Abyssal instinct came roaring back.
I’d spotted Badger through the kitchen window, caught him in the act of sneaking through our back garden, unmistakable even beneath the ghostly moon and the distant backwash of orange light pollution, in his lumpy shapeless hoodie with curls of springy hair escaping from under the hood, frozen in shock about six feet from the gnarled old tree where Tenny’s cocoon had once grown. A fleeting glimpse, a quarter of a second – and a tidal wave crashed through my endocrine system.
Human adrenaline and oceanic hunting drive, the affront of territorial intrusion, the implicit threat to my friends, my pack, to Lozzie sleeping upstairs unaware, the sudden vibration in my arms and legs, the dilation of blood vessels, tunnel vision, hunger; all of it hit me before the others had time to react to my gasp.
A single aching heartbeat of predatory urge wracked me, body and soul.
I wanted to sprout tentacles, to fling myself headfirst through the glass and metal of the kitchen window, like a squid ejecting herself from a crack in the rock in ambush. Instinct provided a plan, a trajectory straight to Badger’s cranium, a crystal clear mental image.
Luckily, I was still me, and therefore still an exhausted wreck. If I’d been well-rested, less bruised, and perhaps if I hadn’t already attempted to mutilate and murder a person that very morning, perhaps I would have discovered that smashing through windows with one’s own body does not work like it does in the movies. I’d likely have bounced off and made a complete prat of myself. Even if I had managed to shatter the glass, I’d have covered myself in wounds and landed in the garden like a sack of wet meat. Abyssal instinct cannot make up for multiple lacerations from broken glass.
Guilt or willpower or weakness, all or one held me back for a crucial second, no matter how I drooled and shivered with desire.
And then my phantom limbs were whipping through the air, trying to grasp the edge of the table to hold me steady, lunging for the doorway to the utility room to follow Zheng. Even as psychological constructs, mental ghosts, their motion demanded support and response in the tension and flex of real muscles in my flanks – real muscles which I had abused to breaking point that morning, and which were currently a mass of bruises.
Incredible pain flared through my sides as the muscles seized up.
“Ahhhhh!” I cried out and almost fell over, losing sight of Badger.
For a few moments everything was chaos. I was clutching myself, panting and sweating with pain. Somebody caught me and held me up. My own name shot right past my ears. A growl, scrambling feet, shouting, the back door slamming open followed by a tiger’s rumble through a throat of granite.
That got through. Zheng was outdoors, going for Badger.
“N-no!” I ripped myself back up, eyes watering, and nearly pulled myself right out of Raine’s arms. “She can’t, she-”
The kitchen was bedlam. Twil span away from the window and raced for the back door as well. Evelyn was white-faced and stuck in a silent stammer, half-retreated toward her magical workshop. Praem was opening one of the kitchen cupboards for God alone knows what reason. I’d tipped over two chairs somehow and managed to knock an empty plate onto the floor, which had shattered across the flagstones in a dangerous mess of sharp fragments. Raine had her pistol in one hand, me in the other, crutch abandoned. She was putting her weight on the wrong leg.
And through the kitchen window, out in the dimly lit garden amid the overgrown grass and untended flowerbeds choked with weeds, I glimpsed the shadowy figure of Badger again.
The idiot hadn’t run.
This time he’d managed to open his folding knife without injuring himself. In a whirl of confusion as I was already turning for the back door, I saw him holding the tiny blade out in front, with his other hand curled in a defensive posture.
He knew what Zheng could do. He must have known she’d go through that like wet paper. He had seconds.
Which meant so did I.
“Heath-” Raine started to say my name, to hold me back. To be fair, between the pain in my sides and general exhaustion, I could barely walk, and Badger might not be alone.
“Help me!” I screamed in her face.
To her infinite credit, Raine understood me before I even understood myself. She didn’t argue. She jammed her shoulder beneath mine, which sent a ricochet of pain shooting down through my bruises and playing discordant notes across my nerve endings. I cried out through my teeth, but it was worth it, as she dragged me quickly along in Twil’s wake, into the darkness of the utility room and through the now open back door, beneath the massive hanging bulk of the spider-servitor which could not or would not go beyond the boundaries of the house. We burst out into the sudden chill and silvery moonlight in the back garden.
Badger was about fifteen or twenty feet away, just in front of the gnarled old tree. The grass at his ankles, green and verdant in the warming spring weather, was a blanket of sliver threads beneath the moonlight.
Twil was only a pace or two ahead of us on the little patio, teeth bared, head swivelling left and right to track for other threats in the thick shadows of the overgrown garden.
Zheng was about to pounce.
A savage grin ripped across her face at the prospect of a fight, her massive frame lowered and rocked back on one leg, tensing and ready to spring.
“Zheng, no!” I choked out.
She juddered to a halt like a stalled train, a frustrated growl between her teeth. One eye flicked back over her shoulder at me.
Badger, wide eyed and panting with terror, clearly could not believe this reprieve. Beneath his hood I could make out the whites of his eyes, his shuddering mouth as he heaved for breath, the cold sweat rolling down his face. Both his hands shook, knife held out before him.
Hunting instinct stirred in my chest once again, told me to rush at him, bring him down, hold him in place. Eat his brain.
I said no.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled, deeply displeased.
“Yo, Heather, what?” Twil said.
“I have to do it right this time,” I wheezed, as Raine raised her pistol to cover Badger all the same. “I have to do it right, to-”
Badger’s eyes flickered from Zheng to me. He wet his lips, and found the shreds of his courage again.
“Sod it!” he spat.
He brought his knife and his free hand together, screwed up his eyes in a grimace – and slit open his own palm.
None of us had expected that. Not even Zheng knew how to react.
“What the shit?” Twil said.
“Uh oh,” Raine murmured.
Badger drew rapid shuddering breaths through his teeth, holding his wounded hand low and clenched into a tight fist. A thick trickle of blood dripped between his knuckles, the crimson made black by moonlight, staining the grass beneath.
“Ahhhhhh, ahhhhh,” he hissed in pain. “Alright, yeeeeeeeah, ah fuck. Fuck me. There we go, there we go.”
He raised the fist, toward us, and began to uncurl his fingers.
We were all familiar enough with magic and paranoid enough to predict what this might mean. Twil tensed to leap out of the way. Raine twisted her body to shield me. I gasped as I scrambled for some kind of hyperdimensional equation to protect us, though I had no idea exactly what Badger had just done to himself. Zheng bared her teeth and was about to leap in front of his aim, when a sudden snap wave of cold washed over us all, sucking the breath from my lungs and the heat from beneath my clothes.
Evelyn stepped out onto the patio beside us, walking stick clicking on the stones, her scrimshawed thighbone held tight in one fist, breathing hard as her own magic took effect. Praem followed beside her, carrying a carving knife.
“Whatever you are trying to do, I have us all protected.” Evelyn snapped at Badger. “And you are doing it practically in public. There are neighbouring houses barely … across … ”
Badger finished opening his hand. Evelyn trailed off in shock. Zheng retreated a couple of paces, which made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and set abyssal instinct screaming warnings into my lizard brain. Zheng, retreating? Very bad sign.
“Siiiiiick,” said Twil.
A mouth had opened in Badger’s palm, where he’d cut himself. Thick red lips framed a set of discoloured teeth filed down to needle-sharp points. A tongue rolled out, lapping at the air, making slick wet noises as it rolled. Behind that tongue the interior of the hand-mouth was dark as the void, and seemed to extend back further than Badger’s flesh could possibly accommodate.
The mouth began to whisper, on the edge of hearing.
Badger grimaced at us, in obvious pain. His eyes flickered around, a cornered animal still looking for escape as he warded us off with this strange grotesque magic. Quickly, reluctant to take his eyes off us, he glanced over his shoulder at the garden fence, about another twenty feet behind him.
Abyssal instinct did not care about the strange hand-mouth. Did not recognise it. Abyssal instinct screamed at me to pounce.
“Bet that comes in handy,” Raine said with a laugh.
“What the hell have you done to yourself?” Evelyn snapped. To my surprise she sounded both offended and outraged.
“Ooran juh,” Zheng growled with naked disgust.
“You know it too?” Evelyn shot at her.
“I heal any wound, any bite,” Zheng growled at Badger. “I am faster than you, idiot wizard, for that thing will devour you before it can touch my flesh.”
“Then why don’t you fuckin’ leap at me, hey?” Badger spat back at her, panting and glancing about, licking his lips. His eyes met mine. “Let me pass. Let me go. Come on, you tell them let me go, or I’ll-”
“No,” I told him. “You’re my chance to do this right. And you came here for Lozzie, I’m not letting you walk away.”
His grimace got worse, face screwing up in panic.
The whispering from the hand-mouth teased at my ears, the words impossible to make out, but somehow promising secrets if only I would listen closer.
“I don’t think we have an option, Heather,” Evelyn said. She lowered the thighbone and the cold snap collapsed like a bubble. Spring night wind whipped back in, ruffling my hair with invisible fingers. Evelyn sagged slightly and Praem supported her side. “Plus, he’ll be dead within hours anyway.”
“What?” I blinked at her.
“Yeah, thanks,” Badger said, dripping sarcasm. “Just let me go then.”
“How long have you been doing that, hm?” she asked him, almost pityingly. “Days, weeks? That thing will kill you. Never thought I’d see it in reality. What on earth kind of deals have you been making, you little fool?”
“Anything that might get the Eye out of my head,” Badger raged. “Screw you all!”
“No,” I muttered, trying to raise my voice. Raine understood, and helped me stagger forward a pace or two. “No, no, I can- I can help, I can-”
“And it doesn’t work anyway,” Badger went on. “Now let me past, at the door round to the front.” He nodded past the side of the house. “I’ll go, we can forgot I was here. Just let me go.”
But Zheng was already moving, sliding sideways to cover his one obvious retreat. Twil bared her teeth and raised her hands as ghostly wolf-flesh began to wrap around her forearms, turning nails into claws.
“Stop that,” Evelyn snapped at Twil, and the werewolf transformation halted, Twil blinking at Evelyn in surprise. “Don’t you go anywhere near him! And what are you thinking, transforming out here in public?”
“But- I- Evee, he-”
Badger took a step back.
“Don’t,” I whined at him. “I can help, I can, I know I can, I-”
Badger turned and fled. Stumbling, sprinting, he threw himself at the back fence, dropping his knife in the process. Feet kicking at the boards, hands hauling himself up, he scrambled for the top of fence as Zheng broke for him like a loosed hound. She covered the gap in the blink of an eye, moving fast as any cheetah, but he waved the hand-mouth in her general direction and she skidded to a halt, growling in frustration. He finally managed to get one leg over the fence, then fell with an undignified thump on the other side. A moment later we could all hear him running across the broken scrub ground, making for the nearest road on that side – Brickbridge Lane – or perhaps for one of the other nearby gardens.
Zheng crouched, tensed to spring, to leap the fence.
“Zheng, no!” I cried out.
I pulled myself free from Raine’s supporting embrace and almost fell over in the grass as I staggered forward, desperate in the grip of so many conflicting desires, clamping my arms around my middle as my bruises flared with pain. The damp grass soaked through my bare socks, chilling my toes. Zheng stalked back toward me with wild eyes and a growl in her teeth.
“He’s getting away!” Twil said. “What the hell?!”
“Yes, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, eyes boring holes through me. “What use mercy in the face of death? He stands as nothing before me, not even with the mark of the defiler in his hand, he-”
“It has to be me!” I blurted out at her, panting for breath. “It has to be me. You don’t get it, it has to be me.”
Raine caught up, limping slightly, and put her arm around my shoulders. “Heather, hey, hey, slow down. Let Zheng go after him. Zheng, you ready?”
“The shaman desires me not to go, little wolf,” Zheng growled, staring at me for a real explanation.
“Yo, dumb-asses, he’s getting the fuck away.” Twil backpedaled past, going for the fence, looking at us like we were all mad. “He gets to the bridge or back onto Bluebell, we’ll never catch him.”
But Praem strode right up to Twil and grabbed her wrist, held her firm.
“Stay,” Praem intoned.
“You are not going anywhere near that man,” Evelyn snapped at her.
“Oi, off!” Twil shook Praem free. In retrospect I’m certain the doll-demon let her go to forestall a fight, which was the last thing we needed right now. Twil turned back to Evelyn. “We’ve gotta track him, Evee, while these two figure what the hell they’re doing.” She thumbed at me and Zheng.
“If that mouth bites you, the wound will never heal,” Evelyn said. “Werewolf or not. In the worst case you will bleed to death. Understand?”
“Look, I won’t go near him, promise.” Twil held both hands up as she skipped backward toward the fence.
“And do not listen to the whispering!” Evelyn shouted. “Not a word of it!”
“I’ll track him only, keep my distance. I’ve got his scent, it’s easy. I’ve got my phone. Heather, yo?” She caught my eye and waggled her hand. “I’ve got my phone. Call me, I’ll be on his tail.”
And with that, Twil went up and over the fence in a flash, still dressed only in tshirt and jeans, vaulting like an Olympic athlete. She hit the other side at a dead sprint.
“Full moon’s gone to her idiot head,” Evelyn hissed.
Praem stepped back toward Evelyn, eyes up and alert for other cultists hiding in the corners, but the night around us was empty as Twil’s footsteps raced off into the city.
“I want you to catch him, yes, but you have to take me with you,” I was babbling to Zheng. “You have to take me too, it has to be me, I have to try, I have to.”
“Heather,” Raine said with a touch of steel in her voice. “You can hardly walk upright.”
“Then Zheng can carry me,” I said, colder than I intended as I shrugged off Raine’s arm. She staggered slightly without her crutch. “S-sorry, Raine, sorry! Oh, it has to be me.”
“You need to atone, don’t you?” Evelyn asked.
Raine’s eyes lit up. “Ah.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t lie, not to myself here, not with this. “I need to hunt.”
Evelyn frowned with exasperation. Raine laughed. Zheng grinned in sudden savage approval. I blushed hard and confused, the urge pulling at my chest and my tentacles, driving my legs into motion, a tingling at the back of my skull. Abyssal instinct was like a full-body itch I could not scratch. I needed to run, to propel myself through the night after fleeing prey, to sink barbed hooks into-
“Nature is red in tooth and claw,” Praem sung.
Evelyn side-eyed at her. “Yes, thank you.”
“I have to do it right this time,” I said. “I can do it. I can hunt without the intent to kill him, t-to vivisect him. This is part of me. But the violence this morning was not. That was a choice, it doesn’t have to be nature. I can offer him help, a way out. If he’ll take it.”
“Is this really the time for your personal redemption?” Evelyn deadpanned at me.
“It’s an opportunity to study how the Eye interacts with a human mind,” I stammered out quickly. “And if he’s going to die, if he’s so difficult to get near, Zheng can hardly disable him and bring him back to house. I have to go. It has to be me. It has to be. Nobody deserves the Eye.”
A huge hand descended onto my shoulder. Zheng’s grin split the night and my heart leapt like fire.
“Shaman, I will take you into any hell you care to conquer. The hunt is in you, we must move fast to catch this prey, but you cannot run. I will carry you.”
She started to turn and crouch, to let me climb onto her back, but Raine put out a hand and gave us a doubtful twist of her head.
“I won’t be able to keep up with this one.” Raine gestured at her left leg, at the way she was struggling to keep her weight on her thigh. To my incredible surprise she made no effort to hide her doubt and discomfort. There was no joke in her expression, no dawn of confidence. Only truth. “Heather, you’re wiped out already. You go brainmath, you’re liable to collapse, and I won’t be there to catch you.”
I had no answer to that. Not because Zheng could protect me, but because Raine wouldn’t be there.
“I will be,” Zheng purred. “I will keep the shaman safe.” Soft as velvet. I’d never heard her speak like that before.
Raine locked eyes with her. “She’s exhausted. Worn out. Hungry. You better not slip up, Zheng.”
“I will never.”
I grit my teeth in humiliated frustration, face burning as they spoke about me. Raine was right, but her words hurt me on a level she couldn’t possibly have known.
My flanks, my oblique muscles, my abdominal wall, all of it was bruised black and blue from using my tentacles for too long this morning, and the tissue damage ran deep. I was already dreading a whole week of recovery, of those bruises stiffening and turning green and yellow as they healed. My head was still thick with sleep despite the adrenaline and the cold night air, and I was hardly dressed for a nighttime jaunt, still in the tshirt and pajama bottoms I’d dragged on to join Lozzie in bed, with nothing but thick socks on my feet. My teeth were already threatening to chatter.
But bruises and muscle damage were only the tip of the iceberg. I was drained. Running on fumes. Despite a belly full of food, my body felt like it had been burning fat reserves for hours, to fill the void inside.
Manifesting my tentacles required so much energy, let alone maintaining them. I needed to pick myself up and go, Zheng piggyback or not. I needed energy, right now, but all I had was biochemistry, lugged around in this sloshing chemical factory of a body. Instinct said be a predator, but I didn’t have the physical form to achieve that.
I needed a power plant. A nuclear core in place of my heart, a fusion reaction in my gut.
And with that thought, I almost made one.
On my journey home through the deepest, darkest parts of the abyss, I’d clung to geothermal vents for heat and scraped pale slime off rocks for protein. I’d harvested every scrap of nutrition I could, and run it through metabolic pathways which weren’t even possible in our reality. In the absolute black of crushing pressure at the bottom of the oceanic wasteland, I’d often had to turn those pathways in on themselves, twisting like a mobius strip. None of that was possible here.
But if tentacles and webbed fingers and a hiss in my throat could approximate the perfect form I’d possessed out there, then a pneuma-somatic reactor inside my torso could approximate abyssal biochemistry.
In the same way my phantom limbs had first appeared, I simply became aware of it, as if it had been there all along. A trilobe knot of gritty muscle and thick tissue nestled deep in the left side of my abdomen, filled with honeycomb structures for glucose production, riven by crypts for enzyme transport, laced with sacks for lipid synthesis – and other structures for unspeakable processes, ones that had no proper home in a human body.
Heat, glorious heat like a banked fire, flooded up my side. And just for a second, that heat almost filled the merest fraction of the hungry void.
I gasped and shuddered and placed both hands against my abdomen.
“Heather?” Raine’s eyes went wide and she grabbed me by the arm. Zheng was up as well, ready to catch me as I stumbled back, blinking down at myself.
The trilobe organ wasn’t real, of course. It wasn’t even pneuma-somatic. Not yet. It was an image-ghost, a memory of abyssal perception imprinted on my human biology. A phantom limb. The heat wasn’t real, it was all in my head; pressing my hands beneath my tshirt proved my skin was just as cold as before. But the tentacles had started as phantom limbs too, and they were very much real when I made them so.
I didn’t actually make the organ real, bring it into pneuma-somatic life, let alone light the thing with the spark of metabolic fire. I had no idea how it would work. Making mistakes with additional external limbs was one thing; screwing up an internal power plant was a very different kettle of fish. For all I knew, I’d explode on the spot like a bomb going off. I’d be a headline item in ‘strange but true’ news by the following morning. ‘University student detonates in back garden, are drugs to blame?’
I stood there, staring down at myself and taking shuddering breaths as I realised the implications.
“The shaman is right, little wolf,” Zheng purred. “But she is also in crisis. Perhaps I should go alone.”
“No!” I blurted out. “No, no, I can do it. Raine, I can do it, I just … ”
Was it my imagination, or did I feel more energetic? It wasn’t possible. The organ was not real.
“I-I just thought of a way to … to solve the energy problem,” I finished, shaking my head. “But not right now. Raine, please, it has to be me to confront Badger. I have to do this, for myself, for the knowledge I might gain, the edge it might give me. Please, trust me, trust Zheng to take care of me. She won’t let me hurt myself.” I whirled to Zheng, still unsteady on my feet. “Promise?”
“Always,” Zheng purred.
Raine locked eyes with me for a heartbeat too long, and then laughed. She broke into one of those beaming grins, the ones she’d used one me when we’d first met, and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead, both hands on my shoulders.
“Come back safe,” she said. “Good hunting.”
Her gaze flicked to Zheng, and some unspoken exchange passed between them as Zheng crouched down to offer me a piggyback.
“Wait,” Praem intoned, surprising us all. She turned her milk-white eyes on me. “Coat. Shoes. Phone.”
“O-oh,” I stammered, having forgotten the basic essentials in my rush to solve abstract problems. “I-”
Praem turned and marched toward the open back door, vanishing inside with a swish of her skirt. Evelyn glanced left and right. She looked so small and vulnerable with her walking stick as she stood suddenly alone in the moonlight, but then Raine stepped back to stand by her side.
“We’ll watch the house, and Lozzie,” Raine went on, “and check to see if Badger had any friends nearby. Right Evee?”
“Right,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Zheng. Zombie. Whatever the hell you you want to be called. Unlike Raine I do not place infinite trust in your handling of the most important-” She bit down. “You bring Heather back safe or I will empty your soul from your vessel like a carton of apple juice, I don’t care how ancient you are.”
“You will have no need to try, wizard,” Zheng purred.
“Keep away from the mouth in his hand. Do not get bitten. And don’t listen to the whispers.”
“I know, wizard.”
“That’s mostly for Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Do. Not. Listen.”
I nodded vigorously. “I understand.”
Praem returned a moment later and I submitted to coat and shoes, suddenly aware of how I was beginning to shiver. No amount of phantom bio-reactor could actually keep my flesh warm. Praem also slapped my phone into my hand, the screen already unlocked and open on Twil’s number.
“Thank you, Praem, thank you,” I whispered, and made a mental note to hug her later.
“You are welcome,” she intoned.
As I climbed onto Zheng’s back and she looped her arms beneath my thighs, I looked over at Evelyn and asked the question which had almost slipped my mind.
“Evee, what was that mouth in Badger’s hand anyway? What was he doing?”
“Old magic,” Zheng rumbled before Evelyn could answer. “Blood-rot and corruption.”
“It’s a technique mentioned in several old tomes,” Evelyn said, tight and unimpressed. “Well documented, widely known, especially if Zheng is familiar with it too. But very stupid. He’s made a deal with … well, I shan’t pronounce the name out loud, it might hurt your ears.”
“You said it’ll kill him within a few hours?” I asked.
Evelyn shrugged. “Or days. Hours is more likely if he’s been doing it for a while already. This might be his last hit.”
Zheng straightened up and I suddenly felt very tall indeed, pressing myself tight to the heat pouring off her muscled back, looping my arms around her neck to hold myself in place. She turned toward the fence, and my stomach lurched with anticipation of the leap. But I twisted my head to catch Evelyn and Raine and Praem one last time. Raine shot me a broad wink and a cheesy grin.
“How will it kill him? Evee?” I asked.
“The owner of the mouth will come to collect the debt,” she deadpanned. “Let’s hope you find him first.”
Catching Badger was not difficult in the end.
As soon as Zheng leapt the back fence – a rocket-ship journey for both my heart and the pit of my stomach – and once I’d recovered and located my lungs again, I raised my mobile phone to my ear and called Twil, clinging hard around Zheng’s neck with my other arm.
Zheng set off at a loping pace, eating up the scrub ground and empty lots and darting past the few dark houses on this side of the road, heading for Brickbridge Lane. I struggled not to squeak; I was not used to moving so fast.
Twil answered the call in a rush. “Heather?”
“Yes, it’s me. Where-”
“I’m right behind him!” She was panting, still on the move. “Down Brickbridge, then left onto uh … the one with the big trees! We’re coming up on the roundabout now. He slowed a bit but then he spotted me, maybe, and he picked up again. I’m gonna try to corner him-” Her voice cut out as a vehicle passed by on her end of the call, and my other ear pricked up, hoping maybe I could hear the distant car, but it was impossible to pick out one sound from Sharrowford at night. “- but not until the bus stop, yeah?” Twil finished, then quickly went on. “Shit, he’s gone right, onto Sparrow Street, I’ll never find a spot out of view here. Hurry up! You with Zheng?”
“In a manner of speaking,” I said, then started relaying the directions to Zheng. But she didn’t need them. She’d heard every word.
“As the crow flies, shaman.”
And fly she did. Like the wind.
She’d been pacing herself while I was on the phone call, to allow me a moment to communicate, but as soon as she knew where we were headed, Zheng moved so fast it scared me. She took a direct route too, straight across the quiet road and plunging through the patch of scraggly woods, then up and over a brick wall without so much as a ‘hup’ of effort, flitting through the pools of street-lighting like a dragonfly. Down the embankment, then darting along the rows of terraced houses on Windsor Road, ghosting through Sharrowford at night like ball lightning. Spirits scattered before us, running into alleyways or vanishing over the rooftops, retracting tentacles and scuttling into drains.
For the first few seconds I kept my mouth shut and my head pressed to her shoulder, seeking solace in Zheng’s baking body heat down my front, with my guts lurching and my head spinning, scared that at any second I was going to slam face first into the pavement. What was I doing? How had I gotten myself to this point? Riding a demon through the night at speeds enough to break my neck.
But Zheng would never drop me. She’d sooner break every bone in her own body. She’d fallen much further with me, once.
As my mind was reassured I wasn’t going to end as a smear on the ground, something else woke up inside me.
It may not have been my feet eating up the distance, or my lungs pumping with effort, or my senses tracking our prey – but I was hunting. Finally, for real. And it felt so very good.
An electric tingle buzzed through all my senses, my brain on controlled fast-forward, the cocktail of adrenaline in my veins taking on a subtly different flavour. As I raised my eyes from Zheng’s shoulder, everything seemed sharper, the details stood out with greater clarity – the lichen on the walls, the marks on the pavement, the discarded food wrappers in the gutter. I felt the most bizarre urge to peel my lips back from my teeth, to hiss under my breath as if flushing out prey. I had to scrunch my aching eyelids up again when I tried to blink with membranes I didn’t possess, and I felt my phantom tentacles flex and ready themselves as if they they were tipped with bone hooks once more.
Zheng hurled herself around the corner into Sparrow Street, a huge shadow flitting along the rows of parked cars, and I hissed with glee.
I spotted the answering grin across her face, and mumbled ‘I love you’ into her shoulder.
It was impossible for our chase to go completely unnoticed, even on a Monday night in a residential area with nobody around. Perhaps Twil was an expert at silent stalking with her wolf senses and hunting instinct, but Zheng was seven feet of muscle moving at high speed. However she normally kept herself concealed was hampered by carrying me. No leaping on rooftops for her with me clinging to her back.
We didn’t confirm anything until two months later, when Raine found a post on one of the supernatural and paranormal internet forums she kept an eye on. Zheng’s run had been spotted that night, by a middle-aged man who’d been looking out of his kitchen window, at the exact moment we’d passed by. A huge blur in the dark, a glimpse of nightmare creature racing through the streets of sleepy Sharrowford, a monster here in England. Who’d believe it? Certainly not his wife, according to the forlorn forum post.
Who knows how many others spotted us but dismissed it, or never spoke about it, or couldn’t process what they glimpsed in the corner of their eye, out in the dark?
To be fair, it got harder to spot us once the fog rolled in.
Thick, soupy, grey fog, which sprung up out of nowhere once we hit the end of Sparrow Street. I assumed it had rolled in off the countryside, creeping through the gaps between the houses, just bad luck. The local pneuma-somatic life didn’t seem to like the fog either, and we saw fewer and fewer spirits, glimpsed vanishing into the haze. The mist turned Sharrowford into a ghostly vision around us as Zheng raced on.
Twil’s voice came from the phone in my hand. We’d kept the line open.
“Heather! I’ve got him boxed in!” she hissed rapidly when I pressed it to my ear. “By the old bus stop between Noreen and Hastings. Hurry! If you’re gonna do anything, this is the place, you can’t see shit from here, there’s loads of fog!”
We reached Twil seconds later.
She whirled toward us as Zheng loomed out of the fog at the corner of Hastings Road, half-werewolf with claws and fuzzy muscled legs and a snout, eyes wide and dilated in hunting mode. The sight made my heart hitch into my throat.
“It’s us!” I hissed over Zheng’s shoulder.
Twil blinked once at Zheng, and once at me. “Alright there, Master Blaster?”
“What?” I squinted at her, but Twil was already turning back the way she’d been looking, tense from tip to toe as she peeked around a corner of brick wall, at the junction between Hastings and Noreen. She was still panting for breath.
“Later,” she hissed. “Can’t take my eyes off him.”
Zheng leaned out too, and even with my own abyssal hunting instincts activated like aching salivary glands, it took a moment to appreciate what Twil had achieved.
“He’s stopped now that I’ve looped around twice to cut him off,” she whispered. “But he might break for it again. If you’re gonna nab him, do it now.”
Badger didn’t look boxed in at all, except by the tightly packed terraced houses in this more run-down area, some of them with boarded up lower windows. The three-way road was open in all directions, clogged only by the thickening greasy fog. But he’d stopped by a bus shelter, a shell of green metal with a few panes of glass left, the empty advertising panels caked with graffiti. Head up, eyes wide and swivelling all about, he didn’t seem to know which way to turn, chest rising and falling as he heaved to get his breath back.
He thought Twil was everywhere.
“Good technique, laangren,” Zheng purred with obvious appreciation.
“We gonna jump him together?” Twil hissed. “We can take him, both of us, beat him-” she glanced up at me. “I mean-”
“Put me down,” I said. “And we’re not going to jump him. I’m going to talk to him. Offer him help.”
“What?!” Twil boggled at me.
Zheng crouched until my feet touched the ground. I let go of her and almost fell over, my legs wobbly with adrenaline and twitchy anticipation. This was all so new, so fresh, a biological urge I’d never embraced before. My phantom limbs bunched and gathered, ready to spring forward, to pounce. I was almost panting too, but for a totally different reason.
“Heather, he was one of them!” Twil hissed. “Experimenting on kids and shit. And he just tried to kidnap Lozzie again, and you wanna help him?!”
“I’m not saying we let him go,” I whispered back. “I’m saying I’m not going to torture and dismantle him. Nobody deserves the Eye. We can both get something out of this.”
Twil blew out a breath, grimacing at me in painful doubt.
“But I’m going to try to help this time,” I hurried to add. “Not kill him. And I need you two to back me up. Flank me. Look scary.”
“Easy, shaman,” Zheng purred.
“Ahh fuck it,” Twil grunted. “Just don’t torture anybody in front of me, alright?”
“I promise,” I whispered.
We must have made quite a sight, stepping out around the corner into the middle of the road, wading through the fog. I went first, with Twil on my right and Zheng on my left, a pace behind me. Twil unwound her transformation, just in case, but I don’t think it made her any less intimidating under the circumstances.
Badger froze to the spot, eyes locked on me.
“It’s time to stop running,” I called out softly.
“Shit, Heather,” Twil whispered out of the corner of her mouth. “Maybe be less intimidating?”
I’d tried my best to make myself sound confident, to speak level and even and calm, as if to a skittish animal, but it was impossible. My voice shook. My entire body was gripped with an overwhelming urge to pounce, to grasp with my tentacles, to inject paralytic toxins and spin constricting webs and begin a process I could not even name.
Badger’s eyes darted left and right in panic – and he raised the hand-mouth toward us.
Needle-teeth clicked together twice but the fog soaked up the whispering. For a second I thought he was about to turn and run into the mist, and the urge to spring became almost overwhelming. I twitched, biting my bottom lip, on the verge of losing control. Twil started to growl.
But then Badger gave a huge sigh and dropped his arm. All the fight went out of him. My abyssal hunting urge guttered out, like a flame without oxygen.
Shoulders slumped, expression slack, Badger staggered the few paces to the bus shelter bench and sat down in a dejected heap.
“Uh,” said Twil. She and I shared a glance. Zheng shrugged.
Badger stared at the gruesome mouth he’d cut into his palm, with such defeat on his face, but then frowned up at us and waved his other hand at the rest of the bench like a grumpy teenager.
Without the guide of instinct, it took a few moments to organise my thoughts. Twil leaned close and whispered, “We’re right next to you. If he tries anything like.”
I nodded, steeled myself for the task, and walked up to Badger.
The moment seemed somehow surreal, the air and angles and silence all wrong, as if we’d stepped Outside directly from the streets of Sharrowford. No spirits lingered here, not a single watching eyestalk or lurking ghoul in sight. Moonlight filtered through the fog and mixed with the overhead glow from the street lamps. One would assume that silver and orange would wreathe the street in ethereal phantasm – but the fog felt heavy, pale, and greasy. The rows of terraced houses seemed too tall for this part of the city, and I had the sudden irrational impression of a wall of ancient houses closing up as the fog swallowed the roads.
Badger eyed the three of us, still panting to get his breath back.
He was a mess. Big, wet eyes more suited to a puppy than a cultist, and a hangdog face once built for smiling, but which didn’t smile much anymore. His curly dark hair and scraggly beard clearly hadn’t been washed in days, he’d put on a little bit of weight. He looked like he hadn’t managed a good night’s sleep in many weeks. He held the disgusting mouth-hand away from his own body, pointed at the ground. It seemed to have stopped whispering.
“I don’t care if you kill me,” he said as I stopped a few feet clear of him. “Just make it quick, alright? And if you’re gonna send me … Out make sure I’m dead first. Snap my neck. Zheng? You can do that, right? Come on, I never treated you badly, I never did anything to you.”
Zheng answered with a tilt of her head.
“Just don’t … don’t send me to Him,” Badger added, his eyes pleading with me.
“Him?” Twil asked.
Badger frowned and groaned. “Magnus Vigilator. Him. It. The Eye. Just fucking kill me already.”
“We’re not here to kill you,” I said. “Well, I’m not, at least.”
Badger managed to slump even further, like a building collapse. He rolled his eyes. “Well fuckin’ sit down then if you’re not gonna kill me, so I don’t have to keep looking up at you.”
I nodded. “Very well then.”
“Shaman,” Zheng purred in warning.
“Uhhh you sure that’s a good idea?” Twil asked.
But I stepped forward. I was not afraid of this broken man, or the teeth in his palm. I was a hundred times more frightening. I sat down on the cold plastic bench, smoothing my coat beneath my backside as I sat. Zheng and Twil hovered close, ready to leap in, but I shot them both a look to make my intentions clear.
Though I did keep a nice safe few feet between Badger and I. Beyond arm’s reach.
Badger stared at his hand, the mouth still turned toward the ground. I couldn’t see the lips moving anymore.
“Badger,” I said. “Or … ” I rummaged through my memory. “ … Nate?”
“How the hell do you remember that?” He frowned sidelong at me. I shrugged. “Just call me Badger. Only my parents call me Nathan.”
“Badger then. Badger, I need information.”
“Edward Lilburne sent us,” he said without hesitation. I struggled to contain my surprise at his instant surrender. “That’s what you wanted, right? The old goat had a job for us, another task before … ” His eyes went wide. “Oh … oh no.”
Badger straightened up, visible terror creeping through him like slow rot through dead flesh.
“What? What is it?!” Twil spat.
Zheng was suddenly turning every which way, staring out into the fog. “Shaman,” she rumbled. “We are too late.”
Badger had eyes only for his own hand. He turned it over slowly, shaking all over, his breath coming in short little gasps.
The grotesque mouth was gone, replaced by a shallow slash across his palm, still bleeding a thin trickle of crimson.
Badger squeezed his eyes shut in a grimace of such intense sorrow that I almost sympathised with him, with this man who had promised to cut Raine’s fingers off, twice tried to kidnap Lozzie, and was previously determined to send me back to the Eye. He hissed between his teeth in rising panic, tears running down his cheeks.
“Time to pay the piper?” I asked – though my own heart was pounding too.
“You want information?” he managed to squeeze out. “You best be bloody quick. Oh fuck, not like this, not like this!” He scrabbled for his knife – before recalling he’d dropped it back at the house. “Kill me!” he shouted at us. “Come on, fuck, don’t let me go like this, it’s not human, it’s not right. Please!”
“The hell is that smell?” Twil said, wrinkling her nose as she turned outward toward the fog. Bulges and eddies were forming in the swirling mist, around a dark spot which seemed to be getting bigger.
“Shi zai chung wai de ren,” Zheng growled in Chinese. “Get up, shaman. We run.”
“Run?” I blinked at her in shock. Zheng, run? “No, we can’t, not now. Badger, Edward sent you, but where is he? Where did-”
But Badger was insensible, arms wrapped around himself, staring out at the fog, hyperventilating. His legs were vibrating against the plastic bench, as if he was desperate to move but fixed in place.
“Shaman!” Zheng reached back for me without taking her eyes off the fog. “This is beyond me. We are too late to the kill. Leave him.”
“Oh no,” Badger murmured.
A figure lumbered out of the fog.
Perhaps it had been human, once. Or perhaps it was simply failing to imitate a human.
Greasy pale flesh the colour and texture of rotten oats, hugely obese, with massive slab-like feet, hands as big as dinner plates, and shoulders wide as a car. Impossibly tall, nine or ten feet in height, a tower of pallid meat. Naked, completely naked and hairless, and there was something obscene about that, something intentional.
It had no head or neck. No facial features anywhere – except a drooling mouth in the palm it raised in silent greeting.
“Shaman, up!” Zheng roared, and pulled me to my feet.
The pale giant took a lumbering step toward us, and Badger screamed.