“Servitor?” Evelyn hissed an echo of my warning.
I hiccuped loudly, and nodded.
She reached inside her baggy coat with her free hand, and awkwardly drew out her scrimshawed wand of human thigh bone.
No wonder she’d looked so laden down. Evelyn had kept the magical tool close at hand, while sparing Shuja and his son from the grisly reality, but the time for keeping up appearances was over. She wedged her walking stick under one armpit and held the yellowed femur in both hands, running her fingers along the length like an arthritic flutist doing warm-up exercises.
Twil leapt away from the mannequin, teeth bared, ghostly matter coalescing into claws and furred muscle around her forearms. Raine tried to follow my gaze, but saw nothing on the kitchen ceiling.
Praem was very still out in the little corridor, staring upward.
“I am sorry to ask, but what is happening?” Shuja was saying, one hand protectively reaching for his son.
“Heather, are you certain?” Evelyn demanded.
Without extensive experience, one may find it difficult to distinguish between spirit and servitor.
One is pneuma-somatic life, born from the primordial soup of atomic interaction and aetheric energies and cast-off emotional resonance and ancient crimes and human myth-making – or whatever actually animates the world beyond the boundaries of ordinary human perception, because I don’t know where they all come from. With myriad and often incomprehensible motives, moving on their own plane to their own rhythms, they can interact with true flesh only with great effort and to minimal effect. They scared me when I was a little girl, because they liked that I paid them attention. But they’re not dangerous. They just happen to live here, like we do.
The latter are robots, made from pneuma-somatic flesh cast into artificial nerve and synthetic muscle. And perhaps robots can learn to feel. Perhaps Evelyn’s spiders recognise her as master and carer, not just a series of data inputs; perhaps they define themselves as closer to pets than machines, and I fully invite them to do so. I have not forgotten how one of those nightmare machine-spiders crouched over me as I lay unconscious and bleeding, after the Sharrowford Cult attempted to kidnap me, or how one of them protected our home when we could not.
But I doubted a servitor made by Edward Lilburne was allowed much in the way of independent thought.
In truth, even I couldn’t tell the difference at a glance, but the context of the situation left little room for other conclusions. Spirits did not lie waiting in perfect stillness for an unwise hand to brush a series of web-strands. Neither did they drag around spooky mannequins for no reason.
Servitors could also touch physical flesh with impunity. Important distinction.
As I stared up at the limb creeping across the ceiling – a sort of segmented tentacle, a cross between predatory insect and ocean mollusk, easily twelve or fifteen feet long, covered in pale fur and biological armour plate, the tip a blunt hooked claw as if for clinging to bark, each segment an omni-directional joint, kinking and twisting as it felt along the line of spider-silk for the source of the disturbance, toward the immobile mannequin – I realised we may have made a mistake by leaving Zheng at home.
I swallowed hard, struggling to resist the urge to hiss and screech, fighting to keep my phantom limbs under control as I stared up at the awful appendage, feeling like I was pressed to the floor of a tidal cave as a predator groped blindly in dark water. Abyssal instinct screamed fight or flee, prompted me to make myself big, to hide in a dark corner, to flood my meat with toxin because we had drawn the attention of an ambush predator right in the centre of its web.
“Heather?!” Evelyn hissed again.
“Certain? Well, no?” I hissed back. “But I think it’s a pretty good assumption?”
“He can’t have made a servitor,” Evelyn said in outraged disbelief. “He can’t have that kind of expertise. Describe it. Now. And where is it?”
“It’s … a … big tentacle leg … thing. On the ceiling.”
“Why is it always always tentacles?” Twil said, with feeling. “And invisible? This is totally not cool.”
“It is here,” Praem intoned out in the corridor – and pointed up into the stairwell. Little William at her side followed her finger up, but clearly couldn’t see a thing.
“Alright, don’t- don’t move yet,” Evelyn hissed. She was turning pale green in the face.
“We gotta get out, yeah?” Raine murmured, a hand on my back.
“Yes, yes,” said Evelyn. “Everybody listen carefully. We need to back away and exit the house. Shuja, take your son outdoors, right now, don’t argue or ask questions. Raine, get moving, you’ll take ages with that crutch. Heather you-”
“It sees me,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn froze, staring at her.
Twil was shaking herself, still disgusted at the idea of invisible monsters she couldn’t punch – and in the corner of my eye I saw the flicker of diamond-light caught on the dozen strands of spider-silk attached to the hand she’d used to touch the mannequin. The segmented bone-tentacle dipped away from the ceiling, reaching down toward her.
“Twil!” My heart tried to climb out through my mouth. “Twil, you’re- Evee, the spider-silk is stuck to Twil, it can tell where she is!”
“Bring it on!” Twil yelled. She raised a pair of sleekly furred claws and swung wide at nothing, like a boxer trying to fight bees.
“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn snapped. “Stay still, stop giving it reason to react. I’m going to try something, stay still.”
Evelyn’s fingers stopped moving, slipped into the right places on the bone wand.
The ambient temperature plummeted by several degrees in an instant, sucking the breath out of my lungs, drawing a surprised gasp from William, a shiver from Raine.
And we discovered that Edward Lilburne’s servitor was programmed to recognise magic as an existential threat.
Three things happened at once. Everything moved so fast, there was no time to think.
The segmented tentacle which had been inching for Twil instead whipped around for Evelyn’s head like a barbed club, whirling the mass of its own loops and coils to build enough momentum to shatter bone.
The painted mannequin jerked to life with unnatural fluidity in its plastic joints, pulled on dozens of spider-silk strings, and lurched for Evelyn like a battering ram of barbed wire.
Out in the corridor, a second segmented tentacle shot down from the ceiling – followed by a third, and a forth, and fifth, turning the hallway into a pneuma-somatic cage for its real prey. Praem scooped William up in her arms and turned her own back as a shield.
Evelyn screamed at the mannequin, the only part she could see. So did Shuja. The boy was giggling, seeing nothing of what was really happening.
Somebody was hissing and spitting like a wild animal – later I realised that was me.
I was a split-second away from what was rapidly becoming my favourite trick of hyperdimensional mathematics – manifesting six tentacles with which to defend my friends. But in the moment before I could switch that metaphysical zero to a pneuma-somatic one, a whirling ball of fur and claw and snapping teeth slammed into the mannequin and sent it flying.
Twil barked a canine war cry as the animated statue bounced off the wall and fell to the floor in a flailing mess of white plastic limbs and barbed wire.
She’d also stepped into the path of the invisible segmented tentacle. Instead of connecting with Evelyn’s skull, the hooked bone-club hit Twil in the chest, knocked the wind out of her, and broke several ribs with that awful dry cracking sound like a bundle of twigs snapping underfoot. She yelped and howled and spat blood.
Fully transformed werewolf and segmented tentacle were entangled with each other now. Twil got stuck in with tooth and claw at random, fighting an invisible foe that was trying to squeeze her torso to snap her spine.
Evelyn was shaking all over, waxy with cold sweat as she stared at the awful fight, quivering fingers struggling to re-cast her spell.
The mannequin started to rise.
Raine planted the tip of her crutch on its chest and pinned it the the floor, wincing as she put weight through her wounded leg. I knew that would only hold for a moment.
Out in the corridor, one tentacle was groping for Praem’s back and William in her arms. She curled up tighter, caught by the cage of bone.
Too many limbs.
Evelyn’s leadership had fallen apart in the face of a thing that could think in twelve different directions at once, at speed, improvising as it went. She was a strategist, not a fighter, and standing in very much the wrong spot, in the middle of a melee.
I, on the other hand, knew exactly what it felt like to have ten limbs and not enough neural bandwidth. That’s how I saw the weak spot.
Tearing myself away from my friends took an effort of will almost too much for either ape or abyss. Both sets of instinct screamed at me to get the tentacle off Twil or dismantle the mannequin before it knocked Raine off her feet, or just send the whole thing Outside right now, get rid of it now. But I lurched for the kitchen doorway and tumbled out into the peeling paint of the corridor. I ducked below the tentacles which formed the cage of bone, and put myself directly between Praem’s back and the groping tendril, beneath the darkness which lurked in the stairwell.
I risked a glance upward, and met a dozen cone-shaped metallic eyes looking back.
The servitor’s main body was nestled in the corner of the stairwell like a funnel-web spider the size of a pony. Diaphanous skirts of ruffled rippling flesh formed very convincing camouflage, appearing as mundane shadow, designed to fool the eyes of any being that could see pneuma-somatic life. If only I’d shared my architectural distaste out loud, we would have realised something was up there.
With camouflage parted to allow egress of its own tentacles, the servitor within was revealed. Part spider, part squid, part lizard. Eight thick climbing limbs attached it to the wall, and I spotted a massive sharp beak at the front, ringed by the array of forward-facing segmented tentacles like a squid. The thing’s rear was topped with a bulbous abdomen from which emerged the multitude of spider-silk lines thrumming on the air. Armour plated in pus-white where it wasn’t covered in scales and bristles, eyes placed as a spider’s but projecting forward as cones like no earthly creature, I had no doubt this thing had been intentionally designed to overwhelm any rescue attempt.
I hissed at it, of course.
I let go. I hissed and hissed and opened my mouth so wide I thought I was going to dislocate my jaw. I followed abyssal instinct and let my phantom limbs throw themselves wide to make myself look big. I had chosen fight, and for a bizarre, heady, feather-light moment I felt powerful and threatening. Adrenaline pounded in my head. Consciousness threatened to give way to pure reaction. I hissed so hard I screeched.
The segmented, armoured-plated, barbed tentacle stopped reaching for Praem’s back, and pointed at me instead.
I had the servitor’s attention.
Now I had to hold my nerve.
I had to stay still.
Easier said than done. Standing still as the tentacle whipped toward my head took every ounce of courage I had, and the moment would come back to haunt me in dreams, in the shower, in quiet moments for months to come. How odd the mind is. I’d been exposed all those sanity-jarring sights Outside, but this was what stayed with my nervous system long after the danger had passed.
At the last moment, with my eyes wide on a blur of barbed club and a hiccup in my throat, I plunged one hand into the black tar at the bottom of my subconscious, and flicked a value from zero to one.
Six pneuma-somatic tentacles blossomed into reality from my flanks – and caught the segmented limb in mid-air.
Raine later told me I was laughing with manic triumph, a sound halfway between rapid hiccups and the throat-noises of a mutant dolphin.
Rainbow-brilliant in the cramped space of the little corridor, smooth taut muscle anchored deep in my torso, my tentacles hung on tight to the servitor’s limb, wrapped around it in unbreakable coils, hooked into the gaps between its armour plates. I’d seen videos of squid and octopus using their limbs like this, and that’s how I overcame my lack of neural processing power; I had a model to work from. Fake it ‘till you make it, Heather. If I’d stopped to think, I would have failed, paralysed by the conscious effort.
It helped that I was only trying to do one thing – win a tug of war for half a second.
And half a second was all I had. The servitor tried to pull away and almost dragged me off my feet, wrenched a screech from my lips as my tentacles’ anchor-points yanked inside my chest cavity like ripping hernias.
But now I had contact.
At the speed of thought, I unfolded a hyperdimensional equation. To execute self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics of this complexity while calm and collected would have given me the mother of all migraines and left me a bleeding wreck for hours afterward, but I was flying high on adrenaline and bodily euphoria and an alien sensation of feeling strong, and I didn’t care as the mathematics burned and cooked my metaphorical hands, as ice-picks stabbed through my eyes and into the back of my head, as I doubled-up and vomited two cups of tea onto the carpet of Shuja’s house.
I’d done this before with human beings. Never with a servitor.
I defined the servitor in hyperdimensional mathematics, saw the creature as an equation. It was as complex and as beautiful as when I’d defined Raine to locate her or Sarika to fix her. Life seen as logic and mechanics is not a cold thing, not a thing of predation and transaction and lizard-brain simplicity; it is a dance of a hundred trillion tiny machines working in concert, a transcendent chorus in the furnace of biology and soul. The funnel-web servitor was a living thing, but put together without the kinks and redundancies and loop-backs and inefficiencies of something that had been allowed to grow and think for itself.
So I went looking for a signature.
Any artist or sculptor leaves their signature on their creations, whether they intend to or not. I’ve heard tell that even bomb makers leave obvious traces of self expression in unexploded examples of their nightmare craft. Edward Lilburne’s self-definition would be in here somewhere, his fingerprints, his techniques, the DNA of his thoughts, something with which to track him. I sorted through the mathematical matrix at the speed of thought, in the split-second while a half-choked scream caught on my lips as the servitor pulled on my tentacles.
Instead, I found the man himself.
To our mutual surprise – and his horror – Edward and I stumbled into each other like two bumblers in the dark.
Like the filigree mycelium of cordyceps fungus infiltrating the servitor’s brain, he was in here, a remote hand nudging the creature’s nervous system via a pneuma-somatic neurological back door. He made one confused attempt to extend his control over this strange intruder in his creation’s soul, one push with his mind to colonise mine – and recoiled as I bit off his hand.
I closed tentacles around the mathematics that defined his self, and he ran from me.
I burned out his fungal mat, scorched his spores to ash, smashed through the back door he slammed in my face. He panicked, shutting down connections and hurting himself in his haste to escape. A metal iris sealed shut behind him and I pried at the seams of that final portal, melting and corroding it until I reduced his armour to rust – and found nothing behind, just an empty cyst in the servitor’s brain.
An echo remained, the faintest mental impression of a liver-spotted owlish face, forehead smeared with electrode jelly, yanking contact pads off his skull, spitting blood.
All that in a split-second, and I was back in time to finish my scream.
The servitor spasmed as if hit with an electric shock, and fell out of the corner of the stairwell. A mass of black-shadow camouflage frills and pale furred legs and clacking tentacle parts landed on the stairs with a clatter. From the kitchen I heard a thump and a yowl as it dropped Twil. The tentacle-cage retracted from Praem instantly, whipping back past me and into the cloud of roiling shadow.
“Heather?!” Raine shouted. I heard Twil cursing, Evelyn bustling past, Shuja shouting something behind us.
Before I could react, the servitor wrapped its other tentacles around the base of the one I was still holding onto, and with a wet meaty crunch it ripped off its own limb. Like a spider escaping a larger predator, it left me holding the severed appendage. It quickly righted itself and scuttled up the stairs, up the wall, onto the ceiling – and through, vanishing upward as it decided to simply ignore the minor inconvenience of regular matter.
I span on my heel and almost fell flat on my face. My own tentacles were already flagging and turning to ash as my energy ran out, and pain lanced deep into my flanks as the abused tissues quivered and bruised. I lurched past Praem – still hugging William tight – and Shuja gaping open-mouthed as I bumbled past him and almost bounced off the front door, forcing myself past the stabbing in my sides and the huge nosebleed running down my face, the price of hyperdimensional mathematics.
I fumbled with the latch and stumbled out into the tiny bare front garden, then turned and looked up.
The amalgam servitor was escaping across the rooftops, a flapping mass of shadows revealed as translucent black flesh, scuttling on eight legs and dragging itself along with the segmented tentacles. It turned and warbled at a spirit, a soft-bodied slug-thing made of crystals and glass, and I knew in that moment it was acting on instinct. I’d burned Edward’s controls and shattered his back doors, and the thing he’d made was free.
Twil – all human now – bounded out of the front door just in time to catch me under the armpits before I collapsed.
She boggled at me. “What the fuck was that?!”
Twil was an absolute mess, clothes all twisted about, stained with patches of blood, but she had the enviable advantage of werewolf healing. Her bruises and scrapes and cuts were already vanishing and closing, sucking shut and fading back to pale skin.
“ … you look how I feel,” I croaked. “Ow.”
I spat a thin stream of blood-flecked bile onto the ground, and choked back a sob at the aching absence left by the euphoric strength of my tentacles, gone again. They were real, I told myself, they were real. That was me, all me, not a lie.
Raine rushed out of the front door a second later, hobbling on her crutch, wincing as the effort pulled at her stitches.
“Hey, hey, Heather, woah,” she said. “Twil, you got her?”
“I got her, yeah, she weighs nothing. Fuck me, what was that?”
“It ran?” Evelyn snapped from the doorway. “Heather, it ran?”
She was pale and green around the gills and unsteady on her feet, but she was standing straight as she could and hadn’t lost the command in her voice. Praem appeared at her side, suddenly followed by little William peeking around her skirt.
“I freed it,” I croaked out. “I think. He was in its head. Ed.”
Evelyn’s eyes went wide.
“But he got away,” I finished.
Evelyn looked like she very much wanted to say a swear word out loud.
We spent the rest of Sunday afternoon warding Shuja’s house.
Well, Evelyn and Praem spent the rest of Sunday afternoon warding Shuja’s house. Twil stalked from room to room sniffing the air, peering out of windows and doing circuits of the nearby streets, occasionally returning to hover at Evelyn’s elbow until she was shooed away again on another patrol, our early warning system in case Edward Lilburne decided retaliation was in order.
I spent that time huddled in a big old armchair in Shuja’s cramped but comfortable sitting room, wrapped in a pair of blankets against the inner cold frosting my heart and lungs, nursing a sextet of deep bruises in my flanks and a stubborn post-mathematics headache behind my eyes, and generally feeling like I’d been sat on by a gorilla. Raine brought me cups of hot chocolate from the kitchen and made endless cheese sandwiches for me to inhale in three bites each. She wielded her crutch like a comedy third leg to make William laugh. The boy sat on the floor in front of the television, and we all watched cartoons together, endless reruns of Spongebob Squarepants and My Little Pony.
Raine took her painkillers on time, at my grunted insistence. She’d almost popped her stitches earlier in the general melee, but I couldn’t get her to sit down with me. She called home to check on Lozzie, made sure I was warm, took my pulse and my temperature.
“That was reckless and brave and also incredibly hot,” she whispered to me while William was distracted by the television, and kissed my forehead. “I hope you know that.”
“Mm. Not brave.”
As soon as I’d broken Edward’s control and the spider-squid-dragon had left, the ugly mannequin had fallen to the floor, strings abandoned in a dissolving puddle of silvery pneuma-somatic goo. Wrapped in tarpaulin, bound in rope and wire and three magic circles, the thing was crammed into the boot of Raine’s car, awaiting dissection back home.
The severed servitor leg lay next to it in the boot. Praem had to carry that one, because only her and I could see it, and I certainly wasn’t lugging it around.
I don’t think Evelyn had much hope there. She focused on protection, not detective work.
She hadn’t exaggerated the work required to ward the house. After combing the place for further evidence of Edward’s magical intrusion – and finding none – Evelyn set to work. She inscribed secret symbols in the corners of every door-frame, beneath the unscrewed backing-plates of every door handle, on the underside of bed frames and the insides of cupboards. She had Praem knock fist-sized holes in the plaster to scratch magic circles on the brickwork behind, undo light fixtures to reach through and draw in the ceiling cavity, clamber into kitchen cupboards to scrawl on the backing boards. She worked from one of her mother’s notebooks, a precious and dangerous resource to carry so far beyond our own castle, full of observations and recordings on the wards and protections which kept Number 12 Barnslow Drive as one of the safest magical redoubts in the North of England – and other, less sane notes, about the ancient magical work which secured the Saye Estate down in Sussex.
I don’t believe she referred to those latter formulae. I don’t think she could.
Evelyn couldn’t replicate our home, not without several lifetimes more experience and twenty years in which to execute the necessary work, but she did the best she could without blood sacrifice or summoning demons or suchlike.
Shuja followed as Evelyn directed Praem. Evelyn made it clear that he needed to know where everything was, in case something got moved or disrupted, and he needed to repair all the collateral damage she was doing to the walls and ceilings – though thankfully he need not know how any of the magic worked.
Did he believe? I don’t know. Evelyn explained as little as possible. At least he took notes.
Afternoon trudged on into early evening, the sun lowering behind the terraced houses and slanting dull orange across the rooftops. Twil was sent out into the gathering darkness on an errand for kebabs and curry – and a loaf of bread to replace the one I’d devoured. When she returned I found myself still ravenously hungry. My appetite burrowed a hole in my stomach at the delicious food smells, as Twil piled the little white styrofoam boxes on the dining table in Shuja’s sitting room.
I tried not to sound like an absolute pig as I shovelled curry sauce and thick chips down my gullet. William had his own treat, a child’s portion of kebab meat and vegetables. Outdoors, the streetlights were guttering on, and a sense of security had settled over the house. Perhaps via abyssal senses, or perhaps simply because I was finally recovering from my feat of arms, I felt a sense of walls having gone up, of being inside a log-stake camp in the middle of a dark forest.
But were we the people huddling close to the fire – or were we the things from the woods? Shuja and William needed protection, yes, from other things like us.
All of us gathered to eat in the cramped sitting room, as Evelyn completed the final and most delicate stage of protecting Amy Stack’s little boy.
“And this last one is a kind of tracker,” Evelyn was explaining. Her own food sat untouched in front of her, as she and Shuja sat around the table along with William and Praem. “If your son was to go missing, this will allow us to locate him, wherever he may be. You call me and we will be able to find him, quickly. Far quicker than the police, and in places they cannot go.”
“Alright, yes, okay.” Shuja nodded. He concentrated on Evelyn’s instructions with all the attentiveness of a worried father memorising medical advice. “Should I write this one down too or-”
“No,” Evelyn said. “Do not record any of these, not the ones on his skin. Nowhere except in your memory.”
Shuja nodded and swallowed, adjusted his glasses, and stared hard at Praem’s handiwork as it took shape across William’s flesh.
The boy was sat sideways in one of the dining chairs, with his pajama top bundled in his lap so Praem could draw small, precise magical symbols across the exposed skin of his back. She was sitting behind him, using a black-ink body-art pen, not unlike the one Raine used to refresh the Fractal on my own skin every night.
When Evelyn had sat William and Shuja down in here and begun to explain the process, she’d had me roll up my sleeve and show them the hard-edged symbol on my left forearm, to prove this was something we did to ourselves as well, that it wouldn’t hurt the boy.
“Does it give you magic powers?” William had asked, fascinated but too hesitant to touch my arm.
“Keeps me safe,” I croaked, too exhausted to explain.
“Twil here has them too,” Evelyn told Shuja. “Much more extensive, but those are … private. If you want … ” She’d glanced sidelong at Twil.
“Ehh.” Twil shrugged. “I can show the kid, I don’t mind. S’all down my back,” she said to William with a flashing grin and moved to pull up the back of her coat. “S’pretty cool, you know? Actual tats. Mine are forever. Not like Heather’s.”
“Tattoos?” William’s eyes had gone very big indeed.
“No, no, please, it is fine, please,” Shuja had said, waving a hand in mild alarm. “I … I trust your … methodology.” He nodded at my arm and caught my eye. “After your display earlier, miss. Yes. I trust you are at least … well protected.”
William giggled all the while as Praem had worked on his back, but he did an admirable job of staying still for well over twenty minutes, a big ask for a seven year old. She was on the last of six symbols now – one of which was the Fractal, and three of which were tiny magic circles – ranging from the base of his spine to between his shoulder blades.
Protection, warning, tracking. Anti-magical wards. Remote viewing anchors.
Evelyn could not turn the boy into a walking magical trap – or rather, she could, in theory, but she refused, as she later explained to me. To go further than warning signs and wards, with a living human being, would require crossing certain ‘ethical boundaries’.
Perhaps worryingly, the boy seemed to have taken the events of the day entirely in his stride. He hadn’t seen much, scooped up in Praem’s arms like that, and his eyes had lit up like saucers at the sight of Twil’s rapid healing, but his young mind had smoothed over the logical inconsistencies. With any luck, by the time he’d grown up far enough for this to be a childhood memory, it would all be forgotten.
I saw a little of myself in that child, and hoped he would be allowed to simply forget.
His father was having a harder time. He kept throwing polite but badly concealed glances at Twil, as if trying to judge if she was about to burst out of her skin – and at me. He’d seen me fight the servitor, in what must have seemed like a one-sided invisible farce. But the proof was in the pudding; the mannequin had collapsed after I’d finished screaming and bleeding and being sick on his carpet, so I must have been doing something right.
Chewing the dregs of my curry and chips and wishing there was more, I drifted back to the present, to the sound of Evelyn delivering more instructions.
“You will have to refresh the symbols yourself, by hand, every night, preferably after he’s had a bath,” she was saying to Shuja. “Use a body art pen like we’re doing now. We’ll leave this one with you. If you make a mistake, it wipes off with makeup remover, but if you use a regular marker pen and make a mistake, it’ll be much more difficult to correct.”
Shuja nodded along, concentrating hard.
“The first few times, I want you to take a photograph of his back,” she continued, eyeing Praem’s work as she spoke. “And send it to me so I can judge if you’re doing it right. Too much deviation from the symbols or letters will ruin the mechanical effects. I’ll come check up personally once a month. And you need to get him exempted from physical education at school. Make up an illness if you must, whatever it takes. We don’t want other children or his teachers to see these.”
“I can’t show anybody?” William himself suddenly piped up, distraught in the way only a disappointed child could be.
“No, Will, you must not,” his father told him, but William pulled a little pout, and I saw disaster approaching.
“Young master William,” Praem intoned, soft as a silver bell, her pen paused before the final touches. “Please look this way.”
He turned to look at Praem over his shoulder, into her milk-white eyes.
“You must not tell,” Praem sang. “Because I will know. I will be very sad. And I will cry. Do you want to make me cry?”
William bit his bottom lip, eyes wide and shining. For a moment, it had been all too easy to forget that this solid little boy was only seven. The threat of making his strange new friend cry was too much for him.
“No,” he said in a small voice, and reached out to her.
Praem gave him a hug, being very careful not to smudge the magical work on his back.
“Then I will not cry,” she said.
We all breathed a silent sigh of relief. Twil seemed especially relieved that we weren’t going to witness a small child bawl his eyes out. Shuja nodded a thank you to the rest of us, not sure how to interact with Praem himself. What did he even see when he looked at her?
“How long?” Shuja asked. “How long will he have to be subjected to this?”
“Daaaaad,” William complained, turning back around. “It’s fine! It just tickles.”
“’Till we whack-” Twil choked off the rest of her sentence beneath a white-cold glare from Evelyn. “Ahem, I mean, uh-”
“Until we deal with the man who did this,” Evelyn said.
“With a bit ‘o luck, not long,” Raine added, with a wink for William and a grin at Shuja.
Shuja took a deep breath and nodded, checking the notes he’d made in a little spiral-bound notebook. He took his glasses off, placed them on the table, and massaged the bridge of his nose.
“William,” he said, “it is very important that you not wash those pictures off. Do you understand?”
“’kaaaaaay,” went William, swinging his legs back and forth over the side of the chair. “Don’t want to anyway. It’s so cool!” He turned to smile at Praem over his shoulder again. “Do you do drawings? Other drawings? Like art?”
“I will do,” Praem intoned. William blinked at this, a little confused.
“And you must not tell anybody what you’ve seen today,” Evelyn told him, then cleared her throat awkwardly, looking away when the boy made eye contact with her. “It … it will confuse … ”
“It’s a secret world,” I croaked, still raw and exhausted.
William nodded with the solemn unselfconscious seriousness only a child could show. “Mum told me that.”
Shuja replaced his glasses and let out a huge sigh, then reached over to ruffle his son’s hair “Are we done? Can he put his shirt back on?”
Praem tested the ink with a fingertip. “It is dry,” she intoned.
“Certainly then,” said Evelyn.
William hopped off the chair and wriggled back into his pajama top, head of messy hair popping out even messier than before. “Dad, can I get an ice cream from the freezer? Please?”
His father gave him a gentle frown. “You have already had a lot of kebab, and that is a big treat for a small stomach, are you not full yet?”
“I can fit more!”
“That’s the spirit,” Raine said.
Evelyn cleared her throat and caught Shuja’s eye. “Perhaps Praem can take William into the kitchen for a few minutes, while we discuss other matters? You don’t happen to have any strawberries in your fridge, by any chance?”
“I’m sorry?” Shuja blinked. “No, but … but yes, Will, you may have an ice cream. Only one, mind you.”
“Only one,” Praem echoed. She stood up and followed William as he hurried out of the sitting room. A moment later we heard the freezer open in the kitchen, and the sound of William burbling some happy explanation to Praem. Raine reached over and pushed the sitting room door almost shut, closing in our voices.
“Miss Saye, please, before you say anything further,” Shuja started. “This thing is gone from my house, yes? You say it was … invisible, yes, so how can I be certain it does not return as soon as you leave?”
“There was a man controlling it,” I croaked. “He can’t anymore. I burned him out.”
Shuja stared at me.
“If anything odd happens,” Evelyn told him. “Anything at all, you call one of the numbers I gave you. I don’t care if it’s three in the morning and chucking it down outdoors. We will be here to remove the problem and plug the gaps.”
“Yeah mate,” Twil piped up with a cheesy grin on her face. “Who you gonna call?”
“Oh, and I was a nerd for the Evil Dead reference?” Raine shot back.
“We can both be nerds, s’cool,” Twil said.
Shuja’s eyes followed the conversation back and forth, with considerable doubt as to our professionalism.
“What if … people come to my door?” Shuja asked. “What if men come to kidnap us? Sent by this ‘enemy’ of yours?”
“We deal with that too,” Raine said, soft and sharp at the same time, even full of painkillers.
“Maybe call the rozzers,” Twil put in. “If like, somebody’s tryin’ to break in, you know? They gotta be good for somethin’.”
“Then call us later,” Raine finished for her.
“I would wager ten thousand pounds that you have little to worry about now,” Evelyn said, calm and collected, though she hunched in the chair, exhausted by the slow grinding effort of the afternoon. “Anybody who is part of … ” she cleared her throat, “‘our world’, who tries to interfere with your home, or your boy, is going to see the equivalent of a warning sign fifty feet high, with my face and death threat. Besides, there is only one man behind all this, one man with any interest in harming you, and I believe he already got what he wanted. I doubt he will make a return attempt, considering his caution. The traps I have placed are simply too risky for him to disarm.”
“Are they really?” Twil asked.
Evelyn shot her a withering look and Twil had the good sense to pull a grimace. But then a flicker of a smile, of dark satisfaction, tugged at the corners of Evelyn’s lips. “Yes,” she said.
“How can you be satisfied in this? You do not understand what this is like,” Shuja said softly, fighting against a crack in his voice as he lowered his face into one hand. “You are too young, you do not have children.”
“Yes I do,” Evelyn answered without hesitation.
“Wait what,” went Twil, wide-eyed and gormless. Evelyn gave her a darkly embarrassed look.
Raine cracked a grin. “First I’ve heard of this too.”
Shuja totally didn’t follow either.
“Not all children are born,” I croaked – and that made no sense to poor Shuja, but Twil lit up.
“Oh!” she went. “Oh right, damn. Holy shit, Evee. Like … for real?”
“Later,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Mister Yousafzai, I have to ask you one final question before we get out of your hair. Are you going to hold it together?”
Shuja stared at her. “I … don’t understand?”
“You’ve been exposed to things that break lesser minds. There is no shame in admitting you need this out of your thoughts. Repair the holes in the plaster, I’m sorry about those. Forget about the wards, forget we were here. Forget any of this happened.”
Slowly, Shuja nodded.
“What do you do, mister Yousafzai?” Evelyn asked him, slowly and carefully.
“I am sorry?”
“Your job. What do you do?”
“Oh. I teach mathematics and French, at the comprehensive, King’s Way secondary school.”
“Maths and French at the same time?” Raine asked with a cheeky grin.
Shuja managed a small laugh. If Raine and Evelyn had been tag-teaming a return to normal subjects, they could not have planned it better.
“No, no,” he said. “Simply multi-disciplinary.”
“I thought you looked like a maths teacher,” I croaked. Shuja glanced at me, vaguely pleased with that on some level I didn’t understand.
“It is my understanding that Amy Stack makes a lot of money,” Evelyn said. “Doing what she does.” She glanced up at the ceiling, at the house in general. The tiny old terraced house that hadn’t been renovated in at least thirty years, wrapped in a shell from the 1960s with neighbours wall-to-wall on both sides. “Do you not see much of it?”
“She pays into a trust fund, for William,” Shuja said, and cleared his throat as if deeply embarrassed.
“Right noble of her,” Raine said – and couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “Kept some back for herself though. Gotta pay for bullets, you know?”
“Raine,” I croaked. “Don’t.”
But Shuja nodded at Raine. “I am so sorry. Was she the cause of your limp?”
Raine pulled a non-committal face and dropped the subject. I wormed a hand out of my blanket-lump and found hers, and squeezed.
“I am the sole trustee,” Shuja explained further. “Amy does not have access to the money she sends. William is attending Milcastle primary, and I am planning on sending him to the best private school I can find, perhaps here in Sharrowford, perhaps Manchester if he can handle the train every day when he is of age. I make no secret that will be expensive. He will have every opportunity, and yes, I owe his mother for that.” Shuja sighed. “I do not want him to have the life I have led, nor that of his mother. He can grow up to be whatever he wishes.”
Evelyn nodded – and I could see she didn’t care about the exact words, the plan to get Shuja’s mind on other topics had worked perfectly. “We’ll be out of your way shortly, mister Yousafzai. Let us pick ourselves up and … ”
“Shuja, please,” Shuja said.
Evelyn nodded. “Perhaps you better go check your son hasn’t convinced Praem to allow him more than one ice cream. She’s soft like that.”
Shuja nodded and rose from his chair, taking the hint without question. He stopped at the doorway and turned back. “Thank you, miss Saye. Thank you, uh … Twil, was it? I understand you took … injuries … but-”
“Don’t think about it, mate,” Twil said.
“Yes, yes, quite. I shall try not to. And miss … Heather?” his eyes lingered on me. “Well, thank you, indeed.”
He turned and hurried away, before I could tell him things that might haunt his mind the rest of his life.
Twil blew out a long sigh. Raine reached over and rubbed my upper back, trying to distract me from the lingering ache in my sides. Evelyn turned to me.
“Heather, tell me again what you saw,” she said.
“ … um,” I croaked. “I didn’t ‘see’ exactly, it’s not like that, the image from the brainmath is interpretation.”
“Can’t this wait, Evee?” Raine asked. “We’re all tired as hell, s’been a long weekend.”
“You know what I mean,” Evelyn said to me, ignoring Raine. “You’re certain it was Edward?”
I nodded. “He was controlling the servitor. Directly. Like some kind of brain interface, I think? I don’t know what I saw, not really.”
“It wasn’t a true servitor,” Evelyn said. “Not if it needed him to control it.” She sighed in frustration, frowning tight and hard. “It may be he can build a pneuma-somatic body and grow a mind, but not a programmed one. Not like our spiders.” She trailed off, then snapped back. “And you’re certain he was rigged up with wires? To a machine?”
“That’s the impression I got … ”
“Could it have been a visual metaphor?” she pressed.
“Like a brain-scan thing?” Twil asked. “Or a … what are those big magnetic things in hospitals?”
“Cat scan,” said Raine. “Isn’t this gonna be your thing, Twil? Bio-med science degree candidate doesn’t know what a cat scan is?”
“I’m not there yet, you twerp.” Twil rolled her eyes.
“I … I don’t know,” I said. “Evee, why does it matter?”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth, gaze intense, spine hunched with mental exhaustion. “Machinery and magic is an odd combination. Actual machinery, electrical machinery, used as machinery. I don’t know, it’s not something my mother ever dabbled in. Machinery as parts, as conduit for magic, certainly, but … mm.” She trailed off, lost in thought.
“Whatever,” Twil declared. “I can break machines as easily as skulls.”
“Speaking of cracking heads,” Raine said, and let the implication linger. I shuddered.
Evelyn took a deep breath and nodded. “Our success here today turns miss Amy Stack into a guided missile.”
“Evee,” I scolded, as hard as I could in my wheezing, croaky voice. “Must you?”
Evelyn looked at me, and I caught the exhausted practicality in her gaze, the admission that I was right, but that this had to be done. “Heather, I commend your compassion, but you misunderstand. Yes, this potentially makes Stack into a weapon, but it also keeps her alive. It has given us an alternative to executing her.”
“Oh. Oh, I think I see, but … ”
“Yes,” Evelyn sighed, weary. “Now we get to go home and see if we hold her controls or not.”