Brinkwood was not Sharrowford.
One might be forgiven for assuming a thin distinction between city and village, if one judged by a map of Sharrowford and its surroundings. The village of Brinkwood — a ‘historic’ village according to some labels, because it had once been the site of a Roman villa complex — lay only two train stops north of Sharrowford Central station. For the price of a thirteen pound return ticket, the curious traveller could be standing in Brinkwood’s own little train station twenty minutes later, beneath the shadow of the heathland hills, a stone’s throw from three pubs, one primary school, a secondary school and sixth form, a small Tesco, a regional pork-pie manufacturer — and the thickly wooded vale beyond the houses.
Brinkwood’s position on the map suggested a dormitory town for Sharrowford, just a short ride to the edge of the city and a scenic jaunt across open countryside of damp fields full of sad-looking cows. A little outpost of the English rural idyll.
But maps and numbers are only descriptions, they are never the territory. It was a minor miracle that Brinkwood station had survived mothballing at all, let alone still saw regular service. If one did wish to actually alight there, one had to catch exactly the right kind of train. Most of the higher-speed trains were diverted around the older tracks entirely. Three in four simply went straight past the tiny village platform at full speed, leaving the inattentive would-be rural explorer stranded high and dry in Manchester several stops later. And Brinkwood’s train platform was so short it could only serve the front two carriages; if you weren’t standing in the right part of the train when it drew to a halt, you would find yourself once again whisked off to parts unknown as the rotting ex-mill town vanished into the distance, hiding away in its wooded valley.
Despite everything that I had experienced in Sharrowford, I’d gotten used to the strange atmosphere of the city. I’d lived there for less than a year, but I felt as if I’d lived all my long stolen decade in a mere nine months.
I had come to know the winding streets with their untended potholes and filthy gutters; the university like a warren of different styles, always with some new cubbyhole or forgotten room to discover; the hidden gems of takeaway restaurants and exotic eateries where Raine would take me; the spirit creatures around every corner, vital and ever-present in their dozens, once nightmarish but now an odd kind of nostalgic old friend; red bricks, solid roofs, rows of terraced houses; weird little shops in the city centre, weirder people, back alleys and back routes and bridges and Churches and pubs. Sharrowford didn’t need dormitory towns, it had its own trailing edges of ragged suburbs and concrete edifices from the 1960s.
Essentially I was a city girl at heart — though Reading, where I’d been born and grown up, had not been my city. The years I should have gotten to know Reading, I spent in and out of psychiatric care instead, screaming into my pillow, or sobbing in the dark, pleading for my sister to come home.
But Sharrowford? I was coming to love Sharrowford, perhaps in the way one comes to love an oak tree undermining the foundations of a castle. Old and gnarled, beautiful in its ugliness, abused since the industrial revolution and never really allowed to heal.
I thought I knew Sharrowford’s surroundings, too. We’d been out there and walked the woods together, when Zheng had fled into the countryside.
Brinkwood was just more countryside, how bad could it possibly be?
We didn’t take the train. We had to keep our retreat open, not bound by train timetables. So Raine drove.
“I hate this place already,” Evelyn hissed between her teeth as we entered the village, peering out through the passenger-side window. “Just look at it.”
“Evee,” I sighed — not at her, but at the growing cloud of butterflies in my stomach as I huddled in the back seat, hugging my squid-skull mask like a plushie in my lap. “It’s just a village. There’s nothing sinister about it. Please.”
“Call Zheng again,” she snapped. “Try again.”
“Alright, alright,” I groaned.
“Technically Brinky’s a town,” said Twil. She was sitting in the back with me, with Praem’s wide hips squeezed into the middle seat between us, prim and proper, eyes straight ahead. “Not a village, really.”
“Brinky?” Evelyn spat.
“Brinky,” Praem echoed.
Evelyn had held her temper in stormy silence for the entire journey, since we’d wormed our way out of Sharrowford’s urban heart and left the arteries of the main roads, to descend into the open countryside north of the city, crisscrossed by single-lane tarmac paths and the unpaved punctuation of farmland access routes. Wide hummocked fields dotted with distant sheep, wild hedgerows overgrown with bramble and nettle, stone walls lined by tall craggy trees; the English rural dream, marred only slightly by the sheer amount of mud either side of the tarmac, the occasional squashed squirrel or hedgehog in the roadway, and the rutted potholes which threatened the integrity of the tires.
For me, the local spirit life revealed the lie beneath the surface. The city was almost always packed with pneuma-somatic fauna in a constant state of motion and action, perhaps reflecting the lives or vitality of the people. Out here in the countryside it thinned yet intensified, but without the wild sense of freedom I had gotten from the tentacle-trees and canopy-dwellers in the woods during our previous outing, back when we’d gone to find Zheng.
We passed a creature the size of a dinosaur, half-lizard half-plant, bleeding from a hundred wounds as it limped across a distant field; a tall, silent being like a dark pylon stood next to a lonely crossroads, as if waiting for a direction, forever abandoned by its fellows; down an unpaved side-road I spied things like trees but lashed about with pale tentacles, migrating in a herd of a dozen or more, seemingly wandering into the sun-beaten, empty deeps of the countryside.
Once, this had all been forests, or at least open common land. Now it was an open-air factory, concealed behind the romance of the rural.
How long did spirits live? Did they remember what it was like out here, before enclosure? Were they lost?
Spring was in full bloom, carpeting everything with thick, deep green, but the sun couldn’t quite chase away the chill in the air. Long shadows fell across the landscape as we plunged into the village of Brinkwood itself.
Brinkwood was situated at the mouth of a long, narrow valley, which had once been part of a winding, difficult path through the Pennines, first made obsolete by the iron certainty of the rail-roads, then later by the ubiquitous brutality of the motorcar. Mill trade and textiles had kept the town alive through the nineteenth century, but now it was on the dubious life support of small trades, bookies, and local tourism. Tall hills rose either side of the town, humped pale sentinels that had watched the valley since long before human beings had made an outpost of civilisation here; always visible over the slate rooftops and rickety chimneys, their flanks were dotted with trees that thickened lower down. Their angle would make for late sunrises, but thankfully only the trees themselves would deepen the dusk.
But the valley which cut between the hills was thick with woods, almost a true forest, a deeper and more tangled offshoot of the lowland woods Zheng had fled to earlier in the year.
I watched Evelyn’s eyes flickering back and forth over Saturday afternoon pedestrians in the single shopping street, frowning at the sign for an optician’s practice, the pizza place optimistically named ‘Galactic Taste’, and the pair of grey-faced bank branches duelling over a zebra crossing. We passed one of the village pubs — The King’s Elbow — with its picturesque back garden of wooden benches and lunchtime drinkers. But to Evelyn’s glare it may as well have been barbed wire fences and minefields. Her scrimshawed thigh-bone lay in her lap, as if ready to raise it to the window and blast a would-be attacker, as if we were journeying into the dark heart of some occupied territory in our armoured vehicle — rather than bunch of university girls out in the countryside for a Saturday afternoon drive.
At least she couldn’t see the spirit life, the monkey-things of tar and rock swinging over the rooftops, the silent slug-like sentinels at the crossroads, the bulk of the faceless thing that squatted in the town’s churchyard.
“Stupid name,” she hissed. “Stupid place. Shouldn’t be out here.”
“Oi,” Twil tutted. “It’s not that bad. I do go to school here, you know?”
“It’s horrible,” Evelyn said. “No wonder you’re so … ”
“So what?” Twil bristled. “Look, Evee, yeah, we’re all in this together, and I fuckin’ love you, you dolt, but don’t keep insulting my home.”
Raine chuckled in the driver’s seat. She drove nice and slow, taking each village corner gently and carefully as we wound deeper into the town, sticking to the speed limit as we passed through thin residential streets that looked like they hadn’t been updated in decades, all full of little houses and even some low terraced flats. We could have asked for no better driver under the circumstances, which was all the more impressive seeing as Raine had been locked in adrenaline-pumping, sexually-charged combat about an hour earlier. None of us were in the right mind for this, but we didn’t have a choice. We were not about to ignore Nicole in trouble.
We couldn’t afford the slightest suspicion right then, not with half the stuff we were carrying.
I watched the trees gather as we crept through Brinkwood, as the houses thinned away to a trickle, as the thickened, ancient bark was joined by carpets of fallen leaves along the hedgerows.
“Settle down, girls,” Raine said with a smile in her voice. “Or I’ll turn this car around and take us home.”
Evelyn grunted. “Even as a joke, that is in poor taste, Raine. We leave nobody behind.”
Twil sighed, not for the first time. “It’s not a rescue operation, alright? We agreed on that, yeah? We’re not gonna leap out of the car and bean my mum over the head, okay?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Evelyn said through her teeth.
“Expert consulting,” Praem intoned.
Praem had her hands folded in her lap, atop her long shell-blue skirt. Evelyn had made her change out of her maid uniform before we’d left the house. Just in case.
“Yeah!” Twil said, nodding and pointing at Praem in the middle seat. “Yeah, listen to Praem, she’s got it right. We’re not going in guns blazing. It’s not like Nicky’s been kidnapped. I had it all wrong earlier, right? You have been listening to me, yeah?”
“Every bloody word,” Evelyn hissed.
“Hey, Twil,” Raine said, turning her head toward Twil without taking her eyes off the road — she was slowing the car at a junction, a village crossroads where the houses truly and finally ran out, replaced by heavy old oaks and beaches climbing the slopes. “Right turn here, yeah? Your place is just beyond?”
“Yeah, halfway down toward the bridge,” Twil said. “Along here, left at the fork, then it’s third on the right. First two are just fields, so you can’t miss it. The house is pretty obvious.”
Raine took the turning, car wheels soft on the pitted and water-eaten asphalt. Evelyn started chewing on her thumbnail.
Perhaps she was hungry; we hadn’t even had time to eat lunch before we’d left, nothing except cramming a few cereal bars into our faces.
I pulled my eyes away from the passing trees, the woods punctuated by distant fields that climbed the valley’s sides, and the deeper patches where the trees ran back beneath miles of deep canopy.
“Evee,” I said, and found my throat a little scratchy. My nerves were getting to me, despite the squid-skull in my lap and my one manifested tentacle wrapped around my shoulders in a self-hug. I’d tucked the other five away for now, folded them back into imagination and phantasm, as a concession to squeezing three people into the back seat. “Evee, it reminds you of Sussex, doesn’t it?”
Evelyn twisted to frown at me over her shoulder, over the back of the passenger seat. “For fu—” she started, then cut off with a sharp sigh at the look in my eyes. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“It’s nothing like where you grew up,” I said, reaching forward to pat her awkwardly on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” Twil added with a forced laugh. “You lived in a big posh house. This ain’t that.”
Evelyn huffed and turned back to staring out of the windscreen, as if we might suddenly come under attack as we plunged beneath the tall canopy of ancient woodland.
“Keep your eyes open, Heather,” she grumbled. “Especially for anything that doesn’t look like natural pneuma-somatic fauna.”
“I know, I know,” I sighed. “There’s nothing out of the ordinary.”
“All eyes on the road,” Praem announced. “The way is clear.”
“Yes, you as well, thank you Praem.” Evelyn sighed, rapping her fingernails on the passenger seat armrest. “And Heather, try calling Zheng again, before we get there. She bloody well better be in position. I don’t want to be sitting in this car waiting for her to turn up.”
“In position?” Twil asked. “In position for what? We’re not going to storm my own house.”
Raine laughed and shook her head. “Never thought I’d see you trusting Zheng to keep us safe, Evee. What, I’m not enough?”
“Just in case,” Evelyn grunted. “Heather, call her.”
“I’m … I’m already doing it,” I said, clearing my throat, holding my phone to my ear.
“Please,” Evelyn added, then, “Sorry. Sorry, I’m … I don’t like this.”
“None of us do,” Raine said with a grin.
“Speak for yourselves,” said Twil. “It’s only Brinkwood. It’s home.”
My phone rang quietly in my hand. The trees crawled by alongside the narrowing road. I willed Zheng to pick up. Evelyn wasn’t wrong, we needed as much protection as we could get, even if this was all above-board and absolutely not a trap, by either the Brinkwood cult — which I seriously doubted — or a distant and unknowable move by Edward Lilburne — which I doubted significantly less.
To our collective credit, we hadn’t instantly descended into a tailspin of paranoia and panic after Twil’s mysterious phone call from her mother.
Quite a feat, seeing as it had come hot on the heels of both planned and improvised duels Outside, one of the most magically and emotionally complex things any of us had done in a while. Raine and Zheng had both been covered in blood, I’d been all a-whirl inside my own head with emotional overload and quasi-sexual awe, and we’d had a stable gateway to Camelot to deal with, whatever we decided to do about Nicole’s situation.
After a bit more second-hand confused back-and-forth between Twil and her mother on the other end of the phone, we’d established a few basic facts: Nicole Webb was at Twil’s house, not being held hostage, and free to leave whenever she wanted.
But she was neither willing nor able to leave under her own power. According to Twil’s mother, Nicole Webb, private eye, had stumbled out of the woods in a semi-coherent daze, a fugue state, talking nonsense — actual nonsense, even by the standards of people in the know, who worshipped an Outsider and had a werewolf for a daughter. So, no exaggeration there. She’d collapsed on their doorstep and they’d taken her indoors.
For anybody else, they would have called an ambulance and maybe the police. After all, this wasn’t any of their business.
Except that Twil’s mother recognised Nicole, from the meeting between us and Edward’s people. Nicole was in the know, exposed to the supernatural, and as far as Twil’s mother knew, still very much a police detective.
“I think she just wants this off the family’s hands, you know?” Twil explained to us after she’d hung up. “This isn’t anything to do with them. This is the shit we’ve had super-spy Nicky doing, right? Looking for Edward’s place?”
“Maybe,” Evelyn hissed. “But maybe not. I don’t know. We don’t know anything.”
“It’s not a fucking trap!” Twil said. “My mum is freaked out, okay?”
“We go in as if it is a trap,” Evelyn said. “No complaints, no arguing. Or you stay here and we’ll do it without you.”
“It’s my home! It’s my parents!”
“I don’t think it’s going to be a trap,” I had piped up, my mouth gone dry, my hands shaking.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what Nicole had said, about the documents she’d stolen from Edward, the sense she’d gotten that the information itself had been avoiding her curiosity, trying to hide from her insight. Had she lied to us, had she carried on with the investigation regardless?
“Nah,” Raine had said to that. “For my money, Nicky’s way too sensible to stick her nose back in, not when she said she’d stop.”
“We are going to retrieve her regardless,” Evelyn said. “Nobody gets left behind.”
“Left behind where!?” Twil shouted. “She’s at my bloody house, it’s not like she’s behind enemy lines or some shit.”
Jan had cleared her throat, still flanked by the towering presence of July. “Excuse me,” she’d interjected as we’d all started melting down at each other, flapping one hand of her overstuffed coat to get our attention. “I do hope I’m not included in this ‘we’ statement of yours. I don’t know what you lot are up to, exactly, but I would rather not be involved in anything that includes a police detective, ex or otherwise.”
Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes. Obviously. And this is none of your business anyway.”
“She can hang out with me!” Lozzie chirped, bumping into Jan’s side like an amorous cat rubbing itself on a nearby leg.
“Oh!” Jan sort of caught her but without touching her, suddenly all delicate hover-hands and blushing cheeks. “Um, well, that’s very … kind of you, but we, uh. Um.”
“Actually,” Evelyn snapped, “I’ve changed my mind. You can help.”
July had perked up at that. Jan had looked up too, head surfacing from her coat like a seal from an ice-hole. “Absolutely no—”
“You can house-sit.”
Evelyn had not liked Lozzie’s request, as she made clear once we were in the car, but it was the only thing that made sense under the circumstances; we had already trusted Jan and July enough to let them in our home and through the gateway to Camelot. They already knew where we lived. If they were still planning a move against us, now was the time to do it regardless, and none of us actually thought they were. Jan’s aversion to complications and danger was difficult to fake.
So Evelyn had taken charge of planning. She’d shooed us out of the room while she and Lozzie deactivated the gateway. Zheng and Raine had done their best to clean the blood off their respective faces — and in Zheng’s case, her belly and hips, swapping out her t-shirt for something clean. I’d flittered around, still shell-shocked after the duels, more than a little sweaty, badly in need of a sit-down, but found myself making a cup of tea for Jan and July. But that wasn’t to last. Evelyn reappeared like a whirlwind of command.
Zheng was dispatched — with Evelyn’s instructions but by my request — to reach Twil’s house before the rest of us did, with her mobile phone firmly in her pocket and strict instructions not to pull any doors off any hinges or any heads off any necks.
“You fucking lay a hand on my mum and I’ll take you apart,” Twil had growled at her, not happy about any step of this. “I’m not kidding. I heal faster than you, don’t you forget that.”
Zheng had strode past Twil in the kitchen as if ignoring her — but then briefly grabbed her head in one massive hand, let out a chuckle, and vanished out the back door before Twil could retaliate with a bite.
“And you’re certain,” Evelyn had pressed Lozzie, “there’s no way you can just … jump there, yes?”
“There’s no singing calling me there,” Lozzie had said, sighing at the kitchen table. “I can go Out! But not like, back anywhere I choose, not unless I can hear. And I don’t know the voices out there or the reflections. Sooooo no. Okay?”
Evelyn huffed, but she nodded. “I suppose so.”
I’d caught Sevens briefly, in the front room, during the only moment we’d had alone before we’d left the house. “Please do keep an eye on things,” I’d murmured as the others got ready. “You’re one of us, you’re part of the house. I … I think I trust Jan and July, but this is all so sudden, I need somebody here who I can trust for sure, who is powerful enough to … well, just in case.”
“I wanna come too,” Sevens had rasped, clinging to my front with her hands curled into claws. “I wanna watch you.”
“Nothing is going to happen,” I said to her. “I … I hope. We’ll see what’s up with Nicky, and … and … ”
“You’re kidding yourself,” Sevens bumped her head against my shoulder, gurgling the words into my flesh, chewing gently on my hoodie. I hugged her awkwardly.
“Watching the house is important too,” I said.
“Mmmuuurrrrr. Okaaaaay. But I’ll be there if you need it.”
“Don’t jeopardise your progress, Sevens.”
“Mmmmmm. For you.”
Raine, Evelyn, Twil, Praem, and I had all piled into Raine’s reliable but somewhat cramped car. We left Jan and July with Lozzie, Tenny and Sevens, and with Whistle trotting around in the kitchen, what we hoped were capable hands.
Geerswin Farm — Twil’s family home — was tucked away just past Brinkwood itself, an open secret not quite fully subsumed by the creeping mud and green rot of the deep woods, but not truly part of the village either. It stood on the borderland between one world and the next, though I had the distinct impression that not all of us could feel the lingering transition as we passed between the jumbled mass of thickening trees.
The road narrowed, the mud encroached on crumbling asphalt, and the canopy above blocked out most of the sunlight.
“You actually walk this, every day, to get to school or the train station?” Evelyn asked, her voice dropping to a subconscious whisper as if something might hear us from beyond the ever-closer tree-line.
Twil shrugged. “Yeah? It’s not that bad, it’s not like a dirt path or something. It’s only like fifteen minutes walk to school.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Evelyn laughed without humour, shaking her head.
“We’re hardly like, in the Outer Hebrides. You don’t have to get on a boat to get here. We’ve driven here from Sharrowford! In like twenty minutes!”
I still had my phone pressed to my ear, still ringing, still going unanswered. Zheng wasn’t picking up.
“It is absolutely the back of beyond,” Evelyn hissed. Her attention suddenly snapped up from the road as the trees parted ahead of us, as the house and grounds loomed out of the woods, a sudden fairy-ring among the boughs. “Is that it?” she asked.
Raine was laughing. “Didn’t know you lived in a mansion, Twil.”
“It’s not a mansion!” Twil was getting shrill, which wasn’t helping my nerves. “It’s not even as big as your house!”
“Oh my goodness,” I said, putting my free hand over my mouth at the sight of the place.
Raine must have caught the panic in my voice. “Heather?”
“Um … it’s … um … ”
“Busy,” Praem intoned, bell-clear, cutting through our confusion.
To call Twil’s family home a ‘farm’ was not really accurate — that was a sentimental anachronism, no matter what status claimed by the little rusted sign at the end of the driveway. At some distant point in the past, an optimistic pioneer had carved out a few fields here in the shadows of the tall trees, cleared the woods back to a higher ridge in the earth, erected a row of stables, added a set of fences, and then crowned their achievement with a rambling farmhouse in red brick, dark slate, and thick wooden beams.
Nature had since digested all those ambitions. The fields were overgrown with long grass, thistles, and hardy little saplings, slowly re-colonising the clearing and returning it to the forest. The fences were rotten and full of holes. Only one field still boasted intact fences, painstakingly repaired with modern lumber and treated with creosote paint, but still pockmarked with green mosses and damp lichens. I spotted a pair of alpacas far off in the corner of that field, with a small group of sheep clustered around them as they looked up at our approach.
The block of stables had collapsed long ago. Only one at the far end was kept in any state of repair, wrapped in tarpaulin as a form of weatherproofing. The stub of a black-beamed barn poked from the scrub ground beyond, looking like it had once burnt almost to the ground. At least the driveway was fresh gravel, no older than a few years since it was last replaced, not too riven with mud-holes and wheel-ruts.
The farmhouse itself was the only part of the property that obviously received regular attention and maintenance. A low structure of only two floors, it was nothing like the grandiose size of the manor house down in Sussex on the Saye estate. Twil was correct about that, it was neither fancy nor posh — but it was still much larger and more dignified than any modern new build one might find in Sharrowford. In form it was less neat and regular than Number 12 Barnslow Drive; the building looked like it had started life as a much smaller structure, then been progressively added to on one side, lending it an outline like a series of smaller boxes being pulled out of each other. But it was far better tended than our home — no ivy climbed the clean red brickwork, no tiles were missing from the slate roof, the small square windows were clean and a little back patio was festooned with healthy green potted plants.
I could tell that whoever was responsible for the building loved it dearly. And so did I. Love at first sight and more than a little bit of envy directed at Twil, for getting to grow up in a place like this.
It was real and cared for in a way I so rarely saw: on closer inspection some of the roof tiles were the wrong colour, sourced from anywhere to fill the gaps. The window panes were clean but the cross-beams had not been repainted in years. What I had thought was metal trim on the patio doors was actually masses of duct tape, holding the hinges on. Whoever cared for this place did not have deep resources to draw on, but they were mounting a desperate rearguard action against time and decay.
Whoever would willingly care for an old and venerable building in such a way was my instant friend and ally.
But that wasn’t what I was reacting to; I only processed that later.
“What do you mean, busy?” Evelyn hissed. “Praem, what do you mean?”
“Busy,” Praem repeated. “But the way is clear.”
“Heather?” Raine slowed as we approached the gravel driveway. “What do you see? Should we stop?”
“It’s just my home,” Twill huffed.
“The way is clear,” Praem repeated.
“Uh. If Praem thinks … ” I struggled to find my voice — but I didn’t have time to do more than that.
The car rounded the farm’s hedgerow border, giving us a view down the driveway, all the way to the front door of the farmhouse.
I lowered my phone from my ear and killed the unanswered call. No wonder Zheng hadn’t picked up.
The wide space between the front of the house and the abandoned stables was paved with a broad patch of cracked and crumbly tarmac, laid down as room for parking, an ugly practicality amid this grand ruin. It was currently occupied by a beefy green land rover that I recognised from our first meeting with the Church of Hringewindla, alongside a pair of more sensible looking cars, one of which was parked at a jaunty angle which screamed ‘I was in a hurry when I pulled up.’
Twil’s mother, Christine Hopton, was standing on the raised brick step before the front door, almost exactly as I recalled her from our previous meetings, like Twil but thirty years older, with long unbound grey hair and a face lined by a lifetime of genuine smiles. But right then she was frowning, her arms folded beneath a tie-dye shawl, her body language like a schoolteacher threatened with a knife.
Benjamin — Twil’s cousin, who’d we’d also met before, months ago — was standing next to her on the tarmac. For all his heavily muscled bulk and close-cropped hair and imposing looks, he was currently white-faced and open-mouthed in naked terror.
Opposite them, twelve feet away, wrapped in her long coat and fresh, unbloodied clothes, stood Zheng.
She was baring her teeth, moving her head back and forth with all the predatory intent of a big cat sizing up a rival.
“Oh shit!” Twil shouted, fumbling with the door handle. “Shit shit shit!”
“No, Twil!” I said, trying to grab for her over Praem’s lap and managing only to get a face full of Praem’s chest. “It’s fine, she’s not glaring at your mum!”
“Heather!” Evelyn snapped, fumbling inside her coat. “Praem! What are we looking at? One of you bloody well explain.”
“Zheng’s in a staring contest,” I said, panic clawing up my throat. Praem helped me sit back up. “I-I think, anyway. I think it’s okay!”
“Staring contest with what?!” Twil yelled, popping the car door even though the wheels were still rolling. The smell of the woods rushed inside the car, loamy soil and rotting leaves.
“The bubble-things,” I said. “The cult’s— I mean, your family’s servitors.”
“Doggies,” Praem intoned.
I had failed to remind myself that the people who owned this house had the strings of an Outsider god wrapped around their brains, but the bubble-servitors were impossible to ignore.
They were crawling all over the exterior of the house. A dozen or more.
I’d witnessed a single example of the Brinkwood Cult’s ‘angels’ once before, back when Twil’s mother, Christine Hopton, high priestess of the Church of Hringewindla, had visited us in order to offer the resources and help of the Church with cracking the Sharrowford Cult’s interdimensional gateways. Though that had turned out to maybe, possibly, be a trap. That seemed like so long ago now — before we’d stormed the castle, before Alexander’s demise, before I’d rediscovered what I really was. And before Zheng.
The bubble-servitors were only semi-visible, glinting in the sunlight like blobs of oversized soap suds, individual bubbles sliding over each other in a constant process of liquid rearrangement. Back in Sharrowford, I’d found it hard to gauge the size of the one that Christine Hopton had brought with her, but outlined now against the roof of the house, the background of thick woods, and the tarmac and grass of the grounds, the cult’s real muscle was much clearer.
Each one was about six or seven feet in diameter, though they took a constantly shifting, irregular shape, making it hard to standardize. Four or five of the things were perched on the roof, and it was difficult to tell them apart as they circled and bobbed. Another two floated through the little garden like silent air-bound jellyfish. One hovered over the front door, within inches of Christine and Benjamin’s heads. Several clustered around the dilapidated stables and more of them were hanging over the distant, overgrown fields. We passed one on guard duty by the driveway, component bubbles slipping and sliding as if it was somehow reacting to the car’s movement.
The motion of the things made my stomach turn over. It made me think of naked muscle with the skin stripped away.
I couldn’t help but notice there was no other spirit life here. This was a monoculture. Hringewindla’s angel-buds only.
And one of the bubble-servitors was right in front of Zheng, hanging in the air, as if locked in a staring contest.
Unfortunately, nobody but Praem and I could see that. Even when Evelyn pulled out her modified 3D glasses, I don’t think she understood what she was looking at. Everybody else saw Zheng making a face like she wanted to eat Twil’s mum, and not in the fun way.
Twil boggled at me — then leapt from the car as Raine was still pulling to a stop. She hit the tarmac running and sprinted over to put herself between Zheng and her mother.
“Oh yes, make everything worse, well done!” Evelyn shouted, whipping the glasses off her face. “Somebody help me up before this all explodes!”
Then Raine was setting the handbrake and killing the engine and the rest of us piled out of the car too, out into the loamy scent and rustling leaves of the middle of the woods, straight into a whirlwind.
“Don’t you fucking dare you—” Twil, putting her fists up for Zheng.
“Twil! Language!” Scolded by her own mother.
“Hey hey hey, what the hell is that,” Benjamin was freaking out. “What the hell is she? I am not dealing with that, I am not dealing with that—”
“Everybody. Calm. Down.” Evelyn couldn’t snap loud enough, voice lost in the creaking of the trees overhead. Praem and I got her to her feet before I realised how badly she was shaking, how much she didn’t want to be here, how risky she felt this was.
“Woof. Good dog.” Praem, talking to something almost nobody else could see.
“Rrrrrrrr-rrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” Zheng kept growling, louder and louder.
“Whoa, whoa, hey, no need for violence, okay?” Raine, always brave, stepping forward with her hands out. “We’re all here to—”
“Mum, mum get indoors and—”
“I will absolutely not, this is a misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstanding my arse!” Benjamin shouted. “That’s a full-on fucking revenant. Fuck this, I’m getting the shotgun.”
A swish and a click and a low tone from Raine, her stubby black pistol suddenly in her hand. “Wouldn’t do that if I were you, mate.”
“Raine!” Twil shouted. “Fuck, put that away!”
“Then tell your cousin to—”
“You get her to back off then!” Benjamin pointed at Zheng. His hand was shaking.
Zheng rumbled between her teeth, twisting her head left and right at the revolting mass of bubbles in front of her eyes. Little sub-clusters of iridescent spheres followed her motion, as if mimicking or mocking. The colours on the bubble-servitor’s surface ran together, oil on water, forcing me to blink hard to clear my itching, stinging eyes. Evelyn’s grip tightened on my arm as the situation spiralled out of control.
I tried to speak. “She’s not—”
But Twil yelled over me. “This isn’t what we—”
Evelyn raised her voice again. “Everybody shut the fu—”
“I’m getting the gun!”
“Don’t you move a muscle, fella, you stay right there.”
“Raine, put it down!”
I hissed long and loud and hard, so hard that my throat ached and burned when I finally let the sound trail off, but the stunt did the trick — everybody stopped shouting and waving their arms about. I only realised after I’d done it that I’d also reached out and wrapped my single manifested tentacle around Raine’s wrists, forcing her pistol to stay pointed at the ground. We all stood there for a moment in stunned silence, broken only by the rustle of leaves overhead as I panted and swallowed and forced my throat back into the proper human configuration. In the distant field, the little clutch of sheep with their pair of alpaca guardians were all staring at us — at me, and my predator-sound.
Evelyn was shaking gently against my arm. Twil was staring at me, thankful but shocked. Benjamin looked like he’d soiled himself. Zheng didn’t care, still locked in silent confrontation with the bubble-bath creature.
Christine Hopton cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she managed to say, a little shocked but quickly recovering her poise and dignity. “Heather, if I am recalling correctly? Thank you.”
“Mmm,” I grunted, my throat now too raw for words, filled with the scent of mud and bark.
“Thank you, indeed. Now, if everybody could stay calm, please? Ben, don’t go anywhere, do not introduce more firearms to this situation. And Twil,” she added quickly, “if you could not start shouting.”
“Raine pointed her gun at us,” Twil huffed.
“She didn’t, actually,” Christine said. “She was always pointing it at the ground.”
“Safety first,” Raine said with a polite nod. “And the safety’s on, too.” Her eyes flicked to Benjamin, who was standing there like a pillar of salt, staring at me in shock, his hands half-raised like he wasn’t sure if he should surrender or not. “Just don’t go fetching any shotguns, okay?”
“ … sure,” he said. “Whatever. Alright.” He nodded at Zheng. “You’ve got a bloody revenant standing right there, though. Can somebody call it off, please?”
“Zheng does what she pleases,” Evelyn said. She caught my eye and nodded too, mouthing a silent thank you.
“Shaman,” Zheng finally rumbled, without taking her eyes off the bubble-servitor inches from her nose. Benjamin jumped. Christine blinked in surprise. I think they’d assumed Zheng couldn’t talk. “The god-spawn blocks the way. I am not to pass.”
“Wait, what?” Twil said, frowning in confusion.
“Ah.” Christine winced with implicit apology. “The angels. I thought that was happening, I do apologise. Neither I nor Ben here can see them.” She waved an impatient hand at Benjamin. “Go tell Amanda they need calming. Our guests need to come inside and see to their friend. And do not return with the shotgun.”
“What?” Ben pulled a grimace. “Leave you out here with them?”
“Oi, I’m standing right here!” Twil said.
“Yeah,” Ben snapped at her. “And you weren’t here when you were fuckin’ needed. I had to race here from my flat and—”
“Ben,” Christine said, firmer than expected. “Inside. Tell Amanda. Now.”
He sighed and shrugged, shaking his meaty head. “Fine.” He pointed at Twil. “You look after your mum.”
“Hey, fuck you too!” Twil spat.
“Twil!” her mother scolded.
I tried not to watch that exchange, mortified for Twil, for her family, for everyone involved. I felt like we’d walked in on something we shouldn’t be witnessing.
Evelyn cleared her throat loudly, shoulders hunched against the wind through the trees. Her grip on my arm was particularly tight and I didn’t blame her, not with the way the tall trunks creaked and swayed far above us.
“Where is Nicole Webb?” she asked.
Christine bowed her head as if embarrassed. “Indoors, in our sitting room. She’s safe, we haven’t done anything. Ben, please, if you could get moving?”
“Wait,” Evelyn snapped. “Before we all go exploding off in our separate directions, I would like to establish exactly what is going on here. Nobody move, please.”
From anybody else, in any other tone but long-suffering exasperation, the words ‘nobody move, please’ would probably have sent several of the people present in that tumbledown forest clearing all moving at once, at high-speed, with dangerous intent. But Evelyn was so fed up she managed to make it into a phrase of de-escalation, even as she rummaged inside her coat.
Her hand emerged with the magically modified 3D-glasses once again, their rims covered in tiny magical symbols. She slipped them on and looked around with a frown — first curious, then increasingly disgusted. “Ugh,” she muttered. “Worse than I imagined. Why are there so many of them? Praem, step away from that one, please. Don’t touch it.”
Praem withdrew her hovering hand; she’d been reaching out to one of the bubble-servitors at the edge of the tarmac, as if the invisible pneuma-somatic god-bud was just an unfamiliar dog.
“They are quite safe,” Christine said. “And I do apologise.”
“Says you,” Evelyn hissed.
I half-expected Twil to bristle with offence, but she just grimaced and looked away, out at the dank woods beyond. Christine sighed and briefly closed her eyes. Benjamin looked like he wanted to punch something.
“I count fourteen of them,” Evelyn said, then gestured with the head of her walking stick at the one Zheng was facing off against. “One right there. Heather, Praem? Is this correct? Anything I’m missing?”
“No, no.” I shook my head. “Actually there’s no other spirits around at all. Nothing, anywhere.”
“Ominous,” Raine said with a smirk.
Christine sighed and shrugged beneath her shawl, arms still folded across her chest. “I can’t see them either, but I know they’re present. We don’t usually have so many of them at the house, they stay at the Church, but under the circumstances, we thought it best to … take precautions.”
“Because of us?” I asked, my chest tightening with strange guilt.
Christine blinked at me. I was too far away to glimpse the depths of her eyes, but for a moment I remembered what I’d seen there when she’d visited us in Sharrowford — her god moving through her like a behemoth in the deep.
“Why, no, dear,” she said. “Because we don’t know what your friend was running from.”
“And we’re not a threat?” Evelyn asked — though it only sounded half like a question. I could almost hear the gears turning inside Evelyn’s mind.
Christine shook her head. She sighed heavily, hesitated, and then stepped off the little raised brick platform before the solid front door of the house, down onto the tarmac. She strode forward, short and compact, but confident with her chin held high, eyes compassionate yet guarded, arms folded but not afraid. Benjamin reached out awkwardly to stop her, but Twil batted his hand out of the way, snarling at him. Christine walked halfway toward Zheng and Evelyn and myself, until she was only a few feet away.
“You are my daughter’s friends and companions,” she said. “I like to think we can have cordial relations, even strained like this. Even if only personally, if not between our Church and your … well, coven?”
“Family,” I said before anybody could stop me. Christine blinked in surprise, then nodded politely.
“Coven is good enough,” Evelyn grunted.
“Yo, hey,” Twil spoke up. “Protection’s a good idea right now though. Mum, you keep these bubble thingys around, right? Tell Amanda to keep ‘em here. We still don’t know if this is Ed—”
“Twil,” Evelyn said, loud and clear, cutting her off.
“ … what?” Twil looked outraged. “What, I’m not supposed to tell my family? This is my home, Evee!”
Evelyn stared back at Twil, frowning hard and conflicted, sucking on her teeth.
“It would assist us,” Christine said, “if we were to know what is going on. Please, miss Saye?”
“Evee,” I ventured. “May I?”
Evelyn frowned at Twil, then at Christine, then around at the bubble-servitors again. She slowly pulled the 3D glasses off her face, then sighed and nodded.
“Thank you,” I whispered, then raised my voice. “I’m sorry we’re all so on edge, we’ve come straight from … a mess.” Raine snorted, but I carried on. “Um, Nicole Webb, the lady you have in there, she’s a private eye. She was working on a job for us, trying to locate a property that belongs to Edward Lilburne.”
“Ah,” said Christine.
“We told her to stop,” Evelyn said. “There were unexplained irregularities in the location she was attempting to find. That was yesterday. So either she didn’t stop, or something else happened to her.”
“Edward Lilburne,” Christine echoed. “Indeed.”
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Benjamin hissed.
“We would rather not have any further dealings with him at all,” Christine said.
Zheng rumbled like a volcano caged in stone. She finally turned her dark and brooding eyes away from the bubble-servitor silently blocking her way, and stared down at Christine instead. The bubble-servitor moved like oil on glass through the air, sliding to cover the gap between them.
“Sound judgement, appendage,” Zheng said.
“Hey!” Twil snapped, running up to join her mother.
Twil’s mother managed to look back at Zheng for all of about three seconds, then averted her eyes. “I see you’ve expanded your coven, since we last spoke.”
“Zheng,” I said, pitching my voice as firmly as I could — though it came out in a squeak. “Zheng, please do not hurt these people. They’re not our enemies.”
“Mmmm,” Zheng sighed a great sigh and turned her gaze back to the bubble-servitor itself. “This thing, this gauze, this membrane of light, I could tear it in two with my little finger.”
“Please don’t,” I repeated.
“Huh,” she snorted.
Christine took a deep breath and gestured at Benjamin again. “Amanda, now. Tell her to soothe them.”
Benjamin put his hands up, sighed like we were all making a terrible mistake, and slipped back inside though the open front door, devoured by the heavy shadows just beyond the threshold.
A moment of awkward silence passed as we stood around on that patch of rotten tarmac. The trees creaked all around us, ships in a storm. I had the distinct impression that we stood in a brief pause of light and space — literally, as sunlight poured down into this temporary woodland clearing — whilst all around us a deep darkness lurked beyond the tree line.
Superstitious illusion, the paranoia of a lifelong city girl. I’d been out to the woods before, it was only plants and animals. Even the spirits were nice.
Twil let out a big sigh, suddenly very ordinary teenager again. Raine shrugged and put her pistol away. Praem stopped staring at the nearest bubble-servitor and took up her place next to Evelyn again.
“Where’s dad at?” Twil asked.
Christine was trying to smile at Evelyn and myself. “Work, dear. He’s at work.”
“Who else is about? Is it just you and Ben or … ?”
Twil trailed off, catching the knowing look that passed directly between her mother and Evelyn. Mage and High Priestess understood why no answer was forthcoming, though it took the rest of us a moment to catch up.
Raine laughed first. I sighed. Twil went “Aw, come on.”
“Truce,” Praem intoned.
“We already have a truce,” Evelyn said, low and serious, speaking to Christine. “You don’t have to tell us how many people you have inside. You’re already quite well defended. No offence meant or taken.”
“We’re also not here to attack anybody,” I spoke up, trying to sound strict.
“Yeah, damn right,” Twil said.
Christine looked away, wet her lips, then sighed awkwardly. “William and Jowdy are upstairs,” she said.
“Ah,” Twil cringed. “Uhhhhhh.”
“With instructions to stay there until this is all over.” She looked back to Evelyn again, chin high and defiant. “They’re Twil’s little cousins, they were here to visit their mother. This is a Saturday, after all.”
“Children?” Evelyn asked. Christine nodded. “If there’s no violence from you, there won’t be any from us. I promise that.”
Zheng rumbled at the bubble-servitor. “Wizard, you make no promises for my—”
Praem reached out one delicate hand and poked Zheng in the side, beneath her ribs with one outstretched finger. “No.”
Christine stayed frozen for a second, watching Zheng carefully. But my beautiful demon host only glowered in silence.
“Aunt Amanda’s here too, right?” Twil prompted.
“ … yes,” Christine found her voice again. “Yes. Quite. She’s looking at the policewoman right now. Private eye, I mean, I’m sorry. I believe the rest of you met Amanda during the meeting at that pub in Sharrowford. She is our foremost practitioner of the divine arts, but she can’t find anything wrong with Miss Webb.”
“Vaguely remember her,” Evelyn said.
“Mm,” I agreed. I barely recalled her at all, to be honest. A dumpy woman, run to fat from stress, with bags beneath her eyes and that haunted look which came from too much intimacy with the supernatural.
Christine glanced at Twil. “Gareth is here with her.”
“Awww what?” Twil pulled a face. “He can’t tell his arse from his elbow. He’s looking at Nicky too?”
“Actually I think he’s just admiring Amanda,” Christine said in a stage whisper. Twil snorted. “Miss Saye, Evelyn, Heather, uh … Praem, was it? Praem, yes. Raine too. And … ”
“Zheng,” I supplied.
“Zheng,” Christine finished, trying very hard to look directly at the seven feet of rippling muscle standing in her front driveway. “Pleased to meet you, yes. If you’d all like to come inside and take a look at your friend, I would much appreciate it, because we don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
“Actually,” Evelyn said. “I’d prefer if you bring her out here.”
“Yeeeeeah,” Raine agreed slowly. “We’ll take her off your hands, okay?”
Christine sighed sharply. “I’m afraid that might be quite difficult. She can barely stand, let alone walk in a straight line. Between us we won’t be able to manhandle her out here. Though … Twil, dear?”
“Yeah, I could sling her over my shoulder,” Twil said, then sighed too, at Evelyn. “This isn’t a trap, hey? What proof do you need?”
Evelyn met her gaze with a clenched jaw. “I don’t believe it is, but … ” She looked upward, at the house, then lifted the modified 3D glasses to her eyes again. “Hmm.”
“There are no guardian angels inside my house,” Christine said. “This is not a trap. Your friend walked out of the woods and she can barely stand. She’s also not speaking coherent sentences.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Evelyn asked. “What’s she been saying?”
Christine shrugged. “Neither myself nor Amanda has ever seen anything like it before, and, well, we’ve both seen rather a lot. She is speaking, but it’s just nonsense.”
“She didn’t run into your god out in the woods, did she?” Raine asked, polite but serious.
Christine shook her head. “I doubt that very much.”
“How can you be sure?”
Christine shot Raine a pinched look, irritated but trying to stay polite. “I have seen my own husband embraced by the thoughts of our divine patron. I know what such a state looks like. This is not it.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “We don’t seriously think you’ve done this to her, but we need to rule it out. Twil?”
“Eh?” Twil blinked at Evelyn, then caught on, nodding along. “Yeah, right. You can trust my mum on this.”
“She didn’t visit your … Church?” Evelyn did her best to suppress a sigh before that last word.
Christine opened her mouth to answer, then glanced suddenly and sharply at me. I blinked back at her, feeling naked, like she was looking right through me.
Evelyn cleared her throat. “I do know where it’s located,” she said. “I have my grandmother’s maps. If we wanted to attack you, it would be simple.”
“I’m not going to go there,” I said to Christine — but I knew I was talking to the thing watching me through her eyes, the thing that had been mortally terrified of a visit from me, back when the Church had tried to draw us in previously. “You’ve nothing to fear from me. I’m sorry.”
Behind her, Twil pulled a face that threatened to break my heart, biting her lower lip and averting her eyes. She hated being reminded of this.
“Of course, dear,” Christine suddenly sighed, smiling again. “Nothing to apologise for. And no, Miss Webb certainly did not visit our Church. She wandered out of the woods right over there.” Christine finally uncrossed her arms and pointed out of the driveway, across the road, to where the sucking mud and mulched leaves formed a shallow ditch on the far side. “Which means she probably came off the main road somehow, perhaps the A523 or a smaller road. We have no idea where her car is, though she does have her keys on her.”
“Tracks,” Zheng rumbled, still facing down the bubble-servitor, which was shifting and adjusting in front of her.
“Oh, yes!” Christine confirmed, a little too hard when pressed by Zheng’s rumble. “We didn’t touch her footprints. The mud is very pliable this time of year. If you want to check, they’re right there, leading back into the woods. You may check for yourselves if you don’t believe me.”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
Raine raised an eyebrow at her. “Evee?”
Evelyn nodded slowly. “I believe you and I need to—”
Suddenly and without warning, the bubble-servitor that had been blocking Zheng retreated from us, rolling over itself like a modular slug. Zheng growled, a goaded tiger. I flinched, disgusted by the motion and wincing at the effect on my eyes. Praem raised a hand and waved politely. The other servitors — on the roof and dotted about the old farm — also adjusted their positions, as if adopting some modified guard pattern now we’d been confirmed as not a threat.
Christine waited a beat, holding her breath. “Have the angels relaxed?”
“Stood down,” Praem intoned.
Christine let out a sigh of relief. “Good. Good. I was half worried Ben was going to come back out swinging, he can be so difficult sometimes. You may all come inside now, if you want. You don’t all have to, I understand if you’d rather not. I do hope you can figure out what’s wrong with your friend.”
Evelyn and I shared a glance. Raine shrugged. Twil rolled her eyes, the very picture of a sulky teenager.
“We’ll all come in, I think,” Evelyn said, nodding slowly. Through my arm and my one tentacle, I could feel the beating of her heart, her pulse in her wrist, going a little too fast. “I think you and we need to trust each other.”
“Well, good!” Twil said.
“Indeed.” Christine nodded. “I agree, if only for—”
“And I’m not just talking to you, Christine,” Evelyn interrupted. “I’m talking to the thing in your head. We need not be on opposite sides. Mister Edward Lilburne could be a problem for both of us, especially because we can’t find the bastard, and he has a track record for exploiting things like you and—”
A scream suddenly cut across our little peace conference, muffled from inside the walls of the house, loud enough to make us all jump and send the sheep and alpacas in the distant field scrambling for the fence.
A woman’s scream, high-pitched with fright — but it was not the voice of private detective Nicole Webb.
The map is not the territory, Brinkwood is not Sharrowford, and Christine Hopton is not Edward Lilburne. Right? Then how exactly did Nicole end up here? At least there’s plenty of attentive guard dogs about, if something bad happens …
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