Zheng’s tackle hit July in the stomach and hips. She used her whole body as a spring, from her ankles on upward, turning herself into a battering ram of muscle and bone, putting all her strength and weight behind the shoulder that rammed into July’s guts. Even over the sound of my own wild shout, Twil’s premature victory cheer, Evelyn’s hiss, and Jan’s sharp wince, I heard a wet crack-crunch of bone — July’s pelvis fracturing in two.
Her head snapped forward with whiplash pressure as Zheng’s momentum knocked her clean off her feet and bore her to the ground.
For a split second the pair of demons were suspended in the air, a freeze-frame of perfect technique, captured forever against the yellow horizon and void-purple skies of Camelot. July’s perpetual wide-eyed look was supplemented by her jaw hanging open in shock. Zheng grinned with sheer savage glee, showing her maw of shark’s teeth.
Then they slammed into the yellow velvet grass, so hard I thought I could feel the vibration in the soles of my trainers.
July’s skull bounced off the ground and Zheng drove her into the earth. Another uncontrolled shout tore from my throat, like I couldn’t help myself. I’d never felt this way before, in the grip of a physical need to celebrate and leap and yell and wave my arms — or my tentacles — at somebody else’s success. In that moment I finally understood those cheering crowds of football fans, roaring like one gestalt animal whenever their team scored a goal. I would never again look down on such exultation.
“She’s got her!” Twil yelled, pumping both fists in the air, much more used to this sort of thing.
“Looks that way,” Jan said through clenched teeth.
Evelyn surged to her feet next to me, craning her neck as if to get a better view of the fight, though she had a perfectly clear view just sitting on the makeshift carapace-bench. Even she wasn’t immune to this rush of shared sensation. But her body couldn’t quite keep up, she almost stumbled in an effort to steady her weight on her walking stick. She flinched when I caught her with one hand and one tentacle, but then she clung to my side as she found her feet.
Praem had paused in lifting a strawberry to her own mouth, blank white eyes staring ahead. Lozzie hopped from foot to foot like an overexcited rabbit, poncho fluttering. Behind us I heard a gurrrrrrr-ruuuk gurgle of shock from the direction of the gateway. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the fight to check the source, but that was unmistakably Sevens, snuck back over here to watch.
Only one of us didn’t react. Raine neither cheered nor winced. Hands on her hips, her expression a mask of focus and concentration, she watched the demons hit the dirt with a squint in her eyes and a frown on her brow.
“That’s gotta be it!” Twil said. “She’s fucked!”
“Don’t be so sure,” Raine murmured.
Everything I knew about fighting I had learnt from listening to Raine, though I had internalised scant little. I did possess a touch of abyssal cunning, that much was true, but instinctive gut-feeling about how to fling oneself across a room with a set of a tentacles, or how to flush one’s skin with tetrodotoxin and hiss one’s throat raw at a bigger predator, none of that helped with the technical knowledge of a one-on-one fistfight, let alone a competition with formal rules. I’d never so much as watched a boxing match or a martial arts video, at least not before I’d met Raine. But when she’d gushed to me about the intricacies of knife fighting and self-defence, she had made one thing abundantly clear: most real fights went to the ground, went there quickly, and did not come back up again until one combatant had lost.
My gut said surely this was over — July was fast, but Zheng had her now.
Doubt crept into my heart, because my heart trusted Raine. What did she see that the rest of us missed?
For half a second after the impact, the demons just lay there in a heap of bruises and broken bones, entwined together with Zheng’s arms around the small of July’s back and her head buried in the side of July’s chest, bare skin against bare skin, sweat mixing, both of them winded so hard they had to pause.
Later I would look back on that half-second and realise my earlier jealousy was deeply misplaced. Zheng, my Zheng, my beautiful rumbling giant of muscle and red-chocolate skin and body heat like a furnace, was snuggled up tight against another woman, a woman she had been physically pursuing for weeks, who she had lusted after, and was about to claim. This was not sex, but it was what Zheng wanted, a moment of meaning written with the joining of their own bodies — and all I cared about was that grin of joyous triumph on her face, her satisfaction and violent pleasure.
She was having fun and I was loving it.
A lifeless seed-stone finally germinated into a clean and healthy green sprout, deep inside my chest and gut, soaking up toxic swamp-filth and beginning to purify the waters. But only beginning. Right then was hardly the moment for fully processing that feeling. Now was the time for more violence.
Both combatants whirled back to life before the rest of us had time to take another breath. July bucked beneath Zheng, twisting to get away like a rattlesnake caught by a fox, all sinew and steel-cable muscle. But her legs were pinned beneath Zheng’s weight and her pelvis was still broken. Demon hosts could ignore pain — I knew that from the terrifying experience of riding along with Zheng’s leap from Glasswick tower, when she’d broken both her legs in multiple places to protect me from any damage — but a snapped pelvis was a structural failure. There was only so much the body could do with miss-anchored muscles and mulched nerve bundles, at least until demon host healing speed kicked in. But that could take minutes. July had only ten seconds to get off the floor before she lost the fight.
On cue, Lozzie raised one arm straight up into the air, a single finger extended to point at the heavens. All around the edge of the unmarked ring of combat, her knights raised swords and lances and axes and shields, then clashed them together in a great metallic stamp, ringing out over the hillsides.
“One!” Lozzie shouted.
“Why’s she not moving?!” Twil was yelling. “Zheng, push it!”
Zheng was clinging to July like a limpet, as if she thought she’d already won. July made a fist and swung a roundhouse at the back of Zheng’s head. The punch was clumsy and slow compared with her earlier grace and speed, but still with incredible strength behind the blow.
But then Zheng reared up, exploding from the ground like a sprinter from a standing start, using her leg muscles as springs again. July was caught mid-punch, unable to take the opening to wriggle away.
Zheng’s right arm flew up, then crashed down to pin July’s head against the ground. Zheng roared a laugh like a jungle cat, laughing at the hubris of her prey as July’s fist glanced off Zheng’s ribs. Her other hand slammed against July’s own ribcage, pinning her like an exotic butterfly.
“Oh come on, Jule, stay down,” Jan sighed.
“Okay that’s gotta be it!” Twil yelled.
The knights clashed weapons against shields a second time. “Two!” Lozzie called out, flicking up a second finger.
July writhed and bucked on the ground, staring up at Zheng with wide owlish eyes between Zheng’s own fingers, as if her gaze alone could throw her opponent clear. Zheng laughed right in her face, roaring a taunt that echoed out over the quiet plains of Camelot.
“Three!” Lozzie counted with the knights.
“Watch the feet,” Raine said a split second before it happened.
Zheng wasn’t the only one who could feint.
July’s struggling and bucking was not enough to overcome Zheng’s raw strength, backed up by all the power of her abyssal origins, whatever alien fibres and supernatural enhancements laced her muscles and bones. But then, quick as a lizard in the sun, one of July’s helpless attempts to throw Zheng off turned into something else. She jerked her legs up into the gap that Zheng had left between their bodies. A wince — an actual wince — passed over her staring, intense face, a wince of pain at what she was forcing her broken pelvis to support. Perhaps not all demon hosts could suppress their human nerves as expertly as Zheng.
July jackknifed her body, got her feet below Zheng, and kicked her double-barrel in the stomach.
“No!” I cried out, carried along that same stream of wild passion as before, but falling into a ravine of dismay.
Zheng took the kick with a great ooof of breath — but she stayed put, to everyone’s shock, especially July’s. The smaller demon host tried to take the opening to whip her body out from beneath Zheng. She managed to jerk her head to slip out from under Zheng’s crushing grip. But she’d expected Zheng to be thrown off her, so her moves were made with that in mind, muscles already locked into the correct response for the wrong result.
Zheng caught July’s head again like a mongoose pinning a snake, sideways this time, with July’s cheek crushed into the grass, facing us.
“Four!” Lozzie called as the knights counted.
July tried to kick Zheng again, legs jackknifing up into a firing position a second time — but Zheng sat on her knees, grinding her broken pelvis into the grass.
Zheng lowered her face toward July’s, pinned helpless against the earth. A slow, wicked grin parted Zheng’s lips, which peeled back upon row after row of razor sharp teeth.
Lozzie’s other arm shot into the air. “Six!”
July’s breath heaved in hard little spurts; I hadn’t known a demon host could visibly panic. Her eyes rolled sideways at Zheng, unable to look her in the face from the angle at which she was trapped, like an animal in a neck-snare. If July had not been a demon, I would have sworn she was terrified, but it was impossible to tell with her wide-eyed, staring look.
Zheng brought her clenched teeth to within inches of July’s cheek.
Out rolled Zheng’s tongue, inch after inch of thick, wet, red meat, almost a foot of flickering tentacle that lapped the air just shy of July’s quivering eyeballs.
“Serves you right, Jule,” Jan muttered. “See what happens when you bite off more than you can chew?”
“Er,” Twil said, suddenly alarmed. “She’s not gonna … like … she’s not gonna eat her, right?”
“She’s won!” I cheered. “Zheng!”
“Ummmm,” went Twil, increasingly worried.
“Eight!” Lozzie counted in time with the knights clashing their shields.
“If she tries any cannibalism,” Evelyn drawled — though even she could not hide the racing of her heart at this spectacle of violent intimidation, her voice quivering slightly, “then she’ll get knocked off by what is basically a sonic weapon. Relax.”
“She’s making herself clear,” Raine said. Her voice rang with open admiration. “But also, you know, softening the rejection.”
“She is!” I said, surprised to find a smile on my own face. Where had my jealousy gone? Zheng had her opponent pinned and was practically licking her face, a sign that even if she rejected her style, she approved of something. She accepted the connection, on her terms alone. But all I felt was an internal heat to match Zheng’s own, a restless urge to jump and shout and grab something — somebody, anybody — with my tentacles, and spin them around.
I took extra care not to squeeze Evelyn too hard with hand or tentacle alike, though I couldn’t help the way I cradled her shoulders. I wanted to pick her up and hug her.
Lozzie’s final finger flicked up, leaving only one thumb curled into her palm. “Nine!”
Zheng’s writhing tongue whipped back into her mouth. She clicked her teeth shut, millimetres away from July’s ear. Then I saw her lips moving as she purred some secret to her dancing partner.
The loose ring of knights raised their weapons to clash against their shields a final time. Beneath Zheng’s grip, July finally relaxed. The fight went out of her, eyes wide and staring ahead as if she’d already resumed her habitual owlish poise, despite being pinned to the ground.
Zheng — to my shock and horror — relaxed with her.
“Zheng—!” The cry tore up my throat.
July moved so fast she was almost a blur; she pulled her arms upward so her palms were flat on the ground either side of her chest, then twisted her hips and legs like a rubber band wound tight around a pencil, putting every ounce of muscular strength and surprise into throwing Zheng off her body.
Zheng was hurled into the air like a pebble from a sling, a tangle of flailing limbs going up and over July’s head. My chest constricted — victory, stolen!
“Holy shit,” Raine breathed, awe in her trapped words. She saw the result a moment before the rest of us realised.
Zheng’s arc was not uncontrolled at all.
Though thrown off July’s legs and into the air, Zheng’s right hand never left July’s skull. For one gravity-defying moment of acrobatic brilliance, she was balanced upside-down on her own joint-locked arm, planted on July’s head, her legs in the air, other hand whirling to catch herself. She was grinning wide, eyes blazing with joy, deep in her element.
July twisted again, taking advantage of the split second in which Zheng’s weight was in motion. She jackknifed her body, screamed in pain at her shattered pelvis, and attempted to leap to her feet.
But Zheng landed in a folded squat, one hand still cradling July’s skull like an eagle with an egg.
“Down!” Zheng roared.
She slammed July’s skull back into the ground. July’s whole body cracked like the length of a whip, the impact running through her and drumming her heels on the grass.
The knights clashed their weapons upon their shields. “Ten!” Lozzie shouted. She did a little up-down sweep with the fluttery hem of her pastel poncho, like she was waving the finish flag at a race. “Ding ding ding!”
Behind us, the gigantic bulk of her caterpillar emitted a low-pitched boop — tiny compared to the warning siren from earlier, a single touch of engine-plates that echoed out across Camelot, rolling away over the hills and off into the sky.
Final bell. Fight was done. Competitors, lay down your arms.
Just as with the opening of the fight, nobody moved for a long moment. Was it really over? After all, what set of rules could possibly constrain the beings we’d just witnessed? In reality it was only the space of two heartbeats, but it felt like minutes.
Zheng stayed hunched in a squat like an overgrown gargoyle, looming over July’s head, one massive hand still pinning her to the ground. The dark pools of her eyes bored down into July. Heaving for breath in victory, running hot with visibly gleaming flash-sweat beneath the shifting purple light of Camelot, she was a thing of rough and muscular beauty. July lay supine below her, staring back up, her own chest rising and falling in a slow, steady pant. Her right hand lifted toward Zheng’s face, stopped and wavered, then fluttered back down when Zheng did not react. A final rejected gesture.
Then Raine started clapping.
“Bloody well done!” she called out. “Well done, Zheng! Tough luck, July!”
“Yeah!” Twil joined in, clapping her hands over her head. “Woo!”
“Wheeeee!” went Lozzie.
Zheng finally lifted her claw-grip off July’s skull. She paused in mid-air for a moment. The position brought to mind a bird of prey toying with a rabbit, though July was no longer the soaring raptor in the skies. Zheng flexed her fingers, rolled her neck to work out the kinks after the failed killing blow earlier, and rocked back on her heels to give July room to rise. But July just lay there, sighed heavily, and closed her eyes.
Zheng let out a low rumble. A slow, sardonic grin crept across her face,
“You almost had me, bird of prey,” she said, loud enough for us all to hear.
“That’s going to sting,” Jan said with a little sigh. “Her neck or her pride, I’m not sure which will hurt more. She’ll sulk for weeks over this one. She did ask for it, though.”
“She will be cared for,” said Praem.
“Oh, of course.” Jan nodded. “Absolutely. I wouldn’t dream of otherwise. No hard feelings, not from me.”
I barely heard them talking — I had eyes for only Zheng.
She looked up from July, from her vanquished opponent, her friendly playmate, with her dominance firmly established, and turned to me. Our eyes met across the battlefield as she rose to her feet, skin steaming with sweat, her grin growing with pure satisfaction and showmanship. She beamed with pride, rolling her neck and flexing the aching muscles of her back, watching me with a glow in her face and a smoulder in the pits of her eyes.
And I finally realised that though the fight was for July, the show had been for me.
I let out a trapped breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding, shaking and flushed with adrenaline, but for once I was not afraid. A stupid grin kept pulling at the corners of my mouth and I had to blink tears out of my eyes. I felt hot all over, like my skin was flushed and my belly was warm, my tentacles itching to flex and uncoil and pull me across the grass toward her. My hands were cold and quivering and I had to tuck them into my armpits — well, the one that Evelyn wasn’t clinging to.
“You were beautiful!” I called out, a choking shout through a dry throat. Zheng ran her tongue along her razor-sharp teeth and bobbed her head. But that couldn’t possibly be a bow. Zheng bowed to nobody, not even me.
“Heather?” Evelyn asked, none too steady herself. “Are you alright?”
“Just … just excited!” My voice came out in a squeak. I puffed out a long breath, trying to gather myself. “That was … that was … ”
I couldn’t find the words, I just shook my head, still staring as Zheng curled her back and arms in a huge stretch, healing after the fight. She stuck one hand under her shirt, prodding at the purple bruises blossoming across her skin. For a moment I thought she was about to strip her t-shirt off over her head, but at least she refrained from that excess.
“Quicker than I thought,” Evelyn said.
I blinked at her. “Ah?”
“That was quicker than I thought it would be,” she explained, letting out a sigh to rival July, though hers was a sign of relief. She rolled one shoulder in a half-hearted attempt to dislodge my tentacle, then seemed to think better of it and aborted the motion halfway through. “I assumed we’d be stuck here all afternoon while they beat each other black and blue.”
“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine said. She turned to us with a big cheeky grin on her face, back to normal after the passing of her fixated awe. I noticed that she still thrummed with hidden excitement, something that perhaps only I was picking up on. Or maybe it was just this intoxicating shared joy. “I know you need zero further evidence that you ain’t your mother, but you really do know bugger all about demon hosts, don’t you?”
Evelyn glowered at her. “I will leave you out here.”
Raine laughed and spread her hands. “Hey, I’m the only one here who’s kicked a demon’s arse before.”
Jan paused halfway through the process of standing up, balancing her fast-food box of chicken in one hand as she clambered to her feet. Her massive, puffy white coat apparently weighed her down slightly, so she had to use Praem’s arm as a handhold. But then she stopped dead and stared at Raine over the top of her sunglasses.
“E-excuse me?” she stammered. “What— demon— you’ve had?” Jan squeezed her eyes shut, huffed, and finished getting to her feet. “I’m sorry, excuse me, you appear to have short-circuited my language centre by talking utter bull. Did I hear that correctly?”
Raine shot a finger gun and a wink at Jan. Evelyn sighed and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Oh, nonsense,” Jan hissed.
“Errrr,” Twil said, “technically not nonsense?”
“It is true,” Praem said, standing up and smoothing her skirt over her hips. Jan boggled at her.
“No shit,” Raine said. “And that was back when I was only a teenager, too. This isn’t my first waltz, I know more than I look—”
“We are not divulging our entire bloody life stories right now,” Evelyn grumbled. “Or I really will leave you here. Yes, Jan, technically Raine has beaten a few demon hosts before, though under very different circumstances. But don’t let her ego fool you. The things my mother once made were nothing like Zheng or July, and certainly nothing like Praem. I’m not even sure they should be classified the same.” She glanced at Praem. “Raine certainly wouldn’t beat any of ours in a fight.”
“Oh, oh!” Raine raised her hands in a big performative gesture of modesty. “Praem could wipe the floor with me. No question. Praem, I wouldn’t even insult you by asking.”
Praem nodded, once.
“Praem, strong!” Lozzie chirped.
“Good,” Evelyn sighed. “Now you’ve stopped waving your dick around, we can—”
“But Zheng?” Rained carried on, allowing herself a sharp and dangerous smirk. “Hey, you never know ‘till you try.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. I swallowed down a secret lump in my throat. I think I knew very well why Raine had been so fascinated by every blow and counter-blow of the duel.
“Aw come on,” Twil said, “did you see any of that shit?” She gestured at Zheng and July with both hands. “You’re good, Raine, I’ll give you that, but you’d get your arse handed to you. Raw. Uncooked. Come off it. Heather? Tell her she’s not gonna fight Zheng.”
I couldn’t speak, not without hypocrisy. Deep down in my guts and in the hot, dark, lizard-brain place in the back of my own skull, the grotto of ancient instincts that my abyssal side had identified with, I lusted after the very same experience. My skin itched all over, I had to keep my tentacles close to stop them twitching with wild energy, and my mouth was dry with adrenaline and tension.
I just shook my head.
“Guuurrrk,” Sevens went from over by the gateway. “Don’t know the winner. Maybe, maybe … ” She trailed off into an uncomfortable grumble.
“Don’t you start as well!” Evelyn craned round so she could tell Sevens off. “Don’t encourage her!”
“Hey, don’t worry,” Raine said, radiating a worrying level of pure confidence. “I’m not gonna fight Zheng next.”
“Bloody right,” Evelyn huffed.
Jan watched this entire exchange with blank-faced alarm, obvious even through her dark glasses. When a moment of silence finally fell, she pulled a pained smile.
“Right,” she said, bright and sarcastic. “Right then. Good to know. Great.”
“It really was quicker than I expected,” Evelyn said. “Which is a blessing because now we can get out of here before we all start going funny. No offence, Lozzie.”
“Mm-mm!” Lozzie did a wiggly shrug. I think she understood we all couldn’t take this as easily as her.
Evelyn caught my eye and nodded toward Zheng and July. “Heather, do you want to … ?”
“Oh, yes!” I nodded.
“Quite, quite,” Jan said. “Less time spent out here the better.” She gestured awkwardly with her little tray of chicken skewers. “Didn’t even have time to finish my snack.”
“You don’t want the rest?” Twil perked up, eyes like saucers. “I’ll finish it for you. Don’t waste it.”
“Are you actually a dog?” Jan asked her, peering around the side of her coat and Praem’s hip. “I mean, I know you’ve got this whole werewolf thing going on, and the less I know about that, the better. But this is just what you do? You smell food, or hear about food, and you go oooh, food! I’ve got to be really annoying about food! Is this you?”
“Fuzzy likes her chicken,” Lozzie said.
“Hey,” Twil said, “if you give me some of that chicken, you can call me a mangy bitch, for all I care. What is that sauce on it?”
“Garlic.” Jan sighed. “You’re not a vampire, too, are you?”
“Not that I know. Might wanna be careful about her though.” Twil pointed at Sevens, still lurking just this side of the gateway. At least there was no sign of Tenny and Whistle, safely back in the house.
Jan stared at Sevens for a moment too long, then looked back to Twil. I could almost physically see her decision not to confront this fact.
“You can have one piece of chicken, and that’s all,” she said.
Lozzie did a little twirl on the spot and skipped past us. “Can I have some toooooo?” she asked.
Jan suddenly went quite tongue-tied, um-ing and ahh-ing as Lozzie bobbed in front of her.
“Farcical,” Evelyn hissed under her breath. “I need a cup of tea, sod all this.”
Evelyn and I left the chicken negotiations behind as we walked arm in arm to go see the victor and the vanquished. Raine joined us too, on my opposite side.
The three of us walked up to Zheng and July, one standing tall and the other lying defeated on the ground. July still had her eyes closed, breathing softly, almost as if asleep. Her tank-top and jeans were scuffed with the dry earth, twisted and askew. A few strands of her silky black hair had escaped from the tight bun on the back of her head. Zheng watched me approach, face split with that beaming grin of pride, rumbling with each breath like a tiger in repose. She was covered in a sheen of sweat, steaming gently in the soft wind. I could smell her on the air, rich and spiced, sweat and heat and furnace-fires, iron and blood.
“What is this?” Evelyn grumbled, leaving heavily on her walking stick when we stopped. She nodded to encompass both demons. “A bloody renaissance painting?”
“Well done, lefty, well done, hey?” Raine gave Zheng a little personal round of applause. “And well done to the loser, too,” she added for July, voice absolutely free of even a hint of mockery. She really meant what she said. “You put up one hell of a fight, July. You’re fast as greased lightning, girl. I’m impressed.”
“Gotta go fast,” July said from down on the ground. She sounded deeply, thoroughly defeated, almost depressed.
I didn’t understand why Raine laughed, or why Evelyn put her face in her hand and groaned. “Don’t tell me you’re as bad as your sister back there,” Evelyn hissed.
“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey,” said July. “And I am in pain.”
Zheng ignored all of it.
“Did you see me, shaman?” she purred.
I nodded, found my throat was dry, and had to exert extra effort to keep my tentacles close to my body, tightly wound like compressed springs. The one tentacle holding my squid-skull mask felt paralysed with indecision. My ankles tensed, twitching to spring toward Zheng. Only Evelyn’s arm around mine kept me anchored.
“You were … very impressive. Very. I was very … impressed.” I huffed out a sigh at my own inarticulate nonsense. “Oh, for pity’s sake. Yes, Zheng, that was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And I feel better too, now.”
“Mmmm?” Zheng tilted her head at me, blinking slowly.
“Uh … ” I came up short.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Twil added from behind us, though a mouthful of chicken. “I’ve watched some MMA before, but that was off the hook.”
She sauntered up, chewing on her own prize, one garlic-glazed drumstick. Lozzie, Jan, and Praem wandered over as well, though Sevens stayed by the gateway, perhaps kept tethered by the proximity to Tenny. Jan was delicately holding up another garlic slathered chicken drumstick for Lozzie to nibble on, her sunglasses pushed up on her forehead, a faint blush in her soft and delicate cheeks.
Zheng ignored all of that, too.
“Better, shaman?” Zheng purred, showing a thin sliver of her many teeth through parted lips.
“She means,” July added from the floor, “that she has resolved her internal contradictions. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” July finally cracked open her eyes, from shut to owl-wide in one flicker of dark lashes. She looked at me, slightly pathetic at that angle, like a bird with bound wings. “Or not quite synthesis, not yet.”
She sounded deeply sad.
“Heeeeey,” Raine said. “I like how you think.”
Zheng blinked slowly at me one more time, then turned away and held out a huge, meaty hand toward July, to help her up. July just stared at the hand.
Jan sighed. “Oh, don’t be a sore loser, Jule.”
“I’m not sore,” July said. “I am … ” She paused, frowning. Her expression reminded me of a confused child. “Pained.”
“Get up, bird of prey,” Zheng rumbled.
“Are healed. Good enough to stand. So stand.”
July accepted Zheng’s hand at last, but surprised me by averting her eyes as Zheng helped pull her to her feet. She quickly let go again, standing there with her arms awkward and limp, her feet close together, her eyes fixed on the floor. Dejected, humiliated, she would rather have stayed lying down. In that moment, I finally realised what I was looking at. July, demon host, speed machine, tall and elegant and pretty, athletic and strong, far closer to being Zheng’s equal than I ever could, with the mannerisms of a hungry predator and the talons to match, had the heart of a teenage girl.
Raine must have picked up on that impression too, because her instincts kicked in. “Hey,” she said, warm and soft, “sometimes you just lose. It’s not so bad, yeah? If it’s not life or death, then you learn from it. And hey, maybe you learn from it even when it is life or death.”
“Bird of prey, you are not rendered flightless,” Zheng rumbled.
“I … ” July spoke to the ground, frowning. “Had hoped to … impress you?”
“You did, bird of prey,” Zheng purred through a low smile. “You are fast and you are skilled. And I enjoyed you. But I have been doing this for a long time. I have traded blows with mage-creations, Outsiders, true warriors, real vampires. I have eaten the flesh of man-killer bear, crowned monkey, and ghul alike. I have stood on more battlefields than I remember. And now my blood itself runs with the shaman’s own blessing, her holy flesh inside me.” Zheng’s hands went to her arm and her flank — the locations of the wounds that Ooran Juh had left on her, which I had healed with my own bootstrapped abyssal white blood cells and pneuma-somatic shearing teeth.
Holy? I almost whined in my throat at that. I wanted to bundle Zheng to the ground and bite her or something. The urge was nonsense, but it was making my eyes water and my guts clench.
“Bird of prey, how old are you?” Zheng continued.
“I wanted to … I wanted you to … ”
“She’s twenty five,” Jan spoke up with a sigh. “But the first fifteen years of that were not exactly fruitful. So maybe she’s ten. Or, well.” She eyed Praem, whose arm she was still holding. “Perhaps regular ages don’t apply to demons.”
“Twenty five years!” Zheng laughed, a good-natured belly laugh. “You are a sapling. And you were good.”
“It isn’t enough,” July said, frowning down at the grass. “I wanted you to come with me. And then I wanted to show you that I could be enough.”
“Thank you,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “July, thank you for playing with Zheng. I’m sorry I was such a bitch. Thank you. She enjoyed it. That’s what matters. Didn’t you enjoy it too?”
July finally looked up, but not at Zheng. She stared at me, still wide-eyed but somehow lost.
“I don’t understand why I feel like this,” she said to me, accusing, hurt, confused.
“Girl,” Raine said with a sigh and grin, putting her hands on her hips. “You’ve got a crush.”
July turned to stare at Raine instead, head flicking around like an owl hearing the rustle of a vole beneath a pile of leaves. Behind us, Twil spluttered, almost choking on a mouthful of chicken. Lozzie let out a muffled squeal.
“Yes,” I sighed. “I was trying to avoid saying that. Trying to be polite, Raine.”
Evelyn frowned sidelong at me. “I thought you disliked this demon now?”
“Well, that’s before I realised that she’s struggling with … feelings.”
“I have not got a crush,” July said.
“You so have,” Jan added, waving her final chicken drumstick in the air. “This isn’t her first, but it’s certainly the most messy. Come on, Jule, you’ve been turned down but it’s been very complimentary. Take the L’ on this one.”
“Wait, wait!” Twil said. “You’re telling me we’ve done all this because of a teenager with a crush?”
“That seems to be the case,” I said, clearing my throat as delicately as I could.
Twil started laughing. “Come on! Really?!”
July stared into mid-air, uncomfortable in a way none of us could help with. Her frown concentrated around her eyes, pinched and narrowing, turned inward on herself.
Just when I thought we were going to witness a demon host bursting into tears and ugly crying in front of a bunch of people she probably felt humiliated by, Praem whirled into action. She gently removed Jan’s hand from her arm, lifted her little plastic box of strawberries, and walked right up to July with a neat and strict economy of motion.
“You,” July said to her by way of greeting, staring with more confusion than accusation.
“Me,” Praem agreed.
“Um,” I murmured, alarmed by the sudden confrontation. But Evelyn held tight to my arm and leaned close to my ear.
“Trust her,” she hissed.
“You are not like me,” July said to Praem. “I respect you but I am not interested in fighting—”
“Would you like a strawberry?” Praem asked.
July stared at the box of fruit; July stared back into Praem’s blank, milk-white eyes; July stared at Praem’s hand as it found July’s elbow and gently guided her away from Zheng, away from us, and drew her off far enough that we couldn’t hear what they might say to each other. Praem opened the box of strawberries and held one up. July shook her head. Praem ate the strawberry, but July did not storm off or lose interest.
“Oh, I didn’t expect that,” Jan said after a moment, looking a bit abandoned in her puffy coat and flashy tracksuit. “Gosh, your Praem is quite the polymath, isn’t she? Diplomacy and hostage-negotiation too.”
“Hostage negotiation?” I blinked at Jan. “I didn’t think it was getting that tense.”
Jan shrugged, her empty fast food tray in one hand. “Figure of speech. Sounds cooler than ‘social worker’ or ‘therapist for troubled teens’.”
“I dunno,” Raine said. “I think social workers are pretty cool.”
Evelyn let out an almighty huff. “Why are we having this conversation Outside?”
Jan actually perked up at that. “Human beings can get used to almost anything, you know? In fact, I feel better than I did when we stepped in here. It’s still, well, weird, but not so bad.”
“Trust me,” Twil said, “there’s worse places than this.”
“Indeed,” I sighed.
“Are we done here?” Evelyn asked, growing peevish. “Anybody would think we’re in a public park, not standing around beyond the boundaries of reality and wondering if we’re being irradiated by the sky.” Evelyn glanced up, frowning at the whorls of shifting purple in the black firmament above, like the spiral arms of disrupted galaxies spreading as ink in oil.
“It’s … it’s not, right?” Jan stammered all of a sudden. She glanced up at the sky too, then pushed her sunglasses back over her eyes. “We’re not all being cooked, are we?”
“Noooooo!” said Lozzie, but she made it sound more like Noouuuuuh!
Laughing, she tried to envelop Jan’s shoulders with her poncho. The coat rather got in the way. If Jan hadn’t been armoured deep inside her puffy bulwark, I’m certain the Lozzie jellyfish attack would have engulfed her totally. Instead, Lozzie rather ineffectually draped herself over Jan, which caused Jan to blush and blink and make a one-woman massive fuss.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Evelyn explained. “Lozzie is trustworthy. Besides, Heather spent a lot of time out here before and she’s fine. Now, are we going home? Please?”
“We are not done yet, wizard,” Zheng purred, bottled excitement deep in her gravelly tone. “Are we, shaman?”
A shiver went through me, hard and unexpected, a hot flush from inside my core which was more than just emotional reaction. The bioreactor inside my abdomen responded to Zheng’s purr by ramping up power production, making me suddenly run hot, breaking out in a layer of cold sweat. Her voice was like a lash and a leash, yanking my attention back up to her hypnotic eyes. Zheng’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a dangerous smile, all razor-sharp edges, face glowing like a furnace.
Suddenly I felt the same way as when we’d first met, back in that ugly concrete room in Glasswick tower, when I’d thought she was going to eat me alive. I was a field-mouse frozen by a serpent’s gaze.
For a moment I could barely breathe. Then I hiccuped. “ … we’re not,” I managed to murmur.
“We’re not?” Zheng purred, grinning with deep satisfaction.
“Don’t get— get rhetorical with me,” I said, my mouth bone dry and my hands shaking. “Stop teasing.”
“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” went Twil, the universal sound of muted alarm. “Uh, Heather, you want me to take Evee off you, there?”
“Oh for—” Evelyn huffed. She was still clamped to my arm, using me as support and anchor. “You’re joking? Heather, you’re joking.”
“The shaman needs what the shaman needs,” Zheng purred, eyes boring into me like hot coals through shivering ice. But I stood my ground.
“Eveey-weevy puddin’ and pie,” Lozzie sing-songed, wrapping herself around Evelyn’s opposite arm with gentle care, then peeling her off me. “Back away, away away.”
“Yeah yeah clear some space!” Twil said, much more relaxed with Evelyn out of the way. “Zheng, you be gentle now!”
“No worries on that front,” Raine said.
“Are you people serious?” Jan asked. “Do you all do this? Just beat each other up on a whim?”
“Nah,” Raine hissed in a stage-whisper. “This is a Zheng thing. And a Heather thing, maybe.”
But I barely heard their words. The chatter of night insects at the edge of the blazing bonfire that was Zheng. Freed from the responsibility of cradling Evelyn’s shoulders, my tentacles subconsciously drifted outward, like a squid suspended in still waters at the ocean floor; half threat display, half subconscious mating ritual, I didn’t even know what I was doing. My throat ached as if a bone was out of place and needed to be popped back in. My skin itched to flush itself with strobing colouration. My eyes stung and my gums ached and the tendons in my ankles creaked as if ready to turn to bio-steel and launch me forward like coiled springs.
“Say it, shaman. I’ve seen it on your face all week.”
“ … fight me too!” I tried to say — but I just hissed at her, then blushed bright red.
“But you will lose,” she purred. “Unless you fight for real.”
“It—” I gurgled, then swallowed hard and forced real words up my twisting throat. “It doesn’t matter! I don’t care! Fight me and win then, quickly!”
“As you will it, little bird,” Zheng purred, grinning like a great white shark.
I was not actually conscious or aware of the moment I threw myself at Zheng. Memory struggles to encode itself on moments of such high stress, such relief and release, such physical overload. Raine later testified that I bounced off the ground with my tentacles, like an octopus pouncing on a crab, though Twil added I did land and stumble as if I’d fallen off a pogo-stick, not exactly the picture of abyssal grace and beauty. Lozzie assured me that I was very cool and “very wriggly!” Evelyn just sighed and shrugged when I asked her, not one for all this performative violence and play-fighting.
The next thing I knew, I slammed into Zheng. I recall her face, her roaring grin, her sheer pleasure that I’d finally joined in. I hit her as a ball of lashing tentacles, my extra limbs flailing to catch her wrists or her elbows, trying to constrict and bind and pin. But there was no toxin in my flesh, no barbed hooks to rip at her skin, no stingers or spikes or spines. Just strobing rainbow glow-light, latching onto her body and wrapping round tight.
She caught me in mid-air, of course. I offered absolutely no challenge to her speed or her strength, not without brain-math or delving deep into the pits of abyssal biology.
Zheng caught me by the shoulder and chest. She made a good effort to cushion my wild leap, but it still knocked the wind out of me. My attempts to wrestle her arms with my tentacles were equally fruitless.
She caught me like a rugby ball, swung me through the air so hard my head spun, and slammed me to the ground.
Well, for a given value of slammed. It felt like a slam, at my size and general fragility. For Zheng, I’m sure it was very gentle. She even cradled my head.
I hissed in her face with manic, animalistic joy, with fighting joy, something I’d never felt before. I flailed my feet against her hips as she pinned me to the grass. I wrapped my tentacles around her arms and shoulders, half constricting attack, half romantic embrace. But even with two tentacles wound about her right arm like a pair of boa constrictors, she held me pinned with ease. I could not pry her off me.
At some point during the leap, I must have rammed the squid-skull mask on over my head, because Zheng gently slipped it free, exposing me to the open air and the spiced scent of her skin.
“Haha!” she roared with laughter, sweat gleaming on her skin. “Shaman, I have you beaten!”
“Not— yet!” I heaved against her, panting and laughing, flushed all over.
Subconsciously at first, then with increasing intention, one of my tentacles drifted upward to hover next to Zheng’s flank. The tip narrowed, sharpened, and I felt the alchemical process beginning inside the pneuma-somatic flesh. A bio-steel needle coalesced inside tentacle-tip. The desire I’d been so ashamed of blossomed into reality, inches from Zheng’s rib cage.
She noticed, turning the dark razors of her eyes upon my sin.
I stopped laughing, suddenly self-conscious and mortified. I ached like I was on the edge of sexual climax — but this wasn’t sex. It was something else. Something just as carnal, but not sexual. I had no frame of reference for this.
“I’m … ” I tried to speak, to explain myself. “I don’t … ”
“Little bird,” Zheng purred, turning back to me and lowering her head toward my face. Her teeth parted, the length of her tongue flickering behind sharp points. “Did you really think I would leave you for another?”
“You didn’t come home!” I blurted out, my voice a scratchy mess through a throat barely human right then. “For days! You were out fighting and having fun and I thought you might have been hurt again where I couldn’t get to you! And I wanted to see you having fun! I want to be included!”
Zheng purred deep in her throat, lowering her parted teeth toward me. Her tongue — inch after inch of dripping, steaming tentacle — slid out between her lips and hovered in front of my face, sliding past my eyes to rasp across my left cheek. She licked me, rough as a cat’s tongue, leaving a sticky wet slick across my face.
Then her tongue retreated again, teeth snapping shut. I was quivering all over.
“You need only ask, shaman,” she purred. “I apologise for making you worry. But for nothing else.”
“And I … I’m sorry for being jealous.”
The grin ripped back across Zheng’s face. “Haha! Foolish monkey!”
And with that, she picked me up and whirled me into the air again. I shrieked and hiccuped and grabbed on tight with my tentacles, half-convinced she was about to toss me like a caber. But she spun me round and placed me back down on my feet. Head spinning, heart hammering, I clung to her and her familiar heat, panting and spent.
“You may wrestle me at your leisure, shaman,” Zheng purred, placing a hand on my head, cupping my skull like an egg. “Whenever you wish.”
The one tentacle which had started the transformation into alchemical delivery device now retreated, joining my others and ceasing the process. I hugged Zheng around the middle, carelessly mashing my face into the bruises beneath her t-shirt.
“It’s more than that,” I murmured. “I won’t be able to do this without you. All of it. The Eye, Maisie … ”
Zheng’s hand stroked the back of my head. “If my fists could break Laoyeh, shaman, I would shatter every bone.”
I rubbed my face back and forth, shaking my head. “I don’t need you to do that. I just need you by me. Like this. We don’t even have to ever have sex, not if that’s not what we are. Or … we could?”
Zheng answered with a purr. We didn’t need more words.
“Ah-hem,” came an uncomfortable throat-clearing from behind me. “I understand you two are having a … moment,” Evelyn said. “But we really should go home.”
“Oh!” I jerked like I’d touched an electric fence, suddenly realising that everyone was watching.
I stepped away from Zheng, though half my tentacles stayed attached to her. I scooped my squid-skull mask off the ground and fluttered about trying not to look anybody else in the eyes, mortified by the way I’d been acting, but also oddly proud. Lozzie was silently squealing into her hands next to Evelyn. Jan watched me with a wary frown. Twil shot me a wink when she caught my eyes, congratulations for a job well done. Praem and July had wandered back almost to the gateway, where Sevens was saying something to them.
“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Shaman, be proud!”
“I am, I am!”
“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “And we can all be more proud somewhere that is not Outside.”
But Raine was staring at Zheng, so intense and focused that Zheng’s attention was drawn to her like steel to a magnet. The look on Raine’s face sent my heart fluttering, and not in the good way. Evelyn froze and went pale when she noticed.
“Raine!” Evelyn snapped. “Raine!”
“Nah,” Raine murmured, shaking her head.
“Oh shit, what now?” Twil said. “Not you too, for fuck’s sake.”
“I was right!” Jan threw her hands in the air, or at least wiggled the overstuffed sleeves of her coat. “You lot are all just gagging to beat each other up! I was wrong, you’re not a polycule or a cult, you’re a masochist club! Count me out, thank you very much indeed.”
“Little wolf?” Zheng purred.
Raine smiled, sharp and confident. Slowly, she peeled her leather jacket off her shoulders and slipped her arms out of the sleeves, revealing the tight black t-shirt beneath; I don’t know if it was the adrenaline in my blood or the aftershock of what I’d just done with Zheng, but the sight of Raine unwrapping her body like that sent a shiver of alarm and excitement through me.
“Raine,” I squeaked. “Raine, you know you can’t.”
“You just did,” she answered. She was so focused on Zheng that she couldn’t even look at me.
“B-but … I’m … ”
“Different?” Raine asked. She stuck her hand inside her jacket before she dropped it, letting the leather fall to reveal the single black talon of her combat knife. The blade seemed to drink up the purple light of Camelot, reflecting nothing. She spun it into a backhand grip. “I’m different too.”
“Oh my goodness,” Jan said, taking several steps back.
“Different in the fucking head!” Twil said. “That’s a fucking knife, you loon!”
“Yeah, a knife,” Raine said, smirking at Zheng.
“For what purpose, little wolf?” Zheng asked, low and unimpressed, not smiling anymore. “We swore a vow.”
“Because you and I don’t understand each other yet,” said Raine. “Not really. So I’m next up.”
Zheng is a master grappler, July turns out to be a teenager with a crush, Heather finally begins to understand sympathetic pleasure, Evee is being almost sweet (by her standards, anyway), Jan and Lozzie are … doing something, but uh oh, Raine is determined to claim her own place next to Zheng.
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Next week, it’s a knife fight, kniiiife fight! But Zheng doesn’t have a knife. Only Raine has the knife. A little unfair, don’t you think?