A balmy summer evening in an isolated rural garden, so deep in the countryside that one could no longer hear any trace of distant traffic, nor see any tell-tale scar of light pollution on the horizon. Poised on the cusp of true night as if frozen in time; the setting sun reduced to a faint suggestion on the far side of the darkening hills; the silence of the shadows broken only by the chirping of hidden insects. Sitting on a weathered stone bench outside a lovely little thatched cottage, lit from behind by soft electric glow, beside a woman whom I loved very deeply — even if I wasn’t exactly certain as to the exact and proper form of that love.
A year ago I would have given my left hand to be blessed by such a dreamlike scene.
Romantic fantasy had failed, however, to account for the more earthy realities — such as the piles of half-collapsed scaffolding and burst chicken wire which surrounded the otherwise picturesque cottage. And Praem the demon maid, methodically digging up most of the garden to ruin the magical design scored into the lawn. And of course not to forget Zheng, eight feet of rippling muscle looming behind us in the darkness, our implicit bodyguard, an ever-present reminder of our need to command and wield terrible violence at a moment’s notice.
So, all in all, it was not actually a very romantic situation whatsoever.
The sheer weight of Evelyn’s cold anger also didn’t help.
I’d grown used to Evee’s anger by then. I thought I understood it, that I understood her, at least better than I had back when we’d first met. Before we’d become real friends — and then perhaps more — I’d found Evelyn’s anger intimidating at best, actively frightening at worst. Short-tempered, bitter, acerbic, often directly insulting, sometimes accompanied by threats of physical violence, omni-directional, not even sparing herself from her own ire, it was easy to see Evelyn Saye as the ‘nasty bitch’ she so often tried to project. But I’d come to understand that Evee wore her temper like a suit of armour.
She used anger to fortify herself against the reality of the supernatural truth, but also against her own fears and vulnerability and worry for her friends, and against the humiliations of constant pain; Evelyn’s body was a litany of long-term problems with no good solutions, not only her prosthetic leg and the chronic pain it caused in her hips and her stump, but also the less obvious disabilities of her missing fingers and her kinked spine, not to mention the hidden damage she so rarely spoke about, or the painkiller addiction we so delicately avoided acknowledging most of the time.
Those of us close to her, we understood that when Evelyn went off on one, she didn’t really mean it. Not really. Not like that.
It meant that she cared too much, or hurt too much, or was too scared, and couldn’t express herself in any other way.
Sitting on that stone bench in that garden in Devon, Evelyn’s cold fury bored into my flesh, hollowed me out, and wrapped a shaking, terrified grip around my soul. I’d been an idiot and nearly walked into a trap; Evelyn was so afraid that she was ready to hurt me — at least emotionally — in order to stop me from ever doing that again.
I didn’t know what was worse: Evelyn’s anger itself, or her theory that Edward’s trap had been aimed at me personally.
At least with Edward, I could just kill him when I found him.
“Heather?” Evelyn prompted when I didn’t respond. Her voice was still tight, sharp, acidic. “Heather, for fuck’s sake, don’t sit there staring at me like a fart in a trance. I need you to acknowledge what I’m saying. Edward Lilburne set this trap for you, do you understand? Or is that going in one ear and out the other? You can’t play at being a hero anymore, you can’t be that irresponsible, you hear me? This changes everything, we have to adjust our entire strategy. But strategy is useless if you … you … ” She trailed off, acid draining away, replaced with confused discomfort. “Heather? Are you … ?”
I blinked the gathering tears out of my eyes, sniffing loudly and trying to hold myself together in front of Evee. My pink hoodie, my favourite, my beloved gift from Raine, was currently hundreds of miles away back in Sharrowford, and also still sopping wet with Outsider swamp water. So, in rather poetic fashion, I was currently wearing the hoodie that Evelyn had bought me — dark pink, with diamond-shaped scale patterns on the shoulders and upper arms, hood and zipper trimmed in white. I always tried to avoid getting this one dirty, but I had nowhere else to scrub my eyes, so I wiped my face on my sleeve.
“Crying?” I croaked, sniffing back more tears. “A little bit.”
“Ah,” Evelyn said. I’d rarely heard her sound so awkward.
“I’m sorry, Evee. I’m so sorry.” I spoke to the night, to the distant hills, to the shadowy outline of Praem still digging in the garden. My tentacles reeled in tight and wrapped around my core, like pneuma-somatic armour, trying to quash the shaking in my chest. Not as if Evelyn had accepted my touch earlier, anyway. “You’re right, I got overwhelmed by the situation. I— when I found Natalie Outside— everything— Edward has to die, has to, but— I’m sorry. I should have waited. I should have been sensible.” A small hiccup climbed up my throat. “I’m supposed to be sensible. Sensible good girl Heather.” Another small hiccup. “So much for that. Lost control of myself.”
Evelyn sighed a deep sigh. For a moment I heard her grinding her teeth. “No, I’m … I should be … I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Heather. I lost my temper with you.”
“You’ve a right to.”
Another sigh, sharp this time. Evelyn tapped the ground with the tip of her walking stick. “I’m taking my frustration out on you and you don’t deserve it. Edward got away. Our quarry escaped. Which pisses me off. He tried to, well, not murder you, but do something else, I don’t know what, not yet. If I had him here right now, I do believe I would be torturing him.”
Zheng purred with grim approval from behind us.
I turned and blinked at Evelyn, a cold feeling creeping through my veins and up my throat. I caught her in profile against the night, outlined in shadow by the harsh lights from the exterior of the cottage, strands of loose blonde hair against the star-strewn sky above. Her puppy-fat cheeks, her little nose, the hard stare in her eyes. Evelyn Saye the mage, ready to commit atrocity in my name.
“E-Evee? No, I didn’t mean … ”
She tutted and rolled her eyes. “Oh, not for the sheer sadism of it, don’t worry about that. I’m not quite that far gone, not yet.” She gestured with her walking stick at the magic circle cut into the lawn, the piles of ripped-up copper wire, the now-ruined design that Praem was still destroying. “I’d be torturing him to learn the purpose and function of this.” She shook her head with equal parts disgust and confusion. “He wanted to lure you specifically into this, but I don’t know why. He got away, so I’m taking it out on you, because I’m a terrible bitch who doesn’t know when to stop.”
“That’s not true, Evee.” I took a deep breath and started to unravel my tentacles. Evelyn wasn’t so scary any more.
She sighed and shrugged, still staring at the garden. “Sometimes it is. Sometimes I’m a right bitch, and I know it. Don’t deny that, Heather.”
I smiled an awkward smile, then reached over with one hand and gently placed it atop her own, both of which were curled tight around the handle of her walking stick. Her hands were cold, with focus or adrenaline or anger. She almost flinched, but then swallowed and accepted my touch.
“All right, I won’t deny it,” I said, trying to sound gentle and soft and accepting. “But if you’re a bitch, Evee, then you can be my bitch.”
It took me a good few seconds to realise what I’d said. Evelyn gave me a look of alarmed scepticism. Praem paused in her digging work, straightened up, and stared at us across the garden. Zheng hissed a long sound between her teeth, like the noise a tiger might make if it could laugh.
Eventually Evelyn found her voice again. “Heather, that doesn’t mean what you think it does.”
But I was already blushing, raising both hands in apologetic surrender, spluttering like a broken steam engine. “I-I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it like that! I don’t— I don’t usually use language like that, so I didn’t think. I didn’t think!”
Evelyn was blushing too, and frowning at Praem. The doll demon was finally lifting her spade with both hands and crossing the broken lawn to join us. Probably to tease me mercilessly for my Freudian slip.
I hurried to explain. “What I meant is that no matter how grumpy you get, or combative you are, or— or—”
“Yes, Heather, it— I— I get it. I get it.” Evelyn spoke to the ground, staring very hard at the grass, as if it might reveal my secrets to her.
“No matter what, I always accept you, Evee. Always. Even when you’re being, um, ‘bitchy’.”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “Yes, Heather. I get it. I understand what you intended to say, even if you used questionable terminology with which to say it.”
I pulled a very awkward smile. “Again, um, sorry.”
“No, it’s all right. And … thank you.” Evelyn sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “But we are very lucky Raine didn’t hear you say that, we’d never live it down.”
Praem finally joined us. She drew to a halt a few paces from Evelyn’s other side and clinked the blade of the shovel against the stones of the overgrown pathway. Her black-and-white maid outfit was still perfectly starched, the lace clean and smooth, hem unblemished by the work of turning over all that dirt. How she did it, I have no idea.
“Bitches,” she said, in a perfect lilting sing-song tone.
Evelyn glared a very cold glare at her. “Praem, you know that I love you unconditionally, but if you repeat this incident to Raine I will … I’ll … ”
Praem stared back. We all knew there was nothing Evelyn could credibly threaten her with.
Evee settled on something. “I shall invite you to a marathon watch party of the worst anime I can think of. Something truly diabolical. And not one of those ‘so bad it’s funny’ ones, either. Something painful. It’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.”
“Very scary,” said Praem. Evelyn huffed, but the matter was settled.
Silence descended for a moment. I was so exhausted by the events of the day that I just wanted to lean on Evee’s shoulder and close my eyes, beneath this quiet sky between the shadowed hills. I was still frazzled from the Shambler, from Edward, from saving little Natalie. But delayed-action fear gnawed in the pit of my guts, not to mention guilt.
I reached over with a tentacle and gently wrapped it around Evelyn’s forearm. She flinched from the invisible touch, but then realised it was me and tutted.
“Sorry,” I murmured. “Just wanted to hug … ”
“It’s alright, go on,” she grumbled.
Slowly and gently, I slid a second tentacle across her shoulders and a third around her waist. That was a riskier gamble; Evelyn always had problems with people touching her back. Her spine was so sensitive, it was so easy to squeeze her in the wrong way, so difficult to get it right. But she sighed and leaned into my touch, allowing me to take her weight on the bench.
Zheng finally left her post behind us, stalking off to examine the ruins of the magic circle on the lawn. Perhaps she considered Praem an effective enough bodyguard by herself. Eight feet of zombie muscle ghosted through the deepening dark.
“Besides,” I said with a little sigh, “I think you were justified in getting angry with me, Evee. I totally lost control of myself back inside that kitchen. I’m sorry, really. And don’t tell me to not be sorry.”
Evelyn gave me an odd look, then nodded. “Please, just practice better self-preservation.”
“I would say ‘I don’t know what came over me’, but that would be a lie. I was just so angry with Edward. Building a cage for Lozzie, tricking us, kidnapping a little girl like that, leaving her to die Outside … ”
Anger flared up inside my chest, like embers revealed in the heart of a burned-out bonfire, but lacking the hot urgency of action. Edward wasn’t nearby, my prey had escaped, so the anger was all intellectual and emotional now, unmixed with the instinctive hunting drive I’d brought back from the abyss.
“Yes,” Evelyn said slowly. “I suspect that was intentional.”
Evelyn gestured at the ruined circle, the overturned dirt, the severed copper wire. “Making you angry, to lure you into this.”
“Why would he need to make me angry? You don’t think he chose Natalie on purpose, to get to me somehow? That idea did occur to me, but it seems absurd, too specific.” Evelyn shook her head, but I kept going, because her suggestion didn’t make sense. “He plucked me right out of a Slip, why not just have me step directly into this? He could have dumped me right on top of it.”
“I don’t have all the answers,” Evelyn said. “However much it pains me to admit that.”
“Well, do you have a theory?”
Evelyn glanced at me sidelong, a twinkle in her eyes, a subtle smile on her lips, smug and knowing. There was my beautiful strategist.
Praem answered for her, “A theory is had.”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “Before we get to that, how is the girl? Lozzie is messaging you, right? Somebody’s staying in contact with her?”
“My phone’s broken,” I sighed. “But Raine gave me hers for the moment. Here.”
I hadn’t mentioned it earlier in all the commotion, certainly not in the face of Evee’s anger, but Lozzie had sent a text message and a photograph, while I’d been sitting on the bench and zoned out of my own mind. I fumbled Raine’s mobile phone out of my pocket and pulled up the message to reassure Evelyn.
The picture showed Natalie fast asleep on Lozzie’s bed, clean of Outsider swamp mud, dressed in oversized clothes borrowed from Lozzie — and curled up with an equally sleeping Tenny. The girl was wrapped in about half a dozen of Tenny’s black tentacles. That boded very well for her state of mind; I could think of no better way to disarm supernatural terror than to be introduced to Tenny. With a bit of luck she would remember the strange tentacle-friend who made happy trilling noises, and remember less about the hours lost and alone, Outside.
Lozzie’s face was visible in the corner of the picture, peering into the frame, horribly out of focus. She was making a v-sign with her fingers.
“Wish I’d had a Tenny,” I said with a sad little smile.
But Evelyn went almost white in the face. “Heather, delete that picture. Right now.”
Evelyn almost grabbed the phone from me. “And tell Lozzie to do the same! Fucking hell! Praem?”
Praem obeyed as if she’d read Evelyn’s mind. She deftly plucked the phone from my hands, her own fingers already flying across the screen to delete the picture and send a message to Lozzie.
“E-Evee? I don’t—”
“Heather, that is a photograph of a currently missing and kidnapped child. Do I have to spell this out to you? No pictures! Fuck! Praem?”
“Done,” Praem intoned. “Lozzie: informed. Images: deleted.”
I blinked several times. “But we’re gonna return her to her parents … ”
“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “And I’m sure that excuse will hold up in court. No pictures of the kidnapped girl, at all. Can’t believe I have to explain this. Until she’s off our hands, she is radioactive. Tch.”
I felt very silly for several moments. Evelyn sighed and patted my arm awkwardly. Praem hung on to the phone, briefly tapping out a follow-up message to Lozzie.
“So, um,” I ventured. “Evee, your theory? About the circle?”
Evelyn settled herself more comfortably on the stone bench, though she did wince, even with the support of my tentacles. A cold stone slab was no proper place for her delicate backside, and I reminded myself not to let us linger here longer than needed. When she spoke again, it was Evelyn the teacher, comfortable and practised. I could tell she had briefly rehearsed some of these thoughts, probably while sketching and photographing Edward’s mysterious magic circle.
“Of course I have a theory, though it is only a theory,” she said. “I am making an educated guess based on the structure of the circle and the rough position of the contents.” She glanced over our shoulders at the cottage, wrapped in layers of ruined chicken wire, all bent and burst. “And also from Edward Lilburne’s behaviour.”
I nodded along, my mouth going dry, but my mind waking up. This was Evelyn at her best, her sharpest, her most impressive. “Go on.”
Evee wet her lips with a flicker of pink tongue. “I suspect that your emotional state may have formed an important part of this spell, whatever it was.” She nodded at the churned dirt of the lawn. “Possibly it required you to charge into the circle without noticing it first. The circle back in the kitchen, the one where he was sitting, that may also have been a component. It was bait, you were meant to appear on top of it. All of us being present, that may have interrupted whatever process the smaller component was meant to catalyse.”
“But what was it catalysing?”
Evelyn frowned at me for a moment, darkly concerned. “The circle itself is a kind of cage, an enclosure.” She gestured left and right along the wall of the cottage and the edge of the ruined Faraday cage. The corners were barely visible beyond the arc of the outdoor lights. “There’s no way to leave the building without entering the circle. The back door, the front door, either would lead you into the area of effect. And the circle is very carefully hidden in the grass, as we found. You’d be several feet into it before you noticed, charging out of either door.”
“What about if I had—”
“Climbed through a window, or smashed a hole in the wall?” Evelyn finished for me, then shook her head. “You’d still step right into it.” She sighed and glanced up at the thatched roof behind us. “I think going straight up might have worked as an escape route, going high enough to avoid the circle’s area of effect, but you wouldn’t have known that.”
“I also can’t fly,” I said with a little laugh. “I’m not a superhero.”
Evelyn gave me the briefest of doubtful glances. My heart skipped a beat, but she carried on before I could say anything. “Slipping wouldn’t have worked either, of course. Not inside that Faraday cage. That was part of the trap.”
“Right, of course. Oh!” I frowned in deeper confusion. “Wait, no, the Shambler Slipped me out the first time. My Slip didn’t work, but hers did.”
“Exactly,” Evelyn grumbled.
Evelyn closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Slow down, Heather, let me explain the theory. Edward summons you here, correct? Then he makes impossible demands, obstinate demands, ones that will obviously make you angry. He demands Lozzie, and he gives you no proper explanation. Doesn’t it seem like his intent was to make you angry, on purpose?”
“I … I suppose so. Do you mean he doesn’t really want Lozzie, after everything he’s said and done?”
“His intentions for Lozzie are beside the point. You spoke to him, I’m just working from what you’ve told me. Think back, and think carefully. Does it seem possible he was trying to make you angry?”
I stared out at the hills around the cottage, now blanketed with soft night, beneath a sky thick with stars. The suggestion of sunset was gone, swallowed by the darkness. Zheng had vanished too, somewhere behind the trees or the overgrown weed-choked flowerbeds. I cast my mind back to the conversation with Edward, an old man perched in a little wooden chair. He hadn’t acted smug or domineering or as if he had something to prove or convince me of, just bluntly confident in his superiority. He had made me angry, unspeakably so — but not as angry as I’d been after discovering Natalie, lost and alone in that Outsider swamp.
“ … maybe,” I said eventually. “I don’t know.”
“Then”, Evelyn continued, “he has the Shambler take you away to her muddy wallow, where you find human corpses.”
“And Natalie, yes, I’m getting to that. Listen, Heather, he may have even known that the Shambler wouldn’t actually eat either of them. You said she hadn’t, correct?”
I nodded. “Yes. The body of the young man, he was almost completely intact.” I blinked and swallowed. “Sorry, Evee, thinking about it is kind of … vile. He needs a proper burial, whoever he was. His family, they’ll be missing him. Nobody knows. I … ”
“Just bear with me,” Evelyn said. To my surprise, she patted the tentacle that I had currently wrapped around her arm, even though she couldn’t see it. Locating me by touch alone. “So, either you were going to find a dead young man and a dead little girl — or a live little girl, terrified and alone, Outside. From Edward’s perspective the details didn’t matter. You get enraged, angry, you lose control. He’s pressing your buttons. Then you come back here, full of very justified anger, and try to ambush him in that kitchen.”
“But he’d moved.” I nodded along. “He figured out we’d do that.”
“No,” Evelyn said, in the exact tone of a very patient professor with a student who was missing an obvious point. “No. Heather, think about it. He wanted you run out into the garden, to complete the next step of the spell. I would wager he left that chair the moment the Shambler took you away. He knew you would think of the ambush, he set himself up — or his vessel — as bait, for you.”
“Ah, yes.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Right, I see.”
“So, you Slip back, right into his magic circle in the kitchen. Now, whatever that was meant to do, it didn’t work. It was inert the moment we arrived, and I think I know why.”
Evelyn allowed herself a thin smile. “You brought all of us with you.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose I did, didn’t I?”
“I think he expected you to find two corpses in that swamp, then get angry, maybe kill the Shambler, and then Slip back right on top of his chair, to kill him. I don’t think he expected the little girl to survive. If he had, he would have accounted for the possibility you would have dropped her off at home first, and then returned with reinforcements. That circle, whatever it was, it was attuned to you, personally. But you brought us along, and our presence broke it. ”
I squeezed her arm. “Good.”
“In theory, anyway. I think his plan was to get you angry, get you into that smaller circle, and then have you run out into the garden into the larger circle, this … monstrosity here, whatever exit you took, since you wouldn’t be able to Slip.” Evelyn frowned. “Though he got that wrong too. He underestimated you.”
“Well, he underestimated hyperdimensional mathematics.” I sighed. “I tend to do that too, I don’t know my own limits.”
I took a deep breath and did my best to stop thinking for a moment, to absorb what this all meant. I turned my eyes from Evelyn and stared into the thickening darkness of this summer night. A shadow moved by the rear garden wall, too tall to be a human being, avoiding the lights from the house — Zheng, carrying out one final check for any clues we might have missed. I didn’t have much hope for that.
“Evee,” I asked, “what do you think he was trying to do to me? What was this huge magic circle actually for?”
Evelyn shifted uncomfortably, rubbing at her thigh where socket met flesh. She spoke slowly, as if her own thoughts left a sour taste in her mouth. “I don’t know for certain. I don’t think he was trying to kill you, or the rest of us either. Like I said, a simple bomb would have done the trick for that. No, no I don’t think he was trying to kill you.”
Evelyn was frowning at the ruined circle upon the lawn, her eyes ringed with dark stress lines, her jaw clenched hard, her brow furrowed deep. On the far side of her, a few paces from the bench, Praem stared down at both of us.
“But that’s not the end of the theory,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
For a moment Evelyn didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. She looked like a stone carving of vengeance itself.
“I don’t know,” she said. “This circle, it’s … the traditions he’s used for it, I’m not familiar with them. Some parts of it are very complex, yes, very much beyond my knowledge, that part is obvious. But the overall structure is like … like a … ”
A familiar purr interrupted us from the darkness.
“A blood funnel.”
Zheng stalked out of the shadows behind Praem, which was quite a feat considering the wide coverage of the outdoor lights. She seemed to step out of nowhere, unfolding like a panther dropping from a hidden branch and landing on the jungle floor with silent paws. The heat of the summer night and the drone of insects did nothing to dispel the gut impression of being ambushed by some massive predatory feline. I flinched, all my tentacles flexing outward, except the three wrapped around Evelyn. Evee jerked as well, but then huffed in exasperation, glaring at Zheng. Praem merely turned and stared.
“For fuck’s sake,” Evelyn grunted. “You do that again, somebody’s liable to shoot you by accident, you giant idiot.”
“Zheng.” I forced a deep breath down my throat, trying to slow my racing heart. “Blood funnel? What do you mean?”
Zheng blinked slowly, exactly like a giant cat in some steaming jungle. “A funnel, with grooves cut to channel blood.”
Evelyn’s frown turned sharp as Zheng’s teeth. “How do you know that?”
Zheng gestured with one slow hand at the remains of the circle across the lawn, the piles of ruined copper wire cut into pieces by Praem’s spade, the strange design that Edward Lilburne had tried to get me to step inside.
“Rope and steel, gutting knives, channels for blood, a bucket for collection. The shape is clear.”
“How do you know the first thing about magic?” Evelyn demanded.
Zheng rolled her neck. “I know how to kill and drain a pig, wizard.”
“Huh,” Evelyn grunted.
“Wait, pardon?” I squinted in confusion. “You’re saying he was going to drain my blood?”
Evelyn sighed. “Not literally, no. But … metaphorically. Spiritually? I don’t know. All I know is that, yes, Zheng is right, at least that’s what it looks like to my knowledge. A magical version of a funnel for collecting blood from a victim, pooling it at a central point.” She shot Zheng a dubious look, openly suspicious.
Zheng rumbled in return, showing all her teeth but without any hint of a smile. “Wizard, if I knew the littlest thing about this insult to the shaman, I would not keep it to myself.”
But to my incredible surprise, Evelyn neither flinched nor shied away. She stared back into Zheng’s sharp-edged eyes, right at that naked maw of shark-teeth. Praem stood between them, but for once she seemed to form no barrier at all. I wet my lips and found I was quivering slightly. I tried to speak Zheng’s name, to tell her to back down, but my throat was closing up.
Edward had wanted to drain my blood? What did that mean, even as a metaphor?
“All right,” Evelyn said softly. Her voice snapped me back to myself. “All right, Zheng. Sometimes I forget we’re on the same side. My apologies.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. Didn’t sound like she was going to reciprocate the apology.
I swallowed hard and tried to gather my thoughts. “I don’t get it … drain my blood? I … I know he wanted to learn how to Slip, I told you. At least I think that’s what he meant. But … he was going to do what? Take it from me?”
“You have a theory,” Praem said — but she was talking to Zheng.
Zheng blinked slowly again, as if considering whether she should speak at all. But she broke when I looked up at her.
“Old magic,” Zheng purred.
“Excuse me?” said Evelyn.
“Old magic. Older than your scribbling and whining, your wizard tricks and word traps and over-thinking the world. Old magic. Drink the blood, steal the soul.”
I just shook my head, feeling horribly numb as I stared out at the ruined magic circle beneath the lawn of the cottage. This was the sort of dark madness I’d imagined when I’d first learned of magic, the only thing missing was a bloody stone altar. I almost laughed, but hiccuped instead.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What does he want? Hyperdimensional mathematics? It would kill him. My abyssal … self? He was obsessed with purity, that wasn’t a lie, so why would he want that?”
Evelyn opened her mouth to speak, to suggest some theory, some rationalisation.
But Zheng crossed the few paces which separated us, resuming her place at my back, and placed one warm hand on the top of my head.
“Do not waste energy on understanding wizards, shaman,” she purred. “Better to tear out their tongues before they speak.”
I sighed and tried to find the comfort in those words, reaching up with a tentacle and wrapping it around Zheng’s arm. But the sentiment left me cold. I already understood this wizard. There was only one possible conclusion. Edward Lilburne had attempted to steal something from me, either my abyssal nature, or dubious bond with the lessons with the Eye, or something more fundamental, something I’d failed to understand all these years since the Eye had kidnapped Maisie and myself. He wanted to render me down for my blood.
He didn’t want me, he wanted what I was. To drain me, like a pig in a slaughterhouse. Meat.
“Can’t have it,” I whispered.
Something horrible and dark turned inside my stomach. For the first time in my life, I considered going vegetarian.
But nobody had heard my whisper. Evelyn was scoffing with exaggerated offense.
“Oh, thank you very much,” she said to Zheng.
“No tongues,” Praem added.
Zheng looked down at them, dark eyes against the star-strewn sky. “Mm,” she grunted.
“Present company excepted,” I said for her. “I’m sure.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes, but then turned her attention to me. “Heather, whatever Edward was doing, we won’t let him do it. Not to you or to Lozzie. This circle is ruined, we’ve destroyed it, and we have his machine. I’ll study it and find out how it works. We’re not going to let him do this. I will not let him do this. That’s what I meant about changing our strategy.”
I nodded, squeezed her arm, and tried to look at the overturned dirt of the lawn without feeling like a lamb before a bombed-out slaughterhouse.
We fell silent for a long moment. Zheng kept her hand on top of my head for a few seconds, then withdrew it and stalked away a little distance, peering around the side of the house, looking for any hidden watchers. Praem stepped over to the house and laid the spade against the wall of the cottage. Evelyn sighed and glanced up at the dark windows. Lights shone deeper inside, probably in one of the front bedrooms. As we watched, one light went out and another went on. Somebody crossed one of the windows — Twil, in the middle of saying something, as she and Raine finished their double-check inside the cottage.
“Wish those two would hurry up and be done with this,” Evelyn hissed. “We need to be away from here.”
Words bubbled up before I could stop myself. Zheng and Praem were both well within earshot, but somehow that didn’t matter. I rode a wave of exhaustion, fear, and salvation too, knowing that this strange moment would end very soon. If I didn’t stand up and shout now, I never would.
“Evee,” I said, looking right at her, “I love you too.”
Evelyn frowned at me. “Eh? Heather, what?”
“I … I-I mean, back in the cottage, when I was losing control, you said ‘I love you, but—’ and then you got mad at me. Which is what I needed, I needed somebody to get me under control. But, Evee, I love you too. I love you.”
Why were those words so easy to say? Why had I been agonising all this time? Was I really so exhausted and out of my mind that I could simply admit it out loud? My heart wasn’t racing, my hands weren’t shaking; no pounding of nervous adrenaline wracked my head and chest. I was perfectly calm.
Evelyn Saye, my best friend, the woman I’d saved from Outside before I’d even understood what Outside was, a woman I perhaps knew better than I knew my own lover, stared back at me with those soft blue eyes set in that puppy-fat face, arched an eyebrow, and said, “Yeeees?”
I blinked three times. “ … y-yes?”
“As in, yes, Heather, I love you too.” Evelyn sighed, rolled her eyes, and patted the tentacle I had wrapped around her forearm. Like I was drunk and running my mouth, stating the obvious, a self-evident truth we both already knew.
Then she looked back up at the cottage and sighed with impatience.
I stared at Evee, dumbfounded. I must have looked totally gormless.
My mouth half-worked, trying to form extra words, to add a clarification, perhaps something like ‘I mean I love you’, or ‘no you don’t get it’, or ‘Evee, I’m confessing that I have confused quasi-romantic feelings for you and they’re coming out in the wake of a near-death experience and reliving my own childhood trauma by projecting it onto a small child whom I saved from certain death by exposure and-slash-or starvation, please acknowledge the depth of my affection and regard for you.’
I had absolutely zero idea what was going on. Heather Morell, captain of an emotional ghost ship, lost at sea, amid miles of fog bank, with no crew and a worrying gnawing sound echoing up from the hold.
Was Evelyn hiding her real emotions, concealing them with a banal acknowledgement of our deep friendship? No, I couldn’t believe that. Evelyn was nothing if not calculating; despite her failures in the past, despite the way she insulted herself, she was a master of over-thinking — but not when it came to me. I was the only one allowed all the way inside, past her defences, to the secret room where she drew up her plots. Wasn’t I?
Or maybe she hadn’t understood what I’d said, maybe she had the wrong end of the stick — maybe by saying those words, I was forcing her into an uncomfortable situation, and she was simply taking the easiest way out. But no, that made even less sense. Evelyn had trouble admitting her affection for her friends at the best of times. To simply say, so casually, the words ‘I love you’ meant a lot to her.
She’d screamed those words to me, once before.
We hadn’t discussed it, half because I’d pretended I hadn’t heard them, and half because we’d had an entire crisis to deal with at the time.
Down in the depths of Hringewindla’s shell, when I’d been about to cross over the line of safety to accept his invasive parasite into my brain, into my soul, when Evelyn had briefly thought that ‘Heather Morell’ would cease to exist, replaced by some Outsider-ridden parasite-thing, she’d screamed those words to my back.
“I love you too much, Heather!”
She’d only been able to say that because she’d thought I was about to die. To my back. Almost drowned out by the booming air-displacement of Hringewindla’s tentacles. How could I not have heard those words? I’d just been trying not to acknowledge them this whole time.
And she had just repeated it as the most casual thing in the world.
Had Evee found the emotional time and space to think about those words? Had her screamed confession forced her into confronting what she felt — or didn’t feel? Had she already processed and accepted what we were to each other? She seemed so comfortable.
Well, good for her.
I, on the other hand, had a significantly less comprehensive understanding of the situation, to put it lightly.
What I did have was three tentacles wrapped around Evelyn’s body, one clutching her arm, one over her shoulders, and a third tentacle looped around her waist. She was practically in my embrace, comfortable and casual in a way she was with nobody else, except maybe Praem. She was in my arms and had declared she loved me, and somehow this had made everything even less clear than before.
For one mad, desperate moment, as she looked up at the lights in the cottage windows, I was gripped by a desire to kiss her on the cheek.
But then I felt Praem’s stare.
A few paces from us, standing at an angle where Evelyn couldn’t quite see, Praem was giving me the most intense stare I’d ever seen from the doll-demon.
She wasn’t frowning, of course. Praem never did anything so overt as frown, except for that one time I’d asked her to smile, shortly after Evelyn had first created her. But her milk-white eyes were locked right on me; I could somehow tell, despite the lack of pupils and sclera and the heavy shadows of the summer night. Praem was staring at me with something akin to a warning.
I stared back, trying to ask a silent question with my eyebrows.
What am I doing wrong? Praem, help!
To my incredible surprise, Praem nodded, then put a finger to her lips.
For one dizzying moment I thought I’d developed telepathic powers. I don’t blame myself for that, not after werewolves and spirits and parallel dimensions and moth-girls and growing my own set of tentacles. But then Praem failed to respond to any of my follow-up thoughts, including the increasingly wild and outlandish ones which were intended solely to test if she could see what I was thinking. Some of those were so far beyond acceptability that even Praem would have needed to react, maybe even blush. I certainly did.
But she didn’t. She had been reacting to the look in my eyes, and perhaps to the way I was gazing at Evelyn.
The moment passed. Evee sighed again and turned away from the cottage, then did a frowning double-take at me and shot a dubious glance at Praem over her shoulder.
“What are the pair of you doing behind my back?” She tutted. “This isn’t the time for playing stupid games.”
“Win stupid prizes,” said Praem.
“Sorry!” I blurted out. “Sorry, I was just … thinking about some … stuff. And things. Nothing important.”
Evelyn gave me a doubtful look, then gestured at Praem with the head of her walking stick. “Be a dear and fetch those two idiots inside, would you please? I doubt they’re going to find anything by slitting open all the mattresses and pulling up the carpets. And we should get back to the house. There’s no telling if Edward is trying to regroup right now, maybe to hit us here, or to follow up on some other plan. We need to be secure, and soon, and there’s more work to do.”
Praem turned and marched into the cottage. A couple of minutes later all the lights inside went out. Raine and Twil emerged through the back door, with Praem right behind them. Zheng appeared from the dark corners of the garden once again.
“Gang’s all here, huh?” said Raine, a grin in her voice. She walked up behind us and squeezed my shoulder. “Nothing doing in there, sadly. Not a trace. Might be a secret door somewhere, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, but I doubt it. You holding up okay, Heather?”
No! In various ways!
“Um, mostly,” I lied.
“Shit’s heavy, yo,” said Twil. “We goin’?”
Twil had Edward’s Slip-trap contraption in her arms. Werewolf strength rendered the weirdly shaped mass of steel and glass easy to carry. Praem had the LCD screens in a carrier bag and the broken laptop under one arm.
“Yes,” Evelyn grunted. “One moment.”
With some difficulty — and some help from my tentacles — Evelyn climbed to her feet and dusted off her backside. For a moment I felt terribly embarrassed at having her wrapped in my tentacles while everyone else was right here, but I told myself it was no different to give her some support after a long day. After all, Raine and Twil couldn’t even see. This was just what friends did. Tentacle hugs. Friendly ones. Right.
Twil peered out at the ruined garden. “What we gonna’ do with the rest of the place? We’re just leaving it like this? What was all this shit about, anyway?”
Evelyn sighed, planted her walking stick firmly on the cracked pathway, and narrowed her eyes at the cottage. “We should really burn it down.”
“Eyyyyyy,” went Raine. The big grin suited her. “Sometimes, Evee, you and I are working from the same page.”
“W-what?” Twil gaped. “We can’t do that!”
“We can and we should,” Evelyn grunted. “Won’t be the first time we’ve burned down a building.”
I cleared my throat softly. “Yes, but that was a haunted house, haunted by the Eye,” I said. “This is a beautiful old cottage. Evee, this might be some kind of listed building. It doesn’t deserve that.”
“Petrol,” Praem intoned. “Matches.”
“Should be enough to get the job done.” Evelyn regarded the cottage with heavy-lidded eyes and a painful, haunted hunch to her shoulders. “When it comes to eradicating the work of mages, Heather, you never, ever leave anything to chance. Understand?” She glanced at me, then back at the garden behind us, at the remains of the ruined magic circle. “The garden too, it needs to be destroyed, completely.”
“Heeeey,” said Raine, a bright smile on her face. “Can’t help but notice that you’re being totally serious here, Evee.”
“Of course I’m serious. Have you changed your mind suddenly?”
Raine shook her head, laughed softly, and raised a hand, a gentle brake on Evelyn’s pyromania. “When we torched the cult’s house in Sharrowford, that was in the middle of a city, right? Plenty of neighbours around to raise the alarm when they saw smoke. Fire brigade right there, close at hand. Plus it was winter, in the North.”
Evelyn frowned at her. “So?”
“Sooooooo, we’re in rural Devon. Middle o’ nowhere. Height o’ summer. Ground’s dry, grass is dry, hedgerows are dry. Think they’ve got a hosepipe ban on right now, yeah?” Raine smiled all the wider, faux-awkward as she made her case, but utterly confident beneath the act. “If we set fire to this cottage, it could spread, fast, and there’s not a lotta people to spot it. A fire like that could eat whole hillsides, other cottages, maybe threaten a village. A small fire, probably not, but we’re talking about dumping enough petrol on this place to turn it to ash. Nuh-uh. Sorry, Evee. Not doing it.”
Evelyn frowned at Raine, frowned at the cottage, then frowned back at Raine again. Then she frowned at Twil, then at me, then even at Zheng looming at the edge of the darkness, then finally at Praem.
“Praem?” she said.
“No fires,” said Praem.
“Tch.” Evelyn tutted. “Great.”
“Raine’s got a bloody good point, right?” Twil said. “Burning up cult shit, that’s one thing, but we’ve scoped the house, there’s bugger all in there. It’s just a holiday home. It’s not as if anybody’s gonna know we were here, but yeah, I don’t wanna like, cause a wildfire. You know?”
“The garden has to be destroyed,” Evelyn said, loud and clear, glancing at me. “I insist.” She planted her stick firmly again, leaning forward like a general over a map table. “This was a trap, for Heather.”
Quickly and with more than a touch of anger, Evelyn re-outlined her theory about the purpose of Edward’s trap, for the benefit of Raine and Twil.
They listened without interruption. Raine came to my side and put an arm around my shoulders. Twil grimaced deeper and deeper, as if listening to a story that got worse with every detail. Raine asked a couple of questions, but nothing I hadn’t already asked before
“The garden must be destroyed,” Evelyn repeated.
Raine blew out a long sigh and glanced over the upturned earth. She was holding onto me pretty tightly. “Maybe if we dig a fire-break. Maybe. I dunno.”
Twil looked increasingly worried. “I mean that’s all pretty fucking bad, yo. That’s some sick shit. You okay, Heather?”
“Mm,” I went.
“But you know, garden’s wrecked already?” Twil gestured at the ruined lawn.
“Job’s a good’un,” said Praem.
Evelyn gritted her teeth. “I don’t want to leave a single trace, not one—”
“Evee,” Raine said softly. “You don’t seriously believe Eddy boy didn’t keep notes on this? That this was his only attempt, a prototype with no backups? We’re not talking about experimental giant robots here. He’s a mage. He’ll have design documents. Destroy this all you like, but it won’t help.”
Evelyn ground her teeth again. She met my eyes, searching, questioning.
“We’ve destroyed the garden, Evee,” I said. “Let’s not risk a fire.” Then, in a smaller voice, I added, “He won’t get to me again.”
Evelyn sucked on her teeth, let her shoulders slump, and let out a big sigh. “Fine. You’re right. He’ll have design notes. There’s nothing stopping him from making another one of these. Besides, we already have enough left to get done tonight.”
“We do?” Twil puffed out a sigh. “Serious?”
“We have a kidnapped little girl in our house,” Evelyn said, glancing around at the rest of us. “Edward may not be aware she survived, but if he’s smart, he’ll be setting up a plan to call the police on us.”
“Ah,” went Raine. “Smart man would do that, yeah.”
Twil blinked like she was trying to wake up from a dream. “What.”
“Um, yes, Evee,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“I already said it loud and clear. We have a kidnapped little girl in our house. We need to get that girl back to her parents. Not tomorrow, not in the morning. Tonight. Now. ASAP. We need to make a plan to drop her off at a police station and—”
It took me a second to realise that I’d snapped. Evelyn blinked at me in shock, taken aback.
Raine rubbed my shoulder. “Hey, Heather, it’s alright, we’re gonna help her, yeah?”
Evelyn gathered herself and sighed. “ … Heather, you rescued that girl, yes, but our responsibility is to—”
“No, I didn’t rescue her, not yet,” I said. “I haven’t finished the rescue yet. It’s not over until her family believes her.”
Heather said the words and Evee said them back! But … bwuh??? Looks like not all love is eros, indeed. Heather is very confused, but Evee seems to know exactly what’s going on, and not just emotionally, either. A trap for Heather, personally, specifically, to drive her into a blind rage and rip something important out of her soul. Maybe Edward didn’t expect any of this to work? Maybe he didn’t think Natalie would be alive? Or maybe Evee pulled Heather back from the brink of losing control.
This was the chapter written when I had covid, so it’s actually a tiny bit shorter than usual! Hopefully it’s still up to my usual standard, and I hope you all enjoy as much as usual!
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Next week, Heather’s gotta finish that rescue, for real this time. Almost like a test-run for Maisie, isn’t it?