Zheng went for the mage.
She uncoiled so fast my eyes couldn’t track her. My optic nerve refused to process the blur. Muscle flowed as quicksilver, lightning in her fists.
Difficult as it may be to overlook Zheng’s inhuman nature, harder still is to remember just how superhuman she can be, even minutes after we’d seen her set her own broken jawbone with nary a wince of pain. All too easy for the subconscious to consider her still bound by physical limits and mortal constraints, no matter how monstrous her tastes or how titanic her strength or how agile her acrobatics. It is more comfortable to think of Zheng as simply very big and very strong and possessing flesh that heals very quickly, a very foreign mind inside a body that is still basically human.
I’d forgotten how fast she could move.
Down in the fog at the foot of the castle, she hadn’t been serious. She’d felt teased and frustrated by prey that wouldn’t sit still, indeed. But the dead man, the revenant, he had been a diversion, a mysterious clown. Important to catch, perhaps, but not hated. For Zheng, on some level, running off into the fog after clever prey was fun and games. She was more like a cat than I’d ever tell her to her face.
But now we knew he was a mage. And killing mages was serious business.
A hurricane of razors crossed the ex-drawing room in a single heartbeat.
Zheng was about to rip out the Welsh Mage’s tongue, break all his fingers, and most likely eat his heart, bloody and raw. As promised. Nothing and nobody – with the possible exception of hyperdimensional mathematics – could move fast enough to stop her.
Thank you, I had just enough time to think. Thank God, and Maisie, and anything else that cared to listen. I’d barely had time to process the taunt the Welsh Mage had flung at Zheng, but the implications of her sheer hatred were obvious. The abyssal part of me adored her, the human part was still grappling with a love that I couldn’t speak; both agreed, kill him. No mercy for slavers.
In the split-second before Zheng slammed into him, the Welsh Mage twisted his fingers – a last twitch of muscle, trying to cast his spell.
Hands locked together in representation of an esoteric symbol, he pushed the curious interlocked shape beyond the angles possible in our reality, forced himself over the boundary of magic. For a horrible moment, the shape of his fingers became an alien thing, and made me feel sick.
Futile, I thought. He’d already checkmated himself.
Even if his spell turned Zheng to lead before she struck, two heaving masses of pneuma-somatic killing machine still hung on the wall behind him. Evelyn’s spider-servitors waited to explode into motion and run him through with foot-long stingers. We’d already seen that it took him a moment of disorientation to switch back to the Drunkard personality, and that would be one second too long. He faced too many vectors of attack. One would get through. Probably Zheng.
With a twist and a yank he snapped his own left little finger, a sound like dry wood.
And pointed his hands at me.
Chaos is rarely encoded properly in memory – except in the abyss, where bodies do not rely on such slow, clumsy mechanisms as electrochemical signals and wet meat. Even in the moment, I had almost no idea what was happening until it was all over. Raine and I pieced it together later, encouraged by Evelyn’s burning need to comprehend the limits of a unknown mage loose in Sharrowford, after I’d recovered from the physical side-effects of my instinctive reaction.
Five seconds. That’s all it took.
Zheng threw herself between the Mage and I, and took the spell full in the face.
Air temperature plummeted by ten, maybe twenty degrees. Flash-freeze sucked heat from my lungs, like Evelyn’s magic but dirtier, rougher, torturing the surface of reality. A haze of orange-red burst around Zheng like nuclear sunrise seen from behind a mountain, heralded by a sound that was not a sound, past the edge of hearing, like a great cloud of wasps. Zheng shuddered like a struck oak.
I believe I shouted her name. Can’t remember. Raine says I did. Evelyn says I didn’t.
Then Zheng swiped a hand through the air in front of her, a blur clearing cobwebs, a machete through jungle vines; the wasp noise cut out with the most awful screeching strangle, as if a billion tiny insect throats had all been crushed at once.
Evelyn’s spider-servitors took the opening. Chitinous legs ratcheted to pounce, stingers whirled back to strike.
But now, Zheng was in an unexpected and unpredicted position.
One of the spider-servitors failed to correct, and crashed into her from the side, toppling her over in a tangle of whirring spider legs and whipping limbs, Zheng roaring in frustration, a pair of monsters locked in a mis-aimed moment of friendly fire.
The second spider took a split-second to re-orient, re-aim, re-plan – and this was all the Welsh Mage needed. He sagged, head lolling and rolling, and stumbled with precognitive drunkenness out of the path of the incoming stingers, a clutch of spears passing harmlessly through empty space less than hand’s breadth from his side. He wobbled and jerked and brought his head back up.
And he was somebody else. A third somebody.
The dead man’s face lit up.
Wide-eyed, hyper-focused, with a manic smirk of dangerous amusement. Alien to both of his previous personalities. He locked eyes with me for a tenth of a second – then locked onto the notebook in my hands. His notebook, full of Welsh poetry.
The rest of us were paralysed by confusion. Twil – all wolf now, a growl in her muzzle and claws flexing – looked for an angle to leap at the Mage, but Zheng and the spider blocked her path for a crucial half-second. Raine tried to aim her handgun, but Zheng surged back up, kicking the spider off herself with a roar, tearing an errant pneuma-somatic stinger from the flesh of her arm. The poor spider bounced off the wall, legs scrabbling, dazed and confused as it tried to right itself. Praem was too busy yanking Evelyn off her feet and out of the way.
Zheng was turning toward the dead man, recovering from the spider’s blunder, one hand arcing out to rip his tongue from his mouth; but he stepped around her.
He flowed like water over rock.
Amid all that confusion, I remember that one detail as clear as a heart attack. The way he moved, the way his third mask used his body, the actual Drunken Master.
The Lad he’d been down in the fog and at the gateway was not the real thing. He’d probably borrowed his dodging skills from this third personality, as Evelyn surmised later, and turned them into a comedy act, lulled us into a false sense of security, fooled even Zheng into thinking she could take him, if she really tried.
He was a snake of molten metal driven by the wind. He flowed past and around and under Zheng, wove to her side and landed a punch on her gut – for show, ordinary human strength not enough to make her blink – and then kept going, through her guard and out the other side and straight toward me.
For one second I was alone with a mage.
Surrounded by my friends, in the heart of the house, with Lozzie still clinging to my left arm. Utterly alone.
He wasn’t faster than Zheng, or even Twil, or the bullets in Raine’s handgun, but the manner and direction of his movement was so impossible, so expert, that it bought him a second of free action while everyone’s brains raced to catch up. One cannot react to what one could not even imagine a moment earlier, even at the speed of thought. Even with brainmath, abyssal Heather and ape Heather are still running at the speed of the grey meat in my skill.
The Drunken Master took a step toward me and plucked his spiral-notebook out of my hands.
I could have touched him, I cursed myself later. I could have reached out and touched him and sent him Outside, or gripped the notebook harder, or even just taken a single step back. Anything, any reaction at all, would have foiled him. I blamed myself. Too slow, Heather. Too stupid. Too long out of the abyss.
He reached his other hand for my face or my throat, perhaps to take me hostage or prove the point that we couldn’t stop him. Damn me and my stupidity, I could have let him touch me and then sent him Outside.
Adrenaline can turn a clever ape into an idiot – and abyssal creatures think faster even than lizard-brain impulses.
No, in that tenth of a second, I panicked. The abyssal thing I’d been panicked.
Fast threat creature touch bad no stop.
And without thinking, without planning, relying only on weeks of practice and knowledge osmosis to stop myself from ripping my own insides to mince, I flipped that single piece of hyperdimensional mathematics from a zero to a one.
Phantom limbs blossomed into glorious reality. Six tentacles, three from each flank between my ribcage and hips, pneuma-somatic flesh passing right through the fabric of my clothes. They were beautiful, pale and soft and infinitely dexterous, strobing with rainbow bio-luminescence, whirling and lashing. Lozzie squealed in surprise and stumbled clear, almost went sprawling onto the floor. She was one of the few who could see them.
I gasped with bliss and physical invasion both at once, pneuma-somatic anchors growing into place deep inside my torso, twinning with my real flesh, making me the merest shadow of what my soul said my body should be.
What did this tiny, clumsy ape think he was doing? I was a shark, a squid, a marine thing from the black abyssal depths. I was strong and I was fast and he was threatening my pack, my mate, mine, mine, and I was going to beat him to death and leave his corpse for the bottom-feeders and the slime.
All six tentacles struck together.
He couldn’t actually see the tentacles, but somehow he could sense they were present, sense he was in danger.
The Drunken Master lost his smirk and closed his eyes.
He abandoned the attempt to grab me, rocked back on one heel and slid the other foot out as he twisted low at the waist, ducking under three tentacles. He flipped back up and hopped away from me on tiptoes, head going left and right like a boxer dodging hammer-blows. My brain did not possess the processing power to actually guide my tentacles, and I am never going to be a martial artist anyway – but I could flail, I could lash, I could panic.
And I still couldn’t hit him. Even with six extra limbs to work with, all I could do was keep him off me.
I think I screamed at him. Or hissed. Or some combination of the two.
Zheng caught up as well, turning toward him, ready to pin him between us, but he seemed to simply duck and dive through her guard again, head bobbing and twisting, rotating at his ankles in way that surely should have snapped his bones. He stepped directly between two of my tentacles and with a instinctive scream inside my head I realised he was learning.
Of course, there was one person in the room who didn’t have years of preconditioned expectations, who did not think at the speed of a human being, who did not need to rely on neural connections.
I think Praem panicked.
In three prim steps, she walked straight up behind the Drunken Master and grabbed a fistful of his curly black hair. As if all his weaving, dodging tricks didn’t even register for her.
“Cease,” she intoned, bell-clear voice cutting through the confusion.
The split-second of arrested motion was enough. I finally hit him in the side of the chest with one lashing tentacle, a blow like a sack of wet concrete slamming into his bones. I felt his ribs crack.
He stumbled, let out a deep pained ‘oof’, and ripped his head clear of Praem’s grip.
“Wizard!” Zheng roared. “Mine!”
In the split-second before Zheng could pin him, he sprinted straight for the kitchen doorway.
Memory resumes at this point in a confused jumble, everybody shouting at once, strange tuggings in my chest and belly, Twil and Zheng almost slamming into each other as they tried to fly through the kitchen door after the mage, my sheer clear-minded joy turning to sudden deep lances of pain in my flanks and chest, Evelyn spitting curses, Raine rushing to my side as my knees give out, and finally my beautiful tentacles turning to ash in the air.
“Stop him!” Evelyn was screaming.
Raine dumped her makeshift riot shield on the floor with a clang that could have woken the dead, and caught me before I hit the ground. Tears of pain and abyssal dysphoria blurred my vision. Reduced back down to this stinking, rotting meat again, just as the adrenaline finally hit me, shaking all over, my sides burning as if I’d been branded.
“Ah-ah- ow! Ow!”
“Heather, woah woah, slow down, slow down, hey,” Raine murmured, cradling me as I flailed, as I tried to catch the falling ash of my tentacles before the pneuma-somatic flesh blew away to nothingness. A second pair of hands caught mine, little hands, as Lozzie joined Raine in holding me up.
I didn’t even care that the dead man was getting away.
“Evee, she’s done it again. She did the tentacle thing again,” Raine said. “Heather, look at me. Heather.”
“Then pick her up!” Evelyn snapped. “And bring her with-”
She cut off at the sound of the front door slamming open. Sprinting feet echoed down the garden path. Then Twil’s shout floated back to us – a confused ‘what the hell?’
“No, no no no,” I sobbed. “I can’t- can’t be back- no- should have grabbed- grabbed him by the throat, s-sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t be here- no-”
“Hey, hey, Heather, shhhh, shhhh,” Raine murmured, trying to stroke my suddenly cold-sweat soaked hair. “Look at me, Heather, please. Please concentrate. Where does it hurt? Heather.”
“Inside,” I whined – but I didn’t mean it in the way Raine did.
“She’s safe inside,” Lozzie said, a serious expression on her elfin little face, blinking big eyes and trying to push masses of floaty blonde hair behind her ears. “Safe inside. Nothing’s broken.”
“You’re sure?” Raine asked her. “You’re absolutely certain?”
“Feels broken,” I sobbed, clutching at myself.
Twil skidded back into the kitchen, knocked a chair over with a clatter, and caught herself on the workshop door frame.
“He vanished!” she said, wide-eyed with disbelief. “Jumped over the garden wall and poof! Gone! What the shit?”
Raine and Evelyn shared a glance. “That’s the boundary of the wards,” Raine said. “Guess he needed out before he could pull a proper vanishing act.”
“Fuck!” Evelyn spat.
“Anybody else get tagged?” Raine checked. “We all okay? What about Zheng?”
“She took off down the street,” Twil said. “Fuck knows why, she couldn’t see him either. What the hell was all that? That was some bullshit. … uh, Heather alright?”
“She will be,” Raine said.
Raine picked me up and carried me into the kitchen, a secure, safe princess carry which I wish I’d been coherent enough to enjoy. I clung to her, desperate for the skinship, for the relief from this dragging, sinking feeling of being trapped inside my own flesh.
She set me down in a chair and fetched water, wiped my tears and the bleeding nose I hadn’t even noticed. Lozzie hovered over her shoulder, bobbing from foot to foot, saying nonsense things to me. Evelyn was shouting, red in the face with fury, as Twil tried to calm her down and Praem glided through the kitchen and out into the front room. The disorder and noise washed over me and through me and meant nothing. Nothing mattered.
Raine helped me sip some water, then held up three fingers.
“Heather, look at me, please. How many fingers? … Heather? You in there?”
“She is!” Lozzie chirped. “Heather!”
“Not really.” I sniffed hard, couldn’t stop crying slow tears. “Three fingers.”
My flanks throbbed at the tentacle anchor points, oblique muscles already stiffening with massive circular bruises. Dozens of barbed-wire spikes dragged across the inside of my torso, through my lungs and my guts, where I’d secured the extra limbs inside myself with tendons and cartilage and supplementary muscles of pneuma-somatic flesh. Studying anatomy and biology these last few weeks had paid off – I had avoided ripping my insides apart this time – but the result still left much to be desired, especially when executed in panic and fear.
But the pain wasn’t making me cry. The loss – again – was too much. Cut too deep.
My body felt alien, a sack of writhing bacteria and hot meat. Every blink threatened to render Raine and Lozzie’s faces into a jumble of meaningless noise, flat planes and meat-spaces underneath the glow of the kitchen lights. Outdoors, night had fallen, visible through the kitchen window, and some insane part of me wanted to run out there into the welcoming chill dark and huddle down in a shadowy corner where I wouldn’t be found.
“You feel any weakness?” Raine asked, trying to sound light and easy, and failing at it. “Numb at all? Tingling in your fingers or toes? Heather? Concentrate on my voice, okay.”
“I- can’t- I-” I choked out.
“Concentrate,” Raine said, and the whip-crack of her voice forced me to focus. I shook my head.
“No … no, Raine, I’m not bleeding inside. I’m bruised. That’s all. Bruises.”
Raine stared into my eyes for a moment as I blinked past the tears.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “It was instinct. I just- he was going to- I said I wouldn’t, but- I just did it- I’m sorry, I’m-”
“Shhhhh, it’s not your fault. You’re forgiven, okay?” Raine wiped away my tears again, then glanced back at Lozzie. She said something, Lozzie replied, but I was too busy worming one hand down inside my hoodie’s sleeve. I got one whole arm tucked up inside the cocoon of my own clothing, then felt downward, under my tshirt, across my own belly and over to the tender flesh on my flank, hot and inflamed. I grit my teeth and jabbed with a fingernail.
I thought I did quite well to conceal the spike of pain, despite the hiss through my teeth, but I couldn’t hide anything from Raine.
“Heather?! Heather, what was that? Where did it hurt? Heather?”
“I-” I sniffed back tears, poked myself again, clenched my teeth so hard they creaked. “N-nothing, I-”
Raine realised what I was doing and grabbed my hand through my hoodie. I myself barely understood why I was doing it. She met my eyes and I looked down in horrified embarrassment.
“No, no, Heather, no,” Raine murmured, her other hand stroking my hair. “You don’t have to do that to yourself.”
“It- it distracts from the … the … ” I let out another hard sob, trapped in this awful parody of the impossible thing I was supposed to be. Physical pain distracted from the emotional pain, from the alienation, the dysphoria.
Why was it so much worse this time? Because I’d worked so hard, and I still couldn’t sustain even a fraction of what I’d been in the abyss. Each taste of mutable glory was torture when it was gone.
Raine held my hand to stop me hurting myself, and hugged me close.
“You must be able to bloody well smell him! Go track his scent! He can’t have turned to fucking mist!” Evelyn was shouting at a flinching, cringing Twil, then whirled on Praem as she walked back in. “And what the hell were you doing?! You could have strangled him, broken his bones, fucking clawed his eyes out, but you grab his hair? What was that!?” She threw her arms out in a shrug and her walking stick caught a mug by the kitchen sink, knocked an avalanche of dirty plates into the metal basin with an ear-splitting clatter. Evelyn flinched and screwed her eyes shut. Twil caught a bright orange Halloween-themed mug before it bounced right off the countertop. Lozzie clamped her hands over her ears.
“I am sorry,” Praem intoned into the silence that followed.
Evelyn stared at her like she couldn’t believe such impertinence. “Sorry? Sorry? What were you doing, you-”
“Evee, fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil said. “She panicked, yeah? Calm down.”
Evelyn whirled on her, frantic with anger that barely concealed her fear, and shouted in Twil’s face. “Do you-”
Twil flinched again, hard, and Evelyn stopped dead. She closed her eyes for a second and took a long, deep breath. Twil glanced at Raine and I for help. Lozzie had all but retreated behind me. Raine shrugged and mouthed ‘good luck’.
“I mean … ” Twil tried. “He got away, yeah, but nobody got hurt. That’s what matters, right?”
“Do you understand what that man was?” Evelyn asked, voice cold and tightly controlled. Her face twitched, one eye and the corner of her mouth. “Do you have even the slightest conception of what we just let escape?”
Twil sighed and rolled her eyes. “Duh. My family worships an Outsider, remember?”
Evelyn blinked, opening her mouth and closing it again.
“Evee,” I croaked. She turned her eyes on me, wide and wild. “Stop. Please.”
“ … I thought you would understand, Heather. Of all people, I thought-”
“Yes,” I said, tears finally drying up with irritation. “A mage.”
Evelyn nodded, once, twice, then over and over. “Yes. Yes, thank you. You and I are the only two people in here who have ever had to put one down. Oh, sod all of this.” Evelyn seemed to collapse inside, sagging on the support of her walking stick. “This evening has turned into a rinse of what little dignity I manage to retain, hasn’t it? Let’s get all of Evelyn’s Saye’s fears on display, dig up every last morsel.”
“Is that what the fuckboy there was taunting you about?” Twil asked. “Your, like, mum, or something?”
“That is none of your business,” Evelyn said, but she could barely keep her voice steady.
Twil tilted her head at Evelyn, then stepped forward and ambushed her with a hug.
“You- I-” Evelyn spluttered. “I didn’t ask for-”
“Shut up and take it for once.” Twil squeezed her harder, arms around Evelyn’s hunched shoulders and bent spine. “Look like you need it. Just got out of a bad fight, yeah?”
Evelyn blushed a brighter red than her anger. Lips pressed tight together, blinking rapidly, she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. She looked like she wanted to crawl out of her own skin. A countdown started in the back of my head; Evelyn made it almost seven seconds.
“I do not- this is physically uncomfortable,” she managed. “Please let go.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” Twil said. She let go and stepped back, and shot a split-second guilty look at me.
“And now is not … not the time,” Evelyn said. “That mage got away with his notebook as well. God alone knows what was really in there.”
“I mean, you looked like you needed it,” Twil pressed on. “Like you were about to cry or something, and you know, you’re my- … friend-”
“Thank you, yes,” Evelyn blurted out. “Yes, yes, thank you. Fine. Alright. Now is not the time. And I was not going to cry.”
Twil raised her eyebrows. One could practically hear the dot-dot-dot of unspoken scepticism, but she kept that to herself. Learning how to deal with our Evee? I hoped so. Evelyn met her gaze, and for a second she looked on the verge of breaking down again. She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and I could see the thought forming, the request which would have been impossible as little as a month ago, unthinkable half a year past. Her free hand twitched toward Twil. Maybe this wasn’t the right moment, and we had much bigger and scarier magicians to think about, but I was absolutely certain that Evelyn was about to ask Twil for another hug.
And then Zheng slammed the front door and stalked back into the kitchen.
A vision from hell paused in the doorway, still naked from the waist up, hair matted with the dry, crusted remains of the mucus from down in the fog dimension. She was so angry her expression had tripped over into granite-hard cold focus. She vibrated with frustration, her breathing rough, her skin steaming faintly with a sheen of sudden sweat. Her eyes flicked past us, dark with fury, but didn’t seem to actually see until she settled on me.
“Zheng,” I croaked, a smile in my voice.
Her mere proximity was enough to soothe the worst of the abyssal dysphoria. The creature I’d once been saw kinship in her, retracted its spines and deflated its toxin sacs, relaxed. I felt a touch less alien.
She blinked once, and stomped toward the workshop doorway.
“Yo, you get anything?” Twil asked as Zheng passed. “What were you even following? Hey, hey, Zheng, where you going?”
“You were running ‘round out there with your tits out?” Raine asked, a smile in her voice too. A real one, despite the situation.
“Zhengy … ” Lozzie bit her lip.
“Yes, all good questions,” Evelyn grumbled.
Zheng ignored us and slipped into the workshop.
She returned a second later, tearing open the black bin liner that contained her soiled jumper. Thankfully for the state of our kitchen floor, the mucus had quick-dried there too. She scraped the worst of the green crust off and yanked the jumper down over her head.
“Washing machine,” Praem said.
“I do not care, little one,” Zheng rumbled, then, “Yoshou. Watch the shaman. Keep her safe.”
“Always,” Raine said, without the smile. “Where you off to?”
“Zheng?” I croaked, a horrible squirming in my belly as realisation dawned. I tried to stand up and managed only a lurch out of the chair, legs wobbly and sides screaming with abused muscle. Raine caught my stumble. I fought her weakly for a second, thinking she was going to deposit me back in the chair, sit me down and shut me up, and the abyssal instinct in my heart couldn’t take that right now – but to my surprise, Raine just supported me, helped me stand, as I blinked and panted at Zheng.
“Where are you going?” I asked, a lump in my throat. My voice shook. My chest constricted. “Zheng?”
She wouldn’t look at me.
“ … but … no, no not now. Not now. Zheng, I need you.”
“Zhengy, nooooo,” Lozzie murmured, and made a sad little face.
“Zheng yes,” Evelyn interrupted with a snap, eyes blazing as she nodded at the giant demon-host. “Yes. Yes, you understand it perfectly, don’t you? This mage has to die. How will you do it? How do you plan to track him? Do you-”
“Shut up, wizard.” Zheng was already striding past Evelyn, making for the front door.
“Do you need any help?” Evelyn finished.
Zheng paused and looked down at her, darkly unimpressed. “Help, wizard?”
“Help, yes. I’m serious. I’m right here, you absolute fool,” Evelyn snapped at her. “I’m skilled. I can do things you can’t. I’ve killed another mage before, and if I’ve learnt anything recently it’s that none of us are alone in this. I’m a mage, and I’m on your side, especially if it involves getting rid of vermin infesting my goddamn city and-”
Zheng leaned down and over, right in Evelyn’s face. The same move she’d used on me when I’d first freed her, the same predatory focus and intent, the same animal intimidation grasping at one’s guts with clawed hands. Evelyn flinched and shrank back.
“This is not for your territorial pissings, little thing,” Zheng rumbled through her teeth.
Twil let out a warning growl at Zheng’s back, long and low, and I think there were words in there too, mangled by the sudden formation of a wolf snout. Evelyn turned waxy and pale, cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She took an involuntary step back from Zheng, shaking, almost unable to grip her walking stick properly.
“Zheng no,” Lozzie repeated. “You don’t have to. You can let it go. Let it go.”
Zheng stepped back and left Evelyn alone. Twil – wolf form dissipating to nothing again, mist in the air – went to Evelyn’s side in an instant, grabbing her free hand and scowling at Zheng. The giant zombie turned away, ignored the pair of them, ignored me, ignored everything and everyone and strode toward the door. I reached out to her, bile in my throat, pain pulling inside my chest. Phantom limbs reached out toward her and muscles in my flanks and torso tried to support them, twitching and pulling against already bruised flesh. I winced through my teeth and sat back down in the chair with a thump, clutching at my sides.
“My-” Evelyn pulled herself up and raised her chin, though pale and shaking. “My offer of help still stands. I mean it.”
Zheng rolled one shoulder, the merest nothing of a shrug as she left.
“Hold up,” said Raine.
Perhaps it was the natural authority in her voice, or perhaps Zheng respected Raine’s input more than she did the rest of us, but whatever the reason, Zheng paused, turned to look, and gave Raine the benefit of a second to explain herself.
Raine raised a finger. “I think we may have been tricked. Perhaps hoodwinked. And quite possibly, bamboozled.”
Zheng frowned. The first chink in her armour of anger.
“Think about it for a sec,” Raine carried on, addressing all of us with a sweep of a hand. “Mister ‘Joe King’ just now, he knew things about us that he shouldn’t – couldn’t, have possibly known. Right? Anybody else catch that part? Just me?”
“He’s a mage,” Evelyn drawled. “Don’t be dense.”
“Exactly. Dead man walking is a mage.”
“What are you getting at?” Evelyn said. “Get on with it. Now is not the time for-”
Zheng made an impatient rumbling noise in her chest.
“Oh,” Twil lit up.
“Yeah. Lassie gets it.” Raine nodded slowly.
“Oi!” Twil snapped.
“Love you too, werewolf.”
“The point, yoshou,” Zheng growled.
“Point is, this dude knew about Evelyn’s leg and her family history, and then also about you, Zheng. Something from your past, I’m guessing. Made you think he’s somebody you used to know, right? Now, I’m not gonna ask exactly who you think he is, but I need you to answer this – was he somebody specific? Can you put a name to him?”
Zheng stared. I couldn’t tell if she was thinking, or blanking the question. Then she finally shook her head.
“Right?” Raine went on. “So now you think he’s somebody who used to know you, somebody you want dead, and hey, that’s cool, that’s your business. But back there, in our little standoff, it made you tilt, didn’t it? Broke the stalemate. Dude used your anger to spring a surprise on us. Talking shit at Evee almost made her break it first, but it wasn’t enough, so he switched to you.”
“Yeah, like, he was making it up?” Twil asked.
“Why not?” Raine shrugged. “What’s more likely, that this guy’s a mage from both Zheng’s past and Evelyn’s, that he somehow knew I was the one who lifted the cocaine off his corpse, and exactly how many bullets I had left, which was weird as hell by the way – or that he was playing a con?”
“How would he know any of that otherwise?” Evelyn asked.
“You’re the magician, Evee,” Raine said. “You tell us.”
A stillness came over the kitchen for a long moment as we all digested Raine’s theory. Even sunk deep in pain physical and spiritual, her idea made sense to me. What were the chances of a mage being related to the pasts of both Zheng and Evelyn? Depends how small the supernatural world is, I thought to myself, and that was an impossible question to answer.
Zheng’s tall frame cast shadows over the kitchen table as she shifted her weight and raised her head. She rumbled like a lit furnace.
“It does not matter, yoshou. I hunt.”
“Yeah, that’s cool, go hunt. Good luck, let us know if you eat tasty bits of him or whatever.” Raine pointed a finger gun at her. “But when you find him, just keep that in mind. He might be more con man than mage.”
“Meat is meat.”
“He got you way tilted, big girl. If I’m right, he’ll try it again. That’s all. Stay sharp.”
Zheng stared for a moment, then grunted, neither acknowledgement nor dismissal. She turned on her heel to leave.
“Zheng, please,” I croaked, and stumbled to my feet again. My phantom limbs reached for her as she left, begging her to stay here with me, stay by me. I hunched up tight, pain all down both sides. “I need you … here, with me?”
“I know, shaman,” she threw over her shoulder. Angry. “I’ll bring you his scalp.”
She stomped away through the front room, making less and less noise as she went, as if adopting a cat-like silent slink. Nothing so big should move with such stealth. By the time she opened the front door she was barely a ghost of motion, a whisper on the air into the darkness and streetlight glow outdoors. She closed the door behind her, without a click.
Two days later, on Monday afternoon, Raine followed the address on the revenant’s keys.
Evelyn went with her, to disarm any magical booby-traps the mage may have left for inquisitive noses. Praem accompanied them too, for extra body-guard duties, dressed in a green ribbed sweater and a long skirt so as not to draw attention to her maid uniform in public.
And of course I went along as well, because at the end of all things, no matter how twitchy and animalistic I felt, no matter how much I wanted to climb into a dark corner and hibernate, no matter how much my soul said I should have spines and flippers and sharp fangs and should dart off in search of Zheng, in the end, hyperdimensional mathematics was always our trump card.
I’d spent all of Sunday resting, because Raine had made it abundantly clear that I did not have a choice in the matter. No chasing enigmatic mages, no traipsing around the city looking for Zheng, no ripping the secrets of reality from animated clay vessels, and absolutely no visualising the tentacles I desired so much.
Watching marine life videos on the internet was allowed though.
She was right, I needed it.
My flanks were a mass of overlapping purple bruises again. Nowhere near as bad as the first time, but enough that a long soak in a very hot bath did little to soothe the pain. By Sunday morning I was stiff and sore and slow-moving, and ravenously hungry.
Across Sunday I’d inhaled three packets of chocolate chip cookies, half a block of cheese, breakfast, lunch, and a homemade chicken casserole for dinner with big soft chunky vegetables and roast potatoes, and I still couldn’t feel full. By ten at night, Raine had sent Praem out into the city with specific directions to a fast-food place called ‘Azarabab’s Pizza.’ Azarabab is not a real name, as far as I could tell, and his establishment did not serve pizza. I had never eaten a kebab before, and will likely never do so again.
I’d spent the whole day, and most of Monday morning, clinging to Raine. Even if she hadn’t wanted me to come along, for my safety, she had no choice.
The address on the keys – 82 Barkslouf Way – turned out not to be in Manchester as suggested by the mysterious train ticket, but right there in Sharrowford. Nestled deep in the south side of the city, among brick-and-slate low rises from the 1980s. A sterile slab of commuter belt welded to Sharrowford’s underbelly, ablative economic armour for the train station. Scraggly grass greens between blocks of low flats, pubs with pretentious names like ‘the Sharrowford Barn’ or ‘the Rest Stop’, crowds of pigeons on every rooftop and power line.
I wanted to slink into a back alley like an urban fox. Hide among the rubbish bins. That’s what I was now – a rubbish monster. Couldn’t even walk around the city without my gut telling me the open spaces and the light were wrong.
I wished it would rain, hard. I would soak in it and pretend I was underwater.
“What’s the worst we could find, hey?” Raine asked, as we staked the place out.
Well, if one can call loitering by a park bench for five minutes a ‘stakeout’.
“ … another corpse?” I tried eventually.
Evelyn grunted. “A bomb.”
“Him,” Praem intoned.
Twil had school that afternoon, and opted not to accompany us, but only after she and Evelyn had a blazing row over the phone. I caught part of it filtered through the ceiling from Evelyn’s bedroom, but the jist was not difficult to follow. Twil was to be a good girl and attend class and not jeopardise her future by skipping school to spend it with Evelyn, and yes, thank you, whipped Evelyn’s silver tongue, Praem was more than capable of making sure Evelyn didn’t stick her fingers in any plug sockets or run with scissors or eat glue. Slam. Done.
The revenant’s flat was on the top floor of a three-story building with a single, empty, echoing stairwell. Stairwells were not good for me. I had to consciously resist an absurd and impossible urge to pull myself directly upward, like an octopus ascending a tube, with limbs I didn’t have in a liquid medium that was not air.
We passed an old lady making her way down. She smiled at all of us, and Raine smiled back, though the poor old dear’s eyes slid right off Praem as if the doll-demon wasn’t there.
Getting in was easy enough. Raine had the key, the courage to knock, and a gun in her jacket.
We’d come armed, as much as possible while walking around in public. What would my mother say? For that matter, what would the me of six months ago say? Probably scream and run.
Raine had her gun, and that wicked black combat knife hidden away somewhere. My pockets contained an old present from Raine – a very illegal can of pepper spray, and a little personal attack alarm which I doubted would be any use here. Praem had herself. Evelyn had Praem, and I suppose in extreme need she could always hit stuff with her walking stick.
We needn’t have bothered; 82 Barkslouf Way was as sterile as its surroundings.
The single room flat contained the detritus of a life lived at speed, with little to weigh it down or hold it in place. An old steel bed frame in one corner with a bare mattress and dirty sheets, rumpled from a final sleep. A tiny kitchenette overflowing with fast food wrappers and microwave cartons and not one piece of permanent cutlery. Not a single toenail clipping or stray hair lurked in the tiny, suspiciously clean bathroom. Evelyn double-checked that. “Magic. To track him,” she explained the interest.
Two weeks of dust lay on every cold surface. The heating was off, the single window shaded by a blind. Old paint showed chips and peeled patches on the walls. Scuff stains surrounded the doorway, no mat for shoes. No shoes either.
Raine spent only five minutes edging around the place, looking for tripwires or odd symbols, but there was nothing.
No magic circles, no hidden books, no loose floorboards with secret stashes. Not even a television. The only objects of interest were a couple of cardboard moving boxes from Homebase, stuffed with assorted junk. Work boots. A torch. A few hastily bundled clothes. An old analog radio.
“Wonder if this was just a crash pad for him,” Raine suggested, as she squatted down to dig through the contents of the boxes, pulling out a packet of unopened crayons. She sniffed them and shrugged. “Look magical to you?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn grunted.
She stood by the single dirty window, staring out between the slats of the blinds. We kept the lights off, so as not to attract more attention than we already had. Praem watched the door, though there was little need in a room so small.
“This was a front,” I supplied, standing as close to Raine as I could without crowding her, hugging myself through my hoodie. “Somewhere he could pretend to live, for his … um … for the people he was fooling, in the Sharrowford Cult. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“No, no, it’s good guess, I think,” Raine said, and flashed a smile up at me.
I nudged her side with my knee, very gently. Just a touch. Needed the contact.
Zheng hadn’t returned home, not since Saturday night. Without her I felt like a frantic animal caught in a cage-trap, alone. Raine helped, but I’d become so needy. For the last two days I’d been glued to her side, seeking constant touch, constant reminder that I was here, in this body, that it was okay to be me.
We couldn’t go to Carcosa like this. I had to pull myself together. I felt so wretched.
“Now the cult’s gone and his safe house here’s been rumbled,” Raine said, working an ancient bomber jacket free from inside one of the boxes. Rotten orange, old train tickets in the pockets. “Maybe we really won’t see any more of him.”
“We will,” Evelyn drawled, a hollow space behind her voice, still staring out of the window. “He’s still out there.”
“So sure?” Raine asked.
“Him or others like him. Edward Lilburne was right. Sharrowford is going to fill up with rats and vultures, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Pest control,” Praem sing-songed. Evelyn laughed and shook her head.
“Thank you, Praem. I needed that.”
Evelyn raised an eyebrow at her.
“B-I-N-G-O,” Raine spelled out loud, standing up with a bundle of black wire clutched in one hand, grinning from ear to ear. “And bingo was his name-o.”
“Ahh?” I blinked at her.
“Yes Raine, well done, you’ve found a phone charger … oh.” Evelyn sighed in defeat as Raine extracted Mister Joking’s ancient mobile phone from her pocket, matched the charger to the port on the bottom, and plugged the other end into the nearest wall socket. “Yes, wonderful, that discovery saved us thirty quid on ebay. It’s hardly a notepad titled ‘my crimes and current location’.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Raine said. “You never know what you’ll find in there.”
“That’s not what the saying means,” I tutted.
Raine shot me a grin and a wink. “Let’s just wait for this old steam engine to get itself going, and we’ll see what we can see.”
The battered old plastic mobile took more than five minutes of charging to respond to the on switch. Raine rifled through the boxes some more, but found nothing interesting except for a small commemorative coin, some kind of historical reproduction currency stamped with the head of Oliver Cromwell, kept in a small velvet pouch. Evelyn shuffled around the room, poking things with her walking stick. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, as if what we’d find on that phone would bring no good.
Raine held the phone and watched the ancient little LCD screen light up with animated black squares. It was too small for Evelyn and I to peer over her shoulder, so we waited as she thumbed through the menus with the clicking buttons.
“No password, no security,” Raine murmured to herself, eyes glued to the screen. “Very stupid, very stupid. Ah, here we … ahaha, oh bugger me. Okay.”
“What? What?” Evelyn demanded.
“This phone is registered to one ‘Joshua King’. At least our boy was consistent about his choice of surnames. Let’s see who he’s been calling. Worst comes to the worst we could just call these and see what happens.”
“Is that safe?” I asked.
“Indeed,” Evelyn drawled. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“We can take precautions,” Raine said, scrolling down a list. “Don’t recognise any of the names on this contact list. Nothing for the days he was lying there dead, not since the date on the train ticket … ah.” A slow, wry amusement came over Raine’s face. A fatalistic sigh escaped her lips. “Ahhh. You silly thing, should have told us. Well. There we have it. That’s a lead. Can’t leave that one alone.”
“Have what?” Evelyn demanded. “Told us what, Raine?”
Raine pointed the phone’s tiny screen at us. Picked out in blocky black letters were three calls, all made on the same date as the train ticket, the day the Welsh Mage, the revenant, the triple-man in one body, whatever he was, had come to Sharrowford at the behest of Edward Lilburne.
Two of the names meant nothing to us – ‘January’ and ‘Bikeman.’
The third name was not a pseudonym. He’d also called it twice the night before.
No no no, this confrontation was a mess ,. everyone of them performed below their abilities.
What happened? They suddenly had IQ drop way way down.
Conservation of ninjutsu!
It was too fast! Whole thing lasted about five seconds, he put some good effort into tilting everyone and fought in a very off-putting way. Seems justified to me.
Fast and unreadable and way tilted!
Ah, I’m really sorry if this sequence didn’t quite manage to land for you as a reader. I was worried it might feel this way to some, despite the emphasis I placed on the way the Welsh Mage moved and such. I can only promise I will do my best with these sorts of sequences in the future.
It felt “right” to me in that I’m picturing him like The Golden Man (by Philip K. Dick), seeing every possible branching future, and instinctively choosing the one where he isn’t hit. Of course, the range of his precognition seems shorter, as he *did* get grabbed by Praem and whacked by Heather’s tentacles; if he had any more range than a few seconds, he would not have tried to grab Heather. It still makes him a formidable opponent that simply can’t be overpowered, and rather needs to be outsmarted.
(the other possibility would be Heather’s tentacles and Praem being precognition-proof, but it seems inconsistent that they would, yet brainmath and Zheng were not).
That’s a really interesting comparison, with The Golden Man, thank you! I never thought of that before. The inspiration for him here actually came from another sci fi novel, but it would potentially be spoilers to mention it by name.
Interesting, now I kind of want to know the specific novel, but only once I’m past the spoiler point. 🙂
This specific spoiler probably won’t make sense until Book Two! And it wasn’t taken from a very good science fiction novel, anyway, actually something very trashy that I just pulled one concept from. But I’d be happy to name it, sometime!
Wow, so the Drunken Master lasts that long into the story?
Actually don’t answer that, hahah. I want it to remain ambiguous whether that’s a misinterpretation on my part. 🙂
My lips are sealed, then!
They are facing a trained professional-which, despite their best efforts, none of them are. Implied brain enhancement allowing for overchipped clockspeed, a few seconds of seeing into the future, and martial arts training vs :
Some martial arts training, but startled slow and unprepared
Years of raw experience-but no actual training, and an unknown amount of experience fighting opponents trained to fight back-possibly zero
No training in fighting or high stress scenarios, but some heavy hitting abilities.
None of the above,
And the one individual with enough speed strength and ability to ignore his training is not, in fact, properly prepared or trained in fighting.
Honestly, I’d love to hear how this confrontation would have gone different.
> “I think we may have been tricked. Perhaps hoodwinked. And quite possibly, bamboozled.”
I like how Tenny slept through the whole thing. It’s not easy being an eldritch moth person.
I forgot Raine threw that reference in! Wow.
Tenny must be a heavy sleeper. Maybe she’s using all that energy for something important?
Vote for Katalepsis, I’m not Joe King. http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis
Thank you! Thank you for all the votes!
“Not a single toenail clipping or stray hair lurked in the tiny, suspiciously clean bathroom. Evelyn double-checked that.”
Joe King ripped his head out of Praem’s hairhold earlier. I guess that didn’t leave any traceable hair behind either?
Perhaps a hint about what is going on with him.
These chapters since the abyss have hit me real hard. Body dysphoria is all too familiar a feeling, and I have to take a break sometimes to cool off and not fall into a sort of sympathetic disassociation with Heather. At the same time, there’s still the unresolved *extremely high* sexual tension with Zheng, and Raine’s boundaries are well-intentioned but not helping my own emotions. Am I jealous of what Heather could have with Zheng? Maybe. Possibly. Very definitely. But anyway, good lord woman, surely you’ve learned about polyamory, no? Or at least Raine has, right? Have a sensible talk about it! The only way you will get past jealousy is by opening up and talking about your feelings, and getting used to feeling compersion, rather than focusing on the toxic reactions you have societally ingrained into you. Good luck Heather, Outsiders and mages might be nightmarish, but your own feelings are always the hardest thing to face.
I’m really glad to hear that my tackling this theme has struck such a chord with so many readers, but I’m also hoping that you’re okay and it isn’t hurting you to read this. Take care.
‘Your own feelings are always the hardest thing to face’ absolutely becomes a big theme here too! And don’t worry, the way the story has developed since … well, I won’t drop any spoilers of course, but I think you’ll like where it goes!
Here for another years late chime in.
The dsyphoria is real, and palpable. I’ve never had a desire for tentacles before, but Heather is making me long for them myself. I have very much wanted something closer to Praem’s body before though… not, uh… her proportions… but rigid, no real organs (yay chronic issues), moldable to some degree.
The body autonomy, the trans themes, the unintentional self-harm are all very heavy in this, and (at least for me) work very well. On that note, I think the stuff with Lozzie works so far as well, I immediately noticed the trans poncho when described (not sure that counts considering I look out for that stuff) and the body shaping via feelings and body needs with an eldritch entity is a mood. But she’s not dead named for like shock value or as a reveal, so far (I don’t care about my deadname one way or another, and I think people go overboard on acting like they can’t be mentioned at all, but when used as or as part of a reveal that bothers me). It’s not her entire character but it’s an important part of her, as is evident by her choosing to wear a trans pride poncho, and gives some possible ties to her strong sympathies for someone’s body being wrong.
Shifting a bit from themes to narrative. Corpse man has freaked me out far, far more then anything else. It’s the first human-ish entity that has really outclassed the group and whose intentions are completely in the air. The other mages, cults, and outsiders have felt dangerous, but like, in almost knowable ways. Corpse man feels like the first real wild card. So good job on that.
And Heather. Oh Heather. She’s fraying at the seams, honestly doing a decent job all things considered, but she keeps lashing out when it’s the last thing she wants to do. Trying to hold it in, needing to always be ‘on’ and working (hey, if I had a deadline to save the other half of my soul I wouldn’t be any better), but if she breaks, Maisie won’t get any help. It’s heart breaking because it’s the wrong choices, but they’re all very understandable. Touch of low-key tragedy to go with the high-key danger.
The dsyphoria is indeed very real. I’ve drawn on a lot of real life stuff for the trans themes in Katalepsis so far, trying to process those things into a fictional form for Heather, but also exploring them in ways I didn’t actually expect! I’m always delighted when a reader finds those aspects of the story relatable, they’re very important to me, so thank you!
Ah, you noticed the poncho! A lot of readers missed it, which is really my fault because I assumed it would be obvious. As for the point about deadnaming, yes; I didn’t want to actually include real transphobia in the story, not because it’s unrealistic or not important or something, but just because I didn’t want to write about that in this story, I wanted Lozzie’s trans status and nature to be part of her character but not the sole purpose for her character. It’s part of who she is and a big part of her life, but it’s not her sole narrative purpose. Glad that works so well!
Corpse dude is a hell of a wildcard, yeah! Haha, I can’t say anything else about him right now. Wait and see, I guess!
Heather is in a hell of a state, indeed. She’s got a long way to go, but perhaps she can find the support she needs closer to hand than she thought.