July did not share Jan’s impossibly beautiful eyes, neither their subtle light like gemstones dropped in embers, nor their blue like the shimmer of a baking summer sky. She did possess Jan’s delicate facial features and her thick black hair, though braided instead of short and fluffy, but July’s eyes were grey, mundane, human — the irony was not lost on me, considering she was a demon, a thing of the abyss wrenched from the limitless dark sea and placed in a new home of human flesh, just like Zheng. And just like Zheng, her stare was predatory and dangerous, though in a very different way; her eyelids were permanently held wide, so one could see the white of her sclerae. Her stare was like an owl listening for the scurry of a rodent, wide and still and silent, where Zheng would have narrowed her gaze, razor-sharp. July held herself so still that she didn’t appear to breathe; Zheng would have rumbled and purred.
This demon host waited like a bird of prey or a trapdoor spider, unmoving until I tried to break one way or the other, promising pursuit in the outline of her muscles. She stared at me with eyes the colour of a looming storm, awaiting my answer to her price.
But I was not the prey for which she lay in wait.
She wanted Zheng so very badly, and she knew I was the one to negotiate with, perhaps intimidate, or simply needle and provoke. Abyssal instinct simmered with territorial warnings, marked her as a rival, and whispered inappropriate urges up the trunk of my hind-brain. My tentacles crept outward to make myself look bigger, to display a warning, to prepare for a fight.
July’s predatory intensity and my wordless response had stilled the others too. Though they couldn’t see my tentacles, they must have felt the change in the air, because Evelyn was turning pale and Raine looked ready to start slitting throats. Twil flexed her hands into wolf-claws. Jan’s eyes went wide at the sight of my tentacles reaching outward. Even the Saye Fox was uncomfortable, head ducked low to the floorboards, trying to go unnoticed. Only Praem didn’t react.
Fight? a very sensible part of my mind butted in, almost screaming. You’re going to fight a demon host over Zheng? In this cramped and dirty room, surrounded by people who might get hurt? You don’t even have sex with Zheng! You don’t own her!
Stupid, stupid Heather, I cursed, getting hold of myself and forcing a deep breath into my lungs. If I truly wanted July gone, I could just send her Outside. She’d be as good as dead.
But I couldn’t do that, could I?
I found my mouth had gone very dry indeed, my pulse a hydraulic piston in my throat, head going light, hands cold and shaking. I may have dragged a portion of my abyssal truth into the air and light of reality, and grafted it to my flesh; I may have taken three steps towards the unalloyed glory of Homo abyssus; I may be supported by brain-math and pneuma-somatic organs and a family of capable monsters and true companions; but I was still entirely capable of making poor decisions over a pretty girl.
“A meeting with Zheng is not mine to grant,” I managed to say, and wasn’t sure if I was lying or not.
“Oooooh.” Raine pulled a big, silly, theatrical wince, gurning like a clown. “Good answer, Heather. Outplayed, outplayed. Come on, bug-eyes,” she addressed July, “you’re barking up the wrong tree. You think we can tell Zheng to do shit?”
Raine’s absurd reaction popped the tension like a knife in a gas-bladder. I could have flung my arms around her neck and kissed her for that. Maybe I’d save that for later.
I reeled my tentacles back in with an effort of will. Evelyn drew a shaky breath, Twil shook herself, and the fox padded in a little circle by the door, claws clicking on the wood. She even let out a tiny yip.
But July was still staring at me. Grey eyes like cold stone.
“You can,” she said.
“You don’t set terms!” Jan squeaked up at her from the bottom bunk of the bed frame.
July turned to Jan in the most unnerving fashion. She moved her head while keeping her eyes locked on me, then flicked those cold grey orbs round to Jan at the last second. Jan tutted and rolled her eyes to the heavens, as if she was dealing with a sulky child, rather than six and a half feet of demon host powerful enough to leave bruises on Zheng.
“I mean you never do set terms, not that you’re not allowed to or something,” Jan said. “And don’t you pull that face at me. You’re haggling with your new octopus friend, you can leave me out of it. That way, if we both end up dead, it’s your fault.”
“Trouble in paradise, hey?” Raine asked.
“Yeah, great,” Twil added. “Just what we need, more clowns.”
“Clowns are funny,” Praem said. Twil gave her a sceptical look.
July stared Jan down for a moment longer, but the mage didn’t so much as shiver. I had no idea how Jan could talk to a demon like that, but then I reflected on how I sometimes spoke to Zheng. Eventually you get numb to any level of intimidation. And I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of their relationship.
They’re just people, in the end, I reminded myself. Even if they’re not human.
Finally the demon host returned her gaze back to me, but this time I clamped down on the instinct which kept urging me to unscrew her head. Instead I took a deep breath and spent a moment to study her.
July — if that was her real name — possessed both Jan’s delicate beauty and an obvious inhuman nature, which was really nothing like Zheng upon closer examination. Her wide, staring, owl-like look was deeply artificial, as if she’d broken something in her facial muscles long ago, not akin to Zheng’s expressive joy. Between her neatly braided black hair and her unremarkable clothes, there was something austere about her. She lacked Zheng’s flair for grand gestures, the poetry of muscle in motion, delight in being physical and embodied. In her practical grey coat and athletic top and jeans, she almost reminded me of Amy Stack.
I sighed. “How on earth do you walk around in public without scaring people? Zheng can’t do that.”
“Normies see what they expect to see,” Jan said.
“You have internet poisoning,” said Evelyn. “‘Normies’, really?”
“It’s a useful word! Actually,” Jan rattled on, “I take back what I said before. If we’re going to do a job, can somebody pay me anyway? July’s predilection for your extremely large friend won’t put food on my table.”
Evelyn sighed. “Do we really need this?” she asked me. “You want to finish dealing with the cult’s dregs?”
“I … well … ”
Words stuck in my throat, stilled by July’s stare.
And I couldn’t lie to Evelyn.
“Sounds like you should be the ones paying us,” Raine said with a laugh.
She rolled her neck and her shoulders to work out the tension, which also functioned as a non-verbal signal that the threat of violent confrontation was well and truly over. Flicking the safety on her handgun and tucking it away inside her jacket was an afterthought. She chuckled to herself again, shaking her head; I think I was the only one who picked up the false note, the performance, the way she forced herself. For a moment I thought it was some kind of ruse, that she was about to draw her knife instead and peel July’s face off for insinuating things about Zheng. A tiny, twisted, ugly part of me cheered for exactly that outcome. But then I realised: Raine knew violence, inside and out, far better than any of the rest of us did. She was the only one of us who could truly de-escalate this moment, because she appreciated the nature of our position.
Forget the gunboat, Raine should have been the diplomacy.
“Pay you?” Jan wrinkled her nose in disgust, as if a dog had just taken a huge dump in front of her. “For what? Are you going to demand a fine for trespassing?”
Twil lit up with a laugh too, following Raine’s lead, unconsciously or not. “Yeah, that’s right! You gotta pay the Sharrowford Troll Toll!”
“For Zheng’s time, duh,” Raine said. She cast about with a dirty smirk. “What do we think her rates should be, hundred pounds an hour?”
“Ha!” Twil barked. “Nah, she’s rare, she’s high class, she’s picky, so more like two, no, three hundred an hour?”
“Three hundred pounds?!” Jan squeaked. “No! No way, absolutely not, stop this. July, don’t say a word.”
“Done,” July said, hard and harsh and heavy, like we were concluding a deal to sell a black market nuclear warhead.
“No sale,” Praem intoned.
“We are not pimping out Zheng!” I said, going quite shrill. A terrible, angry blush shot up my neck and cheeks. My tentacles clenched and shook with an urge to run wild, but I kept them in check. The Saye Fox went yuuuurrrp.
Raine shot me a wink. “I’m only joking, you know that.”
I huffed and folded my arms across my chest. “You’re very lucky she’s not in here with us. She wouldn’t stand for it.”
“All I want is to meet her again,” July said, staring at me with those owl-eyes. “I am not demanding sexual favours.”
“I-I know that,” I stammered, “I just … you fought each other.”
“Maybe we will do so again,” July said — with a touch of rough, raw relish in her voice. “That is up to Zheng.”
“What is it with demons and fighting?” Twil asked. “Praem doesn’t do this. Why can’t you be more like her, hey?”
“You can talk,” Raine laughed.
“None dare,” Praem intoned.
“I suspect,” Jan supplied from the bed with an exasperated tone, “that Praem here was made under more … sedate circumstances?”
“You could say that,” Evelyn answered slowly. She was frowning at July with what was rapidly looking like professional interest. “But that’s not what matters. What matters is upbringing. Is she … yours?”
“Mine?” Jan said. “In a manner of speaking. I suppose.”
“Deny all you want,” July said.
“I don’t deny a thing!” Jan tutted.
I was shaking my head through all of this nonsense. “I can’t agree to this. You and Zheng … you hurt her, I saw the bruises!”
“Were they permanent?” July asked.
“Well, no, but—”
“Is Zheng yours to command?”
“Oh, here we go,” Jan sighed. She crossed her arms, wiggled her feet over the side of the bed, and stared up at the ceiling, as if she’d heard this a million times before. She rolled her lollipop back and forth in her mouth, loudly clacking it against her teeth.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Is Zheng yours?” said July. “Do you own her? Do you direct her?”
“ … she does what I ask, but only because I ask,” I said, and I knew that was a lie too. When Zheng had returned home with the trophies of her fight still fresh on her skin, she had been glowing with savage glee. I had not forgotten her tale about the vampire she had once met in the past of Eastern Europe, the strange love that had blossomed from the alchemy of combat, something I could never share, which no human could ever reach.
I couldn’t hold Zheng back from this. I wasn’t sure if I had the right to try.
“But she’s no slave,” I added, my throat closing up. “I don’t own her. She’s her own person.”
Raine raised both hands. She didn’t actually step between us, but she may as well have done so. “How about we get the lady herself in question up here, and ask her what she wants, if she’ll be willing to do this deal?”
“No,” I blurted out, then regretted it, because Raine hitched an eyebrow at me in surprise. She didn’t get it, not completely. Not in the way I did. I hurried to cover my embarrassment. “I mean … July, please, why do you want her? What do you expect to happen?”
July did not smile, but I swear the corners of her mouth twitched.
“I would like to resume our contest,” she said.
“Contest,” I echoed. My worst fears, coming true.
But then my mobile phone buzzed in my pocket to alert me to a text message. I dug it out, horribly self-conscious because I knew exactly who it was going to be.
Shaman. Answer, was all it said.
I fumbled at the keys, sending a reply to let Zheng know that I was okay and safe and everything was fine and no she didn’t need to come crashing in through the window to save us.
“It’s her,” July said. “Isn’t it?”
I glanced up as I composed the message, but chose not to reply.
Evelyn tapped her walking stick on the floor to get everyone’s attention. “I think we need to discuss exactly what this job is going to entail. And what exact payment is being demanded here … and … um … ”
She trailed off, her carefully constructed thoughts interrupted by the Saye Fox. The animal had been waiting close to the door, but finally decided to pad back into the room, drawing closer to Evelyn. It looked up at her hip, then toward her face, as if trying to communicate. She shuffled away from it, bumping against my side as I tried to send the text message to Zheng.
“Wait wait wait,” Jan spoke into the opening, as if remembering something. She patted July’s hip. “Ah-ah, wait, July. We’re not agreeing to anything until I know why exactly you want me to be your ‘bridge’ back to all those sad people with the head problems. I do have professional standards to keep.”
“What do you care?” Twil grunted. “You were conning their money out of them.”
“I may be a con artist,” Jan almost snapped at her, in the way a Chihuahua might snap at a Doberman. “But I will not aid in committing mass murder. And forgive me for presuming but you do seem like a bunch of very dangerous people. And I know for fact you’re rude and invasive.”
“I’m not going to hurt them,” I sighed, feeling a headache coming on. “I want to help them.”
Zheng’s reply buzzed into my hand. Long time. Is she there?
July craned her neck to see, so I tilted my phone screen away from her. I chewed my bottom lip so hard I was about to draw blood.
“Tie up the loose ends,” Evelyn grunted. “Mm. I approve of that part. They do need to be dealt with, one way or another.”
“That could be just as bad!” Jan squeaked. “You’re going to trepan all ten of them? That’s going to get you on the radar of local authorities, and I mean mundane authorities — police, probably important police. I imagine a spate of mystery holes-in-heads is going to make a big splash in the newspapers. And if there’s one thing that sorts like us need to avoid, it’s big splashes in newspapers.” She caught Evelyn’s eye as she spoke and Evelyn nodded along, making a grumbly thinking sound in her throat.
“She has a point there, Heather,” Evelyn added. “It’s an incredibly risky move.”
“Be quieter to kill ‘em all,” Twil said with a grimace. “Not that I’m saying we should, ‘course. I wouldn’t. Nah.”
“That’s … ” I stammered and stumbled. “Yes, I know, but … we can’t leave them like … I was hoping maybe Jan here … ”
I was trying to do too many things at once. Controlling six tentacles was child’s play compared to lying to Jan to get her to stay in Sharrowford, while also manoeuvring July so she wouldn’t meet Zheng again, and wrestling with my internal guilt and jealousy, as well as thinking up the right response to get Zheng to stay safely tucked away without outright lying to her. Because I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just lie to Zheng.
This was giving me a headache.
“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, trying to help, sounding so confident, but missing the mark by a mile. “If this isn’t gonna work, we can always just wait for Badger to get out of hospital. He’s living proof we’re not gonna feed them all to the Eye or whatever. We can do it that way. We can make it work.”
“I know that,” I hissed, sounding like an irritated donkey.
Raine’s eyebrows went up. I saw the silent ‘ah’ of realisation behind her eyes, and busied myself trying to compose another reply to Zheng.
“Yeah,” Twil said. “What do we need these two clowns for?”
“Rude,” Praem intoned.
“Rude,” July agreed, somewhat harder. Twil bared her teeth at July, but it was more playful than aggressive. The demon didn’t rise to the challenge.
Evelyn frowned at me. She may not have worked out the truth, but she could see the discrepancy. “Heather?” she hissed my name.
I was rapidly losing control of the situation and I hadn’t even tried to reel in the bait yet.
“Excuse me,” Jan’s voice suddenly cut through everyone else, delicate and light, with a promise of hidden playfulness. My head was drawn up to her as if by strings. She caught my eyes with her burning blue, a girlish smile on her lips. “I can see you need something, Heather. I’m right, aren’t I?”
“H-how … ”
“Oh fuck right off with that!” Twil snorted.
Jan’s sweet act collapsed into a slouching shrug and a deadpan glare at Twil. The magic broke — and it wasn’t real magic, just sheer charisma. I felt a terrible blush rising up my cheeks.
“I am only trying to help,” Jan said.
“You’re trying your shit on with her!”
“It was kind of obvious,” Raine sighed.
“It’s just me, being me,” Jan protested. “I’m not on the job all the time. Besides, Heather has already agreed to pay me. Sort of. Maybe.”
“Zheng,” July said to me. “Message her. Tell her I am here. Tell her to come.”
“Ah-ah, July, one moment, please,” Jan said. “I’m very serious, Heather. If there’s something you need from me, from a mage, that you perhaps can’t express in front of your friends, then we can always ask the others to step out and—”
“Doll,” Praem intoned.
Jan blinked at her quite suddenly, as if slapped, as if offended. I think it was real.
I sighed, all my carefully laid plans collapsing into a pile of rubble. “She’s not talking about you,” I said to Jan. “She’s figured out what I’m after.”
“O-oh?” Jan glanced between me and Praem, suddenly alarmed.
I drew myself up as best I could. “Jan. We could use assistance with the cult, that much is true. There is something in their heads, and they need help, whatever they did in the past. They don’t deserve this. Nobody does. There’s ten of them, apart from Badger. That’s a lot of people, and you’re correct, I can’t put them all in hospital with suspiciously similar wounds, that would be a nightmare. The police already looked into Badger when we put him there, they think Raine is his ‘friend’. We don’t want more attention than we’ve already drawn, I don’t know what would happen. So we need ideas, experience, help, anything you can do, really.”
“Well … ” Jan swallowed and pulled a car-salesman smile. “As I’ve already said, that’s a real magical problem, and I’m not exactly inclined to get involved in real magical problems.”
“But!” Jan echoed me quickly. “But if all I’m doing is making introductions and acting in an advisory capacity … I could be convinced. For the right price.”
“The price is a meeting with Zheng,” July said, utterly unwavering.
Jan sighed and rolled her eyes, a very ‘see-what-I-have-to-deal-with’ gesture. “I bet yours doesn’t act like this,” she said to Evelyn.
“Quite,” Evelyn said, watching me sidelong. She could tell more was coming.
“But there’s something else I want,” I said, a lump in my throat. “And I need you to take this request very seriously. Please.”
Jan raised her chin, beautiful eyes blinking several times, girlish and poised once again. Her sales face. Raine, Evelyn, and Twil weren’t quite following yet — I was so far off the plan that I was leading us in the jungle. Even I didn’t really know my true destination, but if I couldn’t guarantee Jan and July staying in Sharrowford, if I couldn’t engineer another meeting under less strained circumstances, then I had to ask right away.
“Go ahead,” Jan said, soft and pleasant.
“If it is possible, I would like to commission from you another body like your own. An artificial body, for a different inhabitant.”
Jan’s sales face froze as if dashed with wet concrete.
“Ah,” Evelyn sighed.
“Oh,” went Twil. “Oh, shit!”
Raine winced — I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I wrote it off for now, kept it in the back of my mind.
Jan unfroze her expression via application of some emergency emotional hair dryer, her smile stretching to maximum artificial sweetness. “If you want to put a demon inside some wood or plastic, well, you already have a far better example than I could achieve.” She gestured at Praem, who nodded her head in acknowledgement. “I don’t know what you could possibly want me for.”
“It’s not for a demon,” I said. “It’s for a human. Homo sapiens. You said you built your own body. Could you do that for somebody else? I assume it’s not just … off the shelf?” I winced. “Terrible phrasing, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not off the shelf, no,” Jan said, her smile so hard it was cracking.
“Will you do it?” I asked.
Jan’s eyes, the colour of blue flame inside spun glass, maintained their careful sales-pitch temperature for about another half-second, then her expression melted into cold ash. She wasn’t smiling anymore, face pinched with cautious pity. She bit her lower lip — which somehow made her look older, not younger — and looked me up and down. Her eyes travelled along my tentacles with confused pity; I curled them close to my body, suddenly self-conscious.
“You don’t want this,” she said. “Unless you’ve got inoperable cancer, or something worse? You’re a marvel, look at yourself, you’re beautiful, you don’t need this.”
“It’s not for me,” I blurted out, blushing.
“Whoever it’s for, the point stands. You don’t want this. There are better ways to attain one’s own ideal body. Hell, there are much better mundane ways to transition from one form to another than when I was your age.” Jan stopped cold, then blinked several times and cleared her throat. “Forget I said that, please. Look, you don’t want this.”
“It’s better than no body at all,” I said. “Please.”
“Heather,” Evelyn said through her teeth, “we don’t need her for this. What was the point of fixing Sarika? I thought that was your plan.”
“It won’t hurt to have a back up option,” I replied. “Ripping Sarika from the Eye, remaking her, I still don’t really understand what I did. And Maisie … you’ve said it yourself. We don’t know what might be left of her. She needs a body, in case I can’t perform a second miracle. I hadn’t even thought of it before now.”
Jan was frowning at us, trying to follow along. “Somebody without a body? Somebody … dead? Look, I’m good, but I’m no necromancer. I don’t think I can help you.”
“Wait, hold on,” Twil said. “Are necromancers real? Walking skeletons and stuff?”
“No,” July answered for Jan, voice hard and sudden, like a bird’s cry over lonely mountain peaks.
“She’s not dead,” I said to Jan. “She’s Outside. She may not have a body anymore, or she may not be human anymore. We don’t know. If we … when we rescue her, I may need somewhere to put her.”
Jan started shaking her head, and not in the way of a master haggler trying to appear reluctant, to drive the bargain higher. She crossed her arms, frowning delicately but sternly.
“How much to make it work?” I pressed.
“However much it takes, I suspect,” Evelyn grumbled.
I turned to Evee, face burning, and struggled to look her in the eye. “I couldn’t do this without your money. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I have to ask for—”
“Don’t be,” Evelyn said, almost as hard as July’s voice. To my incredible surprise she reached over and awkwardly patted my side, as if she wanted to touch me but didn’t know how, though her hand quickly retreated again, like a nervous rodent testing a new friend. Then she turned to Jan. “And don’t tell us it can’t be done.”
Jan did a very teenager gesture, a combination sigh, slouch, and roll of her eyes. It was most impressive. Twil even snorted. The fox, still lingering by the edge of Evelyn’s skirt, let out a little yip and did a hop, which made Evelyn flinch and frown down at the dubious creature.
“Demons have no internal logic to impose on a body,” Jan said, then gestured at Praem. “She’s your daughter, yes? I assume you made her, and she’s not grown horns and spikes, so you know what I’m talking about. It’s a myth, it’s nonsense.”
Evelyn grumbled, gesturing at Jan to get on with it. The fox circled around the back of her skirt, then nosed between her and I.
“You can put them in wood, plastic, bits of rubbish, whatever you want,” Jan went on. “And they adapt the vessel, given enough time, but the expectations of that adaptation are imposed externally. But a human being?” Jan shook her head. “In something that started as flesh, as one of us, there is a hunger, for flesh, to be flesh, to be the right kind of flesh your mind says you should be.” Her eyes found my tentacles again. “Humans can’t just inhabit anything you force them into — or which nature forces them into, for that matter. They need a specific environment, it’s individual, personal, not off the shelf, no. I expect you understand that, Heather.”
“I do,” I said. “I really do.”
“But something … Outside, you said? The Beyond? You take somebody who has been … changed, and you put them in the wrong body, it might be like torture. I don’t care how much you pay me, I have some limits.”
“She’s my twin sister,” I said. “The body would need to be based on mine, she would be familiar with that much. I can make additions from there, once she’s in it. Does that assuage your worries?”
Jan went wide-eyed and stared at me like I’d grown a second head. “Oh my goodness, you people really are in deep. Your twin?”
“But does it mean you’d do it?”
“Well … I guess!” She threw up her hands. “Holy shit. Oh, I don’t want to be any part of whatever madness you people are into. And this is a backup option? What’s plan A?”
“Straight back to the meat,” Twil said with a grimace.
“I’ve done plan A before,” I said. “It worked, I rebuilt a human from her thoughts alone. But it cost me … too much. Next time there won’t be anyone to send me back, if my anchors fail. I need a foundation to put her in.”
Jan raised one eyebrow. “Your metaphors are getting a little deep for me, dear.”
I sighed. “How much to make a body like yours?”
“Money cannot buy that.” She shook her head. “No deal.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Evelyn. “You’re just scared. Some mage you are, you pissy little coward.”
“Excuse me!” Jan squeaked. “I’m bloody right to be scared, by the sounds of it. You people are dealing with things far beyond what I get paid for. No, absolutely not. We’re out.”
“You don’t have to be involved,” I said, glancing at Evelyn. She nodded very slightly, letting me take the lead after her surprise attack on Jan’s pride. “You just need to make the vessel. Name a price.”
“Vessel,” Jan echoed, ostentatiously unimpressed. “It’s not as simple as that. Every part of my body had to be hand crafted. By myself.” She raised a hand and wiggled her fingers; the doll-joints were currently invisible, but one could almost see them if one squinted. “The process of creation was the process of inhabitation. Making a life-size model of somebody else … ” She looked me up and down and I saw in those eyes a hidden spark of professional curiosity, like the blossoming of a chemical fire.
“Is it possible, though?” I asked. “Can you do it?”
Jan caught herself, looked away, and cast around the room as if for help. She plucked her lollipop from her mouth and stared at it, then put it back again, then removed it a second time before reaching up with it and making it vanish back into whatever pocket dimension she’d pulled it from in the first place. The optical effect made my eyes twitch, as an object just ceased to occupy space.
July just kept staring at me with a silent promise of a poison pill in any deal, but I had to try.
“All right,” Jan said eventually. “Two million pounds.”
I blinked. My stomach felt like a block of ice. Raine chuckled softly. Twil went, “tch.”
But Evelyn stared in a way I’d never seen her stare before. Her jaw tightened to match the tension in her eyes. Slowly, like the pull of a powerful magnet, her irritated gaze drew Jan’s eyes away from me, until the mages were locked in a silent moment together. Evelyn was so unimpressed she could have been made of stone. Jan raised her eyebrows and cleared her throat, unwilling to let silence linger with whatever Evelyn was filling it with — but Evelyn did not break. She tilted her head forward, until her eyes were deep in the shadow of her brow, shadows cast by the single ceiling light bulb. Jan swallowed, shifting uncomfortably on the bed.
“The price still includes a meeting with Zheng,” July said.
“No!” Jan decided suddenly. “No, we are not getting involved. That’s that.”
“You are losing,” July informed her. “The other mage has your weakness.”
Jan swallowed and risked a glance at Evelyn again. Evelyn looked ready to eat a mouthful of bees.
“Ten thousand pounds,” said Evelyn.
I gasped. Two million was just an absurd number, a meaningless figure. Jan may as well have demanded ten quintillion pounds and it would have meant the same thing: this is out of your reach. But ten thousand pounds? That was a number I could conceptualise, and it was very high indeed. Part of me reeled that Evelyn would make such an offer on my behalf. On Maisie’s behalf.
Jan puffed out a long breath. “I still don’t want to do this.”
“The price is Zheng,” July addressed me again. “A meeting with Zheng. She can decide from there.”
“Round and round we go,” Raine said out loud. She pulled a slow wince at me. “Should have kept quiet about the doll part, Heather.”
“ … I’m sorry?”
“Leverage,” Raine said. “You’ve given them leverage.”
I sighed. “I know. But there wasn’t any other way. I think.”
Evelyn snorted. “There probably was.”
“We’re still not doing it,” Jan said. “And that’s final.”
To everybody’s surprise, July responded to this by leaning down and getting in Jan’s face. It was like watching a bird of prey intimidate a rabbit. The demon host hung from the bunk bed frame by one hand, the other pressing into the mattress on Jan’s opposite side so as to box her in, their faces mere inches apart. The rest of us shared nervous glances; even Raine took a deep breath. The sheer physical intimidation rolling off July stirred instinctive ape fear in one’s gut, no matter the direction it was aimed. Twil bared her teeth and growled softly. The fox yipped from between Evelyn and me, which made Evelyn jump and grab my arm.
But Jan didn’t give a damn.
Jan, all five foot nothing of her — for she was probably an inch or two shorter than me — climbed to her feet on the bed.
Or at least she attempted to, before remembering she was sitting on a bunk bed; even her petite stature was too tall to straighten up all the way. Nevertheless, the motion achieved its aim. July was forced to half-straighten as well, in order to maintain the face-to-face stare-down, which left her hanging halfway.
Jan was stooped with head against the underside of the top bunk. She put her hands on her hips and pouted. July maintained a very awkward pose, all her menace dissipated by looking like she was crouched in desperate need of the toilet.
“Well,” Jan said, “this is a fine position you’ve gotten us into.”
“Take the job,” July replied.
“You’re meant to be on my side! This isn’t going to end well! This nonsense didn’t happen with the last demon you ran into, what’s so special about ‘Zheng’? God, nobody is even pronouncing that name right!” Jan raged, going red in the cheeks. She threw her hands up and stepped straight off the side of the bed, totally ignoring the knife-like demon host right in front of her.
She landed like she was made of cotton, the soles of her thick black socks whispering against the battered old floorboards. She put her hands on her hips scowled at the rest of us. She was indeed shorter than me, which was rare enough.
“I’m not doing it, I’m sorry—” she started.
“You are an absolute coward,” Evelyn said quickly.
Jan made a face of amazed offence.
July straightened up and took a step toward Jan — or toward me, it wasn’t clear, because Raine stepped in front of her and tilted her head in a very specific way which meant don’t start or I’ll start on you.
Twil looked like a deer in headlights, ghostly wolf-flesh swirling into coherency, preparing for a fight. The fox between Evelyn and I let out a sound like yiiiiroowwww. Praem turned her head to look right at me, as if she knew I could resolve all this in an instant.
And worst of all, my phone started ringing. Zheng was calling me. I stared at the phone screen amid the sudden chaos, paralysed.
Before I could drop the phone or hit the reject call button or perhaps just scream at the top of my lungs, a maimed hand with two fingers missing plucked the phone out of my grip and answered the call.
“Be quiet,” Praem said.
She didn’t shout, didn’t raise her voice, but her tone had all the inexorable force of a glacier grinding away the roots of a mountain range.
Everyone went quiet. Evelyn cleared her throat and raised my phone to her ear.
“Hello, Zheng,” she said, unimpressed, frowning at me as she spoke. “Yes, it’s me, Heather’s standing right in front of me like a fart in a trance.” A pause. “Yes, she’s here too, what did you expect? No, no don’t do that. I will have Praem beat you unconscious with a rolling pin if you do that.” Another pause. Evelyn sighed. “No, she will keep going until we achieve unconsciousness, trust me on that. I think you best come up here in any case. Use the stairs. Don’t be seen.”
“Evee,” I hissed. “No!”
“And Heather has something to add.”
Evelyn held the phone out toward my mouth. She whispered two words. I shrugged, did it even matter now?
“Shaman?” came Zheng’s voice, a tinny noise with the speaker so far from my ears.
I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms and forced down a mouthful of bile. My tentacles bunched up like a wounded squid. “No fighting,” I said.
“No fighting!” I snapped. Evelyn nodded along. “No fighting. If we’re going to organise this, we have to do it right. So no fighting. Not here, not now. And no tongue removing or finger breaking, either. We’re all friends up here. For now.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. The line went dead.
Evelyn gently placed the phone back in my shaking hands, frowning at me. I swallowed too hard, then managed to raise my eyes to meet her gaze.
She didn’t say a word, but I read the confusion on her face, the concern for me — and the fragility as well. That act had cost her; stepping into the role of Evelyn Saye, Mage and Monster, always cost her. My Evee stared back from behind eyes made hard with effort. She did not understand why I’d crumbled. Or she did, but she didn’t like what that meant.
I cast about for help — and found Raine.
For once, Raine wasn’t smiling, grinning, smirking, or anything like that. She had one hand raised to ward off July — brave but stupid — but she wasn’t looking at the tall and imposing demon host. She was looking at me. Our eyes met across the frozen chaos of the tiny bedsit room, with sudden sober understanding, hers pinched with something I so rarely saw on Raine’s face. Jealous disapproval too strong for her to hide.
But it wasn’t aimed at me; it was mine.
Raine nodded, almost imperceptibly. She got it. She understood. Raine and I were finally on the same page about Zheng.
I took a deep breath and turned back to Evelyn. “Thank you, Evee. I’m sorry.”
She nodded too, awkwardly, and looked away. Back to normal.
“Great,” Jan said. “Your gigantic friend is on the way? To do what, eat my spleen?”
Evelyn sighed and gestured at me, emotionally spent. I wet my lips and did my best.
“I think … I think we’re going to organize a play date for our respective giant murderous zombie ladies,” I said.
“And I,” Evelyn said, “am going to offer you ten thousand pounds to build a body for Heather’s twin sister.”
Jan looked away. “I still haven’t said I’ll do it.”
“You will do it,” July said. “Because I will stay here anyway.”
She showed no relish, nothing but her bug-eyed stare as she turned to watch the door for Zheng’s arrival.
Jan gritted her teeth, hands on her hips, most annoyed.
“They can be impossible creatures sometimes,” I said, feeling a little apologetic, like we were dog owners whose pets had become entangled in the park. “I know how you feel. Zheng is a handful at times.”
“I am a handful,” said Praem.
Waiting for Zheng to join us was almost as nail-biting as our own approach to the horrible little bedsit flat. I half-expected her to come crashing through the window all these floors up and cause a public incident, or at least to stomp her way up the stairs like a herd of elephants. Twil seemed to expect that too, flexing her claws and craning her neck to get a better look through the window, without getting too close. The low afternoon light hovered over Sharrowford outdoors, high above the window and the buildings beyond, as if we were in a deep, dark canyon.
Raine cleared her throat in obvious performance, while Jan stared at a point on the opposite wall, tongue running over her teeth as she considered ways to escape this unwanted offer of a job. July just stared at the door. Evelyn leaned on me, though I wasn’t sure if it was subconscious or not.
The Saye Fox broke the tension, and had us all watching her, when she padded out from between Evelyn and me, her claws clicking on the floorboards. She slinked off around the corner into the flat’s tiny little bathroom. A scraping sound reached us a second later — claws on old porcelain, followed by a wet slurp-slurp of canine tongue lapping up water.
“She’s not?” Twil said.
I wrinkled my nose. “Ew.”
“Well, she is a fox,” Raine laughed. “What’d you expect?”
“She’s not a fox,” Evelyn said, a touch too tense.
Praem took one for the team, walking over to the bathroom and peering around the door frame.
“Drinking from the toilet,” Praem announced. “Confirmed.”
The fox re-emerged a moment later, licking her chops, then looked up at the flat’s front door.
Knock-knock, came the announcement of Zheng’s arrival, two precise yet heavy clacks of knuckle on wood.
Praem looked to Evelyn. Evelyn looked to me. I took a deep breath and nodded. “No fighting,” I repeated, glancing at July. But she had eyes only for her new dancing partner, or at least the door behind which she waited.
Praem opened the door and Zheng swept inside like we’d admitted the spectre of death itself into the room, filling the doorway. She had to duck, straightening up once over the threshold, towering over everybody else. All her seven feet of height, her rippling layers of muscle, and her molten intensity were so much more imposing in the small, cramped space, especially with seven people already in here, plus the fox. She was wrapped from head to toe in a less restrictive version of the way the Sharrowford Cult used to keep her hidden, with a knitted hat on her head and a scarf wrapped around her lower face to hide her teeth, the rest of her concealed by her loose and baggy grey jumper, her jeans, and long coat.
Her sharp-edged, intelligent eyes found July instantly, like a pair of tigers sighting each other across a jungle clearing. She breathed out like a furnace, a rumble that shook my guts.
“I said no fighting,” I tried to say, but what emerged was a sound like a ball of mice rolling down a hill.
Jan had evidently not seen Zheng this close before, because her eyes had gone wide, her face had gone pale, and her fingers had curled shut around a handful of July’s jacket.
Before Praem even had time to shut the door, Zheng ripped the hat off her head and yanked down her scarf. A grin tore across her face, savage glee framing her rows of shark teeth, all of it directed at July, her counterpart, her mirror-image from another angle, her dancing partner I could never hope to match.
A lump stuck in my throat.
“Zheng,” July said. “That is your name.”
“Ahhhhhhh,” Zheng breathed out between her teeth. It was like dragon’s breath. “Bird of prey, now I see you clear!”
“Hey—” Raine started to say, but Zheng was already taking a step forward.
With a yip-yap and a blur of russet fur, the fox bounced about three feet into the air on her hind legs, a tiny bundle of muscle and claw slamming against Zheng’s front. Zheng stopped dead, not because of kinetic force but because of her own care for the strange animal; she didn’t wish to knock it aside. Her arms whipped out and caught the fox, then cradled it to her chest.
Fox stared up at demon host; Zheng stared back. The Saye Fox whined. Zheng tilted her head.
“Mm,” she grunted, then looked up at the rest of us. Her eyes alighted on me. “Shaman. I am here.”
“No fighting,” I managed to squeeze out.
Zheng blinked, slowly. She did not nod.
“My goodness,” Jan whispered, panting. “Did you … you made her? July, you didn’t tell me she was so large!”
“Well you didn’t put enough emphasis on it!”
“We didn’t make Zheng,” I said, finally swallowing the lump in my throat. “She’s a lot older than us.”
“Bird of prey,” Zheng rumbled — and I could hear the playful tease in her voice, the voice of a tiger playing with its food. “Here I am, bird of prey. Not distracted now.”
“Excuses,” July replied.
“Ha!” Zheng barked, eyes burning like hot coals. “You are a fine thing, you are unfettered, and … ” Her eyes slid down to Jan at last. The savage glee dropped from her face. “Mmmmmm … wizard, but small. Wizardling. Does she know her place?”
“Hi,” Jan squeaked. “Yes, hi, hello. Please don’t eat me.”
“You have no quarrel with my maker,” July said.
Zheng’s eyes lingered on Jan for a moment longer. Her gaze did not soften, but when she looked away it was with total dismissal and disinterest. The little mage was unimportant, then, except as a mage who knew not to practice slavery.
“Bird of prey—”
“My name is July.”
“You are my bird of prey for now.”
“All right,” Evelyn raised her voice. “Stop flirting. You got what you want. Here she is. Can we get on with the part of this where we wrap this up and get out of this tiny room, please? Are you going to do this job for us, or not?”
Jan let out a huge sigh of mixed defeat and exasperation. “July, we can’t stay—”
“I am staying,” July said, staring at Zheng. “I want a duel.”
Zheng bared all her teeth. “A duel!” she roared. The fox in her arms went yeeerrrr! in her face.
Thump-thump-thump came the dull sound of somebody banging on a nearby apartment wall. We all froze, even Zheng.
“I think we’re making too much goddamn noise!” Twil hissed.
“Yes,” I said. “Clearly the duel is not going to happen here. Or now. Or at all, actually.”
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled — but she didn’t even look at me.
“Fine,” I hissed.
“Should we really be letting them do this?” Jan asked.
I shrugged. “I can’t control Zheng. I suppose it’s going to happen anyway, now, so we may as well make it safe for them, at least. Oh, goodness, what am I saying? Every step of this is absurd. Is July at least robust enough to be … damaged?”
“I am robust beyond her,” July said, meaning Zheng.
“She is,” Jan sighed. “Technically.”
“Then you’ll think about the job, at least?” I asked. “In exchange for … ”
I felt the most horrible twist of guilt, low in my stomach. I couldn’t stand the way July and Zheng were looking at each other. It was like the anticipation of meeting a new lover, mixed with the territorial urination of a pair of apex predators. The less charitable part of me, the twisted little gremlin who could put Sevens to shame, couldn’t help thinking of them like a pair of hounds in heat. I felt sick.
“Badger isn’t getting out of the hospital until next week,” Evelyn said, low and serious, her mind running through the implications on our plans. “And Nicole is still searching for the house. We have time for this, if we must, though not long. Your choice, Heather.”
“It’s not my choice any more,” I said, struggling not to stare at Zheng. She wouldn’t even look at me again. She had eyes only for her special new friend.
She’s going to fight her, not fuck her! I scolded myself silently, but it didn’t work. I felt tears prickle in the corners of my eyes.
For Zheng, fighting was transcendent. Fighting was love. I could not share this.
“Hey, left hand,” Raine’s voice cut through the mutual attraction, a pair of scissors through a live wire, unexpectedly hard and cold.
Zheng’s attention swivelled from July to Raine. Her brow creased in surprise. “Little wolf?”
“Why her?” Raine asked. “Why not me?”
My jaw fell open, I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Oh my fucking god, you’re both doing it,” Evelyn hissed, putting her face in her hand. “I don’t believe this.”
“Bad girls,” Praem intoned.
Zheng tilted her head at Raine in surprise, a tiger considering a rival. If she’d had ears to match, they would have perked up. “You are fragile, little wolf. You cannot match me.”
“What if I can?”
Zheng blinked. “You cannot. I respect your attempts. You know this. And we swore an oath.”
“Still hurts,” Raine said. “Some other bint should not be getting first dibs on you.”
“You better not lose,” Raine said. “Because that’s mine. You don’t give that to anybody else.”
Zheng couldn’t tear her eyes away from this. To be fair, neither could anybody else. Nobody had expected this reaction. My mind was racing: was this real, or was Raine putting it on for my benefit? A few months ago, I knew it would have been the latter, but now I wasn’t so sure.
“ … do I even wanna know?” Twil pulled a face. “Shit, you guys are too complex for me.”
“Quite,” Evelyn said through her teeth. She glanced at me with vague accusation in her eyes, but I just shrugged. This was new to me too. Evelyn squinted with obvious scepticism.
Raine laughed and turned from Zheng, as if the whole thing had been a sick joke. But she turned to July, face to face.
“Hey there you,” she said. When July refused to look away from Zheng, Raine raised her hand and clicked her fingers, once, twice, three times. “Pay attention, bug-eyes. You’re dealing with me for a sec. Either you look at me or I’m gonna make you look at me, and you don’t want that.”
July did the same for Raine as she’d done for Jan, moving her head without her eyes, then finally flicking her gaze at the very last second. Something about it made me flinch, as if the motion dredged up some instinctive response. Evelyn flinched too, then huffed a swear word between her teeth. The fox went yerp in Zheng’s arms, bushy tail bristling.
But Raine didn’t flinch, not at all. July stared at her with those propped-wide eyes, but Raine just grinned right back.
“Hey there, freaky,” Raine said, soft and low and infinitely dangerous. A shiver went up my spine. How did she do it, how was she more intimidating than Zheng? If she’d spoken to me with that tone, I would have melted into a puddle of goo.
July raised an eyebrow. That was all.
“I’m gonna give you a warning,” Raine carried right on, still grinning.
“You do not need to warn me, dog—”
“Yeah I do,” Raine purred. “See, I’m cool with you and Zheng having your little play-fight. That’s your business, her business, whatever. I’ll deal. But if this is a ruse, a trick, a plan? If this is all just to get to her under false pretences? If you actually harm her, for real, with some below-the-belt shit that has nothing to do with your ‘honourable duel’? Then I will step in and gut you like a fish.”
The corners of July’s mouth twitched.
Raine raised one hand, horizontal, flat and level. “Look at that, hey? Look at my hand. Look into my eyes. Yeah? You see that?”
“Raine, what are you doing?” Evelyn cursed. “What kind of nonsense is this?”
“Shh,” I hissed. I’d seen Raine do this before. She knew what she was doing, even if it was a bit mad.
“Do I believe I can beat you?” Raine asked July, her voice barely above a whisper. “Not ‘can I’, but do I believe I can?”
July looked for a long, long time. Just when I thought she was making a point of not answering, she opened her mouth.
“Yes,” she said.
Raine winked, clicked her tongue, and stepped away from the demon. She dusted her hands off. “Think I’ve made my point.”
“Fuckin’ ‘ell, Raine,” Twil let out a breath we hadn’t known she was holding. She shook herself like a wet dog.
“What are you?” Jan asked, boggling at Raine.
Raine shot her a wink and a flash of teeth. “Homo motherfucking sapiens, baby, the best goddamn predator to ever walk the earth. And you best believe I can put your zombie down if push comes to shove. I don’t think you’re working for Eddy-boy, not really. But just in case.”
“Not with an unbound zombie,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Yeah,” Raine went on. “But I’m making our insurance policy clear. That’s me, by the way. Living insurance.” She pointed at herself with both thumbs.
Twil snorted. Evelyn shook her head. Zheng let out an unimpressed rumble. I sighed, but actually I could have leapt at Raine and kissed her for that. She’d made our shared position very clear. I still wasn’t comfortable, but I wasn’t the only one consumed by jealousy. At least Raine could attempt to exert some control.
Raine caught my eye and shot me a wink too. I felt myself blush. She was irrepressible.
“Location, location, location,” Praem intoned, prompting the rest of us.
“Yes, quite.” Jan cleared her throat. “Where is this going to happen? If it must.”
“Good question,” Evelyn grumbled, frowning at Jan. “I’d offer our back garden, but we do have neighbours. And it’s not happening indoors.”
“Yes, absolutely. I’m not paying for those sorts of damages.”
“There’s always the woods,” Twil said. “Way out, where nobody really goes?”
“Always the risk of a stray hiker,” Evelyn said. “No.”
A light bulb went on in my head. I did have a way to exert control. To make this legitimate. To make it — somewhat — mine. My tentacles wrapped around my torso like armour. I felt small and wretched and guilty, but I said the words regardless.
“I think I know somewhere private,” I said. “With a lot of space. Where we won’t do any damage, or be interrupted.”
Something in my tone made everyone look at me. Even Zheng finally looked. I stared back at her, my throat like acid.
“If we’re going to organise a duel,” I said. “We may as well have a proper audience. An audience of experts.”
“If you’re going to do this, do it right. Do it Outside, in front of the round table. Out on the quiet plain.”
Outside, in my domain.
Turns out the true antagonist of this arc is not a powerful mage or inhuman Outsider, but the corrosive effects of jealousy. Oof. Heather’s attempts to control the situation are perhaps just making everything worse. At least she realised Jan might have something to offer her quest in the long run, maybe, if plan A for making Maisie a new body doesn’t work.
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Next week, it’s back Outiside, to the Quiet Plain?! (Or ‘Avalon’, as one very astute reader has started calling the Knights’ dimension, very clever.) Perhaps Heather’s attempts to exert some control over this ‘duel’ are going to backfire. And what’s Jan going to think of them going Outside? Nothing good, probably!