Across the dirty, dank, shadow-filled street, deep in one of Sharrowford’s most worm-riddled holes, from behind a pane of filthy glass, I met a pair of eyes like polished sapphires.
Blue as a fire-drenched sea.
That was the singular detail which struck me, even three stories up, obscured by the window and the angle of the lowering sun. The mystery girl — Smalls, in Twil’s inventive vernacular — was a pale oval sunk into the black background of her own hair and the indistinct room beyond. The late afternoon spring sun brushed her face like a timid wild-flower in a peat bog. But those eyes were oceanic, deeper than their surface, and watching us in return.
Perhaps it was merely a trick of the light, but between her unnaturally blue eyes and her perfect stillness, she seemed like a doll, propped in the window to provide shock or amusement to any passer-by who happened to look up.
But she was no doll. Despite her frozen expression, I felt her attention crawling over me.
An impression akin to deja vu passed through me in a cold shudder. I did not recognise this girl and I had never stood on this spot before, but I knew this sensation all too well: the recognition that sparked between two thinking beings across an inhospitable gulf.
I had forgotten, between my trial in Carcosa and the warm, welcoming, familiar cocoon of home, just how strange and alienating our own reality could be.
Dark infinities lurked in so many corners of the Earth. This girl was peering out from inside one of them.
Then Raine lifted her hand and waved to the girl in the window.
Smalls blinked those impossible eyes, slipped down from the window, and vanished beyond our sight.
“Shit,” said Twil.
The spell broke and I could breathe again; I felt like I’d been locked inside those eyes. Reality reasserted itself in the sound of traffic passing nearby, the noise of distant voices, the hum and drum of Sharrowford on an ordinary afternoon.
“Would’a been nice if she’d waved back,” Raine said with a little sigh, as if we were discussing a flirting prospect rather than somebody we were about to threaten with our metaphorical naval guns.
“Shit is right!” Evelyn hissed. Her knuckles had gone white on the handle of her walking stick and her eyes darted from window to window, like she expected the girl to walk through the walls of the tiny bedsit flat and appear behind one of the equally filthy adjacent portals. “We have to leave, right now. We’ve fucked up, we’ve totally fucked this all up.” She spat the words, glancing up and down the street in terrible agitation. I hadn’t seen her this frightened in ages, her complexion going pale and waxy. She hunched her shoulders worse than usual and I could tell she was agitated by the corners of the seal stuck to her belly beneath her clothes. “We can’t walk up there now, we can’t, we can’t walk into that.”
Without thinking, I grabbed her free hand and held it tight. “Evee, it’s okay,” I whispered. “I think we’re okay. We’re okay. We’re okay.”
My own calm surprised me. The implications of our position were beginning to filter into my mind at last, tightening my throat and dumping a pint of adrenaline into my bloodstream, but my reaction had been delayed by that strange moment of bridging contact with the eyes of the girl in the window, a moment shared between me and the dark corners of the Earth. My tentacles — all six, ready and eager to flex and stretch — were uncoiling from my sides and creeping around Evelyn to form a protective barrier. She couldn’t see them, of course, and I couldn’t risk using them in public; some poor passer-by might have nightmares about poltergeists.
“Yeah, hey, keep your voice down,” Twil said, craning her head to glance up and down the street as well. “Somebody’s gonna look at us freaking out. Just keep it cool, keep it real cool, yeah?”
Evelyn glared at our joined hands, then over at me, her lips pressed into a tight, bloodless line. Her palm was sweating against mine. I squeezed. She swallowed but didn’t squeeze back.
“We’re okay,” I repeated, feeling a lump growing in my own throat. The adrenaline was hitting now: we’d been seen.
“Nah, this is fine,” Raine said, confident and serious, nodding to herself as she stared up at the window and put her hands on her hips. “Perfect, actually.”
“Perfect!?” Evelyn hissed.
“Yeah, perfect. We’re not trying to ambush them to rough them up or anything, we’re just gonna say hello. This way they know we’re coming, less likely to surprise them.”
“They could be setting up to get the drop on us,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Right now!”
“In public? Naaah.” Raine shot her a wink. “Sure, yeah, they’ve got a moment to set up facing the door with a shotgun, metaphorically speaking. So us standing here and waving back is like shouting ‘Don’t shoot, we come in peace!’ If we just blunder there and surprise them, that actually makes it more likely they’ll pull the trigger. Again, metaphorically speaking.” Raine nodded to herself, talking as casually as about the weather. My head throbbed with nervous anxiety, but I held on to my jitters for Evelyn’s sake.
“I guess so … ” Twil mused, chewing on her tongue, one hand scratching absent-mindedly at her stomach — she wasn’t immune to the itchy glue on seals either. “We’re all still standing here and the street hasn’t exploded, soooooo yeah. I’m still in. And hey, if we back out now, I’m still gonna have to tell my family.”
“I can’t countenance this,” Evelyn said through a strangled throat.
“They know we’re coming,” Raine said to Evelyn and myself with an easy smile and a twinkle in her eyes. “And we know that they know, and they know that we know that they know. So we all know that everyone else knows. You know?”
Evelyn gave her such a look. I did too, though I knew she was trying to help by transmuting Evelyn’s fear into irritation.
“Shut up,” Praem told her.
Raine shot Praem a wink and a hip-fired finger-gun.
“I think … ” I started, then wet my lips and pulled my threadbare courage together with a squeeze of Evelyn’s hand. I swallowed a hiccup. “I don’t think that girl was normal. But if we retreat now, they might assume we were trying to ambush them. It would be very suspicious behaviour.”
Raine nodded, trying to look sagely and wise. She squeezed my shoulder. Twil puffed out a breath and said, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
Evelyn couldn’t get a hold of herself. She’d gone from unable to squeeze my hand in return to holding on so tight it hurt my fingers. Her eyes, wide and a little bloodshot, darted between the window where Smalls had watched, the plain door that served as the entrance to the low rise block of flats, and the end of the street, the promise of retreat and safety.
“Evee,” I said, trying to get her attention. “Evee, look at me, please? Evee? If you insist, then we’ll leave. No arguments. Do you insist?”
“Eh?” Twil squinted at me. “Big H, come on, you were right first time. It’s mad to leave now. They’ll think we were trying to … you know!” She lowered her voice to a stage-whisper, like we were mafia footsoldiers, her classically pretty face twisted with a grimace. “Whack them!”
“Maybe we should,” Evelyn said, voice tight with effort.
“Leave?” I asked. My heart began to soar with relief. I knew it wasn’t the right choice, but I wanted to run too. Evelyn had fought hard against her own paranoia to reach this spot, this moment, this dirty pavement corner on a filthy, run-down Sharrowford street, but what if she was right? What if her paranoia was right?
Abyssal instinct crawled up my spine like a mass of sucking salty seaweed, screaming at me to run and hide from unknown potential predators.
But instinct also demanded that I protect the pack, protect family. Keep those tentacles around Evelyn.
And a tiny but insistent voice whispered What if that girl needs help?
“No,” Evelyn hissed. “Whack them.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Twil groaned.
“Yeaaaah,” Raine said, clearing her throat. “We’re not set up for that. Unless you want to shout for Zheng.”
“I’m not being serious, you pair of morons,” Evelyn said. “I’m venting. No, we are not going to do that.”
“Phew,” Praem said out loud.
Evelyn shot her a filthy look, but then relented and drew herself up to her full height, struggling with her crooked spine. She met my eyes and finally managed to loosen her grip on my hand, but she didn’t let go.
“Heather is correct. Retreating now would give the impression we wanted to ambush them. We’re committed. We go in. We stick to the plan.”
She spoke to me — to me alone, it felt, her soft blue eyes so familiar, a contrast to the pair I’d seen up in the window. I swallowed, nodded, and kept my tentacles around her like a shark-cage as we headed for the front door.
Praem and Twil took the lead, as the most physically robust of our landing party, followed by Raine just behind them. Evelyn and myself stayed in the rear — “Tanks up front, healers in back,” as Raine had put it earlier. We had no need to discuss the plan from this point, we’d gone over it again and again, including the need to keep Evelyn at the rear. I’d never seen her stumble or fall because of her disability, but we all knew she couldn’t run on her prosthetic and her withered leg, not really.
The entrance to the block of flats was a pair of steel double-doors, inset with and flanked by smoked glass which was filled with anti-shatter wire mesh. Weeds grew in the gaps between the paving slabs, fertilized by discarded cigarette ends and fossilized chewing gum. A rather optimistic tarnished brass plaque next to the door informed the doomed reader that the building was called Summerway Apartments.
As we made our final approach, I kept glancing up at that third-story window to see if Smalls would reappear.
“Heather, Praem,” Evelyn said quietly but softly, just before we reached the door. “Any pneuma-somatics?”
A shape like a cross between a gorilla and a giant rat was snuffling along the edge of the building’s rooftop, as if searching for scraps, followed by some kind of living moss that oozed halfway down the building. In the street, keeping their distance from us, was a gaggle of creatures that could have passed for geese, if it wasn’t for all the tendrils and snapping teeth. A twelve foot tall humanoid figure stood stock still in one of the alleyway mouths, wrapped in white like a corpse in a shroud, a trio of eyeballs in its stomach rolling as if in a seizure. Back the way we’d came, a pair of ghoulish deer-things were creeping along the road, locked in some slow-motion game with each other.
“Well, yes,” I said, “plenty. But nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Nothing that could be a servitor?”
“I can’t be sure, but none of them look out of place. I mean, for spirits. They all look out of place.” I cleared my throat. “You know what I mean.”
“Only good boys and girls,” Praem intoned, sing-song, as she paused by the front door to the flats. Evelyn peered forward to ensure the door wasn’t booby-trapped.
Unlikely, she’d explained during our earlier planning, not with something so public, but we had to check. Working quickly, she drew the modified 3D-vision glasses out and squinted through them at the door frame, scanning quickly up and down. We all held our breath, praying that nobody who lived there would choose that exact moment to depart the building. It wasn’t as if we could be forced to explain what we were up to, but a group of university-age women all acting weird would stick in a person’s memory; that’s the last place we would want to stay, if the worst happened and we left any mess for the mundane authorities.
“I don’t see anything wrong,” Evelyn muttered, swallowing on a dry throat as she tucked the glasses away.
Praem nodded, grabbed the steel handle, and swung the door wide. She went in first, followed by Twil.
“Tanks up front,” Raine said, winking at me. “Hang back, yeah? Look after Evee.”
“I don’t need looking after,” Evelyn said.
“I will,” I replied, hiccuped softly, and held on tight.
We reached the door to number fifteen without stepping on any landmines or snagging any tripwires. Evelyn was so tense, squeezing my hand harder than she realised, thumping her walking stick down on every step. We may as well have been creeping through No Man’s Land, between rows of barbed wire.
The inside of the Summerway Apartments — a name I absolutely could not append to this building — was just as bad as Twil had claimed. It was old, perhaps 1950s or even earlier, the sort of construction thrown up in a hurry to capitalise on spare space, cramming lodgers and renters into every nook and cranny the city offered. I did love old buildings, but nobody should be forced to live in a place like that. The entranceway reeked of urine and the unmistakable musk of cannabis; the dark corners were indeed littered with used syringes and fresh stains, along with a few discarded condoms.
Bare wooden floorboards creaked beneath our feet as we climbed the narrow stairwell, flanked by equally bare wooden walls that some poor soul had once tried to wallpaper, but now only yellowed scraps remained. The bannister was wrought iron, probably weighed a ton, and was scarred and marked with ancient burns and scorches. Must have been scavenged from a house fire in a mansion. Naked bulbs on bare wires hung from the ceiling of each small landing, each of which led off in a corridor with a double-row of numbered front doors. The middle of each flight of constricted stairs and the dead end of each corridor was clotted with shadows. A few spirits lurked about, but not many wished to brave the tight confines.
It was very difficult to keep in mind this was an inhabited building, that normal people lived here, that this wasn’t some Outsider warren deep in the earth or a castle full of horrors. We were approaching a zombie who had gone toe-to-toe with Zheng, at the very least, and god alone knew what else. Walking into the lion’s den, yet again. One would have thought we’d learnt our lesson.
Despite the sounds we could hear through the building’s walls — a child laughing somewhere, a man calling out a muffled question, the low drone of a television, the whistle of an old-style kettle — and despite the presence of Raine and Twil and Praem close to hand, I wanted to armour up.
My body ached with the need to cover myself in plates and spines, to sprout toxic vanes and sharpen my teeth. I wished I’d brought my squid-skull mask, though I could hardly carry that around in public, let alone wear the thing on my head. My tentacles flexed and twitched as we climbed the stairs, occasionally reaching for the bannister with an urge to pull myself straight up the middle of the shaft and short-cut all this risky walking. In the face of danger, abyssal instinct burned bright with helpful suggestions — run fast, be sharp, strike first.
But Evelyn’s hand held me back, though she knew it not. Keeping my tentacles around her in a protective cage was more important than rocketing up the stairs and punching a tentacle through the skull of our quarry, like coring an apple.
Not that I could have done that anyway; I’d probably just have bounced off the bannister and winded myself.
Nobody said anything until we reached the third floor landing. Twil nodded down into the shadows of the corridor.
“Number fifteen, third on the right,” she whispered. Her voice seemed to carry too far in these bare confines, the wood a listening echo-chamber.
“Stick to the plan,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth, throat bobbing with a dry swallow. I nodded, my heart like a fluttering dove and my breath tight in my chest.
We crept up to the door. I felt equal parts absurd and terrified, like we were play-acting a cartoon break in, but there was no pretend about any of this. Raine’s hand crept to her pistol beneath her jacket; Twil’s arms were free and ready for transformation; Praem stayed straight-backed and prim as always. Barely able to breathe, I kept my tentacles close as Evelyn pulled out the glasses again and looked the door up and down. She was as pale and shaky as I felt, twitchy and full of adrenaline.
“Praem?” she said eventually, barely a whisper.
Praem dipped her head in a simple nod. She couldn’t see anything wrong either. Evelyn put the glasses away and glanced at me.
“Just a door,” I mouthed.
Twil was sniffing, nose in the air, brows knotted. Evelyn was so impatient and nervous that she actually tapped Twil’s leg with her walking stick. Twil frowned back, but then nodded. “They’re here,” she whispered, showing her teeth in an instinctive canine display.
We all shared a glance. This was it. Moment of truth.
Evelyn worked her scrimshawed thigh-bone wand out from beneath her coat, one hand wrapped around the designs on the surface. She nodded to Praem.
Praem raised a hand and knocked on the door, three medium-soft raps with her neat, pale knuckles. The sound was like a broken drum in this tight warren of old wood.
We all waited, holding our collective breath. Raine edged her pistol out of her jacket, glancing up and down the corridor to check that nobody else was emerging from the other flats.
Time stretched out. My back was sweating. The sticky seal paper itched terribly on my skin.
“Try again,” Evelyn hissed.
“They heard!” Twil protested. “They’re fucking with us.”
Praem knocked again, exactly the same.
A second passed, two seconds, three — and then a tiny mewl of sound reached us through the door; for a moment my brain couldn’t parse it as words, it was so timid and pitiful.
“It’s … it’s unlocked,” a small feminine voice called through the wood, quivering and hesitant.
“Fuck,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.
“A trap?” Raine murmured, drawing her gun into the open. She held it pointed downward. Twil flexed her hands, aching to make claws.
“I don’t know!” Evelyn whispered back. “Nobody touch the door handle. Praem, do not touch the handle.”
“Tentacles,” I whispered to Evee, my heart hammering on the inside of my ribs. I hiccuped, but I wasn’t backing down now. “Evee, I can touch the handle. I can shed layers, I can shed and regrow a whole limb if I have to! Let me do it.”
“I can grow hands back too,” Twil muttered, a bit put out.
Evelyn’s eyes searched mine.
“I can do it!” I said. “Like a lizard losing a tail. I’ll be completely safe. And if there’s more, if there’s magic, you know I can … do my thing.”
“If Heather says she can do it, she can do it,” Raine whispered.
Evelyn swallowed hard, then nodded once. She let go of my hand and motioned nobody else to touch me. “When Heather opens the door, stick to the plan. No sudden movements. If anything unexpected happens, follow my directions. If I say run, we run.”
“We know, we know, damn,” Twil said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
With my heart in my throat and my hands clenched into tight little fists, I uncoiled one tentacle and reached for the antiquated brass door handle. My pneuma-somatic flesh, pale and gently strobing in the gloom, thickened around the tip as I reached out, adding layers of callus-like skin and reinforcing itself with spurs of stiff cartilage. I felt my bioreactor spike with power flooding my bloodstream with things that had no place in a proper human body, anticipating the worst — an electric shock, a magical trap, an ambush.
My tentacle grabbed the door handle. Nothing happened.
I blew out a shaking breath.
“You’ve got it?” Twil hissed.
“Yes, I’m touching it,” I replied. “It’s safe so far.”
There was no need for words as I eased the door handle down. The others watched the ghostly spectacle with baited breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Only Praem could actually see my tentacle doing the work, until Evelyn quickly fumbled the modified 3D glasses back onto her face. If a passer-by had chanced on us in that moment, we’d have ended up on a paranormal website for certain; five college girls watching a poltergeist open a door.
Nothing happened when the door handle reached the nadir of its arc; nothing leapt out to claw off our faces when I cracked the door away from the frame; nothing detonated or screamed or pointed a gun at us as I swung the door wide to slowly reveal the cramped room beyond.
Everyone peered over my shoulders. Twil was visibly twitching to rush inside, but she managed to stick to the plan.
I did my best to ignore what I saw: the bare wooden floor and dirty walls, the pair of sparse metal bunk beds either side of the room, the backpack and sports bag and the low table, the fast-food detritus on a battered kitchen counter. Most of all, I tried for just a moment to ignore the girl sitting on the right-hand bed, her huge sapphire doll-eyes peering at us from over the rampart of her own knees drawn up to her chest, clutching a pillow. I had to try very hard to ignore the way she was shaking and shivering.
“Hey there,” Raine said to her, easy and light, radiating all that beaming confidence which she so often used on me. That was part of the plan too. “We’ll step inside in a sec, but we’ve just gotta check it’s safe first, yeah? And if it’s safe for us, it’s safe for you too. Promise.”
The girl on the bed just stared, eyes flicking between us. Next to me, Praem put a finger to her own lips, gesturing for quiet.
While all this was happening, I reached just over the threshold with a pair of tentacles. Nothing happened, so I ran then along the inside of the door frame, feeling for ridges or bumps, sigils carved into the wood, or even something as crude as a piece of misplaced tape. I felt nothing out of place, no trap, no mechanism.
“Doorway’s normal,” I said, surprised to find my voice squeaky with adrenaline.
“In,” Evelyn barked.
We piled through the doorway, in order, exactly as planned — well, almost exactly. Evelyn’s jitters were so bad she almost tripped over the threshold, whacking her walking stick against her own leg and swearing with surprisingly colourful creativity. I had to catch her with my hands and my tentacles, making her jump in alarm and draw breath to yelp, but she understood what was happening and managed to swallow the scream. She nodded her thanks as I helped her into the room.
My own legs were shaky, knees weak, but the plan went off without a hitch.
Praem and Twil were into the room first, with strict instructions to check the corners, ceiling included — and be ready to intercept and shove back the big zombie lady, in case she was waiting to jump us. The object was not to provoke a fight, but to buy a second or two to make ourselves clear. Keep the gunboat’s guns pointed without firing them, so to speak. Raine was through next, raising her pistol to exert some visible control of the situation. Then, when nobody exploded into a fountain of blood, Evelyn and I joined in the rear.
“Shut the door,” Evelyn hissed once we were inside. I obliged, pushing with one tentacle until I heard a click.
No traps, no tricks, no treachery.
We had only one problem: the zombie wasn’t there.
The bedsit room was one of the most horrible living spaces I’d ever seen with my own eyes. A floor of bare wooden boards showed a plethora of mysterious stains, matched in decrepitude by walls of crumbling plaster, scarred with the tell-tale flaking of internal water damage. The only furniture was a pair of metal bunk bed frames which looked like they belonged in a military barracks, a low table toward the rear of the room, and a single rickety, worm-eaten chair. A compact kitchen comprised the whole of one rear corner of the already cramped space, with a single chipped and battered counter top, once white but long turned brownish with age. The tiny oven probably didn’t work and the microwave looked like it was about forty years old. Empty plastic bags and polystyrene fast-food containers littered the counter top.
The room’s single window, filthy from years of grime, let in little light. The one bare bulb in the ceiling didn’t help much either.
A trio of bags lay on the floor between the bed frames — a compact and somewhat cutesy tote bag in dark pink, a modern rucksack suited for hiking, and a heavy-duty sports bag. The sports bag was open on a mess of rumpled clothes, assorted toiletries, a few charging cables, and a couple of paperback books. A school uniform — black blazer, white shirt, grey tie, with matching skirt and tights — hung on a clothes hanger hooked over the end of one of the bed frames.
Only one of the beds boasted an actual mattress on the bare metal crossbars, roughly made up with some very clean and soft-looking lilac sheets, totally out of place in this dank hole. The girl — Smalls, as Twil had called her — was sitting on that bed, frozen and terrified as we all glanced about the room like a pack of wolves.
A black hardshell guitar case lay on the bare metal frame of the opposite bottom bunk.
“ … where’s the other one?” Evelyn said.
The only other egress was the window, but it didn’t look like it had been opened in decades. A tiny bathroom jutted off in the right-hand corner, containing a very old toilet and an unhygienic looking shower. Raine took all of half a second to stick her gun and head in there.
“It’s clear,” she said. “She’s not in here.”
We all held our collective breath, eyes searching the room, as if Zheng’s special friend was about to leap out of thin air. But there was simply nowhere in the room to hide, not even a cupboard. Rather absurdly, Raine ducked down to glance under the bed frames; no zombies there either.
Praem was the only one of us not on the verge of panic. She was staring at the girl huddled on the bed.
“Twil,” Evelyn said, voice tight, “you said neither of them had left. They were both meant to be here.”
“I didn’t see anyone leave!” Twil protested, turning on the spot with her nose in the air, sniffing deeply. “I can still smell her.”
“Could still be in the building,” Raine said, soft and controlled. “On another floor. To avoid us. Could have moved as soon as we were spotted.”
Her eyes flickered to the girl on the bed, the scrunched up scrap of humanity staring back at us.
With a sickening cold in the base of my stomach, I realised Raine was covering the girl with her handgun — not pointing the barrel directly at her, but close enough to make her intent obvious. Evelyn had revealed the full length of her bone wand, tucked it into the crook of her elbow, and was watching the girl as well, hand poised over the scrimshawed designs. Praem was just staring.
I had to remind myself with an effort of will that we didn’t know what we were looking at.
“She’s right here, I can fucking smell her!” Twil said. She stepped deeper into the room and waved her arms around as if swiping at cobwebs, trying to catch invisible prey. “I bet you any money you like, she’s right here. Come on! You stink, I know you’re there!”
“Twil,” Evelyn said, hard and tight, then snapped when she didn’t get a response. “Twil. Twil!”
“What?” Twil rounded on her, shrugging with hands that were already halfway to claws.
“If she is standing there,” Evelyn said, slowly and carefully, barely containing her temper, “and currently invisible, then kindly do not start an incident by smacking her over the fucking head.”
“ … oh. Right. Sure.” Twil cleared her throat and shot a wary look at the empty air either side of herself. “Sorry.”
“We don’t even know if she’s there,” Raine said. “Evee, we need a decision.”
“Heather?” Evelyn looked at me. “Praem?”
“Um … there’s nothing in here but us,” I said. “Nothing pneuma-somatic.”
“Hello,” Praem said, sing-song soft, speaking to the girl huddled on the bed. “My name is Praem. What is yours?”
The girl stared back at Praem’s milk-white look, her own eyes like sapphires in moonlight. From the window I’d thought her expressionless, but up close nothing could be further from the truth. She was terrified of us, eyes wide and mouth a frozen line, heart-shaped face peering over the top of the pillow she had clutched to her chest. Her expression was that unique look of one who knows they must try very hard not to show fear in the face of dangerous predators.
She was also absolutely tiny and incredibly pretty, almost doll-like. Twil had been right about her estimated age — by her face she was clearly at least as old as Twil, but petite in the extreme, perhaps even a whole inch or two shorter than me, though her frame was legitimately compact, not scrawny like mine. She had small, neat facial features, with a pale little nose and thick, dark eyelashes, all set in perfect porcelain skin. A messy helmet of black hair, thick and luxurious, full of random cow-licks and bouncy twists, fell level with her chin. She was dressed in a black knitted jumper over a white blouse, with matching black leggings and a pair of thick socks on her feet.
Pale skin, black hair — and those impossible eyes.
Something wasn’t right here. I recalled Mister ‘Joe King’ and his perfect disguises, selves layered inside each other like skins to be ripped off.
The girl took a moment to gather herself before she could answer Praem’s question, swallowing with some difficulty, chest rising and falling with breaths that came too fast.
“Jan,” she said. Her voice was weak and uncertain.
“Short for Janice?” Raine asked her with a warm smile, despite the lingering threat of the gun. The girl shook her head, which made her hair bounce. “Hey,” Raine followed up. “Hey there, no worries, take it easy, okay? We ain’t here to hurt you, even if you aren’t what you appear to be. Even if you’re really really not what you appear to be. Right, Evee?”
“What?” Evelyn snapped, so Raine gave her a meaningful look. “Oh, yes. Yes! I’m a little thrown off here, Raine. This isn’t … isn’t what I expected. Where the hell is the other one?”
Raine winked at Evelyn, then turned back to the girl, improvising in real time as the plan disintegrated around us. “Short for January, then?” she asked.
“Just Jan,” said Jan.
“What’cha doing here, Jan?” Raine pressed, beaming with enough confidence to peel the most wretched heart out of the darkest hole.
Jan’s throat bobbed with another visible swallow, her eyes darting between us. I tried to imagine what she saw. She shook her head as if confused. “I … I … wasn’t … I’ve been here for … two weeks? Three? I don’t know you, I think. Are you here to take me back to my parents?”
Her voice was delicate and light, her accent posh and refined. Whoever she was, she probably didn’t belong in Sharrowford.
Raine raised her eyebrows and shared a look with the rest of us. I bit my lip.
“Maybe,” Raine said. “Depends if you want to go back or not?”
“We’re not here to hurt you,” Evelyn finally began, her wheels locking back onto the plan once more, into the practised lines I’d listened to her recite last night. “We’re here to talk. The excess of caution is for our safety, but you haven’t threatened us or laid any traps, and we are not going to hurt you. Understand? You followed my daughter a few days ago.” She indicated Praem with a little nod. “I want to know who you are and what you’re doing in my city.”
Evelyn took a deep breath, diplomacy successfully delivered.
Jan’s wide blue eyes stared back at her, framed by those messy dark locks. She blinked, swallowed, lips parted in frozen confusion. “I don’t understand,” she said.
Twil sighed and gestured at her. “Evee, she’s a fucking kid. What are you expecting? We need to talk to the zombie.”
“She’s not a kid,” I murmured, confused as to why I felt that way. “She’s our age … isn’t she?”
“Good afternoon, Jan,” Praem intoned, leaning down slightly so she was eye-level with the girl on the bed. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Nice to … meet you?” Jan swallowed hard again, throat audibly dry.
Praem did not attempt to smile. Probably for the best.
“Jan. Right,” Evelyn went on, struggling to find the right words. We were off-track again. “Right. Where’s your friend? We know there’s two of you. Or she was, what, your captor?”
“I don’t … I’m sorry … I don’t—” Jan started shaking her head, looking like she wanted to bury her face in the pillow clutched to her front. Her voice was shaking and quivering, tears gathering in those impossible eyes. “You mean the lady I was with? I don’t know who she is, I don’t even have her name. The others, the ones with the old man, they put me in her care. You’re not from him, are you?”
Evelyn frowned like she was turning to stone. “We’re not with any ‘old man’. Where’s the zombie?”
“She left the room before I saw you from the window.” Jan swallowed to suppress a growing stammer. “It was like she knew you were coming. I’m sorry.”
“Shit,” Raine hissed, glancing at the door.
“Who are you?” Evelyn demanded. “Who’s the lady you were with? What are you doing in my city? I need you to answer.”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Raine started to murmur, soft and reassuring, but we were losing ground. This was all going wrong.
“Maybe we should just get her out of here?” Twil suggested.
Why was nobody commenting on her eyes?
Those eyes were like nothing I’d ever seen before, a shifting blue like the underside of the sea, or gemstones in flame. People didn’t possess eyes like that. Set in Jan’s neat, pale, terrified face were the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen, and I didn’t think that in some romantic or erotic sense. Her eyes were aesthetic marvels, a storm-tossed sky lit by the blink of a supernova. What was I looking at?
As Evelyn raised her voice and Jan squeaked — actually squeaked in fear — I forced myself to look away from those eyes. Something was wrong here. My mind automatically searched for clues among the contents of the room, the clothes in the bags, the two books visible poking from the mess. I turned my head to catch the titles on the pair of paperbacks, but one of them was in Chinese and the other in Russian. Without thinking, one of my tentacles uncurled towards the books, to pick one up and take a look.
Jan’s impossibly beautiful eyes flickered in my peripheral vision.
I looked back at her and caught the moment. Just a split second. Then she was looking elsewhere again.
“—we’re not here to hurt you or kidnap you or do anything to you, in fact,” Evelyn was saying, her voice rising with frustration. “We are trying to make contact without violence, for once. So call your friend or tell us where she is or—”
“Twil,” I said, loud and clear, the tone of my voice cutting across Evelyn losing control. “Twil, step away from her.”
“Eh?” Twil frowned at me, but she did as I said.
“Praem, you too,” I said. “Away from the bed. Please.”
“Heather?” Evelyn grunted at me, but Praem was already obeying my request. Raine went very still and ready.
Jan stared at me, seemingly uncomprehending, white as a sheet. Her lower lip trembled.
“You could see my tentacle just now,” I said. “Couldn’t you?”
“Oh daaaaaamn,” Twil hissed.
Jan blinked at me, then glanced at the others, doing a very good impression of a confused and scared young woman who had no idea what this crazy person was talking about. Her throat bobbed and her mouth hung open. A trapped little mouse, surrounded by big scary predators in a dirty and dark place. I had to steel myself for unkindness, because everything about her made me want to scoop her up and whisk her off to safety.
“I saw your eyes follow the tip,” I said. “You need to be honest and tell us what you are, because there’s only certain types of things that can see my tentacles. And we still won’t hurt you, not if you’re not trying to hurt us. What are you, Jan?”
But little Jan shook her head, bewildered and wide-eyed. “I … I-I don’t understand,” she squeezed out. “T-tentacles?”
“She’s lying?” Raine asked me. But I didn’t answer, I just stared at Jan, watching her eyes. Had I been mistaken?
“Uncertain,” Praem intoned. She hadn’t caught the look either.
“Only one thing for it,” I said.
Heart in my mouth, I uncoiled one of my tentacles again and reached across the empty gap between us. I inched the tentacle slowly towards Jan’s face, coming at her from the side, waiting for the flicker of her eyes. She watched us instead, seemingly oblivious to the tentacle extending towards her, seeking an explanation for what was going on, her chest rising and falling with rapid and increasing panic as the silence stretched out.
“I-I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I don’t know what you’re—”
Four inches from the soft skin of her cheek.
“—talking about. I—”
An inch. No response.
“—was taken from my parents’ two— no, three weeks ago. They keep moving me, I don’t even know where I am. I—”
I touched her cheek with the tip of my tentacle. Cool and soft. I pressed gently, just hard enough to dimple the skin.
She froze — not in shock and horror at an unexpected touch, but with the mild surprise of a gambler who had wagered on the wrong horse.
Jan moved her face away from my tentacle with a sigh.
The transformation was not instant or unnatural — nothing magical about it — but it was no less shocking, seeing a master actor shed all the tricks of the trade like sweat-soaked vestments. Her pitiful pleading cut out with a clearing of her throat. The terror slid from her face, replaced with the faint amusement of resigned defeat, but not without retaining the pallor of residual fear. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve as I whipped my tentacle back in shock, blinking them clear of crocodile tears. Her neat little lips creased with a subtle sardonic smile, but now the faint tremor was true.
“Awwww shit,” said Twil, making wolf-claws of both hands with a flicker-wisp of spirit-matter. Raine raised her gun and pointed it directly at Jan’s head. Evelyn grit her teeth and went pale, unable to spare a hand to cling to me, but pressing against my side all the same. Praem didn’t move.
Jan sighed again and stretched out her legs so they hung over the side of the bed, flexing her feet. She let the pillow flop down into her lap.
“You do have to admit,” she said, voice a delicate curl, no less girlish but without the lost-lamb bleat, “I almost had you with that stupid act.”
“Almost,” Raine said, with a grudging smirk of respect. “Not bad.”
“Who and what are you?” Evelyn demanded through her teeth.
“That’s fucking unfair, that’s what it is!” Twil snapped. “Shit, she had me!”
“You can see my tentacles,” I repeated. “Which mean’s you’re … what?”
Jan nodded politely to me in defeat, blinking thick dark eyelashes. “I assumed they were an illusion, so I stayed still when I should have flinched. That’s some very serious work you’ve had done there, miss.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve tried very hard.”
Jan raised her eyebrows. “You did it to yourself? Interesting.”
“You need to answer our questions,” Evelyn said, tight and angry, “and call your friend out from hiding. Right now.”
“I don’t really like being threatened?” Jan said, pulling a face. “Are you in charge? Because I would really appreciate it if that one there—” she gestured at Raine “—would stop pointing a gun at me. Please? Like, bullets are a major weakness of mine.”
“Not a chance,” Raine murmured. “Sorry.”
We had to think quickly here, but I couldn’t figure out what to make of Jan, whatever she was. This was nothing like the previous times we’d seen mages disguise themselves as other people; there was an obvious contrast between Jan’s physical size, her apparent youth, and her attitude of cool confidence in the face of actual fear — because she was afraid, quite a bit. She did not read as some ancient thing curled up like a cancer in the body of a young girl, and possessed none of the animalistic strangeness or mechanical precision that I’d seen in demon hosts. What she seemed like was a very confident teenage girl with a serious talent for acting.
Abyssal instincts agreed. I felt no desire at all to launch myself across the room and pull her brain out before she could hurt my friends.
But what about those eyes?
“Oh well,” Jan sighed, pulling a pained smile. “I hope for my sake your trigger discipline is better than your ability to read liars.”
“Absolutely,” Raine replied, stock-still, finger most certainly not inside the trigger guard.
Jan reached up toward her own face to tuck a stray lock of hair behind one ear. Raine snapped out something about keeping her hands where we could see them, but it was already too late, her act had disarmed us so competently and we were yet to complete the gear-shift. In the split second Jan’s fingers were next to her own ear, they seemed to slip over each other, each finger vanishing and reappearing from sight in rapid succession, so quickly that one couldn’t be sure if the effect was a trick of the light.
Her fingers reappeared from nowhere — holding a tiny, compact handgun, pulled from thin air.
I hadn’t known guns came in such small sizes. It was also pink.
“Drop that right now,” Raine was saying all of a sudden, low and serious. Twil was already growling and stepping in front of the rest of us, ready to rip the gun straight from the girl’s hand. Praem had stepped neatly in front of Evelyn before we’d even registered the weapon.
“Ah-ah-ah-ahhhhh,” Jan went, smiling that subtle little smile even as sweat rolled down her forehead. She waved the gun, but not at us, wagging it like a finger. “You’re pointing your guns at me. I don’t get to do the same?”
“You’ve already concealed plenty,” Raine said.
“I can take that right off you, you little shit,” Twil growled. “Put it down.”
Jan sighed, nodding politely. Slowly and carefully she placed the gun down on the bed next to her.
“Don’t touch it,” Evelyn snapped before anybody could move to scoop up the firearm.
“What?” Jan asked. “You think I would booby-trap my own last resort? Is that the sort of people I’m dealing with here?”
“It’s hardly your last resort,” I piped up, mouth gone quite dry. “If you can pull a gun from the air, you can produce other things too.”
“Smart,” Jan said. She nodded with a sweet smile, though she had to steady herself with a deep breath, bluffing just as hard as us. “You have no idea what else I have up my sleeves. Literally.” She did a little flourish with her hands, like a magician about to produce a card — which was exactly what jumped into the gap between the first and middle fingers of her right hand. She turned the playing card over to show us.
“Huh,” Raine laughed. “Ace of spades. Nice trick.”
“Stop doing that,” Evelyn snapped.
“Trust me, all of you, you with the gun, and the werewolf, and whatever you are, squid girl, and that.” She nodded at Evelyn’s bone wand, eyes widening a fraction. “I am amply defended. We’re in a stand-off here, you haven’t got the upper hand. We can do a lot of damage to each other in a very short space of time, I’m certain of that, so let’s all take a deep breath?”
“We weren’t after an upper hand,” Evelyn said. “We want to talk. You followed my— Praem here. You followed one of us. I want to know what you’re doing. I want to know who and what you are.”
“And then we can all go our separate ways,” Raine added in a purr, though she still held her pistol levelled with both hands. “We just want to make sure you’re not a threat.”
Jan laughed, a real laugh, a teenage girl’s giggle. “You know what? This is so absurd that I actually believe you. Certainly, why not?” She leaned back on her hands and shrugged. A little pink tongue flickered out to wet her lips. “When I saw you in the street I assumed you were going to put something straight through the window, so I was prepared for worse. But here you are. Talking. My goodness.”
“Jan,” Evelyn said, gently motioning Praem aside a pace or two. “Jan what?”
“Dutch name, right?” Raine asked.
Jan shrugged. “Jan Martense.”
Evelyn frowned like she’d found excrement smeared all over the doormat. “I’m not an idiot, nor was I born yesterday.”
Jan cringed. “Worth a try, wasn’t it?”
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“It’s a name from a story,” Evelyn grunted. “An obvious one. She’s lying to us.”
“Oh don’t be absurd,” Jan said. “I’m hardly going to give you my real name, certainly not under these circumstances.”
“My name is Evelyn Saye,” Evee said, loud and clear, straightening her spine as much as she could. “I am a mage, and these are my friends and companions. You and your zombie followed one of my household through the city centre. I want to know what you’re doing in my city and that you are not a threat to me and mine. I am trying, very hard, to create some fucking civility between mages for once, rather than tearing your head off before we even make contact. Which, trust me, we are more than capable of doing, no matter how many stupid tricks you pull from pocket dimensions. Now where’s your zombie friend?”
Jan gave a very good show of looking like an outraged teenage girl. Which, maybe she actually was.
“Your city?” she asked. “Excuse me, but I don’t see a crown on your head.”
Twil snorted, involuntarily.
“You know what I mean,” Evelyn hissed.
“And last I checked, the mayor of Sharrowford was a gentleman in his sixties. So, not you. What is this, are we working on right of conquest here? Do I have to formally challenge you to be allowed within city limits? Is this why that giant slab of meat has been harassing us for like two weeks?”
“Zheng,” I sighed. “She means Zheng. I’m sorry, Zheng does her own thing. She enjoyed fighting your … friend?”
Jan rolled her eyes. “Fair enough. I assume you sent this clown to follow us though?” she nodded at Twil.
“ … m-me?” Twil stammered.
“Yes. Had to find where you were living,” Evelyn said.
“You mean you knew I was there?” Twil asked in a small, offended voice. “Clown?”
“Any unknown mage or associates in Sharrowford present an unacceptable risk to my friends and family,” Evelyn rattled off. “We’re already in a conflict with one mage and I need to be absolutely sure you aren’t working for him, whatever you are. Frankly, an unbound demon host turns up on the streets of Sharrowford, and I have to assume the worst. And you followed my daughter.” She stamped with her walking stick, snarling those last few words.
“She’s made of wood,” Jan said. “It’s not every day you spot a person made of wood. I was interested.” She nodded to Praem. “Cool, by the way. Well done.”
“I am fabulous,” Praem intoned. Jan smiled, apparently delighted at this.
“Jan,” I said. “Listen to me very carefully, please.”
“And you, what are you?” She gestured at me with her eyes. “I thought you were something very different for a moment, but—“
“I need you to listen,” I repeated, bringing the metaphorical cannon to bear. Jan blinked once. “This isn’t a stand-off. I can reach out with one tentacle and touch you again — unless you’re very acrobatic indeed?”
Jan shrugged. “What you see is mostly what you get.”
I nodded. “Well then. If I can touch you, I can get rid of you, instantly. I can shunt you Outside with a single thought. Do you know that term? Maybe you know it by a different name, but I think you know what I mean. And yes, in the confusion, you might get a shot off, you hurt one or two of us. Your zombie, whoever she is, might pop out of the wall and take one of us down. But you will be placed beyond recovery, the instant I touch you.”
Jan went quite still as I spoke. Her eyes searched the faces of my friends. She found no bluff. “Okay. Where is this going?”
“However,” I went on, “I am not a murderer by habit. We just want to make sure you’re not a danger to us.”
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed, “remember what I said about mages and overconfidence.”
“Mmhmm,” I grunted.
Jan stared back at me for a second, those huge beautiful eyes blinking in thought. “Alright,” she sighed. “I don’t want to fight either, I’m not generally in the habit of murder. I’m a mage too. I’m in Sharrowford to do a job, for which I am being paid, by people who have nothing to do with this city and hopefully nothing to do with you.”
“Tentacles,” Praem intoned, pointing out the lie. Jan wasn’t just a mage — she could see pneuma-somatic flesh. But Jan blinked, not following. She didn’t understand.
Raine blew out a pfffft sound. “All a mistake, hey?”
“A job?” Evelyn said, sceptical to the point of disgust. “What do you mean, a job?”
“What’s the job?” Twil asked.
“Well, that’s where you lot come in.” Jan pulled an anxious smile. “I came to Sharrowford to do a job, then discovered the job was unnecessary. But in the process of discovering, I found another group of people who would pay me to do a different job. Involving you, all of you. Which I was very much inclined to take, because you were already following me around — or, ‘Zheng’ was, my mistake. And if I could get you all in one place, that would make it possible to finish the first job too. And everybody likes to get paid twice.”
Tension tightened our little group, all but Praem. Evelyn’s frown turned stormy. Twil shook her head and growled.
“What job?” Evelyn hissed. “Who are you working for?”
“S’gotta be Eddy boy,” Raine said.
“Yeah, who else would give a shit?” Twil said. “Now he’s got this mercenary working for him.”
“Contractor!” Jan said, huffing with squinting disbelief, very much the put out little madam. “Mercenaries generally fight wars. Do I look like I’m remotely suitable to fight a war?”
“Looks can be deceiving,” I said softly, still struggling against a sudden urge to wrap a tentacle around her throat. Those eyes met mine with a private understanding.
“I have less than zero interest in your turf war,” Jan said. “And I’m not even that interested in any of you, not really. Except you, squiddy, perhaps. Wouldn’t mind swapping notes on … yourself. And — Praem, was it?”
“Praem,” said Praem.
“You’re quite a marvel.” Jan smiled at her with lip-biting, girlish approval. “And I think you know that, too.”
“I am all my mother’s love,” Praem said.
“Mother?” Jan hitched an eyebrow, then glanced at Evelyn. “Oh. Oh! When you said ‘daughter’, I thought that was cover. You really treat her as—”
“Shut up and answer the fucking question,” Evelyn snapped at her.
Jan considered for a moment, then nodded, something different about her attitude in the way she met Evelyn’s eyes. “I’m working for a group whose name I am not at liberty to divulge,” she said with all the delicacy of a lady turning down a dance at a ball.
“Oh for—” Evelyn hissed.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” Raine said.
“But!” Jan went on, huffing at our impatience, raising a finger. “I can tell you what I was sent to do. I’m to track down everyone and anyone who has been involved with one Nathan Sterling Hobbes—”
“Badger,” I blurted out. “That’s Badger’s real name.”
“—including whoever put him in the hospital,” she carried on with an extra smile in her voice, “and verify that they are free of certain … contaminants.”
“Contaminants,” Evelyn dead-panned.
“Don’t worry,” Jan said. “You lot are far too coherent and sane to be what I’m looking for. But I’m still going to have to check you.”
“Like hell you are,” Twil grunted.
“Yeah, what she said,” Raine agreed.
Jan shook her head. “You don’t understand. A person turns up in a hospital, anywhere in Britain, with a mysterious self-inflicted trepanation wound—”
“It wasn’t self-inflicted,” I said.
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.
“Yeah maybe don’t?” Twil suggested.
“It’s all right,” I said, staring at Jan. She was staring back with sudden and polite interest, eyes like jewels dropped into a fire. “Something isn’t right here. Wires have gotten crossed, somehow. We need to clear it up. I put that hole in Nathan’s head.”
“Oh dear,” Jan sighed. She wet her lips and swallowed, fear inching back. “And why did you do that?”
“To save his life from something that was in his head.”
“Those are not the words I need to hear,” Jan said. “Look, I was trying to say: a person turns up in any hospital, anywhere in Britain, with a mysterious self-inflicted trepanation wound — and a certain group of people sit up and take notice. They want to make sure they don’t have to break out the tinfoil hats and the car bombs.”
“The car bombs?” Twil spluttered.
“How do you know what happened to him?” I asked.
“It was in the newspapers,” Jan said. “The local ones. And I didn’t find out about it, my current employers did. But they’re mostly a bunch of cowards. So that’s why I’m here, to rule out a certain problem. And if I don’t get back to them eventually, they’ll come after you themselves. And not with magic.” Her eyes alighted on Raine’s handgun. “Though from the looks of it, you might be prepared for that, too.”
“We’d rather avoid that kinda thing, thanks all the same,” Raine said.
Jan pulled another one of those awkward teenage smiles, one that said she knew she was in a lot of trouble, and was not going to get out of it. “Well, that means I need to take a little peek inside all of your heads.”
Who the hell is this tiny joker? A mage? Surely a lie; like Twil said, she doesn’t smell of anything. She’s pulling cards from thin air and spinning yarns that can’t possibly be true. Though she does seem afraid, and she’s making an outrageous request. But nobody should look into Heather’s mind unprepared. Unless they already expect to find the Eye waiting for them and staring back …
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Next week, it’s all heads and holes, right? But there’s no way any of the gang are going to agree to that. And where’s that bloody mysterious zombie? She’s lurking there somewhere. Maybe things aren’t quite what they seem. But if they are, what’s Jan looking for here?
Also! Starting next week, due to some non-writing work and scheduling reasons, the time of day I’m able to post the chapter is going to change. Until now I’ve always posted between 6am-8am GMT, but from next week onwards each new chapter will go up at 12-2pm GMT, so about 4-6 hours later. My apologies for this, but it cannot be avoided; don’t worry, nothing is wrong, I’m actually moving to a healthier schedule, and there will continue to be a new chapter every Saturday! I just want to make sure I let people know this, since there’s some readers in other time zones who stay up late to read the chapter. So, get some sleep instead! It’ll be there when you wake!