water of the womb – 12.1

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We went home.

Bruised, bandaged, and bullet-holed; aching, exhausted, and adrenaline-crashing; laden down with replacement dressing and gauze and cotton wool, a prescription for antibiotic ointment and a very impressive bottle of painkillers; carrying a hospital-issue crutch and a glossy instructional pamphlet with the inviting title How to care for your surgical wound – not to mention smuggling a stack of stolen lasagna – we finally left Sharrowford General Hospital, six hours after we’d arrived.

No police questioned us. No mysterious figures in yellow approached us. No spirits dared irritate me.

We took a taxi, which Evelyn quietly paid for over the phone. A real one, like a tiny bus, with more than enough space in the back for the four of us. Sharrowford’s public buses were perfectly serviceable, but the stop nearest to home would still have left Raine limping and hobbling for half a mile to reach our front door, zonked out on morphine.

“God bless the NHS,” was the last thing Raine muttered, before she fell asleep on the way home.

Nobody stopped the car. No pallid mask smiled back from my reflection in the taxi’s window. Lozzie did not disappear.

It was just us and the slowly passing lights amid the darkness of Sharrowford at night, seen through the back windows of a very ordinary taxi, driven by a very ordinary middle aged man, with a very ordinary radio station playing softly in the front of the car. Raine’s sleepy head lolled on my shoulder. Twil chewed her tongue and watched for threats that did not appear. Lozzie protected her haul of stomach-threatening food in her lap, now and again raising her fingers to wave at some roadside pneuma-somatic life, making eyes at giant insects which clung to the sides of buildings, smiling at stalking abominations lurking in alleyways, winking at tree-like tentacles which rose above distant houses.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive rose into view like a dark hillock growing from a forgotten gap in the orange street-lighting, all shuttered and closed and thorny, camouflaged by ivy and crumbling brick and cracked roof tiles backed by grimy tarpaulin. In a more popular neighbourhood, our home would be the subject of childhood urban legends, the house full of witches and ghosts.

We woke Raine up and helped her out of the car and up the garden path, as she hobbled along and laughed at her own clumsy inexperience with the crutch tucked under her left shoulder.

Home.

Through all my teenage years, my family home was never a true refuge. Home meant punctuation between stays at Cygnet children’s hospital, or the long stagnation between the few opportunities to go to school. Home meant taking my medication on time, pretending I didn’t see monsters, and trying to make my parents happy. Home meant denying Maisie ever existed. Home was not unsafe, but neither was it mine.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was a fortress.

A Saye fortress, perhaps an outpost of that greater, older, semi-abandoned fortress down in Sussex, that estate full of magical secrets and rotten memories that Evelyn would one day inherit. And we’d cross that bridge when we reached it, I would help her clean out that old manor house and banish her mother’s ghost, if that was what she wanted. But this fortress here in Sharrowford was, for the moment, ours. Warm, full of the people I love, protected from the nightmares that had plagued half my life, and quite possibly the safest place in the world from which to sally forth and rescue my sister.

Praem opened the door and spilled light across us as Raine limped up the steps. We got her over the threshold and into the warm soft-lit familiarity of the front room, and once that door was closed stout and sensible against the night outside, locked and bolted and double-checked, once we were in and home and safe, I felt so much better.

I’d lived there for only six months, but this beautiful, tumbledown, creaking old house felt more like home than anywhere else I’d ever known.

We had little spare energy for decompression or sentimentality, busy dropping bags and handing off medical supplies, Lozzie trotting off to stash her lasagnas, us bumbling about to help Raine get her shoes off, Praem holding her under the arms to keep her steady.

But Evelyn had been waiting too.

She greeted us by walking up so close to Raine, with such a conflicted expression on her face, that I thought she was going to give her old friend a hug.

But then Raine roared “Evee!” with a bouncing grin, and Evelyn stopped short.

“Yes, Raine, hello,” Evelyn sighed. “Glad to see you’re in one piece again.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee, you know a bullet’s not gonna stop me. I eat lead for breakfast. I defecate lead.”

“She is on a lot of painkillers,” I said.

“Evidently,” said Evelyn.

“And what about you, yeah?” Raine asked. She attempted to gesture with the crutch, but she wasn’t anywhere near as experienced as Evelyn, and if Praem hadn’t been holding her, I suspect she would have fallen over and dragged us all down in a tangle and probably popped her stitches open. “Feeling better? You better not go walkies again. Next time we’ll set Twil on you, and she’ll sniff you out right quick, ‘cos she’s got your scent, she’s got it goooooood.”

“You’re so lucky you’re on drugs,” Twil muttered, blushing.

“Raine,” I coaxed from down below, still trying to get her shoes off. “Lift your right foot now, come on.”

Evelyn was giving Raine a slow look up and down. Her gaze settled on the ugly grey NHS-issue crutch wedged under Raine’s left armpit.

“In some ways, I am better now than I have ever been,” Evelyn said. She nodded at the crutch. “Those things are terrible. If you’re planning on using it for more than a day or two, you’re going to want to wrap a hand towel around the armpit cradle, and keep it in place with tape, or eventually it’ll chafe when you walk. And the handle gets slippery, you’ll want something on that too, but I don’t know if we have anything.” Evelyn flicked a question at me. “How long is she supposed to go without immersing the stitches in water?”

“Uh, at least three weeks,” I answered, finally pulling off a shoe. Raine wiggled her freshly un-shod toes against the floorboards. “Then she’s got a check up, they told us not until then, at the earliest.”

“Three weeks, not too bad,” Evelyn grumbled. “I assume they’ve given her tramadol and a dosing schedule? You’ll have to track that, Heather, because Raine’s terrible at it. Make sure she takes them on time, or the pain’ll creep up on her and she’ll pretend it’s not happening.” Then she added, without missing a beat, unimpressed and droll: “Don’t ever get shot again, Raine.”

“Thas’ tha’ plan,” Raine said, and pointed double-finger guns at Evelyn, almost dropping her crutch.

“You are too important to get shot, you idiot.”

“Hey, woah, Evee-” Twil started.

“And you’re too important to walk off into the infinity library, little miss Saye,” said Raine, a manic light sparking in her eyes. “I love you, you dingbat. You super-massive giant arse-fool. You shit-goblin. Evelyn Saye, without you, I’d be dead in a ditch. I’d have eaten my own legs. I’d have bitten a policeman to death and be doing forty years in plastic cell with a muzzle on my face. Don’t walk off into the dark, Evee!”

Evelyn’s face flickered with the spark of a blazing frown, but the conflagration collapsed into a mortified blush as Raine went on, so Evelyn just huffed and looked away. “Yes, we’ve established some rather convincing reasons for that.”

“Hello,” Praem intoned.

“Get her upstairs and into bed,” Evelyn snapped. “Before the painkillers wear off. She looks liable to fall down.”

“Hey, I only fall down precisely when I damn well mean to fall down,” Raine returned with a grin, even as I tried to steer her toward the stairs. “And what about baldie in the basement? We gonna rake her over the coals or what?”

“She’ll keep a night,” said Evelyn. “Go to sleep, Raine.”

“You’ve got Zheng watching her, right?” The smile dropped out of Raine’s voice, her eyebrows drawing together in concentration, pushing past the morphine and exhaustion. “Don’t leave her alone, not for a second. I don’t care if you break both her ankles and glue her hands together, somebody needs to watch her.”

“It’s cool, Zheng won’t budge,” said Twil. “I’ve tried.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. “She’s not going anywhere, not … yes, Lauren?” Evelyn cleared her throat. “What is it?”

Lozzie had spent the last two minutes emerging from the kitchen again and slowly creeping up alongside Evelyn, in plain view, as if approaching a particularly skittish cat, one prone to clawing and hissing. An impish little smile graced her face, and she held one of her hard-won pasta treats in her arms.

“Evee-weavy, want some lasagna?” she asked.

“ … what?”

“Hospital lasagna,” I sighed.

“Many lasaganaaaa!” went Lozzie, grinning like the wonderful little loon she was.

Evelyn was totally lost, staring at Lozzie as if the younger girl had just grown a second head. “Hospital lasagna?” she managed eventually.

“Yeah!”

She turned to me for help. “Heather?”

I shrugged. “You can say what you want. Lozzie won’t be offended.”

“I can share,” Lozzie stage-whispered to Evelyn. “But don’t tell anybody else.”

Evelyn stared at her a moment longer, then let out a grumbly noise like a old steam engine breaking down. “Let’s just say I have the stomach of a forty year old. No thank you, Lauren-”

“Lozzie!” chirped Lozzie.

“ … no thank you, Lozzie. I will allow you to reap the … benefits of hospital lasagna by yourself. Heather, are you certain you should be letting her eat all this?”

“It’s her choice.”

Lozzie bounced a miniature curtsy and scurried off into the kitchen, followed moments later by the clunk of the microwave door popping open.

We had slunk back behind our castle walls, to sleep and snuggle and play, to lick our wounds and make fresh plans.

The Saye house felt like a castle indeed.

We even had a dungeon.

==

“Tenny? Tenny, it’s very sweet of you,” I murmured, “but we have to let auntie Raine sleep now.”

“She’s fiiiiine,” Raine slurred. Her head was sunk deep in the pillow, bleary eyes barely open. “She’s purring. S’nice. Good puppy.”

“Pup-pay,” Tenny imitated in her fluttery trilling.

Raine wiggled a hand out from under the covers and stroked Tenny’s fluffy head, in mirror of how I was stroking Raine’s hair back from her sleep-addled face.

“Yes, Tenny is a good puppy.” I cleared my throat softly. “But you do need to sleep.”

“Purring has healing properties,” Raine said. “She knows what she’s doing. Good girl, goooood girl.”

Tenny’s purring had taken us by surprise. The deep sonorous vibration originated from within her chest, a long back-and-forth trill in sync with her breathing, not unlike that of a puma or a cheetah, more felidae than lepidoptera. She’d purred a few times before in fluttery fits and starts, back when we’d encouraged her into the bath shortly after her rebirth into physical flesh, but this purring was the real deal. It made her whole body vibrate in soft, slow, soporific waves. Though I was sat on the opposite side of the bed, and above the covers, I could still feel the purr through the mattress.

When I’d finally helped Raine up the stairs, with Twil trailing behind in case we needed extra lifting power, Tenny had emerged from Lozzie’s room like an animal summoned by tasty food smells. Perhaps that was the real reason, perhaps she could smell Lozzie’s lasagna in the microwave downstairs. She’d stared at us for a moment, big black eyes blinking, fluffy white fur bristling, feathery feelers twitching in thought. Some of her tentacles had still been rapidly solving a double-sized Rubik’s cube and some others were holding a children’s picture book about dinosaurs. She’d dropped both of those, tentacles extending back behind her to dump them in the bedroom, and then she’d gone straight for Raine.

Bless her, she’d sensed something was wrong.

Animal instinct or sentient intellect, I don’t know which she was following, but she decided that her top priority was to accompany us to bed, and that her proper place was snuggled up alongside Raine like a living water bottle equipped with a massage attachment. She’d even wrapped several of her silken black tentacles around Raine under the bed covers – gently, of course, laying them across her chest and belly and pressing either side of her wounded thigh. More of her tentacles lay across the sheets, twitching occasionally.

“Goo’ girl?” Tenny trilled, blinking big black eyes at me.

I sighed inside, but smiled all the same. “Yes, Tenny, you’re a good girl. But if you’re going to stay there, you have to be quiet and still, so Raine can sleep.”

“Nap,” Tenny said, and had a little trouble with the ‘p’ sound. She snuggled down tighter, wiggling her bottom, and very purposefully closed her eyes.

How could I say no to that?

“Don’t leave the house, okay?” Raine murmured, eyes closed, right on the cusp of sleep. “Don’t go outdoors while I’m sleeping.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I whispered.

I kept stroking Raine’s hair until her breathing softened and deepened, and I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was asleep. Then I waited for a long time, sitting cross-legged on the bed right next to her, surrounded by the fuzzy edges of the shadows cast by the one lamp we’d left on. Her body seemed so indistinct bundled beneath the covers, curves and lines blurred by the thick duvet. Beyond the warm cocoon of our bedroom, the little sounds of the house at night creaked and ticked, and in the middle distance I could hear cars passing, far away on one of Sharrowford’s main roads.

The ghost of a stress headache nipped at me. My stomach was a numb hole in my midsection. My eyes were full of sand.

My head should have been nodding with exhaustion, after the day we’d had, but I’d passed beyond tired and out the other side.

I made no conscious decision to stay awake when all others were sleeping, but obeyed a dual directive from endocrine system and abyssal instinct, combined together into a lizard brain far more capable than the slow executive decision maker in my frontal lobe. Lizard brain said my mate was hurt, and I needed to guard. Lizard brain said walk the castle walls, look out for saber-toothed tigers and leviathan predators and shadowy infiltrators. Lizard brain said no sleep.

Conscious brain watched for a scrap of yellow in my peripheral vision, but none came. Yet.

“Tenny?” I eventually whispered, and got no response. I sighed and stretched my back, feeling vertebrae pop.

If Tenny hadn’t been here, I would have stood – or at least sat – vigil the whole night, which would have justified quite a telling off in the morning. Instead I eased myself off the bed, so as not to wake Raine or disturb her living water bottle, and curled my cold toes inside my socks as I considered going downstairs, to at least put some nutrients into the hole in my face.

At least, that’s what I told myself I was going to do, that’s what I focused on, to keep my pulse rate down and my stomach from churning.

I tugged on a second pair of socks to keep off the worst of the cold – the rain had weakened earlier as the clouds had broken, but that had served only to deepen the night’s chill – and found I really did not want to leave Raine alone, even with Tenny here. I stared back at her on the bed, buried in covers, snuggled up with Tenny, a big black and white purring lump.

“She’s not alone, don’t be silly,” I whispered to myself. “We’re all here. We’re all home.”

I ran my eyes over the single window, the enclosure of the walls, over our discarded clothes and Raine’s desk and the little piles of my books like rock sculptures. In my mind I saw past them, to the beams underfoot, the plaster and brick, the pipes and wires, the secret wards laid down by Evelyn’s ancestors and reinforced by her grandmother, the bones of the house unchanged for a century or more.

“Keep her safe,” I murmured.

Tenny didn’t respond, but I wasn’t speaking to her.

==

At least one other resident of number 12 Barnslow Drive was still awake.

After I crept downstairs in the dark and picked way through the detritus in the front room – and checked that yes, Twil’s battered old trainers were still by our front door – I discovered the kitchen lights burning bright, and ventured inside to find Lozzie sitting at the kitchen table, working on a second helping of lasagna.

It appeared to have defeated her.

One empty sauce-stained container lay on the table, scoured of its contents, but the second one in front of her was only a third gone. She seemed to have given up, eyes heavier than usual, a spoon loose in one hand. She had a book open on the table too, a dog-eared paperback which must have come from the small library in Evelyn’s study upstairs. Her braid was half undone, lose hair dangling toward the floor, and she was crouched on the chair like a little pixie gargoyle, her pastel-tricolour poncho over her knees like a tiny tent. Sleepy eyes rose to meet me.

“Heathyyyyyy,” she said.

Stack’s gun still sat in the middle of the table, like the centrepiece of an altar to industrial death. I tried not to look at it.

“Lozzie?” I said softly. “What are you doing still up? It’s almost eleven. You’ve had as long a day as the rest of us.”

“Eatinnnnnnn-guh.” Lozzie elongated the word and tilted her head back in childish defiance.

“Finished eating, by the looks of it,” I said. “Eyes bigger than your stomach?”

“Mmmmm,” Lozzie made a grumpy sound and pouted at the unfinished lasagna. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Really, Lozzie, don’t you want to sleep?”

“Night Praem says it’s fine.”

“Night Praem?” I echoed.

“Night Praem,” said Night Praem.

I jumped in surprise at the silver-bell sing-song from over my shoulder. All my phantom tentacles whipped around in protective impulse, one hand clutching my heart and all the breath going out of me before my conscious mind caught up and I wheezed. It was just Praem. She’d been standing next to the doorway and I’d missed her, too focused on Lozzie as I’d walked in.

“Oh, goodness, Praem. I didn’t see you there.”

She stared back at me, milk white eyes in her expressionless face.

With her habitual maid uniform ruined back in Carcosa, Praem was wearing clothes borrowed from Evelyn, a form-fitting grey ribbed sweater and a long purple skirt that I’d never seen Evelyn actually wear before. She had at least managed to dig up replacement black tights, but lacked any footwear, and her blonde hair was still a singed mess, curled up at the ends here and there, burned patches elsewhere. Her neatly folded hands sported a few plasters to cover some scratches, and I very much hoped – and suspected – that Evelyn had taken care of her other grazes and bumps.

“Mmm, well,” I had to take a couple of deep breaths. “When you say ‘Night Praem’, I imagine you dressed up in black lace and heavy eyeshadow, like a ‘goth’, is that the right word? Would you like that sort of look, Praem?”

“Black eyeliner,” Praem intoned.

“We can get you some, if you like?”

“To try.”

I nodded. “It’s good to see that you’re all cleaned up. I mean … are you … ” I struggled for the right words. “It’s a been a big day for you too, hasn’t it? How are you holding up, Praem?”

“I am loved,” she intoned.

“Praem’s been telling me all about it!” Lozzie added.

“That’s … great! Yes, Praem, yes you are.” I smiled at her, happy for whatever she’d decided but somewhat at a loss to answer that. “Where is Evee, anyway? And everyone else?”

“Evee-weavy and and fluffy went upstairs,” Lozzie supplied.

I assumed ‘fluffy’ was Twil. Who else would it be?

“Oh. Oh, that explains … um … ” I glanced at Praem and Lozzie giggled. I’d seen a light burning under Evelyn’s bedroom door upstairs, but hadn’t lingered to eavesdrop. Perhaps her and Twil were working things out, or perhaps working things out. Perhaps I should have knocked gently and stepped in to mediate. Now I was glad I hadn’t.

“Sleeping,” Praem corrected my blush-inducing assumption.

“Together?” I asked.

“No.”

“Ah. Well.”

“Well,” Praem intoned, and she could not have put it better.

“Kim came home too,” Lozzie said. “Doesn’t like to talk to me though. And Zheng’s down in the coal chute with scaryhead.”

“Scaryhead,” I echoed. “Indeed.”

I felt my gaze drawn sidelong, through the open door to the little utility room in the rear of the house. The cellar door still stood open. Nobody had thought to switch the light on back there, so all was shrouded in thick shadows tainted by the distant orange glow of Sharrowford’s street-lightning. A tiny light glowed deep down in the cellar, beckoning me to my task.

“Heathy?” Lozzie chirped. I cleared my throat and rubbed my clammy palms on Raine’s big hoodie. I was still wearing it, and very glad for it right then. Armoured in her.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just … ” I looked at the door again.

Pbbbbt”, Lozzie blew a raspberry noise. I blinked at her in surprise and she shrugged, smiling like a little imp.

“I suppose that’s as good a summation as any. Pbbbbt indeed,” I added. Lozzie giggled and bobbed side to side on the chair. “Does … does Amy Stack scare you, Lozzie? It can’t be good having her in the house.”

Lozzie shook her head, most emphatically, hair going everywhere. “Stack is poop.”

“Poop?” I echoed delicately.

“Poop.” Lozzie lit up with a sneaky smile beneath heavy eyes. “I don’t really know her! She never came to the castle. My brother knew her from somewhere, I dunno how, and she did stuff for money and that’s bad, yeah, but she never hurt me or anything, so I dunno, but she’s working for my uncle now and that’s really bad, a really bad thing to do, he was always worse than Alex. Alex kinda loved me in his own way even if he was bad, and he’s gone now but uncle Ed is different. So Stack is poop.”

“Breakable arms,” Praem intoned – softly.

“We can’t keep her here for long,” I murmured, and turned to stare at the cellar door again. This problem would not go away by itself, this captive in our dungeon.

Lozzie slid the unfinished lasagna toward me. “Bite?”

I puffed out a big sigh. “Oh, why not? I could do with some fortifying.”

“Spoon!” Lozzie held out the spoon as I finally approached her side. “Have it all if you- oh!”

Lozzie chirped in giggly surprise as I bent down and gave her a hug. I buried my face in the shoulder of her poncho, soft and faintly fluffy, and linked my hands across her lower back as she wiggled to return the embrace. She smelled of spicy pasta, strawberry shampoo, and the undeniable lingering scent of dust and old books. Carcosa, brought back with us.

“That’s better,” I sighed.

“Mmm,” Lozzie purred into my chest.

After I had my fill of Lozzie-derived oxytocin, I let go and straightened up, and fully intended to accept the spoon and fill my belly with at least a bite or two. But my eyes met the awful lump of black metal resting in the middle of the table. Our profane trophy.

“I don’t like it either,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“It doesn’t have to stay there,” I said, as firm as I could.

“Didn’t want to touch it.”

Time to banish the firearm. With a tea towel wrapped around my hands – I didn’t want to touch the gun either, feeling vaguely superstitious – I lifted it off the table by the weird metal shoulder bit and the thick cylinder around the barrel, and found it surprisingly heavy. Pointing it at the floor in case it somehow went off by accident, I kept my fingers well away from anything that looked like a mechanism, and held my breath until I deposited it safely onto the kitchen worktop, with the barrel pointed at the exterior wall.

“I’d put it straight in the bin,” I said to nobody in particular, “but that would be one awful surprise for the bin men. And I suppose we might need it. Maybe Raine can take it apart.”

“As revenge!” said Lozzie.

I returned to the table and accepted Lozzie’s spoon, and sat down next to her as I chewed a mouthful of faintly spicy lasagna. The hospital didn’t skimp too badly on the canteen food, it was filling and meaty and felt like concrete bricks in my belly as I went for a second and third spoonful. Lozzie rubbed my back, but I stopped eating when I realised the battered old paperback she’d been reading was a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

She followed my numb gaze to the book and flipped it shut to show me the cover – an old illustration of a tiny blonde girl talking to the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat. At least the grin wasn’t yellow.

“I like it,” said Lozzie.

“I … don’t,” I admitted.

“It’s nothing like your Wonderland. It’s fun! I wish I could meet Alice. She’s smart.”

I gave Lozzie a smile and handed the spoon back. She giggled and took another – very small – bite for herself.

“You were very smart today, Lozzie,” I told her, “to keep away from the police in the hospital. Maybe you’re more like Alice than I am.”

“Mmhmm!” she mumbled through a mouthful of lasagna, then swallowed and added: “Don’t wanna be found! Can’t do anything about me, I’m an adult now, but I can’t prove it and uncle Eddy could forge stuff and … mmmm … ”

She pulled a frowny thinking face, tongue working over her teeth inside her mouth.

Lozzie had nowhere to be except Outside, or by my side. I’d freed her, killed her brother, dismantled the cult she’d spent her life bound to, and I was vaguely aware her parents had not been around for quite some time. Without us, she would be homeless, penniless, and alone, but for spirits and the Outside, and she was currently cut off from one of those. Did she even have a birth certificate? A national insurance number? Was anybody except us mages and monsters aware of her?

As far as mundane society knew, Lauren Lilburne might not even exist.

“You’re sort of unpersoned, aren’t you?” I murmured softly. Lozzie turned to me and made her eyes big in surprised incomprehension, spoon sticking out of her mouth. “Lozzie, I hope you don’t mind me asking. Did you ever go to school?”

“Yeah, primary school!” she chirped.

“Oh.”

“For like a year, mum and dad did try! And I remember kind of enjoying it, but then it was all homeschooling because of the things mum and dad had to do, and then I met the big friend under the castle and everything changed and there was no more mum and dad, just me and Alex.” Lozzie bit her lip as her bouncing tone faltered, tripping on the history behind the words. “He never forgave me for anything. He never sent me to school.”

To her brother, to Alexander Lilburne, had Lozzie at least been a person? Perhaps, perhaps less. But what was she to Edward, to her uncle?

I could bend the fabric of reality to my will, could grasp the slick-black controls behind the world, if I was willing to pay the price in blood and pain and flirt with the edge of the abyss, but even I couldn’t have completed Evelyn’s gateway. I lacked the technical knowledge, the comprehension, the insight.

But Lozzie didn’t lack anything. She’d given us the first pieces, back when Alexander had forced her to set up the kidnapping attempt, when I’d been snatched by Zheng so many months ago. Lozzie had finished Evelyn’s work in finger-paint scrawl, crying, reluctant, in panic. And when we’d needed to go to Carcosa, Kimberly could not have finished the gate, the true gate to Outside. The attempt had been breaking her, twisting her mind down pathways the human brain was not meant to comprehend – until Lozzie had stepped in, and just done it.

This was what Edward Lilburne wanted. This was why her own brother had imprisoned her in a castle like a captive princess. Lauren Lilburne was a treasure-trove of inhuman knowledge, inherited in desperate love and good faith from the Fallen Star Outsider, beneath the cult’s castle.

And right now she was biting her lip, looking back at me with nervous tension in her heavy-lidded eyes.

“Lozzie? What’s wrong?”

“Um … Heathy? W-well, I don’t have any other family, so-”

Lozzie,” I tutted, without even thinking. “Don’t be silly. You have me.”

She blinked those sleepy eyes and all the strange nervous tension flowed back out of her, leaving behind just Lozzie. She giggled and rocked in her chair and cast her arms around my shoulders.

“Heathyyyy,” she crooned.

“I don’t know what we are to each other, Lozzie, but you’re family if you want to be,” I went on, and realised I could only say this without thinking about it because I was so utterly exhausted. “And if you have me, you have Raine too. And Zheng. And … maybe Evelyn, though I know she can’t deal with you.”

“She can!” Lozzie giggled.

“She can not,” Praem joined in.

When Lozzie eventually pulled away and sat back in her chair, she had to wipe her eyes on the hem of her poncho, though she was smiling bright now.

“I didn’t thank you for the knight earlier, either,” I told her. “That was another good call, more smart thinking.”

“Yeah,” she said, then smiled a bit sadly. “He died too. They’re all so good to me, but they deserve better, but they want to help you, they’re for helping you. I can’t make them and give them purpose and then tell them no … but, I don’t like it when they die. I wish I could bring them all here.”

“The house would get a bit crowded,” I said, not unkindly.

“Yeah,” Lozzie giggled.

“I’d like to see them sometime. If you made them to help me, I owe it to them, to … ” To what was inside the armour, but I needed to stand before the things themselves and ask Lozzie questions, and I couldn’t do that yet. I sighed, my thoughts turning to other problems. “I haven’t attempted a Slip in a while. Have you? Are the hands still there?”

The dead grasping hands on our ankles, that kept us here when Lozzie or I tried to Slip.

Lozzie nodded, wrinkling her elfin little nose. “I wish we knew where my brother’s body went.”

“You really think it’s him?”

I’d suspected the same thing, but didn’t like to put it in words.

Lozzie stared at the tabletop and chewed on her bottom lip. “He used to catch me. After mum and dad were gone. When it was just him and me, and all his followers. I used to escape a lot, go Outside, go everywhere. But every time I came back he’d find me and make me come home. With words and promises and stuff. I was kind of bad at finding food sometimes.” She shook her head. “And then he got me to come to the castle and I couldn’t run away anymore. It feels like him.”

“Lozzie. Oh, Lozzie.” I reached out and put an arm around her shoulders. “We did see his body, Lozzie, in Glasswick tower,” I gently reminded her – then stumbled on the memory of that shattered corpse which I had made, that corpse of which not a single cell had rotted away. “He was, well, very dead. He was just a vector for the Eye. And, um, it’s really gruesome, but … well … we … ”

“Pulled his head off,” Praem supplied.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, thank you, Praem.”

“Thank you, Praem!” Lozzie said – and she was neither disgusted, nor giggling. She really, really meant it, earnest and grateful. “But where did it go? After the tower? Where did all his followers take it? I want to know!”

“Maybe to the house where they did their ritual,” I said. “Maybe it burned.”

“Maybe,” Lozzie said, small and doubtful.

“God grant he stay dead.”

Praem spoke the words in lilting sing-song cadence. I recognised them instantly, a small variation of the epigraph Evelyn had chosen for her mother’s gravestone. Mages, difficult to put down for good.

Lozzie didn’t say anything, but she lit up at Praem in a big smile of mixed gratitude and sadness, nodding emphatically.

“And I can always do it all over again,” I said. “A second time.”

“Heather,” she whined, and pulled me back into a hug and clung on tight. We stayed that way for long enough for her to calm down, to stop shaking and to roll her head on my shoulder with the lazy, full-belly sleepiness of having eaten too much after a long day.

Murder had not been easy, and had brought no sense of satisfaction. But it had kept Lozzie safe. That was worth some portion of my soul.

==

‘Basement’ was not the proper architectural term for the single underground room of number 12 Barnslow Drive. The correct word was cellar.

Steep flagstone steps led down into gloom and stale air, always the same temperature no matter the time of year, no matter the storms or squalls or baking sun that battered the house above. Bare redbrick walls, no windows, and only a pair of tiny ventilation slits high up near the ceiling, the other ends of which I suspected had been blocked up decades ago. Two bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling, and four thick beams of very old wood helped brace the rest of the building against its own foundations.

Considering the age of the house, the cellar’s original purpose had probably been coal storage. The remains of an ancient coal-fired boiler stood testament to this history, a grand old thing rambling across one dark corner, cold for a half-century at least. A few empty wine racks against one wall showed the other use to which the cellar had once been put.

Evelyn’s family had used this space for more disturbing things, and I did not like to come down here.

The remains of many magic circles showed through as faint lines on the flagstone floor. A pair of long wooden boxes lay toward the back – open and empty, thankfully, of anything but a few scraps of cloth – unmistakable as coffins. A crate in a corner lay abandoned, covered in strange stains and shattered long ago from the inside. A twisted metal sculpture sat on a workbench, all blades and points and razor-sharp edges that would make it a nightmare to move, and small rusty-red patches attested to previous unwise attempts to lift the thing. Our own addition had joined the mysteries: a warded and circled wire mesh cage where Evelyn had kept the now-dead possessed rabbit.

A modern electric boiler glugged and hummed happily away to itself, shining a handful of green LEDs across the absurd occult detritus.

Our dungeon.

I’d left Lozzie upstairs with Night Praem and ventured down alone, curling my toes against the chill in the flagstones, half in hope that Lozzie would go to bed and half wishing that they would wait for me to return. I didn’t fancy being alone after this, but neither would I subject Lozzie to what might have to be done. My stomach clenched up into a hard ball, and down into the dark I went, stepping out onto the cellar floor.

“Shaman,” came a purr.

“Zheng,” I breathed in relief. “Hi. Hello. Oh, it is good to hear you.”

The giant demon-host was propped up against the wall past the end of the stairs, a silent sentinel in the gloom, wrapped in her long coat, still in the clothes she’d worn to Carcosa, hands in her pockets. Sharp, slow, unsmiling eyes found mine, and she extended a hand, fingers splayed at my head-height.

“Here, shaman.”

I went to her, hopping and pattering my feet in vain to spare my toes from the cold. I went straight past her hand as she tried to lay it on my head, and in the way that only a small person can slip into the personal space of a very tall person, I slid my arms beneath her coat and hugged Zheng around the middle.

She was so warm, like a banked fire inside her clothes. I squeezed her and nuzzled her without thinking and laid my head against her chest and tucked the sides of my feet up against her, seeking heat. I didn’t care if she hadn’t changed since Carcosa, Zheng needed to belong as much as the rest of us. She smelled of dust and books too, but also of hot spiced sweat and warm skin.

I realised after a few moments that she was not hugging me back. I looked up.

“ … Zheng?”

“Shaman,” Zheng laughed a deep rumble, then finally placed a hand on my head and wrapped her other arm around my shoulders, pressing me to her. “Deft. Quick. You surprise me always.”

It was entirely platonic, entirely safe, but still my heart gave a little trill inside my chest.

“Don’t be silly,” I said as I started to blush, only just realising what I’d done. “I just wanted to hug you. It’s been an emotional day, and I haven’t seen you since we got back.”

“Our catch must be watched.” She pointed past me.

I let go of Zheng and took a half step away, fingers lingering on her heat, and finally turned to face what I’d descended down here to do.

Beneath the thin light cast by the pair of naked bulbs, tied to an old chair with thick ropes and skilled knots, with wrists bound behind her back and a faint bruise on her chin and an expression like a stone carving, Amy Stack stared back at me.

Eyes like chips of frozen flint, her grey athletic wear and thin raincoat scuffed and twisted beneath the ropes around her thighs and belly and chest, muscles like a web of steel cables. The stubble on her shaved scalp was a touch longer than when we’d last met, as if she’d given up on proper grooming or decided to grow it out. As I watched, she flexed a thigh muscle, then her stomach, then a shoulder. Searching for a weakness in the ropes. The tattoos on her throat shifted as she tested her bonds.

Restrained and rendered harmless, she still terrified me. My heart rate spiked and cold sweat broke out down my back and my mouth went dry. My head felt oddly light, my pulse heavy in my throat. My phantom tentacles hovered in hair-trigger readiness.

“Stack,” I managed. “Or … Amy?”

“Morell,” she answered, flat and affectless.

“Amy,” I repeated, making my decision.

“How’s your girl?” she asked.

Not the question I’d expected. I had to gather myself before I could answer. “Raine is going to be okay. It was a clean wound. She’ll walk with a crutch for a few weeks, but she’ll be fine.”

“ … pity,” said Stack.

It was the most fake word I’d ever heard come out of Stack’s mouth. I think she tried to make it sound bitter or full of venom, but it fell so flat one could almost hear it splat on the cold flagstone floor. I blinked at her.

“Okay, well, that was absurd. You clearly didn’t even mean that,” I sighed, deeply unimpressed. “What are you trying to do?”

Stack stared at me, and said nothing.

Apart from the rope and the chair, Stack was also contained by a fresh magic circle drawn directly on the floor, in chalk, a simple spell of only a single enclosure and a few symbols, with some Latin running around the edge. Looking at it made my eyes twinge, but it didn’t hurt. Further away lay the pouches and straps of her military-style webbing, torn off her before Zheng had tied her up.

“Do you really need to stay down her to watch her?” I asked Zheng. “She’s inside a circle.”

“The fox will gnaw off a paw to escape the trap,” Zheng purred. “And this fox has experience, shaman. She has been held by worse than us. She knows how to play dead, when to be still, when to hurry, when to go for the throat. Left to herself, she will be gone in the morning.”

I smiled back at Zheng. “I thought maybe I’d made you angry or something, and that’s why you wouldn’t come upstairs.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow at me. “Worry less, shaman.”

“I will.” I turned back to Stack. “What’s the circle for? Breaking whatever hold Edward has over her?”

“No,” Zheng purred. “The wizard came down and tested her. No strings, no tendrils, no hold. This fox is clean and healthy.”

“Ah. Right. Right then.”

The exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. The worst-case scenario. If Stack had been mind-controlled or hypnotised or puppeted, that would make all the decisions so much easier, free us of the burden of choice, of needing to talk to her.

I left Zheng and went to the a pair of battered old chairs in the near corner of the cellar, and dragged one over.

“Not too close, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “She is not roped to the floor.”

“What’s she going to do, fall on me?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, I’m not that brave anyway.” I situated the chair a good safe six feet back from our captive, and sat down facing her.

Amy Stack stared back at me.

I took a deep breath, wet my lips, looked away, looked back again and felt my stomach tighten up as I made contact with Stack’s eyes. I was not cut out for this, but I needed to start before tomorrow morning, before the inevitable discussion over what to do with her, before we had to make horrible choices. I tucked my feet up on the seat to keep them off the cold floor, and clutched my hands together inside the hoodie’s front pocket.

“Amy,” I started. “Amy, why did you keep trying to commit suicide?”

She blinked, slowly, and said nothing.

“You were going to shoot yourself rather than be caught by that … black lightning thing, and that I can understand, and that’s why I ran down there, back in the library. Or at least half of why. But then you turned your gun on me, to get Raine or Zheng to lose their temper and kill you. Then you tried to goad us, then you tried to do it yourself. Why? You know we’re not like Alexander Lilburne, or Edward. You know that. We’re not going to do unnatural things to you. You’re not in for a fate worse than death. Or even death, if I can find any way to avoid it.”

Still nothing. Stack just stared at me, hard and blank. I sighed heavily and cast about for some other way in.

“Look, maybe you think we’re-”

“Shoot me,” she said. I leapt on the opening.

“Why?”

“I’ve tried to talk to the others,” Stack went on, and the sheer affectless level tone in her voice made me shudder. “But you’re the smart one, Morell. You have three choices. You can keep me restrained here. You can let me go. Or you can kill me. If you keep me tied up, I will eventually escape unless I am watched around the clock-”

“True,” Zheng rumbled.

“If I escape, or you let me go, then I will come back and kill you,” Stack said.

“Okay, fine,” I sighed. “But why?”

“You cannot be protected everywhere. I will find you at university and shoot you in broad daylight. I will garrote you in a toilet stall. I know how to make bombs. I will drive a truck bomb into the front garden of this house and kill you and all your friends.”

“This isn’t very convincing when you don’t have a reason. Tell me why?”

“Or you can kill me now. Make it clean. I won’t suffer, if that matters to you.”

I sighed and sagged back in the chair, all the nervous tension going out of me in a wave of uncomprehending exasperation.

“Same thing she told the laangren,” Zheng purred. “And the wizard.”

“Yes, I can tell,” I huffed. “Stack, even if I was willing to just execute a human being in cold blood – which, I’m not, thank you, not even you, even if you did shoot my girlfriend – we still wouldn’t kill you. We need that book Edward took from the library, and right now you’re our only lead about where he might have taken it, where he might be. We do have three choices, but not the ones you’ve described. Either you can tell us where Edward is, where he took the book, or … or tomorrow morning, Evelyn will come down here with her magical bone and torture it out of you. Or- or- no.” I swallowed hard. “I’m not going to let her do that to herself. I’ll do it, I can just take it straight out of your mind. It’ll hurt me and … but I won’t let her do that to herself, I-”

“Then take it,” said Stack. “I won’t resist.”

I blinked at her in surprise. “Why not just tell me then?”

“I won’t resist – if you promise to shoot me afterward, take a photograph of my corpse, and send it to Edward’s lawyer.”

“Oh for-” I huffed, threw up my hands, and boggled at her. “No! No, Stack, I’m not going to kill you or take a photograph of your corpse, don’t be so ghoulish. Anybody else might do, but I’m not anybody else. While I am here, we maintain a standard of humanity-” I broke off and looked over my shoulder. “Sorry, Zheng, I mean that in an ethical sense, not a species sense, I’m sorry, she’s made me lose my temper.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng rumbled.

“You left, Stack, you got out,” I said. “Back in that pub garden, you left when you saw what I am. And I don’t think that was an act, I don’t think you were lying? Edward Lilburne can’t possibly be paying you enough money to kill yourself. What is this?”

Stack stared back at me, utterly unmoved.

I took a deep breath and frowned at her, trying to think past the nervous fluttering in my stomach, my clammy palms and itching eyeballs.

“You’re a mercenary,” I said slowly, thinking as I went. “You do things for money, not loyalty, or at least not loyalty to this. You were smart enough to avoid the disaster of the cult’s castle, and you picked the right side when Alexander sold them to the Eye. But then you go Outside, willingly? With guns?” I tutted. “Did you even know what you were walking into?”

Stack blinked, once.

“Yes,” she said. “And no.”

I laughed, once, and was not amused. “Well, now you do know. Now you know what it’s like out there. Would you still have gone?”

She didn’t answer, but I sensed an uncomfortable acknowledgement, a yes.

“What has he got on you, Amy?” I asked, shaking my head, trying as hard as I could to channel Nicole Webb, to think of myself as a hard-bitten interrogator who knew exactly what she was doing, not scared and flailing for a hit. “He found a way to make you stay, didn’t he? Something that stops mattering to him if you’re dead, and there’s only one thing I can think of which fits that definition. I do find it hard to believe, I really do. I know what you are, and I have trouble imagining you caring about anybody.”

A twitch. In one eye. A tightening in her jaw.

Amy Stack was not made of stone after all.

“Why not tell me?” I asked. “I can find out anyway.”

“If I-” Stack started, then cut herself off.

I could barely contain myself, heart juddering. “Oh my goodness, I’m right. I’m right? Amy, am I right?”

“You will make everything worse. I cannot be seen to throw in with you. Take what you need, then shoot me.”

“No, no.” I shook my head. “You know what he does to people. I saw it in the castle. Lozzie can attest to it as well. If you’re dead, then you can’t protect whoever it is. You’ll be relying on us to do the right thing with the information we take from you. And if you’re dead, then yes, Edward has no reason to threaten whoever this might be, but he also has no reason to refrain from hurting them. Tell me, and maybe we can do a trade. We’ll help, and then you’ll tell us how to find Edward, or how to get the book from him.”

Amy Stack stared through me. Not a single muscle in her face had changed, yet she was no longer affectless at all. Her breath came tighter, chest rising and falling against the ropes. Her eyes bored into me. Zheng’s caution of her lurching forward no longer seemed so silly.

Twenty seconds passed, and she finally broke.

“Edward Lilburne has my little boy,” said the psychopath tied up in our cellar.

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22 thoughts on “water of the womb – 12.1

  1. Now I have to imagine that in another city there is the equivalent of the bat signal. Only it’s the Night Praem signal and is the silhouette of a maid uniform. She stalks villains, breaks arms, instills fear amongst the lawless… and she is always behind you!

    Plus I want to hear her say in a deep, gravely, sing-songy voice, “I… am Night Praem.”

    Vote for Katalepsis, and it’s new spinoff series Night Praem, here:
    http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis/

    • Night Praem swoops down to solve fashion problems, find lost children and small animals, clean up awful messes, and quietly stuff villains into rubbish bins.

      Thank you for all the votes on TWF!!!

  2. What is it with wizards and children?

    Evelyn’s mother and Evelyn , Edward with Lizzie and stack’s son, Alexander with Lizzie and a lot of homeless youth, the pedophile wizard with the creepy child thing and her relation with young Evelyn……

    should I be worried Evelyn has a secret room filled with orphans or something?

    • I absolutely promise, right here, meta-textually, that Evelyn has no such thing and never will do!

      On a more serious note though, it’s because of how vulnerable children are, I think. I didn’t plan this as a theme, but evil people doing abusive things have a natural target in those who can’t defend themselves physically or psychologically. If a mage wants power, and they need victims, well …

  3. Every man has a price – id.

    Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I can move the world. – Archimedes.

  4. Tenny purrs! Could she get any cuter? But is it right to treat her as a pet? I think she is a sentient being, just very young.

    • Small children and pets are basically as smart as each other. Besides, there’s plenty of cuddling and petting going on among the human and demihuman characters anyway~

      • Tenny is getting the good affection and communication needed for a growing girl.

        Needs to stretch those wings though …

    • She seems to be a sentient being, indeed! More baby than pet. Heather does talk to her and explain, rather than just picking her up and moving her, like you might with a cat or a dog.

  5. Well, I’m a bit late to this party, but Raine and Evee’s quick conversation was very heartwarming.

    Lozzie’s still cute, and now she has a family again, which is very nice. Perhaps now she’ll feel a slight anchor, beyond just being forced to be here.

    Amy’s still concerning, but more information will have to come in before a judgement call is made.

    And Seven being silent is more than a little concerning, ngl. We’ll have to see where she pops back into the woodwork.

  6. “She turned to me for help. “Heather?””
    I initially thought Lozzie said this, took me a bit to realise it was Evelyn, even after Heather said Lozzie wouldn’t be offended.

    “and picked way through the detritus”
    picked MY way
    or, picked A way

    “Evee-weavy and and fluffy”
    There were a bunch of alternate letter/syllable placements when Lozzie was triumphantly exclaiming about her lasagna haul, but I think the extra “and” here is actually a typo.

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