“Evelyn, would you please- p-please put that thing away?” I screwed my eyes shut. Shivering. Felt sick. “I can’t- I can’t- can’t-”
Trauma is a paradoxical chimera.
Not a single day passed in which I didn’t think about the Eye, at least a little. Maisie, once locked away in the most private chambers of my heart for ten years, now roamed at will through my mind, no longer a mere ghost of longing for a missing part of myself, but now the painful promise of reunion. To think about Maisie was to chew for hours on fresh fears of being too late. Of losing her a second time, her soul wasting away to nothing out there in the darkness, in her prison cell, physical or otherwise. Every day I thought about how to rescue her, all our half-made plans planting seeds of anxiety in my chest, and it always came back to hyperdimensional mathematics. Which implied, at the end of all thought, the Eye.
It had tortured my nightmares for so long, taught and tormented me in equal value, filled my sleep with confused memories of Wonderland. Kept the pain fresh, the wounds open. The sight of it filling an alien sky had defined the secret underside of my life for so long. Summoning a mental image of the hateful thing was easy enough; a great darkness fills the sky from horizon to horizon, blotting out the stars, the the lid cracking open and peeling back like an ocean parting, mountain ranges of creased flesh revealing the void inside, the void that eats thought, that sees through you, through stone and metal and cloth and flesh and cells and picks apart your neurons and atoms and flays you to nothing.
But memory can never truly record that violation, that rummaging inside one’s brain, the utter atomic nakedness before that solar flare of attention. In memories and plans, it’s just a huge eyeball in the sky. I can think about it, without wanting to curl up in the tightest space I can find and scream my lungs out.
In ballpoint pen scribble on a page of cheap notepad paper, this cursed artist, whoever he had been in life, had captured the faintest splinter of that sensation.
He’d seen the Eye. He knew it.
Cold sweat broke out down my back, under my arms, on my face. My clammy hands grasped Tenny, clutching her fur as if I was about to fall off the ground and into the sky. Heart thumping, pulse in my throat, head pounding. Sick, sick, sick; wanted to vomit. Years of conditioning told my body I needed to purge this threat, throw it all back up. The abyssal thing I’d once been agreed wholeheartedly, wanted to make me small, fast, slip away, into a crack in the ground. Flee and hide and be very, very quiet.
“Heath! Heath!” Tenny let out little trilling sounds. I felt additional tentacles wrap themselves around my body, hug me tight, looping behind my arms and cradling my back.
“Heather?” Raine was saying my name too, but I could only shake my head. “Heather, it’s away. It’s gone. It’s okay, it’s just a drawing, it’s just a picture. Heather-”
“Hissss!” went Tenny, right next to my head, low and throaty and alarmed. Feet tripped back, not mine.
“Woah, woah, woah, okay there,” Raine said. “Okay Tenny, it’s fine, we’re cool, it’s cool. Cool, okay?”
“Put it away, put it away, please, please-” a voice hissed, and I realised it was mine.
“It’s gone!” Evelyn said. “Heather, call her off! We don’t have time for this.”
I blinked my eyes open, confused and shaking and sweating, to find that Tenny had built a fortress around me.
We’d already been caught together in a half-disengaged hug when Evelyn had held up the drawing of the Eye, but Tenny had pulled me in tighter, wrapped tentacles around my middle and waist, and thrown one of her wings over my shoulders like a heavy, furred cloak that reached down to my ankles, warm and fuzzy and enclosing. My fear and her confusion had triggered her instinctive camouflage, and for a moment my head swam with vertigo at the sight of my own body obscured and hazy, replaced with an image of the grey ground and wispy fog behind us.
The other half of Tenny’s tentacles formed a spear-wall again, directed mostly at the notepad and Evelyn, but partly at Raine too.
Evelyn had stepped back, clutching the notebook, frowning with disapproval. Raine looked vaguely amused, but also distracted. She kept one eye – and her gun – on the dubious corpse in the magic circle.
“I-I’m sorry, I- it just- Tenny, it’s okay, it’s okay, n-no need for that,” I managed, putting a hand on one of Tenny’s extra limbs and gently easing it downward. She opened her mouth and trilled at me, confused. “I’m fine, Tenny. Evelyn and Raine are always friends, always safe, I’m not- it’s the picture in the … it’s fine.”
“Maaah?” Tenny vocalised, but she seemed to get the gist of it. Her tentacles drifted lower as she stood down.
“Good puppy,” Zheng purred. “You know how to protect your master.”
Tenny did a sort of misaligned blink at Zheng, almost sullen, and bleated, “baaaaah.”
Tenny’s protective embrace was a bizarre feeling. She wasn’t obviously built like Zheng or toned and tight like Raine, but thick ropes of muscle moved beneath the skin of her tentacles and torso, smooth and wriggly against me, cushioned by patches of thick, soft fur. The comfort of her wing over my shoulder was very much welcome right now, and for the first time in my life I got a sense of what it might be like to own a very large, affectionate dog. I focused on that feeling as hard as I could, tried not to think about the Eye.
My own phantom limbs helped, trying to reciprocate Tenny’s hug. A pity neither of us could feel that.
“Heather, how you holding up?” Raine risked a quick sidelong glance back at me. “We can turn around right now if you want.”
“What?” Evelyn snapped. “No, Raine, we absolutely cannot ‘turn around.’”
“That- that image was too real.” I swallowed, clinging harder to Tenny to have something to feel, something real under my hands. “I’m … I can deal with this,” I said, and wasn’t sure if it was a lie or not.
“Raine, you keep that thing covered,” Evelyn said, nodding at the intact corpse in the circle. She tucked the notebook with its terrible secret into her coat pocket, and pulled the scrimshawed thighbone out from under her arm, settling her fingers into the correct positions amid the designs. “If it so much as twitches a little finger, shoot it.”
“Don’t have to tell me that,” Raine murmured.
“Absolute fool,” Evelyn hissed. I was about to tut at her, but when she carried on I realised she was talking about herself. “Can’t even look at notes without risking my brains getting scooped out through my eyeballs. Some fucking mage I am. Should have burned it on sight.”
She was frowning at the corpse and the magic circle, hard and stony. Tenny’s panic had taken the edge off her fury, turned it cold and slow and practical. A blessing in disguise.
“Do you think this is a trap?” I asked, my voice dropping to an involuntary whisper. “Like with Alexander?”
Evelyn grumbled and shrugged. “I don’t know. That picture was just art, not magic, it wasn’t doing anything. But this? This stinks.” She tilted her head sideways at the magic circle. It was by far the most simple circle I’d seen so far, in the last half-year of occult experiences – despite the rusty red colour and the flaking of dried blood, it was just a single enclosing line, and a thin band of text in what looked like Arabic. Evelyn tutted. “Dammit, that’s not even Arabic around the circle either, I can’t make out a single word. If it’s Farsi I can struggle through with a dictionary, maybe, but anything more obscure we’re up shit creek with no paddle. This needs to be dismantled, piece by-”
“O’ great and mighty serpent,” Zheng rumbled, eyes tracing the words. “Accept this unworthy offering, this morsel of immortality, this paltry sign of our weakness and pitiful contrition. Deliver us from evil that we may take unto ourselves the knowledge cast without care from your hide, and find sustenance in the dust of your scales.” She snorted and curled her lips in disgust. “Monkey pleading.”
“What language is it?” Evelyn asked.
“What?” Evelyn boggled at her. I blinked too. “Welsh? There’s no magical works in Welsh.”
Zheng gestured at the circle.
“Okay, yes,” Evelyn huffed. “Obviously there’s at least one. Why the hell is it written in Arabic script? What the hell is the point in that?”
“Camouflage?” I tried.
Raine cleared her throat and nodded upward, at the squid-moon tentacles disturbing the sea of fog above our heads. “Maybe that’s what they speak.”
“I didn’t even know it was possible to write Welsh with Arabic, it must look awful,” Evelyn tutted. “No wonder I can’t bloody well read it, that’s absurd. I … I don’t know what what we’re looking at here. I admit it, fine, I’m lost. This is like walking into the back garden and finding a dead penguin.”
“Back up the hill, to the door,” Raine said, with the kind of softness in her voice that brooked no argument. “Then I’ll double-tap this guy and we’ll see what happens.”
“Oh yes, wonderful plan,” Evelyn said. “You’d be a real bomb squad expert, Raine. Let’s just shoot the detonator and ‘see what happens.’ Suicidal idiot.”
For once, Raine didn’t have a comeback. She cracked a silent grimace of a smile.
“Wait, wait, Evee,” I said, struggling to marshal my thoughts, struggling to resist the urge to hide myself completely beneath Tenny’s wing. “Tenny already handled the corpse. She looked in his eyes, rolled him over, disturbed the circle too. Wouldn’t that have triggered a trap?”
“Yes,” Tenny fluttered.
“And she’s fine. You’re fine, aren’t you, Tenny?”
“Weh,” she said. “Yes.”
“Maybe it triggers off human neuroarchitecture,” Evelyn said. “Don’t touch it again. Don’t touch anything. We need … ” She swallowed, spat the word. “Petrol. A lot of it. Praem can go fetch some and we’ll burn both these bodies without-”
Zheng strode past us and stepped right over the lip of the circle.
“What did I just say?!” Evelyn all but shrieked. Tenny bleated a warning, all a-flutter, trying to drag me backward. Raine stayed stock still, aim unwavering, pistol pointed at the corpse.
“I would smell one like me, wizard,” Zheng purred. “This is an empty shell.” She scuffed at the magic circle as she passed, and the toe of her boot scored a line through the flaky red substance, breaking the pattern.
“You don’t know that! You-”
“As if any newborn could overcome the inside of my skull, Laoyeh’s or not. Let it try.”
Zheng squatted down next to the corpse, grabbed it by the hair and hauled it up into a sitting position. The man’s arms hung loose, hands trailing on the ground. His face was so peaceful, almost smiling. Zheng peeled one of his eyes open and stared at the dull glassy orb within.
She went very still. A bank of fog drifted in, muting the colours and hazing the edges of my vision.
Zheng wasn’t moving.
“Zheng?” My heart climbed into my throat. “Zheng?!”
“Oh shit. Shit,” Evelyn hissed, backing up several paces. She tripped over her own feet or her walking stick, and would have gone sprawling – but Tenny shot out one tentacle and caught her around the shoulders, another tentacle grabbing the stick and pushing it firmly into her hand.
Raine adjusted her aim to Zheng’s head.
“Zheng? Zheng?” I tried again.
“Speak to us, big girl,” Raine murmured. “Stop playing, yeah, stop playing, ‘cos this ain’t funny.”
Zheng’s head turned with aching robotic slowness, like a puppet grinding along rusty wires, until she regarded us through a mask of flesh, blank of expression, eyes dead and empty.
Raine took a step back. Tenny hissed like a snake. Evelyn blurted out a snatch of Latin.
“Boo,” said Zheng – and burst into a roar of a laughter. She threw her head back and laughed so hard she cried a few stray tears, shaking the poor corpse back and forth by its hair. “You monkeys! You fall for the most base of tricks! Never gets old!”
“Zheng,” I scolded, letting out a huge breath. “I can’t believe you. You’re such a child sometimes.”
Raine lowered the pistol and let out a sigh too, a twist of a smile on her lips.
Evelyn went red in the face, mouth opening and closing. “You- you absolute- I can’t- you utter cow.”
“Scared, wizard?” Zheng rumbled, still chuckling.
“How could I not be?!” Evelyn raged at her, voice carrying out into the fog, absorbed and returned as ghostly echoes. That brought her anger up short, eyes flickering out at the monstrous shapes in the streets beyond. Evelyn clutched her walking stick and shut her mouth.
“Good,” Zheng purred. “Remember that, wizard. If not for the shaman, I would have already twisted your head off and eaten your heart.”
Evelyn boggled at her, lost for words, mouth hanging open.
“Oh, I don’t believe this,” I said, exasperated. “Now, really? Evee, you offended her when you called her a barbarian and tried to order her around earlier. Zheng, Evelyn does that sort of thing with everybody, it’s nothing to do with you.”
Zheng grunted, rolled a shrug, and dropped the corpse at last. The skull hit the ground with a dull crack.
Evelyn just stared. “We don’t … don’t have time for this petty … this.” She took a slow breath, shaking her head, trying to pull herself back together. “If- if there’s nothing in that corpse, why is he-”
“Poison,” Zheng purred. “His flesh reeks of hemlock.”
“Hemlock?” Raine said. “Real old school, huh.”
Hemlock? Our mystery corpse was no Socrates, that was for certain, but the idea sent a terrible shudder down my back. I didn’t want to consider the details too closely, but the modern world probably offered far more accessible forms of poisonous death than hemlock.
“A … ritual sacrifice?” I murmured to myself.
A ritual sacrifice with a drawing of the Eye in his pocket. My mind jumped to the obvious conclusion, that this man might be a survivor of the Sharrowford Cult, one who hadn’t stayed for their final act of defiance against the Eye, one who had decided to serve instead of resist.
“Zheng, do you recognise this man? From the cult?”
“No,” she grunted. “But I never bothered to remember most of their faces. Only the wizards. This is no wizard.”
“Yeeeeeah,” Raine said with a sigh. “I’m thinking the same thing, right. How else would he have that notebook? Eye cultist, which means he would have been after you, Heather.”
“Yes,” I whispered. Tenny’s grip tightened on my torso.
“And then how the hell did he end up here?” Evelyn snapped. “Doing … this? This circle isn’t even real magic. Tenny broke it, Zheng disturbed it, it’s in bloody Welsh. The circle itself isn’t even embellished, it’s just a basic enclosure, it doesn’t do anything. This whole thing is nonsense. Maybe it was a trap, a more traditional one, meant for us days ago, but they set it up and then got bored. And this poor idiot is just bait.”
Zheng reached out and ran a fingertip along the edge of the circle. “No, wizard.”
“ … no?”
“This magic is more real than yours. Raw.” She raised her eyes to Evelyn, then up into the fog, to the nearest squid-moon, giant tentacles drifting through the air far above our heads. “A plea to a God. What could be more real?”
“Pleading for help,” I murmured, and a lump grew in my throat. “The words around the circle, pleading for help. Maybe he decided he wanted out, and … ” I trailed off.
“The one on the left,” Raine said softly.
Raine pointed upward with one hand, gun still held low in the other. “The leftmost tentacle from here. Look near the tip.”
I squinted up into the mist, trying to make out what Raine had seen. Detail was almost impossible at this distance, and we’d left the binoculars up in the castle with Lozzie, just in case. Evelyn squinted too. Zheng straightened up, stepped back out of the circle, and saw it first. She snorted with derisive laughter.
“Plea answered,” she purred.
I made it out a moment later. A dark red patch near the tip of one of the nearest squid-moon’s tentacles. A smear, gone dry and rusty.
“Offering.” Raine pointed at the man in the circle. “Petitioner.” She gestured to the ugly mound of mashed meat we’d been trying not to look at. “Rejection.” She nodded up at the distant tentacle again, then grinned over at Evelyn. “How’s that for a theory?”
“I don’t … I don’t know,” Evelyn muttered. She looked from the tentacle overhead to the dry red smear of the pulverised corpse nearby, but instantly looked away again, hand to her mouth. “Perhaps Lozzie can speak with her giant friend up there,” she said, dripping sarcasm. “Maybe it knows what happened.”
“Maybe she can,” I said, taking her seriously.
“Dammit, they must have come from somewhere!” Evelyn hissed, her temper fraying once more. “There must be doorway, the remains of a gate, but … ” She glanced left and right along the walls of the copied buildings, the roil of monsters beyond in the streets. I followed her gaze and found one of them looking back at us, a sort of soft-shelled crustacean clinging to the side of a nearby dead-jade house. Four eyes on stalks watched us. I made eye contact and it scuttled away, back down an alleyway, stepping on the shells of a clutch of barnacle-like protrusions.
“Does it need to be on a solid surface?” Raine asked.
“Yes. And it’ll leave marks. Obvious ones. A doorway shape burned into the stone, first few molecules of matter scraped off, that sort of thing. Our gateway would have stripped the paint from the wall back home if I hadn’t done it myself first. But we can’t go out there. How on earth could they have come from there? This is hopeless, we shouldn’t be down here, we shouldn’t. Never again. We close that castle up from the inside, ward every window and door and never come out here again.”
“Agreed. Five more minutes and we move,” Raine said, stepping forward. “But first, let’s see if we can dig up any dirt on our boy here.”
“What?” I blinked at Raine. “How are you going to … oh.”
She tucked her pistol away and crouched down by the items Tenny had extracted from the dead man’s pockets – a half-used packet of large-size tissues, a battered black leather wallet, a heavy set of a keys, and a mobile phone which looked older than me. Raine inspected the phone first, the tiny LCD screen and the blue plastic case.
“Antique technology enthusiast, or drug dealer? Take your pick.” She held the power button down, but nothing happened.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.
“Yes, Raine, what are you on about?” Evelyn asked.
“Drug dealer phone.” Raine waggled it at us. “Harder to track one of these, doesn’t use modern apps or anything. Dead as he is, though. Battery must be ancient, probably ran down sitting out here. Might be able to find a charger, see his contact list, but that’s a stretch. Gives me a thought though.”
She reached for the packet of tissues.
From inside a few tissues worth of camouflage, Raine extracted a plastic zip-lock bag of white powder. She opened a corner, sniffed carefully, and let out a low whistle. “We’re lucky Tenny didn’t eat this, she’d be bouncing off the walls.”
“Bwaaaah,” went Tenny, almost as if she resented the implication.
“I don’t follow?” I said. “Is that caster sugar?”
Raine laughed and gave me a look of such affection that it seemed out of place here, amid the fog and monsters and corpses. “It’s blow, Heather. Coke. Cocaine.”
“Not enough to be selling though. Probably just his personal stash. Funny thing to bring along to a ritual suicide, maybe he needed a hit before the end.” She slipped the phone and the drugs into her own jacket and reached for the keys.
“You’re keeping that crap?” Evelyn snapped.
“No, I’m going to flush it down the toilet,” Raine said with an indulgent smile. “What, did you think I was gonna to sell it on the street? You wound me, Evee.”
“Wouldn’t put it past you,” Evelyn grumbled.
Raine reached down to pick up the wallet and keys, jangling the latter. “Car keys, door keys, some kind of electronic access fob thing, maybe for a work-site. Oooh, got an address tag here.” She turned her head sideways. “82 Barkslouf Way. Maybe where he lived, there’s a lead. Now for the main event, let’s find out who you are, hey?”
She flipped the wallet open and stopped dead, and let out a theatrical sigh and tut of disappointment. Empty.
“Bugger,” Evelyn said.
“Forty quid in notes, some coins … ah!” Raine lit up and extracted a little orange card from deep inside the wallet. “Train ticket, from ‘Stalybridge’ station – that’s Manchester, I think – to Sharrowford central, five days ago. No return, one way.” Raine slipped the rest of her finds into her jacket and stared at the dead man. “Looks like chunky here did not expect to be going home.”
“Then it was suicide. A sacrifice.” Evelyn grit her teeth and looked upward again, at the tentacles far above our heads.
“At least we have an address,” I said. “That’s a clue, isn’t it?”
“We’re not living in a detective novel,” Evelyn grumbled, eyes glued to the motion of the nearest giant tentacle overhead, like watching the weather. “You aren’t Miss bloody Marple. This doesn’t help us find out how they got in here, or stop them from doing it again.”
“I think you’d make a great lady detective, Evelyn. On television,” I said. She frowned at me. I cleared my throat, feeling awkward and out of place, trying anything to keep my mind on the moment and away from the Eye. “What I meant is, if we can find this man’s flat or house, perhaps that’s somewhere to start?”
“Evelyn Saye, consulting detective.” Raine cracked a grin, standing up and dusting off her hands. “We can work on a pilot script later though, let’s have a look at contestant number two.”
‘Contestant number two.’ I almost told her off for that one, but I could barely look without feeling sick.
The second corpse wasn’t far off, but we’d all been ignoring it, pretending it didn’t exist, trying not to look at it. Except Zheng, who I’m certain wasn’t bothered at all. A smear of pulped meat and shattered bone. The one mercy was the lack of smell; the fog and the strange air of this place had dried out the gruesome mass, like smoked meat.
Raine looked at it now without a care. Tenny let out a bleat of protest, perhaps feeling my revulsion.
“Hmmm, on second thoughts, I might need rubber gloves for that,” Raine said.
“There might be … uh.” Evelyn closed her eyes and put her hand to her mouth again. Even thinking about it made her look ill. “Might be a wallet or a … card, something, in a pocket?”
“Yeah. Yeah, maybe.” Raine walked over to it, but still didn’t touch the wreckage of flesh and dried blood.
“Squeamish, yoshou?” Zheng chuckled.
“Ehhh,” Raine let out the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “A little yeah, not gonna lie. S’pretty grisly. Don’t wanna get this on my cuffs.”
Zheng held no such hygienic scruples. She grunted and strode over to the smeared crimson mess, and set straight to her bloody work.
Raine stood at Zheng’s back, to watch, peer, point, and make suggestions. Evelyn backed up a few paces and I followed, dragging Tenny after me, shielding my vision with one hand. I winced through the waves of disgust at the sounds of peeling dried meat, Zheng scraping bits of human being off the ground. Evelyn actually turned away, hand to her mouth.
“We’ll get back upstairs and you can set about your plan of securing the castle, yes, Evee?” I stammered, saying anything, nothing, just to talk, to drown out the disgusting noises from behind us, to avoid thinking about my lover over there watching without the slightest hesitation. “Evelyn, how does that sound? I think you could do it all tonight, if you’re willing to disturb your sleeping pattern with coffee. I think, um.”
Evelyn just grunted and nodded.
“Yaaaaah,” Tenny trilled agreement. “Coffffff.”
“No coffee for you, I think, I doubt you need it. Do you, Tenny? No, you have lots of energy and, um … um … yes, and-”
I caught a snatch of Raine’s voice from behind us. “Is that a piece of pelvis? Look under there, might find a back pocket.”
“And you could even call Twil,” I carried on, louder. “Her family might know something about this, this um, yes. But really it would just be an excuse to have her over for the night. Maybe if she bodyguards you a bit you can work on the courage to ask her to hold your hand or … mm. Yes, right. Good plan, good plan, Heather.”
Evelyn waved me off.
“Evee, may I … may I see the notebook, please?”
She shot me a confused frown. “You’re sure?” I nodded. “This isn’t some weird masochistic thing, is it?”
“Not at all. Just … trying to occupy my thoughts.”
Half a lie. I’d come down from the shaking fear earlier, left a sticky layer of cold sweat on my skin, but the very fact I’d been so afraid in the first place was festering in my guts. With nothing else to think about, my mind turned back to our purpose, to the Eye, to Maisie.
Evelyn frowned harder, but she dug the notebook back out of her coat pocket and thrust it at me. She watched me take it gingerly, watched me flip the cover up. I knew I was quivering slightly, a lump in my throat, and I made no effort to hide my reaction.
“This is a masochism thing,” she said. “Isn’t it?”
“No. No, quite the opposite. I need to face it again. If I can’t even look at a drawing of it, what use am I going to be?”
I flicked through the dead man’s notebook. Evelyn had been right, it was all poetry, lots of lines crossed out and rewritten with slightly different wording, meter and rhythm apparent, though in a language I couldn’t read. I did, however, recognise it right away.
“Evee, this is all in Welsh too. Not with Arabic script though.” I said. “You didn’t recognise this earlier?”
“Why should I recognise Welsh?”
“Weeell,” Tenny trilled, and made it sound like ‘whale’.
I flipped the final page before the drawing, and revealed the depiction of the Eye once more. A catch in my throat, a quivering in my belly, a hitch in my heartbeat. I stared at it, into the void under the lid, making a conscious effort to control my breathing. Forced a swallow down my throat. Evelyn said something, but I wasn’t listening. Tenny purred, or at least made an approximation of a purr, and tried to hug me tighter.
After several long seconds I began to see past the nightmare image, picked out each individual pen stroke, each twist of the nib, imagined the hand going back and forth to shade in the darkness. I dismantled the image in my mind.
It was, in the end, just a drawing. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, but the parts were meaningless.
Could I do the same to the Eye itself? Break it down into bite sized chunks?
“Aversion therapy?” Evelyn asked softly.
“Of a kind.” I sighed, looked up at her, managed a small smile.
From behind us came a swishing of material, like a coat pulled tight over a pair of shoulders, and I assumed Raine had turned around and adjusted her jacket – but the sound that followed drew nails of ice down my spine.
A wheeze, a hiss, like cracked bellows before a dying fire, struggling to fill themselves.
It was so bizarre I glanced back before I could stop myself. Raine and Zheng had their backs to us, and Zheng was wrist-deep in gore, lifting up some unrecognisable shredded chunk of human anatomy. Between them and us lay the magic circle and the corpse within.
Not lying down anymore. The corpse of the heavyset man was sitting upright. Eyes open. Arms limp.
Breathing. He took a second breath, filling dry lungs with an awful grating sound.
“Uh … uh … R-Raine?” I stammered.
All hell broke loose; Raine span at the sound of fear in my voice, drawing her gun. She saw the man and didn’t even blink, aimed at him with unwavering precision. Zheng whirled too, a nightmare vision with bloody hands, hunched and ready for violence. Evelyn choked on a scream, raising her wand of carved thighbone, fingers fumbling over the right place to grasp. Tenny let out a hiss like a king cobra.
But the eye of the storm didn’t move.
The corpse in the circle – most certainly not a corpse anymore, if he had ever truly been dead in the first place – didn’t react to us. He blinked, slowly and painfully, a dry click over dessicated eyeballs. He twitched his right hand up to his face, as if suffering some kind of palsy, and slapped his own cheek.
“You said it was dead!” said Evelyn.
“It was,” Zheng growled. She took three stalking steps, circling the heavyset man at a wary distance, like a tiger confronted by an unknown competitor. “It still is.”
“This is a dead thing still.”
The man swayed at the waist, like he was merely sleepy instead of rising from the dead. He pulled one leg back, trying to get it underneath him.
Zheng was right. It had been months since I’d seen a zombie – apart from herself and Praem, both exceptions that proved the rule – but I would never forget the way they’d moved. The broken shuffling, the misfiring synapses, the jerky muscles; demons in stolen flesh. This living corpse in front of us was clumsy and slow, yes, but like a man who’d awoken from a deep dream, not hijacked by a creature that didn’t understand how to pilot the human form.
“Hey there, buddy,” Raine said to him, loud and clear, circling the other way from Zheng. “Hey. Hey, can you hear me? Got a gun pointed at you, friend, because I don’t know what the hell you are. Blink, wave a hand, give us a sign there’s someone home, yeah? Anything? Anything at all?”
The dead man raised his head of curly dark hair and finally seemed to see us. A drowsy, heavy-lidded look slid from face to face. His eyeballs were all wrong, dried out. His throat bobbed with a horrible rasping effort to swallow, then his mouth opened and a sandpaper croak spilled forth.
“Oh lads, oh we are in big trouble here lads,” he slurred.
I didn’t know if I should laugh or scream, he was so out of place.
His was not the voice of some hard-bitten cultist performing secret rituals in a hidden pocket dimension, or the whispering death-voice of a lich back from the grave. He spoke like a football fan after a hardcore pub crawl, waking from a hangover in a student dorm.
“Hey, hey.” Raine clicked her fingers to get his attention, pistol still aimed at him. “You talking to yourself there mate?”
“Alright, alright,” he huffed, grimacing, but didn’t look at Raine. “Yeah, pipe down, I get it, gotta scarper, gotta move, move move move.”
“Scarper?” Raine said out loud, and pulled a big showy wince. “Don’t think so.”
“I can take his head off,” Zheng purred. “Better now than later.”
“No!” Evelyn snapped. “We need to interrogate him, not get rid of him, I want to know how he got here, he-”
Evelyn yelped in surprise. The heavyset man had been pushing to get his feet underneath him, head nodding as if drunk, and he finally succeeded with a lurch and a stumble, right toward Evelyn and Tenny and I. Tenny hissed, Evelyn almost fell on her arse, but I couldn’t help but feel completely unthreatened. This man was a wreck. Even I could have probably have pushed him over.
But Zheng thought otherwise. She lunged for him, arms wide, a rugby tackle from hell. No human being could have avoided that, seven feet of toned muscle and quicksilver reflexes charging you down. An Olympic sprinter couldn’t have escaped.
But the dead man lurched drunkenly to the side, and Zheng went sprawling past him.
Raine actually burst out laughing. “Keep up, big girl!” Tenny let out a warble of amusement too, and I almost allowed myself a single, humourless laugh.
Zheng growled, span, and lunged again. On the second successful stumbling dodge, nobody was laughing anymore.
The man stumbled and wobbled like he was in the terminal stages of an alcoholic binge, barely keeping his balance, head wavering, blinking slow, eyes unfocused and half-open at best. But Zheng couldn’t catch him – because he wasn’t reacting to her. Every dodge and stumble he made seemed like random chance, too chaotic to control or predict. Zheng skidded past him no less than four times, and on the fourth he let out a confused laugh.
“Zheng, this isn’t working,” I said.
“Oi oi, lass,” the dead man said, looking at Raine. “You’ve got my coke. They say you’ve got my coke, yeah?”
“How do you know that?”
“Um,” the man said, and dodged out of the way again as Zheng tried a fifth time. He bobbed back and almost fell over. Zheng switched tactics, feigned one way to drive him the other, but that time he didn’t bother moving, just stood there blinking as she sailed through the spot he should have moved to.
“Stand still!” Zheng roared in frustration.
“I am,” he slurred.
She tried again, and he stumbled out of the way.
“Sorry, sorry,” he held up both hands and almost fell over again as he stumbled backward.
“Either this guy’s a bona-fide drunken master,” Raine said. “Or something weird is going down.”
The man stopped again, frowning – at me. Tenny hissed at him, but he ignored her. I met his gaze and his face lit up like a light bulb going on inside his skull. “Oh shit, shit, you’re her. The witch. Witchy shit, yeah.”
“Who are you?” I asked. “You- you know about the Eye, don’t you?”
“Nobody, right. Not important. Nah beef, girl, nah beef.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Raine said. “You’ve got no beef with Heather, so we’re cool. Still gotta tell us who you are though.”
“This isn’t funny,” Evelyn hissed. “This is somebody messing with us. This is a trap, or a trick, or something we’re not seeing. Back away from him, don’t get near him. Raine,” she snapped. “Bring him down.”
Raine looked at the heavyset dead man as he dodged out of Zheng’s bull-charge again, then down at the gun in her hand, then at Evelyn. “With this?”
“Of course with that! What else would I be talking about?”
“Ehhh, Evee, I’m not really down with shooting a guy who isn’t doing anything to us. Hey, mate!” Raine called. “You gonna like, try to kill us or whatever?”
“Oh man,” the walking corpse slurred again, one eye closed. “S’nice to hang but we gotta get going. Still here, why am I still here? Yeah, I know, alright? Alright, alright, that’s a plan. Cunning plan, like a fox. Smart like a fox, yeah!”
The man wobbled back several steps and hit himself in the head with one hand. I believe he was trying to salute us.
“Later, girlies!” he slurred, and took off running toward the copied Sharrowford streets.
Well ‘running’, for a given value of running. He stumbled and overbalanced and barely stopped himself from flying face-first into the ground. Zheng pursued like a bullet, but the chase instantly dissolved into a farce. Every time she leapt for him he fell over, weaved out of the way, landed on his own arse, or just stopped while she sailed past.
As he went he seemed to regain coordination and balance, picked up speed, and got his feet moving. His dodges became less slapstick pratfall and more actual drunken martial art.
“I don’t believe this,” Evelyn hissed. “He’s getting away. Will you shoot him now?”
“Evee,” I tutted.
“In the back?” Raine grimaced. “He won’t make it five minutes in all that.” She nodded at the monsters roiling and snapping and slurping out in the streets. “Besides, somehow I get the sense he’d step out of the way.”
“You’d let him go too, Heather?” Evelyn turned on me. “A stray cultist, one who might be after you. Tell Raine! Tell her to shoot him, for God’s sake!”
“I don’t … Evee, he’s running from us … I … ”
Evelyn had a point. I disliked it, but she was right. The absolute last thing we wanted was a servant of the Eye free in Sharrowford, let alone one who Zheng couldn’t even touch. The abyssal ruthlessness nestled in the heart of my soul screamed kill this man.
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed.
“Raine, can you-” I swallowed, one half of me fighting the other. “Please shoot him. In the leg, maybe, if you can. Please.”
Thankfully for my nerves, Raine didn’t second-guess the request. She raised the pistol in both hands and steadied her aim, breathed out slowly, and waited for Zheng to make another failed charge before she pulled the trigger. I wanted to close my eyes, but I fought the urge. I asked for this; don’t look away. This is your decision.
In the split-second before Raine pulled the trigger, the heavyset man fell over on his arse. The crack of gunfire split the air, made me jump, and the bullet passed harmlessly over the man’s head.
Raine actually laughed at the absurdity of it. “Told you so.”
“Try again!” Evelyn snapped.
“Evee, this guy is beyond us. I’m just wasting bullets.”
“Zheng! Zheng, come back!” I yelled, but she was ignoring us now. The dead man was up and running again, and executed a perfect weave-duck motion from the waist as Zheng missed him again.
He finally reached the streets, vaulted over a barnacle-creature of dull grey metal, slipped beneath the roving limbs of some scuttling crustacean, and slipped down a side-street. Zheng plunged after him, ripping through hanging sheets of living mollusk flesh, batting aside a clutch of anemone-like feelers.
“Zheng! Stop!” I called out.
Her blood was up, the puzzle of this prey too much for her. She vanished into the chaos beyond the fog.