water of the womb – 12.5

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We called Lozzie twice that Sunday afternoon – and a third time just before we all clambered back into Raine’s car for the drive home – to check that nothing untoward had transpired in our absence, that Stack hadn’t revealed some dark miracle and overpowered Zheng, that Edward Lilburne hadn’t sent large men carrying bats to our front door, that Tenny hadn’t wandered off to take to the skies over Sharrowford and get herself plastered all over the evening news as a stray weather balloon.

“I’m here and I’m queer and everything is clear!” Lozzie answered the phone each time with a cheery little chant. Once I could even hear Tenny in the background, going “Heath? Heath?” as she realised the function and purpose of the old land-line phone, and tried to press her face to the receiver over Lozzie’s shoulder.

Evelyn shook Shuja’s hand. Little William gave Praem one last hug. Raine kept touching her own thigh, in need of more painkillers. I was antsy and tense, eager to be back home in the gathering dark.

The drive across town took less than ten minutes, but I still expected disaster.

What I didn’t expect was Zheng and Stack playing dice.

“Hi hi hi hi hi!” Lozzie greeted us with one rapid-fire ‘hi’ each as she opened the front door of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, beating Praem’s time by about half a second, leaving the doll-demon hanging with the key in her hand.

Lozzie’s beaming face was relief incarnate, but she ushered us inside with bouncing urgency, springing on the balls of her feet and biting her lips and wiggling her head from side to side. She couldn’t wait to get the door closed and locked and bolted behind us again, and did so with alarming speed.

“Lozzie? What’s wrong?” I croaked, still holding onto Praem’s arm for support, my legs weak despite hours of post-brainmath recovery.

“What’s happened?” Evelyn snapped. Next to her, Twil had gone tense, sniffing the air.

“Ahhhh? Wrong?” Lozzie whirled away from the front door, poncho twirling outward. “Nothing’s wrong! I’m just going to miss the ending! But thank you!”

She threw her arms around Raine in a sudden hug – then broke off just as swiftly and hugged Twil next. “Thank you fuzzy wuzzy,” she murmured. Then she grabbed me – gently – and kissed my cheek, squishy with the giggles. “Thank you, Heather, I love you.” Praem received the next surprise hug, a big wordless squeeze that made it look like Lozzie was sinking into a pillow. “Thankeeee.” Finally she paused with arms half-open in front of Evelyn, a silent question in her sleepy eyes.

“I’m not the hugging type,” Evelyn huffed. “Oh, alright. Make it quick. And don’t touch my spine.”

“Eeeee!” Lozzie let out a sound like a miniature steam kettle. She followed Evelyn’s instructions to the letter, and gave her the most fleeting of affectionate hugs. “Thank you Evee, thank you, thank you.”

“Yes, yes, but for what? What is this?”

“For beating up Edward, duh.” Lozzie almost rolled her eyes, but she was smiling too hard. She bounced away on the balls of her feet, and fled back into the kitchen. “I’m missing the endiiiiiing!”

A moment later we heard the sound of Lozzie’s feet pattering downward, into the cellar.

“Um,” went Twil.

“Uh oh.” Raine grinned, leaning heavily on her crutch but trying to hide it. “Think Zheng got hungry?”

“If that zombie ruins everything … ” Evelyn hissed. She started toward the kitchen, walking stick clacking on the floorboards.

“If Zheng had done violence,” I croaked, “Lozzie would not be watching. She hates that.”

“Yeah, right,” Twil said. “But shouldn’t we better … check … ” She trailed off, cocking her head with a look like a hound catching a distant sound.

I heard it too. One did not need canine senses to hear Zheng’s voice rumbling in the deep.

Our plan had called for a brief regroup before confronting Stack a second time, if only to drink a glass of water and get our bearings. But now, consumed by curiosity and the magnetic pull of Lozzie’s enthusiasm, we made for the cellar. Fingers of shadow pressed in at the kitchen window, heralds of the night creeping across the floor to join the lurking darkness which spilled from the cellar door.

At the top of the steps down we found a much friendlier kind of darkness. Tenny was crouched on her haunches, tentacles wrapped around handrail and doorknob as if to anchor herself. She was so enraptured by the words floating upward that she spared us barely a glance, peering down into the cellar. I patted her on the head as I passed by, and she replied with a soft fluttery trilling noise. Two tentacles rose to momentarily grasp my hand and wrist as we descended.

“- but that was the last night the temple stood,” Zheng purred in the gloom.

“Samaya went out onto the mountain pass the next morning, to meet Xiang Shui’s army. Alone, unarmed, half naked,” she was saying, as we clattered down the stairs, past Lozzie who was sitting on the final step, listening in awe, arms tucked into her poncho. “I still remember the sky. Have you ever seen the sky from the roof of the world, little fox? Blue as old ice, but thin, so thin. The Song cowards were terrified of old Samaya. He screamed at them for three hours. Cursed them to seven lifetimes as worms, told them their cocks would rot off, called Xiang Shui a cuckold and a dung-eater.” She paused to chuckle. “True smyon pa … mmmmmm.”

Zheng trailed off in a soft slow purr as we reached the cellar floor. Heavy-lidded sharp eyes turned to greet us, like a sleepy tiger seen from the jungle’s edge.

The demon-host was lounging in a chair taken from the kitchen, kicked back on the two rear legs like a teenager showing off her perfect balance. She’d dragged over one of the ancient wooden coffins and turned it upside down to use as both footrest and table. A dozen dice were scattered across the surface.

She rolled another three dice between her knuckles, and as we watched, she span them over her fingers in a trick of almost supernatural dexterity.

“I know for a fact you got those from my bedroom,” Raine said, indulgently irritated.

“Sorry!” Lozzie hissed. “Was me!”

“Ah well that’s different.” Raine shot her a wink. “You’re cool, little Loz. No worries.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred at me. “Care to listen?”

“Zheng … um,” I croaked, a little bewildered. “Are you … having fun?”

At least Amy Stack was exactly where she was meant to be, and still possessed the same number of parts. She was still tied to her chair in the middle of the room, still cold as dead stone behind flint chips for eyes. She’d sat up a little straighter as we’d entered, betraying her interest.

“I have to roll for her,” Zheng purred, gesturing lazily at the dice. “But akarakish is not a game of secrets, it is a game of wit and guts, and the little fox plays well. She cannot have known the rules before this afternoon, but I have taken more defeats than victories.”

“How wonderful.” Evelyn dripped sarcasm. “Made a friend, have you?”

“A brief understanding,” said Amy Stack, cold and level.

Evelyn shot her a pinched frown. “Delightful, I’m sure.”

“Never seen this one before,” Raine was saying, head tilted sideways as she hobbled over to Zheng’s makeshift table and considered the number of dice. “What’d you call it again?”

“You wouldn’t have, yoshou,” Zheng purred back. “The inventor of akarakish taught me how to play. A very bored monk, with a brilliant mind wasted on prayer, and no friends who could understand his game, only the half-dead thing locked up in the crypt.” Zheng nodded past all of us, up the stairs to where Tenny crouched. Tenny saw the look and replied with a tiny hiss. “The puppy would play well, if she could overcome her fear of me. She has the mind for it. Though,” Zheng sighed, “she has nothing to wager, not yet.” Zheng rolled the three dice between her fingers again, as if doing a magic trick.

“Stack,” Evelyn said. “Let’s get this over-”

“No, wizard,” Zheng rumbled with good natured amusement. “You cannot slay the little fox yet, I have not finished telling my tale.”

“Oh for fu-” Evelyn hissed at Zheng. “You can’t be serious. You’ve had the whole afternoon.”

“You cannot send her off without the ending of this tale.” Zheng flashed a toothy grin. She knew exactly how irritating she was being. “I lost the round, I owe the story, and I fulfil the oaths I make.”

“You were betting stories?” I asked, fascinated. “Is this some kind of One Thousand and One Nights ploy?”

“It’s been soooo good,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“Wagering tales, shaman,” Zheng said, and opened her palm to show me the three dice, all sixes. “The game relies on stories, true or otherwise. A listener levies penalties if they perceive a lie.” She glanced sidelong at Lozzie. “And so we are compelled to speak truth.”

“Lauren Lilburne is very perceptive,” Stack agreed.

Lozzie giggled and wrapped herself tighter in her pastel-striped poncho.

“The little fox has good tales,” Zheng purred with obvious appreciation. “Warrior’s tales. Slum tales. Blood tales. At first she embellished, but she quickly learnt not to. The truth is so much stranger than fiction.”

“I wouldn’t mind hearing some of your life stories, big girl,” Raine said to Zheng with surprising affection.

But Zheng slid a heavy-lidded look over Raine like the flat of a knife. “Then you must wager and win. Do you have tales to stake, yoshou?”

Raine grinned back, leaning forward on her crutch. “Plenty. But what about Lozzie? She got them all for free, right?”

Zheng shrugged. “The mooncalf is as the shaman. She has no need to bet, I owe her already.”

With a great huff and rolling of her eyes and a string of curses under her breath, Evelyn stomped a few paces deeper into the cellar and cast around for one of the spare chairs to sit on. Twil scrambled to help, and Evelyn thumped down into the offered seat with a sharp wince of indrawn breath. She sagged, leaning on her walking stick with both hands, clearly exhausted by the effort of the afternoon’s work.

“Get on with it then,” she snapped at Zheng. “I have an appointment with a very long, very hot bath, and I would like to get this over with. Finish your bloody story.”

Zheng rocked back and grinned, opening her mouth like a cabinet full of knives. Praem helped me toward another chair, close to Zheng’s side.

“Wait,” Stack said, hard and urgent as she stared at Evelyn. “My little boy?”

“Is very sweet,” Praem intoned before anybody else could answer. “We read about spiders.”

“Your son and his father are both alive and well,” Evelyn grunted. “They are expecting a phone call from us soon. You can confirm it for yourself then.”

Stack was perfectly still for a long moment, level gaze meeting Evelyn’s grumpy scowl. Then she nodded, just once, so curt and shallow as to be almost invisible. She turned back to Zheng in silent assent.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Where was I?”

“Old Samaya, shouting,” Stack supplied. I listened too, fascinated.

“Mmmmm. Three hours he cursed the army in their camp, from a little mound before the temple,” Zheng purred slow and soft once more. “Three hours while Xiang Shui’s officers made the men draw straws, to make up a crossbow volley to shut Samaya up. Half the chosen men fainted the first time he was hit, and he kept spitting fire even as he lay bleeding out in the dirt! Ha!” Zheng roared with laughter. “They tried to find a volunteer to cut his throat, but by then all the other monks were gone, escaped down the stone stairs. I left too. Over the mountainside hand-over-hand, while they burned the temple. They won, but they lost their courage.” She sighed a great sigh. “I took Xiang Shui’s head a year later, but that is another tale.”

“What happened to the white bear?” Stack asked, with genuine interest running beneath her cold voice.

Zheng shrugged. “The mi dred? I never saw it again, not after it ate the assassin. I hope it lived long and ate well.”

Stack nodded – and to my incredible surprise she took a deep, cleansing breath, closing her eyes for just a moment. “Thank you,” she said.

Lozzie started clapping.

Raine nodded sideways at Stack. “You actually respect her, don’t you?” she asked Zheng.

“She won many rounds. If I cannot eat her, and cannot fight her … mm.”

“Are we done here?” Evelyn drawled.

Zheng stirred the dice on the upturned coffin, dropping the trio from her hand among them. “Debts are paid, wagers settled. The little fox is all yours, wizard.”

“Mind if I play a round?” Raine asked with a shrewd grin.

“You need painkillers and a long sit down,” I told her, unimpressed. “No.”

“I can have both of those while I gamble childhood stories, right?” She flicked a wink at me. “How about Heather acts as our listener and lie-judger?”

“Raine, you’re-” I bit my words off. Raine’s childhood stories? She’d baited me, hook and line and all. “I- I mean … later-”

“Yes, later,” Evelyn grumbled. “We’re here to deal with Stack.”

“I am listening,” Stack said.

“Good, because I’m far too tired to indulge your need for intimidation theatrics. We’re done, the pest has been removed. That’s it.”

“My boy-”

“Is under my protection,” Evelyn said – and left that hanging. She and Stack stared each other down like a pair of lizards.

In the corner of my eye I saw Lozzie hop up from her seat and quickly skip up the cellar stairs, taking Tenny gently by the hand and a cluster of tentacles, to lead her back out into the light and warmth of the house above. I didn’t blame her. This part was not for young minds.

“Phone call,” Stack said.

We’d planned this bit with Shuja. Raine produced her mobile phone and placed the call. To his credit, Shuja picked up on the second ring. Poor man had probably been waiting since the moment we left his house.

“Yes? Yes, hello?” his voice emerged, made tinny and quivering by the speaker as Raine held the phone up.

“It’s just us again, Shuja, right on time,” Raine said, easy and relaxed. “Your-”

“It’s me,” Stack said out loud.

“Amy? Are you … no, no, I need to-” Shuja gathered himself with an audible deep breath. “These people, they have removed the … the problem. William is well. Will, say hello to your mother.”

“Hiiii!” went a tiny, further-off voice.

Stack’s throat bobbed once. She stared at the phone like it was a star.

“Amy, can we talk soon?” Shuja asked.

“That’ll be all, Shuja,” Evelyn spoke up. “Thank you.”

“ … yes. Yes. Alright.”

Raine ended the call. Stack stared at nothing for a long time, then turned back to Evelyn. “You can’t hope to stop Edwa-”

“Yes I can,” Evelyn snapped, in a sudden flare of temper. “We removed the pest, and the servitor controlling it – which you didn’t even know about, I might add. Shuja’s home is now warded, extensively. The boy himself is warded, with warning signs and triggers that will light up like a Christmas tree if Edward touches a single hair on his head. Your child – and by proxy, his father and the house they live in – is now under my protection. I have deployed every trick I have, short of summoning demons to hide in their attic, and tomorrow … ” Evelyn trailed off.

Twil cleared her throat. “Tomorrow I’m gonna talk to my mum, get the family involved.” She jutted her chin at Stack. “You know what we’re about, right?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Evee? You didn’t mention that part,” I said.

“In extremis, one must call upon all one’s resources,” Evelyn grumbled. “Even idiots with Outsiders living in their heads.”

Twil opened her mouth with a frown, as if to take offence, but then shrugged. “I guess.”

Stack stared at Evelyn and Twil for a moment longer, then turned with the glacial slowness of a freezing sea to look at me.

“ … Amy?” I croaked.

“Morell.”

The tiniest tilt of her head. A question, communicated as pure body language and clear as diamond, driven by an understanding gifted from the depths of the abyssal ocean. Perhaps Zheng understood too, but she let me answer.

“It’s the truth,” I said.

Stack blinked once.

“I bit off Edward’s hand, too,” I added.

That made Stack blink in an entirely different way. Zheng raised a silent eyebrow at me too.

“He was there, sort of, remotely, running the servitor,” I explained. “I … interfered with it. I … it’s not as simple I’m making it sound, obviously, but I may have damaged him. Somehow. Maybe.”

Stack just stared. Was she taking this in, readjusting her strategy – or just paralysed?

“Don’t worry, baby killer,” Raine added with a grin. “Kid’s under our wing now, whether you like it or not. Tough shit.”

“Until mister Lilburne is dead-” Stack began.

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “The deadline is my death. The boy has been exposed to our world, and I aim to make sure that doesn’t happen again. This child is going to be safe. He is not going to end up like any of us. No more traumatised children. No more dead children. You hear me?”

Stack turned to lock eyes with Evelyn. The air in the cellar seemed to thicken. My own breath turned to treacle in my throat, as if the slightest sound would provoke one of these two great reptiles to lash out. Even Zheng went very quiet and very still.

“I am going to make you an offer,” Evelyn said with slow and exaggerated care – she’d rehearsed these words, I could hear it, but when? “There is a place you can hide, with your son, and with Shuja if he wishes. My ancestral home, in Sussex. With a word I can have my father put you and your son up for months, until this is all over, all dealt with.”

Raine pulled a pained grimace, but kept her mouth shut. Twil went “uhhh,” out loud, and received a sharply raised finger in reply.

Stack stayed locked on Evelyn.

“You wanted out,” Evelyn continued. “I am offering you an exit that Edward Lilburne cannot follow, even if he wanted to. We both know he’s obsessed with Sharrowford, with what he could gain here, perhaps with certain members of his family. If I hide you on the other side of the country, in the magical equivalent of a nuclear bunker, I don’t think he’ll even bother trying to find you.” Evelyn tried to shrug with a touch of Raine’s eloquence, but her twisted spine held her back.

“Why?” Stack asked.

“I told you why,” Evelyn grumbled with genuine venom. “Were you not listening? Ears full of cloth? Your boy lives, not because I am making a calculated move, but because it is right. You’re a hunter, Stack. You’re a professional. And I’ve made my enemies into your enemies – but I am offering you an out. No questions asked. You can leave Sharrowford behind, leave this life behind. You are not bound to me – your boy is, and ultimately it is we who are now responsible for his safety. Not you.”

“Congratulations, old girl,” Raine said, coldly mocking through her grin. “You being dead or alive makes no difference now.”

“Then why not kill me?” Stack asked.

“I might, but let me finish first,” Evelyn drawled.

“I didn’t tentacle-wrestle a servitor just to execute you anyway,” I snapped, and struggled back up to my feet, clutching for support. A strong hand – Zheng’s hand – took me by the waist to hold me up. “Don’t be so selfish, Amy.”

Stack just stared at me. I shivered.

“The sins of the mother do not pass down to the child,” Evelyn said quietly.

Stack turned to Evelyn and stared holes right through to the back of her skull, trying to read Evelyn’s thoughts through flesh and bone.

It didn’t work. Evelyn managed to look positively bored.

“Sometime,” Evelyn began again, “in the next six months – and more likely sooner rather than later – myself, Heather, and the others here are going to carry out one of the most dangerous tasks I could ever imagine. The task itself is stupid, reckless, near-impossible – and totally non-negotiable. To do it in a way even approaching correct, we need that book you stole for Edward. You probably worked that part out already, we’re not all complete morons, despite appearances.”

Twil frowned behind her, unsure if she was the target of that one.

“But without the book,” Evelyn continued, “we will probably try it anyway, which will significantly increase our chances of dying. Our chance of succeeding and returning with all our body parts in roughly the same places will be greatly improved if we are not being interrupted all the time. Do you understand?”

Stack stared. The unspoken message was crystal clear. I found myself digging my fingernails into my own palm, willing Stack to accept the implication.

“Describe the task,” she said.

“We’re going Outside,” I spoke up, the words spilling forth like old vomit. “To a place much worse than the library. To find my twin sister, and bring her back.”

Stack blinked at me. “Alexander was telling the truth?”

“Hard to believe, I know, but yes, I have a twin.”

To my surprise, Stack dropped her eyes from me and stared at a point on the floor. Several long heartbeats passed before she looked at Raine, then at Evelyn, then at nothing again. Twil opened her mouth with a soft click, but Evelyn made a covert chopping gesture with one hand, and Twil thought better of interrupting.

Stack’s expression was that of an exhausted animal caught in a snare trap, knowing it was dead, knowing escape was impossible, but unwilling to submit to the approaching hand of the hunter. Dying was no longer a way to take responsibility. She had to act.

“Need I repeat myself?” Evelyn murmured.

“No,” Stack said.

But the seconds drew onward, and it slowly dawned on me that Stack could not make a decision. Perhaps this was the kind of choice she had avoided all her life, the choice between accepting defeat – or hunting, not for money, but for herself.

Raine hobbled forward, rubber-tipped crutch squeaking once on the cellar flagstones.

“Raine, don’t!” Evelyn hissed, but Raine ignored her. She walked right up to Stack, well within the danger zone.

“Raine, what- oh!” My eyes went wide, as Raine reached inside her leather jacket and drew out her handgun.

“Amy, hey,” she said softly. Stack finally looked up, and met Raine’s strangely serene smile. “I get it. Rest ‘o them here maybe don’t. Not even Heather. But for me? Yeah, I know you. All you gotta do is say the word, one more time.” She clicked the safety off and pressed the muzzle of her gun to Stack’s forehead. “I’ll do it, promise. Just say the word, go on. I promise.”

Evelyn had frozen, white-faced. Twil was going “hey hey hey!” and Praem was about to step forward to intervene. Zheng grinned like a tiger.

All I could think about was the way Raine and Stack locked eyes.

They understood each other perfectly.

“Untie me,” said Amy.

Raine’s serene smile spread into a knowing grin – and she lowered the gun.

Evelyn bit her bottom lip so hard she drew a bead of blood. If a picture could speak a thousand words, Evelyn’s face was a portrait of some very colourful swearing indeed, but she held herself back. No sense appearing unprofessional in front of our ‘guided missile’.

“So,” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Right. So. Can we just untie you and see you out the front door, or do we need to release you like reintroducing a bear to its natural habitat, throwing rocks and sticks at you?”

“No way to treat a bear,” Zheng rumbled.

But Stack and Raine both ignored Evelyn. Raine slipped her gun away and rather awkwardly pulled out her big black combat knife instead, struggling a little to draw it from the sheath with one hand occupied with her crutch. She crouched sightly, never once breaking eye contact with Stack, and slipped the blade of the knife between the ropes keeping her left leg secured to the chair.

“Ummmmm,” went Twil, stepping pointedly in front of Evelyn.

“Is this strictly a good idea?” I asked, trying to keep the quiver out of my voice.

“Raine,” Evelyn snapped. “We have not yet established-”

“Yeah we have,” Raine said, soft but somehow undeniable. She used the point of her knife to work the knot apart, freeing one of Stack’s legs, then the other. Then she straighted up with a wince, stepped behind Stack – finally breaking eye contact – and freed her hands. “Yeah we have.”

The ropes fell away.

Despite appearances, I could feel Zheng tensed like a spring next to me. She’d shifted one foot back, all the better to uncoil across the room in an instant. Praem was ready too, unassuming and prim and straight-backed.

Stack brought her hands slowly round in front of her and massaged the ugly red rope marks on her wrists. Even the smallest movements of her body set my teeth on edge. The muscular predatory intent in every gesture and adjustment sent my phantom limbs twitching in an effort to cover her, counter her, pull her head off. Like a wolf uncertain why its cage had been left open, she watched all of us in turn, and very slowly stood up from the chair, trying to rub feeling back into her numb legs.

Raine took a step to the side and they made eye contact again.

The moment stretched out. My heart was fit to burst from my ribs like a dying bird. Raine grinned. Stack’s fingers twitched.

“I could still take you,” Raine purred, and it was one of the most attractive things I’d ever seen her do. “Even with a bullet wound.”

And with that, Stack turned her eyes away, and all the tension flowed out of her.

“If I locate mister Lilburne, I will prioritise a kill,” she said, smoke-soft. “Not your book.”

“If you find the bastard, let me know, preferably before you get yourself killed,” Evelyn said. “I believe you already have a contact number for us.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “Same in reverse?”

Evelyn raised her chin. “If I find him, I will let you know. But I’m not saving the kill for you, no absurd indulgences like that.”

“Save the head.”

Evelyn frowned.

“As- as proof, I assume?” I asked. Stack nodded.

“Gnarly,” said Raine.

“Tch. Ugh,” Evelyn huffed. Zheng rumbled out a laugh. Twil raised a warning growl as Stack cracked her neck from side to side.

“Not getting your gun back though,” Raine said. “That’s mine now.”

Raine,” I sighed, exasperation hiding the way I was shaking inside with the release of tension – and at Stack’s unnerving proximity. Even with this apparent truce, I wanted her out of here, right now.

“Fine,” Stack said.

“Can’t believe we’re trusting this bitch,” Twil grunted.

“We’re not,” said Evelyn. “We’re trusting her self-interest.”

“Mm,” went Stack.

“Now get the fuck out of here, war criminal,” Raine said. “Before I change my mind and light you on fire.”

“Gladly,” Stack said, cold and blank, and looked at the stairs. “Alone?”

Zheng did the honours of providing an escort. She clacked her chair down and stood up, unfolding herself to her full height, and crossed to Stack with a razor-toothed grin. To Stack’s credit she managed to limit herself to a single small flinch, as Zheng placed one massive hand on top of Stack’s head and the other around Stack’s throat, and sniffed her like she was judging a piece of meat. After a few moments Zheng let the smaller woman go.

“Up, little fox,” Zheng purred in her face. “Time to hunt.”

They left the cellar together, Stack in front as Zheng watched her from behind. Raine followed too, perhaps for some final comment at the door.

As soon as they were beyond earshot, Evelyn let out a deep, shuddering breath and drew her hand over her face. Even across the cellar gloom, I saw the moment she broke out in cold sweat. Praem crossed to her side as if to help.

Twil stared after the departing trio, gormless in disbelief. “We actually doin’ this? Damn.”

“I cannot believe that worked,” Evelyn hissed.

==

By the early hours of the following morning, the old radiators were struggling against a spring chill blown in off the Irish Sea. Cold grey drizzle blurred the first sheets of dawn, forcing us fragile little apes to burrow deeper into our warm beds.

Which is why I was so surprised, on my sixth trip downstairs, to discover Praem and Evelyn had appeared in the kitchen.

“Oh. Oh no, I do hope I didn’t wake you … both?” I asked.

Shrouded in the grey static flooding in through the kitchen window, sitting at the table with the lights off and wrapped in pajamas and a dressing gown, Evelyn turned red-rimed, sleepy eyes on me, through the steam from a fresh cup of tea. Praem wasn’t standing to attention at her shoulder or by the doorway as usual, but sitting diagonally across from her in one of the kitchen chairs. Straight-backed, hands folded neatly in her lap, dressed in Evelyn’s borrowed clothes, hair still singed here and there and curled up at the ends. Milk-white eyes turned to stare at me with her habitual impassivity.

“What, stomping up and down the stairs five times?” Evelyn grumbled, nodding at the contents of my hands – Raine’s empty plate and the bottle of painkillers.

I blushed, mortified. “I-I don’t stomp!”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “I’m winding you up, Heather. I’m sorry. You’re light as a feather. And no, I only heard you because I was already awake.”

“Oh.” I swallowed my blush. “Well. Uh … I had to … Raine’s … ” I crossed to the sink and put down the plate and pills.

“Breakfast in bed,” Praem intoned.

I almost laughed. “Not quite. She’s finally asleep again after another dose of painkillers.” I wandered over to the table and nudged out a chair next to Evee. “Do you mind if I join you? I don’t want to risk creeping back into our bedroom and waking her again.”

“It’s your house too,” Evelyn said.

I sat down and smiled at her, trying to overcome my own tiredness. Raine and I had both slept like logs for the first part of the night, until …

“The pain keeping her awake?” Evelyn asked, with grudging sympathy born of long experience.

“It woke her up about an hour ago.” I sighed heavily as my worries spilled out. “I want to let her doze now, at least. She’s not got any classes today, but she’s supposed to go to work at the student union bar later, and that means hours on her feet, and she can’t do that in this state. She needs to call in sick. This weekend, Carcosa, everything, it really took a lot out of her. More than she lets on. Not to mention getting shot.”

“Mmmm, yes.” Evelyn fixed me with a curious, penetrating frown. “Took a lot out of all of us. Understatement of the year.”

“Evee?”

Evelyn looked surprisingly good in the grey dawn haze, with her mane of blonde hair in post-sleep disarray, soft and comfy within her many layers, flexing her back in the hard chair. I suddenly wanted very much to give her a hug, to feel how warm she was beneath her clothes, to sigh together in our mutual sleepiness – but she held me pinned with that searching look.

“Tea?” Praem suddenly asked, her voice a bell-note to break the silence.

“Oh, I, uh- I wouldn’t say no?” I said.

Praem got up from her chair and stepped swiftly over to the kettle.

“Tch. Praem, don’t,” Evelyn snapped – but softly, as she groped for her walking stick. “You’re not a domestic servant, I can-”

“Remain seated,” Praem intoned.

“-get the tea myself-”

Sit.”

Evelyn paused, then huffed and abandoned her stick again, looking at me with an exasperated shrug in her eyes as Praem bustled about making more tea.

I almost giggled. Evelyn sighed and sipped from her own cooling mug of tea.

“Is Twil still here?” I asked.

Evelyn gestured at the ceiling with her eyes. “She’s got class. A full day. I’m going to have to wake her in an hour if she’s to have any hope of making it back to Brinkwood in time. Shouldn’t have let her stay.”

“Did you … ?” I cleared my throat.

“Between my spine and my leg, I never sleep without pain as it is,” Evelyn grumbled. “And she’s a … ”

“Cuddler,” Praem supplied.

“Yes, that,” she said. I suppressed a smile and tried to look as if I was taking this all very seriously. Evelyn caught the twinkle in my eye anyway, shook her head with a huff, and sipped more tea. “Might try to get more sleep in a bit,” she said. “But … too much to think about.”

I could have made a joke. I could have dived into a heart-to-heart about Evelyn’s love life. I could have brought up the inorgasmia elephant in the room. But a far sharper topic was on my mind, so I ruined the moment.

“I doubt I can get back to sleep either,” I admitted. “I keep thinking about Stack.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow.

“About the decision we made,” I explained, twisting my hands together on the tabletop. “Are you worried she’ll betray us?”

Evelyn placed her mug down with exaggerated care and drew herself up. Perhaps it was subconscious, but the transformation was remarkable. Sleepy, cuddly, warm Evee, a friend with whom I would gladly share body heat and snuggles, turned into miss Evelyn Saye, lethal and mysterious mage. But she was still Evee, beneath it all.

“No,” she said. “We found her fulcrum.”

“ … okay?”

“If she was going to attack us, she would have done it when Raine untied her. Think about it. If she was set on her plan of performing loyalty to Edward Lilburne – in effect, begging for her child’s life – she would have fought us right there and then. If she won, she could slink back to Edward with our heads. If Zheng pulled her limbs off, then she’d have died doing Edward’s work. What’s she going to trade to him if she goes back to him now? He already knows where we live, he knows we’re protecting the boy. Siding with us is the best bet for her boy’s life.” She sighed and shook her head. “Raine took a hell of a gamble. Even I wasn’t certain until the moment came.”

“What would you have done otherwise? What if she took the offer of going down to Sussex?”

Evelyn laughed, once, without humour. “I would have honoured the deal. I meant it, Heather, I meant everything I said, even if half of it was also a tactical play.” She shot me a resigned look. “Don’t be surprised if Stack takes Shuja and William and simply vanishes, though. That’s another possible outcome. Planted the idea in her head, just in case, a backup option to give her a way out in case she’s cornered, stops her turning on us. But I hope she does go for Edward. Even an unsuccessful attempt on his life is good for us.”

Evelyn trailed off into contemplative quiet in the grey gloom. I glanced over at Praem, who was watching the tea steep.

“Evee, you’re really good at this,” I said.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. The look she gave me was not entirely happy.

“Evee? What’s wrong?”

She sucked on her teeth for a moment, then sighed. “This is the exact sort of game my mother used to play, how she kept her web of advantages. Layers of implication and blackmail and protection rackets, with other mages, with mundane people, with my father. She was very, very good at it. It is part of what made her such an effective monster.”

“Oh. Oh, Evee, I didn’t mean to imply-”

“Of course you didn’t, Heather, you’re too sweet, you never would. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea before, that’s all. Which is, well, stupid, because I’m such a screw up at everything else in life-”

“Evee-”

“You are not,” Praem said in her sing-song voice as she clacked a steaming mug of tea down in front of me, and slid a plate of biscuits in front of Evelyn. She gathered her skirt, and sat back down.

“But I’m not like my mother.” Evelyn’s voice thickened as she gazed at Praem. “I know that now, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I … I think.”

“You’ve hardly had time to stop and think about that,” I said gently. “To process you and Praem, I mean. It’s okay to do that.”

“What’s to process?” Evelyn drew in a great sigh.

“An awful lot,” I tutted at her.

“My mother had a daughter, and treated me as a tool. I tried to make a tool, and now I have a daughter.” Her voice cracked on that final word, and she had to dip her head to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. She let out a weak laugh. “Look at me, like this, idiot that I am. Twenty-one years old is too young to have a grown up child.”

“Evee, hey.” I patted her hand.

“I didn’t grow her in my womb – fuck knows if that thing even works – but she is my child, isn’t she? I made a body for her and I brought her into the world. I did something deeply irresponsible without thinking about what it meant. A demon isn’t just a pre-existing entity, it’s a kind of blank slate, no experience of here, of thinking, of being a … an adaptive system a- fuck!” she spat. “A person. And I told others not to treat her as a person.”

“Evee, you couldn’t have known. Not with what you’d been taught, your experiences. It takes a village to raise a child, we filled the gaps. I think we did pretty well?”

“Well,” Praem intoned.

“Heather, Praem hasn’t been properly bound since Kimberly put her back in her body.” Evelyn looked up at me, serious and angry in a slow, deep way, like a river with rapid depths. “There’s nothing holding her here. Nothing holding her to her behaviour. And she hasn’t erupted into psychosis or cannibalism or mass self-harm. She is nothing like the zombies my mother made, and I am forced to confront that most of what I assumed I knew was complete bollocks.”

“We’ve treated her like a person.”

“No thanks to me,” Evelyn scoffed. “But it’s not only that.”

Praem looked on in placid silence, even when Evelyn glanced at her.

“Think about a zombie, Heather. Imagine knowing you were brought into the world by an act of murder and the desecration of a corpse. Imagine you could feel the electrical echoes of the person who used to inhabit your stolen shell. Fighting a battle to comprehend your new body before too many parts of it rot off. Getting it wrong. Never being whole. Being commanded by iron dictate of infernal contract, to commit violence, and that is your entire experience of human beings.” She shook her head. “No fucking wonder the things are dangerous.”

“I … I never thought about it like that.”

“Me neither,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “And I did everything I could to differ from my mother’s methods. I selected a body of wood, thinking that would slow the control, thinking control mattered. Stupid. I followed old instructions to make a ‘maid’, an obedient thing, a doll, something that couldn’t possibly think itself human. Blue! Do you remember when she was blue, Heather? Nonsense! That had nothing to do with what she was, where she came from, it was all imposed.”

“I like blue,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn blinked at her. “Do you actually? Or is that something I’ve inflicted-”

“I like blue.”

“She likes blue,” I echoed.

Evelyn nodded. “And then you treated her as person, Heather.” Evelyn’s voice cracked again. “Which I should have done from the start.”

“You’re doing better at it now,” I said, and meant it.

“You are,” Praem agreed.

Evelyn’s cheeks turned red, and she tried to cover with a frown. “I … I don’t feel … oh, dammit all.” She glanced at the front room, at the stairs, and up at the ceiling, as if worried she was being overheard. “With a human child, you’re biologically programmed to … to …” She grimaced around the word. “To love it. Nobody would put up with the blasted things otherwise. But I made Praem out of wood and words. I … I … ”

“I love you,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn grimaced. “I know. I just don’t know if I’m capable of being … ”

“Love is a choice,” I said before Evelyn could hurt herself further.

Evelyn turned a bewildered frown on me. “What on Earth does that mean?”

“Love is a choice you make every day, with every action,” I said, fumbling my way through something I barely understood myself. “It’s a feeling, certainly, but that feeling isn’t always there. Sometimes it runs dry, sometimes you feel frustrated or awkward or difficult. Passion runs out eventually. Duty or obligation only go so far under pressure. But you can always make the choice to love a person, and that’s real.”

“That’s … ” Evelyn cleared her throat, blushing and looking away. “That’s silly.”

“Evee.”

“Oh, alright. It’s not silly.” She huffed. “But it feels that way.”

“Do you want to love Praem, as a mother?” I asked.

“Deeply,” Evelyn whispered.

Praem got up, walked around the table, and leaned down to give Evelyn a hug. Slow and careful, with probing fingers to request consent. Evelyn said nothing, but hugged her back and took a great shuddering breath, hiding her confused tears in Praem’s shoulder.

I didn’t say a word, just gave her the space and time to dry her eyes. Praem stepped away too, to attend to breakfast things on the kitchen counter. Eventually Evelyn settled back again and sighed.

“Not a word to Raine,” she said.

“Bit late for that,” I said with a pained smile. “She’s going to make ‘milf’ jokes at you eventually. It’s inevitable.”

“Urgh.” Evelyn rolled her eyes, then caught mine. “Wait, since when do you know what ‘milf’ means?”

“I’m not completely innocent!”

“Yes, but Raine should not be teaching you about internet filth.”

I frowned in growing confusion. “Milfs are from the internet?”

Evelyn gave me such a look.

“W-what? I … Evee?”

“What exactly do you think … ” She paused. “Actually, no, I’m going to let Raine deal with this. I suggest you ask her for a more exact definition of the word.” Evelyn’s tone left no doubt; that line of inquiry was cut. I mentally shrugged, and sipped my tea.

Praem bustled about for a few minutes, making breakfast, as a companionable silence settled over Evelyn and I. After a moment I risked a glance up at the ceiling.

“So, what are your plans?” I asked.

“Mm? Oh.” Evelyn dug around beneath her dressing gown and to my surprise she pulled out a familiar-looking lump of white quartz – the psychological invisibility stone I hadn’t seen her use in months. I recalled how she’d used it when I’d first met her, to place herself temporarily beyond my perception when I’d slipped into the Medieval Metaphysics room. She placed it delicately on the table. “Even without the book from Edward, I can still begin the work. This is the basis. Might take me a month. Or I might complete the work, and go blind and deaf and eat my own fingers the first time I look at it. Who knows?” She shot me a wry smile. “First I am planning some serious downtime. And I am taking Praem shopping.”

“Oh. Um. I meant plans about Twil.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “More importantly, Heather, what about your plans?”

“I … ” I sighed, feeling useless. “I don’t have the foggiest idea about how to get to Edward. There’s … well, I have some theories, about things I might do with brainmath, perhaps, maybe.”

“Mmmmm,” Evelyn purred, staring at me with sharp curiosity. “Not what I mean.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes again, and a creeping sensation crawled up my back.

“Heather, you executed extensive, experimental hyperdimensional mathematics yesterday. And the day before you ripped the three of us back from Carcosa. Not to mention you pulled off your little tentacle-summoning trick again yesterday, and had a tug of war with a servitor. Feeling at all sore?”

“Oh, yes, very.” A hand wandered to my side, to the circular bruises along my flank, muscles stiff and aching whenever I moved.

Evelyn frowned in fascination. “Have you really not noticed?”

“ … noticed what? Evee, please don’t get cryptic on me.”

“Growing,” Praem intoned.

“Exactly,” Evelyn purred, peering at me like a specimen on an examination table. “Heather, in the recent past, any one of the feats I just mentioned would have left you weak and shaky for days. But here you are, running up and down the stairs multiple times this morning, with fist-sized deep-tissue bruises in your sides. You’ve been recovering faster.”

“Oh.” I blinked in surprise. “I … have I?”

“Whatever you are, Heather, you’re getting better at being you.”

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19 thoughts on “water of the womb – 12.5

  1. “Whatever you are, Heather, you’re getting better at being you.”

    what a wonderfully wholesome way to put it.

    • Themes! Pretty obvious themes, I think.

      There’s a way of interpreting that line as sort of ominous, and I’m certain it’ll require some processing, but taken with the themes of the story it’s very wholesome yes!

  2. Of all the drama and careful maneuvering with Stack, with the tension of Raine and Zheng, with the otherworldliness of Lozzie and Tenny and the whole magical shenanigans, my favorite moment so far might just be Evee hugging her daughter for the first time.

    • All the stuff with Evelyn and Praem lately has had me on the verge of tears while writing chunks of it, so I suspect the effect is getting through to the readers! It is lovely, yes.

    • The entire story so far has been from October (2018) to March (2019), and hey, you know what they say, It’s Grim Up North. But yes, spring and summer in the story might be a little different!

      And thank you as always for all the votes, to everyone who does!

  3. I feel the part where heather explains that choosing how to feel and act doesn’t make it less real is partially her digesting/verbalizing her hospital talk with Raine.

    praem somehow remains the best even with Lozzie on a hug offensive and a surprise Tanny interrupt.

    • A well spotted theme, indeed! They’re all dealing with slightly similar things, sort of.

      Praem is absolutely amazing! She is a delight to write.

  4. I’m all caught up at last! This is great so far, I’m looking forwards to the next chapter!

    Just a few thoughts. It’s good to see the weird invisibility stone thing again, although I can think of a few times now that it would have been useful already. And I’m curious. You mentioned last chapter that mixing technology with magic is quite rare, but clearly it is possible. Now considering in this universe magic is somewhat speech-based, could a recording of someone talking set off a magic spell? What about text-to-speech? Or if in the far-flung future we developed sentient robots, could they do magic?

    And, final question for now, Heather’s ability to jump from one layer of reality to another kind of implies the ability to teleport from one place to another as well. So, why hasn’t she just jumped to a USAF base, grabbed a few nukes, jumped to wonderland, and given the Eye a care package of instant canned sunshine? Seems like something to at least consider – although actually IIRC Raine did make a passing comment on it once. At the very least, the ability to jump from place to place has some pretty interesting implications otherwise as well. And if she can’t teleport from place to place, how does she decide where to end up when jumping to and from other planes of reality?

    • Glad you’ve enjoyed the story so far!

      I’m not sure I can answer that first question – nobody in the setting is fully aware how magic works exactly. Evelyn has implied that everything she does is just crutches and tools by which to ‘hack’ reality, and her way is not the only way either. But we have no idea if ‘doing magic’ requires the user possess a soul, or if it’s something specific to human vocal chords (or likely, the human mind is performing the actual operations for magic). Sentient robots seems like a question beyond the bounds of the story. The impossibility of true comprehension of magic is sort of one of the major themes.

      As for nuclear bombs! Haha! Well, there’s two answers to that – one is that an actual nuclear device is far more complicated than something you could just pick up and set off elsewhere, you’d have to steal the entire arming mechanism, delivery system, etc, and know how to work it. While everyone’s got access to wikipedia these days, I’m not sure anybody Heather knows is going to have enough knowledge about how to properly detonate a gravity bomb.

      The second and far more important answer is the Eye would likely swallow nuclear explosions like nothing. It is beyond such concerns. Like the old Call of Cthulhu rpg Q&A, if you nuke Cthulhu he reforms in 3d6 rounds but now he’s radioactive.

      As for jumping from place to place, yes in theory she could do it, using Outside as a sort of conduit. If she’s willing to be very sick when doing so.

      • I think a more immediate concern is that they didn’t figure out a way yet to stop the eye immediatly noticing heather opening a gate to wonderland.

        Even if the polycule had something that might effect the eye it is still a reality bending being fully capable of just deciding that actually it isn’t in the same plain of existence as the weapon it sees coming

        or doing a return to sender and there goes the city.

        or the attack somehow actually working and oops Maisie is now a small pile of meta physical ashes because anything indiscriminate that hurts the eye is certainly killing her if he keeps her around.

      • Wait, haven’t you been keeping titles like mister, miss etc lowercase throughout? I thought that was a deliberate stylistic choice

      • Hmmmm. Now you mentioned this, I’ve realised I was doing it. I think it’s a subconscious stylistic choice, but I’ve never thought about it before. Mister is a word, but ‘Mr.’ is a title? Maybe because of that.

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