps the Eye out of my nightmares. Do you have a pen?”
The cultist’s face lit up with fragile hope, frowning, uncertain as he realised what I meant. He cast around for something to write with, settled on a black marker pen discarded near the magic circle at the back of the room. Still tied to the radiator, eyes asking permission, he reached out with a foot and hooked the pen toward himself.
“Make sure to get the angles correct,” I said, as he furiously scribbled the Fractal on his arm. “Memorise it, write it down, I don’t know.”
When he was finished he gripped his arm tight, staring at the design, then at me. “Will- will it-”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Good luck, I guess. You probably deserve to die, but … maybe you don’t deserve the Eye. That’s all. And don’t thank me, ever.”
“Monkeys,” Zheng grumbled.
“Sarika said she had more zombies. Is that true?”
“I-I’ve never seen them,” Jacob said.
“Yes,” Zheng purred. “Nothing as old as me. Leftovers from the castle, a few months old at most. Closer to her,” she nodded at Praem’s jar.
Clink-clink went Praem’s disagreement.
“Okay. Okay.” I stood up, shed all but one of the blankets as a final defence to keep out the cold, and scooped up Praem’s bottle. After a moment’s thought I wrapped it in a blanket too, in a sort of protective sling.
Briefly I considered trying to put her back into her body myself; hyperdimensional mathematics could do anything – in theory. In practice, I was capable of performing the magical equivalent of tying a sharp rock to the end of a stick. Returning Praem to her physical vessel would be more like restarting a nuclear reactor.
“I have to get her home,” I said to Zheng. “To Evee, to … to Evee. She’ll know what to do. I can’t carry all of her.” I allowed myself a lingering glance at the grotesque and beautiful sight of Praem’s altered wooden bones. “I’m not strong enough, but you are.”
Zheng raised an eyebrow, watching me.
“She’s my friend, Zheng,” I said. “You claim to know how humans work, you’ve got to understand that. I am not leaving her behind. Please, help me carry her.”
“What’s it worth to you, shaman?” she purred.
I played the card, the trump card which might mean nothing. “ … are you with me or not?”
Zheng shrugged, bent down, and lifted the limp wooden doll over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry.
“Right, getting home means getting out of here,” I said. “Do you have a plan yet?”
Zheng grinned a dark and ugly grin. “We walk. Down.”
Zheng took the lead into the dark bowels of Glasswick tower. I crept along in her wake, clutching Praem.
Thankfully for life, limb, and my threadbare dignity, Zheng hadn’t insisted on killing – or eating parts of – our captive cultist. We’d left poor Jacob tied to the radiator for his comrades to find, head between his knees, staring in silence at the jagged Fractal he’d scrawled on his arm.
This was not the time to examine my feelings, trapped at the top of a magically corrupted tower block with only a murderous cannibalistic demon for help, still covered in my own dried blood and desperately worried about Raine, but as I followed Zheng into the concrete gloom I couldn’t stop thinking about these cultists, about what they might not deserve.
Marcus had been a true fanatic, potentially very dangerous, and I was glad he was dead. But Jacob? Even if he had been part of the homeless-killing zombie-making operation, having the Eye screaming at you in your dreams was worse than any punishment I could think of. No torture would compare.
I’d made the threat several times this bleak morning: could I actually send any of these cultists to meet the Eye? Was my heart that hardened?
Alexander, I could have done it to him. Sarika – no, this wasn’t the same.
But what if they hurt Raine?
I wanted to feel anger like before, clean hot razor focus, but I’d drowned that heat in order to think and plan clearly. All I had now was the sodden dregs of fear, scared of losing Raine. Revenge meant nothing if she was-
No, that train of thought would paralyse me, and Raine needed me moving forward. I pushed the toxic idea down, bottled it up, and focused on the problem at hand: getting out.
The old stripped flat the cult had been using as a guard room was situated right next to the top-floor entrance to the stairwell, a tube of echoing concrete draped with shadows. Shafts of winter sunlight probed through the windows on one side of the stairs, but left pools of deep darkness stretching off on the opposite side, into the forbidding unknown of the residential corridors.
Two floors down from the top of Glasswick tower, on a mid-way landing before the next set of stairs, Zheng stopped.
I almost blundered into her back in the gloom. Praem’s wooden body, held over Zheng’s shoulder, stared at me with an accusing blank face.
“What is it?” I hissed, peering past the zombie. “Oh.”
We’d reached the edge of the corruption.
Frozen ridges of concrete muscle pushed up through the floor of the next landing, as if emerging from wet tar. Structures like tendons jutted from corners, vanishing back into the building at sickening angles. Scales and bone spars and protrusions like teeth dotted the walls, all cast in concrete. The windows above the next flight of stairs looked puckered and rounded, the metal frames half swallowed by metastasised concrete growth.
“Alright,” I said, trying to tear my eyes away from the sight. Praem’s transmitted vision through Evelyn’s remote viewing setup had not done this place justice. It made my skin crawl. “Alright, what’s your pla-”
“Shhhhh,” Zheng hushed me. She reached into her coat pocket.
Before we’d left the flat-repurposed-as-guard-room, I’d taken several cereal bars from the stash in the tote, just in case. Zheng had filled her coat pockets too – with anything and everything. Pens, bits of paper, all the ritual detritus around the magic circle, discarded wrappers, a small paperback book. She’d even torn up pieces of one of the blankets and shoved those in her pockets too. When I’d asked why, and she’d explained the first step of the plan, I’d wished I hadn’t said anything.
Now she extracted one item from her magpie-collection – an old shoe – and threw it underarm, down the stairs.
Tap-tap-tap it went, then rolled to a stop amid the warped concrete below us. Zheng watched it like a hawk, eyes fixed, every muscle held in perfect stillness. She didn’t even breathe, and I wasn’t certain she needed to.
Thirty seconds went by, perhaps, and she finally grunted. I let go of a breath I hadn’t been aware of holding.
“You follow, shaman?” she purred.
“Yes. Yes,” I nodded. “So it’s … ‘asleep’ for now? Or it would have reacted?”
“No idea. Maybe it only sees souls. Maybe it’s a trap. Clever enough to let your demon get up here before it did for her. Or maybe she shouldn’t have gone around pulling heads off.” Zheng broke into a grin. “Don’t blame her though.”
Ting went the lead weight in Praem’s bottle.
“Like a Venus fly trap,” I muttered, and hugged Praem’s bottle to my chest. In a way it was comforting to know that the cultists hadn’t taken Praem out – the building itself had, letting her get deep enough that she’d be unable to escape. Or, at least, that was Zheng’s theory. “What is it, exactly?”
Zheng shrugged. “An echo in matter. Thinks it’s him.”
“Alexander?” Disgust twisted inside my chest.
“Just processes, no mind. We stay silent, we tread softly, it’ll take longer to react.”
“Is there a plan B, if … if we’re noticed?”
“When.” Zheng grinned a nasty grin. “Not if. No plan B. The lower down we get the better plan A will work.”
I sighed, couldn’t help myself. “Zheng. Zheng, what is plan A?”
Her grin widened. “We both live, that’s plan A. More I tell you, more scared you’ll get, and my part gets harder. Come on, shaman. And touch nothing.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” I hissed, rolled my eyes, and scurried along behind Zheng as she descended the stairs.
Creeping down the corrupted concrete stairwell was a singularly disgusting and unreal experience, with my heart in my throat and my every extremity tingling with adrenaline despite the cold.
Surrounded by biological shapes cast in looming, bulging concrete, pitted and cracked like concrete should be, but shaped by the hand of a mad giant sculptor. Nausea took me at the sight of gigantic muscle and tendon emerging from the walls in frozen curves, and at the feeling of rough uneven surfaces beneath my one sockless foot. Microbes inside a corpse, we trod across empty blood vessels down an architectural trachea.
The windows on one side of the stairwell made it worse. Far below lay Sharrowford, normal and dingy on a overcast morning. The sun was up behind the clouds and the city moved on as normal, oblivious to what had taken root in Glasswick tower.
Zheng walked with the silence of a stalking cat; how could somebody so big move so quietly?
I felt like a blundering elephant by comparison, my padding footfalls and shaking breath echoing up and down the cylinder of warped concrete.
Two, three, four floors further down, we must have been nearing the hollow floors which cradled Alexander’s headless corpse, when Zheng stopped and tilted her head, like a dog listening for a distant sound.
“What is it?” I breathed in the barest whisper.
She stayed like that for a few seconds, then grunted softly and gestured for me to follow again. We made it another four steps down the stairs before a groan filled the air.
A groan like layers of concrete sliding over each other. Like a building taking a deep breath.
Zheng froze, statue-still. I froze too, but shaking all over, clutching Praem’s bottle tight under the blanket. With an effort of will, I kept my lips closed, and made not a sound.
Silence didn’t save us.
Invisible at first, mere bumps on the concrete walls indistinguishable from the rough and knobbly surface, then growing, pushing out, extruding and extending, with thick bases and flared ends. From walls, ceiling, and floor, tentacles of shiny wet concrete felt their way into the throat-like cavern of the stairwell.
Neither very thick nor very long, about three feet in length and as wide around as my arm. In retrospect there weren’t very many of them, but I defy anybody to stay calm when a building sprouts cilia with which to digest the people inside it.
I did, to my credit, successfully resist the urge to scream. I bit down on my lips.
Ducking, squeezing, making myself small, trying to hold my breath in silence as the tentacles probed and tasted the air – it worked. For once in my life, being tiny and scrawny helped me survive, because the tentacles couldn’t see. They groped blind. I crammed myself as tiny I could get, heart hammering, holding on tight to Praem’s vulnerable, breakable jar, untouched.
Zheng wasn’t so lucky. Too big, too unwieldy. She gritted her teeth in naked frustration, seven foot of muscle too large to hide amid the reaching feelers. She dodged and twisted, tried to step between them, and failed.
I stared, helplessly, too scared to even whisper, as one of the tentacles caught her arm.
A brush, the merest touch on her coat’s sleeve, and the slick-wet tentacle shot forward to wrap around her arm. Every other tentacle went berserk, straining toward her, whipping for her face and feet. In a second three more had her, then six, then ten, then a dozen. In moments they had both of her legs, her throat, her ribcage.
Zheng fought like a titan, pulling and ripping, digging in her heels, roaring like a goaded lion. She dropped Praem’s wooden body to the floor with a clatter but the tentacles ignored it, ignored me as I put a hand to my mouth, ignored everything but constricting the giant zombie woman like a dozen pythons.
She pulled tentacles apart with sheer force, tore handfuls of concrete out of the floor as they dragged her along it, toward the wall.
The wall slopped open like a mouth. Toothless and wet, gaping and dark, from floor to ceiling.
“Zheng!” I couldn’t stop myself now. Luckily the tentacles were too focused on the difficulty of reeling her in. “What- what do I do!?”
“Stay still!” she shouted.
“What about- what was plan A?”
“This!” she managed to roar – and then tentacles of concrete closed over her mouth and covered her eyes, and heaved her into the obscene wall-mouth.
The wall closed like poured concrete, slurping and slapping and then going still, as if the mouth had never been there.
Glasswick tower swallowed Zheng whole.
Silence fell, broken only by my racing heartbeat. The concrete tentacles calmed, but didn’t retract. Their purpose now fulfilled, they waved lazily in the air.
Hand to my mouth, tears on my cheeks, I clenched my jaw and forced myself not to panic. A single mistake, a single misstep, a single sound could end my life. I hugged Praem’s jar close to my chest as if to hide her.
‘Zheng?’ I mouthed in silence. The nearest tentacle twitched ever so slightly, and I quashed the urge to speak.
Between the spot I stood and the next landing, two dozen tentacles dotted the floor and walls. More waved in the gloomy stairwell below.
No choice, no way back. I had to protect Praem, and I had to get out of here; her body was unrecoverable now. Even well and whole I couldn’t have dragged all that wood down Glasswick tower without making a sound.
I took the first careful step, threading my way between the tentacles, cringing and shaking, a sob held tight in my throat. The urge to run was almost unbearable.
The air I displaced betrayed my presence. The nearby tentacles twitched toward me, exploring and groping. A scream clawed up in my throat.
A scream echoed by a roar.
Zheng burst out of the wall.
In a shower of concrete and dust, seven feet of avenging god exploded through rock and rebar like it was paper. Bleeding thick red from a score of cuts, covered in fragments of concrete, her coat and tshirt torn, she slammed back into the stairwell like a tank shell. She spat a mouthful of crushed concrete and a savage grin tore across her face.
Blinking, coughing, half-blinded by rock dust, I saw the tentacles react with panic, rushing to close the hole in the wall, whipping and lashing over the gap like a wound.
In one swift motion, Zheng scooped Praem’s wooden body off the floor and hauled it over her shoulder, then took two steps forward past me and kicked the glass out of the nearest widow, her boot sweeping the shards aside and smashing the frame open to the cold air.
“What-” was all I had time to say before she swept me up too. Over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry, one arm pinning my rump.
“No, no! Zheng, no!” I screamed as I figured out what she was about to do.
Zheng laughed, loud and exuberant and utterly bonkers. The tentacles were writhing back toward us, snaking for Zheng’s ankles and my face as she climbed through the window. She braced herself against the slim foothold of the exterior windowsill, as the clean air ruffled my hair and whipped out her trench coat. I twisted, half to look and half in an animal-instinct attempt to wriggle out of her grip. My head whirled at the view below. So very far below. A wave of vertigo sent my stomach flopping end-over-end and turned my legs to jelly.
“Plan A was always jump, shaman!” Zheng roared.
And jump she did.
Falling out of a high-rise tower block is a rare experience, but then so is having your toenails pulled out, or being attacked by a polar bear. Placing little value in this terminal lesson, I decided to close my eyes and forgo the once-in-a-lifetime sight of the earth rushing toward me from twenty five stories up.
Well, no, that’s a lie. I didn’t decide to close my eyes. I screwed them shut because falling out of a building is terrifying.
Clinging to Zheng with one arm and clutching Praem’s soul-bottle with the other, with the wind whipping past my ears – and whipping Zheng’s coat into my face; with Praem’s wooden bones rattling, and out of breath with which to scream, that fall took a lifetime. An adrenaline junkie’s dream, to be certain, but not one of mine. Free fall was not fun or exciting, because I was convinced that I had put my life in the hands of a homicidal, suicidal demon, and I was about to die.
Over the sound of Zheng’s mad laughter, my brain groped in panic for a relevant equation.
Later – much later, weeks later, with the terror safely behind me – I actually sat down and calculated how long that fall took. About 5 seconds, give or take the effect of Zheng’s coat on wind resistance, and how much Praem weighed without her pneuma-somatic flesh.
Not enough time to dredge for hyperdimensional mathematics when I didn’t even know what I was looking for.
Hitting the ground knocked the wind out of me, forced a gut-deep ‘oof’ from my lungs, and bruised my stomach muscles for days afterward. A loud crack, a softer crunch, a moment of shock and sudden stillness.
Shaking all over, clutching both Zheng’s flesh and Praem’s bottle in a death-grip, I found that I was still alive. Still held over Zheng’s shoulder, her arm an iron-hard restraint over my hindquarters.
With no little difficulty I got my eyes open. I must have said something akin to ‘put me down’ because Zheng dutifully planted me back on my feet.
Of course I fell over onto my arse right away, because my legs muscles now consisted entirely of custard.
I did, however, not drop Praem’s bottle. Panting, dizzy, apparently with nothing broken, I couldn’t get any words out. Luckily I’d had my head at the right angle when we’d landed, or whiplash would have broken my spine.
Zheng straightened up. I heard several distinct cracking, crunching sounds from her legs. She’d stopped laughing, but wore a triumphant grin. Her feet had made a sort of dent in the ground, embedded into the compacted dirt by several inches.
She’d absorbed the impact.
I just shook my head at her.
We’d come down on the rear side of Glasswick tower, in a bit of scrub-ground that had once been a common green area, now a mass of weed trying to climb the graffiti-caked concrete, inside an old metal security fence that was supposed to block access to the lowest level of residential windows. Some old raggedy bushes and a electrical junction box hid us from the little-used, run-down road along the rear of Headly council estate.
Out of the tower. Mercifully, beautifully free, under the open skies of Sharrowford.
A young boy in a school uniform and coat, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, with russet hair and freckles and a face upon which puberty was not being kind, had been busy spray-painting one of those ghastly graffiti tags on the wall.
His eyes like saucers, mouth hanging open as if we’d fallen out of the sky. Which, to be fair, we had. We were also both covered in blood, carrying a stripped wooden mannequin and a huge faintly glowing bottle. And Zheng was seven feet tall, can’t forget that.
The spray can he’d been using dropped out of his hand, and a wad of chewing gum fell out of his mouth.
I swallowed, coughed, made sure my voice worked, and said the first thing that came to mind.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” I asked.
“I’m … I’m bunking off,” he managed.
“That’s not good. You’ll get in trouble. Stay in school, yes?”
“Boo,” Zheng rumbled.
He nodded once, backed up several paces, and ran away.