Shuja Yousafzai did not look like the sort of person capable of dealing with Amy Stack.
But then again, neither did I.
He cracked open the front door of his narrow terraced house just enough to peer out at us from behind thick-rimmed spectacles, blinking and squinting like a furtive nocturnal mammal exposed to sudden daylight, watchful for buzzards and foxes and cats. He showed little surprise at the sight of five young women on his doorstep, beyond his exhausted frown and a wary tightness around his eyes.
“Hey there,” said Raine. She smiled and gave him a curt practical nod, doing her best to stand up straight despite her crutch. “I’m the one from the phone call.”
“Hello sir,” I added quickly. “We’re very sorry to interrupt your Sunday.”
I smiled too, doing my best to look nonthreatening, hands folded neatly in front of me like a good girl scout here to provide aid to the elderly and infirm. I suppose I was the sole representative of normality – at least outwardly. But he’d settled on Raine.
“And who are you?” he asked, and did an admirable job of controlling the quiver in his voice.
Raine just smiled.
“A-at least tell me who sent you,” he said. “At least that.”
“She’s not the one in charge here,” Evelyn said, terse and impatient. “We best talk inside, mister Yousafzai. The responsible parties may be observing us.”
“Yeah,” Twil muttered, head on a swivel as she brought up the rear, glancing up and down the street. “Don’t see anybody right now, but that doesn’t mean shit.”
Shuja swallowed hard on a dry throat, then nodded. “Alright. Alright, very well, yes, I suppose if you wanted to hurt us, you would … you best come inside, yes.”
He opened the door and stepped back. Raine moved to go in first but Praem took her place, flanking Evelyn. I gently helped Raine manoeuvre her crutch over the threshold, and Twil entered last. With all the awkward invasive intimacy of stepping into the unfamiliar home of a person who didn’t really want you there, we filed in through the front door.
Inside was a short corridor from which the rest of the rooms branched off, carpeted in threadbare brown. Off-cream paint on the walls and skirting board had peeled and flaked with age, showing patches of plaster beneath. Two umbrellas, some boots, and three pairs of child-sized shoes lay next to a bristly welcome mat just over the threshold, along with some coats and scarves and a pair of very small gloves hung on a trio of hooks. At the far end a small kitchen was visible through an open door, just beyond steep stairs which climbed up to the second floor. The top of the stairs were wreathed in heavy shadows that seemed to sag from above. These post-war terraces had been thrown together as quickly as possible, and I tutted inside at the poor use of natural light. So dingy up there.
“Wipe your shoes,” I murmured to Twil.
“Oh, yeah, sure. Uh, sorry.” She cleared her throat and did an awkward shuffle on the mat, as Raine and Evelyn and Praem moved forward to make room.
“Shut the door, please,” Shuja said. “You will let out all the heat.”
He had backed away from us as we’d entered, staying at a safe distance from the unknowns he was letting into his home.
Shuja – the father of Amy Stack’s child – had an intelligent face with expressive blue eyes the colour of unspoilt seas, bespectacled and somehow sad, always nudging the thick rims back up his nose with a fingertip. A neatly trimmed goatee beard matched his hair, thick and black, showing a little grey with the onset of middle age. In a big grey fisherman’s jumper and old jeans, his height a little shorter than Raine, he seemed like a maths teacher or a PhD student, not a man who had seen war up-close. That judgement said more about my naivety than it did anything about the man I was measuring.
He was holding a wooden baseball bat. Tip-down, half-behind his leg, as if he couldn’t decide whether to hide or brandish the weapon. Even I could tell he had no idea what to do with it.
He saw me looking at it. Saw Raine looking at it. Saw the suppressed indulgent smile on her lips and mistook it for something else.
“I have this, yes” he said, swallowing and raising his chin. “And I will warn you, I also have a knife in the back of my trousers.”
“Hey what? What? Knife?” Twil whirled as the latch on the front door clicked shut. In three paces she shouldered her way past Raine and I and tried to get in front of Evelyn. “Nobody said shit about knives, mate.”
“Woah, woah, hey Twil, it’s fine,” Raine said.
Shuja flinched at the strange growl in Twil’s voice, but stood his ground with planted feet, which surprised me. “I do not know who you are, young miss. I do not know-”
“Heel,” Evelyn snapped at Twil.
That brought Twil up short, blinking and frowning and almost blushing. “ … o-oi, uh … ”
“Think before you open your mouth,” Evelyn hissed at her. “We are guests in this man’s home. Act like it.”
“But he … you … a knife-”
“He is entitled to his caution. It’s not like he can do anything to us. Apologise.”
Twil puffed out a sigh and shrugged at Shuja. “Uh, sorry, mate. No beef. Just don’t pull a knife on my girl, alright?”
“My girl?” Evelyn huffed under her breath.
Frowning in utter incomprehension at the exchange he had just witnessed, Shuja acknowledged the apology with a polite nod.
“There won’t be any need for weapons, sir, I’m sorry,” I spoke up. “We’re not here to do you or your son any harm. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are here to solve your problem. Or try to.”
Shuja’s gaze settled on me and I pulled my best nice-young-lady smile, but he could only frown, lost.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
I shared a glance with Evelyn. She nodded.
“We’re here now,” she murmured to me. “There’s no point keeping it secret. The moment we interfere, Edward will know. We play our hand.”
Evelyn turned to Shuja and raised her chin, expression composed and calm and faintly grim, walking stick held out at an angle, other hand behind her waist. I swore her back was slightly straighter than usual. For this moment, for this purpose, Evelyn was the very picture of the arch-mage, the general, the commander, a cold and competent mind, ready to move her pieces on the board.
“Mister Yousafzai,” she said. “My name is Evelyn Saye. I suggest you remember it-”
“I will not be intimidated in my own-”
“- because you may want to invoke my name,” she raised her voice over him. “To warn off any further attempts on your family’s safety.”
He blinked at Evelyn, taking stock of her anew, and tried very hard to be polite and not look her up and down. Evelyn, with her twisted back and awkward posture, her walking stick and coat pockets laden down with notebooks. What did we look like to him? At least Praem wasn’t back in a maid outfit yet, still dressed in Evelyn’s borrowed clothes. That would have been confusing.
“But … ” he said. “But … you are … ”
“I am very likely the most dangerous person you have ever met,” Evelyn grumbled. “And yes, that includes Amy Stack. She sent us.”
A shuddering sigh of mixed relief and horror went out of Shuja. He nodded, and pressed one hand to his own chest. “More friends of Amy? Alright, okay. Oh, God above.”
“More?” Raine asked sharply.
“More, yes, I-”
“Is there anybody else in the house except for us and your son, right now?” Evelyn’s voice cracked with command. I would have climbed a tree if she’d ordered me in that tone.
“No?” Shuja blinked. “No, I-”
“Has anybody else except us visited you today or yesterday? This is very important, do not conceal anything, especially if you have been instructed to by somebody else.”
“No. No, I swear.” He shook his head, catching on fast. “When Amy came before, she brought a friend. More of an associate I suppose, to … attempt to deal with the … the … ” He had to pause and take a breath. “The thing in my home. That is what I referred to. The only instruction I have received is from her. She told me not to call the police. Which I have not, of course, because how would I explain such a thing?” He shrugged with one hand in utter helplessness, trying to conceal a shiver.
I recognised all too well the hollow space in his eyes when he spoke of the ‘thing’ in his home. I knew the sleep-deprived fragility in his movements, the tightness in his face, the exhaustion that gave away how this man was holding himself together with pure willpower, strong willpower gone brittle under the strain of exposure to the supernatural.
Whatever his demeanour, Shuja Yousafzai was not a weak man. He was a strong man at his limit.
“We will make it go away,” I blurted out. “I can do that. It’s sort of something I’m good at. Making things go elsewhere, for good.”
He stared at me, and did not believe any of that. After all, Amy Stack hadn’t been able to remove this invasive presence, and she looked infinitely scarier than me, scrawny little twenty-year old that couldn’t fight her way out of a wet paper bag.
“The people who sent this ‘pest’ to plague you are my enemies,” Evelyn explained, slowly and carefully. “The man ultimately responsible is so cautious of any contact with me that he won’t even risk hearing my voice without an intermediary. If I catch anyone working for him, I will torture them for all the information I can and then probably have them killed. If, after our … ‘pest control’, anybody is stupid enough to ignore the very clear warnings I will put in place, if anybody bothers you, comes to your door about this, pesters your son, anything, then you give them my name. And then you call me, and we will deal with it.”
“ … alright,” he said, slowly.
“Best not think about it too much,” Raine said. “Soon as we’re out of your hair, forget we even exist. All this can just be a bad dream.”
“Don’t try to understand,” I suggested.
“I am an expert,” Evelyn went on, “on what you are dealing with. This is Heather, she is another expert. These three are Raine, Twil, and Praem. They are experts on doing violence to those who wish harm upon us.”
“Yeah, that’s me.” Raine cracked a grin.
“Don’t make me sound like a thug,” Twil muttered.
“Good day,” Praem intoned in her sing-song voice, and Shuja blinked at her.
“Mister Yousafzai,” Evelyn used his name like a whip. “Listen very carefully, please. We need to begin at the beginning and this needs to be done properly. First, where is it right now? Which room?”
“It … it was in the kitchen, last I checked. But, I am sorry, where is Amy? I haven’t heard anything from her since she saw it. Did she explain to you what it-”
He broke off and glanced back over his shoulder, at the open kitchen door, as if the unspeakable presence might be creeping up on him as we spoke. I saw his throat bob as he repeated the nervous tic of adjusting his glasses. Twil went up on tiptoe, peering and sniffing, taking his alarm with utter seriousness. Raine reached inside her leather jacket with her free hand, adjusting her weight on the crutch, but I placed my hand around her forearm and squeezed.
When Shuja turned back to us, he must have caught the bestial cast to Twil’s musculature and pose, because he flinched again, eyes going wide at her.
“She has described it, in general terms,” Evelyn said with a huff. “But she is under considerable strain. Where is it?”
“The kitchen,” he repeated. “But it moves from room to room, and we never see it move. Ever. It goes through closed doors, through walls, through locks. I have tried everything, everything. It follows Will – that is my son – and it … it watches him sleep.” He hissed those last four words with such vehement outrage, but his anger subsided quickly below bewildered terror. “Sometimes it watches me sleep, but that is better, in some ways.” He shrugged. “I turn around and it is there, where it was not standing a second before.”
“Creepy,” Twil hissed.
I was not immune to the communal tension. My hackles rose, my phantom limbs bunched tight in a defensive posture. Imagining this unseen thing creeping up on me in the dark gave me the sudden, bizarre sensation that I had stepped into something else’s lair, that I was the invader here. I glanced up and behind us, at the corners of the ceiling, as if a watcher might be lurking there – but there was nothing. I sniffed like Twil, as if I could pick the hint of a scaly scent. I stared at the shadow-draped stairs, like a cave in the rock, concealing an ambush predator.
Abyssal instinct fed on savanna ape fear of the unknown, and suddenly did not like this house.
“Heather?” Evelyn hissed at me. “You see something?”
“It’s … nothing.” I swallowed the feeling back down. “Not even a spirit in here, it’s fine. I’m being paranoid.”
Evelyn turned back to Shuja. “When did this start?” she asked.
“Three and a half weeks ago. On a Wednesday. I have counted every day, how could I not?” He ran his free hand through his short-cropped hair and adjusted his glasses again, fingers shaking. “I have found it difficult to keep track of time, to think clearly.”
“Hey, we know,” Raine offered, surprisingly gently. “You’ve done great to last so long, seriously. We can take it from here.”
“This is normal for you people?” he asked softly.
Evelyn sucked on her teeth and then murmured to me. “Three and a half weeks. Which means this started after mister Joking presumably stole the gate plans. Matches up.” She raised her voice again. “Did anything happen before it arrived? Anything at all?”
Shuja swallowed. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Anything at all,” Evelyn repeated, harder.
“Yeah, even if it seems wack,” Raine added. “Somebody leave a dead bird on your doorstep? Say some weird words at you in the street? Hand you a pamphlet for a new-agey religion?”
“I do not wish to believe in magic,” Shuja said. “It cannot have been connected. I keep telling myself it cannot be connected, it cannot-”
“Then it wasn’t,” Evelyn said. “Describe it anyway, please.”
“It was … so strange, but I thought nothing of it at the time. My son, I was taking him to the park after school, the one off Banner’s Street, with the little playground. There were a few other children around. A boy my son’s age came up to him and handed him something, and he … he brought it to me … it was this … this ugly thing a child might make, a plastic doll’s head with needles pushed through it. I looked for the boy who had given it to him, but he was gone. He didn’t seem to have been with any of the other parents there. But little Will, he wouldn’t let go of the ugly thing, so I let him carry it until we reached home, and then when he forgot it, I threw it away. In the bin, outdoors.” Shuja struggled with the words, did not want to believe. “Then the thing was here, within the next hour. And then I called Amy.”
As Shuja spoke, a tiny presence crept out of the darkness and down the stairs at the end of the little corridor. With big wide eyes of flinty grey inherited from his mother, a head of dark hair sticking up in all directions, wearing pajamas and overlarge socks, carrying a huge plush sheep hugged against himself with one arm, little William had decided to come see what his father was discussing with the strange people.
He moved so slowly, so precisely, so silently, definitely his mother’s child. He made it all the way down to the floor before any of us actually noticed him.
“Hi there,” Raine gave a little wave over Shuja’s shoulder as the man finished his strange tale.
Shuja whipped around in surprise, awkwardly hiding the baseball bat behind his leg.
“Will!” he said. “Will, I told you, you must go play in your room. Daddy has important things to do. Please, go back upstairs.”
But William didn’t pay the slightest attention to his father’s words. He walked up and took Shuja’s free hand, peering past his father’s side at us. His eyes were so wide and staring in that way only an innocently curious child can be, set in a face effortlessly composed and openly expressionless. He looked like his father, but he had a lot of his mother in him. There was no doubt Stack had told the truth about that. At about six or seven years old, his age lined up with her story as well.
“H-hello,” I said awkwardly.
“Yeah, uh, hey kid.” Twil cleared her throat.
“William,” Shuja was saying, struggling to contain the worry in his own voice. “William, please go back upstairs and stay in your room. You are not being punished, you have been a very good boy, but you must, must stay in your room for now, it is not … you need … it is-”
It’s not safe in your own home, the father did not want to admit to the son.
“No,” Evelyn cut across Shuja’s dilemma. “If we’re going to interfere with this thing, there may be a reaction. Best the boy stays close for now.” She glanced down at the child, but said nothing.
“Yeah, we’ll look after you, sunshine.” Raine shot him a wink, but William just stared at us, curious and very quiet.
Shuja went wide-eyed behind his thick glasses. “A reaction?”
To everyone’s surprise, Praem squatted down on her heels until she at was eye-level with William, smoothing her borrowed skirt over her backside so it didn’t drag on the ground. She made eye contact – or did so as best she could, with those milk-white, empty orbs.
“Good afternoon, young master William,” she said, in her silver-bell sing-song voice, backed by the faintest tinkle of icicles.
Will finally lit up, with the kind of easy smile that should be on a child’s face. “Your voice is funny,” he giggled.
“William,” his father said, swallowing and trying not to stare at Praem in bewildered incomprehension. “That is rude, it is rude to call other peoples’ voices funny. I-I am sorry, he can be quite precocious, I-”
“Daaaaad, I mean it’s pretty!” Will insisted, frowning up at his father.
“Thank you very much,” Praem sang. Will giggled again.
Evelyn cleared her throat awkwardly, not sure if she should be frowning at Praem or praising her. “Yes, well, be that as it may. We need to-”
“What are you all doing here?” Will asked, and Evelyn stumbled to a halt. Shuja opened his mouth, but hesitated as well. A man who wanted to tell his child the truth, but did not know what to say.
“Your mum sent us to get rid of the nasty thing,” Raine said, and winked again.
“Oh.” William’s good humour fled his face. He wrinkled his nose. “The nasty statue.”
“Mister Yousafzai,” Evelyn said. “Show us, please.”
Edward Lilburne had sent a child’s nightmare to watch Amy Stack’s son.
It was a miracle the boy wasn’t traumatised already. Perhaps he had inherited a strong constitution from his mother. I whispered that conjecture to Evelyn as we stood in Shuja’s small clean white tiled kitchen, examining the statue from a safe distance.
“Unlikely,” Evelyn murmured back to me, without taking her eyes off the lunatic sculpture. “Small children are always more resilient. They accept magic easier. Neuroplasticity. If this had happened ten years later, yes, he’d be traumatised for life. As it is, he’ll probably be okay.” She frowned. “Though he has been exposed now.”
Twil had ventured forward, to within arm’s length of the bizarre art. She sniffed the air around the thing.
“Nuthin’,” she grunted. “Fuckin’ ugly bastard though, innit’?”
“Twil,” I hissed. “Don’t swear in front of children.”
“Oh, uh, shi- I mean, sorry, yeah! Uh.” Twil turned and grimaced at Shuja and William. Father and son stood in the rear, barely inside the kitchen doorway as we ‘experts’ took stock. Shuja managed a disapproving frown, his hand on his son’s head, but William blinked at Twil in innocent fascination.
“Those were like, really bad words, yeah?” Twil told him. “Don’t ever say them, okay? Good boys don’t say swear words.”
“Yes, we’ll all be very angry at her later,” Evelyn drawled, supremely uninterested, then clicked her fingers at Twil. “Pay attention in case it moves.”
“It won’t,” Shuja supplied. “It never does, not while watched.”
For which I was extremely thankful.
The statue had begun life as some kind of clothing store mannequin, made of opaque off-white plastic. Complete with hands and feet, knee and elbow and shoulder joints, a rotating ball-and-socket waist and a featureless oval for a head, the thing would have seemed uncanny anywhere but in a shop window. Its skin – no, I had to forcefully correct myself, it didn’t have skin, it was made of plastic – had been scored with a knife, carved into great looping spirals and whorls up and down the torso, and the resulting grooves had been filled with red paint, so it looked like a sacrificial victim covered with ritual scars. Barbed wire completed the look, wrapped around the figure’s wrists and ankles and then looped around the neck and waist and the featureless smooth groin.
The blank head sported an inexpertly painted face, in black and red. A slash for a mouth, a tick for a nose.
I focused on the eyes, of course – black pupils in black outlines. But they were just badly drawn eyes on a plastic surface, nothing more. Nothing stared back at us. Certainly not the Eye.
The mannequin was currently posed as if leaning against the kitchen counter, but the head was turned toward the wall, in the manner of a person who had heard a sound in another room. I drew an imaginary line with my finger from the eyes to the wall and beyond.
Raine cleared her throat, coming to the same uncomfortable conclusion as I did. “Yeah, he’s looking at the front door, ain’t he?” she said.
“That is very … spooky,” I settled on, then tutted. How absurd.
“It was not looking in that direction when I left the room,” Shuja said softly. “It must have heard you arrive.”
“Heather,” Evelyn said. “I assume you don’t see any invisible components?”
I shook my head. Other than us and the mannequin, the plain little kitchen was empty. A single window above the sink showed the back garden, a tiny strip of sad grass bounded by high brick walls.
“I only see the plastic,” I said. “Uh, paint and barbed wire too. There’s not even anything pneuma-somatic in here.”
“Invisible?” William piped up, excited. “You can see invisible things?”
“Will, please, don’t ask questions about this.” Shuja stroked his son’s hair, smoothing it back to soothe his own nerves. “I am sorry, miss Saye, are you really sure he must be in here for this?”
Evelyn frowned at the boy for a long, uncomfortable moment, then took a sharp breath. “The safest place is where he can be protected. Which means next to us. We don’t know what might happen when we … ” She gestured at the statue.
“It … it’s putting my hackles up quite badly,” I said. Raine gently took my shoulder and squeezed.
“Yeah, me too,” Twil growled.
“No, I mean, instinctively.” I swallowed hard and tried to clamp down on the feeling. The sensation had crept over me as we’d entered the kitchen, passing under the shadow of the stairs. My phantom limbs – mirrors of the real me, the homo abyssus that was the core of my self – were twitching and wary, trying to cover every direction in a defensive halo. A hiss kept trying to climb up my throat. “I sort of want to pull it apart. Very badly. But also not touch it.”
“If you can dismantle it, you are more than welcome to,” Shuja said, with feeling.
“Have you touched the thing?” Evelyn asked.
“No, I dare not, but Amy did. She couldn’t move it, not at all, not even to adjust a joint. As if it is anchored somehow. It did not react then either, it never reacts to anything. It isn’t-”
“Twil, don’t!” I hissed, mortified at interrupting. “S-sorry, she was going to touch it.”
“I wasn’t!” Twil protested, caught in the act of creeping closer to the awful thing. “Honest!”
“Do you know mum?” William suddenly asked, looking up at Evelyn with big, curious eyes. “Where is she? She hasn’t been to see us in a while. Is she busy?”
Evelyn stared at the boy again, her frown caught on barbs as she swallowed. She cleared her throat awkwardly as Shuja tried to shush his son again.
“Hello, William,” I said awkwardly, trying to pull a smile appropriate for a child, but I could see the strange suspicion behind his eyes as he looked back at me. “I’m Heather, I’ve spoken to your mum, she’s-”
“Heather,” Evelyn warned.
“It’s okay, Evee, let me-”
“Your mother has been trying to solve this problem in her own way,” Evelyn said to William. She made no attempt to gentle her voice, to descend to his level, to soften the frown on her face. “She has been working hard to keep you safe.”
The boy smiled a sad child’s smile, and nodded as he pressed the side of his head to his father’s thigh. He looked away, at nothing.
“I have changed my mind,” Shuja said.
“I’m sorry?” Evelyn arched an eyebrow.
“You said there might be a … ‘reaction’.” He swallowed and cast his gaze over us, trying to take us in. “If Amy is still working on this, I would much prefer a method that poses no risk to my boy.” As if subconsciously, he briefly slipped a hand over William’s exposed ear, the one not pressed against his leg, so he could speak things not meant for a child’s mind, so he could show us his anger. “Not in our own home. If you interfere with that thing, will it come alive? Will it try to hurt him-”
“I don’t know-” Evelyn said.
“- or try to hurt me? Is it a trap, or a bomb, set for you, by your enemies, using my family as bait? As-”
“-as fodder? No, I-” He cut himself off as William wiggled free and made an irritated noise. Shuja took a shuddering breath and forced the gentle anger out of his voice again. “I have changed my mind. Better to suffer this thing than risk worse. I am sorry, I-”
“Praem, take the boy upstairs to his bedroom, please,” Evelyn grumbled, and I could tell she was at the limit of her patience.
“Evee, be gentle,” I murmured.
“No, no you will not-” Shuja started to say.
“I am going to explain to you why this is necessary,” Evelyn said, dead-toned. “And I am not going to do it in front of a child. Praem, please.”
“Young master William,” Praem sang, and offered her hand to the little boy.
William, utterly unafraid, reached out and took Praem’s hand. For a moment, his father was reluctant to release him, but Praem fixed her eyes on Shuja and William spoke up, as if channelling the doll-demon’s will. “Daaaaaaad,” he said, as if embarrassed. “I wanna show her the new spider book. Pleeeease?”
“I enjoy spiders,” Praem intoned.
Shuja let go. Praem led William out of the kitchen. A moment later we heard the sound of two pairs of feet mounting the stairs.
“Never have guessed she’s good with kids,” Twil said.
“Hey,” Raine said softly to Shuja’s hollow-eyed look. “Praem’s one of the two people here who can break concrete with her bare hands. If this goes wrong and something comes for your kid, it’ll run into her first.”
“Yeah, real reassuring, clever-clogs,” Twil grunted.
“How much contact do you have with Amy Stack?” Evelyn asked.
Shuja snapped out of his fear. “I’m … I’m sorry?”
“I am trying to make a judgement about something which you would be better off not knowing, but which you are forcing me to tell you. How much contact do you have with Amy Stack? She is part of why this has happened.”
“Oh, oh. That is what I feared.” He sighed heavily, took his glasses off and wiped them on the hem of his jumper. “What has she done?”
“You know what she is?” Raine asked.
He smiled to himself, very faintly and very sadly. “She thinks I am a fool, that I do not know what she does. But I do, or at least some of it, and I try my best not to think about it. I know the nature of what I love.”
I swallowed, unspoken empathy hot in my throat.
“How. Much. Contact?” Evelyn prompted.
“She visits William every two weeks, except when she cannot due to … work,” Shuja went on. “But she and I do not talk much. We do not really have a relationship. We never did, beyond … well. We were never married, nothing like that. She ignores me, mostly.”
“Still, impressive,” Raine said, with genuine if completely inappropriate admiration. “Woman like that. Surprised you’re still breathing.”
“Raine!” I hissed, and would have elbowed her in the ribs if she wasn’t recovering from a gunshot wound.
“I am trying to do the right thing, mister Yousafzai,” Evelyn said, raising her chin and looking him in the eye.
“Yes, yes, I do appreciate that, but any risk is too much when-”
“A person did this. A person very much like myself.” Evelyn spoke slowly and carefully, and as she continued I realised with cold familiarity that she had rehearsed these words many times over. I longed to reach out and take her free hand, her maimed hand, but she had clenched it into a tight fist, and I dared not interrupt her as she continued. “He sent this thing in order to blackmail the mother of your child. To pressure her into doing a job. A job she had previously abandoned for reasons of self-preservation, because that job involves fucking with me.”
And me, I thought with a touch of nausea, but I kept quiet and let Evelyn work her oratory power.
“Oh,” said Shuja.
“Geeze, Evee, dial back,” Twil murmured.
Evee did not dial back. “I am not Amy Stack’s friend. I am very much her enemy. The job has led miss Stack into a position in which she has very few choices indeed. Her predicament presents me with a problem. She has threatened to kill me. She has threatened to kill my friends and my family. She has threatened, with very specific language, to drive a truck bomb into my house.”
“Oh, oh dear,” Shuja said, hand to his mouth, eyes wide.
“You see that I am left with a choice. Either I deal with the blackmail, I protect your son, I take you and him and this house under the umbrella of my protection, I ward him, all of which is going to involve inscribing unnatural symbols inside your home, on the door frames, under your beds, and on his skin.” Evelyn paused, and I wondered for a moment how much of this arch-mage act she was mimicking, perhaps subconsciously, from memories of her mother.
“Or, I go home,” she finished. “And have one of my associates put a bullet in Amy Stack’s head.”
Shuja stared at her, speechless as his throat bobbed with a dry swallow. He tore his eyes away and glanced at the rest of us – at Twil’s resigned shrug, Raine’s sigh and nod, my awkward smile.
“I would much rather we not do the latter,” I spoke up.
“Do not … ” Shuja managed, voice quivering slightly. “Do not make me choose-”
“You do not have a choice,” Evelyn told him. “I will force the issue. I am simply explaining why I am going to force the issue. Mister Yousafzai, I will do my best to avoid any danger to your son, but this has to be done. The man who did this has to be caught, and killed. Do I have your agreement?”
With a shell-shocked look behind his eyes, Shuja nodded.
“Good. Go fetch your boy, then stay close. You don’t have to be in here, the next room is fine. We’ll get started.”
Evelyn turned away from him without another word. Shuja hesitated, but I managed to catch his eye and nod and smile, and he hurried out of the kitchen and up the stairs to find William before the boy could teach Praem too much about arachnids.
Twil puffed out a huge sigh. “Bloody hell. Bit intense, Evee.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said, voice tired as she squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. She let out a shaking breath. I reached over and touched her elbow and she flinched slightly.
“I’m fine,” she lied, unconvincingly.
“You did real good,” Raine said, low and serious. “Knew you had it in you.”
“Yes, well, whatever,” Evelyn grumbled and gestured at the bizarre statue. “Save the love-in session for later, we need to get to work.”
“No, hey, Evee,” Twil said, trying really hard to find the right words. “Good on you, yeah? Doing the right thing and all. Putting on your scary face but it’s cool and-”
“It’s not the right thing,” Evelyn grumbled – but her cheeks coloured faintly as she failed to meet Twil’s gaze. “It simply leads us to our enemy. And the fact this poor fool actually loves Amy Stack made convincing him easier. Make yourself useful, Twil, go fetch the bag from the back of the car. I need all my tools.” She waved Twil toward the kitchen door. “Please. Go on.”
“Right you are.” Twil flashed her a smile, and skittered out.
A moment of silence descended on the kitchen, on Raine and Evelyn and I, alone with the awful plastic mannequin.
“Proud o’ you, Evee,” Raine said.
“Oh, do shut up,” Evelyn muttered, squaring her shoulders and crossing her arms as best she could while leaning on a walking stick.
“No, seriously. You’re on a roll today. Haven’t seen you like this in a while. A long while, if you know what I mean.”
Evelyn gave her a look like spent coals.
“Evee,” I cleared my throat and gently touched Evelyn’s elbow again. “It’s fine to need a moment after that act. You were incredible. You really are confident about this, aren’t you?”
Evelyn turned her dark look on me, but it softened and fell apart like ash as I looked back at her. She shrugged.
“I feel confident,” she said with a sigh. “Heather, as of yesterday, for the first time in my life, I have living proof that not only am I nothing like my mother – I am her opposite. It has rather sharpened my mind.”
“Yeah, she sucked arse, you’re kickin’ rad,” Raine said with a grin.
I tried not to giggle. Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Very eloquent, Raine,” she drawled. “Right. Ground rules, mm. I doubt we can get this thing’s feet up, which means I’m going to have to draw directly on the kitchen floor. And don’t touch it unless I instruct you.”
“Am I going to have to … well, send it away?” I asked. I shivered inside at the prospect of touching the thing. In the end it was just a plastic figure wrapped in barbed wire, but something about it made my skin crawl, made my tentacles retract, forced my instincts rebel against making contact.
“Not yet,” Evelyn said. “First I’m going to take it apart, see if I can trace it back to the man who did this. Or at least to somebody who works for him.”
Seven magic circles, two rounds of weak tea, and ninety minutes later, Evelyn finally admitted she had no idea what we were dealing with.
The circles hadn’t worked, an increasingly complex series of enclosures around the statue’s feet which had failed to produce any effect whatsoever, except for covering the kitchen floor and part of the cabinets in chalk-scrawled Latin and symbols which made my eyes water. They were intended to flush out whatever power lurked inside the plastic, or cut the remote piloting and hand Evelyn the reins, or simply poke the thing with enough magic to force a self-preservation response. She’d tried everything short of physical violence, including one circle which she made everybody back away for, but the thing just stood there, inert.
About twenty minutes into the experiments, we’d made a collective mistake: Evelyn had looked away, I’d been looking at Evelyn, Twil had turned to pick up her cup of tea, and Raine had been sitting in the chair I’d fetched for her and closed her eyes in brief exhaustion, leaning heavily on her crutch. Praem had been out in the corridor entertaining William with a game of ‘thumb war’ – using a fraction of her actual strength, I’m sure – taking a break from the work of physically inscribing Evelyn’s magic circles.
For about two seconds, nobody had been looking at the carved and bound mannequin.
Then Twil had jumped out of her skin and growled like a startled hound. We’d all whipped around to find the thing had straightened up, moved about eight inches away from the kitchen counter, and turned its painted face to point at Evelyn.
“Fucking cunt bitch arse,” Twil had sworn.
“Language,” Evelyn muttered, fascinated. “The boy can hear you.”
Since then, we made sure to keep at least one pair of eyes on it at all times.
But now Evelyn gave up, exasperated at the thing, and told Praem to get up off the floor. The doll-demon stood, placed down the piece of red chalk she’d been using to draw yet another circle, and dusted off the knees of her borrowed skirt.
“Still nothing?” I asked, a little cautious of Evelyn’s thundercloud frown.
“It’s nonsense,” she all but spat at the plastic clothing dummy. “It’s nothing. I don’t understand. We saw it move, we saw it was in another position, but it’s nothing.”
“Maybe it’s a red herring,” Raine mused from her chair.
“We saw it move,” Evelyn repeated. “If it moves, it must possess some animating force, but it is not possessed. It’s not a vessel for anything, not like Praem. There’s nothing in there, no strings, no control. All this, this … ” She waved her walking stick at the spirals and barbed wire, and I got the impression she very much wanted to just give the thing a good hard whack. “This is all so much bullshit. None of it does anything, none of it is magic, it’s all for show.”
“What if something picks it up and moves it around?” Twil asked, squinting in thought. “Like, when we’re not looking?”
“Oh don’t be so completely stup-” Evelyn cut herself off and frowned at Twil. “Alright, that’s possible. You may be on to something.”
Twil grinned at the praise. “Go me.”
“It’s not such a bad idea … ” I said, trailing off as my stomach clenched up tight. I’d seen nothing enter, no pneuma-somatic tentacles adjusting the mannequin, no secret forces moving the limbs.
“Alright, well, I can rule out any adverse effects from the object itself,” Evelyn said, huffing as she gathered her patience once more. “Twil, I want you to do the honours.”
“The what?” Twil asked.
“Smack it upside the head.”
“Oh, Evee, no,” I said, as my phantom tentacles tried to physically pull me backward out of the kitchen. Raine saw me shudder, and put her hand on the small of my back. “I really don’t think we should touch it. I really don’t.”
“I respect your caution, Heather,” Evelyn said. “But it’s inert. It does nothing. And Stack touched it before, remember?”
“It moved!” I hissed.
Evelyn frowned at me. “You’re going to have to touch it too, eventually, to get rid of it. Heather, where is this coming from? Is this an instinct thing? Tell me, it may be important.”
“I … I don’t know,” I admitted, blushing and confused. “It feels wrong. Like … like being on the ocean floor and seeing food out in the open, too obvious. Maybe just brainmathing it Outside first is safer, instead of having Twil stick her hand in the fire?”
“Oi,” Twil said.
Evelyn considered me, then the mannequin, then Twil. Raine just shrugged.
“You think it’s bait?” Evelyn asked, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Possible. But getting rid of it will cost us this lead.”
“If I send it Outside and nothing happens I can always bring it back,” I said. “I’ll need a sick bucket, but I can.”
“Oi, hey, shut up,” Twil said. “If this is a trap, you ain’t touching it first. I’m invincible, remember? Danger can sit and swivel. Watch!”
And before we could stop her, Twil reached out and grabbed the plastic forearm, just behind the loop of barbed wire.
I winced and flinched. Evelyn stiffened. Raine raised her eyebrows.
“Nothin’ to it!” Twil said with a smug grin.
“Twil!” I whined.
“Yes, how very brave,” Evelyn drawled.
Raine gave her a little round of applause and a full-throated ‘wheeeey!’ Drawn by the commotion, William’s little face appeared around the kitchen door, shadowed by Praem, and Shuja behind them both.
“Doesn’t budge an inch though,” Twil said, straining backward and grunting, planting both her feet and trying to shift the elbow joint, or just pull the figure over onto the floor. “Not kidding,” she grunted through gritted teeth, muscles locking beneath her hoodie and coat as she contorted herself for better leverage.
“Curious,” Evelyn mused. “As if anchored in space itself. Perhaps if we cut into it and-”
Shivering threads of light caught my eye.
“Oh,” the breath went out of me. My eyes went wide. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Twil, stop!”
Gossamer-thin and steel-strong, invisible when still, catching diamond light when disturbed. Vibrating with the transmitted energy of Twil’s strength, wrapped around the plastic mannequin’s neck and fingertips, pulled taut over our heads and beneath the lintel of the kitchen door and out into the corridor.
Praem was looking up too. None of the others could see them.
No wonder I’d missed the invisible component. Couldn’t see it until you touched it.
Out in the short little corridor which led to the stairs, a huge shadow – the one I’d assumed had been merely a lack of lighting up on the second floor – shifted like a tapeworm coiled in the guts of the house, a million folds writhing over themselves as the owner parted its own camouflage. A single pale-white insectoid limb, long as two people, furred in the off-white of fresh pus and twisting every which way with far too many multi-directional joints, groped in upside-down through the kitchen doorway, tracking along the ceiling.
Pneuma-somatic flesh, but unnatural. Each piece of thick chitin armour-plate was too regular to be the product of anarchic spirit life.
I swallowed a hiss.
“Heather?” Raine sensed my fear first, hauled herself out of her chair and moved to protect me from something she couldn’t even see.
“Twil, away from the mannequin, now,” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, what do you see? Praem, what is it?”
“I think Edward made a servitor,” I whispered.
Does it like strawberries?
We can hope!
This chapter was so suspenseful! It was sooo good! Thanks for the chapter!
You are very welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it! I put a lot of effort into the foreshadowing and build up with this one.
I admit I had resigned myself to an SCP 173 / weeping angel style beastie, which would have been fine, but this is so much better. Can’t have a marionette without a puppeteer.
I’ve got no strings to hold me down / to make me fret and make me frown / I had strings but now I’m free / there are no strings on me
Praem continues to be excellent. Evelyn is amazing when she flexes her strength. Twil is clearly smitten and they are adorable.
Your story remains a pleasure. I look forward to the new installment every weekend. It’s become a minor ritual to get my coffee and settle into my chair before reading. Thank you.
The ‘ol weeping angle switcharoo! Yeah! Made you think it was one kinda monster, but then it was another.
Yes! Everyone is such fun in this chapter. Praem is growing and Evelyn is flexing indeed.
And thank you so much for commenting to let me know you’re enjoying the story! Writing for the enjoyment of the readers is why I do this, so it’s always a delight to know.
When nobody’s looking, get your servitor to make your mannequin click on this voting link for Katalepsis http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis
Thank you thank you! So many votes this weekend, my goodness.
Let’s hope the servitor isn’t as strong as the Saye variety. They’re goodest boys, this thing besmirches their good name!
They are the goodest boys! Spiders need more treats.
I like how no matter the crisis heather always has the focus and mental headspace to criticise the architecture
“These post-war terraces had been thrown together as quickly as possible, and I tutted inside at the poor use of natural light. So dingy up there.”
She’s not going to let a little thing like being in an urban fantasy story get in the way of her aesthetic priorities.
Funny thing is if she wasn’t so predisposed to dunk on one of her hated architectural styles she would have realized right away the darkness was actually something invisible to normies blocking the light instead of bad design the inhabitants suffer through.
will we ever learn how she developed such hatred?
Even I’m not sure! I think people who pay a lot of attention to buildings tend to generate very strong opinions about them. Heather feels very strongly about the natural beauty (or not) of living spaces.
Once again Ed’s pretty clever.
Set up a decoy to intimidate the family and waste the time of any mage trying to examine it.
I wonder if Mr Joe King got a good glance at the spider servitors on his way out…
He’s a tricksy one, certainly. Gotta watch out for angles they don’t expect!