Sarika – whatever the Eye had reduced her to, angry ghost or neural echo or cruel joke – fell silent amid the static.
Her form flickered and jerked, paused in the act of tearing at her hair.
“- arrogant can you get?” she said. “You can’t fight a God.”
“I can. I will. Even for you.”
A howling storm of static ripped her apart. The true signal intensified, as the Eye probed for us through the connection of Sarika’s soul. An oceanic abyss crushed down on my consciousness, a million tons of cold pressure held at bay by a few black lines drawn on my left forearm.
My head swam, a trickle of blood ran from my nose, and my muscles filled with lead.
Cradled in Zheng’s arms, I felt her bones creak.
“Sarika, say it. If you want, I’ll … ” I squeezed the words out again, through a reluctance I had no time to contemplate. If there was such a thing as an ‘ethical emergency’, this was one. “I’ll … kill you. Assist you. Suicide. I promise.”
Her face condensed out of the chaos, smeared like paint on glass, flickering and glitching with incandescent colour as if lit from behind by atomic fire. My eyes ached and burned as I forced myself to squint at her, to make contact with whatever was left.
“- like that, wouldn’t you?” her voice emerged in a broken wave. Even the Eye couldn’t blot out her scorn. “Goody two-shoes gets to be an emotional martyr, and I won’t even leave a fucking corpse.”
“That’s not … not what I-”
Throb. Sarika jerked six feet closer, limbs and face shattered into a hundred shards, fragments in a hurricane.
“At least admit it,” she spat. “Coward.”
“Shaman,” Zheng gurgled: do something, Heather. Praem had been able to hold me rock steady because she was made of wood and magic. Zheng was flesh, and taking the brunt.
“Nobody deserves the Eye,” I cried out, gasping, sucking breath through my teeth. “I want to help- I can-”
“Do it then, you coward!”
The brainmath came to me easily enough. The execution did not.
Framing the task in my mind summoned the necessary equations from the black abyss at the bottom of my subconscious – define a human soul, apply that definition to what was left of Sarika – but I was running on fumes, almost nothing left to give. My stomach curled up tight in terror and rebellion as a headache burst behind my eyes with icepick clarity. I quivered and choked in Zheng’s arms as Sarika howled in my face.
I’d overlooked an important complication. Sarika was the static, not the signal.
The Eye was the signal – and I dared not touch that barbed probing tentacle of leviathan consciousness, dared not define it in hyperdimensional mathematics for even a nano-second. I was a diver at the edge of a marine trench, trying to snatch a rotten morsel from a tangle of squid-limbs.
But I didn’t need to define the Eye to scrub the static in the signal. The effort would make me vomit and bleed and probably pass out, yes, maybe for days, but I knew I could do it, even on empty.
Unanchored from a body, from space and time, there was so little left of Sarika. Annihilating her would be simple.
But I didn’t.
I couldn’t do it.
In a moment of weakness that had nothing to do with fear of pain, I hesitated.
With a crackle and an ultra-low frequency thoomp, Sarika’s incoherent form dissipated like lighting striking the earth. The abyssal pressure of the Eye’s attention vanished, the visual static faded to nothing, silence fell.
“No … ” I croaked into the emptiness. “I was ready, I wasn’t-”
“Hngh,” Zheng grunted like a bull and finally let go of my left wrist. My arm flopped onto my belly, no energy left to hold myself up. My head lolled on Zheng’s shoulder as I clenched down hard with my stomach muscles to hold back a wave of vomit.
“ … you killed her?” Twil winced, shaking her head like a wet dog. A trickle of blood ran from her nose. “Heather, you-”
“Unnnhh, not me,” I squeezed out, trying to raise my head. “I was- about to. Going to do it. Free her. Didn’t. Not in time.”
“Shit. Never mind, ‘ey?”
Nicole wiped her own thin nosebleed on her sleeve and gestured at the severed head Zheng had left on the kitchen table. “You think she … she lost the … the thing, again?”
“Thing?” Twil squinted at her.
“Thing. Triangulation? Bloody hell, my head feels like it’s been in a industrial vice.”
“Walk it off, detective,” Evelyn growled through her teeth, her eyes screwed shut, leaning on Praem’s arm. The doll-demon alone had been spared the nosebleed and cranial pressure, still standing straight and solid while the rest of us recovered, even Zheng.
“Easier said than done.” Nicole tried to laugh. “You think she lost the triangulation again? The, uh, zombies wandered in the wrong directions?”
“Must’a done.” Twil slapped her own cheeks and cocked an eyebrow up at Zheng. “What are you grinning about, you brick shithouse?”
“Pain,” Zheng purred. “So long since real pain. Exhilarating.”
“You know what would be a wonderful idea?” Nicole pointed a thumb at the stairs. “Moving before she comes back again. Before the zombies line up or whatever. God, there’s a sentence I’d never have imagined twelve hours ago. Before the zombies line up. Like planets.”
“Yeah, yeah right, we should, good call,” Twil said. She bristled, her wolf form half-summoned in translucent fur and claw, as she eyed the spot where Sarika had vanished, an invisible minefield between us and the cream marble tiles and gilt faux-gold of the stairs upward.
“You first, werewolf,” Nicole said. “Don’t you regenerate or whatever?”
“Yeah, yeah, but- Evee? Evee, hey, hey!”
Evelyn trudged right past, leaning on Praem’s arm for support, and tapped the bottom step with the tip of her walking stick. “I doubt very much we need worry about aligning zombies, or anything else. She’s gone.”
“She’ll be back as soon as she can,” Twil said, hurrying to catch up to Evelyn. “You heard what Zheng said about the zombies and the-”
“No. No, Heather was quite successful. I don’t believe Sarika will be returning.”
“Wasn’t me,” I croaked, and managed to sit up in Zheng’s arms. The demon-host adjusted her grip, a strong arm under my back. “She vanished on her own, that wasn’t me. I was going to, I was about to do it, but … ”
Evelyn saw right through my paper-thin self-deception. She made eye contact, and she just knew.
“I think she understood your offer perfectly well, Heather.”
“ … then why leave?” I asked. One last try to deny what I already knew.
“Maybe she was afraid you’d actually go through with it,” Evelyn said. “Maybe she doesn’t want to die.”
A heady cocktail of relief and guilt fermented in my chest, when I hadn’t expected either of them.
Sarika’s screaming need to end herself earlier had been real, when she’d stabbed herself in the throat and head just to show us it didn’t work, one of the most real acts I’d ever witnessed. I had no doubt.
Do it then, you coward!.
What had she called me – an emotional martyr.
She didn’t want it to be me that pulled the trigger. She hated me too much.
I was the only person alive who could end her suffering, but she’d taunted me and fled. She’d refused, and the burden remained mine. I didn’t deserve to feel relief. It ate at my guts, a worm in my belly. If Sarika wanted me to torture myself, she’d done a great job.
It seems so easy in movies or on television, doesn’t it? To give a suffering person an end to their misery. A syringe with too large a dose of morphine, a pillow held over the face until the struggles stop, or a bottle of whiskey and a revolver and five minutes alone. All abstractions compared to what I’d offered; the only tool I had was my own consciousness.
She’d been my enemy, she’d chained me up in a small, cold room, she’d threatened to torture Raine, she’d hurt my friends. She’d been lover to a genuine monster, and at the very least she must have been aware of the homeless people, murdered for zombie vessels. She must have known. Sarika was complicit, and probably deserved life in a cell, but she did not deserve the Eye.
I failed. In a moment of weakness, I failed.
And what if Evelyn was right? What if Sarika wanted to live?
There was no way to bring her back, to reconstruct what was lost, that was absurd. That was beyond me.
“Maybe … ” I forced myself to agree with Evelyn for now. We had no time for this. I had an angel to rescue. I raised my head and filled my lungs as best I could. “Raine!” I croaked at the ceiling. “Raine, we’re down here!”
“Hey Raine, make more noise!”
“Raine! It’s us! Where are you?”
Thump-thump went Raine’s fist or foot in answer, pounded against wall or floor.
I shouted myself hoarse, but Twil’s lungs did all the real work. She bounded up the wide spiral stairs ahead of the pack, calling Raine’s name. She stopped on the second floor landing, one ear cocked to the ceiling as we caught up, then raced onward to the third floor of this ugly, too-large house. We piled onto the small landing behind her, beneath a low canted ceiling. Narrow hallways and cramped doors led off in all directions, some open on unused guest bedrooms and dusty lonely storage spaces.
One high window looked out on the streets beyond, on Sharrowford’s deep-sea glow of orange street lighting and twinkling headlights in the distance. No dead cultists up here. No blood and guts, only a muffled silence.
“Raine!” Twil cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled.
“Raine, we’re here,” I croaked. “Where are you?”
We froze, listening. My heart felt like a dove trying to escape a cage.
“Heather?” a distant voice called again, trapped behind a dozen walls.
“That was her!” I said. “Did you-”
Twil stuck her nose in the air and sniffed, darting left and right for a moment, then pointed down one of the corridors. “That way!”
Tucked away in the furthest corner of thick carpet and fake gold light fixtures, at the very end of a narrow hallway meant for third rate guests, trapped behind the only locked door in the entire house, I found my girlfriend.
“Heather?” Raine’s voice projected through the thin wood as we approached. “Guys, I’m in here! Here! Heather? Twil, is that you too? I’m in here!”
Memory never works properly in these moments, rushing ahead pell-mell, forgetting to record the details, the heart-race, stomach-sick, head-rush details. By the time we reached that door, I was writhing like an impatient cat in Zheng’s arms, begging to be put down despite the inconvenient fact I’d likely just fall over.
I must have been calling to Raine, because I do recall her laughter – laughter of relief. A confident laugh, a Raine laugh.
The cultists had locked her in and misplaced the key, but had also screwed a steel bolt to the exterior of the door – to keep Raine from their throats, I like to imagine – shiny and new, probably purchased from Homebase that very morning. Neither bolt nor lock nor one of the door hinges survived first contact with Twil’s shoulder. Neither did Twil’s dignity. She crashed straight through the door and into the cramped room beyond in a shower of splinters and sprawl of surprised werewolf.
Modern housebuilding quality. No excuse.
Raine, still wearing the pajamas she’d began the day in, handcuffed to an upturned iron bed frame, ankles bound together with a length of rope, bruised on her jaw and around her left eye socket, lit up with that unmistakable irrepressible grin.
“Fashionably late to the party, hey?” she laughed.
If Zheng hadn’t stepped forward and deposited me straight into Raine’s arms, I would have scrambled free to reach her anyway, consequences to my verticality be damned.
“Heather, oh, Heather, fuck me blind, what are you even doing here?” Raine laughed, a trilling note of mania under the confidence, as she hugged me best she could with one arm and both legs restrained. “No, don’t answer that, it doesn’t matter, one hundred percent does not matter.”
Both of us were exhausted and bruised in our own ways. Neither of us had showered in well over a day, we both smelled of unwashed hair and sweat and blood. I was freezing cold inside, and Raine shook in a very un-Raine-like way. We clung hard to each other.
“Found you,” I murmured into her shoulder, choking back tears. “I found you, Raine, I found you, I found you.”
She squeezed me almost too hard to bear. “That you did. That you did, you miracle, you.”
“We sort of, you know, helped,” Twil said, as she picked herself up off the floor and dusted herself down. She squatted at Raine’s ankles and dug a claw into the rope, sawing back and forth. “Can smell you a mile away right now, you reek.”
“No kidding,” Raine laughed, still hugging me tight, her head over my shoulder as she spoke to the others. “We still in danger? This looks like an all-hands raid, with some new hands too. You all alright?”
“We are still in danger,” Evelyn said from the doorway. “But we’ve got one more task before we burn this house down.”
“And you, Evee, are awake!” Raine cheered.
“And glad you’re still breathing, yes.”
“You’ve survived worse than these half-baked fools and amateurs. Never doubted it, not for a second.” Evelyn swallowed hard, past a lump in her throat.
“Glad,” Praem intoned.
Raine laughed again and sniffed, watery-eyed with relief. “And thank you too, Praem, thank you too.” She pulled against the handcuff, clinking metal on metal. “Sooner you get me out of this the better? I feel like a fox in a snare, and it is not good, I’ll tell you that much, it ain’t a good feelin’.”
“I’m working on it,” Twil grunted. “Hold on.”
Zheng reached down for Raine’s wrist, wrapped a hand around the centre of the handcuffs, and crushed the mechanism with a crunch of metal and plastic. Raine raised her freed hand with one half of the cuffs still attached, a very unfashionable bracelet. She let out a low whistle of appreciation.
“Wish I could’a done that six hours ago,” she said, grinning at Zheng. “Always wanted to try out the criminal chic look, thanks.”
“Unsurprised?” Zheng rumbled. She stood behind me, but I swear I could feel her showing her teeth.
Zheng purred a wordless affirmative. Raine shrugged. “You walked in here carrying Heather. Right now I don’t care if you’re the ghost of Hendrix or the Pope himself. You’re in my good books, you absolute unit.”
“Typical,” Twil muttered.
“I’m with the shaman.” Zheng said it slow and low, a big cat in repose, feigning languor as she sized up another predator.
“You on our side now, or what?” Raine asked. “I’m sure there’s a story in that, but later, yeah?”
“With the shaman,” Zheng repeated.
“This is Zheng,” I said, and finally pulled back from our shared embrace so I could look at Raine. She grinned at me, big and bright and bold as brass – and bruised. The glancing blow to her chin wasn’t too bad, but the bruise around her left eye socket shined livid and purple. She’d been punched in the face. A lump grew in my throat “Oh Raine, those bruises look awful.”
“What, these? This is nothing. I got worse falling off Evee’s garden wall when I was a teenager.”
I sniffed and wiped my own eyes, afraid to touch in case it hurt her.
Raine’s grin faltered.
“Heather, I’ve never seen you this rough, and I’ve seen you in a fugue state and covered with blood.” Raine looked up at the others. “Should she even be here?”
“I have no idea how she’s still on her feet,” Evelyn said. “She’s on my pills. The hard stuff.”
“Neither flesh nor foul can stop the shaman,” Zheng purred.
“It’s a long story. Stuff happened. Lozzie’s back,” I said. “I’ll rest when you’re safe.”
Raine paused, stared at me, stared at those words. If I’d been less exhausted, I would have blushed. I hadn’t meant it to sound heroic.
“Right. Loud and clear, boss, orders received,” she said, grinning. “You look like you need a bubble bath, two thousand calories, and sixteen hours sleep, and by God I’m gonna make sure you get it.” I laughed too, small and weak, but real. Raine glanced over my shoulder. “Zheng? Cool name. Didn’t I fistfight you once?”
“You had a bat,” Zheng purred. “You fought well, monkey. Brief, but well.”
“Zheng’s on our- my side,” I said. “I freed her this morning. She saved my life. Twice.”
Raine nodded, slow and serious, and entered a strange staring contest with Zheng, a counterpoint to the demon-host’s feline stillness. “I’m on Heather’s side too,” she said after a moment. “Thank you.”
“ … you’re welcome, zuishou.”
Twil freed Raine’s ankles with a parting snikit of tearing rope fibres as her claw popped free. Raine let out a grunt of pain as she drew her knees up. “Heather, I never want to let go of you again, but I’d love to stand up now.”
“Oh, right, yes, yes,” I flustered, struggling to clamber off her until two strong hands took my waist and provided leverage, Zheng being helpful. Twil gave Raine a hand too, pulling her to her feet.
Raine rolled her shoulders and neck, worked out the kinks in stiff muscles, quickly stretched her legs and jogged four paces on the spot. She swept her hair back and shot a rakish smile at me, brimming with confidence and energy, even in sweat-soaked pajamas, even after being stuck alone and scared in a small room for hours on end with no idea what had happened to us. How did she do it? Zheng, for all her imposing height and taut feminine muscle, the way she made a currently dormant part of me tingle in unexpected ways, was nothing compared with Raine.
Raine winced and her smile broke, gritting her teeth as she probed around her bruised eye socket.
“Oh, oh Raine they didn’t hurt you, other than the bruises, did they?” I asked.
“Nah. Just sore joints. Dehydrated, hungry, bored. Been sat on my arse for like twelve hours.” She nodded to one side. “Not that he didn’t try, but he didn’t get very far.”
I followed her nod. A corpse lay crumpled against the wall of the bare little room, a stocky blunt-faced young man, the only cultist we’d found on this floor. His throat was livid with strangulation bruising, and the side of his head was caved in, hair matted with blood. I’d been so focused on Raine I hadn’t even noticed.
“Hey, hey, Heather no, don’t look, you don’t have to look,” Raine said, gentle and coaxing, and suddenly her hand slipped into mine, her other arm around my waist, taking my weight from Zheng and holding me steady on my feet. She kissed me on the forehead. “It’s alright, you don’t have to look. It’s my responsibility.”
“I’ve seen far worse today,” I sighed, melting into her arms. “One more corpse isn’t much.”
“You killed that man?” Nicole asked, peering around the doorway. She’d stayed out in the corridor to cover our retreat, though it seemed rather unnecessary at this point. “With one arm cuffed to a bed frame and your ankles tied together?”
“Yeah.” Raine shrugged, rubbing the back of my neck like I was a cat. “Shattered his windpipe, I think? Finished him with the corner of the bed frame, had to improvise.”
“ … okay then,” Nicole said. “And here I thought you were going to be the normal one.”
Raine laughed. “No such luck. Who are you, anyway?”
“Um, Nicole Webb. I’m a police detective, and I absolutely should not be here. Officially or otherwise. Are we going to stand around for much longer, or are we leaving so you lot can commit arson already?”
“Police?” Raine pulled a special grin, a why-not-throw-in-the-kitchen-sink-too grin. “We all getting arrested after this?”
“No, no I doubt I could explain this to my superiors, not without a lot of LSD.” Nicole looked at the pistol in her hands, clicked the safety on, and waved the butt at Raine. “This is yours, right? You want it back? You’re probably a better shot than me, on account of having ever pulled a trigger.”
“You know what? You keep it for now.” Raine squeezed my side. “I got my hands full.”
Nicole sighed and shook her head.
“Time to get you home,” Raine murmured to me. “Time to get all of us home, yeah?”
“ … I suppose so,” I said, and felt that guilt rising up to strangle me again. I couldn’t leave yet, could I? I’d made a promise, but now I had Raine all other concerns seemed fleeting, except getting us out of here and getting home safely. I’d forced leadership to the fore, but now I felt it receding once again. Raine was safe, and with me, and I was small and vulnerable and exhausted beyond words.
But I’d made a promise.
“Yes, well, this reunion is disgustingly sweet,” Evelyn said, adjusting her grip on Praem’s arm and suppressing a wince. Climbing all those stairs, even with support and her walking stick, had done a number on her hip and the socket for her prosthetic leg. “But I at least have one more thing to do before I can leave.”
“Evee? What?” Twil stared at her, blinking in surprise.
“Evee,” Raine said – not a question, an acknowledgement.
“The Sharrowford Cult loosed something genuinely dangerous here,” she said. “Upon themselves, yes, but I have duty to … ” she paused, swallowed, considered for a heartbeat. “Self-preservation, to make sure the remains of whatever they did here is destroyed. And I need details, because the less time I spend blundering around in this nightmare of a building, the better.”
“We,” Twil said. “We! Fuck, you’re not staying here alone!”
“T-thank you,” Evelyn said, confused for a moment, then cleared her throat. “Raine, you’ve been up here all day. What did you hear?”
“You mean all the screaming?”
“ … the screaming.”
“Yeah, screaming. At first I assumed it was you lot riding to the rescue, but after about twenty minutes it all went quiet again. That was hours ago. Except for this weird pulsing in the air, but that stopped a couple of minutes before you broke the door down.”
“Oh,” I murmured.
“The screaming. Hmm, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “Makes sense.”
“Come on, can’t we hurry this up?” Twil almost growled. “You said it yourself, less time we spend here the better. What are you looking for anyway, Evee?”
“I won’t know until I find it,” Evelyn snapped, bubbling with irritation.
“Sun was already up when I came round, tied up here,” Raine said, launching without preamble, talking fast. “Maybe an hour or two later there was a bunch of swearing downstairs, real anger, hard to miss, and these two goons turned up to make a deal with me. I’m pretty sure one of them was the new boss around here, Indian lady, called herself Sarika, but-”
“Sarika, yes,” I breathed.
“You ran into her too?” Raine asked, not missing a beat.
“ … in a manner of speaking. Later, sorry.”
“Sarika, and this other dude. I forget his name but he looked a bit like a badger. Sarika wanted to make a deal – let me go, but on the condition I lure Heather into a trap. I don’t think they figured out we sleep with each other. Bad intel or what, right?”
“Most would take the deal,” Zheng purred.
“They weren’t at all interested in me?” Evelyn said.
“Nah. Didn’t even ask about you.”
Raine shot her a grin. “What, you feel left out?”
“Don’t be absurd. No, it means their agenda was completely co-opted by the Eye. Bad sign. Continue.”
“Right, right. Well, Tweedledum and Tweedledumber buggered off, but then a while later the house started filling up with people. I heard a few cars, the front door opening and closing, lots of talk down there,” she nodded at the floor. “But nothing I could make out. Nothing useful for tracking them down now, sorry Evee.” Raine pulled an apologetic grin.
“Hardly matters anymore, does it?” Twil grimaced.
“They all died,” Evelyn said. “This house is full of corpses.”
Raine pointed a finger gun at her. “That would explain all the screaming.”
“That it would.” Evelyn sighed.
“Couple of hours later still, things get heated down there. I heard arguments, loud ones, a lot of shouting. And then this dope comes up here,” she thumbed at the corpse against the wall. “Said he was supposed to cut a finger off me, as a threat, I guess? Mafia style. He was all in a rush, like he expected to get interrupted. After I did him in, two others came to check, but they were in a hurry too, and they didn’t even care he was dead. Said they’d be back to let me go free when ‘it was all over’.”
“A schism,” Evelyn said. “I was right.”
Raine shrugged. “By that time all the activity had moved to what I guess is the rear of the house, far corner, that way-ish. Lots of chanting, long pauses, more chanting. You know, cult stuff.”
“Cult stuff,” Nicole tutted.
“Bingo,” said Evelyn.
“Then all the screaming started. Twenty minutes of bedlam. People running all over the place, some weird noises, lots of sobbing, shouting, that weird pulsing in the air, then it all just … ” She shrugged. “Died off. That was maybe three or four hours back. I took a nap, so I’m not sure. What time is it now, anyway?”
“You took a nap?” I gaped up at her, forgetting all my worries for one moment of awe.
“Why not? Couldn’t figure out a way to cut the rope. Can’t get my teeth to my ankles.”
“Rear of the house,” Evelyn echoed softly, her eyes far away. “A central ritual, the straw that broke the camel’s back. If nothing else, that’s where we start the fire, destroy whatever’s left there.”
“Broke the camel’s back?” Raine raised an eyebrow.
“The cult copied the Fractal from Heather’s arm,” Evelyn explained. “Used it to try to rebel against the Eye. It killed them all.”
Raine’s eyebrows shot into the stratosphere. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m leaning good.”
“The Sharrowford cult is dead,” said Evelyn, “Two dozen pairs of shoes by the door, but we’ve seen more than a dozen corpses. Maybe a few loyalists to the Eye refused to participate, perhaps they’re still out there, but the cult as a force is done. We’ve won, for whatever that’s worth. Doesn’t feel like much of a victory.”
“None of them deserved this,” I murmured, my voice almost breaking. “A … a trial. Sentences for … all sort of things. Not this. Not the Eye, and not … ”
Raine squeezed my hand. She didn’t get it. She wouldn’t, not unless I explained.
“Myself and Praem will go find the place they did their ritual,” Evelyn said. “Twil, you’re coming?”
“Yeah, not leaving you alone.”
“Then I suggest Raine and Heather, you get out of this house. You’re both exhausted. Nicole, you don’t have to stay unless you want, you-”
“I’m not leaving,” I said.
Evelyn closed her eyes for a moment. She sighed.
“I’m not leaving, not yet,” I repeated. “I made a promise.”
“She’s not going to thank you,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Oh no, this is mad, come on,” said Twil.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled.
“Heather?” Raine asked.
No judgement, no fear, just a question in her voice. She’d been trapped here for almost 12 hours, and I was asking her to stay longer, and Raine’s tone was filled with only curiosity and devotion. I could have cried. Instead I swallowed, and steeled myself for the task.
“There’s a survivor. Sort of,” I said. “Sarika.”
“Survivor?” Twil grimaced and spread her arms in a shrug. “She’s a fucking ghost!”
“She’s not- it’s complicated. I don’t know how to explain.” My throat felt tight, closing up on the words. “Part of her is still here. The Eye, it did something to her, she’s ruined, unanchored from space and time, I-I don’t-”
“What did you promise?” Plain, straightforward, cutting through my hesitation. How did she always do that so unerringly?
“Assisted suicide. It won’t let her go. I think I can do it for her, with … ” I tapped the side of my head.
“She left!” Twil almost yelled.
“You and Raine don’t have to stay in here any longer, that’s bonkers. Why are you even talking about this?” Twil gaped at me. “She vanished, Heather, she was taunting you, having you on.”
“I suspect she doesn’t want to die,” Evelyn said, voice tight. “As I already said, once.”
“I know. It changes nothing. Nobody deserves the Eye. Just … let me come with you, until you set the fire, in case she appears.”
Evelyn grumbled under her breath, but she nodded.
“Can’t you just pick her up and carry her out of here?” Twil asked Zheng. The demon-host shrugged.
“I’m with the shaman.”
“Detective,” Twil turned to Nicole. “You’re meant to be sensible, right?”
Nicole glanced between me and Twil. She looked down at the gun in her hand and shrugged. “This is the most real thing I’ve done in years. I’m staying till the end.”
Raine squeezed my hand again. “Where you go, I go. It’s only another five minutes, after all.”
I nodded, thankful, sniffing back the threat of tears. “I made a promise. That matters.”
“Promise,” Praem repeated.
We discovered the site of the Sharrowford Cult’s final ritual exactly where Raine estimated we would, at the rear of the house, on the opposite side to the main stairs.
The journey took no more than three or four minutes. Without the pursuing terror of Sarika’s presence, the house had descended into a twilight realm of furtive rustles and dragging footsteps. The cult’s hollowed-out zombies tracked us from a safe distance, from behind the walls, the only evidence of them an occasional gibber or giggle echoing down a forlorn hallway, a counterpoint to the slick meat sounds of the bizarre flesh amalgamations flopping and twitching in the corners.
Half of me was flying high. I’d done it, I’d rescued Raine, and nothing was going to take her from me now, not surrounded by allies and friends.
The other half of me was locked in a paralysis of duty and dread.
I paused to call out her name three times into the ocean-floor stillness of the house. Raine waited each time as I clung to her side, more for emotional than physical support. She listened with me, all the others tense with baited breath.
“Sarika, I can help!”
If Sarika heard me, she declined to answer.
But when we reached the conjectured place of the cult’s terminal working, I forgot my haze of guilt and elation. That room served as a dash of ice water to the face.
Twil got there first and faltered at the edge of the thick white carpet, gagging at the smell and holding her nose. Nicole was next, and violently ill, adding to the existing mess on the floor. By the time Raine and I passed through the propped-open double doors, the detective was already wiping bile off her lips. Evelyn stared hard, her natural distaste for violence and gore suppressed only by her outrage.
Praem tried to hang back. Evelyn’s need for support pulled her on.
So did Zheng.
Zheng, one eye half-squinted with tension, reluctant to pass the threshold, kept well clear of the epicentre.
That, more than anything else, more than the actual sight of ground zero for the cult’s destruction, more than the twisted mockery we found there, set all the little hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
The room was intended for parties.
The largest single space in the house, the ceiling was double the height of all the others by virtue of extension onto the second story. Thick white carpet covered one half of the floor, hardwood the other. Several long low tables stood by for drinks or snacks, a wine rack and spirit collection proud behind a bar made of expensive dark wood. Fancy upholstered bar stools and leather sofas and armchairs pointed at a truly gargantuan television inset into the far wall, and a sound system lurked discreetly in a corner behind some faux-brick nonsense.
Thick curtains covered the whole of one wall, hiding French doors that would open onto a patio and the back garden, for barbecues in the summer. It even had a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, a ghastly upside-down crenellation of glass and stainless steel.
Raine didn’t say a word. She must have felt the horror and disgust in my muscles, in the hitch of my breathing.
“Tell me that person over there is not still alive,” Nicole managed to say. She put a hand to her mouth, trying not to vomit again.
Magical detritus littered the low tables and the top of the bar – knives, pieces of drawing charcoal, red paint, odd twists of machine part and scraps of half-finished diagram, even a small stack of books, one of them lying open on blood-flecked pages – but I got the impression this was the first time the cult had used this space for magic. Coats and handbags lay over the backs of the sofas, a single discarded scarf trailed off a bar stool, half-finished drinks lay all around.
They’d commandeered the nearest suitable place, gathered quickly, thrown together whatever they could.
“What the hell did they think they were doing with this?” Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth. “Idiots. No better than a … a- a cargo cult! What the hell did they think it was going to do?!”
She meant, of course, the Fractal.
They’d drawn it on a dozen full-length mirrors, and pointed them into the centre of a magic circle, itself cut into the wooden half of the floor with a chisel and hammer, rough and jagged. The circle lay inert. Didn’t hurt to look at – probably because so much of it was obscured by blood and viscera.
Several cultists had died here, exploded or detonated, cooked from the inside. Three, four, five, six? It was impossible to tell. I didn’t want to count. The air reeked of spoilt meat and drying blood.
“Negotiation,” Zheng said.
“What?” Evelyn snapped.
Zheng pointed a finger at the magic circle with its ring of mirrors – at the wet, glistening, twitching mass in the centre. “Negotiation, with Laoyeh. That is a mouthpiece.”
“What do we- uh … what do we do about him?” Twil asked.
“Nobody. Touch. Anything,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “Not a dust mote, not a breath. Twil, do you remember where you left that can of paint?”
“Yeah, yeah I think I do,” Twil nodded.
“Get it – and the petrol we left by the front door. Be quick. Quick, and do not get lost, don’t you dare get lost.”
Twil took off back down the corridor, all scrambling limbs.
“We’ve already all looked at it,” I murmured, my brain trying to solve the one problem I could grasp, while I ignored the impossible one, the one that lay in the middle of the magic circle quivering and twitching. “It can’t be-”
“Dangerous?” Evelyn snapped. “Everything here is dangerous. This all needs to be soaked with petrol and burned.”
The Eye stared at us from the back wall – in black paint, floor-to-ceiling, angular and simple but utterly unmistakable. The cultists had painted it so the television served as a pupil, tilted to point down at the centre of the magic circle. Tuned to a dead channel, static on the screen.
Considering what we’d learnt from Glasswick tower, nobody was in a hurry to interrupt its line of sight.
“Because of him,” Evelyn said.
“God, I wish he would stop making that noise,” Nicole said. “Why is he making that noise?”
Splayed in the centre of the magic circle like a flayed dissection specimen, at the point of focus for the Eye-mural and the Fractals on the mirrors, something that had once been a human being mewled and gurgled.
Words don’t do it justice. How can I capture atrocity in this inadequate human language? I can’t. I can tell you it was a thick ring of meat, muscle, nerve and bone. I could say there was a suggestion of breathing, a fluttering of exposed lungs. I could recognise what was left of a head, a flapping mouth, rolling eyes. Scraps of dark hair clung to it at odd angles. I could tell you about the tentacles of flesh that anchored it to the floor. I could tell you these things, but none of them can summon the awful liveliness of that ruined thing, the flexing and tensing, the way the eyes turned to regard us, blind and unseeing. The wet, weeping muscle. The drooling.
The Eye had modified the offering, like clay. We called it a ‘he’, but in truth such identification was impossible.
Was this Sarika’s body?
In the middle of the ring of flesh, there was a gap. Not an orifice – a gap in space, filled by a perfectly flat surface of darkness, like a still pool of oil no wider than my palm.
“Can we do something for him?” Raine murmured. She was the only one, except for Praem, who didn’t avert her eyes.
“There is nothing in magical technique or medical science that can be done here,” Evelyn said. “None of you understand what we’re looking at. I assumed the cult loosed something awful, and we might need to … switch it off. Rub out some lines, send something back. Well, this is about the worst possible thing I could imagine. I think that is a gateway, made from … ” Evelyn swallowed. “The Eye must be building it. Widening it. You remember what it did with that so-called one way window in the medieval metaphysics room? Well, that’s a full-on gateway. That is the most dangerous thing any of us have ever seen. It needs to be burned.”
“That’s not what I mean, Evee, and you know it,” Raine said.
“I promised,” I blurted out. “I promised I would. What if it’s her?”
Evelyn opened her mouth to snap something, then slammed to a stop. She hesitated and swallowed. “Wait for Twil. We need to cover that stupid drawing with paint, then … Praem can do it. Or-”
“Refusal,” Praem intoned.
“Wise demon,” Zheng purred. “Neither her or I are fools enough to get near that hole. Shaman, step back.”
“Zheng, I made a promise.”
The demon-host purred her displeasure. She could bottle it up for all I cared, not now.
“Hey, Nicole,” Raine said, and held out a hand. “I’ll have my pistol back, please.”
“Ah? Oh, right.”
Twil returned a moment later, tin of white paint in one hand, the petrol can sloshing in the other. Praem took the petrol. Twil readied the paint.
“Edge around by the bar, carefully,” Evelyn instructed. “Do not touch a single thing. And make sure you cover the pupil, at the very least.”
We all held our breath as Twil crept along the edge of the room, bristling and wide-eyed. She sidled up close to the Eye-mural until Evelyn hissed for her to stop. Twil uncapped the paint, wound up a one-arm swing, and splattered the mural with a layer of white emulsion, blotting out the static on the television.
“Did it work?” Twil stage-whispered a moment later.
“It’s the best we can do. The occlusion should ruin any effect it’s meant to have,” Evelyn said. “Grab those books on the bar on your way back, you’re closest. Praem, get that petrol open, now.”
“You want to look away, or … ?” Raine asked me softly. She disentangled her arm from me so she could use both hands, and I clung to her side. “I can pass you off to Zheng, step forward and do it myself.”
“No. I need to see.”
“You don’t have to-”
“What if it’s her? I promised.”
Raine nodded. Quickly, cleanly, she slid the clip out of the handgun to check the bullets, slid it back in, cocked the slide, clicked the safety off, and levelled it at the mewling thing in the circle, at what had once been a head, a skull, a brain.
“Are you sure that’s gonna make any difference?” Twil grimaced, already hurrying back with an armful of books for Evelyn.
“Better than burning to death.” Raine sighed.
“People are going to hear that for a mile around,” Nicole raised her voice. “As soon as you do that, we have to get moving.”
“Praem, petrol,” Evelyn repeated.
“Do it. Please,” I whispered.
Raine pulled the trigger once. That was all it took. I almost envied her clarity.
The thing in the circle jerked as if struck by electricity, then went quiet and still. The oil-black portal at its centre shrunk instantly and vanished in on itself, folding up into nothing.
And I won’t even leave a fucking corpse, Sarika’s words echoed in my memory.
“ … what if it wasn’t her?” I asked in a whisper that nobody heard.
But events outpaced my doubt. Everyone moved at once. Twil dumped the cult’s pilfered occult tomes into Evelyn’s arms and helped her toward the door, while Praem stepped forward to douse the horrible corpse with stinking gasoline, splashing it over the carpet and furniture, smashing the mirrors with the backside of the can. Nicole slunk toward the door, nothing left for any of us to do here. Raine tucked the pistol into the waistband of her pajamas and tried to lead me out.
“What if it wasn’t her?” I asked, a hysterical catch in my throat.
“Heather, it must have been.”
“Shaman,” Zheng purred, a warning note in her voice. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she scooped me up right there. The sight of the gateway had changed her mind about going where I go.
“I made a promise. Raine, I made a promise.”
“And you did all you could. You heard Evee, this place has to be burned, and after that freaky thing, I’m down for a spot of arson too.”
“You’ve tried calling for her. If she won’t come to you, that’s her decision.”
“But … but nobody deserves the Eye. Raine, I can’t leave- even an enemy, I can’t leave a person like that.” I turned back to the room. “Sarika!”
No reply. No Sarika.
Praem dumped the empty can on the floor and pulled out a box of matches. The air reeked of petrol fumes.
“We’re out of time,” Evelyn said from the doorway. “Praem, wait until we’re at the door. We’ll shout, then you light it and sprint, you understand? Don’t get caught in it. You’re faster than us.”
“Understand,” Praem intoned, passing us on the way to obey her mistress.
“Heather, come on,” Raine pleaded.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled from behind me. Raine squeezed my hand. Time to move. Time to give up.
“ … alright,” I squeezed out. “I’m sorry.”
Praem stood on the edge of the carpet, squelching and soggy with petrol. She raised an unlit match in one hand. Raine helped me past her, out of the door where Zheng joined us.
“Straight shot to the front door,” Twil said as we joined them. “Do we wanna like, call the fire brigade once we’re out?”
Evelyn gave her the look of all looks, the one that said Twil, you are truly an idiot.
“Alright, I just thought, you know?” Twil shrugged. “Like, don’t let it spread and-”
Reality winced. My head pounded with a rush of blood.
Howling like a banshee crossed with a storm, screaming the contempt and rage of the wronged, Sarika burst into iridescent static right in our midst.
“- don’t get to be sorry!” she was howling, a half-sentence cut off by a flicker of jagged motion. “You don’t get forgiven! You don’t get to leave while I don’t even rot!”
Her form smeared and blurred into static as she shouted in my face. No space to get my left arm up, to block the Eye with the Fractal. Somebody screamed. Somebody else vomited with the sudden unrestrained pressure.
Somebody shoved me out of the way.
Raine raised her handgun in a uselessly heroic gesture, and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered Sarika’s head in a neat little red wound, and did nothing.
“Oh right, ghost,” I heard Raine say.
“You don’t get to win, and you don’t get your satisfaction! You get nothing!” Sarika howled. In the last split-second before the Eye’s signal exploded her into static, she whipped out a hand to engulf Raine’s head in her decohering mass.
At the speed of thought, I acted.
I had to kill Sarika. I had to use my brain and hyperdimensional mathematics to define what was left of her and scrub it from reality. Deny the Eye the vector, before the signal came through and reduced us all to screaming apes, before Sarika killed Raine.
Had to do it.
Only in the frozen point of time, my brain already burning with molten pieces of hyperdimensional equations, did I finally realise why I had hesitated the first time.
How could I hope to save my twin sister from the heart of the Eye, if I couldn’t tear an enemy from its outer rim?
Sarika was going to live, because it was necessary to me that she did.
To define her in full, I had to define what she was not. I had to define the barbed tentacles that trapped what remained of her soul, I had to grasp this faintest sliver of the Eye’s probing consciousness, see it in hyperdimensional mathematics – so I did, and the first brush nearly killed me.
Layer upon layer of fractal equation of infinite complexity, unfolding in all dimensions, forever.
We called it an alien God, but that was a turn of phrase, linguistic shorthand. For the first time, staring at this tiny scrap of it, defined in the language of reality itself, I knew the Eye was a God. Infinitely more complex than I, in the way I was more complex than an ant. I had to fight its most remote outer rim – a casual glance, a trailing thought, a single whisker – tooth and nail, with everything I had, just to tread water, and it wasn’t even aware of me.
I was bashing two rocks together in a cave, and that thing was a raging nuclear fire at the centre of a star.
To grasp Sarika and rip her free from that barbed surface was an impossible task. The required mathematics would cook my nervous system and turn my digestive tract inside out. I could see the route, the handholds, the gaps, but I would die before I got there. What was the point?
What was the point, little ape?
I was dimly aware of that ape, of Heather, curled up on the floor and vomiting herself empty, bleeding from nose and eyes, shaking and quivering and paused in a point of stopped time as she cried out a name.
Raine’s name. Raine, head half-engulfed by static, trying to aim her pistol again through the pounding cranial pressure. The others held in freeze-frame as I calculated math across reality itself. Zheng, buckling under the Eye’s mounting attention. Twil and Evelyn, my friends, caught in the act of turning to look back in horror. Nicole, another monkey I barely knew, telling herself not to flee. Praem, not an ape at all but wood and demon and love, about to light a match.
All of us were about to die, one way or another, unless I could do one impossible thing.
Is that me down there, that quivering ape? Am I that brain? The emergent processes created by that brain?
The process – the math – didn’t truly rely on the neuron soup in my skull. I could bootstrap myself beyond squishy vulnerable meat, do the equations on the air where there were no nerve endings to feel pain. All I had to do was reach out and go there.
Earlier that day I’d used brainmath to locate Raine, but I’d pulled back at this same threshold. I’d returned to my body because I wanted to feel touch again, I wanted to hug Raine. But if I went back now, we’d all die.
Hyperdimensional mathematics beckoned from the black pit in my subconscious, beyond the limits of my body, teased me to forget I was a scrawny little monkey on a revolving ball of dirt. To forget how to be me.
I drank deep from the Eye’s forgotten lessons, because I would never, ever beat this thing – never rescue my sister – without becoming a just little bit like it.
I pushed over the final boundary of pain and disgust and shuddering revulsion, and plunged into the abyss.