Everybody should experience being tackled to the ground, at least once. Preferably with a soft landing.
Perhaps not ‘being tackled to the ground by your werewolf friend only seconds before you maim or kill a person who (probably) does not deserve to die’. That part was all on me.
It is quite the humbling experience. Twil hit me from behind, shoulder ramming into the base of my ribs, arms looping around my middle, head tucked against my side. The impact knocked the wind out of me and scrambled the inside of my head before we even hit the ground. All one’s plans and thoughts get shaken apart like a snow globe. A hundred pounds of meat and muscle has slammed into you, so the brain drops back to basic survival instinct. Doesn’t matter if it’s your friend hitting you, doesn’t matter if you have a rugby ball in your hands, or six additional limbs tipped with pads of rotating bone hooks, everything stops and restarts from cold. It’s like being switched off and on again.
Which was exactly what I needed.
I went down face first in a tangle of limbs. The ground wasn’t too hard this time of year, not yet baked solid by summer sun, so the worst I got was a bruise on my chin and grass stains down my hoodie. My pneuma-somatic limbs and human arms alike lay stunned. Felt like minutes but it was only a second or two, as I lay there panting for breath and blinking at the grass suddenly so close to my face.
Twil knew what she was doing, and didn’t take any chances. She quickly let go of my midsection, sat up, planted her weight firmly on my backside, and pinned my shoulders to the ground.
“Er … Heather, right. Stay down, yeah?” she said.
My tentacles twitched and slapped at the ground. One of them followed a still-stuttering half-thought and reached forward for the boots of the ex-cultist woman in my peripheral vision.
“I can still-” I panted.
“Heather, fuck,” Twil grunted through her teeth. “Stay down.”
“ … okay.”
Predatory instinct and abyssal euphoria guttered out to almost nothing. I was in shock, at myself. If Twil hadn’t hit me that hard, would I have turned on her? Would I have tried to fight her too? Had I really been about to do the unthinkable?
Twil hadn’t actually hit me that hard, which probably saved me an injury. She hadn’t needed to run particularly fast to catch up, still well within normal human limits. No amount of abyssal instinct nor any number of additional limbs could overcome the fact that I was five foot nothing with a stride to match, and possessed the leg muscles of a medieval scribe. Raine could have caught me instead, if she hadn’t been slowed by her crutch; Lozzie could easily have matched me too, though she might have struggled to keep me pinned to the ground as Twil so easily did. By any reasonable standard I had taken a relatively long time to cross those fifty feet which had separated me from my cowering, wide-eyed, ex-cultist prey.
Which raised the question – why hadn’t she run?
I was too winded and too horrified at myself to realise the implication. Twil was too busy keeping me pinned to think of asking. Raine and Lozzie were two pairs of footsteps still hurrying across the grass to join us.
“Oh sh-shit,” I heard the ex-cultist stammer. She stumbled back, almost tripping over her own feet.
“You stay right fuckin’ there,” Twil growled at her – really growled, deep and low and dangerous, reverberating in her chest. To hear that so close, while pinned to the ground, was not a fun experience. Ancient ape instincts screamed warnings about predators. My bowels clenched up and my heart threatened to burst from my chest.
The Eye Loyalist was panting almost as hard as me. Sideways in my peripheral vision, framed by towering clouds in the void of blue sky above, I saw her shake her head.
Then, suddenly, Lozzie filled my vision, all pastel colours and floating strands of wispy blonde hair. She was on her knees in an instant, face right up to mine. A few remaining diminutive spirits clung to her poncho and shoulders, but they fled and scattered rather than stay close to me.
“Heathy, Heathy, it’s okay, no, no-no, it’s okay,” she whispered.
One of her hands went to my cheek, but the other went to one of my restless tentacles, quickly sliding up and along on a collision course with the pads of razor-sharp rotating hooks. Lozzie’s soft skin versus pneuma-somatic bone. There could be no contest; I retracted the hooks completely before she reached them. I folded them back below the pale luminescent flesh, put them away, and unmade them.
“Good girl,” Lozzie whispered for my ears alone. She was smiling, but it did not look easy.
“Oh God, oh fuck, oh fuck,” the ex-cultist was saying.
“Run and I’ll shoot you in the back,” Raine said.
I would have rolled my eyes at that, but I was too busy freaking out.
Raine spoke not a single decibel louder than normal, but somehow her voice cut through all indecision. I couldn’t see her from on the ground, but I knew she was a pace or two behind us.
Twil twisted round on top of me. “In public?! You fucking mad?!”
“Heather,” Raine said, “you okay? Lozzie said you have your tentacles out.”
“She’s an Eye cultist,” I panted, trying to twist my head to see Raine. “She is. I- I know it. She is!”
“Okay, I believe you. Are you okay?”
“I did it as gentle as I could,” Twil said.
“I’m … I’m … ” I managed, throat closing up, face burning. “I-I won’t … I won’t- I won’t hurt … I-”
“Let her up,” said Raine.
“You sure?” Twil asked.
“Yeah. And thanks, Twil. I mean it. Let her up.”
“Sorry Heather,” Twil mumbled as she let go and stood. She reached down to help me up.
But the second her weight was off me, I was already lurching to my feet, pneuma-somatic tentacles pushing me up, one hand in Twil’s, the rest of me wobbling into Lozzie’s arms. I was still panting, half with panic, half from the sprint, my face burning. The Eye Loyalist gasped and flinched back, as if afraid I was going to touch her.
Horror and guilt mingled into a sickening cocktail, spiced with abyssal euphoria. With my tentacles still manifested, I still felt inherently, elementally right, despite what I’d almost just done. I could not reconcile myself. I felt like I was about to fly apart. I hiccuped and panted, with nowhere to turn.
But none of us had time to think, let alone wallow in guilt.
“Want me to take her now?” Twil growled between her teeth, locked onto the ex-cultist lady.
“Wouldn’t risk it,” Raine said, low and soft, nodding at the little metal cylinder the woman was still holding out toward us in one shaking hand. “What’s that you got there, a pipe bomb?”
Now I was more than a guided missile of tooth and claw, I saw it clearly – a steel cylinder about the size of a commercial glow-stick, with a cap on either end. The middle was decorated with a trio of pronged symbols that made my eyes itch.
The ex-cultist, the Eye Loyalist, the lady who’d been watching us, the human being I’d been about to vivisect and devour, she was right on the edge of her own sanity, holding herself from the precipice by sheer willpower. She looked as if she’d been awake for a week straight and hadn’t eaten in a month, eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark bags, gaze darting between the four of us at high speed. Her complexion was almost grey beneath her dark skin, face gaunt with short term malnutrition. Her hair was pulled back in a long, unwashed, greasy ponytail, though her clothes were clean. Her breathing shook with adrenaline. She had no idea how to hold the penknife in her other hand.
“Heathy,” Lozzie whispered, and I blinked in surprise as a small hand squeezed the base of one of my pneuma-somatic tentacles. “Heathy you have to put them away put them away before you get tired and fall over, you have to put them away-away. Please please please. For me.”
Lozzie was right. I was burning through my energy reserves. A minute or two left, at most, before I crashed out.
“This wasn’t meant to happen, wasn’t meant to happen,” the Eye Loyalist babbled.
“Fuckin’ ‘ey,” Twil grunted. “How about you drop your shit and I won’t break you in half?”
“A lot wasn’t meant to happen,” Raine said. “Lower whatever that is and we’ll have a nice little chat, okay? We just wanna know why you’re watching us. Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding. Maybe you were just here by chance. Come on, we’re all in public. Somebody’s gonna walk by any second, or somebody’s gonna spot us doing this. Lower the weapon. We ain’t gonna hurt you.”
“How does that jive with ‘run and I’ll shoot you in the back’?” Twil grunted.
“S’just how I roll,” Raine said.
The cultist swallowed hard and wet her lips, like she was about to say something. But then her eyes flickered past us, to the left and the right.
She made no attempt to hide the glance, no effort to be subtle. She wasn’t trained, or experienced, or the least bit capable of what she’d set out to do today, and it was that glance which convinced me. She’d held her ground before me not with courage, but with exhaustion and lack of options. Abyssal instinct dismissed her in that moment, read her as a liability to her own cause, a floundering pup. She was a normal person, who had once led a normal life, and no idea what she was doing.
Neither did the other two.
They closed on us from behind, at diagonal angles, forming a rough triangle with the young woman. That was the only competent thing they’d done, watching us from three equidistant spots.
Lozzie clamped herself to my side and clung onto my arm. She was shaking like a leaf. My tentacles hugged her close on pure instinct, while the others threw up a warning display. Of course, nobody but her and I could see that.
The second Eye Loyalist was already quite close. He drew to a stop about twenty paces away. He’d probably been waiting back among the trees that lined this side of the park. A black gentleman, perhaps in his fifties or even sixties, with greying hair but built solidly the way a lifetime of casual exercise does to a person – but he was drained inside, eyes exhausted and face sagging with incredible stress. He wore a dark green raincoat and had one hand in a pocket, pointing something at us without revealing it, but his expression did not communicate threat. Wide-eyed, cold sweat rolling down his forehead, his other hand raised in a placating gesture. He was absolutely terrified, even more than the young woman, and it did not take a rocket scientist to figure out why. They shared an obvious family resemblance, in the eyes and mouth and jawline.
A third ex-cultist jogged across the grass from the other side, and skidded to a halt.
He looked like a slightly aged-up version of a stereotypical teenage drug dealer, with little twists of dark hair escaping from under a beanie hat. Shaking inside a lumpy hoodie, a closed folding knife held in both hands in front of him, he clearly had no idea what to do – except lock eyes with me in exasperated mutual recognition.
Even with his face covered in scraggly self-neglect beard growth, the animal impression was as strong as it had been at the top of Glasswick Tower.
“Badger?” I blurted out.
Badger just sighed.
“Fuck!” Twil spat.
“Woah, woah,” Raine said, holding up her free hand, addressing everyone as she stood tall even with her crutch. “Let’s not get too close, yeah? Let’s all keep this nice and cool.”
The older gentleman began to nod.
“Screw cool, man,” Badger said to him, voice shaking, manic and almost spitting his words. “We gotta get this done, right now, man, we gotta get this done.”
“Hey, you, badger-face,” Raine said, sudden and sharp. “I remember you, from that house, with the rest of the cult. You made it out, right? Smart man. You wanna be smart here too, this isn’t worth your life.”
“My life’s in the shitter,” he hissed back, then glanced to the older guy. “What do we do now, dude? Richie, come on, what do we do?”
“Nothing,” the older gentleman – Richie – said, voice strained to absolute breaking point. Cold sweat rolled down his face and he almost seemed to be struggling to breathe. “We do nothing. Okay?” His eyes flicked to the young woman – his daughter, his niece, granddaughter? “Why aren’t you running?”
She just shook her head, wide-eyed. “I-I … ”
“If she runs, I’ll shoot her in the back,” Raine repeated, casual as talking about the weather. She slipped her free hand inside her jacket and pointed something at the woman – her fingers or her handgun, I couldn’t tell.
Richie gritted his teeth and glanced left and right – checking to see if other people were too close to us – and then showed the edge of what he was gripping inside his raincoat pocket. A revolver. The sliver of revealed metal almost looked rusty. He shoved it back in his pocket and pointed it at Raine again.
“You do that,” he told her, voice shaking. “And I’ll shoot you too. Swear to God, I will do it.”
“Any of you try anything, I’ll rip your fucking heads off!” Twil growled.
“Who the fuck is she?” Badger nodded at Twil.
“I have no idea,” Richie said between clenched teeth.
“You can’t shoot Raine,” I spoke up, then hiccuped once, “because I can stop bullets.”
Badger and Richie shared a glance. Badger nodded. Richie drew a hand across his face.
“That is true,” Richie said. “We- we know that’s true. She can. She’s done it before. Look,” he said to us. “Look, we’ve made a mistake-”
“Mistake?” I hissed, anger mounting, outrage barely kept in check, abyssal instinct beginning to scream at me to pull these people apart where they stood. “You’re still doing the Eye’s bidding, like Saturday morning cartoon villains. You came here to kidnap me and send me back to it and you don’t even know what you’re doing.”
Richie and Badger shared another glance. Something was wrong. Raine shifted her footing, and I could feel the violence approaching.
“There’s no need for anybody to die here today,” Richie said, making a placating gesture with one hand. “Let’s just-”
“Bugger this,” Badger spat. He fumbled to open his folding knife, but only managed to cut himself in the process, yelping and shaking his hand. He sucked on the tiny wound, grimacing.
“You gotta press the little release catch,” Raine pointed out. “Then the blade is free to move. And don’t pull it open toward your body.”
Badger scowled at her, then down at his knife, then shoved it in his pocket. “Richie, we can do this right now. Come on, man,” he said.
Richie shook his head.
“We could!” the young woman piped up. Too close. I rounded on her, a hiss in my throat.
“Don’t let her touch you!” Richie called out.
The ex-cultist lady tripped back and almost went sprawling in the grass, stumbling and righting herself like a woman before a rabid dog, biting down on a scream. She waved her tiny pen-knife in front of herself to ward me off.
“Hey, hey,” Raine raised her voice. “We’re in public, in the middle of Yare park, in broad daylight. The university’s right there,” she pointed, “and there’s plenty of people within shouting distance. One of us starts screaming, this is done. And if you still wanna rumble while there’s people watching, we can make bodies vanish with no fuss. Heather’ll just send you Outside.” She nodded at me. “Who’s going to believe a witness claiming three people just vanished into thin air?”
“Yes,” I hissed – and realised I was almost at the end of my reserves. A hollow space was forming inside my chest, a spiritual abscess, even as adrenaline pulsed through my arteries.
“She can’t get us all,” Badger said. “Right? Right? All we need is to grab her and reach the car.”
“You’ll never get there, dickwad,” Twil growled at him. He flinched.
Raine made eye contact with Richie, who had spoken the most sense so far. “I’m gonna let you leave. Back away, right now.”
“Dad,” the young woman whined. “We can’t. We can’t! I can’t do this anymore.”
“You promise you won’t come after us?” Richie’s throat bobbed. His eyes flicked to the young woman.
Raine took a beat to answer – a beat too long, because Twil got there first.
“Fat chance,” Twil growled.
“Come on then, dude, we do this, right now, right now,” Badger said, trying to work himself up.
“We’ve fucked up, mate,” Richie said. “Just run!”
Badger, sweating and shaking at the end of his rope, did just that. He broke and ran – straight at me.
Richie swore and drew the revolver from his pocket.
I got halfway into the dripping molten fragments of a physics-breaking hyperdimensional equation at the speed of thought, before I realised the gun was a bluff. The weapon was a rusted shell, didn’t even have a cylinder. Richie levelled it just long enough – the blink of an eye – to give cover for his daughter to pick up her feet and run. Raine was still in the process of half-drawing her own weapon when Richie broke and ran too, sprinting back toward the tree-line and the edge of the park.
Twil jerked one way – after her fleeing prey – and then the other, in the split-second that Badger bore down on us.
Reeling from aborted brainmath, with sudden nosebleed running down my face, energy almost spent, I whirled my tentacles to face him. I thrust Lozzie away too, clear of whatever he was going to attempt.
Madness, sheer madness that he’d even try to grab me. The moment he made contact I would send him Outside.
But then he veered, almost tripped, corrected his course. He wasn’t aiming for me at all.
He was going for Lozzie.
I think Lozzie tried to Slip, on instinct, like a bird trying to take flight and discovering the stubs of its own wings. Her eyes unfocused and this horrible shiver passed through her, a spasm that started in her head and shot down her spine, as if she was about to suffer a epileptic fit. But of course, she couldn’t go. Instead she screamed and scrambled back toward me and I felt like such an idiot for pushing her away. Abyssal instinct responded with new hooks of bone and a hiss to shatter glass and was I fully prepared to rip Badger’s arms off and pop his head like a grape and-
And Twil’s fist caught him in the jaw. Span him over like rag doll. He went down very undramatically, and somehow lost his beanie hat in the process.
Lozzie slammed into my side and stayed there, clinging on tight.
“That’s what you get, shitface!” Twil swung at Badger again as he scrambled to his feet, knocking him in the ribs as he scrabbled for the knife in his pocket. He managed to draw it, but Twil knocked it from his hands and he staggered back, blinked at her twice, then turned and ran.
Twil let out a growl and sprinted after him – but she got less than three paces.
“Twil!” Raine snapped – hard and angry, not like her usual self. “Stop.”
Twil obliged, skidding to a stop like a cartoon.
“Raine, no!” I blurted out in panic, burbling through nosebleed and the urge to vomit. “We need one of them. Twil, get him!”
“We need to move, right now, people are going to start asking questions,” Raine said quickly, nodding at distant figures in the park. Richie and his daughter were already gone, but a jogger on one of the pathways had stopped running, and was looking our way with his hands on his hips. The day-drinking student picnic were all looking in our direction as well.
“We have to go home, and we have to walk there,” said Raine. She crossed the few paces to me as I wobbled and blinked and felt my tentacles beginning to collapse, my energy running out.
“Then go!” Twil said. “They’re getting away!”
“They are!” I said. “They- ahhh, oh, aahhhh.”
The pain started in my sides, tentacles collapsing into pneuma-somatic ash from the tips downward. Lozzie shivered and whimpered, clinging to me, and that was the only thing which kept me on my feet. Raine grabbed me under the arm, lent me her support.
“I’m on a crutch,” she said to Twil. “Heather’s about to collapse. That might not have been the last of them. I need you to help.”
Twil glanced after Badger, who was almost at the little turn where the pathway vanished around a copse of trees. Another twenty seconds and he’d be at the park gates, and then out into Sharrowford’s streets. Twil grit her teeth and made a huffing noise, a hound straining on her leash.
Lances of pain stabbed into my sides, muscles seizing up as the tentacles’ support structures pulled themselves free from my flesh and fell away into nothingness.
“No … ” I whined through my teeth.
“What are you gonna do if you catch him?” Raine said quickly. “Beat answers out of him in broad daylight? Don’t run off, Twil.”
Twil finally sighed and nodded, the tension flowing out of her as she shook herself, standing down. “Shit, yeah, okay. Let’s get you all home first. Shit.”
With the last of my energy, with the ghost of a tentacle, merely phantom limb once more, with tenderised muscle and shredded cell walls and bruised ribs, I reached out toward the distant fleeing figure of Badger. He ducked around the trees and put himself beyond our power to catch.
Then the edges of my vision throbbed dark. I keened between my teeth at the pain in my torso, and almost passed out.
Lozzie cried for hours.
She held it together until we got back to the house, sniffing and wiping at her red-rimmed eyes, doing her best to add her attention to Raine’s and Twil’s as we hurried home. I was no good, Twil practically had to carry me, and it was minor miracle that nobody paid us too much attention, what with my nosebleed and the fact I could barely work my legs and the one time I had to stop along Bluebell Road to vomit into the gutter.
But as soon as we got home, as soon as the door was locked and Raine was calling Evelyn at campus to tell her what had happened, as soon as Zheng appeared at the merest hint of my pain on the air, as soon as Twil zipped about the house checking the locks, Lozzie broke down crying.
She retreated to her bedroom, with Tenny, and buried herself under the covers, crying into her pillow. Even exhausted and bruised and aching inside, I insisted on seeing her as soon as Raine had helped clean my face and forced me to drink a pint of water.
Perhaps Lozzie’s distress kept me together. Perhaps it was easier to think about her than myself.
I stroked her hair as she sobbed into her pillow, at the end of my own energy too, tender and aching and with the ghost of bile in my throat, Raine half propping me up. Tenny sat on the end of the bed, po-faced and lost and not quite understanding. After an hour Lozzie finally calmed down and slipped off into an uneasy sleep, the only escape still open to her. I went down too, dragged under by exhaustion and a helping from Evelyn’s stash of painkillers.
“You keep her company,” Raine murmured, kissing me on the forehead as she tucked a blanket around my shoulders. “You need rest too. Don’t worry about anything, we’ll keep watch.”
“But … ” I mumbled back through sleep and pain. “But Twil’s … if she finds … ”
“If Twil drags anything back with her, I’ll wake you. Promise.”
The next eight hours descended into a blur of animal instinct and shared body heat and stiffening bruises that denied me any true sleep. I’d kept my tentacles active far too long, drained myself right to empty, and painkillers could not fight every twinge and ache as the bruises set in. I curled around Lozzie as her big spoon, and tried not to move too much, drifting in and out of consciousness.
But some hours later Lozzie got up to go to the toilet, and I woke to find myself wrapped in Zheng’s arms instead, soaking in her ambient body heat. Her hunt must have come up cold. Tenny was nowhere to be seen either. When Lozzie didn’t return, I pulled my aching carcass from between Zheng’s arms and out of bed, hissing pain between my teeth.
“Rest, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “You are spread thin.”
“Lozzie’s been too long,” I slurred.
Zheng did not argue further. After a sleep-addled stumble through the unlit upstairs hallway while the house brooded in shadows, we found Lozzie huddled on the bathroom floor. The moment we saw her she did that little shake again, the unfocused eyes and the shiver in the head that told me she was trying to Slip.
But she couldn’t. Still restrained by the ghostly dead hands around her ankles, the grasping of a hyperdimensional phantom across the membrane between here and Outside. She started crying all over again, burying her head between her knees.
Zheng scooped her up like she weighed nothing, and carried her back to bed.
She cried for another hour, perhaps, until we lulled her back to sleep.
I didn’t blame her, and if anyone had I would have slapped them. Our trip to the park was meant for her, a brief sally of freedom to punctuate the long unspoken siege, and it had ended with a kidnapping attempt. A clumsy failure of an attempt, but it had reminded her of just how trapped she was, and what was waiting for her if we ever let down our guard.
And now she couldn’t rely on me either. I had pushed her away – that it was mistaken didn’t matter – and when she’d tried to escape, she’d found her wings clipped.
And she’d had to help control me.
I tried not to think about that part, but snatches of nightmare broke through the pain and exhaustion. Sleep came and went in fits and starts, and I dreamed of my own hands covered greasy grey brain matter as I rooted around inside a shattered skull.
Energy dripped back, filling the cold void in my chest with something except my own pulped flesh.
Hunger woke me eventually. Deep, gnawing, hollow-belly hunger that set my hands shaking before I’d even finished sitting up in Lozzie’s bed.
“Lozzie?” I croaked into the dark, but she slept on, breathing slow and even.
Zheng was gone, but somebody had tucked me in snug and warm, and Tenny had appeared on the opposite side of the bed, silken black tentacles wrapped around Lozzie’s hands and hips. She was asleep too. Past the foot of the bed, the television cast jagged blue light over the low table and Tenny’s toys, with a video game paused on the screen.
The hunger was overwhelming. I simply had to eat. There was no way I was leaving Lozzie to wake up by herself, so I don’t know what I would have done if we’d been alone – stuck my head out of the bedroom door and squawked for food like a baby bird? But with Tenny curled up by her side, I didn’t feel too much guilt when I wriggled out of bed, leaving Lozzie to stir and murmur against my sudden absence. Though I did have to pause and stay very still for several long moments, as I swallowed a gasp of pain at the stiff bruises blossoming across my flanks, the slow rolling deep aches stabbing into my sides, while simultaneously trying not to quiver too hard with hunger shakes.
I felt like an ancient shrivelled vampire rising from a tomb, as I cracked the door open and shuffled out into the upstairs hallway, my sides creaking like old leather.
The hallway was dark, but cold clear moonlight spilled in through the open curtains, turning the wooden surfaces of Number 12 Barnslow Drive into ephemeral silver. I’d slept the day away. Missed class.
Such a bad girl, Heather. What would your mother say? Skipping classes, trying to commit murder, and torture, and worse. Bad girl.
Abyssal instinct drew me to the window. I stared down at the street, silvered by moonlight between hazy orange puddles beneath the street lamps. I scanned for tell-tale shadows cast by waiting predators, or the stealthy lumps of hidden bottom-feeders, or anything out of place. The muscles around my eyes twitched oddly, and I had to screw them up when I realised I’d attempted to blink nictitating membranes I did not possess.
Food smells made my stomach rumble like a tar pit, and drew me downstairs. I had to take the steps carefully, one at a time, descending into the cavernous space of the front room where spars of moonlight broke the inky darkness, and the far end was flooded with warmth spilling out from the kitchen doorway.
Deja vu struck me, for the second time today.
I’d done this before, months and months ago, when Raine had first brought me to this house. Crept downstairs in the dark, aching and bruised, drawn by the smell of food.
Was I still the same person? Had I become a monster yet?
Too hungry to think about that right then. The soft machine demanded fuel, ape and abyss and Heather all agreed on that.
I shuffled into the warmth and light of the kitchen, following my nose and the sounds of soft conversation. Five pairs of eyes rose to greet me.
“Heather! Hey, you’re up!” Raine was up too and out of her seat, almost forgoing her crutch in her haste to reach me.
“Yo,” Twil said, raising a hand. She was sat on the far side of the kitchen table and looking extremely awkward, like a teenager forced to endure a dinnertime argument between her parents.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled, leaning against the wall like she was propping up the whole house. She reached over and placed one hand on the top of my head, and I felt my muscles relax in sympathetic pleasure.
Praem said nothing, just standing off to one side of Evelyn with her hands clasped before her. Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me, waiting while Raine pressed a hand to my forehead and gave me a hug and peered into my eyes to make sure I was truly awake and truly here.
“You with us, yeah?” Raine asked. “Heather?”
“Mmm,” I grunted. “I’m … here, I’m just … sides hurt. Bruises.”
Post-meal debris was scattered across the kitchen table – a crock pot still half-full of chicken stew, thick with gravy, alongside some leftover rice at the bottom of a pan, and four dirty plates. Four? Had Zheng joined the others for dinner? That or Praem, I don’t know which seemed more unlikely.
“How are you feeling?” Evelyn asked eventually.
“Hungry,” I croaked.
Raine laughed. Twil laughed too, but it sounded forced. Evelyn huffed a snort, but that was enough for me.
I let Raine guide me to a chair while Praem reheated a very generous portion of rice and stew, and Twil found an excuse to hop up and hover about and get in Praem’s way. That first helping of rice and chicken and thick chunky vegetables barely registered on my palate, I ate so fast, and didn’t fill me up in the slightest. I sat there blinking and half-awake while Praem fetched another.
As hunger started to abate, my mind came back. That’s when I realised everyone was both quiet and tense. Twil was sneaking awkward glances at me. Evelyn was staring at her phone on the table. Zheng was brooding – which was normal, so that didn’t count. Raine was quiet too, which spooked me. She noticed my pause after the first bite of my second bowl of food.
“It’s okay to slow down a bit,” she said with a warm smile.
“ … what’s happened?” I croaked.
That roused Evelyn. She took a deep breath, sighed, and gestured at her phone, her other hand rubbing at her aching hip in an unconscious gesture.
“We’re all on the edge of our seats,” she said, with faux-sarcasm. “Nicole Webb called fifteen minutes ago, to let us know she was about to begin. If everything is going to plan, she’s already elbow-deep in Harold Yuleson’s files. If not, well … ” She gestured at the phone again.
“Then we’re ready to move,” Raine said, quiet and confident, with a wink for me. “But my bet is we won’t have to. Nicky knows what she’s about.”
“Oh,” I managed. “Oh, it’s really that late?”
“Mm, past ten.” Evelyn eyed me oddly, as if waiting for something else, a cold curiosity in her eyes.
A lump grew in my throat. I opened my mouth to say something – to beg forgiveness, to apologise, to sob, I don’t know. I never got there.
“Hey, uh,” Twil piped up, having obvious difficulty in the way of a teenager trying to ask their crush on a date. “Heather, are you … like … are you alright?”
I blinked at her, my guilt briefly short-circuited. “ … mostly. I think. Thank you for asking though.”
Twil’s throat bobbed. In the corner of my eye, I saw Zheng’s face crack into a truly shit-eating grin, showing all her teeth. Twil shot her a scowl, but that only served to make the grin pull wider.
“Shut up, zombie,” Twil growled.
“I did not speak a word,” said Zheng.
“Oh for pity’s sake, Twil,” Evelyn huffed. “Just say it. You’re not a coward.”
“Everyone just shut the fuck up, okay?” Twil said, then cleared her throat. She wet her lips and grimaced at me. “I mean, like, I did have to tackle you. Are you … are we … I’m sorry. Sorry, yeah!” She lit up. “I’m trying to apologise, right. Sorry.”
“Oh. Um … that’s the last thing I was thinking about,” I admitted. “There’s no hard feelings. We’re okay.”
“I did it textbook like,” Twil went on, grimacing. “Best I could. Tried not to bounce your skull or anything or-”
“Twil, there’s no need to apologise,” I said.
She opened her mouth to carry on, but then stopped and nodded. “Just didn’t wanna actually hurt you. You’re kinda small and fragile, you know?”
I actually laughed a little, a tiny giggle. “Twil, you’re barely taller than me.”
“The shaman is not fragile,” Zheng purred.
“Yeah yeah.” Twil waved us off, blushing. “You know what I mean. Heather’s like, petite. Felt weird hurting her.”
“Besides,” I sighed, looking down at my second bowl of stew, feeling as if I did not deserve food. “I did more damage to myself than you ever could.”
Raine squeezed my shoulder.
“Quite,” said Evelyn, very unimpressed.
Zheng made a low growling sound in her throat – at Evelyn.
“Down,” Praem intoned. I shook my head too, I would not have them fight over this principle. Zheng trailed off with a grudging snort. Awkward silence fell, and I wanted to curl up and go back to sleep.
“What happened this morning, Heather?” Evelyn asked eventually.
Raine opened her mouth with a soft click, but Evelyn’s hand chopped the air to cut her off.
“Shush,” Praem intoned for her.
“In your own words,” Evelyn added. “Raine and Twil have both told me what they saw already. What happened?”
I looked up into those big blue eyes with their stress lines. Evelyn was impossible to lie to. I respected her too much, liked her too much. And in that moment, that moment in which Raine and Zheng would make any excuse for me and Twil was too accepting to push back, I realised how much I needed Evelyn to like me too.
“I was going to take that woman apart,” I said. I expected my voice to shake, but it came out plain and even. “I was going to use a tentacle, stick it into her head and hollow out her thoughts, I suppose. Dig out the Eye’s secrets. Core her like an apple.”
‘Shit,’ Twil mouthed silently. Raine rubbed my back. Evelyn stared at me, unreadable.
“I don’t have an excuse,” I went on. “Instinct told me what to do, but … I wanted to do it. I made a promise, and then I tried to break it. Because I’m turning into … ”
“You are not becoming a monster,” Raine said, and I flinched slightly at the whip-crack in her voice.
“Yeah, I mean, shit,” Twil added with an awkward smile. “Humans do horrible things to each other all the same. Er, I mean, not that … horrible, uh … ”
“Why the tentacle in the head?” Evelyn asked, eyes hungry with curiosity.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just came over me. The logic of it made sense.” I laughed once, a humourless sound which threatened to turn into a sob. “Maybe that’s what the Eye does. Maybe that was another one of its lessons.”
Evelyn sighed heavily. “I would say that you and I need to have a talk, but I suspect you’re beating yourself up worse than I ever could.”
I nodded, hanging my head.
“Look,” Evelyn said. “None of us disapprove of trying to kill these people-”
“Hey, hey,” Raine piped up with a smirk. “Badger’s made it this far. Dude’s a survivor, big respect. If I catch him I’ll beat him black and blue, but I won’t kill the guy.” She cleared her throat, and added under her breath, “‘less I have to.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes.
“I don’t want to kill them either,” I said. “Not after what we saw. They were just regular people, Evee. They were so scared of me. Of us.”
Evelyn wet her lips and huffed. “Well, good. Fine. I suppose. My point is, you-”
“Almost crossed a line, yes. I know.” I bit down on my lower lip.
“The predator does what it must,” Zheng purred. I tried to give her a scowl, but she met my eyes with such placid calm I couldn’t keep it up. “Do you blame the wolf or the bear, for eating, shaman? You are real, you cannot live forever on tinned meat without facing the truth.”
Evelyn thumped an elbow on the table and put her forehead in her hand. “Yes, thank you for keeping the message coherent, Zheng.”
Zheng shrugged, unconcerned. “The shaman will not bring herself harm by following her nature.”
“I almost did,” I hissed.
“But hey, Heather,” Raine said. “You didn’t. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Help each other keep promises.”
My anger boiled over in a sudden flash. “I wouldn’t even be in this position if Edward Lilburne didn’t have our fucking book!”
Everyone stared at me. I blinked several times, red in the face, not knowing where to turn my eyes. Then I hiccuped twice in quick succession.
“Holy shit,” Twil whispered. “She swore.”
“Well, it’s true!” I snapped again. “He probably doesn’t even know why we need it, doesn’t understand that he’s delaying everything, that he’s holding up-” I huffed through my nose. “So I’m scratching for any advantage, anything at all, and I’m willing to hurt people and commit horrible acts, yes. Because we don’t have the book so we can’t safely face the Eye so I have to grow claws. And he must have sent those people. He must have! For Lozzie. I won’t have it! I won’t!”
I felt like punching the table, but that would only have earned me another bruise. Instead I sat there taking deep breaths while Raine rubbed my back. Zheng stepped over and put a huge hand on my head as well, and I slipped out of anger and into sheer exhaustion.
“That part I agree with,” Evelyn said softly.
“Snap,” said Twil.
“These two have both been hunting,” Raine said with a nod at Twil and Zheng. “But they didn’t turn anything up, not near the park, and not near the house. Those three clowns who came at us, I think we terrified ‘em. I doubt they’re gonna try again. Don’t worry about Lozzie, okay?”
“You don’t know that,” Twil said, then shut her mouth at Raine’s warning smirk.
“I appreciate the effort,” I said. “But it’s hard to feel reassured right now. I’m sorry.”
“There is a very serious question here, which none of us have asked yet,” Evelyn said, slowly and carefully.
“What’s that, general?” Raine asked. Evelyn rolled her eyes, but went on nonetheless.
“How could anybody know you were going to be at the park this morning?” she asked.
Evelyn’s mobile phone chose that exact moment to light up with an incoming call, vibrating against the table and playing an anime theme song as the ring tone. She jumped, I jumped, Twil jerked round. Evelyn slapped the ‘answer call’ button.
“Speak,” she said.
“In, out, in, out, shake it all about,” Nicole’s voice came from the phone’s speaker, made tinny and electronic, but singing with pure exuberance. “You do the hokey-cokey and you turn around, and that’s what it’s all about! Wheeeey!”
We all looked at each other, except Evelyn who frowned at the phone as if it had turned into a live frog. Raine burst out laughing.
“Miss Saye? Hello?” Nicole tried again, a little breathless.
“What the fuck was that?” Evelyn spat. “Where are you? What’s happened?”
“I’m sitting in my car,” came Nicole’s voice again. She did not sound like herself. She sounded like Nicole Webb processed through a kilo of cocaine. “Safe and sound, with one cloned computer hard drive and a stack of photocopies of everything and anything I could grab, and a gut absolutely saturated with adrenaline. Yeah!”
A slap resounded down the phone, Nicole hitting her car’s steering wheel with the palm of her hand.
“Well done Nicky!” Raine cheered. “Hell yeah, girl.”
I sighed with relief too. At least we were getting somewhere.
“Thank you so much, Nicky,” I added.
“Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week. Actually no, I’ll be reading these documents, but first I need to go pick up a lot – and I do mean a lot – of weed, and get very fucking stoned, thank you very much, ladies.” She let out a long breath, suddenly slowing down. “Actually sod that, I’m gonna sit on the toilet for an hour. This is not glamorous. I am getting too old to start a new career as a burglar.”
“Have you made it look like a break in?” Evelyn asked.
“Yeah, like we said. Cleared out their petty cash, just a couple of hundred. I don’t think we’ll fool somebody like Yuleson, but whatever.”
“Send me another message when you’re home safe,” Evelyn said. “And Nicole, thank you. I appreciate a job well done.”
“Haha!” Nicole laughed. “And thank you for paying me, because fuck doing this for free. Signing off for now.”
Evelyn ended the phone call and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Zheng purred like a huge, satisfied cat.
“That’s more than enough excitement for one day,” Evelyn said, leaning back in her chair. She rotated her neck, which made her spine click three times. “Heather, do you think we could do anything for Lozzie? To make her feel any more safe-”
But Evelyn never got to finish that sentence. She cut off in surprise as three of us – me, Praem, and Zheng – all turned to look at the top of the open doorway to the magical workshop.
One of the spider-servitors, all black chitin and waving stingers and crystalline eyes flickering in the light, came scuttling out of the doorway upside down, shooting across the ceiling with surprising speed. I flinched and almost yelped, I’d forgotten how fast the things could move when they needed to. The armoured servitor crossed the ceiling as Zheng showed all her teeth, but it wasn’t going for her.
It vanished through the opposite doorway, into the little utility room.
“Heather? What was that?” Evelyn demanded.
“Woah, yeah, hey-” Twil was saying. Raine was already tense all over, ready to move. She knew.
“Spiders,” Praem intoned, and pointed very accurately so Evelyn would know where it went.
“On the move,” Zheng purred, as the second one shot from the workshop doorway as well, sideways along the wall and into the front room. Praem pointed again.
Evelyn stared for a moment, eyes wide at nothing. Our gazes met.
“Something’s here,” I said.
“Yes,” she agreed, gone quite pale in the face, swallowing hard. “Something has crossed the boundary of the house, at the front wall or the back garden.”
Raine was already on her feet, grabbing something from inside her jacket on the back of her chair. Zheng was three paces away in an instant, loping toward the back door. Twil bared her teeth in a growl. Praem stepped closer to Evelyn. My eyes went to the ceiling, up to where Lozzie was still sleeping.
I pushed the chair back and stood up, wobbly but mobile, intending to go her – and that’s when I saw him.
In the back garden, visible through the small kitchen window, picked out by the moonlight like an idiot standing on a ridge in the middle of a battlefield; crouched in the grass, as if that would make any difference.
Badger saw me looking, and froze.