Since the first moment I’d met her, Evelyn had been wrong about so many things.
She’d been wrong about me, for a start. Not once, not twice, but three times — first that I was dangerous, then that I was crazy, and third that she was unworthy of my friendship. With time and effort I’d proved all of those assumptions false. She’d been wrong about Raine’s attitude toward me, wrong about Twil’s intentions, wrong about Tenny’s nature. She’d been wrong about her childhood home and what it could mean to her, given the hard work of exorcising her mother’s memory. She’d been wrong about her spider-servitors and how well they could protect the house. She’d even been wrong about the house itself; Number 12 Barnslow Drive may indeed have been the most supernaturally defensible position in Sharrowford, but it was far from impregnable.
Was she wrong about the Eye? Only time would tell.
This thing cannot be fought, she’d told me, rapping her walking stick on the table in the drawing room, back before she’d converted it into a magical workshop.
She was correct about that part, I had no doubt. Even as far as I’d come, I had no hope of wrestling the thing into submission. We had to find another way.
She was right about Maisie, too. Even now, months later, her warning still sometimes echoed in my darkest moments, utterly alone without my missing half, lying awake in bed in the small hours of the morning, too guilty to wake Raine or rouse Zheng.
Nothing human can survive out there for long.
I’d proved her words right upon the canvas of my own flesh. One journey through the abyss had returned me here with an utterly changed sense of who and what I was, so Maisie’s only hope was my continued endurance and flowering, my defiance of abyssal dysphoria, my refusal to give up and dive back into the deep waters. Every day I lived like this was further proof that it could be done, that it was possible, that whatever I tore from Eye’s grasp two or three months hence would have a life worth living.
But above all else, Evelyn had been wrong about Praem.
She’d been taught fear and paranoia, but her own basic decency had saved her. She may have refused to treat Praem as a person — she’d not even given her a name until I’d forced the issue — but she had not bound her in a corpse, not tainted the act of creation with murder and violation. She’d reacted with alarm and disgust when Praem had begun to show individuality, wearing her maid outfit and speaking out of turn — but with a little guidance and help, she’d refrained from stamping out the anomalous behaviour. She’d allowed Praem to grow, which had in turn allowed her to grow. And she had discovered that the foundational aspects of her mother’s philosophy were even more wrong than she’d ever imagined. To her credit, she hadn’t rejected that revelation; it may have seemed obvious to us, but that did not do justice to the emotional and intellectual leap of faith she’d had to make. And now she called Praem her daughter.
I was proud of her.
Which is why I took it so seriously when I saw that old, hard-edged paranoia, in the set of her eyes and the line of her mouth, when she spoke of what might happen when we found Edward Lilburne.
Evelyn was right about that as well — I hadn’t given the subject a lot of thought. Locating the man was difficult enough.
“How could I be overconfident about that?” I repeated her own words back at her. “I’ve barely thought about it.”
Evelyn didn’t reply. She stared down at me, trying to cultivate an air of professional detachment, the mature professor who’d heard a fresh student say something seemingly obvious but revealingly incorrect, waiting for me to catch up and stumble toward a retraction. She had the advantages of height and dignity, sitting comfortably in her circa-1950s wooden desk chair, while I perched on the step-stool with voluminous yellow robes spilling over my knees, a bowl of cold vegetable curry on the floor next to me. Evelyn’s face — soft rounded cheeks that had never quite lost all their puppy fat, eyes lined by stress and trauma but such a gentle sea-breeze blue, nose small and neat — was lit from the side by the shaded lamp on the desk, casting her profile into crags and peaks of shadow, a reflection of the night beyond the small, high window in the back wall of the study.
I realised with disappointed surprise that she was attempting to summon the banished spirit of the first time she’d lectured me, alone together in the basement of Sharrowford University Library. Consciously or not, the muscles of her face and the pinch of her mouth tried to adopt that preemptive rejection and haughty distance.
But she failed. We knew each other too well now, and I knew that wasn’t really her. She couldn’t conceal how much she cared. Beneath the act, the reality peeked through, concern and worry and fear. Her throat bobbed.
“Evee?” I prompted. “It’s okay, you don’t have to glare at me.”
“I’m thinking,” she said with a little huff. “I’m no good at this off the top of my head, you know that.”
“Ah, yes. Sorry.” I rejoiced that she’d dropped the attempted act. I sat up straight and attentive and averted my eyes so as to not make her too self-conscious.
After a few moments of awkward throat-clearing and drumming her fingers on the arms of her chair, she found the right words.
“Then what do you think?” she asked. “What will happen if — God willing, when — we find Edward Lilburne?”
“I suppose … we try to corner him? Back him into a situation he can’t escape from?” I swallowed and shrugged, facing a prospect I didn’t want to deal with. “I don’t necessarily want to kill him. Not after everything that’s happened since Alexander. But from what Lozzie’s told us, and from everything we’ve seen, maybe that has to happen.” I sighed. “I don’t think we have the right to make that judgement, but we do have a right to defend each other.”
Evelyn nodded along. As soon as I was finished, she snapped, “Too abstract.”
I blinked at her. “Pardon?”
“Far too abstract. You’re thinking in ethical and abstract terms. What happens? Practically, what do we do?”
I shook my head, feeling lost. “How can we know until we know where he is? Plans depend on actual circumstances.”
“Not good enough.”
“It’s not good enough,” she repeated, unrelenting. “Say he’s in a house, and the house is in Sharrowford — the most simple and unlikely prospect, yes, but let’s go with the simple one to illustrate my point. What do we do?”
“ … well, we … we have to go to the house?” I asked slowly, seeking approval as I spoke.
“How many of us, in what order? Do we send a scout first? Who is willing to do that? What happens if we can’t get in? What happens if he has mundane protection, bodyguards and such? What happens, Heather?”
I spread my hands. “I don’t know. Evee, what’s your point? You can just come out and say it, I’m not going to ignore you without listening. This is me, not Raine.” I gave a nervous little laugh, trying to defuse the situation, but Evelyn wasn’t smiling. “Are you trying to say we need this kind of detailed plan right now?”
“No,” she said, visibly uncomfortable as she shifted in the chair to relieve pressure on her truncated thigh. “Look, I admit, I’m using an amateur approximation of the Socratic method, to try to get you to see my point. What happens when we go after Edward Lilburne?”
“I don’t know, not yet. We handled Alexander quite well in the end, didn’t we?” As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I winced and put a hand to my face, followed by a tentacle. “Okay, no, bad example and badly put. We didn’t. I almost didn’t make it out of that castle. But we’re more experienced now, much more experienced. I’m better at brain-math, we have Zheng on our side, we have Sevens, whatever help she can offer. And if we do make a proper plan then I think we probably have a good chance of at least staying safe. Don’t we?”
Evelyn shook her head slowly, a grimace pulling at the corners of her mouth. “This is exactly what I meant, Heather.”
I almost rolled my eyes. “I know mages are dangerous. I’m not being naive. I know we could be walking into anything. I killed Alexander, I fought off Ooran Juh; I have some experience here, don’t I?”
“What you have is so many trump cards you’re practically a trick deck,” Evelyn said. “That’s my point.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but the words died in my throat. “Oh. Ah.”
Evelyn let out a great sigh and leaned back in her chair, as if she’d overcome a great hurdle. “Sorry. That was too harsh. Sometimes I don’t know how to get through to you.”
“Am I really that difficult?” I asked. My chest felt tight.
Evelyn regarded me for a moment with eyes like a lizard peering out from under a rock. “No, I’m just being a difficult bitch. And over-protective. Turns out Raine isn’t the only one with a monopoly on that.”
I nodded but had to look away from those staring eyes, flooded with the memory of the moment we’d shared out on the Quiet Plain. This was the second time one of us had compared our relationship to Raine and me. “Evee, I-I understand, but—”
“Heather, you just made the exact comparison that I was worried about — do not mistake Edward for Alexander.”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth, looking away from me and up at the window, out at the night sky above the city. “I didn’t want to say this before. Didn’t want to diminish what you did when you … defeated Alexander Lilburne.”
“I killed him, Evee. Call it what it is, please.”
“When you killed him.” She nodded quickly. “It’s a difficult thing, murder. Raine doesn’t understand that, but I do. I know what it’s like to kill a mage, when you have to, and when maybe you don’t want to.” She swallowed with some difficulty, struggling to put old pains aside.
“Evee,” I said her name gently and reached forward with my toes, to touch the be-socked toes of her single foot. She whirled back around to stare at me. “Dealing with Edward isn’t going to be like dealing with your mother.”
“Exactly. Heather, now you’ve … processed the act, I think I can say this. We got lucky with Alexander.”
I nodded along, a sad smile on my lips. “We did, yes.”
“No!” she snapped all of a sudden. She slapped her hand on the desk, but the old piece of furniture was too solidly built, too sturdy for her anger to shake. She winced and pulled her hand back, clenching and flexing her fingers around her stinging palm.
“You don’t get it,” she hissed. “My mother was forty five years old when I murdered her. She’d been studying magic since she was thirteen. My grandmother, bless and curse her foresight, inducted my mother into magic with proper training, trying to build something beyond the scattered bullshit that passes for mage-craft. And she succeeded, a little. And my mother was damn nigh fucking unkillable.”
Evelyn stopped, breathing hard, eyes blazing. She swallowed as if she was forcing down a mouthful of gravel.
“I’m not even certain she’s really dead,” Evelyn continued in a razor-edged rasp. “If it was in my power, I would have that coffin dug up and thrown into a fucking blast furnace until even the ash is gone. It will forever worry me that we have not found Alexander Lilburne’s corpse, whatever happened to his soul or his spirit or willpower or whatever the hell it was you encountered.”
“He’s dead, Evee. He’s dead, I felt him go, I let go of his hands.”
She took a great shuddering breath and passed a hand over her face, trying to calm down, sagging back in the chair. “Yes … yes, okay, yes, whatever. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s okay. Evee, you have nothing to apologise for.”
“Has Raine ever told you the whole story of how we killed my mother? How impossible it was to put her down?”
“No, actually,” I said, but I restrained myself from adding but I would love to hear it. Morbid fascination gripped me; what did it take to kill a mage?
Evelyn spoke as if she’d read my mind. Her eyes bored into me, deep in the shadowed pools of her sockets, as if from the bottom of a coal pit. “It took everything I had, and more. Raine could not have done it alone, no matter how much she tries to shoulder my burden for me. All her violence was useless. The only reason I prevailed was because of the passenger in my head.” Evelyn tapped her temple. “The demon my mother put there, the one she was trying to bargain with, the one she was using me as a vessel for. I’ve told you before, it hated her as much as I did. It fed me ways to undermine her for months in advance. It shielded me from things I had no way to predict. It held my mind together with sheer force of will when I would have cracked otherwise. And you know what?”
Her voice was the raw scratch of broken metal. I shook my head, afraid to speak.
“When it came time to do the deed, to raise the proverbial knife—” Evelyn raised her maimed hand, miming a dagger “—the things my mother summoned to defend herself, the layers of protection she had in place, just as a precaution — some of them were unspeakable. Things even I can’t put into words. She wasn’t remotely human by the end of it, the way she … changed herself to survive. And she kept fucking fighting, kept trying to subdue me even when I had her down a spinal column and a—”
Evelyn cut off with a clack of her teeth, slamming her mouth shut on memories that tasted of rot. Shaking with each breath, she stared right through me, at something only she could see.
Hesitating only a heartbeat, I stood up from the step-stool and went to her, trailing my yellow robes across the floorboards.
Traumatic memories and difficult words did not make Evelyn any less awkward at hugging, but she didn’t try to wave me off or shove me away. She fumed in embarrassed silence, but she did manage to take several deep, calming breaths. With an effort of supreme will, I kept my two tentacles off her. I didn’t want to freak her out with invisible ropes of muscle touching her shoulders.
She patted my hip and cleared her throat when she’d had enough. I stepped back, trying to smile for her.
“I’m sorry,” she croaked, then put her face in her hand, leaning heavily on the desk. “I’m sorry, Heather. Didn’t think it would be that bad. I don’t talk about this very often. I never, ever talk about the details. I can’t.”
“Evee, it’s okay. You don’t have to.”
She shook her head. “It’s nearly summer, for pity’s sake. Five months since we all visited Sussex. I thought I’d … gotten better, gotten … ”
“Oh, Evee.” I reached out and touched her shoulder again, but very gently, watching for a flinch that never came. “Nobody just ‘gets over’ things like that, even when they don’t involve terrible old mages who should have gone to prison.”
Evelyn tried to laugh at that one — just a snort of breath from her nose.
“It’s part of you,” I went on. “For better or worse, and I do hope for better. You can’t deny that, and nobody should expect you to. I certainly don’t expect you to just ‘get over it’ or pretend it didn’t happen. But if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s good too. I think.”
Evelyn shrugged, but her hand found mine — her maimed left hand, only the thumb and index finger intact. On the rare occasions that Evelyn touched other people, she never used that hand. The stump of her ring finger and her truncated middle finger lay across the back of my palm, holding on gently.
“If you’re going to stick with me,” she grumbled, “this is what you’ve got to get used to.”
“I’m already used to you, Evee. It’s just you.”
“That’s what bothers me,” she murmured, so quietly that we could pretend I hadn’t heard. For just a second, her head tilted toward my arm, as if she was going to nuzzle me. I was frozen with shock. But then she stopped, or caught herself in the act, or thought better of it. She cleared her throat and nodded slowly, then gently waved me off herself. I took that as the signal to stop pressing, stepped back, and hesitated at the step-stool.
“Oh, sit down,” she grumbled, blinking at me with exhausted eyes. “I’m not made of spun glass any more than you are.”
“But you can always say something to me if you’re suffering.”
She swallowed, just staring. She had to look away before she could nod. I finally sat down again.
“Where was I?” she muttered.
“We got lucky with Alexander?”
“Yes.” She took a deep breath. “We got very lucky, Heather, but I don’t think you understand why. Alexander was a young man. In, what, his twenties? He can’t have been older than twenty six, twenty seven, at the most?” I nodded, thinking that was about right. “Not enough time to build true power. But Edward Lilburne? How old do you suppose he is?”
“Sixties, at least,” I said softly, realisation coming over me in a slow wave of ice crawling up from my gut. I pulled Sevens’ yellow robes tighter around myself. “Ah.”
“An old man, yes. He may have been studying magic his entire life.” Evelyn fixed me with that serious gaze again, the armour of a mage sliding down over her features. “From what you told me, that first time you saw him, he had a physical object, a goddamn device, to locate or bait the Noctis macer. You remember that?”
“Of course I do,” I said. Bitterness rose in my throat at the memory of how we’d rejected Maisie’s full message, by accident and misunderstanding.
“That should have been impossible,” Evelyn continued. “Then at that pub, he wore another man’s face, remotely piloted. He laid a trap for us with Stack’s little boy, he rode his own suborned, hollowed out, pneuma-somatic pseudo-servitor. I can’t even get the control language correct for the servitors my grandmother built. We have no idea what we could be facing when we set about trying to corner him, but I’m not confident.”
“Do you think he could be a more powerful mage than you?”
Evelyn snorted with a burst of derisive laughter. “I am standing on my mother’s shoulders, regardless of how I feel about that. And she stood on my grandmother’s shoulders. I’m loath to admit it, but most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. So yes, if he’s been practising magic as long as I suspect he has, he is far more dangerous than me.” She cleared her throat. “Though I appreciate the vote of confidence.”
Evelyn wet her lips and glanced at the scrimshawed thigh bone on the desk, her wand, her dark inheritance. “What my family has done is vanishingly rare. The process that produced me — handing knowledge and experience down from one generation to the next — almost never happens. My mother tried to break that chain regardless, for the sake of personal power. You understand? That’s one of the problems with being a mage, it’s part of the reason there’s so few of us, part of the reason there’s no … ” Evelyn waved a hand, looking for the right word.
“Organic community?” I suggested.
“Mm. Something like that. Transfer of knowledge is almost impossible when an apprentice or a student might kill you just to surpass you. It’s why any attempt turns into a cult; it’s the only way to ensure power, control, secrecy. And handing things down to one’s own children becomes difficult, to say the least, when flesh and blood relations are so very useful.” Evelyn snorted that word. “Or when one leaves humanity behind entirely. It’s why we’re so reliant on these.” She reached past the thigh bone and tapped the book at the rear of her desk.
I hadn’t noticed the heavy old tome sitting there before, a hornet among butterflies and moths. I recognised the pale, cracked leather of the cover, the edges of the heavy parchment pages, yellowed with age, and the pieces of tape holding the horrid thing together like some lich that should have crumbled to dust long ago.
Unbekannte Orte, the book which contained the true name of the Eye.
“Take Lozzie, for example. What happened to her family?” Evelyn was saying as I stared at the book as if I’d discovered a slug in my salad. “It’s shredded, her parents are dead. The fact she made it out intact is a miracle. People like her — or me — are incredibly rare.” Evelyn said that without a hint of pride, voice dripping with bitter resignation. “To be as young as I am yet wield actual power, even if I’m a mess most of the time, I do recognise how strange this is in comparison with other mages.”
I tore my eyes away from the book. “You really think Edward will be that powerful?”
Evelyn shrugged, eyelids growing heavy with exhaustion. “Power is relative to preparation, intelligence, paranoia, investment. A tank is powerful, but not if it doesn’t have any fuel and the crew are all high on mushrooms. Think about it.”
“I’m trying,” I huffed. “We don’t know anything about him for certain. Everything we’ve seen from him has been bluff or misdirection, it’s like he’s … not even there.”
Evelyn snorted. “Exactly. That’s what scares me, Heather. We got lucky with Alexander because he was an arrogant fool. But Edward is more like me.”
“Oh. I … I see, yes. I see what you mean.”
“We have to try to predict his moves, what he might do once we find him and make contact, what tools he might use to move against us in return. Fighting a mage in the open, if we can catch him, that’s one thing. But I suspect he’s like me in more ways than one — if he moves around, he’ll be guarded. He’ll stay on home turf as much as possible, and we do not want to fight a mage on his home turf. Would you want to fight me in my home? Think about that for a moment, think about the protection I am surrounded by, the people I am surrounded by, night and day.”
I shook my head, furrowing my brow as the meaning of her words finally hit home. “I certainly wouldn’t want to try.”
“Mm. You see my point now?”
“Sort of. You think I could be overconfident because of my successes.”
“In a nutshell, yes. You’ve never fought something like this. I have.”
I nodded slowly. “Then, do you have a plan?”
“ … no?”
“No. Nada. Nyet. Nein.” She snorted a humourless laugh. “Best I can come up with is a surprise attack on his house, but that’s obvious, he must be expecting that. If it’s his final bolt-hole, I don’t want to walk in there, even wearing an NBC suit. And I’m not sending Praem in like some kind of sacrificial canary, never again.”
Ruthlessness stirred in my chest, the memory of the cold abyss. “I could ask Zheng to go in first. She’d do it, for me.”
“Mm. She is practically invincible, I know. But he will have considered that, he may have considered every possibility. I do need to speak with Zheng though. She had long contact with Edward, at least peripherally, and she does tend to divulge slightly more useful information than Lozzie. Slightly.”
“I wish she’d come home,” I sighed.
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “We have to take a calculated risk. Decide what is worth risking for this, Heather.”
A prickle of guilt needled at my heart. Maisie’s soul, my sister’s life — or what remained of it — was worth any risk to myself. I’d already made that decision, months and months ago. But I could not ask everyone else I knew to risk everything they had for the sake of a girl they’d never met. Asking them to help me go up against the Eye was one thing, because we were trying to find a way around that fight. But Edward? He was human. More dangerous, in some ways.
“I have to do it alone, don’t I?” I whispered.
“What?” Evelyn spat, squinting at me. “Heather, shut the fuck up, right now.”
“Don’t be absurd. Don’t you dare say things like that. If not for your own sake then at least for mine. You taught me to stop thinking that way, so don’t you dare even think it, not in here, not in the privacy of your own head, nowhere.” She said that all in a rush, frowning at me like I needed a good slap.
“Point taken. Okay. Thank you. I’ll … I’ll try.”
“You better,” she hissed, then drifted off into silence, sighing to herself.
I took a deep breath and tried to marshal my tired intellect, still running close to empty even after all those long hours of sleep. Reluctantly I retrieved my bowl of soggy, cold curry from the floor and mechanically fed myself a mouthful, just to have something in my belly. Evelyn watched without comment, perhaps thinking along with me. Or perhaps she was feeling queasy about the cold curry.
“Evee,” I said eventually, pausing to chew a particularly crunchy bit of broccoli — which was a relief, in fact. “What would you do in his situation?”
Evelyn raised her eyebrows in genuine surprise. “Walls and bunkers, I suppose. What I already do, wrap myself in a fortress and never come out. A real Hoxhaist, I am. Ha.” She spoke the laugh out loud with not a touch of humour.
“Pardon?” I blinked at her, totally lost.
“Sorry. I’ve absorbed too much nonsense from Raine over the years. My point is, I’d probably be even more cautious than him.”
“So, how would you pry yourself out?”
“Good question,” Evelyn said, low and quiet, then just stared at me, miles away inside her own head. I let her think as I forced down another spoonful of vile vegetable slop. She cleared her throat and wet her lips with a flicker of pink tongue, then continued, slow and hesitant. “I would summon a … ‘willing participant’.” She paused to tut. “Of course, I can’t do that anymore. I can’t make something like Praem without taking responsibility for creating life. But for the sake of the thought experiment, lets assume I could bring myself to do that.”
“Just as a thought experiment.” I nodded. “I’d never ask you otherwise.”
“Okay. So then what?”
Evelyn allowed a small, savage smile to grace her thin lips. “I’d strap a bomb to it and have it walk up to his front door.”
I blinked several times, a spoonful of cold curry frozen halfway to my mouth. “A … bomb?”
“Pity I don’t know anything about bomb making.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Perhaps Stack does. Getting the materials would be hard enough, but maybe she could help with that too.”
“W-wait, Evee, you mean an actual bomb? Not magic? A bomb bomb?”
Evelyn snorted, leaned back in her chair, and ran her fingers along her scrimshawed wand lying on the desk, staring at the symbols carved into the human thigh bone. “Yes, Heather. A bomb bomb. A bomb bomb bomb. I am talking about blowing a mage to pieces with an improvised explosive device.”
“Don’t worry.” She sighed and deflated again. “Even if I was willing to drag some poor soul from the abyss just to make it commit a suicide bombing — which I’m not, not anymore — there’s two problems with that plan. One, it’ll attract attention from the secular authorities.”
“Bloody right it would!” I squeaked, then put a hand delicately over my mouth. “Pardon my language. But, yes, the police would be all over us.”
“Quite. Let off a bomb in rural England, big enough to take out an entire house, or warehouse, or wherever Edward is hiding, and make it look like what, terrorism? Being a mage does allow a certain leeway to sidestep legal issues, but I’m quite sure the state could destroy me for mundane crimes if it wanted to.”
“Yes, please,” I said, nodding with relief. “Let’s not make bombs. Please. I don’t think I could deal with that.”
Evelyn stopped running her fingers along the thigh bone, picked the wand up, and lay it back across her own thighs. The naked bone shone yellowed and old in the lamplight, inches from the end of her stump beneath her skirt. I wondered, and not for the first time, where that thigh bone had come from. It couldn’t be Evelyn’s own leg — she still had half her femur.
“But more importantly,” she said, “we’re not trying to kill Edward Lilburne.”
“We need that book.”
My eyebrows climbed as a void opened inside my chest. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, not from Evelyn. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
“The book,” she repeated. “The Testament of Heliopolis. If I’m to complete the Invisus Oculus, I need the magical formulae that book reputedly contains. In all these long months of trying, I cannot figure out any other way to make us invisible to the Eye’s attention. Even this may not work, but it’s the best shot I can take. We need that book.”
“Of course. Of course, Evee, I agree, that’s the whole point, but you’re not suggesting we make a deal?”
“Heather, we might be dealing with a man we cannot kill, understand? We couldn’t kill Ooran Juh in the end either, we just drove him off.”
“He was closer to me than to Edward!” My voice rose to a squeak. “He was like me, he’d returned from the abyss!”
“You’re proving me right again, Heather.” Evelyn spoke slowly and carefully, struggling to contain herself. “You are underestimating a mage because you’ve overcome worse. And I am telling you again: he could be much, much worse than something like the big fat orange juice monster.”
I sighed and shrugged, at a loss.
“Killing him is not our aim,” Evelyn continued. “It’s a means to an end. Which means it doesn’t have to happen.”
I must have been giving her such a look, wide-eyed and pale and staring, because Evelyn’s carefully constructed facade of deathly sincerity broke into a huge huff and a roll of her eyes.
“Don’t look at me like I’ve been replaced with a pod person,” she snapped.
I laughed without humour. “Can you blame me? You’re the last person I expected this from. You’re suggesting we do what, exactly? We already tried talking with him, don’t you remember what happened in that pub garden? He was vile.”
“Of course I bloody well remember,” Evelyn grumbled. “Don’t get me wrong, Heather. Don’t think I’ve gone soft in my old age or something. I want him dead. Him and every other mage even aware of me and my … well, you and Raine and Praem and the others. Us. Aware of us. But priorities change. He’s not worth risking a single hair on Praem’s head, if that can be avoided.”
I couldn’t keep the stunned incredulity out of my voice. “You’re suggesting we make a deal with him. In return for the book.”
Evelyn let out a slow breath and squeezed her eyes shut. She was just as disgusted by this notion as I was.
“If I could cut off his hands and take out his tongue to render him harmless, I would,” she said — as I privately shuddered at the memory of Zheng ripping out a mage’s tongue, and the time she’d almost done the same to Kimberly. “No magic without logos. But I think that may be a little optimistic.”
“If you say so.”
“Edward Lilburne is dangerous. But so am I. So are we. He probably does not want to fight us any more than we want to fight him. We may be able to take advantage of that. That’s all.”
I shook my head in disbelief, cold vegetables turning to poison in my stomach. “But he wants Lozzie.”
“He can’t have her,” Evelyn hissed. “That’s not the kind of compromise I’m willing to make.”
“Well, good!” I said. “Evee, do you really believe all this? You think we can end this without having to … kill him?”
Evelyn stared at me for a long, long moment. She looked over at Unbekannte Orte on her desk, down at her bone wand, then over at her prosthetic leg, still standing squat and silent like a black sentinel watching over her vulnerable flesh.
“No,” she said, voice flat. “Not really. But I have to suggest it anyway. The alternative could be worse.”
I didn’t have a reply for that. Evelyn was correct — we’d gotten lucky with Alexander, with his relative youth and his addiction to his own arrogance. She was, in the end, the only one of us who had fought a mage at the peak of their powers, and won.
I shoved another spoonful of cold curry into my mouth. “We’re going to need all our strength,” I muttered.
“Speaking of which, my left hand is still missing.”
“Your left hand?”
The following four days were slow and awkward in the extreme. So many loose ends, with no way to tie them together and no scissors with which to snip them off, neat and contained.
But at least I was home, though I’d brought the Outside back with me.
My squid-skull mask, so impossible and beautiful in its metallic glory, sat on the table in the magical workshop, as if waiting for my return, watching us from dark eye sockets. Every day I went and ran a hand over that smooth grey surface. I even settled it over my head a couple of times, staring out through the eye holes on an alien world. But I always took it off again and left it where it lay. I didn’t need it on Earth. Not yet.
“Later,” I whispered to it. Or to myself.
Zheng did not return that night after Evelyn and I had our strategy talk, though I lay awake in bed listening for the telltale sound of the back door. Nor did she show up the following day, or the night I finally slept like normal, or the three days after that. Several times I stepped out into the back garden, hoping to find a pile of decapitated squirrel corpses on the patio. At least then I’d know she was out there. But I was always disappointed.
My eyes kept scanning the top of the garden fence in hope that she’d suddenly vault the boundary and come striding back into my life.
“Hey, Heather, I’m sure she’s alright,” Raine said to me one time, when I was standing and gazing through the window in the utility room. She knew what I was pining for, what I was worried about. She put her arm around my shoulders. “She’s just kinda irresponsible, you know?”
“I hope you’re right,” I murmured.
“Heeeeey, Zheng can handle anything.” Raine cracked a grin for me. “You told me she technically fought a building when you first met.”
“She did. But Ooran Juh is worse than a building. And that thing she was chasing, that weird skin-ghost that climbed out of Badger.” I shook my head. “We don’t even know what that was.”
“Maybe it’s just really good at running.”
I sighed, worry curdling into anger. “I’m going to buy her a mobile phone and force her to carry it everywhere. No excuses. No cuddle privileges until she makes sure it’s possible to contact her. I’m not having this happen again.”
“You sound like Evee,” Raine said, not without a hint of admiration in her voice.
Evelyn sent Praem out into the city, twice, just to walk the streets and watch the shadows, well-protected with warding signs beneath her casual clothes, and armed with a compact tire iron under her skirt. Not that she needed the weapon. I was surprised; I hadn’t pleaded or even prompted for this.
“Zheng is important to you,” Evelyn explained when Praem returned the first time, as we pottered about in the kitchen warming ourselves with tea and biscuits. “However much I dislike her … attitudes. And it’s not as if I’m asking Praem to step into a magical pocket dimension or fistfight a monster. It’s broad daylight out, she’s got her phone, she knows what she’s doing. And she’s got strict instructions to come straight home if anything happens.”
“I cannot be stopped,” Praem intoned, turning her head to stare at her creator. Evelyn cleared her throat like a burst of machine gun fire, turning a little red around the ears.
“Evee?” I asked.
Evelyn gestured at Praem. “I may have taken too much credit for this venture.”
I blinked at Praem in surprise. “Oh. This was your idea?”
“Zheng. Cute gorilla,” said Praem.
The threat calculation was not so simple the second time she came home, straight home, when something had happened.
“What do you mean you were followed?” Evelyn hissed at Praem in the front room, while Raine slipped out the door to check down the street, handgun tucked away in her leather jacket. “By who? Where? I want descriptions.”
But descriptions were useless, no matter how precise and accurate Praem always was. She’d been walking up the length of Sharrowford’s main high street, past the department stores and the entrance to Swanbrook mall, threading her way among the afternoon crowds, when two people had begun following her — a young woman with long black hair, and a diminutive teenage girl. The descriptions didn’t sound like anybody we’d seen before.
“Family resemblance,” Praem said.
“Tch, that doesn’t tell us anything,” Evelyn hissed, so agitated she’d started stomping back and forth, hitting the skirting board with the tip of her walking stick.
“More remnants of the cult, do you think?” I asked.
“Gotta be.” Raine clucked her tongue. She’d found nothing outdoors, nobody down the street. No trace. We all silently hoped Praem had lost them. “Hey, Praem, did those two jokers look strung out?”
“No,” Praem intoned. “Healthy. Alert. Confident.”
“Huh,” Raine grunted.
“Edward?” I whispered.
“Maybe,” Evelyn grunted. “Shit. I don’t know! I don’t know anything! We need to interrogate Badger about every single surviving member of the cult. We need them … I don’t know. Rounded up. Dealt with. Made safe.”
“We hardly need to ‘interrogate’ him,” I said with a sigh. “I’m pretty sure he’ll happily tell us. Tell me, at least.”
I felt sick in my stomach at that prospect. I still hadn’t seen him again since the magical brain surgery. I didn’t want his thanks or his blossoming hero-worship.
“When does he get out of the hospital again?” Evelyn asked.
Raine wobbled a hand back and forth. “Operation to put a plate in his skull’s not until next week. Gotta plug that hole we made before they can let him out, you know? Seemed pretty lucid when I took Sarika to see him yesterday. I could ask him, if you want? Get a list, names, descriptions, all that?”
“Lie to him,” Evelyn said with a decisive nod. “Tell him Heather wants the names.”
I resisted an urge to groan and sit on the floor. “I said it before and I’ll say it again, we can’t send all those people — ten more of them—”
“If they’re still alive,” Evelyn said.
“If they’re still alive,” I echoed, trying not to sound irritated. “We can’t send them all to the hospital with trepanation wounds. That’s going to draw attention. Even if I can do what I did, all over again, ten more times … ” My stomach clenched up at that idea. “Ten more staring contests? No, I can’t.”
“We don’t have to help them all,” Evelyn said. “We just want to stop them hunting us. I’m not sending Praem out again.”
“You send me nowhere,” Praem intoned, standing by the kitchen door.
Evelyn shot her a look, eyes hard, jaw clenched. “I am putting my foot down. You don’t go out. Not alone. None of us do. The same rules I’ve always lived by.”
“If you go out, I go with you,” Evelyn spoke right over her. “I will follow you, I will bloody well hobble along. The whole way.” She held the doll-demon’s blank, milk-white gaze, level and serious and burning in both cheeks.
Praem did not go looking for Zheng a third time.
Evelyn was right though, however painful and awkward it was to admit the conditions we lived under. The remains of the Sharrowford Cult were still out there, Eye-haunted and desperate to deliver what it demanded of them — me. I had a way to help them, in theory, but no way to contact them until Badger was out of the hospital, until he could form a bridge back to the horror of their hounded and tortured existence, and let them know there was a way out. And Edward’s men were out there too. God alone knew what he was up to.
So we began to settle back into an uncomfortable routine, with Raine escorting me to and from university, Praem going everywhere with Evelyn, and Lozzie unable to leave the house.
Nicole Webb, our very own supernatural private eye, called Evelyn twice every day, to check in — to “radio base camp” as Raine put it. The documents she’d stolen from the offices of Edward’s lawyer hadn’t amounted to much yet, but there was so much more to sort though. Evelyn told her to keep digging, assured her she was on retainer for as long as it took, and reminded her to call twice every single day.
“Yeah yeah,” I heard Nicole affirm the instruction over the phone, as it lay on the table so we could all hear. “Just in case there’s a picture of a skeleton in here. Or a haunted photocopy, oooooh.” She made a ghosty noise. “Miss Saye, this is a mother-lode of lawyer’s paperwork. There’s nothing spooky about it except how boring it is. Is that a symptom? Wanting to dig my eyes out with a spoon? Need to come exorcise me?”
“If you ask real nicely, Nicky girl,” Raine purred over Evelyn’s shoulder.
“You just try it, Haynes,” Nicole shot back. “I’ll give you a paper cut where the sun don’t shine.”
“Just call to check in,” Evelyn grunted. “Just in case. Every day. Understand?”
“As long as you’re paying, I’ll call in as often as you want,” Nicole said. “You’re the boss.”
“Twice a day is fine. Before and after you start, as agreed.”
“Please, Nicky,” I added over Evelyn’s shoulder too, on the opposite side to Raine. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. Just be safe, okay?”
Nicole sighed, heavily. A thump sounded down the phone. I suspected it was her head on her desk, confirmed by the muffled quality of her next words. “In case you lot can’t tell, I’m trying to stave off the creeps here. Don’t make it worse, hey? Trust me, if I see a single piece of paper somewhere I didn’t put it myself, I’ll be over at your place like my arse is on fire.”
One person I didn’t have to worry about was Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
She settled in surprisingly quickly, perhaps thanks to Praem’s adoption of her cause, or maybe it was down to her nature as a narrative chameleon.
On that first night, the one I lay awake listening for Zheng, Sevens slunk back into my bedroom just past midnight, visibly exhausted from running about the house with Tenny, like a cat who had spent all day being chased by a good-natured puppy. But she didn’t make a beeline for my side. She avoided me and made for the big armchair instead, perhaps because Raine was fast asleep with her arms around me. I whispered to Sevens in the dark, little secret entreaties to join me. But she only gurgled back and curled up in a blanket nest until the morning.
The next night I coaxed her into bed, beckoning with hands and tentacles alike. “Just for a cuddle?”
“Gurrr?” she made a raspy gurgle in her throat, shoulders hunched as she was frozen at the foot of the bed like some silent movie apparition. Her eyes searched for permission — not from me, but past me, from Raine.
“Heather can cuddle who she likes,” Raine said. Then she winked at Sevens.
Sevens slipped into bed with us, small and wriggly and cuddled up against my front, making soft raspy gurgles that were almost purring sounds. In the morning, she was still there.
I didn’t ask Raine’s permission for anything else; I wasn’t certain I was going to do so. I didn’t love Sevens. I had to keep reminding myself of that whenever I idly wrapped a tentacle around the back of her neck, or subconsciously stepped closer to her to compare our heights, or realised that if I really, really tried, with all six tentacles, I might just be able to pick her up.
“Kaaaaooo? Heather?” She shied away from me one time, when I’d been watching for twenty seconds without realising, gripped by an urge to grab her and — and what?
“Nothing,” I’d sighed, forcing myself to stop quivering. “Nothing at all.” I tried to ruffle her hair, keep it casual, like Raine does. But I was clumsy and inexpert, and my hand lingered for a moment too long. She gurgled at me and bumped her head on my shoulder, just like a cat.
I didn’t love her. But I wanted to play with her. And that would have been deeply unfair to somebody who was so very in love with me.
Around the house, she wasn’t always by my side, which was a relief in more ways than one. She joined me for reading, for quiet moments together just relaxing, and made a point to request I read out loud to her — she wanted to learn my favourites. But she also spent a lot of time just lurking. We found her half-asleep in strange places, curled up in corners, on the kitchen counter tops, in the downstairs cupboard, not quite unconscious but not fully lucid either. She’d always be in the kitchen whenever one of us was cooking, or at least hanging around close by, red-and-black eyes peeking around a door frame. She watched people make their beds or do the laundry, she watched people eat, she watched Evelyn work through the doorway of the magical workshop.
“Vampire instincts,” Raine said with a laugh. “Ambush predator. Like a trap-door spider.”
“I think she’s just trying to learn more about us,” I said. “She doesn’t know how, not without her … old techniques.”
She even watched Praem watch her in return.
“That is … um, very … very spooky,” Kimberly said. It was the first time she’d seen Sevens. Her introduction to the newest member of our household was Sevens and Praem, staring at each other across the kitchen while Evelyn tried to eat breakfast. Both of them were equally unblinking, for fifteen minutes.
“Maximum spooky,” Praem intoned.
Sevens flinched like a cat and scurried behind me. Kimberly flinched and probably decided the rest of us were as mad as ever.
To all our surprise, Sevens also spent a lot of time with Lozzie and Tenny.
Perhaps it was the crash course in tentacle babysitting, maybe it was the video games, or perhaps it was the way she and Lozzie seemed to be able to hold actual conversations, which appeared to make full sense to both of them. More than once I heard them going on for hours, just a pair of blurred voices upstairs, one giggly and the other raspy.
Or maybe it was because she was the first person who could almost beat Tenny at chess. Almost.
Raine and I witnessed them play, on the fourth day after my return from Carcosa. Tenny actually had to pay attention; her usual distracted style could not prevail against Seven-Shades-of-Strategist’s lightning-quick decision making. With great, staring concentration, Tenny eventually won every game, but only with all her tentacles whirling about as if the motion helped her to think.
“Silly vampire good,” she trilled.
Sevens, to her credit, didn’t seem to care about losing.
“Vampire stuff,” she croaked, showing all her teeth. “Good at counting.”
Evelyn wasn’t laughing when she found Sevens under her bed.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Ahhhhh!” Sevens screech-rasped, arms over her head as Evelyn chased her out of the room and into the upstairs corridor. “It was comfy, I didn’t mean anything by it! It was comfyyyy!”
Evelyn’s shriek had already brought everyone else running to witness the moment — Sevens sprawled against the far wall, Evelyn looking like she wanted to run the blood-goblin through with her walking stick — but I’d already been in Evelyn’s bedroom, and I just sighed at the whole thing.
We’d been about to keep our promise to each other, five days after our strategy meeting; we’d been all set up to watch some cartoons together, just the two of us, with Evelyn’s laptop perched on the bed. Evelyn had been explaining in a very roundabout and obviously embarrassed way that what we were about to watch was technically for children, but I didn’t mind — and then we’d heard the snuffling, sniffling snore from beneath the mattress.
And now it was all thrown to the wind in a near-melee in the upstairs hallway. Tenny appeared and threw herself into the middle, though to protect Sevens or protect Evelyn, none of us were quite sure which. The air turned into a whirling mass of black tentacles. Raine tried to pick Sevens up. Sevens made a sound like a drainpipe and I later learnt that she bit Raine’s shoulder — though not aggressively, just gently, for comfort; she didn’t break skin. Kimberly took one look out of her bedroom door and closed it again.
“She’s only protecting her new friend!” Lozzie protested.
“And I was only protecting the sanctity of my fucking bedroom!” Evelyn snapped.
“It was comfy!” Sevens rasped into Raine’s shoulder, clinging on like a koala.
“She is being a very good girl!” Lozzie said. “Tenny, good girl!”
“Good girl!” Tenny fluttered.
“She is being a fucking nuisance—” Evelyn snapped. “No, not you, Tenny, not you—”
I only hung back for as long as I did because I was so disappointed; I’d really been looking forward to watching cartoons with her, and now Evelyn would be in a foul mood, even when this misunderstanding was dealt with. I hung back by her bedroom window, bathed in the orange of early evening, and I was about to step forward and help resolve the altercation, when I glanced out of the window, down at the garden.
A fox was sitting in the grass. Looking right up at me. A big, sleek, healthy fox.
“Oh,” I said out loud. “It’s you.”
And then I felt that recognition, that sixth-sense familiarity, that knowing in my gut that she was close.
I was out of the room and past my shocked friends and would have tumbled headfirst down the stairs if it wasn’t for my tentacles catching me on the banister. The argument slammed to a halt; Raine called after me; I didn’t stop. I hit the front room and scuttled across the floorboards and burst into the kitchen just as Zheng got home.
“Shaman!” she roared by way of greeting. I scrambled to a halt, as if blasted by a foghorn. Even I sometimes forget how big she is.
She stood just inside the doorway from the utility room, dressed in coat and jeans and shapeless jumper, seven feet of gloriously filthy demon host side-lit by the sunset. Her hair was a rat’s nest and she badly needed a shower — I could smell her from across the room, like she’d been sleeping alternate nights in a landfill and a slaughterhouse slop-bucket. But she was intact and alive and grinning like mad.
“Zheng!” I couldn’t help myself, not at those sharp-edged eyes and red-chocolate skin, so familiar by now — but I recoiled from the stench. Behind me, the others were piling down the stairs, but for a moment it was just me and Zheng. “You … you … stink! Really badly, oh my goodness.”
“Hahaha!” she roared again. “I do!”
“Where have you been?! I’ve been … well. Worried. Yes! Worried.”
Zheng’s grin dialled down as she heaved out a rumbling purr, satisfied and oddly pleasurable.
“Losing a tail, shaman,” she rumbled. “I am hunted, by a hunter every bit as skilled as I.”
“ … Ooran Juh? Or … something to do with Edward?”
Zheng shook her head, slow and smug. “No, shaman. One like me.”
Mages and demon–maids and squid girls can make all the fool-proof plans they want, but no plan survives contact with seven feet of muscular zombie lady crashing back into the story and stinking like the inside of a sewer.
And Happy New Year, dear readers! Quite a coincidence that the 1st day of 2022 falls on a Saturday (Katurday). I’ve got big plans for the story this year – getting the side-stories finished and published, finishing Book 1 of Katalepsis, and almost certainly starting on Book 2! Not to mention there might be a non-Katalepsis parallel project cropping up in the next, oh, six months? There’s a lot more information in a public patreon post I just made, if you’re really interested. But don’t worry, you don’t need to read all that, just watch this space. And thank you all very, very much, for reading, for commenting, for all the support and kind words; I hope you enjoy another year of stories about disaster lesbians and cosmic horror!
Next week, I’ll highlight some of those fanfics I mentioned! I would do so now, but this note is already far too long.
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Next week, Zheng is back, but who or what was following her? Surely it has something to do with Edward Lilburne. I don’t think anybody wants more unbound demon hosts walking the streets of Sharrowford. Or maybe there’s somebody who would willingly take that risk?