Framed beneath the crystal eyes and waving stingers of Evelyn’s spider-servitor, Felicity politely wiped her boots on the doormat.
“Is it safe in here?” she asked. “You mentioned the house is warded?”
The spider wasn’t reacting to her, not beyond an initial tracking glance as she’d passed over the threshold. Felicity followed the direction of my gaze, back over her shoulder, and saw nothing there. She gave me a silently curious look, her posture a touch more stiff than before.
“It’s nothing,” I sighed. “Safe, yes. For a given value of safe. It’s not impregnable to battering rams or baseball bats. If it was, then none of this would have happened in the first place.”
“Safe from that too, while I’m around,” Twil said.
“Yeah!” Lozzie added from her position half-behind me, still watching Felicity like a spooked cat. “Twil’s big and scary, so you better be careful!”
“Yeah,” Twil grunted.
Our Twil was none too happy. She stood with her arms folded, scowling narrow-eyed at Felicity, unable to conceal her suspicions after our confrontation in the street and the unwelcome news of Felicity’s mystery extra passenger. Watch out for a little girl dressed in black? What was this, the plot of a 19th-century Gothic novel? I struggled to contain my own exasperation.
“Yes,” I said, a little too hard, and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I’m certain that right now, this house contains enough frightening and dangerous people to run off half the city.”
Felicity ducked her head in an awkward nod. “Just being cautious. Used to being behind thick walls. I don’t get out much.”
“Yeah no kidding,” Twil grunted. “Looking like that.”
“Twil.” I shot her a look of genuine outrage. Twil was usually so cuddly, I’d forgotten how hurtful she was capable of being; when we’d first met in the midst of misunderstanding, she’d called Evelyn a cripple.
Twil blushed. “I mean pointing guns at people! In the street! Not the- the- argh … ” She gestured vaguely at her face and pulled a grimace.
“Perhaps, in future, be a little more careful in selecting your words?”
“Yeah! Yeah, cool, okay, yeah.” Twil nodded, hands up, desperate for me to drop the subject.
“I apologise on Twil’s behalf.” I turned back to Felicity. “She tends to … speak … before she … Felicity?”
If Felicity was bothered, she gave no sign. She was running her gaze across the front room, the boxes of the junk, the stains on the floorboard, the shoes by the door. Counting how many of us were here? I tried not to think like that, tried to make myself believe she was here to help. She craned her neck to peer up the stairs and past us into the kitchen.
Her booted feet stayed planted on the doormat. One gloved hand rested on the open zipper of her overstuffed sports bag.
“I don’t care,” Felicity murmured without missing a beat. She’d given no impression of switching her attention from the room back to us, no minor startle of the absorbed brought back to a conversation. Was her momentary distraction an act? The learned behaviour of a gruesomely disfigured woman ignoring an all-too-familiar insult – or a carefully constructed illusion of obliviousness?
Twil and I shared a glance. Twil shrugged.
I cleared my throat, trying to keep us on track. “I do have a question for you, if you don’t mind. When is your parasite likely to appear?”
The left side – the burned side – of Felicity’s face twitched around her milky, blind eye. A suppressed wince? “It’s not a parasite. And it’s unlikely to appear at all.”
“Yes, but we’ve already got multiple crises unfolding here,” I said. “I don’t need another one.”
Felicity wet her lips and winced openly this time. “While I’m here, it might try to speak to those alone for extended periods, especially in the dark, or at night. So … don’t walk down dark corridors alone.”
“This thing isn’t a sodding ghost, is it?” Twil asked, a note of panic in her voice.
“Spooky scary,” Lozzie whispered.
“No. No, quite,” Felicity said. “And to answer your next question, yes, I am armed. I suppose it’s only the polite thing to do, before I … ” she glanced down at her shoes.
“Take your shoes off!” Lozzie chanted. “Take your shoes off for the girls.”
“Lozzie’s just enjoying herself,” I said in answer to Felicity’s raised eyebrow. “Let her. And yes, it was rather obvious that you’re armed in some capacity.”
Felicity cleared her throat and had the decency to look ashamed.
“Duh,” Twil said. “You got a gun in there, or what? Also, like, sorry. I really didn’t mean-”
“I don’t care,” Felicity repeated. She shifted the weight of the open sports bag on her shoulder, and tilted it forward to show us the contents.
A viper of black metal and dark wood lay length-ways inside the bag, swaddled in an old towel. A sawn-off shotgun.
Lozzie made a disapproving whimper. Twil breathed ‘fucking hell’ under her breath. I felt a chill in my gut and a lightness in my head. She’d pointed that thing at us? She had, with her finger on the trigger.
Felicity must have caught the accusation and alarm on my face. “The safety was on,” she said quickly. “It was only a bluff. Besides, it’s not even really meant for you. I go everywhere armed, in case of emergencies.”
“In case of what, a bear?” Twil said. “Or if you fancy a spot of bank robbery on your way home? What the fuck are you doing with a shotgun?”
“It’s different, living out in the woods.”
“We can hardly talk,” I said, swallowing my exasperation. “Raine does that too. I’ll thank you not to discharge that indoors, though. We’ve already got two bullet holes in the floor. I don’t want Evelyn to wake up to more holes in her house.”
“Yeah, we don’t wanna bring the rozzers running again,” Twil said.
Felicity froze. “You’ve had the police here?”
“A tame detective. It’s dealt with.” I nodded at the gun inside her bag. “Are you going to put that down, or … ?”
“Yes. Yes, I should.” She nodded. “I’m sorry. I said I don’t get out much, but that’s an understatement. I don’t like being so exposed. That’s all. I’m fully aware I’m jumping at shadows, but I do want to help Evelyn.”
“Well, you best take your boots off then, and we’ll go upstairs to see her.”
Setting down her bag – and her weapon – revealed an internal ordeal for Felicity. She hesitated for a long moment, swallowed, then nodded and finally placed the sports bag gently on the floor. She nodded again, as if convincing herself, then squatted down to unlace her boots. Her fingers seemed clumsy and blunt.
“Should be tell Kim about the spooky little girl that might show up? Don’t suppose Zheng’ll care.”
“Yes, I suspect Zheng might give any surprises a nasty surprise of their own,” I said. “Best warn Kim though, yes.”
“Zheng cares!” Lozzie said.
“There’s others here, besides yourselves?” Felicity asked. She wiggled one boot off, revealing thick and unflattering thermal socks.
“A few,” I said, then stopped myself before explaining further. I was exhausted, but Felicity’s arrival had sparked what remained of my reserves of energy and focus. I held myself back. Twil picked up on it too, shutting her mouth before she blurted out all our secrets.
“A … few?” Felicity caught my eyes.
“I feel like I should apologise for being rude, but I don’t entirely trust you, Felicity,” I said. “Not yet. There’s more of us here, that’s all.”
“Ooooh,” Lozzie made a sound like she was about to see a cat-fight. Twil tried to look tough, nodding along with me. Not difficult.
“Well, good,” Felicity said, more to herself to us, then pulled an awkward smile. “Shouldn’t trust magicians. Very wise of you.”
“You did get here much quicker than we expected,” I said at length, thinking as I spoke. Felicity’s fingers paused on the laces of her other boot.
“Well spotted. I lied about travel time, to give myself an advantage if I needed it.” She waited, as if for accusation or forgiveness, the faintest hint of ironic self-mockery in her one good eye.
Getting an accurate read on Felicity proved exceptionally difficult, even for me. Over the last few months of strange experiences, I’d learned that about myself, far more surprising than the brute facts of the supernatural – I possessed a good eye for reading other people.
But I couldn’t join up the separate parts of Felicity’s behaviour. Skittish and soft, yet I felt half of what she showed us was mere performance, to herself as much as us. Underneath the exterior of tatty clothes and hesitant gestures, it took a certain kind of twisted guts to point a loaded shotgun at another person. She didn’t look haggard or run-down, not brittle or afraid, merely delicate and wrapped in armour. Was she a little like Raine, minus the self-confidence and grace?
Or was it the burn scars, throwing me off? I found it almost impossible not to stare at Felicity’s scarring, at the way the flesh twitched out of sync with her expressions. Was I being unfair?
No. She was a mage, and she’d made it halfway into her thirties. She was dangerous, if only by necessity.
“Figures.” Twil rolled her eyes.
Felicity held my stare for a moment, then lowered her eyes and resumed untying her other boot. She slipped it off, set it next to its twin, and straighted up.
“Can you really pluck bullets out of the air, or was that a bluff too?” she asked.
“She can!” Lozzie said.
“Yes, but it’s a long story and we don’t have time for it,” I said. “We need to go see Evelyn, but I think we could all do with a cup of tea while we do. Twil, will you do the honours?”
“Tea, coffee,” I said, voice more tight than I intended. “Lozzie and I will take Felicity upstairs, you let Kim and Zheng know about the-”
“I know, shaman,” came a deep purring.
Zheng ducked through the doorway into the front room.
Felicity went wide-eyed at the sight of Zheng, at her seven feet of muscle, bloodied trench coat, and the mass of dense tattoos visible beneath her thin tshirt. Zheng fixed her with a lazy, predatory interest.
“I know all about this one’s familiar,” Zheng purred. “I can smell it.”
“Yes, thank you for the dramatic self-introduction,” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from my voice. “Felicity, this-”
Felicity moved so much faster than I’d thought her capable of, with her willowy awkwardness and clumsy fingers and single functioning eye. She ripped her sawn-off shotgun from the towel nest in her bag, braced it with both hands, and pointed it at Zheng.
“Woah, woah! Fuck!” Twil yelled. My stomach lurched and I stumbled back. Lozzie clung to my shoulders, half-hiding behind me, half holding me up.
Zheng broke into a shark-toothed grin at the double-mouth of the shotgun barrels.
“You didn’t say anything about this!” Felicity yelled.
“You think that little musket can stop me, wizard?” Zheng purred, obviously enjoying the moment. “If I wanted you dead, I’d be eating your flesh already.”
“Oh yes,” I snapped, surprised at the force of my own eye-rolling disapproval. “This is exactly what I meant when I asked you not to fire that thing indoors, thank you. And Zheng, stop it, don’t taunt her.”
Zheng ignored me, watching Felicity’s hands shake.
“Yeah, fucking back off, hey?” Twil suggested.
“No, no no no,” Felicity was repeating, shaking her head in desperate denial. Her good eye brimmed with hollow horror, far beyond any rational response to Zheng.
“No? No what?” I asked. “Felicity?”
“How could she? She- she would never- Evelyn wouldn’t do this. No.”
“Yes, you’re quite correct there,” I spoke quickly. “Evelyn did not make Zheng.”
“What?” Felicity risked a glance at me. A mistake. One flick of her eyes was enough time for Zheng to jerk forward, moving like quicksilver. The playful aborted charge of a big cat, stopping well short. Felicity flinched like she’d touched a live wire, her back slamming into the front door. She pointed the shotgun firmly at Zheng’s head once more. I half-expected the spider-servitor to react, but it hung there utterly uninterested. I guess Zheng didn’t count as worth protecting.
“Don’t you move!” Felicity snapped. “Don’t you move a muscle.”
“Zheng!” I scolded.
“She’s too fun, shaman. See how she jumps?” Zheng’s extra-long tongue rolled out of her mouth, to taste the air and tease our poor guest.
Felicity had none of the confident poise of Raine with a weapon. She visibly shook, despite the firm grip on the shotgun, one hand on the trigger mechanism, the other holding the barrels. She displayed none of what Raine called ‘trigger discipline’, her finger already in place inside the trigger-guard. Her face had turned waxy with barely controlled fear – but it was controlled. For now.
“I said,” repeating myself, raising my voice. “Zheng is not Evelyn’s work. Evee didn’t make her.” I put two and two together, and took the risk. “She’s not following in her mother’s footsteps.”
Felicity took a moment to process what I’d said. “Okay,” she breathed. “Okay. That- that’s good. That’s really good to hear. Okay. But I’m still looking at a mature demon-host. Why?”
“You can put the gun down,” I said. “Zheng is … friendly. Safe.”
Felicity laughed a single humourless laugh. “Are you mad? I’ve seen these things before. They are never safe.”
“Yes, I know she’s intimidating. I freed Zheng this morning, I’ve know nher for literally less than twelve hours, and she’s already saved my life. Twice, I think. I’d thank you not to point a gun at her, for a start.”
“ … freed?” Felicity frowned.
Zheng slurped her tongue back into her mouth, and grinned wider then before, showing even more teeth. They seemed to extend forever into the back of her skull. “I am my own, wizard.”
Felicity’s fear suddenly ebbed away, giving way to naked fascination. Her good eye filled with a kind of hunger, one I’d seen before on a very different face. With a shock of recognition I realised Evelyn had given me the same look whenever she’d talked about the potential of my hyperdimensional mathematics. Felicity’s mouth hung open. The shotgun sagged in her grip. “ … you’re unbound? Then why are you still here?”
Zheng shrugged. “Enjoying the moment.”
“ … oh my God,” Felicity whispered. “How old are you?”
“Ruuuuude!” Lozzie hooted.
“Old enough to know lead shot won’t tickle me,” Zheng rumbled.
“Also true,” I added quickly. “Zheng fell out of a building this morning, and she wasn’t much the worse for wear.”
“Shaman,” Zheng purred. “I did not fall. I jumped.”
“Point being, I very much doubt you can damage her anyway. Please, Felicity, put the gun down.”
Felicity frowned, considering carefully.
“Go ahead, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Pull the trigger. Shoot me. Prove it to yourself.”
“This isn’t loaded with lead shot,” Felicity said very quietly. “It’s cold iron.”
Zheng’s expression shifted ever so minutely, intrigued – and excited.
“Yes, that’s right,” Felicity continued in the same soft murmur. “I know how your kind usually work. I can’t kill you because you’re not really alive, but I can cause you a great deal of pain.”
Zheng tilted her head slowly, listening.
“You’re old, very old, aren’t you?” Felicity continued. “Decades in that body for so much fine control, let alone your … modifications. How long has it been since you felt pain like us?”
“Can you pull the trigger faster than I can move, wizard?” Zheng purred. “No depth perception. Interesting handicap.”
“Would you bet an ear? A hand? Your liver?” Zheng slid her tongue out again.
I stepped forward – not quite into Felicity’s arc of fire, I wasn’t feeling suicidal – and put every ounce of frustration into my glare, at both of them. “How about we just don’t? Hmm?” My composure almost buckled instantly, because Lozzie decided to peer over my shoulder and imitate my expression, a little scowling elf to undercut my exasperation. “Can we perhaps not have another bloody fight, here, now? We are on a time limit – two people’s lives are on a time limit.”
Felicity shook her head. “I’m speaking to an unbound demon-”
I let my eyes flash at her. “I don’t care! I don’t care what she is. What is it with you mages and being spooked by these zombies? She saved my life twice this morning. I watched her eat a person, but I don’t care right now. If she wanted you dead, you would be. She’s faster than you can imagine.”
“I don’t have to imagine, I’ve seen it before,” Felicity hissed.
“Then there’s no point trying to shoot her, is there?” I asked. “Either put the gun down and help us with Evelyn, or I make you leave.”
Perhaps it was the tone in my voice, the undercurrent of certainty that I would find a way to make her leave. Or perhaps I made her see sense. I know which I prefer.
Felicity’s good eye travelled back and forth between Zheng and I. She let out long breath, and then slowly lowered the shotgun. For a drawn-out moment, she and Zheng watched each other like a pair of Old West gunslingers at high noon.
“Boo,” Zheng said.
Felicity shook her head. Shaking fingers clicked the safety on. “I’m not going to apologise this time.” She nodded at Zheng. “This is absurd. This is the last thing I expected to find. What’s your game, demon?”
Zheng rumbled a bored, disappointed sound.
“And you!” I turned on her. “Stop trying to fight everything.”
Zheng shrugged. “It’s my nature, shaman.”
I gave her a capital-L look.
“She started it,” Zheng said.
Before I could give Zheng a look like a primary-school teacher breaking up a playground fight, Twil stomped over and got right in Felicity’s face, finger jabbing at her chest. “You’re not going anywhere near Evee after that bullshit. You’re having a laugh.”
“Twil,” I sighed.
“I think under the circumstances-” Felicity began.
“Not good enough,” Twil let out a growl – a real one, a full-throated animal threat. Felicity flinched backward and the shotgun jerked upward once more, but Twil caught the business end in one hand.
“You got some silver in there too?” she growled in Felicity’s face.
“Twil,” I snapped. She shoved the shotgun barrel down and away, and stepped back to glare at Felicity.
With a metallic click, Felicity broke her shotgun open and fumbled out the two loaded shells. They looked so incongruous, shiny red plastic set in a brass base. She tossed them into her bag, and offered the unloaded weapon to Twil.
“Uh … ” Twil blinked down at the gun, mouth hanging open.
Felicity shrugged. “You made a good point,” she spoke softly. “If our roles were reversed, I wouldn’t let me anywhere near Evelyn either. Take it, please.”
“The polite thing would be to accept, Twil,” I said.
“Yeah, get your fingerprints all over it,” Lozzie giggled.
Gingerly, Twil took the gun, holding it by the truncated wooden stock like a live eel.
“Either I trust you or I don’t,” Felicity said. “Please, show me to Evelyn.”
Up the stairs we went. My mind wired with caffeine and the thin shreds of adrenaline, I sketched two mental models of how Felicity might act once she saw Evelyn. The tone in her voice over the phone – an old and painful loss – left me with no doubt. I thought back to when Evelyn had called her months ago, the pleading way Felicity had asked “Can I see you?”
Wistful longing, or jittery possessiveness. Fifty-fifty. Flip a coin.
At least she’d handed over the gun.
The former I told myself I would tolerate. We would all put up with that for the sake of waking Evelyn from her coma. But the latter? In my darkest imagination I saw Felicity trying to stroke Evelyn’s unconscious face, or worse, and knew Twil for one would react with justified violence. Twil and I had worked out a signal – just a wink, nothing special – to use in case we thought Felicity was throwing up red flags.
Both models were wrong.
Felicity treated the threshold to Evelyn’s bedroom like a portal to her own private hell, and the sight of Evelyn’s face like a God condemning her to the pit.
She hid it well, but I was all too familiar with the signs of self-loathing and self-torture, from my own face in the mirror over a decade of personal horror. I read it in the way she crossed her arms tight and protective over her chest, as if trying to hold herself together. I saw it in the way she shook ever so slightly, a tremor deep inside her body. The hollow guilt in her face made it plain.
For a moment I thought she might start crying. I looked away, an intruder on some inexplicable, alien emotion. Even Lozzie pretended not to notice, and Twil looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Evelyn, wrapped up under her plush bed covers, behind a bulwark of pillows and cushions, couldn’t have cared less. Her eyes twitched beneath closed lids.
“The hell is wrong with you now?” Twil grunted, and crossed over to the bed to check Evelyn’s temperature, hand to her unconscious forehead.
Felicity screwed her eyes shut. She murmured to herself, so quiet it was for her own ears alone.
“Pull yourself together. It’s not her,” she said.
“ … Felicity?” I ventured, wary for some new development. “Are you up to this?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, quick and curt. When she turned to me, her expression was clear and clean, business-like. “You’ve tried to wake her every other way you’ve access to, yes? She’s not out cold with the flu, or merely passed out, correct? If she wakes up and sees me, she’ll likely attempt to kill me.”
“Yeah! Alright? She won’t fucking wake up,” Twil said, brushing Evelyn’s hair back from her face.
“Yes, we’re certain,” I said. “It was magic.”
“What happened to her?” Felicity said. “Start from the beginning.”
“Loooong story,” Lozzie said, with a sagely nod.
“Yes, that will make an exceptionally long story indeed,” I said.
Felicity frowned. “How long?”
“ … to explain what did this, I have to start a decade ago.”
“That’s fine. Tell me while I work.”
Felicity stepped over to the bed and dumped her sports bag. Twil glared at her with open hostility, like a hound guarding its wounded master. Felicity ignored the scowl and bent over Evelyn’s unconscious face, peering closely. She showed nothing except professional interest – then glanced back up at me.
“The sooner you start, the better, Heather. I need to figure out what’s keeping her unconscious. She’s moving her eyes, which means REM sleep, which means at least her brain isn’t scrambled. More information, and I can start to make educated guesses.”
“Okay. Okay, uh … ”
“Meanwhile, I’m going to examine her, but I respect her hatred of me too much to handle her myself. I need one of you girls to expose her throat and both wrists, but obviously try to keep her warm. She’ll be losing body heat while asleep. Twil, is it? If you would, please?”
Twil narrowed her eyes in a scowl. “Why does she hate you? What did you do to her?”
“Twil … ” I said, but with no conviction in my voice. It was a fair question.
“People hate for lots of reasons,” Lozzie said with a sad note.
“You don’t want to know me, you don’t want me to be your friend,” Felicity said to Twil. “She hates me because I deserve it, because I’m toxic, and I’m a coward. She knew it, and I’m not going to lie about it. Let me work, let me wake her, and then I’ll leave.”
“Too fucking vague, waaay too fucking vague,” Twil said.
“ … she hates me because I helped her mother with something, about twelve years ago now.”
Twil squinted. “What does her mother have to do with anything? I thought her mum was dead.”
“That’s for Evelyn to tell,” I said firmly. “Twil doesn’t know Evelyn’s family history.”
“Ah.” Felicity blinked. “I’m- my apologies. You do, though?”
“Some,” I said, shrugging.
“Then you understand.”
“That this is penance,” Felicity said.
Twil didn’t like it, but she trusted my judgement. She busied herself pulling the covers back from Evelyn’s sleeping form, hiking up her sleeves to expose her wrists. They made a strange team, as Felicity slipped into a bedside manner almost like a real doctor. She rummaged in her sports bag and produced various tools – a miniature hand-torch, an overstuffed leather-bound notebook, two plastic food containers full of tiny bottles of powder and liquid, a piece of thick canvas rolled into a tube, several lengths of brass rod, a box of plasters, and a dozen other seemingly unrelated nick-nacks.
She used the torch to check Evelyn’s pupils, had Twil daub tiny amounts of an odd amber liquid on Evelyn’s wrists and throat, touched the top of her head with brass. None of it made any sense. Like watching a witch-doctor at work.
I sat in Evelyn’s desk chair, and explained for the second time this morning, dragging myself through the words as if through mud. The Eye, Alexander Lilburne, Glasswick tower. I left out personal details, kept quiet on brainmath, Lozzie, and Maisie.
I’d grown to expect bewilderment, but Felicity listened – and asked intelligent questions.
She had me repeat what I’d seen during that flash of horror before Evelyn and I had both passed out, asked me why I’d woken up but Evee hadn’t. She asked probing question about the Eye, about the limits of its power, questions I had no answers for. She asked about Evelyn’s health, about her diet, about her sex life – “None”, Twil growled.
She asked about the inside of Glasswick tower, about the Lozzie-thing that had been following me, about the aims of the cult.
She asked about Praem, and the shadow behind her face showed exactly what she thought.
“Praem is fine,” I said, feeling a surge of protective fondness. “I gathered from your reaction to Zheng that you don’t like these Outsiders being here, and in Zheng’s case I … I get that. But Praem is a sweetheart. She’s done nothing but good for us. Don’t you dare.”
Felicity cleared her throat gently. “I’ve had bad experiences. She’d had bad experiences too,” she glanced down at Evelyn. “I thought she knew better, that’s all.”
More tests, scraps of Latin read aloud from Felicity’s notebook to no effect, Twil asked to poke and prod and listen to her chest. Eventually Felicity stepped back, failing to conceal the defeated look on her face.
“Nothing’s working, is it?” Twil asked, a tremor in her voice.
Felicity shook her head. “I think she’s possessed.”
“ … you what?” Twil blinked at her.
“Possessed?” I asked. “By an Outsider?”
“The thing that touched your minds – this Eye, as you called it, or one of its agents – I think it tried to leave something behind. That would explain why you woke up, because it has other designs for you. Perhaps your mystery ‘Lozzie-thing’ was made the same way, rapid modification of an original human host?” Felicity mused, more to herself than us, then her voice snapped back into focus again. “Point is, this isn’t hypnotic suggestion or instruction, Evelyn is far too … ” she cleared her throat. “The Evelyn I knew, even as a child, was too strong-willed to succumb to that.”
“I agree,” I said. “Putting it lightly.”
“Yeah. Yeah, right,” Twil said. “So it’s not that? I don’t … I don’t get this?”
“It’s not hypnotic suggestion, or neural damage. Forceful possession, from beyond, by force, should be impossible,” Felicity explained patiently. “But the fact she won’t wake up … well.” Felicity glanced at me, seeing if I was following.
“Well what?” Twil asked.
“I think I understand,” I said, nodding.
“Some weak shard of the Eye, an independent factor, a bud, a spore,” Felicity shrugged. “But she’s been through this once before. She has experience throwing out neural invasion. To use an immune-system metaphor, she’s already got the anti-bodies. So instead of taking over, all it’s managed to do is render her unconscious, while she fights it.”
“She’s wrestling a demon for control of her body?” I asked.
Felicity nodded. “It is the only thing I can think of.”
“Shit,” Twil said, and looked down at Evelyn’s unconscious face, her eyes twitching in sleep.
“She may not even be aware of it,” Felicity said. “More importantly, I believe can do something about it.”
“Wait a sec, what do you mean she’s been through this once before?” Twil asked, frowning at Felicity, then at me too. “Heather?”
“ … it’s really not my place to say,” I said. “Evee’s probably, um, a little reluctant to share her past with you in detail. Not- not because she doesn’t trust you. It’s complicated.”
Twil shrugged, vaguely hurt. No time for that right now, little werewolf. You can patch things up later.
“We need a young priest and an old priest,” Lozzie announced.
Felicity actually laughed, the first time I’d seen a genuine smile from her. She nodded at Lozzie approvingly. “Yes, an exorcism. We need to perform an exorcism.”
“What, ‘the power of Christ compels you’, and all that?” Twil said.
“No, the real thing is less clean, and takes a very long time. I’m going to need a lot of clear space, and a lot of coffee. And I’ll need to make a phone call, I won’t be going home tonight.”
“How long is this going to take?” I asked, a lump growing in my throat.
Felicity shrugged. “Twelve hours, fifteen hours. I don’t know. I’ve only done this once before.”
“Twelve hours,” I whispered to myself. In the corner of my eye, I saw Lozzie bite her lip. She knew what I was thinking. “There’s no … other way, is there?”
“Heather, I can totally stay here for twelve hours,” Twil said, nodding. “I’ll do it.”
“ … there is something I could do,” Felicity said, frowning tight, her reluctance plain. “Only because it’s her. None of you three are mages, correct? That wasn’t a lie, or anything else, was it? I don’t care if it was, but I’ll ask you to leave the room now, before I try this.”
“None of us,” I said. “Kimberly is, but she’s downstairs.”
“Mmmm.” Felicity considered for a moment, then sighed and got down awkwardly on her knees next to Evelyn.
She rolled back her right sleeve, and revealed a sheath of tattoos crawling up her forearm.
Nothing like either the Fractal on my arm or the intricate binding which covered Zheng’s flesh, Felicity’s tattoo was a gossamer tracery of straight lines in dark purples and pinks, blues and greens, intersecting in right angles and meeting at rounded junctions. Precise, ordered, mathematical; the design terminated midway up her bicep.
The lines caught the light and stung my eyes, as if the act of seeing was to run one’s brain along the edge of a razor.
When she removed her right glove as well, the unity of the design came into focus. The lines joined and thickened along her palm and the back of her hand, formed a solid mass of colour on her fingers. A crossbreed of opera glove and circuit board, in ink and magic.
“What is it with magic and tattoos?” I muttered.
“Hey, I’ve got some too,” Twil said.
“Yes, I know, Twil.”
Felicity flexed her fingers, examining the design as if for blemishes, then hesitated. “I am going to have wrap my hand around Evelyn’s throat.”
“Okay no, fuck off with that,” Twil said.
“Think of this like a surgical robot,” Felicity said. “It’s not going to hurt her.”
“Oh yeah,” Twil grunted. “Like that helps.” She put an arm over Evelyn to ward Felicity away.
“Not the most reassuring metaphor you could have selected,” I said.
Felicity sighed and wet her lips. The scarred flesh twitched around her unseeing left eye. “I mean in this particular use, think of it as a surgical robot.”
“What is it, really? What does that even do?” I prompted. “What are you going to do to her?”
“ … none of you are mages, none of you would understand.”
“I will,” Lozzie said.
“I might,” I said.
“Yeah, try us,” said Twil.
Felicity hesitated. “There is a natural inclination not to share one’s secrets. I can’t simply tell you.”
“Sure you can,” Twil grunted.
Felicity let out a heavy sigh and closed her eyes for a second. “It’s a sixth sense, built from parts of my own sense of touch and a … borrowed non-biological nervous system. But that’s like calling a car a metal horse. That is not what this is, and I cannot put it into words for you. If I’m right, I may be able to make some kind of rudimentary contact with whatever this Outsider of yours left behind in Evelyn. If it understands human thought. Maybe.”
“ … and then what?” I asked.
Felicity shrugged. “I make it leave.”
I stared at her for a long moment, and one kind of guilt overcame another. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I told you what the Lozzie-thing was like, and you want to convince a similar Outsider to leave, just like that? This is staggeringly dangerous. No, I think we can do the twelve-hour plan instead.”
“Yeah. Fucking yeah,” Twil said. “You’re gonna root around inside Evee’s head? No way, you-”
“Dangerous for her, Twil,” I nodded at Felicity. “Not Evee.”
“I’m willing to try,” Felicity said softly.
“And then this thing fries your brain,” I said. “And we’re back to square one, with yet another body on our hands.”
“Another body?” Felicity murmured, but she didn’t push the question.
“Twelve hours,” I repeated to myself. “Alright, I can deal with this. Twil, you stay up here then, I’m going to make coffee and- … and get anything else we need. Lozzie, are you-”
Lozzie was staring into space, glassy eyed.
“Mm!” Lozzie blinked and snapped to. I had the uncomfortable impression of a puppet pulling its own strings tight. She stared at me for a moment with a smile on her face.
“Lozzie, are you alright?”
“I’m sleeeeeepy. We’re all sleepy, aren’t we?” she asked nobody in particular, eyes wandering across the wall.
“ … yes. We are.” I frowned at her. “More coffee, like I said.”
“I’m still willing to try the riskier method,” Felicity said.
“Please refrain. It’s not worth the possibility of-”
Clatter clatter clatter went feet down below, rushing across the front room and piling up the stairs. We all stopped and looked at the open doorway to the corridor, and heard Kimberly calling “Wait, wait!”, breathless and panicked, and assumed she meant us.
“Kim?” I called. She finished clattering up the stairs, floorboards creaking under her feet.
Felicity hurried to cover her tattoos. I didn’t think there was much chance of timid and traumatised Kimberly stealing any of her secrets, but I didn’t say anything. I was too busy rolling my eyes and crossing to the door, ready to put down another problem before it bloomed into a crisis.
“Kimberly, what’s wrong now … ” I trailed off as I stuck my head around the door.
My eyes went wide. I think I blushed.
What was wrong was Praem – back in her body, full and fleshy and alive once more, gliding down the upstairs hallway toward me with her near-silent graceful tread and perfectly poised expressionless face. Kimberly panted for breath at the top of the stairs, hands on her knees, bent double. Somewhere down below, Zheng was laughing. I could only assume Praem was making a bee-line for Evelyn, for her unconscious mistress.
Praem was, to coin a phrase, fresh from the summoning circle.
As in, stark naked.