“I’m gone, I’m gone, yes. I’m so sorry Evelyn, I’m so sorry, I-”
“Out! All of you, out!”
“Evee, what- ow- fuck- don’t-”
“Evee,” I tried again, too exhausted to raise my voice above the pandemonium.
Felicity was obeying the screeched command without protest, stumbling into the kitchen to avoid the white-hot fury croaking from Evelyn’s sandpaper throat – and to avoid her own shame. For once in Evelyn’s life, anger failed to cover her real reaction, defensive fear and shaking panic. The sight of Felicity’s face had succeeded where confusion and disorientation – and Zheng, towering over her – had not. Despite nearly 12 hours of demon-possessed coma, for twenty seconds Evelyn fought like a cornered fox.
Twil had not expected to be used as a makeshift projectile, and that was the only reason Evelyn’s meagre strength manged to push her halfway across the floorboards in a clatter of detritus and surprised werewolf. She’d tried to return. Evelyn lashed out.
“Get off! Get off!”
“Evee, it’s me! It- ow. It’s me! It’s Twil!”
Evelyn stopped trying to hit her, staring, blinking, throat bobbing with a swallow dry as the desert. She tried to draw her legs up, then realised one of them wasn’t there, slipped, half-fell. Twil caught her.
“Get off me! I said get out, are you deaf?” Evelyn screamed in Twil’s face. “Out!”
“Alright, alright!” Twil threw her hands up in surrender. Evelyn glared at her, at Kimberly, at me, at the walls, at the open doorway to the kitchen. Twil retreated and Kimberly scurried past her, almost as terrified as Evelyn but hiding it far better. Lozzie ducked out of the way, vanishing into the kitchen, covering her head as if under bombardment.
Evelyn cast around, wild-eyed, propping herself up on one hand. “Where the bloody hell is my leg?”
“Upstairs,” Praem intoned. Evelyn flinched, jerked around to find the source of Praem’s voice. The doll-demon stood perfectly still, staring down at the clay golem. Zheng was doing the same, though with a little less stillness.
“Then get it!”
Praem did not obey. Praem did not move a muscle.
“Praem. Damn you, I-”
“Evee,” I croaked at her again.
“I said out!” Evelyn whirled on me, lurched on the spot, clutching the blanket around her shoulders. She blinked once, almost as if surprised to see me. “Let me- you- I can’t-”
“Shaman?” Zheng purred.
“Yes, that means you too, you ruddy great thing,” Evelyn spat, turning on her. “Kill me or get out.” She jerked an arm at the door, muscles not working properly.
“I stay right here, wizard,” Zheng purred.
“Evee,” I tried again.
“Evee, I can’t walk unaided right now.”
Evelyn opened her mouth to shout at me again, then closed it and swallowed, wincing at her dry mouth. She looked from me to the brass pyramid, to the huge magic circle on the floor, to the clay golem and up at Zheng, brows knitting in thought. She even looked at Twil with her hands up, waiting at safe distance in the doorway, then down at herself. Her brain finally allowed her to see what was in front of her eyes.
“Makes two of us,” she said, eventually.
“Mm,” I grunted.
“Are you like, safe to approach now?” Twil ventured.
“No,” Evelyn snapped, then faltered. “I-I, not … right now.”
“Okay. Cool, we’re cool,” Twil said. “It’s gonna be okay. We’re okay.”
“What is she doing here?” Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth. I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was. Evelyn’s eyes flicked to the doorway again, and the implication of Felicity hiding out there beyond sight.
“It was the only way,” I said. “I’m sorry. We thought you were going to die.”
“Of what? All I remember is the … dreams like- … this was Raine’s bloody idea, wasn’t it? Where the hell is she?”
Evelyn didn’t have anything to say to that. She stared at me, a slow change coming across her face, a falling away of the anger as distraught horror peered back at me. She looked at Twil. Twil nodded. She looked at Praem, Praem looked back. She looked at Zheng.
“And what in all hell is this thing doing here?” she asked. “And talking?”
“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled by way of greeting.
“Best not call her a thing,” I suggested.
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn waved a vague hand, then rubbed the bridge of her nose. “What the hell is going on? No, no, not you,” she pointed at Twil. “Heather, you tell me. Explain.”
I told her.
As I told her, the clay golem began to steam. The matter could not contain what now lay within. Praem and Zheng both stood on guard, one impassive, hands folded, back straight, the other brooding and flexing her hands and then finally squatting down like a Russian gangster about to threaten a late-paying debtor.
Short, to the point, the skeleton of facts bare of details. Everything since she’d passed out last night. So absurd when put into plain language, but I lacked the energy for editorialising. Whisked away to Wonderland, but saved by my lost sister and Lozzie. Woke up in a building possessed by the memory of Alexander Lilburne’s body, and freed a giant zombie. Wave hello to Zheng, yes, that’s right. Raine’s been kidnapped and we had two corpses on our hands and oh by the way we have a Sharrowford police force detective on our side now, because I broke her mind. Felicity was our only choice for waking you from a coma and there’s a demon in that lump of clay behind you. Any questions?
Evelyn did not have any questions.
“Then you woke up,” I ended. “And threw Twil.”
“Yeah. Ow,” Twil added.
Evelyn squeezed her eyes shut and put a hand to her face. “I can’t deal with this all at once.”
“Yeah,” Twil said. “You’re telling us.”
“Evee. Evee, I’m glad you’re okay. That’s what matters.”
“Yes, well,” Evelyn huffed. “That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” She eyed the gently steaming clay golem. “Hopefully this cunt hasn’t tried to rewire my lungs to breathe methane, or routed my piss into my spinal fluid.”
“We’d probably know that by now.”
Evelyn tried to stretch her shoulders and let out a grunt of pain. “Thought it was all a bad dream.”
“You were aware?”
“Oh, shit,” Twil whispered.
Evelyn waved a hand, brushing the cobwebs away from her mind. “Fever dreams, I … Twil, you want to make yourself useful?”
Twil visibly perked up. “Yeah. Yeah, what do you need?”
“Go get my leg.”
“Right you are.”
“Please,” Evelyn added as Twil left.
“Not in front of her,” Evelyn hissed. “Fever dreams, but- but yes. Wasn’t like when I was little. Not conscious, no communication, just … ” She waved incoherently at her own skull. “And then I wake up and see her, and none of it was a dream.” Evelyn swallowed hard again, dry as sand. “Think I was winning though. Bastard thing.”
“What was it like?”
“I wasn’t playing chess against it in my head, that’s for sure.”
We shared exhausted silence for a long moment. Evelyn squinted in dehydrated pain, trying to hold together the shreds of her dignity. Out in the kitchen, Lozzie peered around the door frame. Evelyn looked up and Lozzie froze.
“Oh. You,” Evelyn croaked.
Lozzie retreated again. I took several deep breaths and roused myself.
“Zheng,” I said. “Time to go.”
Zheng didn’t respond to me, but instead looked up at Praem. A silent communication passed between the demon-hosts, and Praem resumed watching the unmoving golem. Zheng stood up and rolled her shoulders like a mountain shrugging. “Shaman.”
“Extra points if you bring her back,” I managed.
Zheng flashed a crescent of teeth, and stalked out of the room. I saw Lozzie scurry after her briefly, heard a muffled exchange of voices, and the front door open and close, locks rattling.
“You are going to have to explain her in more detail,” Evelyn said.
“A lot more detail.”
Evelyn disentangled one arm from her bundled sheet and held out a hand to me. “Help me up, you’re going to have to be my hobbling stick. I can’t wait for my leg.”
“Evee, I can’t stand up unaided right now.”
“Oh. Oh, yes. Well.” She glanced over at Praem instead.
“And I think she’s occupied with guard duty,” I said.
“Quite.” Evelyn grimaced. “That wasn’t empty rhetoric earlier. I need to get up or we’re going to have another crisis.”
“I’m dying for a shit.”
“Oh.” If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have laughed.
“And I’m not going alone. Not with her inside the house. Her and her vile demonic pet.”
Over the next half hour the group drifted apart, human wreckage flung far and wide by centrifugal force, denied the anchor of coherent leadership with me out of commission.
Twil helped Evelyn to the bathroom, to the sound of much complaining and grumbling, half of it performative and half of it real. Kimberly vanished upstairs somewhere, as far from the magic as possible, to light up and fill her bloodstream with THC. Didn’t blame her. Lozzie flitted about, airy and distant, a confusing half notion on the edge of my vision.
Felicity kept her head so far down she was practically subterranean. I think she actually went outdoors to sit in her car.
Pressure and time brought us back together, two things we now had in abundance.
Pressure, time, and morbid fascination.
At first it was only Praem and I. Me hunched over on the old sofa, clutching my phone in nervous hope, trapped halfway between exhausted sleep and sleepless fear; Praem stood on guard over the occupied magic circle, her eyes locked on the gently steaming clay golem as it began to change.
Lozzie came next, venturing back into the magical workshop to rouse me with water and a peanut butter sandwich. My little angel in a poncho, bringing protein and hydration. I drank the water, and forced down several bites of the sandwich, though it tasted like cardboard and sat in my stomach like lead. I assumed Lozzie would be driven off by the sight of the thing in the circle, as it slopped and slid and pulled itself into a sitting position like a drunken paraplegic, but I’d underestimated her constitution, how she was used to all this.
She settled on the sofa, head against my shoulder. “It’s like claymation,” she whispered, as if we were watching a film and she didn’t want to talk over the dialogue.
The Outsider in clay began to explore the limits of its prison, trapped inside the triple-layered magic circle. Were the changes a response to imprisonment, or was it warping its vessel into something approximating its true form?
More importantly, how could we sit there and watch it happen? Distantly I knew I should be more afraid, more disgusted, but I didn’t care.
Perhaps because Praem was unconcerned. She knew the circle would hold. I trusted her judgement.
Nothing to do with Lozzie nuzzling my neck, her hand slipping into mine and our fingers intertwining. Nothing to do with the scent of her, her body heat pressed against my side, her knee in my lap. Lozzie and I snuggled and warmed each other like a pair of small animals while we watched a horror from another world unfold itself in clay.
Touches only Raine and I would normally share, stripped of any sexual meaning, my mind too fuzzy with exhaustion to question the skinship. Of course, there was one other who I’d touch like this, one other with whom I’d share my body without a single hint of sexuality, without hesitation, without even thinking.
I was treating Lozzie like nine-year-old me had treated my twin sister.
Lucky me, too tired to feel guilty.
Eventually we heard Evelyn stomping around again, grumbling at Twil, her walking stick and unshod prosthetic foot clacking against the floorboards. They clattered around in the kitchen and the microwave came alive with a slow electric hum. A face looked in on us briefly, then froze, eyes going wide at the contents of the circle.
“Um,” Twil said, and made it sound like ‘oh fuck’. She bristled, a hound surprised by a deep-sea creature.
“S’fine,” I croaked.
“Yeah, it’s perfectly fine!” Lozzie chirped.
Twil couldn’t tear her eyes away from the circle. “Uh, is it, like, safe? That does not look safe. This is not safe.”
“Safe and sound,” Praem intoned.
“It’s trapped inside the circle,” I said. “Kim’s better at this than she gives herself credit for.”
“Twil?” Evelyn’s voice called from the kitchen. “Twil, what are you doing?”
“Right, right then,” Twil muttered. “Um. Just … shout? If it-”
“Yeah, yeah, coming.”
Lozzie and I slipped back into our wordless skinship, and I slipped down into dark thoughts, cushioned by the physical reality of Lozzie’s hand on my belly and her head on my shoulder. She anchored me, as inanimate comfort could not. I drifted on the very edge of consciousness, one eye on my mobile phone, one eye turning inward.
“Ugly bastard, isn’t it?”
Evelyn stood in the doorway, leaning on her walking stick, looking more worn-out and shaky than I’d ever seen her before. She wore a fresh – if not clean – change of clothes, armoured in an over sized sweater and pajama bottoms and slippers. She’d been standing there for minutes, slowly working her way through some microwaved delivery mechanism for salt and fat, watching the Outsider in the circle. I hadn’t noticed her.
“Ugly,” Praem agreed, voice clear as a bell amid the static in my brain.
“I think it’s kinda cute,” Lozzie said.
Evelyn eyed her too. Lozzie went stiff. I grunted a complaint, but Evelyn was either too grumpy or too tired to care.
“How do I treat you, then? Lauren, Lozzie?” she asked. “What are you?”
Lozzie bobbed her head, halfway between animal submission and a sitting curtsy. “ … Heather’s … friend?”
“Yes,” I grunted.
Evelyn chewed slowly, swallowed, and sniffed. “Good enough.”
“Yes, yes.” Evelyn dismissed the concern with a jerk of her chin, indicating the disgusting thing trapped inside the circle. “Are you sure you want to sit there, watching that?”
I grunted an affirmative. Evelyn cocked an eyebrow.
“Thinking,” I expanded. “Hard to explain.”
“If you change your mind, Twil can carry you upstairs. I understand you’ve been awake and going for too long, Heather. I can … you know. Take over now?”
I shook my head. “Where is Twil?”
Evelyn shrugged. “Sent her upstairs. Digging for my pills.”
Evelyn stomped into the room and very carefully joined Lozzie and I on the sofa, easing herself down with a pained wince. She rubbed at her hip and flexed her back, sore from hours lying in bed. “Bastard thing could at least have grown me a new leg.”
“Can they do that?” Lozzie asked, all innocent eyes.
“It’s a joke.”
“Be cool if they could.”
We all stared at the demon in the circle. Three fragile little apes clustered shoulder-to-shoulder, while Praem took point.
The Outsider had begun to work on its clay-based prison even before it had figured out how to sit upright – simulating muscle fibres inside the clay, I assumed, similar to what I’d seen earlier that morning in Praem’s exposed wooden bones – but the process had accelerated, the steam trickling off into a thin trail as the golem left behind even the rudiments of human form.
Legs and arms had been absorbed into the trunk. The head had joined the neck, no distinction between the parts. The mouth had vanished but the eyes had deepened into cracked black pits that seemed to open onto depths far deeper than the clay could possibly provide. The torso lost all coherence, flayed ends fluttering like tattered cloth in wind, and the back had sprouted a double-dozen hooked tentacles, all of them probing and feeling the boundary of the Outsider’s magical cell.
It looked like a ragged sheet dragged over a bundle of rotting squid.
Disgusting and weird, yes, but not disturbing to the senses. Clay molded the Outsider’s true form into a cartoon of itself, softened the effect. Lozzie was right, it did look a bit like claymation.
I suspected that access to real flesh would have resulted in a far less endurable sight.
Is that what it would have turned Evee into, if she hadn’t been already immune?
“Clay’s easier to work with,” Evelyn said, as if reading my thoughts off my face. “Faster, but rougher. Nothing up here to base itself on,” she tapped her forehead. “It’s defaulting to its own norm.”
“Evee,” I managed after a moment. “Are you … okay?”
She looked at me, one eyebrow raised. Coughed. “No. No, I am pretty far from okay.”
I nodded. “Stupid question.”
“But I am alive. Which is good, all things considered. Thank you.”
“I was so worried about you,” I croaked, let my eyes close for a second of rest.
“Yes, yes. I gather everyone was.”
“Welcome home,” Praem said. We all stared at her. Evelyn frowned.
“You had a similar experience, no?” she asked, but Praem just stared back.
“Praem was very protective-” I started
“Tsss,” Evelyn hissed, frowning and embarrassed. “I know, I know. Twil told me already.”
The bundle of rotting squid inside the circle lashed its tentacles back and forth, reaching up to the ceiling and filling the invisible cylinder of its prison, before subsiding in defeat once more, having found no egress.
“Can it hear us?” I asked.
“No ears,” Evelyn said. “Unless it figures out how to grow some. Or maybe it has other sensory apparatus. Maybe those tentacles. Who gives a shit right now? Your Tenny doesn’t have ears, but then pneuma-somatic life isn’t the same as things from Outside.”
“Wish I could ask it why it’s here,” I murmured.
Evelyn frowned at me like I’d suggested skinning my own face. “If you want to lose your mind, go right ahead.”
“It’s from the Eye. It’ll know things.”
“Things? Yes, I’m certain it will, but I’d sooner rummage through the thoughts of a cannibal psychopath.”
“I think I should try,” I said quietly. Evelyn shook her head, huffed, and crossed her arms.
After all, here was an emissary from my true foe.
The Sharrowford cult was nothing really. Incompetent and subverted, couldn’t even hold onto their greatest asset – Zheng – while I escaped their clutches in a single morning. They had Raine, yes, and that terrified me still, but in a normal way, a human way, a fluke, a stroke of bad luck. If the Eye’s Lozzie-thing-impersonator hadn’t attacked us they’d have never gotten past Raine with their kneecaps intact. Sarika worried me a little. Wasn’t like Alexander. He’d been full of himself and his power, and that arrogance had ended him, but Sarika wasn’t a megalomaniac. Potentially capable, potentially cunning.
But she didn’t matter either. Darkness loomed behind her.
Ever since Raine had first drawn the Fractal on my arm and the dreams had stopped, I’d assumed the Eye was done, blocked, passive. We’d firewalled it off from my mind, kept it at bay, bought time and life so I could prepare to save my sister.
But now? Now it sent the Lozzie-thing to take me away. It infested the minds of what was left of the Sharrowford cult, left a tripwire trap in Alexander’s corpse, disabled Praem and sent one of its minions to possess Evelyn.
One opening. Alexander Lilburne had given the Eye one opening, made a bad deal, and it had almost managed to destroy me and mine in less than twenty four hours.
If there was a way to communicate with this Outsider, this shard of the Eye, its minion, and unfeeling animal, whatever it was, I was going to find out.
And I was going to hurt it until I understood why.
“I screwed up, didn’t I?” Evelyn sighed heavily. “I got arrogant, and I got … well, got.”
“Wasn’t your fault,” I croaked.
Lozzie bit her lip and watched, chin still on my shoulder, her weight and heat against my side.
“Yes it is,” Evelyn grumbled. “I underestimated this, all of this. Broke half my own goddamn rules. Never, never underestimate. Never.”
“We didn’t know the Eye was involved,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter. I got sloppy. I don’t deserve to be alive, I should be dead.”
“No you shouldn’t,” Lozzie said softly. Evelyn just grunted and waved a hand.
I pulled myself together as best I could, brought my thoughts back to the present, reigned in my fears, and said, “I’m sorry about Felicity.”
“Oh, fuck Felicity,” Evelyn spat. “Who cares? What are you doing about Raine?”
I blinked at her for a moment, then waggled my mobile phone. “The detective. And Zheng. Remember?”
“Of course I bloody well remember. Hard not to remember seven feet of zombie. That’s it?”
“It’s not like I can stand up.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grumbled her disapproval, scowling into empty space, radiating irritation. She crossed and uncrossed her arms, rubbed at the place her prosthetic leg attached to her flesh, lay her walking stick across her legs and put it down again, and then finally turned back to me. “Where is she now?”
“ … Raine?”
“No, Felicity,” Evelyn snapped. “Who else would I be talking about?”
I shrugged, slowly, painfully. “Think she went out to her car. Hasn’t come back in.”
“Good.” Evelyn took a deep breath, blew it out slowly. “Good. She better stay there. You hear me, Praem? She comes back in you throw her out. Throw her into traffic, even better.”
Praem did not respond.
“I’m really sorry, Evee,” I said. “I didn’t figure it out until five minutes before she did the spell.”
Evelyn hit me with a frown like a sledgehammer. “Figure what out?”
I squinted hard, tried to read the shivering signs underneath Evelyn’s exterior. “The … she … she was the doctor who took your leg, no?” I lowered my voice, shot a nervous glance at Lozzie.
“True,” Evelyn said, voice tight.
“What story did she feed you?” Evelyn hissed. “Altruism? Forgiveness? She tell you what she really is, hm? Heather, that woman was obsessed with me, when I was a child.”
I went cold inside. “She … Evee?”
“No, not like that,” she hissed.
“She- she was never alone with you,” I blurted out. “Always one of us here.”
We lapsed into silence. My mind raced.
“Evee, I would never have let her into the house, if-”
“Yes, yes, I’m not angry at you, Heather, I’m … ” Evelyn swallowed a mouthful of acid. “Finally got her chance, didn’t she? Pretending that she’s anything but a blood-soaked butcher.”
“I don’t want to know what she-”
“-that saving you won’t make it right,” I finished.
Evelyn glared at me, then at the clay horror in the circle, then seemed to shrink and retreat into herself. “Bloody right it doesn’t. She can fuck off and die.”
“Don’t be,” Evelyn sighed heavily. “I’m alive, aren’t I? You do know what she is though, don’t you? Her and her vile little demonic sex pet?”
“Yes, I told you, I met- wait, what?” I found, in the depths of physical and emotional exhaustion, that I could still feel surprise. “Evee, I’m sorry, ‘sex pet’?”
“She carries on a relationship with it.” Evelyn rolled her eyes. “What, she didn’t tell you? Why am I not surprised?”
I recalled that dripping sulphur voice, speaking through a mouth of knives and darkness, a little girl from hell, and seriously adjusted my impression of Felicity. My skin crawled. “You must be joking.”
Evelyn just stared at me, as exhausted as I was.
“You’re not joking,” I said. “Oh. God.”
The sound of Twil descending the stairs mercifully forestalled any further speculation.
“I’m going to have to apologise to her,” Evelyn murmured. “I hit her, didn’t I?”
“Twil? You did.”
“God damn it,” she hissed.
“She’ll understand,” I tried. “She’ll forgive. She’s good at that. Just tell her the truth.”
“The whole truth?”
“If you feel like it.”
She swallowed. “Deserves a lot better than the likes of me,” she hissed, so quietly I barely heard.
Twil appeared in the doorway and held up a small pill bottle, a lopsided grin on her face. “Found it! Your bedside table is uh … a bit of a … train wreck.” She trailed off, distracted again by the bundle of squid in the magic circle. “Fuck me, it looks worse than before.”
“Harmless. Caged,” Evelyn grunted, and held out a hand. “Give those here.”
“Right you are.”
Evelyn popped the lid off the pill bottle, shook two unmarked white tablets into her hand, and swallowed them dry. She tucked the bottle away in a pocket.
“That thing is so weird looking,” Twil was saying.
“Thank you,” Evelyn whispered, far too quietly
“Eh?” Twil looked round. “Sorry?”
“She said, thank you for bringing her pills,” I spoke up, too tired to watch these two do this dance right now, all my caution to the wind. “She’s grateful, and she likes your company, and is relieved to be alive, and I’d even wager she’s happy you were there when she woke up, and-”
“Heather,” Evelyn spat, going red in the face. Twil blinked in surprise, eyebrows halfway up her forehead. Lozzie practically vibrated with tension, I think she understood instantly. “I- you-”
I stared back, numb and uncaring – or at least telling myself I was numb and uncaring. “Raine has been kidnapped and might die. Stop stalling. Tell her.”
“Not-” Evelyn hissed. “Not now.”
“Then when?” I asked. “It’s right in front of you, Evee. When are you going to reach out and take it?”
Twil frowned like a dog confronted by algebra. “What the hell are you two talking about? Hello? Can we focus on, like, the squid monster we’ve got in here?”
“Later,” Evelyn grunted at me, then scowled at Twil. “And that thing doesn’t matter, no more than a lump of removed earwax.”
Twil snorted and shook her head. “Right. Sure.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes, then nodded down at the mobile phone still clutched in my hand. “You’ve got this police detective on finding Raine, haven’t you?”
She shook her head. “A police detective. My mother would have shit herself blind at that.”
“Her name’s Nicole,” I said, trying to distract myself from thinking about Raine. “I think you’d get on.”
“A police detective, really?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“She’s very … bitter.”
Evelyn cocked an eyebrow.
“Like I said, I think you’d get on.”
Evelyn snorted, a derisive dismissal from anybody else, practically affection from her. Lozzie stifled a giggle.
“Sounds about right,” Twil muttered.
“We can organise,” Evelyn said. “Give me a minute to sit still, wait for my pills to do their job, and we’ll organise. You know where Raine is, and we’re going to go get her. Though … anything I can call up pales in comparison to what you’ve already sent.”
“You mean Zheng?” I asked.
“What else could I possibly mean? I’m certainly not talking about Sharrowford’s police force.”
“Is she really that dangerous?”
Evelyn managed to give me a look like a incredulous schoolmarm. “What do you think, Heather?”
“Well, I think she’s a seven foot superhuman cannibal, yes, but … ” I struggled through the last twelve hours of memory, blurred by exhaustion and coffee. “When I freed her, and then I called this Sarika woman to try to intimidate her, she acted like freeing Zheng was … ”
“Irresponsible?” Evelyn offered.
“Yes. Yes, quite. Is it?”
Evelyn shrugged. “Most likely. How old is she?”
“Quite old. I think. I haven’t asked.”
“You can’t be rude to a demon.”
“I think you can,” I protested.
“Mm. Maybe. Point is, something as old as her should have gone mad long ago. That’s what happens to these demons, Heather. They can’t deal with reality, with our reality at least. They get unstable, or obsessive, or their minds spiral out over time. The things my mother used to make … well. I’ve seen it enough.”
I glanced at Praem, suddenly concerned. Evelyn shook her head, half-grimacing.
“Will that happen to her? Evee?”
“Praem’s alright,” Twil put in. “Isn’t she?”
Evelyn shook her head again. “Think of them like turtles.”
“Turtles?” Twil pulled a face.
“Turtles?” I echoed. “Evee, I’m too tired for a metaphor.”
“Turtles are cute,” said Lozzie.
“Baby turtles on a beach,” Evelyn continued. “Hundreds hatch, dozens die before they reach the sea. Dozens more die in the shallows, eaten by predators. Dozens more die deeper out. A tiny number survive, grow big and strong, get nice hard shells. Invincible. That’s Zheng, I suspect. One turtle out of hundreds to survive all the psychological dangers of hijacking a human corpse. Which means her shell is nice and thick, and she’s got all those obsessive tendencies or instabilities, but she functions all the same.” Evelyn cocked an eyebrow at me. “She called you ‘shaman’. An affectation?”
“Um, yes. She started that when she realised I could free her.”
“You be bloody careful about that, Heather. You don’t want one of these things obsessed with you.”
“I … I-I will. Okay?” I glanced at Praem. “What about-”
“Praem’s like a turtle hatched in the zoo,” Evelyn said. “S’why I used wood. Nothing up in her skull to trip her, no predators. Stable state. Or meant to be, at least. She’s been outstripping my expectations.”
Evelyn raised her eyes as she spoke, and I realised with a little shiver that Praem was looking back, having briefly interrupted her guard duty to meet Evelyn’s gaze.
“Expectations,” Praem echoed.
They stared at each other. I couldn’t tell how much was affection and how much confrontation.
“I still don’t understand how all that makes Zheng dangerous,” I said. “Being obsessed with me doesn’t make her any more dangerous than Raine. Does it?”
Evelyn sighed, shook her head. “Stopping her, physically or otherwise, is goddamn near impossible. If she has a developed obsession – say, eating human flesh? – she’s going to pursue that above everything else. You’re not dealing with a human being, Heather, but with something built from external impressions of human beings, and I don’t know if you’ve looked at the world lately but we’re mostly a bunch of monsters. Our species is not a good role model. Not sure we should let her back in the house.”
“How do you do that, if stopping her is impossible?”
Evelyn let that hang in the air.
“I could do her,” Twil said, cracking her knuckles. “I heal faster.”
“Maybe,” Evelyn grunted.
“She’s been … helpful,” I said. “Protective. Almost reasonable. I know I’ve only known her a single morning-”
“You’re a single minute to her,” Evelyn said. “Tread lightly.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. Why did I trust Zheng? Because she was big and bold and triggered all my fuzzy feelings about dangerous, violent women? Because she’d rescued me? Because I’d freed her? How could I explain that bond we’d made in that one moment, when I’d given Zheng her freedom? Maybe if I’d been more awake, I could have made Evelyn see.
“Raine will be alright,” Evelyn said suddenly, voice stronger than before. Firm, almost a command. “She always is. These vermin have bitten off more than they can chew.”
“Yeah … yeah!” Twil added, nodding.
“She’s probably already freed herself. Brained a couple of them with her fists and teeth. She’ll be knocking on the front door any minute, clutching a handful of scalps.”
“I hope,” I croaked, and almost managed a smile.
“I am right,” Evelyn said. She drew herself up, tried to sit up straight despite her twisted spine and a suppressed wince on her face. “You’ll see. Raine is going to be just fine.”
Evelyn sounded like she was trying to reassure herself, not me. Could she go on without Raine? They’d known each other so long, relied on each other in ways I didn’t come close to, no matter how barbed Evelyn’s tongue could get, no matter that I was the one who slept with Raine.
“We end whatever’s left of the Sharrowford cult this time, completely,” she said, and started to get up off the sofa. Twil moved to help, but Evelyn shooed her away, levering herself up with her walking stick.
“Eye cult now, more accurately,” I suggested.
“What about wobbly over there?” Twil thumbed at the squid-bundle in the circle. “You just gonna leave it?”
“It’ll keep,” Evelyn said, stomping over to the table and frowning down at the map. Jerky and awkward, she used one arm to sweep a space clear. “Raine first.”
“Raine first,” I echoed.
Evelyn yanked a piece of paper off a nearby pad, found a pen, and began to draw a sketch of a magic circle. “Tell me about Sarika. No surname?”
“Detective Webb said she’d look for Sarika,” I said.
“Yes, Sharrowford’s ‘finest’ can look for a mage, but they won’t find anything. I’m not interested in divining her next of kin or where she holds a day job, I want to know how to counter her. Heather, details. I need details. I’m not getting caught flat-footed again. What did she look like? Normal? She talk much like Alexander did? You mentioned you suspect she was his partner?”
I started to answer, squinting and rubbing my eyes to keep me awake. Twil found Evelyn a chair. Evelyn took notes, pulled books from her stacks, told Twil to dismantle that awful brass pyramid still crowding out a sixth of the room. None of us noticed at first, but eventually Kimberly appeared in the door, red-eyed and sleepy.
“Kim,” I broke off by way of greeting. She stared at me with bloodshot eyes.
“There’s a monster upstairs,” she said.
“Sticky-sweet evil voice from behind your head?” I asked. She blinked at me again.
“Yeah. Told me I’ll never lose my virginity.” Her eyes wandered over to the squid-mass in the circle. She frowned. “Oh, bugger that.”
We all looked at each other. Kimberly went back into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and rummaged. Loudly.
“Is she stoned?” Twil hissed.
“Looks that way,” Evelyn grunted. Then sighed. “I need to thank her, don’t I? I-”
My phone buzzed in my hand and my heart leapt into my throat. Detective Webb was calling me back. Lozzie reached over and pressed the answer call button for me, because my own hands were shaking too hard. A speaker-phone buzz filled the air.
“Nicole? Detective?” I managed. “Have you found her?”
“Not yet,” Nicole answered.
Something was wrong. Nicole’s voice was tight with tension and adrenaline. Near panic.
“I … ” A loud swallow. “I-I’m in my car right now, outside the address on Barrend Road. No, I haven’t seen your Raine, not yet. Which is probably a good thing.”
“What has happened, detective?” Evelyn raised her voice.
“Who was that?”
“Evelyn,” I grunted. “The girl in the coma. We fixed her.”
“Oh. Oh, great, yes. Great. Great.” Nicole took a deep breath. “What’s happened? Uh, nothing, yet. Your sodding giant showed up, she’s over the back wall of the property, I think she might try to break in, but … Heather. Evelyn. Whichever of you is in charge. I have to call this in. I have to.”
“Then call it in,” Evelyn said. “Our friend is in there. Do your job.”
“I got up to a window,” Nicole was saying. “Ground floor window, the only one not curtained fully. Rest of the place is locked up tight as a duck’s arsehole. I could see one room, part of another. Seven bodies. Partial bodies. Bits. A lot of blood. Blood and guts. Up the walls!” She laughed, halfway to hysteria.
We all looked at each other. Twil went wide eyed. Evelyn mouthed ‘Raine?’
“Don’t- don’t call it in yet,” I said. “Please.”
“Oh I’m not fucking going to,” Nicole answered. “I don’t know what the hell we’re walking into here. This is your area, you wizards. This is yours.”
“Did it look like a single person could have done it?” Evelyn asked, calm and collected.
“Shit,” said Twil.
“Something happened here,” Nicole said. “Recently, this afternoon, last few hours? I don’t know. This is a fancy suburban house, in a nice part of town, and I have to call this in. Do you understand? I can wait, I can stall, but I have to call this in sooner or later. I don’t care if your friend is in there slaughtering cultists or what. I can turn a blind eye, I can turn a whole blind surveillance suite, but you wizards need to get down here and deal with this. Now.”