Hundreds of feet of tarry-black tentacle looped and coiled and slashed through the pouring rain, dripping with oil-dark droplets of pneuma-somatic ichor. Like a snake eating its own tail, it possessed neither beginning nor end, no tip or termination. With a disgusted roll in my already sensitive stomach, it reminded me of a video I’d once seen, of a live tapeworm deep in the guts of a pig, writhing over itself in a mass of spaghetti-like tissues, a confusion of awful liveliness.
My own phantom limbs reared up in involuntary self-defence, sent a quiver of pain deep into my bruised flanks, drew a gasp from between my clenched teeth.
Tenny’s black tentacle whipped away from us in a great spiralling mass, and slid in silence into the gloomy embrace of the woods.
The whole process was over in a heartbeat. Only we and the storm remained.
Zheng was still laughing. Lozzie clapped to herself in solitary celebration.
Raine’s voice drew me back into my shivering skin. My sides burned, my head pounded with brainmath side-effects, the taste of bile lingered in my mouth, and I could not process what I’d just seen.
“Mm?” was all I managed.
“Heather, is it still here?”
“I … no … I don’t think so.” I swallowed, found my mouth dry and my lips numb as I stared at the tree line where Tenny’s tentacle-mass had vanished. “It- she- she left. Part of her left. How … how big must she be now? What did she-”
“Really, really big! She did sooooo good!” Lozzie clapped with childlike glee, wellington boots splashing in the mud, then cupped her hands around her mouth and called out. “Tenny! Tenny! Come say hiiii!” She waited for a reply, then blinked heavily when none came, head wobbling as sleepiness crept back over her again.
“Lozzie? Lozzie, what did we actually just see?” I asked, trying to catch her eyes as they fluttered shut. “Where’s the rest of her? Is she out there, in the woods? What … what is she now?”
“Tenny,” Lozzie said, eyes closed.
“Heather, hey, hey.” Raine put her hand on my arm. “Slow down a sec, what exactly did you three just see?”
“Yeah!” Twil added. “Kinda in the dark here, yo.”
“Um … ” I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. “There was a single tentacle, or maybe it was several, I’m not sure, but there was a lot of it, an awful lot, hundreds and hundreds of feet worth. And it was Tenny, definitely Tenny.”
“You’re certain?” Raine asked.
I nodded. “Yes, I’d recognise the texture anywhere. I’ve held her tentacles in my hands enough times. It was in a ring, all the way around the edge of this field. As soon as Zheng unearthed it, it just fled.”
“Good then,” Twil grunted. “Don’t wanna deal with that shit.”
“She’s been eating live meat!” I almost shouted at Twil. “Live sheep! How is that even possible? We have to find her, we-”
“Find her, shaman?” Zheng chuckled. “Hunting a slug in the rain, a challenge.”
“Zheng, don’t you dare surprise her. We don’t know what came out of her cocoon, we don’t even know what she looks like now. She can’t be far though, a single tentacle can’t be that long, can it?”
Twil and Raine shared a look. Lozzie giggled.
I sighed and put my face in my hand. “Me saying it doesn’t make it more likely. Please, she can’t have gotten that big.”
“Let’s not tempt fate,” Twil said with a grimace. “Yeah? And-”
A black whip of force shot out of the woods to our right, a full ninety degrees from the point at which Tenny’s appendage had vanished, and slammed into the centre of Zheng’s chest with an explosive crunch of shattering ribs.
The impact threw Zheng to the ground, a rag-doll bundle of flopping limbs and wet clothes in the mud.
I flinched so hard I almost slipped over, a shriek caught in my throat. Lozzie made a comical ‘wah!’ sound. Twil and Raine couldn’t see the tentacle itself, but they saw the result well enough. Twil bared her teeth, ghostly wolf-flesh spinning together across her body, and Raine moved in front of me, knife out in one hand.
Tenny’s tentacle reared back up, a snake readying another strike. It was the tip, finally; it split open on a sucking wet mouth ringed with tiny black barbs.
“Zheng!” I screamed.
Zheng had, for once, actually been caught off guard, but she didn’t stay down for long. She flipped back to her feet with a grin of sheer joy on her face.
“Golog!” she roared with laughter at the tentacle, then spat blood into the rain. “Back for a rematch?”
“Zheng, your ribs are broken, I heard them snap!” I yelled. “Tenny, stop! Oh for- why is it always tentacles? This is absurd.”
They both ignored me, if Tenny could even hear.
Before anybody so much as drew breath, dozens of tarry-black loops of tentacle raced out of the gloom beneath the trees. Half of them darted for Zheng – but the other half threw up a wall between the demon-host and the rest of us.
Tenny tried to ensnare Zheng at her wrists or ankles, jabbed for her throat and eyes, bludgeoned her back and head. Zheng roared with laughter at the top of her lungs and fought back with sheer muscular strength, punching and gouging and stomping. She managed to rip one length of tentacle clean apart in a cloud of black ichor, only for the severed halves to vanish amid the confusion, seemingly none the worse for wear. The mouth-tentacle was lost as well, impossible to pick out from the rest. Tenny landed a solid blow on Zheng’s hip with an ear-splitting crack of fracturing bone.
“Oooh, no no! Tenny, no!” Lozzie whined, in a tone with which one might admonish a naughty dog, not a tentacle-creature attacking a friend. She rushed up to the wall of tentacles Tenny had thrown up between us and tried to force her way through, but the tentacles gently pushed her back.
“Heather, what is going on?” Raine demanded. Twil was growling now, agitated by the invisible violence.
“She thinks Zheng’s an enemy! Tenny could kill her. Tenny, stop!” I yelled into the woods, hoping to see her main body, whatever it looked like now, whatever she’d become, but the forest darkness and the pouring rain swallowed all. “Zheng is a friend, stop!”
She’d almost won, caught Zheng by one wrist and the opposite knee. Zheng had taken a hard strike to the side of her head, puffed up one eye into a huge bleeding bruise. Her free arm hung limp from the shoulder socket at an unnatural angle. She kicked and slipped in the mud, couldn’t get her footing as another tentacle threw a loop to catch her around the neck.
Tenny was about to pull Zheng’s head clean off, and there was nothing we little humans could do about it.
Then Zheng exploded with another roar of laughter. She lost her footing – on purpose – and slipped beneath the tentacle fishing for her throat.
On the ground, she bit clean through the loop of tentacle restraining her good arm and shook herself free with sheer brute strength, surging to her feet and whirling in the rain like a berserker. She slammed her own dislocated shoulder back in to place with a punch, then caught the next loop of tentacle that tried to knock her brains out. She pulled it apart, ripped the appendage in two like before – but this time she held onto it with both hands, a bullfighter on the horns.
“Fast, but stupid!” she roared.
She was having so much fun, I almost didn’t want to interrupt.
But finally I found my feet and my courage, and stumbled the few steps forward to the wall of tentacles. Raine tried to stop me, then settled for shadowing me when I shook her off. She couldn’t see the wall, of course. I reached out and touched one of the tentacles with my bare hand, raindrops slipping down my sleeve cuff.
Warm and slippery in my grip. Absolutely her.
“Tenny, stop!” I said, with both mouth and mind. “Down!”
A fluttering sound inside my head. Like air passing over feathered gills, a whirring note of surprise and confusion, a strangled yelp from a throat of fanned paper.
All together and all at once, the tentacles disengaged. They pulled free from Zheng and sent her head-over-heels again, whipped back and withdrew from the field in the blink of an eye. Several loops smashed into trees in their haste to leave, scarring the bark, sending outraged crows into the sky in a flurry of black wings. Sucked back into the wood like wet noodles down a drain, the tentacles vanished into the gloom, gone.
I took a few stumbling steps toward the woods, but this time Raine caught me around the shoulders.
“Woah there, slow down,” she said, and this time I didn’t pull away. “What happened? Heather?”
“Pheeeew,” Lozzie did a big puff, bit her lip, and gave me a guilty, sidelong look. “Oopsie.”
Silence descended, broken only by raindrops on my hood and Zheng’s laboured breathing as she got to her feet. Stillness felt so unnatural now. No tentacles, no Tenny. Just a field in England.
“She got me, shaman!” Zheng roared, broke the silence.
“Zheng? Are you alright, you-”
“She got me!” Zheng stomped back over to us, grinning with pleasure. She was bruised and battered all over, her left eye socket swollen and bleeding, dragging one leg. She couldn’t stop laughing, a belly-deep rumble. “Slug, slippery carrion-eater, trapdoor spider, lurking coward, she got me!”
Zheng stomped hard, and something inside her hip popped back into place with an audible crack.
“She’s fucked you right up, yeah,” Twil said, gaping. “You … you alright?”
Zheng turned away, shaking herself like a wet dog, still laughing. Perhaps it was only the rain sliding down her cheeks, but I could have sworn she was crying tears of joy.
“Heather, I need a low-down here,” Raine said, calm and collected. “What just happened?”
I looked up at her, my rock, face set and focused beneath the curve of her hood. Raindrops dripped from the brim. I realised she was still poised for action, her entire body ready to spring one way or the other at a hair-trigger touch. In a second she could scoop me up or draw her knife or do God alone knew what else. The sensation sent a shiver up my spine.
“Raine, it’s fine, s-she left after trying to fight Zheng,” I babbled, my knees weak at the look in Raine’s eyes. “She threw up a sort of wall between us too. I think she was trying to protect me from Zheng. Silly, of course she’d think that, she’s never met Zheng except when I almost got kidnapped, poor thing. Oh, Tenny.”
“As long as she’s protecting you,” Raine said. “S’alright by me.”
“Raine, she was going to pull Zheng’s head off!”
“Maybe it was just payback.” She glanced over at Zheng. “All that with one tentacle, huh? Nice.”
“Tenny’s fishing line!” Lozzie said.
“Hey, Zheng,” Raine called. “How you holding up after that?”
“This is nothing, yoshou!” Zheng laughed. “Fifteen minutes, good as new.”
“Slow,” Twil grunted with a humourless laugh, but she trailed off into an awkward cough. Twil was brave beyond sensibility, but even she couldn’t fight invisible monsters.
“So, she’s gone again now?” Raine asked me.
“She went into the woods.” I nodded, trying to take a deep breath. “Which is, well, a problem in and of itself. I … how was … she … ”
I trailed off. My eyes went wide. My head felt like it would float away on the wind.
Awe is a singular and strange sensation. Often it arrives slowly, when one reads about the depths of space or vast stretches of time. To those unlucky few of us who have been Outside, other kinds of awe – of the alien, of the vast, of the spaces between – come to mind all too easily. In other instances, awe only arrives after several separate pieces of information converge to contextualise one seemingly minor experience.
Lozzie, Zheng, and I all saw the tentacle rise above the treetops. Slender, thin as my wrist, framed against the storm-tossed sky, visible only due to the tarry-blackness. A tiny thread. A trick of perspective.
Then it dipped back down into the trees.
“What?” Raine demanded. “What is it now?”
“Uh.” I swallowed, glanced over at Zheng. “Was- was that-”
“Ten or eleven miles distant, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “At least.”
Vertigo washed over me, brought on by the wide cloud-tossed sky. “She’s … moving very fast then, she-”
Zheng shook her head. “Ten miles, in a few seconds? Even I cannot run that fast. That was another part.”
“ … she’s huge,” I breathed. “Where- I thought she was in the trees, nearby, she … ten miles? She could be anywhere, she-”
“Heather?” Raine prompted. I stared at her for a moment, speechless, then squeezed my eyes shut.
“Why do I feel like I’m in a Godzilla movie all of sudden?” I sighed. “I don’t believe this. As if this hasn’t been enough for one day.”
“It was a huge tentacle. Very long,” I hissed. “Above the trees, back toward the city almost. Which means she’s … giant!”
“What?” Twil grunted. “You think she came out of that cocoon and turned into Mothra or something?”
“I don’t know!” I said. “Her cocoon was still there this morning. In the same place it’s been for weeks, in the tree in the garden. I saw it myself, with my own eyes, while I was eating breakfast. She can’t have followed us out here. We’d know if she hatched, wouldn’t we? Lozzie?”
“Mmm-mmmm?” Lozzie shrugged. She wavered on her feet, eyelids heavy, one hand clinging to Twil’s sleeve.
“Heather, hey, slow down,” Raine said. “Maybe she hatched right as we left, followed you out here? That’s what she does, after all, right? She follows you.”
I shook my head, going numb. “That tentacle was too far away, practically back in Sharrowford. And she’s been eating real meat, I didn’t even think that was possible.” A horrible cold fist of ice settled in my belly. The implications did not bear thinking about. “How did she do that? How did she do any of that? She even hit the trees. Pneuma-somatic flesh can’t … touch … ”
Of course, this wasn’t the first time Tenny had touched real flesh with pneuma-somatic appendages.
Months ago, in that dirty alleyway where I’d been ambushed by a cult underling before my first meeting with Alexander Lilburne, she’d shoved her tentacles into his head, bought me a moment of distraction. But back then her tentacles had passed through skin and bone and brain, made him jerk and sit up as if surprised. Not battered him to death.
Now she’d hunted living animals, stripped the meat from their bones, and hidden her kill.
“She’s just really reeeeeally clever,” Lozzie said, then grumbled, knuckling at her sleepy eyes.
“Really clever. Right.”
Raine must have seen the look on my face. She glanced at the dark tree line through the murk of the storm. “You think she’s been eating meat elsewhere? This might not be the first time?”
“Oh shiiiiiit,” said Twil. “Like, back in Sharrowford?”
“Oh God, oh no.” My throat tightened up. “You might be right, I don’t know.”
“The pup is too clever for that, shaman,” Zheng purred, still grinning like she’d heard the best joke in all her life. She was rubbing her swollen eye socket with one hand. “Her nature guides her well, sends her to places with no monkeys to see.”
“Sharrowford’s full’o dark corners too,” Raine said. Zheng shrugged.
“Raine,” I said, trying to pull my thoughts together. “Raine, will you call Evelyn again, please?”
“Sure thing.” Raine didn’t hesitate. She rummaged in her jacket for her mobile phone. “You look like a woman with a plan. Wanna share?”
“We need to verify if the cocoon is still there. If it is, then … then … ” I swallowed. “Then we know where the tentacle retreated to, and that Tenny has just reached across twenty miles of countryside.”
“Fuck,” Twil grunted.
“Yes, for once that is an appropriate word, thank you Twil,” I said. “Raine, please?”
“Already on it.” Carefully shielding her phone from the storm with her coat and hood, she dialled for Evelyn. “You wanna talk to her yourself?”
“Please, yes.” I held out my hand and Raine passed me the phone. I hunched forward as I slid it inside my hood, against my ear. The line rang three times, then connected with a soft click.
“What is it now?” Evelyn’s voice demanded, tinny and distant over the weak signal. “Raine, this had better be you telling me you’re on the way home, you-”
“Evee, it’s me,” I said quickly, trying to keep the shake from my voice. “I need you to do something for for me, please.”
“Heather?” I practically felt the blink of surprise in Evelyn’s voice, then the bite in her words. “What’s happened? Where’s Raine?”
“We’re all fine, we’re all safe. Evee, please, I need you to go to the back door or the kitchen window and look out … ” I halted as I realised my own stupidity.
“ … oh blast, you won’t be able to see it, will you?” I thought out loud. “Evee, can you please ask Praem to look out of the kitchen window for me?”
“What on earth are you-”
“Evee please, please just do it. I need her to make sure Tenny’s cocoon is still there. Please.”
“ … alright.” Evelyn grunted. I heard the sounds of her getting up, putting papers or a book aside, shifting blankets off her lap, then the clack-clack-clack of her walking stick, so comfortingly normal. Away from the phone’s speaker, I heard her voice. “Praem, you’re needed. Kitchen.” A moment later her voice returned to the phone. “Very well, Heather, she’s looking out of the back window. What is she looking for, pray tell?”
“Can you put her on? Please?”
A pause. I felt Evelyn’s raised eyebrow across half the county.
“It’s only a phone,” I sighed, at my wit’s end. “Surely she knows how to use a phone. She put a maid uniform on with no prior experience, and I gather that’s a bit more fiddly. She can handle a phone, please.”
“Point. Here.” Evelyn’s voice left the phone’s speaker. “Hold it up to your ear, you- yes. That’s it.”
A beat of silence.
“Praem?” I asked.
“Heather,” Praem intoned down the phone, a single perfect sing-song note, beautiful amid all this rain and mud.
“Praem, I need you to do something for me, please. Do you see Tenny’s cocoon from where you’re standing? Is it in it’s usual place, in the tree?”
I thought I’d feel relief, but it wouldn’t come. “You’re certain?”
“And it’s not … split or damaged or-”
“ … would you go out there and check for me, that it’s still alive? That she’s still … in there?”
Without a word of acknowledgement the phone suddenly emitted a scuffing noise, followed by Evelyn’s voice. “Praem? Praem! You’re going to get wet and- oh, bugger it.” She snapped back to the phone. “Heather, what on earth have you got her doing?”
“Checking on Tenny, we found these- wait, no!” I almost jumped out of my skin. “Evee, stop her from going out there! Stop her!”
“Oooh, yes!” Lozzie piped up. She bounced over to the phone and added her voice over my shoulder. “Best not go out, if she’s still hungry!”
“Evee, yeah, stay indoors,” Raine called.
Evelyn huffed an irritated sigh. “What is this, are all of you-”
“She might get eaten. You might get eaten,” I said. “Stay indoors.”
“What … Praem, Praem, stop,” Evelyn called out. “Heather says stop too, if my authority really means that little.” I heard Evelyn sigh. “What now, Heather? What is this about?”
“Tenny was here, just now. Or at least one of her tentacles was.”
Evelyn’s moment of silence spoke volumes.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Look, Evee, we found dead sheep, it turns out she’s been eating them, probably. Eating meat, real actual meat, physical meat.”
“ … what?” Evelyn hissed. “Heather, that’s not poss-”
“It is. I saw the tentacle bounce off the trees, we all did. Evee, we can talk about the implications later. I don’t understand, but, if she’s still in the cocoon … she … well.” I swallowed. “She’s developed quite the long reach.”
Going home was not a simple matter of all piling into the car to endure a soggy ride together. Lozzie and I may both be on the smaller side, but there was no way we could all cram into the back of Raine’s car. Zheng was simply too large and too unwieldy. She knew it, and she didn’t even make the attempt.
“I’ll walk, shaman.”
I stared up at her and sighed. We were standing on the edge of the woods, in the asphalt lay-by we’d pulled into so many hours ago. Behind me, Lozzie bounced into the back seat and out of the rain, then swung her wellington-booted feet back out and and banged them against the side of the car to knock the mud off. She hugged herself tight in her poncho, shivering softly, but in minutes we’d have the car engine purring and the heaters turned up full for her.
“ … Zheng, it’s miles,” I said. “Woodland, open fields, then the city, and you have to hide the whole way, don’t you? Zheng, even for you that’ll takes ages. This is an emergency, it-”
“Could be an emergency,” Raine corrected me, gentle and reassuring. She squeezed my shoulder through my hoodie and coat. “We don’t know what Tenny’s been doing, but she’s been doing it for a while and nothing crazy’s happened yet. S’not like there’s a spate of missing persons in Sharrowford, or a load’a dead pets.”
“You didn’t see that tentacle!” I almost snapped at her. “Raine, it was miles high.”
“And she listened to you when you told her stop, didn’t she?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Plenty of giant araatan, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You see them every day.”
“And they don’t eat live sheep!” I almost shouted. “Zheng, she tried to pull your head off!”
“This?” Zheng gestured at the awful bruise down the side of her face, her black eye with the flesh all puffed up. During the walk back to the road, she had healed slightly, faster than any human, but not as rapidly as Twil, her crooked gait straightening out as her hipbone mended. She looked like she’d taken a wrecking ball to the head. Half her bones made grinding sounds as she walked. “A love tap. The puppy was playing.”
I sighed, closed my eyes, and rubbed the bridge of my nose. The return had not been easy, and at one point I had almost asked Raine to carry me. Brainmath had drained me, left me shaky and gifted me with a headache, and the residual adrenaline was running out. My flanks hurt, my head pounded, and I wanted so badly to lie down.
“It could take you hours to reach the house,” I said. “I need you there with us when we approach the cocoon. Please.”
“Your golog won’t hurt you.”
“She hurt you, and she might hurt my other friends. I can’t be sure.” I huffed. “I suppose this is why I’m in charge, isn’t it? I’m the only responsible one here.”
Zheng made a grumbling sound. I glared up at her.
“Too proud to ride with your head between your knees for twenty minutes, hey?” Twil asked. She poked her head out of the passenger side door, hood still up against the stray raindrops scattering through the woodland canopy over the road.
Zheng gave her a slow look, eyes sharp and predatory but strangely at rest. “I dislike these metal boxes.”
Raine laughed at that, but put up a placating hand. “Showing your age, huh?”
“Zheng, it’ll be twenty minutes,” I said. “Surely you’ve had worse.”
“I will race you, shaman. And I will win.”
“That a challenge?” Raine asked. I caught a twinkle in her eye. “On wet roads?”
“Yoshou?” Zheng rumbled.
“’Cos hey, I’m the one behind the wheel here.” She reached back and patted the top of the car. “Sure she’s no eight-six, but you really wanna take a risk on my skills? You’ll look pretty silly when you plod up to the house half an hour after the rest of us, out of breath while I’m sippin’ tea with my feet up.”
“Uh oh,” went Twil, sing-song style, a nasty smirk on her face.
“You propose to out pace me,” Zheng rumbled, darkly unimpressed. “In a machine?”
“Damn right I do,” said Raine.
“Oh no! No!” I stared at the pair of them. “We are not doing this, not now! This is serious, both of you. We’ve got a giant monster growing in the back garden and we need to get home as quickly as possible, not-”
I choked to a halt, heart in my mouth when I realised what I’d just said.
“Exactly,” Zheng purred.
“Race!” Lozzie chanted. “Race!”
Raine grinned at me with adoring satisfaction. “Heather, I love you so much, you know that?”
“Raaaaine,” I almost whined. “It’s not safe. Oh my God, no.”
“It is with me in the driver’s seat. Always.”
“Hurt the shaman and I’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth, yoshou,” Zheng said.
Raine winked and shot a finger gun at her. “I expect nothing less.”
And with a sudden, face-ripping grin of savage joy, Zheng exploded from a standing start into a headlong sprint, a lightning bolt wrapped in rags that lanced across the road and through the trees opposite, whipping leaves into a vortex behind her to float back to earth. She jinked to one side and vanished into the woods, footsteps quickly lost in the cushion of the forest.
Raine burst out laughing. “Right then, that solves that.”
“Shit!” Twil said. “She can go straight, we gotta take the roads.” She almost leapt out of the car, but Raine held a hand up to stop her.
“Cool it, Twil, cool it. We got all the time in the world.”
“We- what? Come off it Raine, you’re not that good a driver. We’re gonna lose.”
“Good,” I tutted. “Better than breaking all our necks, or getting stopped by the police for speeding.”
“Why pay for the whole speedometer if you’re only gonna use half of it?” Raine asked. I boggled at her.
“You- no, you can’t be serious, you-”
She shot me a wink and I felt my insides melt at her smoldering confidence. She knew something I didn’t, and I knew that was dangerous. “I’ll get us all home safe, promise. You get the front seat, too. Go on, Twil, in back for you.”
I huffed in irritation, but relented, against all my better judgement. This was hardly the craziest thing Raine had ever convinced me into, after all. If nothing else, I trusted she knew what she was doing, but after I climbed in and got settled, I started to doubt again. My stomach clenched up.
Raine popped the driver’s door a moment later and climbed in, shaking stray raindrops from her hood.
“So, this thing is like, souped-up, right?” Twil asked, poking her head forward between the seats.
“Not as far as I know,” said Raine.
“What?!” Twil gaped at her in disbelief “This car is ancient, what the hell are you thinking?”
The engine coughed to life into a steady warm purr, air pouring from the heating vents. I got my seatbelt on, heart in my throat, every muscle tensed and my flanks aching as Raine revved the engine, a teasing grin on her lips.
“Raine,” I warned her.
“Race! Race!” Lozzie chanted, curled up comfy in the back seat.
With a kick of the wheels and a lurch in my stomach, Raine pulled out of the little woodland lay-by and onto the road. She put her foot down and I felt like my pulse was going to burst out of my own throat.
“Relax,” she purred.
“You’re gripping the dashboard, Heather. Relax. Sit back.”
“I can’t help it, Raine, I can’t believe you’re … doing … this?”
“Uhhhh,” Twil made a noise like a printer error. “Raine, what the fuck are you doing?”
“Driving us home.”
She’d hyped it up so much I hadn’t realised until we rounded the second corner, but Raine was in fact driving safely. I glanced over at the car’s speedometer. A comfortable twenty-seven miles an hour. I stared at Raine in profile, not sure if I should laugh or scold her.
“We’re gonna lose!” Twil said.
“Yeah … ” Lozzie puffed out a cheek in disappointment.
“Raine, what?” was all I could manage.
She laughed softly, took one hand from the wheel and ruffled my hair before leaning over to plant a huge kiss on my cheek.
“Eyes on the road!” I squeaked. “Raine!”
She laughed again and took both hands off the wheel for a second, at which I thought my heart might explode, before she relented and replaced her hands at the ten and two positions.
“It’s a ruse,” she said.
“Eh?” went Twil.
“I’m … sorry? Raine?” I asked.
“I have hoodwinked our big friend. Pulled a fast one. Played a trick. Gone done a ruse on her.”
I glanced back at Twil. She shrugged, as lost as I was. “But we’re gonna lose the race,” she said.
“Small price to pay,” Raine answered.
“Oh,” I sighed as understanding set in. “Oh, that is clever. Too clever. Raine, I can’t believe this. That’s so underhanded.”
“It is,” Lozzie chirped, then made a grumbly noise, pulled her poncho tight, and closed her eyes. A moment later she let out a little snore.
Twil looked at her, looked at me, looked at Raine, then at the road ahead.
“So, right now,” Raine explained, “Zheng’s gonna get back to the house ASAP. Faster than we can, driving in this rain, on these roads. Gonna take us, oh, I dunno, least half an hour. But she’ll get there first. Keep an eye on Tenny’s cocoon for us, just in case anything screwy’s going on. Better her than Evee. Insurance.”
“Oh.” Twil sat back, a bit blank.
“She can’t turn down a fight,” Raine said. “Best way to motivate her.”
“You knew the exact buttons to push, didn’t you?” I asked, shaking my head with disbelief.
“Got her number, yeah,” Twil said. “Wow. Huh.”
“Ehhhh.” Raine smiled a self-deprecating smile. “I think I got her figured out most ‘o the way. Zheng ain’t that complex.” She glanced sidelong at me with a silent question in her eyes.
I sighed. “In some ways, I suppose not, no.”
“So what, all that bragging about your sick driving skills was just guff?” Twil asked. “Figures.”
“Hey, I never said I couldn’t beat her if I tried.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Twil scoffed. “Oldest story in the book, that one. ‘I could win, I just don’t wanna.’”
“Twil,” I said. “Please don’t tempt her.”
“One corner then. This one,” Raine said. She nodded ahead, to where the woodland road turned sharply on a downhill curve – and put her foot down. The engine revved higher, a lion’s purr trapped under the hood.
“Woo!” went Lozzie, without opening her eyes.
Twil gripped the back of my seat. “What? What?!”
“Raine!” My heart shot back up into my throat. I felt my legs trying to brace against the footwell again. “Raine, don’t you dare, you-”
“Hey, I’d never put you in danger,” she said, eyes glued to the road. “Trust me. Just this one time.”
The corner raced up to meet us, trees and all. I couldn’t even squeak, my knuckles white on the sides of the seat. Raine was utterly focused, knife-edge sharp.
We hit the corner and she jammed the wheel all the way to one side until the steering locked and the car almost span out, then shifted gears down and slammed on the accelerator again; I swallowed a scream , my heart trying to explode from my chest as Twil let out a ‘woah’. The rear tires squealed like a pig in terror as we rounded the corner almost side-on. I had an awful vision of the car rolling over.
But then suddenly we straightened out as we left the corner, the moment of excitement over as soon as it had begun.
“How about that, huh?” Raine finally allowed herself a grin.
“Fuck me,” Twil said, wide-eyed and breathless.
Lozzie let out a loud snore. She’d slept through the whole thing.
I glared at Raine.
“Raine, I love you, but if you ever do that again I will make you sleep in the garden.”
She laughed. “One time only. Promise. ‘Less it’s life or death.”
“I mean it. I’m not joking.” I took deep breaths, trying to force down the pounding in my head.
“Yeah, uh, Raine,” Twil said. “I think she’s serious.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die, never again,” Raine said. “Took your mind off Tenny though, didn’t it?”
“ … I … I suppose it did.” I sighed. “Sort of.”
“Trust me to drive fast now?”
“Within reason. Get us home, Raine, yes, as quickly as you can. Within reason.”
Kimberly met us at the door.
“Did Zheng get here?” I asked.
She was wide-eyed and pale in the face as she appeared in the front room, moments after we all bustled inside, busy trying to squirm out of our wellington boots, shedding wet coats and damp layers. As soon as we’d gotten the front door shut, Lozzie had sat down in a heap on the floor, head nodding, eyelids fluttering to stay open. Raine was helping her out of her boots. Twil had started shouting for Evelyn.
Kimberly’s throat bobbed with a nervous swallow. “Yes, she’s up the tree in the back garden. Evelyn isn’t very happy, the neighbours might see.”
Twil strode past her and into the kitchen, making for the back door, tacking mud all across the floor. I shucked off my coat but didn’t have the spare energy to peel my hoodie over my head, so I stepped into my regular shoes and hurried after her, my bruised sides and sore stomach complaining, my skull throbbing with a low-grade headache.
“Heather, wait up!” Raine called after me.
“Waity-wait,” Lozzie said.
Home felt lovely and warm after the long purgatory of the storm outdoors. The heating was cranked all the way up, raindrops drummed on the roof with the certainty of true enclosure, and every room was washed with a gentle glow of grey storm-light filtered through old glass.
When I saw Zheng through the kitchen window, I sighed. I wasn’t going to get to stay indoors just yet.
“Oh, damn her.”
I went through into the little utility room in the rear of the house. Twil was already slipping out the back door and into the garden. I passed the washer and dryer and the broken-backed sofa, pulled the door open, and stumbled out onto the rear patio straight into a confusion of several people’s backs, umbrellas, and a huge scarf.
“Don’t even try, she’ll throw you to the ground and you’ll break both legs,” Evelyn was saying to Twil.
“Don’t even try,” Praem echoed.
“Oh cool, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Twil said.
“No giant tentacles,” I sighed. “Okay, that’s a good sign.”
Evelyn glanced over her shoulder at me. “Heather, wonderful”, she deadpanned. “Don’t suppose you could convince her down from there before we get a visit from the RSPCA in a search of an escaped gorilla?”
“Shaman!” Zheng bellowed at the top of her lungs.
She was, as Kimberly had warned, up in the tree. The storm had finally slackened on our drive home, a brief lull in the days of rain to come, but Zheng was still sopping wet, hair plastered to her scalp, eye mostly healed by now into a mere dark bruise across half her face. Steading herself with one hand on a higher branch, both feet planted wide, she stood tall over Tenny’s cocoon.
It looked exactly as it had this morning. The size of a small car, wedged in place between the thickest branches, anchored to both ground and the mighty tree trunk with sticky strips of pneuma-somatic flesh, like creepers. The tarry-black surface shifted and flowed like liquid moved by an unseen current.
“Probably not,” I admitted to Evelyn.
Zheng pointed down at the cocoon. “Sealed. Intact. Your puppy is still within, shaman.”
“Yes,” Evelyn raised her voice. “As you have told us already. Now get down from there!”
Evelyn stood on the back patio, arms crossed in irritation, scowling up at Zheng. She was wrapped in an hastily assembled collection of warm clothes to keep the cold off, a thick cream jumper beneath her coat, a huge scarf wrapped around her neck, all askew. Praem waited next to her in full maid uniform, holding two umbrellas, one in each hand. Twil had decided to shelter there as well, caught by indecision at Evelyn’s side.
Zheng ignored her. “We need to deliver her, shaman.”
The back door opened again and Raine joined us, with Lozzie hanging onto her arm, rubbing heavy eyes as she gazed at Zheng and the cocoon. Kimberly peered warily around the door frame behind them.
“I won, yoshou,” Zheng called.
“Right you did,” Raine called back, then turned to me. “What now?”
“It’s still sealed,” I told her. “No tentacles that I can see.”
“Shaman,” Zheng bellowed.
“Oh, blast it all.” I shook myself, pulled my hoodie’s hood down over my hair, and ventured out into the rain once more.
Zheng watched me from up in the tree as I approached. I craned my neck to look up at her, and found an oddly serious expression on Zheng’s face as she crouched in the branches, next to that giant sticky black cocoon. A deep bass thrumming echoed inside my own head, a rhythm in the air itself, the heartbeat of a whale.
“Her metamorphosis is done,” Zheng rumbled. “She is overdue. We must deliver her.”
“ … how do you know that?”
Zheng shrugged. “Pupa do not eat. She sends out feeding tubes, because she is no longer a pupa. But she won’t come out.” She reached over and patted the huge chrysalis.
“That’s not true!” Lozzie said. I turned and found her struggling up through the garden behind me, flapping her poncho. Raine followed on her heels, having borrowed one of Praem’s umbrellas to keep the rain off both of them. Lozzie squinted and struggled with her eyes. “She’ll hatch when she’s ready! She’s just getting big!”
Zheng shook her head, slow and almost sad. “She is starving to death in the womb.”
“We can’t just open it ourselves,” I said. “What if Lozzie’s right? If we open it and she’s still changing, that’ll kill her.”
Zheng stared at me for a moment, then at the cocoon, then up at the sky. “Your choice, shaman.”
“I … I don’t know, I can’t make that kind of choice, I didn’t … ”
I didn’t make Tenny.
“Lozzie,” I turned, pleading with her. “Lozzie, is there some way we can be sure?”
Lozzie sniffed hard and closed one eye, struggling to stay coherent. Raine kept her dry with the umbrella in one hand, helped her stay standing with the other. She was trying so hard, but she shook her head, frowning and biting her lower lip.
“Heather, this isn’t on you,” Raine said softly. “No emergency after all, right? We should head back indoors, think this over. Talk to Evee, figure out a way to track those tentacles, find out what Tenny’s been up to.”
“Are you coming down from that blasted tree or not?” Evelyn called across the garden.
“Hush, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.
“I … ” I swallowed hard, raindrops soaking through my hood. “I’m not-”
Not responsible for this? Not a leader?
Tenny had saved my life once. She was a good doggy.
No less than Zheng, Tenny was a friend out in the wilderness. Maisie had told me in no uncertain terms what I should do about lost friends.
“I need to talk to her again,” I said, glancing up at the cocoon, an idea growing in my mind. “I’ve touched it before, but she wasn’t communicating through it. She’ll talk through the tentacles though, but I don’t see any. How could she have-”
Clonk clonk. Zheng tapped the tree trunk with her knuckles, then pointed downward at the ground. “Through the wood.”
“Makes sense,” said Raine.
“I need to talk to her again,” I said. “Zheng, can you dig up part of that tentacle, but don’t yank it out this time. I need to touch it, to … ask her … I don’t know, but it’s the only way to be certain.”
Zheng rose to her feet and cracked her knuckles. “Open a hole in the tree?”
“No hurty tree,” Lozzie whined.
“Yes, indeed, ‘no hurty tree’, let’s not do any more damage than necessary, please?”
Zheng stared at me for a second, deadpan and unreadable, then shrugged and took a step forward. She dropped straight out of the tree and hit the ground with a thump. I flinched and tutted.
“Locate it again, shaman?”
“With brainmath? Um, no. I’m exhausted, if I do that again I might pass out, and I’m pretty certain Tenny will only talk to me or Lozzie, and Lozzie’s about to fall asleep. Can’t you-”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted, and went to work.
She was quick, efficient, and brutal, tearing handfuls of earth out from around the tree in a rough circle, searching for the hiding place of Tenny’s feeding tentacle. She threw clods of dirt into the grass behind her as she went.
“Yes, that’s wonderful,” Evelyn drawled. She’d moved closer to observe, Praem holding the umbrella over her head and Twil grimacing out at the rain beside her. “Rip up the whole garden, why don’t you?”
“Come on, Evee,” Raine said. “Not like we take any care of it.”
“You best hope it’s not deeper, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.
“Quite. You’ll hit sewage pipes.”
We were fortunate. With a deep-throated growl, Zheng unearthed the tentacle a minute later. I hurried over to her side, uncaring of the rain soaking through my hood, as she straightened up and gestured into the shallow trench she’d dug, barely a foot deep. Raindrops sluiced mud down the sides of the hole. In the bottom pulsed a tarry-black cable of pneuma-somatic muscle, about as thick as my wrist.
“Thank you, Zheng,” I said, crouching with some difficulty, reaching down to touch the tentacle with my fingertips.
I made contact. Beneath the sound of the rain, beneath my own pounding heart and my laboured breathing, beneath the sounds of Raine and Lozzie walking closer to peer over my shoulder, I heard that rapid fluttering inside my head. Air passed through dry gills, like the vibration of wings.
“Tenny?” Lozzie whispered.
“She’s here,” I said, and wet my lips. One last time, I glanced up at the cocoon in the tree. What was Tenny now? How big must she be, inside there, if what we’d seen in the woods was merely a pupa-stage feeding tube? “I … Tenny? Tenny, won’t you come out?” I said out loud. “It’s me, it’s Heather. Are you … ready?”
A feathery fanning inside my mind, rising and falling.
She used to speak words, even if garbled. Now all I heard was this fluttery rhythm. The rhythms of her new body?
“Tell her it’s safe to come out now,” said Raine.
“ … Raine? Why wouldn’t she think that?”
Raine gave me an indulgent smile. “She wrapped herself up in there after you got snatched back to Wonderland, right? Maybe that’s why she went. Maybe she needs to know it’s safe out here now. Hey, it’s what I’d tell her, if I could see any of this.”
I slipped my fingers through the sucking mud to grasp the tentacle more firmly. The thud-thud-thud of life reverberated through the air.
“Tenny, it’s me,” I repeated. “It’s safe to come out now. All safe here. The bad things are gone. Zheng’s … a friend, now.”
The fluttering noise ceased. The tentacle went dead in my hand, limp and lifeless. The tarry-black surface of Tenny’s cocoon ceased all motion, the endless swirl of black on black fixed and still, frozen.
That deep heartbeat in the air fell silent.
“Tenny?” I squeezed the tentacle, shook it a little. “Tenny? Tenny, are you there?”
“Heather?” Raine whispered.
“Oh no,” Lozzie said in a tiny voice.
“She stopped,” I said, and looked up at the cocoon. “She just stopped. Like her heart gave out. Oh, oh-”
With a slick-wet crack like a cross between breaking bone and splitting dry mucus, the cocoon jerked. A hairline fracture appeared on the frozen surface.
Two feelers flickered through the crack – feathery, dove-white, slender as needles – then whipped back inside. The cocoon jerked again, rocked from within, shuddering like a struck bell.
“It’s Tenny!” Lozzie lit up and clapped her hands together.
I stumbled to my feet. Raine caught me to stop me from falling over.
“She’s hatching,” I said, turning to Raine, smiling in relief. “She-”
Raine had her knife out in her other hand, eyes glued to the cocoon – no, to the tree, I corrected myself. She couldn’t even see the cocoon; she, Evelyn, Twil, Kimberly, none of them could see Tenny or the cocoon.
But Twil and Evelyn stared up as well, locked in a moment of surprise. Evelyn had gone green in the face. Kimberly had ventured out onto the back patio, eyes wide, hand to her mouth, looking like she was about to bolt.
“I could see that,” Raine said, without taking her eyes from the tree. “I saw that just now, Heather. A pair of insect antennae long as my arm, out of thin air. Plain as day, I saw that.”