Panic set in quicker than I had expected.
The warped goldfish bowl perspective, the rows of impossibly curved terraced houses leering down at us, this twisted version of Sharrowford; the lurking threat of the Big Man, ‘Mister Blobby’, Badger’s contract-holder, my rival predator, ten feet of pallid wormy meat that had spooked even Zheng; the layer of greasy moisture left on every inch of brick and asphalt by the retreating fog; the moon above, seen as if from the bottom of a well, with the great red brick wall forming a barrier vaster than the world; and the strange blood-soaked words in Evelyn’s voice before the call had cut out. All of it combined into a cocktail of total incomprehension.
The sheer still silence was intolerable. In a way it would have been easier if we’d been surrounded by grisly monsters.
Badger was quivering with adrenaline and fear, his breath shaking, arms wrapped around himself. Twil was whirling every which way, trying to look down all three roads at the same time. Zheng stood statue still with the deceptively relaxed readiness of a big cat. I clung to her for support, still staring at the phone in my hand. My mind raced to replay the bizarre things Evelyn had said, or been forced to say, trying desperately to divine if we’d just been taunted – or if something worse had happened, back at the house.
Twil turned to me, panting and wide-eyed. “D-do you think we can call Evee back?”
I’d never heard her stammer like that before.
“No,” I said, swallowing down my own panic and lingering pain. My abdomen was sending deep stabbing pains up into my guts, hopefully just an aftereffect of stress. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. Not if that wasn’t really her and- Twil!” I snapped as Twil fumbled out her own mobile phone, already thumbing through the screens to Evelyn’s number. “Please don’t risk it. Twil, please, we don’t know if our phones have been compromised somehow.”
“The shaman is right,” Zheng purred. “Ooran juh will take any opening, and force it wide.”
“Shit,” said Twil. “You don’t think it got to the house somehow, right? Right?”
“No, I believe that was some kind of illusion.” I sounded much more confident than I felt. I was guessing, at best, but we had to stay calm and collected. “Or it hijacked the call. Imitated Evelyn’s voice, to taunt us, to make us afraid.”
“So was that her or not?!” Twil asked.
“Heather!” she growled.
“I don’t know!” I snapped, then had to pause and cough. My throat felt twisted inside, delicate muscles burning with unfamiliar effort, like walking on a dislocated hip. “I think that was the real Raine and Evee, at first. She sounded completely like herself, right up until the subject became … well. And Barnslow Drive is like a magical fortress. People can knock on the door, but that thing wasn’t a person, not at all. Even if it went for the house, it couldn’t just walk in. It couldn’t.”
“He can go anywhere,” Badger muttered, voice thin and reedy. “No door, no lock, no bolt may deny him entrance. No key is complex enough to escape his genius.” He swallowed and glanced up at us. “That was a quote from the pages we had. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t know if that’s true,” I said, and failed to sound either calm or collected.
“Sod it,” Twil spat, and pressed her phone to the side of her head. “What’s it gonna do, reach through the speaker and bite my ear off?” She turned to the empty, silent streets and stuck two fingers up at nothing. “Fuck you! You hear me, bitch?! Fuck you, I’m invincible!”
“Oh my goodness.” I had to suck down a deep breath, chest constricting inside. “Twil, don’t, please-”
“Laangren,” Zheng rumbled. “I will not save you from your own stupidity.”
“Shhhhh-shh-shh, it’s- it’s-” Twil waved a hand at us, then frowned at whatever she was hearing on the phone. “What do you mean, out of range or switched off? Evee’s got voicemail, I know she has.” Twil lowered the phone again, frowning at the screen. “I’ve got signal, but there’s no connection. Like she’s taken her sim card out. What the hell?”
“It’s an illusion,” I said again, trying to make myself believe. “The call was hijacked. Our phones have been cut off.”
“Nothing like this ever happened before,” Badger said, voice far away and hollow. He was staring up at the leering houses, face slowly going slack.
Zheng reached out, grabbed a fistful of his hair, wrenched his head down.
“Wha-” Badger flailed in panic.
“Zheng, don’t hurt-”
“Eyes on the ground, worm,” Zheng rumbled at Badger as he blinked rapidly, panting his lungs out in animal panic, his attention ripped from the impossible amphitheatre back down to street level. Zheng let go with a tiny shove. “The shaman needs your mind intact.”
“R-right, right, right you are,” he babbled. “Right, Z-Zheng, yes, yes, good idea. Focus. Focus.”
“You arsehole,” Twil growled, suddenly stepping toward him, scraps of ghostly flesh flowing together into more wolf than human. Badger recoiled. “This is your fault, you stupid little shit.”
“Down,” I snapped, as hard as I could, as Evelyn as I could. The effort made the spiking pain in my abdomen worse, clenching and shuddering.
Twil stopped and bared her teeth at me instead.
“Evee is fine,” I said. “She’s behind the walls of a house strong enough to keep out any other magical influence. She has Praem and Raine and Lozzie all with her. Not to mention Tenny. I’m sure Tenny could beat up our disgusting stalker. It would be no contest.”
The intentional absurdity of my statement drew a tiny humourless huff from Twil, but the accuracy of my reading her concerns doused the worst of her anger. She looked away, still steaming, but no longer about to tear Badger’s face off.
“And we need to focus on getting ourselves out of here first,” I said. “We can help Evee once we’re clear.”
“Yeah … yeah, alright, fine. I get it.” Twil ran a hand through her dark curls, looking out at the deserted streets again, shooting a quick glance at the way they climbed the impossible sides of this curved plane. “What do we do then, walk back to the house? I know you said it won’t work, but we could at least try, yeah?”
I took a deep breath and steeled myself.
“Shaman?” Zheng must have felt my accelerating heartbeat.
“I want to try to use brainmath to slip us all Outside,” I said.
“Oh no,” Badger breathed.
“What?” Twil frowned.
“If this space, whatever this is, is located in our reality but cut off somehow, then maybe the dead hands phenomenon is cut off as well. If so, I may be able to relocate us Outside, and then back again, free of this … this.” I gestured around without looking up. “And if we’re not in reality, then maybe I can take us back there manually.”
Twil grimaced. “You sure you wanna do that, Heather?”
“The shaman is always sure,” Zheng purred.
I tutted. “I am not.”
“Sure you’re up to it?” Twil asked. “You look like shit already.” Her eyes widened and she blushed before she even finished the sentence. “Uh- I mean, uh- I mean you’re exhausted! I mean, you don’t look like shit. Fuck, sorry.”
Her flustered clumsiness would have been heart-fluttering under any other circumstances.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I feel just as excremental as I look. I’m falling apart here, Zheng’s going to have to carry me regardless. I may as well try. I might pass out, but this an emergency.”
Twil nodded, then glanced up at Zheng. “You got her, yeah? Don’t drop her if she falls.”
Zheng grunted an affirmative.
“Everyone needs to touch. Hold hands or something,” I said. “Like we did with Lozzie on the way back from Carcosa. Don’t let go. And keep your eyes firmly closed. You too,” I added to Badger. “I don’t want you losing your mind in the transition.” He nodded, and squeezed his eyes shut, gone white in the face.
Twil grabbed Badger by the shoulder. Zheng held me tight in one arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, Twil offered her a hand. My stomach was churning with the anticipation of pain, but there was no sense in delaying.
“Okay, here goes nothing,” I said.
I plunged my mind into the black sump at the bottom of my soul, thrust into the boiling tar up to my elbows, burning away skin and lighting my brain on fire. I dredged up that familiar old equation, the one I’d used so many times now, the most fundamental of the Eye’s lessons, the mathematical formula to rotate matter from reality to Outside and back again. It rose like a dripping hulk from the depths, the machine parts awakening as I touched them one by once. Molten metal slammed into place across the surface of my brain, scraping away slivers of who and what I was, shooting splinters of impossible knowledge deep into my subconscious to burrow and fester. Each figure of the equation clicked down in sequence, the hyperdimensional mathematics completing itself in the span of a hummingbird’s wing beat.
And then a pair of cold vices closed around my ankles.
Dead hands, anchored in deep soil, and holding fast.
The equation fell apart in a cry of pain and a sudden welter of nosebleed. My vision blurred, throbbing black around the edges as I hung in Zheng’s grip like a rag doll with my strings cut. Zheng cradled my head and chest and let me lean forward as I clenched up every muscle in my body to stop from vomiting. I let out a gurgling cry as my stomach muscles tried to convulse, but I held on. I had bested this formula before. I would not surrender now.
Panting, wiping nosebleed on my coat sleeve, shaking all over with pain like the aftermath of an electric shock, I straightened up and let Zheng take my weight. Could barely work my legs.
“Shaman,” she purred.
“Didn’t work?” Twil grimaced. She let go of Zheng’s hand and let go of Badger, who was looking at me somewhat awestruck.
“No hitchhiking for us,” I muttered, a little bit out of my head.
Twil squinted. “Eh?”
“We walk, laangren,” Zheng purred.
For lack of any other option, we did indeed try to walk home.
“ … oh that is too weird,” Twil said, staring back the way we’d come after about a hundred meters. “I really really really don’t like that. Really mega total do not like. Uh uh. No way. Screw this place.”
“Then do not look, laangren,” Zheng purred.
The goldfish bowl effect, the leering houses, and the great red brick wall all moved with us, as if the whole world rotated relative to the awful sights above us. We seemed unable to reach the point where the road curved impossibly upward into the space between those dark houses, walking through a silent Sharrowford as normal instead – or as close to normal as it could be, covered in a sheen of shiny grease and darkened by soot and grime. Behind us, once we walked far enough, the junction with the bus stop had risen up into the ring of houses and jumbled streets, all details rapidly lost to sight. Where we’d stood only minutes before was pulled up onto the side of the goldfish bowl plane.
The effect was dizzying to watch. We all tried to keep our gazes less than a hundred meters ahead, on the relatively normal road as it descended from the illusion above.
I did wonder what would happen if we split into two groups and walked in different directions, but decided not to risk any experiments.
I didn’t even speculate out loud; we may have had a hidden eavesdropper.
Twil went in front – ‘taking point’ as Raine liked to call it – and stayed in full-on werewolf mode. Why not, we reasoned, there was nobody here to see. We made our way down the middle of the road, slow and cautious, no leaping walls or sprinting at speed, all the better to spot an ambush if our corpulent stalker decided to have another go.
Badger stayed in the middle, partly so Zheng could keep an eye on him, and Zheng herself brought up the rear, but never too far away.
I rode on Zheng’s back again, exhausted beyond words, my eyelids like lead.
Attempted brainmath had drained me down to fumes. Combined with the stabbing pains in my abdomen and the aftermath of the screech and the lingering ravenous hunger, I felt barely present, a numb sack of meat clinging to my packmate’s back. Even my phantom limbs were limp, wrapped around Zheng in an embrace she couldn’t feel, like an injured squid with a friendly shark.
“I’m- sorry Zheng, there’s still nosebleed, I can’t-”
“Bleed on me, shaman,” she’d purred.
I knew she’d never drop me. I could have slept like this, if only we were elsewhere.
Sharrowford degenerated as we walked. Hastings Road could have been mistaken for normal, on a rough night, in the dark, after a storm, but by the time we reached Sparrow Street, the city at ground level had transformed into a dark parody.
The houses were coated with grime, coal-dust and soot and pollution, their windowpanes darkened from the inside by layers of dirt, brickwork eaten away by lichen and pale moss. The garden walls were coated in disgusting grease that made my skin crawl, and the gardens themselves were thin with dead grass, littered with old kitchen appliances or piles of rubbish. Streetlights seemed dimmer as we passed, parked cars had faded paint-jobs, and the gutters were clogged with rotting organic matter like leaf mulch or mud, with tiny white worms writhing within.
“Come on, what the hell?” Twil growled through her snout from up ahead. She was flexing her claws, wolf ears swivelling to catch the slightest sound, jumping at shadows. “Sharrowford doesn’t look half this bad, this is bullshit. Come out and fight us, fucko!”
Her challenge echoed away between the houses.
“Calm, laangren,” Zheng purred.
“How am I meant to calm down if this motherfucker won’t come out and fight me? Shit-eating coward bitch-tits … ” She trailed off into muttered insults. I noticed Badger trying not to flinch every time Twil opened her mouth.
“Ooran juh wants you tormented,” said Zheng.
“I’ll show it bloody torment.” Twil gestured at the dark and filthy houses. “What about all the people? Come on, there was people sleeping in these houses, right? It’s the middle of the night. They can’t all have vanished.”
Not a single light shone in any window. Not a whisper moved behind any curtain.
“We’re not in Sharrowford,” I croaked.
We crept on a few more steps in tense silence. Zheng turned her head very slightly, meeting my eyes sidelong across her own shoulder.
“What is your plan, shaman?” she whispered.
“ … get home. Maybe … maybe there … ”
“I will fight anything for you,” she whispered on, “even Ooran juh, though I cannot win. But I do not know how to get you out of this gullet.”
Zheng’s warmth down my front made me feel so safe, but here it was a false hope. I tried to nod.
“I love you too, Zheng. I’ll get us out. Get us out,” I whispered back. “I’ll think of something.”
Up ahead, Twil stopped by a low garden wall, gritting her teeth at one of the worm-eaten wooden doors.
“I could go ring a doorbell,” she said. “See if anybody’s home.”
“Laangren,” Zheng rumbled a warning.
“Twil, no-” I croaked, but it was too late. Twil was already vaulting the low wall, onto the patch of scraggy grass that passed for a lawn. She trotted up onto the front step and pressed the doorbell twice, bouncing on her wolf-pad paws and rolling her furred shoulders, ready to spring away or throw a punch.
Zheng stopped with me on her back, a good safe distance away. Badger scurried behind us.
“Bad plan, hey,” he was muttering to himself. “Bad plan, bad baaaaad plan. What is with this werewolf stuff, man?”
“Hey hey!” Twil called up at the house. “Anybody home?”
“Twil, leave it, please,” I said.
“Quiet, shaman,” Zheng purred. I shut my mouth.
Twil jabbed the doorbell twice more. Seconds ticked by, maybe a whole minute, but nothing happened. My phantom limbs tried to ready themselves, sluggish and tugging on my bruises. Eventually Twil let out a huge grumbling huff and shrugged her shoulders.
“Guess that answers that,” she sighed. Twil looked back at us over one shoulder and pulled a self-deprecating smirk with her wolf’s snout, a very strange sight. “Made myself look like a right arse, didn’t-”
“Twil!” I screamed.
At the moment she’d turned to look over her shoulder, the door had begun to open, a dark crack widening with silent glacial slowness.
When I screamed, a fat pale arm squirmed out through the gap like a great albino worm forcing itself through corpse-flesh.
Twil whirled just in time, leaping back with a yelp, stumbling on the house’s front step. The slavering mouth in the Big Man’s palm snapped razor teeth shut on empty air, an inch from Twil’s head. She scrambled back, panting and wild. The door and frame bulged outward, creaking and warping as a giant bulk pressed against them from behind.
“Back up, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.
The mouth in the palm opened wide, and curled red lips into a toothy smile, flickering out a wet red tongue as a whispering filled the air, soft and serpentine and full of secrets.
I tried to hiss again, but only croaked. I wanted to clamber off Zheng’s back and – what? I ached all over, my whirling phantom limbs were no help, all they did was send shooting pains up my bruised flanks. Zheng held tight around my thighs, ignoring my squirming to get down.
“Fuck you!” Twil roared at the arm and the hidden giant behind it. “I’ll bite your fucking hand off you coward!”
“You cannot fight it-” Zheng raised her voice, but Twil was already hurling herself at the arm.
And in a motion that made my eyes water, she failed to connect.
It was like watching an optical illusion in real time. Twil’s claws seemed to sail through the place where her target should be, her motion itself revealing that the Big Man’s arm was actually at a totally different angle. It was impossible, a trick of the light that made my eyes water and forced a pained groan from Badger.
Twil sailed past and hit the wall with a surprised thump, and the mouth-hand went for her again, opening wide to take a chunk out of her scalp.
But Twil was fast. And the Big Man was trapped behind a door.
She dropped to her belly, rolled beneath his reach, and came up level with his giant hinge of an elbow, ready to rip into greasy flesh, claws angled to disarticulate and debone his joint with the first strike – but then his arm slithered back as quick as it had thrust forward, folds of loose skin gathering and bunching against the door and frame for a split second, before the whole mass vanished back into the gap.
The door slammed shut.
“Coward!” Twil growled, and threw herself at the door. She kicked at the wood, sending splinters flying and awful cracking sounds echoing down the deserted street. “Get out here and fight, bitch!”
“Laangren, stop,” Zheng rumbled. I was still squirming, instinct desperate to get down and drag Twil back.
Twil’s forth kick knocked the front door clean off its hinges. The worm-eaten wood crashed into the darkness of an unlit corridor.
Empty. No Big Man. Nothing to sink her claws into.
Twil made an incoherent sound of animal rage through her gritted teeth. She kicked at the door frame and whirled, looking for something to fight, making fists with her claws.
“Twil!” I tried to snap – but the word came out as a cough. “Twil, for pity’s sake, stop,” I wheezed. “Please. It’s trying to trap us, to lure us into getting bitten, to give us the creeps. Stop.”
“Well it’s working!” Twil snapped.
But she did rapidly simmer down, heaving for breath and hanging her head as she stepped back over the wall to rejoin us in the street. She shot dark looks up and down the road, and back over her shoulder at the empty toothless mouth of the broken doorway. She wouldn’t meet anybody’s eyes, flexing her claws and hunching her shoulders.
“I hate this,” she hissed.
“Twil,” I tried again, more gentle this time, looking down at her from over Zheng’s shoulder. “I know you do, but we need you to stay alert and not get distracted. If we do get attacked, you need to be on your toes.”
“‘Stay frosty,’” she said, almost mockingly, but then grimaced and shrugged. “Sorry I’m like this. I know it’s no good.”
“There is no shame in courage, laangren,” Zheng said.
“Yeah but it’s supposed to bloody well work, innit?” Twil huffed, and then turned to lead the way again. “I’ll try to keep a lid on myself. Sorry, Heather.”
“Wait, Twil,” I croaked. “If this thing is trying to get to us, you need to speak your mind. Don’t let it needle you.”
She shrugged. Wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Already have.”
I struggled to marshal my thoughts. I ached all over, with pain and exhaustion, but Twil needed help or she wouldn’t get through this. I knew this landscape, this nature of landscape, this barren waste, far better than she did. On some level I felt like I understood the Big Man. A rival predator. I knew all the tricks, because I’d learned them in the abyss. Twil would be baited by a flickering among the rocks, a stray tendril in the shadows, a piece of odd-looking coral, diverted away from us and hunted down.
“Twil, what did you mean earlier, when you said this is what you were made for?” I tried.
Twil finally looked up and blinked at me. “ … my granddad, right?”
“S’why he made me a werewolf,” she said, and her voice brimmed with sudden pride. “I mean screw whatever Evee says, the old man is dead. He made me a werewolf so I could deal with stuff like this, when it gets sent against my family, against the Church. That’s why I’m like this, s’what I’m meant to be good at. Fighting monsters, yeah? But it’s not working, is it? Not this time.”
“I think this is beyond any of us,” I told her. “There’s no shame in that either.”
Twil shrugged and gave me an awkward wave. “I just don’t get what the hell’s going on. Look, I’ll be alright, let’s just keep moving, yeah?”
“Good idea,” Badger added from behind us. Twil shot him a nasty look.
“One foot in front of the other, laangren,” Zheng purred. “I have your back.”
Twil and Zheng shared a very different sort of look. After a moment, Twil swallowed and nodded.
We carried on, down dark streets clogged with filth and grease and oily sheens on every surface. A stench was rising on the night air, like old cabbage and rotten eggs and fish left in the sun. Twil began to breathe through her mouth to drown out the worst of the smell, wolf’s jaw hanging open. Once or twice I raised my eyes and risked a look at the vast ring-wall above us, and the the moon in the sky. At least the moon seemed unblemished.
“Zheng,” I mumbled from Zheng’s shoulder, trying to raise my croaking voice as much as I could so Twil could hear too. I had to keep us together, keep our spirits up, keep our thoughts focused on what we could understand.
“Why are you sc-” I caught myself. “Why are you so cautious of this big fat man? Mister Blobby, if that’s what we’re calling him? Not to put too finer point on this, but I have seen you gleefully fight a building once before.”
“Ooran juh cannot be fought.”
“And a tower block can?” Twil shot over her shoulder. “I’ve heard the story, you doing your Kool-Aid Man impression.”
“You are not listening,” Zheng purred. “I fear no physical contest, no God of this world or the shaman’s dark sea. But Ooran juh does not fight with muscle and fist. It is no Outsider. It is no God. It was a monkey once, a wizard. Much worse.”
I blinked several times in surprise, trying to process this fact.
“A person?” I asked. “That was a human being?”
“Makes sense, trying to scare us like this,” Twil growled. “If it was some alien from beyond, it wouldn’t be trying to freak us out on purpose. Bastard.”
“That’s not what it says in the book,” Badger spoke up quietly, without raising his eyes. “In the photocopies from the book, I mean.”
“It wrote the book,” Zheng purred.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
Zheng said nothing for several paces, brooding in silence as we rounded the corner of another street. The road surface itself was caked with gunk, oil runoff and grime, and the drains were clogged with black rotting filth, forming puddles of stagnant water.
“A wizard had a theory, about a book,” Zheng eventually rumbled as we crept down the middle of the street. The low, soft purr of her voice soothed my anxiety a little, even if she was talking about horrible subjects.
“A Song wizard,” she said. “His name was Liu Bai. I knew him twenty nine years, with the Khans. Used me as a sounding board when he couldn’t get his fellows to listen, and my bindings were such that I was not permitted to rip his tongue out and gut him, so I heard most of it. The book was an unnamed rotting thing he had picked up in Samarkand, but when he tried to lead the rest of us back to the bookseller, the place was gone. He swore blind that the bookseller had not been truly human, but something else wearing the skin of one of you monkeys, a man so obese he should not have been alive.”
“Sounds like our friend,” Twil grunted.
“Perhaps,” Zheng continued. “Liu Bai swore the book contained instructions for a contract of power, for the shaping of flesh. A contract with a much older wizard who had been beyond, to a place of endless cold water, where the reshaping of flesh was achievable at but a thought.”
I shivered with recognition, no longer soothed.
“The abyss?” I whispered. “That thing is a person who returned from the abyss? Like me?”
Zheng shrugged gently, not wanting to jostle me too hard on her shoulders. “That is what Liu Bai believed. None of the other wizards could see this in the rotting book. They saw only diseased ramblings.”
The road curved to the right, past houses fallen into deep disrepair, their windows blackened and their roofs threadbare. The garden walls were covered in a tiny black filigree of creeping fungus. We weren’t too far from home now.
“I do not know when he made the deal. In a dream, perhaps,” Zheng purred. “But over several weeks he grew fat. Weeping sores opened in both his palms, and the edges of the wounds seemed to twitch like lips. He drooled, soiled himself, stumbled about in a daze. The others shunned him. He was confined to his tent. He was going to be left behind when the army next moved. None had seen him for days when he finally emerged, but he was not Liu Bai anymore. Ooran juh had found a new host.”
Badger kept glancing back over his shoulder, eyes growing more horrified with every turn of Zheng’s account. He was squeezing his wounded hand tight inside the end of his bloodied sleeve.
“What, the fat guy like, possessed him?” Twil asked.
“Or used him as a gateway, or a lighthouse,” Zheng purred. “Or ate him for sport. I do not know. Half the camp burned that night. The warriors could not stop him, though none lacked courage. He was always where their weapons were not. He declined every fight, and bit every arm turned against him. I can move in the blink of an eye, but even I cannot be in two places at once. We lacked the means to bring Ooran juh to battle. He left when he grew bored, simply ceased to be. Not because we drove him off.”
I was having trouble concentrating on Zheng’s story. That greasy pale fat man, that obscene headless thing, that was something like me? A human being who had journeyed into the abyss between spheres, like I had?
That grotesque mountain of pale meat, was that his Homo abyssus?
“The warriors who were bitten did not heal,” Zheng was saying. “Their wounds turned infected, would not be cleaned with either fire or steel, or even amputation. The sickness was in the blood. They suffered dreams and waking visions of Ooran juh offering them a contract, to end the pain. Many slew themselves, many others turned up dead, many walked off into the steppe alone.”
“Alright, don’t get bit,” Twil said. “Evee already told us that part.”
“I met it once again, hundreds of years later,” Zheng purred. “It took a wizard who owned me at the time. She had been dabbling in dubious books, but she could not possibly have had the very same tome as Liu Bai. That time Ooran juh simply strode out of a locked room. He took her to wherever he takes his prey, but I just stood and watched. I was below his notice.”
“I-I think what we see of him is a projection,” Badger spoke up, voice unsteady. He glanced back over his shoulder at Zheng and I, then hurried to face forward again, keeping his eyes carefully on the ground.
“Speak up, worm,” Zheng rumbled.
“ … it’s like a, uh … ” He struggled for a moment, then wet his lips and took a deep breath. “Imagine if we were all two-dimensional shapes, right? Bear with me here a sec, okay? Like if people were all circles, squares, triangles, whatever. Then imagine a three-dimensional shape comes to visit us. We’d only see one projection of it where it intersects with our world on a two-dee plane, not the whole thing. Right?
“Like Flatland,” I croaked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Badger nodded. He looked back, the brightest and most alert I’d seen him so far. “So like, the Big Man, and things like him, they’re like a five or six or seven dimensional shape, visiting us shapes that only move and see in three dimensions. Four dimensions if you count time, I guess. Get it?”
“Wizard filth,” Zheng rumbled. Badger flinched and stumbled, like he wanted to run from her.
“I get it,” I spoke up. “Let him speak, Zheng. I think this might be valuable.”
Or at least it would keep our minds focused on something other than the grease and filth and decay all around.
“S-so that’s why the Big Man can be in multiple different places, and why we can’t touch him, but he can touch us if he wants to,” Badger stammered on. “He’s just one projection of a larger entity, and he can rotate away from us whenever he wants.”
“Like the messenger,” Twil piped up from in front. “Remember that, Heather? Back in the Medieval Metaphysics room? I jumped straight at it, but it didn’t even have to dodge.”
“I do remember,” I croaked softly.
“Where’d you get all this from anyway?” Twil growled at Badger.
“Learned it from Sarry, mostly,” he said. “I’m not as stupid as I look. And I know I look really stupid, right.”
“Could’a fooled me.”
“I did go to uni, you know?”
“What?” Twil squinted back at him. “What’d you study there?”
“Maths,” Badger said. “S’kinda how I got into the cult … ”
He sighed and fell silent, as we crept along the final stretch of filth-streaked road before the turning into Barnslow Drive. This corner, this street, had become so familiar to me over the last half a year. My Cape of Good Hope before warm sanctuary and real family. But this place was not really Sharrowford, not right now.
The nearby houses were coated with dirt and grime, the pavements smeared with unspeakable black slime, the drain gratings submerged beneath a scum of oily dark water. The overhanging trees on the opposite side of the road were leafless and dead, dotted with black fungal infection and patches of rot. Defamiliarisation crept over me, a sense of spiritual vertigo, and I had to resist the urge to bury my face in Zheng’s shoulder and screw my eyes shut.
We reached the stretch of pavement opposite home.
“Great,” Twil growled.
I don’t know what I’d expected to find at Number 12 Barnslow Drive. A signpost to the exit? A secret door back into the real world? Evelyn and Raine, waiting to rescue us? An idea, inspiration, a clue at least.
The house was an even worse wreck than the other mockeries in this ruined place. All the lifetimes of effort which had gone into holding the building together in reality were absent here; missing tiles left the buckled roof open to the elements in several places, the walls were covered in dark creeping ivy thick as blankets, and the brickwork was loose and crumbling. The windows were streaked with black filth from the inside, and the front garden was overgrown with waist-high weeds, thick grasses and twisted thorns. As we stared in crushed hope, I saw small scuttling insects dart from under the eaves and vanish into cracks in the walls. Nobody lived here.
“What now, shaman?” Zheng rumbled.
I stared at the house, feeling violated. My home, even as an illusion, reduced to this? Was this meant to be a vision of the future, or a stab at my heart?
“Hey,” Twil suddenly barked. “Hey, hey, is that Evee? Guys, guys, there’s a face in the window! Don’t you see that?” Twil pointed, whirling to us and then back again. “That’s Evee! It must have got her, it must have!”
All I saw was a white smudge on the other side of a second-floor window. Fungus on the glass.
“Twil,” I said, slowly and carefully. “That’s not Evee. That’s nothing.”
“I don’t- I-” Twil frowned up at the window, squinting and blinking her eyes. “But … but what if she’s inside-”
“She isn’t,” I said, hard as I could. “Twil, don’t look at it. Look at me instead. Twil, please. If a regular house was a trap, this is a definitely a trap. Don’t be stupid. Stop looking at it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know!” Twil snapped – but she did look away from the house, down at the ground, then at me, gritting her teeth. “It’s a stupid trap. I mean, come on, who would walk in there, right? It’s obviously not your bloody house. Try harder, bitch-tits,” she spat at the empty road.
“We need a way out, shaman,” Zheng murmured.
“I know,” I whispered back. “I just can’t think of anything. I could try brainmath again, try to … comprehend this place. It’ll be difficult-”
“No, shaman. We need a way out, quickly.”
“I know, I-”
“Uhhhhhh, guys,” Twil said. She was looking directly up. “Is it just me, or does the big red wall look … taller?”
I followed her gaze, craning my neck up past the rows of dark terraced houses, toward the very top of that impossibly giant ring-wall of scabby red.
Twil was right. As if reaching toward the moon in the centre, the wall seemed taller. Almost like we were sinking deeper. Or the opening was getting narrower.
“It … does,” I admitted.
“Oh no,” Badger murmured. “The way out is closing up. It’s closing up. It’s over.”
“We are in his mouth,” Zheng rumbled. “Behind his teeth. We must climb out, before he finishes chewing, but I cannot grasp the walls to pull us up.”
“What?” Twil stared at her, wide-eyed with panic. “Oh fuck that, come on, that was just a metaphor, right?”
Zheng blinked at her, once, slowly. “Shaman.”
“I-I’m trying to think of something,” I stammered. “Maybe if I try brainmath again, try something different, try-”
We all jumped out of our collective skin when my phone went off, buzzing in my coat pocket. Twil bristled all over and Badger gasped and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, but Zheng held fast. With one shaking hand I fumbled my phone out as it kept ringing.
“It’s Evee, right?” Twil asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t recognise the number.”
“It’s him,” Badger said. “Taunting us. It must be. Don’t answer it, don’t answer it!”
“Shut up, you prat,” Twil growled at him. “It might be Evee, giving us a way out.”
“Shaman,” Zheng purred, and nodded out into the street. “Decide quickly.”
I followed her gaze, and saw that the blocked drains along the kerb were overflowing more than before, flooding the entire road with a thin layer of backed-up sewer water, with disgusting oily patches and dark substances floating in the liquid. Bubbles of rank gas rose from the depths of the drain entrances, popping softly in the silence.
The phone kept buzzing in my hand.
“Okay,” I said, phantom limbs rising to defend me from an unseen threat. “Everyone brace yourselves.”
I pressed the answer call button, and held the phone out at arm’s length, heart racing as I waited for the trap to spring shut, ready to counter it at the speed of thought.
“ … Morell?” asked a voice from the phone’s speaker.
Dead flat, utterly cold, the voice of a predatory lizard. I’d recognise that voice anywhere. I was so surprised I forgot to be afraid for a moment, and jammed the phone against my ear in shock.
“Stack?” I said. “Amy?”
“Morell,” she repeated. Her voice was a little distorted by poor connection, but it was absolutely Amy Stack.
“W-what … what are you- is this really you?” I asked.
A beat of silence. I swore I could feel the exasperated sigh.
“You asked me to call you,” she said.
I boggled at that. Zheng narrowed her eyes, Twil shrugged wide, both of them able to overhear the conversation and just as confused as I was.
“I … Stack, we’re in the middle of a crisis right now,” I said quickly. “Did you call by chance, or did Evelyn contact you, or-”
“You told me to call you, Morell,” Stack said, level and calm. “You’re standing in front of me right now, and I don’t know how you got in here. But I’m talking to you as well, on the phone. I don’t want to know. Here.”
The phone changed hands with a rustle.
“Heather? Can you hear me?”
It was my own voice.
“Sevens?!” I asked.
“Unless there’s another identical copy of you running around Sharrowford, yes, it’s me,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in an irritatingly accurate copy of my own voice, complete with that touch of patronising intellectualism in her tone. “And at the moment it’s also my exact words reaching you. We have a few moments before that boorish gentleman interrupts us.”
“Are you coming to help?” I asked.
“Oh, fuck, please,” Twil said.
“Help?” Sevens echoed. “Oh dear, oh no, I absolutely cannot come in there. That philistine would run rings around me and bite both my hands off. We’re simply not evenly matched, I’m not capable of that.”
I suppressed an urge to slap her. “I know this doesn’t fit your delicate theatrical sensibility, but I can hardly conclude a sweeping lesbian romance for your enjoyment if we all get drowned in rising sewer water.”
I glanced at the road. The blackened, scum-filled water was an inch deep now, and still rising. Twil shuffled away from the kerb, baring her teeth at the water.
“Sewer water?” Sevens asked. “Ugh. Oh dear, that means he already knows. He’s panicking though, which is probably a good sign.”
“Knows what? Sevens, are you helping or not? What is this phone call even for?”
“To open another connection, of course,” Sevens said with that infuriating hint of smugness – me at my absolute worst, when I thought I was being clever. “I’ve sent a … well, an acquaintance, to help guide you out. I can’t vouch for her quality or her intentions, because I’ve known her for all of about fifteen minutes, but she was very insistent, and I don’t know why anybody would willingly throw themselves down that particular gullet for anything less than deepest love.”
“Why- why-” I tried to gather my thoughts. “Why not call from Raine or Evelyn’s phone? What does Stack have to-”
Sevens-Shades-of-Heather sighed, losing her patience. “Because he’s already found and closed those connections. You needed a fresh one, and if I showed myself to Lozzie, you’d all be dead by the time she finishes hugging me. Not that I mind her, of course.”
“Oh shit, oh shit, look at that,” Twil said.
I followed her wide-eyed gaze.
The great red wall was shuddering.
Vast ripples and pulses flowed up the scabby red bricks, more like a twitching biological sphincter than stone and rock under the influence of an earthquake, trying to inch closer to the clean light of the moon in the middle of the sky. A moment later, as if it had taken seconds to cross a vast distance, a sound like slapping meat reached us, distant and distorted, the first sound to break the silence of this mock-city.
“He’s knows you’ve almost figured out how to escape,” Sevens was saying down the phone, in my own voice. “So he’s going to do his best to force you down his throat now.”
“How!?” I croaked into the phone. “I haven’t figured out anything!”
The water in the road was lapping at the kerb. Dark shapes were moving in it now, giant shadows beneath the surface, as if the water were miles deep rather than an inch or two of muck over dirty asphalt.
“Oh don’t be stupid, of course you have. You’re the only one who can perceive matter in the relevant way. The help I’ve sent will only be able to signpost you, it’s up to you to do the rest,” Sevens explained. “But it’s dead help, a dead friend, a friend who has tasted worms once before. I’ve never tasted worms,” Sevens’ voice – my voice – carried on, and it took me a moment of shock to realise it wasn’t really her anymore.
“My flesh is forever, held between here and there, between decay and life. Are you forever, Heather Morell? You could be, but you are small and weak, you refuse to grow strong, to eat good meat, to grow fat with good food and good-”
Twil flinched at a sudden flicker of dark motion in the front garden of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Zheng whirled and growled. Badger tripped back in surprise.
But I lowered the phone, and ignored the rattling voice of what was no longer Sevens imitating me.
A fox stood on the garden wall.
Toned and sleek from a good diet and plenty of exercise, russet fur fluffy and healthy, black-tipped ears swivelling. Bright orange eyes met mine, then the fox quickly looked behind herself, as if she’d recently escaped a hunter and could hear it following on her trail. Then she bounded forward along the wall, and turned back to look at me again.
The fox was not part of this place. She was too clean. Too familiar.
“What the hell?” Twil said.
“It’s- it’s okay,” I said, struggling to gather my thoughts as I ended the call and put my phone away. “I think I know this fox. Is it you? … Saye?”
“You what?” Twil boggled at me.
The fox tilted her head, quickly looked forward along the road, then back at us again. Filthy water was beginning to overlip the kerb beside us, millimetre by millimetre.
“It’s a long story,” I said, shaking my head. “I think this is Evelyn’s … well, it’s part of her family. Maybe. Sort of. What are you doing here?” I asked the fox. “How did you get to- oh, well, I suppose we aren’t actually in Sharrowford, are we?”
The fox replied by hurrying along to the next garden wall, hopping the gap with a spring of her back legs. She looked up at the sky and the great red wall closing in on the moon. We didn’t have long, the gap was getting smaller and smaller, tightening around that one source of clean natural light.
“Foxes are good allies, if they will have you,” Zheng purred. “Both predators and eaters of the dead. They know the secret ways. Do we follow her, shaman?”
“She’ll do her best to lead us out. I think.”
If only I could figure out what Sevens had meant.
“Oh bloody great,” Badger said. “Now we’re following an animal.”
“Stay here with the shit water if you want, numb-nuts,” Twil said. “Looks like a chance to me.”
She was already picking up her feet and trotting after the fox, trying to skirt the rapidly forming puddles on the pavement. Zheng settled me more comfortably on her back, and set off as well, at a rapid ground-eating lope. Badger let out a groan, but jogged after us, boots splashing through the muck.
The fox raced ahead along the low garden walls, hopping from brick to brick, staying clear of the rising water in the street. We tried to ignore the vast shadows moving below, and the way the great red wall shuddered and flexed above our heads.
Pinned in the mouth of a predator, we fled between its teeth.
Hello dear readers! Yes, it’s me, the author, not Heather. I don’t normally like to add anything after chapters, but I have a little announcement for everybody who follows and enjoys the story, but isn’t either subscribed to the Patreon or in the discord channel.
Katalepsis is going to get an official, professionally produced audiobook version, from Podium Audio!
For any readers who want more information, here’s a link to the public post all about it on the Katalepsis Patreon page!