There exists a specific facial expression, rarely encountered in the isolated wilds of university libraries and the lonely teenage years of scrawny young women on anti-psychotics – a smiling mouth with cringing eyes, spiced by a knowing twinkle, on the verge of a defensive laugh. An expression which says ‘I know I am doing something I should not, but I am going to do it anyway, in full view of those who disapprove, because I do not have any other choice, and I shall embrace being a cheeky little so-and-so.’
The heavyset dead man, the risen corpse from the fog, the revenant on the far side of the castle gateway, smiled at us like a small boy about to escape punishment on a minor technicality.
“Just mosey on through, yeah?” he said, pointing vaguely through the gateway, toward the door to the kitchen. “Be outta ya’ hair in five shakes of a dog’s tail. Cat’s tail? How does that go again?” He frowned at empty space for a second, at nobody and nothing. “Lamb’s tail? Bro, what? Yeah, whatever.”
“Oh great,” Twil hissed. “You didn’t mention he was a wackjob.”
“Thought that part was obvious,” Raine said.
“He steps through that gate, he’ll die a second time,” Evelyn muttered.
Zheng watched him with the deceptively detached interest of a waiting tiger.
His flippancy did not help the aggression and adrenaline surging through my veins. My phantom limbs lashed and whirled, impossible to control the abyssal desire to pull his head clean from his body. I was furious, and I didn’t understand why. In retrospect, the source was obvious; this entire diversion was distracting us from the Carcosa experiment tomorrow, from another step in the plan to rescue my sister.
Evelyn’s spider-servitors framed the gateway, hanging above and beside. One step over and he was finished. I swallowed my anger. Let the spiders do their job.
Eyes blinking out of sync with each other, the dead man took in my glare and the barrel of Raine’s gun, and settled on Zheng. He raised his fists in a clumsy boxing stance. “Wanna throw down again, big lass? Or we done? Yeah?”
Zheng blinked once, slowly. A lizard on a hot rock.
It was such a minor detail, one that slid right past my conscious mind, but it should have alerted me that all was not as it seemed; Zheng had stripped off her mucus-soaked top a minute earlier, hair still matted with disgusting drying goo, and stood there bared for all to see, tattoos and abdomen and heavy breasts – but the dead man, despite his laddish speech and jovial act, didn’t sneak so much as a split-second glance at her body.
“Nah? Nah? We cool then,” the man continued. “Yeah, we cool, dudettes? No probs, no probs, I’ll just let myself out, you know?” He opened his fists into a mock-surrender pose, and stepped over the gate’s threshold on exaggerated tiptoes.
“It’s your funeral,” Evelyn drawled.
Then she frowned, when nothing happened.
“What-” I blurted out, confused. Lozzie grabbed one of my arms, held on tight. She must have recognised my bubbling, uncharacteristic aggression. Somehow, her proximity helped drain the worst of it, stopped me from doing something unwise. “What-”
“Heather?” Evelyn hissed. “What are they playing at?”
The spider-servitors hadn’t reacted to the undead man at all. As if he simply wasn’t there. Stingers waving, crystalline eyes fixed on the gateway, they ignored him.
“ … they don’t appear to care,” I said.
The dead man smiled and wiggled his fingers.
Up close, without the softening veil of otherworldly fog and lacking the distraction of a sea of bizarre alien life scuttling about behind him, he looked obviously like a man on the verge of death. Or was he a dead man on the verge of life?
His skin was pale in the manner of an olive complexion that hadn’t seen sun in twenty years, a few blue veins visible through the papery surface. He looked half mummified, flesh stretched tight over the bones of his face with the drying effect of the fog dimension, but his joints moved without creaking or cracking, no splitting skin or flaking tissues. His big raincoat looked new, extra-extra large to accommodate wide shoulders and a thick waist. His eyeballs were shrivelled like half-dried prunes, and he kept scrunching up the muscles in his face, as if he was in mild pain. Part of me wondered if he would suddenly plump out if dunked in a bath, like one of those just-add-water children’s toys.
“Fat lot of use,” Evelyn hissed. “I’ll do it myself. You think you can just walk out of here?” She took a half step out from behind Praem, her scrimshawed thighbone held carefully in both hands, walking stick tucked into the crook of her arm. Without being asked, Praem extended one hand and held Evelyn’s elbow to steady her balance.
“Uhhhhhhhh, walk out? Sure? Yeah.” The man turned up his cheeky smile. “Puttin’ one foot forward, then the other. Walking, you know? Oops, but you can’t do that. Missing a foot, aren’t you? But me, I’m walking here. Right on out, whoooo, yeah.”
He made a sideways upward swooshing motion with one hand, mirrored the gesture with the other, and tucked his face into his bent elbow.
“Don’t you dab on us,” said Twil. “You fuckin’ weirdo!”
“How do you know about my leg?” Evelyn asked, voice suddenly cold. “Who the hell are you?”
He dropped the gesture and took another exaggerated slow-motion step, like a cartoon character creeping across creaky floorboards. He even did a little side-to-side glance, as if none of us were here and he was watching for observers. It was so absurd I had to shake my head with disbelief.
“Oi, mate, best stop there if I were you,” Raine said from behind her homemade riot shield. A sympathetic shiver went down my spine. She spoke as if talking about where to sit in a pub, pitched her voice so casually, yet filled it with such menace. “I’ve got a gun pointed at you, and I’m a pretty good shot, if I say so myself.”
“Yeah, yeah yeah, soz, soz, no beef, yeah?” The dead man waggled his raised hands.
“You are not going anywhere,” Evelyn said, quiet and cold. “I want to know who are you and exactly what you were doing in there. Nobody comes back from the dead without … without crossing certain boundaries, and you are either an idiot or pretending to be one. So, which is it?”
“Yeah, dumb-arse,” Twil added, but looking faintly confused.
“And don’t assume your acrobatic nonsense will work with me,” Evelyn continued. “There are more ways than physical of enforcing my will.”
“Yes,” I whispered, abyssal instinct in total agreement. Burn him out, Evelyn, it hissed. Burn him up. I swallowed down my aggression, hands shaking as I clung to Lozzie.
The dead man pulled a mock-scared face, a big toothy cringe, and lowered one of his surrender-posed hands to point at Evelyn’s scrimshawed thighbone, looking left and right as if playing to an invisible peanut gallery and a laugh track. He slid one foot sideways, a half-step closer to the kitchen doorway, but nobody backed up to make room for him. The non-threatening act was as complete as it was deliberate.
“Reckon you can dodge all of us at once?” Raine asked, light and easy.
“Probs,” he slurred, closing one eye in struggling concentration. Was that an act too? He was certainly more steady on his feet than he’d been down in the fog. “Prob’ly, yeah. I thinks.”
“Real drunken master, eh?” said Raine. “You somebody important, famous, somebody we should know?”
“Nobody, really!” He laughed a big deep chuckle.
“You drew the Eye,” I blurted out. At my side, Lozzie murmured a little ‘Heather, noooo,’ but it was too late.
The dead man’s gaze met mine, and for a split-second he was somebody else. Mannerism melted away like ice under a blowtorch. A pained flinch flickered across his face, a single frame of mistake, before his features quickly rearranged back into that infuriating schoolboy smile. He boggled at me with the look of a puzzled idiot.
I went cold inside.
“What was that?” I hissed.
“Wa’ was wa’?” he slurred.
“ … the … the … the Eye!” I groped for a handhold, my brain slipping off that bizarre moment of transformation he’d shown. “You know what I’m talking about, this-” I fumbled for a moment, waving an empty hand as I realised I’d tried to use one of my non-existent tentacles to pick up his notebook from the table, where Raine had left it, next to the bag of cocaine and her helmet. I corrected, used my actual, physical hand, like a sensible human being, and held up the incriminating evidence. “You drew it in here. Didn’t you? I know it, you know who I am as well, you said so. It’s in your head, isn’t it?”
“Yeeeeeeah, little lady, I know you ‘cos you’re the freaky one.”
“Freaky?” I frowned, a decade of habit running up against the reality that I was, indeed, kind of freaky these days. “Excuse me. And that’s not what I was asking.”
“Nah like, you know, yeah? Not tangling up with you, nah.”
“What’s your name?” Raine asked.
“Oh for pity’s sake, Raine,” Evelyn hissed. “Who gives a damn?”
His cheeky schoolboy smile intensified, curling up at the corners. “Joe. Uh, surname’s King.”
Evelyn death-glared at him. Twil frowned for a second, then rolled her eyes. Lozzie giggled. Took me a moment to get it.
Raine let out a theatrical sigh, tutted, and shook her head. “Wrong answer, mate. You’re going the right way for a shattered kneecap, you know that?”
Mister ‘Joking’ smiled wider. “You’ll miss, miss shooter. You know it, n’ so do I. Already missed me once, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, that was neat trick,” Raine said. “Fancy sharing it?”
“I dump the whole magazine into you, maybe I learn by watching.”
“Ahhhh, but you’ve only got five bullets left!” he laughed.
Raine stared at him for a heartbeat, and I realised with stomach-clenching shock that he’d wrong-footed her. He’d wrong-footed Raine.
“Lucky guess,” she said.
The dead man did this huge comedy wink and nose-tap – and took another slow step toward the kitchen door. Twil, right in his path, bristled and growled and bared her teeth. Her hands were already swirling into wolf-paws, claws flexing.
“Bullshit!” Twil spat. “You can’t dodge bullets.”
“He can, laangren,” Zheng purred.
“Yeeeah, big lass is right,” he said. “Come on, girlies, I ain’t got no beef at all, not with you lot. I’ll just be on me way, and we can forget all about ever knowing each other any which way-”
“Sod it,” Evelyn snapped. “If you won’t talk sense, I’ll bloody well make you. Dodge this.”
Her fingers shifted across the pattern on her scrimshawed thighbone, and completed the infernal circuit within.
I’d only seen her do this once before, months ago, and I was not prepared for the effect. Neither was anybody else.
The ambient temperature in the workshop plummeted in a single breath, flash-freezing tiny ice crystals onto the edge of the table and across the metal front of Raine’s riot shield. A wave of cold air sucked a gasp from my lungs, slipped chill fingers down my collar, and made poor Lozzie shiver inside her poncho. Static electricity danced across everyone’s clothes.
And a strange sick fear twisted inside my chest, a pressure like somebody standing on my ribcage; the backwash from Evelyn’s spell.
Lozzie let out a little ‘oop!’ of surprise. Twil stumbled back, shaking her head like a hound tormented by wasps. Raine, right in the path of the effect, sagged forward and then took several very deliberate paces backward, trying and failing to conceal a wince. I let out a hiss, an instinctive reaction to that crushing feeling. Only Praem was unaffected.
“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled, granite-on-granite voice like an angry mountain.
“It’s not aimed at you, stop being a baby,” Evelyn snapped over her shoulder.
The dead man had gone still and quiet, his eyes unfocused, frozen in that hands-up gesture of surrender. The first time Evelyn had used this particular technique, the cultist she’d interrogated had been unable to retain control of his bodily functions, with predictable results, but Mister Joking appeared to have merely gone slack inside. Like he was suddenly empty. Nobody home.
“Is he … like … switched off?” Twil hissed.
“Shhhh,” went Evelyn, frowning at the dead man. She clicked her fingers at him. “You. Walking corpse. What’s your real name? Who the hell are you?”
He blinked once, as if coming back around – and his face shifted.
Nothing about his physical form actually changed, but I had the sudden distinct impression of a much older man. He adopted a mildly irritated frown, totally alien to the laddish comedy grin from before. He adjusted the set of his shoulders, the distribution of weight across his hips, the angle of his chin. He stood up straight, not wavering with drunken energy, eyes open and calm. A totally different person looked back at us, and was not impressed.
Behind him, the spider-servitors finally reacted, as if he’d only just stepped into the room – but then they stopped, poised on the brink of attack. They sensed his intent before he acted.
He extended both hands and twisted his fingers together in a complex pattern.
“Woah, woah, woah!” Raine shouted. Zheng growled, deep and low enough to hurt one’s bowels. Evelyn blinked and took a step back.
I’d never seen it before, but with everything I’d experienced over the last few months, one did not need to be a magician to recognise magic.
“Stop,” I said, quietly. “Stop.”
His eyes flicked to me. He stopped. I swallowed, forced myself to speak.
“You know who I am, which – I hope – also means you know what I can do,” I managed to squeeze out. “And I am barely holding myself back from doing violence to you. Magic takes time. What I can do is instant, and happens at the speed of thought. No magic. Not in here.”
He slid his eyes from me. His fingers remained locked in place, looking as if they’d break if pushed any further. A Mexican stand-off.
I was only partly bluffing. Moving one’s fingers in a complex pattern? That hardly invoked the instinctive, animal danger of violence that would summon brainmath, push me past the threshold of my own pain. I could stop him, but it would take a second or two. Magic could look so mundane sometimes. So boring.
“What … what the-” Evelyn was hissing. “You- how-”
“Ni fydd eich dominiad yn gweithio arnaf,” he said.
“What,” went Twil.
“Ummmm,” I said, frowning as I struggled to make sense of the sounds, let alone the words. Whatever he’d said, it had a lilting, musical quality, almost a sing-song way of speaking.
“What?” Evelyn snapped at him.
“‘Your domination won’t work on me’,” Zheng translated. “Welsh again.”
“Ie.” He nodded.
“Answer in English,” Evelyn spat. “Name!”
“Y tu hwnt i’ch deall,” he said.
“‘Beyond your comprehension’,” Zheng supplied. “Wizard,” she rumbled – and I knew she was talking to him, not Evelyn. “Wizard, I will learn your tricks, and then I will eat your heart.”
The dead man glanced at Zheng, unconcerned, then back at Evelyn.
“You are out of your depth,” he said to Evelyn – in the richest Welsh accent I’d ever heard. “I have no quarrel with you, Saye, or with the demon. Let me leave, and you will never see me again.”
His accent threw everyone off. Barely comprehensible in English, all elongated vowel sounds and dropped ‘y’s, an accent suited only for talking about the weather, small woodland animals, and the state of one’s flower garden. Utterly different to the man he’d been mere moments ago. To hear a Welsh accent spoken with such seriousness, about magic and demons, was so jarring that I almost laughed in hysterical confusion. He should have been on a BBC regional interest show, talking about bumblebees or mountain climbing. I sensed for the first time the contours of an unexamined prejudice I never knew I held.
Evelyn was visibly struggling to hold onto the spell now. Her breath shook, beads of sweat ran down her forehead, and without her walking stick in one hand she was leaning heavily on Praem.
“Evee, drop it,” Raine said. “S’not working.”
“Yeah, yeah come on Evee,” Twil said. “This is fucking you up.”
“God damn you all,” Evelyn spat. “No, he-”
“Let go,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn huffed, and relinquished her grip.
The spell fell apart with a crackle of static and a rise in temperature. I sucked in a great lungful of air, as if I hadn’t taken a full breath in minutes. Evelyn almost fell over too, but Praem caught her, steadying her mistress back to her feet as Evelyn struggled to get her walking stick in place.
The dead man’s disapproving frown endured for a second longer, then he seemed to dismiss us with a shake of his head; like a puppet with the strings passed to another hand, he staggered sideways and waved his arms for balance, the cheeky schoolboy grin back on his face. The spider-servitors returned to ignoring him, as if he’d vanished.
“Awww come on bro that stank shit burned, you could’a taken some!” he said, his voice returned to the laddish nonsense from before. No trace remained of the sing-song Welsh accent.
He regained his balance with some difficulty, almost blundering back through the gateway. He dusted himself off, winked one eye shut with drunken pressure, and took an unsteady but deliberate step toward the kitchen doorway.
“Who the hell are you?!” Evelyn spat at him.
“I told you, nobody really,” he chuckled.
“How many of you in there?” Raine asked.
He shrugged the shrug of a man who did not expect us to believe his ignorance.
“Multiple personalities?” Twil asked. “What the shit is this guy?”
“I doubt it,” I snapped, angry as I stared at the strange dead man. “Real dissociative identity disorder isn’t like in films and television. That was an act, wasn’t it? An offensive one.”
He winked at me, and made a sort of clicking noise with the corner of his mouth. I felt myself bristle. We were being played for fools.
“We’re talking to a surface-level caricature,” Evelyn said. “The other one was real. A mage. This is just a disguise. And he knows me. Who are you, dammit?”
“Is the Eye in there too?” I asked.
That pained flinch returned, and now I recognised it. The Drunkard did not respond to the name of the Eye, but the Welsh Speaker did. The expression passed again, the disguise resumed.
“What? In here?” he tapped his head. “You’re the crackers one, little lady. Would I be up and walking around if the big looker was in my skull?”
I frowned, confused. “So you … you weren’t with the cult? You weren’t part of what happened?”
“Weeeeell.” He pulled a face. “I was, but I wasn’t.”
“He was no wizard,” Zheng rumbled. She watched him like a hawk, his every tiny motion. “I would remember.”
He winked and tapped his nose again. “Worked them, didn’t I? Remember you though, big lass.”
“He infiltrated them, infiltrated the Sharrowford Cult,” Evelyn said, cold but oddly impressed. “Pretended to be a simpleton. He’s a mage, from somewhere else. You will explain who you are, or I will find a way to make you. You think that was my only trick?”
He pulled that cheeky, drunken, I-decline-to-answer face.
“You mean you didn’t end up enthralled to the Eye, like the others?” I asked. “Why draw it, then?”
“Shhhhh, shhhh-shhhh.” He put a finger to his lips – and took another step toward the doorway. “Why you gotta keep saying that name? Speak of the devil and all that. If you even know the bugger, you’re under the gaze. Real rattlebones voodoo, right? Let’s not get his attention. Softly softly, catchy monkey.”
“If you know anything about the Eye, you have to tell me,” I said. “We’re not leaving this standoff until you do.”
“Naah, I can go whenever I like.” He gestured at the kitchen door again. “Gonna be on out. But-” he glanced to the side, talking to his real self again. “I really need my coke back, yo. I do, bro, please! Yeah.” Then he looked at Raine directly, then over her shoulder to the bag of white powder on the table. “Can I get my stash? Sneak in a pouch for your boy, yeah? Mercy?”
“If you’re so bloody unstoppable,” Evelyn said, “why don’t you just take your stuff and walk out of here? You’re bluffing. You’re a mage, in a vulnerable position in another magician’s home, and you know what that means. Why even keep up the disguise, hmmm? Why bother?”
“Method acting, babyyyyyyyyy.” He pointed a pair of inaccurate finger guns at Evelyn, face spreading into a goofy grin. “Can’t switch off a whole brain partition, can I?”
“Partition,” Praem echoed.
“Yes, quite,” Evelyn said, darkly smug. “That’s a big word for you. Your personas are breaking down, leaking into each other.”
“Plus, walking out of here, thas’ tha’ plan! Thas’ the plaaaaan. I’m not the man with the plan, I’m the man on the plan.”
The Drunkard took another sliding, comedic step toward the kitchen doorway. He was almost within arm’s reach of Twil now, and winked at her.
“Alright lass. Wanna shift or have I gotta squeeze on through?” He put his hands together in a diving motion, aimed past Twil’s shoulder. “Just, just get past, yeah? Just wanna get out, out of doors. Out of your hair, like.”
An invisible ripple of potential passed through the room.
Group violence proceeds by inevitable, instinctive logic. We’re built for it, I’m sad to say, human beings and human-adjacent beings and beings that have learnt too much from humans. I’ve never had the dubious luck to be at the epicentre of a riot or an angry mob or the viciousness of a real street fight, but it doesn’t take experience for one’s hind-brain to resonate when one’s in-group is about to commit shattering violence. It pulls you along like a strong current, so much easier to swim with it than fight back, and I am not a strong person.
We were all feeding off each other’s fear, paranoia, and protective desires. Raine wanted to put him down, for me. Evelyn was incensed by the intrusion on her territory, and now her home, by the threat of another mage. Praem, well, Praem would do anything to protect Evelyn. Twil responded with aggression because the rest of us did.
No single physical signal heralded the frenzy. Small adjustments, of posture and intent. Raine twitched her aim. Twil lowered her head, rapidly transitioning into a snout full of too many teeth. Praem let go of Evelyn and turned to the dead man, hands clasped in front of her, chin high.
And I? My abyssal instincts wanted him dead, out of the way, not a threat; sensible, polite, savanna ape Heather screamed that we needed to question him, but she was overruled. In the back of my mind, I prepared a single digit of brainmath, a single switch from a zero to a one, to make my phantom limbs a pneuma-somatic reality.
He sensed it too. A drunken footstep transitioned into a wobble, a loose-boned waver. He was going to call our bluff, the drunken master would dodge everything we threw at him.
“Stop, monkeys,” Zheng rumbled.
And I did.
In retrospect, Zheng was the only person present even remotely capable of calling this off. The abyssal side of me listened to her, in a way it wouldn’t with anybody else. Lozzie was hanging off my arm, making this tiny warbling sound in her throat, trying to hold me back, but she wasn’t enough. Zheng’s growl cut across my thoughts, short-circuited the cold survivalist logic. I took the controls once more.
“Stop, yes, stop!” I added my own voice.
Twil frowned at Zheng, then at me. Evelyn hissed with frustration. Raine – stock-still with her finger on the trigger of her firearm – asked out loud “You want us to take it outdoors?” The amusement in her voice went a long way to still my racing heart. “Roll up our sleeves, get all Marquis of Queensbury on him?”
“No, yoshou,” Zheng purred. “You cannot catch this prey. None of you.” I glanced up at her too, expecting a lighthearted jibe at us silly, slow monkeys – but she was staring at the dead man too.
A shiver passed down my spine and through my bowels. If Zheng had looked at me like that, I would have curled up in a sobbing ball on the floor.
She wanted him dead, not in the panicked, group-instinct way we had just done. Her threat to eat his heart had not been exaggeration.
“Thas’ what I said!” the Drunkard protested. “I’m just gonna mosey on out, out of your hair, out of life, off to the skies, yeah.”
“I will catch you and eat you, wizard,” Zheng purred, a tiger’s chest vibrating in the jungle darkness. “I will hunt you and watch you and learn how you work, and I will eat you. Bone and marrow. I have devoured cleverer magicians than you.”
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil whispered.
The Drunkard pulled a mock-scared face again.
“This is absurd!” Evelyn spat. “He can’t avoid us all, he-”
“You saw what he did earlier,” I said. “Zheng is right. We’ll lose a physical contest, and he’ll leave, he’ll escape, which means we might never find out what was going on down there at the foot of the castle.”
“Come on, this is bullshit,” Twil said.
“You didn’t see him, laangren,” Zheng purred.
“I’ll just be off then!” The dead man threw us a rough salute.
“No,” I said. “No, you won’t.”
He turned to look at me, and I saw the other man floating behind his eyes, the Welsh Speaker. The real him. The boss.
“You’re not leaving without answering my questions first,” I said – or rather, heard myself say.
My pulse pounded in my throat and inside my own skull. I felt so small, so ineffective here, in this unexpected contest of wits with a mage. With Alexander, in the minutes before I’d killed him, I’d been right down at the bottom. Now I was home and safe, with a nice haircut and my friends arrayed around me, but I needed to intimidate this man – this resurrected magician – and I am not good at doing so, not good at bluffing, but I was equally certain that nobody else could.
Zheng’s restraint spooked me the most. By not rushing him, not killing this hated example of her most hated type, she’d accepted that right then, she couldn’t. And that was terrifying.
Lozzie went to step back from me but I wormed my hand down and found hers, held on tight.
The dead man pulled that irritating smile wider and did a terminally uncoordinated shrug with both hands.
“You might be able to avoid all of us, yes,” I said. “And maybe you’re such a powerful mage that you can stop anything Evelyn might to do you. But you can’t stop me.”
“Reeeeeeally?” He squinted at me, absurdly over-acting the role. “Really, lass?”
“You can’t stop self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. Not at the speed of thought. It’s not physical, not something you can avoid by stepping six inches to the left. And you know that, because you know about the Eye and what happened to the Sharrowford Cult. You must have picked up a few details about me. I’m Heather Morell, by the way, but you already know that, I suspect.”
“Aye, lass. I do. Ahhh, re-really really don’t wanna deal with the- with the- spooky, spooky little midgets, nahh, can’t deal with the-”
“Excuse me?” I said, suddenly bristling. “I’m not that short.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t piss her off with that right now,” Raine said with a click of her tongue. “She’s getting ready to turn you into a red smear on the floor, like she did your old boss.”
I suppressed a wince at that one, at my history of murder. I had to make him believe, had to make myself believe.
“Yeah yeah yeah, s’cool, s’cool.” He did this big wince and thumbed at me while looking off to one side, mugging for his internal audience again. Or showing off? I couldn’t figure out how much was real and how much was acting.
“I don’t know if you can read intentions or read the future,” I said. “But whichever it is, read this, read what I’m doing now, and decide if you can dodge.”
With a clench of my teeth and stomach muscles, I dipped a hand into the oily sump at the base of my soul, and began to weave an equation. The first few pieces of molten-hot mathematics slammed through my mind and drew a wince from my throat. Define this man in front of me, define the space around him, something he can’t dodge through. That would hurt me, really hurt, but in my mind I gestured toward it, toward the mathematics to define a three-dimensional space he couldn’t leave.
He raised his hands, eyes wide. “Yo yo yo, I just do what the boss tells me, he makes the decisions.”
“Then-” I winced through a spike of headache. “Excuse me, but may I speak to him?”
The Drunkard pulled a showy cringe. “Ahhh, he doesn’t- you know- he just does the work!”
I slid the next few figures of the equation into place. Lozzie hugged me tight as I shook. A single bead of blood rolled out of my nose and stained my lips.
Playing chicken. Brainmath might actually work, but it was also too risky, in a room full of my friends, with a dangerous magician as my opponent. What if he was fast enough to counter me? What if Evelyn got hurt, or Raine? Or Lozzie? Was it worth the risk?
Deep down, I was willing to let him go, because we had bigger things to deal with. In that, the abyssal creature and the savanna ape were in agreement. Do not waste time on this man, do not let him hurt your friends. Get rid of him, and focus your energies on your sister. If that meant letting him go, the abyssal side of me was willing to accept the compromise.
If he talked.
“Very well,” he said – in a heavy Welsh accent, as he straightened up. As he stilled. As the real man resurfaced.
The transformation from the Drunkard to the Welsh Speaker was unnatural, confusing to the senses, to the basic program of social recognition built into the human animal. Either the dead man was the greatest actor of our age, or whatever he’d done to his mind went beyond mere self-suggestion.
The spider-servitors twitched again, stingers rising. The Welsh Mage locked his fingers together in a complex symbol, on the verge of some esoteric magic, and they paused.
I let the equation go and almost fell over. Lozzie held on tight as I staggered. I got my feet steady, an arm around Lozzie’s shoulders, wiped my nose with the back of my hand and swallowed a mouthful of bile.
Raine pointed her handgun calmly at the Welsh Mage’s head. Twil stood, all wolf, ready to pounce.
“Mutually assured destruction it is then,” said the Welsh Mage.
I nodded. “I’m glad you understand.”
“You twitch wrong I put a bullet in your head,” Raine said.
“You can try,” he replied.
“Enough,” I huffed. “Answer my questions, and then … then I’ll let you leave.”
“Heather!” Evelyn hissed.
“It’s the only option, Evee,” I said. “I don’t think we can stop him without risk to ourselves. And despite what he says, he can’t just walk out. He needs to bluff, and that’s failed, so now we talk.”
“How do I know I can trust you to let me leave?” he asked, voice lilting like music.
I shifted myself in Lozzie’s support, standing up straighter. Had to concentrate for a moment to get past the thick accent, so I took the opportunity to study the man’s eyes, shrunken as prunes. His faint frown spoke of superiority and disapproval, but also disinterest. He did want to leave, and was not invested in us. Not the arrogance of Alexander Lilburne, used to being obeyed and bullying to get his own way. He watched me as something to be avoided or overcome, not as a silly little girl to be browbeaten.
“Because she’s Heather,” Lozzie said, with a little pout.
“Because I care deeply about my friends,” I said. “Which is everyone in this room except you, and you’ve convinced me of your potential to hurt them. If you convince me you’re not a threat after then, then it’s not worth the risk to get rid of you.”
And, I left unsaid, you haven’t actually done anything to us, and I don’t know if I can murder you in cold blood.
Yes you can, whispered abyssal instinct, and I knew it was true.
“It is always worth killing wizards, shaman,” Zheng purred.
“We got a deal?” Raine asked for me.
The man stumbled again, the Drunkard flowing back into his mannerisms. The accent fled – but the fingers locked on the verge of a magical spell stayed in place. “Ahhhhhhh yeah yeah yeah yeah. We gotta do a deal. Deals man, that’s me, that’s me all over! You gotta be smooth, be a little greased, get along, or you know, you get crazy bitches pointing guns at you.” He did a wink and a nod at Raine. “You a crazy bitch?”
“Oh yeah,” Raine said. “The craziest.”
“Good, cool. Crazy bitches are cool. Look, like, look.” He closed his eyes as he spoke. “I’m not superman, yeah? Not invincible. We gotta deal, gotta walk out the door without nobody getting domed. Yeah?”
I frowned at him. The Drunkard sagged and sighed – and straightened back up as the Welsh Mage once more.
“Why do you keep doing that?” I asked. “Why bother with the disguise?”
“Atblygol,” he grunted.
“‘Reflex’,” Zheng translated, then continued. “Wizard, your deal is with the shaman, for safe passage. Once out, you’re mine.”
“You cannot find me, demon,” he said. “As soon as I leave your sight, I will be somebody else, and you will not see me.”
Zheng growled. I flinched. Twil jerked around at the noise, agitated.
“Stop sparring,” I raised my voice as best I could. “Tell me why you drew the eye.”
He shrugged, guarded. “An object of study is an object of study. One illustrates fish or birds, why not Gods?”
“It’s not a God,” I snapped. He raised his eyebrows. “It’s not!”
He looked off to the side with a tiny sigh and muttered a string of exasperated Welsh under his breath. Evelyn went stiff and for a moment I thought the man was casting a spell, until Zheng translated his words.
“‘Is this really the time for metaphysical philosophy?’” she purred.
“You believe it’s a God? Why? Why use that word?” I asked, couldn’t let this drop. “Do you worship it?”
He tossed his head. “If you petition something in the way one must an Outsider, is it not a God?” His eyes slid to the notebook in my hands. “I wish that returned. The poems have personal, sentimental value.”
“No,” Evelyn deadpanned. “You did magic in Welsh, we’d be fools to give that back to you. Do you think I’m that much of an idiot? Now, who are you?”
“The truth would make no sense to you.”
Evelyn ground her teeth. “What were you doing down there in the fog? Where’s the gateway, how did you get in?”
“Doing?” He let the word hang. “The same thing as you, Saye. And yes, I know who you are. I know what you seek. Our kind are all the same, are we not?”
“No,” Praem intoned. Evelyn hesitated, wrong-footed by her doll-demon’s devoted defense.
“The same as your mother, too,” the Welsh Mage continued. “She had much the same knack for creating loyal servants. You even speak as she did. The same silver, the same bite. You are almost like Loretta Saye reborn.”
Evelyn turned pale, eyes going wide, all her aggressive bluster blown out like a candle flame in a storm. Praem stepped in front of her, back ramrod straight, meeting the Mage’s gaze with her blank white eyes and prim expression.
“Be quiet,” she sing-songed at him.
“Ah, maybe you are Loretta after all,” he said.
“Who?” Twil was frowning, confused. Oh dear, a small part of my mind filed that away for later – there would be a later, I told myself. Everything was going to be okay.
“She’s not,” Raine said, not amused. “Don’t go there.”
“Who … who … ” Evelyn murmured. “You’re not old enough to have known her, not as … you’re barely older than me. You would have been a child!”
“Even I am a mask,” he said.
“Hey, hey,” Raine said. “Over here, ratlicker. How’d you dodge Zheng earlier? Feel like sharing?”
“You-” Evelyn grit her teeth. This was spiralling out of control. He was playing us.
“What happened down in the fog?” I blurted out. “Who was the other person? The corpse.”
He shrugged. “A double-double cross.”
“You lost though,” Evelyn hissed, blazing with cold anger.
“One must always be prepared for the minor setbacks of death,” he said – and out came the Drunkard again, rolling his eyes and smiling. “One last job for Eddy Lils’, you know? Guess I got fucked! Gonna go fuck ‘em back, cos you know, I’m dangerous, me.”
“You were working with Lilburne?” I asked. “Who was the other corpse?”
“I dunno. Some cow,” the Drunkard continued, hands and fingers still locked in his magical symbol, holding us at bay with the implied threat. “Meant to help me do the thing with the big lads out there but looks like it didn’t work, yeah? Dunno what Eddy wanted, but I got what I needed.”
“We cannot let this man leave,” Evelyn said, glancing back at me. “Heather, no. No, not now. This is no dabbler caught between larger fish, this … I don’t know! This is a real mage, I am not letting him go! Raine, shoot him!”
“Dunno if that’s gonna work, Evee,” Raine said, no trace of humour in her voice. She understood too.
“Ahhh,” he sighed, as he straightened up and the Welsh Mage flowed back into his muscles and mannerisms. “It seems I must break the stalemate.”
“You call our bluff, we’ll call yours,” I warned, putting as much confidence as I could into my voice – but felt none. This magician scared Evee, put Zheng on the back foot, seemed to ward off the spider-servitors. This had gone from nothing to real, too fast to track.
The Welsh Mage ignored us, and looked up at Zheng. Slowly, purposefully, he trailed his eyes down the length of her exposed torso, down her tattoos and the red-chocolate skin beneath, across the gaps left by my breaking of her chains.
“I see you have been ruined, senex amica,” he said. His disapproving frown turned to a subtle smile. “Some of my handiwork is spoiled, and that of my predecessors.”
Perhaps it was the motion of muscles unseen beneath Zheng’s skin that warned me. Or perhaps an imperceptible change in her face. Or perhaps, at sufficiently high levels, one can actually sense the desire to kill, to rend limb from limb. Perhaps when steeped long enough, hate and revenge can become a palpable miasma.
“I shall have you again someday, demon,” said the Welsh Mage.
Zheng rippled, the beginning of a quicksilver motion, a forward surge to tear this mage’s tongue out; she bared her teeth, a razor sharp shark’s maw.
His words had changed her mind. She wanted him dead, and not after a long hunt. No matter the spell ready to go off.