Against all prior self-estimation, I have discovered I am quite good at standing my ground. Me, scrawny little Heather with my five foot nothing and noodle arms – against demons, monsters, assassins, literal evil wizards in dark fairytale castles, Raine – but as Praem strode toward me in the nude, with her spine straight and chin high, I fell back.
“Praem! Praem- yes- o-okay- okay!”
My hands raised, a blush in my cheeks, I stumbled back into Evelyn’s bedroom. Praem followed over the threshold.
I had seen Praem nude once before, after our nocturnal fox-hunting session down in Sussex at the Saye estate, after she’d slopped back to the house bedraggled with stagnant lake water and slimy mud and had to strip off her ruined uniform. But back then she’d been dripping and cold, wrapped in towels, and we’d all been preoccupied.
The Praem that stepped into Evelyn’s bedroom was fresh and warm, her skin pink-clean and glowing, as if she’d come straight from the bath, completely uncovered. Her hair was curled up in a loose knot behind her head, the one element of her appearance she cared about enough to set right before marching upstairs.
She stopped, and stood there with perfect proper prim poise. Back straight, chin up, toes forward.
Twil’s eyes all but popped out of her face. She turned as red as I felt. Lozzie hid an open-mouthed gasp behind one hand.
“P-Praem, yes, wel-welcome back,” I heard myself saying, relief and happiness fighting with crippling embarrassment and not a little bit of awe. “It’s- it’s- it’s good to see you. Oh! Oh, I didn’t mean … oh God, um. Okay- maybe- maybe put some clothes on? Yes, yes, definitely with the clothes. Please?”
Praem stared at me for a heartbeat. Blank white eyes gave nothing away. Then her head swivelled to Evelyn, unconscious on the bed.
“This is the other demon-host?” I heard Felicity say.
“Yes, yes,” I managed. “This is Praem.”
Twil attempted to answer as well, but out came a splutter. Lozzie muttered under her breath, an appreciative and awestruck “Wow.”
‘Wow’ was right. Praem wasn’t really my type, I’d decided or deduced that long ago; she was also an alien Outsider in a body of hardened pneuma-somatic flesh wrapped around a life-sized wooden mannequin. She was also my friend, I think, and oh so sweet beneath her expressionless exterior, and did not deserve to be ogled by several teenage girls and one questionable older lady.
She was also very plush, and very cuddly.
The effect on the one confirmed and non-comatose lesbian in the room – myself – was undeniable, even under the current circumstances.
I didn’t know where to direct my eyes, caught between guilt, instinctive pleasure, natural curiosity, and sheer bloody-minded relief that she was back on her feet.
Kimberly finally caught up, almost slamming into Praem’s back. “Ahh!” She caught herself on the door frame, still panting. “I tried to stop her! If only to- to get her dressed. She just took off-” Pant, pant. Slow down, I willed her. “As soon as she was ready- she- ahh, umm. It worked, though! She even said thank you.”
“Praem, please, please, clothes?” I repeated, trying not to stare at her boobs. I cast about for something of Evelyn’s for her to wear, and caught the look on Felicity’s face.
Like a bucket of cold water over my head.
With mild surprise and a curious frown, but certainly no blush, Felicity was looking Praem up and down. Not in the manner of a confident lech appreciating a nice surprise, but with the cold appraisal of a anatomist or horse breeder or a buyer at a slave market.
In the back of my mind, I’d formed an educated guess at what Felicity probably was, at where she fit into the puzzle of Evelyn’s past. She’d given us enough clues, I could fill in the rest. Saving Evelyn was penance for her, or redemption, but I didn’t care, as long as she did it.
But that look on her face, I would not stand for that.
“Felicity,” I snapped her name, my blushing embarrassment draining away.
“Yes, what?” She glanced at me, then nodded at Praem. “This is the one Evelyn made? It’s certainly different, I can tell from here.”
“Felicity,” Praem echoed, intoning the mage’s name in her clear, bell-like voice.
“It’s still learning, too? How young is it?”
“She has a name,” I said. “And she is a she, if you please, not an it.”
“Yes, yes, of course, of course,” Felicity muttered. Her eyes were glued to Praem – but not the places I’d be staring. “Wood base, you said? Remarkably life-like, in that case. And it doesn’t understand the implications of being naked? Rudimentary, yes.” Felicity sighed as if in relief. “Rudimentary.”
Praem glided toward the bed on precise, measured footsteps. Felicity tried to rise to her feet, assuming she was about to get a better look at this promising specimen – but Praem invaded her personal space.
Felicity stepped back, stumbling as Praem kept pace, thrown off by the natural attempt to not touch a naked person suddenly in one’s face.
“What- what’s it doing?” Felicity spluttered.
“Tellin’ you off, that’s what,” Twil said with a smirk. “Don’t you be dissin’ our girl.”
“No, Twil, I think that’s only half right,” I said.
Praem forced Felicity back another step, then another, inches away but never making contact, until our clever doll-demon was able to step sideways to interpose herself between Felicity and the bed, between Felicity and Evelyn.
The mage’s back hit the wall. Praem stopped an inch or two from her, statue-still, staring.
“I mean … I meant no … insult?” Felicity tried, her one good eye darting at me. “Can you call it off, perhaps?”
“Oh!” Twil figured it out before Felicity did. “You’re messing with her maker. She doesn’t think you’re cool. Good instincts, Praem, yeah.”
I sighed. “Not if you keep calling her it. And why aren’t you scared of her? You were terrified of Zheng.”
Felicity began to edge along the wall, as if trapped by a large and inquisitive dog. “What? And no, this is different. ‘Zheng’ is mature. This one is only a few months old, and it’s not even real flesh. She’s under a binding from Evee, isn’t she? And rudimentary, too.”
I swear I saw, in the corner of my eye, a hardening of Praem’s empty expression. Felicity flinched, hard.
“I don’t think she liked that,” I said.
“Praem, Praem, alright,” Felicity said, her hands up. “Praem is not rudimentary. Fine. I … apologise.”
“Praem, it’s okay, Felicity’s going to help us cure Evelyn. She’s safe, for now. If rude.”
Praem relented and stepped back. Somehow, even with no true expression on her face, she gave the impression of dismissing Felicity as unimportant. She turned to Evelyn, and stared down at her unconscious face.
We all took a moment to get our breath back, for various different reasons, and I realised Praem wasn’t exactly the same as she’d been before. She’d reverted somewhat.
Her hair had regained more than a touch of it’s original glacial ice-blue, shimmering beneath the blonde when the light caught it at the right angle. Doll-like ball and socket joints were visible on her wrists and ankles and around the base of her skull, faint after-images of the wooden bones beneath her summoned flesh.
“And I believe she does understand,” I said.
“ … I’m sorry?” Felicity asked.
“Praem does understand the implications of being nude.”
“Evelyn,” Praem intoned. Not a call to the unconscious girl on the bed. Agreement.
“Yes. She just doesn’t care right now,” I said. “How would you feel if you’d lain helpless and immobilised, while your mother was maybe dying?”
“Mother?” Felicity’s face twisted with disgust, the expression strangely warped by her burn scars.
“Mother?” Twil echoed too, looking at both Praem and Evelyn. “Oh, right.”
“Awwww,” went Lozzie.
“That is a little … a little bit weird, isn’t it?” Kimberly said, still hovering in the doorway.
Felicity caught my frown and controlled her face, drawing herself up and swallowing carefully. Halfway to a confused apology, she trailed off without having said a word, eyes glued to Praem once more.
“ … Not rudimentary then, no.” Her browns knitted in thought. “Not rudimentary at all.”
She glanced around and settled on Kimberly, who suppressed a flinch at the cold calculation filling Felicity’s single shining eye. “You, you’re the other mage, yes? Kim? You put this demon – Praem, sorry – back in her vessel, correct? You re-made her?”
“ … I … yes?”
Kimberly looked at me for help, and I nodded for her to continue. She was safe here, even if she didn’t feel it.
“Yes,” she repeated, still short of breath despite the passing minutes. “It took me most of the morning, but … there she is. I did it. It wasn’t … um … easy. I’m sort of worn out, mostly.”
“But you did do it,” Felicity hissed, her good eye in a tight squint. “You have experience with creating hosts? You understand the principles? Not just corpses, but inanimate vessels too?”
“I-I … some of it.” A hollow look entered Kimberly’s eyes. “Only what I’ve been taught.”
“Kim doesn’t like to think about magic too much,” I said. “Where is this going?”
“She’s given me an idea.”
“I have?” Kimberly asked.
“This doesn’t have to take twelve or fifteen hours.” Felicity’s good eye darted back and forth as it alighted on the fast-moving contents of her own mind. “Three or four hours at most to draw the circle and assemble appropriate apparatus. You,” she pointed a gloved finger at Kimberly. “Kim. You’re going to help me.”
“I know precious little about summoning, so we must pool our resources.”
Kimberly, wide-eyed and swept away, glanced to me for help again.
“It’s okay, Kim. You can do this,” I said. “Felicity, what are you planning? What’s the idea?”
“We don’t have to perform an exorcism at all.” Felicity drew herself up. She seemed different from before, absorbed in problem-solving. “We don’t have to make the Outsider leave, we only have to make it leave Evelyn.”
“Eh?” Twil grunted.
“Unpack that, please?” I asked.
“We confuse it, we trick it. It hasn’t been here long, hasn’t had time to adapt to human biology, and Evee, bless her, she’s probably got it more confused still. It doesn’t understand what it’s inhabiting. In theory – in theory – it should be possible to move the Outsider from one vessel to another. Easier than casting it back into the beyond.”
“How?” I asked.
“How, yes, that is the question. How?” Felicity nodded, more to herself than us, eyes wandering off along private convolutions. “Going to be very messy. Yes … messy … ”
“Messy?” I almost sighed.
Felicity snapped to, fixed me with a look, dead serious. “First things first. How much horse dung can you get hold of?”
The spell to save Evelyn turned out to require far more esoteric ingredients than a pound or two of literal horse-shit, but we also needed a lot more floor space to work with. We returned downstairs, half at my direction and half at Felicity’s, as she listed the items she needed, asking what we had access to and what we could lay our hands on at short notice.
Zheng directed a grin at me as we passed through the kitchen, still lounging with her feet up on the table. “Where’s your streaker, shaman?”
“Putting her clothes on, this time. We hope.”
Zheng rumbled. “Pity.”
Over the next half-hour, Felicity’s spell began to take shape. We commandeered Evelyn’s magical workshop, had Twil shove the table and the sofa back to clear as much floor space as possible, while Kim scrubbed away the remains of the spell she’d used to restore Praem. The bottle my doll-demon friend had occupied now lay on its side, uncorked and empty. Amid the hustle and bustle I tucked it away behind a stack of papers and books. I doubted Praem would enjoy a reminder of that experience.
The task of drawing the magic circle fell to Kimberly, with Felicity directing and interrogating her threadbare knowledge. I did my best to follow their obscure conversation, but it mostly consisted of comparing scraps of Latin and different kinds of angles, and debating over tiny variations in eye-watering magical symbols.
Felicity herself ventured back out to her car, and returned with a heavy canvas-wrapped bundle which contained a mass of hollow brass tubing. She was stronger than she looked beneath her awkward, willowy exterior, and I kept a close eye on her for more than one reason.
She spent the next hour setting up those brass tubes, constructing a ceiling-height pyramid of copper globes and curved rods.
“Is that gonna need lifting over the … uh … circle-thing?” Twil asked.
“No, over Evelyn,” Felicity replied, distracted. “Here, take this piece, slot it into one of the double-width ends. Lift it up for me, here- no, no, here, pay attention. Hold it steady until I get this other piece in.”
Twil growled softly under her breath, but helped all the same.
Lozzie had delegated to herself the task of encouraging Praem to wear some clothes. When the pair of them finally rejoined us, it was Lozzie-first, bouncing through the kitchen with her nose pinched shut and her eyes screwed up against the lingering smell of blood. She smiled at us – well, at me and Twil, the only ones paying proper attention – and waved a flourish with one arm.
“Ta-da!” she announced with perfect timing, as Praem rounded the corner.
Praem was dressed once again in her re-appropriated maid uniform, ankle-length skirt and silly frills and neat little black shoes. She walked with her hands clasped in front of her, and I swear I saw in the depths of her expressionless face a touch of relief. Perhaps she felt normal again. Comfortable. Herself.
Lozzie’s introduction was somewhat spoilt when Praem paused in the kitchen, to share a silent staring contest with Zheng. The giant zombie stared back, slow and easy, as if she owned everything she surveyed.
“Trussed up like a cake,” Zheng purred at her, half-smiling like a sleepy cat. “Idiot, or slave, which is it?”
“Uh oh,” Lozzie chirped.
“This isn’t the time,” I raised my voice. Neither of them looked at me. “And Praem is not a slave.”
“Idiot, then,” Zheng rumbled.
“Feet. Off. Table.”
Zheng blinked once at Praem’s words – an order that brooked no argument, delivered in the voice of winter wind sliding around the icicles in one’s heart. Twil stepped away from the circle-building work, ears pricked with animal awareness of a brewing fight.
“Make me, idiot,” Zheng purred.
The staring contest continued for several heart-stretching moments. Felicity and Kimberly stopped working too, the former looking on with barely concealed twitchy concern.
“This is not the time,” I repeated, louder. Praem walked around to the opposite side of the table without breaking eye contact. I had a sudden terrible vision of her flipping the table in Zheng’s face or whipping it out from under her feet. “Praem. Praem, what are you-”
But of course, our perfectly poised and proper doll-demon would never do such a thing.
Praem carefully pulled out a chair, sat down with a smoothing of skirts under her rump, and placed her right elbow on the table, hand forward.
Zheng roared with approving laughter. I stared, open mouthed as I realised. Twil laughed too, and Lozzie let out a little whoop.
“What? What are they doing?” Felicity stammered “What is this? Heather is correct, we don’t have time for this.”
“You can ignore them if you want, I don’t think it’ll affect us,” I said with a sigh. “Don’t break the table though, either of you. Evelyn will be most unhappy.”
“But what are they doing?” Felicity demanded.
Zheng took her feet off the table and sat forward, hugely muscled shoulders hunched over as she mirrored Praem’s pose. Elbow on the table, right hand out. They made me think of stags about to lock antlers.
“You are made of wood and thought, idiot,” Zheng purred. “What are you next to real flesh? Hmmmmm?”
Praem waited. Said nothing. Zheng rumbled low in her throat.
“They’re arm wrestling,” I said.
It was no contest.
Not the first time, nor when they wordlessly went to best of three, then five, then seven – by which point Felicity had lost interest, turned back to her work and dragged Kimberly back to it as well, despite Twil’s hooting and hollering and Lozzie’s open-mouthed oohs and ahhs. We clustered around the doorway to the kitchen, an audience at safe distance. I shook my head when the demons went to best of nine, and resolved to put my foot down and stop this before best of eleven. They’d left a dent in the table by that point, a battered and bloodied indentation in the wood, and the slamming noise was getting on my nerves.
Thankfully I was saved from having to get between them, by the resounding snap of Zheng’s wrist bones.
She let out a grunt, not quite pain, and finally gave up on the immovable object that was Praem’s hand. Zheng’s knuckles were bloody and bruised, her finger bones likely riddled with micro-fractures. She’d exerted so much force that last time that she’d snapped whatever was left of her wrist. Sweating, heaving for breath, hunkered down – but she grinned all the same.
Not a single one of Praem’s hairs was out of place. She’d not moved an inch except to slam Zheng’s hand to the table nine times in a row.
“Ding ding ding,” Lozzie announced.
“You been bested, you great big lug,” Twil called out, grinning like a loon.
Zheng reached over with her other hand and wrenched her own bones back into place, rotating her bruised wrist, bones grinding. She clicked her tongue. “Meat.”
“Yes, I hope that issue is settled now,” I said. “Is this some kind of demonic pecking order ritual? Do you always have to challenge each other when you meet, or are you just both being insufferable?”
Prim and proper, Praem stood up, brushed her skirt smooth with a single motion of both hands, and tucked her chair in. “Feet off table.”
Zheng grinned even wider, chuckling under her breath. Her shoulders rolled, a note of wild joy in her eyes. For a heart-stopping moment I thought she was about to launch herself at Praem; my whole body twitched – not away, but toward, to get between them. I caught myself halfway there, heart racing, as Zheng relaxed back in her chair.
“Very well,” she purred. “Demon.”
Praem turned and glided toward us. We all cleared out of her way and let her into the magical workshop. Lozzie reached up and patted her on the head as she passed. She took up position next to the door, settled her hands in front of her, and stared straight ahead.
“That was fucking awesome,” Twil said. “Kicked her arse.”
“You next, laangren?” Zheng purred from the kitchen. Twil cleared her throat and grimaced.
“Praem?” I spoke softly, and felt a strange catch in my throat. Praem turned her head to regard me, and I surprised everyone including myself, by giving the doll-demon a hug. A proper hug, a good squeeze. There was a lot to hug, but she didn’t return the gesture. I wonder if she knew how, or if I’d finally managed to embarrass her. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” I said.
“Alive,” Praem echoed.
I let go and stepped back, and had to wipe my eyes a little. “Well, alive. You know what I mean.”
“Heather,” Praem intoned, bell-like and clear, then returned to her ramrod-straight position, eyes forward to watch Felicity work.
On one hand none of us trusted Felicity. I believed I understood her motivations, but what I knew of Evelyn’s childhood still invoked a latent horror at the mage’s presence in our home. The only thing I knew for sure is that when Evelyn woke, Felicity was absolutely not to be the first thing she saw.
And Evelyn would wake up. Of course she would. I had to keep repeating that to myself.
On the other hand, I finally had another capable adult in charge of at least one crisis. The relief was an almost physical thing, a lightness in my head and gut. But it didn’t last long. I had other tasks waiting.
“If we can’t get the dung, we’ll have to do it the other way. Blood.” Felicity dusted her hands off and and stepped back to look at her contraption. “I’ve got clean needles in my bag, shouldn’t have to draw much, but-”
“From Evee?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, who else?” Felicity waved vaguely. “But-”
“You’re gonna take blood from Evee?” Twil frowned like a wary dog.
Felicity blinked at her, wrong-footed. “Obviously. We are hoodwinking a demon, remember? What’s the soil like around here?”
Twil blinked at her. “ … Soil? I have no idea, what?”
I shrugged. “I’m not a Sharrowford native, sorry, I don’t know either.”
We all glanced at Kimberly, down on the floor on her knees, hands shaking over occult symbols as she focused on painting them directly onto the floorboards. “Um … you need clay, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Felicity said. “And lots of it, enough for a life-sized human figure. If the soil around here is clay-heavy, we could use it straight from your back garden. Save us time.”
“My … friend, I suppose,” Kimberly said, carefully tucking a loose strand of auburn hair behind one ear. “Ginny, she runs an arts and crafts supply store. You met her, Heather, at the coven. I-I could call her, ask how much she has right now? Modelling clay, I mean.”
Felicity clicked her fingers. “That’ll do. That’ll do. Can any of you drive? I can’t leave this alone while we finish it,” she gestured at the magic circle. “Somebody needs to go haul clay.”
“Twil, I think that’s on you,” I said.
“Eh?” Twil squinted. “What are you on about? I can’t drive.”
“You can run fast and carry heavy loads.”
“She can?” Felicity asked. “Perfect.”
Twil huffed and rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m tired and flippant and terrified for Raine. The quicker we can do this, the better. Please, Twil?”
Twil glanced sidelong at Felicity, who already considered the problem solved. She was stooping down to supervise Kimberly’s work. “Heather,” Twil hissed between her teeth. “I can’t leave Evee here. What about … you know? I know you’re not, like, defenceless, but … ” She nodded sideways at Felicity, as awkward and conspicuous as an informant in a bad noir movie.
“Present,” Praem intoned from where she stood by the door. Twil jumped, startled, as if she’d forgotten Praem was there.
“I think Evee has a capable enough bodyguard for now,” I murmured.
Forty five minutes later, Twil returned huffing and puffing. Hauling three massive sacks of modelling clay halfway across Sharrowford on her shoulders had sapped even her strength. She’d nabbed a huge bucket in which to mix the stuff too. With time barely to catch her breath, Felicity set her to work kneading the clay with a pair of rubber gloves on both hands, a garden trowel, and elbow grease.
“Double, double toil and trouble,” I whispered to myself, leaning against the wall and watching as the other ingredients went into the bucket. “Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
Lemon juice, iron filings, several strands of Evelyn’s hair, a quarter-pint of motor oil and an eighth a pint of full-fat milk. And from Felicity’s bag – if she was to be believed – a dash of salt water taken from the Dead Sea, and ash from an Old Testament Bible consumed by fire.
Last but not least, a single syringe worth of Evelyn’s blood.
Felicity wanted to extract that herself. Twil stood in the way, barring the door.
“I’m the only one here with any medical experience,” Felicity said, her blind eye twitching. “You risk snapping the needle off in her arm if you pull it out wrong.”
“Still don’t like it,” Twil growled.
“It’s a clean needle. It’s never been used. I’d … ” Felicity swallowed, struggled to get the words out. “Never try to hurt her, even unintentionally.”
“You don’t have to like it,” I said, the confrontation not helping my nerves. “Twil, let her work. We need to get this done.”
“And face it, either of us probably will snap the needle off. You’re jittery and worried, and I’m exhausted.”
Felicity moved to push past. A growl started in Twil’s throat.
Like an animating statue, Praem stepped forward and deftly palmed the empty syringe from Felicity’s hand before any of us could react. She marched out of the ex-drawing room and up the stairs, leaving the rest of us exchanging surprised glances. Twil leapt after her. They returned less than a minute later, holding up a plastic tube filled with thick crimson.
“Blood,” Praem announced. Felicity thanked her with an awkward nod.
In went Evee’s blood. The clay took on a red sheen.
Two hours had turned into three, and the circle Felicity was building began to hurt my eyes and make me feel sick. The stench of clay and blood and citrus didn’t help either. Or at least, that’s what I told myself, leaning against the wall and downing more coffee. That’s how I distracted myself from what I had to do, kept it bottled up until the right moment.
Eventually, I asked the question. “Is this going to take much longer?”
Felicity didn’t bother to look up. “Another hour, perhaps. I’m working as fast as I can.”
“An hour?” Twil grunted. “Fuckin’ ‘ell.”
“Yes, an hour. Depends how fast you can slap together a basic human figure with all that clay. Time to get to it, I think.”
I levered myself away from the wall and turned to Praem, on guard at the kitchen doorway.
“Can you … ” I started softly, not wanting to disturb the mages at work, but unsure what exactly I was asking, or why. Praem had proved herself capable already, she knew Felicity had to be watched. “I … um … ”
I needed permission. Guilt clutched at my throat. Evelyn was still in a coma. Could I leave my best friend in other people’s hands? A lump formed in my throat, thick and almost painful.
Praem met my eyes. A white emptiness stared back at me.
“Yes,” Praem intoned, clear and loud. The others glanced up, and I flustered at the attention.
“It’s nothing,” I lied. “I’m just going to check on Lozzie. I may be some time.”
“Right, well, yes,” Felicity said, already turning away.
Praem was still looking at me.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and slipped past her.
I found Lozzie upstairs, curled up on the foot of my bed, dozing like a cat.
She’d excused herself from the magical workshop over an hour ago, with a whispered, intensely personal reason. She didn’t like to see that kind of magic. Reminded her of bad things, bad times, and bad people. I’d trusted her not to vanish Outside, if that was even possible right now, and she’d proved my trust well founded.
“Lozzie?” I murmured her name as I sat down on the bed, the floorboards creaking. “Lozzie?”
“Mmmm?” She made a sleepy sound, but her eyes stayed closed.
I almost laughed – hysteria threatening to break through my wire-tight nerves. “How can you sleep at a time like this?”
“Nap time, nap time,” she murmured. “Can’t help, so nap time.”
“Lozzie?” I swallowed, throat dry, almost unable to ask. “Do you know if your spirits have found anything yet? Anything about Raine?”
“Mmmm … I’d know,” she mumbled. “Soon? They’ll be in the garden, maybe, in a bit.”
“ … so, no then. Okay, okay.” I closed my eyes and blew out a slow, shaky breath.
I’d fetched the little plastic waste bin we kept in the bathroom, and when I placed it on the floor my hands started to shake. Just the caffeine. I tugged a corner of blanket over Lozzie’s shoulder, and pulled my legs up underneath me to keep my feet warm.
I’d hoped to do this alone, where I’d not be missed for an hour or two, but I was too nervous and too afraid to summon the focus to wake Lozzie.
Instead I reached down and adjusted the plastic bin.
There. Perfect position to catch vomit.
Outdoors, the sun was drooping toward mid afternoon on a winter’s day, sending thin grey light through the window of the bedroom Raine and I shared. I could have locked myself in the bathroom and sat in the tub, but I needed to be here. With her.
The evidence of Raine’s life was all around – her discarded clothes on the floor, crumpled jeans over the back of a chair, a very plain bra dropped carelessly next to the bed. Her books were stacked in a trio of loose piles, some fallen like discarded masonry from a crumbling tower, invaded and occupied by several of my favourites. Her posters adorned the walls, some old and dog-eared, from that far-away childhood home I’d probably never visit. A playstation controller sat in front of the television, undoubtedly and invisibly stained with the oils from her hands. Her scent was worked into the bedsheets, the smell of her hair on the pillows.
I knew all her textures here. The way she pulled a tshirt over her head. The way she’d hold a book open while reading it, bending the spine ever so slightly too much for my sensibilities. The way she sat when concentrating, cross-legged and serious, or when teasing me, leaning back on her arms. I saw her beaming confident smile in every blink of my mind’s eye.
If I was to define Raine with hyperdimensional mathematics, this was the place to do it.
I closed my eyes, and began.
In retrospect, I made an incredibly stupid decision. I was exhausted, running on fumes and coffee and sheer stubborn determination and – I like to think – love, which is often the stupidest thing of all. Another two or three hours and perhaps Evelyn would be awake, perhaps there would be another way to find Raine, a way that did not involve crushing my consciousness in a vice of fire and acid. I knew I was fragile, on the edge of a collapse, the last of my energy used up to dispose of the bodies that morning. If the Fractal hadn’t been on my arm, I’d have sworn I was close to a Slip. I felt halfway out of reality already, shaky and disconnected.
Just the coffee, I told myself.
Every minute without action was torture. I’d done my best to contain myself, dealing with crisis after crisis, but now other people had taken over and I couldn’t wait any longer. Neither could Raine.
My heart quivered, because I was about to discover if I was strong enough to find her.
And if she was alive.
I’d thrown this brainmath together before, of course, when I’d searched for the not-Lozzie that had visited Kimberly’s flat. The relevant equations still lurked in the depths of my unconscious mind. How to define time, space, position, how to use Evelyn’s map of reality, how to weld it all together into a tool for my purposes. But I was missing one element, and that I would have to build from scratch.
I plunged my arms into the mud in the sump of my soul.
At least this time I didn’t need to hide the pain. I cried out, gritting my teeth and whining at the white-hot daggers inside my skull as I pulled together the hyperdimensional mathematics I would require. Curling up, I tensed every muscle in my body to hold onto the contents of my stomach.
Time, space, they were simple, came to me with the ease of sticking a knife into my guts.
Quickly, quickly now, I told myself, before it overwhelms me.
Raine’s scent in the air and her face in my memory and every facet of her life at my fingertips. Reduced, redefined, laid out in hell-maths from beyond reality.
Over a threshold of pain I hadn’t known existed, quivering and choking on the air itself, my eyeballs on fire, I defined a human soul in hyperdimensional mathematics.
A frozen explosion in my head, pain poised on the edge of an abyss, ready to drop me into darkness and oblivion – and it all happened then, all at once, a nano-second of consciousness expanded to infinite awareness.
Sharrowford itself laid out in alien terms. A thousand possible places, a million, a billion, more than I could account for with my my mind screaming and quivering like flayed meat. Not a process, because time meant nothing in that state. An instant of knowledge of every possible place Raine had been or would ever be.
Maths, describing a monkey. Every detail of meat and breath and chemistry and thought, but nothing of Raine, not in the way that I knew her. Not in the human way. A construct of energy and matter and time. That’s all she was in the end. All any of us are.
Should have felt relief; couldn’t feel anything. Time meant nothing, so what of human emotion?
I had a location. Nothing so irrelevant as an address, the knowledge was far more pure than that.
Paused in that moment of frozen time, dimly aware of the pain and the crash waiting for me, I tried to push further. Scraps of brainmath suggested themselves, rising from oily depths, half-forgotten pieces of the Eye’s lessons connecting up as I stared at this construct that was Raine, and realised I could bring her back.
I could select her, define her, and make her be here. We didn’t have to rescue her at all, I could simply fix reality.
All I had to do was try harder, plunge myself into the abyss, drink the Eye’s lessons in full and accept what I was changing into.
Why not? What did I have to lose?
I pushed that little bit further, and for a blink of time, I forgot what it was like to be a person.
Raine’s lingering scent in the air saved me. Our bedroom saved me, the memory of what it felt like be fleshy and real, to cuddle with Raine in bed at night, her arms around me. Flawed and warm. I wanted that again, I wanted it so much, to be messy and sweaty, wanted to eat food and make out with Raine and get cold fingertips and have orgasms. Wanted to feel sun on my skin and hair under my hands and smell strawberries and get ill and stub my toe. Wanted to exist, with Raine.
I saw a monkey on a bed, a weird scrawny little thing full of chemicals and proteins, expiring in eighty years or less, her eyes screwed up, doubled over in pain and about to fly apart.
Oh, that’s me, I thought.
And thinking made it so.
Gasping, shaking, my heart pounding hard enough to burst, breath heaving in and out on the verge of hyperventilation, every inch of my skin drenched in cold sweat, I was back. For the first time in my life, pain had never felt so sweet.
I managed to hit the target, vomited into the bin I’d placed earlier. Heather one, brainmath nil.
Then I whined like a stuck pig.
My head throbbed, my vision turning black at the edges. I curled into a ball began to sob, overwhelmed, hiccuping and laughing and hugging myself. The pain was incredible, but so was the relief that Raine was alive – and that I was still here.
I could save Raine right now. The price was not death, the price was to leave behind being a person. Being flesh. Being me.
For a long time I lay on the bed, panting for breath, waiting for the pain to subside, staring at Lozzie’s peaceful face. How had she slept through all my pitiful noises? Her eyes twitched under their lids, and she made a sleepy noise in her throat. Good Lozzie. If you’re safe, this is all easier. I’d wake her in a minute and tell her where Raine was, how to find her, in case I passed out when I tried to stand up.
“You have to become a monster if you want to save her. You know that, don’t you?”
A nightmare imitation of a little girl’s voice in sulphur and ash, reaching from behind me, creeping over my side like skeletal fingers clutching at my ribs. A weight shifted on the bed behind me, where nobody should have been.
“Don’t you want to save your girlfriend?” the voice continued, mocking and hissing. “It’s not so bad, being like me. Give it a try.”
The voice laughed, a horrible wet bubbly sound, a child’s laugh as imagined by serial killer.
“ … Felicity’s parasite?” I managed to croak, too drained to even turn my head to look. Instinct told me I was lucky to be so exhausted.
“Tssss, ugly word,” the voice hissed, then purred as if through a mouthful of drool. “Think what Raine would feel, if she knew you couldn’t do it.”