Barrend Road was not the sort of place where magic happened.
Not the sort of place anything happened, except dinner parties, dreary Sundays, and domestic violence. Large houses brooded ugly and proud behind old trees and high walls and imitation wrought iron gates. Garages and gravel driveways, intercom buzzers and CCTV, heavy curtains and high windows, and big gardens full of trampolines and electric barbeques and privacy.
Number Seven – ‘Tunsdale house’ according to the faux-wooden plaque next to the gate – was a perfect specimen of the type. A still-functioning aesthetic subroutine in the back of my mind had retched with disgust when we’d pulled up next to the house. A new build, probably less than twenty years old, three tapering stories of clean white frontage and mismatched windows, vomited up from the pen of some mercenary architect at the whim of a banker or lawyer with more money than sense, and a belief that clutter translates to style. Flourishes and detailing clashed at every corner. No line of symmetry but no balance of asymmetry, like the house had been thrown together at random, a pile of rectangles stacked by a toddler. Purposeless columns flanked a front entrance buried so deep one could barely pick it out. A garage door stood off to one side, dressed up in fake hinges and painted brown, pretending to be a rustic barn.
All the worst aspects of architectural modernity. Nothing like like Evelyn’s beautiful old house, Victorian redbrick folded in on itself, a warm womb to shelter our secrets.
Not a place where magic should happen.
“There’s no spirits,” I croaked.
“Doesn’t look so bad.” Twil peered at the house through the back passenger window of Nicole’s car, cupping her hands around her face. The tips of the slanted roof still caught the last of a watery sunset, but down below we were already deep into the gloom as the streetlights flickered on. The settling cold of a late winter evening leeched heat from the thin metal shell of the car. The BMW’s heater struggled to keep up.
I don’t think Twil heard me.
“Lot better than that freak show castle last time we did something like this,” she said.
“Castle,” Nicole said with a sigh. A statement, not a question.
“Yeah, a castle. Long story. We all going straight in then, or what? Praem and I could do it alone, you know? What’s the plan?”
“Good question,” Evelyn said from the passenger seat, and looked pointedly at Nicole. Her face was side-lit in the darkness by distant street-lighting, like a monster in a puppet-show.
“Hey, that’s up to you wizards,” the detective said, raising her hands from the steering wheel. She looked more rumpled and shaken than when I’d last seen her, as if she’d spent the last hour being violently ill. “That’s why you’re here, right? You deal with whatever … caused that,” she thumbed at the house. “Then I call in the cavalry for the mundane stuff. Isn’t that the plan?”
“What I mean, detective,” Evelyn said. “Is we need more information first.”
I opened my mouth to repeat myself, but a sudden wave of dizziness took me, a throbbing pulse of blood in my head.
Shouldn’t be here. Even with caffeine and pills and bloody-minded determination, I was fading, I was weak, and I was a liability.
“ … right. Right. Information. That’s something I can do.” Nicole nodded, took a deep breath. “Evelyn, right? You look pretty together for a woman who was in a coma this morning.”
Nicole offered Evelyn her hand, and to my surprise Evelyn shook it.
“Trust me, detective, I feel like living shit,” Evelyn grunted.
“Why didn’t we get handshakes this morning?” Twil asked.
“Seem to recall I was too busy screaming,” Nicole said. “Or trying to arrest you on suspicion of murder.”
Evelyn snorted and shook her head. Even I could tell the humour was forced.
Nicole glanced back at me, the fragile thing shivering and swallowing in the back seat. “So uh, who’s in charge right now? Heather or you?”
Evelyn caught my eye. I shook my head.
“ … nobody’s in charge,” Evelyn said hesitantly, then cleared her throat. “We decide as a group.”
“So who’s this then?” Nicole twisted to look at Praem. Our doll-demon sat in the middle back seat, sandwiched between Twil on one side and me on the other. I would have enjoyed the squeeze a lot more under any other circumstances, but right now that part of me was asleep, energy-saving, didn’t care one bit. “You a wizard too then? You-”
“There’s no spirits,” I repeated, loud as I could.
Nicole blinked at me. Evelyn twisted in the front passenger seat, hindered by her spine and walking stick, and frowned hard.
“There’s no spirits,” I said.
“On the house?” Evelyn asked. “Then it’s warded somehow. Potentially bad news for us, but not entirely unexpected.”
“No, no.” I shook my head. “The whole street. Last few streets. As we drove up, they thinned out. Heading away. Animals fleeing a forest fire.”
Evelyn went quite still. Nicole looked between us, confused and lost.
“Uhhh,” Twil made a sound like a broken speaker. “That’s bad, right?”
“No, it’s wonderful,” Evelyn said. “Great news. The local fauna is fleeing, that means nothing untoward at all. What do you think, Twil? Hm?”
Twil raised her hands in apology.
“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“Because I’m exhausted and scared and thinking about Raine. We need to go in there, Evee. We need to get her out. Quickly.”
Evelyn swallowed hard, then sucked on her teeth. “We still need more information. Detective?”
“Spirits. Fleeing animals. Okay,” Nicole echoed me with a sigh. “What does that mean?”
Another throb of blood in my head, like I’d run a marathon today. I winced.
“Information, detective.” Evelyn clicked her fingers. “What did you see?”
“I already told you on the phone. Seven bodies, I think, or parts of them at least, in a sort of lounge on the left side of the house. And a lot of blood. Some on the walls looked … intentional. Hand prints, I think. Look, I’ve seen my share of grizzly murder scenes in homicide, but this wasn’t anything like those.” She swallowed and put a hand to her mouth, looking away into the darkening street. Suppressing nausea. A gesture I’d know anywhere. “More like a massacre, a war-zone. I don’t know.”
“And that’s all you’ve got?” Evelyn asked. “That’s all? No observations to share? Nothing useful?”
Nicole managed an upturned glare across the seats. “Don’t take it out on me, alright?”
Evelyn clicked her tongue and shook her head.
“Where’s Zheng?” I croaked.
“Still in there, I think.” Detective Webb nodded toward the house. “Heard a window break about twenty minutes before you lot turned up. Think she climbed in. Expected screams a minute later, but,” she shrugged, “nothing.”
Nothing – I tried to ask, but my head throbbed again, twice this time. I blinked past it, clenched my muscles, cursed my failing energy.
And noticed that Praem had turned her head to look at the house, at the exact moment I’d felt that pulse in my head.
“Praem?” I hissed.
“Nothing?” Evelyn was echoing Nicole already. Nicole shook her head.
“No commotion, no banging and crashing, no screams. Didn’t hear a thing.”
“Bodes well,” Evelyn said, dripping sarcasm.
“Oh shit,” Twil hissed. “She said she wasn’t gonna go inside, right? Something changed her mind? Hunting?”
“I almost admire your blind, idiot optimism, I really do,” Evelyn said, twisting in her seat to glare at Twil. “But-”
“Hey, don’t take it out on me either!” Twil said.
“I am not– you- … what the hell is she looking at? Praem?”
Another pulse of blood, another wave of dizziness while Evelyn was speaking; Praem’s head twitched at the same time, adjusting her eyeline to a different part of the house.
“Oh no, no it’s not just me,” I managed. “It’s not in my head. Praem feels it too.”
“What’s not in your head?” Evelyn demanded.
“Don’t you feel it? Wait, it’ll happen again.”
“What-” Twil started, but Evelyn silenced her with a frustrated wave.
We waited in silence, in the dark, listening for a sound that was not sound.
Throb. Like a rush of blood to the head, but exterior to oneself.
“I felt that,” Twil said, wide-eyed. “I felt that, what the hell? What was that?”
“I think I felt it too, yeah,” Nicole said. “Kinda have to concentrate, but yeah, that was definitely not my imagination.”
“Praem?” Evelyn demanded. “What is that? What are you looking at?”
“Motion,” Praem intoned, the first word she’d spoken in Nicole’s presence, the ringing of a distant, icy bell.
“Motion, what? What does that mean?” Evelyn asked.
“In the house?”
Praem declined to answer the obvious question.
Evelyn sat back in her seat, frowning up a storm. Nicole stared at the doll-demon, more confused than the rest of us. Inside, I started to shake. This was supposed to be quick. We were supposed to have Raine out of there by now.
“What’s … ” Twil started, swallowed, spread her hands. “What’s to think about? What does this change? We’re still gonna bust in there and get Raine, right? I could go right now, what are we waiting for?”
“Yes,” I hissed. “Please.”
“I am thinking,” said Evelyn.
“I mean, you said that Raine probably killed those people herself, right?” Twil asked. “I could break down the front door right now, be in and out before they even know what-”
“I am changing my mind based on available information.” Evelyn spoke through her teeth. “Perhaps you should try it some time?”
Twil blinked. “But-”
“No spirits within several streets of this place. A demon far more powerful and proficient than Praem entered that house and did not come back out. And something in there is pinging our flesh with magical sonar. Let. Me. Think.”
We sat in the dark, and Evelyn did her thinking.
Quietly, privately, I began to panic.
Strictly speaking, Evelyn and I were supposed to be surplus to requirements. Both of us were exhausted by our experiences. This was meant to be a smash and grab, in and out; send Praem in the front door or Twil up through a window, break heads and kill zombies and find Raine and bring her back to the car and leave. On the way here I’d half-hoped we’d turn the corner and see Zheng out in the street already, carrying a bruised but otherwise unhurt Raine, confused and shaken but whole and well. Quick and easy, in and out. I’d prayed and I’d prayed and I’d gotten it wrong.
Evelyn hadn’t had time to summon anything, but at least she had her scrimshawed magical thighbone clutched under her coat. What did I have to contribute?
Dead weight, a spent mind, and Raine’s handgun hidden in my hoodie.
I’d dosed myself up on more caffeine before we’d left home, and accepted Evelyn’s offer of two pills from her mysterious little bottle. I didn’t care what they were, only that they got me on my feet and kept me there for another couple of hours, and they achieved that with surprising efficiency. My mind worked and I could walk unaided, though probably not run. My body was due for one hell of a crash, and I kept coaxing it, keep going, please keep going, later, we can rest later.
We’d left Lozzie back at home, along with Kimberly and strict instructions to keep the doors locked. I hadn’t liked that, hadn’t liked the feeling of leaving Lozzie behind when we’d spent so many weeks apart already, haunted by the creeping notion she might be gone when I returned, but I wasn’t going to put my Lozzie in harm’s way. Didn’t care how much I was treating her as a surrogate for my sister. Lozzie was bright and bubbly and wonderful, and utterly useless in a fight like this. Stab-happy with a scalpel in the heat of the moment, but currently robbed of the ability to Slip away Outside, to defend herself in the way she knew how. Kimberly hadn’t taken any convincing to look after her for a bit, though I suspected the emotional support and care would be the other way around.
I should have stayed with them, half-dead and held up by pills and determination.
“So, uh,” Nicole cleared her throat. “Who’s number four here? Praem? Interesting name. You a wizard too, or … ” Praem turned to look at her, blank and empty. Nicole squinted. “No pupils? Alright then.”
“She’s a demon,” Evelyn grunted. “Possessing a life-size wooden doll. My … helper.”
“Praem is safe,” I croaked.
“Safe,” Praem agreed.
Nicole blinked three times, turned to face forward, and blew out an exasperated breath. “Explains the voice, at least.”
“Deal with it,” Evelyn said. “We don’t have time for squeamishness.”
At least Praem wasn’t dressed as a maid right now. We’d convinced her to change into outdoor clothes during our confused and hurried exit from Evelyn’s house, her habitual uniform replaced by a practical pair of baggy jeans and one of Evelyn’s comfortable jumpers. Remaining relatively inconspicuous out here on a public street was not going be to easy, but Praem marching about in her full regalia would have made it nearly impossible.
Though if she’d refused to leave her uniform behind, none of us would have stopped her.
We owed her a debt. We’d commandeered Raine’s car, neither Evelyn nor myself in any condition to walk the two-mile long journey across half of Sharrowford to reach Barrend Road, but none of us could drive. None of us, until Praem had finished helping me into the car and Evelyn had ordered her into the driver’s seat. The doll-demon had performed like a precision-engineered mechanical auto-pilot, sliding the gears without a single squeak, sticking like glue to the speed limits.
“When the hell’d you teach her to drive?” Twil had hissed from the back seat, as we’d crept through the dying streaks of rush-hour traffic.
“Didn’t,” Evelyn grunted. “It’s simple observation, mechanical application. They’re good at that.”
Raine’s battered old car sat behind us now – and behind that, further out in the shadows, lurked Felicity’s hulking range rover.
Nobody had dared suggest asking her to drive us.
“No time, yeah, no time,” Nicole echoed. She put her hands on the car’s steering wheel and squeezed until her knuckles went white. “I do need to call this in before, you know, some civvie notices something wrong.”
Evelyn agreed with a wordless grunt. She glanced up and down the street beyond the car’s windows. “Whatever we do, we do it carefully, without attracting attention, at least until we leave. All these houses. Only takes one person to get suspicious and they’ll call the police, and this could turn into a clusterfuck. More of a clusterfuck, rather. No offense.”
“None taken,” said Nicole.
“Think we’ve already got attention,” said Twil.
“Who’s who? What?” Nicole followed the direction of Twil’s nod and saw nothing through the car’s windscreen. Neither did I.
“That. Right there.” Twil extended an arm over the back of the passenger seat, and jabbed a finger. “That second car, there’s somebody sitting in the driver’s seat. They just moved. Are you all blind?”
Nicole squinted into the gathering dusk. The car Twil had indicated was barely visible, maybe a hundred feet down the road, parked carefully in a shadowed gap between pools of orange street-lighting. Dark and cold was plenty of cover for an unseen watcher.
“Twil,” Evelyn hissed from the passenger seat. “There’s-”
“Begging your pardon, miss wizard,” Nicole said slowly, eyeing the other car. “But she’s right. I’ve not done many stake-outs, but if we’ve got a tail, we need to deal with it now.”
“How didn’t you notice before?” Evelyn asked with a huff. “Isn’t this your job?”
“Apparently I don’t have … ” Nicole sighed sharply. “Werewolf senses.”
“What do we do?” I croaked.
“Depends who it is.” Nicole took a deep breath and blew it out, suddenly calmer. Having a natural, practical problem to solve settled her mind. “We can’t proceed if we’re being watched. All these houses are a bad enough liability, let alone some bugger lurking with a camera. If it’s one of the uh … ‘cultists’, then we should figure out how to detain them. A curious member of the public, I can drive off. Chances are it might not have anything to do with us.”
“Slim bloody chance, detective,” Evelyn grumbled.
“True. Still, we need to be careful.”
“We need to be fast,” I complained as hard as I could, my voice a wheeze. “Raine is inside there. We need to get rid of this person.”
“Praem could do it,” Evelyn said. “Fast and-”
“No, not in public, not like that,” Nicole said. “You kidding?”
“Heather’s right. Sod this,” Twil hissed, opened the back door, and catapulted herself out of the car. She hit the pavement at a low, lurking run, and vanished into the shadows. A wave of cold air pushed back the hard work of the BMW’s heater, and I shivered despite my coat and hoodie and three layers of tshirt. The cold was inside me, and not warming up.
Praem reached over from the middle seat and closed the door with a thump, then settled back, her hip slightly less crammed against my thigh now Twil wasn’t taking up a third of the back seat.
“Thank you,” I said, half to Praem, half to Twil who couldn’t hear me now.
“Bloody hell.” Nicole ran a hand down her face.
“Yes, that’s generally how we do things, detective,” Evelyn said.
We all watched with baited breath as Twil ghosted through the shadows, but our mysterious watcher caught wind of her a few moments too early. Headlights came on high then dipped their beams, catching Twil in the act of slinking closer, lighting her up like a suspect in a Noir film. A compact engine rumbled to life and the driver put the car in reverse, tires giving a neat little squeak as it backed away, turned in the road, and roared off.
Twil slunk back to Nicole’s car a minute later. She couldn’t contain herself long enough to climb in and shut the door.
We monsters and mages weren’t the only people interested in Number Seven Barrend Road.
“It was her!”
“Who?” Evelyn snapped. “Twil, who is ‘her’? You could be referring to fucking well anybody. Was it Raine?”
“Baldie! You know, the scary one?”
“Amy Stack?” I croaked.
“Yeah, yeah, her.”
“Get in and shut the door, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn said.
“Yeah, yeah.” Twil did as she was told, but still wide-eyed and keyed-up, raring to bare her teeth. “Second she saw me she bolted, but I saw her face, right? It was like she didn’t even care. How does she do that? She’s like a statue.”
“Sociopath,” I muttered.
“Bloody right. Creepy shit.” Twil shook her head.
“I’m sorry, could any of you wizards inform me who the hell you’re talking about?”
“Amy Stack, professional hitman or assassin or thug, we’re not sure,” Evelyn said. “I’ve never had to deal with her, Heather has. Doesn’t work for this lot anymore, or at least says she doesn’t. Splinter group. That all?”
Nicole paused. “Wizards need hitmen?”
“Do you think she did it?” Twil piped up. “Baldie went in there and killed them all?”
“Always missing the obvious,” Evelyn was muttering. “Always. No, Twil, of course she didn’t. She’s not stupid enough to walk in there. Not like us.”
“Uh, are you three – four? Does she count?” Nicole pointed at Praem. “Gonna come up with a plan, or what?”
Evelyn looked up at the house, darkness gathering under the eaves, windows closed to the world beyond, deceptively clean and wholesome.
“Burn it to the ground,” she said.
“Raine-” I started.
“I know Raine is in there,” Evelyn snapped, a sudden whipcrack of voice that made even Nicole jump. “If she wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d have sent Praem with a jerry can of petrol and a box of matches, and a bag of salt for the earth afterward.”
“You’re joke- … you’re not joking. Oh, great. Murder and arson.” Nicole put her face in one hand.
“Absolutely not a joke,” Evelyn confirmed. “The Sharrowford cult, whatever they serve now, they got in too deep. We’re not prepared for what’s in that house. I’ll stake ten thousand pounds on that.”
“Evee?” I croaked. “We have to.”
“Yeah, uh, we are gonna bust Raine out, right?” Twil asked. “I’m not leaving without her.”
“Me neither,” I said.
“I’m not certain we can,” Evelyn continued, her voice cold and controlled.
“We will,” I croaked.
“Ask yourselves the obvious question.” Evelyn raised her chin, her voice slipping into that school-mistress teacher mode that I found so false and infuriating. Why now, Evelyn? If I’d been more energetic I could have slapped her in frustration. We needed to be breaking down that front door now, calling for Raine.
“What question?” I almost growled.
Evelyn turned and met my eyes, utterly unabashed. “Where’s the retaliation?”
“ … mm?”
“Eh?” Twil joined me.
“Am I the only one capable of thinking strategically?” Evelyn asked us. “Heather escapes from these people this morning, leaves one of them dead and the other tied up, and steals one of their greatest assets – Zheng. They likely knew we were scattered and weak. And you didn’t expect them to strike before we could regroup?”
“But … but they haven’t,” said Twil.
“Exactly. And you never wondered about this, not for one second?”
“I did,” I croaked.
“Uh, was kinda busy.” Twil scratched the back of her head. “With you, mostly.”
“Yes, well,” Evelyn waved her down. “I missed the obvious too. Where’s their counter-strike, where’s a person walking up to our front door with a machete, where’s the magical construct breaking all our skulls? Absent.” She jabbed a finger at the house. “What’s happened in there, hm? Internal schism, they killed each other? Maybe. Lost control of something like Zheng? Possible. You know what’s more likely? They were planning something, to strike back at us – you, Heather, specifically. Putting something together toward that end. Seems a bit of a coincidence that we’d find a house full of bodies first.”
“ … you mean like,” Twil ventured slowly. “They screwed up some magic?”
“Understatement of the year, yes, Twil, well done. They may have ‘screwed up some magic’ in the same way that a nuclear accident is ‘screwing up a safety test’. Alexander Lilburne’s booby-trapped corpse may only be the tip of the iceberg. They dabbled in stuff that hijacks the human brain through vision, and that was a trap laid for nobody. They’re in contact – of a kind – with Heather’s ‘Eye’. Whatever happened in there, we’re all better off not knowing about.”
“We get Raine,” I said. “I don’t care.”
“Yes, we will,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “The question is how.”
“I could go,” Twil said. “I’m invincible, remember?”
“Have you heard a word I said?” Evelyn turned on her, eyes blazing. “You think Zheng was any less invincible than you? Your head works the same as mine.” Evelyn reached forward and actually tapped Twil on the forehead, hard and angry. “I don’t care if you can cut all your limbs off and regrow them, you are not invincible in the way that counts.”
“What about Praem here?” Nicole suggested. “She’s not human, right?”
“Invulnerable,” I said.
“Expendable,” Evelyn said at the same time. We glanced at each other.
“Can Heather do her thing all over again, check to make sure Raine’s actually in there?” Nicole asked. “Werewolf, can you climb? If she’s up in a top-floor room, maybe you don’t have to go through the whole house.”
“I’ll die if I do it again,” I croaked, and left unsaid the real reason. I needed what energy I had for one last brainmath trick, just in case. “I’m pretty sure.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.
“Walk in there,” I croaked.
“Heather, your dedication is touching, but you sent a seven-foot, centuries-old demon-host in there, who by your account survived a fight with a building this morning. She has not come back out.”
I began to reach for the car door handle. It wasn’t a bluff. I didn’t care how exhausted I was, or what was in that house. I was going to fetch my girlfriend.
Without being ordered, Praem gently took my wrist and stopped me. I pulled, ineffectually, and Evelyn sighed.
“I’m not saying we don’t try,” Evelyn said. “I’m saying let me think.”
“Heather, she is my best friend, and I love her almost as much as you do. Shut up and let me think.”
That stopped me. In the depths of my exhaustion and panic I hadn’t read the tightness around Evelyn’s eyes, or how she grit her teeth when she spoke. She’d never have said that out loud if Raine could hear.
I nodded, and let her think.
“Paint,” she said after a moment. “Paint and … and … a mirror.”
“Paint?” Twil squinted.
“Yes, a bucket of paint, and a mirror. It’s the best we can do. Limit visual exposure.”
I caught on instantly, my mind already running ahead. “Perseus.”
Evelyn nodded. Twil frowned.
“Greek myth. Perseus and the Gorgon. Use a mirror so you don’t turn to stone,” I explained. “And we don’t need a mirror. Use our phones.” I mimed holding up my mobile phone. “Look at stuff through your phone screen at an angle? Anything there you shouldn’t look at, take a bucket of paint, splash, cover it up.”
Nicole let out a soft laugh. “Oh this is some sci-fi bullshit. You’re kidding.”
“No, it’s our best shot. Extreme care,” Evelyn said. “Treat anything and everything in there as potentially lethal, a cognitive hazard. Kill anything that moves. Find Raine as quickly as we can, avoid anything else. Then we burn the place to the ground.”
Evelyn’s gaze wandered upward, past Twil and Praem and I, out through the back window of the car. She frowned, and Nicole followed. With more effort than I’d have liked, I twisted in my seat too, and looked back along the road.
“Idiot,” Evelyn hissed. “She’s going to get the whole street looking at her.”
Felicity was half out of her car, door standing open, waving at us with one raised arm.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go. I have to. I can’t- I have to go,” Felicity babbled at Twil and I through the open driver-side window, her one good eye wild with panic, the burned half of her face twitching. She’d already climbed back into her car as we’d approached. “Don’t let Evelyn go in that house, please. Promise me.”
“You’re leaving now?” Twil gaped at her.
“You’re not going to stay and help?” I hissed, outraged.
In the end, Twil and I had made the short journey down the pavement to Felicity’s car, while Praem set off in the opposite direction on a twenty minute walk toward the nearest hardware shop, on a quest for paint, petrol, and matches. Evelyn waited with detective Webb.
Out in the street, my layers and my coat barely kept the cold at bay, and the ugly metal lump in the front of my hoodie felt even heavier. I could have stayed in the car, let Twil do this. She was more than capable of asking what was wrong, and perhaps slightly better inclined toward Felicity than I felt, but I was determined to stretch my legs, keep my muscles warm, determined to be useful.
“I- I can’t.” Felicity tried to apologise with every word. “I have to go.”
“I don’t believe this,” I said, shaking my head. “Evelyn was right. You were right. You are a-”
“She said she promised to help you, Heather. She’s- she’s not meant to be corporeal, not for this long, not for more than a few minutes, but she’s stuck. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
A cold feeling settled on my throat. “She? Who are you-”
Perhaps unconsciously, Felicity’s one good eye flicked sideways, not quite a glance into the back seat, but close enough for me to follow the gesture.
‘She’ lay across the back seat, half hidden underneath a heavy blanket, hissing and twitching in the darkness.
The parasite did not look remotely like a ‘little girl in a black dress’.
Perhaps Felicity had used that description to cover for the awful reality. Or perhaps the thing was trying to be more human, in the same way Praem was trying to be a maid, but Felicity’s parasite was having far less success.
Beady black eyes like something dredged up from the ocean floor, peering at me from within deeper pool of oily night. Distant street-lighting caught on a maw full of tiny serrated teeth. Panting and shaking beneath the blanket, like an animal in pain. A bone-stretched hand with black nails shapeshifted from cat-claws to talons to little stubby fingers as I watched, then quickly bundled up underneath the blanket again.
Another throb went through the air, through my head, and Felicity’s parasite – her demon familiar, her torturer, her pet, whatever unthinkable and disgusting category it fit into – flinched and whined.
A hiss lingered in the air. Twil finally noticed too, and went wide-eyed.
“She got back to the car, but she’s in pain,” Felicity said. Her mask of professionalism had worn paper-thin over a welter of emotion. “I-I have to do something.”
Something thumped the back of her seat. Another hiss, a wounded snake. Felicity closed her eyes and bit her lip.
“What happened?” I ignored Felicity and pressed my face closer to the back window. “What was inside?”
“I don’t think she can communicate right now,” Felicity said. “She’s not supposed to be physical for this long. I don’t understand how this is possible.”
“Para- … you,” I demanded, unable to use such an insult toward a creature in such obvious pain. “What was in the house? Please.”
A limb – not an arm, a blackened thing of shifting oil and stripped muscle – met my face at the window and made me flinch, before vanishing back down into the bundle below.
“Aym,” Felicity said – a name, a name cradled with more care than should be possible for this inhuman writhing lump in the back of her car – and twisted to look at her parasite. “Aym, it’s going to be okay. I promise. You’ll be okay. I’m going to- I’ll fix you.”
Another two thumps on the back of Felicity’s chair. Her exterior was rapidly crumbling.
“You need to look after your pet,” I said. Not a question.
“She is not a pet,” Felicity said, and I felt as if that was the first time I’d heard her tell a whole truth. “She’s all I have.”
From the darkness in the back seat, a hissing laugh. Mockery? Victory? Hysterical pain?
“I don’t have time to think about you or what you are,” I said to Felicity’s face. I pointed at the road. “If you need to go, then go.”
“Don’t let Evelyn in that house,” Felicity pleaded. She turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life, but she hesitated as she wound the window up.
“Good luck,” a voice came from the back seat, wet and sharp and evil, spoken through a sucking wound.
Felicity turned to the road, eyes hollow, and left.
Twenty minutes later, five furtive figures slipped through the open iron gate of Number Seven Barrend Road. The house rose above us in the thickening darkness. Not even six o’clock yet, but the sun was gone. A few lights burned inside the house, trapped behind heavy curtains, but not a whisper of movement reached us down below.
Nicole went first, the face of professional normality walking up to the front door, raising her hand and knocking. More for appearance than practicality. Twil and Evelyn followed, the latter struggling with her walking stick, legs still not quite right after her long unconsciousness. Twil carried a bucket of paint and a trowel-like scoop. I followed in their wake.
Last came Praem, carrying another bucket of paint in one hand and a sloshing jerry can of petrol in the other.
Nobody answered the door. Nothing stirred inside the house – except three pulses of that blood-to-the-head dizzy feeling. In the distance, somebody slammed a car door. Laughter caught on the wind. Trees rustled above us.
“Praem,” Evelyn hissed.
Praem stepped forward, drew back her free hand, and shattered the lock on the front door. Punched it almost clean through the wood. The sound was awful, splintering and tearing, metal sheering. She pulled her hand back and the entire brass-and-steel mechanism came with it.
“Wait!” Nicole hissed, one hand up. “Wait.”
We waited for the inevitable curious neighbour, the passer by, the curtain twitcher. Three, four minutes passed, and nothing happened.
“In the clear, right?” Twil hissed.
Evelyn shot her a glare. “We’re stepping into a haunted house. So, no.”
Nicole already had her phone out, using it to peer through the gap left by the ripped-out door handle. The rest of us followed her example and took out our phones – except Praem. She was staring at a random point on the wall.
“More motion?” I asked.
“Motion,” Praem intoned.
“Shhh!” Evelyn hissed.
Getting inside Number Seven was quite the performance. Easing the front door open, poking phones around the corner to check for nasty surprises that might fry our brains or implant squid-monsters into our skulls, staying silent and stealthy. I’m quite certain Nicole’s instinct was to announce herself with a cry of “police!”, and I was bursting to shout Raine’s name at the top of my lungs.
The house’s foyer was unoccupied. We crept in.
As ugly as the exterior. Cream-white walls and shiny skirting boards. A wide doormat protected marble floor tiles, which gave way to thick carpets that looked as if they’d seen less than a week of foot traffic. High ceilings, fake-gold and thin-glass light fixtures, a bowl of fake fruit on a sideboard.
Nobody lived here. Existed within the walls for a brief time, perhaps, but this was not a home, just a shell of a house decorated to give the impression of high-class life. A holiday house, a showroom, a rich man’s bauble. A thin layer of dust but no real dirt, no wear, too clean – except for the two dozen pairs of shoes clustered by the door.
Three yawning doorways led off in different directions.
A huge pool of blood had soaked into the carpet of the room straight ahead. The source was out of sight, around the corner. I stared at the crimson stain through the screen on my phone, my guts going cold.
“Reeks in here,” Twil whispered, wrinkling her nose.
“Shut the door,” Evelyn hissed. “And keep your voice down.”
One did not need to be a werewolf to smell the awful scents of iron and effluvia, of voided bowels and torn meat. The air was thick with it, drowning out the smell of potpourri and carpet shampoo. Twil closed the door behind us as quietly as possible. Praem set down the can of petrol, but readied the paint. Somewhere in the depths of the house, I could hear a distant hum, the heating system perhaps, and a faint scratch-scratch-scratch like the skipping of an old-fashioned record player.
And below that, a high-pitched whine on the very edge of hearing. Nails down a blackboard. Only audible if one concentrated on the silence, but enough to make your eyes water.
“What is that sound?” Nicole whispered.
“Not really a sound,” Evelyn whispered back. “Ignore it.”
“Right … right. Right.”
“Keep it together, detective,” Evelyn hissed.
“Right. Which way first-”
A giggle rose from deep in the house, a wave of manic, hyperventilating humour, echoing like in a cave. The laughter rose to a hysterical crescendo, then faded, died, and just when we were all about to breathe once more, a staccato of running footsteps sprinted across the second floor, thumping on the ceiling above our heads. The footsteps raced on – and on and on, as if running far further than the actual distance possible inside these four walls. The footsteps receded into the distance.
Silence returned. Except for the high-pitched whine.
“Guess somebody’s still alive in here,” Nicole whispered.
“Nobody. Freak. Out,” Evelyn hissed. “Stick to the plan. That room first. Twil- no, I’ll do it. Here-”
Throb, went my head.
Reality winced like an eyeball squeezing shut, so much worse inside the house. We all winced. Graphical glitches marred the image on my phone, jarring the picture sideways.
And a song rang out from somewhere nearby.
“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door-”
I knew that song. From The Hobbit. Such a familiar thing, a childhood thing, sung in a forlorn voice, echoing from behind a corner or every corner or just behind one’s head.
Throb, and the singing cut off. Gone.
A muffled scream, somewhere deep in the house, panting and high and frantic, more like sex than pain.
Silence. Thirty seconds. A minute. None of us dared move.
“ … what the fuck was all that?” Nicole hissed, wide-eyed.
“I don’t know,” Evelyn whispered. She’d gone pale and drawn.
“The singing,” I managed, had to swallow to speak more. “That was Sarika’s voice. That was her.”
Evelyn glanced at me, doing a poor job of hiding her fear. She wasn’t cut out for direct confrontation. “They’ve broken reality in here,” she said. “They’ve abused it and snapped it in half.”
“We find Raine,” I said.
“Why am I even in here?” Nicole said, voice distant. “This was meant to be a job for you wizards.”
“Leave if you want,” Evelyn hissed at her.
The detective swallowed hard. “ … nah. Young woman’s been kidnapped. Pile of bodies. Criminals breaking reality, gotta be illegal, that.”
Struggling for a moment with my hoodie, I manoeuvred Raine’s handgun out of my front pocket. The ugly metal felt cold and wrong in my hands. I offered it to the detective. She stared at me.
“ … I’ve never fired a gun before,” she said.
“Me neither,” I whispered. “Better you than me.”
She took it gingerly, as if it were a live scorpion. She frowned at it for a moment, experimenting with holding the gun and her phone at the same time, then found the safety and clicked it off.
“How many bullets are in it? I don’t want to eject- is that the right word? Eject the magazine, in case I can’t get it back in.”
I shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Nicole wet her lips. “Better than nothing. Good for a bluff, I suppose.”
“I doubt that thing will be relevant here, detective.” Evelyn pulled the scrimshawed thighbone out from inside her coat, and placed her free hand around the shaft, fingers in precise places. Nicole’s eyebrows climbed her face.
“Right. Right. Magic wands,” she said, and tried to laugh. It didn’t work.
“Twil!” Evelyn hissed as Twil moved. “I said I’ll-”
“I’m doing it,” Twil grunted, no room for argument as she crept forward to check around the doorway ahead. She kept to one side and slowly inched her phone around the door frame, moving it up and down to take in the ceiling and the floor, every possible place the cult – or the Eye – could hide a cognitive hazard. She pulled a disgusted face, then froze and frowned.
“Um … ”
“What?” Evelyn hissed. “If there’s something there, throw paint on it. That’s the point.”
“There is … but … ” Twil glanced back – at me.
“Let me see,” Evelyn said, and went to Twil, careful not to clack her walking stick too loudly. Praem kept at Evelyn’s shoulder without being ordered. Evelyn peered at Twil’s phone screen and went a little green around the gills. A dead body inside the room, I assumed.
They both looked back at me. The bottom of my stomach dropped out.
“It’s not-” I could barely get the words out. “It’s not Raine.”
“No!” Evelyn hissed.
“Is it safe?” Nicole asked.
“Exceptionally,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.
Twil led us through.
It was a kind of reception room, with a low glass table in the middle and a pair of leather sofas either side, for the endless dull coffee mornings and casual social occasions of upper-middle class Sharrowford. Cream walls, porcelain knick-knacks over an imitation fireplace, faux-oak end tables with vases and dead flowers.
Four dead bodies.
One looked like it had exploded from inside, or been pulverised by a wrecking ball, stuffed into a corner and splattered up the walls. Barely recognisable as human, let alone male or female, young or old, more meat and bone than person. Zheng’s work? I could barely look without feeling sick, and Evelyn kept her eyes firmly averted, until Praem moved to stand between her and the carnage.
The second corpse was almost worse, if that was possible. An older gentlemen lay half-collapsed over the sofa, his clothes roughly stripped and cut back to reveal masses of pale overweight flesh. Blood matted his beard and bow tie and gaudy suit jacket.
A symbol had been carved into his flesh, over and over again, crimson lines dry and crusted now. The bloody scissors next to his hand suggested he’d done it to himself.
Shaking, unable to believe my eyes, I recognised the symbol.
The third corpse – a blonde young man – had slit his own wrists with a jagged piece of glass. The pool of blood we’d seen from the entrance belonged to him. The fourth had used the blood to make art, and lay face-up, staring at the ceiling, no visible wound on him but quite dead, dried bloody foam at his mouth and nostrils.
It was the man from Glasswick tower. The cultist Zheng and I had spared. I couldn’t recall his name.
His sleeve was rolled up to show the unwise gift I’d given him. He’d tried to flay the skin away from his flesh, remove it from his arm, but pain or interruption had stopped him halfway.
“Heather,” Evelyn was hissing. “Heather, what did you do?”
“I don’t … I don’t know. I-I didn’t-”
On the wall, a symbol, eight feet tall. The same symbol as the one carved into the old man’s flesh, the same as on the cultist’s arm. In the blood of the man who’d slit his wrists, soaked into the paint and plaster, every angle precise and mathematical, a branching tree-limb of comfort and protection, the same as on my left forearm.
They’d daubed it on the wall, in blood.