“If this letter has reached its intended recipient, rather than the unknown hand and eye of an intrepid explorer a million years hence, then I have deduced correctly the current mechanical aim of your undoubtedly many ambitions, Miss Saye. And I have frustrated them. If you are reading this letter, and you are alive and sane, then I congratulate you on the fruit of your work. It is remarkable beyond accounting, but in the interest of my personal safety and the safety of my associates, I have ‘headed you off at the pass’, if you will forgive the playful turn of phrase.”
Praem read out loud, in the gathered silence of our stilled breath.
“You seek to recreate the work of Hennel and Zyfridus, founded upon rumours of the great seal beneath Heliopolis, mentioned in at least two of the books which I know reside in your collection. You seek dominion in a sense that cannot be allowed if you are not to become as your mother was, a metastasising cancer to be cut out by either the body politic or the secret swift terrible hand of God. So, you will perceive that the book you seek is no longer here. I do not know which other fabled tomes you wish to borrow from this miracle of a place, if any, but this one avenue I have closed to you, and will meet you with its weapons if you still seek dominion.”
Praem’s voice, bell-clear and smooth and impassive, could not conceal the amused self-satisfied arrogance dripping from the single unfolded sheet of paper in her hands. An owlish face, liver-spotted and grey, peered back at us from between the lines of ink.
“How have I achieved this miracle, you may ask? By copying yours.”
His handwriting was all messy spikes and loops, like a doctor’s hasty note-taking.
“I cannot take credit for the work that has breached the mysteries of physical access to the Beyond. That glory belongs to your genius, and, I suspect, a touch of help from my clever niece. A certain agent memorised the shape of your door, the lines of your work, the tools required to cut through the outer wall that keeps us trammelled within our cradle. I had hoped to conceal this theft from you, but you perceive I am forced to tip my hand, to halt you from worse violences upon my person. You may also take this letter as my answer to your two conditions. On the matter of criminal activity within Sharrowford, we are in agreement. Neither I nor any of my associates will commit any crimes, as defined in British law, within the city of Sharrowford, against yourself or any other inhabitant.”
As Praem read, Lozzie began to shiver inside her poncho. I pulled her close and hugged her tight.
“On the matter of my niece, Lauren Lilburne, we are not in agreement. Upon my resumption of her custody, I am willing to share with you such passages in The Testament of Heliopolis as concern the limited aims of predefined work, the boundaries of which we may discuss as equals when, and only when, my property has been returned to me.”
“Please, Praem, stop,” I murmured.
“To begin this process,” Praem kept reading, “you may contact my lawyer at his public offices. He has been instructed to expect-”
“Stop,” Evelyn commanded.
She barely got the word out. Evelyn had turned from pale to green to a most dangerous shade of flushed crimson. Her knuckles were white on the handle of her walking stick, her eyes blazing, a twitch in her cheek. Perhaps this wasn’t chief-most in our concerns right then, but I was worried Evelyn was going to give herself a stomach ulcer from sheer anger.
Praem lowered the letter. She’d found no tricks or traps, no poison impregnated into the paper, no magical trigger in the torn-open envelope. It was genuine, and she didn’t need to finish. Only one of us was blissfully unaware whose barely legible signature graced the foot of the page, beneath a bland ‘yours sincerely’.
“Oh dear, dear me, poppets,” Saldis sighed from the open cockpit of her alien machine, further down the corridor of bookcases, waiting at a safe distance from Zheng. “Sounds like you have competent foes. That’s always the worst kind, I much prefer the incompetent ones.”
“It’s from Eddy-boy, right?” Raine asked quickly, with the corner of her mouth.
We were all shocked, but Raine was the only one already in action. She’d turned outward toward the far end of the bookcase corridor, where the library floor opened out into the wide space of the collapsed and cratered wreckage of thousands of bookshelves. The unknown. She had her homemade riot shield up and her handgun drawn, eyes alert, head tilted to listen for the tiniest sound.
“Raine, you think this is a trap?” I hissed. As I spoke, Zheng moved past me to flank Raine, head raised, eyes hooded, hands flexing.
“Don’t know,” Raine murmured. “Everyone speak soft like.”
“Eddy-boy,” Praem echoed. “Yes.”
“Oh, but that’s absurd,” I said – but kept my voice low, swallowing hard and trying not to shudder. Lozzie had buried her face in my shoulder, clinging to me like a small animal. I found myself listening too, wondering if we’d hear the tell-tale creak of a boot along a parallel stack of shelves. “We’re not in Sharrowford, we’re not even in reality, we’re Outside. How could he have-”
“The fucking Welshman!” Evelyn spat.
“Hush, wizard,” Zheng purred.
“The fuckboy?” Raine asked.
“Who else?!” Evelyn swung her walking stick and struck the edge of the bookcase from which Praem had pulled the hated letter. The clunk of wood on wood travelled no further than our ears, soaked up by the fabric of the library. “He must have seen our gateway after he stepped through it, that whole home-invasion thing was a set up.”
“For all of a single second,” I said, shaking my head. “Surely he couldn’t-”
“He was a mage, Heather! Photographic memory, remote recording, a fucking magical bird down his underpants, who the fuck knows? Bastard blinked at it for a second – a second! Memorised the whole fucking thing, the papers on the table, everything he saw. He delivered it all to Edward Lilburne, that’s the only explanation for this. Bastard. Bastard, cunt, fuck.” Evelyn spat and raged, red in the face, shaking all over. Praem reached for Evelyn’s shoulder with one hand, but Evelyn didn’t notice as she whirled back on the doll-demon and demanded the letter with her own shaking hand. “Let me read it again, maybe- maybe- oh, what’s the point? What’s the point?” Her voice broke. “I’m done.”
“Hey, left hand,” Raine said softly. “Hear anything? Smell anything?”
Zheng blinked once. “Oil, metal, sweat and fear. Fresh.”
“You don’t think … you don’t think they’re still here, do you?” I asked. In my arms, Lozzie shook her head and whined.
“They’re long gone by now,” Evelyn said. “We have been out planned, out manoeuvred, out fucking thought.”
With careful economy of motion, Raine looked round – at the absence on the bookshelf, the empty space where The Testament of Heliopolis should have lain, nestled between its leather-bound fellows. She turned back before speaking, but not before meeting my eyes and making sure I was where I was meant to be standing.
“That book hasn’t been gone for long. No gathered dust in the gap,” she said. “That was taken minutes or hours ago, not days or weeks. Yeah, they might still be here.”
“Noooo,” Lozzie whined into my shoulder.
“They might still be here,” Evelyn echoed, eyes lighting up.
“We hunt,” Zheng purred. She flexed her neck, cracking vertebrae, and reminded me of a tiger waking from a nap.
“Oh no, big girl, absolutely not,” Raine said, the hint of a laugh in her voice. “We get the hell back home, lickety-split. Lozzie, can you do that for us, right now?”
“They have my book!” Evelyn whirled on Raine, blazing with renewed fury.
“E-Evee-” I said, but she was beyond help.
“Nobody else can have access to this place,” she went on, spitting with rage. “They have a working gateway, Raine. They have access to Outside. God willing they’ll all get themselves killed before they can do any real damage, but they cannot have this, they cannot have these books, this is mine-” Evelyn slammed to a halt and the blood drained from her face. “I mean … I mean … they cannot be allowed to abuse this- … knowledge- they … if they’re still here … ”
“Too much of a coincidence,” Raine murmured. “We’re both here at the same time, after we take days to come back? This stinks. Incident pit, remember?”
“Please,” a tiny voice quivered, and Lozzie’s golden head rose from my shoulder. Her eyes flickered back and forth, breath shaking in her slender chest pressed to mine, shivering in a way that tore at my heart. “Please. Zheng, please hunt him, please please please-”
“Quite, we’re not turning Lauren over to her uncle,” Evelyn said with a hard swallow. “Over my dead body.”
“Not even a question,” Raine said, placating but tight-voiced. “But that doesn’t mean we walk into a trap, we need to-”
“We hunt,” Zheng purred. She turned to me, locking those sharp, dark eyes with mine in paralysis. “Shaman, we have this one chance. We have already scented the prey. Command me.”
“I- I don’t know,” I said. I really didn’t. Evelyn was falling apart on some emotional level I didn’t understand. Lozzie was terrified. Raine’s protective instincts were not wrong, but abyssal ruthlessness crept up my spine and forced my lips to linger.
“Heather’s not in charge right now,” Raine said.
“The shaman is always-”
“Please,” Lozzie whined. “Please get rid of him, please, get him now, get-”
A firework-pop-crack. Distant and high-pitched. Deceptively soft, truncated and blunt, nothing like in films or on television.
The sound cut through the thick silent shroud that lay over the library. It came perhaps from across the collapsed crater, perhaps deeper, perhaps elsewhere, lost in muffled infinity as the library ate all echoes. It passed through us and over us and the silence returned, heavier and deeper, as if offended by this interruption.
Raine took a step back, covered Lozzie and I with her shield.
Twice more. Identical.
“Speak of the devil,” Raine murmured.
“What was that?” I whispered, harsh and close, as if to speak too loudly might provoke the silence itself to crash down on us. Some invisible quality in the air of the library had changed. My gut told me that to raise my voice was to invite attention. My phantom limbs, the ghostly mirror of my secret abyssal body, were trying to pull in tight and secure like an octopus cramming itself into a tiny crack. Instinct screamed at me to stay very still and go very quiet.
“Gunshots,” Raine said, and I cringed at the volume of her voice, though she stayed soft. “Left hand?”
“That way,” Zheng rumbled, nodding ahead into the depths of the cratered mass of splintered wood and torn books. “Down.”
“Gunshots?” Evelyn hissed – white-cold in the face. “It’s them, it has to be them.”
Pop pop- pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
Individual crack-pops slewed into a mechanical judder-judder-judder that seemed to go on and on and on, tearing through the air with a machine sound alien to this Outside place. Beneath the noise, I thought I heard a shout lost in the depths of the labyrinth, and perhaps a thump, muffled far below. Just when it seemed the metal racket would go on forever, the noise cut out far more suddenly than it had begun.
Then – a shout, a human voice, unmistakable this time. Too far away behind the maze of books to make out the words. Running feet. An impact of metal on wood.
And a crackle.
An awful, spine-jarring crackle, just beyond the edge of hearing, like nails down a blackboard from a closed room.
“A fight,” Zheng purred, smiling sharp.
“A losing one,” said Raine. “That was a mag dump.”
“A what?” I asked.
“Yes, Raine, speak English, for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.
“Magazine dump,” Raine said. “Somebody firing off all their bullets at once in panic. Eddy-boy’s friends got themselves in trouble.”
“Good,” Evelyn snarled. “Then we can-”
“Never interrupt your opponent while he’s screwing up,” Raine spoke over her.
“It’s not a bloody trap, Raine, it-”
“Yeah actually, I agree.” Raine shot a grin over her shoulder. “They have an automatic weapon down there and they used it before we showed ourselves. That’s not a trap, that’s how you say ‘fuck right off’. If they wanted to bait us they wouldn’t have lit up. But we’re still getting out, right now. Whatever they’re firing at, I doubt we wanna meet it. Look, somebody’s shitting herself.”
Raine nodded behind us, and I looked back to see Saldis’ sphere machine had sealed up its blocky grey front. The mage was presumably inside, and not talking to us. That distant, spine-raking crackle passed through the air again, setting my teeth on edge.
“Coward,” Zheng purred at Saldis’ machine.
“Horndog’s hamster ball decided it’s time to close the hatches,” Raine said. “That means we’re leaving too. Lozzie?”
“They are minutes away from us, at most,” Evelyn hissed. “And they have my book.”
“I reeeeeally hope he’s dead,” Lozzie squeaked, face white and pinched.
“Hey, we can figure that out later.” Raine shot Lozzie a warm smile. “I promise.”
“My teeth itch for flesh, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled.
“We do need that book,” I said out loud, my voice shaking only very slightly. “And I’m not trading Lozzie for it. And Edward hides too well in Sharrowford, we all know that, how hard it is to find him. If that’s him, or his men, and they’re in the middle of making a mistake, then I would very much like to capitalise on the opportunity.”
Everybody looked at me.
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “If you know what I mean.”
Raine glanced around at four defiant faces – myself, Lozzie, Evelyn, and Zheng. Only Praem declined to offer an opinion – along with the eyeless gaze of the squid-faced librarian that had led us here, waiting without complaint, as if watching our debate. That awful crackle came once more, a creeping, crawling of spiked ice up the inside of my skull. Even Lozzie winced.
“Fuck,” Raine sighed with a resigned grin. “Alright. Heather, Lozzie, you both stay behind me. Praem, take care of Evelyn, she’s your responsibility.”
“Always,” Praem intoned.
“Left hand, you’re in front,” Raine continued. “I’m guessing you can eat bullets for breakfast if you gotta.”
“What do you think?” Zheng rumbled. “But you do not command me-”
“No, that’s the condition,” Raine said softly, far more dangerous than any empty-headed, boastful insult she’d thrown at Zheng over the last couple of weeks. She twitched, muscles taut in a way that presaged violence, enough to make me flinch and shiver. “We’re walking into a fight, and there’s a gun down there. I’m not having anybody getting shot. I’m in charge now.”
Zheng stared at her in heavy-lidded silence.
“Zheng, please,” I said quickly.
The giant demon-host rumbled in her throat like a tiger disturbed in its sleep. But when Praem extracted a cloth-tied nut to throw ahead of us, when it bounced along the wooden floor and rolled to a precise stop at the end of the bookcase-corridor, Zheng went first on silent feet. The rest of us followed. Raine had her pistol out. I stayed close.
We left our waiting librarian guide behind. Saldis trailed in our rear, wordless and faceless inside her grey sphere.
Evelyn’s estimate was not wrong; as the crow flies, we were perhaps but thirty seconds away from the other library users. If it hadn’t been for the tangled rubble of collapsed floors, we could probably have spied them down below, but the broken spars of shattered wood and avalanche falls of hundreds of thousands of books blocked both sight and path, forced us into a labyrinth within a labyrinth. This collapsed crater was old enough that the squid-faced librarians had cut new paths through the wreckage, winding like mountain passes between craggy peaks of shattered floor, lit from above by surviving light-globes in the ceiling and from the stubs of wooden pillars, like the broken legs of giants.
Picking our way through this petrified forest consumed perhaps two or three precious minutes, despite applying a sped-up version of our usual process. Praem threw nuts and we left them behind as Zheng raced ahead, stalking like a nightmare from the jungle as she hunched, rounded her shoulders, bared her teeth.
“She’ll run into something she can’t survive,” Evelyn hissed. “Heather, call her back.”
“Guess she’s the canary now,” Raine murmured.
But Zheng wasn’t listening, not to me. She smelled blood.
The fight wasn’t over. As we hurried through the shattered mess, clearer sounds reached us – a shouted jumble of words caught on the silence-thickened air, a clatter followed by more of that spine-creeping crackle which made all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and made Lozzie whine deep in her throat.
Just before we made contact, somebody started shooting again.
We were close enough to pick out a metallic click and ratchet – which Raine later explained was the sound of expert hands swapping in a fresh magazine and yanking back a bolt. And then the pop-pop-pop-pop rip of a finger jammed on a trigger and not letting go. This close, the sound was harsh and horrible, a machine rasp punctuated by the thwack and crump of bullets chewing into paper and wood. Raine shoved me and Lozzie down behind her, behind her shield, and Praem forced Evelyn to duck just in case, but the bullets weren’t aimed anywhere near us.
The sound stopped. A man screamed at the top of his lungs. The crackle lashed out like a bolt of lightning.
Ten quick paces and one turn in the path later, we almost slammed right into a line of squid-faced librarians, facing away from us. Zheng scattered them with a low growl, wading through them as they ran in all directions, grey robes flapping. Just beyond where they’d stood was a drop, the lip of a second layer of crater, a scree-slope of a million books.
We all skidded to a halt. Raine blocked me with her shield, but she didn’t need to. Even Zheng stopped, to stare, the fight momentarily gone out of her.
Below us was a wide clear space, dotted with a few toppled bookshelves, a section of the floor beneath the one which had collapsed long ago, spread out beneath us like the boards of a stage. And all around the rim of this crater, peering from between bookshelves and around stacked tomes, shoulder-to-shoulder in eyeless audience, stood hundreds of squid-faced librarians, watching events unfold in jostling silence. This was the line we had disturbed and broken.
It did not take a literature student to see the logic.
“Oh, damn you, Seven-Shades, you promised,” I hissed.
Three connected scenes were concluding on the floor below, the final acts of a tragic farce playing out its last bloody movements.
A gateway much like our own shone with earthly light on the back wall of the library canyon, down at floor level to our right. Through that door I saw a hint of dark concrete and scuffed hazard-tape. Three figures were scrambling through, back to our reality, in a tangle of blood-slick panic.
In the middle of the floor, a familiar figure of whipcord muscle and steel-wire tendon crouched behind a fallen bookshelf, dressed in grey athletic wear and a military style harness of pouches and webbing, clutching a stubby black weapon to her chest.
Amy Stack, raincoat hood falling back as she turned.
We’d caught her in the act of turning to her fleeing ‘comrades’, a shout on her lips as they tumbled free of the library, as one of them turned back with an ugly curse at her, which contained words I will not repeat here. Behind him, on the far side of the gateway, another figure – grey-haired and owlish – made quick motions with his hands.
The gateway slid shut, leaving Stack to face her fate alone.
Stage left was a monster, eating a man.
I don’t use that word lightly. The old Heather, the Heather of six months or five years ago, she thought the very spirit life of our own world were monsters, when they can be as kind as I or Raine or Lozzie, just a different form of life. Zheng is not a monster either, despite what I once thought. She is a thinking, feeling being, capable of love and pain and sorrow, and that word presupposes a specific kind of judgement. Evelyn’s mother was a monster. Alexander Lilburne was a monster. I had yet to decide if the Eye was a monster.
Black lightning, twelve feet tall.
A little like a tree and a little like a jellyfish, but nothing like either of those things, a fractal shape cut into the air with such angular precision that the lines seemed to hurt the eye.
Moving like a slow-motion explosion, iterating itself forward as its rear folded up into nothingness, jagged branches expanding into the air.
There was nothing animal, nothing living about it – nothing spirit either, nothing translatable to our manner or matter of life. This was not pneuma-somatic. It was not flesh. It was something else.
In truth it was probably more animal than evil, perhaps just curious, or feeding. Had they disturbed it here, in the library of Carcosa? Another experiment gone wrong, at the cost of poor, sad lives? Or perhaps it wasn’t from the library in the first place. Perhaps it was like us, a visitor from elsewhere. Perhaps this was all an accident, or a misunderstanding, out here in the unknowable spaces beyond.
It had a man snagged in the clutches of a branch of fractal expansion, attached to his head like electric hair. He was thickset and heavily muscled, wearing a webbed and pouched harness like Stack, but had been caught in the open, or perhaps he had been running for the gateway, or maybe he’d charged the thing. His muscles danced and jerked, boots skittering across the floorboards, bowels voided in a mess at his feet, eyes rolled back, lips running with bloody drool as the black lightning triggered every nerve in his body, rooted his spine and pithed his soul.
All of this I pieced together later, from different aspects each of us had focused on in the moment of violence and horror. At the time it was impossible, in the black light of that self-iterating soul-eater.
But I think all of us saw Stack’s little motion with her gun.
Her gritted teeth. Her cold set eyes. The muzzle she pressed to the soft flesh beneath her own chin, as the black lightning expanded toward her.
Amy Stack was a nasty piece of work, a professional killer and thug, who had evidently lied to us that she was getting out of the business of serving mages in return for money. I had little doubt that if our positions had been reversed, she would have left us to die, or even turned her gun on us to make certain. But in the face of that unnatural flicker of fractal black lightning, the fellow feeling of one living being for another was impossible to ignore.
I would like to say that’s why I broke from behind Raine’s shield, why I scrambled and slid and slipped down the scree slope of tumbled books, heart in my mouth and head numb with fear. I dearly wish to blame the milk of human kindness for my insane act of running out between a nightmare and a psychopath with a gun, out of breath and shaking with half-healed bruises in my flanks, as Raine sprinted after me and Zheng came barrelling down like a cannonball and Lozzie started singing.
I would like to blame how much of a nice person I am, but I am not a nice person. I am half of the abyss, and abyssal ruthlessness told me we needed a live captive.
So with a skid and a slip and a shudder, I stood before twelve feet of black lightning.
I had kept my promise to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. I had rushed on stage, to interrupt the play.
Tendrils of fractal touch expanded toward my face. This close I could see them splitting and splitting and splitting again, down into fibres almost invisible to the naked eye. This was the source of the spine-raking crackle in the air, as the black lightning moved by tearing reality.
I narrowly resisted an urge to hiss and spit at thing.
Very lucky, because while that would have felt good, it probably wouldn’t have worked.
The necessary brainmath sliced sharp and hot up from the sump in the pit of my soul, as if drawn through a surface of sticky mucus and clinging tar, ripped from the depths at the speed of thought, leaving my mind chafed raw by its passage. This would require no long weaving of hyperdimensional miracle, no complex interplay of the Eye’s lessons and deduced cosmic principles; the black lightning creature’s body was determined by a visible and obvious mathematics, just as the human body’s mathematical form might be obvious to the senses of some other order of being. The equation was simple – leave a number hanging, an addition unfinished, a decimal leftover unaccounted for.
A moment of chaos and confusion was exploding around me as I summoned the equation. Raine skidded to a halt feet away from me, stopped by a shout from Evelyn high up the slope of books – “No, don’t touch it!” – as Zheng bounced and bounded like a leaping tiger, behind me, slamming into something and flinging splinters of shredded floorboard up into the air. My stomach clenched in rebellious pain and a pair of icepicks lanced through the backs of my eyeballs, into my skull, a sharp shudder as my soft human meat struggled still with the transcendent truth of reality, as I gripped the black, dripping levers behind mere matter, and pulled them.
Lozzie’s singing suddenly cut out, and split-second panic almost broke my concentration.
Black lightning struck for my head, my brain, my nervous system – and snapped.
The creature’s perfect fractal expansion exploded in seven places along its snake-like form, losing coherence as its body tried to follow the new principles I had added to its structure, the nonsense I had introduced. It reared back, whipping about like a severed fire-hose, dropping the twitching corpse of the man it had finished killing. Black light lashed across fallen books, across our faces, across the dull brown floorboards of Carcosa and the hundreds of librarians watching in the audience above.
Raine caught me as I stagged back into her arms, my nose streaming with blood, my head pounding like a struck bell. I wheezed and kicked and clung to her.
“Holy shit, Heather, what did you do?” she breathed.
“I think I gave it cancer.”
Eyes whirling across the strobing black, I looked up the slope of books, where Evelyn cowered behind Praem, and where Lozzie stood no more.
“Where’s Lozzie?” I croaked in growing panic. “Raine, where’s Lozzie, where’d she-”
But Raine knocked the breath out of my sore lungs, yanking me behind her homemade riot shield. I caught a whirling split-second vision of the other fight still unfolding behind us – of Amy Stack, blank-faced and flint-eyed, pointing a sleek metal tube past Zheng’s flicker-fast motion, right at me.
All I could think in that moment, dull with brainmath aftershock and adrenaline, was how much of an ungrateful bitch she was.
Pardon my language. Never would say that out loud.
Zheng roared. Raine had me sprawled on the floor. The crackle scratched the inside of my eyeballs – and the Black Lightning Outsider was not done yet.
Like the animal it was, it recovered and lashed out in panic; an explosion unleashed, a radial ball of fractal chaos, iterating itself in every direction at once. Nowhere to shelter. Mere matter would be no obstacle.
Then, a blink of steel.
Wall and lance of mirrored chrome, armour cut for troll or giant, twice the height of Lozzie who had appeared with it, behind it, sheltered in its lee as the onrush of black lightning battered against the tower of a shield.
Another of Lozzie’s knights.
“Make it go away!” Lozzie screamed.
The knight in shining armour – steel rapidly blackening under the lightning’s onslaught, smoke seeping from the joint seams – thrust its lance into the tangled web of expanding fractal mess with an arm like a steam-piston. There was a soft pop-bang sound, the meaning of which would haunt me for weeks. The black lightning whipped back like an animal from a naked fire, like a sea snake from a shark, expansion halted. It fled into the depths of the library with a motion like smoke caught on sudden wind.
Silence fluttered down on us.
“Heather!” Lozzie flung herself at me on the floor, almost crying as she wrapped her arms around my neck. “Are you okay? You’re okay? It almost touched you and touching you is bad you’re not invincible either you’re not supposed to be, you’re soft and squishy and it was my fault, my fault, I’m so sorry I made us all come over here I shouldn’t have he wasn’t even here and-”
Lozzie kept talking as I returned her hug with numb, shaking arms. Her knight stood immobile behind her, armour charred all down front and sides, black meaty smoke pouring from the seams in the metal. A smell like roast pork filled the air.
A flat, focused voice was speaking from behind me, but the words didn’t penetrate my brain. Somebody else was breathing sharp and hard, hissing through their teeth.
“Shaman,” Zheng said – urgent. That almost did the trick.
It took me a further confused moment to realise that Raine wasn’t on top of me anymore. I twisted round on the floor, dragging Lozzie with me, looking for my lover.
Behind us, Zheng had Amy Stack pinned to the ground, face-down, one knee digging into the small of her back, one hand around a wrist, the other hand pressed to the fragile egg of her shaved skull. Evidently Zheng had understood my intention, which is why she hadn’t gutted the mercenary the moment they’d made contact. Stack’s flint-cold eyes met mine.
Her gun – an ugly collection of black metal surfaces and cylinders – lay kicked to a safe distance.
Raine was slumped on her backside, shield abandoned. She was shaking all over as she forced slow, steady breaths through gritted teeth. White as a sheet, covered in a sheen of cold sweat, both hands gripping hard around her own left thigh.
Those hands and thigh were coated in bright blood, a slow crimson wave soaking into her jeans.
“Oh no,” went Lozzie, very small.
“Raine!” I croaked, and staggered to my feet.
“Shot me with her last bullet,” Raine laughed through a trio of hyperventilating breaths, and pulled a rictus grin. “She was gonna shoot at you, couldn’t let it … it’s fine- it’s fine! It’s a flesh wound. I’m in shock. In shock. Shock. It’s not an artery, just a flesh wound. Not an artery. I’m fine.”
“You … no, Raine, you’re not fine, don’t be silly,” I said haltingly, surprised by how calm I sounded, while inside I went very cold. “You’ve been shot.”
“Gotta learn how to take a punch in the face, you know?” she said, wheezing.
This wasn’t Lozzie’s fault, it was mine.
I swallowed a hiccup. “Right. Okay. We all need to get out of here, right now, Loz-”
“Morell,” Stack said, level and blank. “I shot her, and she’s going to bleed out. I’ll do you too.”
“Bleed out?” Raine laughed, shaking and heaving the last few puffs. “Don’t be ridiculous, this is nothing. I’ll walk it off.”
“Shaman,” Zheng snapped. “Shaman, look up. I cannot pin this prize and be elsewhere too. I would break her legs but she will choke herself on her own tongue. Look up, shaman.”
I didn’t hear Zheng’s words. I only saw Raine’s blood running through her fingers as she applied pressure to a bullet wound. A bullet wound! This was absurd. I couldn’t process the fact.
“Kill me,” Stack said. “Go on. Do it. Order Zheng to do it. Snap my neck. Do it. Do it or I’ll kill everyone you love.”
“ … what?” I blinked at her. “N-no, Zheng, d-don’t, we need her, we-”
Stack twisted in Zheng’s grip like a ferret in a snare, got her other arm free from beneath her body, and drew a compact silvered knife from somewhere deep in her combat webbing. Raine tried to stagger to her feet, assuming Stack was going for me or something equally ridiculous, but the assassin thrust the knife toward her own exposed throat.
Zheng caught the blade in her bare hand before Stack could commit suicide.
Wordless, straining against an impossible strength, Stack went red in the face, muscles bunching in her neck, eyes staring as she tried to overcome Zheng’s grip and plunge the knife into her own windpipe.
“What the- wow. Okay then,” Raine muttered, and slipped on one knee. I thought she was about to go over, pass out.
“Shaman,” Zheng all but shouted at me, like a roaring tiger. “Look up!”
If Zheng had intended to snap me out of panic, she failed; being shouted at by a seven-foot slab of muscle and teeth amid all this madness was more likely to make me wet myself. But the urgency in her words was enough to make me obey, jerk my head, and look up.
Praem lay halfway down the scree slope of tumbled books, looking like she’d been hit by lightning. Which, in a way, she had. Mercy of mercies, she was at least sitting up and blinking her blank milk-white eyes, but she was twitching and flexing, like a human suffering full-body nerve compression, pins and needles in every muscle. Her sheet of blonde hair was singed at the tips, curled up here and there by heat, and her crisply elegant maid uniform was scorched and burned through in several places, the skirt ruined beyond repair, black tights laddered all over. She’d lost a single shoe, which somehow bothered me.
Saldis’ sealed grey machine had been struck as well, scorched and sooted across the front with a spider-web of lightning, but otherwise unmoved, up above us, alongside the audience of watching librarians. Sealed, she offered us no help.
The sports bags Praem had carried had suffered too, half-burst open by the attack. A split carrier bag of cloth-wrapped nuts was spilling its contents down the slope in a slow fall of tumbling metal, punctuated by water bottles and cereal bars and the contents of a first-aid kit.
A blackened twist of cooked meat lay at her feet – the corpse of a rabbit, surrounded by the sundered shell of spells and old towels and torn fabric. Evelyn’s possessed carnivorous time-bomb. Praem must have thrust it forward, or let it free, at the moment the Black Lightning had reached her. The dead rabbit, or more precisely the demon inside it, had taken the brunt of the attack and saved Praem’s life.
And Praem had saved Evelyn’s, by flinging herself in front of her mistress.
Evelyn, untouched and unharmed, up above us on the ragged edge of the upper floor from which we had descended.
Evelyn, alone but for the audience of watching librarians.
Evelyn, eyes and head turned away from the stage, away from us, framed like a painting by the wood and the books, as her lips moved to speak an unheard word to to unseen listener, just behind the nearest bookcase. A frame from a silent film, without music or caption, as inscrutable as a missing page.
Evelyn, nodding once as five squid-faced librarians approached with gentle hands and soft assurances, and took her by shoulder and elbow, to lead her willingly off into the library.
“Evee!” I screamed, and surged to my feet.
But she neither heard nor turned to look. She had already seen and heard something which mattered more than everything else in her life. She clacked her walking stick forward on the floorboards with a sound that resonated in the lingering silence, and stepped toward the blind spot behind the nearest bookcase.
I was meant to see. From that angle. At that exact moment. Stage and audience had switched roles.
I began an equation, dredged up the necessary pieces to knock dead everything around Evelyn and blast the bookshelves to cinders and break both of her legs.
Lozzie was wide-eyed and white-faced, putting all of her strength into just holding me up as I shook and shuddered in brainmath aftershock. Raine lurched to her feet again and shouted after Evee, both hands clamped around her own thigh, blood soaking down her trouser leg to the top of her boot. Praem had turned on the slope of books, slipping and sliding as she tried to regain fine motor control and climb after Evelyn, but her strength and speed was slow to return, and she slipped down two feet for each she gained. Climbing the slope would take many minutes. Too slow.
Twil should have been there.
Twil would have healed from a bullet wound in seconds, shrugged off lightning, launched herself up that slope with unstoppable energy and young love’s devotion. But Twil was not here, because Evelyn had insisted.
Had we been set up? Had Seven-Shades said something to Evelyn or Twil, behind all our backs?
One piece of unseen sabotage, and all of us were undone. Pull a single thread, it unravels the whole tapestry. If I used brainmath now, I could halt Evelyn – and wound her, badly, and probably pass out myself. And then who would rally Lozzie to get Raine home before Raine lost too much blood? Who would drag Evelyn down from that slope, or fix whatever was wrong with Praem? Who would avoid losing all of us at once? Who would get us safely home in one piece?
So as Evelyn stepped behind that bookcase, as the sound of her walking stick clacked away down a corridor of shelves and ancient tomes, I made a cold, calculating, abyssal survivalist decision. I let go of the equation.
I let Evelyn go.
Part of me, the soft human part that loved her, that part was screaming. I was shaking, struggling to control the fear of what I’d just let happen, struggling to tell myself this was the right decision, and also struggling not to vomit all over my shoes as the pain of aborted brainmath made me double up and whine like a stuck pig.
Zheng still had Stack pinned to the ground.
“Shaman,” she grunted.
“I know,” I slurred.
“I know!” I put force into my voice, and with every ounce of strength I had, I took Lozzie by the shoulders and peeled her off me, and stood on my own two feet, shaking with the effort.
“Heather Heather Heather! Where- Evee went-”
The clack of Evelyn’s walking stick was still audible, clicking off into the depths of the library, but receding. There was still time.
“Lozzie,” I said. “You have to take everyone else back home, right now.”
Lozzie’s face collapsed into horror. “No, no. Heathy, I can take another knight, I can be there and then here and where Evee is in one step, I know I can, I think I can, I-”
“Evee!” Raine shouted, and I’d never heard her so panicked. She took one broken step toward the slope of books, and I genuinely thought she was going to hurl herself upward with a bullet hole still in her thigh. But she halted and winced deep with pain, gritting her teeth, swearing in a long stream under her breath. A few feet away, Praem slid to the bottom of the slope and stood up, swaying, staring upward after the sound of Evelyn’s walking stick.
“Praem,” I called, trying to keep my voice free of panic. “Are you able to walk now? Can you-”
“Yes,” she intoned. “Evelyn. Now.”
“Yes, I know. Lozzie, please,” I said, and I hiccuped. Lozzie shook her head, on the verge of tears.
“Not leaving Evelyn behind,” Raine wheezed through deep breaths.
“Yes, I am not suggesting we leave Evelyn behind. I’d sooner suggest you shoot me,” I said, exasperated beyond thought, then hiccuped a second time and focused on Lozzie. “Raine needs medical attention, right now, a-and she’s losing a lot of blood. Zheng cannot let go of Stack, and we need her. Lozzie, you have to take them home. Please, you have to do this for me. I need you to.”
“Praem and I will follow Evee and bring her back. I may need to use brainmath, Praem can carry me. And we don’t have time to spare, and I won’t be able to think straight if Raine is hurt, and please don’t make me say this all again because I am very terrified right now. Lozzie, please.”
Tearing up, biting her bottom lip, Lozzie nodded.
“Grab everyone,” I said.
Lozzie whirled away from me, pastel poncho flaring out as she skipped over to Raine and gently took her by the shoulder.
“Heather,” Raine wheezed. “No, you- you- Evee- I can’t-”
“You know I’m right,” I told her, as clear-eyed and clear-headed as I could make myself. “Raine, you’ve been shot. I can’t think, I’m so scared. Let me find Evee. I’ve done this before. I can do it. I know Outside.”
Raine didn’t answer. She tried to smile, for me. A pain deeper than mere physical wound twisted her face into a rictus grin.
Praem staggered up next to me as Lozzie reached out her other hand to touch Zheng’s shoulder, to complete her circuit. Beneath Zheng’s grip, Amy Stack had closed her eyes in quiet resignation, her knife limp in her hand.
“Are you sure you’ve recovered?” I asked Praem. “Can you walk? I might be able to do this alone, I-”
Praem shoved two books – the two blasted books we’d recovered from this accursed trip – under Lozzie’s arm, and folded her poncho upward to cradle them, then turned to me.
“My purpose is to protect Evelyn. Do not instruct me otherwise,” she sing-songed, staring right back into my eyes with milk-white clarity. “Help me.”
“You look like a gacha-game reward, girl,” Raine tried to laugh, nodding at Praem’s torn maid outfit, but the laugh turned to a choke of pain. She curled up around her wounded leg and groaned. In a final gesture that would have made me roll my eyes in any other circumstances, she reached down and scooped up Stack’s gun.
“Ready!” Lozzie told me, still white faced, sad-eyed, worried beyond words.
“Shaman,” Zheng purred. She didn’t need to add any other words.
“Zheng. Tie Stack up and-”
“I do not need to be told, shaman,” Zheng purred. She sounded deeply unhappy.
I nodded. “Right. Of course. Sorry. Lozzie, Lozzie promise me to call for help for Raine as soon as you get back in the house. An ambulance. T-the first aid kit is in the cupboard to the left of the sink.”
Raine puffed out a laugh. “How do we explain a bullet-”
“I don’t care!” I almost shouted at her. “Lozzie, call for help.”
Lozzie nodded, very serious.
“And call … ” I almost didn’t say it. “Call Twil. Call Twil, tell her what’s happened. Get her over to the house. Get her … just tell her to be there. I’ll be back with Evelyn. I promise I’ll be back.”
“Heather,” Raine croaked. “Don’t do this alone.”
“I love you. Go, I’ll see you later,” I told Lozzie, and could not look at the species of pain in Raine’s eyes.
Lozzie sobbed once.
And with no pop of air, no click of heels, no sparkle or spark or shimmer, Lozzie was gone from the library of Carcosa. She took Raine with her, and Zheng, and Amy Stack pinned to the floorboards, our prize won by a price too high. Guilt rushed in to fill the silence.
Praem and I were left alone together, in the gathering quiet.
The clack-clack-clack of Evelyn’s walking stick slowly receded into the depths of the library. The watching ring of hundreds of squid-faced librarians made no sound, alongside the closed grey sphere of Saldis in her machine. Closer to hand, Lozzie’s charred and cooked knight stood dead and immobile, metal ticking as it cooled.
“Evelyn,” Praem intoned.
“Yes,” I said, and leaned on the arm she offered me as support. “Come on, up the slope, after her. You’ll have to drag me a little, I’m sorry.”
“I will drag both of you,” Praem sang.