by this art you may contemplate – 10.10

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“Do you feel any remorse?”

Sarika stared at me across the kitchen tabletop as if she hadn’t heard my question, dull and slack. Quite the anti-climax. I’d spent the last five minutes strapping shoddy supports to an emotional construct of weary courage and battered determination, but my siege engine availed me nothing against an empty fortress.

She blinked slowly, one eye out of sync with the other, lid sticking shut a second too long. Perhaps she was just exhausted.

“Sarika? I said-”

“Heard you, first time,” she croaked.

We were alone in the kitchen, beneath the flat yellow electric light, surrounded by the debris of empty plates and pastry crumbs. The box of eclairs lay between us, a perversely inappropriate centrepiece.

Behind Sarika, the door to the front room stood sensibly shut. An off-white barrier with scuffed corners and thin, old paint, the wood grain showed through beneath. This was the first I’d seen that door closed the whole time I’d lived here. Long ago it had been wedged open against the hard tiles of the kitchen floor, probably decades back, and had since settled with age like the rest of the house. Raine had given it a hard shove – hard even by Raine’s standards – and dislodged the door with a teeth-grating scrape of wood on stone. The hinges had creaked like the gate to Dracula’s castle in a Hammer Horror movie, as Raine had pulled it shut behind her. With one last nodding look of confidence for me, an ‘I know you can do this’ sort of look, Raine had shut us in.

Raine’s faith shamed me. With no idea what I was planning, she believed in me regardless. Evelyn alone knew what I was up to, and her in only the most general terms. She and I had walked back into the kitchen hand-in-hand – though Evelyn had quickly let go and glowered at Raine’s raised eyebrows. Nicole hadn’t wanted to leave Sarika and I alone together, not after the look of frozen fear behind Sarika’s eyes when I’d announced my request for a private audience with our guest.

The detective had tried to find a compromise. Could she stay with us, out of the way, and she’ll be professional and upright and very quiet? No, thank you, because I didn’t want her to witness this. What about Praem, on strict orders not to interfere? But Praem was hardly a neutral third party when it came to the woman who had attempted to orchestrate Evelyn’s death.

In the end I had to explicitly assure Nicole that I wasn’t “out for revenge.”

Saying so made me feel sick, small, and cold. Everyone treated me as if I was some intimidating monster, from Sarika’s defiant glare to Raine’s confident nod, but in truth I felt uncomfortable as I shivered inside my hoodie. Crying with Evelyn had imparted a curious kind of purgative strength to my mind, but it was a fragile strength, soft and nurturing, not for the threat of violence behind closed doors.

So now it was just me, and Sarika. Small noises crept through the house around us, the evening creak of settling beams, the almost imperceptible scuttle of rats in the foundations, the metal clink as Sarika adjusted her crutches. A distant murmur of voices crept from behind the walls – the others, waiting in the old sitting room, or perhaps they’d gone upstairs to frighten Nicole by introducing her to Tenny.

More likely, Raine had her ear pressed to the kitchen door right now, with Lozzie leaning over her shoulder.

I sat in Evelyn’s seat, unhappy with the stack of magical tomes at my elbow. At least Evelyn had taken away the scrimshawed thighbone.

“Take your time to think, if that’s what you need,” I told Sarika’s dull stare. “I will accept whatever answer you give, I just … I do need you to answer.”

Her lips twitched and twisted into a broken sneer as she dug deep into her reserves of spite. One last barbed shot. “Life isn’t a … Saturday morning cartoon. Not gonna fall at your feet, ‘n beg forgiveness.”

I sighed, and didn’t bother to hide it. Should have expected that. The other way would have been easier.

“I know what I did,” she forced out, low and bitter.

My pulse throbbed hard in my throat and I had to clench my hands together inside my hoodie’s front pocket. This was an ugly and dangerous labyrinth to explore, especially when I didn’t really know what I was looking for in Sarika’s answers. I did not wish to ask these things, or think about any of this. All I wanted right now was to go watch silly anime with Evelyn on one side and Lozzie on the other, and stop thinking for the rest of the evening. Evelyn had suggested I would require justification, hard and solid and shining, without a speck of doubt or smudge of indecision. But I could weave a dozen beautiful excuses all by myself, without ever asking. Pure clarity was a lie. Only Sarika knew the truth.

Sarika looked like a bruise which had healed wrong and crusted over. I searched her eyes but found no purchase, greenish grey irises set in sagging exhaustion.

“Was it worth it?” I asked slowly, had to wet my lips, fight to keep my voice steady, stay upright, don’t hunch over and hug myself. Be a little bit scary. “All the dead people? Not your friends in the cult. I mean the strangers, the homeless people, the … the children? The mutated children. Was that worth it?”

A slow, sullen blink.

“Sarika, please.” I found my arms creeping around myself. Should have kept Raine in here, asked her to do this. “Just give me something to go on here, give me-”

“He was right,” she slurred.

Did I even need to ask?

“ … Alexander Lilburne?”

“He was right,” she repeated. “I d-didn’t used to believe in the cause. In all his … high-minded b-bullshit. Project. Transcending human limits. Evolution. Pffft,” she made a weak noise between her lips, rolled her eyes. “Didn’t believe, before, when I did … when I … participated,” she said that word with every ounce of precise enunciation her slack, twitching lips could muster. “Now? Now, I believe. Us,” she gestured at me with a limp flick of her fingers. “Humans, we can’t stand. All it’d t-take is one. One thing from out there. The- the … it-”

She couldn’t even say its name; and the name we gave it wasn’t even the real one. The Eye.

“What it did,” she struggled onward. “Out there, where it … beached itself, c-could happen here. Happen to us.” Her gaze wavered away, and that awful convulsive tic grasped her head and neck again, twitching her skull to the left every few seconds as she grew more agitated. “He used to say … used to … loved metaphors, mm. Used to say we – humans – like a group of c-children, in a cottage, in a dark forest. And we can be s-s-silent, and leave the fireplace cold, and k-keep the door locked. And is t-that any way to live? Didn’t believe that. Being human, human is enough,” she sighed, suddenly heavy in the shoulders, almost on the verge of tears. “Just want to live quiet, never think again. B-but it doesn’t matter how quiet we are. B-because things like you are here.” She stared at me, hate like hot coals. “You k-keep its attention here. On us. All of us. Humans.”

“You hate me for that?”

“Y-you should have gone to it.” Her face twitched with anger, lips quivering, blinking like she couldn’t control her eyelids. “Maybe then it would leave us alone.”

I was hugging myself now, gave up on trying to seem the least bit intimidating. “Nobody gets sacrificed,” I hissed. “Not me, not my sister. I’m going to win, not bargain, not appease. It’s-”

She choked out a laugh, almost aspirating her own saliva. “I’d d-do it again, b-because you can’t win against a G-G-God, you selfish b-bi-”

“And it is fallible,” I spoke over her. “You heard the things I said in your hospital room. It can make mistakes, it’s not a God. It’s not evil, it’s not omnipotent, it’s alien and it’s not a God.”

“I’d k-kill more. Sacrifice a million. To s-shut it all out from our reality.”

My neat little plan had fallen at first contact, and I had rather lost control of the conversation. This was not going the way it was meant to. I forced myself to take a deep breath and close my eyes, because getting more angry at her wouldn’t help.

“Would you sacrifice Lozzie?” I asked, still irritated.

Sarika went cold all over. Her eyes widened. “You- n-no, you- you w-wouldn’t, no, no don’t-”

“What?” I frowned at her, then felt awful, sick down in the pit of my stomach, repulsed as if I’d stepped bare-toed on a slug. “Oh, oh God, you took that as a threat?”

“Y-you-”

“Sarika, Sarika listen to me. You hate me, and frankly I think you should be facing life in prison without parole. But I love Lozzie like a little sister. The whole reason we went to the Sharrowford Cult’s castle in the first place was to save her from her bastard of a brother.” I hiccuped, appalled, grasping for an emotional handhold. “Pardon my language.”

“But … n- … you …”

“I can’t imagine why you care about her, considering how her brother treated her, but no, don’t you dare suggest I would hurt her. That was a rhetorical question, I was trying to illustrate a point. What kind of monster do you think I am?”

Sarika trailed off. Eventually she managed a tiny shrug. “She well?”

“You asked this before, in the hospital. Don’t you recall?”

“Assumed … lie. N-now I’ve seen her.”

“Well, it wasn’t a lie. Lozzie is doing very well, thank you. I can’t save her from Outside, because she wants to go back, she seems to require it, biologically, but wherever I am there will always be a home for her. Why do you care, Sarika? When you were part of the deaths of … a dozen, two dozen children? Why care about her?”

Sarika hung her head and didn’t answer for a long moment. I expected another stubborn refusal, but when she finally spoke, her voice was thick with pain. “Didn’t. Good kid. Deserved better.”

I was no psychologist, but I made my justifications in that moment. Either Sarika cared about Lozzie, or to her Lozzie was a symbol of all she couldn’t admit to herself, all she would never voice, all she’d failed to do.

Or she was an incredible actor and liar. Seemed unlikely.

“What are you trying to convince me of?” she slurred. “Let me r-rot. Let me go home and sleep.”

I sighed again. “I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I’m trying to convince myself..”

Her face twisted into the best sneer she could still pull, but it lacked weight. “What, that I- can atone? Feel? Fuck you. Don’t want your fucking p-pity. Bitch.”

“This isn’t pity. And it’s not forgiveness, either, because forgiveness isn’t mine to give. Oh, for crying out loud, Sarika, you don’t deserve atonement.” I huffed. Now I’d made my decision, I straightened up a bit, felt myself frowning at her, fed up with trying to wring blood from a stone. “You deserve a trial, in a real court. A war crime court. But you won’t ever see that, because this insane private world, the supernatural truth … it’s all so much crap.” I spat that word, my temper fraying, and Sarika seemed taken aback. “And I won’t apologise for that swear word, not that time. It’s no wonder you mages resort to murder and territorialism when there’s no community, no society, nothing, and so much power sloshing around. But I am not going to let my friends become monsters or warlords. We can’t punish you, short of murdering you. And killing you wouldn’t undo what your organisation did, wouldn’t bring anyone back to life. But I’m still going to use you.”

“ … w-what?” Sarika’s skull resumed the compulsive sideways twitch, eyes wide before the first lapping waves of terror.

“I’m going to use you.” I felt far less confident than I sounded. I’d harnessed anger instead of mercy, and that was not healthy. “Stay very still. I don’t know exactly how this will work.”

“What? N-no!” Sarika slurred, lips thick, almost drooling. Hers eyes bulged, complexion turning the grey of rotten porridge. One of her crutches clattered to the floor as she scrabbled at the table in a panicked effort to gain her feet. A scream clawed up her throat “No- n-no! Help! H-”

She wasn’t faster than thought.

Defining Sarika with hyperdimensional mathematics was child’s play – for a demon child spat out of hell’s darkest pit, perhaps. My nose still exploded into a waterfall of crimson, and molten-hot icepicks still jammed through both my eye sockets and straight into my frontal lobe. My brain twisted and screamed as if dunked in boiling water and my guts clenched into a fist as they tried to escape my body, heavy with half-digested biscuits and chocolate eclair swimming in stomach acid.

I’d used this equation once before, but this trick of perception was considerably easier when not distracted by the cacophonous noise of an alien God.

Ripping Sarika from the Eye’s grasp had sent me over the edge and into the abyss, but the definitional equation by itself merely made me bleed from all my face holes and try to vomit up my own kidneys.

A hyperdimensional equation like the heart of a star, a nuclear furnace, compact and dense with a billion overlapping layers of information and meaning. Not as complex as the Eye, in the way one plus one is less complex than Goldbach’s Conjecture, but total comprehension of a single human being was still enough to strain my not-so-human mind like a space shuttle on atmospheric reentry.

The equation defined not only Sarika’s body, but everything else about her.

The time when she was fourteen years old and got in a hair-pulling, face-slapping match with another girl over a boy they both liked; the composition of her gut flora and the time she last had a truly satisfying bowel movement; the exact position of every floater in her vision; the time she was nine and stole ten pounds from her mother’s purse and how she’d lived in fear of being caught for three whole weeks before a tearful confession; the day, hour, and second she’d first had sex and how underwhelming it had felt; the blazing row with a flatmate which had ended in tears; a bad curry she’d once vomited up into a tiny pub toilet.

Too much information. I had a nanosecond in which to act. Any longer risked flirting with the edge of the abyss, not to mention considerable blood loss.

I selected a single kink in the equation, a smeared mess of jumbled parts that the Eye had ruined forever, or I had failed to define properly when I’d ripped her free. A single knot of nerve endings that fed back into each other like a hopelessly tangled fishing line, cross-referenced with a connection between two neurons in her brain.

I barely understood what I perceived.

To write out, on paper, the part of the equation that defined only these scraps of her cellular matter, would fill more tomes than every book in Sharrowford University Library.

In retrospect, what I did to Sarika was wildly irresponsible. I could have caused her a brain hemorrhage, or a convulsive fit, or fed her nerves into the meat-grinder of her own immune system. But her problems were not physical problems. She was riven by kinks and rents and whole bombed-out districts of the soul, of the hyperdimensional mathematics that defined her; if it had been the other way around, Sarika’s issues would be for doctors, not a shaman.

I could not fix her, could not write new math of this complexity – but I could join up what already existed.

And I was done before she finished screaming for help.

“-elp!”

But I was the one who cried out in pain. Face screwed up, blood streaming from my nose, the deep-tissue throb of a headache squeezing my skull in a vice of spiked iron. My stomach gave a great heave and I clenched up so hard that my head bounced off the kitchen table and my chair squeaked back across the tiles. Gasping for breath, throat filling with bile and blood, I lurched up and out of the chair and very almost went sprawling in a heap. I caught the edge of the sink with my useless shaking noodle arms and poured every ounce of strength I possessed into not throwing up.

“Not giving up the eclair,” I burbled – then made a ridiculous noise like a strangled seal, a deep bubbly ‘bleeeeeuuuugghhh’ as I hung over the sink, drooling bloody saliva.

I was vaguely aware of the kitchen door creaking open behind me, somebody saying my name, other hurried words, a hand on my shoulder. My vision swam in and out as I watched crimson drip from my face, little red splashes all over the stainless steel.

But I didn’t vomit.

Restraining my body’s natural rejection of hyperdimensional mathematics apparently caused a great deal more bleeding than before. My eyes were gummed with bloody tears, the nosebleed wouldn’t stop, and a sticky wet sensation oozed out of my ear canals, making the headache worse. As I spat and dribbled bloody mess, a familiar hand reached past me to turn the tap on.

“Raine?” I croaked.

“Hey, hey, don’t try to talk,” she murmured, and her hands were already on me, holding me up so my knees didn’t give out, wiping my face with a wet flannel, helping me blow my nose – blood-laced mucus, lovely – and lifting a glass of cold water to my lips to force me to sip. As my vision cleared I caught Raine’s expression, a lopsided smile, almost but not quite exasperated. She caught me looking and winked. “Should’a had me in here for this.”

“S’fine,” I croaked. “I’m fine. Held onto my- food.”

“You did, yeah.” She smiled wider, hand on the back of my neck, massaging the mathematics out of my brain. If we’d been alone I would have buried my face in her boobs to make it all go away. “Well done, I mean it, well done, Heather. Did it work?”

I hadn’t looked at the result of my handiwork yet, and for one horrible moment I thought I might slide my eyes across the kitchen to find Sarika replaced by a pile of exploded guts. But there she was, right where I’d left her, slumped in her chair and still looking like an unhealed bruise, still slack-faced and struggling to breathe properly and mustering up a scowl at me.

Behind her, the kitchen door stood wide open. Lozzie and Nicole peered through, one face an impish smile and the other politely alarmed. Evelyn stood much further back in the front room, leaning on her walking stick. Her eyes met mine and she nodded once. Approval. I wasn’t sure if that was good or not.

“You don’t even know what I was doing,” I croaked at Raine.

“If you were doing it, it must have been a good idea.” She winked at me, and helped me back to the chair.

“Am I the only one concerned about Heather doing more super-magic?” Nicole added from the doorway. “Blood magic, brain super powers, whatever the hell you call it. You said Sarika was safe in there with you, don’t make me take her back to her parents in pieces.”

“Safe,” I croaked.

“What d-did you d-do to me?” Sarika slurred.

“Shut the door,” I croaked. “This is … private. Please. Raine, you too.”

Raine considered me for a moment, indulgent but guarded behind her eyes as she stood by my chair. “You gonna do more brainmath?”

“No. Done.”

Raine stared at me, then at the doorway, then at Sarika. Then back at me. “I will close my ears, and be your hands.”

“Hey, no,” Nicole said. “If she’s staying in the room, then so am I.”

“Please,” I croaked. “Just leave me to-”

“What did you do to me?” Sarika hissed, face twitching, blinking out of sync.

“Heathy-Heaths!” Lozzie whispered, big smile. “Wow!”

“Lozzie,” I moaned, “no. Please, all of you-”

“I’m not leaving while you might slide out of your chair,” said Raine.

“Bitch,” Sarika spat, spittle on her lips. “What did you-”

“You and I need to talk about the Eye,” I almost shouted at her.

She flinched, very hard, shrinking back in her seat as if slapped in the face. Her hands fluttered up to her chest, eyes going wide, mouth moving without sound.

And nothing happened. No spasm. No closing of the throat. No curled up pain running sharp fingers across her soul.

She still shook like a leaf, and sucked down great lungfulls of air, and cried small, broken tears for half a minute. She stared at me in utter loss.

“You fixed her?” Nicole asked.

“No,” Evelyn supplied from the front room. She understood already.

“No. I can’t take away actual post-traumatic stress disorder,” I told Sarika in a bloody croak. “I can’t fix your mind, or your body, only pieces of your soul. Even if I could, I think Evelyn would have you killed if you were fully capable again. I suspect this kind of work is the best I can do.”

“No.” Sarika squinted, spite and suspicion heavy in struggling eyes. “No. N-no, why?”

I tried to ignore everyone else as much as I could. Raine’s hand found the back of my neck again, squeezing and kneading.

“You were with the Eye for a few hours at most,” I said. “My twin sister has been out there for ten years, and I have to accept there’s very little chance she’s remotely human anymore. We spoke in the abyss, and I certainly wasn’t human down there. She may not have a physical body, she could be so deeply integrated with the Eye I have to tear it apart to reach her. She could be … anything. I have fixed one small part of you, because when I bring her back here, I will make her whole again, human or not. And that means I need to know how. I need practice.”

“ … I’m y-your- your test subject?”

I nodded. “We can do it again. Not today, not now, I’m spent and if I go again I might lose my eclair, and that would be really disappointing.” I sniffed and wiped my nose on the back of my hand and found more blood. Raine wiped it away for me. “Next I think I can do that tic, the twitch in your head. I think that’s fixable, maybe.”

Sarika didn’t know how to respond. Her face was trapped between bitter hope and deep spite.

“You hate me, fine,” I went on, with courage born of exhaustion and pain. “But you’re going to help me because it’s the right thing to do and you need to start doing right things. You’re never going to atone, it’d take you the rest of your life. That castle is full of bodies, of murdered homeless people. They need to be buried, or marked, or given something to show they mattered. Identification, we can’t do that, but we can give them a burial. And I’m going to make you walk again because you’re going to hold a spade and dig some graves.”

The spoonful of sugar. I was honestly amazed that I managed to keep that part of the plan in place when sagging with post-brainmath exhaustion. The implicit promise that I’d fix some of what was wrong with her, that perhaps one day she would walk unaided, was more than she deserved. The compromise made me faintly sick.

Sarika made a soft sound with her mouth, and I couldn’t tell if was scepticism or derision. “Don’t w-want your pity, you-”

Hadn’t worked. I expected panic, but I just got angry.

“I am not going to fix you,” I almost shouted before she could spit, my justifications spilling out like rotting intestines from a slit belly. “I am not going to make you better. I am not going to be your friend, or your saviour, or your redeemer. I don’t pity you, I think you should be dead, but that wouldn’t help anybody. I am not appealing to your better nature, which I’m still not sure exists. Nobody deserves the Eye, you said it yourself. That goes for my sister too. You’ll never atone, but you can start here, with me, and with Maisie. You’re going to help me, like it or not.”

Sarika’s spite fell apart in her hands. She stared at me so hard her gaze went through me.

“You are the only other person I know of to escape the Eye,” I said more gently. “It taught me, but you were in it. You were part of it, being used, like a tool. And now I’ve broken whatever part of your soul was flinching at it, so we can talk about it without silly euphemisms.” Sarika shrank in on herself as I spoke, shaking her head back and forth, shivering and twitching. Nicole moved forward to make sure she wasn’t going to choke on her own malfunctioning muscles, but my work had been good, precise, successful. “You were inside it, you must know something.”

“B-b-b … bits and … pieces- I can’t, I can’t, no, no I don’t want to think about it.” Her voice sounded like a little girl. I hardened my heart; didn’t quite work.

“But I need you to push through the trauma yourself,” I said, and hated my words. “I can’t fix that. I need you to tell me everything you know about it, every last scrap you gleaned from the inside, anything, anything at all. Because if I am going to beat this thing, I must know it.”

With agonising slowness, Sarika bobbed her head, almost imperceptible, once. A nod.

And so we began.

==

Zheng came home two days later, and upended my heart.

In the dead of night, I stirred in the enclosing arms of sleep – actually Raine’s arms, wrapped around me from behind, one across my body from hip to collarbone as if to anchor us together, which I should have taken as a sign to stay right where I was – woken by a lingering sound on the edge of perception. Lying still and warm and snuggled up under the bed covers with Raine pressed against my back, bleary eyes staring blind into the dark, I heard nothing except the gurgle of pipes and the creak of old beams and Raine’s steady breathing.

But my body knew Zheng was close.

More a feeling, not a sound. A tingling in my scalp and deep in the base of my belly and tight between my legs. Like I was something soft and vulnerable wedged beneath the safety of a rock, and my pack-mate had slid up alongside in the oceanic darkness, unseen but known by taste and scent.

My phantom limbs were already trying to pull the covers back, to disentangle myself from Raine, to roll her – gently, lovingly – onto her back so I could spring free and scramble downstairs.

With heart thumping and hands shaking and a trembling smile on my lips, I did wriggle free of Raine’s embrace and out into the chill air, dancing on cold tiptoes through my thick, borrowed socks. She mumbled and groped for me, and I made some soft-voiced excuse I couldn’t remember two seconds later. I probably told her the truth, I was so breathless and excited. Fumbling the nearest of Raine’s jumpers over my head – big and black and comfy – stumbling into the corridor, creeping down the stairs into the front room in record-time, head still groggy with sleep, phantom limbs pawing at the banister as I almost tripped over the cuffs of my pajama bottoms, I couldn’t have stopped if I’d wanted to.

“Zheng?” I hissed into the darkness, hugging myself through the thick jumper.

A grunt – low, muffled around a mouthful of food – answered from the yawning darkness of the kitchen. The lights were off. A vague hulking shape adjusted itself in the veil of shadows.

I scurried into the kitchen, my abyssal side trying to bounce and pant like a puppy, but a small voice in the back of my head set alarm bells ringing.

Why did the air smell like hot iron?

But there she was, a shadow on shadows, details impossible to make out against the night pouring in through the window. No moon tonight. The faintest backwash of Sharrowford’s light pollution outlined Zheng’s muscular frame, booted feet up on the kitchen table, head high. She held a ragged mass in both hands, and crunched her jaw through a mouthful of food before swallowing.

“Shaman,” she purred, with relish and affection.

“Zheng! Zheng, oh it is you, I knew it.” I slapped for the light switch, laughing with relief. “I could feel it in my belly like a-”

Lights guttered on. My laugh died with the sound a squeaky dog toy might make if squashed with a road roller.

Zheng had made a most atrocious mess.

A massive hunk of raw, bloody meat lay across one end of the table, still dripping, little white bones visible poking up through torn flesh. Zheng held part of the kill, gore smeared all over her hands, glazing her mouth and jaw with crimson, blood and meat scraps in her teeth as she grinned that shark’s grin.

For a moment I thought she’d gotten her man, and brought part of him home. Like a cat.

Then I blinked and saw the grey-stippled, brownish fur, and the single, forlorn hoof sticking out at one end. Perhaps one quarter of unfortunate ungulate lay extremely dead on the kitchen table. A piece of the back end. Rump meat.

“Shaman,” Zheng repeated, and sighed low to see me, like granite rubbing granite. She ripped another handful of raw meat off her prey and shoved it into her mouth, shredding and swallowing. “You are a good sight.”

The Heather of six months ago would have screamed her head off. The Heather of two months ago might have been quietly horrified, if she could hold her nerve.

“Oh, that is going to leave such a stain,” I said, and sighed at the state of the table. “Evelyn will go berserk. Praem will have your head.”

Zheng rumbled out a chuckle, and showed me even more bloodstained teeth. “Let them try. Perhaps the young one will learn an appreciation for flesh.” She waved a piece of torn meat and cartilage at me. “A bite, shaman?”

“Oh, goodness, no, it’s raw! It’s unhygienic! It’s alright for you, miss iron stomach, but I’m human.” I couldn’t stop a smile regardless, this was so silly. “Zheng!”

“Could roast it,” she purred, and worried another morsel of meat free from the chunk of carcass. Zheng extended her tongue out by an eye-watering seven or eight inches, and used it to snatch the meat back into her mouth. “Need to get a fire going, though.”

“Besides, deer are protected. This is poaching, at best. Zheng!”

Zheng purred, pleased with herself, like the cat that got the cream.

Being near her felt wonderful, this giant of a woman, this demon riding a very old human corpse, looking as flushed with vitality as a Greek Goddess of war and cannibalism and dubious sexual acts. She rippled beneath her clothes as she adjusted her weight in the kitchen chair, those beautifully sharp eyes watching me with the languid ease of a predator at rest. She was absolutely filthy, hair greasy and matted and still a little crusted from the weird alien snot she’d gotten covered in days ago. Her clothes, her jumper, jeans, all looked as if she’d been crawling around in a gutter. The scent of her cut through the iron-blood smell, a thick spice of her sweat in the air.

The abyssal side of me relaxed just to be near her. A knot of tension released, somewhere deep in the hollow space inside my chest. I laughed at myself, helpless.

“Funny, shaman?”

“Yes. Yes, Zheng, what can I say? You’re vastly unhygienic, you obviously haven’t washed in days and I wish you would, you’ve made a huge mess, you’re covered in blood, and I- I like you being here. I like it. It makes me feel … well … ” I trailed off, blushing, still heavy with sleep, but not quite able to say what I really meant. “It’s mad. I’m completely mad.”

“Same, shaman.”

“I’m not unhygienic, thank you very much.”

Good cover, Heather, well done. Top notch. Idiot. Zheng wrenched another handful of meat free, then just bent forward to take a bite directly out of the dead deer, teeth sharper than knives. My stomach did a little flip, and not in a good way. I had to put a hand over my mouth and briefly avert my eyes.

“I wish I had a way to contact you, if you’re going to stay out for so long,” I said. “We need to buy you a mobile phone or something.” I gestured at the bloody haunch on the table, still unwilling to step closer lest I somehow get smeared with gore. “Why bring this back here?”

Zheng blinked at me, very slowly, and didn’t have to say a word as she chewed through a particularly tough knot of gristle. I blushed, considerably less slowly.

We stayed in companionable silence for a long moment. Well, silence with a backing of crunching and chewing noises as Zheng worked her way through another few pounds of venison. Warmth glowed from my core. I felt like hugging myself, wrapping my arms around my own head in a paroxysm of childish glee, and compromised by putting both hands to my mouth. And I caught Raine’s scent from the sleeves of her jumper.

“So,” I said, swallowing down nerves as I ruined the moment. “You didn’t get him, then?”

Zheng stopped chewing.

She gave me a look to freeze the blood. Eyes heavy lidded and sharp as time, mouth a set line in a clenched jaw. Only overwhelming attraction and abyssal adoration stopped me from wetting myself right there on the spot.

“Um,” I squeaked.

Then she let out a sigh like a rusty bellows. “No, shaman. I did not.”

“Oh. Oh, right. Yes. Obviously. Sorry. I’m sorry.” I swallowed twice and had to manually locate my lungs.

“Don’t be. Not you, shaman.” She rolled a shrug and went back to eating.

“ … do you … I mean, I hope you don’t mind me asking another question?” Zheng shook her head. “Well, do you really think he’s somebody from your past? Somebody who kept you enslaved?” That word set my guts churning. “God, if he is, I hope he … expires.”

Zheng barked a laugh, and spoke between mouthfuls of meat. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe the yoshou is correct and it is all a trick. Or maybe a very old wizard can change his face, his scent, the taste of his flesh. Or maybe we hunt a ghost.”

“He did vanish, didn’t he? Twil said he just turned invisible, or disappeared.”

“Mmm.”

Zheng leaned forward and ripped a final mouthful of raw meat from her kill, tilting her head up and scarfing it down like a komodo dragon. She pushed back from the table and stood up, all seven feet of her flexing muscles and and rolling shoulders and rotating her neck from side to side. She made claw shapes with her bloodied fingers and cracked all her knuckles. As she spoke she watched the lines on her palms.

“I do not fail in a hunt, shaman. Prey does not escape me. I once tracked a wizard – a real one, not these pale shadows, but a Song traitor at the height of his power – through the southern jungles. Four days of running, and he made the jungle fight me at every step. By the final moves he was dehydrated, starving, and a rot had gotten at his feet inside his sodden boots. He summoned his od tsus sorogch. And I ate it.” She grinned wide in ecstatic memory, then let the grin die a slow death. “This wizard, this Welshman, his scent lingers in places he has not been. He taunts with his visage and disappears like mist before sunlight. I have found him six times and six times he turns to so much dust and echoes. He refuses battle. He is a ghost.”

I could barely think of anything to say to that. One day I needed to sit down with a notebook and ask Zheng for her memories.

“He’s still in Sharrowford?”

“Here, then Manchester. Either way I will find him and eat his heart.” Then she grinned over at me, shark-teeth on display. “Shaman, you revitalise me. Your health is my health. Your appetites, mine. Your body, my temple. Your heart-” She cut off suddenly, the grin frozen for a second before flickering wider. “Back to the hunt.”

The giant demon-host turned to go, toward the utility room and the back door.

“You can’t just leave all this mess here,” I said. Zheng looked back, eyebrow raised. “On the table, I mean. And you can’t just drop in and leave again, not without … a … ” I half raised my arms in a hopeless gesture. “Oh, but you’re filthy,” I muttered. “I can’t.”

“Shaman?”

I let out a huge sigh and pressed my hands to my face. “I’m stalling for time because I have something difficult to ask you,” I admitted all in a rush. “And I’m doing that by avoiding a totally different subject which is marginally more difficult to discuss because it’s embarrassing and emotional. Yes, well done, Heather,” I said out loud. “Excellent plan, why don’t we get stuck in with both hands, really mess this up? Sometimes I’m as bad as Evee.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, dead flat, almost made me laugh. I did try, but it came out dry and brittle.

“Zheng, I need to let you know something,” I said, and she turned fully back around to face me, tilted her head to one side. Why were my palms going clammy? “It’s only fair I let you know. You’re part of this too, part of me- mine- my-” I gave up, that one was too complex to unpick. “We’ve decided – that is, Evelyn, Raine, and I, and the others – to give up on hunting this mage.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “A waste of your time.”

I sighed with awful, cringing relief. “Yes, yes exactly. It would be a terrible waste of time and resources when we’ve got so much to do. I can’t let another week go by while we search for a man who we might never see again, not while my sister needs me. Needs us. Me and my friends. And-”

“Then I hunt, shaman.”

“-and you,” I finished over the top of her.

Zheng went very still.

“We’re going to Carcosa,” I rattled on, nerves screeching a warning up my spine. “The experiment on Saturday morning, and then the actual trip in the afternoon. Evelyn’s been so busy, warding the castle, and adding more wards to the house as well. It’s a wonder you didn’t set anything off, actually. I suppose you just slipped the lock on the back door, didn’t you? Physical barriers and all that and-”

“Shaman.” Zheng stared at me, unreadable, dark eyes like knives.

My bowels quivered.

“Will you-” my mouth was dry as a abandoned bone. “Will you come with me? To Carcosa? I would feel so much safer, so much happier, with you at my side. I’m sure Raine will protect me, but we’re going somewhere that isn’t … human, and … well … I-I mean, I’m not asking you to call off your hunt. Or, no, okay, I sort of am.” I hiccuped once, so loudly it made me wince. “I’m sorry. I know, i-it’s your right to want to kill this man, this mage, if he … yes. B-but Zheng, I … I want you to help, I need you, I-”

Zheng was on me in two footsteps of flicker-blink motion.

She moved so fast that I flinched about a foot backward, bumped into the wall, and had to clamp a hand over my mouth to smother a scream. She slammed a hand into the kitchen wall over my head, boxed me in, towered above me, our bodies inches apart. Later on, I could find no dent in the plaster beneath her bloody hand print, so Zheng couldn’t possibly have used her full strength, but at the time my mind heard a slam. She vibrated with each heavy breath, blood all over her mouth and teeth, eyes boring into me.

It was like the moment we’d met, all over again – but this time Zheng was not flushed with playful predation, nor the heady euphoria of sudden freedom, nor delicate gratitude toward her natural prey. 

“Z-Zheng-” I squeaked.

“You cannot say those words to me,” she rumbled, and I almost wet myself for real.

Zheng lowered her face toward me. Shark’s teeth lurked behind lips curling into a pained grin. She smelled of raw meat and iron blood, and hot, head-swimming spice on sun-warm skin. I cringed back into the wall as if it might swallow me up, and the only thing that kept me standing was the promises we’d made and the certainty that Zheng would not hurt me. My mind knew that; my body did not. Half of me screamed predator with all the force of a savanna ape cornered by a saber-toothed tiger, while my abyssal half writhed in something close to pleasure. I opened my mouth and out came a wordless squeak.

“I am denied the meat of my foes,” Zheng purred. “And I am denied you, little bird. What direction do I turn? Tell me. Order me.”

Heat radiated from her skin. She ran so hot I could feel her through both our clothes, like a banked fire inside a furnace.

She dipped her head in ever closer, and my heart climbed up out of my chest and into my throat and burst like fireworks inside my head. One of her hands brushed my jawbone, and out rolled the full length of her tongue, twelve inches sliding from her mouth only to snap back through her teeth before it could lap at the stain she’d left on my cheek. Her breath touched my lips, hot and stinking of meat and spice and Zheng and she was inching closer and closer and I wanted it and-

“Bath,” I squeaked.

Zheng stopped. Our eyes stared right into each other.

“Bath. You need a bath,” my voice quivered through profound paralysis. “And brush your teeth. It’s unhygienic. I could get very ill.”

My inane but practical suggestion broke the spell. Zheng pulled away almost as fast as she’d pinned me, a huge face-ripping grin on her lips as she laughed and laughed and laughed, kicking her shoes off and striding out of the kitchen into the darkness of the front room. A second later, soft footsteps mounted the stairs.

Shaking all over, head pounding with my own pulse, barely able to suck breath through my closing throat, I peeled myself off the wall.

I had to get out of there. I needed to scrub Zheng’s bloody fingerprints off my jawline and scurry back upstairs and slip into bed with Raine and hide and hide and hide. Zheng would go back to her hunt and we could pretend none of this had happened.

So why did I stay?

With shaking hands and shuddering breath, I cleaned the deer blood from my face, over the kitchen sink. Hot water sluiced through the pipes upstairs, and I tried not to think about Zheng in the shower as I wiped her crimson hand print from where she’d slapped the wall. I dug out antibacterial spray and gave it a proper once over. I stared at the raw meat on the table and the drippings on the floor, and did my best with some kitchen towel and a little bleach solution, as the water upstairs shut off. I prayed quietly that all the soft noises had woken Raine and she’d found me missing and was going to come downstairs and take me back to bed.

Zheng gave me almost twenty minutes, and I wasted all of them. By the time she padded back down the stairs with the silence of a stalking panther, I wasn’t even cleaning anymore. I was just standing there in the middle of the kitchen, shivering softly, consumed with guilt, flushed inside.

She’d adopted silence, perhaps hoping I’d gone, so she could slip back out into the night, and the hunt.

“Zhe- … oh.” My breath failed on her name as her rippling body stepped back into the kitchen lights.

Zheng was half naked. Thank whatever twisted Gods cared to grace me that we’d purchased her more than one change of clothes, because at least she’d shrugged herself into another one of those huge baggy dark jumpers she liked, but other than underwear – a pair of shorts – she was naked from the waist down, huge toned thighs of buttery smooth chocolate-red exposed to my overheating brain. And she was so clean, hair fluffy and damp, smelling faintly of soap.

She wasn’t smiling.

She stared at me for a quarter of a second, then took three paces and grabbed me around the middle and lifted me bodily into the air. I let out a very different kind of squeak, and Zheng planted my bottom on the edge of the kitchen table – thankfully not in the remaining blood from her gruesome meal – so she didn’t have to lean down so far. Before I could protest or push her back or even fully appreciate the deep flush in her cheeks, she kissed me.

Full on the mouth. Wet, hot, the taste of spice in her saliva, an electric tingle in my throat – and minty toothpaste.

No blood, no meat. At least she’d taken me seriously about getting sick from raw venison.

Zheng’s kiss was urgent and rough, which both immolated me on a pyre of my own arousal and terrified me. Her tongue, that thick foot-long tentacle, slid past my lips, and for a moment of wide-eyed horror I thought she was going to shove it down my throat, but she refrained from at least that.

But I did respond. Oh I did. On instinct. How could I not? I was painfully aware this was like kissing a fistful of knives, that behind those lips were teeth that could bite clean through my tongue, but I responded with the merest flicker of my own lips and she pushed me backward onto the table. Her knee wormed in between my legs until I was almost riding it. I shook all over, panting through my nose, tears filling my eyes, trying to speak through the kiss.

And she pulled back, let me go, as the word spilled out from me.

“-n-no, no- … n- … ” I blinked at her, flushed molten in the face, shaking all over like I was about to have a fit. “Z-Zheng?”

“You said no, shaman.” A purr, level and soft, though her eyes smoldered.

My brain had reverted to some pre-human state. It took me a long time to locate my vocal chords. “ …wh- … what?”

“You said no. You were trying to say it into my mouth.” Zheng pulled a smile – not a grin, but the softest smile I’d ever seen from her. “I won’t force you, shaman.”

I broke. Badly. Crying, shaking my head, stuck in a loop. Zheng kept pulling back, straighted up, one hand affectionately on my head, fingers in my bedhead hair. “I-I-I can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t betray Raine,” I babbled. “I- no- no, no, I can’t. Zheng, we can’t- I- I wanted, I want-” Shaking my head more, blinking up at her through tears, hot and still aroused, my feet dangling off the table, wrapped in Raine’s clothing, my abyssal side half-entangled with the ape and purring back at Zheng and I wanted her to kiss me again but also I didn’t and there was no way through this minefield and I was stuck. “Zheng, I want you, but not like this.”

That was a lie, and she knew it. I knew she knew. We all knew. Everybody knew that Heather Morell was hopelessly in love – or lust, at least – with two different people, both of them monsters, and she was stuck, stuck, stuck.

“Please,” I whined, arms out to Zheng.

She obliged, in a very different manner to the previous way. Zheng picked me up like a crying child, one arm under my backside, the other around my back and head, as I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and my legs around her waist and clung to her. She was so warm, like she’d been lying in the sun. And my abyssal side felt, for the first time since I’d returned from the deep dark beyond reality, truly at peace.

Zheng carried me into the dark. I buried my face in her shoulder and closed my eyes and went limp in her grip. It was only after a moment that I realised she was taking me upstairs, and I began to panic again.

“Where-” I had time to hiss, before Zheng opened the door to my bedroom and ducked beneath the frame. In the dark, Raine bolted upright in bed, a mere shape against the bed covers. One of her hands shot out and knocked something off her bedside table, and came around holding a knife.

“It’s me!” I hissed. “It’s me!”

“What- Heather?” Sleep dropped from Raine in an instant. Then, less softly: “Zheng?”

Zheng stepped forward and dumped me onto the bed. I bounced. She laughed. “This is yours, yoshou!”

I was shaking with guilt and burning with arousal as Raine’s hands found me. I couldn’t see her expression, but I could feel the confusion as she slid an arm around my back, as she smelled Zheng on me, the spice of her on my breath. I clung to Raine now, and I knew in my bones that the second Zheng left the room, I was going to jump Raine. I was going to drink her scent and her taste and shove myself at her even if I didn’t want to – and I did want to. Nothing could have stopped me.

Zheng turned to leave, a shadow giant in the night.

“To Carcosa, shaman,” she purred.

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15 thoughts on “by this art you may contemplate – 10.10

  1. Ah, not fair. Heather is loyal to Raine but the abyssal creature is all on team Zheng.
    Back to the Sarika interview, it seems they never figured out who Splat was. Now it seems an obvious candidate for Splat would be Amy, but no-one even suggested that, and I don’t think so either.
    November is such a Katalepsis month. Boost it here http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis

    • Miss Stack certainly does seem too shrewd and cautious to get herself in the firing line of some magical bullshit. More of get paid and get out sort of person, though it does raise the question of why she was involved at all.

      Thank you for all the votes! I appreciate your continued support very much!

  2. If Zheng teaches Praem to eat meat the way that Zheng does, that would make Praem kind of terrifying. Standing around quiet and prim and proper, hands folded neatly, jaws and maid outfit covered in blood.

    I suppose she could achieve a similar effect with enough strawberries. 🙂

  3. HAAAAA NO IM ALL CAUGHT UP!!!! WHAT WILL I DO WITH MY EYES NOW, HOW DOES ONE “WAIT” FOR CHAPTERS?!?!
    Seriously though, read this whole thing in 2 weeks loving every line. Thank you for your work.

    • You are very welcome indeed! I’m always delighted to read about readers enjoying the story, this is the whole reason I do this. Thank you so much, and I hope you stick around for more!

    • Maybe they can find a way to make it end well!

      Or maybe not. I don’t think any of them have any idea what they’re doing, how to achieve it, or how not to make a huge mess on the way.

  4. And all caught up to the latest arc – or I would be if you had just not posted the start of 11!

    Personally I felt like this was a bit of a breather again. I guess it’s up in the air how much of an obstacle Mr. Three Person’s is going to be. I’ve got to wonder if he is someone from outside the city trying to move in, or if Evee underestimated another of the locals.

    And Heather’s resolve to Raine from last arc takes its first blow. Will they manage to deal with this in a healthy way? Probably not, but hopefully things work out anyway!

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this story a lot. I’m not sure how else to word it, but its been a delight to catch up these past couple of weeks!

    • I’m really happy to hear you’ve been having so much fun! That’s the whole reason I do this; readers enjoying the story is why I write. Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy reading more of the story in the future!

      I can promise there will be more movement in the Raine plot this arc, one way or the other.

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