The Fractal, eight feet from tip to tail, painted on the wall with a dead man’s blood.
“Do I recognise this?” Twil asked in a stage whisper. “Isn’t this, you know, the one on Heather’s arm?”
“Yes,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth, ashen-faced and wide-eyed. “Yes, it is. Heather, what did you do? You gave it to them?”
My mouth moved, numb and mute.
Few discoveries could have been worse for my psychological state – Raine’s corpse, perhaps. A cluster of branching lines on a wall added up to a violation of the stability we’d so painstakingly applied to my life over the last few months. The Fractal was one of the first gifts Raine had ever given me, after an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, the first evidence of the supernatural she’d shoehorned into my tiny, crumbling, pathetic life, the one tool that had finally shut out the Eye.
We refreshed it together every few days, Raine re-tracing the lines on my left forearm with a black body-art pen. Our little shared ritual of care and comfort, the one piece of magic that was neither scary nor unnatural, just Raine cradling my arm and drawing on my skin to keep me safe. Intimate and personal. Bedtime normality.
Eight feet high. In blood. At the centre of a massacre.
I hiccuped, felt my throat closing, my eyes filling with tears.
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. “You gave it to them? They took it off your arm, they copied it?”
“Duh,” said Twil. “But why?”
“ … I … to block out the Eye,” I heard myself say, as if far away. “I thought- it was him-” I managed to nod down at the cultist Zheng and I had spared, the Fractal half-flayed from his own arm, hanging lose in a flap of bloody skin.
“God damn you, Heather,” Evelyn muttered.
“I didn’t want to kill him!” The words burst from me, the truth. “Nobody deserves the Eye, Evee, nobody, I thought- I thought it would-”
Another hiccup. Shaking all over. A squeezing pain in my left arm – I was gripping my forearm where the Fractal lurked on my own flesh. Gripping so hard my fingers hurt.
“Stop panicking,” Evelyn snapped.
“I-I don’t think I can.” Another hiccup. I squeezed my eyes shut, but it didn’t help. The stench of blood and pulped meat was too strong. I dug my fingernails into my sleeve, into my flesh, willing myself to bleed.
“I am trying to establish what happened. Heather, dammit, pay-”
“Not your fault,” Praem intoned, her voice a clear bell in the listening quiet of the house.
Evelyn whirled on her and hissed “shhhh!” but the doll-demon ignored her mistress. Praem stepped toward me.
I flinched, almost stepping into the squelching blood-soaked carpet, my mind recoiling from paranoid fantasies of Praem ripping the skin off my own left arm to remove the offending magic, shoving my face against the bloody wall to rub my nose in what I’d done, an avenging avatar of my mounting guilt. All this death, this suffering, it was my fault; I’d spread the Fractal, given these people the tools to butcher themselves. Praem was always so honest, saw with a clarity we humans lacked. She reached for me and I cringed away. But I deserved it.
Quickly, carefully, gently, Praem took my left elbow and my right wrist, and peeled me off myself.
“Ah … ow.” The fingers of my right hand ached where I’d squeezed so hard.
“Ow,” said Praem.
Empty white eyes stared into mine. She felt no need to repeat herself.
“ … not my fault,” I echoed. “Not my fault.” I nodded, tried to get a grip on my breathing. Praem lowered my arms for me. “Not my fault. You were there, yes, Praem, you knew I was only trying to help. Thank you. Yes.”
“Yes, thank you, Praem,” Evelyn added.
“Not my fault,” I lied, one last time.
Guilt later. Raine first.
I managed to look at the symbol on the wall and carved into the flesh of the man dead on the sofa without feeling soul-sick.
“Yes, Heather, it’s not your fault,” Evelyn still tried to keep her voice down, a hushed half-whisper. “That doesn’t matter. I am trying to establish how they got their hands on it, and what the hell they’ve done with it.”
“I gave it to him.” I pointed at the cultist Zheng and I had spared, his dead eyes staring at the ceiling. No mark on his body. What had killed him? “He was so desperate, so broken. Evee, nobody deserves the Eye. I thought the Fractal would block out what the Eye did to them, what Alexander did to them. But … I don’t get it. It didn’t work?”
“On the contrary,” Evelyn grunted. Her left hand was white-knuckled on her walking stick, her jaw tight. “It worked far too well. You free yourself this morning, and lucky boy number one here flees to this safe house, tells the others the good news. Some of them rush to it, the ones who never wanted to be part of this. The lifers, the true believers, they reject it, refuse. A philosophical disagreement turns into a schism, a fight breaks out … ”
Evelyn trailed off. She cast a reluctant glance at the exploded corpse in the corner, and another down at the dead man at our feet. No visible wounds. Brain or nervous system or soul burned away.
“Yeah, nah,” Twil said what we were all thinking.
“Doesn’t look like any fight I’ve ever seen,” Nicole put in.
Our tame police detective showed surprising self-control amid the blood and guts and unexplained magic. A little green around the gills, but professional and alert. She kept the handgun pointed at the floor, her eyes high and watching, on the way we’d came and the other two exits from the plush little reception room – an open doorway into a long hallway, and a half-closed door to a larger and more decorative sitting room. Twil was on high-alert too, the tin of white paint and her phone forgotten now, hands wreathed in ghostly wolf flesh, fur and claw.
“So this occult doohickey drove them all crazy?” Nicole asked.
“No!” Evelyn snapped. “ … maybe. I don’t understand how.”
“Well, it did something to them, right?” Nicole pressed. “I think I’ve been able to follow that much.”
“Nothing. It does nothing. That’s the point,” Evelyn hissed, impatient and scowling at the blasphemous blood mural, at the paradox it represented. “It doesn’t do anything because it’s the opposite of action. Enforced inaction, a firewall, a blast door between here and Outside. This is probably the safest place in the whole house, unless they drew an even bigger one. That … dead man over there, his mind should have been practically untouchable.” She waved a vague hand at the carved corpse on the sofa, the older gentleman with the Fractal cut into his flesh over and over.
“That- that is true,” I whispered to myself. “Meant to be safe. Safe. Not your fault, not your fault.”
Twil spared me a concerned frown. I looked away, embarrassed.
“What if it didn’t work?” Nicole asked. “They got desperate, made a bigger one to protect themselves.”
“Makes sense?” Twil tried.
“No it doesn’t,” Evelyn hissed. “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about. A single instance of the warding sign on a door or wall or this idiot’s arm would be more than enough. You don’t need to scrawl it on a wall in human blood, it’s not like other magic. It’s coded into reality at the base level. Like a right angle. This works as it is.”
Nicole shook her head, an almost indulgent kink to her mouth. “Think about it from their perspective, miss wizard. If you’re a crazy cultist and things go bad, maybe drawing a big fuckoff magical sign in your own blood does make sense.”
Evelyn didn’t have anything to say to that. She scowled at the Fractal in silence.
“You mean, like, it doesn’t mean anything?” Twil asked.
“It means something went wrong,” Evelyn said. “I need to know what.”
“This doesn’t change the plan,” I said. “We still need to find Raine.”
“Yeah, sooner the better,” Twil grunted. “I want out of here.”
They were just corpses. Grisly corpses, of people who died horribly violent deaths they probably didn’t deserve, but that’s what we expected to find here. The Fractal changed nothing. They’d turned, in their last moments, to the only hope they had. In the part of my heart that could still feel amid the nervous affect-deadening of the situation, I hoped the Fractal had given them some solace at the end.
Evelyn nodded, drew herself up, adjusted her grip on her walking stick. “And quietly. Whatever happened here is still happening. Twil, Praem, check around that door first. Twil, don’t forget to use your phone-”
A rush of blood to the head as reality flinched sideways. I winced hard, the sensation almost painful. Evelyn hissed through her teeth. Even Praem blinked.
“Six-hundred seven, six-hundred thirteen, six-hundred seventeen, six-”
Sarika’s voice, from the room next door.
“-hundred eleven, nine-hundred nineteen- … God fucking dammit!” she swore, right inside the room.
Another reality-crunching blink of missing motion, and there she was, hunched forward on the sofa opposite the carved man. The same high boots and tight jeans and long black hair as this morning in Glasswick tower. The same fine features, same bone-crushing exhaustion around her eyes, same weariness heavy across her slumped shoulders.
“- worst part of it is I can’t anchor myself,” she was already speaking, staring at her hands. “Never long enough to get my bearings. It’s like being trapped in a hospital bed, pumped full of morphine, but the pain doesn’t stop. You keep waking up and slipping back and waking up and-”
“Holy shit.” Twil froze, eyes wide.
“What- what-” somebody else was saying – Nicole, I think.
Praem moved to cover Evelyn.
I stared, and felt sick.
Sarika was broken.
Her hands and arms and head left jerky after-images as she moved, a glitching animation on a broken television screen, outlined in iridescent burning colours. Parts of her decohered and snapped back into place, flickering in and out of reality, an image ruined by static interference. The effect made one’s eyes water, reached back into the brain-stem, triggered shivering disgust and nausea.
She was a ghost, a human soul unanchored from her flesh, a lost signal.
Her voice seemed to carry through flesh and bone, as if speaking from the centre of my own head. “- like climbing a steep hill and you can never get to the top. You keep blacking out and rolling down and picking yourself up, but the path is always fucking absent or changed or not a path anymore. I keep repeating stuff, lines from books, maths – that doesn’t work – my name. My name, that’s going to be-”
And then I felt it, behind her, through her, like a searchlight the size of the sun trapped on the far side of a mountain range.
Sarika was not the signal; she was the static.
I don’t think the others felt it. Or perhaps they did, but weren’t as familiar with it as I. Shivering, my guts clenched in animal fear, I felt myself shrinking, fighting the desire to curl up in a ball, to make myself small and pray the sensation would pass over me, miss me, forget me.
A vast awareness, peering down through her like an eye through a microscope.
And Sarika was gone.
We all looked at each other, speechless.
“What- what the hell was that?” Nicole asked first, rubbing her eyes and blinking rapidly. “Was that an illusion? A trick?”
“Sarika, that was her,” I said, my voice cracking. “That was definitely her, a-and-”
“You’re certain?” Evelyn disentangled herself from Praem’s protective grip. The doll-demon had bundled her out of the way, put her arms around her mistress. “Heather, you’re certain that was her?”
“Okay. Haunted house,” Nicole said. “That wasn’t a figure of speech. Haunted house, I can deal.”
“It’s not a ghost,” Evelyn snapped “It’s a- she’s a- I don’t know.”
“Evee-” I struggled to speak, my conscious mind too slow to catch up with the implications. “Evee, didn’t you feel that?”
“It’s not fucking rocket science, you jumped up little shit. Figure it out,” Sarika snarled at the exact spot Evelyn had been standing a minute ago, talking to the wall, a figure in disjointed freeze-frame. Her outline flickered with impossible colour, like cities on fire.
That vast awareness pressed down on my mind once again, as if spotting us from another angle. An eyelid opening above us.
“Figure what-” Evelyn started.
Sarika’s jittering, flickering form lost what little coherence it had, reduced to static and chaos as the real signal intensified.
All of us felt it then. Impossible not to. A crawling in the guts and up the spine, an evolutionary relic from the days of avoiding predators on the Savannah. The feeling of being watched.
Evelyn spluttered to a stop, eyes wide and lips quivering. Nicole pointed the handgun at nothing, head swivelling. Twil growled, then whined low in her throat, backing up, backing away from a sensation she couldn’t place.
Darkness and pressure, the walls closing in, breath in short supply and sanity slipping.
I think I gibbered. Somebody did.
Raine saved me again – at least by proxy. As my mind fell into instinctive terror, I clung hard to the reason we were here, gabbed my left sleeve and ripped it down.
The Fractal on my flesh, exposed to the air, a gale of clean wind.
I think I shouted something inane, like “get against the wall!”, my own back already thumping against the huge blood-mural Fractal. My shoes were sticky with the dead man’s blood, squelching on the carpet. Almost tripped over the corpse.
It wasn’t a heroic moment. Those kinds of moments never are, that only happens in movies. Reality is always a messy animal scramble to preserve one’s life, more chance and panic than flashy victory. Twil tripped and skidded on the floor, blood on her fur and clothes, whining like a kicked dog. Evelyn was incapable, eyes screwed shut and panting as Praem hauled her off her feet. Even the doll-demon was affected, her motions stiff and imprecise as she slammed herself into the wall next to me, cushioning the impact for Evelyn in her arms. Nicole clawed at her own face, whimpering and confused, but she made it to safety.
Crammed in behind me, between my Fractal and the one on the wall, my arm turned against Sarika – against the thing using her remains as a vector – we all lived. For now.
“It knew we were trying to rebel!” Sarika screamed like a banshee.
Silence; no more Sarika, no more pressure.
I fell over. On my backside. Onto the blood-soaked carpet. Not the most dignified of victories, but hygiene was the last concern on my mind.
Sarika’s parting words hung in the air. Strong hands found me and pulled me to my feet – Praem, the quickest of us to recover. She held me upright while I got my breath back. Evelyn stared, trying to form a question, all her usual bluster and protective irritation shed in wide-eyed horror. Nicole wiped sweat and tears from her own face, raking her hair back where it had escaped its bun. Twil bared teeth and claws at every corner of the room, turning and growling like a wolf surrounded by hunting hounds.
“The Eye,” I said after a moment. “That was the Eye.”
“The what?” Nicole blurted out.
“The alien God-thing that’s after me.” I swallowed, and found my nose was bleeding slightly. I wiped it on the back of my sleeve.
“That didn’t feel the same,” Evelyn managed. “As … in the medieval metaphysics room, that one time … ”
I nodded, though it barely seemed to matter. Why were we even discussing it? Apes, trying to rationalise a hurricane.
“Think,” Evelyn snapped. She must have caught the meaning on my face. “Heather, think. You know more about this than anyone. That was different. Why?”
“ … I … I don’t-”
“This is deathly important. Think.”
I blinked. She was right, it wasn’t the same feeling as the time we’d peered into Wonderland and found the Eye staring back. Direct contact, face to face, had been like standing under a lightning strike. Being in Wonderland for real was to forget how to be human, how to be oneself, nothing between one’s fragile little mind and the vastness of the Eye.
What we’d just experienced was filtered, using the broken soul of a dead woman as a lens. Even then, the Eye’s awareness was still more than enough to crush unprotected thought.
Twice in one day, I thought to myself. To borrow a phrase from Evelyn, I hated this bastard thing so much.
“It’s … I don’t know,” I said. “Using Sarika as a conduit. A way in. To reality. It’s looking through her, what’s left of her.”
“Great,” Evelyn hissed. “Great. That means nothing to me.”
“What do we do?” Twil growled. “We gotta get away from this, right? Can’t stay here. Can’t stay.”
“What happened to that woman?” Nicole asked. “I don’t understand.”
“I got it wrong,” Evelyn admitted with a shiver. “The cult didn’t try to retaliate against us at all. They tried to free themselves from the Eye, break the deal Alexander Lilburne made with it. They tried to fuck it over.”
“And it didn’t work, I gather?”
“Clearly,” said Evelyn. “It fucked them first. Look around us – they lost.”
“Can’t stay here, can’t stay here,” Twil repeated, her shoulders hunched tight, claws flexing.
I stood up straight, puffed out my chest, and took a deep breath.
Evelyn winced at my shout. So did Nicole, but Twil joined me, raising her wolfish snout and shouting Raine’s name into this void of ghosts. What was the point in stealth anymore? The house, the Eye, Sarika, whatever was here, it knew we were here too.
“Raine! We’re here!”
“Where are you? Raine!”
“Shhh, shhh, Twil, stop, stop.”
A dull, distant hammering, far far above us. A boot heel or a fist against a load bearing wall.
“She heard us. She’s upstairs.” My heart expanded, fit to burst with relief I could barely feel.
“She’s upstairs!” Twil all but whooped, a shaky grin on her face.
“How do we know that’s her?” Nicole asked, eyes on the ceiling.
“It’s the best bet we have,” Evelyn hissed. “Fair enough, we can try to-”
Sarika appeared behind the other sofa, staring down at the carved man. A flinch went through us, a group motion, a pack of animals startled by the probing tentacle of a leviathan.
I threw my left arm up, the Fractal outward.
“I envy him,” Sarika was saying. “He got to die as a human. Cowards, all of them, gave up before the end, but I should have done the same. We all should have. That’s always been my problem, not enough of a coward, never reading the warning signs. Bad boys and bad habits, always my fucking problem. Should have listened to my mother, the old-”
She flickered, outline shattering into a million static fragments, a ghost smeared across an invisible pane of glass. The Eye’s awareness turned on us once again, an insistent pressure plunging us miles underwater, held at bay by flimsy black lines drawn on my fragile skin.
Sarika’s ghost turned, mere static-wash against a background of void, and looked at me.
Hate. Personal and unquenchable, hate.
Everyone gasped in relief, except Praem of course. I lowered my arm, shaking and shivering inside.
“No!” Evelyn hissed. “Wait, wait, dammit.”
Praem reached out and helped hold my arm up, her gentle hand supporting my elbow. We waited, a minute, two minutes. Time stretched out, but Sarika did not return.
“Maybe she’s done for now?” Twil ventured.
“She can’t see us, she’s not actually reacting to us,” Evelyn said.
“Evee, she is, she looked at me,” I said quietly. “We need … we need to move, we need to get to Raine. And get out.”
“Find some stairs, right!” Twil said, and bounded toward the open door at the back of the little reception room, the one that led through into a sumptuous lounge.
“Twil!” Evelyn snapped. “She’s not the only thing in-”
The house proved Evelyn’s words right before she finished saying them. Roused by Twil’s sudden motion or perhaps merely emerging from hiding after Sarika had passed, a writhing mass of limbs scuttled out from underneath one of the sofas.
A bundle of severed arms, fused together at the elbows in a twisted mass of melted bone. No head or central body, just limb. The whole thing scurried up the side of the sofa like a spider. Evelyn screamed. Nicole aimed the gun.
After the Eye, this thing was refreshingly mundane.
Twil got to it first – whirling at the sound of Evelyn’s scream – and pounced on it, all wolfish fang and claw, driven by adrenaline and the need to fight a physical foe. She tore the thing in two so fast the rest of us barely had time to blink. One half dropped to the floor, twitched, and lay still. She flung the other half at a wall. It hit with a splat, slid to the ground, and stopped moving.
“Fuck!” said Twil.
“ … fuck is right, what the hell is that?” Nicole still pointed the handgun at the arm-thing.
“As I said,” Evelyn repeated, struggling to keep her voice steady. “Sarika – the Eye, whatever – she’s not the only thing in here. Heather,” she nodded to me, eyes on the exposed Fractal on my arm. “You lead. Carefully. With that.”
I nodded. “I can lead. I can do it.”
Our original plan lay in tatters. We crept from room to ugly echoing room, past corpses and wreckage and distant furtive sounds, my arm and the Fractal held up in place of the mobile phones we’d planned on using as protection. Only Nicole still observed through the screen of her phone, belatedly checking around corners. Twil flanked my shoulder, ready to sideswipe any monsters that lurked in the hallways of plush carpet and cream walls.
Unseen presences moved out in the depths, like abyssal marine life beyond the reach of a diver’s lamp. Footsteps crossed the ceiling above our heads, doors creaked closed, furniture squeaked on floorboards. Less frequently, things crashed and banged, sudden explosions of motion hidden behind the walls. Twice, insane laughter ratcheted through the house from some forgotten corner; the first time it trailed off into a whooping, leaping cry. The second it cut out in choking sounds, and did not return.
“Whatever’s left of the cult,” Evelyn hissed under her breath. “Burning themselves out. Probably don’t even care that we’re here.”
“Come out and fight me!” Twil snarled at nothing.
“Keep moving, keep moving,” I whispered, then raised my voice. “Raine!”
Thump, from above. Still there. Keep moving.
More nightmare amalgamations of crawling flesh lurked in corners or behind open doors, like the fused arm-spider. None of them attacked us. Mindless and blind, they dragged themselves in aimless circles. Constructed from internal organs, bits of limb, fragments of articulated bone, flopping and slapping bits of lung and liver against the carpets. A detached foot, a piece of shoulder. Most of them seemed to have come from the exploded corpses, which we found in almost every room, tumbled over each other or cowering in corners from some unseen pursuer – Sarika? The Eye?
Sarika did not reappear.
We stumbled across two more Fractals, thankfully neither of them drawn in blood. One was cut directly into the plaster of a wall, with a pocket knife, unfinished and flawed. The cultist responsible lay slumped beneath, a stern and capable looking young woman. No wound on her body, her empty face retained a hint of the anger she must have felt at the end. Bloody froth coated her lips.
The second Fractal was hidden in a bathroom, highlighter pen on the white tiles. Two bodies embraced in the tub beneath, huddled together, a pair of young men barely out of their teens.
A strange, grudging respect kindled inside my chest as we searched the house; these people had been my enemies, they’d served a monster more than once, they’d attacked my home and hurt my friends – my family? – but in the end they’d rebelled against the same thing that tortured me.
And with all their numbers, their expertise, their willingness to commit atrocity, they’d still lost.
I crammed that thought away for now. Raine first.
Eventually, after ugly sitting rooms and long hallways, past a game room with pool table and dartboard, around the remains of a actual murder – one cultist stabbed to death with a knife still protruding from his sternum – we found the kitchen.
As ostentatious and superfluous as the rest of the house, a space bigger than some entire apartment floor plans, tiled in marbled white and split down the middle by a projecting island full of displayed crockery and little pantry cupboards. A huge slab of dining table dominated the side we’d emerged into, surrounded by cushioned chairs. On the other, a pair of gigantic ovens with hot-plate tops and lots of bells and whistles filled the wall.
One of the cupboards lay open, bottles of whiskey and vodka and other spirits clustered on the worktop beneath, surrounded by a riot of glasses, some still half-full, a few smashed. Liquid courage, to fortify the cultists for their doomed uprising.
Another two unfortunate corpses lay on the floor at the far end, looking as if they’d burst from inside. Detonated.
The space extended out toward the rear of the house, opening onto an attached greenhouse full of expensive show plants like an upper-class version of a conservatory.
And through the open double-doors next to that, stairs, leading up.
“Yes!” Twil hissed, one hand on my back.
“Alright, but how do we get back down?” Nicole said. “When-”
We all winced, hard. Heart in my throat, I cast about for Sarika’s ghost, my arm raised, turning on the spot, the others trying to get behind me.
“Why didn’t it do this to you, Heather? A good question, a good bloody question, but I have a theory,” Sarika’s voice dripped with scorn. I almost tripped over my own feet to turn around – she was behind us, in the hallway we’d just left. Out of sight. “Because it can’t.”
“Keep moving,” Evelyn hissed. “Ignore her.”
We all backed away together. My feet felt awkward and clumsy, trying to hold my arm up and walk backward.
“Because it took you, kidnapped you, but you escaped. We were given to it, gift-wrapped with worship and ceremony and bullshit. It understands that. Servility, ownership, dominion. We human beings don’t have much common ground with this fucking thing, but it understands that part of us well enough. Is that enough to penetrate your skull, you pampered little bitch? You’re free-”
And then she was inside the room, right behind us. Like a furnace to one’s back, panic and doom leering over my shoulder. This time, I did trip over my own feet. Exhausted and spent, I went over, flailing to face her with the Fractal on my arm.
Praem caught me.
Twil yanked Evelyn off her feet and got behind me. Nicole hesitated with the handgun. A pointless gesture, as that terrible awareness rolled over us like a blanket of shadow and a ocean’s worth of freezing water. I shivered and shook, my teeth chattering with effort. Praem held my arm up, held me up, her embrace tight around my waist.
Sarika was crying, her face in her hands.
“I never really believed all his bullshit,” she sobbed. “All that guff about-”
She blinked thirty, maybe forty degrees to the left. Praem turned me, my feet skittering for purchase on the floor tiles. The others clustered behind.
“-transcending the human, how we had to leave this behind to have any chance,” Sarika continued. “All his high-minded nonsense, and I didn’t really care. All I wanted was him. The rest of it, who gave a toss? It was all lies, anyway, right? Right? It was supposed to be lies, a game, a fantasy – I didn’t know, I didn’t know. Fuck him. Fuck you. All of you.”
“Ignore her, ignore it!” Evelyn gasped. “We- go around her- upstairs.”
“Around that?” Nicole hissed. “Fat chance.”
“And now, here I am,” Sarika sobbed, sniffing back tears as her voice twisted with rage. “And it’s worse than he could ever imagine, the fucking bastard, the cunt. I loved him, I loved him and look what he left me with, look what he did!”
She screamed, turned to static and abstract shape spread across space-time. A data ghost lost on the tide. A million tons of pressure slammed down on me – the Eye, trying to find us.
Blood ran from my nose. My limbs shook with the effort of existing. Praem, rock-solid with inhuman strength, held me steady.
Sarika’s eyes peered out from the chaos and met mine.
She hated me so much.
She was gone. Panting, gasping, all of us confused and blinking like moles in the light. Praem held onto me still. I tried to nod a thank you.
“Upstairs, now,” Evelyn managed. “She can’t sync up with us if we keep moving. We-”
“I need to help her,” I blurted out.
“ … are you mad? Yes, yes, you’re mad, of course. Praem, carry her, please. Put her over your shoulder if you have to.”
“No, no, nobody deserves the Eye,” I insisted. “Evee, nobody deserves that. I’d kill her myself if it would save Raine, but nobody deserves the Eye. Look what it did to her.”
“Heather’s got a point,” Nicole said. “This thing is using her, right? Maybe we can … Sarika,” she raised her voice, strong and loud, a hostage-negotiation voice. Evelyn grit her teeth in a wince. “We want to help you.”
“Detective,” Evelyn hissed. “If you’re standing there in a few more seconds, she’ll be on you.”
“I understand you’re in pain, you’re hurting, you need help,” Nicole continued.
Silence rang out – interrupted by a thump and a crash from somewhere upstairs, the sound of breaking glass and crunching plastic, cut off by a tortured squeal half-way between human and pig. Nicole flinched at that. Twil bristled. Evelyn clucked her tongue.
“Look, I’m a police officer,” Nicole continued. “I don’t understand even half of what’s going on here, but these people with me do, and I’m sure at least one of them can do something for you.”
Nicole shot a look at Evelyn, a raised eyebrow in silent question.
Evelyn shrugged, shaking her head. “Do what?” she mouthed.
“I don’t know,” Nicole whispered back. “Reverse whatever’s happened to her.”
“Detective, an alien God did this to her. Help is not within our power. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Praem, get moving. Twil, up the stairs.”
“She won’t let us – let me,” I said. I knew it in my bones, from the look on her static-washed face.
The Eye wanted me, but Sarika hated me.
Sarika, six inches from Nicole’s face, screaming the rear half of a truncated sentence.
“- doesn’t work! You see? It doesn’t work!”
A kitchen carving knife in one of her hands, dripping crimson, her arm ratcheting back and forth in a freeze-frame of lost motion, limb trailing impossible eye-searing colours. Blood poured from a ragged tear in her own throat, lost in static. Meat ripped as she rammed the knife back in again. Sarika stabbed herself in the throat and neck and even made a jab at her temple, pushing metal through hair and flesh and scraping bone into desynchronised grey matter as she flickered and jerked across the screen of reality.
“It won’t let me go!” she screamed. “It doesn’t work!”
She reappeared on the other side of the room, at the foot of the stairs, no knife and whole again. Weary and confused, I raised my arm. Praem helped, holding me tight, a frame for my exhaustion.
“That scrap of darkness, she tried,” Sarika said, and I realised she was talking about Felicity’s parasite. “But it broke her too, forced her into her own body and beat her blind and deaf. You think you can do better? You don’t even understand, you only care because I make you care, you-”
Behind us again. Dizzying, swaying, barely able to stay on my feet, Praem swung me round. Without the doll-demon’s strength we’d have been dead or insane or worse, but she held my arm up high. Kept the Outside where it should be, the thinnest of layers between our flesh and the Eye. Twil yelped, dragged Evelyn into the slim cone of safety. Nicole stammered, tried to speak, got nowhere.
“-fault, Heather. It’s his responsibility, but also yours. If you didn’t exist, none of this would have happened-”
Six feet closer, rage leaking through the static. Praem took a step back, pulled me with her. Sarika’s face screamed at me, a distorted oval, fine features blurred and smeared by interference.
“- while my friends are all dead. Can’t mourn, can’t even snatch time to think. My name, I can’t remember my name-”
In our faces now, howling. I was insensate as Praem pulled me back, limp meat in the demon’s grip.
“-and you get to live. You’re beyond lucky,” Sarika cursed me. The Eye rose behind her, unseen but as real as nuclear fallout on the wind. “You have power and you don’t deserve it, because you won’t use it. You get to live and we get to suffer. You think that’s-”
A crash, a roar, and the sound of tearing meat, from a distant part of the house.
Sarika flickered out.
Silence fell. I heaved for breath, like coming up for air with bursting lungs. We stood there, stooped and shivering and sweating, waiting for the onslaught to resume. Only Praem stood tall, with me in her arms, my head lolling back on her chest.
“ … think she’s had enough?” Twil growled after a minute. Her eyes darted left and right, watching for an ambush.
Evelyn waved an impatient hand, but she leaned on Twil’s arm all the same. “Didn’t you hear that? She was interrupted. And it wasn’t like before, she just … faded. No popping ears that time.”
Praem tried to prop me against the massive kitchen table, but I clung to her for support. Nicole sat down suddenly on a chair. None of us were in any state to take this opening and go rushing up the stairs.
“She’ll be back,” I croaked. “She won’t let me go.”
“Is it personal?” Nicole asked. “Why, what did you do to her?”
“Not about what I did … ” I shook my head, couldn’t put it into words. “What I can do.”
“And what would that be? Help me understand here, if we’re going to … negotiate, with that thing.”
“The shaman,” a voice rumbled, “can do whatever she puts her mind to. Even for her enemies.”
A giant ducked into the kitchen.
“Zheng!” I felt myself light up with relief. What a strange, impossibly stressful day, to be so delighted by the arrival of seven feet of blood-drenched rippling zombie muscle. Bizarre, and more than a little worrying, the depth of security I felt rushing into my chest as Zheng straightened up inside the room and flashed that shark-toothed grin.
Zheng looked like a vision from hell. She’d lost her trench coat, reduced to that flimsy tshirt and her jeans, both garments torn in several places and covered with splatters of blood, though a hunch told me none of it belonged to her. The exposed skin on her arms and face and belly where her tshirt rode up glistened with the kind of sweat that only comes from long exertion. Gore covered her mouth and chin.
She steamed, hot tarmac in the rain.
“Shaman,” she purred.
“Oh great, it’s her,” Twil grunted, unimpressed. “That’s all we need.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Evelyn grumbled. She nodded at the gruesome object dangling from one of Zheng’s hands. “I take it you’re responsible for our reprieve?”
Zheng grinned wider in smug triumph and predatory satisfaction. She raised her trophy. “Perhaps I am, wizard.”
A severed head. Zheng was holding a severed head, freshly torn from its counterpart neck moments ago, if the trail of blood was anything to go by. Masculine, with a strong jaw and dark hair, eyes blank and glassy.
“ … s’that from a demon?” Twil frowned at it. “Ugh.”
“How can you tell?” Zheng purred.
“The horns are a dead giveaway,” I managed. As was the mouth full of needle-point teeth. The head’s owner had most definitely not been human, though probably began life as one. The shape of the skull had been warped, altered, the horns grown from the brow-ridge in jutting spikes of bone, the jaw enlarged, the ears shrunken to gnarled nubs of flesh.
“Cult zombie?” Evelyn asked.
“A little like me, wizard,” Zheng confirmed. She crossed to us and placed the severed head on the table with a wet squelch. She couldn’t get it to stand up, so it fell over on one side. Evelyn had to look away. Praem stared Zheng dead in the eye, still busy holding me on my feet. Zheng tapped the head. “If an ant is like a hornet. Barely awake, vacant now. Staying hidden in the corners and under the floors. Laoyeh killed all the monkeys, burst them with the pressure of their own souls. Left the demons intact, but hollow. Filled them up. Laoyeh is using them as relays.”
“Laoyeh?” I echoed.
“Relays?” Evelyn squinted.
“That is a severed head,” Nicole said quietly. “I’m looking at a severed head. It’s got horns.”
“Laoyeh,” Zheng repeated, and the way she said it left no room for doubt. She meant the Eye. “Relays, yes, wizard.”
“What have you been doing all this time?” I blurted out, half-disentangling myself from Praem’s grip and almost falling over. I caught myself on the edge of the table, and a much stronger hand caught my waist. Zheng wrapped an arm around me.
For a moment I was strung between one demon and the other. Praem and Zheng stared each other down, Praem still supporting me, Zheng frozen in the act of scooping me up.
“I’ll take the shaman now,” Zheng purred.
“You are late,” Praem intoned.
“Um, not now, please?” I managed, stunned by the sudden confrontation. “Not now. We have to get to Raine.”
Praem let me go. Zheng swept me up, lifting me with ease, hauling me into her arms in a princess-carry. She ran hot, like a fire burned inside her flesh. If this had been any other place, any other time, I would have blushed red as a beetroot. Right now, nobody cared, least of all me.
“As for me, shaman,” she purred. I felt the vibration in my bones. “I’ve been hunting, feasting, fighting, fucking. Avoiding Laoyeh.”
“Fucking?” I squinted at her. Zheng shrugged. I resolved to never ask about that one.
“Relays,” Evelyn was muttering. “For what it’s using Sarika for. It’s in them, in the corpses, in place of the demons that should be there?”
Zheng nodded, sage-like. “Smart wizard.”
“Then … tearing it’s head off disrupted the signal?” I voiced. “Thank you.”
“Until they triangulate again?” Evelyn asked in a rush. “You’ve been hunting them? How many, where?”
“You won’t catch them, little wizard. I can barely catch them. Both cat and mouse in this game, you and I both. Laoyeh hunts us. We should be elsewhere, yesterday.”
“Raine’s upstairs,” I said. “That’s elsewhere.”
“Good,” Zheng purred. She adjusted her grip on me. I clung to her as she took a step toward the stairs. Nicole nodded and stood up, moved to follow in the zombie’s wake. Twil, not to be outdone, hurried to catch up. Praem offered Evelyn her arm. Evelyn accepted the help.
Zheng paused. Froze. Rock solid.
“Shaman.” Zheng slid her supporting arm around my back, grabbed my wrist, and held it up, facing forward.
A screech across the surface of reality, nails down a blackboard inside my head, a figure coalescing out of nothing in a storm of static death at the foot of the stairs.
Sarika screamed back into existence.
“-and nobody’s coming to save me, nobody ever does-”
“Sarika!” I raised my voice above her, above the sudden mounting wave of pressure. Zheng’s solidity helped. “Let us go, let me save Raine – and I’ll help you!”
She flickered, six feet back up the stairs, then forward again, jumping in and out of time, her form blasted into static as the Eye’s scrutiny turned on us.
“-possibly do for me-” a snatch of her voice reached out through the chaos.
“I’ll free you,” I shouted, squeezing my eyes shut. “You know I can do it, you know what I am.”
“Shaman,” Zheng growled, a warning tone, a warning that she was about to try something.
Sarika laughed, on our left then our right.
“I mean it!” I shouted.
“Against the Eye?!” Sarika, right in my face – then back on the stairs again, howling, pulling out fistfuls of her own hair. A banshee, tortured and forsaken, already exploding into static as the Eye hijacked what was left of her soul. “Make it let me go. Can do you that? You liar! You’re like me, a human being. You can’t fight a God-”
I interrupted her, spoke into the storm.
“Sarika, say the word, and I’ll set you free. I’ll make it let you go. A mercy kill. Nobody deserves the Eye.”