Supernatural revelation is one thing; it is another entirely to know in exhaustive detail just what sort of things are going bump in the night in one’s hometown.
Terror, denial, paranoia, these are all extreme responses, yes, but they are also rational. Few of us are truly suited for this side of the world, and there is no shame in it. Some days – even when we’re not in the middle of a crisis – I can barely deal with what I know, I want to curl up and hide, pretend none of it is real. Kimberly shouldn’t be involved at all, jumping at shadows and skirting a nervous breakdown. Often I suspected Evelyn herself would be much happier if she’d never known the truth behind reality. We all deal with it differently.
Detective Sargent Nicole Webb took notes.
“Let me get this straight-” she said.
“Not gonna find much o’ that round here,” Lozzie stage-whispered.
“You’re telling me these people,” Nicole continued, gesturing in little circles with her pen. “This esoteric mystery cult, right here, 21st century Britain, normal people walking around in the Goddamn street – not only are they doing real magic, but they’re after you. You specifically, Heather.”
I sighed and felt an unaccountable urge to apologise. “Yes.”
“Because – and stop me here if I’ve missed an essential building block – because you were abducted by a giant alien eyeball when you were nine, and it gave you magical powers?”
“That’s not … ” I sighed again. “Yes.”
“And now you seriously expect me to believe that you’re not some kind of chosen one?” Nicole chuckled and shook her head. She leafed back through her notes. “Bugger me.”
“The world doesn’t work that way.”
“Bloody well hope not.”
“If it did, I’d be considerably less afraid.”
Nicole glanced up from her notes, a tiny leather-bound pocketbook. She caught the look in my eyes and stopped laughing. “Right. Scared for your … Raine, was it?”
I squinted at her. “Yes. You do have her name spelled right?”
“’Course I have. Attention to detail, it’s part of the job.”
We’d decamped to the disused sitting room once more. Brainmath effort had left my knees weak and my stomach tender and my head throbbing. Had to sit down, and the soiled kitchen was no fit place for a civilised conversation, what with the bloodstained floor and Zheng sprawled all over like a sleepy sun-drenched jaguar. The food in her belly and the lack of anything to fight, kill, or eat seemed to have put her into a lethargic holding pattern. She’d waved off my invitation to join us, claiming she could hear perfectly well from where she sat.
Lozzie and Twil had helped me onto the old sofa, and somebody had the bright idea of handing me a bowl of cereal to calm my stomach, which worked admirably, the first real food I’d had in hours. Twil had returned to the kitchen to attempt more evidence removal, while I unfolded Sharrowford’s nighttime secrets, but she’d rejoined us again toward the end, brooding at Nicole from the doorway.
The detective had taken a seat on an ancient, half-collapsed armchair, and cracked jokes about how she needed “just the facts, ma’am”. One leg crossed over the other, back straight, chin high as she listened. She even let her hair down and re-tied it into a well-contained doubled-up pony-tail, the bun abandoned for now.
Somehow, she regained all her dignity, with no sign she’d been tied up in this same room not an hour ago.
“Yes, here she is,” Nicole confirmed. “Raine Philomena Haynes. I’ve got all the details I’ll need.”
“Read it back to me,” I croaked, then added, a touch too slow, “Please.”
Nicole raised an eyebrow, but did as I asked. “Twenty years old, twenty one in July. No known next of kin. Address is here, number 12 Barnslow drive, Sharrowford. She’s a student at Sharrowford University, studying PPE. No full time employment, but she does take some shifts in the student union bar. Short brown hair, brown eyes, about five eleven in height, athletic build.”
Hearing her reduced to such a cold description made me want to be sick. “That’s Raine.”
“Text me a picture of her and it’ll save time. You’ve got my number now, right?”
“Right,” I murmured.
Twil, lounging against the door frame in picture-perfect girl-gang thug mode, arms crossed and scowling, let out a sudden low growl.
Nicole visibly suppressed a flinch. “Wish you wouldn’t do that, werewolf girl.”
“Why?” Twil said. “Does it bother you?”
“I know you don’t like me, and you want to intimidate me, and yes. For your information that is very intimidating.”
“It is so not,” Lozzie chirped from her spot on the floor. Despite the ample space next to me on the sofa, Lozzie had chosen to sit cross-legged on the floor at my feet, pointed at Nicole and watching her face intently the whole time we’d been talking. “If you can say it’s scary, it’s not really scary.”
Nicole allowed herself a small, controlled laugh. “Interesting logic.”
“It’s not logic.” Lozzie pulled a disgusted face. “Blergh.”
Twil growled again.
“Drop it,” I snapped at her, then sighed and forced myself to be reasonable. “She’s helping us, Twil. I appreciate your feelings and your worries, but playing guard dog doesn’t help right now.”
“I don’t like that she’s keeping notes,” Twil said through clenched teeth. “Notes on us.”
Nicole shrugged with the notebook. “How else am I supposed to keep track of all this shit? Any detective worth their salt is going to be keeping notes, though I’ll admit it’s an unusual choice of subject matter.”
Twil frowned at her, thinking. “What about like … photographic memory?”
“That’s only on telly,” I said.
“What if somebody finds it and reads it?” Twil pressed.
“Nobody’d believe any of this anyway.” Nicole shrugged. “Worst case, I take a spell in the loony bin.”
“Don’t say that!” Lozzie squeaked.
“Besides, it’s not like I’m writing down your whole bloody cosmology, just things I can do something about.” She tapped a page with the end of her pen. “This Sarika woman, for example, I’d very much like to have a word with her, though she’s gonna be hard to pinpoint. That’s not exactly an uncommon name for British Indian women. Hell, I know a couple of Sarikas at the station. Your description wasn’t very remarkable either.”
“My apologies,” I croaked, but Nicole ignored the sarcasm.
“So, not much chance of finding her. Except … ” Nicole smiled thinly. “Except for mister Alexander Lilburne. Now that’s a man with quite a footprint.”
“A dead one,” Lozzie said – then smiled to herself.
“Yes, but I might be able to trace some of his contacts, the old-fashioned way. If I can turn up Amy Stack – if that’s her real name – I can lean on her. Somebody like that’s gonna have plenty of priors. If this Sarika was close to Alexander, or had any regular business dealings with him, she might crop up, if we’re lucky.” Nicole caught my eye and shot me a wink.
I nodded, but privately kept a steady hand on any hope. Finding Raine was still my responsibility, my method had the best chance of working. A washed up ex-homicide detective and a missing person’s report stood in distant third place. I wasn’t going to turn her down though.
“Would be a lot easier if your friend here could remember more details.” Nicole said, nodding toward Lozzie. “If Sarika was mister Lilburne’s girlfriend, and Lauren here is his little sister, then-”
“I was in a castle!” Lozzie repeated for the third time this last hour. “And you don’t know my name! Ssttzzz!” She made a zipping sound and drew her fingers across her mouth.
Nicole raised her hands in surrender. “Alright, castle, yes, right. Bet you’re glad to be out of there, Rapunzel.”
None of us laughed. Lozzie stared at the detective as one would at a misbehaving cat. I sighed and rubbed at the bridge of my nose.
“Tough crowd, okay,” Nicole continued, glancing back at her notes. “As for the rest of it, well, sounds like you’ve already shut down this conspiracy snatching homeless people off the streets. Wish you hadn’t chased the ringleader out of the city, I could have her charged with something.” She paused and sucked her teeth in thought. “Not like there’d be any evidence, I suppose. Does solve the mystery of the spike of missing persons cases over the last year, at least.”
“Cold comfort for the dead,” I croaked.
Nicole caught the chill in my eyes. She opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it and nodded instead. “I know. I’m sorry. My bedside manner’s shot to hell right now.”
“Yeah, you know. How you talk to the public, victims, that sort of thing.”
“ … so you don’t really care,” I said. “You don’t care that the cult were killing people? Because they didn’t matter, because they were homeless?”
“Of course I care.” She frowned at me. “Why else would I be sitting here asking you about it? Look, you work homicide for any number of years and you have to learn how to bottle your emotions up, or you’ll lose it. Yeah, look at me, I’m hardly some beer-swilling institutional racist who thinks all the bums deserve what they get.”
“ACAB,” Lozzie whispered.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Nicole grunted back.
Why had I goaded her? Why did I care what she thought? Detective Webb was not my friend. At best she was a potential ally, an asset; at the very least she was a diffused land mine. If she exited our lives and never came back, I’d count that as a good outcome.
“Detective … no … ” I scowled at myself, trying to think past the fog of exhaustion and too many hours strung out on adrenaline. “Nicole, why do you care?”
“Why do I care about dead homeless people? I dunno, maybe because I’m not a monster?”
“No, why do you care about any of this? Thank you for agreeing to file the missing persons report for Raine, but why are you interested in the rest? Why do you care?”
Nicole blinked twice and me and laughed, this time not controlled at all. “You prove to me that magic exists, and you’re asking why I care?”
“Ah … um … hmm.” I cleared my throat. Twil snorted a laugh at my expense too. “Well, yes, but that’s not actually what I meant.”
“I know what you meant, I’m just messing with you,” Nicole said. “Look, I’ll spell it out, I’m interested because I haven’t done real police work in years. My life’s a dead end. I got fuck all to live for most days except good weed and MMOS.” Nicole managed to say that without looking the least bit pathetic, in her long coat and her mask of professionalism. “Was thinking about quitting the force this year actually, but I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. PI work I suppose, but I doubt I’ve got it in me to follow cheating spouses and do light industrial espionage.” She tapped the notebook. “This all seems pretty damn real to me.”
“Magic is not a good choice for a mid-life crisis. You really don’t want to be involved, not unless you have to.”
“Maybe I do have to.”
Twil growled. Nicole flinched again and shot her a look. “And what was that one for?”
“You think I’m scary?” Twil said. “You ain’t seen nothing.”
“You’ll get eaten,” Lozzie added.
“Maybe.” Nicole shot her a wink. Lozzie turned her nose up and made a ‘humph’ sound. “I’d like to think I’m smart enough not to walk into Glasswick tower, after what you’ve told me is up there, but I almost have to see it for myself.”
“No. No you don’t,” I said, sighing and resisting the urge to put my face in my hands. “This is exactly what I meant.”
“You’re gonna diii-iie,” Lozzie sing-songed.
“Your Evee girl had the right idea about Glasswick tower,” Nicole said, dead serious. “Good instincts on her. Like to talk to her, once she’s up and about.”
Twil blinked at her. “ … what right idea? You mean blow it up?”
Nicole nodded. “Demolition.”
I stared at Nicole for a moment as my mouth struggled to make sounds. “I … you … you can’t be serious.”
“Perfectly safe if you do it the right way.” A slightly mad smile crested Nicole’s face as she spoke, the detective’s mask dropping away before a moment of excitement. “Set up whatever you need to, cast your spells or whatever, then call in a fake bomb threat from a burner mobile phone, preferably from way over in another county, or drive to Scotland or something. Further away the better, bounce it through a VPN over the internet, call from another dimension. Can you do that?”
“No,” I grunted.
“Sorry. Anyway, a fake bomb threat gets the other tower nice and emptied out. You wait for the police cordon to go up, but before the bomb squad goes in. Not difficult, we don’t have local resources for that anymore, not since nearly twenty years back. So you wait until it’s clear, and then-” she clicked her fingers. “Boom.”
“ … you’re a police officer. You’re not meant to instruct teenage girls how to blow up buildings.”
“Would that actually work?” Twil asked with baited breath. “Fuck that place.”
“This seems like a good exception to an otherwise sensible rule,” Nicole said to me. “Assuming you’re not lying, which is an interesting question, isn’t it?” She suddenly stopped, made a ‘hmm’ noise, and frowned at me in a speculative sort of way.
“What?” Twil bristled instantly, unfolding her arms.
“Yes, what do you mean?” A sinking feeling dragged the pit of my stomach. Had all our work been for nothing?
Nicole held up a hand to stall us. “No no, don’t get me wrong, I believe you about all the magic stuff. You’ve convinced me, you don’t have to call Gandalf over and turn me into a frog. You’re all wizards, mages, werewolves, whatever. We all live in a very stupid universe, fine, I’ll probably have a nervous breakdown about it this evening, but for practical purposes we’re past that.” She paused, raised her chin, and pointed at me with her pen. “But what if you’re not the good guys?”
“Ooooh! Ooooh, she’s clever!” Lozzie lit up, clapping her hands.
I realised exactly what Nicole was doing; the way she spoke almost compelled an answer. Was it her tone of her voice, or the way she made eye contact? Or something more subtle, some aspect of her body language I couldn’t read? She’d built a rapport, and now out came the tripwires and traps, waiting for one of us to blunder into them. It took a considerable effort of will to keep my mouth shut.
Twil wasn’t so resilient. “Fuck you, we’re the … we … what? What do you even mean?”
“What if you’re actually just as bad as this cult you’ve been telling me about?” Nicole’s eyes moved to each of us in turn, watching our reactions. Lozzie stuck her tongue out. “Or they haven’t done half the things you’ve said they have, and you’re feeding me a pack of lies to get me on your side? Police detective stumbles into a situation, maybe you decide to make the best of it, present yourselves as the victims, and I can’t verify anything. Hell, Heather, you’ve admitted to two cases of homicide, one murder and one manslaughter. I should be putting you in cuffs and taking you down the station.”
I watched her carefully too, with a lump in my throat. She let her last statement stand for itself, a threat or a warning, I couldn’t even tell – it worked as one, but not in the way she intended.
Earlier, when she’d been bound and gagged, I’d leapt straight to killing her as the only answer. Only Lozzie had made me see sense. A potential was awake in me, and I didn’t like it.
“But you won’t,” I said – and hiccuped once.
Nicole raised both hands. “It’s just a hypothetical. For the record, I do sort of trust you’re telling the truth. For now.”
“Hey!” Twil barked at her.
“Twil, down,” I grumbled.
“So, other than you three, the girl upstairs in a … ‘magical coma’,” Nicole pronounced those words very carefully. “And the giant in the kitchen, that leaves the girl hiding in back. Didn’t think I’d forget about her, did you?”
I frowned through the growing haze of exhaustion. “What?”
“The one with the cute hair. Short. Scared of everything. What was she, a ghost?”
“Leave Flowsie alone,” Lozzie chirped.
“Oh, Kimberly.” I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. “She’s a mage, but inexperienced. She was with the cult, and we … well.”
“Rescued her,” Twil growled. Didn’t take an animal behaviour expert to read that warning note – back off, detective.
“ … right,” Nicole said at length. “Rescued, I see.”
“She’s already told us about everything she was involved in,” I said. “Don’t make things harder for her. I’m reasonably sure she has some kind of PTSD.”
“What?” Twil blinked at me. “She does? Kim?”
Lozzie stuck her tongue out and rolled her eyes at Twil.
“What do you think?” I asked, and Twil grimaced.
“I’m trained in exactly this sort of thing,” Nicole said, her voice losing its edge. “They used to send me into interview rooms when we had a semi-cooperative witness, scared and difficult. Soft touch, you know? I might be able to get her to talk about things that you haven’t.”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “Not now. She’s working.”
Nicole acquiesced with a nod. “Maybe some other time.” She puffed out a breath, tucked her notebook back into her coat pocket, and stood. “Suppose it’s time I got back to work anyway. Sooner or later people are gonna be asking where I’ve got to.”
“Just like that?” Twil grunted. “You’re done?”
“Just like that.” Nicole shrugged. “You lot are fascinating people, I’m sure, but some of us have day jobs. That is unless you want an extra pair of capable hands around, when this other wizard shows up to treat your friend upstairs?”
“We’ll be fine,” I grunted, and picked myself up as well. Lozzie bounced to her feet too. “If you want to help, look for Sarika. If not, if you want to go back to your life … ” I ran out of words, stopped myself from saying ‘please don’t’, ‘please look for Raine’, help.
“Better than pushing papers,” she said.
“I like pushing papers.”
Nicole laughed. “Then you’re in the wrong vocation, aren’t you?”
As we watched Nicole leave, walking down the garden path and along Barnslow drive with a glance back over her shoulder, her long coat swishing around her legs, Twil growled a question half to me and half to herself. “What if she dobs us in anyway?”
“Then several of her colleagues will die, Outside,” I said. Twil blinked at me, brought up short.
“ … wasn’t that like … a bluff?”
“I don’t think so,” I murmured. “I don’t think it was.”
Not quite the same as being ripped raw and bleeding from the Eye’s clutches, but Lozzie saved me a second time that morning. She found me nodding off on the toilet.
‘Found’ is perhaps putting it a bit too strongly. I doubt she strayed from the bathroom door the whole time. She probably heard me sit down, heard the sigh escape my lips, and the long silence as my prediction came to pass; as soon as I relaxed all the exhaustion of the last twelve hours came rushing up to overwhelm me.
I blinked awake to the sight of Lozzie sticking her head around the door, her poncho’s hood hanging down with her hair, elfin face peering at me.
“Mm!” I inhaled sharply and sat up from where I’d been drooping. “Loz- wha-” I blinked, bleary eyed, breathing too fast, feeling a hundred times worse than when I’d stepped into the bathroom. My head was throbbing and my chest felt fragile as thin porcelain. “ … Lozzie, I’m on the toilet.”
“I know! I knocked.”
I blinked at her – and put my knees together, self-conscious despite Lozzie’s complete lack of embarrassment.
“Your eyes were closed,” she said.
“Mmm. Mm, they were. Let me finish, okay? … please?”
Lozzie pulled a pouting careful thought. “You need sugar,” she announced, and promptly shut the door again. I heard her patter across the hall and tumble down the stairs in a staccato of footsteps.
Getting myself moving again was more of a challenge than I was up to. Part of me seriously advocated for more sleep right here.
I hadn’t felt this drained in months, not since my last – and, God willing, final – bout of nightmares sent by the Eye, the grinding sleep deprivation that Raine and the Fractal had finally banished. Too much had happened since last evening, between the home invasion and Wonderland, Zheng and the long walk home, our uninvited guest and my unconscionable knee-jerk solution. I’d pushed brainmath out when I knew I shouldn’t, and I’d finally run down all the adrenaline in my body. Now, I was ready to drop.
Couldn’t even finish up properly in the bathroom. For a long time I just stared at the wall, a limbo state like being ill in bed, unable to move but unwilling to sleep. As I dried my hands, I put my forehead against the cool surface of the wall and closed my eyes. A moment later the bathroom door opened again, but I couldn’t summon the energy to respond.
“ … Heather?” Lozzie ventured a few seconds later.
“Is that comfy?” she asked.
“Then you shouldn’t do it.” One of her hands found my head and gently patted my hair.
“Just a moment. Just rest for a moment. I’ll be … be fine.”
“Mm-mmm, mm-mmmmmm,” Lozzie chirped with agreement – then took my hand in hers and gently peeled me away from the comfy sleeping spot on the cold hard wall. I grumbled, but allowed her to guide me the few paces out of the bathroom and across the creaking hallway floorboards, though I drew the line when she tried to pull me into my bedroom.
“No- no, I need to stay on my feet,” I said, blinking and trying to rouse myself. “This Felicity woman will be here soon, I can’t rest.”
“Yeah okay!” Lozzie lit up with her bouncy smile and held a bottle out to me. A neon-blue energy drink, one of Raine’s, the label proudly declaring how much caffeine it would dump into my bloodstream.
I hadn’t actually expected Lozzie to agree, let alone egg me on. I was so used to Raine seamlessly coaxing me into looking after myself, that for a moment I didn’t know what to do.
Then I accepted the bottle, twisted the cap off, and took a deep, glugging drink. Wiped my mouth on my sleeve. Burped. “ … thank you. Can we get coffee? Coffee would be divine right now.”
Lozzie pulled a big wince. “Kitchen smells of blood.”
“I can make coffee. I’ll need to take a shower before all this is over anyway. You don’t have to follow if you can’t stand it.”
Lozzie nodded thankfully. “Keeping safe distance, hands inside, mind the gap.”
And make coffee I did, two mugs of it one after the other. The first lukewarm and downed without pleasure, the second hot, extra-strong, loaded with sugar and little regard for what this concentration of caffeine was doing for my health.
I had to keep my head together, deal with Felicity, and then find the reserves of energy to locate Raine. Shaving a few years off my life was a small price; if I’d never met Raine in the first place, I was certain I’d have been dead by thirty anyway.
Lozzie stayed safely in the front room while I brewed what she called my ‘go-faster bean-juice’, and I didn’t blame her. Twil was still trying to clean up the worst of the mess, but she’d obviously reached the end of her motivation. Getting blood off a slate floor was harder than it looked, let alone figuring out what to do with all the soiled sponges and rags, especially when one had to contend with a seven-foot mouthy demon trying to bait you into accepting a duel.
“I am doing no such thing, shaman. It is not ‘bait’.”
“She called me a fucking poodle!” Twil said. “Overgrown bitch.”
“Save for it for when we’re not in the middle of a crisis, perhaps?” I said. “That’s just a suggestion, by the way.”
Zheng grumbled, stretched, and crossed her ankles on the table. At least she’d finally taken her boots off.
“Maybe help Twil clean up?” I shot back over my shoulder, as I carried my coffee into the front room, eager to get back to Lozzie.
That precipitated another sniping match between Twil and Zheng. If I’d been less tired and less focused, I probably would have intervened, but something in Zheng’s body language told me she was only playing now, like an older cat toying with a younger one. She didn’t ripple with the tension of real violence, all her musculature exhibited an economy of motion, a bone-deep relaxation.
Lucky her. Zheng didn’t care, not really, not in the way we mere monkeys did.
When I stepped into the front room with my coffee, Lozzie was gone.
No mistaking her absence from the soft shadows, no place for her to hide even among the piles of old boxes, no wispy blonde hair or the light touch of her feet crossing the floorboards.
Her absence woke me more than any amount of caffeine.
“Loz- … ” My voice came out strangled. My heart stopped. My eyes felt wet. She’d gone. She’d gone again. I couldn’t believe the pain, more sharp and sudden than I’d expected. “ … Lozzie?”
“I’m up here!” A hand poked out from around the top of the stairs, and Lozzie came pattering down. “This house has the best windows but they’re all in funny places, why is there one at the top of the stairs like that but none next to the front door? You can’t see who’s creeping up on you, it’s really silly, it’s like the house was built for things except living in. Which makes sense, right? It’s a magician’s house, isn’t it? Heather? … Heather?” Lozzie bobbed to a stop in front of me, tilting her head back and forth and peering at my eyes.
“ … I’m fine, I’m sorry. I … I thought you’d gone … somewhere.” I sniffed and wiped my eyes, and covered my emotional mistake by sipping my piping hot coffee and almost burning my tongue.
“I double promised! That’s twice as powerful as a regular promise. Haven’t you ever done a double promise before?”
“ … no, as a matter of fact, I haven’t.”
I’d learnt Lozzie’s way of thinking, back in the dreams we’d shared, and allowed myself a moment of comfort in simply regarding her and recalling the sensation of those dream-land meetings. Carefree, uninhibited, unafraid. She looked back at me with her permanently sleepy gaze, her eye muscles never quite working right.
I had so much to ask her. “I’m fine,” I lied. “I was just thinking about you.”
Another bouncy smile leapt onto her face. “I think about you a lot too!”
“You … Lozzie,” I sighed at her. If we’d been in any other circumstances, I may have blushed, though I know she didn’t mean it in that way. “Thank you, I think? Oh, Lozzie, I have-”
“-so many questions-”
I blinked at her in shock as we finished each others sentences. Lozzie giggled and bit her lower lip, then flipped up the hood on her poncho and waggled the attached rabbit-ears.
“ … I have to admit, that was a little bit creepy,” I managed.
“Noooo! No no no, not creepy!”
“You’re not in my head somehow, are you?”
“No! We just know each other really well, I think? Of course you have lots of questions, I would! I do! But you-”
“-keep them practical-”
“-for now. Yes.” I clamped a hand to my mouth, as if trying to catch my own words. Lozzie giggled. “Uh- maybe, maybe don’t do that again. Please. That’s … ”
“You did it that time, though,” she pointed out.
“I did? I did, yes. Okay, no, that’s not normal.”
“You mean Raine and you never finish each other’s sentences?”
“Sometimes. Not like that.”
“But you have sex together! She’s in your head more than I am. I’m just really, really good at not thinking, and that means I can think your thoughts too. There’s no magic to it, I promise!”
I gave up and took a long swig of coffee instead. Deciphering the inside of Lauren Lilburne’s head could wait; she was right, I needed to stick to practical questions – the dreams, where she’d been all these weeks, her contact with Maisie, all of that could wait.
“Lozzie, what was that thing you used to save me from the Eye? The … knight?”
“Oooh, yes! That’s what I should call them!” Lozzie bounced on her toes and clapped her hands together in delight. “Didn’t it look cool? And it worked, which is the really important bit, yes. Doesn’t matter if something looks cool if it breaks … but … mmm,” Lozzie’s frowned in difficult thought. She bit her lip. “I suppose he did break, in the end.”
“He? … he did?” I stammered, lost for a moment “It?”
“He.” Lozzie nodded. “Wasn’t it cool though?”
I tried to picture the shining apparition in armour, but it proved difficult. Mostly I remembered the Eye’s tentacles inside my mind, and that brought a wave of nausea up from my guts and made my heart rate spike, until I closed my eyes and forced it down. All I could recall was an impression of living steel animated by lightning. “I was a bit preoccupied at that particular moment.”
“You were, yes! I’ll wanna show you all the rest of them, but we can’t get to them right now.”
“There’s more of them? Wait, Lozzie, back up. You made that thing?”
“Mmhmm!” She nodded, then shook her head. “I made the shells, but the kami inside want to help, because I’m me. I told you I’d get help, and it worked! One alone is sort of weak though, hmmm.” She bit her lower lip in thought, eyes far away for a moment.
My brain struggled to catch up. “You made … knights, with pneuma-somatic creatures inside? To block out the Eye, in Wonderland?”
“Yeah!” Lozzie threw both arms in the air. “Praise me!”
“ … I love you,” I said, an unbidden smile coming to my face, despite everything, despite my best friend in a coma and my lover missing and my world crumbling apart. Lozzie let out a little ‘oop!’ noise as I pulled her into a spontaneous hug, giggling and hugging me back. When I let go I had to wipe my eyes on my sleeve.
Couldn’t let myself think about Maisie right now. Couldn’t let myself hope. Focus.
“Can you … ” I struggled, swallowed. “Can you bring one of those knights here? We need everything we can get to save Raine, every little … no?”
Lozzie’s stage-perfect wince made her answer crystal clear. “They don’t work up here, they fall apart. Like a deep-sea fish brought up to the surface, they’ll just – ploop,” she made a popping noise with her mouth and spread her hand out. “Sort of like me, you know?” She giggled, nervous and awkward all of a sudden. “And I can’t get Outside right now anyway, not with mister handsy whenever we try to leave.”
“Yes, yes that’s a good point.” I nodded, putting the issue of Lozzie’s Knights of the Spooky Table to one side for the moment. “What about … what about Tenny? You said-”
“She’ll be fine!” Lozzie chirped. “She’ll be out of the cocoon in a couple of days, I think, but it might be longer because she stayed in larval form too long and absorbed waaaay too much information. I don’t know what that does?”
She stopped – an actual question.
“Neither do I?” I tried. “Lozzie, I can’t do the things you can. I can’t manipulate spirits.”
She pouted. “It’s not manipulation. She’s growing.”
“Okay, so what’s going to come out of the cocoon?”
Lozzie shrugged, then frowned at me in sudden strange worry. “You did treat her nice, didn’t you?”
“Ah, yes. Yes, I think I get the idea.” I cast my mind back to when Evelyn had trapped Tenny inside a magic circle, and decided not to mention that. I took another swig of my almost-empty coffee, and realised my hand was shaking. I knew what I had to ask, and how it was the first step on a long chain that might lead me down to dark places – failure, or worse.
“Lozzie, I’m almost afraid to ask – uh, actually I am afraid to ask. Very. You said you might have an idea about how to find Raine.”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded. She swept one arm back to indicate the front door. “We can just ask.”
“ … ask who?”
“The kami, who else?”
“Oh. I actually tried that this morning, and they ignored me.”
“Mmm?!” Lozzie made a sound like a surprised chimpanzee. “What? Why?”
“I don’t think I’m very popular,” I said in lieu of a real explanation.
“But I am!”
Beyond the boundary of the garden wall Sharrowford’s pneuma-somatic life skittered and slithered, stalked and strutted, floated and flitted, a natural world – if horribly unnatural at the best of times – carrying on as normal, while we jumped-up apes had our crises and dramas.
“I just hate the idea of stuff I can’t see, you know? It’s creepy as shit,” Twil said, staring at Lozzie out in the middle of the road.
“Trust me, seeing doesn’t make it any less creepy,” I replied.
“Huh.” Twil walked a few paces along the top of the garden wall, keeping level with Lozzie.
We were quite conspicuous – Twil standing on the waist-high wall, on lookout like a gargoyle with her hands in her pockets, me fretting and shivering on the pavement, wrapped in coat and scarf in a bid to keep warm, and Lozzie standing in the middle of the street, speaking and gesticulating to unseen entities, unseen to everyone except me – but Barnslow drive was dead quiet, only stagnant puddles and moldering leaves to witness three strange girls going about some very strange business. I looked and felt like hell, but if the need arose I could pass myself off as a university student with a terrible hangover.
“How much longer she gonna be?” Twil asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”
“Wanna get back inside already,” Twil all but growled through her teeth. “Don’t like Evee being alone.”
Kimberly was in the house too, but I dropped the subject. We’d looked in on her before we’d stepped outdoors, hidden away in Evelyn’s magical workshop, down on her hands and knees drawing a magic circle on the floor around Praem’s wooden bones. She’d looked dead-eyed and drained, scrubbing away incorrect portions of the circle and muttering to herself as she worked.
“What’s it look like?” Twil interrupted my chain of thought.
“ … weird.”
Over the last few minutes, Lozzie had called together a growing gaggle of spirit creatures, mostly via waving her arms and whistling, pointing at one or two warped monsters like they were cheeky puppies trying to hide from a vet’s visit, touching scales and brittle fur and stroking things that made my skin crawl. They mobbed her ankles, sat to attention, listened attentively to her whispered greetings and requests. As we watched, two spirits – a blobby humanoid with skin like dead slugs and a bird-like monster with three spindly legs – peeled off from the group and vanished into the depths of the city.
“I think it’s working,” I muttered, trying not to hope. “She’s making progress, she-”
“Car coming,” Twil snapped. I looked up the road, following her nod.
“I see it too. Lozzie? Lozzie?” I raised my voice, but she went on talking to the spirits, waving her arms and pointing, drawing a map in the air with her fingertip. “Lozzie, there’s a car coming. Lozzie!”
“Uh, Heather,” Twil said, and hopped down off the wall. She jerked a thumb at the approaching car. “I think this is our girl. Old range rover, right?”
“Oh, oh shoot, now? Lozzie, get out of the road,” I called, splitting my attention. “Twil, I can’t- I can’t wade into that. There’s too much, and you can’t see it. Please?”
“Right you are,” Twil nodded. She stepped out into the road. I averted my eyes from the gruesome spectacle of her passing through pneuma-somatic flesh to take Lozzie by the arm. Lozzie giggled and went “oops!” and then they both clattered back onto the pavement beside me. I turned just in time to see the pack of spirits scattering in a dozen different directions. A hound-ghoul thing sprinted right past me on all fours, racing down to the far end of Barnslow drive and the task Lozzie had set.
“Ooooh, that was nice, seeing everyone,” Lozzie chirped, a great big smile on her face. I frowned at her, but we didn’t have time to discuss the philosophical implications of that.
“Think we should get inside?” Twil asked. She stepped in front of Lozzie and I, watching the car as it slowed.
Part of me wanted to say yes.
“We’re fiiiiine. We’re surrounded by friends,” Lozzie said, gesturing at the rooftops and trees.
The approaching car was exactly the sort we’d been told to look out for. A battered old range rover in dark green, the edges of its bodywork eaten by chains of rust and caked in the sort of dirt patterns that came only from sitting in place for months on end. Once a luxury item but now undoubtedly a nightmare to keep running, despite the healthy purring of the powerful engine as it pulled to a stop a safe distance from us.
The side windows were tinted, but the windscreen was not.
“ … you … you think that’s her?” Twil asked.
I stared too, confused for a moment as the woman in the car examined us. She looked over at the house, then down at her hands or into her lap, seemed to take a steadying breath, and finally killed the engine.
“Yes, Twil,” I said. “I think it’s safe to assume this is her.”
“I already don’t like her,” Twil hissed.
“Twil,” I scolded, half-aware of Lozzie scurrying behind me and clinging to my shoulders, peering around me. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
“No, it’s not the- shit,” Twil grimaced. “It’s not the way she looks, it’s … I dunno.”
The woman in the car reached over into the passenger footwell and lifted a large sports bag over her shoulder. She partially unzipped it and stuck a gloved hand inside, keeping it there as she opened the car door and stepped out onto the pavement.
“Hello?” I tried. “Felicity? You are- oh.” My voice caught in my throat. I hiccuped.
She kept her eyes on us, kept one hand on the half-open door – and kept the end of the bag pointed in our general direction.
Twil grit her teeth and bristled with threat. “Hey! Hey, what the fuck is that? What are you doing?”
The woman didn’t say anything, but she did flinch, quite hard. Her single good eye flicked between us.
Felicity Amber Hackett – her full name, as I learnt a little later – wore a heavy dark cardigan with obvious repair at the wrists and high neck, a pair of thick comfortable jeans, black leather gloves, and sturdy boots. She also had the most extensive visible scarring I’d ever seen in real life. Even with her pointing a concealed weapon at us, my heart went out to the human being in front of me. One cannot witness such a sight and not feel the echo of old pain on one’s own skin.
Fully one half of her face was consumed by burn scar.
The left half. Old, very old, the skin rough and ridged. The scar stretched from where her hairline should be, down across brow and eye and cheek and jaw and throat, narrowly missing her nose, and vanished down inside the neck of her cardigan. Impossible to hide, and she made no effort to, except the way her reddish-brown hair fell naturally about her face. Beneath her hair, I could tell she had no left ear.
Her afflicted eye was a milky-white, sight burned away long ago. The mystery of her mumble was solved too – the left corner of her mouth was engulfed in the scarring, a small portion of her lips missing. Perhaps speaking normally was uncomfortable for her. Perhaps it was painful. I felt awful for assuming some dark supernatural cause.
Beneath the scarring, Felicity was hardly an intimidating person. Tall, maybe six feet, willowy but brittle-looking, as if moving did not come naturally to her. Mid-thirties perhaps, or older.
The healthy side of her face showed an unguarded skittish softness, better suited to owning a cosy bookstore or a flower shop, not being a mage.
Perhaps I was projecting.
“Hey-” Twil barked again.
“Felicity, yes?” I spoke quickly, struggling to disarm this before it got worse. “I’m Heather, I’m the one you spoke to on the phone. We’re not here to intercept you, we were doing something unrelated. Don’t point that at us, whatever it is.”
“Pointing is rude,” Lozzie chirped over my shoulder.
“It won’t work anyway, I can pluck bullets out of the air,” I forced myself to say, leaving out the fact I’d only done it once.
“She can! It’s true!” Lozzie cheered for me.
Twil just growled again.
Felicity let out a sudden hard breath. She swung the sports bag away, but still kept her right hand inside. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Precautions. You understand? You must understand.”
She spoke in that same half-mumble. I was right about her mouth, she spoke mostly out of the right side,
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil said, aghast. “Three girls in the middle of the street, what kinda ‘precautions’ do you need for that?”
“I don’t know what any of you are,” Felicity said, her tone almost apologetic. “And yes, yes, I’m Felicity. Heather, yes?”
“Yes,” I repeated. I stepped forward and offered her my hand, with Lozzie in tow. Felicity hesitated, then closed the car door with a soft thump, and slowly let go of whatever she was holding inside the bag. She shook my hand. Strong grip. “This is Lozzie, she’s …”
“You have really nice eyes,” Lozzie said. Her tone left no room for doubt as to her sincerity. A genuine compliment. Felicity blinked at her.
“It’s complicated,” I said. “And this is Twil, she’s a werewolf, so you were probably right to point a gun at her.”
“She only bites on command,” I said. Twil spluttered.
“I take it this is the place then?” Felicity glanced sidelong at the house. “It does look the part. Very Saye.”
I nodded. “Yes it is, and it does. Thank you for coming.”
She stared at me, and swallowed. “ … I have to warn you first. Uh,” she struggled for a moment, wetting her lips and casting about at the three of us. “Just you three? Three kids, is that it?”
“We’re all adults here,” I said, leaving out the issue that I actually didn’t know Lozzie’s real age.
“Damn right,” Twil grunted.
“And we should get inside,” I said. “Because I’ve had an incredibly stressful morning and it’s very cold out here. And Evelyn is waiting.”
“Of course she is, of course, I- I’d love to see her- I-” Felicity let out a long sigh and raised a gloved hand. “Listen, this is very important, before I step foot in that house.” She paused and glanced back at her car as if expecting to see something there, before turning to us again. “While I’m here, regardless of how long, if it’s three hours or three days – if you see a little girl, dressed in black, don’t approach her, and don’t talk to her.”
“It-” Felicity struggled, deeply uncomfortable. “It’s something that follows me.”
“What the fuck.” Twil said. “Heather?”
I stared at Felicity, at her guilt and self-horror, her awkward discomfort. “This is the thing I heard on the phone. When Evee called you months ago, yes?”
Felicity nodded. “Only while I’m present in the building.”
“The house is warded,” I said.
“I don’t think that’ll make any difference.”
“Is it dangerous? Fuck!” Twil turned and spread her arms, as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “This is all we need.”
“Dangerous emotionally. Just don’t engage it in conversation. It’ll try to upset you, but it won’t initiate unless you do. Look, it probably won’t even show itself, I just have to warn you.”
“Why didn’t you mention this on the phone?” I asked, harder than I’d intended. Twil was right, we didn’t need more complications. “That you’re carrying some supernatural parasite here?”
“ … because then you might not have asked me to come,” Felicity said, with an apologetic shrug. “Because then Evelyn might die, without me having tried everything I can.”
Twil is acting wolfier than usual in this chapter. The stress seems to be taking its toll on her…
Twil’s way of dealing with stress appears to be protective aggression. Oh dear.
First time commenter here, I just have to say I absolutely love your work. The lovecraftian horrors, the characters all fantastic.
Thanks for making it, looking forward to next week.
It’s always a delight to hear from readers enjoying the story. Thank you so much, and I hope you continue to enjoy it in the future.
If you see a link for voting for Katalepsis, do approach it and do click on it
I’m actually liking Nicole, it’s too bad she came into the group in such a stressful situation.
…Heather, you need sleep, not to drown yourself in caffiene and sugar. That’s a recipe for crashing right when you need to focus!
Could Heather hyper-math a protective entity together? Or just create a spirit/servitor? It’d probably help to have something that she can bring Outside for protection, or to snap at Lozzilike’s death curse. Maybe she and Lozzie should compare notes?
…Stress and jealousy make Twil a very angry puppy =(
Also, this line made me giggle for a full seconds straight:
“Mmm?!” Lozzie made a sound like a surprised chimpanzee. “What? Why?”
I imagine Lozzie and Heather have a great deal to compare notes about, if only they could get a couple of hours alone, without impending doom hanging over them …
Hope whatever made you miss last week wasn’t too bad!
Lozzie is a precious cinnamon bun, of course she’s popular with the local wildlife! She’s basically a Disney princess. Except all the bluebirds and gentle forest critters are horrible monstrosities.
Time to hang out with Felicity’s spooky ghost girl. Presumably that’s why Evee is uncomfortable around her…
Thank you, I am feeling much better this week.
Perhaps Heather’s issues with spirits all boil down to rejecting her own Disney-princess effect, who knows.
Heather’s faction just keeps getting more and more powerful, and she didn’t even mean for any of it to happen. Twil’s concern for Evee is adorable. And the worldbuilding is spectacular as always. I am fascinated by the kami, and can’t wait to see what Lozzie gets up to. She’s like a terrifying child genius. Good thing she’s friendly. Thank you for the chapter! I really enjoy this story.
I think we’re all glad that Lozzie is friendly.
You’re very welcome indeed!
but shes does take
shes -> she
“I don’t think it was.
it was. -> it was.”
were closed,” she said.”
she said.” -> she said.
loaded with sugar and little regard
and little -> and little
The one with the cute hair.
I think I’m wearing my yuri-glasses too much, because I can’t see it as anything other than a flag.
“She only bites on command,” I said. Twil spluttered.
Almost certain that Evelyn would have blushed, if she was present for that comment.
And Twil’s rival arrived, with a problem a tad too familiar to Heather. Too, three guesses about who talks first to Velicity’s haunt despite the warning. Hint rhyme with loony.
loaded with sugar and little regard
and little -> and little
The extra whitespace had disappeared in the post. *shrug*
And it doesn’t stop disappearing.
Thank you for noticing my proofreading oversights! Even when I do two passes, I still seem to miss some.
I think if there’s any stories you can approach with yuri goggles firmly welded to your face, this is one of them. However, even I’m not certain what Nicole meant by that comment! We’ll have to find out.
Twil’s rival! Oh dear indeed.
May as well keep all these in the one thread haha.
“Nicole blinked twice and me and laugh”
laugh -> laughed
“and absorbed waaaay to much information”
to -> too
Well spotted! Thank you!
“Let me get this straight-” she said.
“Not gonna find much o’ that round here,” Lozzie stage-whispered.
I’m so delighted somebody pointed that out.
A little ironic that the only straight humans there are Nicole and (maybe) Lozzie.
oh no straight person would make that joke lozzie definitely aint
also tbh nicole has Vibes (Bi-bes) so. World Of Gays
What else is going to go wrong with Heather’s group? Is the sky going to fall down on her next?
“My bedside manner’s shot to hell tight now.”
tight -> right
“You’ll wanna show you all the rest”
You’ll -> I’ll
“moment as woman in the car examined us”
as THE woman
Ahh! Thank you for spotting those! My proofreading is never as good as it should be.
I like the payoff here! You set up Felicity to have this sort of hanger on like, a few arcs ago, and now it’s finally coming to fruition! Honestly, it gives me a lot of confidence in your capabilities to keep this story going for as long as you say that you want to.
Thank you! I do try to weave in as many details as I can, foreshadow events and themes, ideas, characters who might turn up, etc
“at the very least she was a diffused land mine.”
Should be defused land mine. Diffuse means “spread or cause to spread over a wide area” which hopefully isn’t the kind of land mine we’re talking about.
“Nicole blinked twice and me and laughed”
Should be blinked twice at me
Ah! Old typos, thank you very much for spotting these! I will get them corrected.
I wanted to point out it’s still “diffused” as of Feb 2023, but to be fair I’m kind of shocked at the lack of typos otherwise (including the proper usage of “defused” in previous chapters) compared to pretty much any other web serial I’ve read.
Also, this arc’s title is aptly descriptive of the whole serial. I haven’t been this engrossed by a work of fiction in a looooong time; it’s not just taken over most of my free time, but lately even my sleep time as well [he wrote at 3 AM].
Ah, thank you! Yes, I have a big list of typos which I apply to the edited/ebook versions, with the intent of then copying those completed ebook versions over the original versions here; it’s just a very time-consuming process so I’ve not gotten that far with it yet. My apologies! The earlier parts of the story have significantly more typos than later on; I changed my workflow eventually to catch more errors and such.
And gosh, glad to hear you’re enjoying the story! It always makes me very happy to hear from readers having fun with my work. Hope you get some good sleep all the same though!
Lozzie is best girl in a world of best girls. Loving everything about this and I’m really glad I found it.
Thank you so much! Lozzie is a very important character, very close to my heart. Delighted to hear you’re enjoying the story so far!
Did you ever read Eragon? The way Heather killer Alexander reminded me of how Galbatorix died, and now this girl ghost reminds me of a girl Eragon “blessed”.
I’ve actually never read Eragon, no! But I’m always really fascinated by comparisons with stories I’m not familiar with.