None this chapter, I think.
Reality snapped back like a rubber band stretched too far, slamming against the inside of my skull, the backs of my eyeballs, and the rear of my stomach. I dared not imagine what might happen if I ever stretched that rubber band far enough to break.
Number 12 Barnslow drive blossomed around my senses — home, safety, sanctuary.
I could think of no better shelter for a little girl who was being hunted by supernatural horror from beyond our sphere. Not because of Evelyn’s vaunted security, the wards and the spells woven into the walls and sunk into the very foundations of the building; nor because of the solid brick to keep out physical intruders, the stout doors and small windows and sturdy locks; not even because of the unspoken spirit of the house herself, brooding on her own mute protective intent, keeping her own counsel from us little apes and ape-imitators who nested between her four strong walls. Not because it was familiar, or well-mapped, or home. No matter how safe the house itself, I wasn’t counting on any of that to protect little Natalie.
Besides, the wards couldn’t keep me or Lozzie from Slipping back into the house. I wasn’t counting on them to stop the Shambler.
No, I was counting on what had saved me too, all those months ago when I’d been ready to give up on life.
We — Natalie holding Turmy tight in her arms, while I held her close in turn, with a tentacle wrapped about her shoulders — appeared almost exactly where I’d intended, right in the kitchen of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, standing on the cool flagstones in the orange light of the growing dusk outdoors, with my back as close to the table as possible. My aim was so good that I surprised even myself. We landed about two feet away from the table. Not perfect, but close enough for my plan to work without breaking my spine.
Well, ‘plan’ is perhaps putting it a bit too strongly. ‘Vague idea of how not to screw everything up’, that sounds closer.
We exited the Slip with an audible squelch of swamp water as my socks slopped on the kitchen floor. I hissed and winced through the sudden stabbing headache behind my eyes, the price of the three-being Slip. I clenched every muscle from abdomen to diaphragm, willing myself to retain control and hang onto the contents of my stomach. Couldn’t afford to crumple to the floor on my hands and knees, not now. We didn’t have time for pain. We might only have seconds to spare.
So I blundered backward with Natalie in my arms, crashed into the table hard enough to leave a bruise on the small of my back, and lashed myself to the wooden surface with my tentacles.
Heather Morell, the safety-harness squid. Better a bruise on my back than a bloodied split across Natalie’s forehead.
The poor girl didn’t take the Slip very well. I could cushion the physical impact, but there was little I could do about the spiritual decompression sickness. As I caught us against the kitchen table and hung on to keep myself on my feet, Natalie was already sagging in my grip like a sick animal. She went limp and weak, struggling to keep her wellington boots against the floor, letting out one of those awful child-whimpers, the kind that reaches into the back of the human brain stem and lights up a switchboard of protective instinct, no matter one’s age, no matter if one has children of one’s own or not. Children in pain have fewer expressive inhibitions than adults. Natalie made a sound I never wanted to hear again, panted out between wet, liquid sobbing.
She dropped Turmy — not entirely on purpose, I believe, she just lost her muscle tension and coordination. The grand old gentleman slid down her front and landed on the floor like a drunken horse, all knees and rolling eyes. The poor cat was almost as badly affected as his owner. He wobbled a few paces across the kitchen floor like he was full to the brim with anaesthetic or muscle relaxants, then flopped over in a most undignified and uncomfortable angle, eyes rolling, mouth hanging open.
Natalie sagged forward in my grip, bent over with only one tentacle to hold her up like a child harness, and vomited noisily onto the flagstones.
I couldn’t comfort her. I couldn’t even spare a tentacle to keep her hair out of her face. Not that she needed it, her hair was stiff with dried swamp mud.
With a conscious effort, like unclenching a muscle inside my guts, I slammed all the biochemical control rods out of my trilobe reactor. Full power, as Raine might say, chocks away, all caution to the wind. I pushed myself right up to the red line, the danger zone, the point at which self-hood and energy risked confusion and conflation if I held myself there for too long.
It was like a pint of caffeine, a syringe full of adrenaline, and a bucket of freezing cold water.
I reared up with a single deep breath that felt like it was ripping my lungs apart. Eyes wide, heart slamming, skin coated in hot-cold flash sweat. My tentacles detached from the table and shot outward into a fan-shape, a sunburst, a protective cage, all except the one still holding the limp, sobbing, vomiting girl. I must have looked like a demon from the pit.
We’d only been manifested for about two seconds. I jerked my head left and right, running on pure instinct, trying to take in the whole kitchen with one glance. Nothing on the table but a few cold, empty mugs, and the plate which Twil had used for her sausage rolls. A few crumbs remained. The lights were off, but evening sunlight poured in through the window, bathing everything in that peaceful orange glow. The door to the workshop stood open.
A frozen moment, the eye of the storm; instinct screamed through my heart and my veins, keeping me on the edge of readiness.
How long did we have until the Shambler appeared? I’d felt her on my heels, an unmistakable presence as we’d crossed the membrane. Did she have the power to delay her own arrival?
Or had she appeared somewhere else in the house? I hadn’t considered that. An oversight, a mistake, stupid, stupid Heather. Was this Edward’s plan all along? Get a Dimensional Shambler into our house and wreak havoc? It might grab Raine, or Tenny, or anybody. Evee! Panic rocketed up my spine, a dose of something headier and harder than adrenaline. What a perfect assassination method for a rival mage. The Shambler might take Evelyn Outside and I might not be able to track her and—
A scrape of chairs and scrambling feet interrupted my wide-eyed panic.
Twil shot out of the magical workshop and into the kitchen, skidding to a halt like a cartoon hound who’d smelled a side of roasting beef. She stared at me wide-eyed and open mouthed. I could hardly blame her, considering that I was soaking wet, covered in grey mud, and carrying a very sick little girl.
Raine was two paces behind, with a quick and decisive look on her face, like she was ready for anything. But she lit up at the sight of me, no matter how filthy I was or what I was carrying.
“Heather!” Twil said. Then she quickly wrinkled her nose and pulled a face, as if something stank like an open sewer. “Holy fucking shit what the—”
“Heather!” Raine roared my name in triumph. She crossed the kitchen quickly, hurrying to my side. She took in my filthy, dripping wet state, the girl hanging in one of my tentacles, and the cat on the floor, all with only a slightly bemused glance — and total acceptance. She didn’t even break her stride. That’s what Raine does; she deals with anything.
“Don’t—” I panted, waving one hand at her. “Don’t touch, I’m filthy, dangerous, it’s—”
“You’re back!” Raine got as close as she dared, but she respected my request, and didn’t try to touch me, not yet. “I knew you would be!”
“Where’s— Evee, she—”
Evelyn’s voice was a stinging whip, cracking through the air even before she stomped out of the magical workshop. “Heather, what the fuck do you think you’re … do … ”
She trailed off the moment she clapped eyes on me. She was leaning heavily on Praem’s arm in lieu of her walking stick, with her bone-wand tucked under one armpit, and a piece of paper covered in magical symbols crumpled up in one fist, knuckles white with tension. She was drawn and pale and sweating with naked worry. But my heart unlatched. The Shambler was not after her.
“Welcome home,” said Praem. “And guests.”
“Heather, hey,” Raine was saying, hands up and ready to help, hovering around me and Natalie, not sure what to do first. “I get it, emergency, right? Tell us what to do. You don’t have to explain, just go!”
Raine was right, there was no time to explain. I could always count on her to understand.
So I filled my lungs and howled at the top of my voice.
“Lozzie! Lozzie! Here, now! Lozzie!”
I came down panting, heaving, waving Raine away with one flopping hand. “Don’t touch me, dangerous!” I heaved the words out, then added in mounting panic, “Lozzie, is she here? She got home, right? She’s here, she’s—”
“Lozzie is in residence,” Praem answered over the shock of my other friends — though she needn’t have bothered.
The sound of Lozzie hurling herself down the stairs was music to my ears, the light tap-tap of her feet on the creaky steps the best relief I could have asked for.
She didn’t make it in time.
I heard her leap the last few steps to the floor of the front room, landing with a patter of feet, followed by some curiously alarmed trilling noises that could only have been Tenny peering down the stairs after her. But she didn’t reach the kitchen before the Shambler got to us first.
A wall of grey muscle wrapped in taut grey skin suddenly filled the space in front of the kitchen doorway, stretching from floor to ceiling, dripping with rank swamp water and thick grey mud. The Dimensional Shambler, head and shoulders towering above us like the craggy ramparts of a rotten castle. Twin pools of oil locked on with all the predatory instinct of a bottom-dwelling hunter. Jutting jaw hung open, row of hook-teeth ready to rend flesh and scrape bone. A pair of grey arms swept wide, threatening to fill the room from wall to wall, ready to slam shut around Natalie and myself.
Somebody screamed — Evelyn, I think, in retrospect. Twil gaped in surprise for half a second, then growled low in her throat, lips peeling back from her teeth as her werewolf transformation whirled into place around her true flesh. Raine moved quick, no hesitation. She turned so as to put herself between the Shambler and me. She reached into her jacket, drawing and pointing her handgun in one quick motion.
None of them would have been fast enough.
With one tentacle I grabbed Raine’s gun and forced it to point at the floor. With a second I slapped against Twil’s front to stop her rushing the Shambler. A third was still wrapped tight and secure around poor little Natalie, still sagging as if unconscious, stringy bile hanging from her lips, with no idea what was happening.
Three tentacles were left free, to pump full of paralytic toxin and lash out at the Shambler.
I filled my lungs with air and screeched.
The Shambler actually flinched. I like to think it was the volume and power of my screech, but I probably just sounded like an angry dolphin. In retrospect it was more likely the combined threat of me, a werewolf, a firearm, and Evelyn fumbling her bone-wand out from under her armpit.
The Outsider marine-ape vanished, leaving behind a puddle of swamp mud.
We all stood in shocked silence for a single heartbeat.
Twil wheezed as if punched in the chest — which, to be fair, was exactly what I’d just done to her. “Fuck!” she grunted.
Raine gently eased her handgun free from my tentacle. I let it go. She didn’t look at me or stop to ask what had happened, she just turned on the spot, keeping the gun pointed at the floor for safety, trying to stand guard in every direction at once. She understood, instantly, what we needed, even if she had no idea of the specifics. If I hadn’t been covered in mud and in the middle of a crisis, I could have kissed her for that.
Evelyn didn’t take this in her stride quite as easily. “What the fuck just invaded my house?!”
“She! It’s a she!” I panted, scratchy and raw through my twisted throat. “And she’s sapient, and don’t shoot her! But don’t touch her either, absolutely do not touch her!”
Before I could explain properly, Lozzie poked her head around the kitchen doorway, where the Shambler had stood moments before.
All Lozzie’s usual bounce and energy was missing. Her face was pale and twitchy, eyes skittish and moving too fast, hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. I hadn’t seen her look that way since I’d rescued her from her late brother, like a terrified animal ready to bite or flee. Her pastel pink-and-blue poncho was drawn in tight, like a jellyfish floating downward in the water, doing her best to remain unseen and unremarkable.
“Heathy!” She exploded into the room the moment our eyes met, splashing through the puddle of swamp water left by the Shambler, apparently uncaring about her socks getting soaked and filthy. “I didn’t know where you went and I thought you were back with Jan but you weren’t there either and I couldn’t feel you anywhere I couldn’t find you I’m sorry I—”
I shoved Natalie toward Lozzie, a package of shivering flesh wrapped in yellow plastic. Her wellington boots skidded across the flagstones. Lozzie flinched, not quite following, her poncho curled tight as if she wanted to dive into the waters and be away from here.
“Take her!” I yelled.
The girl was beginning to come round from the shock of the Slip at last, just enough to raise her head and stare with bleary, bloodshot, aching eyes, at all the strange people in the room with her. As she blinked and recovered, I could see the panic mounting on her pale, drawn, exhausted face once again.
“Where—” she panted in a tiny voice. “Turmy— where— I’m not— I—”
I squeezed her shoulders with the tentacle. “It’s okay, Natalie, it’s okay. These are the people I told you about, they’re all friends, they’re going to keep you safe.” I pushed her toward Lozzie again. “Take her, now!”
Twil put a hand over her own mouth. “Oh my god, you kidnapped a little girl.”
“Rescued, not kidnapped!” I snapped at Twil. “From Outside, and from Edward Lilburne!”
Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth. “Edward?”
“And we don’t have time to discuss it! Lozzie! You’re the only one here besides me who can protect her, take—”
I didn’t need to finish the sentence. I don’t know if it was my bare-bones explanation, or the mention of her uncle’s name, or the mounting terror in little Natalie’s eyes, but I saw something visibly shift in Lozzie’s posture. The twitchy, skittish anxiety flowed out of her, replaced in an instant as if she’d thrown a switch. Suddenly, Lozzie no longer looked ready to run. She flapped out her poncho, lit up with a big smile, and crouched down so she was level with Natalie.
“Hi! I’m Lozzie! I’m like Heather there but different! And fluffy!” She flapped the edges of her poncho, beckoning.
“Like … the octopus-lady?” Natalie croaked. Her throat sounded terribly raw. She glanced back at me for reassurance.
“Octopus lady!” Lozzie giggled. “Yup-yup, that’s Heathy alright!”
“Lozzie is a friend,” I said. “She’ll keep you safe, Nat, I promise. She does the same kinds of things I do, she can stop the gorilla monster from taking you away again.”
I urged Natalie toward Lozzie, but the girl didn’t need any further encouragement. She staggered the last few steps and then threw her arms around Lozzie’s neck, clinging on tight and whining into her shoulder with a cocktail of fear and sobbing relief. Lozzie wrapped the poncho around Natalie’s shivering body in return, uncaring of the mud and the residual swamp water on the girl’s clothes, enclosing her in the thick folds of pastel blue and pink.
I wondered, not for the first time, if there was more to that poncho than merely a piece of comfortable fabric in the colours of a trans flag.
“Lozzie,” I said quickly, trying to get her attention — and realised I didn’t even have to catch her eye. Lozzie was already listening, ready for my instructions, attentive and alert.
Well, as alert as she could look with her permanently heavy-lidded eyes.
“Lozzie, you hold onto her and you don’t let go,” I said all in a rush, trying not to stumble over my words. The adrenaline and the urgency made my lips feel like rubber. “The Shambler — the thing that was just here — I think she’ll follow me but she might come for Natalie instead. She takes people away, Slips them Outside, understand? You’re the only one except me who can stop that, or at least get back here if it happens. You don’t let go of Nat, understand? Don’t let go.”
“She?” Twil muttered, still half werewolf, flexing her claws. “That thing was a she?”
Quickly as I could without hurting Natalie, I unwrapped my tentacle from around her shoulders, undoing the Slip-proof safety harness and sliding it out from inside Lozzie’s poncho. Lozzie held the girl tight in her arms, safe and secure. She was in good hands. I’d never seen Lozzie so serious and determined.
Natalie squirmed in Lozzie’s arms, twisting her head around, suddenly alarmed again. “Turmy? Where’s Turmy? I didn’t drop him, I promise I held on! Turmy!”
Twil pulled a grimace which contained far too many teeth. “What the hell is a Turmy?”
Raine nodded down at Turmy, still on the floor. “The cat, I assume?”
“Yah,” I panted. “He’s a good cat.”
The exhausted old marmalade gentleman was still recovering from the effects of the Slip. Turmy got to his paws like his joints were made of rusted steel, then made a beeline for Natalie as if the rest of us weren’t even present. He sniffed a corner of Lozzie’s poncho and apparently decided in a single instant that she was a friend to all cats.
Then he turned and hissed at Twil. One couldn’t blame him, she currently had more fur than he did. And bigger claws.
“Heather,” Evelyn said my name, tight and tense. Praem was helping her over to the table, pulling out a chair for her while she leaned on Praem’s other arm. She looked wild, frowning like she was about to have a migraine. “Heather, what was that creature? What was that? And what does Edward Lilburne have to do with it? And where were you?”
“Yeah, yo,” Twil piped up. “The fuck was that? More importantly, is it coming back?”
Evelyn hissed with irritation. She waved away the chair Praem was trying to get her to sit down in. “Twil, language. There is a child right there, you reprobate.”
“Dimensional Shambler,” I said. “That’s what Edward called it. They snatch people to Outside, they can Slip, kind of, a bit like me.” I tried to get steady on my own feet again and gather my thoughts. I had to go, go go go, don’t linger, move now, before she returned and snatched anybody. “And it’s a she, a female, and sapient! Don’t shoot her, please. I think Edward was training her with food, it’s not her fault, but I can’t stay here, she’ll follow me instead of taking Natalie again. I think!”
I pulled my broken mobile phone out of my pocket and tossed it on the table, then started to tug at my hoodie, struggling to roll the water-logged garment up and over my head. It was still soaked through with swamp water and mud, and now my skin was covered in sweat, so the fabric stuck to me and threatened to suffocate me if I got it only halfway up and over my head. I rammed two tentacles up inside and rolled my shoulders awkwardly, hissing with frustration, and trying not to think about the paradox of using my tentacles to remove a piece of clothing that they regularly passed through. Pneuma-somatic flesh is weird, to say the least.
Raine said my name. “Heather, whoa, slow down a sec.” She shot me only the briefest of glances, though she was right by my side. She was still holding her gun low and keeping her eyes up, waiting for the Shambler to re-appear. “Talk to us, fill us in, yeah?”
“There’s no time for that!” I growled with frustration as I got one arm stuck inside my soaking hoodie.
The whipcrack in Raine’s voice shot through me like an electric shock applied to my backside, a hot grasp reaching up inside my belly, a leash around my brain stem. I froze, all except my tentacles still struggling with my hoodie. Panting, staring at Raine, blinking several times. Brain rebooting.
Bless her, that was exactly what I needed.
“ … yes?” I said in barely a breath.
Raine’s eyes flickered to me, one second of full concentration.
“Tell us what you need,” she said.
I nodded with feeling, as if to placate the messenger of an angry goddess — and in a way, that was exactly who Raine served. I took a deep breath, trying to dial down the unfocused haste. I wouldn’t be any good to anybody if I couldn’t communicate.
Evelyn grumbled through her teeth, “Actually, I would prefer a bit more planning than that. What the hell is going—”
The Shambler appeared in the corner of the kitchen, as if she had stepped out from behind the wedged-open door, diagonally behind Lozzie.
Head ducked low, shoulders jutting high, arms held out in a semi-circle as if she was about to land a rugby tackle and slam Lozzie and Natalie to the floor.
I screeched like a banshee and whipped out with all my tentacles, flushing them with warning colouration in red and yellow, pumping the skin full of paralytic toxins. But the Shambler was already too close to her targets, the powerful muscles of her hind legs contracted and ready to spring. And I was at the wrong angle, constricted by the wet confines of my hoodie. I stumbled and lost my balance, clattering into a chair.
Raine’s handgun came up and around, but she hesitated, stalled by my heartfelt plea to spare the Shambler’s life. Evelyn stammered out a snatch of Latin, her hands hurrying across her bone-wand, but she couldn’t think fast enough. Twil roared like a prehistoric dire-wolf and leapt past us in a bundle of fur and claw, but too slow, and she knew she couldn’t risk touching the Shambler. Natalie screamed into Lozzie’s shoulder, grabbing at her as if trying to burrow deeper into the protection of her pastel poncho. Turmy, bless his gentleman’s heart, turned and hissed at the Shambler, arching his back and fluffing his tail to make himself as big as possible.
Lozzie looked up at the Shambler, from behind a thin veil of wispy blonde hair. Unsurprised, unconcerned, and unsmiling.
“No,” she said — or rather, she sang, as a single note that seemed to blanket the air.
To my amazement, the Shambler hesitated.
It was like watching a cat or a puppy encounter a lobster for the first time. Total confusion, faced with something beyond experience. The Shambler paused, her musculature lost all the springy momentum of an impending pounce, uncertain what exactly Lozzie was. The creature’s face was unreadable, of course. I doubted very much that slack hanging jaw and nose-less flat expanse and pair of wide eyes like pools of oil could show anything even vaguely approximate to a human expression. She hadn’t evolved here, after all. But the physical response smashed through all boundaries to communication: Lozzie made the thing pause in shock and wonder.
But not for long. The heartbeat passed and the Shambler was already re-gathering herself, arms ratcheting outward for a bear hug, powerful thigh and calf muscles bunching like watermelons to throw her at her target.
Luckily, one heartbeat was all we needed.
Praem appeared, almost within arms’ reach of the Shambler. She’d marched around the table from the other side. Prim and proper and very straight-backed, Praem leaned in close as she dared.
“Bad girl,” Praem said — and the Shambler flinched.
She flinched again when Twil snapped in her face. Whirling canine jaws and two paws full of claws warded her off, though Twil was careful not to touch. While I was hissing and struggling against my wet hoodie, Evelyn must have gotten her spell in order, because a rising trio of shouted Latin words heralded a sudden drop in air temperature, as if somebody had opened a door to a winter morning and ushered in the freezing air.
But all that wasn’t quite enough. As I got my tentacles straight and prepared to join in, I could see the Shambler’s huge black eyes fixate on Natalie in Lozzie’s arms, see the muscles bunch and tendons tighten. She was going to push right past Twil and go for it, spell and claw and angry maid be damned.
But why? Why did she lead me to the lost girl Outside, in that grey and endless swamp, and then try to take her back again? Perhaps it was just instinct, or maybe Edward’s conditioning was just that strong. Or perhaps I was missing something vital.
I bunched my tentacles, ready to hurl myself across the gap and land on the Shambler like a stinging jellyfish. I would kill her, if she made me do it.
But then a mass of whirling black tentacles burst in through the kitchen door — Tenny.
Trilling like a lepidopteran version of a rattlesnake, her tentacles spread in a corona of snapping mouths, her wings fluttering and flickering with dizzying patterns of oil-on-water light, and patterned with swirling colours like the inside of a fairy mound on hallucinogens, Tenny reared up between the Shambler and Lozzie.
The display was enough to make even Twil flinch and recoil. Evelyn’s spell spluttered out and the cold snap shut off as Evelyn grunted with pain. Raine had to look away, wincing through her teeth. I even retracted my tentacles with an instinctive flinch.
I think it was the flickering light on Tenny’s wings, the swirling colours in oil-shimmer and purple-blossom and bile-green; the effect was both hypnotic and headache-inducing, painful to the eyes and ensnaring to the senses. To stare would to be transfixed, but to look away would render oneself vulnerable before this rattling, trilling threat. I’d never seen her do anything like that before. Her camouflage-cloak was one thing, but this was the same biological principle turned toward ends I’d never imagined.
Tenny’s flashing display was a very eloquent way of saying go away or I will dismantle you.
The Shambler took one look at her, then vanished again.
“Baaaah!” Tenny trilled at the space where the Shambler had stood. “Bah!”
Luckily for the rest of us, Tenny dialled down the display on her wings, returning them to their usual muted darkness, except for a lingering swirl of colour just beneath the surface. But her tentacles still stood outward, snapping with angry little slaps.
“Tenns!” Lozzie cheered.
“Good assist,” Praem intoned.
“Baah!” Tenny repeated, frowning a very serious little frown, turning on the spot as if she understood the Shambler might reappear at any moment. “Baaaaah!”
“Holy fucking shit, Tenny,” Twil heaved, one hand on her own chest.
“Language,” Evelyn hissed — probably because she had nothing else more useful to say.
Little Natalie was still screaming, almost inconsolable with panic, staring up at the black-and-white apparition which had chased away the Shambler.
“No no, it’s okay!” Lozzie said to her, trying to hold her still. “That’s Tenny, she’s my little girl! Kinda like you! It’s okay-okay!”
“Bwwwweeeeeeh?” went Tenny, tilting her head at Natalie. “Hiiiiii?”
Lozzie’s reassurances fell on deaf ears — but Turmy did the trick. While Tenny was staring back at Natalie, one of Tenny’s tentacles dipped toward the floor and found Turmy. The grand old marmalade gentleman did not seem very cordial toward this strange interloper, and looked like he was about to hiss and scratch at Tenny’s subconscious peace offering. But then the tentacle bobbed forward and flopped down in the exact position for Turmy to give it a cautious sniff.
One sniff convinced the cat. The tentacle popped back up and Turmy rubbed his face on it, claiming Tenny for his cat territory. Natalie must have seen this, because her panicked scream trailed off, huge eyes watching as Turmy rubbed himself on the tentacle and Tenny petted him in return.
“Tenny’s a little girl too, just like you!” Lozzie repeated, trying to catch Natalie’s eyes. But the girl had eyes only for her cat.
Tenny puffed her cheeks out and trilled, “Not little. Bigger than her.”
Human child and pneuma-somatic moth-puppy looked at each other for a moment. Turmy padded back to Natalie, bringing the tentacle with him. Natalie awkwardly patted the tentacle. Tenny made a “buuurrrr” noise.
“Tenny, thank you,” I said. I finally got myself upright again, through with my hoodie still half-off. “Tenny, Tenny I need you to do something for me.”
“That little girl, her name is Natalie. I need you to protect her, please. If that thing comes back again, can you chase it away?”
“Yah!” Tenny trilled. She puffed herself up, tentacles wiggling, pulling back her coal-black lips in a big smile.
“But whatever you do, don’t touch it, okay? You mustn’t touch it. In fact, keep one tentacle wrapped around Lozzie’s arm. Can you do that for me?”
Tenny nodded and did exactly as I requested. In a moment, Natalie, Lozzie, and Tenny were all bound loosely together. Turmy seemed a bit nonplussed and reluctant to join in, but I doubted very much that the Shambler would try to spirit away the cat all by himself. He was peering at something in the front room. I craned my neck and spotted Whistle by the foot of the stairs.
Ah yes, that was exactly what we needed amid all this, a feline-to-canine standoff.
“Heather,” Raine reminded me, gently but firmly. “What do you need?”
I sighed and tugged at my incredibly wet hoodie, still hanging off me like a dead fish. “First I need to get out of this, so I can move. Help me, please, before the Shambler comes back.”
With some deft handiwork — though not before giving her pistol to Praem to hold — Raine managed to get my hoodie up and over my head. I felt several pounds lighter, and I probably was. She dumped it on the floor with an apologetic wince to Praem.
“Floor is better than table,” Praem said.
Twil clicked her tongue. “Washing machine is gonna struggle with that mess.”
“No,” said Praem.
“What next?” Raine asked me. “Talk to us, Heather.”
“I can lead the Shambler away!” I said, hopping and bouncing as I yanked my wet socks off my feet as well. “And I’ve got to go after Edward! I can catch him!”
“Wait!” Evelyn snapped. She was still gripping her bone-wand, though it didn’t quite conceal her shaking. “You know where he is? Heather, you found the bast—” Evelyn flickered a glance at Natalie, still shivering in Lozzie’s hug. “You found him?”
I shook my head. “Not the real him! A fake, like he was using before, but if I can touch it then I might be able to trace the control back to him, if he’s still there! But he might be gone, I don’t know, but I have to try.” I spoke too fast as I half-considered stripping out of my trousers too, but I decided against it. Didn’t want to get arrested for public indecency, if we ended up elsewhere. “I need shoes! Shoes!”
Twil darted into the front room. “On it!”
“Heather,” Evelyn said, visibly losing her temper with me, “in the name of God, please, explain!”
I took a deep breath and steadied myself, then locked eyes with Evelyn. She blinked, as if surprised by something she saw deep inside me.
“Edward interrupted our Slip home,” I said. “He did it with some kind of machine, I don’t understand. Lozzie, it wasn’t your fault that first time, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Lozzie let out a tiny sigh and went, “puuuuuh.”
I hurried on. “He wanted to talk to me, but I think it was some kind of ploy, a cover for something else, but I can’t figure out what. He was in a magic circle as a protective tripwire and he claimed that it wasn’t really him, just a ‘vessel’.”
Raine nodded. “Like that time at the pub.”
“We couldn’t contact you,” Evelyn snapped. “And Lozzie couldn’t locate you either.”
I shook my head. “He had some kind of Faraday cage, around a cottage. That’s where the Slip took me. A cottage in Devon, or at least that’s what he was claiming. I never got out into the garden to check where we were.”
“Devon?” Evelyn pulled a disgusted face. “Bourgie fu—” She covered the rude word with a cough.
“And he had the Dimensional Shambler too,” I said. “And set her on me with some kind of command. She took me Outside, where he’s been feeding her stay animals, pets, stuff like that. And Natalie!” I pointed at the girl. “But the Shambler hadn’t eaten her. She led me to the girl, to rescue her! I’m certain the Shambler didn’t really want to kill and eat her at all! She’s from here — well, from Manchester. But I rescued her!”
Raine bit her lower lip in thought. Evelyn frowned hard. “Then what the hell is it doing now?”
“I don’t know! But if I drop in on Edward — right on his head — I might be able to catch him!”
Raine frowned at me in concern. “Heather, you’re steaming.”
At first I thought she was being poetic. But then Raine pressed a hand to my forehead and I felt such cool relief. She wasn’t exaggerating, I was burning up as if in the grip of a fever, my skin hot enough to begin drying my t-shirt and soaked trousers.
“I-It’s the reactor,” I said. “I need to dial down, ease down, I-I’ll be okay.”
Twil jumped back into the kitchen with her arms full of shoes, not just my trainers. She dumped them on the floor, kicked mine toward me, and slammed her feet into her own trainers with a one-two stomp.
“Let’s go then!” she cheered. “Come on, let’s kick his arse so hard he can taste his own—”
“Twil,” Evelyn grumbled. Twil cut herself off, but not without a huge grin plastered across her face. She shot me a big thumbs up.
“Well done, big H, well done! We’ve got him, right?!”
“Wait, no,” I stammered. “Like I said, it’s only a remote-controlled vessel, and … and it’s just … ”
I hadn’t expected this. Everything was moving too fast, spinning out of my already tenuous control. Raine scooped up her own shoes from the pile and tugged them onto her feet, then ducked into the magical workshop for a second. She returned tucking her big black combat knife into her waistband, shrugging on her armoured motorcycle jacket, and hauling her home-made riot shield. Praem was helping Evelyn on with her trainers, but the doll-demon was already wearing her smart black shoes.
“We all ready?” Raine said, catching Evelyn’s eye. “You need anything else?”
Evelyn sighed heavily, doing a poor job of covering her anxiety. She gestured vaguely with her bone-wand. “How about a commando unit of Royal Marines?”
Raine clicked her tongue and hissed through her teeth. “Can’t stretch that on short notice. We’ll have to do.”
Praem straightened up and gave Evelyn her arm for support. “Better than any marine.”
“Yeah!” Twil whooped.
Evelyn screwed her eyes up and grimaced. I could see the swear word trapped in her throat, but she didn’t say it out loud.
I took a single, hesitant step back from everybody, from my friends. “Raine, no,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t mean for this, I didn’t mean for everybody to come with me. There was nobody there except him.”
“We don’t know that,” Evelyn snapped. “Not for sure. Don’t be absurd.”
“No, no, I can’t—”
Raine shot me an indulgent smile, that beaming grin that she knew I couldn’t resist. “Heather, hey, as if we’d not come with.”
“No!” I hiccuped loudly, then had to clamp down on the rising panic in my voice. Natalie was safe now, but I’d been her anchor, the one telling her she was going to be okay. The last thing that little girl needed to hear was her saviour shaken and afraid and uncertain. I took a sharp breath and tried to rephrase my sudden irrational panic. “I mean, Raine, I need you to all stay here and keep Natalie safe. I-I can do this myself, all I have to do is drop on top of Edward, right where he’s waiting — or, was waiting, if he’s still there. It’s really simple, I can do it!”
I expected a look from Raine — an indulgent sigh or affectionate scepticism, a don’t-be-silly-Heather, a rejection of what I was feeling. But she just glanced at Lozzie instead, and said, “Loz, you and Tenns, you’ve got Natalie safe, right? The big ol’ Shamble-ramble isn’t gonna take her anywhere?”
Lozzie nodded once, hard and determined, such a serious look on her little face. “Got her!”
“Yaaaah!” Tenny trilled.
Natalie made a little whine, burrowing deeper into the protective folds of Lozzie’s poncho.
Raine turned back to me. “We’re coming with. Heather, hey, the girl is safe. You got her out, you did good. We’re coming with you.”
“What about the house?!” I blurted out. “What if Edward is sending something here right now? Somebody needs to stay and watch!”
Evelyn sighed. “Edward is not going to hit this house with mundane asset. If he was going to do that, he would have done so already, when you were gone and out of contact. Besides, look at the front door.”
I blinked in confusion, then craned my neck to see all the way into the front room.
Three spider servitors were clustered around the front door, one on either side and one hanging from the ceiling, all of them watching the door like ambush predators ready for the first sign of movement. Stingers like railway spikes quivered in the air, aching to plunge into vulnerable flesh. Marmite was clutching the wall too, further off to the left, by the stairs. His segmented bone-tentacles were spread out across the room like tripwires.
“Three … ?” I murmured.
“From the attic. Took me enough shouting and Latin to get them into position,” Evelyn grumbled. “They’ll do their job this time.”
“What about the back door?” I gestured wide, scrambling for an excuse — but an excuse for what? “What about the windows? Where’s Zheng?”
“On her way home,” Raine said. “I called her the moment you went missing, she’s already on her way back. Ten minutes, tops. Can we wait ten minutes?”
Evelyn scoffed. “She’ll want to come too.”
“Then we go, now.” Raine said. “Heather, you ready for this?”
“Yes, but— but I can do this myself, I—”
Evelyn snorted. “Oh yes, I’m absolutely going to let you drop yourself straight into the field effect area of an unknown magic circle. Don’t be totally absurd, Heather. This is a real mage you’re dealing with. You require my presence for this. I can counter anything that he’s set up for us.”
I stumbled back another step. Wordless panic gripped my guts. I hiccuped, loudly and painfully. “I … I … I need you to … I need Natalie to be safe. I need her to be safe. Raine, Evee, please, I need—”
I need you to protect me, ten years ago.
Natalie was not me. Her circumstances were not even close to mine. She had not been to Wonderland, or been subjected to the Eye, or had half her soul ripped out. But none of that mattered. As far as abyssal instinct and ancient trauma were concerned, she may as well have been me in miniature. That younger self I held swaddled and safe inside my core, wrapped in so many layers of protection, her long watch finally ended when I’d met Raine and Evelyn and realised I’d been right all along — Natalie was like her, extracted from my mind and made manifest in the flesh. I could not allow this girl to come to harm.
It was completely irrational, but it mattered more than I would ever be able to put into words. I didn’t just want Raine and Evelyn and Twil and Praem to stay here and make sure Natalie was safe, I wanted them to go back in time to save me and Maisie from Wonderland. I wanted to meet my friends ten years earlier than I had done, because then there would be so much less pain.
A seed of doubt germinated in the back of my mind: Edward Lilburne could not have chosen a more perfect victim to arouse my sympathy, my identification, my trauma — and my rage.
Had he engineered this on purpose? Had he chosen Natalie to find this crack in my armour? But why? To paralyse me with indecision and the memory of torment?
All it made me want to do was annihilate him.
I didn’t have time to phrase that suspicion, or chew and digest it properly. Help came in a new form and decided for me.
Click went the metal tip of an umbrella against the floor of the front room. We all looked round.
Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight, the Yellow Princess in all her soft and sharp glory, starched and prim and icy-cold in her pressed blouse and smart skirt, had appeared behind Lozzie, in a similar manner to the Shambler herself. But Natalie didn’t scream. Perhaps Sevens had the presence of mind to step out from behind the corner first, so as not to scare the girl.
The Yellow Princess locked eyes with me. “I will stay. The house will be safe, Heather. The girl will be safe.”
“Sevens,” I sighed, then hiccuped again, then grunted in pain. “I … thank you.”
“Right on, yellow,” said Raine.
“It seems I am turning into a babysitter,” said the Yellow Princess. “But I make no argument with this.” She looked down at Natalie. “Hello, little one.”
Natalie didn’t say anything, just stared upward at this apparition of fallen royalty. I wondered if she understood what she was looking at.
“She’s also dehydrated and possibly starving,” I said quickly, before my resolve broke again. “She was stuck Outside, in that swamp, for god knows how long. And she needs cleaning, and soon. I don’t know what pathogens might be in the water, the mud, so be careful. Get her washed and hydrated and … and … be safe, okay? Please.”
Lozzie nodded. Tenny emitted a soft “burrrr”. Sevens stared down at Natalie in an act of unspoken communication. Turmy padded over to Sevens on silent paws and sniffed at the hem of her skirt. A sharp flicker from her eyes informed Turmy that this lady was not for rubbing himself against, so Turmy compromised by rubbing himself on her umbrella. Sevens looked very unimpressed for a heartbeat — and Natalie, held in Lozzie’s arms, let out a small, hesitant, but very real laugh.
She was going to be okay. Not like me.
“And she knows,” I spoke up again. “This little girl, she’s in the know, you understand? Lozzie, Sevens, don’t lie to her, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. She was lost Outside. That happened. It was real.”
Sevens lifted her eyes to mine and nodded, gently, softly. She got it.
All the chances I never had.
Evelyn hissed between her teeth, low enough that the girl couldn’t hear. “Making her parents understand is going to be a hell of a job, Heather.”
I shot a look at Evelyn. “We can do that. I can do that. I won’t let the opposite happen!”
“Didn’t say we can’t,” Evelyn grunted. “Just not looking forward to it.”
Raine raised her voice. “Alright, ladies! Make a chain! Hands and feet inside the ride, brace for impact, we’re goin’ in hot!”
I bit my bottom lip, thinking hard. “I’m going to have to slingshot us around Camelot. I-I think I can do this in one go … I think.”
Twil thumbed over her shoulder, back into the magical workshop. “What about the big spooky doorway?”
Evelyn shook her head sharply. “Gateway is too slow, too many other risks. No. We go with Heather. I trust her more than my own fail-safes.”
We got in position with the minimum amount of fuss, despite never having done this before. On one side, Raine linked her arm with mine, handgun and knife tucked safely away inside her clothes, her other arm holding onto her home-made riot shield, ready to cover me from the front. I wrapped two tentacles around her, for safety. On the other side, Praem linked her arm around my other elbow, then held Evelyn around the middle. A bit undignified, but very safe. Evee scowled and gritted her teeth and readied her bone-wand in both hands, walking stick tucked under her armpit, concentration etched on her brow. She relaxed a fraction when I put a tentacle around her shoulders and held on tight. Twil stepped in on Praem’s other side and hooked an arm around the doll-demon. I wrapped another tentacle around her waist, which made Twil go “oop!” in surprise.
“Hey, do we need a countdown?” Raine asked. “Countdown to launch?”
The grin on her face was not just for show. With her arm linked through mine, I could practically feel her vibrating with adrenaline, with the thrill of an upcoming fight. Her muscles sang a silent song of tension and violence. It was a heady cocktail, pressed up right next to me.
“If anybody is counting down, it’ll be me,” I said. “Just brace, this will only take a second once I do it.”
“Every combat drop needs a countdown. On my mark!”
Evelyn hissed. “Don’t call it that, Raine, for pity’s sake.”
“Combat drop,” Praem echoed.
“Not you too,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t you dare jinx us.”
“On my mark,” said Praem.
Raine laughed. “Praem gets it!”
“Three,” Praem intoned, turning her head to look at me. I nodded, tightened my tentacles, and took a deep breath. Evelyn gripped her bone wand. Twil flexed claws of semi-sold pneuma-somatic flesh and bared all her teeth.
“Hey hey,” Raine said. “I’m supposed to be doing the countdown!”
“Stay safe!” Lozzie called out.
“We’re gonna be fine!” Twil called in return. “Be right back!”
“Everyone close your eyes,” I said.
From over by Sevens, Turmy let out a little “Murrr.”
I reached down into the black heart of the Eye’s lessons and pulled out an equation that was fast becoming an old friend, a tool that fit into my hand with the ease of long use, no matter how much it hurt. To slingshot us around Camelot was easy enough, I just had to re-adapt the trick I’d used in the Library of Carcosa. Double the equation on top of itself, leave half of it unsaid, unthought, unused until we were riding the membrane. Teleportation could be achieved, at a high price in blood and pain.
The pieces slid into place, slamming across the surface of my mind in bloody-hot runnels through my neurons, leaving burned flesh and seared thoughts behind.
And in that last split second as reality folded up like a collapsing paper bag, as Twil whooped and Raine braced and Evelyn screwed her eyes up tight against a horror she knew all too well, as Lozzie hugged Natalie tight and Sevens raised her chin to watch us go — the Dimensional Shambler stepped out of the air right in front of my closing eyes.
Like a minnow in the wake of a shark, she stepped toward me, into the transition across the membrane, riding my Slip all the way down, alongside us.
A membrane-skipping slingshot was not an easy feat.
Human beings are not meant to pierce the membrane between reality and Outside. We’re not evolved for it, physically or spiritually. The experience is like whiplash for the soul, being slammed back and forth inside one’s own flesh, jarred out of place in relation to one’s physical self-hood.
A slingshot was more than twice as bad. I used Camelot as a reference point to swing us around before the Slip completed, skimming the surface of the membrane, just like Lozzie’s technique.
Like a skipping stone, bouncing across the water, refusing to sink, held aloft for that crucial moment by a trick of physics as the water itself generated lift. A paradox of motion, written in the mathematics of creation.
That was all a metaphor, of course. But it was the best one I had, and it got the job done.
My aim was improving, too. We crashed back into reality amid the bronze evening light of a Westcountry sunset, flooding through the high windows of a rural Devon cottage, in the middle of that wide open kitchen, right on top of Edward Lilburne’s rickety wooden chair.
It was to Raine’s great credit that she managed to keep her feet and ready her makeshift riot shield, despite letting out a sound like she wanted to be terribly sick all over the floor. Twil didn’t fare quite so well, reeling and stumbling and trying to catch herself on empty air with wind-milling arms, howling with disorientation and pain, dropping to all fours. Praem held fast, Evelyn’s harness and rock, as Evelyn herself slurred out Latin while wincing and hissing, her hands moving across her bone-wand to dispel whatever traps Edward Lilburne might have left for us.
The Dimensional Shambler landed too, right in front of us, a wall of grey muscle. But then she lurched backward as if finally afraid of me, a hopping motion more frog than ape, and knocked over Edward’s chair.
He wasn’t sitting in it.
A moment of chaos and confusion gripped us all. The Shambler did not vanish, but fled to the far wall. Twil turned on the spot, reeling and growling. Raine did the same, trying to stay on her feet but almost failing. Evelyn shouted Latin and then trailed off as silence fell.
I gritted my teeth against the headache pain and lashed at the empty chair with one tentacle, blood running freely from my nose. “He’s not here! No!”
“Gone,” Raine said.
“Maybe he’s still around!” Twil howled, grunting and gripping her own face with the pain and disorientation of the Slip. “And what the hell is that thing doing?!” She waved a hand at the Shambler.
A rough, reedy, raspy voice floated from the corridor beyond the kitchen, or perhaps from deeper in the house, or perhaps upstairs.
“She awaits her master’s voice,” said Edward Lilburne.
His words seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, then from outdoors, as if floating through the high windows on one side of the kitchen. We all turned every which way, as if expecting attack from anywhere.
“Do you know what magic is good for?” Edward continued.
One of the windows was open just a crack — the voice narrowed, came from there, undoubtedly. He was out in the garden.
“Very little, in fact,” said Edward, as we picked up our feet and began to move. In all the confusion, the adrenaline, the need to hunt him down, I almost missed the sardonic melancholy, the resignation in his tone. “Very little indeed. But you are going to help me make use of it, whether I like it or not. Aren’t you?”
Heather isn’t thinking clearly, too wrapped up in her own trauma, projecting it onto the girl she’s protecting. But! She did protect her! Mission accomplished. And she’s hardly alone, she doesn’t have to face this abomination by herself, she’s got mages and monsters of her own, a whole family of friendly aberrations at her back, even ones who can apparently talk to the Shambler (well done, Tenny). And she’s not going to let Natalie end up like she did, gaslit by reality and parents who can’t possibly believe. But first, she’s gotta go punch an old man.
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Next week, it’s a boss fight, right? Right?! Time to slap a mage upside the head?! Surely, there can’t be anything more going on here?