There are times in life when one acts without thinking. No matter how rational and cool headed we tell ourselves we are, we’re all animals beneath the thin shelter of ego and prefrontal cortex. In moments of great stress we can commit mistakes of self destruction and casual cruelty, or shining examples of heroism and selflessness – or simply reveal the amoral truth.
When this pale obese giant bore down on us through the greasy fog, striding across the asphalt on feet like slabs of frozen meat, as it raised a hand the size of a dinner plate, rent by a mouth full of fangs and drool, as Zheng yanked me to my feet and braced to pull me away, as Badger screamed in white-faced terror, as Twil’s growl stuttered out into a whine, I did not think.
Zheng was panicked. That should have gotten through to me.
We were not cornered, we were not at bay; we could run, off into the thick fog clogging Sharrowford’s streets.
Badger’s skull contained invaluable information, but he was also my enemy. He’d tried to kidnap Lozzie. Leaving him to his fate would ruin my plan, but it would also spare us a horrible decision.
None of those things mattered. I was not making a decision, I was obeying a biological imperative. I pulled myself free from Zheng’s grip, barely aware of what I was doing, only succeeding because my reaction surprised her.
I rounded on the pale obscenity, and I screeched.
No mere imitation hiss from a human throat, and nothing like a human scream, I screeched my lungs out. A warning display, on reflex, a complete surrender to gut impulse and bodily logic. I’d been high on hunting instinct the whole way here, this reaction was no great leap. A part of me had recognised the pale headless giant, not for what it was, but for the role it currently filled in our ecosystem. Zheng had even put it into words, perhaps seeded the concept in my mind: we were ‘late to the kill’.
The headless giant was a competing predator.
My screech meant mine.
In truth I sounded awful, like a cross between a goat and a fox and a gibbon. I do hope the fog soaked up the worst of the racket I made, that I didn’t accidentally terrify some small child tucked up in their bed or some poor old lady sitting up late at night. Another strange occurrence to add to the list of paranormal happenings in Sharrowford, the case of the mystery night-time screech.
My body wanted to back up the claim to my prey, flashing irrelevant nerve impulses and trying to dilate organs I didn’t possess. My phantom tentacles lashed the air in a warning display, lined with bone hooks, tipped by venomous stingers, laced with paralytic mucus. My jaw ached, trying to fulfil the biological impossibility of sprouting a double-row of razor sharp teeth. My skin itched with the need to flush my exterior with toxic colouration. And deep inside my abdomen, tissues and muscles tried to adjust themselves, to cradle and support and supply a bio-reactor that was not yet real.
If I hadn’t been acting on instinct, I might have gone over the edge and made it real. Fortunately for me, even the most simple operation of hyperdimensional mathematics required a great deal of brainpower, rather than screeching one’s lungs out like an animal.
Halfway into the screech, the pain in my bruised flanks hit me like a wave of fire.
I didn’t ‘snap out of it’, I was in too deep for that, and the circumstances were too dire, but I came back to conscious thought with a shuddering hiss of tight-clenched burning pain down my sides, playing across the bruises I’d given myself that morning. New kinds of pain blossomed across my body as well. My jaw ached like I’d been punched, my legs felt as if they were on backwards, my eyes itched, red and raw. My skin was flushed all over like I’d been dunked in a hot bath. Worst of all was the sharp stabbing inside my abdomen, making the muscles shudder and seize up, like particularly bad period pain.
But the pain was almost worth it. The most bizarre combination of agony and euphoria stirred in every cell, as if I was on the verge of orgasm.
Under any other conditions I would have curled up on the ground with a whine in my throat, but there was no time for that.
The headless giant had stopped about twelve paces away in the middle of the road, a wobbling tower of pale, wormy, grease-streaked meat. He had both hands stuck out in front of himself, past the huge mass of his gut, with the pair of slavering red-lipped mouths pointed at us.
“Holy fucking shit, big H,” Twil hissed through a snout which contained far too many teeth. She’d gone full wolf transformation. “It stopped! What do we do now?!”
“Shaman?” Zheng growled, her entire body curled around a hair-trigger motion, ready to sweep me off my feet and bundle me away from the bench and Badger.
“I know what I’m-” I tried to croak, but my throat didn’t work right. The words came out as a hissing gurgle, barely even human, and painful like a pulled muscle. Twil flinched from me in horrified amazement.
I swallowed, hard and dry and difficult, like I was unknotting my own trachea and vocal cords. I coughed, which turned into a convulsive choking sound, but then I drew clear breath once more.
“I know what I’m doing,” I wheezed, and sounded almost human this time.
It was only then that I realised I was using one hand to grip Badger by the side of his head, like a bird of prey with a rabbit’s skull caged in its claws – though my hand was much too small to complete the impression. He was paralysed with terror, eyes flicking back and forth between me and the pale giant, not sure which one of us was more threatening. When I met his eyes he whimpered again, slow tears tracking down his cheeks.
Mine, instinct hissed. My prey.
I elected not to let go of Badger’s head. Yet.
Perhaps I felt he deserved it.
The obese headless man was moving his mouth-hands back and forth like an obscene interpretive dance, slowly turning them to look at each of us, his flesh wobbling and sagging. A thick wet whispering began to fill the air as the lips of those mouths slapped together, slurping and rolling their tongues.
“Oh this is fucked up, this is so fucked up, this is fuuuuucked,” Twil babbled, her words mangled into a low growl by the shape of her wolf muzzle. She was shivering all over, fur bristling, panting hard, not her usual overconfident self.
“Stay still, laangren,” Zheng growled – but she was not faring much better, tense down to the last muscle. I’d never seen her afraid like this before.
Judged objectively, the headless giant was not half as weird or alien as most pneuma-somatic life. True, he was incredibly big, two or three feet taller than Zheng, and his flesh was unhealthy and pale in a way that made my stomach turn. But in the end this thing was just a very large man with no head or neck, and mouths in each hand. Hardly scary compared to some of what I’d seen on a regular basis since I was ten years old.
But there was something very wrong about this. About the rotten oats and old cheese texture of his grimy skin. About the nudity, which seemed intentional, an affront, a statement of power. About the sheer weight of cold flesh, as if he was a super-dense object, a black hole warping the space around him. About the meaning of those mouths. I felt as if I would understand everything if I only listened to that whispering, if I only leaned in close, if I only allowed him to bring his hand to my ear.
And he was absolutely not a spirit.
“This is mine,” I raised my voice over the whispers. “Mine. Understand?”
The headless giant turned both hand-mouths toward me. A tongue slopped forth, waggling up and down.
“I am quite sure that you are not supposed to be here,” I croaked. “And you are made of matter. Which means I can send you elsewhere. Whatever you are, I am certain I can find a place Outside that even you can’t endure. Leave, before I escort you out.”
The mouths in the pale hands curled into an answering pair of lascivious grins, drooling great thick loops of saliva onto the road. He raised one calloused leathery foot – and took a step backward. Step by lumbering step, he backed away into the wall of fog, his vast bulk turning hazy as the mist swallowed him up. The last we saw of him were the grinning red lips in his palms, until they too vanished beyond the greasy fog.
Silence returned. Several heartbeats passed. The dark rows of terraced houses pressed close.
“You think its buggered off? For real?” Twil hissed eventually.
“It waits,” Zheng growled, watching the fog.
“It’s gone for now,” I managed to squeeze out. “It didn’t like me. That’s what matters.”
My skin was coated with cold sweat, clothes sticking to me. I was quivering with adrenaline, but mostly with pain, dozens of small aches and spikes and prickling all over, to join the chorus of screaming muscles in my flanks.
I let go of Badger’s head at last, and he let out a shuddering whine, squeezing his eyes up tight and cradling his wounded hand.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Twil said, still all wolf and not the easiest thing to look at, crouched tight in a defensive posture, ready to bite and snap. “I’d shit myself and run too, if a girl made a noise at me like that.”
“You’re one to talk,” I croaked. “You growl.”
I scrubbed at my itching eyes and cleared my throat, but couldn’t seem to shift whatever was in there. I turned and shielded my mouth with a hand as I spat a wad of thick, glue-like mucus onto the pavement. There was blood in it. Straightening up again proved almost too difficult, triggering another round of deep-tissue jabbing inside my abdomen, like a fist clenched so long that the muscles had started to seize up. I clutched at myself and staggered, tripping over my feet.
Zheng caught me with one arm.
“I-I can’t- can’t stand up-” I clung to her.
“I have you, shaman.”
She did, but she didn’t spare even a second to look down at me. Zheng watched the fog, quietly alert.
“No complaints here though. It worked, right? Yeah.” Twil was already babbling, breathing too hard, her words mangled into a series of throaty growls. “Fuck, no way I wanted to fight that thing, like it was … wrong. I dunno, shit. I’m not meant to be scared by this sorta crap, this is what I was made for, this is why I’m, you know, a werewolf. I’m meant to stand up to this stuff. What the hell? What the hell was that!?”
“Ooran juh,” Zheng purred.
“It wasn’t a spirit, not pneuma-somatic,” I said.
“Yeah, no shit. I could smell him,” Twil spat. “Like rotting cheese and stanky feet. How is it even in Sharrowford, just walking around?”
“I don’t think we’re technically in Sharrowford right now,” I said, trying to stay calm as I stared into the fog.
Twil squinted at me like I was mad. She gestured at the road, the houses, and finally at the glass and metal of the bus shelter.
“It’s just a feeling,” I sighed.
A broken voice interrupted us.
“He hasn’t gone away,” Badger said.
Badger was still sitting on the bus stop bench, hunched forward and cradling his wounded hand, curly hair matted with sweat, hood thrown back. He looked like a man at the gallows, utterly defeated and spent as he stared at the ground between his boots. He’d also wet himself, and under the circumstances I was not surprised. None of us mentioned it, though Twil did wrinkle her nose.
“Zheng is right,” he went on, thin and weak. “He’s out there, waiting. Always waiting. It’s started now, I can’t escape.”
“Then we’ll take you back to the house,” I said, firm as I could. I tried to draw myself up and ignore the dozen sources of pain stabbing at me. Twil shot me a frown. “Under guard,” I added. “We’ll tie him up.”
“We’re not leading Mister Blobby out there back to the house,” Twil said. “Not for this shit head. Heather, what are you on?”
“It’s the most magically defensible position in Sharrowford. I can hardly … question him,” I cleared my throat, “if that thing gets to him first.”
“There’s no point,” Badger said, regaining a little self-control, no longer mumbling with fear. He raised his head with what little pride he could muster. “I’m good as dead now. The Big Man can take me from inside a closed and locked room, you’ll see. Look, Morell, I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just promise to snap my neck after, pull my head off, shoot me, anything you want, just kill me, don’t leave me for him.”
“Yeah, sure,” Twil said. “But what the hell is he?”
Badger shrugged. “The real name hurts to say, makes your mouth bleed and your ears hurt. We just called him the Big Man, for short like.”
Twil huffed a snort, not really laughing, then nodded to me. “Ask him then. Let’s get it over with and get the hell out.”
“I can’t,” I hissed. “I need to … you know what I need to do. And I can’t do that here.”
Twil pulled a grimace.
“The shaman is right,” Zheng rumbled. “We cannot stay here. Look.”
Zheng extended a finger and pointed at the fog off to our left. Twil growled. Badger bit his lips to strangle a whimper. I stared for a second before I saw it, and then my stomach lurched.
A red-lipped grin in a pale hand, barely visible at the extreme limit of the fog.
As we watched, it retreated and vanished.
The Big Man – ‘Mister Blobby’ – had retreated only to circle around us, perhaps to find a weakness, or stage a better ambush, or simply to wait for us to get cold and tired. I doubted our human logic applied to the thing anyway. But I wasn’t leaving Badger here. Badger was my prey. I would have what I needed from him, but I couldn’t risk doing it here with that creature still stalking us.
“Alright.” Twil whirled back toward us. “I’ll sling Badger over my shoulder, and we make a run for it, back to the house.”
“Too late, laangren,” Zheng purred – and pointed the other way.
Another hand-mouth greeted us with a drooling grin, way back in the fog, from the opposite end of the road.
Twil’s eyes went wide. She mouthed ‘what the fuck’, as the Big Man’s mouth receded back into the mist once again.
He had every escape covered. Either there was more than one of him, or running past him wasn’t an option. Almost as if he’d heard us making plans.
“Badger,” I said. “This thing that’s after you, how does it work?”
Badger tore his eyes from the fog and stared at me, then swallowed in an effort to gather himself. He looked down at the wound in his hand where the mouth had been. The long shallow cut still oozed a thin trickle of blood, slowly pooling in the lines on his palm.
“You get three bites, and you have to land them all,” he said, wincing as he tried to flex his hand. “Three times, and then you’ve fulfilled your end of the contract, the deal, the agreement. We got it from a book. Well, from photocopies that Sammy made when she wasn’t meant to. You sign the contract in a dream, but it’s real. If you miss a bite though, if you don’t go through with it, then he owns you. That’s the terms. He comes to take you instead. Gets his pound of flesh in the end.”
“Okay,” I said. “And?”
“None of this tells us anything,” Twil hissed. Her werewolf form was rapidly unweaving itself, dropping away in shreds of translucent matter, leaving her mostly human once more. She kept the claws out though.
“But it might give Evee something to go on,” I murmured, and Twil shut up.
“First time, I bit myself.” Badger shook his head, grimacing, as he pointed at his opposite shoulder. I couldn’t tell through the shapeless lumpy hoodie, but he could have a dressing wrapped around his arm under there, bleeding into a pad of gauze and cotton wool. “That was the idea, see? Bite yourself, replace one God with another, then fill the contract anyway, and you’re free. Smart idiots we were. Thought we had it all figured out. But it didn’t work. He couldn’t take us from the … the … ” Badger’s head twitched in suppressed disgust. “The Eye.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “There’s more than one of you doing this?”
Badger’s face contorted, holding back tears. “Not any more, no. There was three of us what signed the contact. Me and the guys, Stibby and Dingle. I’d known Stibby since school, he was my friend, we … but no, it’s just me now. I had to bite Dingle, that was my second bite. He wanted to go back on the plan, so … he didn’t live through it. I didn’t mean to.”
“You mean you murdered a man,” I said.
Badger raised his eyes and gave me the worst glare he could muster, full of bitterness and anger. “I would murder this whole city to get the Eye out of my head.”
“Why’d you come to the house, hey?” Twil asked. “What the hell were you trying after this morning?”
Badger shook his head. “Last ditch attempt. Never seen your place before, Morell. Thought maybe I could … I dunno, shimmy up a drainpipe and sling Lauren over my shoulder? Stupid bloody idea. Even her brother could never control her. She’d have scratched my eyes out.”
“Very stupid,” I said, struggling not to give vent to cold fury. Nobody touches my friends.
“Then why pull the hand mouth thing if it’ll kill you?” Twil squinted at him.
“Didn’t wanna die,” he said. “Just wanted to get away. Figured maybe I’d bite myself again.”
“How do we get past the Big Man? How do we make him go away?” I asked.
Badger shrugged, utterly defeated.
“Shit, Heather,” Twil said. “Maybe we do gotta leave him here.” She held out a hand to stall my objections. “Hey, Badger. Edward sent you, right? Lilburne? How do we find him? Where’s the hell’s he hiding? Tell us that and maybe … yeah. Yeah.”
She glanced at me for approval I could not give. She couldn’t say the words either. Twil was good at fighting and brawling, but she wasn’t like Raine. She couldn’t kill an unarmed person in cold blood.
“I don’t know where he lives or anything,” Badger said, cringing with apology. “He says we’re contaminated. Deals with us through a fence, a middleman, a fixer.”
“Oh, come on!” Twil spat.
“We did get to see him in person once,” Badger added quickly. “So we knew it was really him, back from when the cult was together for real. The fence he uses is this guy, Adam Gore, a small time drug dealer, guy’s no big deal at all. We always met him in the Ostler’s Arms, off Station Road. You know the one? Anyway, second time we met him, when we were figuring out terms for the job, Adam says Edward wants to see us himself, to judge if he can actually help us. That was the deal, he was offering to help with the … ” Badger broke off and tapped his own forehead. “If we could snatch his niece for him. That was the price.”
“Interesting,” I said, colder even than I intended.
Badger swallowed. “Edward was in a back room in the pub, and we had to go back there one by one. And I know it was really him, I’d recognise him anywhere. Look for Adam, you could maybe get something out of him, I guess. Or the pub landlord must’ve been on it, with the back room and all.”
“That’s hardly any use,” Twil huffed.
“How many of you are left now?” I asked softly, trying to bargain with my darker impulses. We could kill Badger now, leave him here, if only I could snatch another opportunity, another one of these ex-cultists with the Eye’s tendrils lodged in their head. Nicole hadn’t rejected my request, yet.
But Badger looked at me with an ember of defiance. “I’m not telling you that. You’ll kill everyone.”
I blinked in shock, at the conviction in his eyes, at the vehemence in his voice.
“What?” Twil pulled a full-face squint at him.
“What- what- what do you mean?” I asked.
“Like you did the rest,” he went on. “Look, I get it, I made a choice to live to like this, but most of the others don’t deserve to be die. They’ve still got a chance. Maybe Edward really will help them, or maybe they’ll find another way. But if I lead you to them, that’ll be it. No, I won’t.”
“What ‘rest’?” I boggled at him. “What are you talking about?”
“He means the house,” Zheng purred. “The idiot wizards who thought they could bargain. The fire.”
“That was you people,” he said. “I’m not stupid.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Twil rolled her eyes and huffed like the teenager she was.
“That wasn’t us,” I said, slowly and clearly. “They defied the Eye, tried to negotiate with it, and it killed them all. They killed each other. Went mad. We walked into a slaughterhouse, and yes we burned it, as a precaution. I’m sorry they had such horrible deaths, but it wasn’t us.”
“Sure, sure,” Badger said. “‘It was like that when I got here.’ Heard that one before.”
“If you don’t believe us, you can ask the only survivor. You can ask Sarika yourself.”
Badger froze. The faintest spark of hope kindled a frown across his forehead. “Sarry’s alive?”
“You dumb-arse,” Twil said.
I looked at him like he was an idiot. “It was all over the newspapers. Some other survivors from the cult even contacted her. How can you possibly have missed that she lived?”
“I … I thought … I dunno.” A strange transformation came over him. He took several deep breaths, tried to sit up straighter, pushed his hair back. Like an alcoholic after coming clean, his eyes seemed clearer. “I assumed you’d faked it somehow. Or done something to her. Please, please don’t lie about this. Sarry’s alive? Really?”
“She’s crippled,” I said. “But yes, she’s alive.”
Badger let out a strangled breath and had to blink away tears. He looked down at his wounded hand, then out at the fog.
“What am I doing?” he asked, voice gone tiny.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “Ooran juh will not wait forever. The net tightens.”
The greasy cold fog was beginning to creep beneath my coat, leeching away my body heat, and I could feel a shiver starting in my limbs. The hunt and the terrifying confrontation had gotten my blood up, but now we’d been standing still and talking for several minutes, and hunger still gnawed at the roots of my belly. The fog seemed to be thickening as well, obscuring even the nearest terraced houses. When I glanced past Zheng, we appeared to stand on a island of damp asphalt, surrounded by murky seas of infinity. The battered old bus stop was our only landmark.
“ … this isn’t natural,” Twil said.
At least the moon still hung untouched in the sky.
“Shaman, we were late to the kill,” Zheng purred. “You may have to accept that.”
“He has to come with us,” I said.
“Then we run for it,” Twil said. “Come on, what else can we do? You’ll get another chance, Heather, these idiots are out there still gunning for you, right? You and Lozzie?”
“I don’t want to die,” Badger said, softly, as if surprised. He wasn’t talking to us at all. But then he snapped together, blinking at our faces with a new and mounting panic. “I don’t want to die, but I can’t live like this. The Magnus Vigilator, Alexander’s fucking patron God, the Eye, it’s in my head, all the time. In every gap in my thoughts, any time I lose focus, between every word, it’s there. I can’t sleep without drinking half a bottle of vodka every night to drown it out. Every chance, every stray thought, it’s there, injecting the worst-” He paused and shivered all over. “The worst feelings ever. Always prodding me, prodding me, driving me forward like a slave, to find you.”
He jabbed a finger at me.
“Oi, off,” Twil snapped at him.
“I don’t even know how to send her back to it!” He shouted, voice swallowed by the fog. “None of us know anything. Maybe the cult did, when it was still together, but we literally cannot give it what it wants now! I’m fucking harmless to you.”
“Not to Lozzie you weren’t,” I said.
The flame of his anger guttered out in shame and guilt. He looked down, and winced again as he tried to curl up his wounded hand. “Kill me then. Don’t leave me for the Big Man. Zheng’s right, you should get out of here.”
“No,” I said. “You and I are going to make a deal.”
“I’ve told you everything I know.”
“I can remove the Eye from your head.”
When he looked up, there was no hope in his eyes. Badger did not believe me.
“I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart,” I said, and tried not to shiver in the gathering cold, leaning close into Zheng’s side for heat and comfort. I did my best to ignore the pain in my abdomen, and put strength into into voice. “I have very little sympathy for you, Badger. You were part of the Sharrowford Cult, and I don’t know the depth of your personal involvement, but you were one of the leaders after I killed Alexander. I should let Zheng pull your head off, but I need to operate on you to understand the Eye, to understand how it affects human minds, how it works. That’s what I get out of this. The Eye has held my twin sister for ten years. Understand? I need every scrap of insight I can get, and I will vivisect you for that knowledge, one way or the other.”
A glint of fear flashed back into Badger’s eyes. I swallowed and tried to dial down, taking a deep breath of the cold air.
“But I can try to minimise the damage,” I said. “Try to put you back together afterward. I can’t guarantee it will work. I might be able to sever the Eye’s connection, but it might kill you. Or it might leave you brain dead, or crippled, or give you any number of debilitating neurological conditions. Think of it as volunteering for a clinical trial.”
Badger shook his head in disbelief.
“She totally can,” Twil said. “She did it for Sarika once already, and she was way more screwed up than you, mate. At least you’re not flickering all over the place and stabbing yourself in the head.”
“Sarika’s situation was very different,” I said with a sigh and a sideways look at Twil. I was starting to understand why Evelyn looked at her that way sometimes. “The Eye had her held more tightly.”
“How?” Badger stared at me. “How can you stand up to something like that? I don’t believe it, it’s not possible. Look what happened to Alexander, and he was on his ubermensch power trip. He could shrug off bullets, and tell the Godlings what to do. Even he couldn’t control it, not one bit. What makes you special?”
“She is the shaman,” Zheng purred from above me.
I blinked at Badger’s incomprehension, and then I realised.
“You people never understood why the Eye wants me, did you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Figured you pissed it off somehow. A ritual. Failed summoning. Or you belong to it, like us.”
I sighed. “No. No, you silly little thing.”
Goodness, I sounded like Evelyn.
“Wha-” His mouth hung open.
“Heather?” Twil went tense at my tone. Zheng let out a low chuckle.
“Did you never think to ask why I can send people Outside, why I can go there myself? Why I can stop bullets with my mind? How I killed Alexander? Or do any of the things I can do? Did you never ask yourself?”
“W-well you’re like Lauren is, back when-”
I shook my head. “Lozzie’s powers are not the same as mine. Do you know why?”
Badger looked at me now with the same dawning terror as when I’d screeched at the Big Man and held his head like a bird of prey.
“The Magnus Vigilator took me and my twin sister ten years ago, to the place it lives, and taught us to be a little bit like itself,” I told him. “I am its adopted daughter. If you could see me for what I really am, beneath this.” I pinched my own cheek. “You would go mad from the revelation.”
It was a miracle that I didn’t cringe as I said all that. Big scary Heather, ready to peel your scalp back and crack your skull and root around in your grey matter, but you can trust me because I’m like the other terrifying thing that’s in there already, and I haven’t yet forgotten how to be human. Not entirely.
Also the last part was a lie. Homo abyssus was not terrifying, it was beautiful. I hoped Raine would one day call me cute like that, tentacles and membranes and webbed fingers and feathery feelers and all.
Badger stared, wide-eyed. He must have thought me off my rocker.
“I’m your best hope,” I said. “And the best hope for all the others. Now, are you going to be my test subject, or do I have to put somebody else through it?”
Badger took a deep, shuddering breath, looked to Twil and Zheng for help – found none in Twil, and Zheng was watching the fog – and then nodded, slow at first, then very emphatically indeed. I had made him believe.
“Alright. Alright, but you have to promise me one thing,” he said.
“You’re not in a position to demand shit,” Twil growled at him. Badger flinched.
“Wait,” I said gently to Twil. “Promise what?”
“If it doesn’t work, I don’t wanna be a vegetable and still have this thing in my head. If you mess up and you put me in a coma or whatever, and you haven’t pushed it out, you have to kill me. Don’t leave me like that. Just make sure I’m dead. Cremate me. That’s what I want, if it doesn’t work. Okay? I don’t wanna go on like this, I can’t do it anymore. And I’m dead anyway, really.”
He raised his eyes past us, to the wall of fog. To my relief, the mist had rolled back a little in the last minute or two, revealing the dark windows and low garden walls of the terraced houses once more, though the combination of moonlight and orange street lamps served to create a strange optical illusion. The houses seemed to bend toward us, as if the buildings themselves were eavesdropping.
“The Big Man’ll get me,” Badger said. “Finish me off before he takes me behind the wall. Okay?”
“Behind the wall?” Twil asked
But Badger blinked at her, as if his words had made perfect sense.
“If I can remove the Eye’s umbilical, I’m certain I can tear up whatever contract you made with Mister Blobby out there,” I sighed. “You don’t get the easy way out. If I fix you, you’re going to make up for being part of the cult.”
Badger swallowed, nervous and still broken, but with a resigned hope in his face now.
Twil sighed. “Fuck me, Heather, you’ve got more mercy in your little finger than I have in my whole body.”
“It’s not mercy,” I said. “Killing him would be mercy. What I’m going to do could be much worse, and don’t remind me.” I pressed a hand to my abdomen, beneath my coat, trying to ease the spiking, prickling pain that suddenly worsened as I straightened up and looked out into the fog. “But I’m not going to perform complex brainmath out here, not with that thing waiting for us. Plus I’m freezing. I’m in bloody pajama bottoms because of this … this … ” I gestured at Badger. “Very stupid and rude person.”
Badger averted his eyes. Really, I thought? You came at us with intent to harm, to kidnap, and that makes you look down in shame? I felt like shouting at him.
“Let’s get you back to the house.” was all I said. “Under lock and key. Stand up.”
“Right, right you are,” Badger muttered as he awkwardly got to his feet, trying to wring out the wet patch from the front of his jeans.
“We’re really gonna do it?” Twil said, bouncing on the balls of her feet and limbering up.
“Maybe,” I said. “I think we should call Evee first, see if there’s anything she can do or recommend. She recognised the trick Badger pulled, she might know something useful, about how to avoid this creature.”
“Evee’s gonna go thermonuclear over this,” Twil muttered
“Then I’ll explain to her,” I said. “That bringing Badger back is … my … decision … ”
Like the tide rolling out, the fog began to peel away.
No breath of wind stirred the wall of mist. The air was still and silent, even as the fog flowed away over brick and asphalt, leaving behind a faint shiny layer of cold greasy moisture on every surface. As the road junction opened up and the terraced houses emerged in a ring around us, I began to breathe a sigh of relief, despite the unnatural weather phenomenon. Twil muttered a ‘thank God for that’.
But as the fog receded, the houses kept rising, and we discovered we had nothing to be thankful for.
Behind the first row of terraced houses was another row, higher up and arranged in a true circle, impossibly bent toward us like a scrum of listening giants leaning over the shoulders of their fellows below. And behind them, another row, further away and bending forward too. And another, and another, and another, climbing away from us as if we stood in the bottom of a giant amphitheatre the size of a city.
Twil’s mouth dropped open and she cowered like a terrified hound. Badger whimpered. Zheng growled in frustration.
The effect was dizzying, like an optical illusion to induce vertigo. The houses furthest away must have been impossibly large to be visible at that distance. If I tried to focus on any one detail I felt like a speck of dust, surrounded by millions of dark misshapen windows like empty eye sockets.
“What the fuck, what the fuck-”
“Oh no, no no no no-”
The fog raced away, sucking back through streets that ran at impossible curves up among the leering houses, the roads themselves twisted into a maze-like mess of switchbacks and loops upon the inside of a rising plane. As if the city had been transformed by a magic trick while we weren’t looking.
At the very limit of the city, miles and miles and miles away but visible as if looming over us down here at the bottom of this pit, the fog stopped, bunching and thickening against an unseen barrier – and then it flowed up and over and vanished at last, to reveal the wall.
Red bricks piled like dried scabs, drystone without mortar, hundreds of miles high in a ring that rose in every direction behind the houses.
Even Zheng had to lower her eyes with a pained grunt.
“I told you we weren’t in Sharrowford anymore,” I whispered.
“But you’re not Outside,” Evelyn said thirty seconds later.
“Great, yeah,” Twil hissed at the phone in my hand, keeping her voice low as if something might overhear us. “That’s a real consolation here, thank you very much. You don’t have to see this place every time you look up!”
Evelyn cleared her throat, distorted by interference on the line. “Calm down, look at your feet if you have to.”
“Look at my goddamn feet, she says,” Twil muttered. “I’ll look at your bloody feet.”
“You’re not Outside,” Evelyn repeated – and I wondered if only I could detect the hint of a tremor in her voice, as she struggled to cover her emotions with deadpan analysis. “Or we wouldn’t be speaking. If your phones work, you’re still in range of a cell service tower, which means you’re technically still in Sharrowford.” She paused. “Or still on Earth, I suppose.”
“Thank God for small mercies?” I asked
“Exactly,” Evelyn said.
I sighed heavily, clinging to Evelyn’s measured words to stop myself from panicking, and to Zheng’s arm to stop myself from sitting down on the ground with physical exhaustion and hunger shakes.
“So how do we get the hell out of here, huh?” Twil demanded, shooting glances down every twisted road and sneaking her eyes up at the looming, bent houses above us.
“I’m working on it,” Evelyn grumbled.
She was thumping about on the other end of the phone, rapidly leafing through books, twice breaking off from our conversation to shout orders or requests to Praem for specific objects from her workshop. In the background, I could hear a hurrying pair of feet, and I feared I knew exactly who that was.
“Heather,” Evelyn added quickly. “Is Twil going to hold herself together?”
Twil pulled the most exasperated, irritated shrug I’d ever seen from her, and shook herself like a wet dog, baring her teeth. Her face and hands kept flowing back and forth between human and wolf, betraying the level of terror she felt.
“We’re all going to hold it together,” I said, staring directly at Twil. “Isn’t that right? Twil, isn’t that right?”
“Sure,” Twil said. She did not sound sure.
“The laangren will be fine, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Concentrate.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, whispering something under her breath, speed-reading in what sounded like Latin.
“Could this be some kind of illusion?” I asked.
“Doubtful,” said Evelyn. “There’s four of you, and you’re all seeing the same thing, yes?”
“Yes, of course, as I said.” We’d already compared impressions when describing the problem to Evelyn.
My eyes crept upward, to the rows upon rows of giant houses and the vast, heaven-scraping ring-wall in the distance. Each red brick must have been the size of a mountain. My head swam, dizzy at the scale and distances involved. The perspective was impossible, as if the whole world had been turned into a curved goldfish bowl, with us at the bottom.
This place did not look much like the real Sharrowford either. Except for the street corner where we stood, with the bus shelter and the old terraced houses, the vast buildings that marched away from us were too dark, too uniform in their grotesquery, greasy with soot and coal-dust that this city hadn’t seen for forty years or more. When we looked along the streets nearby, they seemed familiar, but as one’s eyes travelled upward, the perspective became impossible to endure without nausea.
It was also dead silent. No sounds of cars passing in the distance, no voices snatched on the night air. And no spirits. Not a single crumb of pneuma-somatic life. Utterly sterile.
At least there was still a familiar moon above us.
I’d seen worse Outside, in my nightmares and my Slips. This warped version of Sharrowford had nothing on the Library of Carcosa, and certainly not on Wonderland.
But the very fact it was somehow still Sharrowford was intolerable. We were lost in a place that should not be.
“Shaman,” Zheng purred, and her free hand cupped the back of my head, suffusing me with heat. I managed to pull my gaze back down to street level, shaking slightly.
“The city looks normal to us too,” Evelyn was saying. “Raine, look out the window again,” she called over her shoulder.
“Already done!” Raine’s voice floated back from deeper in the house. “Just good old Sharrowford out there!”
“Wait,” Evelyn said, bringing her voice closer to the phone. “Heather, you used the word ‘amphitheatre’ earlier, when you were describing the perspective.”
“ … so?”
“Are you absolutely certain this isn’t the doing of your theatrical friend?”
“Sevens? No. No, this doesn’t seem her style. And I only meant that as a metaphor. We’re not on a stage. Besides, abducting Badger for brainmath medical experiments isn’t an event she’d be interested in.”
Badger was not taking this at all well, though surprisingly his panic was more controlled than Twil’s. Maybe he was resigned to this as his punishment. He stood as close to us as he dared, keeping his eyes firmly on the ground and trying not to hyperventilate or shake too badly. He’d wrapped his wounded palm in the end of his own sleeve, wincing and hissing now and again whenever he tried to flex the fingers.
“Can you ask her for help?” Raine’s voice suddenly came across the phone, as if she was leaning over Evelyn’s shoulder.
“ … I’m sorry?”
“Sevens!” Raine said, breathless. “Ask her for help! Drama queen has to be useful for something, maybe she can chase off Mister Blobby.”
Evelyn hissed a wordless complaint.
I glanced about the road junction, careful not to raise my eyes to the wide carnivorous sky.
“Uh … Sevens?” I called out softly. “Are you here? Feel like offering some help?”
The silent city told no secrets. No shred of teasing gold edged out from around a window frame, no welcoming sunlight glow, no yellow ribbons.
“Nothing,” I said into the phone for Raine and Evelyn’s benefit. “Either she’s not here or she doesn’t feel like helping.”
“Where the flying fuck is here anyway?” Twil spat. “Can’t we just walk back to the house? I can see Notte Street from here. It’s right there! What if all the rest is just messing with our heads?”
“You stay exactly where you are,” Evelyn said. “Not a step further, not until I figure this out. I have the relevant passages right here, let me bloody well read them.”
“Twil,” I said gently. “There’s no spirits. We can’t hear any cars. I don’t think we can walk back to the house.”
“We are watched,” Zheng purred, blinking her eyes slowly at the end of each road like big cat. “That is where we are.”
“You know how this works?” Evelyn’s voice floated up from the phone.
“No, wizard.” Zheng sounded quite regretful. “I do not.”
“He wants me,” Badger said. The first thing he’d said in minutes. He pulled a horribly pained smile. “That’s how it works. This is all because I’m his, by right of contract. It’ll stop when … ”
“Should let the bastard thing take you then,” Twil growled.
“Do. Not,” Evelyn snapped down the phone, exasperated beyond proper sentences. “Do not let the-” She sighed sharply. “‘Mister Blobby’ abduct or eat or throw a bloody surprise party for that fool. Do not introduce more variables. We have no idea what that will do.”
“Hey, Heather, hey,” Raine’s voice shot back on the other side of the phone. “I’m coming to get you, I’m gonna walk-”
“Raine, no,” I pleaded. “Stop. Please. I don’t think you’ll be able to find us.”
“But hey, if I can-”
“Shut up, you oaf,” Evelyn snapped at her. “What are you going to do, stomp out there and twat the thing with your crutch? Sit down. I have the relevant passages right here now, let me translate.” Evelyn huffed a great sigh. “Heather, are you listening?”
“I am on the edge of my seat,” and said, struggling to stay calm. “Evee, please. We would all very much like to get out of here.”
“Right. First. Absolutely do not under any circumstances touch the wall. The big wall, that is. You said it was red?”
“I don’t think there’s much risk of us touching it, looks like it’s miles away.”
“No touchy wall, got it,” Twil said, nodding along. Clear instructions seemed to blow away the worst of her panic.
“Second,” Evelyn went on. “I suggest you all stay close together, but I hope that much goes without saying.”
“Duh,” Twil almost laughed.
“Of course,” I confirmed.
“Third,” Evelyn continued. “You’re going to have to cut each other’s eyeballs and tongues out.”
“ … what.” Twil blinked at the phone.
I went cold all over. “Evee?”
“Preferably with a rusty spoon. Make sure to get the entire optic nerve, and don’t stem the bleeding. Fingers must go as well, and you need to devour those, you disgusting sacks of rotting meat, but that’ll make it difficult to hang the apostate upside down by his feet and drain his blood into a bucket, so best do that first.”
Evelyn’s voice rattled on. Twil and I stared at each other. She’d gone white. Zheng started to growl deep in her chest. Badger just stared.
“Organs will come out last, but start with the lower ones, the kidneys and liver, don’t go straight for the heart because that will end things early. You thought you could get out by calling a friend, but you can’t, because I’m here now. I’m here. I’m right here, and so are you. Hello.”
The line went dead. My phone screen popped up a cheery little query about call quality.
“That … that wasn’t really Evee, right?” Twil asked.
“The wizard is irritating,” Zheng rumbled. “But those were not her words.”
I sighed, and tried to stop shaking. “I think that’s a safe assumption.”