Twil’s nose was fast, her feet were faster, and her mind was sharp as a knife — however emotionally dense she could seem at times.
She was back thirty-six hours later, at the crack of dawn.
“Mages and witches, deadites and ditches! Motherfuckers, screwballs, and two types of squid-girl! My favourite little lady—”
Lozzie squealed in surprise and delight as Twil literally swept her off her feet, spun her through the air, and placed her back down with a flourish, unsteady and blushing hard. Lozzie flapped about in her borrowed pajamas, chest heaving like she was on the cover of a bad romance novel. Tenny trilled a mildly offended “Not squiiiid,” but Twil was too hyped up to pay attention to the correction. She was already turning back to the kitchen table, where Evelyn, Raine, and myself all sat blinking at her in the watery morning light.
“Psychos and wizards and maids and all the rest!” she went on — then hesitated when she gestured at Sevens lurking behind my chair, eating a piece of overcooked bacon with her bare hands. “And … whatever the hell you are, shine on you weird little goblin!”
“Oh my god,” Evelyn grumbled like a dying engine, a spoonful of cereal halfway to her mouth. “Who let her in here at this ungodly hour of the morning?”
“You did,” Praem said in a sing-song voice.
“You did, dumbo, you gave me a key! Ba-dum-bum-bum!” Twil drummed on the kitchen table, shaking the breakfast things. Raine was beside herself with laughter. I could only stare; we hadn’t seen Twil this animated in ages, certainly not when she’d turned up on our doorstep the evening before last, and found herself press-ganged into helping us hunt mysterious zombies. “And guess what, buckaroos?”
“You’re running away to join the circus?” Evelyn said, still groggy from waking up not twenty minutes ago. “Twil, you’re meant to be out looking for those—”
“I have found your bitches!” Twil announced.
She spread her arms, took a bow, and slapped her backside right down into a waiting chair. Then she whipped off her blue-and-lime coat, tossed it onto another chair, and put her feet up on the table, trainers in the air. She showed us all her pearly white teeth in a smug grin. Twil was entirely human right then, no trace of the ghostly wolf-form laid over her flesh, but there was more than a touch of wolfish pride on her face.
“Now where’s my goddamn rotisserie chicken?” she said.
“Feet,” Praem intoned. “Off table.”
“Oop!” Twil grimaced so hard it made me splutter with laughter and cover my mouth. She whipped her feet off the table, nodding apologies to Praem.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry, got carried away. Carried away. Can you blame me though?”
Praem did not answer, too busy spraying that part of the table with dettol and wiping it down, lest an invisible crumb of dirt had fallen from Twil’s all-too-clean white trainers. Twil settled back instead, smoothing her white hoodie over her belly with animalistic satisfaction.
“You’ve found them?” Evelyn asked, squinting and frowning through bleary eyes. Morning was not kind to her.
“You gone deaf while I was busy?” Twil shot back, grinning a shit-eating grin. “Yeah, damn right I found them! Who’s the best tracker in the whole world? Who? Ooooh, is it this lass? Is it me?” She pointed her index fingers at her own face, pumping her hands up and down.
“Oh, Twil, well done!” I said with a sigh of relief. I’d been uncomfortable with this entire endeavour, guilty about what we’d forced her into, worried it would go wrong, but her sheer exuberance was rubbing off on me. Twil was not my type, but it was difficult not to respond to a beautiful person being so full of energy.
Without thinking what I was doing, I started to give her a little round of applause. Lozzie joined in. Tenny slapped her tentacles about.
“Twil, don’t take this the wrong way,” Raine said, trying to keep a straight face, “but you didn’t do a line of coke for breakfast this morning, right?”
“No! Fuck you!” Twil said, but in good humour. “Aren’t I allowed to be proud?” She tapped her own chest through her white hoodie, then clicked her fingers and pointed at Zheng, who was watching with badly concealed interest from the doorway to the magical workshop. “You’re shit at this, miss walking dead. They were easy. You had my number back in the woods, but you ain’t got nothing on me when I’m on my own. Lean and mean, unfettered!” She slapped the table again. “Now where’s my chicken?”
“She didn’t see you, laangren?” Zheng rumbled, unamused. “She did not track you back here?”
“Not a chance,” Twil said, almost purring. “They didn’t see me even once, not even—“
“They,” Zheng hissed through her teeth, like wind through a wall of knives.
“Yeah, neither of them!” Twil carried on, though I was wincing. “Not even when I got literally like eight feet away from the tall one. They’re not actually any good at tracking or losing a tail. You’ve just lost your touch.”
“Mmmm,” Zheng growled, lips twisting.
Evelyn cleared her throat. “All that means is the unidentified demon host was able to track Zheng because of her nature. One demon host recognising another, not a skilled hunter.”
Zheng’s eyebrows drew together, uncertain if she should be relieved or offended.
“It just means you recognised each other, Zheng,” I said out loud. “Not that there was anything special happening. Nothing like that.”
Zheng stared at me for a second, then shrugged. I felt a twist of guilt in my chest, but there was no time to examine that now.
“Hey, where’s the dog?” Twil asked, peering about under the table.
“Whistle sleeps late,” Tenny informed her. “He sleepy. Sleeeeeep.”
“You really did find them?” Evelyn asked Twil, taking a delayed bite of cereal and then speaking around it. “You’re not just having a laugh?”
“‘Course I really found them!” Twil tutted at her. “What do you take me for, a con woman?”
Evelyn waved her off, waking up as her curiosity warmed. “And, what did you find? Did you see what they’re up to? Where they live?”
“The little one and the big one,” Twil said with a wink. “Where they live — or where they’re staying at least — and everything they got up to yesterday. Hell, I can even tell you when the younger one was taking a dump.”
“Ew,” I said, wrinkling my nose. Sevens made a equally disgusted gurgle behind me.
“Joking!” Twil laughed.
“Where did you find them, then?” Evelyn asked.
Twil waggled a finger. “Ah-ah-ah. What about my chicken?”
Evelyn huffed. “Later. Come on, details now. Where were they?”
Twil gave her a look, then rolled her shoulders and nodded with resignation. Even I could tell she was trying to tone it down, to keep a huge grin off her face as she carried on speaking. “Oh, nowhere special,” she said. “They’re living with the local Sugondese community.”
Evelyn stopped chewing and gave Twil a look so hard that she may as well have been carved from granite. An unimpressed and vengeful goddess, laser-etched into the moon. Twil was trying very hard not to grin, on the verge of losing control. Raine bit her lips from the inside and put her face in one hand.
“Sugondese,” Praem echoed. Twil turned red in the face with effort, gripping the table. Lozzie exploded with squealing giggles, face in her arms.
“ … Sugondese?” I echoed, confused by the word and doubly confused by everyone else’s behaviour; I thought my geographical knowledge was pretty good, but I was coming up short. “I don’t … um … recognise that?”
Twil turned to me and broke into the craziest grin I’d ever seen on her face, like a mad wolf about to open wide enough to swallow the world. She started to speak, but Evelyn got there first.
“I will have you garotted and your body burnt,” Evelyn hissed.
“Nuts,” said Praem.
“I am sorry, but what is going on?” I asked, losing my temper. Raine was quietly breaking down in laughter next to me. “Am I being left out of something important again? Are we regressing, here?”
“Regressing to being twelve fucking years old, maybe,” Evelyn spat. “This is serious!”
“Nuts!” Lozzie yelled.
“I’m going to lose my shit here,” Raine managed to say between her fingers.
Twil spread her arms. “You haven’t got my rotisserie chicken, so I haven’t got the location of your spooky bitches.”
“Twil, hey,” Raine said, clearing her throat. “You’re here before the supermarkets are open. What is it right now, six? We didn’t expect you to be this fast.”
“Supermarkets? Oh no, hey, no way are you fobbing me off with that. I want the good stuff, one of those ones with the honey glaze from that place on Sister’s Corner, that they like, take the legs off and grill them for you. I have out- over- and super-performed on this; I want my payment!” She slapped the table again, grinning in her maniac victory. “Give me the meat!”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “That means somebody has to actually go and get the bloody chicken, before you’ll even talk? It’s six in the morning! You’re not going to eat it now.”
“Bloody right I’m gonna eat it now!” Twil said, her tone offended but still laughing. She was deriving far more pleasure out of this act than she ever would out of the actual chicken. “I’ve had the exam season from hell, and then I perform a miracle for you. I want my chicken! Give me my chicken! You promised me a chicken!”
“Excuse me,” I said out loud, then blushed slightly when everyone looked at me, but sat up in growing defiance. “I still don’t understand. I feel intentionally left out of something here. Who are the Sugondese? Was that some kind of joke?”
Lozzie emitted a high-pitched wheeze and almost fell over. Sevens let out a sound like “Buuurggg,” from behind me, burying her face in my shoulder.
“Nuts,” Praem repeated. I frowned at her.
Raine leaned closer, a twisted smile on her lips. “Sook on ‘deez titties.”
“Raine!” I squeaked — then I froze, mouth hanging open as the words sank in. I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt a little. “Oh, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe you lot. Oh my goodness. Really?”
“I told you it was immature,” Evelyn grumbled, pushing her half-empty cereal bowl away. “Do we really have to go get the chicken now, Twil? Are you serious?”
Twil leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “If I don’t get my chicken, that’s violation of contract. Dunno how you do it down in Sussex with the rest of the southern fairies—”
“Excuse me!” I squeaked.
Twil did a double-take, suddenly chastised. “Uh, present company excepted.”
“That’s beside the point! Twil! I don’t want to hear you say that again.” I blushed from the effort of confrontation but gave her my best stare.
“Alright, alright! Sorry, uh … I don’t know how it is down there in Sussex with the rest of the southern … posh … wankers?” She shrugged, grimacing through her teeth. I’d ruined her flow but I didn’t regret it one bit. “But up here in the North we do things by miners’ rules. One out, all out. Give me my chicken or I’m on strike.”
Evelyn sighed, closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. “Fine. Sister’s Corner it is. Praem, be a dear and help me up, please? I need to get dressed if we’re going to do this.”
“Actually, I’ll go,” I said. Everyone glanced at me. “I could do with the walk. And Raine can come with me.”
“Right you are, boss,” Raine said with a wink and a teasing salute.
“Ahhhh, no, come on,” Twil suddenly protested. “It was Evee’s promise, you don’t have to do it for her, big H.”
“I would like to stretch my legs,” I told Twil, matching action to words as I stood up from breakfast and took a deep breath. Sevens rose with me, clinging to my back. “And to take a walk with Raine.”
“Then I’ll come with!” Twil said, bouncing up from her chair.
I glanced at Evelyn, just a quick flicker of my eyes, but she looked away. Neither acknowledgement nor denial. Maybe she wasn’t even aware.
She needed to either apologise to Twil, or work things out with her, or maybe say something I couldn’t even imagine. She was the one who’d started this, the one who’d roped Twil into our plans, got her to help us yet again. I still wasn’t entirely clear if they were a couple, despite the intimacy they’d shared — and I got the impression they didn’t know either. But that hadn’t stopped Evelyn from using her.
I weighed the options: tell Twil to stay here and hope that in our brief absence Evelyn would find the courage to actually talk with her, or have Twil come with us to give Evelyn the emotional breathing space she needed.
Neither was any good. And it hardly mattered, the damage was already done. The least I could do was show Twil that some of us did really appreciate her help.
I smiled at Twil. “That would be nice. We can go for a walk together.”
At least we had a result.
I didn’t blame Twil for her absurd performance and chicken-based ultimatum — though I also didn’t doubt that she really, really wanted that chicken. She deserved payment for her professional services. We had quite nakedly used her; or Evelyn had, at least.
I couldn’t help but think about that on the short jaunt down to Sister’s Corner and the speciality store Twil had been talking about, a pastry and meat pie shop called Krikor.
“Basically just an upmarket Greggs,” Raine explained to me on the way there. “The food, I mean, not the look. Place looks like shit.”
“Yeah but they make the shit,” Twil said, turning to walk backward a few paces so she could grin directly at us. She bounced on the balls of her feet and flapped the corners of her coat with her hands in her pockets, full of energy in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time. If she was sore about being exploited, she wasn’t showing it directly. That wasn’t like Twil, she wasn’t any good at hiding her emotions. Maybe she enjoyed being of use to Evelyn.
Whistle trotted along the pavement in front of us, the handle of his leash safely in Raine’s right hand. Twil did a little hop-skip-turn and ruffled him behind the ears, replying to his surprised “Rrrruurp?” with a low, throaty growl of her own. He yipped a little, but not aggressively, and Twil laughed as she straightened up.
“Dog communication, hey?” Raine asked. “You gonna sniff his bum next?”
“Shut the fuck up, you stupid arsehole,” Twil shot back, with a tone so friendly that I half expected her to sniff’s Raine’s bottom.
“Twil,” I piped up, feeling a little sheepish — after all, I hadn’t possessed the coherency to call off any of this in the first place. “How have you got so much energy? You spent all day yesterday tracking those two women for us, aren’t you tired?”
“Yeah!” Twil shot me a grin and a wink. “But you know what?”
Oh dear, was this it? Was this a glimpse of the anger beneath her sunny disposition? “Um, what?”
“I also happened to spend all yesterday tracking,” she said, then pumped her arms and ran on the spot, finishing with a little yell like she was psyching herself up before a race. “Aaaaaahhh! Feels good, it really does. I needed that shake-out after all those bloody exams. Evee knows me too well now, haha! Shit, my parents would freak if they heard me say that.”
“I wonder if she really does … ” I cleared my throat gently.
When Twil had turned up on our doorstep two days earlier, Evelyn had treated her as if there was no way she’d refuse our request. I had assumed she was exploiting the tattered remnants of their romantic relationship, but now I wasn’t so sure.
I’d messed them up so badly with my meddling in the past; I didn’t want to push, at all, in case I did so again.
I needed to talk to Evelyn about this, but very gently.
The rest of the journey there and back was thankfully uneventful, no mystery ladies or giant zombies popping out from between garden walls to follow us, and the spirit life seemed docile and sluggish. I wondered if they moved in seasons too, as I watched a huge leech-like creature slop along the road, ridden by a gaggle of gangly insects. The late spring weather didn’t extend this early into the morning, so the thin fog nipped at my exposed hands whenever I removed them from the front pocket of my hoodie. Raine gave me Whistle’s leash a few times as we walked past the houses and across the quiet main road, almost devoid of traffic, plunging deeper into the student quarter. “He’s a good dog, he doesn’t pull,” she said.
“Plus he’s only got them short little legs,” Twil added. “Little pawsies, ickle bitty leggies.”
Whistle sniffed at the drains, nosed among every patch of grass, and investigated every curious stain on the pavement. A couple of spirits flitted over to him once, huge glassy eyes and twig-like fingers marvelling over him, and I paused to let them enjoy the aura of dog before they moved on, with Whistle himself none the wiser. His short legs forced us into a more sedate pace than Twil would have set otherwise. It was only once we reached Sister’s Corner that I realised that’s probably why Raine suggested we bring him along.
Krikor turned out to be just as awful-looking as Raine had implied, like a Greggs where nothing had been replaced for twenty years, all peeling paint and chipped counter tops, stainless-steel chairs and sticky floors.
But the smell was so good that poor little Whistle’s eyes dilated like he’d gotten into Evelyn’s painkiller stash. My stomach started rumbling, and I’d not long ago had breakfast.
From the quality of the food, I concluded that the owner of the place — a short, balding, Turkish man who wore grease-stained kitchen overalls, but had an expression like he was running a five-star Hollywood restaurant rather than a weird rip-off Greggs in Sharrowford — spent all the revenue on a mixture of ingredients, equipment, and skilled labour, customer-facing aesthetics be damned.
Or maybe it had something to do with the spirit clinging upside-down to the ceiling, a mass of globes and tiny cog-wheels and hourglasses, each part of it spinning and turning and twisting like a clockwork engine.
To my horror, while we were waiting for our order, Raine expressed the question to the owner’s face. I stood there, mortified for a second, afraid we were about to get thrown out. But he grinned at us, knowingly.
“Ahhhhhhh, you want to know my secret?” he asked, winking at Raine over the counter.
“You gotta be putting something in the food,” Twil said, “‘cos I’m addicted to this place and I don’t even live in the city.”
“Never!” he tutted. “All these other places, the ones that fail, they put crap out because they put crap in. They hire teenagers to put things in microwaves because they don’t want to pay more than minimum wage. Me? Tch-tch-tch.” He shook his head and winked, and left it at that.
We ended up buying more than just Twil’s promised chicken. An interrupted breakfast had left us more hungry than we’d expected, and any good strategy meeting was going to require a bit of gastronomic fortification. We picked up some fancy breakfast bake rolls stuffed with bacon and scrambled egg, along with a leg of lamb for Zheng and even a bag of dog treats for Whistle. Couldn’t leave him out, not with the way his nose was twitching.
Once we were back in the open air, me carrying the bag full of food and Twil with the plastic chicken container in both arms, she asked the obvious question.
“So what’s the plan now then?” she said. “We gotta go knock over those two you had me find, or what?”
I cleared my throat before Raine could answer. “The plan is second breakfast, I think.”
Second breakfast was more peaceful than the first, but I found it hard to enjoy the food. Neither Evelyn nor Twil was a big believer in separating business from pleasure.
Twil dug into her chicken, accompanied by some coleslaw scavenged from our fridge and a big dollop of mustard. Zheng appreciated the roast lamb with a deep purr that made me squirm. Sevens ate her food with little nibbles, perched up on the kitchen counter. Lozzie and Tenny reappeared too, lured downstairs by the scent of warm pastry and cooked meat. Twil made a point of sharing some of the chicken with both of them, giving Tenny a particularly juicy bit of wing meat on a plate; but when it came to Lozzie’s turn, Twil fed her a bite from her own fork, grinning as Lozzie went “Mmmm!” and clapped her hands together, rewarded with a brief, fluttery hug from our pastel-rainbow pixie. I raised an eyebrow at that, but nobody else seemed to pick up on how close they were being. Had they always been that way, or was I just noticing now?
Or maybe it was just me, maybe I was projecting my lingering jealousy onto people who didn’t think that way.
But it made no difference when Evelyn cleared her throat and started asking questions about mages and monsters; Lozzie cleared out and Tenny went with her. Twil didn’t seem particularly disappointed, so maybe that was all in my head.
“Yeah, it was the tall one I spotted first,” Twil was saying after scarfing down an entire drumstick, licking the glaze off her fingers. “She was kind of hard to miss when I finally found her. Women that tall are pretty striking, you know?” She nodded to Zheng, totally serious. “She was waiting for the other one just off Bruster’s Road, outside some kind of little business, down one of them side-streets with the cobblestones, you know?”
“What business?” Evelyn asked, her own pastry growing cold on a plate before her. She’d barely nibbled at it.
Twil shook her head. “Didn’t get a chance to check. The younger one came out of the place and they were off, I had to stick with them.”
“Bruster’s, right?” Raine murmured, tapping at her phone screen. She licked her lips in concentration and showed Twil the phone. “This the place?
Twil peered at the little screen, which Raine had open to a Google Maps streetview image of Bruster’s Road, a small lane down near the city centre, all anonymous red brick walls and stout doors set back from the street, some with little plaques or signposts.
“Nah, the one next to it.” Twil pointed at the screen. “The one with the black door, that’s the one the girl came out of. What is that place?”
Raine zoomed in on image and we all frowned at the little white board next to the door.
“Safe Hands Dentistry,” Raine read out loud. “Huh. Maybe she was getting her teeth cleaned.”
Twil went pffft and sat back. I shrugged, a little lost. Evelyn only frowned deeper.
“Dental hygiene is essential,” said Praem.
“Big words from somebody who eats nothing but strawberries,” Twil said. She speared a piece of crispy, glazed chicken with her fork and waved it at Praem. “You sure you don’t want a bite?”
“I am vegan,” Praem answered.
Evelyn shot her a curious look, as if trying to figure out if she was being serious.
“Well,” I piped up in her defence, “technically she is, she’s not joking. I think.”
“No shit?” said Twil. “Damn, okay, sorry. I’ll remember that.”
“Thank you,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn huffed and shook her head. “What did they do after that, Twil? You followed them all day?”
“Yeah, bloody right I did,” Twil said. “Soon as I got downwind, I could smell it clear as you like. Biggie doesn’t exactly smell like Zheng but—”
“Biggie?” I echoed with a delicate grimace.
“Yeah, Biggie and Smalls.” Twil shot me a wink. Sevens let out a raspy giggle from over on the counter. “It was weird thinking of them as like, just ‘target A and target B’ or whatever, so I gave ‘em names.”
“Biggie,” Zheng rumbled, deeply unimpressed. She was standing by the door to the front room, as if too restless to sit down.
“Oh yeah, you gonna do better?” Twil spread her arms. Zheng just stared down at her.
“If we can please stay on the subject,” Evelyn sighed. “Please.”
“A dentist’s,” Raine said, low and shrewd, thumbing through her phone, “with no web page and no public phone number.” She looked up at our stares and grinned. “Just doing a little background research. Safe Hands Dentistry either isn’t real, or it’s been out of business so long there’s no trace of it left online.”
“Oh, shit,” Twil said.
“Oh shit is right,” Evelyn hissed. “I want to know what’s in that building.”
“I should’a gone in,” Twil sighed.
“No,” Evelyn snapped. “No, you complete idiot, you should not have gone in. Nobody goes in anywhere blind!” She jabbed the table with a fingertip. Twil put her hands up in performative surrender. “Understand? Answer me, Twil. Say it with words, not avoidance.”
“You can talk,” Twil muttered.
“What was that?” Evelyn hissed.
“Evee,” I said gently, starting to panic. “Maybe don’t—“
“Nothing,” Twil grunted. “Alright, I promise. No wandering into dark corners.” She puffed out a breath like a grumpy teenager, which is exactly what she was, I suppose. “Not that I need to worry about that usually.”
Evelyn sat back, visibly struggling to get herself under control. She flexed her maimed hand, as if the fingers had gone stiff from clenching too hard. Then she glanced at me, her gaze lingering far too long, an unspoken plea on her lips. But just when I was about to break the awkward silent tension, she turned back to Twil and gestured with the head of her walking stick.
“Continue,” she said. “If you like. I suppose.”
“Well,” Twil started, pulling her good humour back together. “Like I was saying, the tall one stinks. Not quite like Zheng smells most of the time, but there’s this … tang, you know? In common. Like something that body odour can’t hide. I could tell there was something not human in her.”
“Big ol’ zombie,” Raine said. Zheng just grunted, we knew this already.
“Yeah and she moves like one too,” Twil said, not without a hint of appreciation. “I could tell she was jacked, under her clothes, either that or wiry, but muscles either way. Moved really graceful like. I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with her. Kudos to you, Zheng.”
“She was glorious,” Zheng purred.
“Yeah I’ll take your word for it,” Twil sighed. “No thanks.”
“Was she still carrying the instrument case?” Evelyn asked.
“Yup. A guitar case. Never saw what was in it though, sorry.”
“And the little one?” I asked.
“Naaaah.” Twil shook her head, pulling a squinty frown that had me suddenly worried. “Not so little once I got a good look. Her face says sixteen, seventeen maybe. Maybe my age even, but she’s just real small. Smalls, right? Get it? And weedy too, like Heather is.” Twil gestured at me without thinking, then caught herself and went-wide eyed. “Uh … um … no offence, big H.”
I puffed out a little laugh. “None taken. I am weedy.”
“The shaman is not weak,” Zheng rumbled.
“Zheng, I love you,” I said, “but I have noodle arms and get winded if I run up the stairs.”
Zheng stared at me with heavy-lidded eyes. “You stood burning before Laoyeh. You’ve killed mages. You freed me. You survived.”
“Different kind of strength,” I muttered, then raised my voice in an effort to avoid the topic. “But Twil, that’s not quite what I meant.”
“Yeah, I know,” Twil said, grimacing. “And uh … well, that’s the weird part.”
“Weird part?” Evelyn said, as one might say the words what do you mean, nuclear device?
“I followed ‘em all day, right? And I could be wrong, I could have messed up, but the kid didn’t smell of anything.”
“Not a zombie, then,” Evelyn said. “So?”
Twil shook her head. “Nah, Evee, you don’t get it. She didn’t smell of anything.”
“No scent?” Zheng rumbled.
“Yeah. Right,” Twil said. “Nothing. Nothing at all. That doesn’t happen, not with people. Everyone has a smell, a personal scent, it’s really obvious to me, sometimes I can even tell who’s been in a room. Even Praem’s got a smell, and she’s like, made of wood inside, right?”
“Woody,” Praem said.
“But that kid? Nothing. Blank.” She chopped the air with one hand. She was deeply uncomfortable all of a sudden as she frowned at her plate of chicken and coleslaw. We all fell silent for a second as she bent down and reached over to pet Whistle, who was still face-deep in his bowl of dog treats. She ruffled him behind the ears as she spoke. “I mean maybe if she was really, really clean, and all her clothes were new, I dunno? She was in a school uniform though, blazer and tie and stuff. Looked smart but not like brand new. I didn’t recognise if the school was around here or if it was just an act. I dunno. Shit.”
I shared a look with Evelyn, but she was lost in thought, frowning to herself, chewing on her tongue inside her mouth.
“Dressed like a school student, during school hours?” Raine asked. “They get stopped at all?”
“Oh, yeah!” Twil straightened back up and pointed at Raine, lighting up again, thankful for something she understood. “I forgot about that. A bobby stopped them at one point.”
“Police?” Evelyn asked with a frown.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“Yeah, bloody right,” Twil laughed. “I thought they were done for. I dropped back so he didn’t see me too. It was all casual, but I figured he was asking some boilerplate check about why the young lady wasn’t in school right then or some shit. But the tall one did the talking and he walked off again, totally happy with it.”
“ … the zombie did the talking?” Evelyn asked, then let out a sharp sigh. “Great.”
“Which one of them was in charge?” Raine asked.
“Oh, the tall one, totally,” Twil answered. “The kid really didn’t wanna be there, that was obvious. She was humming with nerves, all jitters and stuff. Head down, dragging her feet a bit. The big zombie was in charge, hundred percent. I think the kid was there under duress, like. Wish I could have done something, but … you know. Zombie out in broad daylight.” Twil pulled a face. “Nobody else could tell, I bet. Looks totally human.”
“They stop to talk?” said Raine. “To each other, I mean.”
“A little bit, yeah,” Twil said. “I couldn’t get close enough to hear anything, but sometimes Biggie would stop them and they’d talk a bit. She’d always lean down so Smalls could whisper right into her ear, mouth cupped with a hand and all. I dunno what that was about.”
“Hmmm,” Evelyn grumbled. I could tell she was none the wiser than the rest of us. “What did they do all day?”
“I think they were visiting people,” Twil said, nodding. “I never followed them into any buildings, obviously, so I can’t be sure; I’m good but I’m not like ‘tactical espionage action’ level stealthy.” She did little air quotes around those words.
“I dunno,” Raine said, cracking a grin. “I think you’d look good in a sneaking suit.”
“Fuck off.” Twil shot at her, carrying right on. “Anyway, that’s the impression I got, it was like a doctor doing a round of house visits or something. They went to nine different places, all across town, some of them apartment blocks and some of them actual houses, mostly out in the suburbs eastward, but a couple were close to the uni.” Twil shook her head. “That had me shitting myself, I thought they were coming right here. I had my phone out, ready to call you lot, but they just went into these places and then came right back out like fifteen or twenty minutes later.”
Evelyn lit up at that, eyes burning with purpose. “Tell me you got the addresses of those houses.”
“Nope,” Twil said, grinning. “Did one better. Marked the spot on my phone and took a picture of each house. Couldn’t get the apartments they went into, didn’t want to follow them into the stairwells, but I got the buildings.”
“Good!” Evelyn nodded. “How many houses?”
“Of the nine places, only three. Rest was apartments.”
“Send me them, on your phone. Now, I need to see.”
Twil fiddled about with her phone while she kept talking, eyes darting up and down from the screen. “You know what was weird though? They never took a bus anywhere. Like they were walking this long circuit of downtown on purpose, like they were looking for something. Took them all day but neither of them seemed to get tired.”
“Are they staying in the city?” Raine asked as Evelyn thumbed through Twil’s pictures on her own phone, frowning hard.
“Yeah!” Twil said. “Or at least they did last night, far as I can tell. About half five, they headed back to the city centre and went into this little block of flats along the back of Storerry Lane. Real run down place, over a couple of shops or something in the front. I thought they were just doing another visit or something, so I parked myself up behind some bins and— Heather?” She broke off.
“Sorry!” I blurted out, trying to wipe the silly smile off my face. “It’s just … the thought of you hiding behind some bins like we’re all in a spy film. It’s very silly. I am sorry.”
“It felt silly! I was there an hour. Got all cold.”
“Ah,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat. “My apologies for that, too.”
“Eh, whatever.” Twil waved it off, though I was so surprised my eyebrows shot up. Evelyn frowned at me. “Anyway, Biggie emerged again about seven o’clock, but on her own this time. I was gonna follow her, but I thought hey, what if they know I’m watching and this is a set-up?” Twil did a big shrug in her chair. “So she walked off and I stuck around. I didn’t see Smalls come out, but Biggie came back about twenty minutes later carrying a bag of Chinese takeaway. And uh … I followed her up.”
“You went in after her?” Evelyn asked, voice suddenly sharp. “I was very clear, you were not to risk yourself. Do I need to rap your knuckles with a ruler, you idiot?”
“It was one of those communal shared entrances!” Twil put up both hands. “I let her go up ahead of me and then just followed the smell. Seriously, I was never closer than a whole floor behind her.”
Evelyn gave her a piercing look. I cleared my throat softly. “I’m glad you stayed safe, Twil,” I said. “Please don’t take any risks on our account.”
A bolus of guilt lodged in my throat; yes, please don’t take any risks for us, except coming to Wonderland to help me face down the Eye.
“Place was in a right state,” Twil was explaining, “a real tip, dried piss and used syringes in the entranceway, that sort of thing. But I followed the zombie’s smell all the way to their front door — number fifteen. Must be really small in there by how close together all the doors are, just a bedsit or something.” She shrugged. “And that was it. I watched the place from the street for another couple of hours, but they didn’t come out. I guess that’s where they’re staying.”
Twil fell quiet with an awkward puff of breath from the corner of her mouth. Silence descended on the kitchen, except for the chewing noises of Sevens still slowly working her way through her pastry.
We all shared cautious looks. We’d been doing this for long enough now that we knew what came next.
Zheng turned away from the table and strode toward the utility room.
I was up and out of my seat in a flash, running on pure instinct, tentacles arcing out to block her path. “Zheng, no!” I snapped, then clamped a hand to my mouth, mortified.
She stopped and stared at me, unsmiling and heavy-lidded. “Shaman.”
It was not a question.
“Heeeey what?” Twil said. Raine went tense, but stayed quiet.
“I thought we already went over this,” Evelyn grumbled under her breath.
Zheng tilted her head to stare at me all the harder. Slowly, shaking with effort, I withdrew my tentacles from her intended path. I opened her way. Blinking back tears that I didn’t want to feel, I let her go.
“Go on then,” I hissed, unwilling to look at her, being unfair because she didn’t understand what this meant to me; I could not communicate the depth of my jealousy. “If you must.”
But Zheng didn’t go. She stared at me for another couple of seconds, then rolled her neck so hard that her vertebrae went pop-pop-pop. Instead of leaving, she leant against the wall and folded her muscled arms across her chest. I stared at her, uncertain what was happening.
“I will hear your monkey plans first,” she purred.
“Zheng … ” I sighed.
“That’s all well and good,” Evelyn said, “but we don’t have a plan. We don’t have any good options here. Nothing.”
“We don’t?” Raine asked, in a tone that said she already agreed.
Evelyn shook her head. “Option one — we break into their flat while they’re present, and force a confrontation.” She snorted. “Not good. The teenager is a wild card, she could be anything, and any competent mage or … other thing will certainly have protection set up.”
“So no smash and grab,” Twil sighed, almost disappointed.
“Option two is we break in while they aren’t there,” Evelyn said. “Also bad, same reasons.”
“Yeah what would be the point of that?” Twil asked.
“Gather information, determine who they are, set up an ambush.” Evelyn sighed again. “Plus, by the sounds of it, this flat is very exposed. Does the building have thin walls?”
“Uh, yeah. I could overhear people having an argument right through ‘em.”
“So it’s practically a public place. We can’t do anything flashy. Neither can they.” She waved the head of her walking stick at Zheng. “Which means you breaking their door down and challenging your friend to an honourable duel would draw a lot of attention. Community attention, police attention. I don’t know which would be worse. I assume your fights happened in secluded spots, yes?”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted.
“I rest my case, then. Option three is we confront them in public. Same problems again.” Evelyn huffed, sharp and frustrated. “If they know who we are, they may be waiting for an opportunity. Or … hell, I don’t know!” She spat, losing her temper as her carefully enumerated options added up to precisely nothing. “Time was I would have sent something to murder them, but I can’t do that anymore. I must know who they are, I must know why they were following Praem. We can’t just let this drop. We have to confront them.”
“I could walk up to them in public,” Twil offered with a shrug. “Like, in the middle of a crowd so nothing would happen. Tell them who I am, ask what they’re up to.”
“No,” Evelyn said. “No, not alone, not like that. Not in such uncontrolled circumstances.”
“Sounds like their flat is basically in public anyway,” Raine mused, leaning back on her hands.
“Why don’t we just knock on their door and say hello?” I asked.
Evelyn turned to me, looking like she wanted to roll her eyeballs out of their sockets. “Heather, I have more respect for your intelligence than to assume … you’re being … ” She trailed off, frowning harder until it looked like she was having difficulties with her digestion.
“Public place,” Raine repeated, nodding. “We come in peace, take us to your leader?”
“Aw shit.” Twil pulled a face. “Really?”
“If we need to find out what their business is,” I explained, “and we don’t want to risk violence, why don’t we just ask?”
Evelyn put her face in one hand and started groaning. Behind me, Zheng began to chuckle, slow and low and soft, like a tiger rolling stones in her throat. Sevens gurgled in agreement; perhaps her sense of drama was tickled by the absurdity.
“We better go real heavily armed,” Raine said, keeping a bright smile in her voice. “Just in case.”
“Speak softly,” Praem intoned in her sing-song voice.
“And carry a great big fuckin’ stick!” Sevens rasped, finishing Praem’s sentence with a cackle. Praem nodded to her.
“I hate this so much,” Evelyn said into her hands.
“You can’t be serious?” Twil asked, eyes wide.
Evelyn sighed and straightened up, hollow-eyed and exhausted. “Heather is right. It’s the least bad of a series of bad options. Knock on the door, as if we’re just regular people, introduce ourselves, and ask what they’re doing. While pointing a cannon at their faces.”
“I don’t really like the cannon part … ” I said.
“Tough,” Evelyn grunted. “Gunboat diplomacy it is.”
Gunboat diplomacy was a little difficult to organise in broad daylight, especially for a bunch of monsters and mages and our assorted menagerie. We couldn’t just walk up to their door carrying guns and swinging baseball bats — not that we had need of such things. Even if we did, Raine was the only one qualified to use them. And we only had one gun.
So the plan, the set up, and the execution were all as simple as possible.
“Fewer moving parts means less things that can go wrong,” Evelyn explained on the afternoon we put the plan into action, as we were getting dressed for the journey downtown, slipping weapons and wands into pockets and beneath coats, two days after Twil’s ‘debriefing.’ This was the fourth time in two days that Evelyn had repeated those words. “Wishful thinking, perhaps,” she added.
“We’ll be fine,” Raine reassured her. “We’re taking every precaution, right? Unless you don’t trust your own work?”
“I trust my own work fine!” Evelyn snapped, shoving her arms into the coat Praem was holding out for her. “Do you trust your reaction times?”
“Because if you don’t, say so now,” Raine went on, totally serious in a way I’d rarely seen her. “We’ll call the whole thing off. No joke, serious. I’ll call Twil back right now and tell her to stop.”
Evelyn glanced at me, standing there in my hoodie, stomach churning. Raine had hugged me hard, two minutes earlier, but I was cold again.
“ … do you … do you insist we do anything differently, Evee?” I squeezed out through a tightening throat. I didn’t want to do this either.
She sucked on her teeth for a moment and part of me prayed she’d say the words I’d promised to heed. In the end, this was my suggestion. If this all went wrong, it would be my fault.
But Evelyn shook her head. She let out a long sigh and closed her eyes, silently counting to ten as Praem settled her coat on her shoulders. “Just keep the seals on you. If you feel one start to peel off, then stop, alert the rest of us, and we’ll fix it or retreat. And for pity’s sake don’t scratch at them. And do what I say; remember, walk as if you’re in a minefield.”
I nodded, and that was that. We were committed.
The seals were Evelyn’s answer to the problem of walking into an unseen threat — Raine had flippantly called them “magical body armour”, but that had prompted a twenty-minute rant from Evelyn, mostly about how if one could make magical body armour, all our lives would be considerably easier. I gathered they were more akin to ablative heat shielding.
“Which means they are single-use, understand?” Evelyn had made sure we all knew. “And probably only good for a second, maybe two, depending on what hits you. And they won’t stop anything physical, just … unseen tampering. Anything happens, you run. The seals give you the moment to pick yourself up and go. Maybe! Keep in mind these are untested, I’m basically making this up as I go along.”
“What about you?” I’d asked.
“Praem can pick me up,” she’d answered without embarrassment. Behind her, Praem had flexed one arm beneath her uniform.
Evelyn had spent the entire previous day making the things, adapting them from other work she’d done in the past, a pair for each of us who were going — herself, Raine, me, Twil, and Praem. Zheng was the only exception.
“You put no magic on my body, wizard,” Zheng had rumbled.
“She gets an exemption,” I’d said.
“Suit yourself,” Evelyn answered.
As we left the house and began the nerve-wracking walk to the bus downtown, I considered that Zheng was getting off lightly. She’d already gone ahead, to lurk in an alleyway near the block of flats on Storerry Lane. The rest of us had the seals affixed beneath our clothes — two sheets of thin grease paper, each covered in dozens of tiny magic circles and their attendant esoteric symbols, affixed to belly and back with skin-safe cosplay glue. Safe, but not comfortable. The paper crinkled against my stomach as I moved and the corners were starting to itch.
We took the bus downtown and spent an awkward, tense hour in a cafe just off the main high street, waiting for the call from Twil, watching the spring sun creep toward the horizon. I barely remembered a thing about that hour, couldn’t taste my cup of tea, didn’t know half of what I said to Raine. My tentacles wrapped me in a ball of safety and my bioreactor was going like a furnace in my belly.
The gunboat part of our set-up comprised Raine, Praem, and Twil. Raine was armed, heavily, everything hidden beneath her jacket or in the waistband of her jeans. If in some cosmic accident we were stopped by the police, Raine was probably going to prison for a very long time. Praem had no need of weapons, but she wasn’t wearing her maid outfit, dressed instead like the elegant young lady she was, in a long skirt and a comfortable sweater.
Twil was Twil, and currently following our quarry.
The diplomacy part was Evelyn and myself, though Evelyn had her bone wand inside her coat — most uncomfortable, I assumed. I had a head full of hyperdimensional mathematics, six invisible tentacles on my flanks, and a small can of pepper spray in my pocket.
What was Zheng in this increasingly tortured metaphor? A battleship, perhaps, waiting off-shore. She was under strict instructions not to follow us in. Emergency only. I’d bought her a phone, at last; or rather, Evelyn had. Now Zheng kept sending me text messages to check in, every fifteen minutes since she’d left the house.
I am still waiting.
By the time the call came, I could barely feel my hands for the nervous tension. Raine answered her phone, listened to Twil for a second, then nodded to the rest of us.
“Time for a house call,” she said.
Storerry Lane was a dump. It was a back street behind a row of dingy-looking shop fronts, the glowering visages of pawnbrokers and small-time bookies and unidentifiable businesses which advertised themselves with entry buzzers and barred windows, the bottom-feeders at the outer edge of the foot traffic ecosystem of Sharrowford’s city centre. The rear was even worse, half-choked with overflowing rubbish bins and stagnant puddles that never truly dried. A few cars were parked on the curb, other little streets led off to less blighted places, but the lane itself was the sort of un-position that served no purpose except to move people in and out of the stubby flats that climbed over the shop fronts with their blank-brick walls, only rarely punctuated by dirty windows.
Every surface was drenched in late-afternoon shadows, the sun hidden behind the opposite row of filthy red bricks.
It wasn’t too bad during daylight. Not totally deserted; I saw a young mother pushing a buggy down the opposite pavement, and an old man shuffling along, fussing with his flat cap. But I wouldn’t want to still be here when night fell.
“Fun spot, can see why you pitched up here,” Raine said with a broad grin as we met Twil at the end of the road. She was waiting on the pavement corner for us.
“Shut up, stay focused,” Evelyn hissed. Her shoulders were as tense as I felt. She glanced down the horrible little street “Which one is it?”
“The door with the green front and the glass side-windows,” Twil said quickly and quietly, hands in her coat pockets as she nodded sideways. “We go in, it’s up on the third floor, fourth door on the right. Neither of them have left, they’re both home. Unless they climbed out a window.”
“Do not tempt fate,” Praem intoned.
My hands were slick and I was having trouble catching my breath. My tentacles felt like a strait jacket of my own making. I had to remind myself that everyone was by my side. We were all together. And Zheng was less than a hundred feet away; if the worst came to the worst, all I had to do was scream my head off.
“Right,” Evelyn said. “Stick to the plan. Praem, Twil, you take—“
“Which window is it?” Raine said softly.
Something in her tone made everyone freeze.
Twil followed her gaze, up at the building. “Uhhhh … that … that one, yeah. Shit.”
Evelyn grunted in frustration, one arm twitching with a desire to belt Raine with her walking stick. “Raine, what are you—”
“Because it looks like we’ve been rumbled,” Raine said.
I followed Raine’s gaze too.
From the other side of a small, dirty window up on the third floor, a pale oval was pointed down at us, crowned by a messy helmet of black hair and staring with a pair of eyes like sapphires. Neat little hands gripped the windowsill, half-hidden inside the sleeves of a black blazer, as if she was straining up on tiptoes to spy.
She did not withdraw in shock or hide with the embarrassment of being seen, but stared back in total silence, the unreadable poker-face of a master dissembler or a traumatised child.
“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “We’ve been rumbled alright.”
Twil’s got them skills! Unless, of course, they knew she was there all along, and they were only pretending … but when a whole group of assorted supernatural types turn up outside your temporary safehouse, it’s a bit more obvious. Oh dear. Oh dear indeed.
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Next week, do the girls retreat, or head on in anyway? If they’re not planning any violence, why not? And I wonder if they have any hidden tricks up their collective sleeves, just in case.