A functionally immortal, seven-foot tall, man-eating demon had just declared that I – yes, me, Heather, scrawny and weird and terminally awkward, who’d probably be dead or in a mental hospital without serious help, an emotional cripple missing half my soul, twisted forever by a trip to the outer darkness – am a metaphorical reincarnation of her centuries-dead pseudo-incestual lover.
It was a testament to how bizarre my life had become that this was not the strangest thing to happen to me lately.
Unfortunately I had a lump in my throat, my chest felt fit to burst, and my eyes were filling with tears.
“Uh, Zheng, s-slow down, please.” I held a hand up. “Take a- I need a moment, I’m sorry, I … ”
Zheng’s story had skewered my heart. Perhaps it was the inherent tragedy, or perhaps the thought of her pining for a lost love for hundreds of years, or perhaps the painful devotion in her eyes.
Or perhaps it was guilt, because I finally understood what this situation was doing to her.
She was right; she couldn’t do this again.
I sniffed back tears and rummaged in my coat pockets. My fingers felt clumsy and blunt as I unfolded a tissue and wiped my eyes. The woods around us rustled in the wind, punctuated by the occasional patter of fat raindrops falling from the leaves. Zheng watched me with affectionate intensity as I struggled to regain my composure. Lozzie, still all snuggled up in Zheng’s lap, was biting her lower lip in sympathetic response. She’d heard this all before, extracted Zheng’s past from her in the dreams, but the emotional feedback still affected her.
“Okay, okay,” I said, more to myself than Zheng. “I … oh, this is absurd,” I sighed with a choke in my voice. “What am I supposed to say to any of that? I mean, thank you, Zheng, thank you, but I can’t be the girl you lost. I’m not your Ciremedie. I’m pretty certain reincarnation isn’t real. And I’m … I like you, yes, a-and I want you in a way I don’t fully understand, but I don’t … love you, not exactly. I’m sorry.”
“Too late, shaman. We made our choices. You will never be rid of me.”
“Zheng, I don’t want to be rid of you.” I sniffed hard again, trying to hold back the waterworks. An involuntary laugh of emotional overload crept up my throat and burst into an odd giggle on my lips. “I would hardly have spent an entire day tracking you through the woods if I wanted to be rid of you. That’s even more absurd than the idea I’m your reincarnated lover – really!”
An affectionate grin curled the corners of Zheng’s mouth. She flashed a glint of teeth. “With every word you prove me right, shaman.”
I flustered at the look on her face. “You’re- you’re attributing pure intentions to my motives, when they’re anything but. I’m as ruthless as you.”
Zheng tilted her head to one side. “Then why come find me, shaman?”
“Because Heather needs you,” Lozzie murmured, then puffed her cheeks out.
“Because I need your help,” I blurted out. “Because you’re big, and strong, and you came from the abyss, and I need to know things about that. Because Maisie told me to gather my friends, that I wouldn’t be able to rescue her otherwise. Don’t do it alone. So here I am, asking my friend for help.”
Zheng nodded. “I will.”
I faltered, swallowed hard. “Because … ”
“Not all love is eros, shaman,” she purred. “But if you wish it so, I will gladly take you into the woods and make you squeal.”
I blushed so hard my head span, my sides ached with the pounding of my own heart, my pulse raced inside my flanks, in my bruises, a strangely satisfying pain. I had to put my face in my hands and take a very long, slow breath, in case I blurted out a ‘yes please’ in a moment of weakness.
“Zheng, I- … let’s, um … let’s put that to one side for a moment? I can’t, um … I mean, you’re a murderous, man-eating demon, I’ve seen you eat human flesh, and I … I don’t care about that, which is absolutely crazy, but- I … you’re- you’re welcome, Zheng, to stay by my side, if that’s what you want, if you-”
“Use me, shaman.”
Zheng’s voice cut hard, all her tenderness banished.
I looked up at her face again, at a brooding darkness in her eyes.
“I-I’m sorry? I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m still struggling to express myself, I-”
“Use me. Shaman, your goals are far in excess of the possible, even for a wizard; you plan war on Laoyeh, to recover your beloved. And here I am. Willing and free, I am a greater tool than any wizard has ever known. Use me.”
“I … ” I stopped, frowned, and sighed.
“Use me, shaman,” she repeated. Artificially cold. No fire in her words.
I was beginning to learn. Zheng was almost as bad at concealing her emotions as Twil was.
Lozzie picked up on it too. She frowned up at Zheng and flapped her arms beneath her poncho, but the demon-host ignored her serious little face.
“Zheng, you are not a tool,” I said, a school-mistress tut in my voice. “And I know what you’re doing, it’s blatantly transparent. I refuse to use anybody. You’re my friend, at the very least, maybe my-”
With a heave in her throat like a rhinoceros readying for a charge, Zheng surged to her feet. Lozzie scrambled out of her lap as she rose, bouncing up in her flopping wellington boots, pastel poncho and raincoat both flaring out as she almost lost her balance. Zheng towered over both of us, seven feet of muscle staring down at me like a cornered animal. Buried instinct told me to rise as well, to get to my feet – or make myself small, slink away into some hole beyond the reach of this large, angry predator, but I refused to give in. I stayed sitting, did my best to control the shake in my voice, and clutched my sides as my phantom limbs attempted to adopt a defensive posture.
“Zhengy! No, don’t!” Lozzie chirped. “Bad Zheng, bad Zheng!” She bounced on the balls of her feet in front of Zheng, arms up in the air, but the demon-host had eyes only for me.
“Zheng, I understand what you’re trying to do,” I said. “But that’s not the kind of person I am. I can’t treat you like a tool, I can’t treat anybody like that, I’d never be able to live with it.”
Zheng’s darkness broke as suddenly as it had fallen, in a rolling, rising laugh. She bared all her teeth and laughed herself into a roar of frustration at the treetops, shook herself from the head down like a berserk warrior. For a moment I thought she might tear at her clothes, but she came down in a deep breath, then seemed to sag into herself as old melancholy took hold of her frame once more.
“You name the torture with every word, shaman. You can’t treat anybody like that, neither could Ciremedie. Even a demon standing in her sister’s skin.”
Raine called my name, her voice cutting through the trees. I glanced down the length of the woodland ridge. Raine had one hand raised in distant question, watching Zheng and I. Twil stared up at us too, hands in her pockets, eyes narrowed beneath the shelter of her hood.
“We’re fine!” I called back, then turned to Zheng. “Sit down. Zheng, please, sit back down.”
With a sullen grumble and a shrug like a sulky teenager, Zheng slumped back down onto the slab of concrete. She folded her legs, waxed coat pooling around her, and levelled a dead-eyed gaze at Raine. Lozzie did a big theatrical sigh, arms flopping to her sides. From down the ridge, Raine flashed a thumbs-up. I nodded to her. Everything is totally, one-hundred percent under control, I lied.
“Devoted protection, shaman. Your right hand is vigilant. Good.”
“She is that,” I sighed, struggling to get my breath back. I rubbed my chest, over the place inside where the pneuma-somatic repair flexed and twitched. The ghost of amusement crept back onto Zheng’s face.
“Put the wind up you, did I, little monkey?”
“You know quite well you did.” I tutted. “And you were trying to.”
“Nothing you can say will make this easier, shaman. I am yours now. You are too kind to drive me away or abuse me into hatred. And seventy or eighty years from now your heart will seize up or plaque will fog your brain or your cells will eat your organs, and I will once again wish my little bird had never dragged me from the dark.”
Lozzie refrained from crawling back into Zheng’s lap. Instead she drew our attention by tip-toeing around Zheng’s side, watching the demon-host’s face like one might with a wary dog. Zheng watched back, as Lozzie reached out and awkwardly patted her on the head.
“What about Lozzie?” I asked, grasping at straws. “She made friends with you before I did, she’s shown you kindness too. Why hasn’t she inspired this … this?”
“She is not you, shaman.”
“Oh.” I felt a blush in my cheeks.
Despite everything, despite the horror and tragedy of Zheng’s story, it is still a heady cocktail to be told you are desired by the object of your own attraction.
“Mm. The mooncalf is a sweet thing, but only a small piece of her is here.” Zheng reached out and wrapped one huge, grimy hand around the back of Lozzie’s neck, then squeezed and kneaded her muscles. Lozzie’s eyes fluttered shut. I swear she let out a purr. “I am all here, shaman. As physical as you.”
“Yes, yes indeed you are.” I sighed. “That aspect of you is especially difficult to overlook.”
A glint of savage joy entered Zheng’s eyes. “You like that, shaman?”
“I … I’m sorry?”
“As a woman – you like?”
Zheng didn’t actually move a single muscle, not that I could see, but a change passed through the air between us. It began in her eyes, a deep intensity of predatory intent that radiated throughout her entire body, the heavy weight of her chest beneath the ragged, filthy old jumper, the curve of her hips inside her jeans, the unseen ripple of her abdominal muscles.
“Y-yes. Zheng, my goodness, don’t-”
Zheng burst into laughter. I went bright red in the face, overheated and flushed, my heart fluttering in my chest like a bird trying to escape a cage. Lust was not appropriate right now, not after Zheng’s story, after her pain – or was it?
She certainly seemed to enjoy it.
“Horny zombie,” Lozzie stage-whispered.
I glanced back down the ridge, down toward Raine and Twil, certain in my gut that Raine would see me blushing and she’d know. She’d know I was getting turned on by another woman, and I knew that in her secret thoughts she would not be happy.
Twil and her were still talking. She wasn’t even looking at me.
“I don’t-” I managed, then paused and swallowed. “I don’t think Raine is comfortable with the idea of sharing me. I’m- I’m sorry, Zheng, but I can’t, I can’t hurt her, I won’t- I-”
“As if that matters, shaman!” Zheng laughed. “You monkeys, your need for neat solutions. Ha!”
“A neat solution would rather nice right now, actually.”
Zheng ended the laugh with a heavy sigh as she came down from her peak. Her amusement simmered down into a resigned ache, like somebody who’s been in hospital for too long.
“You understand, shaman? This traps me more completely than any chains, more securely than any magic.”
“Zheng, I can’t-” I swallowed, tried to stop my voice shaking. “I can’t be responsible for that, for your emotions, for you. I’m not in control of you. Why- why not- why not leave?” I raised one arm, with more courage than I thought I possessed, and pointed off into the darker depths of the wood, where the ridge-line vanished between the thicker, older trees. My throat tightened with awful guilt that I couldn’t swallow away. “Get up right now and walk away and- and forget about me.”
“Do not be a fool, shaman,” she rumbled. “You plan war on Laoyeh. You prepare for the greatest fight I have ever seen. You are a beacon to all manner of tooth and claw, mage and monster. You will be lucky to make it to thirty, let alone eighty! Ha! You need more than your right hand to help you get there. A third time, shaman, you will never be rid of me.” Zheng’s voice grew thick with emotion. For a terrible moment, I thought she might cry. Was she even capable of that? Probably. “I cannot do this again. To laugh with you is torture.”
“I know, Zheng, I-”
“No, monkey, you do not know.”
Zheng turned a gaze of such displeasure on me that it made me shake inside. Lozzie did a little flinch too, hopping backward two steps, her wellington boots clacking against the concrete. I swallowed, but sat up straighter.
“When I … a decade ago … I-” I struggled to begin. The comparison made me feel dirty and vulnerable, like I was doing something forbidden, but I had nothing left with which to help. “Ten years ago I lost my sister, my twin, my other half, when the Eye kidnapped us both. You know that much already.”
Zheng stared at me, slow and dark. I drew in a shuddering breath, and forced myself onward.
“I still don’t feel like a real person without her. Despite my friends, despite Raine. Despite my … what I brought back from the abyss. I’m not a full person without Maisie. I’m just a shell, pretending.” My throat tightened. “We did everything together. We had separate beds, but we’d sleep together six out of seven nights. Neither of us had school friends that weren’t mutual. We touched constantly, we were- she was the other half of my soul. And it hurts. It hurts all the time, more than I can put into words. Sometimes I seem like I’m alright, like I’m normal, but she’s always there in back of my mind. In the mirror, when I look at myself. I have her face.”
Zheng tilted her head to one side.
“If I could reach into your mind,” I continued. “And God knows, maybe I can, maybe I can make hyperdimensional mathematics do that. But if I could remove your memories of Ciremedie, would you have me do it?”
“I drove memory away,” Zheng growled, low and angry. “For-”
“Yes, but would you do it now? Would you forget her, forever?”
Zheng bared her teeth in a joyless grin, a rictus of conflicted pain.
“Because I would never forget Maisie,” I said. “That’s what the doctors wanted me to do, what my parents wanted. I was meant to purge those memories, to discard her, not think about her, pretend I’d never had a sister I loved. Pretend she didn’t exist. Forget, because the memories hurt me.” I shook my head with old anger. “Never. Never. I wouldn’t trade my memories of Maisie for anything. The pain is worth what I had.”
“I was not made for this, shaman. I was born in the dark, where such things do not exist.”
“None of us were made for this!” I almost shouted at her. “Are experiences not worth anything if they’re fleeting? I’ll … I’ll lose Raine one day, eventually, maybe when we’re old, I hope. Or she’ll lose me first, more likely.” I choked up a little as I said that. “I’m skirting the edge of self-destruction all the time, I know that, both with hyperdimensional mathematics and what I’m doing to my body, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to abandon me to avoid hurting herself. People die, Zheng, all the time, of disease or accident, it comes suddenly and there’s no meaning to it, the meaning is in living, the bit that comes first. When you … ” I swallowed hard, struggled to hold back tears, to keep my thoughts of Maisie at arm’s length, if only I could finish what I was trying to say. “When you lose somebody you love, you don’t want to regret what you didn’t do. Time you didn’t spend with them.”
I choked back a sob, screwed my eyes shut, and took a deep breath.
Lozzie’s little footsteps crossed to me in a patter of rubber. She went to her knees and hugged me from the side, elbow in my chest, awkward and bony and exactly what I needed right now. I hugged her back with one arm.
“Spending life like that, like an animal,” I said. “Not feeling, not having to feel like a person, it would be like … ” My throat tightened up. Almost couldn’t admit it. “Like deciding to take my medication. Like being back in the abyss.”
A terrible yearning. For freedom, for lack of care, for pure survival easier than living.
“And I get that,” I forced myself to say. “I get that because part of me wants it, wants to go back, wants to be like that again. But pain is the price we pay for being here. For getting to be a person. For getting to love? If you feel so strongly about me, if you want to stay with me, then do it for me, for yourself. This time – us, now! – it’s real. It’s passing but it’s real. That’s all. I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m terrible at putting this into words.”
Zheng regarded me for a long moment, and I saw that my passion was not enough. I’d been on this Earth barely two decades, inexperienced, naive, all too human. She was hundreds of years old. She’d killed dozens of people, at the very least. She ate human flesh and hunted for pleasure. She was a thing from the abyss, a pure predator.
And then Zheng smiled. Showed her teeth, snorted a humourless laugh, shook her head.
“You’re sentimental too, you huge oaf.” I sniffed, and scrubbed at my eyes with my sleeve. “Oh blast, where are my tissues?”
They’d all called Zheng dangerous. Evelyn, Sarika, Felicity, all mages. Warned me that she was inherently unstable because of what she was, that she might wreak havoc if left loose, that she would devolve into a wild animal. But none of that was true, was it? She was dangerous, but mostly to those who would keep her in chains, who refused to treat her as a person.
She was also a cannibal psychopath, yes. No person is perfect.
“You are her, aren’t you? You are my little bird, returned.”
“I’m not.” I rolled my eyes. “Zheng, you can’t treat me like that, it’s not healthy for you, or me, emotionally. None of this is is healthy, but at least we can spare ourselves that as well.”
I had the creeping sense that Zheng had just agreed to disagree.
“Isn’t being here fun?” Lozzie spoke up in a little chirp, a question for the demon.
“Being here?” Zheng purred, a grin on her lips. She sighed a big sigh, filled her lungs with the damp forest air. “The taste of meat. The burn of hot muscle. The feeling of victory. Yes, mooncalf, some things are worth being here for.”
“Some things are worth being here for, yes,” I echoed.
Zheng raised one hand and pointed a finger at me. I felt myself blush again, but huffed at her. She chuckled.
“Is that what you want?” I asked.
“Mm. I’m yours, shaman. Even if you are fleeting. We will make a deal, you and I.”
I blinked at her, a sinking feeling dragging at the pit of my stomach. “In the same way you did with Raine?”
Zheng shook her head. “From you, shaman, nothing but the vow.”
“A vow to … what?”
“When your time comes, seventy or eighty years from now, I go first. You do it yourself, you pull the spark from my core and send it back to the deep dark, and I return to what I was for an eternity before here.”
A horrible knot pulled tight inside my chest. I felt short of breath. The pneuma-somatic flesh inside my lungs seemed to tighten up in sympathetic panic. Lozzie said my name, but she seemed too far away.
“You’re asking me to … to kill you?”
Zheng shrugged. “Eventually. Can’t do it myself. Too robust, too fast to heal. I’ve had half my brain blown out before.” She smiled with a touch of pride. “It grew back.”
“What if- what if-” I stammered, searching for a way out. “But what if I die suddenly, or violently, or-”
“You won’t, shaman. Because I am with you.” Then she broke into a real Zheng grin, showed those face-ripping, flesh-tearing, razor-sharp shark’s teeth that made my gut clench. “Or maybe you leave monkey ways behind, shaman. Maybe you come with me.”
I shook my head, numb and overwhelmed. The sounds of the rain-washed forest seemed to fade out, heard as if through a concrete wall.
“Promise me, shaman. Promise me I go first.”
“But … but you could live for hundreds of years more.”
“You’ve convinced me, shaman. You made your truth, and you made it well. We, now, we are good. Even if we end. The next eighty years will be worth it, and then I will end. Same as you. Or not, in the abyss.”
I gaped at her, struggling to find my words.
“Zheng, I … I don’t think I can kill you. I- God, I don’t think I’m capable of that now, let alone if you decide to spend the next few decades with me. Zheng, I can’t make that promise. It would be a lie.”
“Your twin still lives.”
My blood went cold. “ … what?”
“Your twin still lives,” Zheng repeated.
“I … yes? Yes, I know that. Zheng, what are you trying to say?”
“Zheng, noooo,” Lozzie murmured.
“I know you, shaman. You are a natural leader, and you make yourself unstoppable. If you have to, you will promise anything.”
“ … to get her back,” I voiced the unspoken part of Zheng’s sentence. “What are you saying? That you won’t help unless I make that promise? Unless I agree to euthanize you?”
Zheng shook her head. “Regardless, I am yours.”
I sighed again. “So you’re pledging your devotion, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re making me use you.”
“It is your nature, shaman.”
Guilt grew inside my chest, a tumour of self-loathing. Despite everything I’d said, Zheng was right. If she had been willing to leave, to deprive me of the advantage she represented, I would make that vow in a heartbeat. But Zheng was making this request as a person, asking for a very different kind of respect, not a negotiation, or a bargain.
“So if I don’t promise, I’m a hypocrite,” I murmured.
“Alright,” I said past the lump in my throat, put strength into my voice. “Then you’re going to help me save my sister.”
“Of course, sha-”
“No,” I snapped. “You’re going to help me save my sister, and I am going to live through it, and you are going to live through it. And when I’m old and grey I’ll keep my promise, I’ll send you off first, but damn you Zheng if you don’t get there with me I’ll return to the abyss and drag you back here myself.”
Zheng stared at me, and for once I think I’d managed to truly shock her.
“I mean it,” I said, tears freely running down my cheeks. “I- you- Zheng, you tell me you love me, then manoeuvre me into promising to kill you. That means you’re not going anywhere. Your half of the deal is you stay with me. There. It’s done.”
My fire ran out. I sniffed, scrubbed my eyes on my sleeve, and took a great, shuddering breath. Lozzie hugged me tight, and I screwed up my eyes.
“Can’t believe I’m having an emotional crisis over a cannibal demon,” I managed through the tears. “This isn’t quite the demonic pact I expected to make.”
“Comes with the territory,” Lozzie whispered, nodding seriously.
I almost – almost – laughed.
“A lot can change in eighty years,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll decide you don’t like me very much in the end.”
Zheng snorted. “Unlikely, shaman.”
“I could surprise you. I can be pretty awful.”
Lozzie helped wipe my eyes. From down the ridge, I noticed Raine and Twil watching us now. My tears weren’t exactly covert. I waved awkwardly to Raine, and she waved back. Eventually the guilt and the horror of what I’d agreed to subsided a little. One weight lifted from my shoulders as another longer-term one settled onto them.
At least I had a lifetime to prepare.
“I’m fine,” I lied. “I’m fine. Zheng, does this mean you’re coming back to the house with me?”
Zheng rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Difficult, shaman. Your wooded isle is no great forest, no wild steppe. Things like me are not accounted for. But I would rather be closer to you. Yes, for now.”
“Where does this leave … well, us?”
Zheng tilted her head to one side in silent question. I glanced at Lozzie, as if this wasn’t for her ears, but she bit her lower lip with impish fun, mock-scandalised.
“I mean,” I tried again, “you can hardly tell me you love me and then not-”
Zheng looked away from me, down the ridge at Raine instead, and to my incredible surprise she took a deep breath and called out. “Yoshou, laangren, join us.”
Raine threw us a wave of acknowledgement and started to jog up the incline. Twil was caught flat-footed. She blinked several times before scrambling after Raine.
“Zheng, we can hardly talk about … s-sexual … things,” I flustered, going red in the face, “with Raine and-”
“What is your plan, shaman?”
I blinked at her, mouth open, paused in my own embarrassment. “My plan?”
“ … go … go home? Go home and have dinner, frankly. Take you, run you a very hot bath, and continue this conversation. Zheng, I need to ask you about the abyss, about these damn tentacles I keep trying to grow. About what we’re going to do about-”
“No, shaman,” Zheng purred. “What is your plan for Laoyeh?”
“Hey, hey, Heather, you alright?” Raine asked as she jogged up, a smile on her face as she hopped up onto the concrete, quickly crossed to me, and squatted down at my side. She reached out and touched my cheek with one hand. My eyes were still red from the brief cry. “That bad, hey?”
“I’m fine, for a given value of fine,” I sighed. “Just a very emotional exchange, that’s all.”
“You makin’ our girl fuckin’ cry, huh?” Twil added, springing up onto the wall of the shattered pillbox in one athletic bound. She tossed her head back, all sudden fronting aggression. Zheng flashed a grin back at her.
“I think we were both on the verge of tears,” I said. “Please, it’s … private. Mostly.”
“You want a round, laangren?” Zheng rumbled.
“Any fuckin’ time, you stack of turds.”
“Hey hey hey, first things first,” Raine said with a smile and a wink on her face. “Zheng, we gonna double-team Heather tonight or what?”
“Raine!” I gaped at her, spluttering, red in the face.
“You know, after she’s had a good bath first.”
Twil wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, get a room.”
“Exactly the proposition.” Raine shot a finger-gun at Twil.
“Ask her yourself, yoshou,” said Zheng.
“I- you- Raine! I don’t believe you. You can’t- it’s not the time- you-”
“Well?” Raine asked me, and I realised she was totally serious.
I dropped my voice to a low hiss. “How can you even ask that question when you made your feelings so clear earlier?”
Lozzie put a hand to her mouth, mock-gasping.
“Heather, hey, come on, do you like that idea or not?” Raine asked.
“Yes, you blithering idiot!” I whispered to her, blushing furiously. “But also no! Drop it before my entire head explodes from mortified embarrassment.”
Raine laughed out loud and shrugged to Zheng. “Guess we’re not on for tonight.”
“Mm,” the demon-host grunted. “Shaman – your plan?”
“Plan?” Raine asked.
“Oh, yes, yes, let’s talk about that,” I said with relief. “Much safer, yes, please.”
“What we planning for now?” Twil asked. “I’m getting hungry again, we’re not straight off on some other wild goose chase, are we?”
“The plan to fight Laoyeh,” Zheng purred.
“To rescue Maisie,” I clarified.
“ … I don’t even know where to begin,” I said. Suddenly the woodland air felt colder, the concrete beneath my backside was too hard, too dead. I wanted to go home and curl up with Raine. Deep inside, I shivered. “Up until a few weeks ago, the last time I’d actually encountered the Eye was as a child. In that house where the cult all died … you all remember that feeling, don’t you?” I glanced around. “Not you, Lozzie, but you recall it from when you saved me, probably.”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie spread her arms up high. “Biiiiig eyeball in the sky.” She touched her head. “Nasty feelings in skull. Ow.”
“Ow, yeah, right,” Twil grunted. “Freaky shit. Why are we talking about this now?”
“The shaman’s plan,” Zheng rumbled.
“It’s okay, Twil,” I said. “Zheng wants to know what she’s getting herself into. Which isn’t much, so far. As I was saying, in that house, and then earlier, when the puppet that looked like Lozzie took me back to Wonderland … ” I trailed off, at a loss, and when I spoke again my voice felt very small. “I don’t know how we’re going to fight something like that. How I’m going to fight something like that. I thought maybe if I got good enough at hyperdimensional mathematics, I could stand up to it for a while, a moment at least, find the strength to pull Maisie from it’s grasp, but brainmath led me to the abyss, and the abyss was a dead end, and it’s turned me into … ” I gestured weakly at the current position of my phantom limbs, images that existed only in my own head, images none of the others could see. Not even Lozzie.
For a few seconds, nobody said anything. Lozzie wobbled her head from side to side, aching to speak. Raine rubbed the back of my neck with one hand.
“Concrete plans, shaman,” Zheng said eventually, not unkindly.
“Knights!” Lozzie burst out. “Heather-Heaths, you remember my knight, don’t you?”
“Yes, Lozzie, of course I do.” I smiled at her – and shuddered inside at the memory of that thing she’d summoned to Wonderland. “You said there’s more, Outside, and that’s wonderful-”
“Lots more! Dozens and dozens and they’re all waiting but I hope they didn’t wander off or get bored because I’ve been gone for so long, they shouldn’t though because I told them to stay put if I was anywhere else.”
“ … right. Okay. And that’s wonderful, but that one I saw didn’t last very long against the Eye.”
“What’s this?” Twil asked with a frown.
“Yeah,” Lozzie said, face falling. “It died. Melty.”
“When she saved me from Wonderland,” I explained, “Lozzie had a … helper. Something she made. It looked like a knight. Sort of.”
I didn’t mention the thing that had been wearing the suit of pneuma-somatic armour. That was a discussion for Lozzie and I alone, preferably when we finally met her other creations and I could ask her what on earth I’d seen.
“What does Laoyeh mean?” Raine asked.
“Lord,” Zheng purred. “Great One, Khan.”
“And what do you know about it?”
Zheng shrugged. “Less than the shaman. It is a surfaced leviathan, born in the same place as I, bearing the logic of the deep dark, not a body like this.” She raised a hand and made a fist.
“What would happen if we like, summoned the Eye into a corpse, like a zombie?” Twil asked.
“Evee would have a fit, for a start,” I murmured.
“Ka-boom!” went Lozzie.
Zheng just laughed, long and loud. Twil looked around as if we were all mad.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s possible, Twil,” I said. “Like squeezing a star into a matchbox.”
“Extra tip.” Raine grinned at her. “Don’t tell Evee you suggested that. She’ll belt you over the head.”
“No she won’t,” Twil grumbled, a little red in the face. “She doesn’t do that. Not really.”
“Concrete plans, shaman,” Zheng repeated.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “Well, we do have a few leads.”
And so, we monsters and mad women and werewolves and serial killers, we sat together in the shell of a wartime bunker, and told a thousand-year-old demon about how we were preparing to fight an alien God. We told her about the plan to visit the library of Carcosa, for Evelyn to plunder it for knowledge, at which Zheng rumbled something unkind about wizards. I told her we still had the Eye’s minion trapped inside a vessel of clay, tentacles and all, rotting away in Evelyn’s workshop, but with no way to truly interrogate the thing.
We explained how Lozzie and I still couldn’t get Outside, and the hypothetical sources of that blockage – Alexander’s ghost in Glasswick tower, or Edward’s offshoot cult daring and edging their way back into Sharrowford.
“I will eat that man’s heart and shit into his rotting brains,” Zheng rumbled.
“Agreed,” Raine said. “Well, personally I’ll skip the eating and shitting parts.”
Twil grimaced. “Ugh.”
“You need a stronger stomach, laangren.”
“Look, just because I’m a werewolf doesn’t mean I have to eat raw meat, right?”
“Yeah, she prefers fried chicken,” Raine said with a smirk.
“Don’t say that like it’s something bad! More civilised than you.”
“You are not more civilised than Raine,” I sighed. “Say that again when you manage to tell Evelyn how you feel.”
“You- Heather! Fuck! Shut up!”
Lozzie giggled. Raine shook her head. Zheng didn’t care.
And then there was the core of the plan. As Evelyn had already outlined months ago, we had three obstacles to overcome. Getting to Wonderland was solved, in theory at least. The gate would serve, when the time came.
“Avoiding the Eye’s attention, that’s challenge number two,” I said.
“Or blunting,” Raine added. “If I remember Evee right.”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Lozzie’s knights, maybe something else, I don’t know. Not to mention dealing with it in a physical sense. We didn’t see them much when the puppet-thing took me there, but it has physical worshippers and minions, mundane threats, I suppose, if we get that far. Some of them are … rather large.”
Zheng grinned. Her intent was plain.
“Yeah, that’s what you’re for, brick shithouse. Fighting stuff,” Twil said. “Me too!”
“Don’t,” I said softly, and somehow the quiver of truth in my voice got through to both of them. “Don’t talk about it like it’s a pub brawl. We’d be lucky to survive the first few seconds unprotected in Wonderland. We need more than just ourselves, we need everything we can muster, and even that’s not going to be enough. Evelyn’s pretty certain that with the right techniques, the right knowledge, then maybe she can avert the Eye’s attention for long enough for … me.”
“You, shaman?” Zheng asked.
“Yes, because that’s the final challenge. I have to actually find my sister. And somehow I suspect she’s not exactly physical anymore. Sarika’s experience taught me that.”
“The wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Still alive, hmm?”
“Don’t you dare,” Raine said softly, with a subtle smile and a quirk of her eyebrows.
“Protecting the wizard, yoshou?” Zheng purred at her, low and dangerous.
“No, don’t,” I huffed. “Please, not now. We have enough to deal with already, without you breaking into Sharrowford General Hospital to murder a patient. Trust me, Zheng, Sarika isn’t a threat to anybody anymore. She’s a shell of the person she was.”
“My point is – the lesson is – Sarika was partially entangled with the Eye itself, but only for a few hours. I pulled her out, but it took everything I had, and made me cast off being human. I came back, eventually, yes, but … ” I shrugged. “My sister, she’s been in Wonderland for over ten years now.”
“Yeah, like, a lot more difficult, right?” Twil said into the ensuing silence. Raine gave her a bit of a look.
“So that’s the plan,” I said, struggling to keep my voice from breaking. “I’m supposed to become strong enough – skilled enough at hyperdimensional mathematics – to fight an alien God with my mind, and pull my sister free.”
“You believe it impossible,” Zheng purred.
“Nothing’s impossible,” said Raine, softly, but with such confidence that she stopped me from breaking into tears again.
“Talking about this is going to make me cry for a second time today,” I said, thick-voiced. I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand.
“Embrace what you brought back, shaman.”
“I tried that! All I managed was to nearly kill myself by growing tentacles out of spirit-matter. I tore a lung open and I almost bled to death.”
“I patched her!” Lozzie chirped. “Like a spare tire!”
I rubbed my chest, over the spot where Lozzie’s pneuma-somatic replacement flesh still stretched and flexed with every breath. “Yes, she did.”
“They were very cool tentacles though,” Raine said. “Rainbow-strobing.”
“Huh,” Zheng grunted, but shook her head. “Try again, shaman.”
“Oh, that’s easy for you to say, you heal broken legs in minutes. I almost died.”
“Let’s not encourage her to try the tentacles again, hey?” Raine said. “Sort of hoped you might be able to provide some input, Zheng.”
“That is my input,” Zheng purred. “Laoyeh is not pure thought. It is thought made flesh, expressed in flesh, brought into flesh. To learn, you must be like it. You must make thought flesh, and flesh, thought.”
“Ew,” said Twil.
“No, that … that does make some sense,” I said slowly. “To be … like it.”
“Heather?” Raine said my name.
“So if I want to contend with the Eye, I have to keep risking ripping myself apart.” I nodded, sighed, and shrugged in weary resignation. “I suppose I do need to break out the biology textbooks after all. I’m lucky I have access to a university library. No shortcuts, ever. Story of my life.”
“Can’t we go home yet?” Twil grunted. “You two’ve worked out whatever your … thing is, right?”
“Yes,” I sighed. “I think we should all go home. Zheng, you are coming, aren’t you?”
“Mmmmmm!” Zheng rumbled, and stood up – and up, and up – to her full height where she rolled her neck and cracked her joints. “Yes, shaman. For now.”
“You even housebroken?” Twil asked her.
Zheng shot her a nasty, toothy grin, as Raine helped me to my feet as well, my arm linked through hers. Lozzie bounced up in her wellington boots and attached herself to my other side, hard enough to send a minor shock wave of shuddering through my bruised flank, but I didn’t mind. For once, I felt like everything was going at least roughly according to plan. I’d had to make some hard promises to get here, and my life – not to mention my heart – was as confusing as ever, but we were making progress. Finally.
“Want to find out, laangren?”
“Ewwww, fuck.” Twil wrinkled her nose, then thumbed at Zheng. “What about those sheep we found? How you gonna keep her fed?”
Raine laughed. “Put her out to hunt. Like a house cat.”
“Sheep?” Zheng purred – and went very, very still indeed.
The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Ice ran through my veins. Raine sensed it too, suddenly alert. Lozzie made a little ‘uh-oh’ face.
“Yeah, four sheep.” Twil frowned in confusion, the only one of us not yet following. “Up in that field, uh … like … that way? Or that way? Sense of direction is screwed in here.”
“I know the field, laangren,” Zheng purred. “I ate there.”
“Yeah, and you ate a lot, you-”
“Zheng?” Raine said.
“I ate one sheep,” Zheng purred, looking around us, into the woods, with a sharpness in her eyes as her face split into a shark-toothed grin. “Not four.”
“What?” Twil squinted. “Then where did the other … oh. Oh fuck!”
“Oh fuck is right,” Raine murmured.
“Something else killed and ate three sheep? Like that?” I asked. “Around here?”
Zheng laughed, long and low. “I am being used, shaman. Used to cover tracks. Let’s go find what’s hiding in my shadow.”