“Isn’t that what Raine does for you, Heather?” that little girl’s voice crackled behind my head, dripping darkness and acid. “Rescues you?”
A giggle like a chorus of nails down a blackboard.
“You’d be dead without her,” it continued. “And without her, you’ll be dead. Why can’t you take that final step, I wonder? So attached to your illusion of ego that you can’t let go for five minutes? Oh, but no, of course, it doesn’t take you minutes, it takes you seconds. Let go for five seconds, and you could save her – why not? Afraid?” A tickle of breath on my ear, the scent of dark chocolate in my nose. The voice dropped to a whisper forced through a mouth full of knives. “Maybe you like being helpless. You enjoy all the fuss. You want to be weak little Heather, pinned to the bed and fucked by your big strong dyke. You care about that more than you care about Raine.”
She – whatever she was – finally trailed off. A weight shifted on the bed again, as she rearranged herself.
My heart beat slow now, and everything ached, recovering from my brush with the border of ego-death. My eyes felt sticky, gummed open. The sun tilted through the window, bathing the bed in weak late-afternoon orange. Faint voices carried from downstairs, where the others still worked on saving Evelyn. Lozzie’s eyes twitched behind their lids.
“Are you done?” I croaked.
“ … pardon me?”
“Are you done talking?”
I coughed, then winced in slow-motion from the sheer effort of expelling breath.
Over the course of a strange and unique life I have become intimately familiar with exhaustion. Not run-of-the mill tiredness, or a healthy empty-tank after a hard day’s work, but true exhaustion, usually known only by those going through chronic fatigue syndrome or tuberculosis or the brutality of chemotherapy. I knew the ins and outs of my body’s limits, how far I could push myself, when to read the signs of collapse – and when to ignore the feeling.
Once you’ve spent enough time dead on your feet, you get a sense for when it’s safe to lie still for five minutes, and when one simply must respond to a threat.
With my throat raw and stinging from bile, my head pounding like a jackhammer, my every fibre fragile and thin as my vision throbbed black and red, this petty little demon did not warrant the energy to roll over.
Which was lucky for me, because even lifting my head would take everything I had.
“Am I … am I done talking?” the voice asked in disbelief.
“Are you going to help me or not?” I forced out, staring at Lozzie’s sleeping face.
“Yes? Obviously?” I coughed again, winced and wheezed. “Unless you’re going to help me rescue Raine, there’s no point talking to you. Far less listening.”
A dainty sigh, a petulant little huff. I could almost feel her rolling her eyes.
“Oh, you’re so boring,” she drawled in the same hissing mockery of a little girl’s voice, but with all the malice drained. She shifted on the bed again, and in my mind’s eye I saw a little chin resting in a little hand, a little pout on a sullen face. “None of you are as fun as my Fliss. Completely unrepressed. If only I could get Kimberly alone, she might prove some sport. Or Evelyn. Oh, Evee, so wrapped up in all her fears and desires. What she thinks she wants isn’t what she really wants at all.” The demon-voice sighed again.
“M’working on that,” I mumbled.
“What was that, dearie?”
“Working on that.”
“Oh, are you now? Tch, you’ll probably screw it up. Or it’ll have a happy-little-ending, and we’ll all go home feeling sick.” Another huff, more old woman than little girl. “I do hope you fools and deviants don’t let her die, that would be so droll.”
I tested my neck muscles, lifted my head. An inch off the bed and my vision swam, but I clung hard to consciousness. Had to help Raine. Got one arm half underneath me and had to stop, panting for breath despite the hollow ache in my chest.
“Oh come on! Don’t pass out now, I won’t have anybody to play with,” the voice whined. “What am I supposed to do here, talk to the arachnids? They’re even worse than you humans, they don’t want to do anything but eat and sleep. Did you know you’ve got rats living under the house, a family of seven? They want to get in but they haven’t found a way yet. And there’s a pair of great big crows eyeing your chimney. Even the wildlife in the city is boring, boring, boring. And that great big idiot you have downstairs is guarding the fridge, I swear she knows I’m here and she’s winding me up. You’ve got so many sweets in there and I can’t get at them-”
“If you’re not going to help me,” I hissed, struggling to keep my head up, “I’ll make you.”
“Oh, I’ll help you, Heather.” The parasite rolled her eyes again, I swear I could feel it without seeing. “At least I can get a good love-triangle out of you if you try hard enough. Or a love-square? Is that a thing? Love rhomboid. Love-”
With herculean effort, I swung myself at the source of the voice. Not a tackle, just controlled falling over, almost collapsing onto the bed as I grasped for her. I’d grab her and brainmath her into whatever I needed; I’d done it to Zheng, I’d do it to this thing. I knew where Raine was and I would press-gang every last bit of help I could. Explanations could wait.
I landed on the bedsheets, badly. Sharp spike of pain up my spine. Winced through my teeth.
Defeated, I lay on my back for several heartbeats, staring at the ceiling, kept conscious only by pain.
“Parasite?” I eventually said, but she did not return.
Another six or seven heartbeats and I forced myself to sit up again, inch by painful inch; couldn’t afford to fall asleep or unconscious now. I knew where Raine was, and I had to communicate it to the others. Wake Lozzie. How had she slept through that scratching, sticky voice?
Perhaps she hadn’t heard it at all. Perhaps that was the point.
“ … Parasite?” I eyed the corners of the room. “Did you make me angry to keep me awake?”
For a long moment I just sat there, kinked awkwardly, unwilling to lie back down but unable to lift an arm to wake Lozzie. When I finally worked up the energy to rub my stinging, aching eyeballs, the pain reached all the into the back of my head, as if my optical nerve itself was singed. My hand came back sticky with blood. I’d left a stain on the sheets.
I let out a tiny laugh.
I’d never been so happy to feel so much pain. To be alive, and me, and bleeding. My brush with the outer limits of hyperdimensional mathematics made reality seem as fragile as a soap bubble. I, Heather, the me I knew and understood in human terms, was a thin ghost of electrical signal and chemical reaction, skating across a bulb of grey meat inside my skull.
But right now, I was sitting on a bed in the orange sunlight, alive. Raine was alive, and the relief was like morphine.
And here was Lozzie, warm and dozing.
“Lozzie,” I croaked. “Lozzie.”
“Mmmmm?” she grumbled.
I waited another minute, or perhaps two, or ten, it was hard to tell, gathering my strength. Then I used far too much energy to give her a hug. An awkward one, yes, with one arm and no leverage, but I had to do it, remind myself I was here, in the flesh. I straightened back up and shook her shoulder as best I could.
“Mmm—mm—mmmmmm—mmm,” she made a sleepy noise, distorted by the shaking.
“Wake up. I need you.”
That did the trick. Lozzie cracked one eye open, showed a hint of white.
“Didn’t you hear any of that?” I asked. “Lozzie … Lozzie?”
At first I thought it was only her eye problems acting up, the permanently droopy eyelids of damaged extraocular muscles that I must ask her about someday.
“ … Lozzie?”
Her eyeball swivelled and her head jerked, her body following half-way to a sitting position – a puppet rediscovering its strings. She made a soft throat-clearing sound, blinked twice, and finally I was looking at Lozzie again, bleary from a nap.
“Lozzie? Lozzie, what was that? Are you okay?”
“Mmmm-mm? I’m fine. Energy-saving.” She pulled a big sleepy smile, rubbed her eyes to clear her vision, then realised what she was looking at. Her mouth fell open. “Heather! Heather’s all bloody, no no, no.” Vibrating with worry, she lifted the hem of her pink poncho to wipe the blood from my face. I screwed up my eyes and winced.
“It’s fine. I had to do it,” I said, too weak to resist. “Lozzie- Lozzie, stop-”
“No, no more blood, it’s all okay, all okay now.”
“It- it is.” Gently, I took her hand. Couldn’t have held her back if she’d pushed, but she understood and relented. “Lozzie, I need you to listen. I know where Raine is.”
She sat up, rigid as a mongoose spotting a snake. “Where?! Where where where?!”
I could have laughed at the sound she made, but we both jumped at the sudden noise of heavy booted feet stomping up the stairs. Only one person currently in the house walked like that, but the bedroom door opened to reveal a surprise – Zheng stooped to peer at us both, and Praem waited primly by her side. Not a combination I’d expected.
Zheng raised an eyebrow at me. “Shaman?”
“I’m okay,” I croaked.
“Oh!” Lozzie lit up. “Is it time?”
“Preparations complete,” Praem intoned, then turned and marched off down the hallway, apparently satisfied I wasn’t in any real danger.
“Yes!” Lozzie beat a celebratory drum roll on the bed with both hands. I winced.
“Time for what?” I asked.
“The wizards are ready,” Zheng purred, then stepped into the bedroom and straightened up. The huge zombie directed a quizzical look in all directions, then wrinkled her nose.
“I smell a rat,” she rumbled.
“Yes,” I sighed. “That’s about right. The parasite said hello.”
“Ahhh?” went Lozzie. “Ahhhh?”
“Is that why you’re covered in your own vital fluids again, shaman?”
I shook my head. “I did a thing. I need to tell everyone. Now.”
“Time,” Praem intoned again as she stepped back into view. She carried Evelyn in a close embrace, one arm under my unconscious friend’s knees and the other supporting her back. Evelyn’s head lolled on Praem’s shoulder. She was drooling slightly. Even wrapped in blankets pulled from her bed, she looked so small and vulnerable, as fragile as I felt. A blank space hung where her right leg should be, and her withered left provided precious little body weight.
My heart could barely take that sight. I bottled it up, for now.
“She’s there. Right there. Right there. I know it.” I jabbed the map with my finger again, then collapsed back into Zheng’s waiting arms, my body begging for rest.
The others all clustered around the drawing room table in Evelyn’s magical workshop, save for Praem, still cradling Evelyn in her arms, standing by the completed device and waiting for the rest of us.
“Don’t know that bit of Sharrowford.” Twil clicked her tongue, peering close at the near-indecipherable map spread out on the huge table. She ran a finger along the street name – Barrend Road – and referred back to google maps on her phone, trying to match image to place. “Third house, third house along … wow, this all looks real swanky. Yeah, look at this, rich people houses. This the place, Heather? Number seven?” She waved the phone under my nose, but my eyes were already fluttering shut.
“I can’t- I only know position,” I tried to explain again. “I don’t know what it looks like.”
Lozzie peered over my shoulder. “I know that place!”
“You do? Serious?” Twil asked. The phone was withdrawn.
“Mmmhmm, mmhmm! Lived there for maybe six months when I was reeeeally little. Family place.”
“Your family? Like, your brother?” Twil asked, then huffed through clenched teeth. “Shit.”
“Maybe!” Lozzie chirped.
“I-I think I saw it too, once,” Kimberly ventured from somewhere behind us, a safe distance from Zheng. “Never went inside though. Some kind of safe house, maybe.”
“Won’t be safe, little wizard,” Zheng purred. Her voice reverberated through the back of my skull, my head against the base of her chest. “Not for the likes of you or me.”
Our only map that wasn’t on a computer screen was unfortunately Evelyn’s, the one she’d used to track the cult’s pocket dimension spaces back during our first brush with them. Still covered in her red ink and scrawled notation and crossed out buildings and danger zones and connections, it barely resembled the city of Sharrowford at all, but I hadn’t been up to squinting and scrolling on a phone. Zheng had carried me downstairs the same way Praem had carried Evelyn. I’d ignored everyone’s shock and surprise at the bloody stains around my eyes, and demanded to be set down in front of the map.
Now I’d done all I could, and my body screamed for sleep, rest, to let go. Zheng held me up on my feet, one huge arm around my chest, the other under an armpit.
“Don’t care about safe,” I croaked. “I need her.”
A moment of silence. I felt glances passed back and forth, and cracked my eyelids to see.
“We can get her,” Twil said with a guilty grimace. “We totally can. But if we wake Evee first, she’ll know what to do, right? She can help.”
I shook my head – no, dammit – and the world span with it. Without my asking, Zheng scooped me up again – a dizzying trip into the air – and gently deposited me on the sofa, where I curled up and clenched down to halt a wave of nausea and dissociation. My vision wavered in and out of focus for a moment, then came back, along with everyone’s voices.
“ – in no state to be mounting a rescue, is she?” Kimberly was asking. “We need to wake Saye.”
“We do, but … ” Twil said, hanging her head, wracked with guilt.
“I could do it!” Lozzie chirped. “Oh-”
“What about calling the-” Kimberly never finished.
“Evelyn,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, yes, Evelyn,” I hissed, my head aching. “But Raine’s alive, I have to-”
“What I don’t understand,” Felicity’s half-mumble somehow cut through the rest of us, clear and sharp despite the distortion of scarred lips. “Is how you did whatever you did. How can you know so accurately?”
“Just do,” I hissed.
I looked up at Felicity’s one staring eye. She had her arms crossed, a curious, cold expression on her face. Judging and weighing meat on the slab. Had Evelyn seen that face, staring down at her with a syringe in one hand and a saw in the other?
“You’re no mage, Heather,” she mumbled. “What are you?”
Incoherent anger welled in my chest, over-compensation for guilt. Flung out to the edge of my little monkey brain – as Zheng would call it – by exhaustion and fear for my friends, I bared my teeth at her.
“Um?” Felicity blinked at me, and the cold curiosity passed, replaced with trepidation and confusion. “Heather?”
“She does magic with her head, no wands required,” Twil grunted. “S’just how she works. Can we focus on waking Evee now?”
“She does what? I’m sorry?”
“Me toooo,” Lozzie hooted from her safe distance in the kitchen doorway, trailing off quietly.
“Raine,” I insisted. Her name was enough to make my point. “I need to-”
“We won’t be at this much longer than another half hour,” Felicity said.
“I have to-” I panted, squeezing my eyes shut, thinking of Raine, alone and trapped, alive for how much longer? “Somebody has to-”
“Ahhh shit,” Twil said. “She’s right, come on, fuck it.”
“We could split our forces,” Felicity said gently. “If I have any say in the matter? Send the demons for her.”
“Evelyn,” Praem intoned again.
“Delegate, shaman,” Zheng purred, so softly only I could hear, and a light bulb went on in my mind.
“Everyone shut up,” I croaked, worked a hand out in front of me and gave the entire room an unintentional glare. “Hand me my phone.”
Zheng raised an eyebrow – this wasn’t what she’d expected when she’d advised me. I ignored her, no energy for debate right now. Somebody pressed my phone into my hand. I pulled up the contacts list, pressed the most recently added, and let it ring on speaker-phone, too tired to hold it up to my ear.
“Didn’t think you’d contact me so soon,” detective Webb answered on the third ring. She lowered her voice, and in the background I heard office murmurs, the clack of a keyboard, muffled speech far away. “Or are you just testing my number? That is you, Heather?”
“Yes,” I croaked. “I found my girlfriend.”
“Oh. Oh, that’s good news then, right?” She laughed, half-exasperated. “Won’t be needing the missing person’s I literally just put in. Great. Hooray.”
“Not hooray. I know where she is. In a house. Kidnapped. We can’t go right now. Doing … um, magic.”
“ … probably best you stick to that part then.” Her voice dropped to a hiss. The background noise dimmed to nothing as she cupped the speaker. “Where’s the address?”
Twil held her own phone in front of my eyes. I rattled off the address, heard the scratching of a pen. Twil read it back to make sure.
“Hey there werewolf,” Nicole said. “Yes, I know the street. That’s a … ‘nice’ neighbourhood. I’m gonna have to play this safe, no warrant, but I can fudge things a bit if I can get eyes on something – or someone – relevant.”
“Please,” I grunted. “You’ll have company too.”
“Soon as we’re done.”
“Gotcha. Call you if I see anything … weird. Or your girl.”
She ended the call. Before I even lowered the phone, Zheng growled.
“I’ll go.” She surprised me by crouching down on her haunches, eye-to-eye. “I will go to this house, shaman. When we’re done here.”
I frowned at her. “ … why do you care?”
“Because I’m with you, shaman – that would be a lie.” She grinned slowly, showing all her teeth. “No, because I want to catch Sarika before your tame police woman does. They’ll throw her in a cell. I want to eat her heart.”
Behind her, Twil pulled a face. Felicity frowned at Zheng as if watching some cartoon jungle savage, and Kimberly turned a little green around the gills. Over past the kitchen door, still keeping a safe distance from all the upsetting magical detritus, Lozzie looked away too.
I didn’t care.
Raine’s safety was more important than who or what rescued her. If it took a tame police detective and an emancipated demon, so be it. I did not have to be present. I only had to ensure it happened.
“Why not now?” I croaked.
Zheng cast a glance at the magical apparatus which filled the room. “You may have need of me.”
“This is going to work,” Felicity said. “Perfectly.”
Zheng shrugged and stood up, talking to me. “Do not count on me, shaman. There will be things in there, like me and unlike me. I go to scout, not to conquer.” She gave me a slow, serious nod. “Wake your magician friend. Let us both hope she is as skilled as you imply.”
“You seriously gonna go back out into the streets looking like that?” Twil asked.
“Looking like what, laangren?”
“All bloody and stuff.”
Twil had a good point. Zheng still wore the clothes she’d arrived in, covered in dried blood and concrete dust, one arm of her trench coat missing. She was seven feet tall and built like a muscle worshipper’s wet dream, and there was no way she’d pass unnoticed down a Sharrowford street.
“Moving without travelling,” she purred. “Without the shaman in my wake.”
“ … spooky,” I grunted, not really caring right now. Zheng shrugged, huge and rippling, and stepped away to lounge against the wall.
“That’s it then?” Twil asked. “We ready to rock?”
“To rock,” Praem agreed.
I cast a judgemental eye over Felicity’s completed mechanism, as much as I could stand with the pain in my head and the weakness inside my chest.
The spell to extract Evelyn’s unwelcome visitor consisted of two components. The first, the ceiling-height pyramidal brass cage, had blossomed while I was upstairs. Many of the spaces between the pipes were filled out with thin copper slats, each of those punched with holes in precise, geometrical patterns. It had something of an antique computer about it, a difference engine with all the moving parts missing.
In the open space beneath the pyramid’s square base, a nest of pillows waited to receive Evelyn’s unconscious body.
The second component was inside the magic circle Kimberly had spent hours painstakingly painting onto the floorboards, parts of it patched and altered with masking tape, other bits scrawled on sheets of pinned paper in blood or other fluids. The unbroken triple-ring of esoteric symbols and inhuman language stung my eyes, but it was only a means to an end. A real cage.
Inside the circle lay a clay figure on its back. Wet and rough, flat and genderless. Not quite life-size, maybe only four feet tall, with tube-shaped arms and legs and a ball for a head, finger-poked holes for eyes and a slash for a mouth. Twil had spread a sheet underneath the thing, but I think the state of the floorboards was a little beyond saving at this point.
“Is it safe?” I asked.
“Safe?” Kimberly echoed. “That- that’s a good question. Is it? Should we all stay in here, o-or leave?”
Felicity caught the direction of my gaze. She nodded at the circle. “The circle will contain it, whatever it is, and giving it a body will allow us to uh … ” She cleared her throat and waved a hand.
“Smash it up,” Twil said.
“Yes, well put. Giving it a body will allow us to destroy it. Or question it. Or whatever you like, really. I only suggest not breaking the circle. We know this Outsider got into Evelyn via a remote connection which you were both looking at, which means it might have some kind of sight-transmission vector, but the circle will block that too.”
“Yeah, I get to punch a golem to death, cool,” Twil said. “Can we start now?”
“Yes,” Praem said, voice ringing like a bell.
“Almost.” Felicity held up a gloved hand. Her good eye slid across me, hesitated, then turned to Kimberly. “There’s one last thing we’ll need, just in case. Kim, I’d like you to go to my car, please, and bring me the toolbox from the back.” She held out her car keys.
“Um … okay?” Kimberly took the keys like a bundle of spiders.
“Twil, if you please,” Felicity continued. “It’s probably best if you go with her, too. It’s not safe out of doors right now, is it? Unless you happen to be a demon-host,” Felicity gave a little sigh and tried to smile, but she was bungling this trick. Even exhausted beyond words, I saw through it a mile away. Thankfully, so did Twil.
She squinted at Felicity. “I can go get your toolbox. Toss me the keys, Kim.”
“No, no.” Felicity cleared her throat. “Kimberly should go. I’m going to … to … make one last alteration to the circle, and it may prove upsetting to … uh … sensitive minds.”
Twil squinted harder. Felicity was too obvious.
“You’re a bad liar,” I croaked.
“Pants on fire!” Lozzie shot from the doorway.
“Yeah, the hell is your game?” Twil asked.
Felicity cringed, shrinking back, a vampire exposed to sunlight. She shot an uncomfortable look at Zheng, who was eyeing her with silent predation. “I … oh, alright. I would like to speak to Heather alone, for a few minutes, without an audience.”
“You’re having a laugh,” said Twil.
“What about?” I asked, curiosity piqued. “We’re still on a time limit.”
“No, I am not ‘kidding’.” Felicity swallowed. She glanced at Praem, still holding Evelyn, and at Zheng. “They can stay, if you want some kind of insurance that I’m not going to betray you. This is between me and Heather, but I don’t care what a demon-host thinks.”
Twil opened her mouth to complain, but I got there first with a wordless hiss of frustration. “S’fine.”
“Heather, come on,” Twil hissed.
“I want to hear what she has to say. Praem and Zheng will be right here.”
“Here,” Praem echoed.
“There you go. Lozzie,” I called to her softly. “You too. Just for a minute.”
“Mmm? Mmm! Right-right.”
Felicity raised her chin in defiant shame as the others went in to the kitchen. Twil gave her one last warning glare before she shut the door on us.
“How well does this house insulate sound?” Felicity asked, eyeing the door.
“Well enough. Say your bit.”
Felicity fixed me with a stare, as intense from her blind eye as from the healthy one. For a moment, the words stuck in her throat.
“She appeared to you, didn’t she?”
I raised an eyebrow. Or at least I thought I did, almost too worn out to tell. “She?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Felicity swallowed, controlling herself with an effort of will. Fear? “What did she say? How much did she tell you?”
“How can you tell I met her?” I asked.
“I just … I felt it, when she decided to manifest. What did she tell you?”
I shook my head, squinting at Felicity’s borderline panic, too tired to draw her out her with a cruel lie. “Not much. Tried to taunt me about Raine, then … went off on a tangent. Seemed kind of petulant. Is that all?”
Felicity blew out a long shuddering breath. She nodded. “That’s all. I- … she- she exists to torment me. I thought she may attempt to turn you all against me, that’s all.”
“Mmmhmm,” I grumbled. “While we’re alone, I have a question for you, too. Might not get another chance.”
“Yes? Yes?” Felicity blinked at me, distracted by her own relief.
“You’re the doctor, aren’t you?”
And with those few words, all Felicity’s focus of the last few hours drained away, along with the colour in her face. She went grey and pale, a hollow space forming behind her good eye, the same way she’d looked when she’d first set eyes on Evelyn this morning.
“I … never finished medical school, if that’s what you mean. Not a doctor, never made it.”
“Evelyn said the doctor who performed her amputation was an associate of her mother’s. Operated drunk.”
Pain, shame, self-loathing, all twisted and attenuated by Felicity’s unique scarring, as if cut off halfway across her face. It gave the terrible illusion that she could only half-feel, never concluding, never ending, no closure.
“You try taking a bone saw to a nine year old girl while sober,” she hissed at me, voice barely above a whisper, jaw clenched. She swallowed, hard, as if she couldn’t get her own saliva down.
“You could have-”
“Could have what?” she hissed again, eye flicking at the closed door and then at Praem, at the wrapped bundle in her arms. She ignored Zheng completely. “Refused? Her mother would have done it herself, given her too much morphine or failed to tie off an artery. I had no choice.”
“You wanted to save her,” I said, not unkindly, my own anger blunted in the face of this toxic self-hate.
“I saw myself in her.” Felicity sniffed, gestured at her own burned face, gave a sardonic laugh. “It’s not exactly difficult. I was supposed to be an older sister, something like that, but my courage failed. I tried to swan back into her life after her mother’s death, but she knows what kind of monster I am. I can’t make it right. This,” she gestured at the spell she’d built to save Evelyn. “Doesn’t make it right. But I’m doing it anyway. I understand, you care, you need to know why. But why doesn’t matter.”
“Just that we do it regardless,” I said.
Felicity nodded, couldn’t meet my eyes.
A knock sounded on the door. “You two done yet?” Twil called out.
“Almost,” I croaked.
“I’m glad she got to grow up,” Felicity murmured, looking at Evelyn’s face. Praem said nothing, no hint of accusation in her eyes as she watched the mage. “I only wish she hadn’t taken after her mother. At all.”
Nobody likes magic.
Hyperdimensional mathematics is scary enough, and that’s confined to the inside of my own head. With ‘true’ magic, the mechanics are all on display, violating reality in full view of our five senses, smuggling the principles of Outside into our world through the cracks in the programming, God’s mistakes, the rat-holes in existence. Even the smallest and most simple magical spell comes with a cost to both sanity and physics – let alone on the scale of complexity Felicity was about to attempt.
With Evelyn deposited beneath the brass pyramid and tucked up safely inside her sheets, Felicity had advised the rest of us to step back to a safe distance, though Praem silently refused and Zheng scoffed. I didn’t have the energy to move from the sofa, clutching my mobile phone in hope that detective Webb would call back and tell me she’d found Raine. Somebody gave me a spare blanket, wrapped it around my shoulders and neck. Lozzie, I think, before she retreated to peer from the kitchen doorway again, more wary than the rest of us.
Felicity closed her eyes and muttered a few words under her breath. For a moment I thought that was it, that she’d begun without ceremony. Then she took a deep breath and asked, “Is everyone ready? Once I start, it’ll be dangerous to stop.”
I realised Felicity had been offering up a prayer. To what, I never found out.
“Yeah, go, go,” Twil said.
“Get on with it, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. Felicity flinched.
“I don’t wanna waaaatch,” Lozzie stage-whispered from the doorway.
“Alright.” Another sharp sigh of self-preparation. “Alright. Here I go.”
She was true to her word; from the first scrap of Latin out of her mouth to the final sweating, blood-spitting hiss of pain forced from her raw throat, the whole process took less than fifteen minutes, according to the clock on my phone.
If Felicity had come here seeking punishment for the past, she got it, but the backwash hit the rest of us too.
She started with Latin, a string of commands followed with a sort of repeated mantra that rose in her throat to a droning sound, vibrating inside my skull. Both her hands gripped specific points of the brass pyramid. Twil winced as the sound grew, and Lozzie retreated almost completely into the kitchen, hiding behind the door like a cat spooked by a vacuum cleaner. Kimberly hunched, shaking and turning her eyes away before the main event arrived.
Felicity left Latin far behind, skirted the limits of the human vocal apparatus with a language that sounded as if spoken by a monster, from underwater, while gagged. Glottal stops, clicks, rolling rattles. The air seemed to hiss as if trying to reject the words. Lozzie clamped her hands over her ears. Zheng grit her teeth and made fists.
The temperature in the room began to drop.
Felicity had to pause more than once to spit gobbets of bloody phlegm into the bucket we’d used to mix the clay, her breathing distorted by what the magic was doing to her lungs and throat. She wiped her mouth on a handkerchief, forged on through the next verse as flash-frost formed on the brass and our breath made plumes of steam in the growing cold.
“Can’t take this,” Twil hissed, one eye squeezed shut with the other half-open.
“Mm,” I grunted.
The effect was unique. Felicity’s voice never rose a single decibel above normal speech. She didn’t work herself up into a frenzy of chanting, seemed almost affectless as she recited the invisible mechanics of her spell, but it hurt. It hurt my ears, it hurt the air itself, it hurt reality.
Towards the end, Evelyn began to choke.
Jerking on the floor, snorting from the world’s worst sleep apnea. Praem had to catch Twil around the middle to prevent her interrupting. The choking didn’t bother Felicity, and Evelyn did not start to turn blue.
The change was so subtle, almost invisible.
I’d expected something to emerge from Evelyn. Perhaps a spider would climb out of her mouth, or a black cloud of evil-looking mist would issue from her lungs, or a silent film phantom would rise from her body. I should have learnt by now, magic did not work like that. No fireballs and black cats, no neat answers to one’s expectations.
A trickle in the air. A distortion, like heat haze. It reared up like a snake, but I’m not sure all of us saw it. Felicity did, because she flinched. Like water drawn downhill and into a drain, it slid across the room and burrowed into the waiting vessel of clay.
A tapeworm. A real parasite. That’s what it reminded me of.
Evelyn sat bolt upright, eyes still closed, snorting out a terminated snore. Half in surprise and half in exhaustion, Felicity let go of the brass pyramid and fell over on her backside.
“Evee! Did it work?!” Twil pulled free of Praem – let go, I suspect. “Shit, is she … herself?”
“Yes.” Felicity nodded, staring at Evelyn, trying to get to her feet on shaking legs. “Yes, it’s in the- in there.” She pointed at the clay figure. “Won’t be able to get out.”
Still sitting upright with her eyes closed, Evelyn made a sound that the uninitiated might have mistaken for non-human, a groan like an irritated bear exiting hibernation far too early. She pushed and twisted an arm free of her sheets and rubbed numbly at her own face.
Her mouth opened. A dry click. We all held our breath.
“ … I have to take a shit,” Evelyn croaked.
“Evee!” Twil lit up. “Yeah that’s her. Evee!”
Twil went down on her knees and all but shoved the brass pyramid off Evelyn, then grabbed her around the shoulders in an unexpected hug.
“Argh! Get off me, you bloody mongrel.” Evelyn half-fought, struggling to free another arm and push against Twil’s embrace. Discreetly, Felicity picked herself up off the floor and backed away, caught between staring at Evelyn and a hasty retreat, a shy and pained look in her eyes.
“Evee,” I added, too exhausted and too flush with relief to realise what would happen when she opened her eyes. “Welcome back.”
“Wel- what? What is- argh, I said get off!” Her eyes squinted open, sore and unused against the sudden light. She pulled a grimace to end all grimaces. “Why am I-”
“You’re okay!” Twil said “Fuck yes, you’re okay-”
Kimberly put her hands together. “Oh, it worked, oh, oh thank the Goddess.”
Praem seemed unconcerned, having moved to stare at the now-inhabited clay golem. Zheng was staring at it too.
Evelyn blinked several times, struggling to get her eyes around what she was seeing – the huge brass cage towering over her, Twil ecstatic with relief, seven feet of worryingly familiar zombie muscle, Lozzie’s elfin face peering through the doorway. To her credit, she took all that in her stride, scowling and dehydrated as she was.
“Some freaky shit’s been going down,” Twil was trying to tell her. “But you’re alright, you’re gonna be alright.”
I turned to Felicity, far too late, and hissed, “Leave the room.”
“Heather?” Evelyn said, and saw my exhausted, blood-rimmed eyes. “You look like how I feel. And … ”
And Felicity, caught in the act of trying to back out of the room, but too enraptured by the sight of Evelyn awake. The two mages made eye contact.
Felicity’s hands went up and her head went down. “I’m leaving, I’m leaving, I’m leaving.”
“Yes, that would be for the best,” I hissed.
Evelyn froze, but for a moment I thought it was all going to turn out okay. After all, she had just woken from what I assume was the single longest sleep of her life, in desperate need of food and drink and a sit on the toilet. She was out of energy, befuddled and drained, wrapped in a sheet and luckily with nothing close at hand to throw, no lethal weapons nearby, and certainly no magic at her fingertips.
“Not a dream then,” she whispered.
Evelyn damn well near managed to throw the whole of Twil at Felicity.