“Or deal with him,” Nicole echoed me.
It was not a question.
She did not need to add a single word. Her stare contained a precisely calibrated dose of scepticism, a micro-expression from a person who knew how to speak truth to power, without even speaking.
“ … if I have to,” I managed, but I had to look away, down at the kitchen table, down at my hands splayed flat just so I wouldn’t drive my fingernails into my own palms.
I did not want to be power. Not for this.
Nicole let out a huge sigh and drew a hand over her face. “Oh, fuck me. For fuck’s sake, you lot.”
“Hey, Nicky, we were gonna tell you. Today, after this,” Raine said. “We weren’t gonna keep this a secret. If there’s any more survivors from the cult, it’s kinda important you know, you were involved and all. There might just be this guy, or there might be a few, we don’t-”
“I wish you hadn’t bloody well told me!” Nicole snapped. Behind me, Lozzie buried her face in the back of my shoulder and made a soft whine. “Look, if I find Edward Lilburne, it’s up to you what you do with him. You’re all wizards or whatever, he’s killed kids, I don’t give a fuck if you use his skin to make a book or something. I don’t wanna know. But those people, in that … ” Nicole had to pause, wet her lips, take a breath. “In that house, not all of them were … I mean, fuck! It was a cult, plenty of them were exploited, conned into it, right? Fucking, Kimberly, where is she?” Nicole gestured around. “She was a member, she was bullied into it, she was a victim, right? Right?”
“Technically correct,” Evelyn deadpanned.
“That is true,” I murmured.
“So you’ve got some victims of that … that insane shit we saw, who avoided it,” a tremor almost took Nicole’s voice, but she sucked down a deep breath. “And you might need to ‘deal with them’?”
I couldn’t look her in the eye. Not because I’d suggested inflicting violence upon those who may not deserve it, but because I was keeping silent about the truth. Lozzie was shaking and shivering against my back, against the back of the chair. I needed to turn around and hug her, but right now I did not deserve that comfort.
“Not-” I stopped. Lies. Tried again, voice shaking. “Not necessarily. I might … might be able to help. Nobody deserves the Eye.”
“But if you can’t help,” Nicole went on. “Then you deal with them?”
“I … I don’t … ”
I didn’t know. I couldn’t say. I genuinely had no idea what I would do what with a cult survivor, a human being with the Eye still lodged inside their head. Would I try to help, would I extend what aid I could, or would I pull them apart in the quest for an advantage? Heal and save, or vivisect for information?
“Sometimes you gotta do these things,” Raine said, quiet and serious. “To keep people safe.”
“Fuck you, Haynes,” Nicole spat. “Ahhh fuck. We can’t have another incident like at that house, not here, not in Sharrowford, not my hometown. Imagine if a random member of the public had gotten in there before we did. Or if somebody had called an ambulance. Imagine it! Yeah, sure, they might not remember it properly afterward or whatever, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have come out of there in one piece.” She shook her head. “Not again. I am not doing that again. Can’t let it happen again.”
“Can’t,” Praem echoed. Nicole blinked at her.
“You feel responsible for this,” Evelyn said. “But you’re not.”
“I’m responsible because I know about it. What am I supposed to do, forget this all exists? That any of it happened?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Raine said, nodding slowly. “You get that too, huh? Sometimes you just gotta jump in. Can’t let it go. Like an itch. Same as me.”
Nicole gave Raine such a frown.
“I have said it before,” Evelyn deadpanned slowly, into the awkward silence that followed. “And I will say it again, this time for your benefit too, miss Webb. It is highly unlikely that anything more than tiny handful of Eye-affected cultists – loyalists, if you will – left that house before the ritual. They likely have no resources, no books. The larger faction retained those, and then I recovered them. Do you remember?”
Nicole stared back at Evelyn, her mind taking a moment to catch up. “ … I don’t want to remember, but yeah. So?”
“They have no books to learn from. And I very much doubt they count amongst their number any mages, not on the scale of Alexander or Edward, or even Sarika. Remember the ones who were working with Edward? The ones who contacted Sarika? The ones with … ” Evelyn sighed. “Mister Joking?”
“If they counted any serious power amongst themselves,” Evelyn explained, “they would not have thrown themselves on Edward’s mercy. I believe that anyone with serious power stayed with Sarika’s group for the final ritual, in hubris and overconfidence. Those who fled were the ones with nothing. Cowards and the powerless. And they made the right choice.”
“What if that was a different group?” Nicole asked. “You ever think of that?”
“Extensively,” Evelyn grunted. “Yes, I have run over every possible combination of factors a dozen times. If there’s a second remnant of the Eye cult out there, then they’re nothing. The man we saw, I suspect he was as surprised as we were. The fact they haven’t contacted Sarika suggests they’re lying as low as possible.”
“Sarika, yeah, right.” Nicole rolled her eyes. “Bastion of honesty and truth, that one. When did you get so trusting?”
“She can’t lie to me,” I said, and I was not proud of it.
Nicole glanced at me. From the look on my face, she must have known what I meant, and she didn’t argue. She leaned back in the silence that followed, gathering her thoughts as I wallowed in self-disgust.
“You’ve changed your tune, miss Saye,” Nicole said eventually. “I didn’t exactly have a lot of time to get to know you, but I got the impression you think of Sharrowford as your territory. You don’t think these people are worth pursuing?”
“Make up your mind,” Raine said with a smirk. “You want us to kill them or not?”
“Raine,” I whined, shivering with my arms around myself. Lozzie had gone very still against my shoulder.
“I don’t know! Alright?” Nicole said.
“My priorities have changed,” said Evelyn, hard and uncompromising. “But do not think I have gone soft. If an ex-cultist turns up on our doorstep with anything but flowers and cake, then I will have them killed, no questions, no-”
To my utter desolation, Lozzie peeled herself off my shoulder and fled the kitchen, poncho flapping out behind her. I almost lurched out of my seat to follow her, but guilt kept me pinned. I’d started this, I had a responsibility to stay here. A moment later, we heard the soft patter of her feet ascending the stairs.
“Praem,” Evelyn said, with a sideways nod of her head. “Make sure she’s okay. Please.”
Praem marched out of the kitchen. I knew she wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.
Evelyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Oops?” Nicole offered.
“Oops. Quite,” Evelyn grunted. “My point stands. I will not put my friends and f- … family at risk over nothing, over a group of people who are unlikely to be a threat any greater than ambient background noise. I will not march somebody I love into another trap. It is as simple as that.” She rounded on me, scowling like a breaking thunderstorm, jabbing a finger at me. “That goes for you most of all. I know exactly what you’re doing and exactly why you want to make contact with an Eye cultist.”
I stared at her and flushed deep, embarrassed red, mortified and horrified and seen, in the worst possible way, still reeling and mortified at Lozzie’s departure.
“I- n-no, Evee-”
“And I don’t blame you,” she snapped. “But no. You are not to expose yourself to even more unnecessary danger than you do all the bloody time. We have a way of getting to Wonderland and standing safely before the Eye, if only we can get that book. We are not mucking about with a bunch of cultists so you can peel open their skulls and root around inside their brains.”
I cringed, inside and out, and prayed for the floor to swallow me up. My face burned. My friends knew what I was. Evelyn could predict the lengths I might go to. They knew me.
“Oh shit,” Nicole breathed. “I get it now. You’re not asking me to help with self-defence. You’re asking for help obtaining a test subject.”
“It’s for Maisie,” I squeezed out around the lump in my throat. “It is. It is.”
“Hey,” Raine spoke up, sharp and warning. She grabbed her crutch from where it leaned on the counter and limped over toward me. “Nicky, stop. Hey, Evee, back off-”
“I will not let you do that to yourself, Heather,” Evelyn went on. “God knows you’ve stopped me doing worse to myself.”
“Evee,” Raine said.
Flushed with the anger of care, breathing a little too hard, Evelyn stopped. “You know I’m right,” she muttered.
“Evee, drop-” Raine said.
“She’s right,” I squeaked.
Awkward silence descended on the kitchen. Raine rubbed my shoulders through my jumper, but I wanted to curl up and vanish. Nicole blew out a long sigh and cleared her throat and offered an apology, but I barely heard it. Evelyn offered none, and I did not expect her to.
“Hoooooo,” Raine said eventually. “Evee, Evee, Evee. Where’d that come from?”
“From too many years of getting it wrong,” Evelyn grunted. “I am living for more than myself now. That’s all.”
“Well, hey,” Raine said, quietly affectionate. “That’s a good thing.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Evelyn went on. “These people still represent a threat, however small. If I could press a button to kill them all, I would, but I’m not sending Praem out there to walk into a trap, I’m not going to intentionally put us in another situation where we get split up and picked off. A few stragglers with no knowledge and no books and no magic are not worth the risk.”
“I hope you’re right,” Nicole said. “I really do hope you’re right.”
From the depths of my pit, I spoke up.
“I still don’t know how to deal with the Eye,” I said.
“You will, Heather,” Raine said, squeezing my shoulder. “You can do it, I believe in you. We all do.”
“Fight?” I went on, struggled to sit up straight, forcing myself to raise my eyes, no matter how guilty I felt. “Or communicate? Or bargain with, or cajole, or educate, or … anything? Even looking at the edge of it with hyperdimensional mathematics was almost too much, when I pulled Sarika free, and she was on the very edge. If I stick my mind in there, unprepared, to look for Maisie, I won’t come back out. Not as I am now.” I turned to Evelyn, made myself meet her storm-clouded eyes. “I can’t just get to Wonderland and look up at it – even protected, yes, I know – and pull Maisie out of the sky. I need information, intelligence. I need to know it, more than I do right now. I need to understand how to talk to it. The clay thing in the workshop,” I nodded at the closed door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. “It’s not enough. It’s not a direct connection, it may not even have been sent by the Eye. It’s taught me breadth, but not depth. Not specifics. Sarika, I already freed her, and from her all I had was the Eye’s fingerprints.” I swallowed hard. What I was suggesting, I had no idea if I was even capable of following through. “I need one of them, Evee. I need to look inside one of their heads, yes, you’re right. But I have to do it.”
Evelyn held my gaze. Her jaw tightened. She hissed a wordless sound of frustration through her teeth.
“What if the Eye is feeding them brainmath? Or other things? Transforming them?” I asked, throwing out anything I could to convince myself, but none of it was enough. I screwed up my eyes. “What if I promise to go into this to help them?”
“I don’t care about that,” Evelyn hissed.
“I do,” Nicole said.
Evelyn shook her head slowly, but it was not a gesture of refusal. “I know trying to stop you will just backfire.”
“Can’t stop our Heather,” Raine said.
“Very well. But promise you won’t do anything alone. Anything,” Evelyn said.
“I promise.” I nodded. And I intended to keep it.
“And promise no vivisection,” she went on. “To yourself.”
“Yeah,” Nicole grunted.
“I promise,” I repeated.
But I wasn’t so sure about that one.
“I really do need to talk to her, if possible.”
Nicole eyed the top of the stairs, where they vanished into the upstairs hallway.
“You mean Lozzie?” I asked.
Nicole nodded. “Anything she has on her uncle could turn out to be useful.” She sighed and took a sip from her second mug of tea, then shot me a sidelong smile, which could not quite conceal the wary glint behind her eyes. “You’d be surprised how often some tiny half-remembered detail ends up being the loose thread. If she knows anything about him, I need it. An ex-wife, a house he used to live in, any children of his own, anywhere he used to work. Anything at all.”
I nodded slowly. “I see. I see, um, well … yes.”
Nicole smiled in the awkward manner of somebody trying to ignore a previously uncomfortable exchange, and took another sip of tea to cover the fact that neither of us had anything to say. I’d made that cup of tea, a second one for everybody, just to have some excuse to get up from the table and move my hands, as she and Evelyn had wrapped up another twenty minutes of complex strategy talk.
They’d eventually agreed on a day for the plan to break into Harold Yuleson’s office, this coming Monday, along with procedures for contact, checking in, what to do if it all went terribly wrong, and how Nicole should proceed with his copied files or raided snack drawer, or whatever exactly the process would entail. I’d barely been able to listen.
But when Evelyn had gotten up to use the toilet and Raine had decided that now was the perfect time to microwave some hot dogs for lunch, Nicky had picked up her tea and walked into the front room to stretch her legs. I’d gone after her, sheepish and mortified and not wanting her to see me as some inhuman monster.
Heather Morell, willing to perform human experimentation, in my old pajama bottoms and pink jumper.
I’d lingered by the doorway, with nothing to say, when she’d spoken up about Lozzie.
“Do you think she ran off because of me?” Nicole asked after the long sip of tea, finding her voice again.
“Oh, Lozzie? No, no, not at all,” I said, stepping closer, trying to feel normal. “She doesn’t like you much, I think, but she wouldn’t run off because of you. She just doesn’t like it when people talk about violence.”
“Ahhhh,” Nicole went, as if she understood perfectly. Perhaps she did. “I don’t blame her, then. She is pretty young. She’s very sweet, she doesn’t deserve to have to deal with all … this.”
“I believe Lozzie is only a year or two younger than me.”
Nicole blinked at me. “For serious?”
“As far we know. It’s complicated.”
Nicole blew out a puff. “Still.”
“And it’s not violence itself that bothers her, it’s the talking about it part. I did watch her stab a man to death with a scalpel once.”
Nicole boggled at me.
“Admittedly, we were in rather extreme circumstances,” I added.
“Lozzie did that?” One corner of Nicole’s mouth curled up in a worryingly approving smile. “Lozzie? The girl who makes weird noises and acts like she’s a thirteen year old on a sugar high?”
I raised my chin, lightly offended on Lozzie’s behalf. “She chooses to act the way she does because it makes her feel right. I respect that.”
“Oh, sure, yeah, absolutely, more power to her. Cheers.” Nicole mimed a toast with her mug. “Just surprised is all. She doesn’t look like she has it in her.”
“There’s more to Lozzie than meets the eye.”
“You’re telling me. Is she … ” Nicole struggled for a moment, silently chewing her words. Back in the kitchen, the microwave made a ding sound and Raine started bustling about with plates and the fridge door. “Does she have … PTSD? Or … ”
I sighed and shrugged. “Maybe she does. Maybe I do. But I doubt we’d get much from professional help, except a very confused and lightly traumatised psychotherapist.”
“Hey, don’t knock therapy,” Nicole said, suddenly serious. “I’ve been seeing somebody for the last couple of months. Helped with the decision to quit the force. Helped work through some complex guilt. Nasty shit.”
“But you can’t talk to them about us, can you?” I said, then added, with a little thorn of spite, “or about the house?”
Nicole shrugged. “Not exactly, but … ”
“My sister was kidnapped by a giant Eyeball, and Lozzie was used as a metaphysical life-raft, by something not unlike that giant Eyeball. Although luckily for her, it was a lot less malign.”
“Point.” Nicole cleared her throat.
“It’s okay, Nicky. May I … may I still call you Nicky?” My breath caught in my throat.
“Eh? Yeah, sure, ‘course you can.”
I nodded, and directed my gaze at a random point on the floor.
“You feel awkward because of earlier,” Nicole said. It wasn’t a question.
“I feel like I crossed a line,” I muttered. “Yes. I’m horrified at myself sometimes. At what I might do, for Maisie.”
She sighed. “Look, Heather, don’t worry about it. I’m not sure if I’m gonna actually do it for you, let me think about it some more, but you lot live so far beyond the moral and ethical event horizon. I got no right to judge you.”
“Yes you do,” I said, quiet but firm. “I promised myself many months ago that Maisie would not come back only to find me turned into a monster. Growing tentacles, dragging around shards of the abyss, hissing at people, none of that makes me a monster. Vivisecting innocent people, that would make me a monster. Evelyn is correct about that.” I sighed too now, screwing up my eyes and cursing myself. “But I need to look inside one of these people’s heads. Maybe I can do it carefully. I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t take my request.”
I trailed off, still unable to meet her eyes. Nicole cleared her throat and sipped her tea and looked at the top of the stairs.
“So, Lozzie,” she said eventually.
“Lozzie, yes,” I sighed with guilty relief. “Do you want me to convince her to talk to you?”
“No, no,” Nicole said quickly. “No, it’s not my business. I don’t have the right to interrogate anybody. I’d just appreciate if you asked her.”
“Hey hey!” came Raine’s happy shout from the kitchen. “Food’s almost up! Gonna butter some rolls too, you two want in?”
“Maybe in a minute,” I called back – then took a deep breath and straightened my spine as much as I could, tried to feel normal again, just Heather, little old me. Lozzie would help with that.
“On the contrary, Nicky,” I said. “I’d appreciate if you came upstairs with me to talk to Lozzie yourself. She needs more contact beyond just this house. Plus, you might think of questions I wouldn’t. After all, you are the professional.”
“Fair enough,” Nicky said, and we went upstairs together.
I led the way, with the floorboards creaking softly beneath our feet. But when we reached the top of the stairs and I started ahead for the closed door of Lozzie’s bedroom, Nicole paused behind me. Her eyes roved over the upstairs hallway, showing a little white at the edges.
“Uh … yeah, yeah. I haven’t actually been up here before.” Her eyes found me again, amused and frowning at the same time. “You do realise how creepy this place is, don’t you? Or is this normal for you?”
I blinked at her, then back the corridor, a space I passed through multiple times every single day, and after a moment I came to understand what Nicole meant. It wasn’t too gloomy up here this Saturday morning; some bright spark had opened all the curtains to flood the usually dim passageway with watery spring sunlight, but this served only to deepen the pools of darkness beneath the door frames and the shadows at the further reaches where the corridor slunk off to the left. The sunlight showed all the warping in the old floorboards, the discoloured patches of wall through the paint, the strange unexplained scuffs on the skirting boards which I never thought about too much.
Venerable, lived in, thick with history.
“Oh,” I tutted. “Oh, Nicky, it’s just a house. It’s a beautiful house, too. Much better than some awful suburban box made of particle board and plastic.”
“A house full of wizards and demons, right.” She cleared her throat, a little embarrassed and suitably chastised. “Excuse me if I see far too many doors up here. This place isn’t bigger on the inside than it is outside, right? I open the wrong door, I’m not gonna find a drop down a thousand feet of cliff?”
“Not that I’m aware of. I admit, it might not be a perfectly normal house, but it doesn’t do that.”
“As long as the walls don’t start bleeding.”
Nicole reached out and touched the nearest patch of wall with her fingertips, as if to assure herself it would neither bleed nor scream.
“They’re nice walls. It’s a nice house. It looks after us.” On a rather silly impulse, I reached out and patted the wall too. “Good house.”
“You talking to it like it’s alive does not help, by the way.”
“I’m anthropomorphising an inanimate object.” I huffed. “That’s normal. Natural. We’ve been doing it for tens of thousand of years.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay. Cool. There’s still way too many doors.” She nodded at the corridor, then lit up. She tried to hide the reaction, but her eyebrows gave her away, as she stepped forward to join me in the patch of sunlight spilling from one of the small, square windows. She made a very studied show of looking out of that window, at the other houses and the street visible out there in Sharrowford. “Kimberly still lives here with you lot, right? She around today?”
I kept my expression carefully neutral. “Did you ever approach her at work?”
Nicole cleared her throat and avoided my eyes. “No, no I didn’t in the end. When I was a copper, well, I had, you know. Authority. Didn’t want her to see me like that, if I was trying it on. I’m like a useless teenager sometimes. Uh, no offense.”
“Wouldn’t mind scoring some weed off her. Maybe, you know, see how she reacts to me. She in?”
“She knows you’re here,” I said gently, “but she chose to hide from the scary police detective. I think that speaks volumes.”
Nicole gave a huge deflating sigh.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Nah, it’s not your fault that my type are also the type to not like police officers,” Nicole grumbled with a rueful smile. “Maybe give it a few months. Let the stink wash off.”
“Excuse me for asking,” I said. “But are you only focused on her because she’s ‘close to hand’?”
“No, I’m focused on her because she’s cute,” Nicole deadpanned at me. “And I’m not focused, either. I had a little fling a couple of weeks ago. It was alright, not very satisfying. Not really my type in the end.”
“And Kimberly’s your type.”
“Yeah. No joke.”
“Maybe I’ll talk to her sometime, and see how she reacts to the idea?” I offered. “But no promises. I don’t think she’s into you. I don’t think you’re even on her radar.”
Nicole studied me for a second, practical and solid in her sensible clothes and tired eyes. “I’d appreciate that. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours?” She cracked a long-suffering grin. “Can hardly turn down your job if you do that for me.”
“Oh!” My carefully constructed front crumbled into a blinking mess. “Oh, no, no, Nicky, I didn’t mean it that way. I just mean I’ll talk to her, I’m not trying to trade favours, a-and you don’t have to do it, you don’t have to, I-”
Nicole laughed softly, and reminded me I was in the presence of a very experienced manipulator, even if she was no longer using her powers for the state. I blushed and frowned at her, and almost puffed my cheeks out like Lozzie. She cleared her throat with apologetic shrug.
“I’ll think about it,” she said. “And hey, I shouldn’t be leaning on you as a romance therapist. Let’s go talk to Lozzie.”
I led Nicole down the hallway, past sensibly closed doors and lurking pools of shadow. I paused at my own bedroom to crack the door and check on Zheng. Her massive sleeping bulk was stretched out beneath the bedsheets in the gloom, breathing softly.
“Shaman,” she rumbled without opening her eyes.
“Just checking on you,” I whispered.
“Go back to sleep.”
And she did. I closed the door again and found Nicole regarding me with a raised eyebrow.
“Zheng’s sleeping, like I said.”
“Is that your bedroom?” she asked.
“We have a thing going on. A complicated thing.”
Nicole raised her hands. “Say no more. None of my business.”
When we reached the door to Lozzie’s bedroom, I knocked softly and called even softer. “Lozzie? It’s me. Nicky is with me. Can we come in?”
A heavy mumble, a fluttery trill of surprise – which made Nicole flinch and frown – and a sing-song silver-bell of “You may enter” all replied to my inquiry. I opened the door and peered inside.
There was never very much to see in Lozzie’s bedroom. She hadn’t put a lot of effort into making it her own, into expressing herself with posters or plush toys or treasured mementos, because she didn’t have any of those things. Apart from her pastel poncho and the other clothes she’d arrived in upon her return from Outside – and her pink beanie with the cat ears that she’d picked up on our shopping trip – everything in the room came from the house itself, or from us. Most of the clothes she wore were borrowed from me. The books that littered the floor and the low table in the middle of the room had come from my collection, or Evelyn’s study, or the library. Lozzie’s mobile phone was a hand-me-down from Evelyn too; we’d thought it important she have one of her own, that she feel connected, even if she didn’t go outdoors by herself.
Before Tenny had hatched and joined her in here, the room had seemed oddly empty. It was the same size as mine and Raine’s. The expanse of the double bed with its old iron frame and the vast empty space of the floor had always dwarfed Lozzie’s slender form. But now the low table was scattered with mess – dinosaur books and books full of illustrated animals, puzzle books and three Rubik’s cubes and two chess sets, and an incredibly complicated three-dimensional metal puzzle which Raine had ordered off the internet. It had come with special sealed instructions, and an invitation to some obscure organisation, addressed to anybody capable of solving the puzzle without recourse to the instructions.
Tenny had dismantled it in about fifteen minutes and promptly lost interest. Raine had spent an hour trying to figure out how to express Tenny’s critique in an email to the designers.
Since Tenny’s arrival, we’d added more to the room as well – a pair of comfy bean-bag chairs around the low table, one of the old televisions which was lying around the house, and most recently, Raine’s ‘gamecube’.
Tenny was currently sprawled on her belly across one of the beanbag chairs, video game controller in both hands in front of her. Two of her tentacles were busy playing a game of chess against each other – against herself?
“Heath!” she trilled at my appearance. “Ahhh! Ghost.”
“Ghosts, yes.” I smiled and politely glanced at the screen. She was playing more of the spooky game in the cartoon mansion.
“Spooky,” she fluttered, then blinked her huge all-black eyes past me.
Praem was perched on the edge of the bed, prim and proper and straight-backed, one lace-gloved hand stroking Lozzie’s blonde head. That scalp was the only part of Lozzie visible. She’d pulled up the sheets from the edges of the bed and wrapped herself in a messy cocoon of blankets. Another two of Tenny’s tentacles were stuck down the front of the blanket-cocoon, presumably for hugging purposes.
“Ah,” I said. “Lozzie?”
No reply came from inside the cocoon, only a caterpillar-like shuffle.
“Praem, is she okay?” I asked.
Praem looked up at me, empty milk-white eyes meeting my own, and said nothing.
“Ah, well.” I stepped over the threshold and considered sitting down on the bed. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time for Nicole to question Lozzie after all. Something about our conversation had really upset her, worse than her usual aversion to violent topics and raised voices. “Perhaps it would be best if you wait … ”
I turned back to Nicole, and trailed off.
Our friendly local Private Eye was staring at Tenny as if she had seen an alien. She glanced at me, then back at Tenny – at the unexplained moth-puppy-tentacle person with coal black skin and white fur and twitching antenna.
“Am I hallucinating?” Nicole asked, slowly and carefully.
“No!” I said. “No, uh- I’m sorry, I-”
“’lo?” Tenny trilled at her. “Heeeellooo?”
“Heather,” Nicole said, tight and a little unimpressed, still staring at Tenny. “I would appreciate an explanation. Please.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” I blurted out, hands up. “This is Tenny, it’s fine, she’s fine.”
“’lo?” Tenny tried again. Two tentacles snaked out from beneath her flesh-cloak and began moving toward Nicole. The detective took a step back, eyes going wide.
“Tenny!” I tried not to sound panicked, I didn’t want to upset her. “This- please- Tenny, this is Nicky. Please don’t touch her, okay? Please, please no touching without warning.”
Tenny blinked at me several times, deeply confused. I took the extra precaution of stepping forward and gently taking her pair of exploratory tentacles in my own hands, smiling at her as I did.
“Heather, what am I looking at here?” Nicole asked.
“Not what,” I said, firm but gentle. “Who. Her name is Tenny.”
“Okaaaaaay,” Nicole said, very much not okay.
“Tenny, this is Nicky,” I repeated. “Nicky, this is Tenny. She’s Lozzie’s … creation. Child. Sort of.”
“Nick-eeee,” Tenny echoed, wiggling her legs and rolling on the beanbag. “Nick-eeeeee.”
Nicole was still frozen in the doorway, her stare flicking back and forth between me and Tenny. I sighed at her. “She’s trying to say hello to you,” I said. “Come say hello back?”
“She can say hello from over there, thank you very much,” Nicole said. “And what is with the fucking tentacles?”
“Don’t swear!” I snapped, and felt Tenny’s tentacles flinch in my grip. “Tenny, I’m sorry, I’m not angry with you, it’s okay.”
“Brrrrrrr,” she trilled.
I turned back to Nicole. “Please don’t swear in front of Tenny, she’s basically a child. And you’re acting as if you are afraid of her,” I put special, gentle emphasis on each word. “Please come say hello.”
Nicole got the message, but she tilted her head with a ‘I-cannot-believe-you-are-asking-me-to-do-this’ look.
“She is absolutely harmless,” I whispered.
Which was true enough.
With a sigh and a sucking of her teeth, Nicole stepped up to my shoulder and peered at Tenny.
“Nick-eeee,” Tenny said.
Nicole raised an awkward hand and pulled the best smile she could muster under the circumstances, the product of work with much more difficult people than Tenny. “Good afternoon, Tenny,” she said, strained and fake, but polite. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” Tenny replied in her fluttering, trilling voice. She wiggled her tentacles out of my hands, and hovered them in front of Nicole for a heart-stopping second, before looking sort of sad as she withdrew them.
Nicole cleared her throat and gave me a look. “May I … ask … ?” She opened a hand, at a complete loss.
I sighed. “We don’t really know what Tenny is. She was a spirit, pneuma-somatic life, and then Lozzie put her in a cocoon and she hatched into a real girl.”
“Real girl!” Tenny trilled, then laughed – a strange hissing, fluttering noise deep inside her chest. She glanced back at the screen and resumed pressing the buttons on her controller.
“The important part is that she’s family now,” I said.
Nicole shook her head in disbelief, then pointed quizzically at one of the chess boards on the low table. I couldn’t help but notice as well. The whole time we’d been talking and Tenny’s attention had been on us, she’d continued playing chess against herself with two of her tentacles, finished one match, reset the pieces, and started over.
“In some ways she’s a child,” I explained. “But in other ways she’s more intelligent than us. She’s developing very quickly. A few weeks ago she was more like a baby, mentally. Now she’s … ”
“A twelve year-old playing xbox?” Nicole offered.
“Not xbox!” Tenny trilled. “Cuuuube.”
“Important distinction,” Praem intoned from the bed.
“Oh, for sure,” Nicole said, suppressing an absurd laugh. She nodded to Tenny. “Excuse my mistake, Tenny.”
“’scused,” Tenny trilled, and turned back to her game. “Pbbbbbbt.”
“Alright,” Nicole said, a little shaky around the edges, but doing her best hard-boiled detective impression. She kept her voice very soft. “Alright, I can deal with this. I can deal. Please don’t spring something like this on me again, Heather.”
I grimaced in apology.
“It’s alright,” Nicole repeated, still soft and gentle. “I’m dealing with it.”
“Tenny,” I asked. “Is Lozzie feeling okay?”
Tenny rotated her head to glance at the bed, then imitated Lozzie’s puffed-cheeks gesture and slowly blew the air out. “Lozzie grump.”
“M’not grumpy,” came a muffled voice from inside the covers.
Nicole and I shared a glance. She nodded to the door with a silent question in her eyes, but I shook my head. It was worth trying, at least. Nicole nodded once and stepped back to a polite distance, and tried not to stare at Tenny too much.
“Lozzie?” I ventured as I sat down next to Praem on the edge of the bed, next to Lozzie’s cocoon. “Nicky had some questions for you, but we can do that another time if you’re feeling bad. Do you want to come out, or do you want me to get in with you? I can ask Nicky to leave, if you like. She’s not police anymore, so she has to do what I tell her. I’m scarier than she is.”
The blanket-lump curled up tighter, but a small pale hand crept out of a gap to find me, flopping against my knee, like a huge deep-sea mollusk extending a tongue from inside a protective shell. I touched it and Lozzie held on. I glanced at Praem, but she was watching Lozzie too.
“Lozzie?” I tried again. “Are you okay?”
“Mmmhmmm,” Lozzie murmured.
“The world is full of horrible people,” she said from inside the covers, her voice uncharacteristically slow and limp. “Horrible people doing horrible things to each other all the time. And family is great, you’re great, I love you, but there’s so many bad things and bad people and it’s all so complicated and confusing and I don’t want to think about it but I have to think about it and I don’t want to.”
“Oh, Lozzie.” I squeezed her hand.
“I tried to go Outside.”
My heart juddered. A flash of cold blossomed in my chest, a spike of panic.
Lozzie must have felt that.
“Only for a few minutes!” she chirped. Blanket-Lozzie wiggled and wriggled and out popped her head from inside the covers, flushed from enclosure and pouting faintly, eyes even heavier-lidded than usual. Tenny’s pair of tentacles emerged with her, cradling her back in a half-hug. She wasn’t crying, just incredibly down. “Just for a bit! I just want to step away sometimes and go Outside but I can’t and I can’t go and I’m stuck because the stupid hands keep hanging onto my ankles. And I want to show Tenny, she’s stuck here too and she can’t even go outdoors because she’ll be seen and people will hurt her but I know places she can fly for real and not worry but we can’t!”
“Bbbbpppptt,” went Tenny.
“Lozzie, I’m sorry.” I reached forward to brush her hair away from her forehead, where flyaway strands of fine blonde had stuck to her skin. “We’ll find a way to get rid of the dead hands. We will. I might be able to brainmath them away, maybe, they’re only … ”
Lozzie gave me a sad look from beneath heavy lids. She didn’t even need me to say it. We’d talked about it before.
The hands were probably her brother. Or what was left of him. We couldn’t even find Edward Lilburne, and he was very much alive and kicking. If we couldn’t find a live man, what chance did we have with a ghost?
But that wasn’t the source of the razor thorn of guilt pricking at my heart.
“A-and in the meantime,” I added, trying to cover for myself. “We can always go to the castle, whenever you’re feeling tired. I promise we’ll always do that, together.”
“It’s not enough,” she murmured. “I want to go Outside. To the real places.”
Deep down, in a locked vault of the heart I would never admit to owning, part of me whispered the truth.
You haven’t unmade the hands, because you don’t want Lozzie to leave again.
“Heather?” Lozzie said my name, her sad tone completely gone as she sat up, the motion dragging her cocoon apart. “Heather?”
“It’s … I … uh … ”
“Trust,” Praem intoned, and I almost jumped out of my skin. How had she known?
She was right. Trust. I had no choice but to trust Lozzie. She’d gone Outside for an extended period before. Then, when I’d been helpless before the Eye, she’d responded to Maisie’s call and come to my rescue. Trust was the only option, because the other path would keep her miserable and make me responsible, and that would make me into another kind of monster.
“Heatherrrrrrr?” Lozzie dipped her head to look at me from below, her elfin face curious and confused.
“I’ll use brainmath to remove the dead hands,” I said, looking her in the eye. “I’ll try. Not now, not today, not … not until I solve the anchor problem.” I cleared my throat. “Not that you know what that means, but when I’m ready. I’ll fight them. And you can go Outside again, I promise. I won’t be afraid. Well, no, I might be afraid, but I’ll deal with that.”
A little smile crept onto Lozzie’s face. She sniffed and wiped her eyes on a corner of her blanket cocoon, and then threw her arms around my shoulders, squeezing tight. I hugged her back, and dipped a hand to pat one of Tenny’s tentacles too.
“We can go Outside together right now, you know?” she chirped. “Like we used to. We can go through the gateway and then anywhere! Anywhere at all! There’s this place with the biggest trees ever, as big as mountains, and the leaves are all clever and thinky, but you have to think around them or they get grumpy and then they say a lot of confusing things but it’s always nice things and we could go right now!”
I went stiff. “Um … ”
Lozzie pulled back, smile bouncing across her face. “I know. I knoooow. You don’t wanna go unless it’s dreams.”
“I … I think I find Outside scarier than you do, Lozzie. I’m … I’m sorry.”
The pout inched back. “I knooooow.”
A light bulb went on in my head. “Lozzie, can you do a handstand?”
Lozzie blinked at me.
“Handstand,” Praem echoed.
“Yes?” Lozzie said, tilting her head back and forth like a curious bird.
“Could you teach me how?” I asked.
The head-tilting became almost terminal. I was worried she’d rotate her head right off the top of her spine.
“Do you want to go to the park together?” I carried on quickly. “The big one near the university campus, with the oak trees and the children’s playground. We can go on a weekday, in the middle of the day, so there’s not many kids around. We’ll get ice creams, and play on the swings, and you can teach me how to do a handstand. It’s spring, the weather’s been getting warmer. And you’re right, you could do with getting out of the house some more. Even if only for half an hour. Even if it’s only here, not Outside. It’ll be nice. We can take Raine too, for … well, you understand.”
Lozzie did a very comical eye-narrowing and puffed one cheek out. “I’m not actually a child.”
“Neither am I,” I said, “and I would very much like to go to the park.”
Lozzie broke into giggles and snorting and paffed at my lap with her hands. “Okay then! Okay! Okay-okay-okaaaaaay. On Monday? As soon as we can?”
“Caaaaaan we invite fuzzy too? I haven’t seen her in a while and I wanna give her a hug.”
I blinked at her. “Fuzzy?”
“Oh. Certainly. If she’s not busy.”
“Twil will be available,” Praem intoned. I blinked at her.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I know,” Praem said.
Lozzie gave me another hug, and Praem finally got up from the edge of the bed, carefully brushing off her skirt and standing up ramrod-straight, hands clasped in front of her. She very pointedly stared at Nicole.
“Yeah?” Nicole said.
“Questions,” Praem intoned.
“Questions, yeah, sure. For a start, where’s your maid outfit? Not going in for that anymore?”
“On the way.”
“Excuse me?” I looked up from the hug.
“On the way,” Praem repeated.
“Getting a new one, eh?” Nicole asked. “Not every day you see somebody pull off a genuine full-on maid outfit. Suited you. Looking forward to version two-point-oh.”
“Questions,” Praem repeated.
“Yes, yes,” I filled in for Nicole, disentangling myself from Lozzie and clearing my throat. “Lozzie, Nicky wanted to ask-”
“I know, I know!” Lozzie puffed out both cheeks. She looked past me, up at Nicole. “I was thinking about it while I was wrapped up and I don’t know anything useful-useful because my parents never saw much of Edward when I was small, because he was my dad’s brother and they didn’t like each other for reasons I never knew because my parents were gone before I was old enough and Alexander never told me things.”
Nicole nodded, taking this all very seriously. If she struggled at all with Lozzie’s super-rapid-fire mode, she didn’t let on. “Any small details might-”
“My dad was Richard Lilburne but that probably doesn’t narrow it down or help with anything and my mum was Merle and if that helps then good but I don’t want to think about them anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Nicole said, and years of interrogation rooms helped her mean it. “I don’t mean to-”
“But there was this house.” Lozzie screwed up her eyes. “It was his house and I only ever went there twice and it was only when my parents were around, and Alexander never ever ever ever went there and when he had to send people there they didn’t come back, and Edward pretended they never got there but you could tell they did and something happened but my brother pretended it was all okay.”
Nicole and I shared a glance.
“Lozzie?” I pressed gently. “What house? You didn’t mention this before.”
“Because I can’t remember where it is!” she burst out at me. “I was only small! It was made of brown and red bricks and had beams and it was pretty big but not really big, and there were woods but not too many woods and it had a gravel driveway and a stupid statue of a naked woman in the garden, and I can’t remember!”
I nodded all the same. “Thank you, Lozzie, thank you for trying. I mean it, really.”
“Mmm, I can’t help.” Lozzie pouted.
“Hey, no,” Nicole said, with a voice like the cat that got the cream. “That is help. Oh, trust me, that’s something. That sure is something alright.”
“ … you know the place?” I asked.
Nicole shook her head. “Not yet. But when I find it, then I’ll know it.”
We have quite the chores list:
Remove dead hands
Take Tenny flying in a park
Brain an Eye cultist (non violently!)
Go to Wonderland safely
Hug Tenny some more
Distract Eye with colorful brain math origami
And vote for Katalepsis: http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis/
Heather’s got a lot to tackle! But perhaps solving some of these problems will naturally lead to solving others.
Thank you for all the votes on TWF!
This is clearly wrong, everything with Tenny should be at the top. And there’s not nearly enough “hug Tenny”.
Lozzie is a wonderful cinnamon bun and must be protected.
This story is seriously wonderful. The juxtaposition of wholesome friendship and found family with all the cosmic horror is something special.
She’s so much fun to write! She brings a lot of life to any scene she’s in, and absolutely steals the show when I let her.
Thank you! It’s always a delight to know readers are enjoying the very specific juxtaposition of genres that I’m attempting here.
“Oh… did we not mention the giant adorable moth lady? Yeah. There’s a giant adorable moth lady.”
Seems like an important thing to mention. Maybe. Heather’s just forgotten this isn’t normal.
I love the whole cast of characters, but chapters with Lozzie and Tenny are my favourite!
I need a Tenny in my life! Thanks for the chapter!
They’re both so much fun to write.
We all need a Tenny in our lives. Moth! And you are very welcome, thank you for reading!
Chapters with Nicole are always a treat. It’s like she was handed the script and trope guidebook to being a a neo-noir thriller lead, but found out all her supplies were stolen by Tenny and now she has to think on her feet.
Exactly! She’s a very certain kind of fish out of water, an experienced professional who finds herself in the wrong story. She finally seems to be making something good out of it though.
If only she avoids the more dangerous aspects of where she’s found herself.
“what I would do what with a cult survivor”
Remove second “what”
“anything more than tiny handful of”
more than A tiny handful
Unsure if “miss” should be “Miss”, it came up in the previous chapter
Ah yes, the ‘miss’ issue did come up in the previous chapter too, I seem to have failed to internalise that. Thank you for pointing it out again! I’m quite sure that ‘Miss’ is correct, yes. I’ll have to watch myself for that one!
Chapters with Nicole are always a treat. It’s like she was handed the script and trope guidebook to being a neo-noir thriller lead, but found out all her goodies were stolen by Tenny and Lozzie to make macaroni art, and now she has to think on her feet.
“It is highly unlikely that anything more than tiny handful of Eye-affected cultists” -> missing “a” between “than” and “tiny”.
“and most recently, Raine’s ‘gamecube’”. -> OK, real talk; are you purposely lowercasing console names to highlight Heather’s non-gamer POW? It’s fine if that’s the case, but let me know so I stop mentioning these as typos. 😀
On a completely unrelated note, this just sparked a long-buried memory, specifically of the reception to Luigi’s Mansion at the time. While generally well received, many fans considered it a stopgap measure until Mario’s next “true” game on the GC, especially due to its length. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but it’s still funny to think back considering how beloved Luigi’s Mansion remains while Sunshine is often considered the black sheep of 3D Mario games and a mild disappointment.
“Perhaps it would be best if you wait …” -> Space between “wait” and the ellipsis.
“She’s Lozzie’s … creation.” -> Same as above.
“Not xbox!” Tenny trilled. “Cuuuube.” “Important distinction,” Praem intoned from the bed. -> Crucial distinction indeed. God do I love these two. ❤
Thanks for spotting those typos! Much appreciated!
As for the gamecube one … hmm. I guess I was doing it because of that, but it should technically be capitalised, yes. That’s a good point.
I honestly still love Luigi’s Mansion, but I’ve never managed to play Sunshine, so that assessment checks out!
And Praem understands very well that console distinction is important to Tennies!
It’s perfectly fine if your intention is to convey Heather’s lack of familiarity with console brands and such. I just wanted to make sure, to stop mentioning it. 🙂
“Growing tentacles, dragging around shards of the abyss, hissing at people, none of that makes me a monster. Vivisecting innocent people, that would make me a monster.”
Oh, Heather, you crossed that line ages ago. Remember when you forcibly performed brain surgery on Sarika after she explicitly declined consent and without informing her of the risks? That was pretty much the same thing Alexander was doing when he hooked people up to his Fallen Star Outsider machine.
I feel like there must be more going on behind the scenes. If the Eye is powerful enough to casually reach out and edit reality so that a person never existed, surely it’s not restricted to operating through puppet-constructs and human cultists? Is this all part of a grand scheme to slowly push Heather into willingly becoming less and less human and more and more like the Eye? After all, its goal is to turn Heather and Maisie into little baby eyes and propagate itself. She’s already expressing her flesh in hyperdimensional mathematics (and we’re told that the Eye is “hyperdimensional mathematics expressed in flesh”) and the way she craves growing her pneuma-somatic tentacles and the accompanying “euphoria” seems sinister to me. She behaves almost like a drug-seeking heroine addict, even down to recognizing the harm she causes herself but still being unable withstand the cravings.
And isn’t it convenient that as her quest to save Maisie progresses, she keeps being driven to cross more and more moral and ethical boundaries, without ever actually making much progress in finding a way to thwart the Eye? She’s becoming spiritually monstrous in tandem with her transformation into a physical monstrosity, which I assume suits the Eye’s purposes very well. I’m becoming more and more convinced that there’s a trap hidden in the whole brainmath thing. Trying to use the Eye’s tools to fight the Eye is like trying to use the One Ring to fight Sauron. Heather should be holding tight to her humanity, not discarding it to attain more power (note that all the evil mages so far like Alexander Lilburne and Evelyn’s mother discarded parts of their humanity in some metaphysical sense in order to gain power, while one of the things that differentiates Evelyn from those mages is that she specifically refuses to make bargains like that in order to gain immortality or extra protection or whatever).
A consistent theme in Katalepsis is the valid personhood of non-human people (Praem, Zheng, Tenny, etc). Heather becoming less human and more amoral would be a strange theme to pair with that. Another theme, however, is the way that mages exceed their humanity to access power and change. But is Heather really embracing power itself, or is power a side-effect of what she’s doing?
The response to Sarika is interesting. I often get comments from readers who feel that Sarika should not have been left alive at all.
Regarding Sarika, she’s obviously an evil person, but if someone like her (basically a serial killer) was caught in real life, she would be given a fair trial and then sentenced to life in prison. She would never be sentenced to torture or to dangerous, Mengele-esque human experimentation. I’m sure almost everyone would agree that that kind of treatment would be evil and wrong no matter what she had done. Heather seems to have the right instincts about how she and her friends shouldn’t play judge, jury, and executioner, but when push comes to shove and it’s a choice between doing something awful and accomplishing her goals, she always seems to choose to do the awful thing. She was even ready to kill Nicole, who was a completely innocent bystander, and would have done it if Lozzie hadn’t been there to stop her. So yeah, I don’t think Sarika did nothing wrong, but the way Heather treated her is totally messed up, and seems to be indicative of serious moral degeneration on Heather’s part, because I don’t think the Heather of the first few arcs would have ever considered doing things like that. That’s where I think she’s playing into the Eye’s hands.
Lozzie stopped Heather from killing Nicole. But when it came to Sarika, Heather made everyone else leave the room first – as if she knew that she needed to do it alone, without external judgement. Others would stop her. Perhaps not because they’re any better, but because … ?
I might be spelling out some themes a little too bluntly here.