Dawn took us unawares.
Raine’s voice drifted down from the upstairs hallway, sleepy and heavy, muffled by the labyrinthine acoustics of the house. I snorted awake, blinked out of my doze on the sofa, confused for a second, and found the ex-drawing room aglow as faint sunrise peeked through the curtains and the kitchen windows.
“Heather?” Raine called again.
“Oh,” I croaked, mouth dry, and pulled my arm out from underneath Lozzie, filled with pins and needles. She made a sleepy sound and cuddled closer against my side.
“Shouldn’t you … say something?” Kimberly asked, frozen in mid-motion in front of her work spread out across the table, her eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark circles. The upstairs floorboards creaked under Raine’s tread.
“Yes,” I hissed, heart in my throat and awkward guilt where my heart should be. “Yes, I should have gone back to bed. Tch.”
Raine’s feet hurried down the stairs, searching for the presence that should have been in bed next to her – or at least in the bathroom, or answered her by now. I struggled free from the blanket-nest I’d been sharing with Lozzie, pulled my hips from her insistent grasp, and almost fell over onto my face as the bruises in my sides seized up. I lashed out for a grip with tentacles that I didn’t have, winced and hissed through my teeth, but managed to stay vertical. Just.
“Heather? Heather, where are you?” Raine hurried through the front room, her voice tight with focus.
“In here!” I choked. “I’m fine.” I hopped up onto one foot, forcing myself to look calm and presentable. Kimberly had gone wide-eyed, ready to bolt, as if Raine might blame her for my absence. Raine appeared in the doorway seconds later. She stopped as soon as she laid eyes on me.
“Heather.” She let out a big sigh. “There you are.”
“Hey, hi. Morning. I’m sorry I wasn’t in bed, I should have woken up you or something.”
An uncharacteristic flicker of hesitation crossed Raine’s face – then she grinned and leaned against the door frame, at casual ease once more.
“You being up before me is a minor miracle,” she said. “Where’s my morning cuddle-bug?”
Still dressed in the black tank-top and shorts she’d worn to bed, flushed and warm from sleep and search, Raine radiated limitless confidence and easy physicality – especially when compared to my own numb-footed groggy stumbling. Weak sunlight glow slowly filled the kitchen behind her, like static fuzz laid across the textures of the world. In the liminal space between night and day, the house held its breath. Raine was a vision from a fantasy on the edge of sleep, half-dressed and hot to the touch, an invitation to stop thinking and come back to bed. Almost enough to smooth over her moment of incongruous hesitation.
“I’m really sorry you had to come look for me,” I blurted out.
“Hey, hey, Heather, it’s fine. Last place I expected to find you, tucked away down here, that’s all.” Raine’s jaw stretched in a huge yawn. She blinked her eyes to clear sleep-clogged vision. “Morning to you too, Kim. And same, Praem, looking sharp.” She sketched a little salute at the doll-demon. Kimberly nodded a jerky hello from her chair, too uncomfortable to turn back to her notes. She sensed it too; Raine was on alert.
“Good morning,” Praem intoned.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said. I took a step toward Raine, instinct calling me for a morning hug, but my heart told me something was wrong. “Neither could Kim, we decided to work on something, we … Raine, you’re not okay with this. I can see that you’re not okay with this.”
Raine opened her mouth with a grin, and I knew what was coming – a clever bit of affectionate misdirection. But then she sighed. Her smile turned self-deprecating.
“You know me too well,” she said. “Just, you know, couldn’t find you for a good couple of minutes. Spooked me out cos’a yesterday, that’s all.”
I tripped my way along the last few paces toward Raine, and fell against her. She pulled me into a hug and kissed the top of my head. Kimberly finally took the opening and turned away, focused on her notes and diagrams.
“I’m not going anywhere. I promise,” I murmured into Raine’s shoulder.
After a minute of warm, post-sleep hug, Raine pulled back and cast a curious eye over the room – over Kimberly with her magical diagrams and slack, stoned expression, over Lozzie drowsing on the sofa, over Praem standing ram-rod straight as if supervising us.
“I would ask if you wanna come back to bed,” Raine said slowly, as if experimenting with the idea. “But you lot seem busy. Like, interesting busy.”
“We’re doing a project,” I said, then blushed. “I mean, Kimberly’s doing the project. It was my idea, but I’m only helping.”
Truth be told, for the last two hours I hadn’t even been doing that. I was a bit of spare wheel until Evelyn woke up.
At first, in the wee hours of the morning, I’d provided moral support. Kimberly had begun by drawing up diagrams of the mural, tried to identify the pieces of it she understood, to pinpoint the part of the design which defined the output location of the gateway. I’d supplied her with regular infusions of coffee and a useful ear off which to bounce concepts I didn’t understand. I’d nodded along as she’d explained, stoned and slow and thinking hard, muttering disconnected bits of Latin, testing how angles of magic circle might look when drawn on paper – papers that now covered fully half of the tabletop in a mass of rejections and possibilities.
One time, I’d made the mistake of asking how something worked – why this angle for the interior lines of that circle with those words of Latin?
“It’s all relative,” she’d said, her eyes bloodshot and heavy with the THC in her bloodstream. She seemed calmer when high, made all this easier to face.
“Relative to what?”
She gestured at the sketches, the walls, the room, us. “Everything. That’s how magic works. Works, that’s a joke, ha,” a sad non-laugh. She cast a sidelong glance at me, embarrassed by her tiny outburst.
“It’s okay, go on, please.”
“Mm, well … one object or symbol or angle has no effect by itself. It’s just a thing in the world, normal. It’s only when you bring these things together, they work in relation to other angles or shapes. Stuff interacts in ways we can’t see or understand, at a level beyond physics. Sympathetic resonance.”
“Loopholes in reality,” I muttered.
“Yes.” She puffed out another humourless laugh. “Did you just make that up?”
“Those are Evelyn’s words, actually. She once described magic to me as like ‘exploiting God’s shoddy workmanship’.”
“I wish,” Kimberly said, hollow and sad. She stared down at a mess of squiggles on a sheet of paper. It all meant nothing to the untrained eye. “It’s nonsensical causation. Magic doesn’t make any sense, none of this should work. You have to … fit your mind around it, and it always feels wrong. I hate it. I hate it so much.”
“Thank you, for doing this, for Lozzie.”
She sniffed, shrugged, and carried on.
After that, I did not ask again.
I did glean one detail of real meaning; Lozzie’s additions were completely beyond Kimberly’s understanding. In all the possible adjustments and replacements she sketched out, never did she change a single one of the dried lines of finger-smeared paint and ink. When Evelyn had removed a section of the mandala in order to deactivate the door, she had done the same, left the unexplained dream-additions untouched.
Eventually, in my uselessness, I’d been relegated to serving as Lozzie’s pillow. She’d nuzzled my side, flowed into my lap, and sleep had claimed me.
“It might not work,” I finished my explanation. “But I think it’s worth a try, if it helps Lozzie. I just want her to be well again.”
“You’re amazing, you know that?” said Raine.
She gave me a smile of beaming pride. I blushed, confused. “R-Raine? I’m barely doing anything, I told you, Kim’s doing all the work. Don’t heap praise on me.”
“L-look, please don’t,” Kimberly stammered out, even more embarrassed than I was. “I-I’m only doing what I can.”
“It’s cool, Kim.” Raine gave her a serious, curt nod. “Keep it up.”
Somehow, Raine knew exactly the right thing to say. Short and blunt worked on Kimberly in a way that effusive thanks or affectionate inclusion didn’t. She nodded several times and turned back to her papers, to sketching out one of her increasingly refined possibilities. Raine reached up and ran her fingers through my sleep-matted hair, and lowered her voice.
“What I mean, Heather, is that you had one hell of a day yesterday,” she murmured. “Thought you’d need to recover, sleep in. Was gonna get you breakfast in bed, run you a bath. But hey, here you are, right back at it. You’re right about Lozzie.” She pulled an almost regretful smile. “None of us were paying attention to her. My bad too, yeah?”
“Thank you, I think,” I sighed, and smothered a bubble of guilt low in my gut. I wouldn’t have done any of this if I hadn’t snuck out of bed to hurt myself in the bathroom, if I hadn’t broken my promise. I swallowed, and told myself I’d confess that to Raine later. “Although, I don’t think Evelyn will agree with your positive assessment when she’s up and about. I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do. And convincing.”
“Ahh, she’s be cool.” Raine grinned and ruffled my hair. “She’ll get it, she’ll understand. Don’t worry about it.”
“Raine,” I sighed.
Raine’s confidence was soon put to the test.
The sun spent an hour struggling up into a layer of thick grey cloud, orange sunrise glow quickly smothered by another overcast day of heavy leaden skies and sputtering rain. We’d taken a disorganised break. Raine had whipped up breakfast, scrambled eggs on toast all round with more to come for Evelyn when she woke up. Raine was busy crunching her way through an apple, lounging on the sofa with Lozzie and myself, when Evelyn finally stirred.
Heavy footsteps stomped about upstairs. Floorboards creaked. We all looked up.
Kimberly went white in the face. “I should- should go wait in the … in the kitchen?”
“Um, maybe,” I said. My own lingering exhaustion was not a good state in which to face a potentially irate Evelyn. I stood up, out of Lozzie’s grip again, and brushed a few stray crumbs from my lap. “We should brainstorm what to say. Oh, why didn’t I think of this already?”
“It’ll be fiiiiine,” Raine said. “She’s gonna be fine. It’s not like we’re not allowed in here. We’re not naughty kids.”
“We shouldn’t be allowed in here,” Kimberly muttered. “I-I can’t stay here, I-”
“Stay,” Praem intoned.
Kimberly jerked around to stare at her, transfixed by indecision as Evelyn’s heavy tread clomped down the stairs. Raine leaned back on the sofa, projecting a complete lack of concern. To my surprise and delight, Lozzie transferred her sleepy affections to my girlfriend, slumping into Raine’s lap. Raine stroked her hair, which triggered the tiniest, silliest twinge of jealousy I’d ever felt.
The clack of Evelyn’s walking stick crossed the front room, then changed pitch against the flagstones in the kitchen. She appeared like a drifting ball of wind-blown fuzz, framed by the doorway in dressing gown and pajama bottoms, heavy-eyed and hunched, her hair all askew and flat at the back from sleep. She was muttering under her breath, something about chocolate and breakfast pop-tarts – which was odd, because I knew for a fact we didn’t have any of those.
I cleared my throat. Evelyn turned, saw me through the workshop doorway, and stopped dead.
“Um, good morning, Evee.”
“Come in and join us,” Raine added. “We’ve been up for a bit already. Plans are afoot.”
“Afoot,” Praem said.
I think Kimberly squeaked. Wasn’t sure. Might have been a floorboard.
Evelyn frowned as if she’d just discovered a whole herd of talking horses. Slowly, with incredulity written on every line of her face, she crossed the kitchen and stood in the doorway. Raine greeted her with a wave of half-eaten apple. I tried a smile, started to speak, then stopped. Kimberly visibly shrank, as if before a very angry school mistress. Praem stared. Lozzie let out a snore.
“What the bloody hell are you all doing in my workshop?”
“Working,” Praem intoned.
“I had an idea,” I said.
“Nothing, nothing,” Kimberly blurted out.
“It’s fine, Evee,” said Raine. “They’re all on their best behaviour-”
“Pffffft,” Lozzie made a sound like a beached seal, trilling and puffing. Everyone stopped talking over each other and looked at her instead, but unfortunately she didn’t continue, only smacked her lips and dropped back into deeper sleep.
“Heather?” Evelyn said my name through gritted teeth.
“Yes, this was my idea,” I said quickly, drawing myself up. “I couldn’t sleep, and I had an idea. And I’m sorry for intruding on your private space. I wanted to start as soon as possible. I didn’t think about that when I came in here. I’m sorry.”
“You think that matters?” Evelyn asked – low and strangled. I’d never, ever heard her speak like that before. She stared at me, as if in disbelief. “You think that’s what matters here?”
“Evelyn? Hey,” Raine said, scooting forward to get up. We exchanged a worried glance.
“I don’t believe this,” she hissed.
In the corners of Evelyn’s eyes, I saw tears.
“Evee, I- I’m sorry. I had an idea in the night, let me explain.”
And I did, as quickly and on point as I could, trying to keep the worried shake out of my voice. As I spoke, a change came over Evelyn. The dark horror of tearful disbelief left her, replaced by a reassuringly familiar angry Evelyn scowl. She scrubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, then scowled at me and at Raine, and especially at Praem. Only Lozzie escaped her silent wrath, a strange sympathy on her face as she glanced at the semi-comatose girl on the sofa.
As I trailed off toward an unpolished apology, she hunched her shoulders and transferred her ire to Kimberly.
“And you know how this works?” She jabbed the head of her walking stick toward the gateway mandala.
“ … a … a tiny … tiny bit.”
“You know how this works,” Evelyn growled at her. “And you didn’t tell me.”
“She was afraid,” I said. “She’s helping us now.”
Evelyn sniffed the air and narrowed her eyes. “And you’re high as fucking kite. I can smell it from here.”
“You can’t blame her for being a little bit spooked by you,” Raine put in. “You gotta admit, you’re pretty scary when you’re angry.” Raine got to her feet. As she stood, Lozzie clung on, dragged to her feet by Raine’s considerable strength. She put an arm around Lozzie to steady her.
“And you,” Evelyn ignored Raine and jabbed a finger at Praem. “You should have woken me up. The moment they started, you should have woken me up. What were you thinking?”
“More sleep for you,” Praem sing-songed at her mistress.
“Tch,” Evelyn tutted like an angry goat, face contorted with frustration. She scrubbed at her eyes again, wiped away the tears that hadn’t quite blossomed, and then turned on me. “You absolute idiot, Heather, you-”
“Evee, that’s not fair,” I said, feeling a lump grow in my throat.
“Yeah, hey, come on,” Raine said.
“- you can’t sleep, you have an idea, you come wake me.”
“ … I … I’m sorry?”
“I don’t care what kind of bloody awful day we’ve all had. I don’t care if I’m unconscious and have a demon in my head – you need help with magic, you come to me. God dammit, just ask me.” She turned to Kimberly, who flinched like a startled sheep. “And you, stop being so bloody afraid of everything. We’re both … ” Evelyn ran out of steam suddenly, huffed, and composed herself with some difficulty.
She stomped right past us and over to the table to examine Kimberly’s work, leafing through the loose papers and half-completed magic circles, tossing several aside with unimpressed grunts, glancing up to compare others to the mural on the wall.
“This is wrong, this one is awful, try this one again.” She shoved a particular sheet to the other side. “I don’t know what the hell you think this one will achieve, it may as well send you to the bloody moon for all I know.”
“Sorry,” Kimberly squeaked. Evelyn looked at her and she flinched again, shrinking into herself, eyes bloodshot and scared.
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake. We’re both mages, even if you are far less experienced. Do you know how often I’ve actually been able to share any kind of practice with another mage? Hm? Take a guess. Wild guess. Go on.”
“ … mm?” Kimberly managed a squeak, wide-eyed and bewildered.
“Zero. None. And now we’re both right here. We may as well work on it together. Sit down.” She jerked a nod at a chair. Kimberly hopped into it without question.
Evelyn looked around at us again, at my surprise and Raine’s barely concealed laughter and Praem’s po-faced observation.
“Well?” Evelyn demanded. “What are you waiting for? I smell eggs, and I haven’t had breakfast. Both of you are surplus to this task, go put some tea on. Hop to it.”
“Evee, I just want to say sorry again. Just between me and you, where it matters. You’re right, I should have waited, or woken you up. But I’m also really glad you think this is a good idea.”
Evelyn studied me for a long moment, sighed, then glanced back into the magical workshop. Back in there, Kimberly had her head down, puzzling over the final piece. Evelyn lifted a mug to her lips and took a careful sip of the piping hot tea.
“ … you don’t?”
She studied me again, sighed and shrugged, her shoulders slumped.
Evelyn and I stood together in the kitchen, hours and hours after she’d first rattled down the stairs and had a good shout at everyone. Dark clouds glowered down at us through the kitchen windows and a cold wind blew through the trees in the distance. Evelyn had since replaced her pajamas and dressing gown with a long skirt and comfortable warm sweater, while I’d had a shower and gotten dressed, but all of us felt a touch chilly today, even me wrapped in my pink hoodie and two layers of tshirt.
Kimberly had taken a long nap in the late morning, but Raine and I both had class today, so we’d gone out. At first I’d toyed with the idea of skipping entirely, but getting out of the house had been good for me. A touch of normality injected into the whirlwind of implausible events that was my life. Sitting in a lecture hall for an hour and then waiting for Raine in the library had made me feel almost normal – though I’d had to dose up on painkillers first, and even then still endured a twitching in my sides, in my abused muscles, whenever I spotted an interesting library book I wanted to reach for.
We’d returned home after lunchtime to find Evelyn still hard at work, with Lozzie curled up on the sofa next to her. To our surprise, Evelyn and Kimberly had been thick as thieves, heads almost together as they pored over the details. The topic of their discussion was far beyond my understanding – the correct angles, the right esoteric words, which parts of the mural to attempt replacing. Kimberly still sounded mousy and hesitant, but at least Evelyn didn’t snap at her.
“It’s necessary,” Evelyn said to me with a resigned smile. “Not all necessary things are good ideas.”
“Ah. Necessary. Okay.” I nodded.
Evelyn held my gaze for a lingering moment, then looked away. I struggled for the right words, any words. A odd barrier still lay between us.
“Evee,” I tried. “When you came downstairs this morning, and you saw us, you-”
“I blew up. I’m sorry.”
I blinked in surprise. She cleared her throat, put her tea down, picked it up again, and couldn’t meet my eyes.
“Well, that’s a rather transparent lie,” I said.
Evelyn frowned at me, then sighed. “How could you tell?”
“A straightforward apology, without preamble, from you? Of course I could tell.”
“Then … what was that about? You looked like you were going to cry. Evee, I don’t want to make you cry. You’re … I mean, you’re my closest friend.”
“Don’t flatter me. Raine is your closest friend.”
“Raine’s my lover. That’s different. At least, I’m pretty sure it is.”
“What about Lozzie?” she grunted.
“What about her?” My turn to sigh. “Evee, this is about you.”
Evelyn didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then she sucked on her teeth and shot me a look. “Thought I’d walked into a fucking assisted suicide.”
“ … you … I’m sorry?”
“Your tentacles. Thought you’d enlisted Kimberly, with Raine’s encouragement, to … I don’t know, to mutilate yourself with inexpert knowledge.” She sighed, shrugged, and covered by sipping her tea.
“Oh. Oh, well, no.”
“Yes, obviously I was wrong. Jumped the gun.”
“I won’t lie and say I’m not going to try to find a way, but I won’t do that to myself. If I was going to do that, I’d get the best mage I know. Wouldn’t I?” I added a note of irony at the end, a joke. Evelyn caught it, and huffed a tiny laugh.
“One would hope. Look, I jumped to a conclusion. I’m … sorry, about that part. Alright?”
“I need to control my bloody anger better.”
I smiled. “You said it, not me.”
“Somebody needs to tell me off more often,” she muttered.
“Could you let Twil do that?”
She waved that suggestion off. “Now’s not the time.”
“Speaking of Twil, have you called her?” I gestured at the magical workshop again. “She’s going to come with us, yes?”
Evelyn drew herself up, much more comfortable with the logistics of a mad magical expedition than the intricacies of her own emotions. “Yes, and no.”
“ … yes and no?”
“Yes, I called her. And no, she’s not coming with us. She’s in school today. I don’t want to completely fuck up her life. That would be a wonderful cherry on top of my personal shit sandwich, wouldn’t it? Twil gets expelled for truancy, fails to get a university offer. My fault. Teaches her what happens if she spends too much time around the likes of me.”
“Evee, you don’t mean that.”
Evelyn shrugged in irritation. “As if I could ever possibly be good for anyone.”
“Well, this is just a suggestion,” I ventured, putting on my best social worker voice. “But you could start by trying to refrain from insulting her or snapping at her.”
Evelyn gave me a withering look, but I refused to wither. “You think I haven’t tried that?” she asked. “This is just how I am. What? What does that look mean?”
“I do think you haven’t tried it,” I said. “Not really.”
Evelyn let out a huge sigh and shook her head. I didn’t press the issue further, not right now, in the middle of all this.
“Besides, I doubt we’re going to get the gateway working today,” she said eventually. “It doesn’t make sense. Can’t decipher what Lauren’s additions actually do, and they’re the anchor, the bit that makes it really work. They do something, that’s for certain, but … ” she shrugged. “Maybe we wait until the weekend. Maybe Twil does come with us. Maybe I play nice and polite, mm?”
“I do hope so. Just talk to her, Evee.”
“So, how dangerous it is, really, over there in the … ” I cast about for the right name. “The fog?”
“Sounds about right.”
“The fog, then. You sent Praem there one last time, before it closed off, didn’t you?”
“Mmhmm, I did.” Evelyn paused to sip her tea, then sucked on her teeth for a moment before she answered. “It’s uncontained. You were unconscious on our way out, weren’t you?”
“Well then, you might not recall that Twil ripped up part of their fencing, whatever was keeping the presumed fauna at bay, further out in the fog. It’s possible the place won’t be quite as we remember it, whatever they were doing out there might be uncontrolled, or spent itself, or … anything, really. You had the right idea, basically, which is what we’re working on. Getting into the apex of the castle is our best bet at a safe place. Praem can go first, Raine can bring her handgun. Either we make a little safe pocket quickly, or we leave, also quickly.”
I nodded. “I don’t know how long Lozzie will need.”
Evelyn shrugged. A noncommittal expression passed across her face, made it clear she didn’t have much hope.
“ … you don’t think I’m right, do you?” I asked. “But you said this is necessary.”
“Checking the … urgh,” Evelyn sighed. “Checking the ‘fog dimension’, is necessary. Curing Lauren’s condition would be a nice bonus.”
“I … don’t follow?”
“If Edward Lilburne wants it, we should take a look first.”
And suddenly it all made sense.
Evelyn frowned at me, her cheeks flushed. “Don’t look at me like that. I have to be cynical, that’s how I’ve survived this long. Don’t treat me like I’m heartless.”
“I wasn’t, I’m just … ” I sighed. “Practical consideration trumps everything else? I don’t like thinking that way.”
“Practical considerations keep us alive.” Evelyn tapped her walking stick to emphasise her point. “For the record, I do hope it works, I do hope this helps Lauren – Lozzie, whatever. She is … ” Evelyn lowered her voice and glanced into the magical workshop, to verify that Kimberly wasn’t listening. “Her state, her past family life, I … I understand. A little. That’s all.” She cleared her throat awkwardly.
“Ah, yes. Thank you, Evee. I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”
Evelyn grunted and waved me off.
“You know, I think we should push it further,” Raine’s voice interrupted. She sauntered through the kitchen doorway and leaned on a chair, then reached over to ruffle my hair.
“Were you eavesdropping out there?” Evelyn grumbled.
“Never!” Raine grinned. “Only the last bit. We should push it further.”
“We should take the place.”
“‘Take’ the place?” I echoed. “You mean the castle?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
Evelyn gave her a very unimpressed look. “With what fucking army? Don’t be absurd, Raine. What are you suggesting we do, occupy territory?”
Raine rolled her shoulders in an eloquent shrug, let her expression do the talking. Evelyn frowned harder in deepening thought.
“Oh no,” I said. “You two aren’t serious? This is about Lozzie, for pity’s sake.”
“It is,” Evelyn murmured. “Yes, it is about Lozzie. But if Edward wants this so bad, we should probably keep it out of his hands. If we can’t find him and
can’t counter him, perhaps we can deny him what he wants? Which means Lozzie, and the fog, both.”
“Now you’re thinking like a general.” Raine winked at her, and got an Evelyn glower in return.
Speak of the devil and she shall appear – with a rustle of dragging sheets and a patter of bare feet. A groggy-faced Lozzie stumbled out of the magical workshop and into the kitchen, where she stopped and stood still, swaying gently like a sapling in the breeze, her hair all a-waft about her, willow fronds of blonde.
“Ro-tay,” she mumbled.
“What? What’s she saying?” Evelyn asked, taking a step back from the sudden apparition.
“Nothing, I think. Most of what she says is sleep-talk. Lozzie? Are you awake?”
Lozzie nodded but closed her eyes, then bumbled toward us. Evelyn took another step back, but before she could do anything Lozzie walked right into her and put her head on Evelyn’s shoulder. Evelyn froze.
“That means she likes you,” Raine stage-whispered.
“It’s not funny!” Evelyn hissed. She looked intensely uncomfortable, like she’d been trapped by a large, affectionate dog. She turned her walking stick an awkward angle, stiff and stuck. “I can’t hold unbalanced weight as easily as you two, if she drops, I’ll drop with her.”
Grinning, shaking her head, Raine stepped forward and took Lozzie’s weight. She hefted the smaller girl like a sack of rice. Lozzie mumbled under her breath and clung to Raine, sleepy Koala bear style.
“Ro-tay … tiiii,” Lozzie said out loud. “Ro-tay-tit.”
“ … ‘rotate it’?” I echoed.
“Rotate what?” Raine asked Lozzie’s sleeping face, raised an eyebrow. “Rotate you?”
“Ah!” A eureka moment, an exclamation of discovery – from Kimberly.
We all hurried over to the doorway of the magical workshop just in time to see Kimberly reach down and place two fingers on opposite corners of the piece of paper she’d been puzzling over. Mouth open in awe, eyes wide as saucers, she rotated it one hundred and eighty degrees.
“Kimberly?” Evelyn ventured, then frowned over at Lozzie.
“It works,” Kimberly said, but not to us. Her voice sounded so far away. “Rotate it in place.” Quickly, hands shaking, eyes bloodshot with cannabis and sleep deprivation, she pulled other sheets of paper from nearby and sketched in a frenzy, connecting disparate parts of the new design, pencil flying across the paper. Evelyn and Raine and I all shared a glance.
Suddenly, Kimberly stopped mid pencil-stroke, as if broken from a trance. A hysterical hiccup of laughter stole up her throat. She stared at her work, breathing unsteady.
“Could have finished it hours ago,” she muttered.
“Kim?” I said her name as gently as I could and edged forward into the room. Her head jerked up, a sleepwalker disturbed, one eye twitching.
“Rotate it. How did- how did she know that? She didn’t even look at this!” Kimberly’s voice rose to a shout, then she seemed to catch herself, and let out a long, shuddering breath. She pushed back from the table and put her face in her hands, moaning softly.
“Kim, are you-”
Before I could finish, Evelyn marched forward and around the side of the table. She glanced over Kimberly’s work, eyes moving quickly across the whorls and scribbles and conjoined circles, and – with obvious and hesitant effort, hovering once and then completing the motion with a suppressed grimace – she put her hand on Kimberly’s back.
“You’ve done well,” Evelyn said.
“I hate this. I hate this so much,” Kimberly whined into her hands.
“Then stop thinking about it. Praem.” Evelyn tossed her head in a unspoken order. Praem turned and marched out into the kitchen.
“It’ll work. It’ll work now.” Kimberly was muttering to herself, voice pitiful and small. “How did she know? It’s like she was in my head.”
“Stop thinking about it,” Evelyn repeated, hard and sharp.
With a lump in my throat and a churning in my guts, I slipped out of the room and went after Praem.
I think Raine must have said my name as I left, but I was too numb in that moment. Praem was busy pulling a thick bar of dark chocolate out of one of the cupboards, but I reached up and found another one as well, part of our special supply in case of moments like this. Praem turned to look at me, and my sudden crippling guilt projected justified accusation onto her blank expression.
“Just … Praem, just let me take it to her. Please.”
I’d convinced Kimberly, to immerse herself in magic, to help Lozzie, for me – but Kimberly wanted out.
I knew that. I’d argued for it in the past. And still I’d convinced her to do this thing which was crushing her already fragile mental health.
Why? I searched myself but found no answer. Had I ignored that knowledge because of how much I cared about Lozzie? Or was it abyssal coldness, uncaring calculation? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell which ‘me’ had made that decision. I couldn’t even find the distinction between the ape and the abyss anymore.
“Heather? Wooo?” Raine called.
“I’m fine,” I lied, because this wasn’t about me. I forced a smile onto my face with as much acting skill as I could muster – probably didn’t convince Raine – and walked back into the magical workshop before Praem could stop me.
“Kim, here, you should eat some chocolate,” I said, and tried to make amends.
An hour later, we opened the gate.
We carried out our little experiment with all due precaution, as if about breach some ancient sarcophagus with no notion of what awful survival may emerge.
Praem did the honours, filled in the final sections of mandala under Evelyn’s instruction, as we prepared. Raine dressed in jacket and boots, fetched her handgun and her knife, held the pistol in both hands, ready to raise and point it at the doorway. Evelyn found her coat and her strange, carved thighbone. Between us, we got Lozzie into outdoor clothes, draped a spare coat over her shoulders and helped wiggle her feet into her shoes.
Kimberly had long since retreated, first to the kitchen to put her head on the table, then to the utility room to roll herself another joint and blow the smoke out of the back door.
“Are you sure you don’t want to watch?” I’d asked. “It’s the fruit of your work, after all.”
Kimberly had shaken her head, twitchy and jumpy. “No. No, thank you. I’m … I’m done. I want to sleep.”
“I’m sorry … ” I tried to call after her as she shuffled away, but my words emerged as a whisper, because I wasn’t entirely certain if they were genuine. Part of me wanted to follow her, half to apologise, half to flee from my own growing self-disgust.
Instead I took more painkillers, washed them down with water, and tried to quell the unease roiling in my belly.
My body was mounting a rebellion. It did not care why were going to the castle, nor about helping Lozzie. My nervous system remembered only terror, murder, and the unnatural disgust of the place to which we were about to return. Earlier, in the abstract, I’d felt okay about it, but now abyssal memory demanded armour plates and toxic flesh and protective spines. My flanks quivered and ached with phantom limbs, my skin crawled with biology I did not possess. I had to grip the kitchen counter-top and squeeze my eyes shut, fight the pain down until the pills did their job.
Evelyn and Kimberly were absolutely certain the gateway would open into the fog-choked dimension behind Sharrowford, and ninety percent sure it would open into the castle – somewhere.
Aiming at a particular point was apparently much more difficult. According to Kimberly’s limited comprehension – filtered through my uneducated interpretation of her words – the Cult had used simultaneous rituals here and in the fog as a sort of anchor between two points, allowing them to open several precise gateways. We didn’t have that luxury. We had guesswork and an emergency firearm.
How the Cult had gotten over there in the first place, Kimberly had no idea.
Another question for Lozzie. I filed it away for now.
We all stood ready as Praem drew the final set of lines on the wall with a washable green marker. Evelyn leaned heavily on her walking stick with one hand, brow furrowed as she studied the doorway for the first flicker of motion. Raine watched too, alert and ready. I fetched Lozzie from the sofa, pulled her up without difficulty, featherlight weight on my arm. Her sheet of wispy blonde hair hung down in a messy wave in front of her face, so I swept it over her shoulder, loose hairs clinging to my hand like bits of cobweb.
“Out?” she mumbled.
“Yes, hopefully,” I whispered back.
“Either it’s safe, quickly, or we leave, quickly,” Evelyn said to nobody in particular. “We are not getting stuck there again. This is not an expedition.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“Sure thing, boss,” Raine added.
“All done,” Praem intoned. Neat and precise, she stepped back three paces, capped the marker pen, and placed it on the table.
Raine opened her mouth to ask a question – perhaps a ‘what happens now?’ or ‘how long does it take?’ – but even her bravado and bluster faltered before the sensation that crept through all flesh.
The first time I’d witnessed the gateway open, I’d just been shocked awake from a sleepwalker’s nightmare, a shared dream with Lozzie, and was faced with a kidnapping attempt moments later. Hardly the right conditions to appreciate the terrible beauty of unnatural magics. This time I was wide awake, with full knowledge of what was about to happen, but it still sent a shiver down my spine and into my bowels.
On the edge of awareness, before any visible change, a distant window opened. Sounds beyond human hearing teased at our ears, made my eyes water.
The ambient temperature suddenly dropped. Not quite enough for a flash-freeze, but enough to mist our breath in the air. I hunched, huddled up tighter inside my coat and hoodie, and pulled Lozzie’s borrowed coat closed around her front.
A ripple passed through the plaster inside the doorway’s outline, as if solid had become water. Slow concentric ripples passed through the matter – the first ripple turned plaster to smooth, oily, featureless black. The second, an inch behind, produced an image as if seen through frosted glass.
The third brought clarity. Sharp, crystal-clear, unobstructed.
“Ding ding ding, what’s behind door number one,” Raine murmured. She stared into the gateway, pistol held low, every muscle taut and tense, coiled like a spring.
The view through the open door showed several feet of clear ground and terminated in a view of a blank stretch of wall – dead grey, rough and osseous, shot through with black veins and an ethereal memory of jade green. A curl of fog edged through the gateway and into the magical workshop.
My skin crawled and I broke out in cold sweat, automatic response. I clutched Lozzie closer.
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. She nodded behind me, at the corner of the ceiling.
“O-oh, right, yes.” I turned to check on the spider-servitor. Thankfully it had reacted as expected, as required. The dog-sized spider stared right at the doorway, its mass of crystalline eyes fixed together on a single point, stingers rigid and poised. A faint heat-haze poured from the bio-mechanical vent stacks on its abdomen, as it spun up pneuma-somatic engines, readied itself for rapid motion. “Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, he’s on guard, he doesn’t like it.”
“Good,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t want any of this crap getting into my house.”
“It’s cool. Be cool,” Raine said, forcing calm into her voice. Worked quite handily on me. I let out a long breath. “Be cool, Heather. I won’t let anything happen. In and out, right?”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. She jerked her chin toward the open doorway. “Praem.”
The most durable of everyone present, Praem went through first. A lifetime of movies and television and silly special effects still had me trained to expect a crackle or a pop as she crossed the threshold, but the doll-demon stepped through as easily as if into an adjacent room. She paused just over the threshold, looked quickly left and right, then took another three paces and turned around to face us. Creepers of fog wound around her legs and long skirt.
“Nobody home,” she intoned.
Raine went next. I didn’t like that, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the way she moved, a flowing of muscle and tendon, the quick-snap of her head and eyes as she double-checked Praem’s assessment. The way she carried herself made me feel a little safer.
Evelyn stomped into the castle as if she owned it. Perhaps she intended to. Clutching walking stick in one fist and carved thighbone in the other, she marched up next to Praem, looked about, then frowned at something off to the left.
Lozzie and I went last. Raine offered me a hand of support to step over the threshold. I took it, my palms clammy and my heart unsteady, and stepped into that soft, clinging fog-light.
And like that, we were back in Alexander Lilburne’s castle.
“Heather, you holding up alright?” Raine asked quietly.
“Just about.” I tried to smile. Couldn’t quite.
We’d emerged into a short, wide section of corridor, cut – grown? I tried not to think about it – from that dead grey jade substance, the dessicated outer shell of the thing which lay in the chasm far beneath our feet.
The Cult had strung light bulbs along the ceiling here, on bolts driven into the material, but they all sat dark. Whatever portable generator they had brought here was long cold by now. The light through the gateway cast a warm rectangle on the floor, but quickly faltered, soaked up by the fog – the fog which crept in through the long row of glass-less windows off to the left.
Of the copied section of Sharrowford below, we could see only imitation grey-jade rooftops blanketed in fog. None of us doubted where we were, the apex of the castle. Perhaps close to the throne room where I’d killed Alexander.
But none of us said it. All of us were too busy – listening.
“Nice aim,” Raine whispered eventually. “Have to buy Kim some good weed.”
“What is that sound?” Evelyn hissed, eyes wide, knuckles white on her walking stick.
“Singing,” Praem said, and even she whispered.
We all knew exactly what that sound was. We’d heard it once before, amplified and directed at us like a weapon, but it was different this time. Deep and low, passing though the air and the walls and our very bodies in slow waves like undersea currents. A calling, a marine chorus, a cosmic whale-song.
When Alexander had directed the vast planet-things down from the sky of the fog-dimension, their voices had been battering rams of mental force. What we heard now was more like the wind, flowing through us. Omni-present, rising and falling, with a million gradients and subtitles of tone – and undercut by other sounds outdoors, down there in the fog. Chirps and chatters and skitters; wet popping and soft clicking and furtive rustling; mad musical piping as if from a dozen separate flutes.
The gateway must be proof against sound, for surely we would have heard this back on the far side, back in the light and sanity of Sharrowford. Goosebumps rose on my arms, even wrapped up inside my hoodie. My own breathing seemed far too loud. I swore I could feel Lozzie’s heartbeat against my arm.
With the Sharrowford Cult in residence, this place had been dead, silent, empty except for themselves.
Lozzie mumbled a word.
“Life,” I echoed her out loud. “It’s life, I think.”