Rarely had so few words sent a hand of ice running up my spine and birthed a writhing scorpion in my belly.
Zheng stood haloed by the early evening light flooding in through the kitchen and utility room windows, bathing her long coat and heavy boots in orange firelight, making her red-chocolate skin and dark thatch of hair glow with inner heat. And glow she did, through the undeniable savage glee on her face, the deep satisfaction in her purring exhalation, and the physical joy in the flex of her aching muscles.
She was in afterglow.
For a long moment I couldn’t speak — and not solely because of the vile cloacal stench clinging to Zheng from whatever mad places she’d been sleeping all week. I was overwhelmed by rotten worms crawling through my veins and a band of steel expanding inside my chest, rusty hooks buried deep in the muscle of my heart. My throat was stopped up with black acid tar and my brain was full of angry wasps.
Zheng’s joy flickered and faltered with a twitch of her eyebrows. I was too obvious.
“Shaman?” she rumbled.
“Like … you?”
I cleared my throat but barely felt myself echo Zheng’s words. Had to pull myself together. The others were clattering down the stairs behind me, they’d be in the kitchen in moments; Raine could read me like an open book even when I was trying to be subtle, she’d see this a mile away, like a forest fire.
“Like you?” I repeated. Zheng had met somebody like her? “Zheng, what … what does that mean? Like you in what way?”
Savage enjoyment ripped back onto Zheng’s face, revealing her razor-sharp shark teeth clenched in a skull’s grin.
Normally I loved that look on her. It stole my breath and set a squirming in the pit of my belly. But now I felt like a viper was biting my guts from the inside, filling me with venom.
Zheng’s pleasure, respect, and joy — aimed at somebody else.
The others entered the kitchen behind me at last but I couldn’t get a hold of myself. Evelyn clacked along with her walking stick while Raine squeezed my shoulder and nodded to Zheng. Praem waited by the door as Lozzie and Tenny skipped in, half-wrapped in each other. But then Tenny let out a loud trilling noise of olfactory offence, waving her tentacles up and down in a wave-like fan as if to waft away a bad smell. She pulled Lozzie with her as she retreated through the door again, dragging pastel poncho back with a clutch of black tentacles like a scene from a bad horror movie, made farcical by Lozzie going “Ooowooop!”
All other complaints were stilled by the religious intensity in Zheng’s voice.
“A hunter like me, shaman,” she was purring with the throat of a tiger. “A demon dredged from the darkest seas and crammed into human flesh. We tracked each other for days across brick and concrete, the equal of any deep forest. There are so many hidden places in any city, places to fight, places to hide. It has taken me the last two days just to lose the tail so I may return home.” Her voice dropped to a hiss of awe and wonder. “Ahhhh, such skills. I almost could not escape. Shaman, you cannot know!”
“I suppose I can’t,” I murmured.
I did my best to hide my physical reaction, clutching my heart tightly and trying not to let the discomfort show on my face. I even forced myself to uncross my arms — though a moment later I found I’d crossed them again, subconsciously. Couldn’t help it, closing myself off with a gesture. But pneuma-somatic flesh told my secrets to all those capable of seeing. I just prayed that Raine didn’t get the bright idea to slip on those special 3D glasses Evelyn had made. The trilobe reactor in my abdomen had shed a control rod to ramp up energy production, and I didn’t care enough to stop it; my tentacles had increased from two to four, first reaching toward Zheng but then clenching up tight around my own torso, the armour of self-embrace. My gums itched with a desire to sprout rows of sharp teeth and I wanted to twist my throat into a screech.
Zheng didn’t seem to notice. That made it worse.
I was jealous.
“There’s a demon host out there?” Evelyn snapped as soon as the opening presented itself. “In Sharrowford, in the city? Right here in—” She broke off and coughed, grimacing as she waved a hand in front of her nose. “Ugh, bloody hell. That’s coming from you? What the hell is that?”
Raine blinked several times; the stench was so bad it made her eyes water. “Eau de rotten cow carcasses left out in the sun, by the smell of her.”
“Stink! Stinky!”” Tenny yelled through the door from the front room, a noise like somebody shouting through an electric fan. A small canine whine joined her. Whistle did not approve of the odour either.
“It’s really bad!” Lozzie added, giggling like the little maniac she was. For once, her laughter didn’t help me.
“Yes, little wizard,” Zheng purred with a toothy grin. She strode into the kitchen proper, rolling her neck and reaching for a chair.
“No,” Praem intoned, sharp and sudden.
Zheng flicked her head to meet Praem’s gaze.
“Filthy,” Praem expanded. “Wash hands or touch nothing.”
The staring contest lasted less than a second. Zheng broke first, looking away with resigned defeat.
She gave up on the chair and rotated her shoulders, working out the kinds of kinks that can only come from sleeping on hard, cold ground. “Yes, wizard. A demon host. Like me.”
“And what’s so special about this one?” Evelyn went on quickly, holding her nose. “You killed all the cult’s zombies in that house where they did their ritual, what’s different about this? Why have you been gone so long? And what happened to Orange Juice’s skin-freak?”
Zheng let out a sound like the heart of a forge furnace, narrowing sharp eyes at Evelyn. As she did, Raine tilted her head in obvious warning. I felt a pair of small, grasping hands worm their way into the fabric of my hoodie from behind — Sevens, almost as if on cue. She squeezed against me like I was a curtain wall between her and Zheng. Her hot little head pressed against my shoulder as she peered around me.
“Wizards,” Zheng growled contempt at Evelyn. “Always with the details. The what, the when, the where. Always making new boxes. Always—”
Zheng broke off and glanced at Praem again. Praem hadn’t said a thing. She hadn’t even moved. But Zheng rolled her eyes and curled her upper lip in distaste.
“Answer her,” I said, my voice about three shades too harsh. I cleared my throat and mentally slapped myself. “Please, Zheng. This is important.”
Zheng tilted her head at me with a curious twitch in her eyebrows. “Shaman?”
“It’s important!” I repeated, a bit shrill. “You can’t tell us there’s somebody like you out there and refuse to explain!”
“Yes, you killed plenty of zombies before,” Evelyn repeated herself too, shuffling over to the table. She nudged a chair out with her walking stick. Perhaps demonstrating her mutual contempt for Zheng, she sat down heavily, when Zheng was still not allowed to, stilled by our maid’s strict instructions. “What’s different about one more?”
Zheng stared at Evelyn, then broke into another giant, toothy grin, her irritation forgotten in the rapture of recent memory. “Those things were not like me, wizard. They were saplings. Single-digits old at best. Mad. Decaying.”
“They were enslaved,” I said, a cold lump in my throat.
“Yes, shaman!” Zheng roared for me. “But what I’ve duelled in this city was no zombie, no discarded shell filled with unwilling spark. One like me, a hunter in free flesh! No slave!”
“Fucking hell,” Evelyn hissed. “Unbound?”
Raine let out a low whistle.
“Uh oh!” Lozzie went, clearly not taking this at all seriously. Tenny echoed her, a fluttery “Uuuuh oooooh!” coming from the front room, followed by a much quieter, “Stinky.”
“We can hardly talk,” I said with a tut. “Zheng is free and so is Praem.”
“Praem is Praem,” Evelyn said without missing a beat. “We raised her with love.” She paused and started to blush, then threw her arms wide so hard she almost brained Raine with her walking stick. “What?! We did! I defy anybody to define it differently. Even you!” She waved her walking stick past me. I glanced back to see Lozzie peeking around the door frame, a giggle hidden behind the end of one sleeve. “Praem may be almost unique among demon hosts. So there. And Zheng, well … Heather vouches for Zheng.”
“You think we should all be bound, wizard?” Zheng rumbled, low and dangerous. Evelyn blanched but managed to meet her eyes.
“You should never have been enslaved in the first place.”
“Zheng was treated as human when she was brought to our reality. Treated with respect,” I said gently. I’d never explained Zheng’s exact past to Evelyn. That was Zheng’s business. “Maybe it’s not as rare as you think, Evee.”
Evelyn huffed and waved us to shut up. “Zheng. This is something made by Edward? An unbound demon host, in a human corpse, walking the streets of Sharrowford?” She shook her head. “He can’t be that desperate, he can’t be, that’s insane.”
“Ha!” Zheng barked a derisive laugh, like a fresh log thrown into a fire. “That worm would never free a slave. It’s not in him. Besides, he could never control something like that, not unshackled and free. You should have seen her, wizard! She is glorious!”
“She?” I hissed under my breath.
“And look what she left on my flesh!”
Without warning for sensitive constitutions, Zheng grabbed the hem of her own baggy, shapeless, grey jumper, and yanked it upward. My eyes almost popped out of their sockets as she revealed inch after inch of rippling abdominal muscle. Her bare chocolate-red skin was still marked by the winding, matted, indecipherable mass of her black binding tattoos, the layers of spell that had kept her bound and re-bound for centuries, now punctuated by gaps like crop circles where I’d removed enough of it to free her. She pulled her jumper upward, exposing her iron-hard belly, the base of her rib-cage, and more, more than any of us was prepared to see, certainly not in the kitchen.
Evelyn coughed so hard it was like a steam explosion. Raine was laughing. Lozzie squealed with both hands over her mouth. Sevens made a weird little “gaa-urrk” noise into my shoulder.
Of course, they were all just reacting to her breasts. Impressive, yes, but I’d seen those before.
I was staring at the bruises.
Six bruises were visible on Zheng’s abdomen and chest, with the shadows of several more lurking up on her shoulders and collarbone, too far beneath the jumper for even her wild display to show off to us. They blossomed like dark flowers beneath her skin, some of them days old, turning yellow and green with the healing process, but others were fresh, shining purple and black. One bruise — at the base of her ribs — still showed the outline of a row of knuckles, small and neat.
Knuckle marks. On her flesh.
“I could not have stopped any of these blows!” She was raving on, showing all her teeth in a grin of pride. I tasted bile. “I gave as good as I got, but I could not stop her! I could not!”
Raine started a slow clap, shaking her head and grinning too. Evelyn cleared her throat again and muttered, “Put those away, bloody hell.”
“I thought you were supposed to heal super fast?” Raine said. “Didn’t you break both your legs saving Heather that one time?”
“Ahhhhh, little wolf, you remember well,” Zheng purred, still flashing all of us. “But these wounds were earned! I deserve to feel their length and breadth. They heal at your rate, your monkey rate. There are good things about you monkeys, things worth being here for. Like these.”
“Put your fucking tits away, for fuck’s sake!” Evelyn huffed, tapping the table like she was mashing a ‘close window’ button.
Zheng just laughed. She turned to me with a grin like a teenage admirer showing off bruises and scrapes from some madcap attempt to impress the object of her affections. She kept the jumper pulled up, presenting her trophies.
But I had nothing to say.
“ … shaman?” Zheng rumbled after a heartbeat, grin flickering off.
“Hey, hold up a sec,” Raine said, vaguely sceptical, “I seem to recall the first time we met, I hit you with a baseball bat like, oh, maybe four or five times?”
“Six,” Zheng answered instantly. “You did well, little wolf.”
“You let those ones slow-heal too?”
Zheng nodded, dipping her head to Raine in a gesture of respect. Raine nodded back with momentary surprise.
“Yes, I’m sure your duelling scars are all very impressive,” Evelyn drawled. “But what you’re saying is there’s an unbound demon host who is your equal. Just wandering around Sharrowford.”
“Hunting,” Zheng purred. “She was hunting.”
Zheng finally dropped her jumper again, which was a relief for the rest of us, in various different ways — except for Lozzie, who let out a disappointed “Awww!” My beautiful demon host flexed her shoulders again, which I now understood was her trying to work out the stiff pain of the bruises she was refusing to heal.
“Hunting you?” Evelyn snapped.
Zheng shook her head. “Ooran Juh’s skin man was her prey. We hunted the same game. She beat me there but we met over the kill. I surprised her in the act of devouring the remains. From then, she hunted me, and I hunted her. We clashed twice.”
“And— and you didn’t kill her?”
Acid and spite.
It took me a moment to realise why everyone was suddenly looking at me — Evelyn with a frown, Raine with surprise, Praem’s head rotating on her neck to stare at me with milk-white eyes. I even felt Sevens looking up at me from down by my own shoulder. Only then did I realise I’d spoken.
The words had slipped out beneath my notice, barbed and hooked with sarcasm. I sounded like Evelyn. One of my hands moved to cover my mouth in mortified shock, but I forced it back down. I was committed now. A twisted, bitter serpent in my chest bid me to stare right back at Zheng.
Zheng watched me with dark eyes. She didn’t answer, but went very still, all except for the way she tilted her head slightly, like a big cat sizing up something that was neither prey nor pack-mate. I felt my throat bob as I swallowed, fighting off the need to cower like a mouse before a rattlesnake. Unfamiliar bitterness kept me standing straight even as I cursed myself for a complete fool. What was I doing?
She fought another zombie! I screamed at myself. So what?!
I was acting like an emotionally constipated thirteen year old with an unrequited crush — something I’d never done back when I was actually thirteen years old. Why couldn’t I just say it out loud, tell her I was jealous? This was Zheng. She loved me to a disturbing and dangerous degree, so what was I afraid of? This was nothing, somebody she’d fought, a zombie.
A zombie she clearly admired.
I felt Sevens gently bite my shoulder blade through my hoodie, just a touch with her teeth, like a dog who didn’t intend to break skin. Did she know? Could she tell?
“No, shaman,” Zheng said eventually, unsmiling. “I could not defeat her.”
I swallowed because I knew I was in deep. I’d given the game away, drawn my heart out to sit bloody and beating on my sleeve.
“Heather?” Raine murmured, reaching for my elbow. Seven-Shades-of-Shoulder-Goblin did a raspy purring noise directly into my side, into the back of my ribs, tiny hands curling around my hips. Under any other circumstances that would have drawn a squirming yelp from me and made me wriggle out of her grip, giggling. But right then all I did was frown and cough.
Zheng stared me down, hard and sharp, like a flint knife.
I’d been jealous before, of course, and just as equally without proper cause. Driven by social maladjustment and lack of experience and pure projection, back before Raine and I had officially become a couple, I’d briefly thought Twil was a serious contender for her affections. I’d compared myself with the werewolf’s effortless porcelain beauty and implied supernatural exoticism. I’d felt just as immature and stupid back then.
My reaction this time was different. It implied things about myself that I didn’t like.
I didn’t have time to unpack the tangled mess in my head, distill the cocktail that had gone into this moment — the time Zheng had been gone, my own guilt at picking up Sevens Outside, my worry for Zheng out in the city, and the sheer joy she was showing.
I’d never met this zombie she’d fought, but she had clearly loved the experience.
My four currently manifested tentacles were twitching and flexing, aching to reach over to Zheng and do — what? I was restrained only by the terrible stench of her right then, and the fact she was probably a walking biohazard. I wanted to hug her, roughly, too hard for her wounds, squeeze her tight and make her ache. I wanted to peel back her clothes and jab at those bruises to see how she would react, to inflict a little pain. If I’d been alone I would have put a hand over my mouth at that thought.
What am I thinking?! That’s horrible. Heather, no!
I didn’t have the right to think that way. I had three girlfriends. Well, two. Two and a half? Whatever it was, it wasn’t simply monogamy. I didn’t have a right to tell Zheng what she could and couldn’t do. Did I?
Instead I forced down a deep breath and nodded to Zheng, pretending I was just shocked.
“You didn’t win? Yes, you didn’t win,” I squeezed out. Didn’t convince anybody, let alone Zheng. “It’s just … she must have been quite incredible to do that much damage to you.”
I failed utterly at purging the scorn from my voice.
“Perhaps next time I will, shaman,” Zheng answered, turning her head one way and then the other, examining me carefully. “And I will bring you her head.”
I cringed. At least that was real enough. “No, no, please, you don’t have to bring me anybody’s head, Zheng. Please, that’s not what I want.”
“Mmm,” Zheng grunted. All her joyous good humour was gone. I’d ruined it.
“I was just so worried about you!” I blurted out. “And now you come back … raving about having fun! For all we knew, Ooran Juh came back to finish you off and I wasn’t there to clean you up this time, or Edward captured you and hollowed you out, or you decided to go back to Siberia or something!”
That was a low blow. Zheng blinked, slowly.
“I was worried. Okay?” I finished, putting too much emphasis into my voice.
“Now you know how we all felt,” Evelyn muttered. I grimaced. Sevens did a little raspy purr into my back.
I was a coward, covering the truth with another truth. A different truth. I said nothing of the jealousy.
Zheng stared at me another second, then broke into a reborn grin. My heart creaked with rotten relief.
“I am here, shaman. I would not leave you.”
“Well!” I blurted out. “I’m going to buy you a bloody mobile phone! And you’re to carry it. Everywhere.”
Zheng blinked once like a big cat rolling in the sun, eyes drifting past me to Sevens, who was still peering around my side. Zheng tilted her head. “You’ve been Out, shaman.”
“Yes, well,” I huffed. “While you were hunting, we had kind of an experience. I spent a night Outside. It’s a long story, I’ll tell you later.”
My eyes were drawn with sudden magnetic pull to the open door of the magical workshop. My squid-skull mask sat on the table, pointed right into the kitchen as if watching us with blank eye sockets. I felt a deep need to walk over to it and drop it over my own head, to hide from difficult feelings, to wear the face of what I felt inside. Abyssal things and Outsiders didn’t have to deal with simple romantic jealousy. Or did they?
“Mmmmmmm,” Zheng purred. She tilted her head to follow Sevens as the little blood-goblin slid further behind my back, until only one black-and-red eye showed around my flank. She poked her tongue out at Zheng, just a quick flicker, but enough to make Zheng tilt her head the other way in response.
“Can we please not keep getting so far off topic that we get lost in the woods?” Evelyn grumbled, tapping the side of the kitchen table with her walking stick. She waved her other hand in front of her nose again. “This is important information and I need it all. But you smell like an open cesspit and you need hosing down with bleach. Please?”
“Sorry, Evee,” I sighed, trying to pull myself back together.
“Wizard, I have told you all that matters,” said Zheng.
“You told me you found a demon host eating the remains of something spawned by the fat orange juice man. That is a nightmare. What does that even mean? Was she physically eating it?”
“Mm. The whole thing,” Zheng grunted. “I let her finish.”
Raine laughed and slapped her knee. Evelyn put her face in one hand and looked like she wanted to scream.
“That may not have been optimal,” I said gently.
“Fucking great,” Evelyn hissed. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“Means she was one hungry, hungry hippo,” Raine said. Evelyn gave her a look that could have made concrete crumble.
“She made the kill,” Zheng said. “She earned the right.”
Evelyn’s look got worse. “And you didn’t think that maybe, perhaps, letting somebody you apparently respect eat something that originated with the big fat fucking orange juice bastard, you didn’t think that was a bad idea? That maybe you should, you know, stop her? Warn her?” Evelyn shrugged with her hands and then slapped the table. “I swear, I am surrounded by morons.”
Zheng bared her teeth and growled low in her throat. “She ate it. Not the other way around.”
“And you have a lot to learn about germ theory, apparently,” Evelyn said.
“Did you speak with her?” I asked, my throat tightening at the thought of Zheng swapping words with this unknown demon out there in the city. Yes, I sighed at myself privately, I’m sure they whispered sweet nothings in between punches.
Then again, maybe they had done. Zheng was like that.
She shook her head. “We sized each other up, shaman. We communicated, but we did not speak. We needed only fists and feet, and the poetry of the hunt across many days. There is a deeper communication in the hunt, but usually it is only one way. This time — this time it was both ways.” She drew in a great breath and let it out slowly, grinning that slow, satisfied grin again. I swallowed a mouthful of bile.
“How’d you lose her?” Raine asked. “You said you spent the last two days losing a tail. You didn’t lead her back here, right?”
Zheng shot a very sharp-eyed look at Raine, her grin momentarily frozen. “Would I put the shaman at risk, little wolf?”
“Nah.” Raine shook her head. “I trust you.”
“I hid in places beyond self-respect,” Zheng said.
“So that’s why you reek,” Evelyn muttered.
“Smelly smells smell smelly!” Tenny called — from even further back in the front room than before. Zheng’s pigsty stench was spreading.
“And I had help to draw her off,” Zheng continued. “An unexpected companion. A—”
“Oh!” I said. “The fox!”
I felt myself light up with a genuine smile, toxic jealousy briefly forgotten. Everyone else was going through some variation of frowning at either me or Zheng and repeating “the fox?” like I’d spoken a foreign language. Even Tenny trilled “fooooox?” from the front room. But Zheng nodded slowly at me in a moment of shared understanding.
“That was how I knew Zheng was home,” I explained, crossing the kitchen in a hurry so I could peer out of the window and into the back garden.
Sevens’ little hands managed to stay clinging to me, forcing us both into an awkward waddle, but I was so excited that I shook her off without thinking. I leaned over the sink, craning my neck to see if the fox was still sitting on the sun-soaked grass beneath the skies of dying orange. But the animal was gone, nowhere to be seen as I scanned the garden.
“The fox,” I was explaining, “Evee’s fox.”
“It’s not my fox,” Evelyn grunted. “And what’s it still doing in the city? Shouldn’t the damn thing have gone back to Sussex? However it got here in the first place.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Evee,” I tutted, craning my neck to look along the fence. But there was no sign of the fox. “She wants to help, she—”
Sevens let out a noise half malfunctioning toilet flush and half velociraptor with blocked sinuses, loud enough to make me jump and spin.
“Hey hey hey hey—” Raine was shouting.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.
“Bad Zheng!” Lozzie shouted past Tenny, who was emitting a noise like a lawn mower made of feathers and turning the kitchen doorway into a wall of whirling black tentacles.
Zheng had Sevens by the head.
One massive hand was tangled in Sevens’ lank, dark locks, Zheng’s long fingers holding her skull with a grip like an iron vise. Zheng peered at her with all the curious interest of a panther with a small animal pinned beneath her paws. Sevens responded with rasping and keening through her teeth, baring those sharp little needle-points at Zheng. She hunched her shoulders, twisting her body to present the smallest possible target, but she didn’t try to pull away. She knew she was trapped.
“Zheng!” I snapped. “Zheng, stop!”
But Zheng ignored me. Had I irritated her, crossed some barrier earlier? She turned Sevens’ head one way, then the other, looking at her from both sides. Then she leaned in closer and closer, until she was inches away from Sevens’ face. Sevens raised both hands with her fingers hooked like claws, a hiiiiiiirrrrrkkk sound rising in her throat, a rattlesnake warning through a drainpipe.
Zheng sniffed her, shifted position, sniffed her again, then straightened up.
“Leech,” Zheng grunted. “Hnnnh.”
“It’s Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I explained. “That’s just a mask. A form. She’s only a vampire right now. And not really.”
Zheng stared at Sevens and Sevens gurgled back, one long noise like a very angry lizard.
“Not really a bloody vampire at all,” Evelyn hissed.
“Yellow leech, then,” Zheng purred.
“You fucking reek!” Sevens rasped at her. “Let go!”
“Poor girl’s gonna need her hair washed after this,” Raine said. “Your hands have gotta be filthy, Zheng.”
“She’s also mine,” I said, with unexpected steel in my voice.
Slowly, Zheng’s gaze slid sideways, to meet my eyes. Sevens pulled in her grip, but Zheng’s fingers were too strong to escape.
“Property?” Zheng purred.
“Well,” I huffed. “I don’t own her, if that’s what you mean, but she’s mine. We’re close. She’s a bit like you, now, Zheng.”
I hadn’t intended to imply so much confrontation or channel so much unexplained bitterness, but Zheng seemed to accept my explanation. She turned back to Sevens, gave her one big, toothy flash, then finally let her go.
But Sevens was not content to retreat and lick her wounded pride. As soon as Zheng loosened her grip, Sevens twisted like a ferret, gathering herself in a crouch and bouncing up with ankles like springs. The balls of her feet left the floor for one glorious airborne moment as she sank her teeth into Zheng’s hand.
“Uunnh!” Zheng grunted, actually surprised by how fast and rubbery Sevens had moved.
Seven-Shades-of-Sneaky-Snap didn’t hang on like a dog with a stick, but let go quickly, hitting the floor and scrambling back. She squeaked and rasped and knocked over a chair with a great clatter on the flagstones, which made Evelyn wince and Tenny go pppbbbbt! Sevens slid behind me and clung to my back like a cowering dog, then ruined the effect by peering over my shoulder at Zheng and sticking her tongue out.
Zheng raised her injured hand and stared at the wound with mild interest. The bite had gone deep, sliced flesh to ribbons. Blood dripped down her hand and wrist and onto the floor.
“Oh, great, thank you,” Evelyn said. “Thank you for adding literal blood on the floor to the stench you already brought in.”
“The leech bit me, wizard, not the other way around.”
“Oh come off it, big girl,” Raine said. “That was your fault. You gonna be keeping that wound?” she nodded at Zheng’s hand, but it was already rapidly healing, the blood slowing to a trickle. Not quite as fast as Twil, but fast enough to look entirely unnatural.
I twisted my head to check Seven’s face around my shoulder. Her little pink tongue was busy licking Zheng’s blood off her lips. It smelled of iron and cinnamon.
“Um, do we have to deal with … vampire implications, here?” I asked. “Is Zheng … in danger?”
“Nah,” Sevens rasped, staring at Zheng with a sullen expression. “Got you good. Why don’t you keep it? Don’t I count?”
“You cheat, leech,” Zheng purred.
“Not anymore,” Sevens replied.
“Okay, new rule,” I said very loud and very clear, putting my hands on my hips — that dislodged Sevens briefly, so I could make my point. “Anybody who wants to spend the night in my bed is not allowed to bite each other, grab each other by the hair, or otherwise physically assault and harass each other. Do I make myself clear?” I tried to stare equally at both Zheng and Sevens.
“She started it,” Sevens rasped.
“Mm. I did,” said Zheng.
“I mean if biting or hair grabbing are both out … ” Raine pulled a very theatrical shrug. I blushed beetroot red and stared her down, but she just pointed a finger gun at me. “You’re out too.”
Praem was staring at the fallen chair. Sevens slid entirely behind me, but Praem did not goad her out with a silent look. She transferred her attention to Zheng instead.
Zheng stared back. Praem did not relent.
“She knocked the chair over,” Zheng rumbled.
Praem continued to stare.
“Hnnnnggghhh,” Zheng sighed, then bent to pick the chair up.
“No,” Evelyn snapped. “No, stop touching things. You’re practically carrying cholera.”
“Dirty,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn jabbed a finger at Zheng. “You need a bath. No, scratch that, you need to go in an autoclave.”
“Filthy,” said Praem.
“You don’t order me, wizard.”
“No, but I do,” I said with a sigh. “You are filthy right now, Zheng, that much is true.”
“Disgusting,” Praem carried on. Zheng shot her a sour look.
“You need to be cleaned,” Evelyn said. “Scrubbed. Sanitised. And then you and I are going to talk about your zombie friend out there in the city and figure out what to do.”
“Vile,” Praem added.
“We, wizard?” Zheng rumbled. “This is my duel. I am home for the sake of the shaman’s heart, not for you, not for—”
“Long black hair,” Praem intoned. “Ponytail. Green eyes. Six foot five. Mid-to-late twenties. Jogging bottoms, red with white stripe. Grey hoodie. Favours left leg.”
We’d all heard the details before, of course, but it was such a non-sequitur that we all paused to look at her; all except Zheng, who stared with eyes gone wide and mouth open in shock. I’d never seen her so shaken.
Praem stared back, milk-white and unreadable, hands folded neatly in front of her long skirt.
“ … how do you know that?” Zheng hissed eventually.
“Instrument case on her back,” Praem carried on. “Hard-shell. Guitar. Likely does not contain guitar.”
Zheng’s lips peeled back from her teeth in wordless rage.
“Ah,” Evelyn said as realisation dawned.
“Praem knows your friend too, right?” Raine asked.
“The other,” Praem continued. “Black hair. Short bob. Green eyes. Four foot ten. Teenager, perhaps fifteen or—”
“What other!?” Zheng roared.
“You did not see the other,” Praem intoned. “I did.”
“Praem’s mysterious stalkers the other day,” Evelyn said with a tone of resigned finality. She sighed and leaned back in her chair, exhausted by the confluence of our troubles. “Shit. An unbound demon and … what? Her mage handler? Her charge? Her younger bloody sister?”
“There was—” Zheng sputtered. “There was only one! I saw only one! And she was free! She was!”
Evelyn shook her head. “We don’t know what you saw.”
“Vultures will be here soon,” I murmured. A chill went up my back, raising the little hairs on my neck, and my bioreactor could do nothing to combat this cold. Everyone looked at me, all pinched frowns and polite curiosity and concerned eyes. I cleared my throat, feeling as if I’d been possessed for a moment. “Edward Lilburne said that to us. Remember? He said it with a false mouth over his own, but that was him speaking those words. Maybe he was right.”
Raine nodded. “Back at the meeting in the pub garden.” She puffed out a long sigh.
“There’s no power vacuum,” Evelyn said, but her voice did not carry true conviction, ruined by a hard swallow. “There isn’t. I’m here.”
“I think the vultures are here regardless, Evee,” I said. “Sharrowford’s cracks are filling up with monsters.”
The argument only got worse after Zheng emerged from the bath.
With nothing but silent stares, Praem made it crystal clear that Zheng was not stepping one foot further into the house while smelling like she’d been rolling in pig urine. Zheng began to angrily strip her clothes off and dump them in a heap on the floor. We all scurried out of the kitchen and upstairs — or in Evelyn’s case, into her magical workshop, along with Tenny, much to her and everyone else’s confusion, but Tenny seemed to like it. Praem stayed to supervise the biohazard safety protocols. I would have stayed to watch too; with Zheng in any other state, I would have quite enjoyed the sight of her ripping off her clothes in frustration, but even I have limits. She smelled so bad it made me gag.
While a very large and very naked Zheng stomped upstairs to sit and fume in the bathtub, Praem stuffed the fouled clothes into the washing machine and placed Zheng’s boots in a bowl of warm soapy water for special attention. She did something esoteric with the washing machine, too. Not only did it display three red lights like she was about to overload an engine, but when the wash cycle finished the panel lit up with a flashing orange warning LED.
“Um, Praem,” I called when I noticed the flashing. “Is this safe?”
“She canne’ take it, captain,” Raine said, laughing.
“Please leave the room,” Praem told us as she bustled in.
We did, and Praem closed the door to the utility room. Eight full minutes passed before she emerged again, but the dryer was thumping around with Zheng’s wet clothes inside and nothing was amiss, no scorch marks on the ceiling or burns on Praem’s hands or puddle of acid eating through the floor tiles.
“Praem, what?” I asked, boggling at her.
Praem just stared back.
“I suspect we’re better off not knowing,” Evelyn grumbled from the doorway to the magical workshop. “Just don’t break the washing machine, please. That’s an extra headache we don’t need.”
“You live in merciful ignorance,” Praem intoned. Then she turned with a spin of her maid dress and marched off to continue dumping hot water over Zheng’s head.
In the interest of hygiene and health, I gave Sevens’ hair and scalp a wash as well, where Zheng had touched her. She complained like a cat forced under the cold tap, gurgling and rasping and whining the whole time, though all I did was have her bend over the tiny tub in the downstairs bathroom so I could direct the cheap rubber-hose shower-head replacement at her skull. And I used nice hot water too.
“Mouthwash,” I said afterwards, handing her the bottle.
“Nurrrrgh?” She pouted at me from beneath the towel over her wet hair.
“You bit her, Sevens. She was filthy. You have no idea what was on her skin, and frankly I don’t want to find out. That mouth isn’t coming anywhere near me until it’s cleaned out. Now swish with the mouthwash or I’ll brush your teeth for you.”
“Nnnnnnn, should be cheating this,” Sevens whined. But she used the mouthwash, though she did pull a face after spitting it out.
By the time Zheng climbed out of the bath and stalked downstairs like a panther who’d been caught in a thunderstorm, we had all reconvened in the magical workshop — except Lozzie and Tenny, because Lozzie didn’t like to think about these things too much, and Tenny sensed her mild distress so went to play video games with her. Zheng had borrowed a pair of Raine’s jogging bottoms, almost too small for her hips and backside, and made do with a pair of towels draped over her shoulders, which made it a little difficult to take her seriously despite the topic of conversation. With a sulk on her face, Praem drying her hair, and her skin smelling of soap and spice, she reminded me of a large dog after a forced bath.
“This is mine, wizard,” she was rumbling at Evelyn over the map of Sharrowford spread out on the workshop table.
Evelyn had cleared away notes and books and magical detritus to make room for the full-size ordnance survey map. It was the same one she’d once used to mark the locations of the Sharrowford Cult’s miniature pocket dimensions, spacial loops, and dead-end traps. Streets and buildings were outlined in looping red, whole swathes of the city were dominated by Evelyn’s neat handwritten notes, and area after area was marked off with big black X symbols — loops closed by Praem, many months ago now.
She’d not known what to do with my squid-skull mask, so I was cradling it in my arms and resisting the urge to put it on.
Evelyn banged the map with the head of her walking stick, trying to lose her temper, but even her lips twitched at the sight of Zheng sitting in a chair with Praem drying her hair.
“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled a warning.
“This is deadly serious,” Evelyn said with a cough. “If this was just one random zombie out there in the wilderness, well … I still wouldn’t like it. But I cannot police everything that goes on in Sharrowford, that’s obviously beyond me. Beyond us. And what’s the point, anyway?” She let out a strangely sad sigh.
“What happened to ‘your city’?” Raine asked with a smirk.
“Shut up before I shove my walking stick down your throat,” Evelyn said, but for once her tone of voice didn’t match her words, though I tutted and rolled my eyes all the same. “If this was just a zombie, fine, Zheng can throw herself at it all she likes.”
“No she can’t,” I corrected gently but firmly.
Zheng glanced over her shoulder at the tone in my voice, eyes sharp as knives around the edge of the towel as Praem dried her hair. Her look went right through me. I held her gaze but almost faltered, wrapped in my tentacles as a bulwark against scrutiny. Did she pick up on the possessive taint in my words, or had I successfully concealed the truth behind my concern for her safety?
“What if you don’t win?” I forced myself to say.
Zheng shrugged. “That is part of hunting.”
Praem finally finished drying Zheng’s hair and stepped back, revealing Zheng’s dark mop sticking up in all different directions. I sighed with affection and jealousy and a deep pang I didn’t understand and didn’t want to acknowledge. Why did I feel this way? I didn’t want her to go out and meet this demon host again, not unless it was with me at her side.
Was I worried for her safety, or that she might leave me?
The only person capable of unravelling that question for me was currently sitting with her legs curled up beneath her on a chair, wrapped in my yellow robes like a blanket, staring at the map on the table and moving her head side-to-side like a cat trying to figure out an optical illusion. If Sevens had any supernatural insight into my internal struggle, she wasn’t letting on.
No more cheating applied to me too, I guess.
Did it apply to Zheng? I almost laughed at the terrible double-meaning.
But externally I extended a peace offering. As Praem stepped back and folded the towel over her arm, I went to Zheng. I followed pure instinct and sort of hugged her from behind, awkward with the skull-mask in one hand. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders with my head against the furnace-heat of her neck, nuzzling her and sighing with the shared contentment of skinship. One of her hands came up and spread fingertips through my hair. Only when I was fully committed did I realise I was quite literally draping myself over her, like a bad noir-movie temptress. I went a bit red in the face, gave her an extra squeeze, and straightened up, clearing my throat. Only Raine caught my embarrassment, eyebrows raised in private jest.
Zheng watched me rise, eyes vaguely sullen as she let me go.
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” I told her. “You know that. We’ve been over this, Zheng. You matter to me.”
“ … nnnnnn,” she rumbled. “Shaman, you cannot stop me hunting.”
“Can’t you stick to squirrels? I’ll even eat one, if you cook it.”
She snorted. Neither denial nor acknowledgement. She turned from me, and I knew that was the last word on the subject.
“As I keep trying to say,” Evelyn repeated herself with a note of irritation, “if this was one stray zombie from God alone knows where, that would be one thing. But the companion who shares a family resemblance with her, that implies something else, but I don’t understand what.” Her voice tightened. “Besides, they followed Praem.”
“There was no other,” Zheng rumbled.
“Says you,” Praem intoned.
“We don’t have time for this, Evee,” I protested. “You said it yourself, you can hardly be expected to follow up everything that happens in the city. Perhaps they don’t even concern us, perhaps they’ve already moved on now Zheng gave them the slip. Perhaps they have nothing to do with Edward Lilburne at all.”
“Heather’s got a point,” Raine added from her chair. She was leaning back with her feet against one of the table legs. She risked Praem’s wrath if she put them on the table itself. “We don’t want to open more fronts.”
“Fronts,” Sevens rasped to herself, thinking as she stared at the map.
Evelyn tapped the map as well. “Just tell me all the places you met the zombie. I won’t ask you to track her for me if—”
“This is mine wizard,” Zheng rumbled, voice turning angry, dangerous enough to make Evelyn flinch and go pale. “How many times?”
“None,” Praem intoned, stepping into Zheng’s line of sight.
“Why is this our responsibility—” I started to say.
“Whoa, down girl,” Raine interrupted.
“This is my hunt, there was no other—”
“Was too,” Praem countered.
“Rrrrr-rrrr—rrrrr,” Sevens started to growl at all the noise.
I tried to raise my voice. “I don’t see why we should—”
Evelyn lifted her walking stick and slammed it down across the table with an almighty crack against the wooden surface. I jumped, Raine did a performative flinch, Zheng and Praem didn’t react except to shut up, but Sevens squawked like a parrot with a sore throat and fell out of her chair. I quickly went over to help her up.
“They. Followed. Praem,” Evelyn said, loud and slow, as if we were all stupid and hard of hearing.
Her eyes blazed, daring defiance as she looked at each of us — even Zheng was not spared. But nobody spoke up, so Evelyn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“We are still waiting for Miss Webb to get back to us about the documents she stole on our behalf,” Evelyn continued, more calm but not less angry. “There is nothing else we can do in the meantime. We are waiting. And they followed Praem.”
“We understand, Evee,” I said, and she nodded at me, distracted.
“At the very least, I want these people found and ruled out as a threat,” she carried on. “And you.” She jabbed her walking stick at Zheng. “You can go out and get yourself killed if you want. I’d rather you don’t, because bless her mad heart, Heather loves you. And I care about her wellbeing. If you get yourself killed and she has to grieve for you, so help me God, I will move heaven and Earth to put you back in that body so I can hang you upside down and have Praem beat you.” Evelyn paused, shaking slightly with emotional effort. Zheng opened her mouth on a rumbled reply, but Evelyn tapped the table and pointed at the door to the kitchen. “Out.”
Zheng twisted her head, raising her chin. A big cat denying that any had the ability to command it.
“You want to hunt, then fucking go and do it,” Evelyn snapped. “This is a war room, we’re planning. Get out. Unless you’re staying to help.”
Slowly, with all the airs and graces of a neolithic monarch on her throne of stone, Zheng crossed her arms and lapsed into sullen silence.
I breathed a private sigh of relief — and felt such terrible guilt. I’d not had to step in to put my foot down. Evelyn’s words had spared me having to inflict the horrible indignity on Zheng of forcing her to forgo her passions. But that was just cheating. I still got what I wanted. Zheng, all mine. The victory did not taste sweet.
“So,” Raine broached into the awkward silence, swinging her feet to the floor with a double tap of rubber on floorboards. “How exactly are we proposing to find these two mystery ladies?”
Evelyn nodded, eyes going to Zheng again.
“Mmmmm,” Zheng rumbled, head wobbling from side to side. “I could not track the demon without being tracked in return. She is too good.”
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” Evelyn asked.
“Couldn’t,” Zheng replied, just the wrong side of angry.
I cleared my throat, hoping to forestall another blow-up. “You said yourself, Evee, they followed Praem. They might do so again, or follow any of us, perhaps.”
“Praem? No.” Evelyn shook her head. “I’m not using her as bait.”
Praem turned to stare at Evelyn.
“Nobody gets used as bait,” Evelyn clarified.
I sighed. “That’s all well and good, Evee, I agree, but—”
“Sevens?” Evelyn asked.
“Blrugh?” Sevens made a sound that involved sticking her tongue out halfway. “I don’t even know these people.”
“Fine,” Evelyn huffed, staring at the map again. “We can’t use anybody as bait, anyway. I don’t like the idea of approaching this pair in the street, not if they’re operating out in the open. They’ll be protected in some fashion. We need a way to surprise them when they’re vulnerable, but to do that we need a way of tracking that doesn’t involve Zheng, apparently. How about—”
The knock on the front door was somehow both jaunty and full of energy. The whole room paused to stare into the kitchen, where the single window showed that night had fallen while we’d been speaking. Raine stood up and reached inside her jacket, drawing her handgun.
Zheng rose too, still draped in towels. I found my mouth had gone very dry. Praem began to move and stepped into the kitchen, going for the front door.
“I hope you’re right about losing that tail, big girl,” Raine shot back as she hurried on Praem’s heels.
Zheng rumbled with wordless irritation.
In moments we were all in the front room, all except Evelyn who stayed in the kitchen doorway, going white in the face. Sevens peered around her. All around us the house itself seemed to hold its breath. Praem waited by the door, watching in silence as Raine hopped up the stairs to check who was waiting on the doorstep. Zheng sniffed at the door frame, frowning — then breaking into an amused grin just as Raine came barrelling back down.
“It’s fine, it’s fine!” Raine called out, putting her gun away and going for the door.
“Don’t open it!” Evelyn hissed. “What if—”
But Raine was already there, sliding back the bolts and unlocking the latch. She threw the door wide on the warm night air, letting in a streetlight glow, the scent of dry grass, and a very confused looking werewolf.
“Uh?” went Twil.
Her big grin froze at the sight of all of us standing there to greet her. She probably hadn’t expected almost the entire household at once.
“Oh,” I breathed a sigh of relief, my tentacles relaxing. “Twil, it’s you. Hello!”
“Hey,” Raine said, “you came at a weird moment.”
“Disappointing,” Zheng rumbled and turned away.
“Be nice,” Praem intoned.
“Uhhhhhh,” Twil said again, eyes searching past the rest of us for Evelyn. “We said I was gonna come over? When like, the last exams were out? Which was … today? So here I am?”
Evelyn let out a huge sigh, shaking slightly with adrenaline as she passed a hand over her face. “Yes, yes. I forgot. I … yes.”
Twil crept over the threshold, looking sheepish. “Something going down?”
“Speak of the devil and she shall appear,” Evelyn muttered.
“Oh,” I said. My eyebrows climbed as I met Evelyn’s look.
“Devil? Eh?” Twil frowned at us.
“Twil,” Evelyn said with a formal clearing of her throat. “It seems we have need of your nose.”
Jealousy is a corrosive worm, more lethal when you can’t measure or weigh it. But Heather needs to focus, because Zheng has brought home more than just emotional confusion. Looks like the gang have a hunt on their hands. And where did that damn fox go?
As promised last week, I wanted to highlight a couple of pieces of fanfiction, such as this mind-bogglingly fun Katalepsis/Touhou/Metroid crossover, or perhaps this angsty yearning (maybe?!) prophetic speculation from last year, told from Evelyn’s perspective. There’s a lot more too, nearly two full pages! A lot of it is smut, so tread carefully, I suppose?
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Next week, it’s bloodhound time, if Twil is feeling game. Hopefully Zheng can keep her cool, or maybe she’s just biding her time? And surely this strange zombie is in Sharrowford for a reason, right?
Thanks for the chapter!
You are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!
I wonder if Heather is going to discuss her own matchmaking efforts – and possible regrets- with Sevens. They have more in common than she might know!
Sevens would be the perfect person to discuss her fears with! Her efforts, her worries, what she got wrong, what she’s worried about now. After all, Sevens has plenty of experience with this!
Also, Heather is so exceedingly dramatic in her reactions, no wonder Sevens wanted to direct her.
They fit together so well! The natural drama-queen and the zealot director!
Clearly, the new demon has been sent by the Yellow King to send Heather into such a paroxysm of envy and angst that Seven Shades will say “I can’t stand it! Forget everything I just said about being wrong. I’m going back to my director role to sort this out!”
Maybe he’s testing his daughter’s resolve …
Waiting for sevens to get post blood smoothie swollen. Great writing, your flow is great.
A blood smoothie for the vampire would certainly be a treat! And thank you very much, glad you’re enjoying the story!