In a minor miracle of grip strength, I’d managed to hang onto the filthy blanket during our rapid descent from Glasswick tower. Which was lucky, because a January morning in Sharrowford was no place to be out of doors dressed in only one’s pajamas.
“We should uh … we should … ” I mumbled. “We should … yes … ”
Bloodstream still awash with the receding floodwaters from a tidal wave of adrenaline, I attempted to get to my feet, and discovered my bruises.
“Ah!” I winced. “Ahh, oh God, okay. Ow. Ow, my stomach.” I bit my bottom lip and squeezed my eyes shut. Our landing had tenderised my abdominal muscles. How was it possible to be this bruised without breaking any bones? I sat very still, breathing very gently.
“Best I could do,” Zheng rumbled. She still grinned with success, but had her head tilted to one side, as if listening to a distant sound on the air.
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I’m alive. That’s what counts. That counts.”
Ting, agreed Praem, the lead weight jumping inside her bottle. I felt a bizarre urge to press my face against the glass.
I spent a good minute figuring out how to stand up without using my stomach muscles or dropping Praem’s bottle. In the end I had to put her down, turn over and use my hands to lever myself off the ground, then tucked Praem back into the crook of my arm underneath the blanket around my shoulders.
“How am I not concussed?” I said, blinking hard at my own left hand. “Am I concussed? I should absolutely have a concussion.”
Clink-clink. Praem didn’t think so.
“I paid the meat price,” Zheng purred. She didn’t bother to look at me.
Her meaning failed to penetrate my adrenaline-addled brain. I touched the back of my neck as if expecting to find protruding bone, gingerly rotated my head on my shoulders, swallowed and blinked and searched for damage. “Shouldn’t I have whiplash? That was like a car crash.”
“I am smarter than a seatbelt.”
I nodded automatically. As the adrenaline drained away, my teeth threatened to chatter. “We should go, we should really go. We can’t stay here.”
“Should,” Zheng echoed.
“That boy might alert somebody. Parents, police, I don’t know. And Sarika could be on her way, she said she was coming here. We’ll need to keep out of sight, both of us. How do we do that? We can hardly take the bus.” I spoke more to myself than Zheng, trying to marshal my thoughts and reboot my brain after the fall. “If somebody spotted us falling … well, we’ll make the strange and unexplained news. I don’t know how we’re going to get home without being seen, I … what, what is it?”
Zheng had turned her shark-toothed grin on me as I rambled on.
“Zheng? We really should go, we need to leave before-”
“Should and could. Different things.”
“ … I’m sorry?”
“Seven fractures.” Zheng tapped her left thigh, then her right. “Four fractures.” Her finger rose to the wide swell of her hips inside her jeans, to her pelvis. “Two fractures. One in my spine as well. Structural. I take a step, I fall down.”
“Oh.” Suddenly the cracking sounds I’d heard earlier made sense. Iron and rock she may seem, but even demon-altered corpse-born flesh and blood was still only flesh and blood. “Oh Zheng, I’m sorry. You- for me. Thank you. I-”
“I’m fixing it.”
“Fixing? … oh, yes. You can do that, can’t you? Like when I … ” I trailed off, wincing in slow motion, gratitude and guilt mixed into a heady cocktail by the rush of still being alive. “I never apologised for severing your arm before. So, I’m sorry. And thank you. Thank you, Zheng, I … thank you. I still can’t believe you jumped out of a building.”
Zheng shrugged, rattling Praem’s wooden body on her shoulder.
“How long will healing take?” I asked. “Sarika might be on her way here. And, well, people might see us.” I glanced around at the thin barrier of old bushes and partially dismantled security fence, the twin concrete cliffs of Gleaston and Glasswick towers looming over us. Nobody had chanced by yet, but it was only a matter of time. “You look like you stepped out of a Greek myth. Plus we’ve got quite a bit of … red, on us.”
“Fifteen minutes, give or take. Bones need time.” Zheng shrugged again. “Don’t run off alone.”
“Believe you me, I am not going anywhere.”
I tugged the blanket tighter around my shoulders and adjusted Praem’s bottle. The road beyond the secluded patch of scrub ground was deserted for now, the gap between the towers hostile with graffiti and broken bottles, but it would only take one passer-by to glance down here at the wrong moment, one stay-at-home mum in Gleaston tower to look out of her bathroom window, and we’d be the subject of a very bizarre phone call to the police. Headly council estate might be numb to vandalism and pretty drug crime, but I doubt they’d shrug off the sight of a seven-foot-tall monster covered in dried blood and concrete dust, accompanying a shell-shocked college girl in her pajamas.
But despite what I’d said, I didn’t care.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline, or the joy of not being dead, or the sheer madness of surviving a twenty-five story fall, but for once in my life I simply couldn’t bring myself to give a damn.
I filled my lungs with frigid air, and didn’t care how much it made me shiver. I was alive and I was free, and my bruises would heal.
My only witness – other than Zheng, her eyes tilted to the sky, her attention focused inward – was the omnipresent spirit-life, the pneuma-somatic background noise to my life. From where we stood on that half-hidden patch of scrub ground I could already see a dozen different spirits; a blob of tentacles and orange suckers climbed Gleaston tower, a clump of creatures all stalk and eye picked their way across distant rooftops, a Roc-sized bird of black fire hovered low over the city to the east – and a pair of hound-ghoul things snuffled down the nearby road, barely thirty feet away.
An idea struck me, one I would never have dared fifteen minutes ago. That was the old Heather, who had not yet survived death with her eyes wide open.
Well, eyes screwed shut in terror. Still counted.
“You feel invincible,” Zheng said before I could finish. She lowered her eyes to meet mine. “Maybe you are.”
“I … how did you know that?”
“Go out in a storm.” Zheng’s voice dropped low and quiet, a tiger-purr in the night. “Naked and alone, and climb to the highest point you can find. The trees shake, the rocks shiver. But you shout back at the thunder and the lightning, defy the Gods to kill you. Maybe they do, maybe you die. But if you live, you’re invincible. That’s how your kind do it. The old way.” She took a deep breath and her grin broke the spell. “Or it’s just how you monkeys get when you cheat death. Endorphins.”
“Yes, probably that second one.” I took a deep breath as well. “I’m going to … it’s hard to explain, I’m going to take a risk. Please trust me for a moment.”
Zheng shrugged. Couldn’t help but notice she kept her legs and hips and spine rock steady as she moved.
The two spirits nosing at the road hadn’t moved too far along yet. I wet my lips, wrapped myself in false courage, and opened my mouth.
“You,” I said in a level voice, far too quiet to carry from our hiding place.
One of the spirits looked up at me. Goat-like eyes in a pale lupine face. Its companion stopped too, and they stared at me like a pair of wolves examining a baited trap.
“Come here,” I said. “Or don’t. Your choice.”
A hesitating first step turned into a trot, and the pair of spirits edged up toward the patch of scrub ground, pacing back and forth.
Supremely ugly, a unnatural combination of wolf and ape, leathery hands instead of paws and scraggly fur like old man’s hair sprouting in clumps on their rubbery skin. Big loose jaws full of blunt teeth worked silently on empty air. Eyes too large and too far apart kept sliding over at Zheng, unwilling to venture within her range. That’s right, I’d seen her pick Tenny up by the throat once before, hadn’t I? And Praem had wrestled that spirit at the Saye estate. Demons could touch them, hurt them, and they knew it.
“You know who I am, or what I am.” I raised my voice slightly and reminded myself I’d done this before; I’d spoken to spirits, I’d pressed them for information, I’d even commanded them – briefly. This was unlikely to work, but I had nothing to lose by trying. “I have a task for you.”
Pacing, back and forth, back and forth. No indication they cared.
“There’s a magician approaching this tower, a mage, understand? She’ll be here soon, and she might go up inside the tower. Follow her when she emerges again, follow her home. Then come back to me, and show me where she hides.”
Both spirits stopped, sat on their haunches, staring at me. A demand, a refusal? This wasn’t working.
“In return … I … ” I what? I couldn’t think of anything.
Before I could get out another word, both spirits leapt up and ran off with a skidding and skittering of feet, nipping at each others’ faces and hides. I puffed out a long sigh. A failure. I’d think of something else. I had to.
Zheng was watching me with quiet fascination.
“I thought it was worth a go,” I said. “I can see … uh, spirits, it’s-”
“Of course you can see them, shaman.”
That word again. She’d called me that over and over since I’d freed her, but now she imbued the word with that awful reverence once more, a dark intensity in her eyes.
I sighed to cover my discomfort. “I do hope we didn’t scar that boy too badly. Not to be rude, Zheng, but you’re the sort of thing that causes recurring nightmares.”
Or wet dreams, if one was like me, but I didn’t say that part out loud.
“Thank you.” Zheng grinned in savage delight, back to normal. She rolled her neck and one shoulder, then twisted her torso and hips sideways in a slow motion that produced a machine-gun sound of every spinal vertebrae popping in sequence. She coughed, flexed her thighs, bent a knee, went up on tiptoes, produced more popping noises as her joints realigned. She coughed again.
“Mm. Minute,” she grunted, coughed a third time, then opened her jaw wide and fished a chunk of concrete out the back of her throat. “Huh.”
Zheng didn’t strike me as remotely in need of what we mere mortals thought of as dignity, but I averted my gaze all the same. I looked up at Glasswick tower, at the vertical dungeon we’d escaped, and tried to spot the window we’d jumped from. Couldn’t see it from all the way down here, not at this angle.
“Did you know that would work?” I muttered. Zheng grunted an interrogative, busy rotating her ankles. “Jumping that far, I mean?”
“Fallen further before,” she rumbled.
“Carrying a person?”
“Three goats.” She broke into a grin, enjoying the look on my face. “Off a cliff. They lived too.”
“Goats. Glad to know I’m in good company.”
Clink-clink-clink went Praem. Three times? Was that laughter? I frowned at the oily smoke in the bottle.
“They were good goats,” Zheng said. “Good meat.”
“I’m certain they were, but I better not be.”
Clink, went Praem.
“Yes, thank you,” I sighed, and stared up at the tower again.
The corruption, the tentacles, the imprint of Alexander Lilburne’s mind – none of it was visible from the ground. Nobody knew it was there, except for me and my friends, and a bunch of cultists dedicated to my worst enemy.
Zheng took several steps, rolled her torso around in an arc from her hips and drew herself up to her full height, swapping Praem’s wooden body from one shoulder to the other. She stretched, a tiger preparing to sun itself. “Ahhhhh. Much better.”
“I’ll be back for you,” I whispered to the tower, hugged Praem’s jar, and turned to Zheng with a question on my lips.
“Zheng. Are you … ” I cursed my hesitation. Zheng was a demon and a monster, but I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase the question. “Are you certain you’re coming with me?”
“My legs work again. Bones,” she grunted amused disapproval.
“No, I mean are you comfortable coming home with me?”
“Mmmmm?” she purred, watching me carefully.
“The house – my home – it belongs to Evelyn. She’s my best friend, I love her, but she’s a mage. I understand if you’d rather not go there. You don’t owe me anything. I’m pretty sure I can get home on my own if I have to. If this is where we part ways.”
Zheng shrugged. “I’m still here, shaman.”
Walking all the way home took almost three hours.
Zheng and I stuck to less-used roads, back alleys, side streets, with much stopping and starting, on a circuitous route to avoid the city centre, the shops, the homeless camps under the motorway, anywhere with people. Peering around corners, listening for footsteps, lurking in back alleys; a painstaking trek through the concrete jungle, all the way to the other side of Sharrowford.
My fears were proved justified a couple of weeks later. A grainy picture of Zheng and I surfaced on the internet, snapped from the window of a passing car with a shaking phone camera, along the motorway embankment near one of the clusters of tents. Nothing visible to recognise me by, only the back of my head atop a shapeless lump of blanket – but Zheng was clearly far too tall. Supernatural sighting or trick of perspective? Photoshop or clever stunt? Luckily enough, the responses to the photograph descended into jokes about giant Yorkshire-men escaped from the moors. I’m certain some amateur paranormal researcher has glanced at my awful matted hair and hunched shoulders, and wondered about some obscure species of Northern English gremlin.
My unshod feet plagued me, sore and hobbling after the first hour, one sock-less soft sole bleeding by the third, so Zheng picked me up and carried me. Princess style. Twice. An experience my body didn’t forget in a hurry.
She carried me until I could walk again, and I didn’t reject the help, despite the quasi-sexual discomfort and Praem’s fleshless wooden bones bumping alongside me.
Raine needed all the help I could get. From any quarter, any monster.
By the time number 12 Barnslow Drive finally hove into view I was back on my own two feet, ready to drop, dehydrated, and shivering with cold.
Home, this cracked and weathered redbrick leviathan, roof tiles patched with tarpaulin. wreathed in shrivelled ivy for the winter, squinted at me from dark windows and made my heart soar.
I hurried the final stretch, feet stinging, bruised abdomen complaining, and pushed through the garden gate with an unbidden smile on my lips. Praem didn’t say anything from within her bottle, and perhaps it was only my imagination, but I swore I felt her respond as well. This was the place she’d come into our reality. Her home too.
“This one?” Zheng purred from behind. In my moment of relief, I missed the warning note in her voice.
“Yes,” I sighed. “Yes, we’re home.”
And not a thing out of place. I stopped on the garden path and bit my bottom lip.
Front door intact and sturdy, not smashed in as I’d half-expected. Raine’s battered old car still squatted next to the pavement a few feet down the road, where she’d last left it parked. No lights showed around the cracks in curtains, all was dark and quiet under the brooding winter sky. The inside of the house sometimes felt like a cocoon or a womb, sealed and guarded from the city beyond.
“Question is,” I murmured. “Who exactly is at home?”
Click, agreed Praem.
I finally tore my eyes from the house to glance back at Zheng, and realised she hadn’t crossed the threshold of the front gate. Spirit-life lurked in the street behind her, at a respectful distance. All the way here the pneuma-somatic wildlife had given us a wide berth, as if Zheng was one of their natural predators. One of them – barred from the Saye house as they were?
“Zheng, you can come inside, can’t you? I didn’t think to mention, the property’s warded. I actually don’t know what that means, but … can you?”
“Signs won’t stop flesh,” she rumbled, and stepped through the invisible barrier, stalking up alongside me like a panther, without once wavering from her staring contest with the house. She watched the building with a slow, wary regard, tilting her head one way then the other, as if getting a good view through each separate eyeball.
No dark amusement, no face-splitting grin. Not amused.
“What’s wrong?” My words emerged as a whisper. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Zheng, what’s wrong? You’re spooking me. Do you see somebody?”
Slowly, she shook her head. “I see this place. Not so different to the tower we ran from.”
I sighed and resisted an urge to roll my eyes. “I did tell you it’s an old magician’s house. Everyone’s so upset by it – you, Twil, the Brinkwood people. Why weren’t the cult scared? None of this would have happened.”
“Because they’re fools,” Zheng purred, gaze still locked onto the house.
“Zheng, I’ve known you for one morning, and this is the second time you’ve wanted to fight a building. Unless you’re secretly intending to murder Evelyn or steal her books, I don’t think the guards will pay you any attention, and the house won’t care. It’s not a haunted house, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The shark-grin returned to Zheng’s face, directed down at me. “Afraid? Perhaps you should be afraid of this house, shaman.”
“Well, I’m not. It’s home, it’s treated me well, and it’s where my friends live. Speaking of which, Zheng, you … I don’t mean to imply- and I do want to just get indoors already, but-”
“Spit it out.”
“You won’t get violent with anybody, will you?”
“Anybody?” Zheng purred.
“Any of my friends. You know what I mean.”
“And if the house bites?”
I huffed, curling my freezing toes against the pathway flagstones. “Bite back.”
And without further ado, I marched up the path and knocked on the front door.
Luckily for my remaining credibility, Zheng decided to join me, a tower of muscle at my shoulder ready to threaten, kill, or eat anybody who wasn’t supposed to be here. If she’d hung back, well, I would’ve had to retreat and try again. Maybe go around the back, find Tenny. I’d check on her as soon as I could.
Nobody answered my knock. The house echoed with a long pause through which dark things crept in silence. I rattled the handle and knocked again.
“It’s me!” I called out. “I don’t have my key, for obvious reasons.”
My mind backed up a step and I looked at the door properly – and my heart crawled into my throat. Number 12 Barnslow Drive had indeed been broken into, quite expertly. The keyhole showed a scuffed ring of fresh metal amid the decades of old scratches, and the thick wood had been dented slightly, about level with my head; the lock been forced, a shoulder rammed against the door? After Twil had run out into the night, had Raine closed the bolts? I didn’t recall. If only we’d locked it properly, if only-
A rapid patter of feet sounded suddenly from inside the house. I jumped, my heart leapt, and my stomach dropped. Somebody – something – bumped into the door, turned the lock and rammed back the bolts with a clatter.
“Oh.” I backed up, right into Zheng. She put a hand on my shoulder and put herself in front of me, just as the door flew open.
Sharp amber eyes in an angelic face, wide and blinking in surprise.
“Twil!” I half-shouted her name in a shudder of relief. Suddenly my knees felt weak and rubbery.
Twil didn’t hear me, not from behind seven feet of zombie muscle; I scurried around Zheng to hug my friend, not even thinking, but then things got tiresomely predictable.
Twil catapulted herself backward from Zheng in a feat of canine gymnastic shock. I flinched and swallowed a yelp. She landed already bristling with fur and claw and the elongating snout wrapping itself around her human face, growling deep and loud through clenched teeth – not a warning, a war cry.
“Twil! Twil, it’s me, it’s fine, it’s me!” I blurted out as I hurried over the threshold. Praem agreed with a clink from inside her bottle. Wolfish eyes caught me and Twil’s entire body jerked as she aborted a forward charge.
“Heather?” she growled through a snout of ghostly wolf-flesh.
“Yes! Yes it’s me, I’m here, and I’m- well, I’m not okay, but I’m unhurt- wait, no, that’s not accurate. I am hurt.” I almost laughed at the absurdity of the moment, an edge of hysteria in my voice. My strength was draining with relief, my body knew I was home. This warm dark cavern of old wood and familiar scents, of our shoes by the door and the unique way the light through the curtains dusted the front room with plush shadows. A wall of warm air washed over me, the heating still turned up against the cold outdoors.
And under it all, the faint iron scent of blood tainted the air. Blood, and cleaning chemicals.
Zheng had to duck to follow me through the doorway, then straightened back up to her full height. Twil’s eyes flicked between me, the giant zombie, the huge glowing bottle in my arms, and the twisted wooden mannequin over Zheng’s shoulder. Much more of that and she’d make herself dizzy.
“Twil, it’s okay,” I almost laughed again. “It’s okay, we’re all friends here.”
“Yeah right, sure, fuck,” Twil managed.
Like a huge jungle cat squaring off against a rival, Zheng showed all her teeth, and grinned at Twil. “Laangren?” she purred.
“And you can knock that off!” I snapped at Zheng, emboldened by finally being home. “And please, shut the door before somebody sees us. Please?”
Zheng closed the door without removing her eyes from Twil. My werewolf friend growled back as Zheng’s grin widened again.
“Please, both of you, please,” I repeated, exasperated. “I am exhausted, we are in a crisis, please.”
“Heather?” Twil asked through gritted teeth. “You’ve gotta be joking.”
“I freed her,” I rushed to explain. “Zheng, I mean, I freed her. She’s on our side – my side, sort of. Zheng, this is Twil, please-”
“We’ve met,” Zheng rumbled. “Never got to have a proper fight, did we, skinchanger?”
Twil reacted like a startled hound, blinking and shaking her head. “Hey what, you talk proper now?”
“I have a mouth, I must use it.”
“She saved my life this morning,” I said to Twil. “Yes, she is extremely dangerous, but not to us. I think.”
“Your trusted are mine, shaman,” Zheng purred, but her grin stayed fixed on Twil. “But don’t you want to feel it too, laangren? I haven’t had a good fight, a real fight, in decades. We’ll both walk away, no real skin in the game, just the sheer joy of it.”
Twil blinked at her. “ … later. Maybe. Fuck’s sake.”
Zheng grumbled like a tiger having a dream, but finally allowed her shark’s grin to simmer down to a dark smolder. She shrugged, and Praem’s wooden body rattled on her shoulder. “I’m up for a round with you anytime, skinchanger.”
“Not indoors you’re not.” I tutted.
A ripple of change passed through Twil’s transformed musculature. Her wolf-flesh melted away, wisps curling and vanishing into nothing as she tilted her chin up at Zheng, all human again. “Beat you last time, didn’t I? What, you want a rematch between my foot and your face?”
“No,” Zheng corrected her. “You ran away.”
Twil frowned, not quite following. “Fuck it, whatever. Who cares.”
That should have alerted me to how dire the situation was – Twil refusing to rise to the bait. Instead, she stepped forward and pulled me into a fierce hug.
“Ah! Ah, careful,” I winced as Praem’s bottle was squished against my abdomen. Sometimes Twil didn’t know her own strength. “Stomach, stomach’s very bruised. Ow.”
“Sorry. Sorry, Heather. S’just, you know, shit’s so fucked up. Welcome home, yeah?”
“Yes,” I managed. “Thank you.”
A wave of emotion welled up in my chest, but I swallowed it down. My body said rest, you’re home, everything’s going to be alright; I told it no, we still had miles to go.
Twil pulled back to look at my face. “God, fuck this morning. I’m real glad you’re okay, Heather.”
“’Okay’ is a relative term, but I am alive. Thank Zheng.”
Twil glanced up at the zombie, frowning hard. Zheng shrugged and stepped away from us to prop up Praem’s altered wooden mannequin on some of the many boxes of junk Evelyn kept stacked in the front room. Better than dumping Praem’s body on the floor, I suppose, but it still hurt to see.
“The hell is that?” Twil asked.
“Luggage,” Zheng purred.
Twil gaped at me.
“Oh, oh, don’t worry,” I hurried, and held up the bottle. “She’s in here, this is her, for the moment. Say hi.”
“Um … hi, Praem?”
Clink, went Praem.
“I think we can put her back together,” I said.
Twil nodded, frowning, quite lost indeed. “The hell happened, Heather, where were you?”
“Bad places, then the ground. Long story. Twil, where’s everybody else? I’m worried sick, I think they took Raine, at least that’s … that’s what they … ” The look on her face made it obvious. “She’s not here, is she?”
Twil winced and shook her head. “Hoped she was with you.”
“The cultists kidnapped her. I think.”
“Shit!” Twil swore through her teeth. “Last night, I got back here as fast as I could, I really did, I promise, but you and her were both gone already! I’m sorry. Evee won’t wake up. Kimberly, she- I think she was hiding somewhere, under a table or some shit, and-”
“Yeah, yeah,” Twil nodded. “Scared, you know? But yeah. We put Evee upstairs in her bedroom, and Kim’s been doing stuff, you know. Magic? Trying to get Evee to wake up. I called my mum too, but she says none of them can come into town right now, not with this going on. My folks are in full panic mode, I’m supposed to be at home, but sod them. Evee won’t wake up. Heather, I can’t wake her up.”
I looked at Twil – really looked at Twil, and realised she was closer to the edge than I. Face puffy with lack of sleep and panic, eyes wild, still in the same clothes she’d been wearing when she’d torn out into the dark last night. Her easy exterior was cracking. Nothing to chase, nothing to punch, a faint shaking in her chest and face. She didn’t know what to do.
“We’re going to wake Evelyn up, and I’m going to find Raine,” I said, and surprised myself with the conviction in my voice.
In truth I had no idea if we could do either of those things, but if we wanted a ghost of a chance then Twil had to believe, because I might need her, so my job was to make her believe.
“ … yeah,” Twil mouthed.
“Twil. We will. We absolutely will. I will do anything. Understand?”
Clink, agreed Praem.
“Yeah. Yeah, we will, we can do this.” She nodded, going along with me. “Right. We can … oh!” Her face suddenly lit up. “You can make things vanish! Right?”
“I … I can, yes?”
“Oh, fuck me. Lifesaver.” Twil let out a huge sigh of relief. “Heather, you are a lifesaver. I didn’t know what to do with the corpses!”
“The … ” I blinked, rewound, replayed that word. “I’m sorry, Twil, the what?”
“The corpses,” she gestured at the floor – and the wall behind me, and the door-frame. And the inside of the door. In all the excitement I had failed to notice the wood was slightly damp, and still stained faintly in a way recent scrubbing had failed to completely eliminate. The whole area was punctuated by several patches of damage that looked like impact craters from railway spikes. I reconstructed the scene in my head: blood on the floorboards, blood up the walls, blood up the door.
My eyes travelled upward, and I flinched. One of Evelyn’s spider-servitors still hung over the doorway, in an ambush position, so well-concealed I hadn’t seen it when I’d stepped inside.
The Eye Cult had paid a high price for invading my home.
“Thank you,” I said to it. “Next time, don’t let anyone take Raine, please.”
“ … is it … it’s not one of the invisible spiders, is it?” Twil whispered, as if it might hear her.
“Yes. It is,” I sighed.
“Ugh. Well, yeah then, I guess that must have been it. When I got here, there were these two dead guys on the floor. Huge mess. Put them both in the kitchen, but uh-”
Twil wasn’t exactly a master of misdirection, or of concealing her emotions. Her eyes flicked to the closed door to the disused sitting room.
I followed her gaze. “I thought you said you put them in the kitchen?”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah I did. They’re both still there, you know, getting cold and stiff. It’s just, um, there’s- it’s a been a bit of a complex morning and we’ve got, um … ” Her eyes wandered over my shoulder, frowning at Zheng.
I sighed. “We can discuss this in front of Zheng. She’s on my side, and yes, she’s also a violent cannibalistic demon-”
“Cannibal implies the same species,” Zheng purred, almost as if distracted. “I’m no monkey.”
“-but she saved my life twice this morning, and I think she wants to help.”
“Uh, no.” Twil pointed. “I mean, what the fuck’s she doing now?”
“I can hear you, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.
“What? She … oh.”
Our friendly neighbourhood flesh-eating demon had also noticed the Spider-servitor, and was now locked in a staring contest. The spider’s head of crystalline eyes rotated to return Zheng’s look, both of them frozen in the moment of eye contact. Two supernatural beasties vying for who was bigger and scarier.
“It’s fine,” I said with a sigh. “She and the spider are squaring off, just like you did too. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t care. It’s okay, Zheng, I … I think.”
“I have eaten spider many times,” Zheng purred.
“Not one of those, I’d wager,” I said.
“A first time for every kind of meat.”
“I’m extra glad I can’t see any of this,” Twil said, hands up in surrender.
I stared at Zheng for a moment, trying to figure out if she was serious. The last thing we needed was a demon getting into a death match with what was left of our security system.
“Look, Heather,” Twil was saying. “It’s just, we’ve got a situation to deal with. Uh, a really … delicate situation, and maybe like, she should go somewhere else for a bit?”
Caught between a territorial zombie and Twil sounding worryingly un-Twil like, I frowned at the latter in confusion. “Delicate situation? What are you talking about?”
Her eyes slid to the sitting room door again. She winced and struggled over a word or two. I was about to tell her to get on with it, I’m too tired, I need to sit, I need to wash my sore feet, I need to eat, and we need to save our friends – when a cry of delight split the air. My name.
My name, from the most unexpected source.
Thundering down the stairs in a clatter of bare feet, flying the distance between us in a twirl of plaid skirt and pink poncho, throwing herself at me in an uninhibited tackle-hug, here came Lozzie.
I almost couldn’t believe my eyes – and barely remained standing when she hit me, that flying hug not just for show. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders, squeezed all the air out of me, and nuzzled her face into my neck. Pulling back, laughing, making me laugh back at her in surprised delight, wheezing from the bruises in my stomach but not caring. I almost dropped Praem’s bottle, but Twil reached in and took it from me, like sticking her hands between a pair of wrestling ferrets.
“You’re here! You’re here! You came back!” Lozzie laughed at me.
“You too,” I croaked, speechless, smiling all over. “Ow.”
“Mmm!” She made a sound like a small excited animal, and hugged me tight. I went ‘ow!’ again but I didn’t care.
“Yeah,” Twil added. “And your spooky friend is here too. Turned up outta nowhere.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked Twil over Lozzie’s shoulder, hugging her hard as I could stand.
“Other things on my mind.”
Lozzie pulled back again, half-dancing on her bare feet. God, she looked so healthy, her elfin face glowing, well-fed and clean – though still pale and mushroom-like, as if her skin had seen no sun in months. Which made sense if she’d been Outside, beyond the reach of terrestrial light. Where’d she gotten the clothes? The plaid skirt was so her, and the pink poncho had a cute little hood with floppy rabbit ears. Her hair was everywhere as she raked back wisps out of it out of her face. She smelled of foreign bath soap and medical moisturiser, mango and Vaseline. And underneath it all, the lingering taint of Wonderland ash.
“I have so many things I need to ask you,” I said, overwhelmed by emotion.
“Heather, Heather, where did you go? Why did you go?” She laughed, bewildered with me. “I was getting you out.”
“Somebody – something grabbed me. Pulled us apart! Lozzie, I wouldn’t leave, not … not when … I thought you were gone.”
“Ahhhh,” she sighed, nodding and smiling. “Same thing. I can’t leave! Have you tried? I can’t get back Out, it’s so weird.”
“You … you tried to leave again?” An unexpected barb of pain twisted in my chest.
“To find you! You were supposed to be here!”
I swallowed and focused. “Hands on your ankles? Dead hands?”
“Yeah! You too?”
“Weird, huh?” Lozzie smiled at me, a bouncing, happy sort of smile, and hugged me again.
“Ahh, ow. Lozzie, I’m sore, I’m so sore.” She’d come back to me. She was healthy and whole and safe. I laughed, and realised I was crying too. “You got me from Wonderland. You got me. Thank you, Lozzie. Lozzie.” The tears came on full now, I couldn’t stop them, and my voice emerged as a whine. “Lozzie, I’ve lost Raine. They took her somewhere. I can’t- I-”
“No!” Lozzie pulled back, her face set in a serious little frown. “They can’t do that! I’ll help! You love her, this is important! We’ll get her back, I have an idea already!”
“You- you do? Of course you do.” I took a shuddering breath, sniffed, and managed to stop the tears. Lozzie nodded and helped wipe my face. I had to focus. Lozzie likely did not have any ideas that made sense in this reality, but her sheer blinding enthusiasm helped hold me up.
“Little … little Lauren,” Zheng purred, almost a whisper, and we both looked up.
Zheng wore an expression I hadn’t thought her capable of, a lost fragile wonder, her staring contest with the spider forgotten. One huge hand reached out and brushed the top of Lozzie’s head, the gentlest gesture I’d seen Zheng make.
“Oh!” Lozzie lit up again. “You’re awake! Hi, Zheng.” She gave the zombie a little wave. “How’s it feel?”
“This is … I spoke to you, little Lauren, in dreams,” Zheng purred, the stone of her voice softened and blurred. She blinked heavily. Can demons cry? “You gifted me with dreams where I was free.”
“Uh huh, yeah, it was fun!” Lozzie wriggled out of my arms – leaving me more than a little unsteady on my unsupported legs – and threw a hug at Zheng, as unafraid and uninhibited as she had been with me, utterly unintimidated by this rippling giant of barely suppressed violence. Zheng looked as surprised as I felt. Lozzie danced away again, panting and red in the face with excitement. “Did you get her out, Heather? How did you do that?”
“Um, I just removed some of her tattoos. It was … well, it wasn’t easy, it made me pass out. But it was simple enough.”
Lozzie tilted her head back and forth quickly, as if this feat was beyond her imagining. “Wow, cool. Heather, you’re so clever! I could never figure it out.”
“Little Lauren, little … ” Zheng grinned again. “Hahhh. I remember now. My little mooncalf.”
“Mooncalf?” Lozzie pulled a face, stuck out her tongue and pulled down on one lower eyelid. “Ruuuuude.”
Zheng rumbled a low laugh – then froze.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” a tiny voice came from the kitchen doorway. Kimberly, one shuffled step into the room, staring at Zheng with poorly concealed horror, then at me with an uncertain smile. “Heather, hi. I’m- I’m glad you’re alright. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Kim,” I said, trying to sound soft. “I’m glad you’re okay too, you-”
Zheng moved like a foxhound after the scent of blood. She pounced past me in a blur of uncoiling muscle made of quicksilver and lightning. I flinched and gasped, Lozzie let out a little ‘oop’ and hopped backward, Twil growled like a startled dog – and Kimberly wasn’t fast enough to scream. Zheng picked her up by the throat and slammed her against the back wall, knocking all the breath out of her lungs.
“Little wizard,” Zheng hissed through a shark-toothed grin.
“Aw fuck,” Twil shouted, first off the mark – but she had no idea what was happening.
Legs kicking, eyes wide in naked terror, Kimberly opened her mouth to scream. Zheng’s other hand whipped out like a snake and darted forward into the opening, fist jamming Kimberly’s jaw wide open.
Luckily for Kimberly’s tongue, I got there first, one hand on Zheng’s arm. I knew that all the strength in my body wouldn’t be enough to stop the demon’s little finger, but the tone in my voice worked better than any physical restraint. Not a shrill cry, not a scream of panic. A command. A command given to a freed slave.
Slowly, her hand still ready to rip Kimberly’s tongue out at the root, Zheng turned her flesh-eating toothy grin on me.
She radiated cold malice. She thought Kimberly was a threat, but I’d offended her, in probably the single way anyone could.
“ … shaman,” she rumbled through her teeth.
“Kimberly is my friend.” Keeping my voice steady was impossible. I let it quiver. I was terrified, why pretend otherwise? I glanced at Kimberly, pinned to the wall and staring back at me, panting through her nose. She moaned a muted scream around Zheng’s fist, her feet scrabbling at the wall for purchase. In the corner of my eye I saw Twil circling to Zheng’s other side, half-transformed, ready to take her up on that offer of a rematch. “Twil, don’t,” I said out loud. “Zheng, Kimberly is mine. Understand?”
“I recall this one, skulking and worming, filling her grey meat with secrets. Making more like me.”
“What she did in the past does not matter. Or what she was forced to do. Now, she’s mine. And free, like you.”
Zheng let out a growl, a nasty one, like a mountain disagreeing with me. I hiccuped.
“And,” I added, shaking all over. I hiccuped again. “You said that removing your tattoos guaranteed no wizard can bind you with words. I heard you say that. Was that a lie? Is Kimberly dangerous to you? I don’t think she is. She’s helped me. She’s with me. Are you with me?”
Zheng grimaced. She turned a hateful gaze on Kimberly, made the poor woman squeeze her eyes shut, still fighting to breathe.
“Don’t hurt Flowsie, she’s harmless,” Lozzie said. Her little blonde head appeared over Zheng’s arm, peering up at Kimberly. “She’s kind of boring, and stiff, but she’s harmless. Sweet if you catch her alone.”
Zheng looked down at Lozzie and the awful toothy grin died in an instant, as if it couldn’t touch her little mooncalf. The fury in Zheng’s frame dropped away. She levelled a mere nasty look at Kimberly instead, and her huge tongue slowly inched out of her mouth to brush Kimberly’s cringing cheek, before whipping back again.
“Woah shit what,” Twil muttered.
“One betraying twitch from you, wizard,” Zheng purred in Kimberly’s face, and clacked her teeth together. Kimberly tried to nod – difficult with a fist in your mouth – and Zheng dropped her to the floor and stepped back.
“Back further, you big fuck,” Twil growled. Zheng grumbled, but amazingly enough she did as she was asked.
Hacking and coughing, wheezing for breath, shaking and crying, Kimberly flinched as I went to my knees and put my arms around her. “I’m so sorry, Kim. I’m sorry. I didn’t … I didn’t think … I didn’t think, that’s it. I’m sorry.”
“I hate magic so much,” Kimberly whined.
“Good,” Zheng purred.
“You shut the fuck up,” Twil snapped at her.
“Yes, Zheng,” I added quickly. “Please just … just leave it alone.”
Zheng grumbled and refused to look at anybody.
“It’s okay, Flowsie, I don’t hate you.” Lozzie patted Kimberly on the head too, but I suspect that didn’t help. Twil, still eyeing Zheng like an unexploded bomb, fetched Kim a glass of water, which went down without obstruction and was quickly followed by another. It took us a while to get the poor woman back to her feet, by which time Zheng had retreated to the other side of the room, brooding like a moody teenager.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here,” Kimberly kept saying. “I keep screwing everything up, I-I can’t-”
“You don’t screw everything up, and that wasn’t your fault,” I said.
“It was,” Kimberly hiccuped. “I deserved it. The zombie’s right, I did so many terrible things. And now I’ve screwed up everything here too. We can’t wake miss Saye up, and I hid when you needed help. And it’s my fault that we’ve got … ” She trailed off at a look from Twil. I glanced between them.
“She thinks the police woman’s her fault,” Lozzie said. “Typical Flowsie.”
“ … police?” I echoed, going cold inside. “Oh no, what is this? Twil?”
“Oops!” Lozzie bit her lips. “We’re not talking about that?”
“I was, like, getting there. Okay?” said Twil.
“I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault,” Kimberly repeated. “I shouldn’t have opened the front door in the first place.”
“Twil?” I demanded.
Her eyes slid to the closed door of the disused sitting room.
With terrible inevitability and a growing sense of unreality, I stepped over to the door, turned the handle, and opened it on the curtained and shadowed room inside.
I’m not certain exactly how long I stared. It felt both too long and too short at the same time. Mortified, my mind racing at a million miles an hour, yet unable to process the implications of what lay in front of me. A pair of solidly stoic eyes stared back at me, neither accusing nor pleading, but quite afraid.
I closed the door, paused, then turned the handle and opened it again, hoping that something different might be inside. Nope, still the same. I closed the door a second time. Straighted up, took a breath, let it out slowly.
“Heather-” Twil started.
“Please, Twil.” I raised a finger. “Please, please tell me that is not a real police constable we have bound and gagged in there?”