Framed by rolling hills of soft yellow velvet and the meandering line of the distant horizon, beneath a sky of blooming purple whorls like royal ink in dark oil, brushed by warm cinnamon wind, watched by an audience of Outside things, a round table of armoured knights — and a handful of mortals — Zheng swung for July.
She was so fast it took my breath away.
Even sixty feet distant, just witnessing the motion was enough to make me flinch. Zheng’s punch was a flicker-blur against the background of purple and yellow, her clenched fist a scorpion-sting lashing out with all her weight behind the blow.
Evelyn flinched as well, her arm still wrapped around mine to anchor herself firmly to the ground in this Outside place, tightening as if Zheng’s pre-emptive strike would upend the world. Jan drew a gasp between clenched teeth. Tenny let out a sound like a hundred panicked moths. In her arms, Whistle whined and flattened his ears against his head.
Only a few paces ahead of us, Raine paused, not shocked but suddenly still. Twil kept going, picking up her feet into a sprint as Lozzie ran to meet her.
I’d rarely seen Zheng fight. Months and months ago, she’d fought Raine inside the stairwell trap set up by the Sharrowford Cult; Raine had hit her a few times with a stolen baseball bat, but Zheng had replied with a blurring barrage of fists and sent Raine reeling. Since then, I’d grown to suspect that Zheng had held back on purpose, out of disgust for the people who had held her in slavery. I’d witnessed how fast she could move, a handful of times since then, with the kind of speed born of marriage between animalistic purpose and demonic body-modification, a blur of motion to rip out a mage’s tongue.
And now she’d lost her temper, discarded the rules, and started early. This was not within the bounds of the duel and there was no way any of us could stop her.
But she missed.
Before Jan had time to complete her gasp, before my flinch had finished, before Twil had sprinted another two steps, Zheng’s punch sailed through open air.
July had ducked.
Zheng’s face contorted with rage, showing her shark-toothed maw in an open-mouthed roar. She aimed four more blows at July in quick succession, jack-hammer punches which blurred through the air, trying to catch jawbone, sternum, or rib cage with alternating fists. Zheng was like a Greek Goddess, her muscles flowing beneath red-chocolate skin, her loose and baggy white t-shirt doing little to conceal her raw strength. Shock and adrenaline mixed with something headier inside me, a potent cocktail of awe, admiration, and abyssal desire. My reactor organ twitched inside my abdomen.
July bobbed and weaved, avoiding Zheng’s fists by mere inches. The feat was all the more impressive with that unwieldy guitar case strapped to her back, but we barely had time to appreciate the spectacle, it went so quick, pure reaction, no time for either combatant to think about each move.
But July didn’t raise her own fists. She made no effort to counter-attack. She moved like a snake, sinuous and rubbery.
The half-dozen knights nearest to the fight were stomping toward the demon hosts, shields raised, weapons levelled. I had no doubt that Zheng would respect the lives of Lozzie’s creations, but they simply wouldn’t be fast enough to make any difference. None of us were fast enough, none of us could even reach them before this spiralled out of control; what would happen when Zheng finally landed a blow, or July struck back?
Abyssal instinct prodded me forward all the same, but not for noble reasons, not for the sake of de-escalation. My legs itched like I’d dunked them in salt, aching to move, to run toward the fight, following some mad notion that I should join in. My tentacles bunched behind me like springs, ready to fling me forward, strengthening themselves inside with ropes of muscle to — to what? To pull the combatants apart? To bludgeon them both into submission? To just let loose with the joy of what Twil would call a ‘good scrap’?
My more rational side knew that covering sixty feet at a sprint would just wind me, trilobe bioreactor or no.
I started to shake with internal pressure, like a kettle with no steam spout.
“Go! Go on!” Evelyn suddenly yelled, shoving me forward.
Half my tentacles flailed in confusion, reaching back for Evelyn, my spring-start aborted by shock. To my incredible surprise Evelyn reacted as if she could see my extra limbs — she batted them away with the head of her walking stick, then wildly gestured me forward. But of course she could see my pneuma-somatic additions. We were Outside.
“Go on, Heather, you fool!” she snapped at me, wild-eyed. “Tell her to stop, she’ll listen to you!”
“I-I can’t, I—”
Sixty feet away, Zheng wound up for a lunge. July ducked back, spun on one heel, and Zheng skidded past her. Twil was just catching up with Lozzie, grabbing her to halt her panicked flight. Raine was frozen to the spot, staring at the fight with such intensity as I’d never seen on her face before. Tenny was practically screaming, a long trilling noise of alarm.
Zheng reared up, drew in a great breath, and roared at the top of her lungs. “Fight me, cowa—”
A foghorn noise exploded around us, a tidal wave so deep and so loud that it rattled my teeth and vibrated the jelly inside my eyeballs. It was not actually sound — such a spike of decibels would have blown out the eardrums of every human being present in Camelot, but when it faded we were not rendered deaf. Sound was simply the only way our senses could process this information, this Outside effect, meant for Outside places and Outsider beings.
Everyone — without exception — jumped, flinched, jerked, reacted by hunching shoulders and going quiet, wide-eyed in animal recognition.
There could be no mistake what that noise meant: I am here, I am bigger than you, and I am telling you to stop what you are doing.
Even Praem blinked three times, hard and slow, as if her eyes were watering. Ahead of us, Zheng halted her assault, turning to gaze back toward us, upon the source of the noise. The pause gave the knights enough time to catch up and interpose themselves between the two combatants. July turned and bowed her head.
“Thank you!” Lozzie called to the caterpillar.
Twil, clinging to Lozzie like she was the one in need of a big strong rescuer, was staring back our way like a puppy confronted by a lobster.
Behind us, the giant machine-creature of bone-carapace was humming from inside, the volume level falling through successive layers, as if some great engine was spooling down behind the armour plating. Nobody else spoke or moved until the sound finally drained away to nothing. Warning delivered, the caterpillar fell silent once more.
“Mmmmrrrrrr,” went Tenny, uncertain and soft. In her arms, poor Whistle looked absolutely terrified, silent and wide-eyed, very much wanting to get out of here. Sevens had her hands clamped over her ears, still wincing. Praem had not let go of Jan’s hand, but Jan stuck one of her fingers in her own ear, blinking as if to clear watering eyes. Evelyn had gone pale with shock.
I was not exempt from the caterpillar’s message; all my abyssal desire for animal union with Zheng had vanished as if dashed beneath a bucket of cold water. I’d wrapped my tentacles tight around myself, the last refuge of a scared cephalopod.
“That was some ref’s whistle, alright,” Raine said. She started laughing. How she could laugh after that, I had no idea.
“Well,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat. “Well. Quite.”
One of Tenny’s tentacles reached out and gently touched her elbow. She flinched, but then awkwardly patted the silken smooth black appendage.
“Ow,” said Jan, blinking too hard. “Perhaps warn us, next time?”
For a moment I thought she was talking to us. Then I realised Jan was addressing the caterpillar.
“Thank you for your help,” Praem added, looking up at the wall of off-white bone.
“Burrrrrrr,” Tenny did not sound like she agreed with that one.
“Are they quite finished?” Jan asked, turning back to peer at Zheng and July. The huge white coat made her look like a rotating marshmallow, which went a long way to helping me unclench all my muscles.
“I … I think so?” I found my voice again. The knights were firmly between the pair of demon hosts now, a wall of shining chrome ready to block any further attempts at breaking the rules. Zheng turned a smouldering look of pure murder on July, but July just gazed at the caterpillar in mute acknowledgement. “Should we … ?” I ventured, lost for words. “Jan, do you want to … ?”
“Excuse me?” Jan squinted sidelong. “Absolutely not. I’m not getting anywhere near that. Jule!” she yelled. “Jule, what are you doing, you huge dingbat? Come back here, I’m going to dock you a hundred quid for wasting our time!”
July did not reply, outlined against the rolling hillsides.
“What are you waiting for?” Evelyn hissed at me, gesturing with her walking stick, shooing me onward. “Zheng will listen to you. Go on. Take Raine with you.”
“What?” I stammered, still trying to recover from my own whirling desires. “I— but you’re—”
“I’m not going to fall over without you, Heather. I’m fine. Tenny’s right here.” Evelyn cleared her throat, somewhat awkwardly. “Isn’t that right, Tenny?”
“Brrrrt!” went Tenny. She wrapped a single, polite, gentle tentacle around Evelyn’s elbow. “Auntie Evee safe.”
“ … right, right.” I nodded, trying to gather myself, feeling like I’d been spread out in a gooey puddle across the ground.
I took a couple of wobbly steps away from the group which still lingered by the open gateway, but my head was spinning. My heart pounded in my chest and cold sweat had broken out all across my torso, just from witnessing two transcendent predators locked in a moment of combat. My mouth was dry, my hands had gone cold and numb with tension, hugging my squid-skull mask to my belly like a hard, metallic pillow. I could barely unclench my tentacles. More importantly, I didn’t know if I wanted to risk doing so.
The prospect of walking right up to Zheng sent a dangerous thrill through my guts, another deep injection of adrenaline, another pulse of energy from my bioreactor.
Grab her, part of me screamed.
It helped that Raine was waiting for me only a dozen paces ahead. She held out a hand as I approached. I forced myself to let go of the squid-skull mask and tuck it under one arm, so I could take Raine’s hand.
“Hey, hey it’s okay,” she murmured, but she was grinning. Fascination danced behind her eyes. “You could have put one of your tentacles in my hand instead, if you preferred.”
“Oh, right. You can see them,” I managed to say, robotic and inarticulate. “We’re Outside. Yes.”
I tried to take a step, to carry on toward Twil and Lozzie, who were waiting for us. But Raine held on tight and bobbed her head so I couldn’t avoid her eyes.
“It’s alright, Heather. It’s gonna be fine,” she said. “The catty boy stopped them. I’m sure it’s nothing life or death, right?”
“Right,” I breathed, tense as a wound spring.
That grin got worse. She glanced over at Zheng and July was with naked appreciation. “But did you see that?”
I pulled on her hand, dragging us onward. “A little hard to miss, yes,” I whispered.
Lozzie and Twil were only marginally better. They were holding hands too, though for rather different reasons. Lozzie had her poncho tugged tight around her torso, like a protective membrane. Twil was still watching the caterpillar, as if it might start booming again.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil said as we joined them. “Big lad goes boop, hey?”
“Big boops,” Lozzie said.
“Lozzie,” I asked. “What happened over there? What was July saying?”
Lozzie met my eyes, awkward and upturned, biting her bottom lip. Her free hand clutched the inside of her poncho, not quite afraid — she had nothing to be afraid of, out here among her creations — but embarrassed and self-conscious.
“Um … you should ask Zheng,” she said.
“Ah,” Raine said. “I’m guessing that means it was about you, Heather.”
“Mmmhmmmm!” Lozzie confirmed, lips pressed together, averting her eyes.
“Come on, let’s go sort this out,” Raine said, gently pulling me onward, our roles swapped yet again. “Maybe we can salvage a proper duel out of this yet. I wanna see them finish what they started.”
“Don’t really think that matters anymore,” Twil muttered.
“Sure it does!” Lozzie chirped.
As we approached July and Zheng — impassive and sulky, respectively — and their loose scrum of knightly chaperones, my week-old jealousy finally began to curdle and boil away under the release of pressure, revealing it had been rotten all along, hiding a layer of plain ugliness beneath. Zheng was staring at the side of July’s head like she wanted to drive her fist through the other demon’s skull. Her clean and clear lust for joyous combat was nowhere to be found, not even a scrap of it deep inside the glowering dark pools of her eye sockets, no aura of pleasure in the set of her shoulders or the poise of her muscles, exposed by her t-shirt. July couldn’t care less, watching the caterpillar instead, then watching us approach without a single care written upon her staring, owlish expression.
Part of me liked that Zheng’s attitude had changed. What was there to be jealous of now?
But another part of me felt such terrible guilt for being happy about that. All she’d wanted was a friendly contest with a physical equal. She’d even wanted me to watch. And now some rude remark — about me — had robbed her of that. She’d been happy, now she was sad. And I was almost satisfied by that.
My moment of clarity of abyssal need to grapple with Zheng had washed my mind clean. I didn’t like what I found there.
You disgusting thing, I hissed at myself inside the privacy of my own mind. You’re happy that somebody you love is disappointed? You’re foul.
I wanted to slip the squid-skull mask on over my head, hide my face, become something else, some other being that didn’t have to feel guilt over irrational and ugly jealousy. With the mask on, I could launch myself at Zheng and have her catch me mid air, pin me to the ground, and hold me there in victory, pinned and squealing and batting at her with my tentacles. Clean and simple and swimming in cold water, my heart ached for that clarity of purpose.
But I was still Heather, whatever else I was.
Raine, Twil, Lozzie, and I all drew to a halt, just short of the little clutch of various very tall beings. I felt even shorter than usual, compared with demons and knights. At least I knew the knights were friendly. That helped as they towered there, silent and still, their chrome armour reflecting the yellow hillsides and purple sky.
“Alright, you two,” Raine spoke up first, bright and jovial, one big joke. She thumbed back over her shoulder. “The chonk lord back there — or is it chonk lady? Lozzie?”
“Chonk lord!” Lozzie cheered.
“Chonk lord back there says no fighting without the rules, okay?” Raine waited a beat, but neither demon said anything. “Hey, Zheng, left hand. What’s up? Talk to me, dumb arse, I’m right here and I’m on your side, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Zheng drew in a deep breath and let out a slow rumble, a tiger held at bay with a wall of spears.
“The wager still stands,” July said, smooth and calm. She finally looked away from us and focused on Zheng again.
Zheng growled. “There. Is. No. Wager.”
“Then there will be no duel.”
“Excuse me?” I tried to say. What I actually did was squeak, an embarrassing warble that ended in a hiccup and a huff. Raine squeezed my hand and I tried again. “There was no discussion of a wager. What is this about? July, excuse me, I’m sorry, but what did you say to Zheng? I don’t mind you two … ” I trailed off with a lump in my throat. “Well, this was supposed to be a friendly duel. Safe. A bit of fun. What did you say?”
“That is between her and I,” July said, without turning to me.
“Ha!” Zheng barked. She thumped one fist against her own chest. “There is nothing beyond the shaman’s sight, you pigeon. You do not comprehend what you see, because you are not even looking. Look at her.”
“You are fond of your octopus,” July replied, cool and level, delicate yet sharp. “That much you have established. At length. The wager remains the same.”
“O-octopus?” I ventured. “ … me?”
“Duh,” Twil said.
Zheng opened her mouth wide and roared at July, past the jagged barrier of knights between them.
“I will rip your head from your shoulders and stop your throat with dung! There will be no wager because I will eat your marrow and cast your guts out for the vultures!”
I had never seen Zheng so angry, at least not without following it up by ripping somebody apart. It was like standing next to a bottled hurricane — she was holding back, her anger kept in check, pressurised by the lack of outlet. Just like me.
I flinched very hard and barely resisted an urge to scramble behind Raine, my tentacles bunching and tightening to protect my core. Twil was suddenly half-werewolf, spirit scraps floating around her body. Lozzie sort of vibrated on the spot, hands up by her chin, pattering from foot to foot. At least she wasn’t afraid.
Just when I thought the caterpillar would have to boom for peace again, Raine raised her voice.
“Whoa, whoa! Hey!” Raine yelled. Zheng snapped her teeth shut. I could practically see the steam coming off her hide.
“Zheng pleeeeease,” Lozzie whined. Zheng dipped her head, almost ashamed, but still glowered at July
“What wager?” I managed to squeeze the words out.
Zheng’s attention finally left her opponent — and found me instead. Darkly smouldering eyes like pits of fire fixed on mine. The sudden attention sent a pulse of adrenaline and hormones and worse slamming through my veins, confusing my instincts with overlapping desires I couldn’t handle. I wanted to leap at her and run away at the same time, scream in her face and fall to my knees in apology.
She held out one hand toward me, a pose of both request and offering in the same gesture, the double intent and the care on display in the slow motion of her muscles, the curl of her fingers, and the way her expression finally softened into quasi-religious reverence.
Zheng hadn’t looked at me that way in weeks.
“Shaman,” she purred.
“Zheng,” I breathed. “I’m here.”
Raine gently pushed me toward Zheng’s outstretched hand. I took it, subconsciously coiling tentacles around her wrist and forearm. She pulled me in close and turned me around by the shoulders, to face July. With my back pressed against Zheng, the heat pouring off her soaked into my tense muscles, unknotted week-old tension and turned me pliant as butter.
Then, without warning, Zheng scooped me up like a handbag puppy.
“Wah!” I let out a yelp of surprise, spluttering and flailing. “Zheng!”
She hoisted me into the air, one arm cradling my buttocks for support, the other around my belly, lifting me until my head was level with hers, displaying me to July like a trophy. Instinctively I lashed myself to her with my tentacles, holding on like a squid to a rock in a strong current. Raine struggled not to laugh and Twil openly snorted. Lozzie went red in the face, covering her mouth with her poncho, flapping around with her other hand like she was watching a romance scene in a soap opera.
“Look at the shaman,” Zheng rumbled at July, “if you would have me think you a bird of prey and not some brain-addled pigeon.”
“I see an octopus,” said July. “Big deal. You’re in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing. You know it too.”
“Zheng, oh my goodness,” I spluttered, blushing bright red in the face, feeling like a tiny dog waggling my legs in the air. Whatever pride she had in me was rather overwhelmed by sheer embarrassment. “Put me down!”
“Maybe you should listen to her,” July suggested.
“Ah come on,” Twil said. “This is getting silly.”
“Heathy go up!” Lozzie cheered.
But Zheng’s next words emerged with none of the humour the rest of us were trying to inject into this tense situation. She purred deep and low, rich with the promise of bloody violence, right next to my head. I froze at her tone, the anger and the love.
“If the shaman so wished it,” Zheng told July, “she could dismantle you piece by piece and send each piece to a different void. There would be no defence against her. No counter move. Nothing.”
July opened her mouth to reply, but Zheng carried on.
“As barely a tadpole of what she is now, she lashed out at me, unskilled and clumsy — and she took off my left arm, at the shoulder.”
July paused. Finally, her eyes flickered to me. She stared, fixed and wide-eyed. It was indeed like being stared down by a giant owl.
“She did,” said July. “I see.”
“You are fun, bird of prey,” Zheng purred. “You are a good opponent. You are a skilled hunter. You are good enough to land blows on me and avoid my reply in kind. But you could never take a limb from me.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” July’s attention returned to Zheng — but then flicked back over to me. It was the first time I’d seen her hesitate.
“The shaman broke my chains,” Zheng rumbled. “Compared to her, you are nothing.”
My heart strained in my chest like it was going to burst. I almost couldn’t bear to hear these words, not after I’d been stewing in my rancid jealousy all week long, struggling to communicate with Zheng, silently accusing her of emotional infidelity without giving her a chance to defend herself. Her love for me was strange and fierce, not fully sexual, tinged with religious awe and reverence, built on a foundation of worship and animal recognition — but how could I ever have doubted it, for even a moment?
“Zheng,” I managed to say, blushing tomato-red up in the air, my feet dangling, “I appreciate your feelings on the matter, but I would also appreciate if you could put me down, please.”
Zheng relented, finally plonking me back down on my wobbly feet. She kept her hands on my hips, holding me steady until I unwrapped my tentacles from around her arms and shoulders. My extra limbs had gone stiff from gripping her so hard, from fear of falling; I wondered if I’d left marks on her skin, beneath her clothes. A strange, animal part of me wondered if she would enjoy that. Another part of me started to lean back against her, luxuriating in the heat her skin gave off, hoping she would wrap her arms around me and I could push back with my tentacles and—
I snapped to, standing up straight. Not now, maybe not ever. We were still right in the middle of a very tense situation.
“Chains are of the mind,” July said to Zheng.
“You were born free, fledgling,” Zheng said. “You do not understand.”
“I, um, I feel like I’m still missing something here?” I cleared my throat and felt extremely awkward, surrounded by the towering chrome knights and the muscular prowess of both Zheng and July. “What wager are you demanding, July? What is going on here?”
“I think I’m following,” Raine said quietly. Something unpleasant and sharp edged into her voice.
“The duel is off,” Zheng said to July.
“Awwww, come on!” Twil huffed. “After all this mucking about?”
Raine sighed and smiled a disappointed smile. Lozzie puffed her cheeks out and whined in her throat.
“Then you are a coward,” July replied. “You do not believe in your own prowess.”
“I have nothing to prove to you, pigeon,” Zheng spat back. “I would not reforge my own chains or depart from the shaman’s side for the chance to urinate on your twitching corpse.”
“Whoa,” Twil muttered. Lozzie bit her lip and edged behind the werewolf. Raine just laughed.
I stepped to the side so I was able to look at Zheng’s face without craning back over my shoulder, then put my hands on my hips and did my best to channel a fraction of Evelyn’s habitual irritation, that grumpy look that I admired so much. But when I spoke I sounded more like a huffy schoolmarm. “This is getting silly. Twil is right, we’ve gone to all this trouble to set up this duel. July, you won’t fight without this wager? What is it? And Zheng, what did she say about me? Why are you both being so cagey?”
July just stared at Zheng. Zheng bared her teeth.
“Ummmmmmmmmmmmm,” Lozzie drew the sound out — and out, and out, and out, until finally everyone was looking at her. Even July had to relent. Lozzie peeked over Twil’s shoulder, sleepy-eyed and impish, like she knew exactly the impact her words would have. “July wants to wager ownership of Zheng, like a contract or a prize or winning her heart, that sort of thing, so if July wins Zheng has to follow her from now on. Sorry, sorry!” Lozzie ducked her head beneath her arms, expecting retribution.
“Yuuuup,” Raine murmured. “Thought as much.”
“Well that’s fucked up,” Twil said. “This isn’t a fucking meat market.”
A cold feeling settled in my stomach. My brain couldn’t quite catch up with that information. “And … what if Zheng wins?”
“I named no wager,” Zheng rumbled. “Because I will not fight under that condition. The duel is off.”
“Coward,” July repeated.
Her voice was casual and relaxed, like an older girl in a playground fight goading a shorter and weaker opponent, but with no expectation of real retribution.
I stared at July, at this strange demon host — her intense, wide eyes, her birdlike precision in every movement, her presence like a living razor blade. Her facial features were a grand echo of Jan’s more delicate looks, as if they were sisters born from different fathers but the same mother. She looked so much more human, almost at baseline normal, compared to Zheng’s muscular power and huge stature, or Praem’s controlled poise and blank eyes, but I realised in that silent moment, trapped between an unreasonable wager and over a week of anticipation, that I had no idea what I was looking at. July was a far greater unknown. I did not know July, did not know how she had been raised, had no idea of her value system.
And in a way, she wished to re-enslave Zheng.
July must have felt me staring, because she finally turned, unprompted, to look at me, to fix me with that wide-eyed, burning gaze. There were none of Lozzie’s knights between us at this angle, nothing blocking us from each other.
The Heather of six months ago would have shrank and fled. The Heather of yesterday would have cast her eyes down, ashamed of her thoughts, guilty and twisted up inside. But that Heather was wrong.
I slipped my squid-skull mask on over my head, sliding into the comfort of darkness and metallic bone, staring out through the eye-holes. I felt my spine straighten and my tentacles quieten, spreading out from my body with instinctive threat display. Somebody hissed my name, possibly Raine, but then Zheng purred with approval. A dozen processes stirred inside me — toxin production in my skin, the itch of desire to plate myself with chitin and bio-steel, the ache of sprouting spines.
All too easy to perform those modifications, Outside. All too easy to slip over.
I resisted the urges, for now.
“Zheng is mine,” I told July, speaking against the inside of the mask, but somehow my voice still carried. “But only because she chooses to be. If you make such a suggestion again, if you try to make her a slave, then you will fight me, not her. And not in a duel.”
The words were meant to be cold and calm, but my heart fluttered with anger.
“Holy shit, big H,” Twil hissed.
A gentle hand closed on my upper arm. I allowed it to stay. I wasn’t actually going to fight July, I only wanted to make this clear.
July stared me down for a long moment. I felt my tentacles begin to tingle, ceasing their rainbow strobing and turning darker as the skin flushed with neurotoxin, preparing to pucker into stingers and barbs.
Then July bowed her head to me. “I apologise. I have misunderstood the situation.”
I almost panted inside the mask. “That’s all you have to say?”
“That’s all I have to say. You have an apology.”
“Apology accepted,” I said. Then I let out a huge sigh, pulled the helmet off my head again, and almost fell over with my hair going everywhere. But Raine was there at my side, to steady me.
“Thank fuck for that,” Twil hissed.
“Mm,” Zheng grunted in disapproval. “You should grovel, bird of prey.”
“One grovels for offence, not mistakes,” July replied, raising her head again.
“I should put you on a spit and cook you, slowly.”
“I have been forgiven. You heard the words of your octopus.”
“Ha!” Zheng barked. “You have not been listening. I am not hers to command. She has forgiven you. I will not.”
“A pity. I would still like to fight.”
“Huh,” Zheng sneered.
“Excuse me,” I piped up, taking deep breaths to work the adrenaline out of my bloodstream, trying to clamp down on the eager beginnings of too many processes of abyssal biology. “But I need to know, July. Did Jan have any idea you were going to do something like this? I have a rather poor opinion of you now and I would prefer it not extend to Jan, if possible. She’s been very sweet so far.”
I couldn’t tell if July held me in contempt or not, her searchlight stare was so difficult to read, like looking back at an owl caught in the twilight.
“Jan cannot reliably tell her arse from her elbow,” July said. “Zheng terrifies her. If she knew of my wager, she would have fled Sharrowford.”
“Smart girl,” Twil said.
“Awwww!” went Lozzie. “But she’s so tiny!”
Zheng snorted a dark laugh. “The wizardling has more sense than her creation. A low bar to clear.”
“I am sorry you think that.”
Raine let out a big sigh, shaking her head. “I guess this means the duel is off, hey? Real shame. And we went to all this work, too.”
“I would still have our contest,” July said. “No wager.”
Zheng rumbled deep in her chest like a goaded tiger, curling both her hands into fists before flexing her fingers. She repeated the motion several times, visibly restless.
“Zheng,” I spoke up, reaching toward her with one tentacle and gently touching her flank. “I would like you to enjoy yourself. It is important to me.” I swallowed and forced myself to keep going. “If you want to fight July, for fun, then please do so.”
“What is the point?” Zheng asked, speaking to July. “I expected so much more.”
“I may not be able to pin you to the mat,” July said, “but I will knock you down time and again. You are strong, but you are slow.”
“And you will pay for the insult,” Zheng rumbled.
“Zheng,” I repeated her name, my voice a reedy tremor. Zheng’s dark, flashing eyes turned sidelong to catch mine.
“Do it if you wish. It’s up to you. But you aren’t ever going anywhere, not if you don’t wish to.”
Zheng took a deep breath. A savage grin ripped across her face. “Very well, shaman. For you.”
“The rules are simple enough,” Evelyn explained. “Now both of you listen, or I’ll have Praem twist your ears off.”
She stood with her back as straight as she could, walking stick planted at an angle, her scrimshawed thigh-bone tucked under one elbow. Between her pose and her disciplinary glower, she looked more like she was delivering battle plans than adjudicating the demonic equivalent of a boxing match.
And I stood right next to her, trying not to openly admire her poise. I had other things to think about right then.
Zheng and July stood a few paces away, having trudged back over to the gateway, the caterpillar, and the dubious carapace-bench. A small cluster of knights had trailed us as well, just in case Zheng and July decided to break their ceasefire early. But the demons had shown every sign of listening patiently, so Lozzie had gestured by flapping her poncho, and the knights had fanned out to take up positions around the edge of the imaginary boxing ring.
Lozzie and I flanked Evelyn, the metaphorical power behind the throne. That was a strange feeling, as I stood there and listened — realising that I, little old me, with my scrawny muscles and lank hair, I was the big stick. Well, Lozzie was too, but that was even stranger.
The others were all by the bench — all except Sevens and Tenny, who had stepped back through the gateway, back to Sharrowford and home, carrying Whistle. We had wordlessly agreed that the coming level of violence was not for children or dogs, even if it was going to be strictly non-lethal.
Raine stood at the end of the bench, hands on her hips, watching July and Zheng with a curious look on her face, faintly amused. Jan and Praem sat side by side, a stark contrast in height even when sat down, made worse by Jan’s massive white coat that swamped her like castle walls around her slender body. She wiggled pink-clad legs over the side of the bench. Praem had the tub of strawberries open in her lap, chewing slowly. Jan had performed her magical pocket trick again, producing a polystyrene fast-food box of fried chicken from thin air. The smell had drawn Twil over like a pet dog hearing the food cupboard open in a distant kitchen, but Jan had frowned over her dark sunglasses, making a show of refusing to share. July had divested herself of the guitar case with the magic sword inside, laying it at Jan’s feet with a strangely ceremonial gesture, though Jan had pointedly paid no attention. As far as I could tell, she’d refused to touch the thing at all.
But Jan couldn’t hide the true direction of her interest — she kept casting sidelong, covert glances over at Lozzie. But she had to lean forward around the collar of her own coat every time, which ruined her attempt at subtlety.
“One round,” Evelyn continued. I turned my attention back to her, away from Lozzie giving Jan a little wave with the corner of her poncho. “No time limit. Though if it goes on for hours, we will call a draw. Some of us have better things to do than watch a glorified mud wrestling match.”
“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled a warning.
“And you can shut your mouth for once, you giant lug,” Evelyn snapped back. Zheng blinked slowly, like a big cat refusing to admit it was cowed, but accepting that further complaints would only cause more delays. “Now, after some basic consultation with Jan and with Lozzie, we have decided on some limits. These apply to both of you, understand?” Evelyn didn’t wait for an answer. “No ripping and tearing, no removing each other’s body parts, no biting, gouging, stabbing, etcetera. Blows and grapples only.”
“Understood,” July said.
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Acceptable.”
Evelyn gave Zheng a look like she wanted to spray her with a garden hose. “If you break the rules, the caterpillar will sound off again. Don’t, because none of us want that. If either of you are knocked down and can’t rise after ten seconds, you lose. Same for being pinned, if you can’t break the hold and rise after ten seconds. This is very simple and straightforward. Have I made myself clear?”
“Who counts?” July asked.
“The knights!” Lozzie chirped. “They’re more accurate and impartial and they can see a lot lot lot more anyway!”
“Done,” Zheng grunted. She rolled her neck and shoulders, a show of limbering up, slabs of thick muscle shifting and bunching beneath her plain white t-shirt. “Ready, bird of prey?”
July did something I’d not seen from her yet — she bounced twice on the balls of her feet, arms loose, as if flexing the whole length of her body. Her wide and staring eyes closed for a full second, then snapped back open again. “I am now.”
“You will wait for the signal,” Evelyn grunted. “Walk out about ten meters, in the middle of the knights there. Keep your distance from each other until the signal. And you better bloody well stay clear of this bench, because so help me God I will spank both of you if we have to get up and scramble out of your way for this nonsense.”
“Word,” Raine called. “No crashing into the stands, you hear?”
“Do not worry, little wolf,” Zheng raised her voice in reply.
“Good luck,” I said. Zheng’s gaze lingered on me for a moment. She grinned wide, showing all her shark’s teeth, then she turned and stalked away, keeping more than one arm’s length between her and July.
Evelyn let out a shaking sigh. I carefully took her free hand. “Are you okay, Evee?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” she grunted, turning a sharp frown on me as the demons departed for the field. “Are you?”
“Yes, you, Heather. You look like you’re ready to have some kind of breakdown.”
“ … I’m just twitchy,” I said, only half a lie. I had no idea how Evelyn would react if I confessed that I sort of wanted to wrestle with Zheng myself. “I want to … my tentacles feel … I feel restless.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, already swinging her walking stick around and heading for the bench, dragging me along. “I’m sorry for poking you with my stick earlier, you looked like you needed it. But I am going to sit the hell down and not move for a while, my hip is killing me and I’ve had enough of this bloody place already. Fuck Outside. Fuck zombies. Fuck all this … this … playground nonsense. Less time spent out here the better, for you as well.”
“It’s okay, Evee-weevey,” Lozzie piped up too, skipping ahead on Evelyn’s other side, flapping her poncho like a flying squirrel catching the air. “I don’t think it’s gonna take long!”
“Ehhhhh,” Evelyn grunted. “It better not.”
I helped Evelyn get settled on the bench, then took my place next to her while Zheng and July stalked off into the middle of their imaginary ring, framed by the yellow hillsides and the towering knights. Raine watched them go as well, a subtle frown on her brow. Twil puffed out a sigh, staring wistfully at the box of fried chicken in Jan’s lap.
Jan cleared her throat delicately, one hand to her mouth. “I really feel like I should apologise,” she ventured, putting on a show of hesitancy. “I didn’t know Jule was going to do any of that. Perhaps this place is getting to her. It does feel odd out here, like I’m half in a dream, or as if I’ve just come round from being groggy or … ” She trailed off, shaking her head slowly.
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “And yes, being Outside does that to people.”
“I’ve almost lost my appetite,” she said.
“Wish you would,” Twil whispered.
“Still, it’s a pretty raw impression,” Jan said directly to me, across Evelyn’s lap. She had to lean forward to make her face seen around the bulk of her huge puffy white coat, sitting on the bench like a splayed marshmallow. “For the record, there’s no way I would have somehow taken on your Zheng friend. Absolutely not.”
“Zheng is not scary,” Praem said. She selected another strawberry and held it up to the sky, as if the purple light of Camelot was shining through the red flesh of the fruit.
“Perhaps not to you,” Jan sighed. “But I beg to differ.”
“Well,” I said, a little embarrassed. “Friend, yes, but more … um … er … ”
Lozzie chose that exact moment to flounce past, flapping the hem of her pastel poncho like a jellyfish membrane. She stopped in front of Jan, bit her lip, and looked down sidelong at the tiny, delicate mage in her pink and white tracksuit.
I’d never seen Lozzie act shy before. She played it off by putting on a little show, but it was plain to see.
Jan, on the other hand, had no hope of hiding her emotions. She looked up at Lozzie, eager and interested, but then wet her lips and had nothing to say, stuck with her mouth open.
“Hi!” Lozzie chirped eventually, doing a little jump-turn toward Jan, poncho and hair going everywhere.
“Hello! Yes! You and I, we must talk!” Jan said. “You’re Lozzie, yes? May I call you that? I’m Jan, we should … um … well. You know.”
Lozzie tilted her head one way, then the other. “Later? Are you staying to hang out or have you gotta go go go after back home real quick? Fight time is now and fight time is kind of stressful so I have to pay attention and watch in case of bad things, but bad things probably won’t happen but you know how it is. Or maybe you don’t? Which is fine too!”
Jan just stared, slightly stunned, hanging off every word. “Uh … I can … may I?”
“You’re quite welcome to ‘hang out’,” I said. “But maybe not July. She has to, I don’t know, wait in the cellar or something.”
Jan winced and sighed. “We do come as a set. Again, I’m very sorry.”
“I’m only being sore,” I said.
“Don’t apologise for other people!” Lozzie chirped. She giggled and pulled the hem of her poncho up to cover her mouth.
“That is a very fetching outfit, by the way,” Jan said. “Very nice. I do like it.”
“Wanna borrow?” Lozzie waved a corner of pastel fabric at her, a cephalopod communication gesture.
Jan laughed softly. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m quite comfortable here like this. Thank you.”
“Flirt later,” Evelyn grunted. “Are they ready yet?”
“I think sooooo!” Lozzie said, bouncing forward a few steps and peering out at the combatants.
Jan cleared her throat and busied herself chewing on a piece of chicken. “It’s not flirting, really. Absolutely not.” She tutted, frowning at Evelyn.
“You know what I think?” Raine spoke up, full-throated and confident. She was peering out at Zheng and July with a shrewd frown. “I think July was just trying to psyche Zheng out.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Oh,” Jan said. “Oh, well, maybe. That’s not her style though.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Twil said. “She’s all about unsettling. Have you ever looked at her? Shit!”
“Unsettle her before the fight,” Raine explained for my benefit. “Put her off balance with an emotional attack. Make her lose her temper, think more was on the line than really was. Smart move. Not what I would do with Zheng, but smart move all the same.”
“You mean … you think it was all a lie?” I asked.
“It’s not impossible.” Raine shot me a wink. “You’re not so good at subterfuge, Heather.”
Twil suddenly laughed. “You can say that again.”
“Oh shush,” I struggled not to blush. “I just never thought of that.”
“It is a good point,” Jan added, chewing on a mouthful of fried chicken, then licking her fingertips. “It’s not as if she or I could magically compel Zheng, anyway. How was she going to enforce the result?”
“Violence?” suggested Raine.
“Hardly,” Jan said, pulling a distasteful grimace. “Don’t, you’ll put me off my lunch.”
I was shaking my head. “I can’t believe this.”
“You’re all stupid,” Evelyn grumbled. “Lozzie, are we ready?”
“Maybe!” Lozzie chirped, bouncing from foot to foot. In the middle of the loose ring of knights, Zheng and July faced each other; Zheng rolled her shoulders like a prizefighter limbering up her weapons, but July just stared, relaxed and placid. Lozzie raised and waved both hands. “Woooo! Ready?” she called.
“Jan,” I said with a sigh, “before this kicks off, finally, I really must put this in perspective. What is July, to you? Are you sisters, or … more? Or less, that’s a thing too.” I cleared my throat, feeling awkward. “If you don’t mind answering, of course.”
Jan peered around the edge of her massive coat again, one eyebrow raised in a slightly peevish look. “You’re asking if she and I fuck.”
“I-I’m not asking for that level of detail!” I squeaked out. Next to me, Evelyn sighed and put her face in her hand. Twil snorted a laugh.
“No,” Jan said, polite but unimpressed. “She’s a sister, at best. A difficult one, too. We’re not like you and your Zheng, we’re not screwing each other.”
I blushed again, hard. “Zheng and I don’t— I mean, that isn’t what we we— we don’t have sex. It’s not like that. It’s just … I’m trying to figure her out. As a demon. I thought you might have something to share. I’m sorry. I got the wrong impression. Sorry.”
Jan opened her mouth to answer, but Evelyn got there first, turning a deep, piercing frown on me.
“You don’t?” she demanded. “You and Zheng? You don’t … do it?”
“ … Evee?” My blush deepened. I could almost feel the steam coming off my face.
“Just answer the question!” she hissed.
“Well, no. We don’t.”
Evelyn blinked once. “Huh.”
Jan let out a long-suffering sigh and leaned back into the sanctuary of her coat again. “Your polycule is a nightmare.”
“You can tell we’re a polycule?” I asked. “I mean, we’re not!”
“We’re not a polycule,” Evelyn grumbled.
“You are very obviously a polycule,” Jan said, unimpressed in the extreme. Her brilliant blue eyes peered around her coat again, over the rims of her dark glasses. “You’re telling me you two aren’t dating? Queen bitch and miss octopus?”
Evelyn and I glanced at each other. I froze and swallowed, tentacles squirming in horrible discomfort either side of me. Evelyn cleared her throat and looked away. Twil was struggling to contain her laughter so badly that I thought she might fall off the bench.
“Oh,” Jan said, sinking back behind the wall of her coat. “My apologies, indeed.”
“Hey, hey,” Raine said, waving a hand behind herself to catch our attention, while hers stayed locked on the pair of demons. “They’re gonna start.”
Lozzie had the hem of her poncho raised in one hand, held high like a flag ready to descend. We fell quiet, all eyes on the combatants. My heart climbed into my mouth. Evelyn’s hand squirmed into mine.
“Ready!” Lozzie cheered. “Set! Ding ding ding!”
She sliced through the air with a handful of fluttering pastel and finished with a celebratory twirl.
For the first second, neither fighter moved. Zheng waited, tall and poised like jungle cat, her fists raised, one low, one high in a rough fighting stance, every muscle straining with a deceptive economy of tension. July held herself perfectly still, in the way of a waiting dagger.
Then, almost faster than the human eye could follow, July struck first.
Now she had approval, now it was official, there was no holding back.
Zheng had named her well; it was like watching a bird of prey scream through the air to descend on a mountain goat. A Roc, falling from the heavens, a thunderbolt of speed and power from the roiling clouds. Zheng dug her heels into the soft earth at the last split second, trying to pivot like a bullfighter before the charge — but she got it wrong. Weight and impact were not July’s intent.
Instead of sailing past Zheng, she checked her rush by counterbalancing her body, giving up on throwing her weight behind a punch. She ducked directly inside Zheng’s guard, her arms flashing out — one, two, three, knuckles landing hits on Zheng’s unprotected stomach.
I don’t know why I was shocked when Zheng reeled from the blows. I’d seen the bruises on her flesh. I knew this might happen.
But I still winced and flinched. Evelyn squeezed my hand.
Zheng grunted like a winded horse and swiped downward to slam July’s skull into the ground, but July was already past her, dancing away on the balls of her feet, her bare arms loose like rubber as she slipped away. Zheng swung wide and July bobbed out of the arc of the strike. She back-pedalled, putting space between herself and Zheng’s fists.
“You can’t catch me,” July said, loud enough for us all to hear. “You’re not fast enough.”
“Ooooh,” Jan winced. “I am sorry. July hasn’t been this bitchy in years. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”
“Infatuation,” Raine murmured — so fixated on the fight that she was distracted in a way I’d never seen before.
But Zheng did not answer July’s goad. She put her fists up again and twisted her body into a different stance, arms held wider to block July’s next attempt.
July rose to the challenge a second time. She fell like a raptor and repeated the feat again, coming in like a whip-snap on the air, ducking inside Zheng’s guard and landing hammer-blow strikes on her belly, her hips, the sides of her ribcage. I heard a pair of cracking noises, loud and awful, the unmistakable sound of Zheng’s ribs breaking under the punches. She heaved a grunt of pain.
July slipped away again, weaving and ducking and twisting like a winged snake. Zheng roared with her final missed counter-attack, fists finding empty air instead of flesh. She turned and spat a mouthful of blood onto the grass — but then she grinned.
“Come at me, pigeon! I almost have you!”
Twil grimaced. “Why’s she letting July set the pace? What the fuck is she doing?”
This time there was no pause. July came in a third time, then a fourth, her body whipping around like a length of steel cable. She stuck Zheng in the face, a slamming impact that made Zheng’s head snap to the side. Then, finally, Zheng managed to block a blow with her forearm — but July saw it coming and followed up with a strike from another angle. I heard another awful crack, the sound of a breaking bone in Zheng’s arm.
“Go down,” July said, hopping back. “Or I’ll keep hitting you until a concussion.”
“Soon, pigeon,” Zheng grunted. She was bleeding from her lips, face blossoming with dark bruises, shoulders hunched in pain.
“What’s she doing?!” Twil was up on her feet, arms out, eyes wide. “This is bullshit! Zheng, for fuck’s sake!”
“Oh my goodness,” Jan murmured. “Raine, I do believe you’re right.”
“And Zheng’s rejecting her,” Raine said. “Her whole way of fighting. Shitting on the technique. But I don’t get this, what’s her plan?”
“She’s already won,” I muttered. A feeling filled me like nothing I’d ever felt before, a recognition, an instinctive knowing, though I couldn’t put it into words. I’d never so much as watched a boxing match before, I had no idea how any of this worked, how could I be remotely certain? My tentacles ached to imitate Zheng’s fists, every inch of my skin itched all over with a wordless urge to sprout and bloom; if Evelyn hadn’t been holding my hand, I would have leapt to my feet with the sheer energy of the moment. I was sweating like crazy, almost panting, my head flushed like my brain was bathed in honeyed fire.
“Heather?” Somebody said my name. I wasn’t sure who.
“Zheng’s already won. She’s already won!” I repeated.
July lunged for Zheng a sixth time. I was so sure of Zheng, so certain deep down in my abyssal guts, that I was not prepared at all.
Zheng twisted as if to catch July, to snatch her fists from the air and pin her — but July saw it coming. Zheng went left, because July had always gone left up until now. I only realised that when I saw the mistake.
But this time July went right, ducking around Zheng, taking it wide as if she’d been warned off. But then she stepped in close and actually stopped, full stop, for just a split second.
Just long enough to wind up a hammer-blow to the back of Zheng’s neck.
Crunch, crack. Zheng’s head snapped forward.
I saw the strength go out of her limbs. Connections cut. Nerves interrupted. She was a demon host, she’d heal in minutes — I had no real fear for her safety or health — but she’d lost. A band tightened inside my chest, around my heart.
Her rejection had failed.
But as Zheng started to crumple forward, July allowed herself a split second of relaxation, a single moment of appreciation for a job well done. Muscles stilled, pose slackened, breath left her parted lips.
Zheng’s right leg shot out and caught the ground like a spring; she twisted around, turning the crumple into a pounce, a tiger coming out of a feint and into a rugby tackle. It would take more than one sucker-punch to break Zheng’s spine.
I was up on my feet and yelling my lungs out when Zheng slammed into July’s midsection and rode her to the ground.
Well, there you go. Zheng’s been doing this for a long time, there was no way she was going to get outplayed by some fancy footwork. But hey, the fight ain’t over just yet.
Gosh, I do love writing fight scenes. Perhaps a certain upcoming second project will contain a lot more of them …
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Next week, July’s down on the mat, but is she out for the count? And Heather seems to be having a gut reaction to all this, not to mention Raine’s intense interest.