“Didn’t even think about the socioeconomic angle between those two,” Raine said. “Some PPE student I am, hey? They’re gonna have to talk that out themselves. You think they’re up to it?”
She may as well have been speaking Ancient Greek for all the sense I made of that.
Raine was sat cross-legged on the foot of our bed. She was wearing a pair of shorts which showed off her legs, and the kind of tshirt she only ever wore to sleep – vomit yellow with a faded logo on the front for a band called ‘three arm sally’, frayed a little at the collar, probably stolen from a live music show during her teenage homeless period. Television glow lit her face in profile; she’d booted up the playstation while waiting for me to finish in the shower.
Sound down low, controller loose in her hands, she piloted an unnaturally energetic cartoon girl across some picturesque fantasy woodland, picking up mushrooms and herbs, occasionally pausing to hit a slime monster in a fight. Her fingers worked on automatic, still pressing buttons as she glanced over at me.
Her hair was all chestnut brown disarray, still a little damp from the shower. She looked flushed. I wanted nothing more than to lie down on the bed and put my head in her lap.
Perhaps unwisely, I resisted. I put my bath-towel over my head and hid in the darkness.
“I understand each of those words in isolation,” I said, muffled under my towel. “But not in that order and not at the moment.” I frowned with sheer mental exhaustion and lifted the towel to peer at her again. No, she was still there, toned thighs and damp hair and all. “What did that mean?”
“Evee and Twil,” she said, and paused the game. “Heather, are you alright?”
“Exhausted, inside and out, up and down. What about Evee and Twil? Could you explain, please, so I can confirm I’m not having a stroke or something?”
We’d finally finished returning some semblance of peace and quiet back to the house about half an hour ago, and capped the process off with a much-needed pair of overlapping showers, though I’d been far too tired to do anything fun. Just stood quietly under the stream of hot water as Raine had washed my hair.
Finding clothes to fit Zheng had proved easier than we’d thought, though Raine was correct in her assumption that a shopping trip was in order, and soon. An old jumper with a hole in one armpit and a pair of pajama bottoms with a very generous elasticated waistband, they would tide my giant friend over for the night, but I doubt she’d want to be wearing them for long. As an added side-effect, the lack of proper clothes would hopefully keep her from wandering off or returning to the woods, at least until I could snatch enough rest to get my head around her.
Evelyn had suggested we clear out one of the upstairs rooms for her, but by that time we were all spent. Zheng had shrugged and grunted and propped her feet up on the kitchen table.
Lozzie had succumbed to her creeping sleepiness again, at least for now, and Tenny was wrapped up in bed with her. None of us had the slightest clue how much sleep Tenny would require, but she’d seemed entirely happy to curl up against Lozzie’s side, her tentacles wandering around the spare room to latch onto the door frame, the windowsill, Lozzie’s arm, like a spider suspending itself from a web.
“She’ll sleep ‘till she’s done,” Lozzie had murmured when I’d asked, one of her eyes fluttering shut, the other squinting. She had her arms around Tenny, and they looked so comfortable I was almost tempted to join them. “Done-done. She knows not to wake everyone up. Isn’t that right, Tenny?”
“Uuuup,” Tenny had fluttered. “Up. Up”
“Say goodnight to Heather now. Auntie Heather!”
“Guuuuaaah, Heather,” Tenny had managed. If I’d been more awake I think I would have died.
Nobody had seen Kimberly since she’d retreated from the chaos, but Raine took the plunge and checked on her. I’d tagged along. We’d found her sitting knees-to-chest in the chair in Evelyn’s study, eyes red-rimmed with THC, reading a battered, dog-eared copy of The Mists of Avalon. We’d left her to it.
The last we’d seen of Twil was from the far side of a massive ham sandwich she’d been constructing in the kitchen, casting suspicious glances at Zheng’s closed eyes and regular breathing.
“She’s faking it,” Twil had hissed. “Probably doesn’t even need sleep.”
Evelyn was downstairs too, in her workshop. Or maybe she’d gone to bed already. I’d lost track.
“I mean there’s a class gap between Evee and Twil, right?” Raine said as I finished drying my hair. “Twil’s family isn’t dirt poor, but they’re not well off. I guess a small-time cult without active recruiting doesn’t exactly rake in clandestine funds. Her dad used to be in the army, but that was years ago, and her mum’s a schoolteacher at the primary in Brinkwood. And our Evee, well. Technically her dad’s not petty bourge, but,” Raine shrugged and pulled an ironic smile. “She is loaded. Twil’s right about that.”
“And they probably need to talk that out, if they’re ever gonna, you know.” Raine spread the first and middle fingers of her right hand, and stuck her tongue between them.
I gave her an unimpressed look. She laughed.
I walked over to the bed and flopped down. I’d intended to sit, but my body didn’t obey, unfolding across the sheets as I closed my eyes. “No,” I said. “No I don’t think they could talk about money. They can’t even talk about their own feelings.”
“Maybe if we lock them in a room together and put up a sign that reads like ‘This door will only open if you snog for five minutes.’”
Raine’s fingers found my hair. She combed it back, away from my face, then scratched my scalp, hard enough to force a little groan from my throat. Firm and confident, her hand travelled down the back of my neck, and squeezed in the exact way to make me purr.
“No,” I said.
“No, as in, we’re not going to leave it up to chance. We’re going to cut this Gordian Knot for them.” I cracked open my eyes found myself staring at Raine’s bare thigh, the video game paused on the television screen beyond. “On second thought, I’m going to cut the knot. You should stay out of it.”
“What, you think I’m a bad matchmaker?”
I looked up at Raine, her face upside down from my perspective. “You can never resist teasing Evee.”
“Got me dead to rights there, yeah.”
“Plus it’s less like matchmaker, more like peace negotiator. There’s so much tension between those two, they’ll explode sooner or later if it’s not resolved.” I closed my eyes again. Everything felt so heavy.
“You sure you’re alright, Heather?”
I shrugged. “Over-tired. Jealous. Busy day. Sides hurt.”
“Jealous?” Raine asked.
Raine’s hand slipped beneath the collar of my pajama top and found my shoulder, and I knew what would happen next. She would set the playstation controller aside and switch the television off, and turn all her attention to me. Maybe we’d have sex, but more likely she’d just rub my shoulders, my back, my belly, until I fell asleep, and then she’d help roll me into bed, semi-conscious Heather clinging to her like a sleepy Koala bear. We’d snuggle up under the sheets and I’d feel safe and protected and normal and for a few hours of shared drowsing I’d be able to forget everything. I’d wake in the morning, and having put it off for one night I’d put it off for another, and another, and it would fester and grow until a rotten abscess ate at my heart.
But I was so tired. I wanted Raine, and sleep, and not to think.
Luckily for me – and for the health of my relationship – my phantom limbs didn’t give a hoot about how tired I felt.
As I lay there on the verge of giving in, they were trying to push me up into a sitting position. A dull, quivering ache ran along my flanks, a faint muscle spasm below the surface. Five of the six tentacles, ghosts of potential from my memories of the abyss, uncoiled and pushed at the bed, braced themselves to take my weight. One tried to wrap around my upper body, to pull me up. They couldn’t touch anything, but the pain in my sides spiked and prickled all the same. I hissed through my teeth.
“Alright, alright,” I grumbled.
The tentacles were right. Ape comfort wanted Raine, but rational thought – cold abyssal survival logic – knew that I had to talk to Raine now, or I never would. I drew willpower from that writhing core of inhuman drive in the core of my soul, sighed, and stole myself for the task.
“S’nothing,” I lied, then reached up, found Raine’s wrist, and halted her hand.
“Hey, Heather, you’re exhausted, yeah? Let me pamper you, come on, you need to wind down.” Raine pulled her wrist free, but I was already struggling back into a sitting position.
Struggling more than I expected.
Couldn’t sit up.
One hand slipped and I fell back to the bed, confused with a second of dull panic, muscles not working right. My phantom limbs flailed, sent another shiver of shock up my sides, and I realised what the problem was. They weren’t helping.
The tentacles didn’t exist, not unless I built them from scratch with hyperdimensional mathematics. They weren’t there. They couldn’t take any weight, not really – but my brain insisted they should be able to.
Raine was saying my name, but I barely heard her; for several long moments I had to concentrate with total focus on the act of sitting up, on the simple motions of my hands and the tired muscles in my back and sides. Eyes squinted, teeth clenched, moving with the mechanical precision of a robot, I pulled myself into a sitting position, trying to suppress phantom pain from limbs that I didn’t really have, trying to remember how to pilot this golem of water and protein.
Something alien and invasive and floppy and soft brushed against my face.
And then perception snapped back, vision resolved into Raine’s face. She had both her hands raised in gesture of ‘I’m-not-touching-you’ caution. I felt my cheeks flush bright red.
“I-I- R-Raine I’m so sorry, I-I just … I … I don’t know what … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to … oh God, did I hiss at you?”
Raine kept her hands up where I could see them, and looked at me with open curiosity, as if waiting to see if I’d do that again. Then she broke into a smile.
“You do that loud enough,” she said, “Evee’s gonna think we’re up to some real kinky shit in here.”
“Raine,” I sighed, felt myself deflate, my horror punctured by her irreverent joke. I put my face in my hand and my other hand against my racing heart. “I can’t believe I hissed at you. I-I didn’t mean anything by it, I was just confused because I was … I was trying to sit up, but … I … I couldn’t remember how, like my body was alien for a moment, I-”
“Shhhhhhh,” Raine hushed me gently. She touched a finger to my lips, and this time I didn’t hiss at her. “I get it. I understand. It’s just you, being you, and hey, I think that’s pretty cool.” She trailed her finger downward and cupped my chin. “Gotta come at you from below, not surprise you from above, huh?”
I rolled my eyes and blushed for a slightly different reason, still mortified at myself.
“Here, one sec,” Raine said.
She put down the playstation controller at last and stretched across me to reach her bedside table. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, but the sight of the back of her bare legs hugged by the cuffs of her bedtime shorts went rather a long way to soothing my discomfort. She rummaged for a moment amid the detritus of books and lip balm and keys and a handheld torch and her knife, then sat back again holding a very familiar black body-art pen.
Bless her, Raine always knows the right thing to do. We didn’t even need to exchange any words, we slipped into the ritual with the comfort of long repeated habit. I scooted against the wall at the head of the bed, a pillow propped in the small of my back, and Raine settled in at my side. I hooked my legs over hers and pulled my left sleeve all the way up before offering her my exposed forearm.
She took it gently, laid it across her lap, and examined the Fractal written on my flesh.
Raine traced the lines on my forearm with the tip of the pen, and I concentrated on not feeling ticklish. The patter of rain on the window drowned out our own breathing, drowned out my thoughts. Eventually I felt enough like myself again, settled back in my body in this shared intimacy, that I gathered what was left of my courage.
“Raine, we still need to talk. About what I said earlier today.”
She glanced at me, then back at the Fractal, tracing over a line again. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it too.”
My stomach gave a lurch. “You … you have?”
Raine took her sweet time over another branch of the reality-hacking symbol on my arm, and I couldn’t stand the wait. She finished up, capped the marker pen, then caught my wrist as I went to pull my arm back. She raised my hand to her lips and kissed my palm, watching my eyes.
“Our problem,” she said. “Is that I want what you want. But you don’t know what you want.”
I huffed a huge sigh, disappointed. “Don’t give me that nonsense.”
“Nonsense?” She smirked. “Never.”
“You practically marked your territory in front of Zheng today. That was pretty clearly something you wanted, your feelings, your … jealousy! That wasn’t you channelling my wants, that was you.”
“Is that what you wanna be?” she asked. From anybody else this question would be a barbed goad; Raine actually meant it. “You wanna be my territory?”
I stared at her in disbelief for a second, then huffed again and pulled my hand from her grip to rub at my eyes. “Aren’t I already? Raine, you obviously weren’t comfortable about me talking to Zheng by myself, not without making it abundantly clear that I’m yours. So why keep joking about threesomes, why push me toward her like you did? I don’t understand this. A relationship goes both ways, you just wanting what I want isn’t enough. And I don’t believe it anyway.”
Raine nodded slowly, as if taking all this in, then asked, “Do you want to have sex with Zheng?”
If I’d rolled my eyes any harder, my retinas would have detached. I could have screamed at her. “That has nothing to do with what I’m trying to say.”
“S’got everything to do with it,” Raine said, soft and calm, a subtle smile on her lips. Was she enjoying my frustration? “Serious question. I won’t be hurt if you do want to, it’s obvious she fires you up. Nothing wrong with honest attraction.”
I shrugged with my hands, beyond exasperated, almost lost for words.
“Seriously,” Raine continued, and flashed one of those grins at me, burning with inner confidence. She looked so easy and relaxed, so unbothered by all this. “I’m not gonna be hurt, not gonna be offended. I know I’m still the best, in or out of bed. Doesn’t matter where else you go, I’m always with you. I could beat Zheng in a fight too, I know that now, I’ve got her number, I’ve got a read on her, right down to the margins. I don’t feel threatened by her, or jealous or anything like that. She’s not gonna take you away from me or anything, that’s just silly.”
“ … Raine? Um, okay.” Slow and soft the revelation broke inside me. “Oh my God.”
“You are jealous. Raine, you are jealous, deeply. You’re just … expressing it in a very … you kind of way. Oh, wow, okay.”
Raine cocked her head at me, curious.
I wet my lips and weighed the pros and cons of putting it into words. Cold sweat broke out on my back, balanced by a dangerous fire deep down in my belly. I had stepped, pace by pace, into a minefield, the limits of which I did not comprehend. When had Raine changed her mind? I raced back through the events of a very busy day, and settled on the moment she’d scored a hit on Zheng’s arm with her knife, when they’d almost fought in the woods. She’d drawn blood, had seemed ready to fight to the death – and then given up that fight, totally and completely.
Raine had resolved her jealous feelings by verifying she could brutally murder the object of my sexual distraction.
She hadn’t actually done so. Just proved, to herself, that she could.
“You are jealous. Maybe you don’t see what I see here,” I said slowly. “Or maybe you’re lying to yourself, I don’t know, but it’s kind of obvious to me. Why else did you mark your territory? Why kiss me like that in front of Zheng?”
“Because I … ” Raine paused, hesitated, so unlike her. “Because I wanted to.”
“That’s a start. And why did you want to?”
“I want what you want, Heather,” she said, and I almost groaned and gave up. “I don’t know how else to phrase that. Seeing you happy, or fulfilled, helping you get there, being there with you, that’s what I want.”
“What if I said I want you to be jealous?” I threw out a curve-ball, a shot in the dark.
An intense, predatory glint slid into Raine’s eyes, up from some deep place in her soul, accompanied by a subtle twist to her smile as she watched me. “Go on.”
“I … Raine?”
“Go on,” she repeated, and a tremor sank through my belly, heading down.
“I … I … ” I swallowed, pulled myself together, and it all came out in a rush. “I want you to be jealous because I don’t want some platonic ideal of you, I want you. Mess and confusion and all. And if that means you’re jealous of the way Zheng unintentionally turns me on, then so be it. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Being okay with me sleeping with Zheng is not perfect, it’s … I don’t know, but it’s obviously causing you … something! Something I can’t figure out. If you’re jealous, then express it. Let’s do something about that.”
“I don’t know! That’s up to you.”
Raine watched me for another second, slow and knowing. My stomach turned over, full of butterflies. I swallowed, hard, and wasn’t entirely sure why.
“ … Raine?”
Raine disentangled herself from me, got up from the bed, and went over to the door. She opened it and stuck her head out into the corridor – dark now, the night rain pattering on the windows, gentle light from our bedroom creeping out into the gloom. She looked left and right, closed the door again, and turned to me with her back against the wood.
“Do you need to be punished?” she asked.
My eyes went wide and my mouth went dry. My heart rate spiked.
“ … I’m sorry, what?”
“You heard me, Heather.” Raine smiled, slow and subtle.
“Um … Raine? What does that mean? I don’t understand.”
Raine pushed away from the door, stalking toward the bed, slow and certain. “You wanna know if I’m jealous or not?”
“Raine-” I almost scooted away from her. She stopped, held up both hands.
“You could walk out of this room right now and climb all over Zheng and order her to eat you out, and I’d never harbour the faintest anger against you. But yeah.” Raine grinned wide. “I might fight her. And I’d win. And you’d need to be punished afterward, for being a little brat.”
“Raine, this isn’t what I meant.” I could barely squeeze the words out. My heart was going a hundred miles an hour. Raine hadn’t even touched me and she had me flushed in the face, something about the way she moved, the way she looked at me, that clear fluidity of muscle. She was already a guilty dream at the best of times with her ruffled hair and rakish smile and athletic frame, but now she advanced on me with all the predatory intent that made my head spin. “I meant- don’t put on act, you don’t have to- I-”
“It’s no act. You want me to be clear? This is me being clear.”
She climbed up onto the mattress, on all fours. I backed away to make room for her – but then Raine caught me in her gaze like a mouse before a snake, froze me to the spot. She straddled me, knees either side of my hips, a hand pinning one of my wrists to the bed.
“Oh,” I managed. “Okay.”
“I want you to be happy, Heather,” she said, close and soft, right above me. “If that means you get a bunch of girls together in a harem, so be it, whatever. I’ll be a little jealous, sure, but it won’t hurt me. I’ll always be number one.”
I nodded, pretty much all I could think of doing.
“But, Zheng, well,” she said. “S’different. Not sure why.”
“Would this-” I squeaked, swallowed, and tried again. “Would this be any different if it wasn’t Zheng? If it was somebody like, I don’t know, Kimberly? Somebody less … well, less similar to you? Less of a rival.”
“Less of a monster, you mean?”
“You’re not- not a monster.”
“I know what I am, Heather.” She leaned down even closer, inches from my face. “And you fuckin’ love it.”
I could smell her breath, toothpaste fresh from an hour ago. Her eyes pinned me to the bed as securely as her strength. My phantom limbs were paralysed too, trapped between a desire to wrap around her and a confused animal feedback, a cocktail of fear and arousal. My breath came in little gasps.
“ … you didn’t answer the question?” I managed.
Raine ran a hand through her hair. She pretended to consider for a moment, never once breaking eye contact. “I don’t want you to have sex with Zheng. You can cuddle up with her, you can hug her, you can ride on her shoulders for all I care. But I don’t want you to screw her. Can’t stop you, won’t stop you, but yeah, you’re right, I don’t want you to. Well done, Heather. You cracked my code.”
“That doesn’t- Raine- I- well, thank you for being clear, I-”
“Just remember,” Raine purred as she leaned in close, slipped her head past mine and whispered in my ear, so close I could feel her breath. Her free hand found my thigh, squeezed roughly, made me jerk and squeak in surprise. “I’m a much bigger monster than she is.”
I gasped as her hand moved higher.
“You want me to mark my territory? Want me to show you how I feel? Bite the pillow.”
Two hours later I stepped out of the bathroom on very shaky legs, and straight into a split-second of pure dissociation.
The warm, womb-like darkness of the upstairs corridor. My own body, still flushed and hot and sore, a lingering ache between my legs. Raine’s taste in my mouth and my own sweat-drenched animal smell in my nostrils. The faint spill of artificial, television-blue light from our open bedroom door, Raine back on the playstation while I’d gone to the bathroom. All around me the house was washed with the static of raindrops on windows and roof, filled with sleeping minds around dark corners, quiet minds in the night, lurking as if under rocks or inside little caves. For an illusory moment I felt as if I could sense all the people in the house, slumbering on the edge of my consciousness.
For a moment, a fleeting post-coital illusion, I felt like I was back in the abyss.
Then it passed, and I was just plain Heather again, standing in the corridor as my phantom limbs groped about for handholds in the dark. I closed my eyes and tried to recapture the moment, that peace and familiarity, like I’d been to the bottom of the ocean.
Maybe I didn’t need to go swimming at all; maybe I just needed Raine to screw me so hard I dissociated.
“Heather?” Raine’s nighttime stage-whisper came from our open door. “You alright?”
“Yes,” I whispered back. “Sorry. Was thinking.”
I padded down the dark corridor, following the television’s glow. Raine was right where I’d left her, lying on her front in a tangle of sheets, arms sticking out with the playstation controller in her hands. She blinked a bleary smile over at me, caught in the television backwash like undersea luminescence. I think I’d done as much of a number on her as she’d done on me.
“Wanna sleep now?” she whispered.
I glanced down the hallway to the head of the stairs. The faintest light glowed up from below, not the kitchen, but deeper than that. I let out a little sigh.
“I think Evee’s still awake,” I said. “In her workshop. I’d like to check on her, make sure she’s okay.” A tiny pinprick of liar’s guilt opened a nick in my heart. “Do you want to come with me?”
“You want me to?” Raine blinked slowly at me again. I’d well and truly exhausted her.
“It’s okay. I need some water too.” I stepped into our room and over to the chair by the desk, pulled out a jumper at random, and found one of Raine’s older hoodies in my hands, black and frayed and very large on me. I wiggled it on over my head. The sleeves were too long and it smelled of her and I loved it. I wrapped it close, pressed the ends of the sleeves to my face.
On the television screen, the energetic cartoon girl was jumping up and down over and over. Raine caught my look and laughed at herself, waggled the controller and pressed the jump button again.
“Her boobs bounce when you make her jump,” she explained.
“Good for her. Don’t wait up for me, I promise I’ll join you after I’ve spoken to Evee, if she’s awake. If not, well, I’ll ask Praem to carry her to bed.”
“What if she’s with Twil?”
“ … I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I’ll leave them to it.”
“You’re a good friend, Heather,” Raine said, paused her game, and rolled over in bed. She closed her eyes, crawled under the sheets. “A good friend and a better partner than you credit yourself with.”
“Be back in a bit,” I whispered, and set off into the depths of the house.
As soon as I got halfway down the stairs and out of earshot, I sighed to myself.
On one hand, I felt such relief. Raine had finally put her foot down. She’d made clear where she stood, and what she wanted from me. Our relationship now had a boundary, even if it might not apply to other situations: don’t have sex with Zheng.
On the other hand, had she done all that only because I’d said I wanted her to be jealous?
I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t be certain. Raine didn’t fake emotions, she didn’t pull them from some long-practised library of ‘how to pretend not to be a cold-hearted serial killer’. She felt, for real. She was just different. And devoted, to an extent and in a way which I did not understand. I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that her possessive display had been just that – a display.
At least she gave me an easy stipulation to follow. Don’t have sexual relations with the violent cannibal demon lady you’ve just adopted into the household. Easy!
I crept down the creaking stairs and across the darkness of the front room, listening for voices. If I heard Twil and Evelyn speaking, I’d turn around and go back. Though perhaps not before a few seconds of accidentally-on-purpose eavesdropping.
A faint electrical hum lurked on the edge of my hearing, like an old CRT television. I heard the sound of a page turning, and a heavy sigh.
I followed the twilight and the sigh into the gloomy kitchen, and confirmed my suspicions. Evelyn’s workshop door was open, a light on within.
Zheng was still in the kitchen, sitting in one of the chairs like a frozen statue, feet up on the table, arms crossed, eyes closed. The huge ancient yellow jumper and green pajama bottoms looked totally out of place on her, like dressing a Greek Goddess in a cheap tracksuit. She should be wearing medieval armour, I suddenly thought.
She hadn’t moved in hours. Or at least, looked like she hadn’t.
“Zheng?” I whispered, and got no response.
An inquisitive grumble emerged from the open workshop door. A chair scooted back, papers shuffled, and a walking stick clacked against the floorboards. Evelyn appeared in the doorway a moment later, in cream jumper and long skirt. She raised an eyebrow at me.
“Evee,” I whispered. “You’re up really late.”
“So are you,” she said, not in a whisper. “You’ve had a long day. You should be asleep.”
“So should you,” I tutted.
She nodded at Zheng. “She’s pretending, by the way. We were speaking not five minutes ago.”
Without opening her eyes, Zheng cracked a smile, lips peeling back to reveal her mouth full of sharp teeth. “I was asleep, wizard. You woke me.”
“Really?” Evelyn drawled.
“Zheng, you know you’re welcome to sleep somewhere more comfortable,” I said. “You don’t have to sleep in a chair. I know we’re short on properly cleared out rooms, but there’s always a sofa. I promise we’ll at least sort out a mattress for you tomorrow.”
“I sleep better like this,” Zheng purred.
I shared a glance with Evelyn. She shrugged with her eyes. “Well,” I said. “Have it your way then.”
Zheng grunted. She sniffed the air, then cracked open an eye and looked at me. “You reek of sex, shaman.”
A blush exploded onto my cheeks. I let out a little huff and averted my eyes and didn’t know what to say.
“Oh,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Thought I heard some thumping.”
Zheng chuckled, closed her eye again, and seemed to settle back into an instant sleep. I stood there like a fool for a moment, blushing terribly, wishing I could fold myself up inside Raine’s hoodie and slink back upstairs. Evelyn shuffled back into the ex-drawing room, and for want of anything else to say, I followed her. She settled herself back down onto a chair at the old dining table as I stepped inside, and questioned me with a raised eyebrow.
“I wanted to check on you,” I said. “You’re up super late. I think it’s past midnight, um … ” I let my eyes rove over the additions to the workshop, and felt my blood go cold. “Did … did you do this all today?”
“Mmhmm, while you lot were out gallivanting around the woods.”
“Is it safe?”
A bulky old CRT television stood at one end of the table, half of its mechanical innards hanging out of the back, loose circuit boards and frayed wiring exposed like a gutted animal. It was contained inside a very fresh-looking but very simple magic circle, a single line with some Arabic text around the circumference, painted on a piece of plain canvas laid out underneath the television. A thick red cable like a car jumper lead emerged from the back of the modified television, crossing the room and snaking across the floor.
The other end of the cable terminated in a massive copper crocodile clip, embedded deep in the clay flesh of the squid-vessel thing which contained the Eye’s minion.
It looked as if it had been weakly pulling at the clip for hours without end, two of its dried, flaky tentacles worn down to crumbled stubs, still waggling ineffectually at the cable. The whole thing had moved several inches back, as if trying to cram itself into the corner of the magical circle it was contained within. As I stared, it twitched and flexed another rotten, crumbling tentacle, gesturing at nothing.
“Quite safe,” Evelyn said. “I had Praem do the handling. And this is warded.” She reached out and tapped the magic circle which entrapped the television set. “It can’t jump the air-gap and possess me again, if that’s what you’re worried about. Also I think it might be dying.”
The television was on. I could see the plug, sitting there on the table, most definitely not supplying electricity, yet the television screen flickered with abstract, overlapping, multi-coloured shapes, most of them with dozens upon dozens of sides like some kind of mathematical constructs. They were seen if as through layers of shadows moving across water, some kind of interference with the television’s display. The screen flickered and the picture dissolved into a view of a blank wall made of black bricks, then flickered again and the wall was covered with tiny red writing, then flickered back to the abstract shapes again.
“What … what am I looking at? Evee?”
Evelyn shrugged and let out a sigh. “The inside of it’s mind, I think. Or it’s trying to communicate. I don’t know. Sometimes it shows writing, like then, but the language is nothing from our world. This is what I spent all day on, trying to interrogate it.” She flicked at the pile of notes she’d taken. “For all the good it’s produced.”
“That’s … well … that’s an ingenious idea, certainly. Are you absolutely sure this is safe?”
“Mostly.” She shrugged at me with her eyes, and gestured at the squid of rotting clay. “Our uninvited guest here is far less complex than, say, Praem, but I think it exists in the same way as her, started out like her, perhaps. Summoned from … well, elsewhere, but it didn’t learn how to think from humans.” She glanced at me. “Maybe from your Eye, perhaps. I don’t think it can plan, or make independent decisions. If it could it would be trying to break containment now, it’s got access to an information vector right here in this telly. But it’s not even trying. It’s just … showing me its thoughts.”
“You should really sleep, Evee. It’s really late. Thinking about this all day can’t be good for you.”
“Sleep,” Praem intoned, and I almost jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t seen her standing there, just off to the right. I stared at her for a moment. She stared back. “Sleep,” she repeated.
Evelyn sighed, and turned the television off.
“Perhaps,” she said. “Don’t feel like it though.”
“Me neither,” I admitted, and pulled up a chair, sitting down to soothe my still shaky legs. For some odd reason, I didn’t want to go back upstairs. Evelyn frowned at me.
“Heather? Are you alright?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes I forget that Raine is a sociopath.”
“That’s not … entirely accurate. Did she do something to you?”
“Um … ”
Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Okay, yes, stupid question. You fucked, we know.” She glanced at the door, then at Praem, and without any vocal communication passing between them, Praem stepped over and pushed the workshop door shut with a soft click. Evelyn turned back to me. “Heather, did Raine do something bad to you?”
“What? No, no, not at all. It’s complicated. Relationship stuff, I guess. Oh, Evee, I don’t know what I’m doing. Can I talk to you about this?”
Evelyn leaned back in her chair and snorted a humourless laugh. “You want to come to me for relationship advice? Little miss I-just-spent-two-hours-having-sex, and you want to talk to me?”
My turn to roll my eyes. “Evelyn, you are my best friend. And you understand Raine better than I do, I think. You’ve known her for longer.”
“I knew it, she has done something, hasn’t she?”
“No,” I tutted. “I just … I don’t know how to handle this situation. Where I think she might be taking this.” I glanced at the door again and lowered my voice. “I think she’s jealous of Zheng, but in a way I didn’t expect.”
I outlined what had happened, not just upstairs between Raine and I, but earlier in the day too, the confrontation in the woods, the pact they’d made over me. I repeated Raine’s words about how she could beat Zheng anytime, if she so chose to. Evelyn listened politely, frowning harder and harder as I finished.
“You want to have sexual relations with that barbarian in the kitchen?” was the first thing she asked.
“No! Not … well, a little bit, but no, not really, I don’t think so. It’s not as if I’m incapable of self control. Look, Evee, that’s not the point, it’s Raine that-”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn waved me down, then sighed. “Of course she’s jealous, anybody would be.”
“Yes, but only Raine deals with jealousy by deciding she can beat a demon in a knife fight. I hope this won’t go any further, but I’m not sure. I’m worried she’ll … I don’t know, exactly. Like I said, sometimes I forget Raine can be … frightening, I suppose. I really don’t want her to get hurt, Evee. Emotionally or otherwise.”
Evelyn stared at me for a moment, sucking on her teeth. “You’re looking at this wrong.”
“I … I am?”
“Heather, I told you before, months ago, that Raine wants to be your knight errant. That’s the role she’s dreamed up for herself in life, it’s how she fits together, and she needs a damsel to play opposite her or she goes looking for other causes. I used to be that to her, and I sometimes I suspect if I’d not been a sexual cripple, if I’d showed the slightest interest, she might have made a move on me.”
“Seriously? You’re not-”
“Not her type, yes, exactly.” Evelyn shrugged. “I suspect, that’s all. But then she found you, and you’re perfect for her. Don’t make me spout a bunch of soppy nonsense, but it’s true. You and her fit together surprisingly well. Even now you’ve, well, gained some confidence, she’s still all over you.” Evelyn pointed at the closed door to the kitchen, but really she was indicating what lay beyond, sitting there with her feet up on the table. “But now you have another protector.”
“Yes, but I’m not going to sleep with Zheng. I’ve told her that now, and I won’t break that promise.”
“You’re missing the point,” Evelyn almost snapped. “The romance, the sex, it’s secondary. I think you’re right. If you decided to go kiss Kimberly – or me, or I don’t know, Lozzie – I don’t think Raine would care much. Raine, first and foremost, wants to be your primary protector. That’s the pillar of her psyche. That’s the rivalry which matters to her. Perhaps unconsciously so.”
I sighed and nodded, sagged in the chair and rubbed my face; Evee was just telling me what I already knew, but hadn’t wanted to accept.
“I don’t know how to handle that,” I said.
“Me neither.” Evelyn glanced at the door again. “Stroke of genius by that demon, making her swear a pact in front of you. Otherwise they’d be at each other’s throats.”
“I suppose there’s that to be thankful for.”
“Mm.” Evelyn watched me for a moment. I hugged Raine’s hoodie tight around myself, staring at the floor. “Just talk to her, Heather, I’m sure she’ll understand. She adores you. She’d do anything for you.”
“I know,” I said, then glanced around the room, trying to distract myself. “Speaking of talking, where’s Twil?”
“She went home.”
“In … ” I glanced at the windows, hidden behind thick curtains, but the patter of rain against the glass penetrated the whole house. “In this? At this time of night?”
“She’s hardly a wilting violet,” Evelyn said, turning to her notes. “She’ll be fine.”
“Evee. Evee, you let her go?”
“She’s an adult, she can make her own decisions. Besides, this house is reaching carrying capacity.”
“She could have slept on the sofa or something.” I sighed. “She could have slept in your bed. With you. Hint hint.”
Evelyn’s stare could have sandblasted rock.
“You didn’t make her leave, did you?” I asked.
“No … yes. Maybe.” Evelyn straightened up and huffed. “We had a very awkward conversation, alright? Things got … weird.”
I had to resist a very specific urge to put both hands to my mouth. “Did you … did you tell her what you-”
“Discussed Tenny,” Praem supplied in a sing-song voice. “Bake-off. Sleeping arrangements.”
“Yes, and that was all, thank you very much, Praem.” Evelyn shot the doll-demon a nasty look.
I sighed. “Evee, I don’t know why you and her don’t just talk to each other. You … oh wow.” I shook my head, feeling my heart catch in my chest, a lightness in my head. Was I really about to do this? Did I have the right? I’d been so sure while talking to Raine earlier, but now I had to force the words out. “I’m really not sure I should tell you this, but … Twil, well, I’m pretty sure she kind of likes you. In that sort of way. I think if you talked to her about it, she’d say the same things to you.”
Evelyn stared at me, deadpan and blank.
“Um … Evee?”
“I’m not a complete idiot,” Evelyn said. “And despite her appearances, neither is Twil. I think after your little display earlier, it was blindingly apparent to everyone present. Even Tenny, and she’d just been born.”
“You mean you-”
“Twil knows. Alright?” Evelyn snapped. “She knows that I know, and I know she knows that I know. We both know.”
“Did … did you talk to her about it?”
Evelyn looked away, uncomfortable. “What do you think?”
“You didn’t. You didn’t?”
“Yes, I’m a coward. You know that already.”
“No, you’re not. Evee, you’re not a coward. Don’t treat yourself like that.”
Evelyn threw up her hands in irritation and turned back to the notes and papers and sketches on the table, sorting through them angrily, shoving them into a pile. “Fetch me some chocolate,” she barked at Praem. “Sod it, I may as well.”
Praem obeyed, opening the door and marching out into the kitchen. Evelyn and I were greeted by the sight of Zheng, eyes open and awake, a subtle grin on her lips.
“Wizard,” she rumbled. “The shaman was right, you do like the smell of wet dog, right up in your cu-”
If looks could kill, Evelyn’s scowl would have reduced Zheng to atomic dust. “You mock this, demon, and I’ll send you back where you came from.”
Zheng shrugged and closed her eyes again. “Don’t tempt me.”
Evelyn stared at her for a moment longer, looking like she was about to lurch out of her seat and have a go at Zheng with the business end of her walking stick, but Praem strode back into the room and offered Evelyn a Yorkie bar fetched from the cupboard. Evelyn tore it out of her hand, ripped the wrapper open, and shoved a segment of chocolate into her mouth, chewing with determination. She swallowed, thought for a moment, and offered the bar to me.
“No thanks, not right now, too late at night,” I said.
“What if I only like her because she’s available?” Evelyn asked the table, then me. “Because she’s what’s here? She deserves better than me and I’m only attracted to her because she happens to be nearby.” She bit into another piece of chocolate, drowning her sorrows in cheap dietary serotonin.
“Raine and I are no different,” I said. Evelyn frowned at me as she chewed, so I carried on. “If I hadn’t settled on university in Sharrowford, if I hadn’t gone to that exact cafe in the student quarter on that exact morning, if I hadn’t been sick, if she hadn’t decided to come after me, we’d have never met. It’s all chance. You have to take what opportunities life gives you, I think. There’s precious little happiness in the world, don’t snub it when it could be yours.”
Evelyn stopped chewing. She met my eyes for a long moment, then looked away, down at the tabletop. For a second I thought she was going to cry.
“Great,” she grumbled. “Just what this house needs. More dykes.”
“Evee, don’t use that word.”
“What? Dyke? It’s what I must be, right? Why can’t I say that?”
“Because you’re using it as a roundabout way to insult yourself.”
Evelyn shook her head, grumbling under her breath.
“That’s not really what’s bothering you though,” I said, and it wasn’t a question.
Evelyn looked at me sidelong, then sighed and shrugged. “She deserves better than me, and I’ll fuck up her whole life. I’m not a whole person. I’m a shell. Most of me was scooped out and never replaced. Just grew … this,” she gestured at herself, “in its place. Twil doesn’t know what she’s getting into. It’ll hurt her, it’ll hurt me, it’ll fuck both of us up and we’ll come away wounded and bleeding. You think getting into it is the hard part, but it’s not. That would be easy. The hard part is everything else. Especially when you’re Evelyn Saye, grade-A fucking bitch mess.”
I let her finish, and when I was sure she was done, I reached out and squeezed her hand. “Evee, you’re worthy of love too. I think you should maybe say those words – those exact words you said just now – to Twil. She’ll understand. See how she feels.”
Evelyn grumbled, shrugged, and finished her chocolate bar.
“Is that why you’ve been distracting yourself with this?” I sat back and glanced at the television and the squid-thing in the corner with the jumper cable attached to it.
“It’s something to do. Figuring out the emissary of an alien God is less frightening than … ” she sighed heavily, “romance.”
“You and me both.”
“You don’t feel like going back upstairs?” she asked, straightening up in her chair, then glanced at Praem and nodded to the door. The doll-demon closed it again, shutting us in the magical workshop together.
“Not just yet,” I admitted, then frowned to myself and glanced over at the clay-squid thing again, at its faint and feeble efforts to free itself.
“Don’t you want to check on Lozzie? Make sure she’s not getting her hair eaten by our, er … pet?”
“Tenny’s not a pet,” I muttered, half-distracted. “She’ll be fine. Evee, turn that television back on, would you? If it’s safe, that is.” I turned to her, and felt something I hadn’t felt in weeks.
“Let’s put our heads together. I’ve got an idea.”
Love is complicated. Hyperdimensional maths and electro-demonic engineering is easy.
A very succinct summation of the entire story, in a way!
> “You want me to?” Raine blinked slowly at me again. I’d well and truly exhausted her.
Can’t handle the lesbian limbs
> I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t be certain. Raine didn’t fake emotions, she didn’t pull them from some long-practised library of ‘how to pretend not to be a cold-hearted serial killer’. She felt, for real. She was just different. And devoted, to an extent and in a way which I did not understand. I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that her possessive display had been just that – a display.
This chapter did a much better job of persuading me that Raine is a [psycho/socio]path than any of the chapters where she’s being directly violent, maybe because gratuitous violence is so common in fiction that Raine’s attitude towards it doesn’t stand out. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on Raine for a while… Looks like maybe we’re starting to see that happen?
> She felt, for real. She was just different.
That’s what they want you to think! That’s how they get you! *Puts on tin foil hat*
> I sometimes I suspect if I’d not been a sexual cripple
Typo: got an extra I, or maybe it’s missing an ellipsis for a speech-y pause?
> “Figuring out the emissary of a alien God is less frightening than … ” she sighed heavily, “romance.”
This is pretty close to a summary of Katalepsis as a whole 🙂
Raine continues to be a difficult mystery, doesn’t she? She’s certainly different, as Heather points out, but it’s hard to tell exactly how.
Thank you for noticing that typo too! That one slipped past me during proofreading.
I’ve got an idea! Vote for Katalepsis http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=katalepsis
It is a lovely idea! Thank you!
Jealous seems to be a bit a of a theme all around this arc, with Raine jealous of Zheng and Heather jealous of Tenny’s tentacles.
It’s certainly a common emotional pitfall for this bunch.
Honestly if the group wanted a chaotic,horror beast for a pet they should’ve just gotten a cat.
Evelyn in her study with like three cats in her lap.
One Persian, one sphynx,and one British shorthair.
“reading a battered, dog-earned copy”
earned -> eared
Ah, thank you! Well spotted! That’s an older one, indeed.
Ah relationships, they make no sense, pretty sure that’s supposed to be part of the fun.
On the one hand I am annoyed that jealousy is a thing, am very much hoping that Heather is just outright wrong about it. Just want to see a story where relationship drama doesn’t have to involve that.
But it’s still well written, has been the entire time through many twists, so I appreciate that and trust you know what you’re doing.
Thank you! I can certainly promise that the relationship aspect of Heather’s personal story is going somewhere, and it’s certainly not a conventional place of soap-opera jealousy.
And another arc down!
I’m very glad Heather managed to discuss things with Raine, albeit with the caveat there are definitely layers left unexplored.
I also found it very very interesting that for the first time in a while the human fleshy side of Heather was pushing for the unhealthy option and the abyss side was for the potentially uncomfortable conversation.
Also it goes without saying, but Tenny has been marvelous and I’m looking forward to seeing what seems to be very rapid progress at learning to communicate. She’s gotten to full words in only two chapters!
I’ll also reiterate, Evee needs and deserves all of the love and support. ❤
Glad you’re enjoying the story! There’s certainly much more to come on exactly many of the things you’ve mentioned here.
Just be honest with yourself Raine ;-;
It’s also possible that Raine is being too honest with herself, just in a way Heather doesn’t understand …
Hey! I recognize the three arm sally reference!
John Dies At the End was like, an original web serial before we even called it that. Classic horror absurdism and I can recognize some of its influence on your writing. Great stuff. Been a fan for awhile.
John Dies at the End! Yes, the original original OG web serial from before the form was even codified. One of my favourite books and hugely influential on me, yes. I reread it every year, at least. Had to just drop a little nod to it in the story eventually. Raine seems like the type who would unironically sing along to some Three Arm Sally songs.
Well spotted, I think you’re the first person to notice that!
Yes, John Dies At The End reference! A deceptively clever piece of horror comedy.
More substantively, I think I’ve enjoyed the past few chapters less than the earlier parts of the story – the pace is slower, and there’s less of a sense of threat. I understand that “breather episodes” are necessary in serial fiction to avoid burning out the readers, but something isn’t working for me.
Perhaps if there was just a little more scary stuff going on? Or perhaps if the interlude was shorter, with fewer subplots – we’ve had Zheng, Tenny, and the Twil/Evee relationship all holding each other up, and all of them feel kind of side-questy compared to the big spooky eye at the centre of the main plot.
Not to say that everything except mortal peril is a waste of time. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the character moments in the story so far, such as the discussion of Raine’s particular flavor of jealousy in this chapter, and Heather’s baggage from her trip to the abyss. I’d go so far as to say that consistent, interesting characterization is one of its major strengths.
Perhaps part of what’s bothering me is that I don’t feel terribly invested in the relationships that have been the focus recently. Zheng swore an oath to Heather after a very short time, and I honestly don’t see what Twil and Evee have in common. Plus, their dancing around the issue is going from funny to irritating.
Oh, and one more minor thing: characters in this story shrug a lot, including doing a lot of shrugging with body parts other than their shoulders. This chapter has two eye-shrugs and one hand-shrug. I don’t even know what those would look like.
Not to be a downer! Overall this is a great story so far, and in many ways something I wish I had written myself. I’m just trying to critique a bit in the interest of making a hypothetical future draft even better, or just having a discussion.
I think I’ve slipped in a couple of references to John Dies at the End; one of my favourite horror novels and a big inspiration to me!
Ah yes, you level some very good and relevant critique at the story. Balancing the two aspects – the slice of life and the horror – is difficult sometimes, especially because different readers seem to prefer the weighting one way or the other, there’s no single voice of urging direction from the audience. Some of the readers absolutely love the relationship mess, others are here for the cosmic horror. Arc 9 is absolutely a swing towards the more slice of life and side-plot elements, whereas 10 kind of goes the other way (but I generally consider it the weakest arc so far for other reasons.) Arcs 11-14 are much stronger, according to the readers, but I do still bounce back and forth between extremes of horror and the more comfy elements, though I suspect you may enjoy the horror of the upcoming parts better than previously!
And the shrugging, oh dear, yes. I do tend to overuse certain dialogue structure tags. My apologies!
Glad you’re still enjoying the story in any case! Even if I can’t go back and do the kind of structural edits I would love to – the nature of a serial, for good and bad – I absolutely treasure critique for how it helps me develop future plotting and prose for more chapters, or other stories!
I had the typo notes for these on my laptop but hadn’t posted them:
“three arm sally”, “playstation” -> Both of these should probably be capitalized.
“I cracked open my eyes found myself staring at Raine’s bare thigh,” -> There seems to be an “and” (or a comma?) missing between “eyes” and “found”.
“The inside of it’s mind, I think.” -> “it’s” should be “its”.
Thanks for the typo spotting!