“So. ‘Seven shades of sunlight.’ That’s what it called itself?”
Evelyn used the same intonation one might employ to query a dog as to why it has jumped into a puddle of liquid pig manure.
“And she’s gay,” Raine reminded us. “Don’t forget that part. Seemed kinda relevant.”
Evelyn made a sound like she was trying to crack a walnut with her throat. “Yes, clearly this whole situation is not only dangerous beyond our ability to handle, it’s also astoundingly stupid.”
Not exactly the most encouraging words I’d hoped to hear, not while I stood half-naked in the middle of a magic circle, shivering with exhaustion, hunger, skin-creeping cold, brainmath aftershock, and abyssal dysphoria. All in all, I was not having a good time.
The chill air of Evelyn’s magical workshop raised prickling goosebumps across my bare arms and exposed shoulders and naked belly, despite the overworked gas-cylinder space heater pointed directly at me. Raine had hauled it in here earlier, after Evelyn’s repeated magical failures had dropped the ambient temperature and she’d still insisted I strip down. The gas cylinder powering the space heater weighed an absolute ton, probably hadn’t been used since the 1980s, and also likely constituted a significant fire hazard. The thing poured out heat like an ocean-floor thermal vent, but it still couldn’t drive away the deep-tissue pain in my bruised flanks as they blossomed purple and black.
I managed a sheepish smile, as if I should apologise for how stupid everything had become.
“Hey now,” Raine said. “Stupid? It all happened, Evee, I saw it too.”
“Yes, yes.” Evelyn squinted her eyes shut as if she had a headache, and drummed her fingertips on the handle of her walking stick. “Stupid is a metaphor, have you never heard of figurative language? I don’t doubt your accounts. Or should I, seeing as this thing can direct people’s behaviour?”
“The shaman has a stalker, wizard,” Zheng purred from where she lounged by the doorway to the kitchen. “Be precise.”
Evelyn laughed – actually laughed, which would have worried me deeply if I wasn’t so physically and emotionally wiped out.
“Why bother?” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed up there on mount bloody Olympus, but I’m a bit outclassed by all this.”
“It’s not your fault, Evee-weavy,” Lozzie chirped. “I can’t see Sevens either!”
Evelyn blinked as if slapped. Her emotional processing could not digest Lozzie-style encouragement, so after a moment she just cleared her throat as if it hadn’t happened.
“Evee,” Raine said, gentle but firm. “What’s the next step, where are we at?”
“Where are we at?” Evelyn echoed, as if this was the most inane question she’d ever heard. She gestured at me. “Heather has the Outsider equivalent of an insufferable theatre kid following her around, because she wants your prospective threesome to look good in her scriptwriting portfolio. This thing ignores my wards, can wear our faces, is probably lurking somewhere in this house right now, and I can’t bloody well find it no matter how hard I prod Heather.” She waggled her walking stick at my semi-nudity. “That is where we are at.”
“Sorry,” I croaked.
“Oh, and yes, before I forget again: she’s gay. Whatever ‘gay’ means in this thing’s biological and sociological context. I suspect that knowledge would drive us all screaming mad.”
“Gay is gay,” Lozzie provided.
“Gaaaaay,” Tenny trilled from her safe-distance spot, just over the threshold of the kitchen doorway.
Zheng glanced down at her, which was apparently enough to provoke a soft warning hiss and lazy snapping threat display from Tenny’s tentacles. I didn’t tell Zheng off – for one I didn’t have the energy; more importantly, every moment Zheng spent teasing Tenny was one less moment she and Raine locked eyes across the room. Their silent face-off had been evolving at the periphery of my awareness, ever since our explanation of events on campus had covered Seven-Shade’s opinion on our cold-war ménage à trois.
“I know,” I croaked, dead-voiced, mostly to myself, indulging in a spot of passive-aggression for which I was too tired to chastise myself. “Forgive me, my standard of stupidity is little skewed lately. My life is a joke.”
I must have sounded more depressed than I thought, because everyone else went awkwardly quiet.
Spinning armchair theory – literally – back in the Medieval Metaphysics room, that was all well and good, but hope seemed thinner in my heart after I’d trudged all the way home, bone-tired and shivering, bruises blossoming in my flanks, ravenously hungry and wracked with guilt and abyssal dysphoria. Before we’d left the Medieval Metaphysics room, Lozzie had pronounced me ‘all together inside!’ and fit to travel, but by the time we came within sight of home I felt like I’d been filled with broken glass and hit with a bus.
Raine had given me a piggy-back ride the last two streets. It aggravated my bruises no matter how gentle she carried me.
At home, the first thing I’d done was inhale an entire leftover meal worth of curry and chips. Very healthy, I’m sure my mother would be proud of her daughter’s diet. I’d chased that with half a packet of chocolate cookies and three whole apples, but my body still complained as if I hadn’t eaten all day.
Seven-Shades was right. I was small and fragile and weak.
And now I’d spent almost an hour standing in the workshop as the air temperature dropped every time Evelyn muttered grumpy Latin over me. She’d instructed Praem in chalking an increasingly complex magic circle around my feet, adding more symbols here, staggered layers there, erasing parts and trying new ones, as if I was an esoteric contaminant which required successively thicker containment. One piece of magic after the other had failed to any produce results – except to freeze me down to my bones. I’d felt somehow responsible and Evelyn had gotten more and more frustrated, then eventually she’d had me peel off my hoodie and tshirts, reduced me down to my underwear, and begun pressing hastily drawn sigils directly to the goose-pimpled flesh of my stomach or lower back, hoping that the right scrap of magic would flush Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight out of my system like an exotic intestinal parasite.
I did hope that’s not what the containment was for; my dignity was already in the toilet.
Feeling like meat on a slab didn’t help.
To say I did not have much confidence in my scrawny, pale, weird little body would be the understatement of my life. Six months ago, the idea of standing half-naked in front of several other girls would have induced a coma. But, well, these were my friends. Evelyn had seen this before; Lozzie and I had curled up to sleep together in less; neither Praem nor Tenny gave a hoot; and for some mad reason I still barely understood, Raine actually found me attractive. No accounting for taste, I suppose.
Only Zheng’s attention would have made me blush like a beetroot – if I’d felt human.
After the euphoria of my perfect rainbow-strobing tentacles and the blissful clarity of abyssal senses and the fleeting half-glimpsed beauty of Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, to be stripped out of my hoodie and layered tshirts to get poked and prodded made me feel like a dirty little grub peeled out of my shell. Reduced, bruised, raw.
Half of me wanted to curl up in a secluded dark place.
But the other half of me screamed to move. To dance, to jump onto the table, to spin my arms around in circles like a child, though any of those actions would likely end up with me on my backside, and absolutely make me a lot colder than I already was. I kept looking down at myself, at the slowly blossoming bruises on my flanks where my tentacles had been anchored, at the twitching of my stomach, at the way my bones linked together inside my flesh.
I was dying to just feel the motion of my own muscles, the flex of my tendons, the pump of my blood, to capture whatever echo of grace and beauty I could squeeze out of my twisted little ape body. I held fast to that desire. Probably better than the opposite.
Lozzie had sensed my discomfort without having to ask.
As Evelyn had set to work on my exposed flesh, Lozzie had scampered out of the workshop and returned with a big towel. She’d held it up to shield me, like we were schoolgirls in the changing rooms, trying to mitigate the indignity of P.E.
“No peeking!” she’d chirped back over her shoulder at Zheng, and then at Raine as well, then did a side-to-side head wiggle at Praem. “You too! You’re done helping, so step away from the patient and in front of the curtain, pleeeease.”
Praem had responded by looking to Evelyn, who was busy scribbling the latest of a dozen magical sigils and signs to press against my lower back.
“Yes, whatever,” Evelyn had grumbled. Praem had marched over to join Raine and Zheng in the peanut gallery.
“Peeking?” Raine smirked. “I don’t have to peek, I get the full-frontal whenever I want.”
“Not right now you don’t!” Lozzie stuck her tongue out.
“Thank you,” I croaked. “Just … feeling … self-conscious, right now.”
There was no way I could find the energy to explain the intricacies of what I actually felt, so that would have to do for now.
“Your bruises are beautiful, shaman,” Zheng purred. “They are proof you grow, proof you are. No need to hide.”
I cleared my throat and felt a faint heat in my cheeks; the ghost of normal, healthy self-consciousness moved through me, sexual self-consciousness, not countering the abyssal fascination with my own body but complimenting it, melding like milk in oil. Lozzie must have seen the change in my face. She caught my eye and giggled.
“You just wanna ogle my girl. Admit it, zombie-brains,” Raine said with the corner of her mouth.
“I do not see you stopping me, yoshou.”
Zheng was not ogling me at all, even though all she could see was my head above Lozzie’s towel. She’d locked eyes with Raine again.
“Ah, so you do think like the rest of us, huh?” Raine asked. “Guess we got that in common.”
“There is nothing unclean in the love of flesh,” Zheng purred back.
“Oooh, love.” Raine shot Zheng a look of amused doubt. “Four-letter word, that one. Sure you wanna go there?”
“Mockery cannot touch truth.”
Without either straightening up or looking away from her work, Evelyn said, “Raine, if the next words out of your mouth are any variation of ‘but I love her more’, then I will have Praem knock your heads together. That is not a joke. Now stop, I am trying to concentrate to make sure Heather isn’t fucking possessed.”
That told them. Lozzie suppressed another giggle by ducking her face below the towel. Raine and Zheng both did as they were told, though with much wiggling of eyebrows from the former and a silent level stare from the latter.
Helped me though. Even through the aches and pains and echoes of abyssal dysphoria, a certain warmth filled me at the sight of the two most attractive women in my life verbally sparring over me. It sent the weird little part of me that would be forever fourteen years old into a squealing fit of sexual overload, and I felt a little bit more like myself, in my own body, no matter how inadequate it was.
But then they had to be quiet, and I had nothing to distract me from ruminating on what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had said. Evelyn had given up, erased a wide patch of the chalk-drawn magic circle, and sat down. I’d wallowed in self-pity.
My life is a joke, I’d said.
Now, self-conscious, I said, “Sorry.”
The long moment of awkward silence ended when Evelyn cleared her throat and – to my incredible surprise – attempted a little laugh.
“You think your life is absurd, Heather?” She shook her head. “Well, I suppose I should take some consolation. This conversation would make my mother spin in her grave, if her corpse wasn’t bound in irons.”
“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, soft and understanding, everything I ever wanted. “It’s gonna be alright, yeah? We’re gonna make it alright.”
“Not a joke, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You walk the narrow path. You look down. You do not fall.”
“Do not fall,” Praem intoned a perfect musical bell-note.
All I could think was what Praem’s voice might sound like in the abyss.
“Was that supposed to help?” Evelyn asked Praem. “No, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.” She cleared her throat again and gestured at me with a jerk of her walking stick. “Go on, Heather, put your hoodie back on, you’re freezing your tits off and making me feel cold just looking at you. I can’t find anything wrong with you, this is a waste of time.”
“Floff!” said Lozzie, which was apparently the accompanying sound effect for her wrapping the towel around my shoulders.
The fluffy towel had soaked up much more of the space heater’s output than my permafrost flesh seemed capable of, and the sudden engulfing warmth drew an embarrassing noise from my throat.
I submitted to clumsy intimacy and confused wriggling as Lozzie helped me get dressed. She got my tshirt and hoodie back over my head without pulling the towel away, a feat that surely involved some kind of transdimensional trickery. I kept trying to cling to her body heat; she took the hint and took the opportunity to hug me, sliding hands and arms up my back under my clothes, nuzzling her face into my shoulder. She smelled of coconut shampoo and Tenny’s fur, and her wispy golden hair tickled my nose.
“Stay,” I murmured.
“Heather’s in the clear, then?” Raine asked.
“What? No, quite the opposite,” Evelyn replied. “She’s haunted as all fuck.”
I opened one eye to look over Lozzie’s shoulder, and attempted to say Evelyn’s name, or perhaps some variation of ‘what is wrong with me, dear friend?’, but what I actually did was let out this weird gurgle sound that made everyone look at me. I was too tired and too cold to care.
I tried again, and made a human noise instead. “Haunted?”
“Uh, yeah, Evee, what does that mean?” Raine prompted. She came over to me and Lozzie and put a protective hand on the back of my neck.
Evelyn shrugged with force enough to invent a new sport that involved throwing heavy objects with one’s shoulders. I was vaguely worried she might hurt her back. “How should I know?” she said. “Nothing I’ve attempted has worked. Nothing is following Heather, or attached to her, or circling overhead like a vulture – or maybe it is, and all my techniques are useless. So why not? Why not blame it on ghosts? Do you have a better idea?”
“Um,” went Raine. “No?”
“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Try harder.”
“And you can shut up too,” Evelyn said at her. “If you have a better idea, then I’m a professional long-distance runner.”
With much clattering of chair and popping of stiff joints and muttering under her breath, Evelyn levered herself to her feet and stomped over to the kitchen doorway. Tenny let out a trilling noise and scurried clear of Evelyn’s path, silken black tentacles trailing after her like jellyfish tendrils in ocean water.
“Evee,” I croaked from Lozzie’s shoulder. “Am I-”
“We’re done here, I need a cup of tea,” she shot back without turning around.
“What about the trophy?” Raine asked. I winced inside.
“Droppings,” Zheng rumbled. “Spoor, to track by.”
“Hey hey hey,” Raine said. “That’s not a bad idea for somebody with rotten meat between her ears.”
They meant the piece of yellow cloth, the fragment from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
Upon arrival in the Medieval Metaphysics room, Evelyn had treated the shrivelled scrap of yellow fabric like radioactive waste. As Lozzie had checked my lungs and chest and back for internal damage by pressing her hands against me, Evelyn had drawn a magic circle around the mysterious yellow shred. She’d had Praem wrap it up in a plastic supermarket carrier bag, then covered the bag in magic sigils drawn on strips of masking tape – mostly small variations on the Fractal.
When we’d arrived home and I’d been busy stuffing my face with enough calories to kill an elephant, Evelyn had been poking at our ‘trophy’. Now the piece of yellow cloth lay on the table in the workshop, next to the television hooked up to the slowly slopping squid-clay-thing in the corner, and the stacks of notes about re-targeting the gateway.
The cut-open bag and the sigil paper lay about it like the remains of a cracked egg, the slip of yellow a malformed, stillborn lizard in the centre of the debris.
“Yes, I already tried that,” Evelyn grumbled as she stomped into the kitchen and left us behind. Her voice floated back to us. “I’m not completely stupid, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s nothing. Cotton. Inert. Or maybe it’s a bomb, who knows? Or if you dunk it in water, perhaps it’ll sing. We’ll put it on the telly, get rich. Praem, come here, please. I need that cup of tea before I swallow my own tongue.”
“Evee? Hey, Evee?” Raine half-moved to follow her, but was reluctant to leave me behind. I was still clinging to Lozzie like a wounded animal leaning on a pack-mate.
“Oh dear,” I managed.
“Yeah, somebody’s pissed in her cheerios,” Raine murmured.
“I can hear you!” Evelyn raised her voice from the kitchen.
Raine looked back at me and pulled a pained grimace. I tried to smile, but nothing happened.
“Wanna follow her and go sit down?” Raine asked. “You alright to move?”
“Mm … mmhmm, yes, I’m … I’m on the mend. I must sit down now though, yes.”
“This, good idea,” Lozzie whispered.
“Come on then, lets get some more food in front of you,” Raine said, gesturing for us to depart the workshop, away from all the grisly reminders and arcane detritus.
Between Lozzie’s arm around my middle, Raine’s familiar invitation before me, Zheng’s slow predatory look, and a promise of some bizarre argument with Evelyn in the kitchen, I suddenly felt worryingly normal. As if I was about to slip back into a routine rehearsed many times before, a performance I’d played out day after day. An ephemeral sensation, fleeting as deja vu. A shiver went down my spine.
“What if this is what she wants?” I murmured.
“What was that?” Raine asked.
But my eyes were drawn to the scrap of yellow fabric on the table, a new-born dead thing waiting to be cleaned of afterbirth mucus. With no little reluctance I disentangled one arm from around Lozzie, and reached out toward the shattered nest.
“Heather?” Raine took my arm, gently but firmly. “Woah, Heather should you be touching that?”
“The shaman knows,” Zheng rumbled.
“It’s fine,” I murmured, still staring into the yellow depths. “Raine, let go. It’s just … Evee said, it’s only cotton.”
“Then why do you want to touch it?” she asked.
“ … because I … I need more.”
Past me, Raine shared a glance with Lozzie, and in the corner of my eye, Lozzie screwed up her mouth into a thinky-face, then nodded several times.
“Alright then,” Raine said. “If that’s what you need. Lozzie, you ready?”
“Ready!” Lozzie chirped.
Raine let go of my arm, and I picked up the scrap of yellow infinity.
I was not struck blind and deaf and dumb, or paralysed by lightning, or riven with disgust as if handling a live slug. The piece of Seven-Shades was, after all, just fabric, too coarse for silk but not rough enough to be wool. Perhaps it really was cotton, or some unknowable Outside material. It lay limp in my hand, a dried leaf leeched of all chlorophyll. There was nothing to see here, nothing to feel.
Heavy disappointment settled on my heart, a tightening inside my chest.
Maisie and I had both always been voracious readers. In the years before the Eye took her away, we’d begun to venture beyond the walled garden of children’s literature, sometimes alone and sometimes together, often without our parents’ knowledge. When there were two of us, there was alway somebody with which to discuss the story. To continue it in private whispers after dark, to imagine lives for the characters, better endings or other endings or things that happened off screen. But after Wonderland, by myself, alone, in the brief respites between psychiatric hospitals and oft-terminated bouts of school attendance and the never-ending horror of my ‘hallucinations’, I became intimately familiar with the bittersweet pain of the close of a great story, of the emotional pressure front it leaves behind, the need to retread, to see past the ending.
Seven-Shades’ play had left me depressed and defeated, but it was as strong as any beauty in narrative. I needed to see more. I needed to watch it again, and find the gaps in the story. I needed to rewrite the ending.
But the yellow scrap was just cotton. Seven-Shades was not here.
I wondered, what would this piece of cloth look like through abyssal senses? I could find out, if I wanted to give myself another seizure and probably earn a trip to the hospital.
“Hey, Heather, you in there?” Raine asked.
“She’s all here!” Lozzie chirped.
“I’m fine,” I lied, then scrubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. “It’s just cotton. There’s nothing here. Not like this.”
In the kitchen, Praem already had the kettle on. Raine and Lozzie got me manoeuvred into a chair with a minimum of fuss, while Zheng stalked in after us and upset Tenny without trying, drawing another warning display from her tentacles and a fluttery, retreating hiss as she bounced away on springy, muscled legs, twirling her wings like a cloak. Lozzie told Zheng off with a tut and soothed Tenny by fluffing her fur, then pulled a chair close to me so she could lean against my shoulder. Everyone bustled about, and Evelyn gave a dismissive response to a question from Raine – but I wasn’t listening.
All I could think about was this fragment torn from Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. I kept running my fingers over the fabric to feel the loose fibres, rolling it between thumb and forefinger as if that would teach me what it was made of, half-resisting an urge to sniff it or press it to my cheek.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight possessed a physical form. I was holding a piece of it, no different to a chunk of bloody flesh carved from a human flank.
But she was also an abyssal thing. She was both. Like me.
A slow hunger woke in the back of my mind. A scab, itching to be picked. A desperate need.
Eventually I noticed that a cup of tea had appeared in front of me, along with a microwaved pastry and some sliced apple. My stomach rumbled so I shoved some food in my mouth, barely tasted it, then finally realised that an uncomfortable silence had descended on the kitchen.
Raine and Zheng were staring at each other across the length of the room, expressions still and stoic like a pair of gunfighters in an old western, each waiting for the other to draw first. Steam from Raine’s own mug of tea drifted in front of her face. Zheng lounged against the wall with all the deceptive relaxation of a cunning predator, eyes heavy-lidded like some jungle lizard. Evelyn sat opposite me, sad gaze cast down into a mug of oil-dark tea, Praem at her shoulder, perfectly crisp and starched in her maid uniform. Tenny felt the tension with senses keener than human; she’d slunk close to Lozzie and I to sneak a slice of apple with one of her tentacle-mouths, then froze and hunched as if about to wrap herself in her natural optical camouflage.
Cuddled up to my side, almost purring, Lozzie was the only one who seemed unaffected.
The room was like a painting.
“Oh.” My heart skipped a beat. “Is it happening again?”
“Heather?” Raine turned to me first and broke the impression. Evelyn frowned my way and I could have kissed her. Zheng did not look away from Raine, but that didn’t matter now.
I’d assumed the awkward stillness was the prelude to another act of Seven-Shades’ production. The moment of quiet as the lights dim, before the curtain goes up.
“Oh, oh, okay,” I breathed, hand to my chest, to my racing heart. “It’s just us all being a disaster. Tenny, Tenny it’s okay, it’s okay,” I called out softly, and Tenny bobbed her head from side to side in curiosity. “Relax, nobody’s going to … do anything.”
“Heath,” Tenny fluttered. “Errrr.”
“Heather, what is it?” Raine asked.
“I thought it was happening again. Another play. The next part of the play, right here. I don’t know.” I gestured at the room, the yellow scrap still in my shaking hand. “The tone. The aura. It’s not though, it’s not. She’s not here.”
“Everyone watch your behaviour for a sec,” Raine announced to the others. “Keep your eyes open.”
“She’s not here,” I said, my voice tinged with unexpected disappointment.
“I wanna meet Sevens too,” said Lozzie.
A moment of horrible tension crawled up my spine and ran bony fingers across my scalp, even with Lozzie’s warmth pressed to my side, as I waited for the telltale flicker of yellow cloth or the glint of sunlight on bronze. But thirty seconds passed, then a minute, and nothing happened.
“No scent,” Zheng purred eventually.
“Yeah, nothing doing,” Raine confirmed with a sigh. She shrugged. “Guess we’re over-reacting, yeah?”
“What are we going to do about this?” I croaked. “We can’t just … wait for it to happen again.”
“You think we should check out those people that Seven-Shades used in the English class?” Raine asked. “Might give us more clues.”
“Clues,” Evelyn grumbled, as if that was the most stupid word she’d ever heard.
“I … I don’t know, perhaps,” I said. “Do you think there might be lasting damage to them?”
Raine squinted in thought and took a sip from her own cup of tea, waiting for Evelyn to leap in. When she didn’t, Raine shrugged and carried on. “Hard to tell. Wouldn’t mind conducting a thorough investigation of some of those volunteers though. The short one, she was cute.
“Tch, Raine,” I tutted, but my heart wasn’t in it. “Evee? Evee, are you okay?”
“Peachy,” she said, in the tone one might use to announce a terminal disease.
“What do we do about Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight?”
Evelyn managed a feat I’d rarely seen from a human being: a full-body shrug, with shoulders, eyebrows, mouth, even her fingertips. “Pray?”
I blinked at her. She took a very long sip of tea and clunked her mug back onto the table.
“What do you want me to suggest, Heather?” She sounded more defeated than angry. “There’s a true Outsider loose in Sharrowford, apparently following you around. It doesn’t obey the rules of our reality, doesn’t give a damn about my wards, and can manipulate behaviour in the totally uninvolved. The fact this thing hasn’t already popped our heads like grapes or, I don’t know, made us all have an orgy or something, that’s probably a good sign.”
“Probably?” Raine laughed.
“Honestly, Raine, for once, your guess is as good as mine. The mere fact we’re all still alive is probably a good sign, but might just mean it wants to torture us first.”
“It was like torture,” I admitted. “But I don’t think she meant it like that, she had … a point, a good point.”
“Fine, great. Lovely.” Evelyn’s tone executed a perfect ten out of ten dive into sarcasm. “You’ve clearly got more of an idea than I have. I’m out of techniques, Heather. This is so far beyond me we may as well be in fucking outer space.”
Bound hard in my own guilt and pain, I’d been a terrible friend again. It was only then I noticed how hard Evelyn was gripping the handle of her tea mug. Her knuckles had gone white.
“Evee? Oh, Evee, I … I didn’t think … you need … you-
“You’re terrified, Evee,” Raine said, far more gently than I’d expected, in the kind of tone she’d use to soothe me in one of my worst moments. “Don’t be. That’s why I’m here, right? If I thought this thing was a danger to you, I’d have found a way to stab it in the face already.”
Evelyn gave Raine a look like she had just grown a second head. “Don’t do that, Raine. Don’t get weird on me.”
Raine shrugged, a wry grin on her lips. “Do what?”
“Speak to me like that. You haven’t in years.”
“Seven-Shades did something for me too. Reminded me what matters? Yeah, let’s go with that. Anyway, this thing only hurt us emotionally, and we all know you’re too hard on yourself already for it to find any purchase with you.”
Evelyn actually laughed, a derisive snort.
“And let go of your mug, you’re gonna hurt your fingers,” Raine added softly.
Evelyn did as suggested, hands trembling, massaging her fingers. “Our first expedition Outside and we bring back a stowaway, and I can’t even find the compartment it used, let alone contain it. So yes, Raine, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am rather stressed right now.”
“I don’t think she wants to hurt us,” I repeated.
“I agree,” Evelyn said curtly.
“ … oh.”
“If Seven-Shades of whatever can ignore my wards, she could have done anything she wanted to us already,” Evelyn explained. “Her, we may simply have to live with for the moment, until you figure out the right mathematical equation to pull her heart out through her mouth.” I grimaced, but Evelyn ignored me and went on. “Outsiders are inscrutable, perhaps untouchable. But mages are not.”
“Ahhhhh,” went Raine.
“Mmm,” Zheng grunted.
“Oh. Saldis,” I said.
“Exactly,” Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth. “You have more than one uninvited visitor following you around, and her, we can access her physical body, it’s on the other side of the gateway, in Carcosa. I will not have a mage piggybacking on your perceptions, hiding in your shadow. She is basically inside this house, and I will not have that.”
“Death to all wizards,” Zheng rumbled.
“Present company excepted, I hope?” Evelyn drawled at Zheng, but didn’t seem to expect an answer. “We cannot deal with the yellow thing. We can deal with Saldis. So I suggest we do.”
“Of course. More violence,” I said with a pained sigh and a lump in my throat. “Here’s another one of my fears coming true.”
“What?” Evelyn squinted at me.
“I think I was hoping, on some level, that you’d know what to do.”
I was wretched and small and I did not deserve my friends. I wanted somebody else to take responsibility for once, and chase away the bad things, the ghosts and hallucinations and monsters. If I’d been less exhausted, I might have started crying. Instead, with a supreme effort of willpower that I knew I’d pay for later, I scraped together whatever scraps of energy I had left, and tried to do justice to the people in my life.
“There’s something I need to tell you all,” I said.
Only physical exhaustion stopped my voice from shaking. Everyone looked at me. Even Tenny understood, slinking closer and wrapping a worried tentacle around my shin.
“But … oh, um,” I faltered at the first hurdle. “Where’s Twil? She needs to hear this too, I have to tell everyone. I can’t do this twice.”
“Better that she’s not here,” Evelyn said. “At least that way she’ll live if our yellow friend decides to murder us all for the sake of drama. And it’s Monday, Heather, I made Twil bugger off to class. I’m not having her drop an A-level grade because she wants to spend time with her useless older girl-”
Evelyn bit off the second half of that word.
“Wheeey,” went Raine.
Evelyn glared at her. “Shut your mouth. I am not in the mood.”
“I-I really need to tell everyone,” I repeated. “I have to, I can’t not, I-”
“Heather,” Raine murmured. “Just say it if you need to. It’s okay. I will make it okay.”
I tried to swallow away the lump in my throat, looked around at my friends, and said, “I’m going to kill all of you.”
Confused looks and puzzled frowns and a soft trilling noise from Tenny rather undercut my dramatic melancholy, so that I actually tripped over my next intended words with an absurd laugh.
“I meant- I mean- uh, oh dear, that’s not right. I mean I’m going to-”
“Good luck,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, good luck with that.” Evelyn jabbed a thumb in Zheng’s general direction. “How are you going to handle her, drop a nuclear bomb?”
“No-” I couldn’t help but laugh, this entire moment had gone off the rails so quickly. “I-I mean-”
“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “I have perhaps given you the wrong impression and you’ve taken it to heart, and that means I’ve hurt you and I hate when I do that. Look, if Seven- whatever. Yellow bitch. If this thing was going to kill us, it would have already, and it’s not your fault anyway.”
I stared at her for a second, utterly wrong-footed. “No. Evee, I mean, I’ll be the death of you all, with this quest to rescue my sister from the Eye.”
“Oh. Oh. Right. Well.” Evelyn cleared her throat.
I sighed heavily. The misunderstanding had robbed me of all my gravitas, and everything came out very matter-of-fact. “The play, what Seven-Shades showed me, it was too real. It’s one thing to make armchair theories about technical points of brainmath, about improving my handling, but … it’s another to be faced with all the people I watched die on stage, and know it’s going to be my fault.”
“No,” Praem intoned.
We all stared at her. She stared back at me, and declined to elaborate.
“If that is what happens, shaman, then that is what happens,” Zheng purred. “I am still yours.”
“Not what she needs to hear right now, left hand,” Raine replied. “We’re going to win, and you better believe that.”
“Please never fight,” I blurted out, more exasperated than depressed now. “You two, please never fight. I never want to see that for real. Please.”
“I did make an oath, shaman.”
“It’ll be okay, Heathy,” Lozzie purred next to me, hugging me around the shoulders.
I sighed again and wanted to put my face in my hands. My friends could not convince me that they were safe from my mistakes.
But one person in the room understood that.
“Look at what you’ve achieved,” Evelyn said.
“ … what?”
She gestured wide, in frustration, and she meant us. “In the space of a few months.”
“Maisie told me the same thing – ‘gather your friends’, but I don’t understand what good it does. I-I mean I adore you all, yes, but-”
“It means you’re not alone, you blithering idiot.” Evelyn lost her temper quickly, which oddly enough made me feel a bit better. Getting berated by a silver tongue didn’t leave much room for self-pity. “Do I have to spell it out for you? I do, don’t I? God, I do hope Maisie is the one with the brains. Certainly seems like it.”
“Hey, Evee, come on,” Raine said. “Heather’s had a hell of a day, leave off, and you’re in an adrenaline crash, you need to lie down or-”
“Will you shut up?” she snapped at Raine. “It’s difficult enough for me to put my thoughts in order without you being weird at me. Heather, tell her to stop, please, so I can actually finish my point sometime this year?”
I shrugged at Raine, a bit lost. “Um, stop being weird, please?”
“Never,” Raine said, but she did shut her mouth.
Evelyn rapped the table with a knuckle, as if to get my attention. “What have you told me before, Heather? No-” She stopped, thumped her open palm on the table – which made Tenny jump – and grimaced over a restart. “No, no, better; what has your very presence in my life told me? Hmm? Well?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “That I’m not alone, that I don’t have to solve problems alone. You have a technical problem, and you need technical solutions. Raine and Zheng cooing at you might make you feel better in the short term, but what am I here for, hm? Look what else you’ve gathered, you think that’s a human being clinging to you?” She gestured at Lozzie snug against my side, then winced at herself. “Bad, bad phrasing, ugh. My … apologies, Lauren, I am trying to illustrate a point.”
“I get the point too!” Lozzie chirped, apparently not offended at all.
“But … Evee, I don’t know what I’m doing, I barely have a plan, I’m going to get you all killed.”
“Yes, your rescue plan is a bit thin on the ground,” Evelyn admitted, and guilt rolled in my chest like a spiked lead ball. “The yellow bitch has a point there. We’ve been too busy putting out fires all the time to see the wider picture, but I had thought the same thing. But you know what?”
She did actually pause there, but not for an answer. Her lips half-formed a few different words as her mind jammed on the next thought.
“Evee,” I said. “Your help, Lozzie’s help, I-I know I can rely on you, but you always said I was going to have to be the one to fight the Eye. In the end it’ll be just me.”
“Where the fu- where did you get that- urgh.” She held up a hand and made a very frustrated gesture at me. “Heather, yes, you may have to be the one who strikes the blow, whatever form that blow takes, but you don’t have to forge the sword all by yourself. Isn’t that what your sister meant? There. Does that make sense?” She huffed. “Right now you think you have to mine the ore to smelt the iron to make the sword – alone! And this metaphor is getting out of hand and I hate it.”
Evelyn sat there, fuming quietly at her own assumed ineloquence, as I sniffed and nodded and wiped the threat of tears from my eyes.
I couldn’t help but feel Maisie’s cryptic meaning was more literal than this. Maisie was out there, she thought like an abyssal thing, ‘gather your friends’ was an instruction from lips that spoke a different language. Evelyn’s metaphor was practical, concrete, grounded in the here and now. She wasn’t right – but she also wasn’t wrong.
“It’s a good metaphor,” I said past a lump in my throat. “I like it. Thank you.”
“Damn right,” Raine said softly. “Makes sense to me.”
“Metaaa-for,” Tenny trilled. Her tentacle tightened around my shin.
“The shaman knows what she is doing, wizard, though she knows it not,” Zheng purred. “But your loyalty is real.”
Evelyn cleared her throat and didn’t seem to know what to say.
“Good girl,” Praem intoned – which saved Evelyn from her embarrassment by giving her a target for a thunderous frown.
“I still don’t know where to start though,” I admitted. “I was going to rewire my senses again, but I don’t know how that would help in the long run. Better control of hyperdimensional mathematics, yes, but I’m still an ant trying to fight an elephant. How do I combat the Eye?”
“Know your enemy,” Evelyn said. “And maybe stop thinking of it as a fight? Neither you nor I are particularly good at fighting, are we? You’ve spent too much time absorbing Raine’s attitude, everything is to be punched or shot at.”
“Not everything,” Raine muttered.
I managed a weak laugh.
“Play to your strengths instead. We have a technical problem,” Evelyn continued, ignoring her. “We need to do research – about the Eye. With access to Carcosa, perhaps that’s possible in a way it never was before. There’s bound to be others who’ve been to Wonderland, other accounts than from a single mad medieval monk. Perhaps Wonderland was something else, somewhere else, before the Eye happened to it. Besides, if I can make a working Invisus Oculus with the books I hope to acquire from Carcosa, we can go to Wonderland ourselves. We can look our opponent in the eye- er,” she cleared her throat. “You know what I mean.”
“But then it’ll know me,” I said. “As soon as I try to save Maisie. Seven-Shades was right, she-”
“Heather,” Evelyn almost snapped at me. “This isn’t a Hollywood action movie. We’re not going to do a daring dramatic raid with no intel.”
“ … o-oh.”
“Good bloody point,” went Raine.
“Once we’ve figured out how to make an opening, then yes, you may have to figure out what to do with it. But there’s a whole shattered dimension, a ruined world below the Eye, followers in the rubble. There’s bound to be ways to understand it. We can’t do hyperdimensional mathematics for you, but we can help you figure out how to apply it when you do. We can experiment in controlled conditions, here, with me. And I’m certain Lauren has something to contribute there, when you’re less tired.”
“Mmmmmm,” Lozzie made a scrunched up face. “Maybe?”
“That … yes, that’s all … that’s all a very good point,” I said. “I uh, I feel a bit silly.”
Evelyn smiled at me, rueful and pained, but very real. “You’re a good leader, Heather, but you’re a poor strategist. My mother would have run rings around you. Allow me to help with that.” She sighed. “When I’ve taken my painkillers and gotten up on the right side of bed, I like to think I’m not bad at that.”
“She can be,” Raine said approvingly. “Should’a seen our Evee back when she was suddenly head of the family, if you know what I mean.”
“Shush, Raine. Not now,” Evelyn said. “Heather? Meanwhile, the rest of the plan does not change. We need to return to Carcosa as soon as possible. We need to deal with Saldis. You want to find a weakness in the Eye to exploit, then I need the tools. We need those books. But … hmm.” Evelyn frowned. “But I’m not certain that going back to the library is a good idea while you have little miss yellow drama bitch following you around. She presents an uncontrolled variable, and that’s potentially lethal out there.”
“Yes, yes of course,” I said, nodding with a twinge of guilt. “What can we do about her though?”
Evelyn narrowed her eyes at me. Deep in there I saw a dark twinkle. “Control the variable.”
“Heather,” she sighed. “I am so very tired of being afraid all the time. My methods have availed us nothing. Let’s try yours.”
“ … my … methods?”
Evelyn raised her eyes to the ceiling, as if looking to the heavens. “We know you’re watching us,” she said out loud. “Come out and talk.”
“Oh!” I lit up, glanced down at the yellow fabric still in my hand, and then looked around the room too. “Yes, yes. Seven- uh, are you there?”
“Here? Now?” Raine asked, going tense. “In the kitchen?”
“Why not?” Evelyn grumbled. “Everything else important in my life happens in this house lately.”
Lozzie disentangled herself from me at last and sprang to her feet with excitement. “Come out come out! Come say hi! Hiiii!”
Tenny let out a long, warbling, fluttery sound of shared excitement.
“Come on then,” Evelyn continued. “You old bitch.”
“I know you’re watching us,” I said to the yellow scrap in my hand. “I know you’re watching us. I want to talk to you again. A truce this time. Please?”
“Show yourself,” Evelyn was saying. Raine was laughing, looking like she wanted to draw a knife. Zheng did not join in, but Lozzie waved her arms and twirled on the spot and raised her voice.
Amid the noise and confusion and appeals to an Outsider Godling, I whispered under my breath, to the scrap of yellow cloth in my hand.
“I need to be like you.”