Raine laid her challenge at Zheng’s feet like a bloodied rabbit, awaiting an answer.
She held her matte black combat knife in a backhand grip, like a venomous fang so rarely slid from its fleshy sheathe. I sensed her intent on the edge of my conscious mind, in the placement of her feet, the tilt of her hips, the slow unfolding of tension in her shoulders and upper arms. Raine, standing beneath the slowly shifting purple of Camelot’s void-sky, stripped down to a skin-tight black t-shirt and blue jeans, all subtle toned muscle and wound-tight tendon. Her body language spoke straight to my instincts, the promise of violence flowing up her musculature and out through the kinetic energy of her raw physicality. This aspect of her personality, her ability and propensity for violence, had aroused me since the very first time I’d witnessed her fight. I was familiar with this, I accepted this part of her, and I thought I knew everything about it.
But out in Camelot, throwing down the metaphorical gauntlet, the sight of her stole a beat from my heart.
Raine never ceased to surprise me.
I had made a choice to love Raine, consciously or otherwise, to build something concrete with each comforting embrace, each casual touch and wordless back-rub, every time we woke up tangled together in the morning, each time I asked her how she was feeling, each kiss and cuddle and tiny act of care.
So I am not proud to admit this, but on occasion — whenever I was wrapped up in my own issues, pursuing my own white whales of emotional tangle-knots down hidden rabbit holes to a very different type of Wonderland — sometimes, I took this side of Raine for granted.
She was always there, always my Raine, always beaming with confidence or ready to spring to my defence, always with a hidden trick up her sleeve, or a concealed weapon in her clothes. Even after the bullet wound in Carcosa and the emotional crisis in the hospital, after she’d unfolded to me the secret valves and byways of her heart, she had not wavered for even a second. She had never strayed and never lost faith, though I was teased and courted and cared for by ancient zombies, Outsider princesses, and her own oldest and best friend. She had told me she would never lose interest and never move on, even if I became some star-spawn squid-thing. She meant that; from any other it might be only hollow reassurance, but I had faith in Raine. Perhaps taking her for granted was a form of self-harm, an incoherent complaint from the part of me that still didn’t believe I deserved her. Why did she stay, when she had no reason except me?
She was only human, compared with all those others — compared with me. So sometimes I forgot what she was.
As she raised her knife in that backhand grip, an animal shiver shot up my spine, raced down into my belly, and grabbed me by the crotch. And I wasn’t even the target of Raine’s violent delight, she was staring at Zheng. If she’d turned that look on me, I would have fainted, trilobe reactor or not.
Raine never ceased to surprise me, yes; Evelyn had said the same thing once, back when we’d first met, but she had meant it negatively. In retrospect, neither of us really understood Raine, neither of us got what she was, no matter how much she put into words. There was something about her in that moment, for me at least, that outstripped all Zheng’s aggression and brooding dark intensity. The sight of her plunged a fist into my belly, grabbed my guts, and held me firm.
The promise of Raine’s violence, the tension in her musculature, was laced with desire.
Which was probably why I went completely tongue-tied, long enough for Zheng to reply first.
“Little wolf?” Zheng asked. “Or nothing more than a hyena?”
Raine beamed with cheeky confidence. “Hey, don’t knock hyenas. They steal kills off lions, you know? And I don’t mean once or twice. They do it all the time. Great big cat-dog things, they’re kinda sweet. You wanna call me a hyena, go ahead, I’d be honoured. But it’s my turn with you now.”
“Hyenas are cute … ” Lozzie murmured, then bit her lip.
Twil rediscovered her voice too. “Your turn?” she said. “She’s not a fucking water slide! Plus she’s just gotten beaten up once, you really are stealing a kill. Well okay, not kill, but yeah. Hyena is right!”
“How you feeling, left hand?” Raine asked Zheng. “All healed up?”
Zheng was not amused. She rolled her head without taking her eyes off Raine, drawing in a deep breath as if testing her ribcage for lingering fractures. She flexed both fists, searching for pain.
“Don’t answer that,” I blurted out when I realised what Raine was doing. I tightened the grip of the three tentacles I had wrapped around Zheng’s arms and shoulders. “Zheng, don’t—”
“I am healed, hyena. It makes no difference.”
“Quite,” Evelyn snapped. She tried to stamp with her walking stick, but the velvety yellow grass absorbed the impact, turning it into a dull thump. “Raine, don’t you dare. I know that look, I’ve seen it on your face a dozen times. Control yourself! Heather, say something to her.”
“I … um … ”
I also knew that look on Raine’s face, but I doubted that Evee understood what she was witnessing.
Raine never ceased to surprise me, but I should have seen this one coming. I had known this might happen, ever since that rain-drenched night in our bedroom, when Raine had stripped down half-naked in the grey light, holding her knife like a holy relic, her body taut with hidden potential and unspeakable excitement. I had assumed she wanted to beat Zheng for the glory of proving herself, to take her place equal to my ‘left hand’.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The truth was written in her eyes and her musculature, plain to me, because I’d seen both elements of this alloy so many times before, but never combined into one.
She wanted Zheng.
“Heather understands,” Raine said, though she spoke to Zheng. “Your shaman understands this, big girl. She knows we need to do it. So how about it? You and me. Right now.”
“I refuse,” Zheng purred, still deeply unimpressed.
“Playing hard to get?” Raine laughed softly and shook her head. “Look, lefty, I’m not gonna insult you by taunting you as a coward or something, ‘cos we both know that isn’t true. Look at me. Look at me real careful.”
Zheng rumbled a wordless sound as she breathed out. Her eyes narrowed at Raine.
“You don’t have to do this,” I whispered.
“You want this too,” Raine said, voice low and husky, honey over rock.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Twil hissed. “God-damn shit, every time I think I have a handle on you lot, you do something like this!”
“You’re telling me,” Jan murmured. While Raine and Zheng had been facing off, Jan had slowly slid behind Lozzie and Evelyn. Apparently her massive puffy coat was not protection enough from the coming storm.
“We made a vow,” Zheng rumbled. “Not to fight. For the shaman it would be as if her left hand and right hand went to war.”
Raine relaxed by a tiny fraction. For a moment I thought we had gotten through to her, but then she sighed and spun her knife over her palm, like a spider cleaning her fangs.
“We made a vow not to fight for real,” she said. “This is different, it’s a contest. Isn’t it? I’m not gonna try to kill you or anything. And I sure do hope you’ll extend the same courtesy to me.” Raine smirked. “After all, hey, I’m a lot more fragile than you, big girl.”
“Raine!” I tried to sound stern, to channel Evelyn, but my voice came out as a squeak — because part of me didn’t really want her to stop, part of me did understand why she was doing this. “Raine, listen to yourself! How can you expect to win? I love you and believe in you, but this is Zheng!”
“Yeah,” said Twil. “She’s gonna wipe the floor with you. Maybe literally. Mop Raine.”
Raine finally looked away from Zheng and met my eyes. She was glowing, almost vibrating, but not with her usual boundless confidence. She was tight and flushed with a cocktail of sexuality and violence, hard-edged and razor-sharp. My three unoccupied tentacles coiled in tight to my body, wrapping around my torso, the cephalopod version of putting my fists beneath my chin and clutching my arms to my chest. I hugged my squid-skull helmet like a plushie, like it might protect me.
Raine had a demon’s look in her eyes.
“Why, little wolf?” Zheng purred.
Raine’s gaze left me and I sighed with relief.
“Because we ain’t a proper triangle yet,” Raine answered, shaking her head. “You, me, and Heather. We’re flawed, we’re missing a beam, we gotta bridge that gap. And I’ve tried, you know? I’ve really tried to be attracted to you, lefty.”
Jan huffed from behind her bulwark. “Not a polycule,” she hissed under her breath. “What absolute bullshit.”
Lozzie, face buried in her poncho, let out a muffled squeal. Evelyn shot a glare at her like she wanted to thwap Lozzie over the head, but thankfully she didn’t. Even poised on the cusp of a psychopathic death-match, I would have shouted at Evelyn if she’d given in to that particular urge.
“But I just ain’t into you,” Raine carried on. “You ain’t my type, no matter how I think about you, not on that kind of level, not in the kinda way that Heather is. I’ve tried to understand, but I just don’t. I don’t get you, and I don’t think you get me either.” She spun her knife in her hand again, rotating the grip in her palm, letting the black blade drink the strange purple light. “And you know why? Because we haven’t tried talking in the one language we share.”
I actually whined, deep down in my throat. Evelyn rolled her eyes and threw her hands up, exasperated beyond words. Over by the gate, I noticed Sevens staring with all the interest of a rubbernecking motorist passing the site of a gruesome pile-up. Praem and July had stopped next to her, perhaps not expecting us to linger long.
Zheng let out a slow, rumbly purr, tilting her head with cautious interest. “We are a right hand and a left hand. We need not join.”
Raine laughed without humour. “Need ain’t the same as want.”
“Why not now?” Raine spread her arms, knife flashing out at the end of one hand. “We might never get another chance, you and I. Once we get that book, once we go where we’re going, maybe there won’t be an after. Maybe this time nobody comes back from Wonderland.”
Zheng bared her teeth in a silent snarl. “The shaman will—”
“I asked Heather to marry me. Did she tell you that?”
“Raineeeee!” I squealed.
“What?!” Lozzie exploded about two feet off the ground, flapping her hands.
“Holy shit,” said Twil. “Figures.”
Jan just started laughing. Evelyn shook her head.
Zheng grunted. “Monkey fictions do not interest me. You and the shaman are already joined, as are she and I.”
Raine shrugged. “I happen to agree, but hey, the point stands. We might not come back, we might not make it. We might not ever have another chance.” She let out a long, deep breath, shuddering with anticipation. “I don’t know why I feel this. I’ve never felt like this before, not even with Heather. It’s different, somehow. There was a shade of it with Amy Stack, but only a shade, and hey, she’s married and has a kid, and she’s straight, too. Pity. Plus she wasn’t on my side.” Raine pointed at Zheng with the end of her knife, a black claw extended. “You’re on my side, Zheng. And I want you. This ain’t a crush.”
Slowly, horribly, matching the sinking feeling in my stomach, a curious smile spread across Zheng’s face. “You cannot keep up with me.”
“Oh, I think I can.”
“Yo, yo,” Twil said, clicking her fingers as if to break them out of a trance, boggling at Raine like she’d gone mad — which, in a way, she had. “What do you think you’re gonna do, hey? She’s gonna take that knife — like, literally, just pull it out of your hand — and then pin you to the floor, dumb arse!”
“Oh?” Raine tilted a smirk at Twil. “Maybe Zheng should worry more about touching this knife.”
“Raine,” Evelyn grunted. “Raine, what have you done?”
A chill settled into my belly, a hand of ice inside my guts. “Um, yes, Raine, what do you mean by that?”
“Uh ooooooh,” went Lozzie.
All around us, the loose ring of Lozzie’s knights suddenly shifted, a glinting of chrome surfaces as weapons were adjusted and shields raised by an inch or two.
“Whoa, whoa,” Raine said, defusing worry with an easy laugh. She raised the knife and held it level so I could see. “Nothing supernatural! It’s a knife, that’s all. I swear. Hey, I said it’s a contest. If I win by trickery that doesn’t prove a thing, right? This isn’t a gutter fight, it’s a real duel.”
“You promise?” I asked.
“Promise.” Raine winked at me.
“Hoooooo,” Lozzie let out a high-pitched sigh. Her knights relaxed again. “Raine, no scary words!”
“Sorry, Loz,” said Raine.
Zheng tilted her head. “Stop riddling, hyena. Make your proposal.”
Raine laughed. “How can you tell I’ve got one? Nah, don’t answer that, rhetorical question. You can tell because we’re finally talking in a language we both speak. Do I even need to say it out loud?
“Mmmmm,” Zheng rumbled. She glanced down at me and around at everyone else. “For the rest.”
Raine nodded. She spun her knife in her hand again, flipping it over the back of her palm like she was doing a trick. It required her to completely let go of the handle, so for a moment I thought she’d flubbed the technique and was about to drop the blade — but she snatched it out of the air, firm and confident. She angled it down toward the ground like a fencer with a sword. Chin up. Back straight. Eyes forward.
“First blood,” she said.
“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Yours or mine?”
“Ugh,” went Twil, rolling her eyes like a grumpy teenager. “Cut the drama, will you? Raine, she’s gonna break your nose with one punch.”
“I must admit,” Jan piped up again from behind Lozzie and Evelyn, “that sounds quite likely. I’d pay to see it though. You should sell tickets for this.”
Evelyn caught my eyes and interrogated me with a silent frown, pinched and urgent. But I couldn’t do a single thing here. I couldn’t even step between Raine and Zheng — I’d never seen Raine so attractive, so glowing with violent magnetism. If I stepped between them I would faint, or turn to jelly, or have an orgasm on the spot just from being looked at like that.
Part of me wanted to see this fight, wanted to see the two most attractive women I’d ever known locked in a grapple with each other. I tried to force that part of me down, but I was still clinging to Zheng with three tentacles, practically right in the firing line. I was useless at stopping this. Besides, I wasn’t sure that I had any right to do so.
“No, I’m serious,” Raine carried on, low and gentle. “Unless you’re really that confident. Unless you think my knife is just for show.”
“You’ve hit me before,” Zheng said, “but I was not trying to avoid you.”
“See, I watched how you fought July. You stood there and you took it. That’s all well and good, but what if she’d had a knife and you hadn’t? What if she’d cut your tendons and left you on the ground?” Raine raised an eyebrow, letting the question stand against the gentle wind for just a moment. “So that’s my challenge. First blood — your first blood. If I cut you even once, I win. If you can disarm and immobilize me, you win.”
Zheng stared for a second, then bared her teeth in a slow grin, razor-sharp and ready to bite down. “A challenge.”
“Exactly,” Raine purred back.
“Zheng,” I whined. “Please.”
“Oh, come on,” Jan said, up on tip-toes to peer over Lozzie’s shoulder. “That’s hardly fair. Even I can see that.”
“Sounds pretty fair to me, actually,” Twil said. “As long as like, Zheng isn’t allowed to break both of Raine’s legs or something.”
Zheng rumbled deep in her throat. “That would bring the shaman no pleasure and no gain.” Her eyes crept down to me again. I swallowed and felt like tripping backward away from her. “No permanent damage. My hands are tied.”
“It’s the only way we can fight without sending one of us to the hospital,” Raine said.
“Unfair,” a hard and unimpressed voice suddenly cut across our little group. “Unfair. You do Zheng a disrespect.”
July stood a few paces behind Jan, staring at Raine. She and Praem had wandered back over, trailed distantly by the diminutive yellow-wrapped figure of Sevens. July had three strawberries balanced awkwardly in one hand, but Praem still held the box.
I shot a frown at July, surprised at the heat of my own irritation. “July, I have partially forgiven you because you’re a … teenager with a crush, but what you did was brimming with disrespect. You can hardly talk about that.”
“Bird of prey—” Zheng rumbled.
July spoke over her. “It is not fitting—”
“Fair representation of atrocity,” Praem intoned. Everyone looked at her in confusion, all except Zheng and Raine.
“Yeah,” Raine sighed with implicit apology in her voice, nodding to Praem. “You know what I’m talking about. Sorry, Praem. I was trying to leave it unsaid, not put it into words.”
“This is only a game,” Praem said. Raine nodded to her again in acceptance and apology.
“I’m sorry too,” Jan said, brimming with sarcasm, “because you’ve all completely lost me here. What are you talking about?”
“Oh,” I breathed, finally putting two and two together. My eyes went wide. “Raine’s knife. A one-hit fight. She means it to stand in for one of the cult’s demon-sealing tubes.”
Raine bowed her head, pained by this explanation. Zheng cupped the back of my skull like the proud owner of a clever puppy. Evelyn frowned with distaste. Lozzie’s eyes went all scrunchy and she covered her mouth with the lifted hem of her poncho — I think she was genuinely disgusted by this notion. Praem didn’t react, but I swore I could see a faint tightness around her milk-white eyes.
Jan waited a beat, then cleared her throat. “That explains nothing, thank you very much.”
Evelyn sighed. “The Sharrowford Cult, The Brotherhood of the New Sun, the people you were going to do your secondary job for, the murderous kidnapping vermin we shattered last year—”
“Oh, don’t be too modest,” Jan murmured.
“They had a technique,” Evelyn spoke over her. “We never got to see it in action, but we know it worked because they used it on Praem, once. They pulled her out of her body and trapped her soul — for want of a better word — in a glass jar.”
Jan’s sharp mockery drained away, along with the colour in her face. She took off her dark shades and stared at Evelyn with her naked, gem-blue eyes.
“No, I’m not exaggerating,” Evelyn went on. “They achieved it by means of a small cylinder device, quite a bit smaller than Raine’s knife, actually. But the principle is sound, if vile. Apparently Zheng was threatened with it, once, according to Heather.”
“Yes,” I said, trying to talk past the lump in my throat. “When … well, yes, Alexander did. Before, well, you know.”
“Vile is right,” Jan breathed. “None of the, um, ‘survivors’ mentioned this to me.”
Evelyn waved a dismissive hand. “The ringleaders are all dead, gone, or … well, not relevant anymore. I doubt any of the remnants even know about it.”
“‘Cept Eddy boy,” Twil said.
Lozzie puffed out her cheeks and let her shoulders slump, looking momentarily sad and cowed.
“Yes,” Evelyn said, “Edward Lilburne, the mage we are in conflict with, may retain the technique. Maybe. We don’t know.”
Jan took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “July, be good and remember that, will you? Kind of important.”
“Quite,” Evelyn said, staring right back at Jan. “And I assure you, we have no idea how it worked. I can’t do it. And I wouldn’t, either.”
Jan nodded, but her hands fiddled with her shades and she bit her lower lip.
“So you see,” Raine said, finally raising her knife once more and pointing it at Zheng, “in a way, this is fair, because it’s something that could really happen to you. One scratch and you’re out, lefty. Or bottled, rather.”
“Ugh,” Evelyn grimaced.
“That is—” Jan cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, that is downright offensive.”
“It’s real though,” I said, still entranced by the electrified air between Raine and Zheng. “And … and this is just a game.”
“Better a game between us,” Raine said, “rather than the real thing with an enemy.”
“Huuuuuuh,” Zheng rumbled at Raine, watching her through heavily lidded eyes, a tiger pretending repose. “It would not have worked on me. I am too well embedded in my flesh. I have been here a long time.”
“For the sake of a duel,” Raine said, “can’t we assume it might work?” Then she grinned and lowered her blade. “Unless you’re afraid of losing.”
Zheng curled her back and tilted her head at the same time, hunched her shoulders like a big cat about to pounce, and showed all her teeth in a rictus grin of animalistic challenge. Then she rumbled like a sleeping volcano, a deep and resonant sound that reached into my bones and drew the breath from my lungs — not least because I was still holding on to her.
Jan squeaked and grabbed Lozzie’s poncho, though Lozzie just giggled. Evelyn went quite green around the gills, but Praem appeared by her side. Twil instinctively growled as well, but even she could not match that sound. I hiccuped, embarrassingly enough.
Raine didn’t even flinch. She just rolled her neck and dropped into a fighting stance, knife held backhand, loose and ready and close to her body.
“If you two do this with Heather standing between you,” Evelyn snapped suddenly, “so help me God, I will have both of you drowned!”
I squeaked like a vole dug out of a hidey-hole as Zheng gently peeled my tentacles off her arms. She took me by one shoulder and steered me away from herself.
“Clear the way, shaman.”
To my surprise, a small and clammy hand wormed into my own. A sudden shivery heat pressed against my side. Sevens bumped her head off my ribs like a cat, still draped in her yellow robes.
“Mm-mm,” she gurgled, shaking her head. “Can’t stop now. Come come, come. Come.”
She pulled at my hand. I wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders and dug my feet in — little blood-goblin Sevens did not tell me what to do, instinct was very clear on that despite how I felt a little guilty.
“Raine,” I said, voice all a-quiver, one last confused attempt to explain to myself why they shouldn’t do this. “Raine, you said you wouldn’t, you made a vow, and … and she’s going to beat you! And you don’t need to do this, you don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
To my surprise and shock, Raine looked at me with a frown. It was the first time I’d ever seen her unimpressed with me.
“Heather,” she breathed my name with open affection, the affection of ‘I love you, but shut up’. “Heather, this isn’t about you.”
I blinked at her. “ … oh. I … um … ”
“It’s about me and Zheng. And if you really don’t want me to do it, if you really don’t want us to fight … ”
Raine trailed off. Zheng rumbled low in her chest. Sevens gurgled like a malfunctioning radiator, tugging on my hand. Subconsciously, I wrapped a tentacle around her arm, then felt her gently bite the pale, pneuma-somatic flesh, though without breaking the skin. I nodded along with Raine, half of me praying for this final hope of de-escalation, the other half vibrating with anticipation.
“Then I’m sorry,” Raine carried on, drawing herself up and staring me down. “Because I’m doing it anyway.”
“My responsibility, my choice. I won’t let you shoulder the guilt of stopping me. It’s all mine. And hey.” She grinned, beaming wide and confident, just like usual, all for me. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hurt.”
“Ha!” Zheng barked.
“Well,” Raine added, “not too badly.”
“Don’t you dare!” I pleaded with Zheng. “Don’t you—”
Evelyn cleared her throat and tapped her walking stick against her own prosthetic leg, making a ratta-tat-tat sound. “If we have to make a hospital trip because you two are horny for each other and can’t talk about it like adults, then I will personally see to it that you eat nothing but oats for three weeks. Do I make myself clear?”
“No punctures,” Zheng purred. “No bleeding. No broken bones.”
“And no concussions!” I added. “Raine is fragile, she’s not like you. Zheng, you be gentle, please. Please.”
Zheng looked down at me, dark and brooding, but deeply amused. “I cradled you, shaman. I will do the same with our hyena.” Then she reared back up to her full height and bared all her teeth to Raine. “But even with these fetters on my limbs, I will still have you.”
“Says you,” Raine purred back.
“Are we actually letting this crazy shit go ahead?” Twil asked, arms wide. She gestured at Lozzie. “Hey, hey Loz, make the booper go boop again. Make them stop. Raine’s gonna get hurt, seriously.”
Lozzie bit her bottom lip and did a full-body wiggle, like a worm, from feet to head, ending by turning her eyes to me. “Heathy?”
My breath caught in my throat. “I … I mean … if there’s rules, it’s more like a wrestling match. I think.”
“Look at you lot,” Jan said with a tut. She bustled out from behind Lozzie like an ambulatory marshmallow and tried to put her hands on her hips, which was a little difficult still wrapped in the confines of her giant coat. Lozzie mirrored her pose for effect, hands on hips, which threw off Jan’s poise for a moment as she flustered. “Ahem. I mean, I don’t even know you people very well, but I can tell these two have been chomping at the bit for this. Let them get it out of their systems, yes? Is there any rational reason why not? Do you not trust Zheng to withhold her full strength?”
“I trust her,” Raine said, speaking directly to Zheng. “I trust her completely.”
“Hyena.” Zheng nodded to Raine.
“They already fought!” Twil yelled. “I thought that was getting it out of their systems!”
“Yeah, while I was recovering from a bullet wound,” Raine said. “Video games were all well and good. But now?”
Raine planted her right foot, twisted her hips, and lifted her left knee into the air. Slowly, like a ballerina on the stage, showing off to everybody present, she extended her leg out sideways, rotating at the waist.
“Yes, very impressive,” Jan sighed. Evelyn nodded in exasperated agreement. “Bullet wound? You know what, don’t bother explaining that. Look, I’m with grumpy here,” she gestured at Evelyn. “This has been a mite bit stressful coming out here, so either fight and get it over with, or come back indoors — tch, indoors, what am I saying? — come back indoors where you can flex at each other in peace.”
Evelyn balanced her walking stick with her elbow, so she could slow clap, though only twice. “Well said.”
“I’m glad you and I agree on some matters,” said Jan.
“Ah shit,” Twil said. “Alright. Okay. We’re all down with watching Raine get her arse beat.”
“If you don’t want to watch, then don’t,” Evelyn grumbled.
“You’re kidding!” Twil said. “I wouldn’t miss this one! Shit, my money’s on the zombie. No offence, Raine.”
“We are not making wagers,” I squeaked. “Absolutely not.”
“Tenner on Zheng,” Jan announced. “Count me in.”
“Who’s banker?” Twil asked.
Evelyn sighed. “Me, I suppose.”
“We are not betting on them!” I repeated, outraged, curling my tentacles around my torso like I was crossing my arms. I only realised I was making the gesture after I’d completed it and added a frown. Sevens pulled me by the arm, dragging me clear of the imaginary ring of combat as the others backed away too. “That’s perverse!”
“Hey, it’s all a game, right?” Twil asked.
“Gaoooouk,” Sevens rasped. “Ten on Zheng too.”
“You don’t even have any money!” I squeaked at her. She ducked her head, shying away from me, so I wrapped a tentacle tighter around her shoulders in exasperated apology. “I’m sorry, I just … I can’t believe this. Tenny and Whistle are back indoors, at least, yes?”
Sevens nodded. “Inside, yeah. Mmm, money … ”
“I’ll spot her the ten,” Jan said. “Why not? This day can’t possibly get any more stupid.”
“Don’t jinx us, please,” Evelyn huffed. “And you do all realise this doesn’t work if nobody bets on Raine, yes? And matches all your wagers. I’m certainly not paying out, only keeping track. Somebody has to believe in Raine, yes?” Her eyes found me as we drew to a halt in a little cluster, much closer to Zheng and Raine than we had been to the previous fight. “Heather?”
“ … I … I … um … I can’t.”
Twil grinned. “No confidence in her, hey?”
“Twenty on Zhengy!” Lozzie chirped, arms in the air. “Am I doing the countdown again?”
“We shouldn’t need a count,” Raine called back. “First blood from Zheng, and that’s her loss. If I lose my knife and I’m pinned, my loss.”
“I have confidence in both of them!” I snapped at Twil. “I love both of them. I can’t pick a favourite, that’s the point.”
“Fifty pence, on Zheng,” Praem intoned.
I boggled at her. “You too?”
Praem met my eyes and bowed her head. An apology.
“Are we ready?” Lozzie called out, flapping the sides of her poncho up and down like the wings of a flying squirrel. “Ready ready?”
A satisfied, animal grin ripped across Zheng’s face as she stared back at Raine. She rolled her head from side to side, flexed her back and her toned, powerful arms. She was so much taller than Raine, an Olympian goddess carved from brown marble. Raine bounced on the balls of her feet suddenly, swapping from left foot forward to right, then back again. She tossed her knife in the air and caught it, then shook herself all over, almost like a hound. Muscles like rubber and springs.
“Twenty paces, hyena?” Zheng purred.
Raine shook her head. “Nah, I think we’re good like this.”
Zheng seemed amused. “Not much space to charge. No room to build speed. Is that not your only hope?”
Back here in the spectators’ box, Twil imitated Raine’s bouncing footwork, consciously or otherwise. But where Raine held her knife still and steady, Twil swung a couple of shadow-boxing punches. “Evee, you gonna wager?” she asked. “Thought you loved that kinda thing?”
Evelyn snorted. “I’d out-wager all of you. On Raine.”
Twil stopped and stared at her. Jan cocked an eyebrow. Lozzie made a curious little o-shape with her mouth. Sevens let out a low sound like a confused rat. I opened my mouth to say thank you, though I could barely take my eyes off Raine and Zheng.
“Two hundred pounds on Raine,” said July.
I looked over my shoulder toward the back of our little group, and found July staring her owl-like stare, directed at Raine. I wouldn’t have recognised that look an hour ago, not past whatever demon host mannerisms made her so deeply and unsettlingly intense. It was like standing near a komodo dragon. But by now I saw it plain. Admiration, adoration, ardour.
Everyone else glanced at her too, with varying degrees of surprise. Even Raine shot her a finger-gun and a wink.
“What happened to the crush on Zheng, hey?” Twil asked with a laugh.
“July’s being bitter,” Jan stage-whispered.
“Aww, no!” Lozzie said. “Don’t let it turn sour!”
Sevens was practically vibrating against my side, barely able to contain her fan-girl energy at all this talk of crushes and bitter rejection.
“Don’t you develop a crush on Raine as well,” I said to July.
She finally turned her gaze away from Raine and met my eyes, hard enough to make me flinch. “I admire her purity of self-belief. It is beautiful.”
“It … it is, yes,” I admitted with a sigh. “Sometimes I worry about her getting hurt, though.”
July nodded. “I understand. I feel the same way about Jan.”
“H-hey!” Jan spluttered. “Purity of self-belief?! Me? Tch.” She settled her coat around her shoulders, which was a bit like a ferret burrowing into a bucket full of cotton wool. “Don’t you go all soppy on me, Jule.”
July returned her attention to the impending fight, but for one moment I noticed her linger on Jan’s back with undeniable affection.
Perhaps I had misjudged her. Maybe I’d been too harsh, even after her defeat.
“Quiet in the stands, quiet in the stands, please!” Raine called, laughing. “You’re all supposed to be holding your collective breath over there.”
Twil cupped her mouth with both hands. “Get on with it!”
“Yes,” I tutted under my breath. “Get on with it.”
“Right you are, boss!” Raine called back with a mock salute — then turned to Zheng with a finality that left no doubt.
She twisted her feet against the velvet yellow grass, finding her footing. I watched all the jolly teasing drain from her frame, replaced with a wave of muscle tension as her pose flowed with the frozen promise of violence. She raised her knife, held loose and close.
“I am ready for you, hyena,” Zheng rumbled, yet she made no effort to look ready. She pulled herself up to her full height and raised her chin, waiting.
Lozzie raised the corner of her poncho, just as she had done for July and Zheng before.
But in the moment before Lozzie lowered the makeshift pastel flag, Sevens purred and nuzzled into the side of my ribs, at the base of my tentacles, to get my attention.
“Mm?” I could barely blink down at her.
“S’not a real fight,” she rasped under her breath, so only I could hear. “Not like I saw might happen.”
“Not real?” I hissed.
“Ready, set!” Lozzie yelled.
Sevens rubbed her head back and forth, like a prophetic cat in my armpit. She slurped excess saliva back through her needle-teeth as she spoke. “Won’t be enough. Joined, but not consummated. No knock-out, no end to them. Have to hurt, join in pain. Not enough.”
“Go!” Lozzie shouted, her poncho fluttering as she sliced the air with her makeshift flag.
Sevens’ words whirled inside my head, but I couldn’t spare the attention to think about them. The Eye itself could have opened in Camelot’s purple whorled skies and I would not have paid it the slightest mind right then. Evelyn could have grabbed my face and tried to kiss me and I wouldn’t even have made eye contact with her.
At the word ‘go’, Raine bounced up on the balls of her feet, swaying from side to side like a boxer looking for an opening. She held her black combat knife close to her body, an arachnid fang tucked in tight. I could practically see the adrenaline pumping through her veins and the beat of her pulse in her throat. She was breathing hard but steady, focused on Zheng with every cell of her being, staring and listening for the slightest twitch, ready for the bull’s charge.
But Zheng declined the attack. Instead she stood there, tall and still, a statue of silent muscle.
“Aw come on,” Twil hissed. “Sandbagging again?”
“It is not the same,” July said, voice shaking with awe. “It is different.”
“It’s a bloody waste of time, that’s what it is,” Evelyn grumbled.
Zheng lifted her arms to her sides, outstretched and open palmed, as if crucified. A mocking smile crept across her face. “Go ahead, hyena. Take your shot.”
Raine tilted her head and replied with a grin of her own — then she charged.
Raine is only human, in the end. She was not as fast as July, as strong as Praem, and possessed none of Twil’s rapid healing. She had no fangs, no claws, no clutch of tentacles on her back. The rules of this duel were intended to give her a chance and provide Zheng with an interesting challenge. In a fair fight with no holds barred, she would lose to Zheng — or something like Zheng — very quickly indeed. She was my Raine and she was beautiful; her violence was beautiful to me, a tendency of mine that still worried me more than a little. But there was no way she was good enough to beat Zheng without trickery or clever plays. I was half expecting her to pull out a second knife, or throw sand in Zheng’s eyes, or cheat in some equally creative fashion.
Raine never ceases to surprise me, especially when I think I’ve spotted the surprise.
She charged straight at Zheng, like a living lance with a spring-loaded barb in one hand. For a second I thought Zheng was going to take the knife in her chest, just to make a point even if she would technically lose — but at the very last possible second, Zheng dropped into a fighting crouch, a wrestler’s crouch, a tackle-crouch with one hand out to catch Raine’s knife-arm.
I winced, as did Evelyn. Lozzie clapped and yipped, swept away in the energy of the moment as Jan scurried behind her. Sevens went ‘guuurrrrk’. July kept the faith.
And Raine switched hands.
The motion was so quick I almost missed it; when I realised what she’d done, while running flat-out in a headlong charge, I cringed with worry that she might slip or stumble and stab herself by accident. But Raine was nothing if not both skilled and graceful. With her knife in a backhand grip in her right fist, between the space of one sprinting step and the next, just about to slam head-first into Zheng’s catch, Raine slid her hands together.
Black talon flashing backward through the air, rearing up like a scorpion stinger. A simple downward strike that Zheng should have been able to dodge with her eyes closed — but in Raine’s left hand, not her right.
Zheng jinked to the side. She avoided the descending blade with ease, dodging with demonic reaction speed, but the change of footing ruined her attempt to grab what had been Raine’s knife-hand. Raine didn’t even have to adjust as Zheng’s grip closed on empty air.
But Raine had overextended. Even I could see that, with my total beginner’s understanding of knife fighting. She was within Zheng’s guard, but that meant she was in grabbing range, grappling range, immobilizing range. Even as the thought crawled across my neurons, I saw Zheng’s other hand swiping outward, to catch Raine’s left wrist at the termination of the feint-strike Zheng had just avoided.
Raine had her one chance. She’d tried a good trick, but Zheng was just too fast, and that settled the question. I started to wince in anticipation of her loss.
But Raine never completed that downward stab, that move Zheng was angling to catch.
Instead she opened her fingers, dropped her knife through two feet of air, and caught it in her right hand.
The blade shot upward as Raine ducked, her single wicked-sharp talon already inside Zheng’s guard, aimed at the vulnerable flesh of her forearm.
Zheng could have easily caught Raine by her now empty left hand, or by the head, or throat, but she was angled all wrong to stop Raine’s blade itself. One scratch would be her loss. Zheng whipped her arm away and hopped back three paces, out of Raine’s range, hands raised to catch any trickery in retreat. Breathing hard and grinning wide. A fire burned in Zheng’s eyes, gone wide with sheer joy.
“Hyena!” she roared. “As cunning as a real bone-eater!”
Raine paused as well, breathing deep and steady, sweat already beading on her forehead from the sheer concentration and effort. She flexed both her hands and shook herself from head to toe like a wet dog. Totally in her element in a way I hadn’t seen in months and months.
She was glowing. She was made for this. Self-made, perhaps.
I fell in love with her all over again.
The whole exchange had lasted only a couple of seconds, so quick and skilled that we could only unravel the details in retrospect, still reeling in the moment, unable to believe our eyes.
Twil grabbed her own head in amazement. “Holy shit.”
“That’s our Raine,” Evelyn said.
“Scary scary,” said Lozzie.
Raine raised her knife and pointed it at Zheng. “You’re not trying,” she said, and I realised I’d never heard that tone from her before — frustrated anger, even through her grin. “Make me work. It’s real, or it doesn’t happen at all, Zheng. Make me work for it, or there is no triangle, there can’t be any you and I otherwise.”
Zheng’s joyous grin froze. She opened her mouth to reply, showing a maw of shark’s teeth. But Raine didn’t need her answer in words. She picked up her feet and darted at Zheng like a hurled javelin.
I cried out in dismay when Raine tried the same trick a second time.
Her hands slipped across each other, knife going from right to left, black talon switching sides in the second before she hit Zheng.
Zheng saw the same trick too. We all did. She threw her weight toward Raine’s left hand, ready to catch her wrist and end this farce.
But the knife came up in Raine’s right. Backhand. A rising strike with all her body weight twisted behind it.
She had only mimed the switch.
Zheng had to rock backward and throw herself out of the path of Raine’s hidden surprise, roaring with sheer delight at the misdirection. Raine bounced upward like a spider from a trapdoor, her single black fang almost making contact with Zheng’s chin, less than an inch of Camelot’s sky visible between knife-point and red-chocolate skin.
I caught a glimpse of Raine’s eyes, brimming with pleasure and purpose.
This time Raine and Zheng stayed locked at point-blank range for maybe twenty to thirty seconds, trading missed blow and counter-dodge. Raine’s knife was always one step ahead of where Zheng expected it to be, never using the same trick twice, never backing down or yielding the initiative, never allowing Zheng a single opening to exploit — because any opening was a trap, baited with an overbalance or overextension, the blade-point always ready to punish.
Raine could not match Zheng’s speed. That’s why we’d all assumed this would be over so quickly, or that she’d had something up her sleeve. But instead of trying to match or overcome that which she could not, Raine had devised the perfect counter: prediction. I’d never seen anything like it before. I hadn’t even known Raine was capable of something like this. She must have been practising in secret, for weeks. She’d been watching Zheng for so long, measuring her, learning about her. This kind of estimation could only come from a place of deep fascination.
Against an opponent willing to catch the knife or sustain a small wound, Raine would have lost. If Zheng had been a fraction less quick, if she had lacked her demonic speed, she would have lost instead, because she kept taking Raine’s traps, kept testing to see if one of them was real, an exploitable opening to finally grab her wrist and slam her to the ground.
Raine had predicted that too, I realised. She knew Zheng would not be able to resist the bait.
Then, just when I started to wonder if Raine would run out of different techniques, Zheng went on the offensive.
She stopped trying to catch Raine’s wrists, stopped trying to immobilize her knife-arm or grab her head or throat, and simply aimed a punch at Raine’s gut. In between one knife-feint and the next. Brutal and quick, a piston-blow through the air.
I yelped and put a hand to my mouth when Raine took the punch below her ribs. She doubled-up and jerked back, her knife hand looping a wild slash through the air to put some distance between her and Zheng.
“Hey! Hey!” Evelyn shouted with sudden anger. “No broken bones and no damaged organs!”
“Raine!” I called out. “Are you okay?”
But Raine straightened up, grinning and panting, her free hand on her stomach.
Zheng raised a fist. “I know my own strength, wizard,” she rumbled. “No real damage. No hospital. No injuries.”
“Pulled punches,” July said. “Sad.”
“But necessary!” I blurted out.
“That’s more like it, big girl,” Raine said to Zheng, voice quivering with excitement. “Show me how much you care.”
Raine flew at Zheng again — but Zheng replied in kind.
I yelped in sympathetic terror. Anybody would break, having Zheng charge at them. It was like a wall of muscle smashing into the air itself. But Raine met her in the middle.
Raine’s knife flashed, met with fist and claw. Zheng jinked and ducked, howling like a prehistoric wolf. Raine went to circle, bobbing on the balls of her feet, laughing back at Zheng in a way I’d never heard before — but Zheng was already there, smashing Raine’s knife-arm aside with a blunt backhand. Raine took a glancing blow to the ribs and used her reaction to hide a switch of her knife from right to left. Zheng ignored the incoming blow, went for Raine’s head and shoulder, to grapple and pin her arm. Raine was forced to duck, twist at the hips, put all her weight on her left leg.
And she crumpled.
I saw the exact moment her thigh muscle failed. She expected it to support her full body weight just so, at the precise angle to take her bouncing up and around Zheng’s right flank, beneath the hand ready to grab her by the head. But that thigh muscle was where Raine had taken a bullet for me, where Stack’s last round had gouged a chunk out of Raine’s flesh. And when she relied on her body to do precisely what she needed, right at the edge of the possible, it failed her.
Raine fell to one knee, stumbling as her thigh muscle gave out. Zheng was on her in the blink of an eye, grabbing her upturned wrist, Raine’s last attempt to drive the knife into Zheng’s gut and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But it wasn’t to be.
Zheng squeezed hard and slammed Raine’s arm into the ground — her knife dropped from her fingers. Disarmed. Zheng’s knee found Raine’s stomach, her other hand scrabbling for a hold on Raine’s shoulder to pin her properly. Raine tried to twist out of the way, as if she had any hope at all of dislodging Zheng’s superior strength.
Zheng slammed her hand into Raine’s shoulder. Her legs pressed on Raine’s thighs. Pinned. Their faces inches apart, both of them flushed and caked in sweat.
“Stay, hyena!” Zheng roared laughter in Raine’s face — and then cut off instantly.
Raine was grinning up at her, panting with victory.
She hadn’t been trying to twist away at all — she’d been catching her knife in her opposite hand. The point pressed against Zheng’s stomach through her loose t-shirt, like an umbilical joining their bodies together, belly to belly.
Red, dark red, crimson and rich, began to trickle down the blade. It spread out from a narrow line across Zheng’s stomach, soaking into the fabric of her t-shirt.
The rest of us were all frozen in awe. Lozzie had her mouth hanging open, poncho raised as if to declare a winner, but even she couldn’t speak.
“I win,” Raine croaked.
“You are pinned, hyena,” Zheng purred back.
“And you’re bottled. One touch is all it takes.”
I’d never seen Raine so proud, so flushed, so excited. Zheng’s blood trickled over the short guard of her knife and between her knuckles.
Zheng rumbled. For a moment I thought she was going to lose her temper — but then she grinned back down at Raine, bringing their faces even closer together. “What are you, little thing?”
Raine laughed through clenched teeth, answering with a wiggle of her eyebrows. “You’re bloody good, and you know it, too. Had to fake you out. Almost ran me down. You’re so good.”
“Did I?” Zheng purred into her face, barely a whisper on the cinnamon wind.
“Maybe,” Raine panted.
“Maybe … mmmmmm.” Zheng let go of Raine’s shoulder but kept her opposite wrist pinned, then reached down between them to touch her own belly, where she’d been cut.
Raine let go of the knife and let it fall — and her hand brushed against Zheng’s, both of them bloodied. Their hands moved against each other for a moment across the surface of Zheng’s stomach. No doubt the wound was already closing with demon host healing speed, but their hands, Raine’s right and Zheng’s left, not quite joined, turned slick and coated with Zheng’s crimson blood.
They stared into each others’ eyes as it happened, Raine certain in victory, Zheng a little confused.
“Oh my goodness,” Jan whispered under her breath, hand to her mouth. “Should we really be watching this?”
“Uh,” Twil cleared her throat gently. “Maybe not?”
“Yessssss,” Sevens rasped, sounding like she’d just snorted a line of cocaine.
Raine raised her hand, covered in Zheng’s blood, and lifted it toward Zheng’s mouth. Zheng stared in a state of frozen shock I’d rarely seen on her before, confused, cautious, wary — but interested.
In an act I never would have imagined possible, Zheng parted her teeth, long tongue flickering behind the razor-points, and allowed two of Raine’s fingers past her lips.
Tongue-touch, lips brushing bloodied flesh, teeth gentle as a mate. Raine fed Zheng a taste of her own blood.
Zheng copied the gesture. Her own blood-soaked hand found Raine’s face, smeared crimson across Raine’s jaw and cheeks, and allowed Raine to suck on the side of her palm, for just a heartbeat.
“Ghastly,” Evelyn grunted.
“ … I don’t know,” I murmured, mesmerised. My tongue flickered out to wet my lips. “It’s … different.”
Zheng lifted her bloody hand from Raine’s face. Raine slipped her fingers out of Zheng’s mouth and wiped them on her own t-shirt. Zheng finally let her go, sitting up on her haunches and taking her weight off Raine. The spell between them did not quite break, though the intensity thinned as Zheng stood up and offered Raine a hand. The zombie pulled the psychopath to her feet.
“Fuck me,” Twil said. “Raine, what the hell? Where did you learn to do any of that shit?”
Raine cracked a grin and shrugged. “Youtube. Practice. Probably wouldn’t work the same on anybody ‘cept Zheng.”
Praem began a polite round of applause. Jan blew out a long breath, shaking her head and turning away. Sevens gurgled against my side, eyes wide as saucers, practically vibrating.
“That was,” Evelyn said, “without a doubt, one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen you do, Raine. And I’ve seen you do a lot.”
Raine shot her a wink, bending over to pick up her knife from the floor, wandering to where her fallen jacket lay so she could put the knife safely away. Then she caught my eye, beaming with pride through her bloody half-mask. I could see crimson on her lips. “Hey Heather, I think we’re finally poly for real, yeah?”
“Was that … ” I tried to form words. “Was that sex?”
“No,” Zheng rumbled. “It was more.”
“Kinda.” Raine shrugged. “You mind?”
I shook my head, feeling more than a little numb. Their fight kept replaying in my head. Part of me wanted to run over to both of them and jump into their combined arms, but they were both smeared with blood; my good-girl habits and upbringing told me that would make such a terrible mess.
“I do hope that’s safe … ” I trailed off. “All the … fluids.”
“Ha!” Twil snorted.
“No blood borne plague can live in me, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “The hyena is safe. I would not have … shared, otherwise.”
Raine licked her lips with a thoughtful look.
“But who won?” July asked. She sounded a little put out.
“Everybody wins!” Lozzie finally cheered, throwing her hands into the air. “Zhengy, you did it! You did the thing! The thing with the blood pact!”
Zheng stared at her own blood-soaked hand, then at Raine’s face. “A pact. I was not thinking of that.”
“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. “Your incredibly weird polycule of literal blood-drinking sex-fights, that’s one thing, but the wager was the other.” She wormed a free hand out from inside her coat, wearing it like a cloak now, and rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. “Who wins?”
“Does it matter?” Raine asked, laughing.
“Sort of,” Jan tutted. “Thought I was going to get a payout.”
“Stop bellyaching,” Evelyn sighed. “Can we go home now, please? Are we done here? Unless you two need to stay out here to rut in the grass or something.”
I blushed like crazy at that. Raine laughed. Zheng lifted her shirt to examine her stomach, the wound already closed, a four-inch slash low on her belly, across old tattoos and red-chocolate skin.
“Shower time,” Praem announced.
“Yeah, shower time,” Raine agreed. “No arguments there.”
“You as well,” Praem said to Zheng.
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. She looked Raine up and down. Raine winked back at her. It was like a spark passing between them.
Slowly, as if picking up the pieces after the world’s most violent lunchtime picnic, we made our way back over to the gate, toward the waiting warmth and light and normality of Sharrowford and home. Lozzie bounced between her knights, hugging several of them goodbye for now; I gave a somewhat shell-shocked wave to the Forest Knight, who was standing distant from us with a clutch of his fellows. He nodded back and I promised myself I would come see him properly sometime soon.
But as we wandered home, with Raine and Zheng walking beside each other, with Sevens hanging off my arm, and Evelyn casting a curious frown at the way I looked so numb, I wondered if anything could ever be normal again.
“That was bonkers,” Twil was saying. “Look, I do some crazy shit, but you two were off the hook.”
“You want to go as well, laangren?” Zheng purred.
Twil put her hands up. “No thank you. No thanks. I’m good. Just fine, thanks.”
“I can’t believe we spent so long on all this nonsense,” Evelyn grumbled. Lozzie skipped past her, toward the gate, poncho fluttering as she hugged the caterpillar again, like trying to embrace a barn.
“Well,” Jan sighed. “Sometimes you have to spend energy and effort on maintaining and strengthening relationships. You can’t get anywhere alone, after all.” She glanced at July, but July was watching Raine and Zheng with fascination, barely able to concentrate as she stopped by the carapace bench to pick up the guitar case which contained the magic sword. “Oh well,” Jan said. “What about lunch? I’d kill for some lunch. This has left me all shaky.”
“You ate all that chicken!” Twil said.
“You ate some of it, which means I’m hungry,” Jan tutted, holding her head high as she waddled along in her massive coat.
Despite my reeling mind, I decided that Jan was correct. We still had so many things to do; Edward still had our book, the cult was still at large; I hadn’t even begun to talk with Jan about making a body for Maisie, and I had little hope of finding the courage to confront Evelyn about her feelings any time soon.
But Zheng and Raine had finally bridged the other angle of our triangle, without my help.
I felt stronger than ever.
As we approached the gateway, Twil suddenly jumped in surprise. She rummaged in her hoodie and pulled out her mobile phone, then laughed and shook her head, blinking at the screen. The phone was vibrating in her hand.
“Signals actually get through the gate?” Raine said. “Weird, huh?”
“It’s my mum.” Twil tutted. “Told her we were gonna be, like, you know, beyond contact? Weird is right.”
“Oh that is very bizarre,” Jan said. “I do not like that one bit. No no no.”
“I wouldn’t answer it here,” Evelyn said. “But not for any magical reasons. Might get weird interference out here.”
“Right ‘ho,” Twil sighed. She stepped through the gate first, pausing to pat the caterpillar on the flank as she did. “Good lad, cheers for your help.”
The rest of us shuffled through after her, leaving Camelot and knights and purple whorls behind. Raine caught my hand before I went, then leaned in to kiss my cheek, leaving a smear of Zheng’s blood on me.
“R-Raine!?” I squeaked, moving to wipe my face. But then I caught the look in Zheng’s eyes.
“The shaman is in the pact too,” she purred.
I blushed hard, alongside my lovers, and then went home.
But on the other side of the gate, back in the oddly narrow confines of Evelyn’s magical workshop, everyone had drawn to an awkward halt. Twil was holding her phone to her ear, frowning like she’d been confronted with a dead rat on her bed.
“What do you mean, delirious?!” she said into the phone. The rest of us all shared a glance at the edge in her voice as she stepped away from the gate. “Delirious, what does that mean? Mum, slow down, what—”
Twil paused, listening to her mother’s voice on the other end of the phone. Evelyn had gone very still and silent, listening carefully. Raine shrugged. Praem marched past us all, heading for the kitchen.
“What’s happening?” Jan whispered.
“No idea,” I muttered. “Sorry.”
“No, no,” Twil suddenly exploded at the phone again. “Mum, she doesn’t know where we live. You’ve just dragged this woman out of the woods. Why are you lying to me?”
“Twil?” I asked.
“Never a dull moment,” Raine said.
Evelyn stepped forward, walking stick clacking on the floorboards, and took Twil by one shoulder. Twil stared at her, still listening to her mother over the phone.
“Twil, it’s me,” Evelyn said. “Share.”
Twil rolled her eyes and said “Just a sec,” into the phone, then covered the speaker with one hand.
“Twil,” Evelyn repeated, voice hard and firm. “Whatever is going on, I am on your side. What has your family—”
“Nah, it’s not them,” Twil sighed. “My mum’s talking nonsense. She says detective Webb— one sec.” Twil put the phone back to her ear. “By the way, mum, she’s not a police detective anymore, she’s a private eye.” A pause. “Yeah, that fucking changes everything! No, I’ll fucking swear if I want, you’ve gone out looking for somebody to kidnap, you’ve snatched this woman and now you’re—” Twil paused, growing even more confused. “What do you mean, she found you?”
“Police?” Jan hissed, making the word sound like nuclear weapons.
“Twil!” Evelyn snapped.
“Nicole?” I asked. “You’re talking about Nicole. Twil, what’s going on?”
Twil came up from the phone again, sighed, and pulled a painful smile. “Yeah, according to my mum, anyway. Nicky Webb, our friendly private eye, has just wandered out of the trees on the edge of Brinkwood, out of her fucking mind and babbling, and made a beeline straight for my family home. How the fuck, hey? She doesn’t even know where I live, right?”
Raine, Evelyn, and I all shared a glance. A sinking feeling dragged at the base of my stomach.
“The documents she stole,” Evelyn said, going pale. “The search for the house.”
“Oh no,” I hissed.
Raine puffed out a breath. “No spooky bullshit for little miss detective. No spooky bullshit my arse.”
Perhaps winning was less important to Raine than finally bridging the gap between her and Zheng, and not only for Heather’s sake. A blood pact, forged anew, the third crossbeam of their elegant triangle. Though the others seem a little overwhelmed by witnessing it, Heather certainly enjoyed the show. And I sure hope you all did too, because I sure do love writing fight scenes!
It’s almost the end of the month, so I’m not going to plug the patreon for once. If you want to support Katalepsis and read about 8-10k words ahead, you know where to find it!
But still, you can always:
Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!
So many readers still find the story through TWF, it’s incredible, and it only takes a couple of seconds to vote!
And as always, thank you all so much, dear readers. Your comments and pageviews and reviews helps me so much, knowing there’s people out there enjoying the story every week. That’s why I do this, so thank you for reading!
Next week, it’s on to a new arc, of strange places and befuddled private eyes and the darkest part of the woods …
holy SHIT i don’t think i’ve read this fast in my life
this chapter was INTENSE 👀👀👀
Goodness me! I shall take that as a great compliment, thank you so much!
I love this so much, I’m sitting here, reading, waiting for a train, with such a silly little grin on my face through the whole chapter.
Yay! Always happy to brighten a reader’s day, thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed it!
Thanks for the chapter!
You’re very welcome! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!
Eeeereeeeeeeeeee! Two hot lesbians fighting! Yay! Nice job author,that fight was great and how it ended. Steamy, like Zheng and Raine. I hope Sevens isn’t right, but she most likely is.
Everytime I think Heather is the Alpha of there thier little lesbian family, the others quickly prove me wrong or right? I am not sure. Hahahaha!
I love the interactions between all the characters.
Sevens x Heather is so cute, with all the biting and tentacles and Heather being an awkward little Dom.
Heather x Evelyn! Although even I have to admit there was more than enough Other Ships to temporarily distract me within this chapter. Nice job author.
Raine x Zheng. Heather x Raine. Heather x Zheng. Heather x Raine x Zheng. Heather x Sevens. Jan x Lozzie x Twil. July x her growing crushes( it’s cute.) July x Praem. (Wishful thinking. If she likes combat Praem for the win.)
Thank you for the chapter.
Oh, hello! I’ve just replied to your comment over on Royal Road! I shan’t duplicate it all here, but thank you for checking out the story’s own web site! Things here are a bit more muted than than the RR comments, but I hope you like the site.
It is a pretty site. If it is a problem I will just comment on one site. Thank you for the reply and sorry it took so long to reply. Forgot to hit the notify checkbox.
Thanks! I put quite a bit of effort into trying to make a readable design.
It’s no problem at all commenting on more than one site! Feel free to do both here and RR if you like!
Wow. A lot of personal resonance and sheer admiration for that fight scene have left me speechless, so I’ll stick with ‘wow’.
Thank you so much! I don’t often get to write fight scenes for Katalepsis, it’s not often that kind of story, so I’m super glad this one worked so well and so many readers have enjoyed it.
Great chapter as always!
Glad Raine and Zheng have resolved their triangle; now there’s only Sevens to integrate. I wonder, how does a demon fight a princess for love?
I spy a cognitive hazard on the horizon. Does the black moon howl?
Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it!
Raine and Zheng have indeed made a new kind of emotional bridge between them, at long last. But at the same time, the polycule seems to be expanding outward in other ways too. Heather is no longer the only center!
The black moon howls indeed!
I’m one corner, a superhuman demon with regeneration, natural predator instincts and 1000ish years of combat experience
In the other corner, a lesbian with a knife.
Place your bets!
Jokes aside, Every “fighter-class” character in the series has a animalistic natural understanding of violence and some have actual experience to back-up it up, but Raine…
Raine is an actual prodigal genius. While the rest of the fighthorny characters treat violence and combat as a hobby, Raine treats it as an artist or scientist trying to perfect it, understand every little minute aspect of it, reveal in the joy of learning it and relish in using it.
This is the reason she can compete with super humans like Twil and Zheng, and how know, maybe the gang finds a magic sword of their own for Raine to wield. Class-up to a sword lesbian, with would probably make Heather faint is cheer swooness.
“Raine treats it as an artist or scientist trying to perfect it, understand every little minute aspect of it, reveal in the joy of learning it and relish in using it.”
This is an insight into an aspect of Raine’s character that has been lurking in the background of the story without Heather really understanding it. Yes! Wonderful way of putting it! And indeed, Raine is in an awkward situation due to being the only truly baseline human who is also interested in being an instrument of violence. She can compete with all these superhuman people, but maybe she needs that last push over the top, that final advantage, that as-yet unseen tool. We’ll see!
Totally won’t have anything to do with Heathers magic lifejuice power and the bloodbond between her, Zheng and Heather of course.^^
Honestly? I kinda need more from Heather wrt Raine!
She really seems to take her for granted sometimes tbh. Like, speaking as a polyam person, Raine clearly *deserves* more of… a gesture of specific love. Which is obviously hard because of her whole “I want what you want” thing, but, that’s why it’s important.
Like, yes they spend time together and fuck and that’s great but what she really needs to give Raine is some gesture that’s distinctly *for* her; and no, Raine isn’t going to *ask* for that, but honestly that makes it all the more important that Heather identify the need herself.
Right now it feels like she just… Doesn’t have faith in Raine, really enough? And that’s sad because Raine is honestly great and deserves more, and I think Heather is capable of giving her more. Like, maybe something along the lines of “we can try and use my powers to reinforce you somehow so you can *take* these fights you really want on”?
Oh I absolutely agree! This is part of a structural issue in the story; there’s so many characters and so many plot threads that certain characters are sometimes going to take on more of a recurring or background role. Raine’s been in that situation for a little while, for structural reasons.
However! I can promise she’s got arcs and events planned for the future, one or two big things in particular that I am looking forward to. She is, after all, Heather’s rock.
I’m not sure about her taking on any supernatural reinforcement though. Part of what makes Raine so impressive is that in the end she’s just a baseline human being! We’ll see how long that lasts, though.
Yeah that’s fair! It’s just especially sad how often Raine seems to be deeply confident and Heather’s reaction is to try and hold her back, rather than be in her corner :c
Like, girl if something (or someone) is good for Raine, you should be encouraging her to make that connection, and talking to her about what she needs to get there!
Absolutely! This experience of the duel with Zheng has changed a lot of things for Raine, forged a new connection that is not all about Heather, and is very likely going to bear fruit in the future.
As for the way Heather treats her, you’re right about that too. Sooner or later they’re going to have to address that.
I hope she can give back the energy that Raine deserves 🙂
Best dyke 💜
Best dyke! Yeah! Haha, I agree. Raine has been a popular character right from the start and she’s 100% going to get more focus in the future too.
Amazing chapter. It was hard to live up to the build up of a fight between Raine and Zheng, but the chapter delivered and then some; absolutely fantastic. Raine busting out the fighting game trick bag with mixups and frame traps, hahah.
Thank you so much! Really glad you liked this part! I wasn’t even 100% sure I could pull off what I wanted here, after all the build up and tension, but I’m really happy with how it went. The fight between them was never going to be a traditional slugging match, Raine was going to have to use some tricks suited specifically for beating Zheng. And she did!
I really like that you didn’t downgrade Zheng for the match. Her own match with July came after a couple of losing matches for her, which I feared would be the beginning of her own Worf Effect. Glad I was wrong and Zheng remains every bit of a badass!
Also glad that your keen mind could cash the check that your fingers (literally) wrote! 🙂
I always try to avoid subjecting Zheng to a Worf Effect, it’s one of my biggest worries for her as a character.