“This train terminates at Sharrowford! Alighting passengers, don’t forget your luggage! Mind the gap between the carriage and the platform!”
Seven pairs of feet scuffed and stumbled on the familiar wooden floor of Evelyn’s workshop, as reality swelled and fattened around our senses like a dry sponge soaked in swamp water. Human smells and human sights and – blessed be, thank God, thank Maisie and the Eye and anything else that cared to listen – human scale. Kimberly bolted up from the sofa in a clatter of books and papers falling from her lap. Raine’s hand squeezed mine too hard, clammy and cold and clinging. Somebody groaned like they’d been gut-punched.
Lozzie was the only one giggling at her own joke.
She wriggled free from our circle of hard-grip safe passage. The engine of our split-second journey home skipped across the workshop and did a perfect, fluttering curtsy with the hem of her poncho.
“Aaaaaand the local time is-”
With a playful smirk and a toss of her braid and a sideways roll of heavy-lidded eyes, Lozzie threw the rest of the line to Kimberly.
“Uh, Lauren, I-I t-think,” Kimberly stammered. “I think everyone needs help.”
She wasn’t wrong.
We’d taken the return Slip for granted. Lozzie was supposed to tap her heels together and whisk us all back to normality and drizzling rain and a hastily ordered takeaway dinner. Like stumbling in from a storm to the radiators turned up full and the smell of cooking on the stove top and a warm hug to welcome you home.
More fool us. Lozzie and I could Slip with impunity, but neither of us were fully human anymore. Had I been human at all, since the day the Eye took my sister and I? For human minds or trying-to-be-human-minds, unprepared by prior experience or cushioned by the spiritual calluses of hyperdimensional mathematics, the translation across the membrane from Outside was, to put it lightly, an unkind experience.
At least I’d shouted for everyone to close their eyes.
Our circle of shoulder-to-shoulder handholding solidarity fell apart – literally, in Zheng’s case. As Lozzie finished her little joke, the giant demon-host lost her grip on Raine’s shoulder and toppled over like a felled tree. She sat on the floor in a great heap, shaking her head as if trying to clear a cloud of flies.
Twil bent double, squeezed her eyes shut, and came audibly close to losing the contents of her stomach. She whined, high-pitched and pitiful, more hound than human, shaking hard as if she’d been plunged into ice water. Raine appeared to fare better, but appearances didn’t last. She ripped her hand out of mine, dropped her makeshift shield with a clang, and tore her heavy motorcycle jacket off her shoulders as if it was on fire. She flung it down after the shield, shuddering all over, her tshirt beneath soaked through with cold sweat. I reached for her but she held up a hand to ward off any touch at all, closing her eyes and forcing slow, deep breaths.
Praem and Evelyn were almost okay – they’d both been through a Slip before, Evelyn while terrified and exhausted – but Praem dropped the sports bag and the rest of our expedition equipment in a great clatter on the floor, then stood stock-still, staring at her own hands. She hadn’t suffered so when I’d Slipped the pair of us to Carcosa and back before; was Lozzie’s technique so much worse? Meanwhile, Evelyn’s face turned a most fascinating shade of rotten grey-green. She stumbled back and fell into a chair, grunting in pain and flinching at the hip, then put both hands on the handle of her walking stick and lowered her forehead to rest against her knuckles.
And me? Well, I was an old hand at trans-dimensional re-entry.
Despite the dragging exhaustion of two rounds of aborted brainmath, I should have leapt into action. I should have fetched chocolate and water, should have helped Twil up when she sat down in a heap and groaned like she wanted to be sick, should have checked that Zheng was actually still alive, should have patted Evelyn on the back and spoken to her.
The show must go on, Saldis had said, before we’d left.
Instead, shuddering and shaking and still bloody in the face, I tried to look everywhere at once, and prayed I would not spy a scrap of hidden yellow.
“Oh, Goddess, what-” Kimberly stammered. “What happened, what-”
“Raine-” I clutched for her arm. “Are you-”
“No, it’s alright, back in a sec,” Raine said, and then went into the kitchen to be loudly sick into the sink. Bless her, even after vomiting up cereal bars and energy drink, caked in her own cold sweat with her tshirt clinging to her, she returned with water and tissues, to help clean the rest of the blood off my face.
“We need, uh, chocolate, right? That’s the trick for this feeling. Yeah?” Raine roused herself further, as Kimberly flapped about and Lozzie blinked at everyone as if she didn’t understand why we were hurting. “Everyone alright, yeah? All accounted for?”
A chorus of grunts, grumbles, and one soft “Present” from Praem.
“Left hand, you stroked out or what?” Raine asked.
“Here, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled, eyes shut.
“Oh, oh no,” Lozzie was biting her lip as we all fell about like a bunch of hungover college students. “I thought I did it proper. I thought I did it right?”
“You did,” I croaked, clinging to Raine with one claw-like hand. “S’okay. S’not your fault.”
“Can we come back by gate next time?” Twil burbled.
We spent almost ten minutes just sitting around, trying to feel normal again. Kimberly and Lozzie pitched in to fetch painkillers, water for everyone, and – at Evelyn’s mumbled suggestion – chocolate. Lozzie spent several minutes almost literally clambering over Zheng to check she was still working, still here, not suffering some sort of body-soul disconnection. Raine made sure I wasn’t about to fall over or pass out, then helped peel the shuddering, sweat-soaked werewolf out of her coat and hoodie, Twil huffing and puffing all the while.
“Gerroff-” Twil eventually grumbled, shaking off the help once she was down to her tshirt, hints of her dark tattoos visible just under the lilac hem. She staggered to her feet and cast around the room, gums peeled back, too many sharp teeth in her mouth, transformation bristling as half-dismissed mist of fur and claw.
“Woah, Twil?” Raine asked, hands up.
“Where is it, then?” Twil growled. “We were followed, right? Where’s the sheet-ghost bitch?”
“I-” I swallowed. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything yet.”
“She was lying,” Evelyn croaked.
Twil blinked at her. So did I.
“The woman, the mage,” Evelyn explained with a heavy sigh. When she raised her face from her knuckles, she looked exhausted, drained, done, very small in her coat with overflowing pockets. “Saldis. She was lying.”
“Yeah, cool, okay,” Twil said between panting breaths. “What if you’re wrong? What if something followed us back? What if something piggybacked on Heather? On you? Evee, that thing was reaching for you and you want me to calm-”
“There’s nothing here but us,” Evelyn said.
“Are you certain?” I whispered, and meant ‘please be right’. Raine must have heard the tone in my voice, because despite her own slow recovery, she dumped Twil’s coat and hoodie on the floor, and returned to put her arm around my shoulders.
“How can you know for sure?” Twil was saying, outraged. “How can you-”
“There are two spider-servitors in this very room,” Evelyn said, with grinding certainty. I could tell she was trying to calm herself first and foremost. “Programmed to take apart anything which shouldn’t be in here. This entire house is one of the most heavily-warded locations in the whole of England, wards laid down by my grandmother. Nothing has followed us. Nothing is here. If it was, I would know, it would be like the alarms going off in a nuclear reactor. Unless it’s literally an invisible ghost, and to the best of my knowledge there is no such thing as ghosts.” She spat the last word. “Heather, do you see anything?”
I shook my head. Lozzie piped up too, “Nothing but us! All of us, though!”
Evelyn’s eyes flickered to the gate, still standing open in the centre of the mandala on the far wall. The dark doorway still showed the vast shadows and humped book-drifts of Carcosa’s canyon floor. “Praem, get that closed. Right now.”
Praem did not respond. She was still staring at her own hands.
“Praem?” Evelyn frowned up at her.
“Praem, are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” Praem intoned. But she lowered her hands and obeyed, marching over to the gate and peeling away one of the additional stuck-on parts of paper and masking tape. The gateway collapsed back into bare plaster wall, and Outside stayed outside. Then Praem turned and marched back to Evelyn’s shoulder, and in a gesture I’d never seen from her before, she smoothed the skirt of her maid uniform over her thighs and backside. Though perfectly wrinkle free, she did it again, and then a third time, mechanical and precise.
Evelyn watched her with mounting concern. “Stop that. Praem, stop.”
Praem did it again.
“You did well,” Evelyn said, with no little difficulty. “Thank you.”
“Praem, what’s wrong?” I asked.
Praem smoothed her skirt again. Evelyn grabbed one of her hands before she could start the gesture a sixth time. Praem’s head twitched to gaze down at her mistress with blank milk-white eyes.
“Thank you,” Evelyn repeated. “You and I need to talk, and I need to feed you a box of strawberries. Yes?”
“Yes,” Praem intoned, and finally stilled.
Twil turned to me. “Heather, you don’t see anything? For real?”
I nodded. “Just us,” I croaked. “No ghosts, yellow or otherwise, really. I suspect I’d be screaming, otherwise.”
Twil peered about the room again, as if she might find a figure in yellow robes hiding behind the sofa or beneath the table. Despite my exhaustion and brainmath pain and even the very words I’d said to reassure her, I found myself following along with her gaze. Could I spy a crack in the backing boards of the stage scenery? Would I spot a prop out of place? Was an actor standing in the wrong position?
I blinked rapidly, shuddered, and tried to stop thinking like that.
“Heather?” Raine murmured my name.
“Just gave myself the creeps,” I said. “That’s all. But- but Saldis said-”
“The mage’s words cannot be trusted,” Evelyn huffed. “And Twil, will you sit down? You’re giving me a headache.”
“How can you be so damn sure of everything all the time?” Twil turned on her. “That place was fucking with your head, Evee! You were getting all obsessed with the books! You keep being sure and getting shit wrong, and what if she was trying to warn us, what if-”
“Warn us?” Evelyn raised her voice with mocking scorn. “That thing we just spoke to was far more dangerous than anything which might have followed us home. Her words may as well have been nonsense. And please don’t make me shout over you, I’m going to be sick.”
“I’m not making you shout,” Twil muttered, eyes down and away.
“Evee, go easy on her,” Raine said. “We’re all wiped out.”
“She wanted us to stay in the library, for some reason on which I do not wish to speculate,” Evelyn carried on, heedless to how she’d just hurt Twil. I was too drained to point it out. “And we are incredibly, unspeakably lucky that she let us leave.”
“Let us?” Twil squinted.
“Yes. Let us.”
“Evee,” I croaked. “I don’t think Saldis was lying. I know what I saw.”
“And you,” Evelyn’s gaze rounded on me with hot anger flashing in her eyes, crouched in her chair like a battered general after a Pyhrric victory. “The next time a mage starts preparing to hollow out our fucking skulls, don’t try to pull rank.”
“ … Evee?” I blinked at her.
“Hey, Evee,” Raine said. “Come on. It worked, didn’t it?”
“Wizard,” Zheng mumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it. She sounded groggy and very far away.
“Why were you along in the first place, hm?” Evelyn demanded of me. “For exactly that situation. And what did you decide to do? Talk at her in your big-girl voice. You should have killed her the moment she started trying to turn us into meat pillars. It was sheer blind luck she was so fascinated by this King in Yellow nonsense.”
“Evee, she- I diffused the- she wasn’t- … ”
I couldn’t justify myself.
“Do you understand what we just met?” Evelyn asked. “That was a mage who has been Outside for so long she isn’t remotely human anymore.”
“Looked pretty human to me,” Twil said. “’Specially before she got dressed.”
“That was an interface, at best,” Evelyn spat. “You think she was riding around naked and bloody inside her giant hamster ball? You all heard the ripping sound. She was extruded, for the purpose of communication with us. That thing we just met, her motivations and thoughts may as well be nonsense. She didn’t lie to us, alright, I could have used a better word. But nothing that she said is trustworthy, because she simply doesn’t think like us, no matter how she looked, no matter how whole and healthy, how fucking pretty, how-” Evelyn cut herself off with a grunt of wordless anger. “The only reason we’re home in one piece is because she decided to let us go. Heather, you told me you were ready to flatten her – and then you didn’t.”
In an awful, cold shudder that went from my scalp to the base of my belly, I realised Evelyn was right.
Why had I not killed the mage when her hand had split into a thousand bloody fragments, a sigil to herald some spell to bind us? Because she’d seemed amiable and talkative? Because she offered to help us find books? Because she was pretty and had a nice laugh?
Because she was on the stage with me?
The show must go on.
“Could have killed that wizard, shaman,” Zheng purred from behind me.
“Yes, I- I should have.” My eyes dreaded to settle on Evelyn, for fear a yellow-sleeved hand would creep over her shoulder at any moment. “Then what did I see? What was the figure in yellow?”
Evelyn sighed and softened a fraction. “I don’t know. I don’t know what you saw, Heather. On one hand, Saldis was fascinated enough to change her mind. On the other … ” Evelyn squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. “This King in Yellow nonsense, I’m half-convinced it was her doing in the first place, a bit of flashy illusion, a stage trick to misdirect our attention.”
“Occam’s razor and all that,” Raine said. “Seems a bit of a coincidence otherwise.”
“Evee,” I sighed a shuddering sigh. “Please don’t call it that.”
“Call it what? What are you talking about?”
“Stage trick. Don’t use that terminology, please. Not for this.”
I shuddered inside as I recalled the apparition in yellow, the pale hand descending to take Evelyn away from us, the peek through the crack in the stage curtains. Raine squeezed my shoulders and rubbed the back of my head, but physical contact and skinship could not chase away the weight of broken taboo.
“Why not?” Evelyn snapped.
“Because I think that’s what it wants,” I admitted.
“It.” Evelyn pressed her mouth into a thin line. “You’ve bought into everything that monster in a hamster ball said, haven’t you? Great.”
“I don’t think it was a trick, Evee. I can’t shake this feeling, this feeling I saw something I wasn’t supposed to. It wanted to spirit you away, as part of teaching me a lesson or something. I’m serious.”
“What lesson is that?” Twil asked. “Friends don’t let friends get lost in libraries?” She laughed without humour, then stopped and frowned. “Hey, you know, that’s not a bad point actually. You were getting way too into that place, Evee.”
Evelyn stared at me for a long moment, gritting her teeth. “Don’t. Heather, just don’t. I have enough to worry about with that inhuman mage, without banana coloured ghosts around every corner.”
“Hey, we got away, didn’t we?” Twil asked.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Evelyn drawled, rummaging in her pockets and dragging out her notes, slapping them down on the table, followed by the dusty tome she’d picked up, the useless one. “But we got away empty handed, without any of the books we need. You know, books? Printed pages with little squiggles in them? Perhaps you should try looking at some.”
“You don’t have to be a bitch about it … ” Twil trailed off.
“Which means we have to go back. Tomorrow, as planned.”
“You think she’ll be waiting for us?” Raine asked.
I pictured Saldis’ smug, all-knowing smile, still directed at us in the moment we’d finally Slipped away.
“Probably,” Evelyn grunted. “And that’s my concern, not blanket ghosts. Nothing has followed us. We would know. Between Heather, Lozzie, myself, and the dog-sized invisible spiders, we would know.” Her words had the cadence of a practised recitation, a mantra of security.
“The house herself would know,” Zheng rumbled.
The massive demon-host levered herself off the floor at last, and stretched like a jungle cat woken from a sun-nap. She yawned, and treated us to a vision down a nightmare gullet. “This house would know any violation. But it lies calm.”
“The less from you, the better,” Evelyn spat at Zheng. “Tomorrow, you are staying behind. You’ve made yourself a liability.”
Zheng levelled a cold gaze at Evelyn. Twil perked up at that, sensing the silent threat, staring back at the giant zombie.
“Oh, no, not now,” I said, raising my voice. “No, don’t fight over this now.”
“I go where the shaman goes,” Zheng purred.
“Then Heather can stay behind too,” Evelyn said. “Pointless bringing her anyway, if she refuses to do the one thing she’s meant to.”
That stung deep, more after the last week and how close Evelyn and I had grown. Yesterday we’d almost shared her bed. I had half a mind to throw a hug at her, but I had too much respect for her aversion to unbidden physical contact. Instead I reached out one limp hand. Tears prickled in the corners of my eyes.
“Evee, don’t, please-”
“You,” she jabbed a finger at me. “You are my best friend and I love you dearly but you nearly got us all fucking killed.”
“Evee, you nearly got us killed.” The words spilled forth in a hot, vile rush before I could stop them. “Did you see yourself out there? The way you looked at the books? You were getting obsessive, falling in love with that place.”
“Oh, don’t be absurd-”
“We all saw it. That wasn’t just Twil being a worrywart. Assume for a moment that I saw nothing, no yellow robes, imagine that it was all so much rubbish. The librarians still surrounded you. That was real. That happened. What did that mean? What were you doing, inside your own head?”
“Wandering in the dark,” Praem intoned.
The fire went out of Evelyn’s eyes. She cast about as if searching inside herself for an answer, but found none.
“I … I don’t … it wasn’t … ” She tried, got nowhere, tried a different path. “Perhaps … when we return, I … perhaps I should not … perhaps I need to be kept away from the books.”
“You heard the lady.” Raine nodded at Praem.
“No books for Evelyn,” Praem sing-songed.
“Book-free diet,” Lozzie echoed, and crossed her forearms across her chest.
“Yeah, good call. Good call,” Twil said.
Evelyn gave a deep sigh, and seemed to come back to herself. She rubbed her eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake, it doesn’t have to be literal. I’m-” She shot a look up at Twil, then blushed a hard, ashamed red. “I’m sorry, alright? I’m so sick of this. I don’t want to do this anymore. If we’re to return to the library tomorrow and resume the search, we go prepared, to deal with Saldis.”
“Evee,” I said gently. “You said it yourself. If she wanted to hurt us, we couldn’t have stopped her. I don’t think she’s going to be dangerous to us.”
“I’m with Evee on this,” Raine said, loud and clear. “Always like some insurance in my back pocket.”
“You could have stopped her, Heather,” Evelyn said, measured and careful. “And I understand your reasons, but if you can’t do it, then I will find a way. There’s always things in my mother’s notes I can consult.”
“If I’d escalated,” I said, “she might have done the same.”
“Heather defused!” Lozzie piped up.
“I want options,” Evelyn said. “For protection.”
“Yeah, fuckin’ right,” Twil grunted. “Protection, yeah.”
I contained my little sigh; I was outnumbered, and I had to admit that Evelyn had a good point. The woman in the sphere was an unknown factor, no matter how charming she’d appeared.
“Every shell has a seam,” Zheng purred from behind me. “Even a shell of iron.”
Evelyn pointed at Zheng, but spoke to me. “She stays behind. I’m serious.”
“Wizard-” Zheng rumbled.
“Zheng, don’t,” I turned on her, using her to displace my frustration and lingering fear. She was big enough and scary enough, she could take it. “You-”
I stopped before I even began.
There it was again. In the split-second before Zheng rallied a cynical crooked grin to repel my lecture, I caught a glimmer of the unhappy rust creeping along her razor blade. She hid it well, no flowering display of Byronic sorrow.
How could I stay angry at her? Her little bird had rejected her.
“Shaman?” she purred.
“Zheng, we need to talk. Now, before I lose my nerve.”
We had too many fires to put out. This one had to be quenched now, and I was the only one capable, so I did the only thing that made sense. I wriggled out of Raine’s arm and grabbed Zheng’s hand – so much larger than mine, her reddish-brown skin like softest leather, warm like a fire burned beneath but without the sweat and throb of fever – and moved to drag her out of the workshop. She was a demon and seven feet tall and could break bricks with her head, but even she deserved privacy for this.
“Shaman,” Zheng laughed, but allowed me to lead her, then shot back over her shoulder, “Coming, yoshou?”
Raine was already moving to follow us. I caught her eye, caught the easy roll of muscles layered over sudden tension.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, this isn’t about that.”
“I’ll keep my mouth and ears shut.” Raine put up both her hands. “But you need-”
“No, Raine, I- I order you.” I pointed with my free hand, at the chair next to Evelyn. “Sit. Sit down and help Evee. I need to talk to Zheng. This isn’t about that. This is … pastoral care. I’m not going to make out with her.”
“Ewwww,” Twil grimaced. Lozzie clapped a hand to her open mouth in a theatrical parody of a scandalised society lady.
“Heather-” Raine protested, still smiling.
“You want to be my knight, you want to be useful to me?” I squeezed the words out and they felt wrong. Was this really what she needed? “Then do as I ask.”
Raine paused, sighed with an even bigger smile – real, false? I couldn’t tell – and gave me an ironic little salute. “Sure thing, boss. Shout if you need me.”
“Right. Of course. Yes.” I had to re-gather my courage all over again before I could lead Zheng out of the workshop.
We passed through the kitchen all a-jumble with night beyond the windows, and into the front room, where we might win a little privacy for ten minutes, while the others recovered from the journey back.
The front room was as messy as ever. Bare floorboards from a hundred years ago, stacked crates with fifty years of family junk, a few shoes in a pile below the spare coats on hooks. Night crouched silently beyond the front door, easing fingers of cold around the seams in the wood. I led Zheng to the doorway of the disused sitting room, but she let go of my hand before I could usher her inside. I stepped back, a single pace of minimum safe distance.
“I know what you were doing out there,” I spoke up at her, at those razor-sharp eyes watching me with relaxed predatory intent.
Suddenly I felt too hot in the coat and hoodie I’d worn for the expedition. I struggled against my coat like a clinging, living thing, shrugged it off and made a low, frustrated noise in my throat, the kind that my mother used to tell me off for vocalising. Only a decade of being a very good girl stopped me from hurling the coat at the floor in frustration.
Zheng plucked the coat from my hands and placed it gently on one of the hooks by the front door.
“ … thank you,” I said, lifting the hem of my hoodie to get some air against my skin. Zheng raised an eyebrow.
“What? Oh. Tch, no.” I blushed and sighed. “Don’t change the subject. And don’t flirt.”
“You have not begun a subject, shaman.” Zheng grinned. I gave her a tiny glare.
Now was not the time to enjoy the way her teasing made me feel. Zheng rolled her head, her high shoulders and heavy chest framed by the dark doorway to the disused sitting room. Behind us, I heard the sounds of the others moving in the kitchen, soft voices, Raine speaking down the phone to order takeaway food we all sorely needed. Kimberly emerged from the kitchen doorway and excused herself with a shy head-bob as she passed us, making a very overt please-ignore-me-I’m-not-listening face before she took the stairs two at a time and vanished into the upstairs corridor.
“Can’t we-” I nodded at the door to the barren sitting room. Zheng said nothing, watching me like a bored cat. I sighed and pitched my voice low. “We all know what you were doing out there, in Carcosa.”
“Do you, shaman?”
“Don’t act ignorant with me. Zheng, you were trying to destroy yourself. You made me a promise, that you would stay with me, that you-”
Zheng chuckled softly. “Self-destruction was not my aim. A fight, shaman. A real fight. I crave it like you crave sex.”
My cheeks flushed, but I kept Zheng’s gaze. “I want to believe that, but you put yourself in danger.”
“I put all of you in danger, as the wizard said.” Her voice turned ironic, cynical, hurt bubbling below the surface.
“I don’t care about that!” I hissed at her. “Well, okay, no, I do care about that, of course, obviously. But I also happen to care about you, a friend, a-” I swallowed, mouth dry, head throbbing. “More than a friend. Zheng, fighting is one thing, but you tried to fight a giant golden tentacle blimp that would have pulled you limb from limb in an instant.”
“Have faith, shaman.”
“And then you tried to make me leave you behind, Outside! Don’t make me watch you die, Zheng.”
“You did not have to watch, shaman.”
I almost – almost – hit her then. It would have been like a mouse bopping an elephant, and just as pointless. I felt my hand rise, but I controlled myself with a hard internal whipcrack of willpower. Even my phantom limbs joined in, one useless thought-tentacle wrapping around my wrist, though I was already lowering it. To strike her would hurt us both, and fracture what lay between us.
“I will never, ever leave you behind,” I hissed at her, my eyes filling with angry heat, wet in the corners again. “I can’t be your little bird, Zheng, I can’t, I’m not her. I’m me. And I can’t- please don’t-” The tears got worse. “Zheng, I do love you, I think, but I can’t be what I suspect you need me to be. Please don’t throw yourself into self-destruction because of that. Don’t do that again.”
I expected a laugh. Zheng would grumble some darkly indecipherable comment, or growl in the manner of a jungle predator. She would leave and brood and I’d never be sure of her again.
Instead, she stared down at me, then reached out and placed one strong hand on top of my head.
“You shame me, little bird,” she purred, with such tenderness my heart felt fit to break.
“Zheng, please,” I almost whined, shaking. “I’m not-”
A warm smile crept across her face, warm because – not in spite – of the many sharp teeth she showed to me.
“I made an oath, shaman. And I strayed. You have returned me to the path.”
“That- that’s-” I hardly knew what to say. “Well, that’s good, then. I think? Yes. But Zheng, we-”
Yellow, in the corner of my eye.
A glint of dying light on tarnished bronze, a whiff of mustard gas in stagnant air, the colour of headache and thin vomit and infected pus. No scrap of costume left on stage and tugged away by a distracted hand, no tilt of misplaced scenery board, no patch of modern denim caught beneath a period-piece costume.
A scrap of yellow silk vanished around the door-frame of the disused sitting room, right behind Zheng, with a gentle flutter on the air. Somebody had passed us by.
I was meant to see that. No taboo of broken stagecraft. Only art.
Zheng responded not to the sight, she was facing the wrong way after all, but to the look on my face. She spun, ready to intercept whatever terrible sight I’d seen behind her, suddenly hard and tense and ready to pull heads off for me. But there were no heads, only the empty door-frame, at which I stared as if a pale hand might curl around it at any second. Zheng stuck her head through and then looked back at me, frowning. “Shaman?”
I raced forward and peered into the darkened sitting room too. Zheng shielded me with one arm, held me back as if I might hurt myself. Nothing in there, a cleared stage, actors dispersed and props put away, only the old sofa and the remains of some of Evelyn’s experiments. I staggered back, starting to hyperventilate. Zheng caught me.
“Shaman, what did you see?”
Her urgent tone brought Raine from the kitchen, almost running across the front room with her truncheon in one hand. I had no extra bandwidth to consider this meant she’d probably heard most of what Zheng and I had said to each other.
“What’s going on? Hey, deadite, drop Heath-”
“It is not me, yoshou, lower your metal stick. The shaman saw something.”
“We were followed home,” I whispered as I went weak at the knees. “There’s something in here with us. Something yellow.”
We checked the house from top to bottom.
The disused sitting room first, with Twil’s nose and my eyes and Evelyn muttering snatches of Latin as she went over the walls with her bone wand in her hand, as if we might find a yellow-blanket ghost hidden behind a false panel of wallpaper, like we all lived in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Then the front room, the kitchen, back into the workshop, detour for the utility room. Every window and doorway in this house had been warded decades ago by Evelyn’s mother or grandmother, by mages far more confident and ruthless than us, with our university coursework and messy relationships.
Was it always like this? For Evelyn’s grandmother, for Alexander Lilburne, for Felicity and her unspeakable demonic parasite? Did all mages fumble in the dark, hoping not to stab themselves through the foot with a rusty nail?
God alone knows what the poor takeaway delivery driver thought, when he turned up at the door with curry and naan bread, with us rushing about on emergency footing; Praem answered and paid him and brought the food inside, which either made his day or left him very confused.
At least Evelyn took me seriously now.
“I shouldn’t have made light of your fears, Heather.” she told me as she traced and re-traced and triple-checked the wards hidden around the old wood of the front door. “I was denying my own ones. I am so very tired of being paranoid.”
“S’not paranoid if they really are out to get you,” Twil grunted, then went back to sniffing the air.
I said nothing. Eyes peeled. Watched every corner and shadow. Shoulder blades itched.
Raine went room to room with her big black combat knife in one hand, stripped down to a tshirt, on silent bare feet. I crept in her wake down the upstairs corridor. Beyond the habitual circuit of familiar bedrooms and the bathroom and Evelyn’s old study-slash-library, it was all too easy to forget how many unused rooms lurked up there, full of Saye family junk and iron bedsteads and dark windows with Sharrowford light pollution lurking beyond.
Zheng stayed glued to my shoulder, silent and watchful, the world’s most effective bodyguard soothing my tattered nerves. Lozzie freed Tenny from her safety zone, and the poor moth-girl instantly sensed my discomfort, dispensing many overwhelming hugs with too many limbs. She even forced herself to follow as close to Zheng as she could tolerate.
Twil investigated the house in her own way. “This place is full o’ weird smells at the best of times. Er, no offense. But like, there’s nothing new here. Nothing that smells like Carcosa did, ‘cept us. Sorry.”
“Nothing’s been broken, nothing’s in here,” Evelyn repeated, over and over. “Nothing is reacting. Maybe it’s in your head, Heather.”
“Evee,” I hissed, “I know what I saw, I thought you believed-”
“No, I mean literally. Maybe it’s in your head.”
By the time Evelyn had me standing in the middle of a hastily-painted magic circle, midnight had passed with a vengeance. We were all run ragged from six hours Outside, snatching bites of curry and rice as we’d made sure we hadn’t invited a haunting on our own home. Only Lozzie bounced around with too much energy, sitting half-in Tenny’s lap on the sofa as Evelyn recited bits of Greek at me and frowned harder and harder. There was nothing in my head but me.
All this reminded me too much of the Lozzie-thing the Eye had sent. Another rule breaker, a creature that had brooked no boundary, even Evelyn’s wards.
“Maybe it left already,” Twil suggested.
“Go ‘way,” Tenny fluttered, waggling her legs back and forth, slowly undoing Lozzie’s braid with her tentacles. “Leeeeeave.”
“Perhaps it really was stress,” I said eventually, hand to my eyes, aching and stinging. “I’m sorry, everybody. I’m sorry. I-”
“Don’t go changing your mind now,” Evelyn scolded me gently, and I knew she was really scolding herself. “We may have an uninvited guest, though I can’t figure out how. We all need sleep, we can’t stay awake forever, but anyone sees anything, the slightest thing out of place, scream bloody murder at the top of your lungs. Don’t pick it up or follow it around a corner. Do nothing alone. Twil, you’re staying in my bedroom again.”
Deep down, I knew that flutter of yellow silk had been for my eyes alone.
That night was hard because I was terrified.
Tucked between Raine’s arms, wrapped up warm in bed, with the soft orange of a night-light spilling across the rugs on the floor, I kept expecting to see a yellow apparition in the corner of my eye, standing in the room with us. I held my breath at every floorboard creak, for fear the door would glide open and in would peer a mask in place of a face, and nobody else would see the figure step into the room as I screamed and sobbed. I lay shuddering with the thought that Raine would wake but see nothing I did. It was all too reminiscent of a decade of ignoring pneuma-somatic life, my constant otherworldly harassers that none other could see.
But none of that happened. Instead of a ghost, Lozzie wriggled into our bed at about two in the morning, wormed in next to me on the opposite side from Raine, so I was bracketed between them. With Raine at my back and Lozzie tangled in front, I finally managed to snatch a few hours sleep before dawn.
We all woke up to find Tenny curled up asleep on the foot of the bed, like a giant cat seeking warmth.
“Awww, she’s so sweet!” Lozzie dragged herself from the covers and set about petting Tenny’s fluffy white fur.
Less sweet was how she’d used one long black tentacle to hold the door shut by the handle.
That put the wind up me, and prompted Raine to covertly grab her knife to check what might be lurking out in the corridor.
Zheng was lurking out in the corridor, sleeping cross-legged against the wall right next to our bedroom door. Raine laughed, I sighed with relief, Lozzie petted Zheng’s head, and Tenny commented with an almost perfunctory hiss.
“Standing guard, left hand?” Raine asked.
Zheng did not open her eyes. “Sitting guard.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout that, I kept her close,” Raine said. “And warm enough for both of us.”
Zheng declined the bait.
“We wait a day,” Evelyn said over breakfast – a late Sunday morning breakfast, a hangover breakfast of leftover vegetable curry and sour stomachs and heavy eye bags. Twil didn’t appear until past eleven, and when she did, she and Evelyn treated each other with awkward halting silences that set red flags up in my mind. That was not a happy couple who’d snuggled in bed last night. But first things first.
“Wait a day?” I asked. “Evee, we need the books. As soon as possible.”
“We wait a day,” Evelyn said, surprisingly calm and confident. “Because you’re under observation, to make sure you’re not haunted.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” I sighed.
“What I believe is subject to change based on evidence.”
“Ghosts, ugh,” Twil did a big shudder.
“We go back Monday afternoon,” Evelyn said, with a tone that brooked no argument, and a dark twinkle in her eye. “With questions for Saldis.”
More tests while I stood half-naked in a magic circle in the workshop. More naps. More leaving me alone in the bedroom for a while to see if anything would happen. It never did. No King in Yellow, no scraps of jaundiced cloth, no whispers in the dark. No, the show did not go on.
The King in Yellow was a profoundly boring book.
When professor Raymond arrived in lecture hall B-3, I slipped the book back into my bag, and resolved not to think about it again until class was over. The professor – a bull of a man with prematurely white hair and permanently rumpled sleeves – adjusted his owlish glasses and overflowed with apologies for being more than thirty seconds late. Below us, he took to the platform at the base of the lecture hall, dumped his notes on the lectern, and squinted up at the seventy or eighty of us first-year students, arrayed in the seating for yet another lecture in his Introduction to Modernism unit.
“Looks like he eats rocks for breakfast,” she leaned over and whispered to me.
“He’s sweet,” I hissed back. “And you’re not even meant to be in here. Shush.”
“Yes ma’am.” Raine winked and settled back into her seat. At least we were relatively alone, up in the third-from-final row of the lecture hall seating.
In truth, I rather liked the professor. Of all the first-year lectures I’d sat through in the six months since beginning my degree at Sharrowford University, his were always the most spirited. He loved his subject matter, as did I.
I liked the lecture hall too, nestled in a semi-basement layer of one of the older university buildings. All dark wood panelling polished by two hundred years of lecturers pacing back and forth, of student bums in solid seats, of thousands of hands leaning on the backs of the chair-rows. The seating formed a sort of descending miniature amphitheatre, falling away to terminate in a wide wooden platform, on which stood the speaker’s lectern. A huge modern chalkboard was bolted to the wall behind; an eyesore, but within tolerable limits.
Comfortable though a little chill, these spaces were not built for modern heating. Venerable and beautiful, with a private history beyond knowing, it took my mind off everything else in my life.
I was safe here, in mundane society, and I intended to make myself feel as mundane as possible. If only for an hour or two, I intended to think about something other than the great library Outside, and our inevitable return that afternoon.
I had, however, been unable to resist The King in Yellow.
The library held two copies of the book, a cheap little paperback from the eighties with cover art of a masked man in yellow robes, a silly illustration which looked nothing like what I had seen. I assumed it was meant to be ‘spooky’. I’d checked one copy out of the library after asking Evelyn’s permission.
“Of course,” she’d told me that morning. “It’s nothing, short stories. Fiction. Utterly bloody meaningless. You’re not going to learn anything.”
“But what about the figure in yellow?” I’d asked. “There must be some kernel of truth in there.”
She’d frowned, and waved me off, too busy trying to re-rig the gateway in the workshop to return us to where we’d left off Saturday night.
Unfortunately for my time and tedium, Evelyn was correct. I’d sat in the lecture hall as it had slowly filled, waiting for class to begin, and discovered The King in Yellow was nothing more occult than a set of rather execrable short horror stories. Though I had no eye for the genre, even I could tell they were not exactly spine-chilling tales of the supernatural. Then again, perhaps my sense of horror was poorly calibrated, for obvious reasons.
Raine had read over my shoulder for a bit, but quickly lost interest.
This wasn’t the first time she’d tagged along for one of my lectures. Our set of safety rules still stood, even if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Edward Lilburne in weeks. Normally Raine would wait for me in the library or the Medieval Metaphysics room, whichever was closer, or attend one of her own classes if our schedules lined up, but that day I was not to be left alone for even a minute. In case I was haunted.
So Raine was sitting in on a first-year lecture for a subject she didn’t study, but they never took attendance at these anyway. A small, immature, girlish part of myself wanted all the people I didn’t really know to see me with Raine, and know I was hers, and I got a little flushed inside at that idea. But we settled in to be sensible, me with my notebook and pen, Raine with her curious eyes, one leg crossed over the other, as the professor began talking about Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.
Professor Raymond was in full flow when reality began to break down.
Or when I began to go truly mad. I’m still not sure which.
“- and the nature of being a body, subject to this impersonal machine,” he was saying, “it’s not going to teach anybody anything. Being dehumanised doesn’t help. That’s the excuse, yes? But it’s an abandonment of the personal and the communal, replaced by didactic pain-”
The wooden platform at the base of the lecture hall was flanked by a pair of a small wooden doors. I vaguely knew they led off into the bowels of the building, to office rooms and storage spaces, to the deeper parts where ancient architecture linked up with modern breeze-block above our heads. The one to the professor’s left suddenly yawned open on silent hinges, I assume to admit a late-arriving student who had gotten lost in the labyrinth of the university.
Nobody else paid it any heed. The professor did not glance that way, too absorbed in his own words.
In stepped a vision in yellow.
My heart stopped. My head throbbed with adrenaline. My guts attempted to crawl up and out of my mouth. I almost lurched from my seat, halted only by a decade of training myself to ignore the unnatural sights of pneuma-somatic life. Nobody else reacted. The professor did not break off from his words. No screams or shouts, no fainting in the seats, not a whisper.
“-and one of Kafka’s points here is that pain and torture cannot teach,” the professor went on. “The man in the torture device cannot see the words etched on his own skin. It’s a paradox-”
The apparition, the King in Yellow, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, whatever it was – it glided over to stand beside the lectern, then turned toward the audience.
Rippling yellow silks and heavy dark cottons lay over no shape of a body beneath, only more layers of yellow upon yellow that parted and rejoined inside a room without wind. The pale hands were tucked up inside the massive drooping sleeves. The yellow hood cradled a pallid mask, facial features so bland and blank there was almost nothing there. Holes for eyes, open on darkness. A suggestion for a mouth.
“Heather?” Raine whispered.
“You don’t see it?” I hissed back, eyes wide at the figure in yellow down on the stage. Raine quickly took my hand and squeezed hard.
“No. Nothing,” Raine whispered again. “What is it, what do you see?”
“It’s back. It’s down there, standing right next to the professor. Just … standing.” I forced myself to take a steady breath. “Just like a spirit, I suppose, nobody else can see it. I’m okay, I’ll ignore it best I can. But we need to tell Evee, we should-”
“And that’s why my assistant here,” the professor was saying, “is going to demonstrate.”
He placed a friendly hand on the yellow shoulder.
My blood turned to ice.
“A few volunteers?” The professor went on, a little huffy. “Come on, this isn’t a magic show, this is serious. It’ll only take five minutes.”
A few tentative hands went up among my fellow students.
“Heather? Heather?” Raine whispered, urgent now. I stared at her, then back down at the professor and the apparition in yellow. It raised a flawless pale hand and indicated several of the student volunteers, moving with the languid ease of oil through water. They got out of their seats and moved to join it on the platform.
“You don’t … Raine, you don’t see?” I asked, my voice a strangled whisper. “You don’t see something wrong here?”
Raine glanced down at the stage, then back at me, frowning with increasing worry. “All looks normal to me.”
“Oh, bravo,” another voice – an amused voice – whispered from the seat behind us. “Audience participation. How unique. How novel.”
I looked over my shoulder. Saldis, the black Norse mage from the depths of Carcosa, was sitting behind us. Resplendent in her red-and-gold dress, she leaned forward, eyes awed as she gazed down at the show about to begin. She caught me looking and shot me a wink.
“Heather?” Raine whispered again, following my gaze for a second before trying to get my attention. “Heather, what’s wrong?”
“I … I don’t know … I-”
“Oh, ignore me, poppet,” Saldis said to me. “I’m not really here.”