After three hours in the A&E department of Sharrowford General Hospital, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me.
They took my blood and blood pressure and had me pee in a cup. They poked and prodded and asked me the requisite ‘does this hurt?’ They ruled out internal bleeding and an x-ray ruled out broken bones. They hemmed and hawed and could not find a reason for the pain.
Except the bruises.
Three bruises, one for each tentacle anchor-point. Two on my left flank, above the outward crest of my hipbone, and one on the right side of my waist, just below the base of my ribcage. Dark mottled purple, almost black with damaged capillaries, not quite perfectly circular but close enough to provoke medical suspicion. Doctors asked questions I couldn’t answer. The attending nurse gave me a funny look, saw right through my stumbling, stammering excuses as I sat half-naked, wincing and shivering on an examination bench, trying to keep the Fractal on my left forearm concealed as much as I could.
Raine, bless her quick thinking and boundless courage, pretended embarrassment as she spun a fanciful comedy of sexual errors, to explain both the bruises and my reticence. Her tall tale involved something called a ‘doorframe harness’, and obliquely hinted that I’d refused to stop, gripped by the heat of my own lust, and thus injured myself. Raine implied that she was bruised too, though far less painfully.
I hung my head and blushed tomato red – I didn’t have to pretend – and our mummery appeared to mollify the medical staff. The nurse went from tutting suspicion to barely concealed amusement. They’d probably seen the aftermath of far worse sexual accidents than a pair of young lesbians doing some acrobatic experimentation.
The absurdity of our lie also took my mind off the pain, for a while.
No ordinary bruises, these. Each one felt like a knotted fist in my side. I wasn’t exactly physically flexible at the best of times, but now I could barely bend or twist at all without a throb of pain. Even while sitting still, my oblique muscles would occasionally spasm and shudder, echoing a deeper quiver of abused flesh.
The first time the doctors left us alone for a few minutes, Raine asked me a question.
“Were they really tentacles, or was that just poetry?” She held my hand, cracked a grin, distracted me from the ache in my sides. “Am I in for a surprise next time we’re in bed?”
“Ha-ha,” I deadpanned. “Yes, they were, tentacles. Three, and- ah-ahhh!”
I winced and sucked air through my teeth as jagged spikes of pain lanced deep into my torso. To even think about the phantom limbs was to invite the pain of their thought-echo. On instinct I’d attempted to uncurl limbs I did not possess, to show them to Raine, to gesture with a tentacle-tip and place another in her hand. None of that happened though; pain blossomed anew.
Couldn’t stop eating, either. Low blood-sugar made me shake and shiver. Raine brought me hospital vending machine food, and I must have inhaled over a thousand and a half calories before the shakes subsided. My tentacles, however short-lived, had burned a huge amount of energy.
“Nerve damage of some kind, perhaps,” a kindly-looking young doctor told Raine and I from behind his square-rimmed glasses, once I was properly dressed again, hunched over and clutching myself as I waited for the painkillers to work.
“Perhaps?” Raine echoed.
“Yes. It’s our best guess. I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid we’ll have to refer you to a specialist, miss Morell. Here in Sharrowford there’s a waiting list, but we could get you over to Manchester as early as next month, St Mary’s or the Royal Infirmary perhaps.”
“I’ll be … alright. I think.” I felt terrible for wasting doctors’ time – what I’d done to myself was beyond medical science. “I can wait. Thank you.”
“But she’s not in any danger?” Raine asked. “It can’t get worse, anything like that?”
“No danger at all, as far as we can tell, aside from the pain itself. The bruising looks bad and is going to hurt, but everything is where it should be. The bruises themselves should heal as normal. In some of these cases, especially for a young person, the pain works itself out on its own, or the painkillers sort of ‘reset’ the system, and it fades over time. Try to stay on them as much as possible, stick to the schedule the nurse wrote up for you, at least for two weeks. You have enough for two months, I think? Good, yes. If the bruises heal but the pain is still there, you could see your GP to get referred to another specialist, or we could go ahead and get you on that waiting list now, just in case.”
“I’ll be alright-”
“Yes,” Raine said. “Put her on the list, please. Just in case.”
The painkillers did work, though they took a while to kick in, to smother the discomfort and inflammation. The hospital discharged me with a big bottle of take-no-more-than-four-times-a-day and a smaller bottle of may-cause-addiction. Nothing more they could do. Raine drove us home, but not before we sat in the front of her car and shared a long, difficult hug.
“I’ll be alright”, I told her. I had the number of a physical therapist, a prescription for more drugs – and a yearning of which I could not let go.
“You will, Heather, yeah. Just bruises, hey?”
In my heart, that moment of glory had been worth all the pain in the world.
“You are not a fish, Heather!”
“I know that, I know-”
“Or a squid, or an octopus, or a fucking orca. I can’t believe you did that to yourself. I told you to be careful, specifically! Did you listen? You’re as bad as Raine.”
“I know. Evee, I’m sorry, I-”
“Don’t apologise to me,” she snapped. “You’re the one who could have minced her own organs.”
“I didn’t though, I made it work. It worked, and it felt-”
I failed to smother a wince and a gasp. A strangled sound escaped my throat. The tentacles had felt wonderful, yes, a euphoria beyond words, but now the memory of them summoned only their painful echo in my flanks. My sides shuddered as I curled up against the burning bruises, the torn muscle, the sharp daggers slipping past the bulwark of painkillers in my bloodstream.
“Hey, hey, don’t think about it,” Raine purred, one hand on my back. “Focus on me, listen to my voice.”
“You were incredibly lucky,” Evelyn hissed. She finally shoved a chair out from the kitchen table and slumped down, one hand on her walking stick.
“It’s not as if I grew tentacles for real,” I struggled past the haze of painkillers and the throbbing in my sides. “They were pneuma-somatic, spirit fl-”
“And I suppose your bruises aren’t for real either?” Evelyn snapped. “They don’t count. Good to know.”
“You know, they don’t look too bad really,” Raine said, as she peered at my bruises. “I’ve had worse myself.”
Raine had me sitting forward in one of the kitchen chairs, my tshirt and hoodie hiked up to expose my waist. She gently probed my quivering flanks with warm fingers, not on the bruises themselves, but on the unblemished flesh around them. She’d been careful to run her hands under hot water first. Despite everything, Raine’s touch helped.
“Raine, this is not external blunt impact trauma,” Evelyn all but spat. “She hasn’t come away from a bar brawl with a black eye. She’s modifying herself. How do you think Zheng got so tall? She didn’t start out at seven feet, I’ll guarantee you that.” She waved a hand at Praem, standing by the door to the magical workshop, dressed in her maid uniform once more. “The only reason Praem is so stable is because she’s made out of fucking wood. Are you made out of wood, Heather? Well? Are you?”
“Evee,” Raine sighed. “Come off-”
“No I will not calm down! You’re enabling her, Raine. How do you think you’ll feel if she breaks herself, and you encouraged her to do it? I told you to be careful, Heather. You’re a human being, not a demon. You’re more likely to break your own biochemistry, contract gangrene, screw up your hormone levels and give yourself a fucking brain aneurysm!” She swung her leg outward with a stomp, her prosthetic leg, and yanked her long skirt up in a fit of frustration, red in the face. She revealed the long stretch of naked black carbon fibre, and the rubber sheath which cradled the stump of her thigh, then gripped her own artificial knee. “You want this? You want something like this to happen to you?! Do you?!”
I blinked at her, shocked by the heat of her outrage. “E-Evee, I … ”
She glared at me, then broke off with a silent curse on her tongue, hurriedly covering her prosthetic again. “Yes, yes, none of us can imagine what happened to you. Of course.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Evee, I’m sorry,” I said, and felt a lump in my throat. “I’m sorry for making you worry about me.”
Evelyn jerked a shrug, wouldn’t look at me.
“Evee, uh,” Twil started from the doorway. “If it’s really that dangerous, then-”
“Oh, you can shut up as well,” Evelyn grumbled. “Just what we need, advice from a person who thinks she’s a dog. She’s not a fish, and you’re not a wolf.”
Twil rolled her eyes and let out an unexpected soft grumble as she refused to rise to Evelyn’s bait. “Why can’t you just, you know, admit that you care?”
Evelyn gave her a capital-L look, genuine hurt behind her anger. “This is caring. If you can’t deal with me- with that,” Evelyn hastily corrected herself with a guilty glance at Raine and I, “then … then … you can- … argh!” Evelyn waved a dismissive hand, out of words.
While Raine had driven me straight to the hospital, Evelyn and Praem had headed home, with Twil in distant, violent tow.
Evelyn and Twil were both still in the same clothes they’d worn to the meeting, with the exception of Twil’s lime green coat and white-cream hoodie, now draped over the back of a kitchen chair. The coat had been slashed open in three places and both garments were stained with blood – all Twil’s. Every now and then she flexed her right arm and rolled her shoulder, opened and closed the fingers of her right hand, working out the kinks left behind by her rapid healing. Not a mark remained on her bare skin now, but the real wound was deeper. Twil wore her heart on her sleeve.
“Hey, that’s not- that’s not what I meant,” Twil said, low and just as hurt. “Come on.”
They’d been alone together in the house for hours – save for Lozzie, asleep upstairs, and Kimberly, far too timid to get in their way. Whatever had happened between them in that time, the result was less than encouraging.
Raine settled my hoodie back down to hide my bruises again. “Evee,” she said softly. “How much danger is Heather really in?”
“I don’t know,” Evelyn said. “This isn’t exactly well-charted territory.”
“Nothing about this in any of your books?”
“Not that I know of. We could dig, maybe in the library.” Evelyn shrugged. “I doubt anybody has ever been stupid enough to try to grow tentacles before. Or they died before writing it down.”
“Then it’s an educated guess,” I said.
Evelyn’s eyes flashed at me again. “Are you so desperate to find an excuse to warp your own body?”
I swallowed, looked away, and with great difficulty, nodded.
“Heather?” Raine asked, one hand gently on my back again.
“I grew tentacles and it felt good.” I pulled a sad smile. “It felt right. And yes, for the record, I do realise how bonkers that sounds.”
“S’how it feels for me,” Twil put in, gingerly at first, then growing in confidence when Evelyn refrained from biting her head off. “When I transform, I mean.”
“You don’t transform,” Evelyn drawled. “You put on a suit.”
“You know what I mean,” Twil grumbled on. “It feels right. Like … I dunno … like eating, or putting on a warm pair of socks from the dryer or something. Or like, popping a limb back into place?”
“Growing a limb which should be there in the first place,” I murmured.
“S’not so different to what I do, right?” Twil continued. “I mean, I had teething pains too, hurt the fuck out of myself the first few times.”
“Your grandfather probably knew what he was doing when he made you,” said Evelyn. “Considerably more than we do. And you’re still a walking disaster.”
“ … oi, Evee, come on.”
“You act like a canine half the time.” She waved a hand at me. “Even if Heather manages to stabilise what she’s doing, without pulling her own digestive system out through her mouth, what is that going to do to her, hmm? What’s the end result? Squid-woman?”
“It felt right,” I repeated. Evelyn shot a look at me again, and I sighed and shrugged. “I’m not going to deny that. It was disgusting and weird but … right. I’m not going to be able to resist it again.”
“What was it like?” Raine asked, her tone one of genuine interest, not clinical investigation. “If you can describe it without thinking too hard.”
“Like … like tentacles. Slim, I suppose. No suckers or anything, just smooth. They strobed with light, like a fish from the sea floor. They were beautiful and- ahh!” I closed my eyes, bit down through the throb in my flanks. Almost time for another dose of painkillers.
The only part of my physical self I’d ever thought of as beautiful, and it wasn’t even real flesh.
“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “I can picture that, you’re beautiful all over. But what was it like?”
“Oh. Um … ” My heartstrings tugged with nostalgia for lost glory. I swallowed. “It just felt … right. I didn’t even have to think about how to move them, how to use them. It was like they’d always been there. I could have a dozen, a hundred, and instinct would have scaled up, I’m certain. It was like living in a wheelchair, and suddenly getting up and running. Feels like I could have done anything with them, no matter how complex, how hard.”
Evelyn put her face in one hand. “You can’t do this, Heather, you’re going to kill yourself.”
“I know.” I said, and felt tears threatening in my eyes.
“Heather?” Raine said my name.
“I know, I know, I just … it felt so good.” I sniffed, scrubbed at my eyes with the back of a wrist. “I want to feel that again, I … I don’t think I’m strong enough to resist again. If the moment calls for it, I know I’ll do it. I promised Maisie I wouldn’t go back into the abyss, but I-I … should have promised her I wouldn’t change myself.”
Raine got up and fetched a box of tissues, then helped me dry my eyes. I nodded my thanks. Evelyn looked away in second-hand embarrassment.
“Promise,” Praem intoned a moment later.
“Eh? I’m- I’m sorry?”
The doll-demon looked right at me, expressionless and blank. Why couldn’t I be more like her? Life as a piece of wood.
“She’s got the right idea,” Raine said with a grin. “Heather, make that promise to us then. Or to me, if it helps. Promise me you won’t hurt yourself.”
I averted my eyes, pulled a weak shrug. I couldn’t lie like that.
“Promise,” Praem intoned again.
“She takes promises serious, don’t she?” Twil mused, watching Praem. The doll-demon watched her back.
“We have to find a way to make it safe for you – isn’t that right, Evee?” Raine asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. Evelyn shrugged wide, exasperated. “And we will. There’s bound to be something, maybe something like what Twil’s got, maybe we can talk to her family. Maybe something in Evee’s books. Maybe Lozzie will know. Yeah? Heather? Hey, Heather, look at me.” She took my hands, and I did. “It’s gonna be okay, we’ll find a way. But for now – just for now – promise me you won’t do it again. In return, I’ll promise to do my best so you’re not in a situation where growing magic tentacles seems like a good plan, no matter how cool that sounds.” She cracked a grin. “And hey, they do sound kinda cool.”
I sniffed again, nodded. “You wouldn’t be able see them anyway.”
“Ya’ never know. Promise me, please?”
“Promise,” Praem repeated.
“Yeah,” Twil added. “Come on, don’t hurt yourself.”
“Self-harm is unhealthy,” Evelyn added, cleared her throat. Best I was going to get from her, under the circumstances.
With some difficulty, I nodded. Raine’s confidence helped, and her promise that we’d find a way. We did have plenty of avenues to explore – Twil’s family, books, Zheng, Lozzie, all with their own challenges. For a moment I glanced at the ceiling, thinking about Lozzie asleep upstairs.
“Promise,” I whispered. “Sorry. You too, Evelyn. I’m sorry, I won’t … I don’t want to hurt myself. I’ve told you off for it before, so it’s only fair. Thank you.”
Evelyn shrugged, clearly uncomfortable.
“You gotta admit though,” Raine said. “The look on Stack’s face was pretty funny, ey?”
“Yeah.” Twil smiled wide. “Served her right. Wham! Right on her arse. Seriously thought you’d gotten like, mind powers.”
“I do have mind powers,” I said with a sigh.
“Yeah yeah, but you know what I mean. Like, super spooky mind powers.”
“Super spooky,” Praem intoned from over by the doorway. Twil jumped, Raine laughed, and I made fleeting eye-contact with the doll-demon. For some reason, she didn’t seem amused.
Evelyn finally allowed herself to relax a fraction. A slim, satisfied smile crossed her face. “Yes, quite. They never saw that coming. I don’t approve of the danger of the method, Heather, but on that account, well done. And thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I managed, not comfortable with being the sudden centre of smug attention. “I only wish we hadn’t failed.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Your methods won us something there, despite, well, everything else.”
The atmosphere in the room shifted. The immediate crisis of internal bleeding and phantom bruises gave way to the wider matter at hand.
“We gave better than we got, at least,” Raine said.
“Wait, what?” Twil asked. “But we didn’t get ‘im. Bastard got away.”
“Indeed,” said Evelyn. “Indeed he did. Why didn’t we just kill them all when we had a chance?”
After Edward-as-Julian had vanished into thin air, our little peace conference broke up in total chaos.
The bulk of my attention had been occupied by the searing pain in my sides and the struggle to retain consciousness, as Raine had helped me hobble to her car, parked around the front of the pub. As such, I was only aware of a small portion of what happened at the time.
Michael Hopton was demanding answers from Yuleson, who was left all a-flutter like a startled rabbit in the wake of his master’s disappearance. He stammered along as best he could, a staccato background to the rising swell of everyone suddenly talking at once. Amanda still stared at me, spellbound by what she’d seen me do. Her dog watched me like I was some unknown animal. Evelyn snatched the white handkerchief Edward had used off the table, and gestured to Praem. Nicole was on her feet, saying something so very standard about how we should all calm down. Even the math students at the other end of the pub garden could tell a fight was brewing. One of them was on his way over, raising his voice.
Twil had stood up and growled at Stack.
“I’m out,” Stack repeated once more, blank faced as she took a step back.
“You better start running, bitch!” said Twil.
Raine already had me five paces away from the mounting confusion when Twil vaulted the table. Stack dodged by the skin of her teeth. My goodness, but she was fast. Twil hit the ground in a roll and came up growling.
In my pain-addled state I had a horrible vision of the two of them, werewolf and trained assassin, laying into each other in the middle of a pub garden. Evelyn seemed to have the same fear, eyes wide and paralysed for a split-second, an order to Praem frozen on her lips.
But Amy Stack was too professional for that. She turned on her heel and sprinted away, round the side of the pub and out into the street.
Twil was so surprised it took her several heartbeats before she gave chase.
A moment later all we knew of them was the sound of running footsteps receding into the warren of houses beyond.
“She’ll kill her!” Nicole said, moving to go after them.
“I wouldn’t bother, detective,” Evelyn grumbled. Everyone else had fallen quiet in surprise, the sudden explosion of violence more than enough to end the chaos. The trio of curious math students were looking rather shocked. One of them shrugged, and another went back to her drink. In the corner of my eye I noticed that Twil’s parents both had oddly pained expressions on their faces.
“Which way ‘round?” Benjamin asked. “’Cos I know my cousin’ll win.”
“She- I- … alright, fair point, I don’t know,” Nicole said.
A still-functioning part of my mind almost laughed; this was the second time Twil had chased Stack through Sharrowford, and I didn’t expect her to do any better than previously.
“Twil will tear her apart,” Michael Hopton sighed, no relish in his voice, scant pride in his daughter.
“Exactly,” Nicole said. “Can’t you … ”
His look said it all. No, he could not stop her.
Yuleson managed at last to gather himself up, all his myriad papers stuffed back into his briefcase. The last thing I saw before Raine and I hobbled around the side of the pub was the little rat-like lawyer offering firm handshakes all around. He had few takers.
When we at last got home, Twil told us what we’d missed.
Exceeding all my estimations, shaming me for my lack of faith in my friend, she had caught Stack. In a back alleyway behind an Indian takeaway place, between Oldham Street and a row of shuttered light industrial plants, Stack had turned and fought.
“You’re kidding,” Raine had said. “With just a knife? Against you?”
“Yeah.” Twil cringed. From the unimpressed look on Evelyn’s face, I gathered Twil had been over this explanation once already, likely while stripping ruined and bloody clothing off her rapidly-healing arm.
Raine let out a low whistle, shaking her head. “That’s real skills.”
“Never even fuckin’ touched her,” Twil huffed.
Stack had turned and fought, against Twil gone half-wolf in the privacy of a dingy, dirty back alleyway. To hear Twil tell the tale, the fight had lasted only three or four seconds, and ended with Twil howling in transient pain, on her back in a splatter of her own blood. Stack had escaped, off into the city, untouched.
“That’s real knife skills,” Raine repeated. “Glad she quit on her boss so publicly, hey?”
“Yeah,” Twil grimaced. “No rematch.”
I almost didn’t believe it. I’d seen Twil fight zombies by pulling their heads off, wrench a steel chain apart with her bare hands, crack concrete with raw strength. If it wasn’t for Twil’s heartfelt earnest nature – and the blood all over her slashed-open clothes – I would have suspected her of lying, that she’d been caught in some clever trap too embarrassing to admit, or that she’d lost Stack entirely and invented her defeat to cover for failure.
All her strength and enthusiasm hadn’t meant so much, faced with trained skill.
By the time I’d gathered enough brainpower to ask the questions, Raine was helping me to the table to check on my bruises, and Evelyn had started shouting.
Why didn’t we just kill them all, indeed?
“Because Edward Lilburne wasn’t really there,” I answered Evelyn’s question. “Because killing a nasty old lawyer wouldn’t have achieved anything useful.”
The instrument of our deception lay in the middle of the kitchen table, a broken square, the fabric torn down the middle to disarm any further magic – the white handkerchief which Edward-as-Julian had produced from his suit pocket.
Upon closer inspection at home, Evelyn had discovered a magic circle stitched into the fabric in white-on-white. Obvious when one looked, but very hard to distinguish during a rushed moment in a pub garden. A faint hand-print remained inside the circle itself, as if the outer layer of Edward-as-Julian’s skin had been left behind in whatever process had allowed him to dismiss his remote mouthpiece.
Our own trap – the rabbit corpse stuffed in a sports bag – was safely contained in the basement. It would keep some weeks, apparently. A nuclear option, just in case.
“Would have made me feel better,” said Evelyn.
“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “Wish we could have stayed and given him a good kicking.”
“What?” Twil frowned. “The lawyer? Beat up an old man?”
“You seemed pretty into the idea of smacking him one.”
“Yeah, yeah, but like … he didn’t really matter in the end, did he?”
Evelyn waved a dismissive hand. “What about Stack? We should have killed her, taken her off the board. Should have pulled the bloody trigger and have done with her. Not for want of trying, I suppose.”
“Yeah yeah, rub it in, why don’t you?” said Twil.
“She is off the board,” Raine said. “Far as we know.”
“Still should have gotten rid of her,” Evelyn grunted. “Can’t be certain.”
“World’s full of evil people, Evee. We’re not responsible for all of them,” said Raine. From Evelyn’s pursed lips and silent nod, I got the impression this was a discussion they’d had before.
I let out a huge sigh, arms wrapped around myself, rubbing gingerly at my bruised sides. “We all screwed up.”
Deep down inside, past the exhaustion and the shadow of pain, I was glad we hadn’t killed anybody – even Stack.
Intellectually I knew I was right; without Edward Lilburne present, there was no point in springing a trap. The head of the snake would slink off to hide and heal, to prepare for revenge. Leaving them alive but filled with doubt made far more sense. Peel Stack away from her employer. If Julian had been real, perhaps we could have worked on him too. The real Julian was out there, so perhaps we still could.
But that wasn’t what I’d felt when I’d grown those beautiful, shining tentacles.
I’d been intoxicated by the power and beauty of them. By the ability to defend what mattered to me. If I’d lasted longer I would have strangled Stack to death, at the very least. Would I have beaten Amanda Hopton’s dog for growling at me? Pulled apart the Hopton’s bubble-servitor?
I’d have given in to that abyssal ruthlessness, and where would that end?
Maisie needed rescuing, but she also needed me; it would not serve either of us if I turned into a monster.
“Heather, hey, we didn’t screw up,” Raine said. “Not like that.”
“Zheng told me-” I started, swallowed, and came as close as I could to expressing what I really felt. “Zheng told me to eat them first, before they eat me. At first I thought she meant don’t bluff, don’t take the bait, just … kill them. Embrace what you are, she said. Then I thought she meant the tentacles, maybe, but maybe I was wrong.”
“Cryptic bullshit,” Evelyn grunted. “Wonderfully clear advice, yes.”
“Yeah, we can hardly take advice from that thing,” said Twil.
“Look, at least we put in our demands,” Raine said, cracking a smile and looking around at everyone. “We can’t find the bastard, so that was the next best move. We made our point, loud and clear.”
“And what exactly was our point?” Evelyn asked, a bite to her voice. “That we’re too collectively stupid to see through such an obvious trick? That we’re too cowardly to do what needed to be done?” She turned away, her gaze focused inward. “What the hell do I do now?”
“Wait for his answer?” Twil suggested, and earned herself a glare from Evelyn.
“It’s alright for you, isn’t it?” said Evelyn. “You can run off back to your mummy and daddy-”
“Hey!” Twil bristled, but at the same time, her face fell. Evelyn stopped short, cleared her throat, and took a different course.
“Edward Lilburne will come back at us, I know he will. We’ve got something he wants.” Evelyn pointed at the ceiling, and I knew she meant Lozzie. “Not to mention Sharrowford itself. No, we need something on him, we need to find the bastard and … ” Evelyn grit her teeth and got out of her chair, clacking her walking stick against the kitchen floor. She walked three paces with sudden purpose, then stopped and turned as if lost.
“We could put the squeeze on Yuleson,” Raine suggested. “He’s a figure of public record and all that, takes clients, not like he’s hiding.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Evelyn hissed. “Even you know threatening a lawyer is an astoundingly bad idea. Even with magic; especially with magic. You want to get arrested?”
“Maybe we don’t do it with magic,” Raine said.
“Oh for pity’s sake, you-”
I retreated into myself, closed my eyes, hugged my aching sides through the warmth and softness of my pink hoodie. Raine and Evelyn talked past each other, Twil made impotent suggestions, Praem stood like a statue but I imagined I could feel her slow thoughts. Outdoors, the sun was going down, letting the shadows creep over the garden and Tenny’s cocoon in the tree. I imagined I could feel that too, a vast pneuma-somatic heartbeat. Maybe she would understand how I felt.
We had too many issues to address to make ourselves safe – Edward Lilburne’s next move and the problem of Glasswick tower, Lozzie’s slow deterioration and our inability to get Outside, the Eye’s squid-thing still languishing in Evelyn’s workshop and the giant zombie running wild across the countryside. I was on a time limit, Maisie was on a time limit, and I could barely make my own hard-won chosen family safe, or keep us on track.
The tentacles, the echo of the body I’d brought back from the abyss, it gave me strength. To defend me and mine? To make us secure so I could focus on my sister?
A poor justification, but tempting.
“Heather? Hey, earth to space cadet H? Come in, this is Sharrowford calling.”
I ran my fingers over my own ribs, pressed as close to the bruises as I could stand. Winced. Pain, a source of clarity.
“I’m listening,” I lied, and opened my eyes to find the others all looking at me in various states of amusement and concern. The argument had faded without resolution. Evelyn looked like she’d been sucking a lemon.
“No you’re not,” Raine chuckled. She reached over and ruffled my hair. “But that’s okay. You need some sleep.”
“I need to find Zheng,” I said.
“Yes, yes you bloody well do,” Evelyn grumbled. “She might give us an edge, if you can control her.”
I shook my head. Not what I’d meant, not at all. “I think she might know how to make it safe.”
“Safe?” Evelyn frowned.
“Ahhhh,” Raine let a smirk creep onto her face. “Not the only reason though, eh?”
“It was, um … I just had a gut-feeling when I went to talk to her, it’s hard to explain, but I think she might understand these things. Might know how to … ” I gestured at my sides, at the hidden bruises. “Maybe. Maybe then I could … grow them for real, I-”
“For pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She turned and stomped off, almost limping, past Praem and into her workshop. She tried to bang the door behind her, but Twil crossed the room in a quick bound and caught it before it slammed shut.
“Evee?” She slipped in after Evelyn.
A torrent of muttered abuse flowed back into the kitchen – I didn’t hear full sentences, but I got the jist of it well enough.
“-not taking this seriously- -more concerned with turning herself into a fish- -going to fucking kill herself-”
I winced inside, wished I could curl up into a ball and vanish.
Evelyn was right; we’d solved nothing. I still couldn’t get Outside, and Lozzie continued to deteriorate. We couldn’t begin to enact the plan to save my sister, not if we couldn’t get to Carcosa to plunder it for knowledge, or ask Lozzie about her mysterious knight that had saved us from the Eye.
“She doesn’t mean half of that,” Raine said softly, stroking my hair. Sometimes I felt like she was the only thing keeping me here. “Evee’d never admit it, but she’s scared of this. This Edward guy.”
“What, scared?” Raine cracked a grin. “Nah. I think he’s gonna fold.”
“I have to find Zheng,” I repeated, and tried not to feel guilty.
I had to get myself in order if I was going to rescue my sister. Had to keep everyone together, remove distractions, carry out the plan. Had to rely on my friends? That’s what Maisie had said. Her advice still shone clear and plain.
Was Zheng a friend? Yes.
I had a problem, and a friend who could help. I chose, in that moment, to trust my sister’s advice.
Or at least that’s how I justified the desire.
“You wanna jump her bones?” Raine asked. I frowned at her, a blush in my cheeks.
“It’s not- not like that. N-not entirely, anyway … oh.” I let out a huge breath. “You’re joking. A joke. Right, yes.”
“Not entirely,” Raine said, but her voice told the opposite. “Tell me how she made you feel.”
The way Raine slipped the question in, right after making me almost laugh past the pain in my sides, was nothing short of professional grace. No guile, no trick, just open curiosity. If she’d cornered me in our bedroom and said ‘we need to talk’, or ‘can I ask about Zheng’, or suchlike, I would have frozen up inside, tried to evade the guilt and her scrutiny together. Instead, she found the one way to unlock the truth.
“The … the me I brought back from the abyss, I felt right to be near her,” I said. “Like a kindred spirit, one of my own, a person like me. Which makes no sense, because obviously we’re nothing alike. Not even the same species.” I sighed heavily. “Raine, I don’t think I’m human anymore. Not really.”
“Who cares about that?”
“Who … Raine, excuse me?”
“Who cares if you’re human? You’re still you. Heather Morell, Time Lord.”
I laughed ever so slightly, then winced and let out a ‘mmm!’ as a spike of pain travelled up my sides. Raine rubbed the back of my neck, trying to distract me. “Thank you,” I said. “I think.”
“So what’s the plan with Zheng? You wanna organise a threesome?”
“Raine,” I spluttered.
“Hey, had to ask,” she said, and couldn’t hold back a grin.
“I’m-” I glanced over at the door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. Soft murmurs came from within, Evelyn and Twil still talking. I lowered my voice, mortified by the subject matter. “I’m not going to cheat on you, Raine. I couldn’t do that to you. Never.”
“Cheating doesn’t come into it. You need what you need, can’t help that.”
I blinked at her, didn’t understand – didn’t want to understand. “Raine? What does that mean?”
“Means I don’t blame you. Means I’m not scared you’re going to be unfaithful, Heather. That’s not who you are, I know that.”
“Oh. Um, fair enough, I suppose. Thank you. The same goes for you.”
“So, what’s the plan with Zheng?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Find her, convince her to come back to the house? Talk to her about … why I felt like that around her? Yes, just unpick the emotions of a centuries-old demon living in the body of a Greek goddess. So simple. Oh, blast it all, I sound like Evelyn.”
“Gotta find her first,” Raine mused.
“Exactly, and how do we do that?”
“Lay out the right sort of bait.”
“You, maybe.” She winked. “Let me think on this overnight, Heather. Let me try to get into Zheng’s head.”
Perhaps tracking live game across the countryside was indeed more Raine’s speciality than mine.