water of the womb – 12.6

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Evelyn was correct.

Between the trip to Carcosa, Raine’s gunshot wound, dealing with Stack, and tidying up Edward’s servitor, the weekend had demanded too much from us. It was a minor miracle nobody had suffered worse injuries, physically or emotionally. We were all worn down, even if some of us didn’t show any outward signs, and even if certain rewards were worth the exhaustion. I was intimately familiar with the creeping weight of true exhaustion, how a little more would seep into one’s limbs and guts and head every day. I’d been deep in that mire too many times before. We needed a break, a rest, time to think. A return to normal – whatever passed for ‘normal’ between the walls of Number 12 Barnslow Drive.

She was also correct about me, which was less reassuring.

My vitality and energy were undeniable; I was recovering faster, from both tentacles and brainmath.

I hadn’t suddenly developed an immunity to bruises, much to my disappointment. I still felt like I’d been given a going over by a kangaroo holding a pair of rolling pins. Twenty four hours after my tug of war with Edward’s servitor, the six circular bruises in my flanks had stiffened, turned deep purple and black, aching and pulling whenever I moved. The inside of my own torso felt tender and sore where I’d anchored my tentacles to real muscles, and if I lay very still and very quiet I could feel my entire body throb to the beat of my heart pumping blood through damaged tissue, pushing protein and platelet for the repair process. Intercostal muscles twinged and cramped in stabbing pain between my ribs, abdominal wall complained when I sat up, obliques screamed down my nerve endings when I reached over my head. I wasn’t exactly about to touch my toes or do a dance routine.

But there I was that Monday morning, creeping up and down the stairs, using my body without a second thought, and I hadn’t noticed how odd that was until Evelyn had pointed it out. Weak and tender, yes, and I suffered through the occasional aftershock of nausea the rest of that day, but I should have been curled up in bed around my bruises, or shuffling about like an old lady, head spinning with brainmath echoes.

Instead I felt young and healthy and euphoric with the memory of intoxicating strength.

The feeling scared me. A paradox – I was infinitely fragile, a scrap of ape-flesh anchored to the membrane of reality by biochemistry and neuroelectrical flicker, a pale shade of the abyssal truth I’d once been.

Why was I recovering faster?

How had I changed?

“Raine,” I whispered in our shared warmth that night, as she lay dozing before the wall of sleep, minutes after taking her painkillers but not quite over the edge yet. Selfish, stupid Heather, hoping to catch her off guard. I didn’t need to mug Raine for the truth, I could have asked her any time.

“Mm?” Her eyelids moved, but didn’t open.

“If I grow actual tentacles, if I … change, how will I-”

“I’ll kiss them,” she murmured, and pulled me in close where I couldn’t speak but into her chest.

That week crawled by in a haze of attempted normality. I read a lot, worked on essays for university, and found myself restless with the need to run and climb and squirm into small gaps. Evelyn watched a lot of anime – several old favourites, apparently – and invited Praem to join her, though the few times I looked in on them I had no idea if the doll-demon was enjoying it or not. Praem haunted the study, the workshop, the kitchen, and started leaving books about the house, mostly non-fiction. She also hauled the servitor’s severed leg from the car, along with Edward’s barbed-wire mannequin, both dumped in the workshop for examination.

Raine cracked jokes, called in sick from work, and hobbled back and forth from campus whenever I went to class. She played video games while I worked, then sometimes lost interest and listened to me read out loud.

Lozzie slept a lot, so we activated the gateway to the fog castle one morning and spent twenty minutes watching the alien life in the streets below. Lozzie and I invented names for the most interesting creatures.

“They’re not bloody pokemon,” Evelyn had grumbled, unsure how to deal with Lozzie’s bouncing enthusiasm.

Lozzie returned perked up back to normal, re-charged with whatever strange sustenance she drew from Outside.

We heard nothing from Stack. Edward made no move. Shuja sent Evelyn the requested pictures when he refreshed the wards on his son’s back.

And I took to examining myself in the shower. Not that I was the sort of person to remain a stranger to my own body, but I started to inspect myself for changes. I probed the bruises in my flanks, swallowing the pain, feeling for raised bumps that might be the green-shoot flesh buds of tentacle growth. I held my eyelids apart in front of the mirror and looked for nictitating membranes. I rubbed and scratched at my neck, checking for the slit-formation of gills. I flexed my fingers and toes, watching for any extension of webbing.

“Sevens,” I spoke to my reflection in the mirror. “Show me again. Show me me. Please?”

Of course I found nothing, and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight wasn’t responding. I didn’t know if I should be disappointed or relieved.

Yes, Evelyn was right. We all needed downtime. We all had things to think about.

But some of us were on a time limit.

The notion returned to me slowly, first as undirected anxiety, then as creeping guilt. It burst into full bloom in the small hours of Friday morning, when I was snuggled in next to Raine in bed, trying to alternately cling to and chase away thoughts of bodily euphoria, and dreaming up ways to find Edward Lilburne.

It hit me in the pit of my stomach, and I rolled over onto my back.

“What if he just leaves?” I asked the darkness.

Raine stirred and sighed in her sleep, but I didn’t wake her. She needed to rest, she was still downing painkillers like smarties, and the crutch had become a permanent fifth limb. Instead I slid out of bed, consumed with worry rapidly unfolding into a multi-layered plan of panic and counter-panic, of whispered self-reassurance and lip-chewing fear. I paced back and forth on silent feet, wiggled back into bed, then left again when I knew sleep was impossible. I was half-tempted to go wake Evelyn and explain my worries, or seek solace in Lozzie’s bed – but Evee needed sleep too, and I didn’t wish to plague Lozzie with thoughts of her uncle.

That night, five days after Carcosa, I wandered alone in the warm womb-like darkness of our castle, chewing indigestible fears into a fibrous pulp that wouldn’t go down no matter how many times I swallowed. Wrapped in my pink hoodie and two pairs of socks, I descended from the cramped and crooked upstairs hallway down into the front room, to stand helpless and lost amid the boxes of old junk and the solid barrier of the front door.

“What if he leaves Sharrowford? What if we can’t get the book back?” I asked the gloom.

I slipped through the waiting stillness of the kitchen, into the magical workshop among the detritus.

Walking alone in the dark solved nothing, but it felt right, and soothed my nervous system. I let my phantom limbs rove free, touching door frames and handles, probing behind chairs and trying to rifle through Evelyn’s papers. The mental constructs set up a sympathetic ache in my sides as my bruised muscles tried to support limbs which weren’t really there. I winced in silence, bit my lip, and savoured the sweet pain of truth.

I had to do it, didn’t I? I’d told Evelyn I had some ideas about how to find Edward Lilburne with brainmath, but then she’d scared me.

Was repeated use of hyperdimensional mathematics – and manifesting my tentacles – beginning to force changes to my biochemistry?

Was I becoming closer to the euphoric reflection – homo abyssus – which Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had shown me? The thought of looking like that in reality haunted me as temptation beyond a whisper, a prospect I dare not breathe out loud, equal measure both exciting and terrifying. I wanted it, I wanted to be that, in the way one wants food or sex or warmth.

But I wasn’t completely naive. This wasn’t Outside. I couldn’t walk around Sharrowford waving tentacles and blinking brass-coloured eyes and smiling through a mouth of needle-point teeth.

I’d felt so powerful during my tug of war with Edward’s servitor, doubly so as I’d rooted him out. I shivered in the dark, not in cold or fear, but with the echo of adrenaline as the moment came back to me, as I’d stood before the rushing bone-tentacle as scrawny little Heather Morell, with no muscle mass, five foot nothing, and then unfolded myself.

Into me.

Euphoria was worth the pain.

But was it worth being like Tenny? Never able to walk the streets in the open? Or like Zheng, just the wrong side of normal to move among mundane people without being wrapped in clothing from head to toe? Was that my future if I kept going, hidden inside coats and scarfs and hats?

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t back away from brainmath now.

“Anything to save Maisie,” I said out loud.

A glint of molten amber and smooth butterscotch twisted in the corner of my vision, like the hem of a skirt ruffled by fingers of wind. I flinched and turned, and caught a ghostly yellow sheen vanish around the corner of the kitchen door.

I sighed. “Being creepy doesn’t work when I know it’s you, Sevens.”

No reply.

“What am I supposed to do, follow the hint like this is a haunted house?” I huffed as I slipped through into the kitchen. “Yes, please, do make my life as absurd as possible, thank you.”

A ribbon of honey yellow receded into the thin opening left by the utility room doorway.

“If you jump out at me and make me scream, I am going to … spank you,” I hissed, nudged open the utility room door – and found nothing but Zheng.

No yellow anywhere, no vanishing ghostly hint of dusk, no whiff of fresh butter and sunflowers. The cellar was tightly shut, the night poured in through the window set into the back door, and Zheng was fast asleep.

She was sprawled out on the broken-backed sofa, feet up on the top of the washing machine opposite. At least she’d taken her boots off, and wasn’t sleeping in her coat either, down to her thick baggy jumper and jeans. Her arms were crossed over the vast expanse of her chest, and she breathed deeply like a sleeping giant in a cave.

She’d been hunting after sundown – wildlife or farm animals or stealing from a butcher’s shop, I didn’t care to know which – and the air around her smelled faintly of blood and meat, mixed with the heady spice of her sweat and the hot sensation of her reddish brown skin.

The bloody scent teased at my instincts.

I felt an ache in my jaw and an itch in my fingertips, as if I should be sprouting fangs and growing claws.

Surprised and confused but almost seduced, I pulled my eyes away from Zheng’s dark sleeping bulk and stared out of the window set into the back door, at the old tree in the garden, and felt the most absurd desire to step out there and scurry up into the branches.

“You’re not a squirrel,” I hissed at myself.

But instinct insisted. Step out into the cold spring air. Wake Zheng and go together. Run through the woods and leap the suburban roofs and sniff out Edward Lilburne like a snake hiding in a burrow. Zheng and me, a pair of mongooses. The need crept up my spine like a warm hand encouraging me to stretch my limbs. Edward Lilburne was old and his body was not strong, and the abyssal side of me had gotten a taste of him when I’d cornered him in the mind of his own servitor.

Blinking, going hot in the face, I took a confused step back, and realised that Zheng was so warm her heat soaked into my side even when standing a foot away from her. I sidled closer, then held one hand inches from her flank. Instinct purred at me to squirm into her lap and convince her to take me outdoors to-

“Heather,” I tutted softly at myself in the dark. Zheng shifted but didn’t wake, sending a thrill through my heart. “If Zheng can’t find him, you can’t either,” I whispered. “You’re not tracking by scent along ocean bed currents here.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, thick and sleepy. She cracked one eye open. I froze like a rodent in an owl’s descending shadow.

“ … Zheng,” I squeaked. “ … I was just … couldn’t sleep … ”

Her eye swivelled down to my hand, which still hovered inches from her body. I braced, heart racing, for a sleepy razor grin and a comment like ‘you can touch if you wish’, already preemptively blushing and preparing a stammered denial. But Zheng’s slit-sharp gaze met mine again, slow and intense with the heat of the air between us.

“Y-y-you know you don’t have to sleep down here like this,” I stammered. “You live here too now, you can have a b-bed if you-”

“Your body cannot lie to me, shaman,” she purred. “Or to yourself.”

“ … I don’t know what’s come over me,” I whispered.

Zheng’s face split into a grin at last, a set of razors at rest. She shifted herself to present more easily the expanse of flank over which my hand still hovered, and simultaneously leaned forward into my personal space.

“You want to hunt, shaman,” she purred. “I can take you.”

I swallowed, hard, frozen to the spot.

Zheng slid her tongue from her mouth, as if to taste my scent in the air, twelve inches of wet red muscle flickering back between her teeth. “You would enjoy it, shaman.”

“I … I can’t- not- Raine-”

“It is not unfaithfulness if we do not rut. I am not asking you for that.”

For a long moment I was a hair’s breadth from clambering into her lap, and I suspected that if I did, I would surrender to instinct in more ways than one. Instead, with an effort of will, I closed my fingers and straightened up and blew out a shaking breath, quivering all over and red in the face.

“It wouldn’t work,” I managed to squeak. “We wouldn’t find him. However he does it, he’s too well hidden.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng purred, rolled a shrug, and leaned back with a note of slow disappointment in her eyes. “You have domesticated me, shaman. I should just take you.”

She closed her eyes, and instantly fell back asleep. Or at least pretended to.

I scurried out, blushing like the sunrise, and ran the kitchen tap so I could splash water on my face. I’d left Raine upstairs in bed with a healing wound and here I was flirting with Zheng.

But in my heart I admitted the truth – if Zheng’s way worked, I would have surrendered myself completely, if only it would lead me to the book.

I’d spent a week pretending to be normal, and Maisie was waiting. I would try anything.

Upstairs again and at my bedroom doorway, still shaky and a little flushed from my libidinal risk-taking, I turned the opposite way and cracked open the door to Evelyn’s study, hoping to locate some Shakespeare and cool my head in old familiarity.

But I wasn’t the only one awake in the night.

Praem was sitting at the desk, in the little pool of light spilling from the lamp. Straight-backed, prim and proper even in the middle of the night, she had a book spread out before her, a thick tome which I recognised as Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals. Raine’s copy, I think. Praem had not been able to replicate her trick of summoning a fresh maid uniform, like back at the Saye Estate, so she was still wearing Evelyn’s borrowed clothes, at least until the shopping trip planned for Saturday.

Tenny was dozing against Praem’s legs, wrapped in a bundle of sheets very obviously dragged across the floor in a disorganised heap, tentacles idly winding and unwinding around the doll-demon’s ankles. She reminded me of a sleepy child who had refused to go to bed.

Praem looked up and met my eyes in passive silence.

“Ah,” I said. “Night Praem.”

“Night Heather,” she intoned – but very softly. Tenny stirred against her legs, eyes still closed, feathery antenna twitching. To my surprise Praem reached down and stroked the white fuzz on Tenny’s head.

“Fair point, yes, I should be sleeping,” I whispered back, then stepped inside and pushed the door shut behind me. Instinct tugged at me to stay at the limit of the lamplight, to stay crouched in the dark. I overcame that urge with a frown and wandered forward, nodding at the book. “Are you enjoying that?”

“No.”

I blinked at her. “Oh. Well. Um.” I shrugged. “Philosophy.”

“Philosophy,” she echoed – and I caught the faintest hint of amusement in her softly ringing voice.

My eyes wandered to Tenny, dozing and snuffling. Then I searched along the bookshelves which lined the walls, until my eyes alighted upon the three volume collected works of Shakespeare. I pulled down the third volume, and let it fall open in my hands on whatever page fate chose.

“‘The time is out of joint’,” I read out loud. “‘O cursed spite, that I ever was born to set it right.’” I sighed heavily and turned to Praem with a self-deprecating smile.

“Explain,” Praem intoned.

“Oh, um.” I blinked, hadn’t expected that. “It’s Hamlet. I pick at random and the book gives me the indecisive prince.” I sighed again. “What if Edward leaves with the book he took from Carcosa? Or what if Stack … gets him,” I said delicately. “And then she leaves, and we never find where he was hiding? I don’t know what to do, and the ways forward frighten me.”

Praem stared. Tenny stirred to wakefulness, perhaps at the anxiety in my voice. She blinked several times, eyelids out of sync, and smacked her lips before she noticed I was there.

“Heath?” she trilled. Silky black tentacles rose toward me.

“Yes, hello Tenny.” I smiled, then looked back to Praem again. “Maybe he doesn’t know the significance of the book. Or maybe he does. Maybe that’s the real leverage he has, not the things he put in the letter to Evelyn. Maybe he knows I need that book, and why, and thinks I’m cruel and heartless and monstrous enough to trade Lozzie for Maisie.”

“No,” Praem intoned.

I smiled at her. “Of course. I’m sorry, that was rhetorical. I’m … I’m trying to make a decision.”

Tenny reached me with her tentacles. One wrapped around my thigh and touched my belly. Another brushed the book and my hand. The third stroked my cheek and nose and lips, like a blind person feeling the face of their beloved, and then patted my head and made me laugh. Tenny watched me with big black eyes, and probably no idea what I was talking about.

Gently, I caught one of her tentacles in my hand. She wrapped it around my wrist in return. My own phantom tentacles tried to meet hers, but simply passed through.

“Heath?” she fluttered, rolling sideways and resting her head on Praem’s thighs.

“Why aren’t you sleeping with Lozzie tonight?” I asked.

“Woke,” she trilled. “Water. Night Praeeeeem.”

She elongated Praem’s name as if trying to sing – then giggled, a wonderful bouncing trilling sound like an otherworldly insect seen through veils of fog, a sound on a lost island in a Greek myth. Praem stroked Tenny’s white fuzz again, and Tenny unfolded into a big cat-like stretch, legs vibrating as she worked her strangely bunched muscles, yawn opening beyond the limits of a human jaw to show black tongue and coal-dark throat.

She flexed her fuzzy-lined flesh-cloak, her wings, muscular sheets rippling just beneath the surface of her silken dark skin. Her cracking yawn forced a trilling noise from her alien lungs. Big dark eyes squeezed shut and blinked open again.

“Tenny,” I murmured with a sigh. “You’re so beautiful. Do you know that?”

Burrrrr?” she went.

Tenny was a miracle, however she’d been made. She was quite possibly unique, yet totally comfortable in her own skin. If I had my way, she would never be given cause to doubt that.

Could I be the same?

Growing up as I had, caught in the cloying grasp of mental illness and the Eye’s lessons and the loss of my sister, I hadn’t spent a lot of time daydreaming about the future. Truth be told, I hadn’t expected to make it to thirty years old. But since meeting Raine, I had begun to entertain fleeting thoughts about the rest of my life. After Wonderland, after the Eye, after rescuing Maisie – if there was any normal life on the other side of being aware of magic – maybe then I could finish my degree, maybe I’d do well enough to enter a postgrad program. At least my parents would support that.

“Hard to plan a life if I’m waving extra limbs around,” I said out loud. “But Maisie’s worth any sacrifice, and … I want it? I do.”

Pbbbbt?” went Tenny, curiously rocking her head from side to side. Praem just watched as I smiled back.

“I’m sorry, Tenny. It’s nothing for you to worry about. I’m just deciding if I’m going to look a bit like you, one day.”

“Can’t go ouuuut,” Tenny trilled, and a lump caught in my throat.

I was about to say no, that’s not true, of course you can go out, we’re going to find a way, it’s all just been so busy lately. We’ll take you out to the woods and you can fly there, Tenny, you can stretch your wings, you will. I promise we’re not keeping you indoors because we don’t understand. A hundred pained apologies rose unbidden to my lips.

But then Tenny hopped to her feet, bouncing on her springy ankle bones – which probably weren’t bone at all – and in one quick movement she vanished inside the shifting camouflage of her flesh-cloak.

Where she’d stood had turned into a wavering vision of the desk and wall and books behind her, an impressionist dream of light and colour. My eyes watered and I had to squint.

“Tenny, oh no, Tenny I didn’t mean … ”

The camouflage flickered. My words trailed off and my eyes went wide.

“Bravo,” Praem intoned, and gave Tenny a polite little clap of fingertips against palm.

On the exterior of her camouflage, Tenny projected a version of herself – as a human.

A rough approximation, still with huge all-black eyes and skin the colour of dark satin, her musculature and fat closer to the mark but still distributed all wrong for a human being. But the illusion had finger nails and toe nails, shoulder-length white hair, and no wings. As I watched, antenna flickered and vanished on the illusion’s head, as if Tenny was still learning how to get the look right. The illusion shifted and wavered like heat haze, but I clapped too.

Tenny’s head – her real head – popped out of her cloak, and she smiled in obvious pride and went “Haaaaa!”

I laughed. “Oh, Tenny. That’s good! Have you been practising?”

“Loz showing me how,” she replied.

“As long as … ” I struggled to chart the right course between encouragement and caution. “As long as you know that the real way you look is beautiful. An illusion is only for cover-”

“She knows,” Praem intoned.

Tenny puffed her cheeks up, a gesture I’m certain she’d learnt from Lozzie.

“’M buuu-ful,” she trilled.

I laughed again, and a wet click of tension released deep in my chest. “Yes, you are, Tenny. Thank you.”

“Thank you?” she fluttered back at me.

“We can both be beautiful.”

==

Which is how I found myself sitting on the floor of the magical workshop ten hours later, with an ordinance survey map of Sharrowford spread out in front of me, and a clean bucket wedged between my knees.

Deep breaths, in and out. Nice and slow, count to ten, then take another deep breath. It’s going to be fine, I told myself. It’s going to work.

It’s going to hurt like hell, whispered a scared part of me.

“What if he’s not in Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked.

My palms were turning clammy, and I didn’t know where to put them. I tried to focus on the map, on the shape of the streets, the urban weave and everything it represented. I wanted to visualise the city as if from above, from a birds-eye view. My heart was going too fast and my guts were churning and I hadn’t even started. My brainmath notebook sat face-down next to me, ready to turn over once I wanted to begin the pain.

“Heather?” Evelyn repeated. “What if he’s not in the city? Beyond the edge of the map?”

I swallowed. Tried to answer. Couldn’t. Paralysed.

“Get a bigger map, right?” Raine said.

“Do you not understand the point of this? I doubt we’ll get anything useful with a larger scale,” Evelyn drawled. “We need a house, an address, a street at least. God alone knows how he’s hiding himself, but if Heather just points us at Manchester or something that’s hardly useful, is it?”

“Maybe we can get the neighbouring ordinance survey maps then,” Raine suggested. “Clear off one of the walls and pin them up side by side, until we’ve got a big enough area. Heather? Heather, hey, you holding up alright down there?” Raine reached forward and squeezed my shoulder.

I nodded, and glanced back, aching for support – but I was the only one who could do this.

Evelyn had taken a seat on the old sofa, with Praem standing prim and ready next to her, while Raine was right behind me in one of the chairs, her crutch leaning rakishly against one shin. I suppose she wanted to be close in case I needed help, but we’d prepared for that too; sofa cushions taken from the disused sitting room formed a sort of crash mat behind me in case I fell backward, and Lozzie crouched on her haunches ready to catch me in case of something completely unexpected.

“What do you think, bigger map?” Raine asked.

“It won’t help,” Evelyn grunted.

“Can you just let me try this one first, please?” I asked them both, trying to keep the tension out of my voice. “I don’t even know if I can do it, yet.”

Evelyn cleared her throat, nodded, and opened one hand in acknowledgement. Raine stroked my hair back from my forehead, and whispered, “Hey, I know you can do it.”

I turned back to the map.

“There is still another way, shaman,” Zheng purred from the workshop doorway. I risked a glance at her, at her sharp-edged eyes watching me.

Pulled taut by indecision and fear, I took some of it out on her. “Yes, well, If this doesn’t work, I suppose you and I can go running around naked in the woods and smear mud all over each other. Fine.”

I looked back at the map again with a little huff. Stunned silence followed in my wake.

“Oooooh,” went Lozzie, clapping her fingertips together in scandalised glee.

“Mud,” Praem intoned.

“Can I join in?” Raine murmured.

“That was sarcasm, by the way,” I stammered, blushing bright red and sorely tempted to put the empty bucket over my own head. My palms prickled. The fear receded a tiny bit, snagged on sexual embarrassment.

“Let her concentrate, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn said. “This is complex enough as it is, don’t-”

I took a deep breath.

“Zheng and I running around naked in the woods covered in mud!” I raised my voice into a shout, blushing so hard I turned molten, wielding mortified embarrassment as a bulwark against fear. I flipped over my notebook with a shaking hand and stared at the equation. “Everyone shut up I’m doing it now!”

And with that I plunged both hands into the tarry sump at the bottom of my soul, and hauled the Eye’s lessons up and out into the burning daylight of my conscious mind.

With eyes open and nerves screaming, I attempted to define the entire city of Sharrowford with a single equation.

Defining a living being with hyperdimensional mathematics – a trick I’d pulled off three times before – was difficult enough when I knew what I was looking for. When Raine had been kidnapped, I’d only succeeded because I knew her so well. My body remembered the shape of her body, my fingers recalled the texture of her skin. I knew the sound of her laugh, the press of her weight on my back when we slept together, the colour of her eyes in shadow. I could effortlessly picture her with perfect clarity upon the dark canvas of the inside of my own eyelids. And even then, locating her had very nearly pulled me over the edge of the abyss.

When I’d done the same with Sarika, I had her right in front of me, I spent long minutes preparing, and I did it as fast as possible. To do the same to the Shadow-servitor last Sunday had required actual physical contact, in the heat of the moment. Collapsing each degree of separation made the trick easier.

And I barely knew what Edward Lilburne looked like.

A faint impression of owlish age and liver-spots and thin grey hair, a voice like curdled milk poured over wet gravel, and the taste of flesh and blood that was not flesh and blood, processed by abyssal senses into something the human mind was not meant to know. This was not enough.

We’d tried to get something useful from the Servitor’s severed leg or the mannequin wrapped in barbed wire, but Evelyn concluded they had gone through the magical equivalent of being wiped down to remove fingerprints. If Edward Lilburne had personally constructed either, he’d left no tell except the strings of control which I’d already cut.

But I knew Sharrowford. I was touching Sharrowford, right now. Defining a whole city would logically contain everybody within it. Including him. I just had to sort through the data.

At least I’d had the foresight to tell everyone about my plan this time, rather than do it alone behind a locked bathroom door.

Sharrowford itself, the living city an organism of concrete and steel and glass inhabited by flesh and thought and dirt and uncounted microbes, unfolded into a billion billion lines of equation and I realised too late that a human city was almost as complex as the Eye. The Eye had dragged itself from the abyss, thought itself into flesh; the city had been dragged by countless hands from neolithic wattle and daub through Roman occupation and medieval peasantry and the stench of early modern gunpowder and the hacking black lungs of industrial coal mining and all of it met my consciousness at once.

Like swimming through a soup of polluted seawater. Oil clogging my gills and toxins seeping into my flesh, data as radioactive isotopes stuck to the thin moist film of my eyes as every stagnant puddle of rainwater, every soaring tower downtown, every flat tire and crying baby and smear of excrement on a public toilet wall poured into my head in a single undifferentiated mass.

What a stupid assumption I had made. A city is too much for one mind. This place had taken millennia to make.

I came up a heartbeat later, shaking like a leaf, caked in cold flash sweat, icepick headache digging at the centre of my skull – and promptly vomited up the bile from my empty stomach. Good thinking on the sick bucket, Heather, well done. You had prepared to make a huge mess, and then followed through on that promise.

“Woah, woah, Heather, it’s okay-”

“Breathe, deep breath, woo-”

“Keep her nose forward-”

Droplets of blood ran from a nosebleed and dripped into the bucket. I clenched my teeth, raised my eyes back to the map of Sharrowford, and shrugged Raine’s hand off my shoulder. Guilt tore at my chest.

“Again,” I croaked.

And back in I plunged.

Or, I tried to. Imagine pulling oneself from an ocean of tar, bleeding from a dozen wounds made by jagged metal hidden in the dark liquid, feet shredded on razor rocks, shaking and blinded and gagging – and then forcing oneself to turn around and jump back in.

Oh dear sweet thing, what are you doing to yourself?’ whispered a voice of young fire and beaten gold.

On the edge of my perception in that space-that-wasn’t, a trailing periphery on the equation itself, a million canary-soft frill-folds peered over my shoulder.

My body rebelled, my brain juddered to a halt, the whole equation smashed against itself like a derailed train, and out in reality I hissed and groaned and shuddered as my body had nothing left to vomit out. At least I managed to drool into the bucket rather than onto my own lap. Small dignities.

I found Lozzie’s arms clamped around me from behind, holding on tight. She was murmuring nonsense song-sounds into my ear. All my phantom limbs had joined her, curled in tight around my body in a protective shell, as if an extra layer of flesh could cushion my stomach and head and straining heart against the pain.

Everyone was talking at once.

“-been in a trance for three minutes, this isn’t normal-”

“She knows what she’s doing, trust her-”

“Shaman,” a purr in the dark.

“Again,” I wheezed.

Third time lucky.

This time I found my courage in guilt made the leap, forced myself over the edge on shattered ankles and torn soles. The equation to describe the whole of Sharrowford unspooled in my hands like magnetic tape made of razor-wire and acid, burning away skin and muscle down to bone and there was too much and why couldn’t I hold onto any of it? Surely if I was recovering faster I had to be useful for this, I had to use what I’d been given to find Maisie, I had to. I did not deserve to feel strong, to feel bodily euphoria, not if I couldn’t use that to help rescue my sister.

Of course, there was always another ledge to cross, to leap off, into the deep places where I would sink forever and become real.

Drag my own mind beyond the confines of ape flesh, write burning mathematics in the air.

The temptation was different, this time. Out in reality I had finally begun on some level to be what I was inside. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had shown me that truth. The abyss still called, but I had a piece of it within me now, and nothing could ever deny that.

But we needed that book.

We needed every edge against the Eye.

I had to make this work.

Maisie had told me not to, fear of ego-death told me not to, but I leaned out over that gap, and thought perhaps I could anchor myself on the cliff-face of reality as I drank deep of the cold abyssal waters.

I couldn’t. I began to slip, ankles skidding, fingers clawing for purchase, and I wanted to fall. I wanted to go.

Oopsie-daisy!’ said a yellow voice.

Lemon flesh folded outward to infinity and caught my wrist, pulled me back up, and planted me on my metaphorical feet. Buttery fronds and skirts of dying starlight dusted me off, cleaned the gunk from my wounds and sucked out the threat of infection, leaving behind honeyed antiseptic. An eye that was not an eye, which was the opposite of an eye, winked.

Won’t be having much of my kind of fun if you go back down there.’

“Lesbian relationship drama isn’t going to solve this,” I snapped at Sevens – or thought at her, or wove into a mathematical equation and slapped her with it. I’m not sure which better describes how we were communicating in that frozen heartbeat of time.

Don’t be so sure of that.’

With a guttural hiss of pain and frustration I crashed back a third time, into absolute pandemonium.

Raine was on her knees in front of me, repeating my name, a blurry shape seen through blackening vision as I blinked sticky blood out of my eyes. Evelyn was shouting something about slapping me. Lozzie’s hands were beneath my clothes and on my belly, surprisingly warm and comforting as she crooned some wordless song beneath her breath.

“Not enough,” I croaked, voice cracking with blood in my throat. “Again-”

A pair of strong hands slipped beneath my armpits and hauled me bodily off the floor as if I weighed nothing. Lozzie let me go with an ‘oop!’ of surprise. I was so shocked the brainmath slammed to a halt, jaws of my mind crashing shut on nothing, and I had the faintest impression of yellow silk slipping away into the dark.

My legs dangled in the air, hands limp and filled with pins and needles, head spinning, the taste of blood and bile in my mouth. I flinched as Zheng’s face filled my vision.

Unsmiling, eyes hard as grey steel.

Stop,” she said.

Panting with animal fear, my phantom limbs stuck between lashing out and trying to hug her, I squeaked out an affirmative. Yes, big scary lady, anything you say.

Zheng adjusted her grip and caught me properly behind knees and around my back, then went down on one knee and lowered me onto the sofa cushions spread out across the floor.

“On her side, one arm- yes, that’s it,” Raine murmured instructions, until Zheng had me rolled into the recovery position.

“M’not going to be sick again,” I croaked, struggling weakly.

“Stay down, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

Lozzie’s hands stroked my head and made me still.

“Resty-time for Heathers,” she whispered.

Silence descended. The smell of my own blood stuck in my nose. I coughed gently, and whined as the headache pain began to set in.

“Hey, Heather, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Raine’s hands appeared with water and towel, and she set about wiping the blood from my face as I moaned and wheezed. I’d pushed myself much too far.

“How is she? Heather, are you conscious?” Evelyn asked.

“Too much information,” I muttered. “Couldn’t … process- couldn’t-”

“Don’t explain,” Evelyn grunted. “You did your best. It’s okay. Just stop, yes.”

“She’s not hurt herself!” Lozzie chirped. “She had help.”

Big sighs all around. Zheng rumbled something under her breath. Small hands kneaded my back.

“Well, I think we can conclude this is not going to work,” Evelyn said at length. “You’ve never doubted her before, why now?”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to. My hearing felt blurred, my consciousness a thin soap bubble.

Zheng answered. “The shaman has led herself astray. I do not understand how.”

“She’s just trying too hard and sometimes you have to let go to try your best,” Lozzie said. Nobody else seemed to know what to say to that.

Ten hours passed. Or maybe it was only ten seconds. Maybe I fell asleep.

“-locating him is theoretically possible, but it’ll give Heather a seizure at best if she keeps going like this. No. Not again,” Evelyn was saying.

“Mmmm,” I grumbled, an awful headache behind my eyes, and without thinking I pulled myself up into a sitting position.

The motion made my head spin and my vision throb, and nearly knocked me out again. Somebody propped me up. I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Do not stand,” Praem sang.

“Maybe we-” I croaked, cleared my throat, winced at how the cough made my head throb, then tried again. “Maybe we should contact the lawyer, what’s his name, and I can raid his mind instead.”

“Heeee,” went Lozzie in amused approval.

Easier than this miserable failure, anyway.

“Raid his offices, at least,” Raine murmured. “I could do that. Here, Heather, take a sip.” She pressed a glass into my hand, and I forced cold knives down my bloody throat.

“Not with that leg you can’t,” Evelyn grumbled. “I was hoping Stack would have turned up something by now, but perhaps we should do this the old fashioned way. We need an expert in finding people who don’t want to be found.”

“Nicky?” Raine suggested. I blinked open my blood-crusted eyes.

Evelyn nodded, sucking her teeth in thought. “Perhaps tomorrow-”

“Tomorrow we’re going shopping,” I gave an angry croak, and drew only surprised silence from everybody else. Even Zheng. “Don’t let my failure ruin anything else too. I’ll feel even worse.”

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16 thoughts on “water of the womb – 12.6

  1. “I still felt like I’d been given a going over by a kangaroo holding a pair of rolling pins.”
    This simile is amazing but raises some important questions. Would the Kangaroo be more or less effective while wielding rolling pins? They’re very strong with powerful arms but not known for their dexterity. They might hit harder with their bare hands.

  2. “But there was I that Monday morning”
    “there was I” -> “there I was”
    The first way is valid but sounds out of character

    “restless with the need run and climb”
    need TO run

    “both dumped in the workshop for examination”
    Needs a full stop at the end. This might be a new sentence: “. Both were dumped in…”

    “an itch my fingertips”
    itch IN my

    “I was hair’s breadth”
    was A hair’s

    “that. “ It’s”
    Remove extra space between opening quotation mark and “It’s”

    “fingers recalled texture of her skin”
    recalled THE texture

    “dark canvass”
    canvass -> canvas
    Canvass is a word, but more typically used as a verb.

    “much to far”
    to -> too

  3. A suspiciously high number of missing words. Am uncertain if they are typos or a deliberate subtle way of indicating how Heather is changing.

    I am really liking the descriptions of Seven Shades of Sunlight.

    • Goodness, no, none of those were intentional, and also very embarrassing considering I’ve proofread this chapter three times. Thank you very much for spotting them! I really appreciate the effort.

  4. tanny is beautiful.

    night praem is still good and getting her shopping trip, hopefully including better reading materials or maybe her own laptop.

    seven shades getting a lot more actively involved then I expected.

    I wonder if Raine misses the old days when Evelyn was the one finding new and exciting ways to self-destruct,

    • Night Praem needs her shopping! And I’m sure Heather could recommend some books, if asked.

      Raine is probably going out of her mind with worry quite often, she just hides it well?

  5. on a sidenote it is intresting how many things tanny is picking up from lozzie.

    Night praem, fashion tips for going outside,copying gestures and mannerism.

    just waiting for tanny to officially adopt lozzie as her mother, who knows maybe she allready discussed how it feels with praem as a fellow accidental daughter.

  6. I really liked the creeping through the house at night. Felt very cozy, and it was nice to check up on Zheng, Night Praem, and Tenny.
    I laughed at Sevens drawing a path straight to a sleeping Zheng. With her later comments I wonder if this is purely for her drama, or if there’s an untapped solution Heather isn’t seeing.

    • Creeping through the house in the dark is good aesthetics!

      Perhaps Sevens is onto something. If only she’d be a bit clearer about it …

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