by this art you may contemplate – 10.9

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Sarika told us what she knew, and not all of it was predictable.

“We didn’t kill your friends,” Evelyn made the first tentative foray, frowning down at her chocolate eclair as if it might turn into a live eel, too impatient to wait for Sarika’s explanations. On the other side of the table, Sarika was busy forcing her hand and arm muscles into limp obedience to hold her matching chocolate treat, chewing slowly and jerkily through her second mouthful. Between them lay the white floral box from Plaisir coupable, still with a generous helping of leftover eclairs beneath the clear plastic window, utterly out of place next to Evelyn’s scrimshawed thighbone and the stack of magical tomes.

“They’re good, Evee, they really are,” I said. “Do try yours, please.”

“Yeah, I’ll have that if you’re not gonna eat it,” Raine said, leaning on the back of my chair, winking at Evelyn.

“No you bloody well won’t,” Evelyn grumbled, and picked up the eclair at last. “You’ve had two already, and I’m getting my money’s worth, thank you very much.” She added to Sarika, “Forgive me for talking business while we eat,” but managed to make it sound like ‘fuck you and the horse you rode in on.’

“Mmm-mmm, mm!” I made a muffled noise around a similar mouthful of pastry, chocolate, and cream, but I was too indecisive, couldn’t figure out if I was telling her off for not waiting another thirty seconds while Sarika ate, or thanking her for the illusion of politeness.

“The other two ex-cultists,” Evelyn carried right on without taking a bite, “we didn’t even see them, and if they are dead I doubt they’re in the castle dimension. Mister Joking – are we really calling him that?” she broke off for a second.

“Arsehole,” Raine suggested brightly, sucking a stray blob of cream off her fingers.

“Zombie man?” said Nicole.

“‘Revenant’ would be technically accurate,” Evelyn grumbled.

I swallowed my mouthful. “Those are all very, very bad. Can’t we just call him King?”

Evelyn wrinkled her nose. “I dislike the implied symbolism of that. Names have power, Heather.”

“Merlin,” Praem intoned from behind Evelyn, comfortably returned to her maid uniform once more.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn snapped over her shoulder. “You stow that thought. I never want to hear that again.”

My eclair paused on the way back to my mouth, a mirror of my heart. “Is … was … was Merlin real?”

“Hey, no, please.” Nicole tilted her head at me, then shot a desperately pleading look at Evelyn over the kitchen table, face turning a touch pale under the electric lights. “There’s some things I am better off not knowing. Please don’t say yes, come on, no, that’s so stupid, that-”

Evelyn gave a great exasperated huff and rolled her eyes. “No. Fucking Merlin was not real. Not as far as I know. Pity’s sake, do I look like an authority on dark ages history or something?”

“Oh thank God,” Nicole breathed. I blushed a hot rose colour, a little embarrassed at my stupid question.

“I think King Arthur totally existed,” Raine said. “Not because of any evidence but just ‘cos it would be cooler than if he didn’t. Ontological argument, you know?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes so hard it must have caused her pain. Even Sarika managed a jerky frown at this nonsense. From behind us, lurking beyond the doorway to the front room, came a muffled giggle. Lozzie peered around the door frame and winked when she caught my eye, licking chocolate off her fingertips.

“I do like the idea that Camelot could have been real … ” I trailed off in further embarrassment.

“Mister Joking it is then,” Evelyn drawled, then turned back to Sarika. “Yes, we found him dead, but he got up again. I would wager my left eye that he’s still very much walking around. Unless Zheng has caught him. That’s what the demon is doing, hunting.”

Sarika stared back at Evelyn. Blinking her squinty, mismatched eyelids, a twitching tic forced her head a few degrees to the left every three seconds. She showed only the slow visible pleasure from the taste of chocolate and cream, her strangely white-streaked hair thin and dry under the kitchen’s electric lights. Beyond the windows, the sun had finished setting, and darkness reigned.

“So if you have a way to contact him,” Evelyn continued, “other than the number he called you from, I strongly suggest you do so. If Zheng catches him, I suspect the menu will be considerably more meaty than eclairs and tea.”

Ugh. That bite of eclair went down my throat like ashen mucus. I’d made my peace with Zheng’s homnivorism, but I didn’t want think about it while eating.

The eclairs really were very good, I had to admit. Not thirty pounds good, an amount of money which could feed me well for over a week. A bit of pastry and chocolate icing filled with cream was not worth that money, no matter how delicate and crumbly the pastry, how smooth and dark the chocolate, how rich and soft the cream. At least we had almost a dozen left in the box, even after everyone had claimed one for themselves – two for Raine – and the smell of the confectionery had drawn Lozzie tip-toe hop-tripping down the stairs. Lozzie stayed in the front room for now, well out of Sarika’s sight, and had assured me in hurried whispers that Tenny would not follow her down.

Praem was the only person not to eat an eclair, apparently content with the two strawberries Evelyn had fed her.

The doll-demon had returned without incident, almost right on time, while I was still chewing on the perspective Nicole had presented to me under the suffocated sunset. As soon as she was through the front door, Evelyn had been bustling about, questioning her about possible tails, about if anybody was following her, if anything had happened. Praem had presented us with a carrier bag in which lay the eclair box, and that was all.

Who would set a trap in a pastry shop anyway? We weren’t living in an episode of Midsomer Murders. No, our reality was much worse.

At first I was incapable of eating. I’d sat there like Evelyn, staring at the eclair on a little plate handed to me by Praem. The enormity of the situation was too much, the other side of the coin that Nicole had just revealed to me; breaking bread – or pastry – with ex middle-management of a mass murder machine.

The others treated it as normal. Nothing much to think about. Nicole was likely aided by the numbing effects of police work, but Evelyn and Raine did so because they’d long ago internalised this stuff. In the end I justified it to myself with simple practicality. We weren’t going to kill Sarika, and we couldn’t punish her in the way she really deserved, so why not? Besides, the chocolate did smell very good.

After that previous bite had been ruined by memories of Zheng wolfing down human flesh, I took a moment as Evelyn opened her mouth again, expecting her to deploy some equally vile image.

Instead, I almost choked on her gall.

“If he leaves the city,” she said, “and stays out, then we’ll recall Zheng.”

Sarika’s jaw paused in the process of chewing, eyes boring back into Evelyn. She resumed eating with exaggerated slowness, swallowed, and smacked her lips.

“Liar,” Sarika slurred. “Z-Zheng’s … free.” She cast a venomous glance my way. “Can’t c-control that.”

“Yes, that’s correct,” I said, with a tiny exasperated sigh at Evelyn. “Nobody sends Zheng anywhere anymore. She does what she wants, for good or for ill. It’s out of our hands.”

“Liar,” Sarika croaked at Evelyn again.

Evelyn’s lips twisted into a nasty little smile. “Oh well, it was worth a shot.”

“D-don’t care anyway,” Sarika went on, lips quivering with nerve tremors. “Only helped- helped because of-” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, to the sky beyond, and I knew what she meant, the one thing she didn’t want to name. “They were trapped by it. N-nobody deserves … ” She trailed off, eyes heavy and far away, then forced a shaking, jerky breath. “If King’s some mage, s-shielded somehow, fuck him. W-what do I care?”

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn confirmed, cold and clinical. “He didn’t seem to be suffering the same affliction as the rest of your cult ended up with. My theory is he wasn’t really committed, not really under Alexander Lilburne’s power. I doubt he’s truly shielded or immune to the … thing, simply that he wasn’t Lilburne’s to give.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth for a moment, considering Sarika with quiet thought. “Alright, I’ll go first. You lack context, and without that context you may skip details that would be useful to me. I am not being nice, understand?” She didn’t wait for a nod, but instead turned her eyes to me. “Heather, please allow me to do this, don’t add anything I don’t ask you for. This is very important.” And then with a side-eye at Raine, “And you keep your mouth shut. Thank God Twil’s not here. Now, listen carefully, here’s what happened.”

Slow and steady, Evelyn explained the events of Saturday night. My incredible surprise at her offer of speaking first quickly turned to cynical comprehension; she edited the story down to practical details alone, cut out vast gulfs of information – the location of our gateway, the presence of Lozzie or Tenny, the changed nature of the world out in the fog around the castle, the wards she’d placed, the precise wording of the bizarre Welsh incantation around the circle, the specific taunts the mage had thrown at herself and Zheng. Her words sounded like a recital. She’d planned in advance exactly what to say.

Sarika slowly munched her way through a second chocolate eclair, and it was hard to tell how much attention she was paying. When Evelyn told her about the other corpse, the pulverised one, she paused, but then frowned in confusion when Evelyn revealed that Mister Joking had claimed this was the mortal remains of some sort of handler, sent by Edward Lilburne.

“ … Ed … ?” Sarika blinked, quietly horrified behind her twitching eyes. “They- they d-didn’t- tell me that. Was no- no fifth person.”

“Yes, I think I believe you,” Evelyn replied. “If Edward was backing this little group, he wouldn’t want to let on to you, in case you decided not to help.”

She did tell Sarika about how the Welsh mage switched between three distinct personalities, and how he’d avoided blows, lunges, and even bullets without really looking, and all about the spell he’d cast at me and Zheng, though she didn’t attempt to describe the esoteric shape he’d made with his hands. But Evelyn also focused on details that I would have thought unimportant – an estimation of the time between Zheng breaching the circle and the resurrection of the corpse, the mage’s reluctance to reveal any kind of real name, the cadence of his Welsh accent, the specific colour of the light from the spell he’d cast, his insistence on asking permission to leave over and over again. She told Sarika about the lack of evidence in Mister Joking’s ratty bedsit, and how the hairs Praem had ripped from his scalp had vanished without our notice, not to be found on the workshop floor. Sarika sat and listened attentively, except for the way she shook and shivered at random intervals.

“And your name was in that mobile phone,” she finished. “The other two names … the … ” Evelyn huffed to herself and clicked her fingers. “Raine?”

“Mm-mmm-mmm-mmmmm?” Raine made a series of ridiculous noises behind her closed lips. The tension of the last few minutes broke inside me like an overfilled water balloon, and I burst out laughing, spluttering into the elbow of my hoodie, embarrassed. Evelyn stared at the pair of us like we’d gone mad.

“Mmmm-mmmm?” Raine did it again.

“You did say-” I spluttered. “You did tell her to keep her mouth shut, Evee.”

“ … oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn spat. “Yes, you may open your mouth again! Answer the bloody question.”

Raine did this big theatrical gape and pretended surprise. “My gratitude, o’ most terrible and merciful sorceress, you have unsealed my lips and freed me from your mystical bindings. How may I serve, o’ sparkly fingered magical one?”

Evelyn gave Raine a look to wither cast iron.

“I don’t know how you lot get anything done around here,” Nicole muttered.

“Bikeman and January,” Raine relented with a wink for Evelyn. “Those were the other two names on the call log, both the same morning as you, Sarika.”

“Quite,” Evelyn hissed, and meant ‘I am dying to hit you with my walking stick.’ “We did try calling them, with proper precautions, but nobody was picking up.”

Sarika squinted in slow thought. “Bill- Cook. He’d been a … cyclist, when young. M-maybe. Maybe bike man. S-stupid nickname.”

“Right, right,” Raine said, nodding slowly. “What about January?” Sarika shrugged, so Raine went on. “Makes sense though. Calls his comrades, then calls Sarika. Wonder who they’re bait for, if he left them in the phone?”

“Shh,” Evelyn hissed at Raine with a tight frown, a finger to her lips, then turned back to Sarika. “Now it’s your turn. You tell us everything.”

Sarika’s ‘difficult bitch’ smile crept back onto her twitching lips, and she said nothing. A hot, wet sinking feeling took hold in the pit of my stomach, as if I was about to experience digestive problems. Sarika wasn’t going to talk. She was going to sit there in obstinate silence, to force Evelyn to cross a line, to hurt her, to hurt all of us, because it was the only power she could wield. After the performance with the chocolate eclairs, after the volunteered information, she was still playing this stupid game of mage one-oneupmanship.

“Sarika,” I said, softly, then hiccuped, hating myself for this. She didn’t deign to look at me. “Sarika, please, if you choose not to talk to Evelyn, then-” I swallowed. “Then you and I can talk alone.”

The difficult bitch smile stayed in place, but Sarika opened her mouth. “What if you … c-catch him?” she slurred, blinking heavy eyelids.

Evelyn shrugged. “What else am I supposed to do? He’s a mage, loose in my city. He was in my home. What would you do? He leaves, or I remove him.”

Slowly, eyes lowering, Sarika’s smile withered on the vine. With a weak grip and trembly fingers, she nudged her mobile phone from where she’d left it when the eclairs had arrived, and scooted it across the table toward Evelyn. She nodded at it and coughed, “Look at … calls.”

Evelyn frowned at the phone like it might rear up and bite her if touched. Praem stepped forward, reached over her mistresses’ shoulder, and slid open the phone’s lock screen with a flick of one perfect finger. Sarika’s mobile game stared up at the ceiling, paused on an illustration of a purple-haired girl with implausibly large breasts and a man wearing a tiny jacket which showed his abs, before Praem efficiently banished them to the depths of the machine. She navigated the menus to bring up Sarika’s call log. Evelyn leaned forward, peering down at the names and numbers and durations and dates. I craned my neck up too, though I couldn’t see much.

“All still there,” Sarika mumbled, lips thick. “He called me. N-night before they went.”

“You talk about old times?” Raine asked.

Sarika stared at Evelyn, waiting for some sign that never came. “He said hello. I screamed. Threw- threw the phone. Dented wall.”

Raine raised her eyebrows. Evelyn raised her gaze from the phone in silent question.

“Why do you think?” Sarika slurred, angry and bitter, shaking more than before. Her head twitched to the left every few seconds, gripped with that distinctive tic again.

“Because he was a survivor,” I said.

“Mm!” Sarika grunted, suddenly excited, manic as she glanced my way, eyes blazing in coal-pit sockets. “Anyone who survived that house- the … the end, left, left before we decided to contact … it, before we decided to say n-no, before the r-ritual. Anyone who left disagreed, still wanted to fucking serve.”

“Cultists still dedicated to our big ocular pal in the sky,” Raine said. “How many people left before the ritual?”

Sarika shrugged. “Wasn’t paying attention. Had bigger- worry about. Trying to save our fucking souls.” She breathed hard through her nose, face flushed and sweaty as she screwed her eyes shut.

Even Evelyn wasn’t cruel enough to voice the obvious barb – ‘well you failed at that, didn’t you?’ – though I saw it in her eyes and heard it in her sigh as we waited for Sarika to come back, to calm down, to focus. Eventually she opened her eyes again and went on, exhausted and so heavy-lidded I thought she might slip into a nap.

“Josh called me,” she said, slurring and struggling. “I thought- great, they’ve been sent for me. Take me back for it. Fuck him. C-calls again, says listen, s’okay, we found a new way to escape. Need help. Please, Sarry, help, Sarry, we’re dying, Sarry.” She bobbed her head side to side with the rhythm of the words. “Nobody deserves this. So yeah, talk. Tell me. Calls me again, morning, explains, says they’re ready, but need a way in to Alex’s old castle. Do I know how? No. Got one of Alex’s notebooks though.”

Evelyn leaned forward, face a mask of lead. “You had a book of Alexander Lilburne’s magical workings, and you did not give it up to us?”

“Fuck you,” Sarika slurred, weak and done. “Didn’t want to think about magic.”

“And where is this notebook now?” Evelyn asked, lips pursed tight because the answer was going to be a bad one.

“Right here, actually, I think,” Nicole said, with a frown at Sarika. She reached into her long coat a pulled out a black leather-bound notebook. “She gave me this when I picked her up, for safekeeping. It this it?”

Sarika nodded. Evelyn stared at the notebook in Nicole’s hand with naked surprise, then snatched it from her, frowning at the thing like she couldn’t believe her luck. She went to flick it open, fingers fumbling, but Praem reached down and pinched the pages shut at one corner.

“P-Praem!” Evelyn spluttered. “What are-”

“Evee, Evee she has a point,” I said, nodding at Praem. “Look.”

Praem was staring at Sarika in blank challenge. Empty white eyes bored into the ex-mage, but Sarika didn’t shrink.

“Fair’s fair, demon,” Sarika croaked. “Not a trap. N-no point.”

Evelyn caught herself, going both cold and red in the face at the same time. She shoved the black notebook into Praem’s hands and managed to jerk out a “Check that! Yes!”

Praem raised the notebook to her face and literally flicked the pages past her eyes at top speed, then snapped it shut and presented it to Evelyn again, who took it with wordless embarrassment, still mortified at her near-mistake.

“Evee,” I said gently, “Evee, it’s what friends are for. You can’t be infallible, not all the time.”

Evelyn wouldn’t look at me. She flipped the notebook open and stared at it with hot eyes, flicking back and forth at random.

“S’the good stuff,” Sarika slurred. “T-the s-stuff that he kept o-only in his head. Trusted me.”

The black notebook did not look the part; it could have come from the stationary shelves at Tesco. I expected a mage’s darkest secrets to be bound in human leather, or glowing, or written on stone. Then again, I could hardly criticise. I kept the secrets of reality-rewriting mathematics in spiral bound flip-pads from the university’s academic supplies shop.

“Right. Yes. Okay, okay, this is real, I’ll give you that.” Evelyn’s voice quivered with excitement. “But how on earth did you keep them from taking it? There’s no way they would have left you with this. You’re a cripple, defenceless, they could have stolen it without a fight.”

“Bluff,” Sarika croaked. The meanest hint of satisfaction crossed her slack face. “Convinced I still had- h-had resources. Let them photograph the r-r-relevant pages. Sandy’s a middling mage, has the knack, only just. She could w-work the gateway. T-they came into the house. King. Sandy. Cook. S-S-S-Stack waited in the street, told me they paid her to come with them, in case. Look after them. S-saw her, through the window. No fifth person. N-no handler. No mention of Edward Lilburne. Freak arse old fuck.”

“Alright,” Evelyn almost purred, subconsciously stroking the notebook’s cover. “And what was their grand escape plan?”

Sarika blinked slowly. “New way to communicate with the … the big … ” She waved a hand in a twitching circle. “Sky children. R-round the castle. Said they’d rather be in thrall to them, instead of the … it.”

“That’s a lie!”

Lozzie whirled into the kitchen doorway, elfin face pulled into a serious little frown, hands on her hips beneath her pastel poncho, eyes blazing. Sarika turned with urgent difficulty to look over her shoulder, as Lozzie ignored my frantic shooing motions for her to return to hiding.

“ … Lozz … ” Sarika croaked, blinking in shock.

“That’s a lie!” Lozzie repeated. “Also you suck!”

“ … you’re … Lozz.”

“It must be a lie,” Lozzie continued, looking at the rest of us now. “It’s stupid and it’s a lie. That’s not how the big squiddy kiddies work. They couldn’t do that, not like that, you’d have to know how to sing and silly nasty people don’t know how to. It’s a lie.”

“Are you- are you- Lozz-”

Lozzie stuck her tongue out at Sarika, with far more grumpy venom than she’d deployed against Nicole. “It’s a lie and you suck! But thank you for the eclair!”

“- healthy? Is it- are they- looking after-” Sarika choked the words out, shaking with emotional overload.

“Of course it’s a lie,” Evelyn drawled, the droll and dross of her voice steamrollering over the growing confrontation. “But I doubt it’s Sarika’s lie. Edward Lilburne had his own agenda, and from what Mister Joking said, he and the others were unaware of the truth of that.”

“Question is,” Raine added lightly, “what was Eddy boy hoping to get out of all this?”

Lozzie span on her heel, pastel poncho twirling out in a wave of pink and blue, face screwed up as she ran back into the front room. I got up from my chair and went after her, remains of my eclair forgotten. Sarika stared at Lozzie’s wake, limp and hollow as I passed.

“Alright, here’s my theory,” Evelyn was saying.

“Theory for everything,” Raine said, rubbing her hands together.

“The three ex-cultists found Edward Lilburne, or perhaps the other way around, and he offered them a way to escape the e- … the ‘big ocular friend’,” Evelyn sighed. “But actually he had his own agenda, not fully shared with them. The Welsh mage was an infiltrator with his own entirely separate aims as well, and I suspect-”

I slipped out of the kitchen and into the front room as Evelyn warmed to her subject, hugging my hoodie around myself, expecting to find Lozzie curled up against the wall, possibly crying. That look on her face, the anger and frustration, made perfect sense considering the relationship Sarika had with Lozzie’s late brother. I’d never unpicked that knot, not with everything else my poor little Lozzie had been through. Perhaps it was time, perhaps it wouldn’t keep any longer.

Instead I found Lozzie leaning against the wall, ear cocked to listen to the talk in the kitchen – with an impish, lip-biting smile on her face.

“ … Lozzie?”

“Shhh-shhh!” She put a finger to her lips and giggled. I boggled at her, crossed the few paces between us, and for some reason I still don’t understand, I touched her head to check she was really there. “Heather?” she whispered in confusion.

“-but we have no idea what Edward was actually after,” Evelyn’s voice floated from the kitchen. “Access to the castle, perhaps. Access to the thing under the castle, which I’ve been assured is pointless without a certain other Lilburne family member. Access to the gate formulas, no, he could have easily taken them from Sarika, so that makes no sense. The death of the handler he sent doesn’t necessarily mean he failed, but he-”

“I thought you were crying,” I whispered to Lozzie. “I thought you were hurting.”

Lozzie muffled another giggle. “Hurts her more this way.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Lozzie did this little dip with her eyes and shoulders, a sulky teenager moment of exasperated explanation.

“I know it’s bad, but she deserves it!” Lozzie whispered. “She let my brother lead her, she did everything he asked. She’s responsible.”

“He- … yes, well … but Lozzie, he was abusive, manipulative, he-”

“She could have said no!” Lozzie scrunched up a frown as she hissed. “I always said no.”

Evelyn was still going, her voice a spiked drone back in the kitchen. “This doesn’t give us any idea where he might be, but if we can find these two – January and Bikeman, stupid bloody names – maybe they could give us something to go on. I do not want this man in Sharrowford, I do not want him lurking at our backs, I do not want-”

“I have to go back,” I whispered to Lozzie, gently touched my forehead to hers in a gesture so spontaneous and natural I didn’t have time to think about it, and then hurried back into the kitchen. Raine caught my eye with a silent question as I returned, but I didn’t answer. I’d been thrown off, almost missed my moment, and now my stomach churned with tight anticipation. It was now or never.

Evelyn was in full flow. “-and if we’re lucky, very lucky, Zheng will get to him before I have to bother. But if not, it’s time to start-”

“Ahem,” I said, then actually cleared my throat, feeling a bit silly. Evelyn stopped and raised an eyebrow at me. I wrung my hands together inside my hoodie’s big front pocket, hiccuped, and forced myself to step around the table, closer to Evelyn and Raine. Nicole sat still and casual in her chair, another biscuit in her hand; I think she knew what I was up to. Sarika stared at me, bored and exhausted.

“Yes, Heather?” Evelyn said when I took too long to find my courage.

“Yes, well,” I managed, wetting my lips with a dry tongue. “Zheng might return with the mage’s scalp tomorrow morning, and then we’ll all have to find ways to live with that.” Let the steaming, beautiful demon perform the act, take the decision out of our hands, eat his flesh and remove the problem. It would be so easy, and part of me prayed for it too. “But I’m going to present a radical notion.” I had to stop to hiccup. “And it’s going to cause an argument, and I’d like to apologise in advance. And you’re probably going to look at me like I’d lost my marbles, and I’m going to ask you not to do that, please.”

“Anything,” Raine murmured, and she meant it.

“Oh dear,” Evelyn sighed. “Why do I get the feeling this is going to a very stupid place?”

“How about,” I said, “we let the mage go?”

Evelyn paused, blinked, then turned acid. “Well done, Heather, you have managed to surprise me. It’s stupider than I thought.”

“Hey, hey, Evee,” Raine said softly. “Hear her out, yeah?”

I made myself stand up straight, voice shaking more than I wanted. “Frankly, I don’t even know where to start with this. He might not even be in Sharrowford anymore, he might have left. How would we go about finding him, anyway? Zheng hasn’t been home for two days. If she can’t find him, what hope do we have, if he really doesn’t want to be found? She’s a hunter, a real one, we’re … we’re not.”

“There are ways,” Evelyn said, like throwing a knife at me. I flinched and had to look away from her glare.

“Then- then what are those ways, Evee? Please, tell me. Are you going to have Praem wander around Sharrowford until she bumps into him?”

Silence. Evelyn’s turn to avert her gaze, and I knew I’d hit not too far off the mark. I kept going, pressed the advantage, had to get through to her.

“And how long would that take?” I said. “We could search for this man for weeks and weeks and turn up nothing, because I’m not even certain that what he was up to had anything to do with us. I think he wasn’t really interested in us. Evee, on Saturday night, we had him cornered, and despite everything, in the end he left without causing any of us permanent harm. He left, and he hasn’t been back, and I don’t think he’s going to come back. He deescalated.”

“If he wanted to leave, why didn’t he just fucking ask?” Evelyn spat. She slapped the table with Alexander’s notebook, making me flinch.

“Because he’s a mage,” I said automatically. “Because he was probably just as worried about us as we are about him. And- and-” And here my throat stuck, my reasons ran out, and a shard of truth, barbed but incomplete, forced itself out through my lips. “And because I don’t want us to commit murder in cold blood. The fact we’re even considering that is mad. I don’t want you to have to do that, Evee.”

“Heather,” Evelyn said my name in the way one might speak to a very stupid child – but then she must have noticed, in the corner of her eye, how still and calm and unsurprised Nicole looked. She glanced at the detective, then back at me, and then got really angry. She went cold. “Oh, I see, the police officer put this idea in your head, did she?”

Nicole raised her hands in surrender, but stayed silent.

“Evee, no, she didn’t put it in my head, I-”

“Perhaps this is my fault,” Evelyn said, voice like a sharpened icicle through the eye socket, going white in the face with fury. “Nicole I can understand, because frankly she knows nothing and is institutionally trained to excuse violence by powerful people, but Heather, you should know better, because you’ve had to do this once before. Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I have failed to fully explain what manner of fucking monster slipped through our fingers!”

She exploded on the last few words, whiplashed from cold to volcanic eruption in a shout so loud I was surprised it didn’t bring Tenny crashing down the stairs in panic to see what had happened. I flinched hard, hands to my chest in shock; Nicole winced, Sarika jerked in surprise, clutching at her crutches. Evelyn went red in the face, staring at me, then at Nicole, nostrils flaring, losing control of herself.

“Evee, Evee,” Raine was saying her name, to no avail.

“Coming back from the dead-” Evelyn swallowed down a fraction of her rage, clenching and unclenching her good hand in front of her as if grasping for words, talking more to the tabletop than us. “It- I cannot emphasise how unbelievably difficult that is, the sheer power that man must have. It is almost impossible, and the price, the price of even the most well-documented methods is- beyond-” She looked like she wanted to spit. “He is a monster, he must be. My mother spent decades, before I was even conceived, searching for some route toward immortality, and look how that worked out.” She finally looked up, at me, and behind the anger lurked a writhing, hidden darkness of horror and disgust. “And I don’t even know what that man was.”

“Evee, I’m not suggesting he’s worthy of mercy, not because-”

“We’re not leaving him alive in this city, we’re not. He will come back for my books and my head and anything else he can take, like every other mage would. Maybe tomorrow, maybe ten years from now. But I will get him first. I will get him first.”

“Felicity didn’t try to murder you,” I blurted out. “Neither has Kimberly. Is she going to turn out like that eventually?”

“ … that’s not … that’s not the same, Heather, you know that.”

“Actually Evee, I don’t know that, no.”

“Can you justify this?” Nicole finally piped up, far too calm.

Evelyn turned to her, ready to bite her head off. “Have you heard a single word I’d said, you overpaid thug? This man undoubtedly deserves it, and he’s dangerous, in ways you can’t possibly even understand, you-”

“No no,” Nicole said, and flipped her remaining half biscuit into the air, before catching it with her mouth, chewing as she cocked her eyebrows at Evelyn. “I mean can you justify it in terms of time and material? What if Heather’s right, what if I’m right, and this guy was deescalating, but you spend weeks hunting him and doing all your heebie-jeebie bullshit, shaking shrunken heads around for no reason? Haven’t you got more important things to do?”

And there it was, the point I’d been trying to avoid all evening.

I closed my eyes and bit my tongue to stop myself sobbing with relief. I let myself feel the truth, and I felt like rubbish.

Evelyn was going off at Nicole again, some rambling aggression about how an ounce of prevention was better than a pound of cure, none of which I disagreed with. Raine interjected too, that she would expend any effort to protect her home and her friends from monsters, which I also liked. Praem said “Self defense” out loud at one point; I silently agreed.

I opened my eyes and spoke into the maelstrom, “Evee.”

I had to repeat myself three times before she paid attention, which was fair enough because I wasn’t saying it very loudly. I didn’t have the strength for that. But eventually she turned to me, other voices dying away, Raine touching my shoulder gently because she must have seen the look on my face at last. Evelyn opened her mouth to spit bile, but my expression stopped her too. That surprised me. I wasn’t angry.

“I will do it,” I said, quivering, with a lump in my throat. “If he comes back, if we see him in the street, if he appears in the back garden with a shovel, if he so much as visits the university library to borrow a book, I will do it myself. Evee, I will do it myself. If he glances at one of us, I will obliterate him, because I believe you. I will superheat the air and spin atoms so hard they fly apart and I will turn him to a pile of ash, because next time I will know to do so the moment I see him. I promise you, right here, right now, I will do it myself. I will do it. I will be the executioner, because I can do that, because I was once out there in the cold dark where killing is surviving and I can do it again. You don’t have to be an executioner, Evee. You don’t have to do this.”

“Heather,” Raine said, oh so softly. “It’s not your responsibility.”

“Raine.” My voice went tight. “I’m pretty sure he could dodge a bullet even if the gun was in his mouth.”

Evelyn was frowning at me, as if she couldn’t follow. “Why?”

“We call off the hunt for him,” I said. “We’re not doing it. We’re not spending weeks on it. We’re safe here, in this house, aren’t we? With each other, if we stick together and look after each other. But we let this go. We let this go. If we see him, I’ll do it. But we let this go and-”

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. “It’s not enough to be safe-”

“And we go to Carcosa. No more delays.”

Evelyn stopped, mouth open. She hadn’t expected that.

“I’m begging you, Evee. Every day that goes by, there is less and less of my sister to save. If we’re not in immediate danger, please. Help me.”

And there was the truth. I would take that risk, I would put us all in danger, and I would commit murder in cold blood to pay for that risk. I would take that upon my head, for Maisie.

Evelyn turned a most fascinating shade of white. She tried to bore holes through the back of my eye sockets, but I was already shaking a little with the adrenaline and fear of confrontation, and the cold realisation that I would gladly commit murder for my twin. Raine said something inane to Evelyn, like “have another biscuit”, or “think it over”, but I didn’t really hear her, and neither did Evelyn, who looked down at the table and groped for her walking stick with numb fingers. Praem pressed it into Evelyn’s hand, and Evelyn got up. She shoved Alexander’s notebook into Praem’s grip in return, then crossed stiffly over to the cupboards and fumbled out one of her little pill bottles. She slammed back two white tablets without any water.

“Evee, hey, go easy,” Raine said.

“Easy,” Praem agreed, sing-song.

Evelyn ignored them, stared at the doorway to the front room, then at me.

“We need to talk. Alone,” she squeezed out. “Come with me.” And then she stomped out of the kitchen.

“Hey, Evee-” Raine said, but I was already following.

“And you stay there, Praem!” Evelyn snapped back over her shoulder as the doll-demon began to follow.

I slunk out of the kitchen in Evelyn’s sweeping wake. She’d gone so cold I couldn’t predict her anger, but I was prepared to take anything she threw at me. Lozzie raised her eyebrows at us as we passed through the front room, and she pulled a huge comedy grimace that I really needed. I managed a shaky smile in return, heart racing against the inside of my ribcage.

Evelyn hesitated as if unsure where to go, then stomped into the disused sitting room. I followed.

“Stand there,” she snapped at a point behind her, and I stood there. She shut the door with a bang, closing us inside the unlit room together. Several heartbeats passed, loud in my own ears, during which I assumed we were going to have this argument in the dark, but then she slapped the light switch. Anaemic bulbs struggled to life, illuminating her kinked spine and back, which was rising and falling with sharp little breaths beneath her neat cream jumper.

I hugged myself through my hoodie, hiccuped loudly, and prepared to get very shouted at.

When Evelyn turned around to face me, she was crying.

“Alright,” she said in a small voice. “Alright. We’ll drop any effort to hunt the mage.”

“ … Evee? You … you’re-”

“I know I’m crying, I do possess nerve endings,” she said, and sniffed. Tears carved shimmering wet tracks down her cheeks. She kept her face from scrunching up with a sheer effort of willpower. “Shut up and let me try to make a lick of sense. We’ll drop the hunt for the mage. But not because of the rational argument. The rational arguments are nonsense. The moral argument is even worse, I hope Zheng is eating him right now. I would do it, Heather. To protect myself, and- and- and you, and Raine, and fuck it, all right, Praem and Lozzie and whatever.”

“I appreciate that, Evee,” I said when she paused, feeling tears prickle at the corners of my own eyes. Adrenaline and fear had transmogrified to sympathetic release. A kind of magic that required no blood circles or chanted Latin. “I really, really do. It’s okay, you don’t have to-”

“Shut up. Truth is, Heather, I love you.” When she saw the flicker on my face, she quickly added, voice thick with pain: “And not like Raine loves you, dammit, you idiot. You make a joke out of this right now and I will belt you with my walking stick so hard it’ll knock you back into your abyss.”

“I wouldn’t make a joke of your feelings, I’m sorry. I love you too, Evee, you’re my best friend.”

She sniffed, hard, and scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeve, cursing softly at herself. I couldn’t bear it, Evee crying, couldn’t bear her feeling this bad. I put a hand out to take her arm, but she gestured with her stick as if to knock me away.

“You’ve saved my life, twice,” she said. “I owe you- I owe you me, twice over, and I can’t ever repay that.”

“You don’t have to. Don’t try.”

“So yes, for you, for your sister who I’ve never even bloody met, okay. Okay, we drop this.”

She stared right into me, crying silently, struggling to keep from breaking down. I sniffed too. This time she didn’t ward me off when I gently took her hand, the one wrapped tight around the head of her walking stick. I squeezed and smiled for her.

“Thank you, Evee. Thank you. And I sincerely hope you do get to meet Maisie, soon. I hope she likes you too.”

Evelyn finally broke, scrunching up her eyes and smothering a wet sob. I almost moved in to hold her, but she waved me off again with a strangled grunt. She only needed the one sob of release, and then almost seemed to clear, breathing hard. She didn’t stop crying, but her face unclenched inside, the effort of will falling away. She let go.

“God, Heather, I’m just so sick of living in fear.”

“I know,” I said, and meant it. “I know. Me too.”

She huffed a humourless laugh and wiped her eyes with the end of her fluffy sleeve. “Of course you know, that’s why I’m telling you. You get it. You’re here with me. God, this has been such a shit few days for me. Actually, scrub that, it’s been shit since the possession, the coma. Fucking bastards almost got me, almost had me. I hate mages, I hate magic, I really fucking do. All of it. Sometimes I wish I could just be like Kimberly, just abandon it.”

“Why don’t you, then?”

Evelyn gave me a heavy-lidded look through lingering tears. “What else good am I? A cripple and a baby.”

“Evee, that’s not true!” I almost yelled at her, caught in the moment, blinking back tears. “Don’t beat yourself up like that, that’s-”

“And because it’s an addiction,” she hissed. “Once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Knowledge, understanding, insight. I could burn all my books and notes and I’d still never stop thinking about it. Easier to stop breathing. Too much my mother’s daughter.”

“Don’t say that,” I said sharply. “You’re not … ”

“It’s a metaphor. I won’t hurt myself, don’t worry. Praem would be inconsolable.” She took a great shuddering breath and looked up at the ceiling. “That man invaded my fucking home, Heather. How can I feel safe?”

“Is he … I’m really sorry to ask again, I do believe you, but is he really that dangerous?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, biting her lower lip in frustration. “I don’t know. I admit it, I don’t know. I want to believe people can be good – that mages are still people – I want to let it go, but I wanted to believe that of my mother too. I wanted it so much. Wanted to believe she actually loved me, kept on wanting to believe it right up till the moment we killed her. But it was never true. She convinced herself too, taught me as if I was going to grow up as her protege, but when it came down to the wire I was just so much fodder, a vessel to be emptied out. But I got her first,” Evelyn grit her teeth. “I got her first. I got her first because I murdered the sentimental lie before she did.”

Evelyn sagged a little after that outburst, put her face in her free hand.

“Evee.” I rubbed her arm.

“I can’t stop, Heather. I can’t stop, because then they’ll get me. One of them, or another. Or something I don’t see coming. And yes, yes I know that’s maybe not one hundred percent true because Felicity, fuck her dead, would open her own jugular if I would forgive her. And Kimberly wouldn’t hurt a fly, and- and- and I can’t. I can’t stop feeling afraid. Don’t you breathe a word of this to anybody.”

“I won’t. Evee, I promise.”

She let go another heavy sigh, and roused herself a little. At least the tears had thinned out in her red-rimmed eyes. “And I can’t say this to Raine,” she grumbled with a cynical half-attempted smile. “Because she’ll grin and promise to protect me, and that doesn’t help.”

“What if you have a whole family protecting you?”

I blurted it out without knowing what I meant, but the moment I said it, I knew it was true.

Evelyn frowned. “What, Praem, and … and Twil, and-” Evelyn huffed, a spark of good humour back in her eyes. “Twil can protect me from getting my head caved in during a bar fight, fine, but she can’t protect me one whit from … all of this.”

“I can,” I said, and blushed instantly bright red, hiccuped like an explosion, but I held Evelyn’s frowning look. “I-I really don’t like to say this sort of thing, but I know I’m more powerful than you, Evee. I can do anything with brainmath, if I want it enough, if I’m willing to endure the pain. And I meant that promise earlier. If we see that mage again – and I do mean ‘see’, I don’t mean he has to attack us first – I will kill him. I will do it in cold blood.”

“Heather, you know you can’t. You’re such a softy, you have to build up to it, you-”

“I’m not. Not anymore. Not what came back from the abyss.” I spoke too fast, tripping over my words. “You’re my pack, Evee. You and Raine and everyone else, and I will kill to protect you. I don’t understand how I’ve done it, because it’s probably never been done before, and it’s abominable, I’m an abomination, but it’s like the abyssal thing I was and the ape I am have joined up bits of their thinking.”  And then, so I didn’t break down with horror at what twisted and curled inside my chest where once a human soul had lain uncorrupted. “I’ll do it, in broad daylight. I will pop him like a balloon, and it’ll get on the national news. Man spontaneously explodes in the middle of a Sharrowford street. Drugs suspected.” I giggled, hiccuped, too close to the edge.

“I can’t let you take that responsibility,” Evelyn sniffed. “Heather, I’m not- you’ve already done so much.”

“Evee, your mother was a monster, and I know you can’t forgive your father. I understand, you don’t have a family, you don’t feel safe. But I will protect you whether you want me to or not, because the instincts I’ve brought back from the abyss have decided that you’re family to me.”

Tears threatened in Evelyn’s eyes again. “Heather-”

“I won’t ask you to call me sister, because that would be really, really weird, I know. But if you did, hypothetically, it would be okay.”

Evelyn almost started crying again. Her face scrunched up and she blinked back a fresh wave of tears. “Fuck off, Heather,” she said, with such affection it hurt.

“No,” I smiled back.

“Oh bugger this, I need a hug. Here.” She shook my hand off and opened her arms. “Arms around my middle back, not shoulders, please.”

We all but fell together. Evelyn clung on tight, small and misshapen and hot and shaking. I was very careful where I put my hands.

“Squeeze harder,” she murmured past my shoulder. “Just keep it low enough- yes. Thank you.”

Eventually she stopped shaking, stopped crying. We held on for another half minute, and then slowly, reluctantly disentangled. She didn’t seem embarrassed, but took a long moment to wipe her eyes and inhale very slowly. I had to scrub my eyes and clear my nose as well.

“So, what are you going to do about Zheng?” she asked, voice a little hoarse, but much more herself again. Evelyn looked calmer than I’d seen her in weeks.

“Wait for her to come home, I suppose, and then … talk to her. I don’t know if she’ll give up the hunt too, it’s different with her, different reasons. We don’t need her for Carcosa, strictly speaking, but I really want her at my side.”

“Mm. Good luck.”

I touched Evelyn’s arm again. She patted my hand.

“Let’s get Sarika out of here,” she said with a tired sigh. “I think we’ve gotten all we’re going to get from her, and after this, I need to go watch some mindless anime about girls drinking tea or something. Care to join me?”

“I’m not quite done with her, yet,” I said slowly, pulling myself back together for one more task. “I need to talk to her. Alone, I think. We have unfinished business.”

“Heather?” Evelyn frowned at me and my heart cringed. “She’s nothing, she’s not dangerous anymore, don’t-”

“No. I’m not going to hurt her. I wouldn’t, there’s no point in punishment for punishment’s sake,” I said quickly. “No. She’s going to help too, whether she likes it or not.”

“Help with what?”

“What else is there?” I smiled, resigned. “Rescuing Maisie.”

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9 thoughts on “by this art you may contemplate – 10.9

  1. I think that Evelyn is perhaps my favorite character, wizard PTSD and all. Of course, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

    • would be Preety hilarious (in a very dark way ) if it turns out her mother actually wasn’t going to kill her.

      But I got her first,” Evelyn grit her teeth. “I got her first. I got her first because I murdered the sentimental lie before she did.”

      this doesn’t exactly describe beating an attack by her mother and not intending to kill Evelyn would make Evelyn and Raine managing to kill her much easier, ambushes work better if the target has no reason to put up extra protections against you after all.

      still fully deserving death considering what she did to Evelyn but Evelyn finding out her mother really DID decide not to use her up and have her inherit everything would be intresting.

    • She is such incredible fun to write, I enjoy her a lot, and someday I hope to give her a story of her own, perhaps. Not quite sure how!

  2. > homnivorism

    This is a great word

    > “Alright,” Evelyn almost purred, subconsciously stroking the notebook’s cover.

    Ok Gollum

    > “If he wanted to leave, why didn’t he just fucking ask?”

    Nice, selective memory:

    > “Mind if I use your front door? S’uh, no other way out. Yeah? Cool, we’re cool, yeah? Yeeeeeah.”

    > “Just mosey on through, yeah?” he said, pointing vaguely through the gateway, toward the door to the kitchen.

    > “Yeah, we cool, dudettes? No probs, no probs, I’ll just let myself out, you know?”

    > “I have no quarrel with you, Saye, or with the demon. Let me leave, and you will never see me again.”

    I’m interested in seeing how Mr. Joking will appear again at some point without getting brainmathed… unless he really does vanish like someone suggested in the previous chapter’s comments. 🙂

    • I actually had to invent ‘homnivorism’ on the spot. Turns out there isn’t a word for eating humans that isn’t just ‘cannibalism’. I almost went with ‘homovorism’ but the gay joke seemed too on the nose.

      Evelyn has a powerfully selective memory when it comes to excuses for killing other mages!

  3. I love these occasional looks into the weird shapes these gals have had to twist their brains into to survive.

    Raine in particular is one of the best purely instinct based characters I’ve ever seen.

    • It is a major theme! Perhaps an emergent one. I do so love characters who’ve had to adopt their minds to the awful contours of the world, and how they can help each other.

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