pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.11

Content Warnings

Psychological torture

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“Police are launching an urgent appeal to help locate a little girl who went missing this weekend. Natalie Skeates, 10, of Prestwich, Greater Manchester, vanished only meters from the back door of her parents’ house, at around 8.15pm on Sunday night. Natalie is white, about 4 foot 2 inches tall, with long dark brown hair. She was last seen wearing grey jogging bottoms and a lilac pajama top, but may also be wearing a yellow plastic raincoat and a pair of purple wellington boots. Police currently believe she followed a family pet out into the back street behind her house.”

Raine paused to pull a theatrically painful wince. She didn’t look up from the newspaper she had spread out across the table in the magical workshop. She was leaning over it, hands braced on the edge of the tabletop. She hadn’t bothered to sit down since she’d returned with the paper and cast it onto the table like evidence in a dramatic criminal trial.

“Sounds like our girl,” Evelyn said between clenched teeth. “Is there more?”

“Oh, you bet there’s more.” Raine cleared her throat and put on her best serious-young-woman newsreader voice. “Police believe this may be a rare case of ‘stranger kidnapping’, as Natalie has no history of wandering off and no members of her extended family are being treated as suspects. The family cat is also missing, a ginger tomcat of advanced age who answers to ‘Turmy’. Members of the public are asked to report any sightings of deceased or stray ginger cats.” Raine winced again. “Daaaaamn, they’re desperate. Dead cats? Seriously?”

“It makes a certain kind of logical sense,” Evelyn said. She sounded dead inside; maybe that was just the exhaustion. She didn’t look happy either, especially when she turned and glared at me. “Listening closely, Heather?”

I did my best not to hiccup or flinch when Evelyn drawled venom. The pint of caffeine in my veins was making me twitchy already, and the painkillers had put me on edge. The strong stuff, from Evee’s private, secret, semi-legal stash. At least Evee and Raine couldn’t see that I was hugging myself with all my tentacles, desperate to keep a firm grip on my nerves. I tried to sit up straight in my chair. Tried to look like I knew what I was doing.

This was going to work. I had to believe it was going to work.

“Of course,” I said to Evee. I didn’t quite manage to keep my voice level. My smile must have been a grimace. “Evee, of course I’m listen—”

“Where is that bloody cat right now, anyway?” Evelyn spoke over me. She glanced at Raine, then at Zheng looming by the doorway, then over her own shoulder at Praem, who was still waiting placid and calm for orders or requests. “If we lose track of that cat and Lozzie has to pull off this stupid fail-safe, we’re fucked. We’ll have police all over the house and a piece of living direct evidence wandering around between their legs. Where is it?”

Praem answered before I had a chance to lose my temper, which I would have regretted dearly.

“Turmy is upstairs,” Praem intoned. “Safe cat. With Lozzie.”

Evelyn gritted her teeth and made an irritated grumble.

“Still,” Raine said. “Police are hoping to a find a dead cat? They really have got bugger all, huh?”

“Well,” I said, “Natalie did literally vanish. We can’t blame them for being stumped.”

Evelyn snorted. “Can blame the police for a lot of shit. Is that all, Raine?”

Raine resumed reading from the article. “Extensive enquiries are underway, but attempts to find Natalie are as yet unsuccessful. Greater Manchester Police are urging anybody with information on Natalie or her whereabouts to contact them on 101, blah blah blah.” Raine pulled an ironic grin. “Just the usual boilerplate for any missing kid. Plus there’s a picture of her here.”

Raine half-turned the newspaper so we could see, but there was no need. The grainy picture showed a gap-toothed little girl in a school uniform polo-shirt, smiling a big toothy smile. It was unmistakably the same girl who was currently curled up fast asleep on Lozzie’s bed. A little insert picture in the corner showed what was probably meant to be Turmy, but the marmalade gentleman was barely recognisable from the grainy cat-shaped smudge.

“At least this confirms she isn’t some homunculus made by Edward or something,” Raine said. “Right?”

“Right,” Evelyn agreed. She didn’t sound happy about that either.

“Small mercies,” I said, trying not to sigh.

It was almost one o’clock in the morning. We were all shattered and exhausted, full of coffee and painkillers, and we still had a kidnapped little girl in the house.

And we couldn’t agree what to do about her.

We had returned from the cottage in rural Devon about an hour and a half earlier, carrying the remains of Edward’s bizarre machine, a faint regret at not starting a huge wildfire, and the seeds of a blazing row. Practical realities had doused the heat of the potential argument, however; if we got too carried away debating the finer points of what to do next, we might not hear the police pulling up outside the house.

Provisionally, I did actually agree with Evee. She was correct, we needed to resolve this quickly, both for our own safety and for little Natalie’s mental and emotional health. If it was up to me, I would have let the girl sleep through the night, fed her a large breakfast in the morning, and only then set about the delicate process of returning her to her parents without getting us all arrested. Everything would be much easier after a good night’s sleep, we’d be less irritable, far less tired, and far more able to think clearly. Less likely to bite each other’s heads off, too.

But we might not have that long. Evee was right about that, too. If Edward figured out — or simply guessed, or took a gamble — that Natalie was alive, then he might call the police with an anonymous tip.

Just imagine the newspaper the following morning: Kidnapped girl found in occult student squat! Local neo-pagans outraged! University scandalised! Several young women arrested on suspicion of a myriad of bizarre crimes!

Of course it wouldn’t come to that, whatever happened, but I would rather avoid having to send a dozen police officers on a one-way trip Outside.

So while Natalie was still blissfully asleep and unaware, Lozzie and Tenny were most certainly not. Our first move upon returning home had been to make sure they were both awake and ready. Lozzie had strict instructions. At the first sign we were getting raided by a Tactical Firearms Unit, she was to Slip to Camelot, taking Natalie, Tenny, and Turmy with her. If she heard a knock on the front door, or the screech of tires in the road, or even a friendly “‘Ello ‘ello ‘ello, what’s all this then?”, she was to go, no questions, don’t wait for the rest of us.

Raine had quite liked this plan. “The plod won’t find anything except a bunch of students into the occult. Wiccan lesbian squat. It’s perfect, elegant, can’t go wrong. If Ed-boy goes through with it, the plan gets turned around on him, see? Making false reports, wasting police time, suddenly he’s a suspect.”

Evelyn had given her a death-glare. “It’s a far bloody cry from perfect.”

“What if they see Zheng?” I asked.

Raine answered without missing a beat. “Woman’s rugby captain, Sharrowford uni team.”

Twil had rolled her eyes and snorted at that one. “Rebecca Sappington is like five foot two, and blonde. Zheng ain’t gonna pass muster.”

We’d all looked at Twil, utterly bamboozled for a moment. Even Evelyn’s anger had shut off in confusion.

“‘Scuse me, Twil,” Raine said, “but who the hell are you talking about?”

Twil looked around at the three of us like we were idiots. “Sappington? Sharrowford uni women’s rugby team captain?”

Evelyn blinked hard, as if trying to wake up from a dream. “Since when do you follow women’s rugby?”

“Since always?” Twil said. “You three are the students at Sharrowford, don’t you know this stuff?”

Evelyn sighed. “Not particularly.”

“I wouldn’t mind, I suppose … ” I said.

Raine laughed. “Figures. Alright, not the captain then.”

But Lozzie’s emergency hiding place, while admittedly the best possible hiding place one could ever imagine, was only a stop-gap. We had to return Natalie to her parents, preferably before we were placed under any kind of suspicion, without getting ourselves in serious legal or criminal trouble, and – as I insisted, over and over — in a way that would make her parents understand, acknowledge, and believe what she had experienced.

I surprised myself with the rapid coherence of my own plan. I wasn’t quite certain where it had come from; I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, the caffeine and painkillers hadn’t fully kicked in as the plan had taken shape, and I wasn’t exactly good at thinking these kinds of thoughts. The power output from my trilobe reactor could keep me up and moving for days if need be, albeit at great cost to be paid by future Heather — but no amount of raw energy could bootstrap the cognition required for detailed, sensible, careful planning. Perhaps I’d been subconsciously working over the ideas for hours already. Perhaps the plan had taken shape when I’d been sitting on that cold stone bench, watching Evelyn work, in the garden of that little cottage.

But Evelyn did not approve of my plan. Oh no, not at all. I didn’t blame her though.

That had been a bad moment. Evelyn and I had ended up alone in the magical workshop together, with her anger reignited in a new and unstable form, like a product of controlled nuclear decay that I was trying to guide into place for a useful purpose. She was exhausted too, but unwilling to back down. Zheng was still upstairs with Lozzie. Twil had conked out on the kitchen table. Praem was content to watch us argue, but then she bustled around in the kitchen, making even more coffee. Raine had left only moments earlier, on a hurried trip to the nearest all-night corner shop, to pick up a copy of the Manchester Evening News.

“Heather, how many times?” Evelyn had almost been slapping the table, banging the floor with her walking stick. “The only sensible option — no, fuck it, the only remotely workable option — is to drop the girl off outside a police station, somewhere without CCTV, and then vanish. Keep us out of the equation. Look, I understand how you feel—”

“No, Evee, I don’t think you do. I’m sorry, but I don’t think you do.”

I’d said it quietly, but I’d meant it.

Evelyn had looked ready to surrender to a migraine. She’d curled up so hard that I almost broke cover and went over to hug her. But then she sat up again, raging. “I could maybe, maybe understand if you were talking about something like dropping her off in her own bed, and leaving a letter for the parents. Maybe! That would still be too much risk!”

“And it wouldn’t be enough. Evee, please. It wouldn’t be enough. They won’t believe her. She’ll grow up being told it didn’t happen, that none of it was real, that it was all just a bad dream.”

Evelyn bit her tongue, literally. I could see her teeth chewing on the inside of her mouth as she stared at me. We were both sitting at the table in the magical workshop, on the same side. I’d chosen that very purposefully, when we’d sat down, rather than sitting across from her.

I didn’t need Evelyn Saye the magician for this, and I could make do without Evelyn the strategist, though I would always welcome her input. I had the plan all worked out. I knew what to do.

What I needed was Evee, my friend, because I was terrified of failure.

Praem re-joined us and re-filled my coffee, which I drained as quickly as the drink cooled off. Zheng drifted down from upstairs to linger on the edge of the doorway, like an animal uncertain of interrupting a pair of smaller predators, lest they turn on her and join forces. In the kitchen, Twil was snoring.

“Then maybe it was a dream,” Evelyn said eventually.

Something cold bristled inside my chest. “ … excuse me?”

“Heather, this girl, Natalie, she is not like you.” Evelyn’s voice came cold and cruel. For just a second, I hated her — but I grabbed that feeling before it could wriggle down into my gut. I dissected it and ate the parts. This wasn’t Evee’s fault. She was trying to look after all of us.

“She is like me,” I said. “Evee, please.”

“She was not taken by the Eye, or anything even remotely like it. She’s not going to grow up with hyperdimensional mathematics in her head, or nightmares from Outside, or even seeing spirits everywhere. She hasn’t come back with pneuma-somatic sight. She’s had a terrible, traumatic experience, yes, I acknowledge that, for fuck’s sake. But she’s not like you.”

I drained the rest of my coffee to conceal the wound. I had to make Evelyn understand. I needed her approval.

“Evee,” I said, far softer than her. “She’s one of us now.”

“How?! Heather, she’s ten, she barely even understands what she’s been through, she—”

“She’s been exposed to magic. She’s been Outside. That will have changed her. Isn’t that how it works?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me again, but then stopped dead, almost panting. She drew a hand over her face and grimaced. She hated everything about this situation.

“We don’t know what she might see as she grows up,” I went on, trying to stay calm. “What she might stumble onto, five years, ten years, twenty years from now. She needs to be prepared. Her parents need to understand. She’s in the know. She’s one of us. I won’t treat her otherwise.”

“God fucking dammit, Heather,” Evelyn hissed between her teeth. “Fuck you for being so right all the time.”

Raine saved us the embarrassment of tears — which we were both on the verge of bursting into, for slightly different reasons — by returning at that exact moment. She announced herself by throwing the front door wide open and shouting, “Only me, not the police!”, which made Twil emit a sleeping snort from the kitchen.

Then she’d slapped the newspaper down on the table to show us the article about Natalie’s disappearance.

“Small mercies,” I repeated again, trying to smile.

One o’clock in the morning, and we still couldn’t agree.

Finally done, Raine flapped the newspaper shut to the front page. She straightened up and rolled her neck from side to side, then flexed her shoulders and stretched her arms. She was just as tired as the rest of us, but taking pains not to show it too much. Evelyn stared at the newspaper, then directly at me, a silent accusation in her dark-rimmed eyes, waiting for my response to the fact that Natalie was already in the news. Praem waited at her shoulder. Zheng brooded, tall and dark and silent, arms folded as she leaned against the wall next to the door. She was watching me too, waiting for my decision. Twil was still asleep face-down on the kitchen table, head buried in her arms. I envied her.

Everybody was waiting for me. I was the one with the plan, after all.

Raine blew out a big sigh and gestured at the paper. “They were on it quick, yeah? It’s only the Manchester Evening News, but what’s that, less than twenty four hours between her going missing and this going to print?”

“Good parents,” said Praem.

Raine pointed a finger gun at Praem, but the gesture wasn’t backed with a smile. Just a blank, for once. “Smart parents, yeah. They didn’t wait to report her missing. On it right quick.”

Evelyn snorted. “Newspapers wouldn’t give a toss if it was a kid from some sink estate. Or ten years older.”

Raine pulled a slow wince. “True. Still, if it was me, I wouldn’t hesitate to exploit missing white girl syndrome. Every tiny advantage means more chance of her being found, right?”

Evelyn frowned at Raine. “So?”

“Um, yes, Raine,” I added. “Where are you going with this?”

Raine gave us a wry smile. “One article in the Manchester Evening News now, that’s gonna be a BBC television item by the morning, tomorrow evening at latest. Most missing kids are found pretty quick, because they’ve just wandered off or been snatched by a family member or something. But this? This is a genuine vanishing. Girl just went like that.” Raine clicked her fingers. “The parents are middle class, they’ve got resources, they’ll be playing the media as much as they can, and I can’t blame them for trying. And the media is gonna love it.”

Evelyn nodded slowly, then stared at me.

“Yes, I know, it has to be tonight,” I said. “I understand that.”

Raine shrugged. “Right now, if she turns up in her own family home, they can probably bullshit something to the police. I doubt they’re watching the place that carefully, not yet. But if this gets any bigger before she turns back up, they might be suspected of having hidden her, for publicity or money or whatever. And that’s not gonna make your plan go smooth, Heather. I’d guess we’ve got until the morning, that’s when it’ll hit national news. If you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it now. Can’t let Nat sleep.”

“I know!” I snapped. “I know, okay? I’m ready to do it, I’m ready to go. The plan will work. Or at least I’m pretty sure it will. I have to try.”

Evelyn snorted with derision and disbelief, shaking her head.

Raine winced and averted her eyes with theatrical display. Zheng stared at Evee, darkly unreadable; I couldn’t tell if she had faith or not. This may be a step too far, even for her shaman. Praem stared not at Evelyn, but at me.

I swallowed my irritation and summoned all the love I held for Evee.

“Evee, do you really think there’s no chance of her parents adapting quickly enough?”

Evelyn sighed, closed her eyes, and rubbed the bridge of her nose. When she answered, it was through gritted teeth, in a tone of fake politeness dripping with sarcasm. “I doubt very much that they will respond well, no. Most people don’t handle the occult truth without either going mad, becoming obsessed, or spending the rest of their life denying it. What do you think will happen, hm? What do you think is likely?”

“But Natalie herself—”

“Yes, children are pliable. Adults are not. Basic neuroplasticity. Nothing supernatural about it.”

“What about with the father of Amy Stack’s boy? Shuja. He believed. He adapted.”

“Because he’d already been broken down!” Evelyn spat, rounding on me, losing her temper. “If I understood the man’s personal history correctly, then Shuja Yousafzai spent a significant portion of his life in a war zone, seeing his culture and society bombed and shot and bathed in blood. And then he had a child with an ex-mercenary and professional assassin. The man knows how to compartmentalise, how to keep his mouth shut. But you know what’s most important?” Evelyn didn’t wait for an answer, eyes blazing at me. “He knows a tiny bit about the fragility of consensus reality. So when he was exposed to the supernatural truth, he could just about deal with it. Just about.” Evelyn huffed out a great irritated sigh. “Though I bet he spends an awful lot of time trying not to think about it very much.”

I gathered all my courage. I already knew where this was going. “So I have to break them.”

Evelyn made a fist and looked like she wanted to punch herself in the forehead. “A random middle-class couple from suburban Manchester? What did the girl say, her father is a teacher?”

“Mm,” Raine confirmed.

“A teacher, great, yes. The salt of English soil will not break cleanly, Heather. They’ll shatter into a million pieces. You have no idea who her parents are! They could be fundamentalist Christians, or hardcore ideological atheists, and neither of those positions is going to take well to having their entire world-view torn apart when you shove a tentacle into their faces.”

“There’s not going to be any tentacle shoving … ”

“These are settled people! People who believe ‘it can’t happen here’, who have probably lived their entire lives inside a comfortable box of thought and perception. And you’re not talking about slowly breaking them down over months or years, which might work, maybe, if you were very, very lucky indeed. You’re talking about breaking them in minutes.”

“Evee, their daughter vanished without a trace. I think they might be open to alternate explanations right about now.”

Evelyn hissed frustration between her teeth. “And what if one of them is mentally ill, huh? What if one of them suffers from schizophrenia, for real? You introduce the real truth, you have no idea what kind of damage you could do.”

“I have to believe that they would be willing to risk that for their child,” I said. “Evee, we’re talking about a little girl who doesn’t have her parents right now. They’re not on her side. But they could be. It’s worth the risk, to them and to myself.”

The room fell silent for a moment, but the gravity of my words was rather undercut by Twil snoring softly from the kitchen. Which was lucky, because I hadn’t intended to say anything of such great import. I was merely explaining why this mattered. I hadn’t put it in words before. I looked down into my lap, sinking into myself. Evelyn sighed and turned away, rubbing her forehead. Praem clicked out of the room, bustled around in the kitchen for a few moments, and returned with a freshly re-filled pot of coffee. She topped up my mug. I sipped from it right away. She topped up Evee’s mug too, but Evelyn left it untouched.

Raine said my name softly. “Hey, Heather?”

“Mm?” I looked up.

Raine was smiling, soft and warm, radiating that absolutely unconditional acceptance, the bedrock of her boundless confidence. “You’re trying to do the right thing. I admire you for that. I really do, truly.”

“ … but?”

Raine considered for a moment, sighed, then shook her head. “There’s no but. If you gotta try it, then you gotta try it. I’d be a hypocrite to tell you otherwise.”

Evelyn snorted through her nose, shaking her head.

A great yawn echoed from the kitchen, followed by a smacking of lips and a clattering of chair legs on flagstones. Twil appeared in the magical workshop doorway a moment later, squinting bleary eyes and scratching her scalp through her thick dark hair.

“Uhhhh, we still on this?” she asked. “I don’t see any coppers about, so I guess we haven’t been swatted yet. What’s the plan, yo?”

Praem addressed her. “Go back to sleep.”

“Nah, I’m good. Ready to … yeah. One-two, woo.” Twil sketched a couple of limp punches into the air.

“Coffee,” said Praem.

“Nah thanks.”

But it was not a question. Moments later, Twil had a steaming mug of coffee in her hands, whether she liked it or not. Praem watched her from almost point blank range. Twil grimaced back, then sipped her coffee. Praem continued watching. I had no idea what was going on there and neither did Raine, by the equally confused amusement on her face, but I was too exhausted and spread too thinly to ask Praem what on earth she was doing.

Eventually, Evelyn sighed. “Heather, you don’t have an obligation to save everybody. You can’t. You said it yourself, you’re not a superhero. You don’t have to right every single wrong in the world, it’s not your responsibility. You already rescued this girl. We can keep an eye on her from a distance if we have to.”

Zheng purred like a half-awake tiger, which made Twil jump and almost spill her coffee. Praem refilled it.

“The shaman cannot deny her nature,” Zheng said.

“I have a responsibility here, Evee,” I said.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “Your responsibility is to us. All of us. And … and to … ” Evee gritted her teeth, like the words stuck in her throat, like she didn’t want to use this, didn’t want to stoop to this level. “And to Maisie. How does this bring you any closer to your goal? How does this get us closer to your sister?”

“I’ve already said, Natalie is one of us now.”

“That doesn’t answer my question!” she snapped. “You’re not atoning for anything here, Heather. You were not responsible for leaving your sister behind. You were a child, you couldn’t have known!” Evelyn jabbed the tabletop with a finger. “You. Were. Not. Responsible.”

That rendered me speechless. All my carefully constructed armour of level temper and rational planning fell away. I just gaped at Evee.

“Awwww shit,” Twil said. “Evee, fuckin’ hell, you—”

“Coffee. Drink,” said Praem, right next to Twil’s face.

Raine and Zheng were both sensible enough not to interrupt. They understood.

Evelyn braced, a subtle shifting of muscles and posture, as if I was about to strike her.

I think Evelyn expected me to snap back at her. I think she was trying one last tactic, the one that might make me hate her, to stop me from accepting yet another dangerous task. She hadn’t said those words as a cynical and hurtful blow against my ego. She truly meant it. She didn’t want me to torture myself with guilt and responsibility.

Instead I clambered out of my chair, crossed the few paces between us, and gave her a hug.

It was an awkward hug, like every embrace between Evelyn and I, snagged and complicated by the difficulties of avoiding too much pressure on her back and spine, but also more awkward than usual, not just because I had to bend down, but because she flinched. She expected me to be angry. At first she just sat there, half-frozen, but then finally reached up and awkwardly patted me on the shoulder, clearing her throat and blushing.

After a good long while I let go and straightened up again, stepping back and smiling down at Evee.

She sighed up at me, exasperated, anger all burnt out. “Heather, why are you like this?”

“Like what?”

“Like … oh, never mind.”

“Evee, I’m not trying to atone for anything. Natalie isn’t like Maisie, I’m not treating her as a surrogate for my sister. She’s like me. I’m saving myself, in miniature. The me I could never save. And I’m not ashamed to say so. I wish I could reach back through time, with everything I know now, and save myself. I wish I could introduce my younger self to you, to Raine, to everybody I know now. I wish you’d been there, when I was little. When I’d returned from Wonderland. I wish I’d had any of you as a friend. But I can’t do that, so all I’m trying to do is make sure that little girl doesn’t suffer even a hundredth of what I did.”

Evelyn made a grumbling sound, blushing quietly and staring at her coffee mug. Then she scooped it up and took a deep drag on the beverage.

“If you must, Heather. Who am I to resist, after all?”

“You’re my best friend,” I said, then glanced around at everybody else. “Well, one of them.”

Twil raised a toast with her coffee. “It’s cool, hey.”

I dragged my chair closer to Evee before sitting down again. “Evee, I’ll ask you once more. Do you think my plan has any chance of working?”

Evelyn studied me for a moment, then glanced over at Zheng, then back at me. She sucked on her teeth.

Out in the road, a car passed by the house. We all froze for a long, long moment as the sound of the engine receded into the city. Everybody held their breath, but no follow-up came. The road fell silent again.

“Clear,” Raine said. I nodded. Evelyn sighed. Twil pulled a nasty face.

“Your plan isn’t completely impossible,” Evelyn conceded, returning to the subject. “But that’s about the limit of my optimism.” Her gaze turned hard and sharp and cold, Evelyn the strategist “You do understand that you’re going to have to be violent for this to work, yes?”

I nodded. I did understand, all too well. “Yes, I know. I’m not going to enjoy it or anything, but I know.”

“You’re going to have to terrify those people out of their minds, and I mean that literally. You can’t risk half-measures with this. You need to aim for that clean break, even if I don’t think it’s achievable. You need to prove me wrong.”

“Camelot won’t be enough. I know.”

Evelyn froze for a second. Her eyes widened by a fraction, caught on sudden fear. “You’re not going to take them to Wonderland?”

“Gods, Evee, no!” I actually laughed, the idea was so absurd. I needed that release of tension. Evelyn huffed and went red in the face. Raine blew out a theatrical sigh of relief, as if she would possibly have believed that too. Twil pulled an uncomfortable face and tried to share a glance with Praem, but the doll-demon was staring at the coffee in her hands again. “Absolutely not,” I repeated. “If I ever start planning that, feel free to tie me up.”

Evelyn shot me an odd frown. Raine snorted. “Right. Well. I’ll remember that. At least you seem to understand. Though I’m not sure I agree with your choice of squad for this, either.”

Zheng rumbled from the other side of the room, a danger sound from the depths of the rainforest. “Huuuuh?”

“Not you, you bloody great oaf.” Evelyn huffed. “You’re the one I actually approve of. Stop taking offense at everything.”

Twil guffawed. “Yeah, you heard the lady. Grow some thicker skin.”

Zheng blinked slowly, apparently not offended.

“My ‘squad’?” I echoed, cringing. “Evee, you’re all my ‘squad’. We’re all each other’s ‘squad’. Goodness, that’s a very imprecise word.”

“Are you certain Tenny is up to this?” Evelyn asked.

“Oh.” I nodded, putting Evelyn’s questionable choice of words out of my mind for now. “Tenny is a lot more mature than she seems. And I think she understands this, she understands what’s going on. Lozzie will be there too, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, Lozzie needs the support as well. Tenny’s presence will keep her grounded.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Tenns does also happen to be the most obviously supernatural looking person we’ve got.”

I sighed. “That too. If we have to rely on that … ”

“Plus,” Raine added, bright and confident. I thanked her silently for that. “Nat was literally cuddled up with her. If we’re gonna have any chance of convincing the parents, that’s a pretty good shot. I’d take it.”

“Heather will be taking the shot,” Evelyn said, staring right at me. “Alone.”

I gave Evelyn the most irritated look I could muster, which probably just made me seem constipated and on the verge of crying. But it must have worked, because she blinked.

“Evee, please,” I said — then hiccuped, finally losing control. “I’m already struggling to stay calm, thinking about doing this. Please don’t make it worse.”

My hands were knotted tight in my lap. I had to make a conscious effort to relax my fingers, raise one hand, and straighten it out.

I was shaking, quite badly.

Evelyn sighed, shook her head, then reached out and took my hand, squeezing gently. Raine crossed around the table and joined us too. Her hands found my shoulders and started kneading my muscles.

Evee said, “You really shouldn’t be drinking enough coffee to fell an elephant.”

I laughed, weakly. “It’s not the coffee. And I’m not going to be alone.”

“Mmhmm,” Raine agreed with sudden gusto. “Damn right.”

Zheng purred like a sleeping tiger. “The shaman will be protected.”

She knew how important she was to this. I couldn’t pull it off truly by myself.

Evelyn narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. She started to say something, then stopped and looked away. “Yes, but … neither I or Raine … you’re not … ”

“The fewer of us involved, the safer it will be,” I said, trying to sound confident.

Evelyn clenched her teeth, but she nodded in grudging acceptance. “None of you can take your mobile phones along, understand? Nothing identifying. So don’t screw up, don’t get separated, and for God’s sake make sure Lozzie knows her part.”

“She’ll do as I ask,” I said. “I trust Lozzie. She understands the stakes.”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “We all saw how she reacted to Nat.”

Evee seemed doubtful, but she didn’t voice it. “You don’t even show yourselves until it’s worked. I mean it. Total anonymity.”

I nodded. “I’ve planned for that.”

“And what about the logistics?” she demanded. Her frown was different now, thoughtful and probing. She might not approve, but she was involved now. My strategist was on board, asking questions that mattered. “How are you going to make such a pinpoint Slip?”

“Lozzie can do the recon stage,” I said, then sighed and almost rolled my eyes. “‘Recon stage’, listen to me, I sound like Raine.”

Raine cleared her throat, mock-bashful. “Well, that was what I called it. It’s the right technical term.”

I carried on. “We already have the address, we’ve—”

Evelyn snorted. “Assuming the girl remembered her address correctly. She’s only ten.” Raine laughed at that for some reason. Evelyn frowned up at her. “What? What is it?”

“Evee, think about yourself at ten.” Raine shook her head. “And hey, the house is gonna be pretty obvious, it’ll be the one with a copper or two standing outside.”

“Quite,” Evelyn said through her teeth.

I tried again. “We have the address. And we’ve located the house on Google Maps. I’ve already proved I can sling-shot from that information alone.”

“Yes, outdoors, on a clear hilltop that was visible in the satellite picture. You’re talking about inside a house.”

“Hence Lozzie. She’s pretty confident that she can set up the rest. All I need is a picture of the inside, I think I can make it work from there.”

Evelyn sighed heavily. “You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you? You’ve covered everything.”

I shrugged. “I barely needed to think. It was already there.”

Zheng spoke up again. “The shaman knows more than she thinks she knows, always.”

“Pffft,” went Twil. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“There’s no need to mystify it, Zheng,” I said. “It’s just old trauma. How many hours do you think I’ve spent fantasizing about how different my life would have been, if only my parents had understood and believed?”

Zheng stared back at me for several heartbeats, then dipped her head in acknowledgement.

“Well,” said Evelyn, finally letting go of my hand and placing it back in my lap. “The sooner, the better. What do you need, Heather?”

I shook my head. “Not much. Sevens is ready for her role, she’ll be in place before everything else. Lozzie can start as soon as I take over on emergency Slip duty, just in case the police do turn up after all.”

“Turmy,” said Praem.

“Yes.” I nodded. “I won’t forget Turmy. That’s another reason we need Tenny, somebody will have to carry him. Somebody not Natalie.”

“And don’t forget you made a deal with the Shambler,” Evelyn said, watching me closely, as if she suspected I might go back on that unspoken agreement. “She can wait until after this is done, but not much longer. You made that creature a promise, sort of.”

That was my cue to smile. I thought it was bright and happy, but it must have looked as sharp and devious as Evee herself, because she blinked at me in surprise.

“Two birds with one stone,” I said. “Or at least one and a half.”


Isabella and Stephen Skeates — Natalie’s mother and father — were not sleeping soundly in their bed that night, not even by two o’clock in the morning, the dead hour when we put my plan into action.

One could hardly blame them for insomnia. Their daughter, their little girl, their only child, Natalie, was missing, presumed kidnapped. They probably blamed themselves for the momentary lapse of attention during which she had chased Turmy out the back door. They blamed themselves for not watching her carefully enough, for not impressing upon her the danger of the world beyond her home, for not arming her against the threat of unknown strangers in dark alleyways.

They were wrong, of course.

But their guilt and horror played into our hands. If they’d been sleeping in their bedroom on the second floor of their modest detached house in suburban Manchester, with its red brick exterior, its tiny garden, and its solid walls, we would have been unable to pinpoint their location, unable to ensure the element of surprise.

But they were downstairs, in their poky little sitting room with its floral curtains and brown carpet, bathed in the electric blue glow of a muted television.

They were also alone. Raine’s warnings turned out to be an exaggeration; there was no police constable standing outside their front door, only a single patrol car waiting several houses away, containing a single officer, who was mercifully fast asleep. By tomorrow night, with the toxic hydra of national news bearing down on them, that might change quite quickly. In the morning undoubtedly they would be joined by visiting family, to offer help and support. But not yet. For now, our window was clear.

Zheng and I landed almost exactly on target — right in the middle of the Skeates’ sitting room.

Accuracy surprised me. I was getting better at this. Despite my assurances to Evelyn, all I had to calibrate the slingshot-Slip was a blurry phone camera photo taken by Lozzie, about three minutes earlier, through a crack in the sitting room curtains. She’d Slipped into the Skeates’ back garden before us, crept up to the police car to confirm she wasn’t about to be caught, and then crept around the exterior of the house to see what she could see. In another life, Lozzie could have been a super-spy. She could get in and out of anywhere, unseen, untraced. I’d never really thought about that before.

We’d gotten lucky with the crack in the curtains; that meant we didn’t have to break into the place. Less evidence, less noise, less chance of something going wrong — and more impact for our arrival.

Once it was all over and done with, I spent a lot of time thinking about what Natalie’s parents must have seen in that moment.

Two shadowy figures stepped out of thin air right before their eyes, as if disgorged by a hidden fold in reality that they’d been unable to see their entire lives. Backlit by the mute, dead light of their television set, a sudden intrusion into what remained of their domestic security. The last tatters of the veil ripped away in an instant. One figure was a towering giant on the very border of the humanly possible, seven feet of rippling meat, predatory animal intent, drooling and hissing through a maw of razor-sharp teeth. The other figure was somehow no less inhuman, but subtly so, head and face hidden inside a mask of bone that couldn’t possibly be real, the curves a haunting hint of otherworldly meaning.

What they didn’t see was the difficulty that went into not falling over.

Zheng and I had to control the situation instantly, which was a very polite way of saying we needed to stay coherent enough to do sudden and terrible violence. That was part of why I’d selected Zheng alone for this. I had plenty of experience Slipping, keeping myself conscious and coherent — well, mostly — and I was confident that by redlining my reactor I could keep myself on my feet for the crucial few seconds, though I would pay for it later on, perhaps steeply. Zheng had once fallen from a building and shrugged off broken legs, shortly after fighting the building from the inside. She knew what was at stake here. She could find the reserves for this.

We had made a plan before we’d left home. Zheng would go for the father, Stephen. I would go for the mother, Isabella. There would be no need to communicate upon arrival.

The plan was simple. It almost worked.

The split-second we arrived — nauseated, swallowing a tidal wave of vomit, my reactor going full blast inside my belly, trying to orient myself in an unfamiliar space while a deep lance of pain rammed itself through my eye sockets and into my brain, in the half-shadowed, flickering cave of this cramped sitting room — I had the briefest impression of Natalie’s parents.

Stephen, her father, was sitting in an armchair to the right. He had been on the verge of dozing off in the moment we had appeared, caught on the edge of fitful nightmares, his eyelids not quite open. Short and stocky, fit and neat and well-groomed, built like a football player who had aged out of the sport, with close-cropped dark hair on his head and a day’s worth of dark stubble on his chin. One did not have to look very closely to see the sudden and terrible strain in a face that had been quite used to laughter, or the fact he hadn’t changed his shirt and trousers in two days, or that he was barely there inside his own head.

His eyes snapped wide, his head snapped up, bewildered and drawing breath to scream.

Zheng was on him instantly, of course, even though her muscles were jellied and her senses were slowed by the aftermath of the Slip.

She crossed the room in one bound, ripped him out of his chair, and slammed him against the wall hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs. He wheezed with the impact before Zheng clamped a hand over his mouth. She shoved her face close to his, showing all her teeth and the whites of her eyes, a universal symbol for shut-up-and-don’t-make-a-sound.

Zheng growled, low and loud. Stephen whimpered, staring right back into the depths of Zheng’s eyes, crying in terror. He kicked weakly, but then gave up before he even connected with Zheng.

Isabella, Natalie’s mother, did not react so quickly.

And neither did I.

It wasn’t the aftermath of the Slip that held me back, or the way my head was pounding, or the roiling rebellion in my gut. I had three tentacles braced against the floor, three more coiled and ready to whip out at the woman, to hold her still and smother any screaming. I had rehearsed this step by step, I knew exactly what to do, and I’d put myself into the pose before making the Slip. But I couldn’t follow through.

Isabella was sitting on a little brown sofa, quite distant from her husband. She wasn’t dozing off. She was sitting quite upright, alert and aware, staring directly at me. A tall and willowy woman in a green cardigan, a shawl, and a long skirt, with very long, very dark hair, just like her daughter. She had been crying, an awful lot, her eyes ringed by raw, red skin. Many tissues were balled up on the sofa cushion next to her, with no attempt made to clear them away. Perhaps in normal times she was beautiful, in an ethereal sort of way, elfin and impish, with playful crows’ feet in the corners of her eyes.

But right then she was haunted and harrowed, and horribly aware.

I knew that look.

That emptiness which comes when a missing piece of oneself has been ripped away by the unknown, that wracking guilt of failure and loss and not even knowing what had truly happened. No oblivion of nightmares for Isabella, no soporific tears to carry her off into a fantasy where she hadn’t lost her daughter. She was wide awake and wide eyed and dying inside.

She looked like me, before I’d had any hope. She looked like me in the mirror.

And for a split second, I couldn’t do it. This woman didn’t deserve to be pinned to the wall by some horrifying abyssal monster that had invaded her home. She didn’t deserve to get shouted at and browbeaten and broken. She didn’t deserve violence and horror, no matter how much it might help her daughter in the long run. I saw myself sitting there, grieving for Maisie, and I was about to do to her the opposite of everything I had needed when I’d been in her place, everything I had needed and gotten and cherished.

The plan crumbled to nothing.

Behind my squid-skull mask, I opened my mouth to offer salvation, to give the game away before it had even started.

Natalie’s alive, it’s okay, we’re here to return her! I’ve saved your daughter! It’s okay, don’t be afraid!

The words were on my lips and they would ruin everything. Evee’s “clean break” would be rendered truly impossible. They would never believe their daughter without exposure to the truth.

Then, Isabella went for her mobile phone.

The phone was sitting on an end-table next to the sofa, just beyond her reach, so she twisted and dived for it, as if she could somehow dial 999 and shout about monsters invading her home before I got to her. That was an act of true courage, because it was both pointless and mattered more than she could possibly understand. If she thought we were connected with her daughter’s kidnapping, then to dive for her phone was an act of rebellion against loss. And it worked. With that futile, clumsy leap for the phone, she killed the words in my throat and saved her daughter’s future.

I used three tentacles like a spring, launched myself across the space that divided us, hissing like a rattlesnake, and slammed into the poor woman with my other three tentacles.

Several seconds of messy, awkward struggle ensued, neither photogenic nor dramatic, just banal and violent. Isabella was not a physically strong woman, but she was driven by a burning need. My tentacles were stronger than my human arms would ever be, but I was off-balance, confused, blind-sided by my own momentary inaction and the woman’s courage. Isabella’s strength only gave out when she realised she was struggling against invisible forces. In a few seconds I had her pinned against the sofa by wrists and throat, with one tentacle over her mouth.

Panting, shaking, covered in cold sweat, I straightened up in front of Isabella Skeates and stared down into a pair of eyes full of terror and hate. What did she see when she looked at me? A monster wearing the skull of a squid, something impossible and profane.

“I’m sorry,” I croaked.

“Shaman?” Zheng purred over her shoulder.

“Got her,” I panted back. “I got her.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “Ready?”

“Yes. Bring him over here.”

Zheng hauled Natalie’s father round by his throat and the front of his shirt, then slammed him down on the sofa next to his wife.

“Stay,” she rumbled between razor-sharp teeth, but she kept her grip on him tight, one hand clamped over his mouth, just in case. Isabella stared at Zheng too, intimidated by the sheer size of her, the thrumming animal presence, the threat of rapid violence. Zheng also wasn’t wearing a mask, but she managed to look even more inhuman than I, a grinning demon in the flickering light from the television set.

Behind my squid-skull mask, I swallowed hard and cleared my throat.

I could not afford to hiccup during this. That would ruin everything. It would make me seem more human in their eyes.

“Look at me,” I said, loud and clear. The Skeates hesitated for a moment, their attention stuck on Zheng, on her threatening promise. A small miscalculation. “Ignore her,” I snapped. “Look at me. Look at me!”

The snap in my voice worked; I was imitating Raine, after all. Stephen and Isabella both flinched, though with slightly different timings. Stephen was slower, confused, terrified. Isabella was slightly more present. They both stared in terror at my mask, at the twisted voice coming from inside. I made no effort to straighten out my throat after the hiss earlier. On the contrary, I allowed it to worsen, to pull tighter, turning my voice into a scratching, croaking nightmare. The squid-skull mask helped too, warping my voice in a way it never had before, as if some hidden quality inside the metallic bone had risen to the occasion, responding to the need to intimidate and terrify.

“We just materialised in the middle of your sitting room,” I said. I reached out with another tentacle and wrapped it around Zheng’s arm — then another, around Stephen’s head. His eyes went wide, rolling in a futile effort to see what was touching him, panting through his nose with panic. “I am holding you bound with invisible power. You can feel it, but you can’t see it. This is real.”

They both stared at me, eyes bloodshot with terror and grief. I didn’t expect this part to get through to them, but we had to use everything, step by step. No mercy, sadly enough. I could always apologise later.

“What you are experiencing is real,” I carried on, trying desperately to keep the steel in my voice. Inside I was shaking. I pictured myself as Evelyn, as Raine, as all the qualities in both of them which I admired so much. Courage, steadfast, unwavering. I had to be unwavering now. I had to inflict pain. But I was no torturer, and I was torturing these two. We hadn’t even started yet.

I went for the low blow, the set up, just to get it over with.

“You have to concentrate on what you are experiencing. If you want to save your daughter, Natalie, then you have to concentrate.”

Stephen blinked rapidly, sweat and tears in his eyes, but he was paying attention now. Oh yes, he was here now, he was on board. Isabella stared right at me, her gaze going through my mask and meeting the flesh inside. She knew I was in charge here. She knew what I was offering, if only on an instinctive level, and she would do anything, listen to anything, believe anything.

I didn’t like that feeling, the feeling of being in absolute command, of holding their lives in my hand. But I could use it for good, here and now.

“I am a monster from a place beyond your worst nightmares,” I said. Technically true, sort of. Adopted daughter of the Eye and all that. “And I do understand that your nightmares must be pretty bad at the moment.”

Stephen whined. Isabella tried to nod.

“I am trying to return your daughter to you. I am trying to save her. But for her sake, there is something you must do. You must see where she went, for yourselves, with your own senses. Do you understand?”

I didn’t give them time to answer. They couldn’t possibly understand, not until they saw. I wasn’t giving them a choice.

I began the equation, whether they wanted it or not.

“I suggest you close your eyes,” I said. “Or you might break faster than you can bear. Now, hold on tight.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather can be a little bit terrifying, as a treat. Actually she’s kind of frighteningly good at this. My notes and outlines for this chapter did not say “Heather should be scaring the shit out of Natalie’s parents”, but um, there she is. Better than the opposite though, right? This is real stuff, the mundane world stirring from slumber to pay attention to a supernatural detail it shouldn’t know about. The sleeping tiger. So Heather has to treat this very, very seriously, and be ruthless.

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Next week, it’s time to break a pair of minds. Outside should do the trick, right? Just gotta pick up the pieces afterward.

8 thoughts on “pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.11

  1. Ah, such sweet moments between Heather, her Poly and friends. (That sentence could be smoother.)

    Ha! I love how Twil knows so much about Sharrowford’s women’s rugby team. Just perfect. If she joined I bet almost no woman could resist her, the team included. HAHAHA!

    So which football? Yours or Mine?

    Thank you for the chapter.

    • Heather’s polycule! Kinda. A lot of readers on the discord call them the “spookycule”, which I rather like.

      Twil is the secret sport lesbian of the group! Surprise, she follows the local rugby. If she joined up herself, she would have to hold back on purpose though. Maybe we’ll see more about that in the future of her own arcs!

      And you are very welcome indeed, glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Well… I’m here now. Caught up. This has been most of my free time for the past (almost) month, so that’s a weird feeling. Absolutely going to the patreon after getting this comment together.

    Chapter specific stuff first though: I mean, forcibly introducing 3 people to all this in less then a year isn’t ‘that’ bad of track record for Heather… right? (I mean, good reasons each time but still, more then a bit worrying). On the note of how Heather is doing it now is a very scary to imagine. Which makes me wonder if Lozzie ever got around to adding padding for Heather’s mask? Cause she seems to be wearing it quite a bit more now and not sure that’s entirely comfortable. Also with what just went down, the amount of slipping going on between the Barnslow coven is a bit worrying. There isn’t a whole lot of choice if Heather is going to do the thing, still seems kind of reckless (I say as if everything these characters do isn’t reckless).

    This arc has made me think that Tenny absolutely needs more socialization with peers (kind of hard to even define what’s a peer for her though), which I already kind of thought, but the last few chapters brought that into more focus for me. Don’t suppose there’s a school or summer camp for outside associated kids for Tenny and Praem (maybe Nat now)? No? Shame.

    Now for overall story thoughts: I love this story so much. While I play lots of horror games, there’s a certain element of power fantasy, overcoming your fear and the threats in front of you, when it comes to most horror games (even if there isn’t combat in them). When it comes to horror stories, I don’t enjoy those as much, as they tend to be a bit too bleak for me, so having horror elements as like… spice is fantastic and that’s something this story does a lot. Does it remove some of the tension at moments when the character’s don’t seem to be in real danger from the narrative tone and repetitions? I mean, I guess, still a lot of fun seeing how the characters overcome them.

    This story also comes across as like… a weird romantic comedy trapped in an cosmic horror setting, while being a deconstruction of urban fantasy. And I mean that as affectionately as possible. Heather, just… The cast is so much larger then it was in the beginning. And like, it really is a Harem more then a polycule at the moment, Heather’s at the center of it all without enough connections between members. I feel a little weird about it, especially with Sevens kind of becoming babysitter/tutor and not much direct interaction with her and others since joining. At the same time, I think it would be neat if Evee got to kiss Heather. I mentioned in an earlier comment though, so much has changed with these character, who knows how this will all shake out in the end (I mean, Hungry probably at least has an idea, but you know). One thing’s probably true though, which is that while it would be fun, Lozzie probably shouldn’t bring Heather to whatever Outside rave she went to, otherwise Heather might come back with another girlfriend at the rate she’s going. Can’t imagine Maisie is going to simplify things if she ends up joining the cast in book 2…

    There are absolutely some elements that due to this updating weekly were a bit odd when it came to reading it up to this point as a compiled story. The most noticeable was moments that Heather would refer to something in the exact same way as if it was the first time or not brought up before (I’m pretty sure there were 3 moments at least that Heather said “taking point, as Raine would call it” in relatively close proximity), which is a very Heather thing to do mind you but still made me very aware of its chapter based nature. Another is just the sheer amount of cliff hangers at the end of a chapter that’s immediately resolved in the first paragraph or two in the next chapter. The final most noticeable aspect is the tendency to jump ahead in the timeline at the start of the chapter and about 1/3 of the way through jump back to show how we got to the current events from the last chapter’s events. It kind of fits Heather’s own musing nature, but it was absolutely a trend. These are all relatively minor complaints to an overall very enjoyable experience for me so far though, and probably won’t be as apparent as I shift to reading this week to week instead of archive binging.

    Cheers to ANYONE that read all of that rambling nonsense though, hope you got… something out of it. (Thanks to the Author for replying to my previous sporadic comments as I caught up though, they were lovely HY)

    • Hey, welcome to being all caught up! Glad you’ve enjoyed reading through the story so far!

      Lozzie hasn’t added any padding to the inside of Heather’s squid-skull mask, no, yet … it seems to be a very comfortable item of headwear regardless. Almost like it’s adapted somehow, or as if Heather has gotten used to it, no?

      Waaaaay too much Slipping is going on here, indeed! It takes a toll on everybody who goes through it, even if they’re all in emergency mode and hanging on for now.

      Tenny absolutely needs socialisation, the poor thing. She doesn’t have any friends her own age, other children to hang out with, etc. Even if it’s not an emergency, it’s a serious problem with her growing up so fast. Sooner or later, this will have to be addressed in some way.

      Also, wow, thank you for sharing such detailed thoughts about the story overall, there’s some really interesting points in there.

      It’s always been my intention all along to blend romantic comedy and cosmic horror. I’m not 100% certain I’ve actually achieved what I originally set out to do in that regard, but instead I found something I didn’t know was possible. If readers such as yourself are enjoying it, then good! I’ve done something right!

      You are correct about the “harem”-ish nature of the story so far, and that’s something I’m hoping to shift/correct/adjust in the future. Book Two is going to be full of other POVs, which will mean broadening connections, exploring people other than Heather, etc. Sevens is due a lot of personal development and expansion there, since she’s in a bit of a holding pattern due to her nature and such. Rest assured, she’s going to get her very own story there.

      Ahhh, my tendency to switch up the order of events with in media res openings and then jump back again … yes, it’s not a good technique, and I’ve tried to use it less and less as the story has gone on. It’s something I was really interested in doing at one point, but it almost never works how I want. I actually attempted it again on the most recent patreon chapter (17.13) and it confused at least two readers, so I think it’s time to put the technique away other than in very specific moments. It’s very valid critique and I’m taking it to heart.

      And thank you! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m always delighted to hear what readers think of the story. And thank you so much for your patreon subscription as well, every little bit helps me carve out more time for writing and editing every week!

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