Harold Yuleson, portly and rat-like, stood for a moment with his chin raised and his fingertips tucked into the lapels of his coat, looking off into the middle distance like a painting of some pompous 19th century general.
“ … a lawyer,” Evelyn deadpanned.
“An exceptionally good one,” his assistant, Julian, put in.
“Why, thank you, Julian,” Yuleson said. “Your confidence in me is most appreciated.”
“It does- does make- sense,” I said.
I had to force the words out, unclench my teeth with an effort of will. Anticlimax gnawed at the base of my stomach. This was wrong, not meant to be like this, not supposed to go this way.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Twil’s father agreed. Of all the Hoptons, he appeared the least surprised by this turn of events, nodding and folding his arms, making a thoughtful ‘hmmm’ noise as he frowned at Yuleson. Amanda looked out of her depth, uncertain of which way to turn her big blinking manic eyes, gripping her dog’s leash in a tight fist. Poor Benjamin’s frown would have given a Neanderthal a run for his money.
“Does it?” Twil squinted in utter confusion. “What the hell’s the point of a lawyer?”
“To talk,” her dad replied.
Raine was the only one who didn’t react, not to Yuleson. She stared at Stack, and Stack stared back.
“No,” Evelyn spat. “No it doesn’t make sense. What does law mean to magicians? Every person here is technically a criminal, even the bloody police officer. You’re about as useful as tits on a fish.”
Yuleson blinked like a startled vole, shocked out of his satisfaction, and crashed back down to earth with a hemming and hawing. “Ahem, well, well, that judgement, my dear young lady, is entirely subjective. Transferable skills, you see, transferable skills. I am not here to practice law as such, but negotiation, diplomacy. Who better to grease the wheels than one who understands the nuances of compromise? Furthermore, as I am not directly involved, I have no stake in your, shall we say, special interests?”
He smiled an oily smile, opened his hands in a placatory gesture, and I felt the most unaccountable urge to hiss at him.
The sensation clawed up my throat, irresistible animal instinct.
I was so shocked I almost choked on my own saliva in an effort to hold back. A wet cough into my own mouth drew a concerned flicker from Raine, but I shook my head and waved her off. Panic settled in my chest – hissing at a lawyer would get us nowhere, it was utterly inappropriate, straight from the imagination of a play-acting twelve year old.
The frustration was valid though. Where was Edward Lilburne? He was supposed to answer my accusations, account for the actions of the cult.
Instead, he’d sent this tubby rat-man.
“Don’t let his front fool you,” Nicole said. “And don’t agree to anything too fast. He’s good at this, the sneaky little bastard. This man is a master of irritating verbal misdirection.”
Yuleson sketched a head-bob bow at Nicole, as if accepting a compliment. He clasped his hands together and beamed at us. “Well, ladies and gentlemen and others, are we all satisfied that we’re going to-”
I bristled, felt it in the little hairs on the back of my neck and the skin up my spine, sat up as if struck by lightning. Stared at Amy Stack.
Another inappropriate urge gripped my muscles in a pulse of adrenaline, and this one was plainly insane – my body wanted to leap the table and tackle her, attack her. My body was convinced I was faster, that I had a dozen barbed and hooked tentacles to drag out her eyes and lash her skin apart. I took a shuddering breath as she slowly turned her eyes from Raine to me. Raine tensed as well, read my change in posture and mirrored my readiness.
“Heather?” Raine asked.
Stack kept her hands visible, on the tabletop. No excuse for violence.
“If this is a … ” I swallowed, my mouth dry. “If this is misdirection, while Edward snatches Lozzie-”
“It’s not,” Stack said. “Calm down.”
My body screamed fight. Kill her. I knew I couldn’t, this was absurd, this reaction made no sense.
“Ahhh yes, yes.” Yuleson lit up like a department store Father Christmas made of rats. “Miss Lauren Lilburne is, in fact, one of the issues which Edward wishes to put on the table here today. The matter of this wayward young girl does need settling, yes?”
“I don’t think she’s lying,” Raine murmured as she studied Stack’s face. Stack blinked, said nothing, stared at me in cold silence.
We’d left Lozzie as safe as possible, wrapped up in bed and fast asleep. The doors were locked, the spider-servitors lay in wait, Evelyn had refreshed the older wards. Anybody who wanted to kidnap her would need to fight all the way from the door, upstairs, and into Lozzie’s bedroom. Snatching an unconscious Raine from the front room in a mad suicidal dash, that was one thing; getting all that way past the Spiders would be much more difficult.
A rational response would be to turn to Twil, ask her to make use of her speed, run home to check on Lozzie. Or pull out my mobile phone and call, call the house, make sure she was safe, even though I knew she’d sleep through the ringing. A sensible, human response would be to figure out the logic or motivation behind a lie, and execute a counter-play.
I didn’t feel any of that. I wanted to leap onto the table and scream and pull Stack’s face off.
I wanted to speak the trigger word for Evelyn’s trap, let it loose, and run back home.
Instead I swallowed hard, forced myself to nod, tried to be human. Raine put one hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
“Yes, yes, this is all above-board and legitimate,” Yuleson said. “You have my personal promise, miss Morell, my personal guarantee, this is not a trick, or a trap. Edward is fully aware that you are as much a player in this negotiation as miss Saye here, and also aware that any attempts to, ahem, prematurely reunite with his niece would be most unwisely-”
“Sit down,” Evelyn snapped.
Yuleson jumped at the whip crack of her voice and all but fell into his seat. In a display of vast disdain, Evelyn then ignored him. She turned in her seat to deliver another walking-stick whack to the rustling sports bag, a satisfying thwack of wood on taught fabric. Over on the other table, Benjamin stifled an appreciative laugh.
“Yes, yes, quite, quite,” Yuleson said. “Shall we begin properly then? I take it there are no further objections to these arrangements, or my presence?”
Evelyn gave him a look to fell an elephant. “This is a waste of time. You are a waste of time.”
Raine shrugged in eloquent silence. The Hoptons murmured cautious assent, though Amanda seemed more concerned with petting Bernard’s head; perhaps that’s how she dealt with stress. Twil looked most uncomfortable, like she wanted to bear her teeth and solve this the easy way.
“I object on account that you’re a massive cunt,” Nicole muttered, but then undercut herself by draining the rest of her beer.
I struggled to fold myself away.
Whatever we’d outwardly convinced each other of, my subconscious had prepared for a fight. My body thrummed with inappropriate desires to intimidate, to make myself big, to snap jaws I didn’t have. Useless, against this kind of threat. Useless anyway, from scrawny little Heather. I couldn’t scare anybody, not that way.
“I think we can talk,” I made myself say, forced the words up my reluctant throat.
“Hold up a ‘sec,” Raine said. “You’re a lawyer, sure, let’s believe that for now.” She shrugged, an easy smirk on her lips – and turned to Julian, sitting there with his smart suit and his reasonable face and neat hair. “But who are you negotiating for?”
“Yeah. You. Come on, fess up, we all heard that earlier – apprentice. Apprentice to what?”
Julian’s smile turned ironic again, amused by a private joke. “As was stated before, I am mister Yuleson’s assistant in matters of law.” He paused, as if watching to see how well we bought this. He spoke carefully but without any softening of his north London accent, perhaps proud of working-class roots, all broad vowels and glottal stops. “And yes, in addition, I am mister Lilburne’s pupil in matters of magic.”
“Thanks for making it easy.” Raine winked and pointed a finger-gun at him.
“Of course they wouldn’t come without a mage,” Evelyn said.
Julian dipped his head. “A minor practitioner. I am nothing important, miss.”
“But Eddy-boy is, right?” Raine asked. “You, baldie, and a lawyer? That’s it? Come off, it, how many of you are there? What you calling yourselves now? The running away coward cult? Little scared bitch cult?”
“Mister Lilburne doesn’t much like the word ‘cult’,” Julian said. “Silly idea, anyway. We’re ‘is associates. There is no bond of duty, no mystical obligations, no ‘mumbo-jumbo’. None ‘o that.”
“Praem,” Evelyn said. “He does something funny, break his neck.”
“Hey, hey, hey.” Nicole sat up. “In public?”
“As if I care,” Evelyn grunted.
“Yes,” Praem intoned.
Julian spread his hands. Mild and reasonable, his mannerisms made my skin crawl, like he was made out of borrowed gestures and hijacked muscle impulses. “That won’t be necessary. I’m not here to do anything’ but talk.”
“Then we’re all equal, are we not?” Christine Hopton asked. “Between Evelyn, Amanda, and Julian, each side represented here has brought a magician, of a sort,” she added with a glance toward Amanda. “This changes nothing. We have Twil, Evelyn has her friend there,” she indicated Praem, “and you people have … well … ” She tried to smile at Stack, but even the ever-motherly Christine found that hard to maintain when Stack looked back at her.
“No,” Amanda breathed. Her gaze lingered on me. “No, we’re not equal here.”
Glances lingered on me. Julian raised his eyebrows in silent question. Raine adjusted her posture, radiated protectiveness.
“Heather is the most dangerous thing here, by a long shot, yes,” Evelyn said.
“Evee, don’t,” I hissed.
Evelyn glanced at me, appreciative and thankful, for something I couldn’t control. I felt my skin crawl.
“Ahem-ahem,” Yuleson cleared his throat with purpose. “If the matter of – ahem – peacocking and hierarchy-establishment has been quite concluded for now, what say we begin?”
“Begin what?” Evelyn spat. “What is there to talk about? We won, you lost. Why shouldn’t I kill you all right now?”
“Evee, please,” I forced myself to say, even as my body agreed, yes, kill them all now. Evelyn huffed.
“What does my client want to discuss? It is simplicity itself, I promise you.” Yuleson drew himself up, settling into his element. He clasped his hands together on the table. “My client – that is, mister Edward Lilburne – wishes to reside in his own home again, rather than relying on the goodwill and charity of his fellows. He would like to walk the streets of Sharrowford once more, the city he was born in, in which he has lived all but five of his sixty-six years of age. He desires not to worry about being assaulted, or killed, or have his home invaded, magically or otherwise. Put simply, he wishes to make peace, officially and truly and without reservation.”
As he spoke, Harold Yuleson’s eyes moved over everyone present, included every single person at both tables, even Praem and the grumpy, sulking Benjamin. Even Amanda’s dog. The trick was obvious, but it worked; I felt included, appealed to. He fed us images and possibilities, issues on which our minds were ready to chew. Nicole had spoken the truth – he was very good at this.
The rat-like looks and hyperactive chattering served to disarm one’s mind against him, file him away as an oddity or a cliche, so when the oration came, one was wholly unprepared.
That wasn’t an unreasonable starting position, I told myself. We could talk.
“Fuck him and fuck you,” Evelyn said. I could have kissed her.
“Now slow down, miss Saye, please,” Michael Hopton said, one hand out. “I do want to hear what he has to say.”
“How can we trust any agreement made here today?” Evelyn said. “This vermin still hides from me. Won’t show his face, won’t put himself in danger. We’ve taken that risk, he’s avoided it. Coward.”
“Yes,” Stack said. “He is a coward.”
“Lost our shot at him,” I hissed, thinking of the trap.
“Ahh.” Yuleson raised a finger. “But have you really taken that risk? The threat is not equally shared, no no, hardly at all.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Evelyn asked.
“Why, my client has never directly struck at you. He has been a bystander, part of a larger organisation, yes, a reluctant partner to his … impulsive nephew. Meanwhile, you young ladies have quite expertly dismantled what was left of the, tch, ‘brotherhood’. I believe only one known member is left alive, is that not correct, detective? She is in hospital after her run-in with these young women?”
“Um, yes,” Nicole answered.
“Then my argument is made for me. You ladies are far more dangerous than my client. How can you blame him for being afraid for his life, when you have taken so many?”
“It wasn’t us,” Evelyn said.
“The house on Barrend Road, the dead cultists. Wasn’t us. They did it to themselves.”
“Yeah, it was fucking weird in there,” Twil grunted.
Yuleson blinked, frowning and smiling at the same time in polite disbelief. Julian had a funny look on his face too, incredulous puzzlement. It hit me, and I leaned over to Evelyn.
“They don’t know about the Eye,” I whispered to her. “Not in the way Alexander did.”
“I can testify for them on that,” Nicole said with a heavy sigh. “They didn’t kill anybody in that house. It was – pardon the cliche – like that when we got there.”
“It’s irrelevant, anyway,” Julian said. He gestured at the sports bag next to Evelyn. “You’ve laid a trap. That much’s obvious. Edward was quite right not to come, wasn’t he? Only thing stoppin’ you from springin’ it is that you won’t get ‘im.”
“Ruthless and resourceful!” Yuleson announced. “I admire you young ladies, I do indeed. Now, if we can put the matter of trust to one side for a-”
“Why should I let him back into Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked. “This is my city, these people lost. They lost when we got rid of Alexander. This question was settled months ago. This city is mine.”
“Because you don’t ‘ave any other choice,” Julian said.
“Ah, ah!” Yuleson placed a raised finger between Julian and Evelyn before either of them could speak another word. “What have I told you, Julian? You make facts sound like ultimatums. Threats will get us nowhere, will they now? Not with our-”
“Please drop the act,” I said, my chest and stomach almost shaking with the effort of holding back an inhuman hiss. They both looked at me. So did Evelyn, a quizzical raised eyebrow. Only Raine took my lead, nodded along. “That was pre-arranged, wasn’t it? It’s obvious, at least it is to me. You’re going to try a good-cop bad-cop routine.” I sighed, rolled my eyes.
“Oh, no no no,” Yuleson flustered. “We are most certainly not, we-”
“Make your threats, get it over with,” Evelyn growled.
“Yeah,” Michael Hopton added from the other table. “That was sort of obvious, come on.”
“Get on,” Praem intoned.
Yuleson sighed uncomfortably. Julian shrugged. “Looks like we’re rumbled, sir.”
“Rumbled, pish posh. Miss Saye, miss Morell, what my assistant is trying to express is that peace is not a matter of choice, not for any of us. It is a necessity. The – ahem – ‘brotherhood of the new sun’ was a dominant power in Sharrowford for a long time, nearly five decades, in one guise or another. You have indeed emerged victorious, after the recent unpleasantness, whatever the cause. My client is not a fool – he does not wish himself, his pupils, his associates, and his research, to end up like those poor unfortunates in Barrend Road. You have quite demonstrated your ability to remove your opposition.”
“S’one thing we’re real good at,” Raine said, directly to Stack.
“And now the so-called ‘cult’,” Yuleson made little air-quote gestures around the word, “is gone, it’s inheritors have removed themselves from Sharrowford for the sake of their own safety, and what is left behind? A power vac-”
“Me,” Evelyn snapped. “There is no power vacuum here. There’s me.”
“Yes, yes, you indeed. And I am quite certain you are more than capable of making life very difficult for my client.” He paused, lowered his voice, a theatrical trick that worked regardless. “But do you know what you cannot do?”
He let the question hang with po-faced seriousness. Evelyn frowned at him.
“She can do anything she wants, you fat old fuck,” Twil growled – actually growled, low in her throat, and Yuleson jumped like a startled hamster, one hand to his chest as if to suppress coronary distress. My body twitched, wanted to hiss along with her. “Anything she likes. She’s got me behind her, hasn’t she?”
“Ah, well, yes, yes she has.” Yuleson waggled a finger at Twil, then quickly withdrew it as if afraid of losing a digit to her teeth. “But can you – fast and cunning and strong though you may be – can you be everywhere at once?”
“Vultures will be here soon,” Julian said. “You know that as well as we do.”
“Mm,” Stack grunted.
“Quite, quite!” Yuleson forged ahead at full speed once more, doing his wide-ranging include-everybody trick again. “Some have already arrived. My client knows for a fact that at least one magician from beyond Sharrowford has been in the city as recently as last week. Something has taken up residence in the basement of Gloston Cathedral, out to the east, and must be removed post-haste. Two members of a group known to us were spotted purchasing certain items from a local ‘occult’ shop, probably nonsense,” he waved a hand, “but you can never be sure, can you? These issues will only pile up. And you, well, you are only three – four?” He quirked a bushy eyebrow at Praem. “Four young ladies, are you not?”
“Watch yourself,” Raine warned with a grin.
“Quite remarkable young women, of course, indeed, accepted. I myself would certainly not want to cross you. But there are only four of you.”
“Six,” Evelyn corrected. Who was she counting? Lozzie and Kimberly? “And a police officer. And- and them,” she nodded sideways at the Hoptons.
“Steady on,” Michael Hopton said.
“Why? Makes more sense than this, doesn’t it?” Evelyn asked him. “A deal between you and I, to keep them out.”
He thought of a second, then nodded slowly. “I suppose so, maybe.”
“Six then,” Yuleson admitted. “That is still a scant number, and only one real magician between you? I understand you are all university students, yes? University presents challenges of its own, it-”
“No,” Praem intoned. Raine smirked and Evelyn snorted. Technically not a lie, not from Praem.
“Well, education or not, you all have you lives to live regardless. Your own … goals and aims, do you not?”
He spoke those last words to me, with a sick smile. I went cold, shivering inside my coat. How much did this rat know? Did he know about Maisie? I bristled again, swallowed down my inappropriate, animal responses and readied a denial instead, but Yuleson was already turning away, left me floundering in my own choked anger.
“Besides, you are all close friends,” he continued. “My client has no desire to visit violence upon your loved ones, upon reasonable people, the trauma would be too much to bear, especially at your age,” he said straight to Raine. She looked him in the eye, hard and taut. Yuleson had to look away, but he’d made his point. “And you speak of our friends at the Church,” he said to the Hoptons, “as if they are wedded to your decisions. I understand they are not exactly interested in expanding their influence into the city, am I correct?”
The Hopton triumvirate all glanced at each other. Amanda seemed to think for a moment, then nodded once. “Yeah,” Michael said slowly. “Yeah, we don’t want to babysit Sharrowford.”
“But, but!” Yuleson raised a finger. “You are affected by what happens here, yes? Intimately!”
“We are, very much so,” Christine Hopton said, her tone guarded and soft. “We would like to resume normality, not worry about being harassed again.”
“Indeed! Of course, of course. And I understand your prodigal daughter here is suffering- ah, split loyalties?” Yuleson smiled an oily smile at Twil. She sat up and bared her teeth at him.
“What the fuck does that mean?” she growled. Yuleson tittered and waggled his hands in surrender and I wanted to slap him.
“Why, it means that any agreement we hammer out here today might also go some way to solving related personal issues, no?”
“Yeah, how about no,” said Twil.
“Ahem, ahem, well, my point is this – between us, we represent three reasonable, sensible, rational interested parties, all of whom wish for a measure of peace and security.”
“What do I represent then?” Nicole asked. “The civilian bloody government?”
“Are you not here in an advisory capacity, officer? A sort of … chaperon, to make sure nobody pulls a knife on each other, yes?”
“Suppose so.” Nicole frowned.
“Ahem, well. None of us can cover Sharrowford on our own, certainly not if we’re at each other’s throats. But, with an agreement to stop attempting to turn each other into frogs or blow each other up or set zombies on each other, we can make sure that Sharrowford stays … quiet. Quieter than lately, at least.” He tittered again, a chattering rodent-laugh.
“Man’s got a point,” Nicole said. “You’re not rival drug gangs trying to muscle in on turf. But think about what he’s selling you here, and why.”
“Why?” Yule pulled a hurt and offended face. “Why, officer, I am not selling anything. I am attempting to the best of meagre abilities to bring this conflict to an end.”
“What’s your retainer?” she asked.
“Don’t be silly, you know I’m not at liberty to discuss financial matters.”
“Forgive me,” Evelyn drawled, dripping with sarcasm. “A little hard to believe any of this, from the people who planned to murder me in my sleep.”
“Circumstances change, priorities change,” Yuleson said. “This is your best chance to ensure that doesn’t happen again, can’t happen again, wouldn’t even be an option on the table, unthinkable. And I think we can all agree that sleeping soundly is very important.”
I hated that he made sense.
He was right – if he spoke truth; a loading bearing if.
I did need Sharrowford to be quieter. I did need to live my life – because my life right now consisted of the desire to rescue my sister. I needed space and time, and no more interruptions. Tongue-tied and intellectually constipated, I’d come here with a head full of ideas and a nervous system full of tension and the expectation of violence, ready for a confrontation with a monster, accusations to throw in his face, promises to extract. All my resolve meant nothing now. I felt browbeaten and wrong-footed.
Abyssal bodily dysmorphia told me I was supposed to be fast, nimble, to slip and slide through the waves, untouched and untouchable. The way this man talked made me feel pinned, cornered. I needed to retreat, gather myself before I agreed to anything.
“I don’t like this,” I almost hissed. “I’m not comfortable with this.”
“We’re being led up the garden path,” Raine said.
“But he’s right,” I finished. Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. Couldn’t look her in the face.
“Please,” Yuleson said. “Take time to think through the basic proposal, talk it over with each other. We can absent ourselves from the table, give you some space if you like. This is only the preliminary stage, we have specifics to propose, issues to address and-”
“You don’t think I can look after Sharrowford by myself?” Evelyn asked, darkly unimpressed. She indicated Praem with the head of her walking stick. “What do you think she is? Do you think I can’t summon another dozen of her? You know who my mother was, don’t you?” She addressed the last question to Julian, but Yuleson answered.
“Oh, I’m certain you can, I’m certain you can,” he said. “But the real question is – do you want to? The, um, young lady you refer to, I’m certain she is a handful all by herself, no? Do you really wish to dedicate your life to raising and shepherding a dozen, two dozen more? If your resolve is really that strong, miss Saye, I’m afraid we would have to give Sharrowford over to you, yes, yes, wouldn’t we, Julian?”
“Certainly,” said Julian, though he bobbed his head from one side to the other in a curious gesture of denial.
Evelyn’s bluff did not convince, not even me. I knew she’d been reluctant to split Praem back into two bodies like before, I only hadn’t asked why.
“How about I just kill you all now?” Evelyn spat, and my heart sang yes, yes. The trigger word was on my lips. “Get it over with-”
“But are you willing to do that over and over?” Yuleson put in quickly. “Are you willing take such risks, without end? To live that way?”
“You have something in the bag, don’t you?” Julian asked. “Small enough to carry, yet dangerous enough to highlight. Yet … I feel no threat from you. Interestin’. From the way we know you operate, I would bet some kind of possessed animal.”
Evelyn visibly puffed herself up, chin high, eyes blazing. “You want this thing to crawl through your bedroom window at three o’clock in the morning? Keep pushing.”
“The answer, sir,” Julian turned to his boss, “is no. She can’t take that risk over and over. That,” he nodded at the bag, “likely could kill us all, yeah, but they’ll have to put it down afterward. Quite a task. And it wouldn’t be able to find mister Lilburne, as he is not present. Smart, no?”
Evelyn ground her teeth together – and opened her mouth.
“Evee,” I snapped, a half-hiss, my throat constricting. “Let it go.”
She glared at me sidelong. “Heather-”
“Edward will still be out there. We missed our chance,” I forced myself to say. Every cell screamed the opposite, end this now, back away, hide. Kill and flee.
“Denied the shot,” Raine sighed, then shrugged and grinned. “Oh well. S’always next time.”
“I think- I think we should keep talking, at least,” I lied. I thought no, I felt no. “Maybe we can … I don’t know.”
Yuleson smiled a creased, oily, ingratiating smile at me. His eyes said it all, said he’d won.
My hackles rose, my limbs vibrated with the need to leap up and snap in his face. Limbs I did not really possess ached to strike at him, force him to retreat. I clamped down on all of it, held myself as still as I could, shivering inside my coat, small and scrawny and weak and human. Talk was sensible, I reminded myself, made it into a silent mantra in my head. Talk, negotiate, look for an advantage.
“I knew you were the brains out of the outfit, miss Morell, from the moment I saw you,” Yuleson said, then paused as if unsure. Stack stared at me, curious and intense.
“She hates you,” Stack informed him.
“Well, well, more’s the pity, but we can’t win them all,” he said. “Hate does not come into it. I’m sure you understand, yes, miss Morell? You’re an intelligent woman, we can come to some kind of compromise. Always beware the quiet ones, that’s what I say!” He made a gesture toward Stack and let out another tittering laugh. The sound set my teeth on edge.
“I would like to explore this deal of yours as well,” Christine Hopton said. She looked pointedly at Evelyn, who could barely conceal her glare of displeasure.
“It’s just talk,” Nicole said softly. “You don’t have to agree to anything.”
“Yeah, no,” Raine said. “I don’t trust this as far as I can throw it – which, hey, maybe not the best analogy, because I could punt this guy halfway across the garden,” she nodded at Yuleson. “If we’re voting, I vote let’s rumble.”
“Raine,” I said. “I can’t- we can’t just- you- I can’t give in to-”
Raine’s eyebrows climbed in surprise as I cut myself off. I’d let it slip, out in the open. Everyone heard. Can’t give in to the cold survivalist logic of the abyss, can’t act like that here. I felt so trapped. A hiss rose in my throat again and this time I knew I couldn’t stop it, a defensive noise of frustration and threat-warning. Get away, shut up, stop, stop-
Stack looked up. Past me and Raine and Evelyn. Past Praem.
An instant snap-to of attention.
“Huh,” she grunted.
Wired on abyssal echo and phantom aggression, I couldn’t turn to look. My body tensed two conflicted sets of muscles, screamed trap! I stared at Stack, one false move away from lunging at her. Suicidal in hindsight, an urge that would terrify me in lonely, quiet moments for weeks after. Small little Heather, tackling a professional killer, because – why? Because I got spooked by my own brain-ghosts.
Thankfully, nobody else was experiencing a terminal identity crisis.
“Who’s that?” Benjamin grunted, up on his feet as he followed Stack’s gaze. “Are they watching us? Is this a fucking trick?”
“I can’t see from here,” Amanda said, and her dog sat up too, suddenly alert and on guard. “But that isn’t a person. Bernard, down, sit. It’s okay, down.”
“Oh great,” Twil sighed. “It’s her.”
“Nothing is great about that,” Evelyn said, her voice tight. “Heather?”
“Mm? Mm?” I couldn’t look away from Stack. In the corner of my eye, I noticed the Hopton’s bubble-servitor-angel-thing adjusting itself, re-orienting toward whatever Stack had noticed.
Nicole was laughing. “You weren’t kidding when you said she’s too conspicuous. She stands out like a scarecrow, they’ll see her from the pub, easily.”
“Heather, it’s okay,” Raine murmured.
Deep down, far deeper than the impression left by the abyss, my body knew that if Raine said I was safe, I was safe. Phantom muscles unclenched, I drew in a shuddering breath, and looked over my shoulder.
At the far end of the weed-choked campsite field, maybe two hundred meters distant, just inside the fence which held back a thick copse of trees, a figure stood, facing us.
I couldn’t see her face. I didn’t need to.
Hooded and cloaked in a long coat, clothes baggy and dark, framed between the shadows of the wood behind and the scudding clouds above. She’d emerged from nowhere, a fairy creature formed by the landscape itself.
“Oh. Oh dear,” said Yuleson.
I was out of my seat and on my feet before I knew what I was doing, three paces toward the field before Raine caught my arm.
“Woah, woah, Heather, slow down.”
“I have to- she-” I whirled on Raine. Behind her, Stack leaned over to whisper in Yuleson’s ear.
“Now?” he asked her. “We’re just getting started!”
“She’s become especially protective,” I said to Stack, loud and clear, felt myself puffing up with bizarre pride. “Of me and mine. You better run.”
“Run away,” Praem intoned – but she was looking at me.
“Oh fiddlesticks, this is nonsense,” Yuleson huffed. “Miss Morell, I am certain we will all be fine. Is this person really so dangerous? For goodness sake, we’re in a pub garden.”
Stack ignored him. She stood up slowly, hands carefully visible, and watched Zheng.
I lowered my voice for Raine. “I need to … I need to talk to her. You know I need to talk to her.”
“Cool, I’ll come with-”
“No.” I shook my head, and a strange seed of guilt sprouted in my belly. I spoke fast, flustering, blushing in confusion and panic. “You need to stay with Evee, don’t you? It’s dangerous with these people, you can’t leave her alone. I’m going in the opposite direction, I’ll be fine.”
“Evee’s got Twil and Praem, she’s safe,” Raine said softly, for my ears only. She read me like an open book. “Heather, what’s wrong?”
“I … Raine … I, please, I need to … I want to talk to her, by myself.”
I squeezed the words out in a half-whisper, but I couldn’t admit to myself why I said them; I wanted to get away from this entrapment here, this feeling that all my responses were wrong. Zheng called to me. The romance of her figure beneath the roiling grey sky, her solid silence, the way she stood out on the empty plain of the field, on the edge of the woods. It called to my soul, and I couldn’t voice why. It was not a human thing.
“She’s perfectly safe,” I babbled on, covering for myself. “She saved my life, twice. She’s-”
“What if it’s not really her?” Raine raised her eyes, studied Zheng as best she could at a distance.
“It is her. I can tell. I can. Raine, I can tell.”
“What if this is a trap?” She shook her head. “This stinks to high heaven. Come on, she’ll be glad to see us both, we’ll-”
“Raine,” I almost hissed at her, an animal need bubbling in my throat. I pulled on my arm, tried to yank free from her grip, and for a terrible moment I thought she was going to hold fast, tighten her hand, that she wouldn’t get it. I was mad, almost frantic, a hiss rising between my teeth.
And Raine let go.
“Woah, woah, Heather, cool, we’re cool,” she said, low and hushed. I stumbled away a couple of paces, shocked at myself.
“What is she doing?” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, what on earth are you doing?”
“Hey,” Raine said, grinning for me. “You gotta do what you gotta do. I’ll watch. Anything happens you don’t like, you turn and run – I’ll be there before you can blink.”
I nodded, shaking a little as turned away from Raine, and stepped out onto the field.
Crossing the off-season campground was not easy on my muscles or knees, not easy for awkward inelegant Heather, in my comfortable trainers and jeans, across slippery, uneven, rutted earth, around clutches of thistle and patches of ragwort. Twice I nearly fell over, stumbled and tripped on rabbit holes. Should have worn wellington boots.
Didn’t care. Moving felt wonderful, working my lungs felt right. Muscles and puffing breath, no matter how weak, brought me out of the hole of entrapment I’d felt back there. I passed the spirit out in the campground, a mass of tentacles twenty feet high, pulsing and throbbing to itself. It bent away from me, a plant avoiding fire.
Couldn’t tear my eyes away from Zheng.
My stomach was full of butterflies.
When I drew close enough to pick out her face beneath the hood of her huge – and probably stolen – coat, she grinned. Her face split across the middle into that unmistakable shark-toothed grin. Deep inside I flushed with warmth.
“Zh- … Zheng!” I called out.
I’d expected to bristle. After all, Zheng was big and scary, a predator, a threat. The memory of my abyssal form should have arched its back and hissed at her. Instead, I felt a tentative openness, a wary friendship, excited. I all but ran the last few paces, stumbling, and stopped before her, panting for breath. The trees loomed above us, cast darker shade on this already grim day.
“Shaman,” she purred. A voice like granite.
“Zheng. Where have you been? Why didn’t you come back?” I panted. “I tried to find you, but … ” I shrugged, exasperated. “You’re so difficult to track.”
She laughed, a deep, low chuckle of genuine amusement. “Can’t you fathom, shaman? Can’t you imagine?”
I frowned at her, swallowed, struggled with the desire to – to what? I couldn’t place it. Standing close to her felt good, made me feel small but in a pleasurable way, made me feel understood. Goodness, she was tall. Easy to forget, with two weeks apart, how big Zheng was. I had to look upward.
“Fathom? Fathom what? You … you look good.”
She did. I doubt the concept of human health applied to a demon-ridden thousand-year-old corpse, but she looked somehow healthier, her red-brown skin full of life, her eyes brimming with slow, tiger-like attention beneath the hood. The clothes she’d stolen or otherwise acquired were shapeless and ugly, an old waxed coat and a huge baggy fisherman’s jumper to replace her lost tshirt, but even they couldn’t conceal the curves and power beneath, the way her every movement hummed with energy.
She had been eating plenty, I suppose.
Zheng grinned wider. At the compliment, or at what she saw reflected in my eyes.
And then she darted forward, a giant in sudden quicksilver motion. I yelped and flinched hard. Doesn’t matter how much I thought of her as safe, there is only one response to being rushed by a wall of muscle. I almost fell over onto the mud in surprise, but Zheng caught me.
She scooped me up and set me back on my feet. The sheer heat of her hands leaked through my clothes, left warm patches behind. Zheng ran hot.
“ … um … okay … uh … ” I blinked, stammering, trying to steady my knees. Zheng raised her chin, amused at my clumsy ape reactions.
“You should have seen that one coming. A test. Too slow, little monkey, too slow.” Zheng laughed.
I gave her a capital-G glare.
“What’s the matter, shaman?”
“You know what the matter is. Don’t surprise me like that.”
She shook her head. Her grin dialled down to a quiet amusement, a sun-baked tiger sizing me up. “Not that.”
“I don’t know what you’re-” I halted. I did know. I felt it right now. It had drawn me across the field to her, and now it left me flushed and excited in her presence.
The memory of the abyss responded to her – something in me wanted to be around her, and it was not entirely sexual.
Not entirely human.
Standing out here on the edge of the woods with Zheng felt real. Sitting back there in a pub garden, talking, negotiating, hadn’t felt right. None of it. Back there my intellect was at odds with my instinct – the old, cliched mind-body duality had, for me, become stark reality. Sitting quietly, huddled up in my coat, pretending I would negotiate politely for the safety of my friends. My body hated every moment, made demands I could not match.
Out here under the darkening sky, dwarfed by a giant of feminine muscle, on the edge of the woods and freedom and running and rutting, my responses made sense. My feelings made sense.
Shouldn’t have left Raine behind.
“I don’t … I don’t feel right,” I admitted. “I’m supposed to be sitting in a library, reading a book, not … ” I gestured helplessly at the mess behind me. “Not this.”
“Mmmmmmmm,” Zheng made a sound like a sleepy tiger.
“Look, Zheng, why are you here now? How did you find us? Do you want to come back to the house? I-I-I want you to, I-”
Zheng shrugged, a rolling mountain. “Guarding you.”
“ … guarding me?”
“Mm. You’re easy to find now, shaman. Can smell you a hundred miles away. Doubt I’m the only one.”
“Oh, geeze, thanks.” I tried to laugh, to make a joke of this, but the sound came out hollow.
“Shaman,” she breathed. “You did it.”
The way she said that word sent a shiver up my spine – reverence, fascination, nostalgia. She watched me with a burning intensity.
“ … did … did what?”
“You’re even more like her now.” She grinned, chuckled softly. “You left your body. You’re fumbling, with what you found on your asurin ayalal. Stole fire from the gods, but now you don’t know what to do with it. That’s just like her too. Spent a month curled up by the fire, couldn’t wipe her own arse, feed herself, talk. Maybe you’re stronger.”
“Who are you talking about? Zheng?”
“You have to let yourself feel it, shaman. Embrace it, flesh and spirit both. Use it.” She nodded back toward the pub. “Use it on them. Wield it on your enemies, and never doubt it is right. The other way lies madness, you monkeys are so fragile.”
“Like- I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m like who?”
Her grin died slowly. The fire went out of her eyes, replaced with a fleeting melancholy.
“Maybe you are her,” Zheng rumbled. “Maybe you humans get reborn. Maybe the joke is on me.”
“I’m not … I’m me. Zheng, I’m Heather. I’m not anybody else. Are you talking about somebody you used to know?”
The giant zombie let out a huge sigh. “I know, shaman.”
I had the terrible sense the moment was slipping through my fingers, that Zheng was withdrawing again. She’d slip back into the wood and I’d never find her a second time if she didn’t want to be found. I couldn’t bear to lose this clarity of mind and body. Standing with Zheng on the edge of the wild felt right, in the same way that moving my body felt right, in the same way that skinship with Raine felt right.
Zheng broke back into a grin, her melancholy washed away. She glanced past my shoulder. “You monkeys are all too alike. Can’t tell the difference half the time.”
“Zheng don’t- don’t go.”
A cocked eyebrow. “Don’t?”
“What if I-” I glanced at the woods behind her, felt a burning gut-sick need, half human and half abyssal. I wanted her to pick me up and carry me off. It was mad, mad. I swallowed, mouth dry, hands shaking. “If I-”
“If you leave these monkeys behind, run off with me to have sex in the woods?” she purred.
I blushed like a tomato. With frozen muscles, my heart pounding, I managed to squeak “Not … necessarily what I meant, but … ”
“You’re committed, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.
She raised a hand and pointed past me with one finger. I followed it, and saw Raine was halfway across the field, walking toward us.
I turned back to Zheng, paralysed now. Nothing could make me leave Raine, that seemed absurd, but at the same time I needed something I couldn’t put into words, something the ghost of my abyssal self felt in Zheng’s presence, a safety, a comfort, a rightness. Zheng stared back at me, not grinning at all anymore.
“Be what you are now, shaman, or they’ll eat you alive. You have to eat them first.”