Twil — our clueless werewolf girl who always looked so confused, dog-brained and headstrong and easily pleased, always getting the wrong end of the stick, always up for a fight but barking up the wrong tree, always on the edge of every situation, one step behind every conversation — was looking at me like I was the idiot.
Because she was right. I was the idiot. I was the big stupid idiot.
She wasn’t merely three steps ahead of me. Twil was running an entirely different race, on a track I hadn’t even been aware of until five seconds ago. She’d lapped me so many times I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. She’d sprinted past me and spun me around like a roadrunner past a certain unfortunate coyote, leaving me to stagger in a cartoonish daze.
“‘Cos, you know,” Twil was still talking, somewhere far away, “I was real bad, I didn’t figure out me and Evee could even try for it ‘till you said so. Er, Heather?”
She raised a hand from where she sprawled, comfortable and loose in the old swivel chair, with a leg hooked over one of the arms. She was utterly relaxed and natural, even in the unfamiliar surroundings of Evelyn’s study, flanked and hemmed in by bookcases and shadows and the heavy desk. She waved her fingers back and forth in front of my eyes.
“Heather? You okay?”
“You … you mean it’s obvious?” I heard myself ask.
“That Evee’s got feelings for you?” Twil laughed, then trailed off. “Uh, yeah?”
A terrifying vista of reality and truth opened up before me, a vast gulf of how little I really knew; I felt like a Polar explorer, testing the snow before each step with a hiking pole, only to dislodge a fall of ice and discover the toes of my boots were already hanging over the edge of a bottomless chasm. Forget the alien spheres of Outside and the infinite dark sea of the Abyss; relationships were so much more difficult to navigate.
“Er, Heather? Yo? Um … do you need … like … Raine? Should I get Raine?”
“No, no I’m … no.”
For the second time in this conversation, I sat down on the floor. I slid down a bookcase, the shelves bumping painfully against my spine until I landed on my backside. My tentacles were coiled around me too tightly to cushion the landing, in a futile attempt at self-comfort. I sat in a heap for a long moment, staring at nothing in particular.
Twil cleared her throat with a very intentional ‘ahem’ sound. “Need a permit to open a hole like that in Sharrowford.”
I finally blinked up at her, coming back to my senses, discovering that I was still in the semi-gloom of the study, surrounded by books and bare floorboards and one vastly uncomfortable werewolf. I half expected reality to fold up and deposit me Outside.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Your … your mouth, is like, hanging open. It was a joke, like.”
“Oh.” I shook my head as a humourless laugh forced its way up my throat. I leaned my head back against the hard, cool surface of a wooden shelf, then forward to bump my forehead against my raised knees, then back again so my skull went clonk against the shelf.
Twil scrambled into a proper sitting position in the chair, about to leap to her feet. “Heather? Yo, big H, hey, don’t start hurting yourself, ‘cos then I really will have to go get Raine because I don’t know what to do about that. Yeah? Okay? Are you alright?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Twil. I’m not going to hurt myself.” I groped for a book from the shelves, any book, filling my hands with a random hardback. I put the book against my knees and laid my forehead against the cover, the world’s most uncomfortable pillow. “It’s just me. It’s all me.”
“It … it’s you.” Twil sounded increasingly worried. “Right. Yeah. It is.”
“It’s me,” I repeated, face squished against the hardback. “I’m the useless lesbian.” I let out a huge sigh and raised my head from the cool, firm sanctuary of a book cover. “What even is this?” I murmured, turning the book over. “Oh, The Fellowship of the Ring, huh.”
“Heather, seriously,” Twil said, sounding like she was about to call the fire brigade. “You alright? Because this is giving me the spooks.”
“I’m fine, Twil. I’m sorry. I’m just reeling a bit.”
Twil pulled a toothy grimace, very much like a dog unsure of an unfamiliar scent. She was jiggling one leg up and down with nervous energy. “Wow. Shit. I thought this was like, obvious. Evee, I mean.”
“Wow shit indeed,” I echoed.
“I thought that was kind of why you were apologising and all.”
“No!” I tutted. That forced me to pull myself back together. I couldn’t have Twil misunderstanding this, it was too important for her own well being, for the future of our friendship, for her emotional peace of mind. I drew in a deep breath and slapped my cheek with the book, which made her blink in alarm. “No, Twil, no. I apologised because what I did was wrong. What I did with you and Evee, pushing you together when you weren’t ready, it was like a smaller version of what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight tried to do with me. Moving people around like cute little playing pieces on some board, satisfied in pairing you off, not treating you as fully autonomous people. It was wrong of me. It’s a genuine apology. I would apologise to you even if Evelyn had gotten together with … I don’t know. Somebody else entirely.”
Twil’s grimace collapsed into a relieved sigh. “Hey, look, it’s cool. You don’t have to keep saying sorry.”
“But I am—”
“Apology accepted!” Twil laughed, one hand out to ward me off. “Apology accepted, yeah? You and me, we’re cool, we’re cool now.”
“ … okay,” I said, slumping back against the bookcase. I narrowly resisted an urge to apologise for apologising.
Twil puffed out a big sigh of relief and leaned back in the chair as well. She rolled her shoulders inside her white hoodie, working out the tension, then pulled both her feet up onto the seat, getting extra comfy. She brushed her dark curls away from her face. “So er, why did you wanna talk to me about this? I get why not Sevens, but hey, anyone would listen.”
I shrugged, still at a bit of a loss. “Who else am I going to talk to? Zheng, right now? Praem, Evee’s daughter? Lozzie is sweet and lovely, but she’s not exactly a fountain of good advice.”
“What about Raine? She is your girlfriend.” Twil laughed.
“A while back, Evee wanted to borrow me for a cuddle,” I said, talking to the ceiling. “It was the night before we went to Carcosa. It was a ruse by Evee, to give me some time away from Raine being difficult, but Raine thought it was genuine. She referenced a ‘deal’ they made in the past and then offered to lend me to Evee. As a partner.” I slid my eyes back down to Twil. She was pulling quite the grimace.
“Oh. Oh dang. What the fuck?”
“Mmhmm. If I told Raine about all this, or if she figured it out on her own, she might lock me and Evee in a room until we kiss. Which I’m not willing to risk.”
Twil puffed out the opposite of a laugh. “Right. Shit.”
“So I’m talking to you. And it turns out you actually understand much better than I do. I’m sorry for underestimating you, Twil.”
To my surprise, Twil flashed a cheeky smile. “That’s just how I roll. Under the radar. Lone wolf in the forest, yeeeeeah.” She struck a pose with both hands, like she was on the cover of a trendy musical album.
I snorted a tiny laugh. “I don’t understand anything do I? Evee has feelings for me?”
“Yeah?” Twil boggled at me. “She obviously fucking adores you, big H. I mean, I knew that before she and I had our thing together, it’s just right out there in the open. She’s always different with you, treats you different to everyone else. Well, ‘cept maybe Praem, but Praem’s her kid. She’s gentle with you. Likes it when you’re close. Didn’t expect you to be all surprised and shit.”
I shook my head and sighed, feeling like I’d been up all night. “But why?”
“You rescued her.”
“I know, several times, but so has Raine, and she doesn’t—”
“No, no no no,” Twil spoke over me, waving both hands. “No, like … you rescued her. Think about it for a sec. ‘Cos like, this is something she and I did talk about. Like, a lot. And I think she’s not said diddly squat to you.”
“‘Diddly squat’?” I echoed. “Twil, your dialect is slipping.”
Twil refused my bait.
“She’d made Raine move out. She was in this house all by herself, long before Praem. Just the spiders for company, and it’s not like they’re up for a chat. Not like she’s got any friends at the uni, either. She was pushing everyone away.” Twil’s voice grew heavy with melancholy. “Think about it. This house was just empty. Then you drop in on her and here she is now, nine months later, she’s got a family. You were the start of it.”
An image of Evelyn floated up from my subconscious, of the first time I’d met her, wrapped in her protective layers of clothing, tucked away in the Medieval Metaphysics room. Evelyn Saye, a ghost of the real person who’d revealed herself seconds later, all hissing spite and bitter anger. She’d lashed out at me with verbal barbs, dripping toxicity she would never level at me these days, saying the most hurtful and rude things. She’d turned even worse on Raine, naked contempt, almost hatred. She’d denied me and driven me off. But then she’d thrown herself Outside, alone, on a wild experiment.
I’d rarely thought about that dangerous experiment she’d done, in the months since I’d rescued her from the consequences. I’d reached out and dragged her back from Outside, with my first intentional Slip; I had broken with ten years of self-abuse and lies, for Evee.
That experiment, that trip Outside, that flawed spell she’d used, the one with no way back — she’d never, ever think of doing such a thing now.
I put my hand to my mouth and felt tears prickle in my eyes.
“She … she was … experiencing suicidal ideation,” I murmured. The cold, clinical words were not enough. Evee, my Evee, she’d almost done it. In loneliness and pain. “Maybe only subconsciously, maybe she didn’t intend to, but … ”
“Yeah,” Twil added. She leaned down out of the chair, grabbed my shoulder, and squeezed me far too hard. The contact brought me back from a dark place. “But she didn’t. That’s the important bit, right? She didn’t. And she didn’t that other time in the library, either. ‘Cos you were there.”
I nodded, a bit numb. I glanced at the study door, vaguely tempted to run all the way downstairs and hug Evelyn. “Best decision I ever made,” I murmured.
“Couldn’t agree more.” Twil let out a huge sigh and leaned back again. “So, hey, you see why she might, like, feel things about you?”
“Well, yes! But she’s never given any indication that she—”
“Oh, come on!” Twil laughed, a mad sound, banishing the heavy atmosphere with a bark. “She does it all the time!”
“But … but … like that?”
Twil paused, raised an eyebrow, and got this tortured faux-shrewd look on her face; I could practically see the gears turning between her ears. She nodded slowly, cracking her knuckles one by one “Ahhhh, yeah, right. I can see where you’re getting some crossed wires here, maybe. Like, yeah, Evee obviously has feelings for you, right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to do the sideways shuffle with you.”
I blinked like she’d slapped me. “Twil!”
“No, I’m serious,” Twil went on, totally unfazed by my offended tut. “Evee’s got feelings for me too, legit, she hasn’t fallen out of those or something, but that doesn’t mean she wanted to shag me either. I think all that confused her so much that she pushed me away.” Twil shrugged. “I think she might be ace or something. Ace but not realise it herself. And that’s a bloody hard subject to bring up, I dunno if I can do it.”
I shook my head, confused. “Yes, Evee is pretty ‘ace’. At least, I think she is.”
Twil blinked at me, deadpan unimpressed. “‘Ace’ as in ‘asexual’, Heather.”
“Oh!” I blushed like a rotten tomato, flapping my hands and thumping the book down on my knees.
“You do know what that means, right?”
“Yes! Oh my goodness. How are you so far ahead of me all the time?!” I huffed at myself, mortified. “Evee might be asexual, yes, fine. Oh, goodness, how can we be talking about her like this without her present?”
“Because I’m tryin’ give you advice, you big dumbo.”
I sighed and sagged against the shelves. “Yes. Yes, hit me again. I am the big dumbo.”
“And hey, it’s not like we’re bad-mouthing her. We both care about her.”
“That is true,” I murmured, nodding along. “You think Evee is asexual, but she doesn’t understand it herself?”
Twil shrugged. “I dunno, I’m not saying for certain. All I’m saying is that she likes you, but maybe she doesn’t want your fingers all up inside her.” I wrinkled my nose at the crude expression, but Twil kept going. “Maybe she doesn’t even want to make out with you or anything. You get what I mean? I mean, hell, you’re doing this whole poly thing, you probably get this, right?”
“Sort of. Well, actually no, maybe not.”
Twil did a very Evelyn thing all of a sudden — she sucked on her teeth, considering me through narrowed eyes. I’d never seen her make that expression before. On Twil, it was akin to walking through a silent forest at night, then spotting a wolf lurking between the trees, holding itself perfectly still as it watched you in return, uncertain if it was afraid of your unexpected meeting, or about to dismantle you as prey.
“ … T-Twil?” I stammered.
“Wow. You actually don’t get this, do you?” she asked.
She suddenly sprang into action. I actually flinched. She didn’t see, but two of my tentacles uncoiled like springs, as if to catch her and throw her back. But all she did was sit forward in the chair, suddenly all animated hand gestures as she tried to make her point.
“Alright,” she said. “Think about it like this. When people get together, especially when they’re really inexperienced, sometimes they kinda try to be the person they think their partner wants them to be, or maybe they try to do stuff that fits in with the role of girlfriend or boyfriend, like, uh … ” Twil wet her lips and looked around, eyes darting about in animated thought. “Like say a guy gets his first girlfriend, right? And she’s not putting any expectations on him, but he’s absorbed all this crazy shit about how you’re meant to be manly, but that’s not him, it’s not how he is.”
“Internalised gender roles. Yes, Twil, I’m well aware of the concept. Where is this going? How is this relevant to Evee?”
Twil spread her hands. “This is just an example, right? So maybe this guy starts acting different — not better, not worse, just different — ‘cos he thinks that’s how he’s supposed to. And he’s not enjoying it, she’s not enjoying it, and they don’t understand why, ‘cos they’re doing all the ‘right things’ that they’re ‘meant’ to do. It’s kinda like the opposite version of putting somebody else on a pedestal. People put themselves in boxes, you know?” Twil pulled a face. “I think, er, to be real polite, you kinda missed out on this sort of mistake, ‘cos you’re with Raine.”
I blinked. “What does Raine have to do with this?”
“Ahhh, come on,” Twil said. “Raine’s so sweet on you and she doesn’t demand shit, right? If you try to put yourself in a box like that, she’ll like, dismantle the box. Ha!” Twil forced a laugh, trying to keep things light.
Putting myself in a box? I turned the idea over, with a sensation like deja vu. “I … suppose so … ” I said out loud.
I trailed off, half in thought and half because Twil’s awkward laugh heralded a sneaky visitor.
From behind the side of Evelyn’s slab-like desk and behind Twil’s back, a crescent of butter-soft yellow rose with the stately silence of a hot air balloon. A tuft of black hair and a pale, narrow little face followed, wearing familiar yellow robes like a headscarf. Seven-Shades-of-Skulking-and-Skullduggery had apparently been hiding behind the desk this entire time. She peered at me with those gems of red firelight set in black voids, over Twil’s shoulder.
Sevens gave me a pained, awkward, self-conscious smile, all needle teeth and cringing. I frowned at her for interrupting — but Twil was already talking again.
“So like, the point,” Twil was saying, oblivious to the blood-gremlin leering over her shoulder, “is that Evee tried to be the good lesbian girlfriend. And her model for that is just you and Raine, I think. So that meant she had to want sex, right? Even if she really doesn’t.”
I blinked away from Sevens and replayed Twil’s words in my mind.
“Right,” I said. “I think I see. She thought certain things had to happen. For it to count. To be real.”
Twil nodded — Sevens nodded along behind her. I frowned again and Sevens cringed even harder, ducking her head.
“And yeah, Evee’s got feelings for you, sure,” Twil continued. “But this is the real important bit. Maybe she expresses it because you’re with Raine. So you’re claimed already. Your sex stuff happens elsewhere. So you’re … you’re like, safe.”
My eyes went wide. A light bulb flickered on, somewhere down in the archives that I rarely visited.
“Yeah! You get it now? I’m not saying don’t. I ain’t saying never ever do it. But I am saying that if you try to kiss her or shove a hand down her knickers, maybe she’d get the same way with you as she did with me, ‘cos then she thinks it’s all official and has to happen a certain way.”
“All official … has to happen a certain way … ” I echoed. My mind whirled.
“Maybe she just wants to cuddle with you.” Twil shrugged. “Hell, maybe she actually just wants to cuddle with me. She might not want to ever have sex at all. Or maybe she’d be comfy as like a service top, I dunno. She does all the work but doesn’t like it in return? Hell, that’s valid too. You get this now?”
I nodded slowly. I felt like a kettle that had just come to the boil and was now cooling down, my thoughts cleared, my substance clarified, my medium cleansed.
“I think you may be right,” I murmured.
Seven-Shades-of-Shrinking-Sincerity sank downward, dropping below Twil’s shoulder and vanishing behind the corner of the desk again. That time, Twil must have seen the direction of my disapproving frown, because she turned to glance behind herself. I winced, ready for a yelp and a scream and Sevens scrambling out in a flurry of limbs and misunderstandings, just when I felt like Twil and I had finally struck the gold I’d been mining toward for so long. But Twil turned back to me as if nothing was there, though I did notice her sniff the air and frown slightly.
“Thank you, Twil,” I said, trying to bring her back.
“Ahhh it’s nothing.” She pulled a slow wince. “Evelyn Saye is a complicated woman. And I gotta be honest, maybe too complicated for me.”
“Ah? You mean that you would have ended up breaking up anyway?”
“Weeeeeell. If she wanted me to be her cuddle slut, sure, you know? She’s cute, I respect her, it would be nice and all. But that’s not what I really want. And it does take two to tango.”
I laughed gently and stretched against the already uncomfortable bookshelves. “And what do you want, Twil?”
“Er. It’ll gross you out again.”
“Say it anyway. I do owe you that much.”
“Um, alright then.” Twil cleared her throat. “I want a girlfriend I can pin to the bed with one hand while I make her squeal with the other. The good kind of squealing.”
“Oh, goodness.” I cleared my throat and tried not to blush, but I put a hand to my mouth. “I see. Yes. Right.”
“You did ask.”
“Yes! Sorry. Indeed, yes. I did ask, I did, yes. And thank you for sharing. I think.”
“So, maybe not Evee,” Twil said. “However much I do like her.”
“Of course.” I shook my head with a big sigh, feeling a little like I’d surfaced from the deep ocean, from the abyss, or as if I’d just returned from Outside. “Twil, how are you so knowledgeable about this? How are you so … wise?”
Twil laughed with genuine amusement. “I’m not fuckin’ wise, big H. I’m just good at, like, love stuff. I kinda assumed you were too, like you’re in this whole crazy poly thing, I sort of guessed you knew what you were doing.”
“Evidently not.” I watched Twil for a moment, compact and graceful Twil with her big-dog energy and the subtle, hidden mind of a creature that instinctively understood pack dynamics. She rocked a little in the chair, apparently very comfortable with all this. “How do you know all this stuff?”
She shrugged. “Not my first time around the block.”
“You mean you’ve had other girlfriends? Before Evee?”
She nodded. “Yeah, couple of times. Don’t look so surprised. I mean, like, you lot aren’t my entire world or anything. I’ve got mates at school back in Brinkwood, though uh, only one person knows what I am. I went with this one girl for about eight months and she’s still into the werewolf thing, but she doesn’t know about anything else.”
I blinked in surprise. “You … you mean … other people know? You showed people your … wolf?” I cringed at my own terrible phrasing. “You know what I mean.”
Twil grimaced. “Like I said, just one person. And she’s kind of a problem ‘cos of it. Not that she can tell anybody, it’s not like anybody would believe it.”
“What’s her name?”
Twil slumped in the chair. “You really wanna talk about my exes?”
My turn to laugh, blushing but not so mortified any more. I waved a hand in apology. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I’m just surprised. Don’t go all grumpy teenager on me.”
“Pfffft,” Twil snorted, but she was smiling. “I’m not grumpy.”
“May I ask you a personal question?” I said.
“You’ve already asked me plenty.”
“Do you like Lozzie?”
A knowing smile crept across Twil’s face. “Ahhhhh, I’ve thought about it. You’ve spotted that, hey? How can you spot that, but not Evee?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, because I’m blind. Are you serious, you like her?”
Twil shrugged, still smiling. “Maybe, I dunno. She’s cute. But like, hey, I’m in rebound here. You don’t get with somebody you respect while you’re in rebound, and I do respect Lozzers. Plus she’s … you know. I mean, she’s lovely and all. But she lives Outside half the time. I dunno if I’ve got the chops for that. So it’s just a crush. Don’t say anything to her, yeah?”
I nodded, very serious. “I won’t breathe a word. And I’ll assume it’s not going anywhere. As I said, Twil, I’m sorry, and I’ve learnt my lesson. I shan’t meddle unless asked to.”
“Cheers, big H. But hey, let’s stick to the subject, yeah?” She nodded at the closed door to the study. “‘Cos we’re gonna get missed sooner or later. You gonna do anything about your little revelation over Evee? Gonna move, or stay put, or what?”
I sighed, coming back down to earth. I finally uncoiled on the floor, stretching my legs out and curling my toes. Every muscle felt tight with unexpressed tension, though my tentacles did relax at least. They gripped the bookcase and ran along the spines of the books, obsessed with my own sources of distraction and comfort.
“The thing is,” I said, “I think Evelyn and I both already knew all this. I just wasn’t looking at it. And she knows that I know. And I know that she knows I … ” I cleared my throat. “You understand. Sorry, Raine’s rubbing off on me. What I mean is that we practically spoke about it already, we just … didn’t actually say the words.”
Twil gave me a disbelieving look, the ultimate teenage expression of exasperation, slack jawed and heavy lidded. “Then you didn’t talk about it. Holy shit, big H, you’re meant to be smart.”
“Oh, I know!” I huffed. “I know! Maybe you’re right, maybe all she wants is cuddles with commitment. But I’m worried that things might change between us. Might go wrong.”
Twil bobbed her head from side-to-side, pulling a dubious thinking face. “Can I make a suggestion? Like, offer you a piece of maybe kinda sorta rude advice?”
“Rude?” I blinked at her. “Twil, you’ve already proven I’m a bit of an idiot, be as rude as you like.”
Twil cleared her throat, visibly uncomfortable. “Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life and all, but haven’t you got enough on your plate without adding Evee too?”
I sighed a very big sigh and squeezed my eyes shut, then pinched the bridge of my nose, hung my head, and let out a groan. “I know.”
“I mean, you’ve got three girlfriends!”
“Three girlfriends,” I groaned into my own hand.
“Maybe focus on Zheng and stuff, until all this shit is over? Dunno ‘bout everyone else, but I could see you were real jealous back there last week with Zheng and July and everything. And I thought you had it under control. But it turns out you don’t.”
“Bloody right I don’t!” I snapped, more at myself than Twil, raising my head again. I couldn’t hide from this any longer. “And yes, I am terribly, horribly jealous.”
“You have every right to be!” Twil nodded along with me. “Damn right, girl! You’re doing this poly shit and she didn’t even ask, right?”
“Right!” I slapped the floor with an open palm. My tentacles bristled.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s three or four or five people,” Twil said, holding up her fingers in sequence, then making a fist. “Unless you talk about it first, then it’s cheating. Plain and simple.”
“Yes! Yes, I … ” I slammed to a halt. “No, no it’s not sex, it’s … it’s fighting. She has a right to fight whoever she wants. I can’t stop that.”
Twil pulled a deeply sceptical look again, a teeth-gritting un-smile, recoiling from my naivety. She raised her hands in a don’t-shoot-the-messenger gesture. “Whatever you gotta tell yourself.”
“It’s not sex!”
“Sure, sure. Whateeeeeever you say.”
“Then why are you acting like it is? You’re acting like she’s gone and slept around. Like your girlfriend is being the town bike. She’s meant to be your girl, right? Or like, one of your girls. You can say no. But you gotta say it!”
“I … I shouldn’t … I … ”
“Why not fight her yourself?”
“What? I mean, pardon me?”
A wicked grin flickered across Twil’s face, accompanied by a ghostly suggestion of a wolf’s muzzle in the air, a half-glimpsed phantom of a violent promise. She raised a hand and flexed fingers that were suddenly wrapped in fur and claw, showing off her weapons. “Either before or after she does the smack-down with July. Stake your claim. Show her she’s yours.”
For a second I stared at Twil, at the hovering promise of joyous violence in her face and her fist, offering a temptation I dared not name. My mouth went dry. My stomach clenched up. My trilobe bioreactor tried to shunt power production up a notch. My tentacles flexed and flared. I felt a tingle in my skin, abyssal instinct making suggestions about chitin armour, toxin production, and jagged spikes. My head felt suddenly hot.
Then a flicker passed over my senses, like a distant discharge of static electricity, or the lifting of air pressure after a thunderstorm. I blinked, reeled my wild instincts back in, and glanced over at the floor. Fight or flight hovered at the edge of my consciousness, a body-memory that surprised me at a deeper level than any desire to wrestle Zheng.
“ … Heather?” Twil said my name.
“I think Evee just opened the gateway to Camelot,” I said slowly. A ball of snakes writhed in the pit of my stomach. The hour was at hand — or at least only a phone call away.
Twil boggled at me. “You can tell?”
“Yes, didn’t you feel that?”
“Nah, nothing. Not surprised though.” She shrugged. “You’ve got a lot going on already, makes sense you can feel the wibbly-wobblies or whatever. Guess they don’t need us after all.” She tilted her head to peer at me when I kept staring at the floor. “Soooo, you gonna fight Zheng or what?”
I sighed. “I can’t.”
“Sure you can. What’s stopping you?”
“You can’t be serious. You’ve seen Zheng fight. She could pin me down and tickle me into submission, with one hand. Blindfolded. With her feet tied together. And food poisoning.”
“No, come on!” Twil complained at me like a football fan shouting at a bad penalty shot, leaning forward in her chair, face lit up with equal measures of excitement and exasperation. “You totally could! Heather, yo, I saw you fight that big ugly bastard, Orangey-whatever. The guy, with the mouths! I was there, remember?”
“Ooran Juh, yes.”
“And you kicked his arse! You went big-time squid-girl mode and went toe-to-toe with him!”
“Twil, don’t exaggerate. I hardly ‘kicked’ anything. In fact, I seem to remember falling over into the water after a few moments. And going ‘squid-girl’ mode almost burnt out my brain, not to mention the bruises. That was an emergency. I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
“Yeah but you didn’t see yourself. You were fucking ‘rad! And you won!”
“Yes, by threatening him with brain-math. I couldn’t have won otherwise, I’m not built for that kind of thing.” I shivered inside for a moment; my tentacles flexed and quivered with the physical memory of being bitten and torn, chunks of them ripped out by ravenous teeth. “I’m hardly going to use the threat of mutually assured destruction in a ‘play-fight’ with Zheng.”
Twil shook her head. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
I frowned and crossed my arms. “And we have to be downstairs, soon.”
“You don’t have to go all-out all the time, duh. I don’t even think you’d win! But you’d show her you’re willing to put a few bruises on the line. That’s speaking her language. Try for real, get on her level, slap her with a tentacle.” Twil mimed a melodramatic slap, like something from a soap opera.
I shook my head, guilt bubbling back up my throat like acid reflux. “Claiming her would be wrong. Putting a mark on her like that. No.”
Twill rolled her eyes. “Then make her reject you!”
“I … I’m sorry, what?”
“You’ve got a right to do this. Do it out there, while we’re all watching. Mark your territory, girl. It’s what I’d do.”
Twil flashed a wolfish grin; for a split second she had too many teeth, too sharp, too canine, set in a grinning muzzle of grey-russet fur. I’d never thought about it before, but Twil probably understood animalistic dominance play better than any of us, save perhaps for Zheng. She was giving me useful suggestions, whether she understood so or not. And not just about Zheng and Evelyn.
I swallowed, about to formulate an answer — perhaps another denial, though I felt a dam straining inside me, undermined and about to break. But then a neat, sharp knock sounded on the study door, a quick and gentle ratta-tat-tat. I jumped. Twil laughed and her face was suddenly back to normal.
“Yes?” I called out, feeling like I’d been caught doing something naughty. “We’re in here! Hello!”
The study door cracked open and Praem stepped inside. Milk-white eyes found the pair of us. In the moment before she spoke, I saw a flutter of yellow vanish behind her skirt, as if somebody invisible had fled the room, but fumbled the last moment of an unseen escape.
“The door is open,” Praem intoned. “Your presence is requested.”
“Sure thing, little Saye!” Twil jumped up from her seat and rolled her shoulders. “Time to uh, not punch a knight, I guess.”
“‘Little Saye’?” I echoed as I picked myself up off the floor and dusted off my backside. I returned The Fellowship of the Ring to its proper place on the bookshelf.
“I am the younger of the two extant Saye women within this household,” said Praem. She directed a stare at Twil. “Not little.”
Twil shot her a cheeky smile and a wink.
“So it’s all going ahead, downstairs?” I asked.
Praem turned to me. “I hope you had a good talk. Your presence is requested.”
“Sure did!” Twil said, heading over to the door and miming punches at an imaginary foe.
I frowned at Praem. Did she somehow know what Twil and I had been discussing? Lozzie had whispered in her ear several times earlier, while we’d all been twiddling our thumbs and waiting for Evelyn to finish the final touches on the gate. Neither of them had thrown knowing glances in my direction — not that Praem ever would — but it wasn’t impossible. I felt a lead weight in the pit of my stomach, a mortified flush trying to bloom in my cheeks. But Praem just stood there in the gloom of the study, barely lit from one side by the late morning illumination which struggled in through the single high window. She gave nothing away.
I cleared my throat. “Praem, um, where’s Lozzie right now?”
“Outside,” said Praem.
It would not be accurate to say that Lozzie had ‘jumped the starting gun’ on our bizarre trip to Camelot, because Lozzie recognised no starting signal, let alone the starting line or even the track. She was off and away, playing to her own tune.
By the time Twil and I followed Praem back downstairs and into the magical workshop, the gateway was finished, open, and waiting.
A door to Outside stood in the far wall of the old drawing room, a gap in the plaster and paint which opened out on some other place, exactly as it had for Carcosa before, and the Castle before that, and the Sharrowford Cult’s hideous jumbled un-space too, back when it had opened for the first time. All of those were terrifying and alien places, even the Cult’s Castle, despite the fact we had it secured and locked down now, ours for the foreseeable future. On each of those occasions, the gateway had seemed like a yawning mouth, leading down into dark and unknown dungeons.
But with the Quiet Plain, Camelot, whatever we wanted to call it, the gate seemed more like a doorway onto the world’s largest back garden. At least we knew this destination was safe. If one hundred and forty eight of Lozzie’s knights were not enough to protect our little beachhead, then nothing was.
I could see the knights as I stepped into the workshop, their stately armoured forms dotted across the slice of gently rolling yellow hillsides visible through the doorway. Lozzie was already over there, flittering between them, her pentacolour pastel poncho fluttering and flouncing as she darted from one knight to the next, sharing a hug here, a few unheard words there, her wispy blonde hair trailing behind her. The knights were unmoving, but I knew they cared, inside.
Lozzie turned and waved at us. She must have seen the motion of Twil and I re-entering the workshop. She flapped the sides of her poncho and moved her mouth, calling to us, though no sound transmitted through the gateway.
Deep purple spilled into our reality, flooding one end of the room with a slowly shifting illumination which seemed to absorb and swallow all other light.
And there was Zheng, already standing on the yellow grass of Camelot. She had her back to us, her hands on her hips, stripped down to jeans and short-sleeved white t-shirt, head raised to take in the whorled purple of the alien sky. That strange light played across the dark tangle of her hair, the ramparts of her shoulders, and the muscles of her back.
I let out a deep and involuntary sigh, the first to break a silence I had not recognised.
“It’s not so bad once you get over there,” Evelyn spoke out loud, staring at the doorway, struggling to put strength and confidence into her voice. “Not like Carcosa, at least.” She glanced at Twil and me. “Good of you to join us at last.”
“Holy shit,” said Twil, craning her neck and then ducking as she peered through the gateway from a safe distance. “Look at that sky, what the fuck is that?”
“Language,” Evelyn hissed, nodding sideways at Tenny.
“Skyyyyy? Sky pretty? Sky?” Tenny trilled, making deep fluttering sounds inside her chest, her antenna twitching atop her head. She was far too entranced with the view through the gateway to get curious about Twil’s colourful language. She was also very brave, standing right next to the open doorway to Outside and peering through as Lozzie waved back to her. But her fleshy wing-cloak was wrapped tightly around her torso and her mass of silken black tentacles was reeled all the way in, close to her body. A puppy, unsure of its surroundings but encouraged by the fact that mother was safely over on the other side and clearly unharmed.
Everyone else was standing far back, at a nice safe distance. Evelyn frowned at the gateway like it was a rival in a staring contest, even when Praem moved to her side and made herself known by touching Evelyn’s elbow. Sevens was curled up on the sofa, making little burrrrrrrr sounds, wrapped in the yellow robes she’d been wearing upstairs. I spared her a look and she pulled a toothy grimace.
We’ll talk later, I mouthed silently. Sevens cringed and averted her red-black eyes.
One of Evelyn’s spider-servitors was in attendance, as always, clinging to the ceiling in the corner. To an unfamiliar observer it would not have appeared to care about the gateway at all, but I had come to recognise the tiny changes and tells in servitor body language — if these things could be said to have body language in the first place. The head of crystalline eyes was fixed on the gateway, staring, waiting, listening for a signal to move.
The only one of us even remotely relaxed was Raine. She was wearing the heavy padded motorcycle jacket she’d worn to Carcosa. Her home-made riot shield — a piece of sheet metal duct-taped to a rubber backing board — lay forgotten against the table, as did her handgun and her knife on the tabletop. Her arms were full of very alarmed and very curious Corgi.
“Just trying to stop him from running out there,” she said to me with a wink. Whistle kept turning his head from side to side, staring at the doorway like something alien had appeared in the heart of his kingdom.
The gateway mandala — the spiralling mass of overlapping magic circles, esoteric symbols, fragments of obscure and alien languages, all sewn together like a cryptid made from spare parts — was blissfully concealed, for the first time since I had completed it under Lozzie’s coerced guidance. White bin bags had been taped together like makeshift tarpaulin, then taped to the walls to cover the mandala. A few fragments still peeked around the edges of the horseshoe-shaped trash-portal, but they were not enough to hurt my eyes by themselves.
“Does it work?” I asked. “Evee, does the anchoring work? Did you remove part of the spell?”
Evelyn let out a deep sigh, almost as if she was disappointed. She gestured toward the table, where a large piece of stiff card lay, detached from the new version of the mandala that she and Lozzie had been building all week. “It’s still open, yes. And short of knocking the wall down, it will stay open. Actually, I’m not certain what would happen if we knocked down the wall, so probably avoid doing that, please and thank you.”
“Evee,” Twil said suddenly, an amused and gentle lilt in her voice as she shook her head. “Evee, Evee, Evee.”
Evelyn adopted an alarmed frown. “Yes, that is my name, last time I checked. Why do you sound like you’re high?”
Twil opened her arms. “Can I give you a hug?”
I narrowly resisted an urge to roll my eyes and put my face in my hands. Raine went “Eyyyyyy.” Sevens hissed like a disturbed rattlesnake. But instead of reacting, I stepped past Evelyn and Twil, briefly allowing the fingers of one hand to brush Evelyn’s shoulder. I caught her eye and smiled a thank you at her, mixed with apology and adoration and a dozen other emotions that I didn’t have names for, not yet. At least a fraction of my feelings must have reached her, because Evelyn did a double take at my expression, as if I’d just blown her a kiss. Then I let go and turned to the gateway.
“Can I? Seriously?” Twil repeated.
Behind me, Evelyn spluttered. “Have you gone mad? Did you hit your head on the way down the stairs? This is hardly the bloody time, what are you playing at?”
“‘Cos I like and respect you,” Twil said, with a grin in her voice. “And I wanna show you I care. And hey, it’s just a hug. I’ll be gentle.”
Evelyn spluttered again. I glanced back and Twil winked at me. I didn’t know exactly what she was playing at either, but after our conversation upstairs, I suppose she had some lingering issues of her own to work through.
“Oh, fine!” Evelyn huffed. “For fuck’s sake, come here you blithering idiot. And don’t squeeze!”
As Twil and Evelyn finally made up — or at least gestured toward a new steady-state for something not quite friendship — I stepped toward the gateway. One of my tentacles subconsciously snagged my squid-skull mask from the workshop table as I passed by, depositing it into my suddenly clammy hands. I stared into the dark eye-holes in surprise, then looked up into the deep purple light spilling from the gate and flooding across the floor. Tenny watched as I approached, trilling a soft and gentle “Heath!” which I acknowledged with a smile and a nod, but I could summon nothing else past the lump in my throat and the tremor in my belly.
Some clever soul had brought our shoes into the workshop, as if this was a new back door. I stepped into my trainers, barely feeling the motions.
Zheng’s back loomed before me, coffee-brown skin and the mass of her dark tattoos visible through her thin white t-shirt. She stood only a dozen or so paces beyond the gateway, bathed in a waterfall of strange purple light.
Nobody called out to me; perhaps they all understood what I was doing.
I took a deep breath as if I was plunging into the ocean, then stepped through the gateway and over to Camelot.
Cinnamon wind, warm and gentle, teased my sense of smell and filled my lungs with clean air. Yellow grass like rubbery velvet cushioned the soles of my trainers. Purple light reached through the backs of my eyes, slid down my optic nerve, and adjusted my visual cortex. All the tiny noises of Number 12 Barnslow Drive vanished, replaced with the soft wind and faint rustle of the Quiet Plain.
Ahead of me, Lozzie flitted and bounced between the knights. The shining chrome giants were still arranged in their rough circle across the hillsides, communing in their silent, invisible shared mind-space. The Forest-Knight was nearby too; I recognised him by the axe over his shoulder. He neither turned his head nor nodded, but I reminded myself to go greet him later.
And a dozen paces away, looking up at the sky, was Zheng.
I opened my mouth to say Zheng’s name, but she must have heard the scuff of my feet against the grass, or caught the scent of my nervous sweat on the wind, because she turned to look back over her shoulder. Dark, brooding eyes like razorblades dipped in oil; the rolling of her shoulder muscles like knotted ropes; her hands flexed with the promise of strength.
“Shaman,” she purred approval — but approval of what?
“Zheng.” I swallowed, resisting with an effort of will the desire to slip my squid-skull mask down over my head. “Zheng, I need to apologise. I want you to know that I don’t like any of this, but I won’t try to … stop … you?”
But Zheng’s eyes narrowed and her smile grew. She looked up and over my shoulder, nodding once.
I turned and almost jumped out of my skin. My tentacles whirled into a defensive cage, ready for a fight — before I relaxed as I realised what I was looking at.
It was one of Lozzie’s caterpillars, up close.
The caterpillar was a curving wall of off-white, the size of a barn and the colour of fresh bone or old Bakelite, pitted and gnarled like ceramic armour that had been subjected to a decade of wear and tear. The main body was separated into sections by vertical ribs of the same material, each section bulging outward as if shaped to deflect armour-piercing blows. The bottom of the carapace curled inward, exactly like a real caterpillar’s body, to ensure ground clearance — except Lozzie’s Outsider colony-organism sat directly on the ground itself. This one wasn’t moving, so Lozzie alone knew how the things achieved locomotion. The bottom two feet or so of the caterpillar’s carapace was smeared with dry, dark red mud, a totally different colour to the soft soil beneath the yellow grass around us. It had clearly voyaged far, out here in Camelot.
“My goodness,” I breathed, a little stunned at the sheer size of the thing. It was bigger than an elephant, like a whale had re-evolved back onto land. Something primitive and instinctive in my mind told me to steer well clear of the creature’s path, even as personal experience and my brief glimpse into the Knights’ collective mind told me the caterpillar was very much on our side — no, on my side, personally.
One end of the caterpillar’s body tapered off into a rounded dome, but the other end was clearly the head, raised off the ground so it could look out across the yellow grasslands, recessed into the body slightly, almost like a mollusc ready to pull sensitive and vulnerable parts back inside the protective shell.
It possessed nothing so obvious as eyes or a mouth, nothing so animal or earthly as a nose or a jaw; the caterpillar’s face was a mass of machine-like antennae, black and shiny, some of them longer than a person was tall, pointing in every direction. Between the antennae I could see shining disks of metal inset into a darker core, like sensors or camera lenses. Several flexible, flat-tipped tentacles also extended from that core of black material, though ridged and lined as if they were more machine than biology. They ran up and down the antenna in an unceasing cycle, stroking or tending or oiling them, it wasn’t clear from this distance. The behaviour reminded me of some marine creature, perhaps a crab, cleaning its mouth-parts.
One tentacle turned to point at me, more than twenty feet up in the air. Inside the flat tip, something moved, something that was not quite an eyeball.
“Um … hi,” I said, feeling exceedingly small. I raised a hand and tried to wave, though I could barely move my arm. My tentacles had bunched up in a protective ball around my torso.
From somewhere deep inside the caterpillar came a rumble, a purr that was not quite biology but not quite machine either. It lasted only one second, deep and powerful, then cut off instantly. The tentacle which had been pointed at me then returned to the strange cleaning or preening process.
I just stared, lost for words next to this vast creature. Was this only the exterior, the equivalent of the Knights’ suits of chrome metal?
And Lozzie had made this — just to explore an Outside dimension?
I had a feeling I was looking at so much more than a simple exploration machine.
The other side of the gateway was located on the caterpillar’s hide, using one of the bulging sections of off-white armour as a piece of wall. Everyone else was staring at me through that gateway opening, vaguely alarmed or confused, so I smiled and waved to them as well. I said “It’s okay,” out loud, before sighing as I remembered sound did not transmit through the door.
Lozzie came bounding past me in a ball of pastel and blonde. She waved to everyone with both hands — which may have done more to reassure them than I could — and then slammed right into the side of the caterpillar, which made me jump. She spread both arms wide, pressed herself against the off-white surface, and emitted a high-pitched “Mmmmm!”
It took me a very confused moment to realise she was giving it a hug.
“Glorious, is it not, shaman?” Zheng purred.
I finally turned back to Zheng. She was gazing up at the caterpillar with open admiration, hands on her hips, clearly impressed.
“That’s rare for you,” I said, trying to get my tentacles to stand down.
“Ha!” Zheng rumbled. She spread her arms to indicate the caterpillar. “It is so big! I would fight it just to give the mooncalf proof of her prowess.” She nodded to Lozzie. “But I would lose.”
“Catty’s big!” Lozzie agreed, finally giving up on her attempt to hug a wall. “But no fighting them! Too much danger. It’s not what they’re for, okay Zhengy?”
“You would lose?” I echoed. Lozzie wormed her way past my tentacles somehow and hugged me from behind, putting her chin on my shoulder and her hands around my belly. I patted her wrists.
“Mm.” Zheng grunted. Her gaze returned to me. “It is the price of combat. Sometimes you lose.”
“Are you going to lose today?” I asked before I could stop myself.
Zheng tilted her head at me, slow and dark, with eyes like coal pits. Over my shoulder, Lozzie stuck her tongue out. Zheng heaved a great breath like a tiger’s purr. She rolled her shoulders and her neck.
“Do you wish to see me win?” she asked.
“I’m not sure I want to see it at all,” I said, feeling myself sinking into toxic mud once again. But I struggled to stay above the surface, to speak truth to my lover. I groped for an emotional handhold and found something unfamiliar as I spoke. “But if you must fight, then I would much prefer you win.”
Where did that come from? I asked myself. What do you care if she wins or loses a play fight?
Lozzie wiggled with pure excitement, making a little eeeee! sound in her throat.
Zheng levelled her dark gaze at me. “Then I will win for you, shaman.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about that, but okay.”
Zheng broke into a grin, wide and sharp and full of joy. My stomach did a flip. “Then call the little wizard. Have her bring my opponent. We are ready.”
Twil spitting facts! Turns out the werewolf from the cult-family is actually the most well-adjusted and romantically sensible person in the entire cast. (Well, possibly with the exception of Kimberly, who seems to have decided all this magical polycule nonsense is not for her, thank you very much, and is just quietly enjoying the rent-free housing.) Heather seems to have realised a few things about herself, but can she put them into action? Can she figure out what she wants from Zheng? And what on earth to do about Evelyn in the long run?
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Next week, it’s ringside seats for a demon host boxing match. And maybe more than just the title fight. And how about that great big caterpillar lad?!
Thanks for the chapter!
You are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter! Hooray!
Thanks for the chapter! Always great.
You are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed it!
First Raine says it, then Twil. But they have to kidding, right? Humouring Heather in an attempt to help her work through her irrational feelings? Because at least Heather recognizes she is being irrational. What kind of a ridiculous defanged demon would back off from a scrap saying “Sorry, I can’t fight back until I go ask my girlfriend in case she thinks it’s too close to having sex and gets insanely jealous”?
Perhaps the issue only arose because Zheng spent several nights without contacting Heather, enjoying her ‘hunt’ without informing anybody what was going on, and now Heather’s got it into her head that fighting, for Zheng, is kind of like flirting, or maybe sex? Heather is acting jealous, but everyone seems to be working off different definitions of “fight”. This isn’t good, and I suspect that Heather’s going to have a bit of a personal revelation when it comes time to actually watch …
Meanwhile, Raine seems to be very interested in a duel with Zheng herself, and Twil is probably thinking more along the lines of play-fighting.
*Starts chanting* Squid fight! Squid fight! Squid fight! Squid games!
Seriously, Heather was a badass squiddy. It’s interesting how she still has a hard time with confidence. When in the moment she has a will of iron; her semi-solo adventure in Carcosa shows just how strong she is. But with family (and let’s face it, this is so real) it all becomes rather embarrassing.
Heather is a hell of a lot stronger than she thinks she is most of the time! But it takes real danger and threat to those she loves to bring it out of her. A duel for fun, not so much. Unless the right thing happens and she gets fired up in a way she never has before?
–“I am the younger of the two extant Saye women within this household,” said Praem. She directed a stare at Twil. “Not little.”
no praem you can’t be saying it like that! now I have to know what non-extant saye woman is within that household. that’s a fun bit of creeping dread for me to hold onto now I guess, and I don’t even know if I’m just imagining something in the semantics that’s not intended! I forget where evee’s mom’s corpse is exactly but I don’t think praem means that. praem’s fun, I think more than anything else in the story I look forward to more direct exploration in the text of the entity that praem is and what the demons that praem and zheng are are. English is a horrible language but that sentence is valid I swear.
though to be fair to the rest of the story, I’m looking forward to seeing how you knock down pretty much every pin you’ve set up! I hope twil is only like 75% right in her evaluation of evee, so that evee still has room for defining herself in the text rather than having it all come from the delightful werewolf.
I think twil’s my favorite person in the story, in an imagining these as real people I might meet sense, whereas praem is my favorite character in the sense of them as functions of the text. in this story where Outside has special significance, of our in-group twil and praem are I think our clear examples of outsiders in the normal lowercase sense. like twil says here, she has a family and school life and friends and such. she’s a member of the disaster squad, but not yet fully of the saye household.
praem is fully a member of the saye household, but she has very little other than I guess the internet in terms of relation to the rest of the mundane world. her intrinsic difference shows up in speech, mannerism, dress, thought patterns. her very existence on the page reminds us of the eternal eldritch Outside and the Abyss and every unthinkable thing else, tints the text with danger and horror, yet she’s unwaveringly pleasant, if taciturn and odd. writing these thoughts out, I think if everyone I know read this book, more than a handful would compare praem to me.
thanks for all the thoughts and fun and horror!
Evee’s mother’s corpse is safely contained within a lead coffin, buried in the little graveyard on the Saye estate, down in Sussex. But I wonder what Praem actually meant? And thank you! Praem is genuinely one of the most fun and interesting characters to write in the whole story, I love whenever she speaks and often her dialogue is not planned in any way, she just interjects with her own agenda. In Book Two, she’s probably going to get some POV chapters of her own, so look forward to that!
Evee is also a very complex character. Twil might be right, might be partly right, or might be more wrong. Evelyn certainly has a lot of room to grow as a person, and a lot of old wounds …
Twil’s relationship with the other characters has always been as a bit of an outsider, yes. Even right at the start, she was an outsider to the main trio, and she’s stayed that way too. In some ways she’s the most ‘normal’ person of the main cast!
And you are very welcome indeed! I’m delighted to hear you’ve been enjoying the story so much!