My promise barely outlasted the day.
That night, the night which followed the meeting and our trip to the hospital, Raine and I slept especially close.
We usually did, ever since the very first time we’d slept together, tangled up in each other’s arms and scent and body heat beneath the bedsheets. I’d had precious little opportunity for skinship over my decade-long purgatory between Maisie and Raine, but these days it all came out. Often we spooned – with Raine always the big spoon – or I’d snuggle up against her side and she’d put an arm around me. In the night we’d shift, semi-conscious, sometimes part and rejoin. Often we’d awaken together for a while before returning to sleep.
Even moreso since my return from the abyss, and the insatiable physical needs I’d brought back with me.
But after the day we’d had, and the strain placed on my body by the seconds-brief demands of my pneuma-somatic tentacles, sex was the last thing on my mind. Raine tucked herself in behind me, gentle and slow, careful to avoid pressure on my bruises. She nuzzled the top of my head, but I’d already slipped through the wall of sleep.
I didn’t stay there for long.
A few hours later I struggled up from the depths to find myself adrift in the dead of night. Sore and cold even in Raine’s arms, my flanks throbbing and burning, the painkillers worn off, an exhaustion headache churning in the cavity behind my eyes where my brain should be. Try as I might, sleep would not return. I lay awake and listened first to Raine’s breathing, then the noises beyond our bubble of warmth.
A chorus of nocturnal sounds crept through the building, as they do in any house as old and as badly maintained as number 11 Barnslow Drive. Snatches of mournful wind whistled under loose roof tiles, aged beams creaked inside the walls as they contracted from the night’s cold; the boiler gurgled softly to itself in the basement, and copper pipes carried the almost imperceptible hiss and glug of hot water to the iron radiators in every room.
Unspeakable need tortured me, tempted me with an opportunity for furtive fulfilment.
I wriggled free from Raine’s arms – then held my breath as she murmured and turned over in bed, but she didn’t wake.
On silent feet, I cracked open our bedroom door, and padded out into the dark corridor.
The darkness in this beautiful old house is never quite total, unless one cares to venture down into the shallow basement. Only real blackout curtains can hold back Sharrowford’s distant light pollution, not to mention the closer glow of the streetlights along the pavement, no matter that two of them within sight of the house had been burnt out for weeks. Diffuse orange seeped around the edges of the windows, provided just enough light for me to shuffle my way to the bathroom.
Just enough light as my eyes adjusted, to outline the doors in the upstairs hallway.
And the dark misshapen thing which lurked there.
A white oval turned to face me.
In the split-second before I recognised Praem – the wide skirt of her maid uniform had complicated her human outline in the dark – a hiss rose in my throat. I almost jumped out of my skin. Phantom tentacles and spines reacted in panicked defence, triggered muscle spasms in my sides, and a gasp of pain cut off the hiss. I winced and curled up, clutching at my flanks, gripping at myself, trying to hold still my own quivering, abused muscles.
“Ahhhhh, ahhh,” I hissed through my teeth and crouched down, all but sat on the floor as the wave of pain passed through me.
Praem just watched.
“Praem- ahh,” I winced. “That’s the second time you’ve surprised me in the night! Why are you standing here in the dark?”
Dressed in her full maid uniform, Praem had seemed like some moth-winged black ghost caught in the shadows of the hallway. She stood outside Evelyn’s bedroom door, as if on guard. I knew she didn’t need sleep. At night she usually sat on one of the sofas in the magical workshop, and over the last month I’d taken to giving her books. She did go through the physical motions of reading, most nights, but I had yet to extract a response from her about the content of anything she’d read.
What she didn’t habitually do was lurk up here, spooking me on my way to the toilet.
Praem declined to answer. I eased myself up from the floor. “Is something wrong with Evee?”
“No,” Praem intoned – at full volume. I winced and put a finger to my lips.
“Shhhhh. Praem, everyone else is still sleeping.”
“Not you,” Praem said in her musical, sing-song voice, thankfully much quieter this time. My spine still itched at the way her lilting words might carry through the closed doors and old walls. Guilt crept into my chest.
“Yes, because I need to use the toilet,” I whispered, an easy lie, one I’d told myself as I’d gotten up. “Praem, what are you doing standing around in the dark?”
Blank white eyes stared back at me.
I sighed. “Alright, have fun standing there, I suppose? You do know there’s nothing stopping you from taking some blankets and having a lie down? I’m sure Evelyn won’t mind. Sleep is relaxing. No? Well, um, I do need to use the bathroom, so … ”
As soon as I made to move, Praem stepped forward. She didn’t quite block my way, nothing so obvious, but the intent was clear. Up close now, her perfectly smooth artificial skin looked like milk in the darkness.
“ … P-Praem?”
“Promised,” she intoned.
My heart skipped a beat. Mouth went dry. How did she know what was I thinking about?
“ … I’m … Praem, I’m not-”
“Promised,” she repeated. “Heather, you promised you would not hurt yourself. You promised everyone. Don’t break promises.”
I blinked in surprise. Praem hadn’t spoken such a complete statement since our strange encounter just before Christmas, in the kitchen of Evelyn’s family estate.
She put me to shame. My cheeks burned with guilt and my sides burned with dull throbbing. I wanted to curl up and vanish.
“I’m not going to … Praem, I’m not going to try to summon the tentacles again. I just … I want to look at my bruises in the mirror. I want to … I need to … I don’t know. I want to think about them. Picture them. It’ll hurt a little, I guess, but not much and-”
“Promised you wouldn’t hurt yourself,” Praem repeated.
“Praem.” I tried to huff, but couldn’t get it out. I looked away, felt tears prickle in the corners of my eyes.
“Okay!” I hissed. “Okay, okay, I won’t, I won’t hurt myself. I just want to look. And I really do actually need to use the toilet as well. I’m … I’m sorry, Praem.”
Praem stepped back. Blushing with shame, I slipped past her, past her wide, rustling skirt, and into the bathroom.
For a long moment after I closed the door I pressed my back against the thin wood, in the dark, the closest I could attain to true peace, the abyss echoed in absence.
Then I flicked on the light. Removing my tshirt was made harder than usual by the stiff bruising in my sides, difficult to raise my arms above my head. I finally got free, the night air cold against my naked skin, and looked at myself in the mirror.
The Heather in the mirror examined me in return.
My skinny frame, my pale and pasty skin, an ape kept from the sun. My hair which I hadn’t cut in months, now almost as long as when I’d been a child. The bold black lines of the Fractal inked on my left forearm, a secret tattoo hidden from the world. The bruises on my flanks, angry and inflamed.
Scrawny and weird, that’s how I’d always thought of myself. Never had much pride in my body, never liked it much, never felt beautiful or even notable, no matter how much Raine told me so. As a teenager, looking in the mirror had hurt. Alienated from my own body, but at the same time defined by it; seeing my own face reminded me of Maisie. I saw her, looking back.
For the first time in my life, something else crept in.
I had the most bizarre urge to photograph myself.
Not for sexual purposes, oh no, not at all. I wanted to capture the Fractal, record my bruises. A slightly mad, paradoxical part of me hoped that the bruises would leave scars or permanent discolouration. History, written on my body. I liked this, this physical proof that I was defined by something other than how I saw my body in relation to others. Scrawny and slight, reedy and flat – somehow that all mattered less, now.
I raised and flexed my right arm, thought about the way the tendons pulled and the muscles bunched. Tried to flex my side too, but stopped and winced.
Raine had been kind to describe the bruises as ‘not too bad’. Already they seemed darker than before, almost black, ringed with angry inflamed skin where the pneuma-somatic flesh had passed through my own.
My own – the tentacles had been my own as well.
With my breath held, ashamed and furtive and hoping Praem was not listening at the door, I thought about my tentacles. I didn’t try to summon them again. Such splitting of hairs served as my excuse – I wasn’t really doing it, not for real, no promise broken here.
Pain did not care about promises kept or broken.
I recalled the way the tentacles had felt, imagined them stroking the edge of the mirror, touching my own reflected image – and the anchor-points, deep inside the core muscles of my torso, seized and shuddered with searing pain, a throbbing bruise far deeper than the surface of my skin. I could almost visualise them, almost see them, but the pain was too much. I bit down hard on my lips, scrunched up my eyes as my breath shook. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I gave up.
“Ahhh … ahhh, ow, ow,” I whispered to myself, crouching down and clutching at my sides, tears of stinging pain in my eyes. “Heather, you idiot. You idiot. Idiot. Why?”
Because I wanted it. Because an abyssal body made me strong. Defend my friends. Rescue my sister. A mad part of me, a growing hybrid of abyssal creature and tribal ape, wanted to fight the Eye, pull it apart like a giant squid might fight a whale. Even in the rapture of my moment of glory, I knew that was simply impossible.
Shivering on the bathroom floor in secret, hurting myself in private, breaking my promises, spinning fantasies of impossible revenge. One of my lowest points in months.
Suddenly, the bathroom door handle rotated. The door cracked open.
“I’m- I’m still in here,” I croaked and staggered to my feet. I grabbed my tshirt off the side of the bath and clutched it to my naked front. “I- oh.”
Light spilt out into the upstairs hallway to reveal Praem supporting a sleep-addled, heavy-lidded, curious Lozzie. Her long wispy blonde hair hung down in a curtain of gold.
With obvious difficulty, blinking and bleary, Lozzie managed to focus her eyes on me. She broke into a smile. “Heatherrrrrrr.”
“Lozzie? Did you wake up?” I asked, and scanned Praem’s face for an explanation. Had Lozzie stumbled into the hallway after a random awakening, or had she somehow felt my pain? Or, more likely, had Praem decided to wake somebody up to stop me from hurting myself?
Before I could pull my tshirt back over my head, Praem stepped forward and deposited the sleepy warm Lozzie straight into my arms. She slumped against me in a rough hug, warm from sleep, soft in her borrowed clothes.
“Mmm-mmmmmm,” Lozzie made a sleepy sound and rubbed her face into my shoulder. She weighed so little that I had almost no trouble holding her steady, even as Praem withdrew to the doorway again.
I sighed and gave Praem a look. “Emergency Lozzie, is it?”
“Sleeeeep?” Lozzie murmured. “Come bed?”
“Maybe. Maybe, I- I should be in bed with Raine right now, I-”
Lozzie’s nose twitched. She blinked several times and forced her eyelids wider, but couldn’t quite overcome her natural heavy-lidded look. She slid down me. For a moment I thought she was going to slump to the floor, but she stopped at my side, clinging to me for support, her breath warm on my chilly skin.
She stared at my exposed bruises. Tilted her head back and forth, her little elfin face like some sprite conjured from the night.
“L-Lozzie? I’m fine, I’m okay, they don’t hurt too badly. Something happened earlier today, but I’m fine.”
“Growing little helpers for your help,” she mumbled, to herself or my side or just the empty air. “A helping hand, happy helping help hand … hand.”
“Mmm?” She sniffed and blinked and jerked upright again like a Jack-in-the-box. The light of consciousness glowed in her eyes. For a moment, she was all there, excited and smiling. “You’re growing new parts! Yay! Did you have trouble, was it easy?”
“ … no, no it wasn’t easy. Lozzie, how did you know what happened? You’ve been asleep the whole afternoon.”
“Mm-mm.” She wobbled her head, blinked heavily, and was gone again, her mind deficient after so long denied whatever sustenance she drew from Outside.
I gripped her shoulders. “Lozzie? Lozzie do you … do you understand what happened to me? You know what’s happening?”
Potentials raced through my exhausted mind. Lozzie knew how to make spirits – make things like Tenny, like the barely recalled monstrosity that had been revealed inside her Knight’s suit of armour as it had defended us from the Eye. She could craft and shape pneuma-somatic flesh, though I’d had no chance to ask her how, not since she’d slipped into her semi-conscious state over the last couple of weeks.
Maybe, just maybe, she might know how to stabilise my tentacles.
That is, if she could hold onto a coherent train of thought for more than ten seconds.
“Gotta take all the rubbish and put it in the rubbish bin and take the bin out,” she mumbled, sleep-talk nonsense.
“Lozzie? Lozzie, please concentrate. I need your help.”
Lozzie squinted and strained with effort, and let out a grumble of frustration. She blinked at me, her brain addled, trying so hard. From all our abortive conversations over the last couple of weeks, I knew she’d never get a full answer out. Her consciousness would drift away, like she’d been starved of oxygen.
“Mmmmmm-mmmm.” She slumped against me again, dragging at my shoulders with her feather-light body weight. “Heatherrrr.”
“Take- take me home, home where … where … ”
“Home? Lozzie, what do you mean?” I tried to heft her up onto her own feet, the bruises in my sides complaining all the while, but she was like a sack of potatoes, all loose and bony.
A single choked sob escaped her lips. “I can’t live like this anymore.”
I froze. Glanced at Praem for help. The doll-demon’s expression showed nothing, so perhaps I only imagined my shock mirrored in her eyes.
She sniffed, eyes unfocused. “I want to help, I do. Heather? Heather, I can’t think. Can’t. Can’t. Heather fix me. Fix please … nnn-mmm … ”
Eyes fluttering shut, she trailed off into a snore.
My heart felt fit to burst.
When Lozzie had saved me from the Eye, and then returned to reality, I’d been overjoyed to have her back. Since my own return from the abyss I’d been too preoccupied with myself, my phantom limbs and abyssal needs and the wrenching heart-pain of speaking with Maisie again. Hadn’t thought too closely about Lozzie’s slow deterioration.
We’d all treated her condition as almost cute. Cute sleepy Lozzie, flopping around the house. She ate, she kept herself clean, she wasn’t wasting away; I could cuddle up with her in the dark and feel right. A life-sized cuddle toy. A temporary replacement for my sister. Couldn’t get Outside, didn’t know how to break the interdiction, so Lozzie’s issue was something to solve for later, something to put off until tomorrow. We’d decided without discussion. We could fix it by killing her uncle – except that had failed.
Cute Lozzie, sleepy and bumbling around the house – trapped inside a brain that had stopped functioning.
I was a horrible friend.
“ … Lozzie? Oh, Lozzie, we have to get you Outside,” I whispered, furious with myself for letting this continue for so long. I managed to lower her to the bathroom floor where we slumped together, her head lolling on my naked shoulder.
“Mmmm,” she made a sleepy noise.
“This is killing you, isn’t it?” I felt hot tears threaten in the corners of my eyes.
She made another sleepy noise, child-like, a tiny mewl of sadness.
“There has to be a way.” I glanced down at the Fractal on the bare skin of my left forearm, then up at Praem, as I cast around for an idea. “There has to be some way of getting through to Outside. If only … ”
If only the lightest touch of hyperdimensional mathematics didn’t feel like jamming my fingernails into a barely scabbed-over wound. If only I was smarter, stronger, if only my thoughts would move faster. If only I could define the dead, grasping hands that had fastened around my ankles when I’d tried to Slip, if only I could tear them apart.
If only there was somewhere else I could take Lozzie.
“Somewhere else,” I whispered out loud, as a light bulb went on inside my head. “Somewhere else.”
A different place, a substitute; a place in which Lozzie had once been confined, without access to the Outside, and had retained her faculties.
“Lozzie, you’re going to be okay. I have an idea.”
“Idea,” Praem intoned. I nodded at her.
“Yes, an idea. One her own uncle gave me.” I hefted Lozzie’s semi-conscious form. She weighed so little, like a bunch of feathers, but my sides ached with the deep throb of abused flesh, and I was more than a touch worn out. I gestured at Praem with an elbow. “Praem, pick her up and carry her downstairs, please?”
Praem didn’t move. I sensed the unspoken question and let out a little sigh.
“I can’t sleep and my own body is torturing me. The least I can do is have a good think about a practical problem. I’m not going to do anything rash. In fact, I’m not going to do anything at all, certainly not without Raine or Evelyn awake and helping. I promise. I only want to look, and think it over. Then, maybe I can get some sleep.”
Another heartbeat passed and I thought Praem wasn’t going to help, but then she stepped forward and bent down to take Lozzie’s weight in her arms, pulling her up to her feet in one effortless motion. Lozzie let out a sleepy sound and clung happily to Praem, burying her face in the doll-demon’s chest.
I allowed myself a wince as I eased myself to my feet as well, then took Praem’s elbow when she offered it in support.
“Thank you,” I muttered, and set about the difficult process of manoeuvring my tshirt back over my head with my currently limited range of motion. Oddly, I didn’t feel at all embarrassed in front of Praem. She didn’t care if I was topless. I’d seen her naked before. More than naked, disembodied.
“Downstairs,” Praem said once I was done.
Before I could second guess myself, I leaned over and gave Praem a hug, with Lozzie in the middle. It was most comfortable.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, Praem. I … needed that. Emergency Lozzie was a good call.”
Praem did not respond. Both her hands were busy holding Lozzie up, and besides, no matter how human or well-developed she’d become, Praem wasn’t exactly the touchy-feely type.
Which is why I was so surprised when she gently touched her head against mine, her smooth flat blonde hair against my bird’s-nest mess. A laying together of human skull and illusion-wrapped wood. A surprised smile crept across my face.
“Bonk,” she said. I pulled back and blinked.
“Bonk?” I echoed. “Praem, you-”
“Boooonk,” Lozzie sleep-mumbled.
“Downstairs,” Praem repeated.
“Yes,” I sighed, and put aside the issue of Praem’s learnt affection for now. “Downstairs. First things first, I need more painkillers.”
Despite all my determination, I was still no mage. I didn’t understand the first principles of the thing I was looking at.
Mostly it made my eyes water.
“Evelyn said she was going to rebuild this to take us to the library of Carcosa, with that book I brought back,” I said, as much to myself as to Praem. She already knew this. I was merely thinking out loud. “Which means it still functions. Will function.”
I glanced back over my shoulder, down the length of Evelyn’s magical workshop, at Lozzie curled up on the sofa and wrapped in a spare blanket, her heavy-lidded eyes open just a crack. Praem stood by the table, her hands folded demurely in front of her, right next to the open box of strawberries I’d fetched from the fridge. Behind and above them, Evelyn’s resident spider-servitor clung upside down to its corner of ceiling, stingers waving in the air like lazy fronds of seaweed, its mass of crystalline eyes looking nowhere in particular.
“Lozzie?” I said. “You completed this in the first place, do you remember that?”
“ … mmmmm-mmmhmm.”
“Do you remember how? Could it take us back again? Back to the castle?”
“Mmm … mmm?” Lozzie squinted one eye shut with the effort of thinking, then closed the other, then chased with a snore. I sighed and turned back to the gateway.
Evelyn’s door; Lozzie’s collaboration. The Sharrowford Cult’s inept trap. The doorway-portal-thing to the foggy emptiness behind the city, where they’d carved their citadel from the protective scab-shell of a fallen, stranded Outsider. I cast my mind back to the moment I’d watched it open, the matter peeled away by an oily darkness, then replaced by a vision of a long hallway, on that night the still-enslaved Zheng had snatched me through by the head.
Afterward, Evelyn had deactivated the gateway, removed a specific portion of the massive ink-and-paint mandala.
Now it was just the outline of a doorway, scored into the paint and plaster of the wall.
The rest of the fan-shaped mandala was still intact, a complex interlocking mass of magic circles, esoteric symbols, bits of Latin and non-human language, with Lozzie’s – or my, depending on how one thought about it – finger painted additions in rough streaks, left to dry where we’d made them. Looking too closely hurt my eyes, made me wince, stirred the echo of nausea in my belly.
In theory, the door could be opened once more by simply replacing the piece of the design that Evelyn had scrubbed away. She’d even photographed it and made a sketch, just in case.
In practice? The pockets and folded spaces the cult had dug were gone now, closed up, had slowly collapsed in on themselves after Alexander’s death. Only the foggy sub-dimension itself remained, the wound in reality around the cult’s captured god.
Evelyn had sent Praem back there, once, before the cult’s hidden byways had vanished completely.
It had, in Evelyn’s delightful metaphor, ‘gone native’.
Not a place for human beings.
Perhaps we didn’t have to stay there for long, especially if we could get straight into the castle. Just long enough to get Lozzie what she needed. Five, ten minutes?
I knew I was bargaining with myself, trying to find a way to help Lozzie, but I lacked any other distractions to occupy my mind.
“Question number one,” I muttered, “is can we connect the doorway to the castle directly? Question number two, how dangerous is it there?”
Without answers to my questions, my eyes wandered down and to the left, down to the magic circle on the floor which still contained the horror in clay.
The vessel in which Felicity had trapped the Eye’s minion had all but dried up. It still looked like a bunch of rotten squid covered with an old sheet, but now it was a husk, barely able to move its many tentacles without the clay cracking, shedding fragments all over the floor.
“You’re next on the list,” I whispered, but of course it didn’t respond.
How similar were my tentacles to the ones of this Outside creature? In fact, why tentacles at all? Was the uni-directional tube of muscle some kind of universal principle, more simple and more widespread than the humanoid arm?
A pang of dull pain throbbed in my sides. I clutched myself and tried to suppress a wince. Thinking about my tentacles was a bad idea, unless I wished to overwhelm the painkillers I’d downed ten minutes earlier.
I cast about for a distraction, but kept looking down at the squid-thing in the magic circle.
Was that where my metamorphosis would lead?
“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem said. Her sing-song voice carried like a clear bell.
“Ah, alright, okay,” I said, and privately wondered if Praem had recognised my distress. I went over to her and selected another strawberry from the open box on the table. Faint traces of juice from the last two still lingered on her pale lips. “Open wide.”
Praem opened her mouth with a wet click and I pushed the third strawberry of the night onto her tongue, trying not to blush at the intimacy of the action. She ignored my faint discomfort, and chewed slowly.
“I still don’t understand why you can’t do this yourself,” I told her.
Praem looked me in the eye – somehow I could tell, despite the lack of any pupil or iris in her milky-white, empty orbs – and continued to chew. I sighed.
“I mean, you’re my equal,” I said. “Evelyn’s equal, too. I don’t care if you’re not human, you’re still a person, whatever you were before. You’re no slave. You can take a strawberry, or anything else from the fridge, whenever you like.”
Praem swallowed. Her lips parted again.
“But, enjoy what?” I mused. “The act of being served?”
“I like strawberries.”
“That doesn’t explain the … ” I waved a hand. “The ritual.”
“Kiss my arse,” Praem intoned, in perfect, sing-song voice. My jaw fell open.
“What.” Had my ears deceived me? “Praem, I’m sorry? Excuse me?”
Praem declined to expand on her point. Perhaps my imagination was playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn I saw the slightest crinkle of a smile in the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t smiled since that one time before Christmas, and I didn’t particularly wish for her to repeat the performance.
“Well, alright then,” I said. “I’ll take that as ‘please stop asking stupid questions.’ I’m sorry for prying.”
“No,” Praem said. I frowned, increasingly lost.
At that moment we both heard the soft creak of footsteps making their way down the stairs. Not clunky enough to be Evelyn, and too light for Raine, there was only one person left in the house who’s tread that might be. A handful of seconds later, the kitchen light guttered on, visible through the gap we’d left in the workshop doorway. A splashing from the sink, the sound of somebody fetching a glass of water.
Praem opened her mouth.
“Shhh,” I hissed. “Don’t make her jump.”
Praem closed her mouth and looked at me. I shrugged, a little embarrassed, then turned and spoke up.
A gasp, a clatter of mug dropped into the kitchen sink: mission failed. I’d startled the poor woman.
“Kim, it’s only me.” I crossed to the door and pushed it wider as Kimberly’s surprised face hove into view. “I thought you might have noticed the light was on, I’m sorry.”
“I-I, n-no, you made me jump. That’s all,” Kimberly stammered, blinking at me and then at Praem. She had one hand raised to her own chest in an unconsciously defensive posture.
“Kim? Kim it’s me, relax.”
“ … I’m sorry.” She swallowed and made a visible effort to lower her hand. She seemed even more skittish and jumpy than usual.
“Are you alright? I’m sorry I surprised you.”
“Yes. Yes, sorry.”
Kimberly was dressed in her pajamas, and I must say she had a very exacting taste in nightwear – bottoms patterned with little round cartoon dragons, and a tshirt with a print of a fairytale castle on the front. Big fluffy socks protected her feet from the cold flagstones of the kitchen floor. She tucked her auburn hair behind one ear, looking self-conscious and trapped. Behind her, the kitchen windows stared out into Sharrowford’s light pollution, Tenny’s cocoon illuminated sidelong in faint orange hue. Around us the house seemed a warm, dark cocoon of its own.
I smiled and tried to crack a joke.
“The last time anybody surprised you in … your … pajamas … ” I trailed off. Stupid, stupid Heather, I tutted at myself. The last time anybody surprised Kimberly in her pajamas, yes, she had stabbed Twil in the hand. “I’m sorry, that’s really insensitive of me. I wasn’t thinking, I was trying to tell a joke to … calm you down?”
“Oh. Oh, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m just … I only came down to get a glass of water.” She tried a nervous smile too. “Can’t sleep.”
“Me neither, actually. Want to talk about it?”
She shrugged. “What’s to talk about?”
Kimberly swallowed and looked guilty. “I just … what you all did today. Yesterday. I don’t want to risk getting tangled up with Edward Lilburne again. I don’t ever want to see that man again, any of them. I’m scared, alright? I’m just scared. Of everything.” She sighed heavily. “Story of my life.”
“Ah. Yes, good point.” I tried to formulate an apology, but couldn’t summon the right words. Sorry that you’re still involved? Sorry you have to be here?
“I was going to … you know. Light up for a bit. N-not that I’m smoking in the house!” she hastened to add. “I’ve been blowing it out the window.”
I smiled at that, despite myself. “Care to join us for a bit?”
Kimberly glanced over my shoulder, at Praem and the contents of the magical workshop, then noticed Lozzie on the sofa. A note of worry crept back into her voice. “What are you doing?”
“ … ” She stared at me, worrying more.
“Um, I mean, I’m just thinking over a problem.” I frowned in sudden thought. “Actually, you know, you’d be the person to ask about something that just happened.”
“Why might Praem tell me to kiss her arse?”
Kimberly blinked twice, paralysed. I think she was attempting to figure out if I was joking.
“I mean, you rebuilt her – put her back into her body,” I said. “You know a little bit about these things, yes? I was feeding her a strawberry, and asked why.”
I hurried to relate our bizarre exchange, glancing back at Praem, but the doll-demon silently declined the invitation to provide her side of the story. Kimberly chewed her bottom lip in thought. A visible relaxation passed over her shoulders.
“Osculum infame?” she said.
Kimberly blinked at me as if surprised to find me there, then to my immense surprise, she blushed. “Um, I mean, I don’t know why she can’t eat strawberries herself. I’m … ” She swallowed. “Despite what I … learned, I’m no expert. Demons should be able to take what they want after they develop enough, the binding doesn’t hold for long. It’s enough to draw them here initially, that’s all. But um … what she said, it reminds me of osculum infame.”
Kimberly blushed harder. “’Shameful kiss.’ Medieval Christian mythology stuff. They used to believe that in order to make a pact with Satan, or a demon, a witch would have to kiss the demon’s … um … ” She pointed awkwardly downward. “Rear end.”
“I-I only know that because of reading books about Wicca and stuff.” She fidgeted with her fingers.
I looked back at Praem. “Makes you wonder how much truth made it into those myths.”
“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.
“Another one?” I asked. “You’re insatiable.”
“Maybe that’s her equivalent,” said Kimberly.
“Maybe, yes,” I agreed. “Do you want to feed her?”
“I- oh, that’s okay, I-”
Praem twitched her head and looked right at Kimberly. “Feed me a strawberry.”
“Looks like you need to kiss the devil’s bum as well,” I said, and couldn’t help but smile. Kimberly blushed and hesitated, so I stepped back into the room and left the doorway as an open invitation. I crossed back to Praem and the box of strawberries, selected one and held it up toward Kimberly. “Have you ever done this before?”
Kimberly ventured into the room, casting a curious look at Lozzie asleep on the sofa. “No, um, no I haven’t.”
“You should try. It’s almost relaxing.”
“She’s not a pet.” Kimberly briefly met Praem’s staring eyes. “She’s a demon.”
“A demon that likes getting fed strawberries. Also very friendly.”
“She is kind of nice, I suppose.” Kimberly sighed as my peer pressure broke through. With a touch of Evelyn-esque huffiness she accepted the strawberry and held it up, unsure where to put the thing. “What do I- oh.”
Praem opened her mouth. Kimberly popped the strawberry inside, then withdrew her hand as if she might lose a finger. She, much like I had done my first time, flushed in the face as two fingertips brushed Praem’s lips. Praem closed her mouth and focused on chewing.
“ … that was … weird.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh. “Sorry, I had to share it with somebody. Also helps keep my mind off the pain in my sides.”
Kimberly gave me a look of sad sympathy. “Is it really bad?”
“It’s tolerable. Just trying to take my mind off thinking about my body, that’s why I’m down here.”
“Do you … do you want some cannabis? You don’t have to smoke it, I could put some in a brownie or something for you. It really helps with pain. I got into it originally for period cramps, when I was a teenager.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Not yet, but I’ll give it some thought.”
“Think about it,” Praem said. We both looked at her.
“So, Kim,” I said at length. “I’m working on a problem here, and you might also be the person to ask about that too. Well, you or Sarika, I suppose.”
“Sarika?” Kimberly’s voice caught in her throat. “I-I had very little contact with her, I-”
“It’s okay. It’s not about her.” I pointed at the mandala on the wall, at the inactive gateway. “It’s about that, and Lozzie.”
I took my time – and why not, neither of us could sleep – to outline my thoughts, my theory about Lozzie’s condition, and the open questions about getting through the gate and back to the castle.
“You were involved with this stuff for a long time. Do you have any idea what-”
“I don’t,” Kimberly blurted out. “I was never involved with that part. You know what I was … what I was doing, what I dealt with. Making … ” She nodded at Praem instead of saying the words. “I don’t know how they made the portals, or the weird pocket dimensions, and I don’t want to know, I don’t want to think about it.”
“Nothing at all?” I asked, my heart falling.
She looked at the mural – and gave herself away. A second of hesitation before she shook her head, guilt in the bob of her throat and the shift of her eyes. Kimberly took a halting, half-step back.
In a moment I’m not exactly proud of, a stabbing pain lanced into my sides – my phantom limbs, the tentacles that weren’t, had tried to reach out and block Kimberly’s retreat, hold her here, grab her by wrists and ankles. A gasp ripped out of my throat and I curled up, squeezed my eyes shut with the sudden pain.
“I’m fine,” I hissed. “Fine. Just a- twinge.” I panted for breath, swallowed hard, tried not to think. Guilt filled my chest; I’d tried to stop her leaving. Brute instinct had taken over, triggered by the hint of a lie in her eyes. Thankfully, I’d had nothing to work with.
“If you say so,” Kimberly said, but she sounded far from certain.
“Flowsie,” a sleepy, bubbly voice floated from the sofa. “Flowsieeeee.”
We both turned and looked at Lozzie, curled up there like a cute, sleepy little woodlouse. Even Praem turned to look. Lozzie had one eye half open, the lid twitching and fluttering.
“Flowsie,” she repeated. “I know you know that you know. You know. Know. Don’t be a liar, or you’ll get … layered.”
I don’t know if it was the content of Lozzie’s words, or her ethereal tone of voice, but Kimberly looked terrified. As Lozzie’s eyelid finally slid shut, Kimberly turned to me, stunned with nervous guilt.
“I … um … I … ” she stammered.
I straightened up from my pained crouch. “Why does she call you Flowsie?”
Kimberly all but rolled her eyes, a shudder of relief passing through her. I felt like a snake in the grass, biding my time. “I don’t know, it’s just a pet name. She had funny names for all the people at the castle. Worse ones for those she disliked.”
“So she didn’t dislike you?” I asked, and sprung my trap. “She trusted you, a little bit?”
Kimberly’s face froze. She nodded slowly, then swallowed.
“Because, well,” I carried on. “What she said-”
“I do know some,” Kimberly snapped. Her hands shook. “Just- just bits and pieces I picked up, things I overheard. Once I- I read a book I wasn’t supposed to, notes partly by one mage, and partly by Alexander. I can’t make those pocket spaces myself, you have to be … well, not human, really, to do that. You have to speak to the thing in the pit, under the castle. I can’t- I can’t do that, please don’t ask me to do that, Heather, please-”
“I won’t, I won’t. It’s okay, Kim, I’m sorry, I thought you were holding back on me.”
“I was.” She sniffed and swallowed.
“But can you re-route the gateway?”
Kimberly stared at the mandala for a moment, then let out a shuddering sigh, and shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe. It would take time, and- I don’t have the notes. I- I didn’t want to tell Evelyn I knew any of this, she’ll hate me more than she already does. She- you’ll suspect me! I never did anything I haven’t already told you all about, I swear-”
“I believe you. And Evee doesn’t hate you. We’ll explain to her together. Please, Kim, I need to help Lozzie. I need to take her back to the castle, if only for a few minutes. It might make her well again.”
Kimberly swallowed. She closed her eyes and nodded. “Alright. I’ll try.”
“Will it be easier if we get Evelyn to help too?”
“ … yes,” such a small voice. “I suppose this is better than you bringing Sarika here.”
“Indeed.” I sighed too. “Kim, I can get you anything you need, if you want to start now.”
“The sooner the better.”
She sighed, shoulders slumping. “Not as if I’ll be able to sleep now, anyway.”
“You want some coffee? Tea? I’ll get you some food.”
Kimberly shook her head. “No way I’m doing this without getting stoned first. I need a smoke.”