“Eat them first … ?”
“Mmm,” Zheng rumbled. The sound reverberated, a tiger’s purr in her chest.
She was indescribably beautiful.
Even wrapped in shapeless, ratty old clothes, soaked in days of sweat and dirt, her hair greasy and stuck to her scalp, a wild woman eating sheep and ghosting across the moors, she was beautiful. Even with her sharp-edged face darkened in melancholy, rejecting me in a way I didn’t fully understand, she was beautiful. Seven feet of iron muscle and honeyed skin like cinnamon chocolate. A scent on the wind like hot spice and healthy sweat. The razor eyes of a true predator, teeth like knives, a taste for human flesh.
Zheng was so beautiful it hurt.
She was a walking wet dream from a fantasy I’d never known I wanted – but what I felt in that moment was more than physical desire. Dwarfed by her, beneath the grey clouds and the tree trunks on the edge of the wild, the memory of my abyssal form stirred with need and nostalgia, kinship and recognition.
Zheng was a thing from the abyss, too. Embodied in stolen human flesh, greater than the sum of her parts. Like me?
That didn’t excuse my lust.
“Oh, damn it all,” I huffed. “This is absurd.”
Zheng raised an eyebrow. Slow amusement worked its way back onto her face. I’d rather undercut her dramatic moment. “Shaman?”
“Love triangles are a stupid cliche,” I sighed. “I can’t believe we’re doing this, now, here, with all … all that going on.” I gestured vaguely behind me, back toward the pub garden. The sensation of phantom limbs plagued the periphery of my awareness, as tentacles and feelers ached to reach out and touch Zheng. “You are a problem, do you know that?”
Zheng grinned in full once more. “Am I?”
“Why won’t you come back to the house? We need to sort this out, you and I, I think, but not right now, not here.”
“Sort what out, shaman?”
I frowned up a storm at her. “You know what I’m feeling, you recognised it already. Don’t make me say it.”
“You’re in heat.”
“If you must put it like that.” I felt myself blush, cheeks beet-red. “We can’t just leave this unsaid and unfinished. Don’t run off, please. Raine’s already on her way, we can resolve this, it doesn’t need to be complicated.”
Zheng chuckled. “You monkeys think nothing is complicated.”
“Zheng please, stay.”
Her eyes flicked past me, over my shoulder.
“I would win,” she murmured, a noise like the whisper of a distant storm.
“Winning and losing have nothing to do with it,” I snapped, at the end of my patience, for both myself and this situation. “I- I don’t necessarily want to run off into the woods and … and … do things with you, but I do want you to stay with me, please. Zheng? Please.” I swallowed, blushed harder, and forced the question out before Raine reached us. “Do you even have a human sexuality?”
Zheng gave me an amused look, her eyes heavily lidded. “Concentrate, shaman. You have foes at your back. Eat, then fuck.”
“You are the last person I should be taking dietary advice from. Can’t you help me with them?”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Why not? Aren’t you with me, Zheng? You said that before, you-”
“I am, shaman,” she growled. A tremor of fear and excitement passed through my chest and belly and down into my groin. “If I get too close, there will be a fight. I will win, and you will hate me.”
Footsteps slapped against the muddy ground behind me. Raine jogged up the last few paces. She touched my back with one hand, and nodded to Zheng. “Hey there, big girl. What’s up?”
“Eat them first, shaman,” Zheng repeated. “Embrace what you are. Use what you brought back. Don’t lose your mind.”
And then she left.
Zheng jerked like a lightning bolt, from a standing start to a flowing sprint in the blink of an eye. She whirled on one heel, her back foot throwing up a clod of mud with the sheer power of her pivot. She raced for the woods, coat flapping out behind her like a fleeing suspect in some film noir sequence. Spirit life deeper in the woods scattered before her. She vaulted the fence, landed with the grace of a panther, and vanished between the trees. After three seconds, the woods swallowed even the sound of her footsteps
“ … damn her! She can’t just run off like that! Oh- I-” I huffed, exasperated. Raine linked our arms together and slipped her hand into mine.
“Looks like she can, and she did. Real flying visit. Sorry, Heather.” Raine had the good grace to wince in apology. “I know I said I’d let you talk to her alone, but the way she lunged at you, I didn’t like that at all.”
“It’s not your fault. She was leaving anyway,” I snapped, half-hiding my face to conceal my blush. “We need to get back to the others.”
“Heather? You alright?”
“I … no, no, not really. No.”
Embrace what I am? What had Zheng meant? I felt as if had two bodies, my physical form and a yearning abyssal memory of oceanic grace. Both were true, both were real. How could I embrace a mutually exclusive paradox? I was not a thing of the abyss, I did not have tentacles and spines and barbed hooks. I could barely swim. I was in the wrong body, whichever principle I stuck to.
“She say something to upset you?” Raine asked. “Or just, you know, you sad she’s gone again?”
I opened my mouth to lie, but instinct betrayed me – I glanced at Raine’s eyes, and couldn’t look away again. Wind teased the ends of her chestnut hair, brushed it across her forehead. Guilt and fear fought in my chest, scared little Heather dragged me down and abyssal memory didn’t understand. Raine waited, perfectly open and understanding. She always was.
I took the shot.
“I- I can’t tell- oh, damn it, there’s no good way to say this.” I blushed scarlet, breath trapped in my throat. “I’m desperately attracted to Zheng, and I’m going to need your help with that feeling.”
“Yeah, ‘course you are.” Raine laughed.
“ … ‘course I am?” I echoed, stunned.
Raine shrugged. “Sure. She saves you a couple of times, she’s impressive, bold. Those tits. Hell, I would be. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing odd about that. Best not bottle it up, you know?”
“ … oh … kay, then.”
Raine’s acceptance didn’t make me feel any better. Where was the blazing jealousy, where was the wounded suggestion to follow Zheng if I wanted her so badly? Part of me craved punishment, wanted to be told off, told I was wrong. But Raine didn’t think like that. Instead, the strange abyssal yearning for Zheng grew stronger, as if given permission. Part of me almost wanted to break for the woods now, try to find her.
Instead, I made myself look back down the length of the campsite field, past thistle and mud, to the back garden of the Bricklayer’s Arms. The others – friend and foe alike – still watched us.
“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “Gotta go wrap that up, I guess. Let’s run them off and head home, yeah?”
“Zheng had advice about that too,” I murmured.
“Yeah, culinary, by the sounds of it. When all you’ve got’s a massive set of chompers, I guess all the world looks like meat.”
“I feel like we’re being trapped. We need a way out. I can’t figure out what to do, I … ” A light went on inside me, a dim potential, the faintest shadow of what Zheng might have meant. “ … when all you’ve got’s a massive set of chompers … ” I echoed.
Clarity, of a kind, came over me.
This would be a gamble. Evelyn would approve.
“Heeeeey.” Raine lit up with a grin. “Is that a cunning plan I see in your eyes? I love it when you get plans, Heather, it’s hot as hell.”
“Raine, you’re a genius and I love you,” I said, as I stared back at the pub garden. I clung to her arm for support.
“True, and true. I am just that awesome. What’s the plan, boss?”
“Eat them first. Help me walk back, please.”
Our return was met by a chorus of curious stares, confused frowns, and inane questions which I did my best to ignore.
“What the bloody hell was that all about?” Michael Hopton asked, his arms crossed over his chest. “Who was that?”
“Dad, I told you already,” Twil tutted, then turned to me. “Why’d she scarper again? What happened?”
Yuleson preened and smiled at me, his hands clutching each other like hairless moles. “Is our digression quite concluded now, miss Morell? If you are ready, may we resume where we left off?”
“No luck, ey?” Nicole asked quietly. I shook my head at that one.
“Who was that, Heather, dear?” Christine Hopton asked.
“Nobody,” Praem intoned.
“Yeah, a big scary nobody who’ll rip your face off if you double-cross us,” Raine said. She moved to help me sit down, but I stayed standing, arm-in-arm with her for support.
“Heather?” Evelyn said.
She managed to cram an entire question into my name – ‘Heather, why did you let the giant rogue zombie run off again?’ I tried to ignore her too. For now.
I ignored Yuleson’s bleating, and Stack’s stare; hired muscle and hired mind, they didn’t matter. I tuned out Twil and the rest of her family, they weren’t my enemy. I attempted to ignore Evelyn turning to once again whack the rustling sports bag with the head of her walking stick. I made myself stand straight, raised my chin, disentangled myself from Raine and took a half-step away from her. She understood, and let me go.
Easier than before, if only by a fraction. Scrawny little Heather, trying to radiate threat, holding back a hiccup as I stood tall.
Well, as tall as I could get.
I locked eyes with the only foe here who really mattered, past all the obfuscation and misdirection, past Yuleson’s slimy words and the extra baggage of inviting a third party, past the element of surprise and anti-climax they’d sprung on us.
Julian met my gaze. Polite and reasonable, smartly dressed, with a question in the quirk of his eyebrows. Edward’s apprentice.
What would Zheng do?
Well, she certainly wouldn’t hiccup, which is what I did first. Once, then twice, as I swallowed my fear.
Zheng would probably pull out somebody’s tongue or bite off their fingers. She wouldn’t bluff. She’d apply an object lesson.
I offered Julian my hand.
“Miss Morell? What’s this?”
“Shake,” I said.
The others fell silent. Perhaps they sensed my intent, even those unaware of what I could do. Julian regarded my hand with an ironic twitch at the corners of his mouth.
“Stack’s told us all about how you do what you do,” he said. “What are you tryin’ to prove?”
“You can shake my hand- hic-” I hiccuped again, clenched down hard on the shaking inside, on the fear. “Or I can have Raine hold you down first.”
Julian raised his eyebrows. Stack went very still, though she’d been barely moving before; perhaps it was a shift in her breathing, a minute change in muscle tension. Abyssal instinct screamed to hiss at her, make her back away, but I held off with sheer force of will. I am hissing at these people, I told myself. Patience.
“Are you makin’ a threat?” Julian asked.
“Yes. Yes, I do believe I am.”
Julian’s smile worsened, a full-on sighing smirk. “Go on then, give it a whirl. See how far you get.”
I let out a shuddering breath, felt my knees going weak. Screaming abyssal demands and my own heady froth of fear mixed together into an awful cocktail. I wanted to plate myself over with armour, hiss at this horrible little man from a safe distance. I planted my feet, forced myself to stay put.
“You’ve misjudged your position, Julian,” I said, and almost kept the shake out of my voice. “If that is even your real name. Your master has misjudged what he’s dealing with. We laid a trap, you’re correct about that, but the trap is not what Evelyn has summoned.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw an evil little smile on Evelyn’s face. She enjoyed this, in a manner I was incapable of.
“I’m the trap,” I said.
“Oh, come now,” Yuleson huffed. “Don’t be so-”
“You’re all within my range, sitting here. Technically I don’t even have to touch you. I can define you, cut you out from reality, send you Outside. Yes, it will hurt, rather a lot. I’ll be reduced to vomiting and bleeding and I might even pass out, that’s always fun, yes. But I will do it. I will absolutely do it. I have-” My throat threatened to close up around the words. A sense of self-violation slid into my chest, but I slammed myself onto that spear as hard as I could, turned my secrets into a weapon. “I’ve been beyond reality, to the intercellular space between dimensions. I’m the adopted child of an alien God. And I will flay you, your master, and everything of his, down to atoms, to avert even a single bruise on any of my friends.”
To one side, I felt Twil wary and on edge, not sure which way to leap. Stack watched me, face a cold neutral. Over on the other table, the Hoptons seemed quite shocked. Evelyn smirked with dark satisfaction. Blushing, quivering, and painfully alone despite Raine at my side, I held myself as rigid as I could.
“We know you’re blocked,” Stack said, slow and calm.
“No, no I’m not bluffing,” I said, pushed past the sudden drop of fear in my belly – how did she know that? “I’m blocked from going Outside myself, but I can still send other things there. Also, thank you, for revealing you know that.”
“You’re welcome,” Stack replied.
“Yeah,” Raine said. “Which means if you don’t wanna play a game of death-tag, you need to listen to my girl here.” She pointed at me with both fingers and cracked a grin.
“You’re not here to negotiate a necessary peace deal.” I hiccuped loudly, swallowed. “You’re here to beg for your lives.”
Now that? That was a bluff.
Abyssal aggression and natural fear finally slid together as I spoke those words. Two ecosystems of thought, alien to each other, merged inside my psyche. Fundamental truth shuddered through me, akin to the moment a magic-eye picture resolves into clarity, and one feels so very silly that one did not see it before. The shaking, scared Heather who felt small and vulnerable, who still relied on the desperate logic of a terrified little girl separated from her sister – she clung hard to the abyssal animal I’d been, and the memory wrapped her in armour, hid her inside a forest of spines, flooded her blood with oxygen and her brain with oxytocin.
Zheng’s advice finally made sense. I embraced me.
The phantom limbs and awful bodily dysmorphia did not go away – nothing was ever so easy. But the aggression subsided, wrapped back into my sense of self, ready to be used. For the first time since I’d returned from the abyss, I felt almost whole.
Apparently, according to what Raine told me much later, the way I smiled was most off-putting for our enemies.
Looking a bit crazy is most effective after delivering a threat.
“Hell yeah,” Raine murmured.
Yuleson stood up, flapping his hands. “Miss Morell, I understand you are frustrated, we all are, but these threats aren’t going to achieve-”
“You know,” Raine said, easy and conversational. “I think you should shut up. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. My girl here ain’t playing around.”
“Evee was right,” I tutted at him. “You don’t even matter. You’re- you’re … ‘Tits on a fish’. You stay quiet and sit down, and if you don’t, I shall … I shall slap you.”
“What?” Evelyn spluttered. Nicole burst out laughing.
“Oh shit yeah she’s good at that,” Twil said. “She’ll slap your shit right up.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” Yuleson huffed. “We’re in public, that is the point of this meeting, no? No violence is going to happen here, not with a police officer present and a pub full of ordinary people behind us. Miss Morell, surely you can’t see any sense in pursuing this strategy of bluff and-”
Time for the object lesson.
I hadn’t used brainmath since my return from the abyss. The Eye’s lessons lay at the base of my consciousness, the empty socket of a shattered tooth, full of pulped, tender flesh, bruised and strained by the journey beyond my body – but this was a simple equation, the familiar old equation to shunt matter Outside. I began, summoned up the first few figures of the necessary hyperdimensional mathematics.
Pain. Like peeling a blood clot out of a wound. Exposed bone. Raw nerves. Pain.
Pain, different to the usual, sharp, deep, panic-pain. I recoiled in shock, a split-second wince, and knew in an instant that this would not merely make me vomit or pass out. This species of pain would break me before I could complete even half the equation.
My object lesson was all for nought. All my threats, undermined. Not strong enough to carry out Zheng’s advice, not savage enough to eat them first, held back by my weak human body and this prison of vulnerable flesh. Stack thought my brainmath was blocked, interdicted, that I was made safe by some unseen machination, but the truth was far worse: I was still healing.
I couldn’t do it. They’d called my bluff.
In a fit of helpless pique, I reached out with my phantom limbs. Bodily illusions that existed only in my mind. If only I was strong, if only I could strangle these three, unleash on them the creature which memory told me I was meant to be.
And in that split-second, I saw what Zheng had really meant.
The tiniest piece of hyperdimensional mathematics would suffice, a single variable in the infinite weave of reality. From a zero to a one, from non-existence to being. I could take that much pain. At the speed of thought, it was done.
Mathematics tasted different – taste is the only human concept able to capture even a shade of the sensation. Bitter, gritty with bone fragments and impacted gravel in bruised tissue, the flexing of a muscle pitted with infected wounds. Use shook it out, made it bleed fresh, pumped white blood cells to flush out the open sores. Clean and strong and clear, a spike of pain passed in a wave, there and gone again.
Three tentacles of pneuma-somatic flesh sprouted from my flanks.
Visible only to myself – and to Praem, most likely – the ropes of spirit muscle passed straight through my clothes as if the fabric wasn’t there, two on my left and one on my right. Pale, smooth, sleek, sunless deep-sea flesh, they strobed with rainbow bioluminescence. As wide as my wrist, each tapered to a delicate point, yet all were infinitely tough and infinitely dexterous.
As they arced along the very lines I’d imagined for them, I felt their roots anchored deep inside my torso, melded to my flesh with pneuma-somatic tendon and cartilage. Such a rush of power and speed and grace.
I shuddered with twinned disgust and euphoria, an ecstasy beyond words. If I’d been alone, I probably would have had an orgasm.
For a split-second, I was once again what I was meant to be. An abyssal thing of infinite and glorious possibility.
“- and bluster, you-” Yuleson blinked. “Miss Morell?”
I’m not certain, but I think I hissed at him.
With one tentacle, I flipped Yuleson’s briefcase into his face. It burst open in a cloud of papers, sent him yelping and fumbling. With the second I delivered a hard shove to the centre of Stack’s chest, tumbling her off the bench to sprawl on her backside. With the third I tried to slap Julian across the cheek hard enough to leave a welt, but in my inexperience I landed only a glancing blow. Still enough to leave him clutching his face and blinking at the unseen attack.
So flushed with joy, I missed the way the tentacle seemed to slide off him.
Yuleson’s papers fluttered down through the air as he tried to catch them. Stack jack-knifed herself to her feet, one hand inside her coat as Raine readied to draw as well, to protect me. The math students at the far end of pub garden were in the process of standing up, frowning at our commotion. One of them started to say something, hands cupped to his mouth. Nicole was laughing, saying something about how “we’re doing poltergeists now, are we?”
Benjamin and Micheal Hopton were both on their feet, staring, lost, couldn’t see what to react to. Amanda’s dog – poor sweet Bernard the golden retriever – growled at me; without thinking I whipped a tentacle around, ready to knock his brains out. Amanda Hopton stared, wide-eyed in a silent scream, but the Hopton’s bubble-servitor did not share its handler’s paralysis. It started for me, a bulbous glugging mass writhing through the air. I raised a second tentacle to swat it to the ground.
The third of my tentacles reared back, as I entertained the notion of strangling Stack to death.
And then I crashed. Down and out.
Sudden exhaustion drowned me, as if I’d walked for days. Couldn’t get any strength into my knees. My vision swam, the world span, and I reeled back. With my tentacles I made a grab for the edge of the table, but they were withering, greying, shrinking. They turned to ash and fell away to nothing.
An awful nerve-deep pain lanced into my sides where they’d been rooted. A gasp ripped up through my throat. I cried out.
I flailed, tried to catch myself with claws and spines and barbed flesh hooks I did not possess. Raine caught me instead.
“Woah, woah, Heather, hey, hey, I got you, I got you.”
I gasped again, doubled over; another stab of pain in my sides, cold fire under my ribcage. Cold-sweat panic pain of bodily error, of fatal chemical factory malfunction. My body screamed that something soft and fleshy and vulnerable was broken.
“Mmmm- ahhh, ahh-” I made sharp little noises, trying to hold the sensation back. It receded, barely, replaced by a dull throbbing ache like I’d been knifed in the sides.
“That’s it, just breathe, just breathe, Heather. It’s okay, be sick if you need to.”
Far worse than the pain, the feeling of bodily wholeness and rightness ebbed away, left me shivering and small and flawed, rotting and ageing.
I choked on a sob. Such lost glory.
Turns out the creation and maintenance of pneuma-somatic flesh is a great strain upon a physical being. Who would have guessed? Whatever I’d done, I’d done it for the first time, and strained every muscle and sense involved. I could barely keep my eyes open.
“My briefcase!” Yuleson was flapping about. “My- there was- these are important papers, they’re everywhere! Oh, my kindle’s fallen in the mud. Oh no, oh dear, oh dear.”
“Could burst-” I croaked, then forced myself upright, leaning into Raine for support. She steadied me, murmured soft encouragement, took the lion’s share of my weight. “Could burst you the same way.”
Yuleson boggled at me for a second. Finally, he shut his mouth.
Everyone was staring at me. Christine Hopton’s brow was furrowed with motherly concern, while her husband had no idea what to make of what I’d just done. Bernard, Amanda’s dog, growled softly in the back of his throat – at me. She soothed him, held him back. Benjamin stared in silence, no longer sullen.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil muttered.
“At least it was only a briefcase this time,” Nicole said.
“Yes,” Stack agreed. Nicole raised her empty pint glass in an ironic mock-toast.
“No,” Praem intoned.
“How’d you do that?” Julian asked slowly. He rubbed at his jaw where I’d hit him, though his dark skin showed no bruise.
“Yeah,” Micheal Hopton added. “What the hell just happened, what was that?”
“Uh, yeah,” Twil said. “Was that … was that us?”
Stack asked the question too, though without words. She’d dialled back a notch from drawing whatever concealed weapon she carried.
“It was her,” Raine said with a laugh. “See? Told you, Heather’ll kick all your arses.”
Christine Hopton raised her hand and waved to the three concerned-looking students at the far end of the garden, still watching us with interest. “We’re fine, nothing to worry about!” she called. “Just a little sensitive stomach.”
“That was some kind of trick, somethin’ you set up in advance, right?” Julian continued softly.
“No,” Amanda Hopton answered for me as I started at Julian. “It was her. She grew … shining limbs, beautiful and … and … I’m sorry, excuse me.” She put a hand to her chest, as if in pain. In the corner of my eye I noticed the bubble-servitor retreating again, back to its holding pattern. Praem watched it go.
If frowns could kill, Evelyn would have struck me dead at that moment. She watched me with half-outrage, half-worry. I nodded back at her and mouthed some nonsense platitude I don’t recall.
“Fascinating,” Julian said, chin in his hand. “Fascinating.”
His expression reminded me all too much of Evelyn; naked hunger.
“Yeah you keep being fascinated at a nice safe distance there mate,” Raine said. Julian raised both hands in a gesture of quick surrender.
“Hurts,” I croaked. “But I can do it again.” A lie, but a good one. “Next time I’ll pull your heads off.”
“Shlor-pop!” Raine made an illustrative sound. I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes. We didn’t need that, however gruesome.
“Which means you- you’re going to answer- do-” I struggled, woozy, exhaustion dragging at my limbs. I strangled a gasp as another wave of jagged pain lanced into my sides where my tentacles had been so briefly rooted.
“Is she alright? Heather dear?” Christine Hopton asked.
Evelyn clutched her walking stick and lurched out of her seat. With a glance thrown toward our enemies, she turned her back on them, and leaned in close to Raine and I.
“Raine, we need to get Heather to a hospital.”
“What?” Raine hissed back. “Explain, quick.”
“No!” I blurted out. “This is our chance, we- we can- make demands-”
Evelyn’s eyes blazed at me, though she kept her voice low. “You think I don’t know what you just did to yourself? Me, of all people? That little stunt may have torn up your insides like a threshing machine.” She snapped back to Raine. “She might have internal bleeding, I don’t know. Hospital. Now.”
“Shit,” Twil hissed. She’d leaned in too, frowning at me in horror.
“I’m fine.” I croaked. “S’only … only pain. M’not bleeding.”
Raine glanced quickly between Evelyn and I. “Heather, I won’t let you hurt yourself. I didn’t realise-”
“Please. S’only chance.” I struggled to keep my eyes open, to put on a brave face. The pain lingered, sharp and bone deep. I had to end this here, make these people admit defeat, back off from me and my friends and Lozzie, and there was only one path to that now. “Five minutes.”
“Fuck,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “Fuck you for making me do this. We end this here, then you take her to the hospital, Raine, whatever she says.”
“I will.” Raine nodded. She held me close, held me up. “Five minutes.”
Evelyn turned back to our mystified audience. “The terms of this meeting have changed,” Evelyn announced. “You answer our questions, quickly, and you do what we tell you to.”
Julian bowed his head and spread his hands in assent, but not once did his ironic smile slip. Yuleson huffed and sat back down clutching his briefcase, his hair in even greater tufty disarray than before.
“Unless you’re threatening violence, miss Saye, I shall have to discuss any agreed-upon action with my client, you-”
“Yes,” I croaked.
“Yes, do that,” Evelyn snapped.
“Toddle off back to Eddy-boy and let him know our demands,” Raine said. Gently, she tried to help me sit, but I shook my head and clung to her, knew that I’d struggle to stay conscious the moment I allowed myself to rest.
“You do know this merely delays an inevitable peace, yes?” Yuleson said. “This is why I never, ever like to work with teenagers, so bloody unreasonable.”
“We can work with this,” Julian said softly. “No worries, Harry. This is a mage’s matter now, I’ll take over.”
Harold Yuleson huffed a little sigh and wiggled his eyebrows to himself, looking off to the side.
“Hurry this up,” Evelyn snapped. “Five minutes and counting. If we don’t have what we want by then, I’ll open the trap.”
Julian ignored both Yuleson’s wounded theatrics and Evelyn’s threat, and instead glanced at Stack. “Amy, you’re not thinkin’ of bugging out, are you?”
Stack had not sat back down. Tension was locked around her flint-hard eyes and across her wiry shoulders. She watched me for a silent moment, trying to read or understand or judge. I stared back, too exhausted to care.
“Amy?” Julian repeated.
“The only reason she hasn’t killed us is because she can’t right now,” Stack replied.
“Mm,” I grunted at her.
“Miss Amanda Hopton,” she said. “How long were those tentacles?”
Amanda cleared her throat, had trouble meeting Stack’s cold gaze. “I don’t- I’m not- maybe six or seven feet, maybe more?”
“Longer,” I croaked, trying to give Stack a nasty smile to remember. “How did it feel?”
“Oh, do sit down,” Yuleson tutted.
“We’ve failed,” Stack said. “We’re done here.”
“You’re being serious?” Julian turned to her, unimpressed. He spread one hand in an imperious shrug, another gesture that reminded me horribly of Alexander Lilburne. I should have broken Julian’s neck with a tentacle while I’d been able to. “So much for your fearless reputation. This how you acted in the field? Ran away at the first sign of too many jihadis on the horizon? Sit down, Amy.”
“I am paid to assess threats. This is too much of a threat.”
“You’re damn right we are,” Raine grinned at her.
Julian’s expression twitched in the most curious and uncomfortable way, as if an alien set of mannerisms was trying to push through from under his skin, the ghost of a craggy frown in the corners of his eyes. Then it passed, he controlled the tremor, and shrugged with another easy ironic smile. “We’re still alive, aren’t we?”
“Alexander negotiated with her,” Stack continued softly. “Did his usual. He’s dead. We’re done here.”
“And I say we’re not.” Julian slapped his palm against the table. “I’m overruling you. I want to hear their demands, I’m very curious.”
Stack took a single deliberate step back and to the side.
“Yeah, go on, gee-tee-eff-oh, bitch!” Twil snapped at her.
“You’re what?” Julian frowned at her.
“I’m out,” she repeated, but not to him – to me. “I’m gone.”
“Well, you’re certainly not taking the bloody car with you,” Julian said. Raine snorted.
“I’ll walk. I’m out.”
“Wait,” I croaked. “Wait. How did you know – how did you know I was blocked? From going Outside?”
Stack paused, considered a second, then nodded in that tiny, subtle way of hers. “Edward said.”
“That’s it?” Raine asked. “That’s all you got?”
“We’re not responsible for your condition,” Julian butted in. “Yes, mister Lilburne is aware of a wide-ranging change in the wall between here and the beyond. A sort of static effect, he called it, but we’re not responsible. It was only a theory he had, that it might interfere with his niece’s usual ability to … make herself scarce.”
“You stop looking for her,” I almost spat. “First condition.”
“Condition?” Evelyn hissed at me.
“Condition. Demand. Then we can talk- talk return.”
“Oh, yes, quite,” Yuleson lit up, a bloodhound back on the scent of a deal. “On the issue of Lauren Lilburne, my client is open to total flexibility. As she is now past the age of majority, she is of course free to choose who to associate with, to chart the course of her own life, and so on. But, her condition does make her susceptible to suggestion, to bad influences, and so forth. As thus, he wishes to be allowed to meet with her at least once every-”
“I catch you after her, ever, I send you Outside,” I said. “No.”
“We can relay that to Edward,” said Julian, one hand out to forestall Yuleson’s bleating. “He won’t like it much. I understand his niece does have a very special place in his heart, but we can relay it.”
“No more-” I had to stop, swallow, steady myself as Raine held me up. I managed to take some of my own weight on my feet. “No more kidnappings. No more children in cages.”
“Excuse me?” Yuleson blinked his little ratty eyes, mouth open. “My- my client has never been involved in-”
“I know what I saw,” I croaked, not at him but at Julian. “No more children in cages. You do that, I find you, all of you. Outside. Leave you in some hell-place, starve to death or get eaten. Not more kidnappings. Torture and kill every one of you,” I slurred, inflamed by the memory. “No more missing homeless people, none of it. Find out you have- twenty years from now I’ll find you and resurrect your corpse and send you Outside.”
“A bold plan,” Julian actually laughed. “Very bold.”
“No more slaves. No more torture.”
“You seriously think they’ll keep that promise?” Evelyn muttered.
“Ahem. Ahem, yes, yes, quite,” Yuleson struggled to regain his footing. “So, stipulations – no contact with Lauren Lilburne, and no more, shall we shall, criminal activity?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Nicole said quietly, with all the gravity of real conviction. The look she gave Julian could have curdled milk.
“Yes, I think that is quite a reasonable starting point, don’t you, Julian?” Yuleson prattled on. “Miss Stack, please, do sit down. There’s no need for all this drama. See? We are talking, we are building a compromise here. Miss Morell and I have managed to make ourselves understood at last, we are getting somewhere. Are you- ahem, Heather? Are you quite alright, there?”
“Twil told us what Heather saw,” Michael Hopton put in. “But we weren’t quite sure if we should believe it or not. Was this for real, this … kidnapping business?” He waved a hand, lost for words. Didn’t blame him.
“It was,” Julian said, with a smile that made me sick. “Alexander went further than any sane sanction.”
“That’s not what Lozzie told us,” Raine mused. “She said Eddy-boy was the fixer.”
Julian shrugged with both hands. “We here to debate ethics, or make an agreement?”
“Quite, quite!” Yuleson said. “Recrimination will get us all nowhere fast, not at this stage of proceedings.” He smiled, oily and smug once more. “I am certain that all three parties represented here have engaged in unsavoury activities of their own. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone and all that.”
“Why Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked softly. “Why not pick up and go somewhere else?”
Julian sighed. “You know why, Saye. You know why.”
“Because Sharrowford’s an important place. The walls are thin here. Certain kinds of magic just work better.”
“It’s hardly the only place like that.”
“True, true.” Julian allowed himself another ironic smile.
I wanted to wipe it off his face, felt the phantom limbs twitch in my mind with the desire to reach out and slap him again, break his teeth, rip his tongue out. Instead, that awful deep-rooted pain lanced into my sides again. I gasped and almost fell over, only Raine’s support kept me on my feet. Evelyn stared at me, hissed ‘hospital!’ but I shook my head.
“Sharrowford is important to us,” Julian was carrying on, “because of the material basis of Alexander’s work. You know what I’m talkin’ about, the sub-dimension, the pocket behind the city.”
“That fucking castle,” Twil grumbled.
“Yes, the inadvisable castle. A folly, certainly, but what it was built on is a treasure trove of knowledge from beyond. There’s an entity down there, embedded like a comet after landfall-”
“Saw it,” I croaked.
“Quite. Did you now?” His eyes blazed at me with sudden curious intensity.
“And all those bloody things in the sky,” Twil said. “The … planets? Fucking awful shit.”
“Its offspring, as far as we understand,” Julian answered. “Our aims are simple, we wish to establish contact, a dialogue, a link with the mind of the poor thing trapped down there. We want to understand.” He nodded slowly as he spoke, mostly to Evelyn. “We’re not so different, you and I, Evelyn Saye. All we want to do is pursue our study of occult knowledge in peace.”
Evelyn looked at him like something she’d found on the underside of her boot.
“Conditions first,” I croaked.
“Quite,” Evelyn hissed.
“Going to help us,” I said. “Glasswick tower, Alexander’s corpse-”
“We’ve been inside,” Stack said, low and slow. “The body’s gone. Missing.”
“Amy,” Julian snapped, his ironic facade collapsing completely.
“I said, I’m out.” She stared at me, gave me an imperceptible nod again.
“Who took the corpse?” Evelyn demanded.
“I don’t know. I’m leaving now.”
“We’re not done here yet, Amy,” Julian said.
“Yes, yes we are.” Evelyn snapped. Her hand went to the sports bag on the chair. She didn’t need to open the zipper to spring the trap, but it made for a wonderful piece of theatre. All the Hoptons got to their feet. Christine stood where she was but the others backed up, unsure and unsteady. Yuleson yelped like a struck pig. Julian smiled and raised both hands.
“Alright, alright, I get the message,” he said.
“Who took the corpse?” I croaked.
“Heather, come on, time to go,” Raine whispered in my ear. I tried to ignore the awful throbbing pulse in my side. Maybe I was bleeding internally. I could barely bring myself to care. The image of Alexander Lilburne’s corpse up and walking around made me want to be sick.
“I can show you, if you really wanna know,” Julian said. He smiled.
And something inside me clicked with horrible cold precision. Why exactly did this man’s mannerisms remind me so much of Alexander? This man with different coloured skin, of a different age, with a different accent? He wasn’t even the right height, a good half-head shorter than Alexander had been.
Yuleson blinked in surprise. “Julian? This wasn’t in the plan, what are you doing? Julian.”
“You really think you get told everything?”
“I-I- Well! Well, I never.”
“Here, it’s quite simple,” Julian addressed Evelyn and I again. “But I’ll have to take somethin’ out of my pocket. Please, feel free to put a knife to my throat or whatever, if you think I’m about to do somethin’ nefarious.” He smirked now, as if he was still perfectly in control.
Evelyn glanced at me.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” I whispered.
“Heather?” Raine stiffened, I felt the tremor go up her body. “What do you mean?”
“Aha — but who is me?” Julian asked. “I think you have the wrong idea, miss Morell. May I?” He gestured at his pocket. Without waiting for permission, he pulled out a white handkerchief and spread it out on the tabletop, then placed his hand against it, fingers spread, palm down. “You see, the reason you think I might be Alexander – which is absurd, by the way, because ‘e’s dead, isn’t he? – is because I am based on Alexander.”
“Praem,” Evelyn snapped. She took a step back, eyes going wide.
“Not in public!” Nicole said, on her feet too now.
“Saye. Morell.” Julian nodded to both of us. “You’ve impressed me, though we – aha, well, I-”
And on that first person pronoun, Julian’s North London accent died; in its place reared something older, more familiar, a local accent from a time when England still had local accents. A Sharrowford accent. His voice itself died too, replaced with a much older tone, the grumbly, reedy rasp of a lifetime of cigarette smoke, fussy and particular and somehow coldly reptilian.
“I have a detailed understanding of your limits,” not-Julian continued, even as Praem jerked forward, as the doll-demon moved to dart around the table and stop him. “And you do not intimidate me. We talk as equals. I shall have to consider your conditions most carefully. Harry, you will find the real Julian asleep in his bed. Give him a pay rise, will you? That’s a good fellow.”
‘Julian’ seemed to melt suddenly, his flesh running and drooping like hot candle wax before any of us could react and grab him, before Praem could cross the few paces and bundle him to the ground. For one horrible moment his face appeared locked in a scream, then sloughed away completely.
For a split-second I saw the true face beneath. Considering his cowardice and caution, it could only have been the image of a distant pilot, not the real thing wrapped in a flesh-suit.
White, craggy, liver-spotted, with big owl-like eyes framed by bushy grey brows like rotting caterpillars. Thin, bloodless lips, his neck a wattle of loose flesh.
“Do say hello to my niece,” said Edward Lilburne. “I’ll be in touch.”
With a comically understated pop – echoed by a popping of air pressure in the ears of everyone present – ‘Julian’ vanished, and took Edward’s momentary image with him, snuffed out by the empty air.
He left behind a layer of peeled and bloody skin stuck to the handkerchief, as if he’d gripped frozen metal.
I coughed, almost gagged in shock; was it my imagination, or did I taste blood in the back of my throat?
“Fuck!” Twil said.
“Quite,” Evelyn hissed, jaw tight.
“ … I … but I … I picked him up from his flat this morning,” Yuleson said, staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the place his ‘assistant’ had sat. “I don’t- oh, for pity’s- that man does not pay me enough money to act his fool!”
“Huh,” Stack said. “I was not aware he could do that.”