A scream, deep in the woods beneath the leaf-dappled sunlight, from inside the rambling old farmhouse, muffled by red brick and dark slate and heavy beams. No neighbours within earshot, no busy road of passing cars, no Good Samaritan on the path. Only trees and weeds and a handful of sheep to hear the chilling cry.
And us, of course.
“Oh you’re joking,” I hissed before the scream could finish.
This was too obvious, too cliché, too much like one of those cheesy black and white horror movies that Raine sometimes got me to watch with her. Those were only enjoyable because I got to snuggle up in her lap, though I did appreciate the sheer enthusiasm she showed for the rather obvious progression of overwrought spooky nonsense.
And now here we were, deep in the closest thing to a real forest in the North of England, potentially less than a mile or two from a real Outsider buried beneath an ancient Church, off-balance and tired after supernatural sports day, facing down a tense-but-not-dangerous situation with some very suspicious ‘angels’ which looked more like frothed bleach than ladies with wings, when what should interrupt our relaxation of terms but a blood-curdling scream?
Was a giant bat about to burst from the chimney and go flapping off into the woods? Would bony hands erupt from the soil, clutching for brains? Were we about to hear the clank of chains and the moaning of a ghost?
Perhaps Edward Lilburne was a fan of Hammer Horror classics too.
The scream cut off as suddenly as it had started, but thankfully not with a gurgle of ruptured windpipe or bloody vomit. A beat of stunned silence descended on the woodland clearing, the old farmhouse, and our patch of crumbly tarmac, broken only by the rustle of leaves, the creak of trees, and some distantly confused bleating from the handful of sheep.
“You can bloody well say that again, Heather,” Evelyn whispered between her teeth, still holding tight to my arm, her forearm linked through mine. She must have heard my exasperated hiss.
Then we lost control.
“Amanda?!” Christine shouted. She started hurrying back toward the open front door of the house, which seemed to yawn on an infinite black depth, an illusion caused by the bright day outdoors. “Amanda!”
“That’s my aunt, shit!” Twil said.
Twil picked up her feet like a sprinter and raced past her mother before anybody could stop her. She took the front steps in one leap, already half-werewolf by the time her feet touched the bricks. Wisps of ghostly canine form whirled about her arms and upper back.
“Wait!” Evelyn snapped. “Twil, you wait!”
But Twil was already slipping inside the house, vanishing out of sight in the cool darkness. Her mother trotted up the steps and followed her indoors.
“In for a penny, in for a pound, hey?” Raine said, wheeling backward to face us as she moved to catch up with Twil. She nodded to Zheng as well. “Come on, lefty, tanks up front. Praem, you watch the rear, yeah?”
“This is obviously a trap!” Evelyn snapped.
“Well, it’s a stupid one, then,” I huffed, covering anxiety with exasperation. “More than a bit premature, I think.”
“The shaman is right,” Zheng rumbled, baring her teeth in a distasteful grimace. She didn’t like the look of this either. “Our help is not needed.”
“Good doggies,” Praem intoned.
“What?” Evelyn squinted at us all, bewildered.
“Uh, Heather?” Raine asked.
“They’re going inside,” I said, as if it was obvious. “Not much of a trap if you get … I don’t know, dissolved.”
I pointed at the house before I remembered that neither Evelyn nor Raine could see what was plain to myself, Zheng, and Praem. Evelyn fumbled the modified 3D glasses back onto her face as I huffed with embarrassment. She cringed and went pale before passing the glasses to Raine.
“We really need more than one pair of those,” Evelyn muttered.
“Siiiiick,” said Raine.
Most of the bubble-servitors were rapidly oozing their way inside the farmhouse, passing directly through the glass of closed windows, each one like a wet sponge squeezing itself through the neck of a bottle. They made no sound, but the motion of bubbles sliding over each other and compressing as they squished themselves indoors filled my imagination with the noise of raw meat sliding through mud. It reminded me of a video I’d seen of a whale fall — the miniature ecosystem of scavengers which formed on the sea floor around the carcass of a dead whale, the soft-bodied cephalopods and pale molluscs of the ocean trenches worming their way through decaying flesh.
A few bubble-servitors stayed on the roof as lookouts, but all the rest slucked and slippered and slid indoors. We stood watching as they vanished behind the walls of the house.
Amanda Hopton, Twil’s aunt, the woman who’d apparently just screamed her head off, had once been described to us as the one member of the Church of Hringewindla who had spent the most time learning from their god. And now all Hringewindla’s angels were rushing to her defence.
If this was indeed a trap, then her attacker was in for a very nasty surprise.
“Zheng is right, we’re probably surplus to requirements here,” Evelyn said with a sigh. But she put her walking stick forward and tried to straighten her shoulders, pulling her chin up and setting her jaw. She almost managed to cover for the pale, blood-drained look in her face. I squeezed her arm, proud of her efforts, but not wanting her to push herself. “But we should show we’re willing to help, regardless. And Twil did just run in there, bloody fool.”
“I don’t hear any shouting or crashing about,” Raine said. She turned back to the house with a smirk. “Guess we’re in the clear.”
“Eyes up, little wolf,” Zheng purred. “We know nothing.”
“Probably just saw a spider under the sink.”
“Spiders are lovely,” Praem intoned.
Nothing leapt out at us as we approached the house, neither from the distant tree-line nor the lingering shadows beyond the front door. No red eyes peered from the upper windows, even when I watched for slightly longer than necessary. No maddened screams echoed from inside the house, no gibbering and meeping, no rattle of bones or cackling laughter.
“Why does so much of my life after meeting you two involve entering haunted houses where spooky things are happening?” I said. I meant Raine and Evelyn, of course.
“Better than doing magic in a bedsit, isn’t it?” Evelyn shot me a sidelong look, heavy with meaning.
“Besides, it’s not haunted,” Raine laughed.
“Of course it’s fucking haunted,” Evelyn said. “Are those glasses broken or are you blind? It just happens that the ghosts are neutral. For now.”
“Into yet another haunted house,” I sighed.
“Another?” Evelyn asked.
My full complement of tentacles unfolded from my sides as we crept up to the front door, blossoming from phantom limbs into rainbow-pulsing pneuma-somatic flesh. My bioreactor edged out part of a control rod, preparing me for what might lurk indoors, beyond the dark threshold.
A little cephalopod, inching toward the whale fall. I resisted the urge to put on my squid-skull mask. I didn’t want to frighten any of Twil’s family.
Raine still had the 3D glasses pushed up the bridge of her nose. She must have caught me in her peripheral vision, because she turned and let out a low wolf-whistle.
“Raine,” I huffed. “This is hardly the time.”
“It is always time for tentacles, shaman. Keep your claws sharp,” Zheng said, on the opposite side of me — and then bounded ahead, taking the brick front step in one hop and ducking her upper half inside the house, checking for predators or trap-door spiders or worse.
Raine was up beside her in an instant, gun pointed at the floor, black knife concealed back-hand in her opposite palm. She covered Zheng’s back as the demon host peered into the house.
They were in sync, working together as one organism. The beauty of their momentary coordination made me feel so much safer.
Had they always been like this? Not two hours ago they’d been locked in combat, but not a trace of that remained in them now, as if the tension between them had been heated and hammered into a more flexible alloy. The blood which Zheng had smeared on Raine’s face was washed off, and the shallow cut across Zheng’s belly had closed to nothing more than a thin red line of scar tissue. But something remained, something wordless and unspoken. The previous me would have wanted to step between them, to act as that link, but now they were doing it on their own.
Their linkage was far from perfect, however. Raine had to duck Zheng’s elbow; Zheng bumped Raine’s knife hand. But they shared a look, then carried on.
“Hey!” Twil’s voice came from deeper in the house, half-muffled by too many canine teeth, calling back to us. “It’s fine! It’s fine, come on in!”
“Then why the bloody scream?” Evelyn called back as we mounted the steps.
“Saw something!” Twil shouted. “It’s fine, there’s nothing here!”
“Nothing here, she says,” Evelyn hissed. She shook her head and shared a look with Raine and me.
“I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” Raine said, tapping the 3D glasses.
“Peeled and sliced,” Praem added, sing-song like she was reciting a line from a child’s nursery rhyme.
Zheng ducked through the front door of Geerswin Farm. The rest of us followed, traipsing up the bare brick steps and over the painted wooden threshold. Raine kept her handgun pointed at the floor. Evelyn held her scrimshawed thigh-bone under her armpit. I tried to still the racing of my heart, squeezing harder on Evelyn’s arm.
Twil’s home surprised me a second time. I had expected to step inside a renovated farmhouse, like one of those optimistic 1990s converted barns, all structurally pointless dust-trap beams set between patches of bare plaster, complete with awful lino floors and an expensive kitchen that clashed with the rest of the building. I’d seen one or two examples of the type before, lovely old houses out on the rural fringes bought up by people with more money than sense, then gutted and hollowed out, their innards replaced like they’d been parasitised, so they were merely a shell over cold and sterile interior design.
But instead, the inside of Geerswin Farm’s main house looked like it hadn’t been remodelled in a very long time. Bare wooden floors had once been waxed and polished, but were now mostly stripped by time and the passing of feet, hidden beneath heavy rugs that at least kept the heat in and cushioned one’s tread. Pale orange wallpaper was peeling at the corners and edges, cut back where it could not be saved or repaired, like a ragged sunset. The skirting boards were scuffed, the iron radiators spotted with rust, the door handles tarnished and scratched — but the hinges were well-oiled, the screws-plates tightened, and the floors clean and tidy. The building smelled of old wood, cooking scents, and fresh linen.
Rustic, nothing fake about it.
We found ourselves in a long corridor which ran the length of the house, well-lit and homey, with a few mountain-peak landscape paintings on the walls — nothing fancy, just cheap watercolours, but very nice, very tasteful. Doors led off to the left and right and the corridor terminated in what looked like a sitting room. Some carpeted stairs led upward on the left.
“Oh, it’s not spooky at all.” I tutted. “I mean, not that I’m disappointed. Far from it.”
“Do we take our shoes off at the door?” Raine called down the long hallway.
Twil’s head — thankfully human now — appeared around a door frame, halfway down on the right, long curls hanging down. “Nah. Shut the front door though, yeah? And get in here, this is weird.”
She vanished into the room again. Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. Praem was already shutting the door behind us. Zheng rumbled deep in her throat and craned her head to peer up the stairs, putting one hand on the banister.
Evelyn tapped Zheng on the leg with her walking stick. “No.”
Zheng rounded on her slowly, a tiger poked in the backside. “Wizard.”
I steeled myself to jump in, but to my surprise, Evelyn held her ground and held Zheng’s gaze. Perhaps that had something to do with how we were literally arm in arm, though she didn’t strictly need the support.
“There are children up there,” she said to Zheng, flat and uninterested, as if the matter was already decided. “Don’t go scaring them.”
“Besides,” I added, trying to be diplomatic, “you’re the strongest here, Zheng. If you run off now, we’ll have to carry Nicole ourselves.”
“Strongest,” Praem echoed, peering around to catch my eyes with her accusing, milk-white stare. I blushed and spluttered and managed to get a ‘sorry’ in there somewhere.
Zheng chuckled. “The wizard’s daughter knows better, shaman. And I am not giving in to wanderlust. Instead, I wonder.”
Raine went visibly tense at the tone in Zheng’s voice. “Wonder?” she asked.
“Quit with the poetry,” Evelyn hissed. “What are you talking about?”
Zheng spread her arms as she stepped past the stairs. “Where have the angels gone?”
“Ah,” said Raine, peering through the 3D glasses again. “Good point. House should be full of them. Where’d they go?”
“Busy doggos,” Praem said.
Twil’s voice echoed down the hallway again. “What are you lot doing? Get in here!”
“Let’s go talk to their handler then,” Evelyn grunted, tightening her arm on mine. “Everyone stay alert.”
“If something does jump out at me, I shall scream,” I said. I took a deep breath and tried to look scary. It probably didn’t work.
We found the current nexus of Hringewindlaist shenanigans halfway down the house’s spinal corridor, in a smallish room that Twil insisted on calling the ‘den’, a sort of supernumerary miniature sitting room with a large television, some wooden bookcases, and a bank of soft armchairs. Children’s toys were scattered across one corner and a large glass-filled door looked out onto the back patio, filling the room with reflected green light from the rustling leaves outdoors.
Twil and her mother were clustered around a third woman who I vaguely recognised as Amanda Hopton, Twil’s aunt. She’d been at the pub meeting with Edward Lilburne, though she hadn’t left much of an impression. Thin-faced and sallow from stress, yet also overweight around the middle, she still shared the family resemblance to her sister and niece, with dark curls and a compact frame, but tainted with shaking mania in her eyes.
She was also terrified, recoiling as we entered the room, panting in near-panic.
“Mandy, Mandy there is nothing here,” Christine was saying, trying to catch her sister’s panicked arms. “There is nothing here. There is nothing inside the house, nothing got past the angels. Mandy, you’re safe. Look at me, please.”
Past the Hopton trio, propped up in an armchair with a blanket over her knees, was Nicole Webb.
She looked up at us, making what seemed like perfectly lucid eye contact, though frowning with deep and worried concern. The armchair was much too large for her, robbing the former detective of her usual imposing posture and striking confidence, though her blonde hair was neatly pulled back in its usual professional bun. Her eyes flashed with quick observation, counting us with a flicker, lingering on Zheng. She was dressed for walking, though not for the woods, in a long coat and dark trousers. Her white shirt was dirty and rumpled from her journey through the countryside.
Raine cracked a smile as soon as we saw her. “Eyyyyy, Nicky. They ain’t got you trussed up?”
Nicole sighed, as if very tired indeed.
Evelyn raised her voice, speaking to Twil and Christine, gesturing at Amanda. “What did she see? Excuse me, what did she see?”
Twil shrugged, grimacing through her teeth, clearly embarrassed. “I dunno, uh, it’s weird.”
“Usually important to voice these things,” I said, “in case there’s something unexpected about.”
Putting theory into practice, I quick scanned the corners of the room for dark spots or hanging spider-webs or other tell-tale signs of pneuma-somatic trickery, but there was nothing here except old wallpaper and a few stains, though the bookcases were respectably interesting, mostly full of paperback novels and some large-format photography books about nature. Zheng peeled off to stalk around the edge of the room, doing the same thing but with greater accuracy than I could achieve. Nicole turned her head to watch Zheng go, a little perturbed when the demon host passed behind her.
“It was only a flicker!” Amanda said to all of us, batting Christine’s hands away. “It was only a flicker, but I know what … I … saw … ”
She trailed off, staring directly at me, all her fear draining away.
I suddenly felt awfully self-conscious.
“Um … hello?” I said.
Amanda’s cloudy, dazed eyes travelled up and down my body, over my tentacles, her mouth hanging open. “Godspit and heavens-light,” she murmured. “You’ve gone far..”
I went red in the face, horrified by the way she was looking at me, eyes full of religious awe. “They’re only tentacles.”
“Mandy,” Christine said, gentle but firm. “Now is not the time. Can you concentrate for me, please?”
“Nobody told me you’d transcended … ” Amanda took a step toward me, as if in a trance, one hand reaching out, fingers trembling.
Instantly Raine was between me and her. Behind the enraptured woman, Zheng’s hand suddenly came down on her shoulder.
“Be still, worm,” Zheng rumbled.
Amanda jumped about a foot in the air, whirling around and staring up at Zheng with almost equal awe. Zheng stared back down at her, baring her teeth.
“Hey now,” Twil warned, edging closer to Zheng.
“Do not interfere with the shaman, worm-thing,” Zheng purred in Amanda’s face. “Do not presume to touch.”
Rather than collapsing into a puddle of melted butter, Amanda nodded slowly, wetting her lips and taking a moment to breathe. “I apologise,” she said to Zheng. “Are you her messenger? She is beautiful.”
Zheng rumbled between her teeth with naked disgust, but then let Amanda go with a — for her — gentle shove. Christine caught Amanda’s stumble and shot a frown at Zheng, but Zheng ignored the look and continued her circuit of the room.
“No, it’s my fault,” Amanda said, staring at the floor and gathering herself. “I was overcome. Overcome. I apologise.”
She didn’t seem that afraid. Perhaps when one spent a significant portion of one’s life in direct contact with an Outsider god, one did not spook easily, even by seven-foot tall demon hosts with mouths full of knives.
“Who was that speaking just then?” Evelyn asked slowly. “You, Amanda Hopton? Or the thing in your head?”
Amanda raised her eyes to meet Evelyn, then glanced at me, guilty and ashamed.
“I think we should leave that question unanswered, for now, please?” Christine said, gently, with an awkward smile. “This isn’t what we’re here for. Amanda, are you alright now?”
Amanda straightened up and sighed, smoothing her dark curls over her head. She had such awful bags under her eyes, too much like I had once been, a wreck on the edge of the abyss. “I did see something,” she said. “Out in the corridor. Just a flicker, but it was right here and it wasn’t one of ours.”
Twil jerked her thumb at the ceiling. “The boys, upstairs? Playing pranks?”
“Gareth already ran up there to check on them,” Christine said.
“Puh,” Twil snorted. “Making himself useful for once.”
“Bernard’s up there anyway,” Amanda said, sounding very certain. I recalled Bernard from our meeting at the pub — Amanda’s large and friendly golden retriever. She seemed to have more confidence in the dog than she did this ‘Gareth’ fellow.
A funny thought crossed my mind, one I’d had so often as a young teenager, trapped and alone in a world inhabited by inexplicable nightmares.
“Can dogs see spirits?” I asked out loud.
“Bernard can,” Amanda answered with a sudden proud smile.
“Where’s Ben, anyway?” Twil muttered, sticking her head out into the corridor.
“I thought he went back out to his car?” Amanda replied.
“Oh dear,” Christine sighed.
“Hey, Nicky,” Raine said, heading over to Nicole at last. She put away her pistol and her knife inside her leather jacket. “They said you were delirious, but you’re being real quiet now.”
“She’s improved a little bit,” Amanda said. “I have no idea what’s wrong with her though. I’m sorry.”
Nicole pulled a pained, embarrassed face, and opened her mouth.
“Three score and eighteen, but not without reversals. You know the grass on the pitch is not always fed by worms? Truth, lies, pies in the sky. I was never told which way to walk but always how to step. Don’t you think this looks strongly broken open already, why go further?”
She spoke so confidently that it stunned us all to silence.
“Am I having a fucking stroke?” Evelyn asked.
“No,” Praem intoned.
Nicole sighed and shook her head, making an exasperated shrugging motion with both hands. Raine laughed, then covered her mouth and said sorry for laughing. Zheng watched Nicole carefully from across the room. Twil blinked as if she’d been slapped with a glove made of pepper spray.
“Her language processing is all … ‘messed up’,” Christine said, and I could hear the conditional quotations around her words. “And she can’t walk in a straight line. She stumbles into the walls when she tries.”
“I’ve heard of non-supernatural conditions that can cause this,” Evelyn said thoughtfully. “But I doubt this is anything normal. Too neat for a physical cause.”
Evelyn finally disentangled her arm from mine, patting my hand in silent thank you. She rolled her shoulders beneath her coat and cream-soft jumper, and stomped across to peer down at Nicole. The detective frowned up at her with the exact expression of a patient with an obscure disease, hoping this doctor would be the one to find a cure.
A spiral-bound notebook lay on the arm of the chair. Evelyn frowned down at it. “You tried writing instead of speaking?” she asked.
“Accidental inversionary principle,” Nicole sighed, but her tone made her meaning clear.
“Pretty much the same result,” Amanda said. “There is something in her. In her voice and her tongue. Broken her.”
“Alright,” Evelyn said to Nicole. She pulled her scrimshawed thigh-bone out from beneath her own armpit, slipping the gruesome magic wand into her hands, settling her walking stick against the chair. “Just nod or shake your head. Can you do that?”
Nicole nodded. She sighed again, sharp and harsh, irritated at her own inability to communicate.
I opened my mouth to reassure her, though I didn’t know what to say, but Evelyn got there first.
“It isn’t your fault,” Evelyn snapped. “Well, it might be your fault that you got into this situation in the first place, I don’t know yet—”
“Jam and butter and dead snails—” Nicole argued back.
“But,” Evelyn said, making a motion like she wanted to bop Nicole on the nose with her bone-wand, “the verbal diarrhoea is not your fault. You can’t control your body, whatever this is. Now stop with the self-pity and answer my questions.”
Nicole nodded, rolling her eyes.
“Did you stop the investigation into Edward Lilburne’s property?”
“Did you pack away the stolen documents like we asked?”
Nicole nodded again.
“Did you look at them at all after that phone conversation we had?”
Nicole shook her head.
Evelyn and Nicole, the mage and the private eye, went on this way for about two or three minutes, a one-sided conversation punctuated by short pauses for Evelyn to frown and suck on her teeth and formulate the next question. Through careful phrasing, she rapidly drew out most of the relevant details, at least the ones that Nicole could communicate without further explanation. According to her increasingly encouraged nodding, she had done exactly as we’d asked — she’d packed the stolen documents away, put them from her mind, and turned her energies toward other paying work. She had expected a phone call and visit from us tomorrow, perhaps to pick up the documents and ritually burn them to exorcise whatever influence they were exerting.
“And you don’t remember how you ended up in the woods?” Evelyn asked.
Nicole sighed and shrugged, but would neither shake nor nod to that one.
“Where were you, Sharrowford?”
“Nearby? The countryside?”
Shake again, lips pursed.
“ … Manchester?”
Raine let out a whistle. “You went pretty far in a fugue state, huh?”
Nicole huffed a non-laugh. She was not amused by any of this.
“Your car is still up Manchester way, you think?” Raine asked.
Nicole nodded, pulling a very exasperated face.
“Hmmmmm,” Evelyn grumbled. She began moving her hands slowly over the scrimshawed designs in her bone wand. My stomach tightened at the sight of that. Whenever she’d used that thing before, the effects had caused terrible backwash. But then she paused and gestured with vague irritation back at Raine. “Give me the glasses, I need to look at her properly.”
“Oh, there’s nothing strange about her,” I supplied, as Raine handed Evelyn the glasses. “I can’t see anything abnormal.”
“Still,” Evelyn said. “Let’s see what we can see. Right, detective?”
Nicole pulled a dubious face, but held still as Evelyn leaned in close, examining her through the absurd red-and-blue lenses of the modified 3D glasses. We all stood awkwardly watching for a moment before Evelyn sighed again.
“Don’t all watch me, please,” she grumbled.
Christine cleared her throat, shuffling her feet. “Right, of course. Twil, would you be a dear and go check on Gareth, please?”
Twil shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”
“I’ll come up too,” Amanda said. “I’d like to reassure the boys. This has frightened them.”
“Bring Bernard back down, hey?” Raine said with a wink and a laugh. “I wanna meet the dog again.”
I wasn’t really paying attention as Twil and her aunt left the room. I was so focused on Evelyn and Nicole, on the way Evelyn kept adjusting her position around the detective’s chair, as if she hoped to reveal a secret door in the poor woman’s head which she might reach out and open and so discover what had happened to her. I squinted at Nicole, but my natural pneuma-somatic sight revealed nothing — no runes scrawled on her skin, no ghostly apparition clinging to her back with boney fingers inserted in her language centre. But Evelyn kept adjusting her grip across the symbols and circles on her bone-wand. The sight made my skin crawl. I was uncomfortably reminded that I had no idea of the true intricacies of what I was looking at.
The house creaked gently in the wind, soft and slow, at one with the trees beyond.
“The hounds are still missing,” Zheng rumbled at the back of the room.
“ … hounds?” Christine asked. “You mean … Hringewindla’s angels?”
“Uh huh, that’s right,” Raine grunted. “They were all cramming themselves into the house after you and Twil.”
A pause. I was still watching Evelyn.
“That is … strange,” Christine said. “You’re certain? And they’re not in here with us now? One moment, I’m sorry, I must check.”
I heard the sound of her stepping out into the corridor, footsteps swallowed by the angles of the house. Then another pair of footsteps followed her, quick and tripping, as if hopping out not to follow, but just to check which way she was going.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled.
I snapped up and around from watching Evelyn and Nicole — the tone in Zheng’s voice was full of warning.
She was frozen stiff at the back of the room, watching the doorway to the corridor with the fixed expression of a tiger staring down an armed hunter. Praem stood a little way from her, hands clasped, back straight, also staring right at the open door.
Nobody else was there. Christine had left the room, of course. Had Raine ducked out into the corridor after her?
“Zheng?” I said, my belly going cold and my blood suddenly full of adrenaline, though I didn’t know why. “R-Raine? Raine!” I raised my voice slightly.
“Something is wrong here, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.
“Where’s Raine?” I demanded, stepping forward. But Zheng held out a hand to block me.
“All is calm,” Praem intoned. “All is quiet. This is bad.”
“What are you lot going on about?” Evelyn straightened up, huffing and cursing under her breath. “Will you shut up and let me concentrate for—”
“Raine?!” I called past Zheng’s arm.
“The hyena cannot hear us. None can,” Zheng purred. She turned to look at Praem for a moment. “Watch them,” she said.
Then Zheng stalked forward, out through the door and into the wooden hallway with its heavy rugs and tasteful paintings. She slunk like a stalking cat, ready to spring left or right at the slightest movement, at the first sign of danger or challenge or unexplained presence. I had no idea what was going on, but even if Raine hadn’t suddenly vanished into thin air, the set and pose of Zheng’s shoulders, the ripple of her muscles beneath her clothes, the silent creep of her feet, it all sent a shiver of adrenaline and fear up my spine. In her long coat, she was some avenging devil from the pit, and I was very glad she was on our side. My bioreactor shunted an entire control rod free and my tentacles arched out, making myself look big, following an instinct to back Zheng up against some unseen predator.
But nothing happened. Zheng stepped into the corridor, looked left and right, then grunted, eyes flashing like pools of dark oil.
“Zheng?” I hissed, heart racing.
“There is nothing here, shaman. There is nobody else breathing in this house.”
“You cannot know,” Praem said.
“There is nobody else in this house,” Zheng repeated.
“ … what?” I boggled at her. Behind me, Evelyn swallowed on such a dry mouth that I heard her throat bob. “Zheng, what is going on, this is just a doorway. There’s nothing—”
Zheng made to move left, to take a step down the corridor.
“No!” Evelyn snapped in panic. “Stay together! Stay in the room!”
The fear and terror in Evelyn’s voice shocked me into unthinking action. I darted forward to grab Zheng with my tentacles, to anchor her here, to keep her close, but I was too late; Zheng stepped to the left, around the door frame.
She was out of line of sight for less than a second, obscured by the angle of the architecture for less time than it took me to stumble forward, barrelling after her, out through the doorway.
I felt Praem’s hand, firm and strong, try to grab one of my tentacles. But I slipped away, too intent on Zheng.
To say I am not steady on my feet is rather an understatement. I bounced and staggered out into the spinal hallway, expecting to round the door frame and hook my hands into the back of Zheng’s coat.
She wasn’t there.
Nothing was there, just empty hallway and open doors, terminating in the large sitting room. Sunlight arced in through the windows. The trees rustled beyond the house.
I almost crashed right into the opposite wall in shock, catching myself with my tentacles like an octopus floating against a rock.
“Zheng?” I said out loud. But she simply wasn’t there. “Zheng … where … ? Oh no.”
A dark pit opened in my stomach as I hurled myself back at the door to the ‘den’, all but skidding inside, eyes darting left and right.
Praem was nowhere to be seen. Evelyn was gone too. Nicole’s chair was empty.
Sunlight poured in through the window set into the back door. The woods waited beyond the little patio and the potted plants and the mud. Everything else was exactly as it should be, from the discarded toys on the floor to the silent television at the opposite end of the room. All around me, the old farmhouse creaked gently in the distant wind, in time with the treetops outdoors.
For just a moment, my breath stuck in my throat. Fear stood on a knife-edge of heart muscle and tentacle-tip, as my extra limbs coiled and curled around me, their semi-independent instinct just as confused as I was.
Then, with shaking hands, I pulled my squid-skull mask out of my tentacles and lowered it over my own head.
Metallic refuge, armour of the soul, my true face on the exterior. I stared out at the peeling wallpaper and old floorboards through the many eye sockets, and forced a deep, shaking breath into my lungs. I turned in a slow circle, taking in the whole room, just in case some lurking shadow was about to pounce on me from behind. I wet my lips, then found I was chewing my tongue, and forced myself to stop.
“Be rational,” I whispered to myself. “Stay calm. You’ve seen this kind of thing before. Heather, you know what this is.”
I stepped back out into the corridor, just to check it hadn’t extended off to infinite length — it hadn’t, thankfully. Then I went back into the den to see if anything might change, but nothing did. None of my friends and family reappeared. So much for that easy way out.
“This is like the loop trap from Willow House,” I said out loud, speaking to the air, to myself, or to the house itself. “Like the trap the Sharrowford Cult used on us. We’ve all been peeled off from each other. Into different versions of the building. Am I right?”
Nothing and nobody answered. The trees beyond the walls filled my silence with the rustle of leaves in the wind.
“Because there’s no other way Zheng could have vanished so fast,” I said. “Unless you ate her.”
A pause. I huffed, feeling absurd.
“By ‘you’, I mean the house. Are you listening to me?”
The house did not answer. I stepped back out into the corridor. My tentacles were tense and coiled hard enough to make all my back muscles ache and my stomach hurt.
“I have been lost and alone and beyond help in much scarier places than this,” I said, raising my voice so it carried up and down the spine of the building. “And I can just Slip away. I can Slip out, go back home, and return here with an Outsider godling, my fiancée, who loves me and will do anything for me. Do you want to face that? Do you want that?”
I tried to sound confident and defiant, but my heart was fluttering and my stomach was roiling.
“Who am I talking to?” I went on. “If this is your doing, Hring— Hringy—” I was so anxious that I stumbled over the stupid name. “Cringe-face,” I spat instead. “If this is your doing, then I don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate or achieve by threatening me and my friends, because you are making me very angry.”
Nothing replied. No bubble-servitor came hurtling down the hallway. No knife-shadow rose from the narrow gaps between the floorboards.
“It’s not you though, is it? You’re too cautious for this.” I sighed. The fight went out of me. “Oh, I’m talking to the walls. Always knew I’d end up like this, crazy Heather, talking to thin air.”
Speaking self-mockery out loud helped to ground me, keep my feet rooted in the normal and the real as I headed back up the length of the corridor, making for the front door.
“What is it with mages and these absurd spatial distortions? You all just love doing this, warping space. The cult did it, Alexander did it. Orange Juice did it. Wake up in the morning and warp yourself down to breakfast without moving. Perverse. You don’t see Evelyn doing this, do you? And that’s part of why I love her, no warping our house into a tangled knot of corridors. No walking through a bedroom to reach the bathroom. No absurd, tacky columns.”
I worked myself up into a rant, like a child whistling in the dark, trying to resist the urge to scream or run. I kept glancing back over my shoulder, tentacles bracing to cover every doorway I passed.
There was an answer to this place, of course. Hyperdimensional mathematics could define a dozen houses, all identical, superimposed over each other. But why? For what purpose? If this was a maze in which we’d been lured apart from each other, what lay at the centre of the maze? Maybe nothing. If I allowed myself to dwell on that question, the right equations would present themselves, oil-slick and dripping blackness, from the sump at the bottom of my soul. But I was alone. If I passed out now, with a nosebleed and a pounding headache, I had no idea what might scoop me up.
I reached the front door, slapped the latch down so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge my own shaking hands, and then grabbed the door handle.
“I swear, whoever or whatever is doing this, if I open this door and there’s another identical corridor instead of the actual outdoors, I’m going to start punching holes in the scenery.”
Snapping my words to summon courage I didn’t feel, I yanked on the door handle, tentacles poised to catch whatever gibbering monster was about to fall upon me.
Brick doorstep, crumbly tarmac, three cars — including Raine’s, sitting right where we’d left it. Tumbledown stables with the ragged fields beyond. All ringed by the dark promise of the tree-line and the deeper woods.
A sigh of exasperated relief escaped my lips.
“What’s the point of confusing us like this if you leave the outdoors the same?” I hissed, stepping down onto the tarmac with my arms folded, as if to keep my fluttering heart inside my ribs. Part of me wanted to run to Raine’s car and huddle in the back seat like a scared child, but I swallowed and forced myself to look up at the house.
All Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were gone, missing from their guard posts on the roof. Or rather, they were probably still out there in actual, unmodified reality, just not reflected here in whatever set of tangled pocket dimensions we’d been dragged into.
“Unless I’m the only one standing in actual reality,” I murmured, biting my bottom lip and frowning up at the dark windows and quiet, red brick of the Hopton family home. “And everyone else has been snatched away. All except me.”
If this was a trap for my friends, I needed to reconnect with them, fast.
Just as I was about to step back indoors, an indistinct shadow passed behind one of the upstairs windows. I froze, staring up at the dark squares of glass, half-hoping it would pass again, half praying it did not return.
Then I found my courage by spreading my tentacles wide. Let the monsters try me.
“Hello!” I shouted. “Hello! Whoever’s at the window, I’m down here! It’s me!”
The shadow lurched back into view, smeared across the glass like a misshapen parody of flesh and cloth. A fumble with a catch and the window sprang open on well-oiled hinges. I braced for a nightmare to pour out.
Raine leaned out of the window, beaming and laughing from the second floor.
“Oh, oh my goodness, Raine,” I heaved her name, going weak and shaky all of a sudden, pressing one hand over my racing heart. “Is that really you or is this some trick?”
“Really real. Real as real can be.” Raine shot me a wink. I couldn’t help but notice she had her pistol in one hand. She had to raise her voice slightly to cover the distance between us. “I would ask ‘hey, where’d the party go?’ but I’m guessing there’s some major mojo going down right now.”
“You can say that again,” I huffed, then pulled my squid-skull mask off so she could see my face clearly. “Everyone vanished one by one, as soon as we were out of sight for more than a second or two. Did you experience the same thing?”
“Yeeeeah,” Raine sighed. “Remind you of anything?”
“Exactly. This is just like with Willow House.” I nodded, finding relief in sharing the assessment. “Stupid spooky nonsense, really!”
“‘Cept this time, Zheng’s on our side.” Raine beaming with confidence. “Anything actually happened, you seen anything gribbly lurking about?”
I shook my head. “Not a single thing. It’s just empty. It’s like we’re all in the same space but can’t see each other. Or in different versions of the same building, side-by-side but separate.”
“Same here. Though uh … ” Raine cleared her throat and glanced over her shoulder, back into the house. “The corridors are getting kinda tangled, for me. Like Willow House, but worse.”
“Kinda. Also our phones aren’t working.” She tapped her jacket. “I tried calling you, but there’s no signal.”
I rummaged in my hoodie for my phone and found that Raine was correct. My phone had no signal. Did this mean we were Outside, or just very deep in the woods? I sighed and felt a very strong desire to rub the bridge of my nose.
“This is absurd,” I said. “What is the point of this?”
“Maybe there isn’t a point,” Raine said, leaning further out of the window and frowning at the ground. “Maybe this is like a natural phenomenon.”
“What on earth is natural about this?” I shrugged with all my tentacles.
“Nicole can’t walk straight or speak straight, right? Then we get in a room with her, trying to find out what she knows, and suddenly we can’t navigate straight either.”
“Oh. Hmm.” I frowned. “I suppose that’s plausible. It is a bit of a leap, though.”
“Sometimes you gotta leap.” Raine blew out a puff and shrugged at the ground. “But I think if I leap from here to join you, I might break my ankles. This is a long drop, even if I hang from the windowsill.”
“Please be careful!” I squeaked.
Raine shot me a wink. “Sure will, don’t you worry. But we gotta reassemble somehow. You think Evee is by herself right now?”
“Actually she and Praem were together, hopefully they stayed that way.”
“You still got your tentacles out?”
“Oh, um, of course.”
Raine nodded. “I can’t see ‘em, left the glasses with Evee. You think you could climb up here?”
I chewed on my bottom lip again, eyeing the unornamented brickwork and the various narrow windowsills. “I don’t know. I’ve never even climbed a tree. Even with all my tentacles, that’s a lot.”
“You certain?” Raine asked, no pressure in her voice, no value-judgement, just an honest request.
I swallowed. We did need to avoid being separated again. “I could leap, maybe. Like a spring. But you’d have to catch me, I’m not sure I can grab the window with any accuracy. Raine, why not just come downstairs and step out of the front door? Maybe if I close it first?”
“Maybe. If the house always opens to the same outdoors, that’s probably the best way to link up, but we can’t be … certain … ”
Raine trailed off, her eyes going past me. I turned but saw nothing there, no sudden monster melting out of the tree-line, no dark figure on the tarmac. Just the parked cars and the fields and the swaying trees, leaves rustling in the ever-present wind.
“Heather, get back indoors. Now,” she called down to me.
“Raine?” She’d gone stony-faced, ready to do violence. “What’s wrong?”
“Get back indoors,” she repeated. “I’ll head down to the front door and maybe we’ll be able to link up. If not … ” She paused, biting her lip too. “If not … ”
I shook my head. “Raine, it’s normal out here. What are you seeing? Your car is right there, even.”
Raine laughed without humour, indulgent but pained as she smiled at me. “Heather, you always were bad with cars. That’s not mine. None of that out there is ours.”
A cold knife slid into my belly as I turned back to re-examine our surroundings.
Raine was right — that was not her car standing on the tarmac. The shape of the body was subtly wrong, unlike any real car, as if the angles had all been flipped in such a way that was not obvious, unless one stared for a few seconds and really thought about what a car should look like. The other two cars parked out there were much the same, especially the land rover, which was the right colour — green — but the wrong shade, as if it had sat in the sun for fifty years, slowly bleaching.
The fields were worse. How often do you really look at grass?
Because none of that was grass. It was wriggling. In waves.
The thistles and little saplings and tall weeds were none of those things, they were flesh in imitation of plant, writhing and flexing and twitching in what I had thought was the wind. The little cluster of sheep with their pair of alpacas were neither sheep nor alpaca either. They had horns, black and curved and visible even at this distance, and they were all facing the house, facing us, with faces that looked all too human.
“Raine,” I murmured.
“Get indoors. Now.”
I backed up a step toward the open door, tentacles fumbling my squid-skull mask back over my head, trying to hide. “Are we … Outside?”
“I don’t think so,” Raine called down to me. “It doesn’t feel like Outside. Heather, get indoors, I’ll be right down.”
“But you won’t be here!” I squeaked. “We’re not inhabiting the same space! Where even is this? Where … ”
My mouth went dry as I realised the worst thing of all: the driveway and the road were gone, swallowed up by the forest. And it was a forest now, not merely a patchwork quilt of woodland, scattered across the English countryside, where it was possible to walk in a straight line for less than an hour and always reach a road. The forest had marched forward onto the farm grounds, with thick gnarled roots that plunged into the earth like digging fingers, or worms. I couldn’t see a scrap of light through the trees, not a single sliver of distant sky or open ground. They stood in ranks hundreds of miles deep.
“Heather. Heather, get indoors!”
“But then we’ll be cut off again!”
“Screw it, executive decision time.” I heard the sound of Raine’s feet finding the windowsill. “Stay right there!”
“Raine, don’t hurt yourself, don’t … ”
Darkness thickened beyond the tree-line, as if night was falling, out in the woods. Shadows seemed to press inward, crawling across the narrow dome of sky visible through the break in the canopy. Wind howled through the trunks and thrashed the leaves. An oncoming storm, out of nowhere.
My attention was off Raine for perhaps two seconds.
The window banged shut. I looked up, but Raine was gone. She hadn’t climbed out or dropped to the ground, she’d just vanished. Again.
“Oh for pity’s sake,” I hissed at the absurdity of it all.
I tried to stand tall as premature night rolled over the farm, swallowing up the fields and the monstrous sheep within. It blanketed the cars and pooled around their wheels, ate up the mud and the crumbly tarmac and nipped at my heels as I hopped up onto the brick steps. It pressed against the walls of the house, suddenly held back only by the semi-circle of light spilling from the front door.
“It is not night time,” I said, sounding a lot more defiant than I felt, hugging myself with both arms. “This is nonsense. This isn’t even happening.”
The darkness thickened further, as if forming hands or tentacles out beyond the house.
I scrambled inside, slammed the front door, and threw the latch. Then I backed away, praying nothing was about to thump against the thin wood.
I turned back to the long spinal corridor of the house, panting to catch my breath and slow my racing heart. My tentacles were all a-whirl with frustration and panic. The lights indoors kept out the bizarre, creeping darkness, but there was no longer any warm sunlight pouring in through distant windows.
Raine did not appear, no matter how long I waited. Neither did anybody else. The corridor, mute and bland, invited me to explore.
I was in a haunted house, in the middle of the night, by myself.
“If this your doing, Edward,” I whispered, “then when we catch you, I’m going to have Raine put your head in a toilet and flush it.”
Heather was right, this house is extremely and exquisitely haunted. All over. Big spooky. Or maybe it’s Nicole that’s haunted? Or maybe Hingle-Cringle-whatsit is messing with her, or this is his way of just saying hello? Bloody odd way of saying hello, if so. I wonder how the others are doing? On the bright side, if they can solve this, maybe Nicole knows where to find Edward.
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Next week, Heather must plunge back into the maze and find whatever lies at the core. Or perhaps discover who or what is doing this to them.
That beginning was just great. Just how Heather and Zheng we’re done with it all , hahahaha.
Praem is definitely the strongest.
Ahhh, the interactions between Heather and Evelyn. Heather x Evelyn!
Threatening them with her godling fiance. Shameless. Hahahaha.
Poor ladies and dog stuck in a spooky house. Good luck Heather and Family.
I love this story but you really shouldn’t read it when you are tired. Lesson learned. 🙂
Thank you for the chapter.
Thank you! Haha, indeed, Heather and Zheng both a little done with this situation already.
Praem is very strong, as she once proved in the greatest of all arm-wrestling matches!
Heather and Evelyn are certainly quite close now … I wonder if they even need to talk about it, or are they already de-facto dating? Sort of???
Heather needs to find everybody else again! Surely it can’t be that difficult. If only she could figure out what on earth is happening.
Oh dear! Please take care and get some sleep! And you are very welcome for the chapter, glad you enjoyed it!
Thanks for the chapter!
You’re welcome!!! Glad you liked it, yay!
“Was a giant bat about to burst from the chimney and go flapping off into the woods?”
A giant bat would be pretty tame compared with the critters Heather sees around every day.
“I was never told which way to walk but always how to step”
I like that. They should write down Nicole’s babblings and make it into a book of poetry. If they could find her again that is.
Exactly! Heather is far too well-versed in real horror to be truly spooked by things straight from a black and white horror film. She’s seen much worse! Arguably, she is much worse.
Nicole’s ramblings seem to contain a seed of sense, amid the words. Perhaps confusion only conceals a deeper truth?
Cryptic supernatural crossword clues.
Not very good at those, but I eagerly await the revelation.
You’re very welcome, glad you liked it!
It is all a bit cryptic, isn’t it? Especially the words coming out of Nicole’s mouth. Almost as if there’s some hidden meaning, but who could it be intended for?
hmm…to Sevens I bet she’s talking perfect sense. Yellow court language, to go with the twisted corridors. Lozzie too, maybe, but she probably wouldn’t be able to reinterpret to everyone else.
Sevens has the secret decoder ring. Lozzie just likes the poems.
Yay a million and a bit words in a week.
Oh goodness, that’s some serious speed-reading! Glad you’ve had so much fun with the story so far!
But now I actually have to wait 😦
New chapter every Saturday! But ahaha, yes, I will continue to do my best to write as much story as I can without making you all wait too long!