Zheng’s opponent arrived precisely on time, thirty-seven minutes after Evelyn called Jan to let her know we were ready to terrify her.
I still wanted Zheng to win; that wasn’t a lie. But part of me did wish that Jan hadn’t picked up the phone.
We didn’t take the same paranoid security precautions as the last time we’d invited an informed visitor to the house. We’d already done the uncomfortable hostility dance with these two, making us look like a bunch of hair-trigger murderous loons at best. There were no hidden traps this time, no spider-servitor waiting above the front door to scan whoever and whatever stepped through. Besides, between one demon host and Jan’s enchanting eyes, they would see quite clearly if we had strung a net of magical tripwires to snare their ankles. If it did turn out they intended to annihilate us in return for payment from Edward Lilburne, or the ineffable whim of some Outsider wibbly-wobbly, or just for the sheer fun of violence, then they were placing themselves in the worst position from which to do harm, on our home territory, within my arms’ reach.
However, we did go through the laborious process of having Jan call Evelyn once they were standing at the garden gate. Praem then opened the front door so we could see Jan and July standing there. Raine waved them over. We were on.
“Just to avoid any misunderstandings,” Evelyn muttered, frowning at the pair as they walked up the garden path. “What on earth is she wearing?”
“That coat, I think,” I whispered back.
Twil smothered a laugh. “Are we gonna need to like, lift her up the steps?”
“Play nice,” said Raine.
“Be polite to guests,” Praem reminded us all. Twil cleared her throat and pretended to look sensible.
July was dressed ready to step straight into the ring. Despite the chill in the late spring air and the thin sunlight pouring down from the iron-hard firmament, she wore only a grey tank top and a pair of black jogging bottoms, leaving her long arms and elegantly muscled shoulders exposed and covered with goosebumps. Her long black braid was tidied away into a bun on the back of her head, to deny her opponent the extra handhold during combat. Though I was not well predisposed to this particular demon host, I could at least appreciate her sense of practicality — though not her imposing presence. She stalked up the garden path like a raptor, her intense stare boring into each of us. When she stepped over the threshold she stopped on the spot with an instant economy of motion, more akin to a bird or a lizard than anything mammalian. It made my skin crawl and my tentacles bunch up, ready to counter an attack. Next to me, Twil struggled not to respond by sprouting claws. I saw her flexing her hands.
July also carried that hardshell guitar case over her shoulder, the one which contained a magic sword.
“I do not see Zheng,” she said by way of greeting. Such a normal voice should not have come from such an imposing presence.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” I whispered, so quietly that only I could hear.
“Hold your horses, yeah?” Twil said. “She’s waiting out where you’re gonna fight.”
July stared at Twil. The werewolf visibly bristled.
“I sure hope you’re not gonna be swinging that thing around in here, yeah?” Raine asked with a nod at the guitar case, softening her inquiry with a laugh.
“It will not be used today,” July informed us. “It is for killing. We’re not here for killing.”
Raine shot her a wink. “As long as we’re both on the same page.”
“Yes, yes,” Jan’s voice huffed and puffed from behind July. “We have to carry the bloody thing around everywhere, in case it gets stolen, because nobody wants that. Big drama, big mess, maybe we both die again! Yes, hello, hi, we’re here for this nonsense, let’s get it over with.”
Jan, on the other hand, was dressed for a visit to the South Pole, or perhaps to be tipped on her side and rolled down a hill, or maybe to repel boarders. She was swamped from throat to ankles by that gigantic white puffer coat she’d unravelled back in her bedsit. Her delicate features and fluffy black hair poked up from the fur-lined collar, deep blue eyes flashing with barely contained irritation, like a lightning bolt striking the sea. She looked like a cross between an ambulatory marshmallow and a penguin as she waddled up the garden path, puffing a huge sigh as she stepped inside — the coat was evidently quite heavy.
The effect was lessened only slightly when she unzipped the front of the coat, perhaps in an effort to show us she wasn’t concealing a shotgun under there; rather superfluous, considering her magical pockets, but the gesture was nice. Her hands were so buried in the white, worm-like sleeves that she struggled to pop one out to reach the zipper, which had Twil struggling not to snort and me politely covering my mouth.
Beneath the coat, Jan was absolutely tiny. She was wearing a well fitted pink-and-white athletic tracksuit, as if ready to shed the coat and run for her life.
She reminded me of a slender yet colourful insect, frozen in the moment of exploding from her massive white cocoon. It was a lot showier than her casual clothes.
“Yes, I know, I’m not exactly dressed for a social call,” she said. She clucked her tongue at Evelyn, mistaking a curious frown for disapproval. “I really do struggle to care right now. Don’t, please.”
“No criticism intended,” Evelyn said. “You look fine.”
“Oh, fine. Fine, she says.”
“I think the tracksuit looks great,” Raine said, nodding appreciatively. I shot her a glance and she winked at me. I struggled not to roll my eyes. Not the time, Raine — though I knew she was doing it to soothe my nerves.
“As if I care how you think I look,” Jan huffed. “Let’s get this over with. So where’s this door to hell?”
Upon finally being ushered into the presence of the open gateway like a princess presented with a fancy thoroughbred horse — albeit a horse with scales and bulging eyes and a stinger-tipped tail — Jan ceased being huffy and fussy in the manner of a pampered cat denied her favourite food; instead she turned quiet and standoffish like a cat introduced to a grizzly bear.
She went wide-eyed with terror, froze to the spot, and turned grey in the face.
We all waited by the table in an awkward little line — myself, Raine, Evelyn, Twil, and Praem — as Jan stood there one step inside the magical workshop, with her towering demon host at her side. She stayed very silent and very still, staring at the gateway with an expression like it might reach out and eat her if she dared so much as squeak. Not even her eyes moved, those beautiful deep-blue eyes like firelit sapphires, ignoring the ugly rubbish-bag tarpaulin concealing the mandala, fixed on Camelot itself. The rolling yellow hillsides, the impossible purple light spilling forth, the knights dotted across the landscape, and Lozzie still flittering around out there like a pastel butterfly amid her creations.
It was a strange feeling to have visitors set foot in the magical workshop, inside the old drawing room, among the secrets of Evelyn’s magical development, and the few results of our furtive explorations of Outside. If we had been a true cult, rather than a bunch of university girls who barely knew what we were doing, that room would have been our inner sanctum. We would have had the gateway framed like an altar, my squid-skull and Saldis’ golden medallion up on pedestals, and the demon-haunted clay-squid displayed inside a cage, being fed live mice or something equally as gruesome.
Instead, we’d cleaned the room. Well, Praem and Raine had cleaned, while Evelyn had made useful suggestions and I’d gotten in the way. The table was cleared of magical notes and mouldy tomes, leaving behind only Japanese comic books and perfectly ordinary novels, bathed in the backwash of impossible purple light from the open gateway. The clay squid-demon thing was covered with an actual tarpaulin pinned to the wall, because none of us felt like explaining that little secret. Evelyn had coaxed a second spider-servitor down from the attic with lots of rambling in Latin, so now two of the huge black pneuma-somatic guardians crouched upside-down in the corner over the sofa.
Every last scrap of useful knowledge was hidden upstairs or packed away — all except Evelyn’s scrimshawed thigh-bone, which she held tucked under one arm. I had retained my squid-skull mask, which I cradled against my belly, through the comforting, enclosing warmth of my hoodie.
We were all dressed as if ready to step out into the back garden, hoodies and coats at the ready, shoes on our feet. Raine was wearing her padded motorcycle jacket, but I didn’t think we’d be needing that. I’d half expected Praem to put on some of her casual clothes, but she was prim and starched in her full maid uniform. Perhaps a trip Outside required that certain formalities be properly observed.
Eventually, Evelyn cleared her throat. “It’s quite safe,” she said.
“It’s not safe that bloody well concerns me,” Jan hissed in her delicate little voice, strangled with fear and wonder. She finally found the courage to move her eyes and tilt her head, so she could confirm the gateway was more than just an illusion on the wall. “What … what am I looking at?”
“We call it Camelot,” I said, feeling terribly lame. “Or the quiet plain.”
“That. Explains. Nothing.”
July, all six and a half feet of her, seemed relatively unconcerned by comparison with her diminutive wizard. She stared at the gate with the same owlish intensity and predatory intent that turned on every other object of her regard. Chin high, arms crossed, eyes wide like a pair of searchlights which shone through flesh itself.
Though I was certain she wasn’t really staring at the gate at all.
She only cared about the figure sitting on the yellow hillsides beyond. Zheng, with her eyes closed and her legs crossed, small at this distance but facing the gateway in blind greeting. After our little talk, Zheng had sat down Outside, out there among the Knights, to wait in silent and solitary meditation.
After nearly a full minute of Jan staring at the gateway like it was a live dragon, July went to take a step forward. Jan’s hand shot out and practically punched July in the ribs in desperation to grab a fistful of tank top, clutching even through the puffy fabric of her own sleeve. Jan pulled an incoherent grimace and made a wordless hissing sound. July turned to look at her with all the malice of a bird of prey interrupted in the middle of a meal, but Jan had eyes only for the gateway.
“We don’t have all day,” Evelyn sighed. “Oh, who am I kidding, we do have all day. But I would like to sit down some time this century, please?”
“This is real,” Jan muttered, then swallowed with visible difficulty.
“Welcome to the real world, hey?” Raine said.
“Welcome,” Praem echoed.
“Either this is real,” Jan continued, her voice quivering, “or you’re the greatest illusionist who ever lived, and I’m about to walk into a wall like we’re in a cartoon. Which, you know, would actually be preferable to this being real. Is this an illusion?” She managed to sneak a glance at Evelyn. “Tell me it’s an illusion. Please. I’ll walk right into it for you. I’ll even bounce off the wall. I’ll make a cartoon sound effect and do a pratfall, just tell me this isn’t real.”
“It’s all real,” I sighed. “Every last bit of it.”
Jan fell silent again, staring at the gate. I could see her struggling to catch her breath; did dolls need to breathe? Praem didn’t. Maybe it was different, if one started out as a human. Or maybe it just felt right for her. Would it feel right for Maisie, if I put her in a doll?
“Surely you’ve seen … comparable phenomena?” Evelyn muttered.
Jan shook her head slowly. “I’d half expected you were all lying. That we were going to have them fight in your basement or something. But it’s real.”
“Hey, yo, Evee needs to sit down,” Twil said. “Get over it, yeah?”
“Get over it?” Jan echoed, scrunching up her eyes with utter disgust, though still not looking away from the open gate. “Get over it? Get over it. Just like that. Excuse me, miss fursuit exhibitionist, but I am having a bit of a moment here.”
“I agree,” July said, speaking at Jan like her voice was a cattle goad. “Get over it.”
“You can bloody well wait another five minutes!” Jan hissed.
“It is pretty shocking, the first time,” I said, clearing my throat. “We’re all too used to this, I think.”
“Did they ask the people at the Trinity test to ‘get over it’?” Jan continued, infusing the words ‘get over it’ with all the teenage scorn she could summon. But then she huffed and wet her lips with a little dart of pink tongue, still frowning at the gateway like it was a mad suggestion in a badly planned war. “Well, yes, that’s the point, they probably did. And here I am, with a group of mad people who might set the atmosphere on fire.”
“Please don’t make that comparison,” Evelyn groaned.
Jan laughed, a hollow little sound in her throat, followed by a falling auugh of dismay. “What, Oppenheimer, ‘destroyer of worlds’, all that? With this, you bloody well could be the destroyer of worlds, if you use it wrong. Or if it falls into the wrong hands.”
Evelyn smothered a cough. Raine and I shared a glance. Twil grimaced.
That finally got Jan to look away from the gate, in order to turn a more deeply horrified look on our reactions.
“What did that mean? Hey, hey, excuse me.” She let go of July’s tank-top and clicked her fingers as if we were naughty children pretending we hadn’t broken mother’s favourite vase. July took the opportunity to turn away and continue watching Zheng once more, like a falcon released from the glove. “Miss Saye, big scary mage queen of Sharrowford, what was that? What was that look? All of you, what was that?”
Twil winced in slow motion. “S’uh, it’s maybe been … uh … you’re kinda … right.”
Jan boggled at her. “Right? About what? Use sentences, please!”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “The technique has already been stolen from us once,” she said. “Which is why the gateway spell is covered up with tape and rubbish bags. I don’t want this to propagate any further than it already has.”
Jan did a slow double take away from Evelyn, looked at the gate, then back to Evelyn again. I felt an oily, awkward smile creeping onto my own face. Raine shrugged with her arms wide. Evelyn tried to keep her chin up.
“Oh,” Jan said in a shell-shocked voice. “Oh, right. I assumed you were going for some sort of Stig of the Dump aesthetic, seeing as this gateway to hell is embedded in the wall of your house, just … right there.” Then she snapped, letting out a sigh like a gun going off. “Oh. Oh I can’t believe this. It’s finally happened. I knew it would come to this eventually.”
“Nothing has not come to anything,” July said. Despite her carefully clipped tones, I could hear the exasperation in her voice.
Evelyn stiffened. I saw her eyes flick to Raine and Praem, a signal to be ready. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve finally stepped right into a giant pile of dung, haven’t I?” Jan went on, seemingly off inside her own head. “Steaming doo-doo all over my boots. I’ve run into a bunch of arr-pee-gee protagonists who’ve started the quest chain that ends the world. We really should have fled when we could, Jule. At least then we’d outrun the blast wave for a few more months. Maybe I could die in Paris, wouldn’t that have been poetic?”
“The world is not going to end,” July said. This time she actually sighed, though she was still fixed on Zheng. “Stop bellyaching.”
“They have a gateway to the beyond and it’s been stolen by some bloody psychopath!” Jan snapped, then pointedly stared at Evelyn, flapping one tube-like sleeve in an attempt to point at her. “Am I right? I’m making an educated guess here, more than half of the people like us are complete monsters. Yes?”
Evelyn sighed and gestured with her bone wand. “Edward Lilburne is his name. We’re in a sort of cold war with him. He’s … ”
“Slaver, murderer, child kidnapper,” I said, nodding. “So, yes. A monster.”
“Great. Great! Wonderful!” Jan threw her arms in the air. Her exasperation was somewhat undercut by the giant puffy sleeves of her coat swallowing both her hands. I couldn’t help myself — I snorted out a laugh at the absurdity. She whirled on me. “And you can stop laughing, octopus girl! It’s alright for you, you’re already halfway equipped to thrive in whatever mad revelation crashes across the Earth after some idiot with a god complex invites the wrong giant floating brain over here!”
“I don’t think that part is possible,” Evelyn said slowly. “And I am an extremely paranoid person.”
“Not paranoid enough to refrain from tearing a hole in reality!”
“It’s quite a safe place,” I said. “Camelot, I mean.”
“Uuuunnnnnngggghhh.” Jan put her face in her hands and groaned — at least I assume it was her hands, because she actually just buried her face in the ends of her sleeves. “I can’t deal with this. I just can’t. I am done. Totally done. We’ll be dead by this time next year. Or worse.”
“You’re catastrophising again,” said July.
“Of course I’m catastrophising!” Jan snapped. “I think this warrants a bit of catastrophising! Am I allowed a pinch of freaking out? No?”
“It’s not that bad,” Twil interjected with a laugh. “I mean come on, there’s plenty of nasty stuff over here on Earth already, right? Didn’t mages already used to make gates like this, way back? World’s not over as far as I can see.”
“It is entirely possible for the world to end more than once,” Jan huffed.
“I’m not capable of triggering the apocalypse,” Evelyn said with a grumpy twist to her mouth, “but thank you for the implicit compliment. What you are looking at is not a true two-way door. Nothing on that side can cross over to here, not unless it originated here in the first place. And that’s not a property of the gateway; as far as I can tell, it is a property of reality itself. There are other ways of circumventing that law, but they’re not achievable with magecraft.” She glanced at me, perhaps subconsciously — my hyperdimensional mathematics could bring anything back from Outside, but we chose not to mention that. It was kinder on Jan’s mental health.
“See?” July said. “The world is not ending.”
Jan let out a long-suffering sigh. A strangely familiar tiredness settled like coal dust around her beautiful, blue-crystal eyes. “Fine. Fine. So be it. Don’t blame me if it does end right on top of us.”
“If it is ending,” July said, “I still insist on this duel.”
“Ugh, such a one track mind.” Jan sounded very much like the petulant teenager she appeared to be. She nodded at Praem. “Why can’t you be more like Praem — it was Praem, yes? Lovely name, by the way.” Praem nodded once. “Why can’t you be more like Praem there? I don’t see her challenging me to a thumb war just because we’re both made of the same stuff.”
“A thumb war can be arranged,” Praem intoned. Jan let out a high-pitched laugh, a little too close to the edge for my liking.
“Maybe that’s the distraction we need?” I suggested, then wished I hadn’t spoken. I felt like an idiot.
“We’ll save that for some other time, shall we?” Jan said, shaking her head. She waved at the gateway with one huge puffy white sleeve, presumably pointing with a finger inside. “So, if I step through that, can one of you personally guarantee it’s not going to flay all my skin off, or replace my organs with blocks of dirt, or, I don’t know, auto-catheterise my arse hole or something? There’s no nasty side-effects I need to know about?” She squinted at the gateway. “Are those actual knights? Like, blokes in metal suits? I thought you lot were exaggerating. What have you people been doing out there?”
“There are no side-effects,” Evelyn sighed. “Other than how bizarre it feels to stand Outside.”
“Several of us are over there already,” I added. “It really is about as safe as somewhere can get, out there. Um, we don’t want you to panic when you step over there or anything. Zheng you’ve already met, but there’s Lozzie too, you can see her from here. And Sevens is there, and there’s also Tenny, and our dog — well, Badger’s dog, Whistle—”
“You took a dog out there?” Jan almost shouted at me. I flinched, tentacles jerking in surprise. “Oh, you people are even more wildly irresponsible than I thought. You get that poor animal back in here, right now! I’m not going anywhere until—”
Before Jan could finish having at go at us for presumed animal cruelty, July strode forward, straight for the gateway. This time she was fast enough — and Jan was distracted enough — that Jan’s desperate attempt to grab her resulted only in Jan’s sleeve baffing against her back.
“There’s also a giant caterpillar!” I said quickly, as July reached the gate, ducking so the guitar case wouldn’t catch on the rim. “Don’t be scared, it’s perfectly safe!”
Jan gave me an extremely alarmed look.
July stepped through the gate and straightened up slowly, beneath the purple glow. She stared at Zheng for a long moment, then turned on the spot, gazing about at the knights and the yellow hillsides, showing all the reverence of a pilgrim in a great temple. She did pause briefly when she looked over her shoulder at the caterpillar, but her eyes were already so wide and penetrating that I couldn’t tell if she was shocked or afraid or just accepting what she saw. Lozzie waved to her and called something, but we couldn’t hear the words. July ignored the greeting anyway. She did stare off to her left for a long moment, as if curious or confused by something beyond our line of sight.
“July? July?” Jan was saying, in the sort of tone that usually accompanies the stamping of a petulant foot. “You haven’t burst into flame, so I assume you can hear me?”
“She can’t, actually,” Evelyn explained. “Sound cannot cross the barrier.”
July stepped back through the gate, back to our side, back to Earth.
“It’s safe enough,” she said.
“For a demon host!” Jan huffed. “That’s one thing, but a human being is much more—”
“You are not human fragile anymore.” July strode toward her.
“I am, I break all too easily,” Jan said, frowning as July marched right up to her and bent as if to pick her up. “No, stop! Stop that, not here!” Jan slapped at her with the floppy ends of her padded sleeves, like a pair of clumsy elephant trunks. “I can walk just fine, thank you!”
“But you are complaining so very much,” July told her. Unlike Praem’s expressionless tones, this demon host did not conceal her mockery.
Raine snorted a laugh behind one hand. Evelyn rolled her eyes. My smile grew very fixed. Twil actually said “ha!” out loud.
“And I will keep complaining,” Jan said. She tried to put her hands on her hips but it didn’t really work in the massive coat.
July stared at her for a moment longer. I was about to open my mouth and hurry this along, it was bordering on absurd now, but then for a split second I didn’t see them as siblings, one older and one younger — if that was what the Martense pair really were. Instead I saw a mother and child — an old lady, petulant and tired, but having a lot more fun with this exchange than she was letting on, opposite a daughter who just wanted to go outside and play, but would indulge any of her dear mother’s whims.
Projection, I told myself. I was projecting Praem and Evelyn onto these two. But I still reached out covertly and gave Evelyn’s elbow a squeeze. She flinched slightly and frowned at me, but more in confusion than anger.
“Fine,” July said. “Stay here.”
The demon turned on her heel, marched back up to the gateway, and stepped across. Her long black braid swished through after her.
This time she didn’t pause once over the threshold, but carried on walking toward Zheng. A flutter of pastel poncho detached from a cluster of knights and flounced over toward her, to greet or question or tease. Amid all the confusion and confrontation and even after the emotional turmoil of the last few hours — not to mention the way I kept glancing at Evelyn’s profile, wanting to speak to her in private — I still felt a flicker of an urge to launch myself Outside just to protect Lozzie. My tentacles twitched as one, aching to reach out and make sure July did not touch so much as one hair on Lozzie’s head. But Outside was her domain. She was surrounded by her knights and more. Lozzie was safer out there than she was here.
“Jule … ? Ju-July?” Jan reached after her in confusion and dismay, then seemed to catch herself and remembered we were all watching. She cleared her throat and lowered her arm, then tugged her coat tight around herself and shook her head. She suddenly seemed very small and vulnerable. “I, er, um … suppose we better follow, or we’ll miss the show.”
“It’s okay,” I piped up in a misguided effort to reassure her. “Zheng has strict instructions not to start until we’ve discussed the rules.”
“Oh,” Jan said. She didn’t meet my eyes, too self-conscious. “Rules. Right. There’s going to be rules. Very sensible, yes.”
“We really don’t have to step through,” I said, trying not to cringe with second-hand embarrassment. “You could watch from here, if you want. If you don’t want to go. That’s okay, I totally understand.”
“Scared?” Twil snorted. “Huh. Some mage, right.”
“Of course I’m scared!” Jan said. “You should all be terrified, this is terrifying. The fact you’re not scared in the slightest is even worse!” She gestured at the gate. “Anything could be out there!”
“We know exactly what’s out there,” I said, cringing with apology. “For that dimension, at least. Mostly. Well, I’m trusting Lozzie on this, she’s the expert.”
Raine winced at my phrasing. I blushed, feeling like an idiot. My head was not in the right place for this conversation.
Half of me wanted to be alone with Evelyn, right now; the other half was relieved I couldn’t be.
“Oh, right,” Jan said, lashing on the sarcasm with her delicate tones. “An expert in the beyond. That’s great. And what does she do, exactly? No doubt something nightmarish that I would be happier not knowing.”
Unfortunately, our efforts to convince Jan to step outside the boundaries of reality were undermined at that exact moment by a bundle of black tentacles emerging through the gateway.
Tenny appeared around the side of the gate and stepped backward across the threshold, back to Earth, creeping like a child retreating from a dark room, unwilling to turn away and look where she was going, lest the ghosts snagged her ankles. Her shoulders were hunched, her head ducked, her wing-cloak wrapped tightly around herself in a protective layer of black silken flesh and fuzzy white fur. Her antennae lay very still, flush against her head. Her tentacles were retracted close to her body, reaching behind herself like she was groping for a handhold or a familiar support. Her humanoid arms held Whistle, equally quiet and pensive, little doggy ears standing straight up.
Of course, all Jan saw was a monster, crossing to our side. She went pale, mouth wide open, recoiling like she was ready to bolt.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” I blurted out, hands up. “It’s just Tenny!”
“Awww shit,” went Twil. Evelyn sighed and put her face in one hand.
“Buuuuuurrrrrrrt?” went Tenny, turning on the spot.
Jan boggled at me and Evelyn. “So much for nothing crossing from that side! What is that?!”
“It’s Tenny!” I repeated, even as I knew she needed more explanation than that. “She’s from here! She’s supposed to be here.”
“Hey, Tenns, you okay?” Raine was saying, quickly crossing the room and accepting Tenny’s oddly desperate clutching tentacles on her shoulders. She scratched Whistle’s head. “Not so good out there, yeah?”
“Not good,” Tenny trilled. Her big black pelagic eyes roved across us as she copied a very Lozzie gesture, puffing her cheeks out. She wrapped a secure tentacle around Raine’s arm, holding on tight. Then she spotted Jan. “Lo?”
“Tenny, this is Jan,” I said, trying to repair the mess. “Jan, this is Tenny. We did verbally warn you we had a non-human here. Remember? Evee, you did do that on the phone, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Evelyn sighed. “Apparently it didn’t take.”
Jan just stared, jaw slack.
“Lo?” Tenny repeated. She puffed out a buuuuurrrrr. “Not a shark?”
I cleared my throat. “Tenny is technically a child, so please don’t scare her. And yes, Tenny. Jan here is not a shark.”
“Blllllrrrrrtttt, no shark.” Tenny pouted.
“She’s … she’s from here?” Jan murmured. “How?”
“Lozzie made her,” I said. “Sort of. She’s Lozzie’s daughter, technically. She started as a spirit.”
“As pneuma-somatic life,” Evelyn supplied with a sigh.
“Yes, then Lozzie made her a cocoon and she came out … well, real, for want of a better word.”
“Tenny is a real girl,” Praem intoned.
“I … I’m sorry … I didn’t … process that,” Jan said slowly, her horror turning not to confusion, but to awe, as her deep blue eyes travelled up and down Tenny’s body. “My goodness,” she breathed, barely more than a whisper. “Hello. Hello there. Oh, oh you are a wonder. Tenny, was it? I’m so sorry, I called you a what … ” Her voice trailed off as she looked at the rest of us, awestruck. “You people … you … you made her? Did I hear that right?” Jan flicked back to Tenny suddenly, who was watching Jan as if the small woman was quite crazy. “I am so sorry for talking about you in third person, by the way. Hello dear.”
“Lozzie did,” I repeated. “Yes.”
Jan just stared at Tenny in awe. She even stepped forward, fingers out to receive the greeting touch of one of Tenny’s silken black tentacles. Tenny touched tentacle to trembling finger tips, then pulled a very dubious expression at Jan.
“Not a shaaaark,” Tenny trilled. “’Lo Jan?”
“Yes, yes, hello. My goodness, you are a wonder. You are one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” Jan started laughing, looking over at the rest of us. She spread her arms. “What do you need me for? You want me to make a doll for your twin sister, out of dead matter, when this … this … Lozzie?” She gestured through the gate. “I assume that’s the one with the fetching poncho talking to Jule. When she can craft true flesh?” Jan shook her head. “You’re wasting your time with me.”
“It’s more complex than that,” Evelyn said, in an unimpressed tone that brooked no argument.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I’m not sure Lozzie can just grow an empty person or something. In fact, I doubt that very much.”
“Oh, I must speak with her,” Jan said. “May I speak with her? This Lozzie, that’s her, right? Correct? I can speak with her? Is she— does she have— is there anything I should—”
“You’re quite welcome to speak with Lozzie,” I said gently. “But she can be difficult to communicate with, sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Twil added. “Bit of an understatement, that, but she’s real sweet. Be nice, okay?”
“I would never be anything but nice,” Jan said, her confidence apparently all returned. She even straightened up.
“You cool to go back through the gate, Tenns?” Raine asked Tenny.
“Mmmmmuuurrrrrrr,” Tenny trilled. “Pretty. But also scary. No flying today.”
Raine patted her on the shoulder. My heart went out to how sweet she was with Tenny. “Ahhhh, you don’t have to,” she said. “We can just sit and watch with Whistle. Isn’t that right, Whistle?”
Whistle went huff. Perhaps he recognised his own name.
“Ah,” Jan said, bright blue eyes flicking through the gate again. Her throat bobbed. “I don’t suppose you could ask Lozzie to come over here for a chat?”
I was about to open my mouth and say certainly, why not, I’ll ask her. I wasn’t about to force an innocent to step Outside, though I did wonder if Jan counted as innocent.
But Evelyn spoke up quickly, before I could get a word out. “No, not right now,” she said. “Lozzie is needed out there. You’ll have to come with us.”
“Ah. Well.” Jan took a deep breath. I got the sudden impression she wanted to cross herself. “Well. Well, well, perhaps another time then, I do really want to speak with—”
Jan did not get to finish her sentence, because Praem stepped up. With three short clicks of her sensible heels, Praem approached Jan, stopped at a distance calculated precisely between professional courtesy and personal intimacy, and held out one pale hand.
“Be not afraid,” Praem said.
Jan blinked at Praem, down at her hand, and then at us, raising her eyebrows in mild alarm and mute question.
“Don’t look at me,” Evelyn said. “I have no idea what she’s doing. Praem, what are you doing?”
“Escorting,” Praem intoned. “If desired.”
“She’s being very sweet,” I said out loud. “She’s not mocking you or anything, she’s being serious.”
Evelyn nodded along with a sort of grudging sigh.
“Oh, why not?” Jan said, her tone suddenly much more like that of the old woman I’d glimpsed for a moment as she’d argued with July. She wriggled one hand out of the end of her voluminous sleeve and placed it graciously in Praem’s palm. “Thank you, you’ve very kind. Maybe leave out the ‘be not afraid’ line next time though. You are angelic, but it’s a bit much.”
“I am angelic,” Praem agreed.
“Hey, if it makes you feel safer,” Raine added. She spread her hands and patted her heavily padded motorcycle jacket. “I know how it feels.”
“All safe!” Tenny trilled, apparently much happier now she was back with the rest of us, rather than watching her mother tend to the knights.
“Quite,” Evelyn said, frowning at Praem and Jan as if not sure what to make of this development.
“Can somebody hold my hand too?” Twil asked, laughing.
“No teasing,” Praem intoned. She gave us all a blank-faced, white-eyed look — Twil especially, who at least had the good sense to look sheepish.
Praem lingered on me for a moment longer than the others, which I could only tell because of the way she moved her head.
It was impossible to be certain, but a moment of communication passed between us, though I couldn’t figure out how I understood her intention. Perhaps I was merely projecting, perhaps it was nothing, or perhaps it was the emotional backwash of my rather intense conversation with Twil, and my newly exposed thoughts about the woman standing next to me.
Praem would escort Jan — and therefore I was to look after Evelyn.
I nodded back, just a tiny tilt of my head. Praem’s pointed gaze moved on.
“Oh, wait a moment,” said Jan. “I actually have something for you. I’d forgotten in all this flappery and failure to warn.”
“Failure to warn?” Evelyn echoed under her breath. “I did tell you, it’s not my fault you didn’t listen.”
Jan moved as if to rummage inside her coat. Her free hand popped out of her sleeve, like a furtive, hairless rodent bursting from a hole in the sand. She touched the air about six inches in front of her chest and her hand completely vanished from view again. We may have seen this trick before but the visual impact was no less dizzying, no less impossible, no less inherently threatening — she could have anything hidden inside that invisible gap.
Jan’s hand reappeared a split second later, holding a compact box of fresh strawberries.
“For you.” She held them out to Praem. “A thank you for being so sweet the first time we met. Just don’t share them with anybody else.”
“Staaaawberry!” Tenny trilled, suddenly lighting up.
“Except Tenny,” Jan added. “She can have some. I gather this is the correct gesture, from what your mother told me? Though I should most certainly not feed them to you myself, that’s some dangerous symbolism, I think?” She raised an eyebrow at Evelyn.
“Praem’s not bound,” Evelyn said, but she was frowning. “She can accept strawberries from anybody she wishes.”
Praem accepted the box and bowed her head to Jan. “Thank you.”
Twil was still bamboozled by the whole exchange, frowning like she didn’t quite get it. “Why not just put the strawberries in your pockets? Like, your normal pockets? Why do you need to magically hide strawberries?”
“Force of habit,” Jan said, turning smug and batting thick dark lashes over her twinkling eyes. “Once you’ve gotten used to wearing dresses with pockets, you can never truly go back.”
Twil’s confusion got worse. “But you’re wearing a tracksuit.”
Jan sighed and rolled her eyes, point entirely missed. Without warning, she repeated her magical-pockets trick as if reaching out and plucking an insect from the air, about a foot to the left of her head. Her fingers returned holding a pair of pink-framed sunglasses.
“No accounting for poor taste,” she said.
“Don’t tell me you’re gonna wear those indoors?” Twil asked.
“That is a bit edgy,” Raine said. “Even for us.”
“Nice colour though,” I added.
“Does that look like indoors to you?” Jan gestured at the gateway. “I’m not taking any chances with that weird purple light, no matter what you lot say. I am not getting sunburnt or snow-blinded out there.” She snapped the shades open with a flick of her wrist and lowered them over her shining blue eyes. “Consider this well and truly dealt with.”
Evelyn snorted without humour. “You really are internet poisoned, you little—”
“Evee!” I almost slapped her arm, but I could never truly strike Evelyn, not even in jest. “I think they look really good! Cool, even.”
“They are, heeeey,” Raine added with a wink for Jan. “Looking smooth.”
“Heather,” Evelyn tutted. “She’s memeing at us.”
I blinked. “She’s what?”
Jan pointed a finger at Evelyn, a smug little smile on her suddenly cheeky face, below the dark pools of her sunglasses. Blue fire burned behind the tinted lenses; no glasses could truly hide that kind of otherworldly beauty. “You may be an absolutely terrifying mage, and I may have been led into the lion’s den by July being horny for getting her head kicked in, but girl, my power level exceeds yours by a significant margin.”
Evelyn let out a huff like she’d just been subjected to a truly awful pun. She put her face in one hand. Twil started laughing. Only Tenny looked as baffled as I felt, twitching her fluffy white antennae and blinking her huge black eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’m completely lost,” I said. “‘Power level’? Is this a mage thing?”
“Heather, just … just don’t,” Evelyn said into her hand.
“I love you,” said Raine. “Don’t worry about it, trust me.”
“Well, okay,” I said, feeling a little put out.
Jan very gently gestured with the hand that Praem was holding. “Are we quite ready? Your big slab of muscle must be getting impatient by now.”
“Alright, alright,” Evelyn grumbled. “Let’s get this over with. Hopefully at least in time for dinner.”
Raine led the way with Tenny in tow, coaxing our nervous moth-child back over to Camelot with Whistle still snuggled in her arms; I was confident that if things got too much for Tenny, Raine would bring her back home. Yet as Raine’s shoulders and Tenny’s silken black tentacles passed through the membrane into Camelot’s purple light, I suppressed an urge to dart across the room and drag them both back. It was only the Quiet Plain, full of Lozzie’s knights. I had to repeat that to myself, just to let them go.
Twil paused with an after-you gesture for the rest of us. Jan glanced back over her shoulder as we moved toward the gateway.
“Are they not coming with us?” she asked, peering over the top of her sunglasses.
“Ah? What?” Twil glanced back too, at what for her was just the empty corners of the room. Evelyn pulled a frown, but then she realised.
“She means the spider-servitors,” I explained for Twil’s benefit. “You can see them too, Jan?”
“Of course I can.” Jan raised an eyebrow at me and then ran her eyes along my tentacles, her sudden attention enough to make me feel a little shy. I pulled my extra limbs in toward myself. “I can see your additions, after all. Don’t be shy now, they’re very impressive.”
“The spiders stay here,” Evelyn said, her voice too tight for the subject. “Come on, let’s get on with this.”
“What? Why?” Jan peered around Praem’s flank, blinking with surprise over the rim of her sunglasses, absolutely flummoxed. “They’re perfect. I mean, jolly good job on them, they’re fantastic, well done. I’ve rarely seen a servitor as cleanly built, let alone that complex. We really should have them along, real combat machines, just in case, no? You say this is safe, but you never know.”
I pulled a pained smile. “They don’t really like to move far. Not unless it’s an emergency.”
“They … don’t … like to?” Jan’s delicate brow furrowed in confusion. “They’re servitors. Aren’t they?”
Evelyn sighed. “They stay here,” she repeated, then turned her head so Jan couldn’t see her mouth the words ‘operational security’ at me.
Jan didn’t know that Evelyn could barely command the servitors. It was probably best we kept it that way.
“Ah, yes,” I joined in, somewhat late to the game. “They stay here. There’s important reasons to do with the house. Security. All that.”
“Still … ” Jan sighed at the spiders. “They’re beautiful specimens. I’d feel much safer with some real muscle along, you know? Muscle that doesn’t wander off to fight other muscle, that is.”
“I will not wander off,” Praem said, sing-song and lilting. She lifted Jan’s hand slightly. “Shall we go?”
“Certainly. Thank you, miss Praem.”
“Miss Saye,” Praem corrected.
“Ah! My mistake. Of course. Please do lead on, miss Saye.”
In an awkward shuffle more befitting a group of young teenagers edging onto a dance floor, the rest of us stepped through the gate to Camelot.
Jan and Praem went first, greeting Raine and Tenny on the other side. I hovered close to Evelyn before she took the plunge; she tried to conceal the way she drew in a deep breath, steadying herself and leaning heavily on her walking stick, but I caught and cradled every moment of her trepidation, wishing I could shoulder it in her place. I had to stop myself from wrapping a tentacle around her shoulders. That would probably just make her jump.
“It’s not dangerous,” I murmured. “Well. Not really.”
“Yeah,” Twil piped up from behind us. “We’re both right here with you, Evee. You know?”
Evelyn gave me the sort of sour, sidelong look that would have made me shiver with anxiety six months ago. Then she rolled her eyes, forcefully linked her arm with mine, and used me as a guide-rail to step through to Outside, dragging me along. Twil laughed behind us, cut off suddenly by the dimensional transition, then resuming as she stepped through in our wake.
Camelot opened around us like a flower of purple and yellow, blooming through the sky with whorls like the inside of a human brain, showering us with a shifting aurora more beautiful than any earthly light. Cinnamon wind brushed our faces and tugged at loose strands of hair, a distant sea-breeze bringing us the scent of far-off petrified forests and dead cities, the merest hint of the caterpillars’ wanderings. Hillsides unrolled around us, covered with the silent sentinels of chrome, Lozzie’s round table.
Sometimes these places were wasted on me. But together with my friends, my family, it was almost worth coming here.
We all stood in a little cluster around the gateway exit for a moment, just soaking in the strangeness of being.
Jan was blinking rapidly, head turning left and right with jerky intensity, not frozen in fear but doing a poor job of concealing her breathless awe. The rest of us had all been here before — Evelyn had insisted that Raine and Twil and Praem all duck through for at least a minute or two before Jan and July arrived, just to acclimatise themselves, in case the worst should happen. But the sense of strangeness still hit everyone like a wave of vertigo and nausea, necessitating a pause to catch breath that had never been stolen. Even Tenny, with her inhuman senses and totally different physiological set-up, was affected enough that she focused on petting Whistle with a trio of tentacles. I considered asking Raine to just take her back through. Only Praem was totally unaffected.
Well, Praem and myself.
Praem took the liberty of tapping Jan on the shoulder and saying, “Do not be afraid. Look behind us.”
“Oh, oh my.” Jan still jumped when she followed the instruction, coming face-to-hide with the vast bulk of the caterpillar. She put a hand to her heart — did dolls have hearts? Did Praem have a heart inside her wooden chest? Metaphorically, very much so. “Oh that is … that is very big indeed. Too big.”
“That’s what she said,” Twil muttered from the corner of her mouth. Evelyn almost whacked her in the shins with her walking stick, but Twil managed to skip away, forcing a laugh.
“Thank you, Twil,” I said — and I meant it. Anything for a bit of normality when Outside.
“You people have built seating out here?” Jan asked, eyebrows scrunching above her shades. “What’s next, are you going to put up a gazebo? Plant some roses?”
“Strawberry bushes,” Praem intoned.
“Oh, lovely,” Jan said. I got the impression her sarcasm was blunted for Praem’s benefit.
“We didn’t build this,” Evelyn said, vaguely uncomfortable as she gestured at the caterpillar — and the ‘seating’. “This is all Lozzie’s work. Look again, it’s part of the … creature. Or, was.”
Jan paused, staring up at the caterpillar again. “She made this too?”
“Oh yes,” Evelyn said, sounding none too happy about it.
“I really must speak with her,” Jan murmured.
Lozzie’s whale-sized caterpillar of off-white carapace and shaped armour had extruded seating for us. Earlier, after the gate was open but before Jan had arrived, when we’d all stepped over here for a moment, we’d discovered the caterpillar had performed some kind of rapid self-modification. It seemed to have shed one of the bulging armour sections between the thinner vertical ribs, to reveal a fresh, clean white section only a few inches beneath, like a turtle or tortoise shedding sections of old shell, replacing them with new protection grown beneath the old.
The discarded piece of off-white armour now lay on the yellow grass alongside the caterpillar, where it had fallen, a slab of curved armour several feet high. It formed a very sizeable if rather rough and uncomfortable bench. There was more than enough room for all of us, twice over.
“Front row seats,” Twil chuckled.
Halfway along the bench, huddled like a sad blob of melting butter, was Sevens, wrapped in yellow robes like a small child amid stolen blankets. Upon our arrival she slipped to her feet and slunk over, peering at Jan with red-on-black eyes.
“Guuurrrkk,” she went at Jan, slinking straight past the bewildered stare and right up to Tenny and Raine. “Tenns, you okay?”
“Mmmmmrrrrrr,” Tenny replied with an uncertain flutter.
“I think she might need to go back home, actually,” I said. “She’s not doing well out here. Could you … ?”
“Mm-mmmmm.” Sevens nodded, wordlessly accepting the affections of Tenny’s tentacles wrapping around her shoulders and arms, like a nervous octopus. Tenny let go of Raine and clung to Sevens instead. “Tenns, wanna go?”
“M’okay,” Tenny said, raising her chin. “For now.”
“ … do I even want to know who this is?” Jan asked, gesturing at Sevens.
“You do not want to know,” Praem intoned.
“Apparently I don’t want to know,” Jan said to Sevens. “My apologies.”
Raine was standing with her hands on her hips, looking outward across the plains. I was struck by the uncanny similarity to how Zheng had stood on that same spot, only an hour earlier.
“You think they’re about to start without us?” she asked, loud enough to project her voice.
About sixty feet directly ahead of us, July and Zheng were facing off, staring each other down like a pair of apex predators who had stumbled across one another in a jungle clearing. Zheng had risen from her cross-legged repose and July had walked to almost within arms’ reach. I couldn’t see July’s expression with her back to us, but I could read the fascination and hunger on Zheng’s face, the silent desire, the undeniable lust.
My stomach turned over with lingering jealousy, sick and tight. Suddenly nothing mattered, certainly not my wish for Zheng to win. I had to bite my lower lip and turn away.
Tentacles bunched and coiled with instinctive urgency. My skin tingled, aching to flush with warning colouration and deadly toxins. Part of me wanted to spring across the sixty feet as quick as I could and plant myself in front of July.
A hiss crawled up my throat.
“Wouldn’t put it past them,” Jan said with total dismissal. She wasn’t even paying attention. “Are we going to sit down, then? I’m not keen on standing here while these two beat each other to a pulp.”
“They absolutely will not be starting without us,” Evelyn snapped, right next to me. “There are going to be rules to this. And for once we have a judge capable of enforcing rules.”
Evelyn’s tone contained a note I rarely heard from her, shocking me out of my jealous simmer — secret smug victory. I blinked at her, followed her gaze back to Zheng, then I realised what I’d missed.
“Oh,” Jan said. “Oh, I see. Very clever.”
Lozzie was standing between July and Zheng, bobbing her head and chattering up at July.
It was too far away to make out the words, but the meaning was undeniable. My tentacles relaxed and the abyssal itch ebbed away. I felt Evelyn’s arm looped through mine again.
“Security and concealment weren’t the only reasons for doing this out here,” Evelyn croaked softly. “You made a good call for more reasons than you thought, Heather. Completely mad. But good.”
I boggled at her, my mind whirling to catch up. My throat still felt thick with the need to hiss at July. “Evee … you … you mean Lozzie agreed to this because … ?”
To my wordless delight — and more than a little bit of unexpected blush — Evelyn smiled for real, in a way I’d never seen her smile before, narrow-eyed and devious, but not at all dark. The strategist’s smile, for me. “Over a hundred penuma-somatically engineered knights and one caterpillar-machine the size of an airliner. That’s more than enough show of strength to keep this as a duel, to keep it under control.”
“Oh goodness,” Jan said. “How smart. I only wish it wasn’t happening here.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Evelyn could barely contain her smile, though she kept her lips together. Mischief danced in her eyes.
“Evee, you … you didn’t tell me,” I said.
She snorted. “You would have told Zheng. And it wasn’t like I was concealing anything from you, this was obvious.”
“I … I suppose so … ”
“I still don’t approve of any of this. We should not even be here,” Evelyn said.
“Much agreed,” Jan added.
“Burrrrrrrrt!” went Tenny.
“But if it has to be done,” Evelyn continued, holding her head higher, “then it’s going to be done without putting either of these incredible idiots at real risk.”
Twil let out a low whistle. “You’re bloody devious, you know that? Good thing you’re on our side.”
“We’d get nowhere without you, Evee,” Raine shot back over her shoulder.
Evelyn straightened her spine as best she could. “I’m not on your side, Twil. You’re on mine.”
Twil snorted and rolled her eyes, but she didn’t deny it.
“You lot are all completely mad,” Jan said, shaking her head. “If it wasn’t for Lozzie — that’s her name, right, I’m getting that correct? If it wasn’t for her, I’d have hit the ejector seat already. Are we going to sit down or not? I would like to get my snacks out.”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled, tugging on my arm. “Let’s get moving, I suppose. Come on, Heather, the sooner we sit down the sooner we … Heather?”
“Something’s going wrong,” I murmured, heart in my throat.
While the others bantered about seating arrangements, I had been watching Zheng and July.
I saw the warning signs in their shared body language before it happened — or at least my abyssal instincts did, picking up on the secret meanings of pose and musculature and the invisible tension in the air between two dangerous predators. I couldn’t have put it into words, or said exactly why my own body suddenly dumped a bucket of adrenaline into my veins. I just knew.
Up until that moment, Zheng had been smiling a predator’s smile, darkly delighted that the fight was about to begin, that her opponent was finally here, glowing with all the anticipation of new consummation. Neither of them were even looking at Lozzie, as she flapped her pastel poncho and chattered back and forth between them, her voice high and light, lost on the cinnamon air.
But then July must have said something, though the words were too far away to hear, even as a murmur on the wind.
Whatever she said, it killed Zheng’s smile.
Lozzie had enough time to visibly laugh at July’s words, lifting the hem of her poncho to cover her mouth — but then Zheng clenched her teeth and growled, deep down in her throat and chest. That sound carried all too well, a deep bass rumble like the disapproval of a mountain.
“Oh shit,” Twil hissed from next to me.
“Lozzie!” Raine called. “Lozzie, what are they doing?”
“She’s losing control,” I said. “Zheng!”
“What is she saying?” Evelyn demanded of Jan.
“Don’t look at me!” Jan squeaked. “I have no idea! I’m not in charge of her or anything!”
July tilted her chin up. Spoke again. Zheng’s eyes blazed with anger.
Lozzie said something to the demons, flapping her poncho. But then she stepped back out of the firing line as Zheng inched forward. Lozzie cast a terrified look at us. Raine started forward, as did Twil, but there was no time to cover the distance. Around the trio, several of Lozzie’s knights turned as one, weapons lifted in readiness, shields raised by chrome hands.
July spoke a third and final time. Lozzie turned and ran toward us.
Zheng rocked back on her heels, spat at July’s feet, and threw herself behind a punch like a lightning bolt.
Jan doesn’t like anything about this situation, all of it is terrifying and dangerous in a way she seems to have been trying to avoid her whole life! Except Praem. And maybe Tenny. And probably Lozzie! Seems like they might have some things to discuss. About building life, perhaps? About creating bodies and putting spirits inside them? About giant machine-life caterpillar creatures? At least everyone is Outside now and nothing is going wrong … oops, spoke too soon, I wonder what got Zheng riled up?
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Next week, is the duel going ahead or has Zheng lost control? What did July say to her? And perhaps seeing the zombies let loose for real is going to make Heather feel dangerous things!