Trees stretched toward heaven either side of the road, sunk deep in a lake of their own shadows. Open stretches of muddy field and dank hedgerow grew fewer and fewer. We lost sight of the overcast sky for minutes at a time, blotted out by the rain-thickened canopy far above, plunging the inside of the car into ghostly twilight. Triply enclosed – wrapped up warm against the coming hike, inside our temporary machine of metal and glass, and deep in the woods.
How paradoxical, I thought, that leaving the confines of the city can lead us into a far more claustrophobic tangle.
“I suspect this is as close as we’ll get,” Raine said.
She turned the car off the road and into a lay-by, tires crunching across patches of crumbled asphalt. Raine set the handbrake but she kept one hand on the wheel and left the engine running, a soft chuttering purr undercut by the sound of occasional raindrops on the metal roof.
The woods marched away either side of us, dark and inscrutable.
“If you go down to the woods today,” I sighed.
“You better go in disguise!” Lozzie finished. She was already twisting against her seatbelt to press her face up against the passenger-side window.
“This is some goose-chase shit,” Twil grunted from next to me on the back seat.
“You just concentrate on your chips,” Raine said. Twil huffed and rolled her eyes, and dug another curly chip from her crinkled bag of fast food treats.
“I see a rabbit!” Lozzie whispered.
“What? Where?” Twil twitched her head around like a pointer dog, craning to see.
“There’s probably fields or isolated houses closer,” Raine said, as she stared out past Lozzie, into the depths of the woods. “But I doubt they’d overlook four young women driving a car onto their land. This is it then, we need to walk from here. What does our glamorous navigation officer think?”
She shot a glance over her shoulder, at me bundled up in my coat and hoodie on the back seat, and favoured me with a rakish smile and a little wink, for morale.
I felt about as far from glamorous as I could get without being covered in my own vomit. My sides ached and itched, stiff and sore, and I had to keep worming a hand inside my hoodie to scratch at the slowly healing flesh. Every breath I took stretched and flexed the replacement lung tissue inside my chest, impossible to forget about, always there on the edge of my consciousness. My breathing sounded clear, but I felt like I should be wheezing and coughing.
“Um … ” I squinted down at the map on the screen of my mobile phone. “I think Lozzie’s spot is … about … a mile … mile and a half, straight that way?” I pointed directly into the woods. “Maybe?”
The map hardly resembled the territory.
Neat yellow lines represented roads that in reality surprised the driver with blind corners, dipped into hollows without warning, were pitted with ancient potholes and dessicated roadkill and crumbled edges churned by muddy ruts from tractor tires. Jolly green rectangles indicated fields choked with spring mud and populated by sad, soggy sheep. Darker green hatching meant trees; great vast swathes of the stuff filled the empty spaces between road and farm, carefully contained and delineated in ink. The map proudly labelled this entire area as ‘Berndsey Ancient Woodland (protected)’.
Up close, the tree trunks vanished into chaotic infinity, rooted in centuries of leaf-mulch and ragged undergrowth.
“Spot, spot,” Lozzie chirped and twisted the other way in her seat. “It’s an area, a whole area.” She spread her arms wide, almost knocking Twil’s fast food out of her lap.
“Which means brick shithouse could be anywhere out there,” Twil said.
“Light rain, damp ground, that’s good scenting conditions,” said Raine. “I did read up on this before I asked you to track for us, you know.”
“I’m not a fucking bloodhound,” Twil grunted. “And yeah, you’re right, I’m real good at this, but these woods are full of animals, it’s gonna be like finding a needle in a stack of other needles. More likely to pick up a deer or a badger or something. This is a stupid goose-chase. Come on, Heather’s still too fucked up to spend like three hours wandering around the woods in the rain, right? Uh,” she blinked sideways at me. “No offence, Heather?”
“It’s not stupid,” I said softly. Twil grimaced, hunching her shoulders like a dejected dog. “Please? Lozzie can only tell us the general area, but you can pinpoint Zheng. You’re the only one who can even try.”
“ … mmmm,” Twil made a grumbling sound. “Pretty close to Brinkwood. Could just run home.”
“You got your mercenary price,” Raine said with a smirk and a nod at Twil’s bag of fast food. She finally killed the engine. It sputtered out, and the car’s heating shut off. Fat raindrops pattered on the roof, dripping from the foliage overhead. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, lassie. I’ll call your mum, tell her you stiffed us. Eat your last chicken strip.”
“Tch,” Twil tutted. She dug out her final chicken strip and bit it in half with one frustrated bite.
“I thought you’d relish this, Twil,” I said. “An opportunity to show off your skills. Ah, but Evelyn isn’t with us right now, is she? That explains that.”
Twil swallowed so hard she almost choked on her food. “W-what? Heather, what?” she spluttered, blushing slightly, doing an absolutely awful job of concealing her true reaction.
“ … are you serious?”
Of course she was. I shouldn’t have asked. Twil was either genuinely confused or too embarrassed – or in denial.
“Serious about what?” Twil boggled at me.
This was not the right moment for this discussion. Raine was rummaging around in the driver’s foot-well, switching her trainers for wellington boots like the rest of us already wore. Lozzie was biting her lower lip, bouncing on the back of the passenger seat, head swivelling this way and that to spot things out in the woods.
“Never mind,” I sighed. “I just don’t understand why you’re so grumpy about this.”
“’Cos it’s raining, duh,” said Twil.
“Fuckin’ hate gettin’ rained on.” Twil devoured the last piece of chicken strip with some quick, angry chewing, then noisily sucked the grease off her fingers.
“It’s because Zheng’ll want to fight you!” Lozzie declared with a big serious nod and a big happy smile. She stopped bouncing for a moment to reach out and pat Twil on the head. Twil shrugged her off, but not too aggressively.
“Fuck that,” Twil grunted. “I can take her.”
“Bet you’d want Evee to watch that too,” I muttered, unsure if I should smile or sigh.
“H-Heather, what are you going on about?” Twil squint-frowned at me.
“I like the rain, it makes me feel outdoorsy and outdoorsy is healthy, isn’t that true? That’s true.” Lozzie asked herself – then, before any of us could stop her, she popped her seatbelt free with a click, opened the passenger door, and bounced out of the car. She landed with an unsteady little hop in her borrowed, over-sized wellington boots, with her pastel blue and pink poncho flapping outward. She got her footing then skipped across the asphalt of the lay-by to the edge of the woods, and turned her face upward to feel the rain-mist on her skin.
March cold, the cold of the North in early spring, swept right into the car through the door she’d left open. I huddled up tighter inside my coat and pink hoodie. Twil shook herself and growled. Raine laughed.
“Guess we’ve been decided for,” said Raine. “Time for a hike.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Twil grumbled.
We piled out of the car. I took a long time, even when Raine offered me a hand up. I still had to move slowly so as not to aggravate my bruises. Over the last week they’d turned to great shapeless masses of black and purple, stiff muscle, knotted flesh, then coloured into a fascinating array of sickly yellows and greens as the healing process had gotten underway.
As I found my feet and thanked Raine, the smell of the woods washed over me.
Organic rot, centuries of dark loam enriched by mountains of leaf and branch; a hint of fungal growth beneath the vegetable overtone; thick-packed clay slick and wet. Spring had filled in the canopy and covered the trees with buds, but not yet fully clad their skeletal appearance in green flesh.
And the mud. So much mud, this time of year.
When we’d prepared for this little outing, I’d thought wellington boots were an over-reaction. I’d had to borrow a pair from Evelyn, great loose rubber stompers which would inevitably make my feet sore. The area around Sharrowford was fractured into a mosaic of farms and woodland, split by hedgerows and the outposts of villages, slashed through by the high line of the train-tracks and the deep cut of the motorway – and none of that was visible out here to the north, deep in the woods. We couldn’t even hear any other cars.
But surely the countryside wouldn’t be that muddy?
Proved how little I knew. The mud was thick and cloying, already sticking to and sucking at the underside of Lozzie’s wellington boots as she ventured out past the crumbling asphalt. She pulled her left foot free of a boggy hole with a slooorp-pop sound.
I felt utterly out of place. My natural environment was safely ensconced in the heart of a city.
“You sure you’re alright for this?” Raine murmured, quietly so Twil wouldn’t hear. The werewolf was busy rolling her shoulders, cracking her knuckles, limbering up, her hood flipped up against the rain – barely mist down here under the canopy.
“I’ll be okay,” I said.
“You get out of breath, you want to turn back, you tell me, Heather. Please don’t bottle it up. Not out here. Promise?”
“I said I’ll be okay, Raine, really.”
I attempted a little stretching of my own. My flanks were even stiffer than usual from the car journey, though we’d only left Sharrowford about thirty minutes ago. I tried an experimental twist from side to side, then reached over my head with alternate hands. My core muscles complained like overstressed rope. I could practically hear the muscle fibres creaking and crackling. The pneuma-somatic symbiont inside my lung flexed and twitched, and I winced.
“Promise me, please?” Raine asked.
“If I don’t feel up to this, I will tell you, I promise.”
“Thank you.” Raine shot me a smile and the look in her eyes changed, just enough to make me blush a tiny bit.
“ … Raine?”
“You look good, s’all.”
“Well … thank you, yes, but not right now.” I sighed and tucked my hair back over one ear, still self-conscious about it.
Yesterday I’d had my first hair cut since I’d started university. Self-administered at first – until Praem had stepped in. Evelyn swore blind she hadn’t directed the doll-demon to do anything, hadn’t even known. My attempt to tidy up split hairs and deal with stray locks in my eyes had turned into a straight fringe and an inch off all round. So now it was too long and too neat.
“I look like a doll,” I sighed.
“You look like a girl genius protagonist in a YA novel,” Raine laughed, winked, and bent down to fetch a pair of collapsible hiking sticks from the back of the car. She’d found them this morning, God alone knows how, in some forgotten corner of the house. She clicked one of them open with a flourish, locked it in place with a button on the handle, and offered it to me.
I sighed again. “A walking stick, really?”
“It’s got a cool spike on the end. For stabbing.” Raine grinned and brandished the stick as if fencing with an invisible partner. “Come on, don’t you want a cool spike? Stab a motherfucker?”
“That’s for grip.” I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t keep a smile off my face. “But yes, Raine, I would love a cool spike. Thank you.”
I accepted the stick and placed the metal tip awkwardly against the ground. The grip-spike clacked against the asphalt.
Was this my future? I’d once swam the infinite oceans of abyssal darkness, swift and graceful, a thing of lean muscle and sharp claw, evading predators and defying leviathans. I had been so pure. The memory would haunt me forever, beautiful and unattainable. And now I needed a walking stick to hobble through the woods.
“Hey, Heather, no shame,” Raine said. She must have seen the look on my face, though she could never understand the full depth of my longing, the failure of this blunt, clumsy ape-body.
“I was just thinking, this must be how Evelyn feels. Relying on a stick to walk everywhere.”
Raine waggled the other stick. “I’m gonna be using one too. Hiking’s tough, no joke, even if we’re only going a little ways. Might be more if Zheng gives us bother. I’ll pass the stick off to Lozzie if she needs it though.”
“Oh, I doubt she will.”
Lozzie was peering deeper into the woods, like a child escorted to the threshold of adventure. She raised a hand and waved – to something only her and I could see.
We weren’t the only creatures in this stretch of woodland.
Spirit life out here was less than in the city; less feral, less frantic, less wounded. Giant stick insects crossed from trunk to trunk way up in the treetops, waving blind limbs. Flat, undulating creatures like manta rays lurked on the forest floor. A giant of shadow and shell drifted past above, briefly obscured the overcast sky.
And standing like silent sentinels deeper out in the trees was a trio of true nightmare monsters. Each was as wide as a lorry, with skin like wet tar and three giant hoofed feet, bodies covered in a dozen toothless, slopping mouths. They were crowned by clutches of upward-pointing tentacles, thick dark ropes like they were trying to imitate trees.
Lozzie waved to the nightmares, but they were already shuffling away. Away from me. Away from the abyssal thing clothed in human flesh.
Lozzie wasn’t disappointed though. She giggled at the way they waddled, and then tiptoed forward another few paces in the mud, enjoying the way it squished under her boots. She hugged her poncho tight, though I’d made sure she was properly dressed for the cold, in borrowed tshirts and a thick jumper too. Her hair swayed as she walked, tidied back into a long, very thick braid which reached past her waist. I’d braided it myself, to keep it out of the way on this trip.
She was so excited, and I wondered if she’d ever been out in the woods before. Had she spent her whole life cooped up inside that castle, or wherever her parents had kept her before Alexander, the dreams of Outside her only escape?
And now she was free. Her joy was my joy. I smiled, for real.
“You really love her, don’t you?” Raine murmured.
“Ah?” I cleared my threat. “Love? I don’t know. I suppose so. She was a friend to me in a place I had no friends, Outside. She needed help, she … well, she’s not innocent, but … ”
“True that,” Raine laughed softly.
“But she’s a good person. I want to protect her.” Something swelled inside my chest. “The bastards and the monsters won’t get her. I won’t let them. Not like Maisie.”
Raine squeezed my shoulder. “Yeah. Bloody right.”
“Thank you, Raine.”
“Also ‘bastards’? Heather, strong language for you.”
“It’s a strong feeling.”
“Hey, Loz,” Twil called. “Don’t go too far alone, hey?”
“I’m fine!” Lozzie called back.
Raine raised her voice too. “Lozzie, has Zheng moved?”
Lozzie bobbed her head in an odd little rotating motion, closed her eyes and stood stock-still. Seconds ticked by in silence. I tried to concentrate, tried to pick up the ‘scent’ in the way she’d described it to me, the way Zheng herself had found me during the meeting at the pub. An abyssal scent, deeper than blood and flesh and bone, a mark left on reality below the level of human perception.
But all I smelled was rotting leaves.
Lozzie whirled an arm out suddenly, pointing back over her own head without opening her eyes. She held the position, then her eyes flew open and she giggled. “Ow!” She shook her hand as if she’d burned it. “Yeah, thattaway!”
“And what does your nose say, oh great hunter?” Raine asked Twil.
“Nose says it’s bloody well raining, isn’t it?” Twil pulled a face and shrugged, then nodded off to the side of the lay-by. “And there’s a dead pigeon over there. Stinks.”
“Yes, I’m certain we all wanted to know that,” I sighed.
“You fuckin’ asked.”
“Right, Twil, you lead with Lozzie, keep your eyes peeled.” Raine clicked her own hiking stick to full length, and gestured me forward, into the woods. “After you, Heather. I’ll bring up the rear.”
“We’re walking in the woods, this isn’t a … ” I gestured with the head of my stick. “Military operation.”
I didn’t say it out loud, but we hadn’t seen hide or hair of Edward Lilburne or his minions all week. Caution was still our watchword, but nobody beyond our little group knew we were out here. Evelyn and Kimberly and Praem were all back home. We were in Zheng’s territory. To strike now, Lilburne would have to possess perfect intelligence, and also be a staggering idiot.
Raine cracked a grin, dangerously attractive. She looked good too, dressed in a loose raincoat and jeans.
“No, it isn’t,” she said. “It’s a hunt.”
For a week before we set out to find Zheng, we found a new normal – and for me, normal turned out to be incredibly sore all over.
The full extent of my bruises took a couple of days to really set in, both the first three from the confrontation in the pub garden, and the full six from our idiotic fight with Lozzie’s ‘friendly’ squid—moon. The stabbing, lancing pain in my sides faded, became less frequent as my flank and core muscles turned so stiff and tight I swear they should have creaked when I moved. My abdominal and oblique muscles especially felt like one giant bruise, strained from supporting structures they’d never evolved to account for.
It was a profoundly different pain to what I’d adapted to over the last half-year; after brainmath I always felt distant from my own body, hollow inside my chest, my biological processes rejecting what I’d done with my mind, as if I’d frayed the thread which anchored soul to flesh.
But the result of my ill-advised tentacle experiment was all bodily. I had never before felt so aware of so many small muscles. And they all ached.
Raine made me take several long, very hot baths to unclench the tissues, but I still spent the first half of the week hobbling about the house like an arthritic old woman, moving with great care, guzzling painkillers, curled up in bed while she massaged the stiffness out of my sides.
It wasn’t as if we went anywhere, except to class. Edward Lilburne’s answer was still pending.
Every day we expected a knock on the door, or a surprise in the street, or Amy Stack. Raine carried her gun everywhere, concealed inside her jacket, and despite my discomfort I did not ask her to desist. At university I felt a curious itching between my shoulder blades on several occasions, buried abyssal instinct trying to tell me I was being watched, but we never spotted the culprit, if there even was one beyond my own paranoia.
Evelyn spent a lot of time in her workshop, still poring over the books we’d looted from the site of the Sharrowford Cult’s final, suicidal mass ritual. She kept the door open more often though, as she drew new versions of pieces of the gateway mural.
“We’ll need a plan”, she told me one morning, as I sipped coffee in the workshop doorway. The non-human book I’d retrieved from the library of Carcosa sat on the table in front of her, rifled through but still impossible to read.
“Of course we will?” I frowned, not following.
“I mean, we need a better plan, Heather. Better than we had when we visited the castle.”
“Ah. Yes.” I took a sheepish sip of coffee.
“Ah, indeed. Getting into difficulties when we can run straight home is one thing. Going Outside, for real, even for an hour or two? All bets are off. I will not gamble on anything. No risks. You and I both know that, Heather. We’ve both been out there. You said the library was inhabited, by thinking beings. The last thing we want is a clusterfuck. We’d all end up dead.”
“Yes.” I sighed. “If only we could find a librarian.”
“Huh,” she laughed, humourless. “Indeed.”
“A bodyguard may have to do.”
“You mean Zheng.”
“Zheng and Praem. And Raine. And … ” Me, I almost said. Evelyn frowned.
“Yes, Heather, I’m sure your tentacle display would intimidate the natives for all of five minutes before you bleed out on the floor.”
“You were thinking it.”
“ … I was,” I sighed. “It would be so much easier if I could … ” I waved a hand at my head. If I could Slip reliably.
“Quite. We’ll see what Zheng has to say about that. If she can go back to Glasswick tower … mm.” Evelyn picked up her walking stick from next to her chair and levered herself to her feet, gesturing at me with a toss of her fingers, then at the magic circle on a piece of canvas in front of the sofa. “In the meantime, take your top off and get back in the circle. I want to look you over again.”
“You should probably use that line on Twil.”
I placed my half-finished coffee on the edge of the table and wriggled my hoodie off over my head, which took a lot more effort than usual with all my bruises. Phantom tentacles tried to help, to drag the fabric off my head, to disentangle me, and I had to keep pausing to let the pain pass, to ignore the extra limbs which weren’t really present.
When I got the hoodie off my head, Evelyn gave me a very unimpressed look, but I was too sore to care.
“Evee, I’m serious. Maybe a little romantic aggression will help?”
She tapped the circle with the tip of her walking stick. “Get.”
I sighed and managed to struggle out of my tshirt too, my exposed flesh ruffled into goosebumps by the lingering morning cold. My sides were a patchwork of purples and greens and yellows, bruises in various stages of healing. Shivering a little, I stepped into the circle and closed my eyes – not for any silly mystical purposes, but from a fifty-fifty mix of tiredness and exasperation. And because I didn’t want to see what Evelyn was about to look at.
She stomped over to the half-full child’s paddling pool she’d set up once more in the corner of the workshop, settled into the chair before it, and muttered a string of incomprehensible Latin under her breath. I kept my eyes tightly closed. The first time she’d done this I’d seen the inside of my own lungs, and the sight of my own fluttering flesh had made me faint with dissociation and nausea.
“Two inches to the left,” she said. “And raise your arms … no, back to the right. Smidgen left. There. Hold still.”
“Why not just tell Twil how you feel?” I asked. “Tell her to get topless for you.”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth.
“Worst that could happen is she turns you down,” I tried.
“Far from the worst that could happen,” Evelyn grumbled. I was certain I wasn’t supposed to hear that, a hiss between her teeth so soft it was for her ears only. She raised her voice back to normal. “Why must we talk about this now, Heather?”
“Because for a few moments, you are a captive audience,” I admitted with a rueful smile.
“Tch.” She sighed, clicked her fingers, and stood up. I opened my eyes. The pool had faded back into nothing but water, instead of a horrible lightless view of my own insides. “I don’t see any tearing or bleeding. Not sure if your flesh is converting it yet, but we’ll keep checking. Times like this make me wish I knew a doctor.”
We did know a doctor, sort of, but I wasn’t about to mention Felicity, not when I’d almost, almost got Evelyn to talk about Twil properly for the first time in weeks.
Slowly, painfully, I pulled my tshirt back over my head. “Evelyn, my dear friend-”
“Oh, great.” She rolled her eyes.
“- are you going to answer my question, or ignore it?”
Evelyn gave me another look, a tired glare. “I can look at you stripped down to your bra, Heather, because I don’t care about you stripped down to your bra, I care about you remaining alive and well. Twil may not be … may not be … ” She swallowed. A hint of blush coloured her cheeks and she averted her eyes. “May not be so simple.”
“You mean, you like idea of Twil in her underwear.”
“I-” She paused.
“It’s okay to think about it, Evee. Thinking about these things is how we figure out what we like.”
“Alright, maybe I do!” she snapped. “But what does that mean? I have- I have- it’s not like I don’t think about her, but I can’t make the connection between Twil in here,” she jabbed the side of her own head, “and Twil out here in reality, walking around and talking nonsense and being all … all … Twil.” She huffed, shook her head in frustration, and I did my absolute best not to giggle.
This isn’t funny, I reminded myself. Your best friend is deeply confused, sexually and romantically. Rightly or wrongly. Render what help you can.
“Evee, the best way to resolve all these feelings is talk to her.”
Evelyn looked me straight in the eye, and said, “She deserves better.”
“That’s Twil’s decision to make, isn’t it? Plus, she’s obviously interested, how haven’t you noticed? Would it be different if she made the first move, she-”
“Yes, because that’s what everybody wants, isn’t it?” she grumbled, turned away and stomped toward the kitchen. “A bitch of a woman with no future, a terrible temper, and anorgasmia. I’m a real fucking gem, aren’t I?”
As Evelyn stomped out of the room, a tremor passed through my sides, a slow-muscle quiver of limbs that didn’t exist. I winced in silence, and let her go, clutching my sides as my body tried to stop her leaving, wanted to turn her around, make her see.
Sorry, abyss-thing Heather, but you can’t solve a friend’s emotional problems by grabbing them with tentacles.
Such attempts to uncoil phantom limbs needled me a dozen times every day. Reaching for a mug, trying to hug Raine, washing myself in the shower as I ran my fingers over the mass of bruised flesh. Even in bed, I found myself flinching and gasping with pain as muscles tried to move tentacles which I didn’t possess anymore. When I’d summoned those six extra limbs, the flood of information had overwhelmed my brain – but the human brain is wonderfully adaptive. Fresh neural pathways had been laid down, the beginnings of a pattern by which to incorporate the tentacles.
Rather counter-productive when I didn’t have them.
Memories of lost glory tortured me. I could have neither tentacles nor peace.
But I did have Lozzie.
And thankfully, she took no convincing to stay at home.
“Where were you?” I asked, that very same afternoon I was recovering from her pneuma-somatic surgery. “For all those weeks, you just vanished. I had no idea what happened to you, where you were, if you were alive or hurt or anything. Why didn’t you visit, even just for a few minutes? I needed to know you were safe.”
“I was safe! I was Outside! It’s the safest place for me!”
“Lozzie … ”
“I couldn’t come back because he’d know,” she lowered her voice to a whisper and glanced left and right, then nodded at Praem standing by my bedroom door, as if we were in a spy novel and Praem was guarding our retreat. “He knows when things plop through from one side to the other – he’s got this machine!”
None of us had to ask who ‘he’ was.
“Machine?” Evelyn had frowned. “What do you mean, machine?”
“He’s spent like forty years building it.” Lozzie nodded to her, all serious and po-faced. “My brother said he’d been building it since before either of us were born, which is – wow! Wow. That’s a lot of screws and nuts and bolts.”
“A machine to detect translation from here to Outside, and the reverse?” Evelyn grit her teeth. “That’s impossible. Great. Have you ever seen it?”
Lozzie shook her head.
“Might not even exist,” Raine suggested. “Could be a bluff.”
“He knew about the Messenger,” I croaked, still massaging my chest, trying to rub away the feeling of the shifting, flexing replacement flesh inside my lungs. “Maisie’s messenger.”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded several times. “I thought about it some more and he’s probably the one keeping us here. Probably maybe. Trying to trap me!”
“He won’t get you,” I told her. “I won’t let him.”
“Yeah,” Raine said, soft and assured. Lozzie gave me a hug, and I tried to hold it together. It was a minute or two until we parted again.
“Lozzie – this isn’t really important,” I started a little while later, after I’d wiped the threat of tears from my eyes. “But forgive me-”
“Forgiven!” She announced, one hand raised.
“If you couldn’t come back here, where did you pick that up?” I nodded at her comfortable poncho, with the pastel pink and blue bands around a white middle. As soon as I’d been safely in recovery, she’d insisted on finding and wearing it again.
“Oh!” She giggled and flapped it outward. “I love this, isn’t it pretty?”
“It is,” I agreed. “But where did you get it? Where did you get all the clothes you had on? Your shoes? And you had a brownie … ”
“Oh I could come back here, but not here here,” she chirped. “The poncho is from London, the brownie was from a shop in … um … somewhere south! Somewhere hot! I didn’t know the language but I took it from a shop.”
“Took it?” Raine smirked. “Lozzie, Lozzie. Learning fast.”
“Oh,” I sighed. “You weren’t carrying any money when you left.”
Lozzie shrugged and giggled again. “It’s not like I hurt anybody! I just pick up a thing and – poof! Off I go!”
“A budding criminal mastermind,” said Raine.
“As long as you don’t … well … ” I sighed. “I suppose you had no choice.”
“Be gay, do crimes,” Lozzie whispered, and did a little twirl in her poncho.
If she’d insisted on tagging along with me to university, or wandering off into Sharrowford by herself, I would have been stressed out of my mind. Perhaps Lozzie sensed that. If she put herself in danger again, I would not be able to deal with it. I wouldn’t stop her, couldn’t stop her from doing what she wanted, it went against everything I believed she needed. But I also needed her to be safe.
She stuck to the house and occasionally the back garden, reading, playing video games – and cleaning.
She had the most bizarre reading habits. She walked while she read, in a circuit of the house with her nose in a book borrowed from myself or Evelyn, eyes wide and skipping across the pages, feet moving on automatic. She would emerge from a doorway with whispered words on her breath, not even looking up to see where she went, sometimes supernaturally graceful, never bumping into a chair or a corner – and sometimes clumsy on her feet, hopping to stop herself as she bumbled into a wall.
At other times she parked herself in front of Raine’s playstation, with ample encouragement from Raine herself and a whistle-stop introduction to the small pile of Japanese role-playing games Raine kept on hand. I had the distinct impression she’d never been allowed video games before. Like me, she’d had little exposure, but unlike me she took to it with wild gusto, declared particular characters as her favourites, and had something to talk about with Raine.
The cleaning was most bizarre.
Clumsy, haphazard, sometimes producing more mess than she eliminated. She raided the kitchen for dusters and rags and cleaning spray, tucked her hair up in a big haphazard ball of loops and dragging ends, rolled up her sleeves, and then inevitably got distracted within fifteen minutes. But she kept coming back to the task, over and over.
“This place doesn’t need cleaning. We keep the worst of it in order,” Evelyn had grumbled toward the end of the week. “She-”
“She’s trying to pull her weight,” I’d whispered. “She’s trying to chip in. Evee, it’s sweet.”
“Its … uurrggh,” Evelyn sighed. “Alright. But keep her away from the bleach.” She raised her voice, projected it from the kitchen where we stood, to the front room where Lozzie was inexpertly running an old feather dust with half the feathers missing over the stacks of old boxes. “You hear that, Lauren? No bleach. Please.”
“But you’re meant to put bleach down the toilets to kill all the germs and bugs because poop makes a lot of germs and bugs.” She looked up and blinked. “Doesn’t it?”
“ … yes.”
“It’s okay, Lozzie,” I said. “Please just don’t do the toilets. Leave that for me.”
And she talked. A lot.
She talked to Kimberly, despite the older woman’s nervous tension around her. She cooed and encouraged Tenny’s still-closed cocoon when we went out into the garden to see it, telling her to ‘get bigger!’ She rattled to spirits over the back of the garden fence, but I only caught that once or twice, and whatever language she used was far from human. Lots of soft hoots and little whistles. She even spoke to Praem, though only in private. More than once I caught snatches of one-sided conversation when they were alone together, Lozzie’s voice in a long stream of solitary chatter. If Praem was replying, none of us could hear the words.
For the first time since I’d met her all those months ago, as a diminutive figure wearing a goat skull on her head, I had the chance to actually talk with Lozzie, at length, with no crisis to interrupt us, no half-remembered dream logic to cast a haze over my memories.
But she made even less sense than in the dreams.
“Why could I never remember them – remember you – after I woke up? It was so … I was always so happy and relaxed in the dreams, but they should have been terrifying. We were Outside, unprotected, but half the time I didn’t care. Like you’d … done something to my mind? Did you? Please, Lozzie, I have to know.”
“It was you, silly,” she’d giggled. “Of course you were happy, dreams are happy if they’re not nightmares, right? Outside’s not scary when you know it’s a dream!”
“ … I suppose so, but were we not really there, or-”
“Up here!” Lozzie tapped her forehead. She rolled over on the bed, my bed. We’d woken up from a nap together, Raine was off at university alone, and the house was quiet and close around us. I was wrapped up in a blanket around my shoulders in the chair, asking questions that made no sense to anybody but Lozzie and I. She tapped her head again. “We were out there, up here.”
“So it wasn’t real.”
She huffed with a little ‘pffft’ of her mouth, and rolled over the other way, the long blonde waterfall of her hair splaying out behind her on the bed. “Imagination is real! Heathy-Heather I told you all this so many times, in the dreams!”
“I … yes, I sort of remember, but it doesn’t make sense.” I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Lozzie, what was happening when we shared dreams? Really? Please, help me understand.”
“You can’t understand something that you’re supposed to just feel,” she said, and puffed out a cheek.
Lozzie flopped her legs against the bed, then spread her arms and held up both hands, far apart, palms facing each other. “So like, there’s you, and there’s you. And they’re mirrors, and they see each other but can’t see behind themselves, and that’s why everybody is just a body. Yes?” She blinked big eyes at me, waiting for an answer.
“Yes,” I said automatically, but meant ‘what?’
“But if you turn the mirrors away from each other they can see everything else – but they can’t see themselves anymore! It’s stupid and it doesn’t work! That’s what my brother tried to do.” She sighed, shaking her head.
“Okay … and?”
“But if you make the mirrors double-sided, you can do anything.” She burst into a bouncy smile. “That’s like us. Then you can have yourself and yourself but not get confused. I learned it a looooong time ago, but you hadn’t got it yet when I came to see you the first time. I had to teach you.”
“You mean … I could go Outside, in a dream, without having to go there physically?”
“Mmmm, kinda?” Lozzie bobbed her head back and forth. “But you’re still not getting it, Heathy-Heaths.”
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Lozzie smiled, closed her eyes, and spread herself out on the bed. “You just have to stop thinking so hard.”
The woods thickened as we walked. Fifty feet in, we couldn’t see the road anymore.
We took it slow. We had to, because this part of the woods had no permanent foot trails, no cleared paths. Protected ancient woodland meant no ground-clearing, no cutting back overgrowth, no chainsawing apart fallen trees. We picked our way through a maze of brown tree trunks, across a carpet of mushy leaves compacted into the mud and left to rot for years. The greenery of the canopy swayed in the wind far overhead, but comparatively little light reached the forest floor, enough to nourish a few holly bushes and clusters of fern and some half-dead stands of birch.
Raine carried a torch in her coat, in case this took much longer than expected, but I was half tempted to ask her to switch it on now. Between the thin mist of the rain, the overcast sky, and the enclosure of the woods, we trekked deeper and deeper into a world of strange grey twilight and sucking mud.
At least Lozzie was having fun.
She danced ahead of us by a good twenty feet or so, peering around every tree and looking up at animal noises in sudden interest – squirrels running up the tree trunks, furtive foxes in the undergrowth, birds high up in the leaves. Every couple of minutes she paused and stood stock-still, then nodded and pointed us onward. Twil trudged along behind her, hands in her pockets, sniffing at the air.
“Picked up anything yet?” Raine asked.
“Mud, badgers, mud, rabbits, mud, rats. Did I mention mud?” Twil shrugged.
Slow going was good for me too. I wasn’t exactly thriving out here.
The hike wasn’t difficult in the way I’d expected, especially with the aid of the stick Raine had given me. The wellington boots rubbed my feet sore, yes, despite the double layers of thick socks I’d worn, and my thighs and hips quickly tired, but I could endure that. I’d endured worse, and I was determined to find Zheng and talk to her, even if I wasn’t yet a hundred percent sure how I was going to convince her to come home. We had to enlist her help – I had to enlist her help, with my tentacles – and I wanted her, in some as yet undiscussed way.
No, the walking itself wasn’t too difficult – but my tentacles kept trying to help.
As my legs tired and my feet got sore, my bruised flanks began to shudder and quiver. Tentacles tried to uncurl and grasp at branches to anchor me, to pull me forward, to support my weight. Throbs of dull pain shot up my sides, made me gasp, made me have to stop and close my eyes to halt the reaction.
Because it was a reaction, pure instinct. The tentacles, however short-lived, had adjusted some fundamental neurological assumption. Now my body acted like they should be there, should be available to help, to steady my other muscles. To assist on this hike.
“You just have to plan them properly!” Lozzie had told me. “You gotta feel them with your hands, or do it in a dream so it doesn’t pop you apart. Just plan them and let them do their thing, you’ll be fine!”
Needless to say, I’d kept my promise to Raine and Evelyn. No more tentacles. For now.
We crested a sort of ridge in the woods and came upon the brief respite of an open field, overgrown with thistles and weeds, grass going to seed, old fenceposts sticking out of the clay. A tumbledown barn loomed at the far end. We passed along the edge of the field, toward a bend back into the trees, and a few crows rose on the wing from around the corner, cawing and calling to each other as they peered at us from the treetops. Raine pulled ahead a little way to keep an eye on Lozzie, and Twil naturally fell back to keep me company, still sulking under her hood. Thin misty rain enveloped us.
“So,” I asked between puffing breaths, raising the subject to distract myself from the pulling, shifting sensation inside my lungs. “Twil, what’s your strategy with Evelyn?”
She did a double-take at me, face shadowed by her hood. “My what? What?”
“Your strategy. For Evelyn?”
Ahead, Lozzie was gesturing to Raine, pointing around the corner of the field to where the woods resumed.
“ … for … like … ” Twil blinked. “What?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed, and gestured with the hiking stick – and suddenly understood why Evelyn did the same thing with her stick all the time. There was a primal satisfaction in having a big stick to wave around. Like swinging a club. Still ape, at heart. “Twil, I’m well aware of what’s been going on between you and her. It’s obvious.”
“Well it’s not fucking obvious to me. What are you talking about?”
I halted and turned to Twil. She looked at me awkwardly, framed by the grey sky and the woods behind. She was painfully pretty, angelic face somehow emphasised by her blunt frown and the roughness of her speech. No surprise what Evelyn saw there.
“You like her. You’re into her,” I said. “And you should probably just tell her, because she’s not going to make the first move.”
“I’m what?” Twil gaped at me, wide-eyed. “I … I … am I?”
I blinked at her.
“Ahhhh fuck,” she sighed, as her face collapsed into a grimace. “Yeah, yeah shit I am, aren’t I? Awww fuck.” She put her face in one hand. “Fuckin’ shit.”
“Oh. Oh dear. You mean you didn’t know?”
“I … I dunno! She … I … fuck.” Twil grit her teeth. “Why’d you have to bring this up now?! I’m meant to be psyching myself up for a fistfight with your weirdo demon friend! Fuck! Heather!”
“I’ll tell Evelyn you were both strong and brave.”
“Don’t do that! Jesus. Oh shit. Oh-”
“Twil!” Raine called. We both looked around. Raine nodded around the bend in the trees. “You gotta see this.”
“We can talk about this later,” I whispered.
“Uuuunnn,” Twil made a grumble of dread and embarrassment. We trudged down the length of the field to join Raine. Lozzie was nowhere in sight, probably just around the corner where the field stretched out to rejoin the woods.
Even before we got there, Twil went stiff. She sniffed the air several times and wrinkled her nose.
“Not human,” Raine answered quickly as we caught up.
“Oh thank fuck for that.” She sniffed again. “Sheep?”
“What? What’s not human?” I demanded as we rounded the corner. “What did you … oh.”
On the edge of the woods, four sheep carcasses had been opened and gutted. Blood was smeared all over the grass, splattered up the fenceposts and the nearest of the trees, half-washed by the rain into a pink froth all over the remaining tufts of wool. Crows squawked at us from above, irritated at the interruption of their carrion meal. Bones lay scattered about, with scraps of dark red flesh still clinging to them, though between the original act of predation and the crows’ appetites, the dead animals had been stripped of almost all meat. Skin and bone and lots of crimson, guts and hoofs. Skulls.
Lozzie was bending forward to peer at one of the skulls on the ground, hands on her knees, braid tucked neatly into the back of her poncho.
Twil let out a low whistle.
“Yeah, right?” Raine murmured. “Don’t think any fox or buzzard is gonna get a whole sheep way up there.”
One of the dead sheep – just a ribcage and a flesh-stripped skull – was up in a tree, tangled in the thicker branches.
“What was she doing?” I murmured when I found my voice. “Why … eating, yes, but this looks more like … ”
“Stress relief. Taking it out on some sheep,” Twil said. She shrugged at my horrified look. “Some predators kill for fun, you know?”
“I know, but … ”
I swallowed. What if Evelyn was right? What if Zheng was forgetting how to be human?
“Least it means we’re on the right track,” said Raine. “Looks fresh.”