pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.14

Content Warnings

Religious terror
Reference to domestic violence



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With electric lights blazing against a sluggish northern dawn beyond the thin floral curtains, the Skeates’ family home felt welcoming and cosy — much better than when Zheng and I had stepped from thin air only a couple of hours earlier, to intrude on the ghostly flicker-glow of terrified grief. Now the television was firmly switched off, hands were sensibly washed, faces splashed with cold water, shoes politely placed on the mat by the front door, and cups of strong tea suggested and administered all round.

The physical rituals of mutual trust were important, of course, but it was the house itself which unexpectedly grabbed my attention.

The house in Prestwich concealed its own age beneath several layers of interior renovation. Isabella and Stephen had filled their home with clean, modern furniture: self-assembled Ikea bookshelves; a tastefully plain dining table with matching chairs of unadorned wood; gauzy curtains with subtle rose designs on the fabric; a sturdy wooden-framed bunk-bed for Natalie, despite the fact she was an only child; sensible, solid, soft armchairs and a long sofa, all pointed at the television in the sitting room. None of it was untouched or unused, this was no display home of normality enforced over human need. The table was scuffed from hundreds of dinners, the chair-legs showed evidence of Turmy’s claw marks, and the sofa was worn-in, cushions collapsed, probably in need of replacing soon. Natalie’s wooden bed frame was covered in stickers of dinosaurs, cute-faced cartoon characters, girl superheroes, and at least one little figure I recognised from a video game which Tenny had been playing recently.

Natalie’s bedroom was full of pastel chaos, occupied by a large collection of plush toys, with a very well-used set of art supplies scattered about on a small desk. One wall was covered with her own taped-up drawings, mostly cartoon characters. Apparently Natalie was currently going through a phase of drawing superheroes who were also pieces of cheese, or perhaps dinosaurs, or maybe birds. I didn’t have time to stop and figure them out, though I did spot one image that was almost certainly meant to be a dinosaur in a trench coat and a pirate hat, but with a lemon in place of the more traditional skull-and-crossbones symbol. Maybe Natalie could tell me all about detective-pirate-lemon-rex another day.

A good place for a little girl to grow up. A real place, warm and lived-in. After a good look at their home, I decided I liked Natalie’s parents.

But the house itself was older than the family. Not as venerable as Number 12 Barnslow Drive, and it had surrendered to the advances of the modern world more readily, but I could feel it in the bones of the place. Between the oddly large kitchen, the rather cramped dining room, and the kinking snake of the stairs, I spied more than a few hints of history beneath the surface — the dark skirting boards from an earlier time, the open space in the kitchen where a large gas oven had probably once stood, the side of the stairs where a railing should have been, and the odd step-down from the kitchen to the dining room. I would place the red brick exterior no later than the 1930s. Maybe it was the layout, or the height of the ceilings, or maybe my imagination was running away with me, under the stress and exhaustion of this wearying day.

Or maybe I was trying to distract myself from the cool, smooth weight of the soapstone coin in my sweaty palm.

Better a mystery I understood than one I couldn’t fathom.

I had plenty of opportunity to ponder the specifics of the house once we arrived. The very first thing we did, before we’d even finished recovering from the return Slip, was to comb the place from top to bottom. While Isabella cradled a nauseated and shivering Natalie, and Stephen was getting his breath back, and Tenny hugged poor confused Turmy, and Sevens kept an eye on them all, Zheng and Lozzie and I checked every single room, cupboard, and dark corner we could find. We even looked under the beds, stared into the plug holes in the bathroom, and opened the fridge. We weren’t taking any chances with Edward’s propensity for clever traps. It was overwhelmingly likely that Natalie had been selected by random chance, simply a little girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, so there was no reason for Edward to booby-trap her family home, like he’d done with Amy Stack’s son. But it didn’t hurt to check. I made sure to peer into the shadows this time, lest another creature like Marmite use my own assumptions against me.

We found nothing except the usual background level of pneuma-somatic life. A dwarf-thing made of crumbly coal was nested in the back of a kitchen cupboard, a pair of spirits like praying mantises were visible cavorting in the small garden, and a flat, sad, limp mushroom creature was plastered over one of the windows. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing intentional. Nothing watching us back.

Once we pronounced the house was safe, we had much to discuss with Isabella and Stephen. We weren’t out of the woods just yet. But they were understandably reluctant to part from their daughter for more than a few moments. Not all of the things I had to say were going to be suitable for her ears.

Eventually we reached an acceptable compromise. Natalie was to show Tenny her bedroom and her toys, chaperoned by Seven-Shades-of-Reluctant-Babysitter, while myself and Lozzie would speak to the parents, with Zheng hovering close at hand in case of an emergency on either end. I would have preferred Sevens with me and Lozzie upstairs, just so I could fall back on the eloquence of the Yellow Princess, but we all understood that Natalie needed a proper bodyguard right now, at least until I made it clear that she was in no further danger.

So Lozzie and I settled ourselves on the rather spartan wooden chairs in the cramped sitting room, opposite a strained and exhausted looking couple of parents. The mugs of steaming tea helped everybody’s mood. The seven feet of looming demon-host by the doorway was probably less reassuring. In other circumstances I would have made Zheng sit down with us, but part of me clung to the authority, the threat of violence, the intimidation.

Amid all of this, Turmy had decided that the best place for a cat was in Lozzie’s lap. As soon as we were sat down, he burrowed into her pastel poncho, curled up, and closed his eyes.

“Well,” Isabella said in a tone of awkward politeness. “If Turmy has taken a liking to you, young Miss, then I’m certain we can trust you too.”

“Cat good,” Lozzie said with a mischievous little smile. She scratched Turmy behind the ears, which earned her a sonorous purr from the old marmalade gentleman. “Good cat. Goooooood cat, yes good boy good cat, best boy, yes it’s you. It’s you. It’s you!”

“He’s always been good with Nat, even when she was a newborn. I think that’s rare, for cats?”

“Rare drop cat,” Lozzie whispered to Turmy. “S-rank cat.”

Behind the thin curtains dawn was threatening the horizon with a line of dull fire; but this morning was going to be grey and dreary. English summer had forgotten itself, as it so regularly did, leaving us with imitation-autumn in the middle of June. It was as if the grey world of the Shamble-swamp had followed us back. Electric lights and hot tea held it at bay for now, but soon there would be rain drumming on the roof. I could taste it in the air.

Small footsteps bumped and pattered above our heads, joined by the occasional fluttery trill of Tenny’s voice. We’d barely been sat down long enough to take a single sip of tea, but Stephen couldn’t keep his eyes from flicking to the ceiling again and again. He looked desperate to stand up and dart to the door, unwilling to leave his daughter alone. Isabella was equally antsy, but she hid it better, behind a polite, calm smile and the tension in her shoulders and neck.

Stephen finally muttered a complaint. “Don’t you think we should at least be nearby?”

I drew in a deep breath, sat up straight, and tried to stop fiddling with the stone coin in my hoodie’s front pocket. My thoughts were consumed by the small stone disc, but my role was not over yet. I had to stick to the script.

“Natalie is untouchable right now,” I said. I tried to sound like Evelyn, like the confident, grizzled, terrifying mage, but without her barbed tongue. “Sevens — that’s the woman in the yellow skirt — she wasn’t lying when she called herself a ‘god’. Technically, anyway. She is very powerful, in her own way. She is the best bodyguard your daughter could have under these circumstances.”

Stephen finally unstuck his eyes from the ceiling, but he looked doubtful.

Isabella’s smile tightened. “And what about when you leave?” she asked. “Will Natalie be safe, then? Will we be safe? Or are you leaving us to our own devices?”

“Natty’s not important,” Lozzie chirped with a smile.

Stephen visibly bristled. “Excuse me?”

I winced. The conversation was already getting away from the script in my head, slipping through my fingers. There was supposed to be an order to all this. I’d worked it out, planned what to say, but we were already spiralling off.

“What Lozzie means,” I said, “is that none of you actually matter to the man who did this — Edward Lilburne, the wizard who kidnapped Natalie. There’s no reason for him to come after Natalie again. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all. There was nothing particularly special about her, she’s not connected to anybody who matters, not responsible for anything. There’s no reason for him to kidnap her or attack her, or anything like that, not least because it would draw an awful lot of attention from the police. He doesn’t want that, any more than I would.”

Stephen wrapped one hand around his mug of tea and leaned forward over the table, shoulders squared, frowning, unsatisfied.

Since we’d gotten back, he’d changed out of his sweat-stained shirt, washed the caked sweat off his face, eaten some kind of energy bar, and downed about two whole pints of water and a bottle of some kind of fancy cold brew coffee. The transformation was striking, from a shivering, screaming ape on the edge of the impossible, to a concerned middle-class father at a school parent’s evening. I’d broken him Outside, forced him to accept reality, but he was putting himself back together with the new information included.

I was no longer a terrifying and inexplicable monster to him, I was merely the closest thing he had to an authority. And he wished to file a complaint.

“What about that coin you found on the dead man?” he demanded. “You said that meant he was involved. How do you know Natalie isn’t involved? How can you be sure there’s not some other reason for all this?”

I must have given him an exasperated look worthy of Evelyn, because Stephen frowned harder. Lozzie giggle-snorted. Isabella sighed softly and murmured her husband’s name with gentle irritation.

“It’s a reasonable bloody question,” Stephen said, glancing at his wife.

“She’s ten,” I deadpanned.

“So?”

I resisted the urge to throttle him with a tentacle. “ … so, unless she’s been sneaking out at night to join a cult — and I think we can rule that out — then I don’t think it’s possible for her to be involved.”

Stephen shook his head. “Look, with all due respect, I still don’t entirely follow. How can you be sure that—”

I pulled the coin of greenish soapstone out of my hoodie’s front and slapped it down on the table with a loud clack of stone on wood.

Then I hiccuped — the noise was half-inhuman, twisted by irritation and the shape of my throat. I hadn’t expected that.

Stephen flinched. Isabella blinked. Lozzie made a little murring sound of discomfort. Zheng stayed silent, because she probably approved.

I’d lost my temper. It was stupid, unnecessary, and unbecoming of the figure I was supposed to be to these people — authority and knowledge, reassurance in the face of the supernatural truth, a source of safety in the new reality I’d forced them to accept. I would have winced in apology if I wasn’t so exhausted, if they hadn’t already dragged me off-script, and if my mind wasn’t whirling with dark possibilities regarding this inexplicable coin.

“This coin,” I said, then cleared my throat and started over, softer, gentler, though a tickle in my throat made me sound raw. “This coin means that man was probably involved with the supernatural in some fashion. The only way he would find such a thing is by either being a mage, or being involved with a mage, or maybe journeying Outside. Maybe he picked it up there, right where he died. I don’t know. I do not know. Natalie is ten. The only way she could possibly have been involved prior to being kidnapped is through a family member. If, for example, Edward Lilburne was trying to punish or put pressure on her parents.”

My tone turned icy cold. I’d wanted to leave this part unsaid, but I couldn’t stop myself. They didn’t need to know what I’d been preparing to do, if I’d confirmed my worst fears about them, but now they’d asked.

Stephen’s frown darkened, from polite confusion to a hostile scowl. “Hey. Hey, we don’t—”

Zheng growled, low in her chest, a sound that filled the room and vibrated in one’s guts. “Watch your tone, monkey.”

Stephen balked, going pale and breaking out in cold sweat, staring at Zheng and raising both hands.

“Zheng,” I said, “don’t, please.”

Stephen raised a weak protest. “There’s— we’re not— there’s no—”

Isabella spoke clearly, though she was suddenly sweating as well. “We’re not involved with anything. We’re not. We never knew about any of this until you. Please, miss … ” She struggled for a moment, then wet her lips and took a deep breath. “Your—”

“It’s alright,” I said quickly, horrified by the prospect of her calling me Your Majesty or Your Highness. After all, I owned a castle full of knights, who could blame her? “I don’t suspect you of anything, but it’s important you understand. Do you know why we checked all the rooms in your house just now?”

Stephen swallowed hard. “In case we were lying to you this whole time.”

I nodded. “The only way Natalie could have prior involvement with the supernatural is via a member of her family. When I found that coin, suddenly I had to decide if one or both of you had been acting for the last couple of hours.”

The Skeates looked like they were being marched to the gallows. I sighed heavily. I hadn’t wanted to scare them all over again.

“Well,” Stephen said, with a level tone that took more courage than it sounded. “We weren’t lying.”

“I know you weren’t acting,” I said. “It’s probably impossible to fake what I just put you through. And we found no sign of anything in your house, no hidden sigils or wards or magic circles. You’re in the clear, I believe you. But I had to be sure.”

The way they both looked at me made me feel like the worst kind of filth. Like peasants who’d been gifted a reprieve by their lord, sinners absolved by the grace of a god, like a shadow had passed over their souls and left them untouched, but might return again if they said the wrong words. I suddenly wanted to curl up in a ball and put my head in Lozzie’s lap.

“What would you have done?” Isabella asked quietly. “If you’d found anything?”

I stared back at her for a moment. My eyes ached. “Do you really want to know?”

Zheng rumbled the answer for me. “The shaman would have killed you both.”

I winced and closed my eyes. Lozzie made a soft whining noise and concentrated hard on petting Turmy. Purring filled the air.

“I would have had to figure out if the ‘kidnapping’ was actually you offering her up willingly,” I said. “And if it was, then I would have killed you both, yes.” I smiled one of the most awkward smiles of my entire life. Those were not words you followed with a smile. “But … but that’s not the case. We’re okay. You’re okay. Everything is fine. Natalie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all. It’s important you understand that.”

“Right,” Stephen said. Poor man was sweating bullets. All he’d done was ask a reasonable question and here I was admitting I’d been planning to kill him. Lozzie had curled up tighter in her chair too; she didn’t like talk about killing and violence, unless it was about her own family.

Isabella smiled back as best she could, maintaining eye contact with me. I didn’t like what that meant.

“More specifically,” I went on, trying to reassure them, “Edward Lilburne was feeding stray pets to a sort of monster. I think he happened to be passing by when Turmy got out of your back door. Natalie followed the cat and scooped him up, but Edward was already in the process of sending the cat Outside. Wrong place, wrong time, like I keep saying.”

“Turmy got lucky,” Lozzie said, nodding seriously. “Nat saved him.” She looked down at the cat and went all baby-voice. “Lucky-lucky cat, do you know that, Turmster? Do you know? You dooooo?”

Murrrt,” went Turmy.

Stephen was still frowning at me, but now with a kind of distant, echoed horror behind his eyes. When he reached for his mug of tea, his hand shook slightly. Not for the first time, I worried about the long-term effects of what I’d done to these two. I needed to be reassuring them, not threatening them. Why was this coming so easily to me?

Because you’re still treating them like your own parents, said that bitter voice in my chest. Because you want to punish them.

I took a deep breath and rejected that entire concept. I had to be better.

“I’m sorry about all this,” I said, going even further off-script myself. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this. You seem like decent people, you shouldn’t have to, it’s not fair, it’s never fair when this happens, when mages and magic and bull— bullshit gets—”

“Why did you have to do that to us?” Stephen asked softly, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean taking us Outside. Showing us like that.”

He may not have known it, but Stephen had just thrown me a life-line; I was determined to loop it around him and his wife and haul them to shore.

“Because you had to be broken,” I said. “And I’m sorry I had to do that, but it was the only way. You had to be exposed directly if you were ever going to believe a word of this.”

“Gotta see for yourself!” Lozzie chimed in. “You don’t believe, otherwise!”

“Couldn’t you have just … told us?”

I shook my head. “That’s not how reality works. At least to the best of our knowledge.” I drew myself up and tried to think of myself as Evelyn again, tried to adopt the tone she’d used back when she’d first explained this all to me. “The human mind naturally rejects the supernatural, the products of Outside introduced to our reality. Our minds filter things out and come up with alternative explanations, unless we’re pushed past the point where exposure breaks us, so we can put ourselves back together with the new information properly reincorporated.”

I sighed inside. My improvisation was terrible compared with Evelyn’s metaphor of the castle, but it was close enough for now.

“But,” Stephen insisted. “You could have shown us something, tried something first, anything.”

“When you felt the invisible force of my tentacles, did you believe right away? Or were you trying to explain it somehow, inside your own head?”

Stephen frowned harder, thinking carefully. But Isabella blinked in surprise.

“I was thinking of magnets,” she said.

Lozzie hid a giggle behind one hand.

“Magnets?” I echoed.

“My goodness,” Isabella went on, almost awestruck. “My Lady, you’re correct. When you grabbed me — I’m sorry, when you restrained me, on the sofa, I thought you were somehow using magnets. Steve, she’s right. My mind did exactly what she just described.”

“Yeah … ” Stephen said, staring at me with fresh horror. “Yeah, Izzy, yeah, you’re right. And out in the swamp, I was sure it was all a projection. Like in a white room or something. Shit.”

I cleared my throat and failed to contain my irritated tone. “Isabella, why did you just call me ‘my Lady’?”

Isabella blinked those big brown eyes at me, innocently wary. “Sevens,” she said. “When we were waiting, I asked her how to address you. She said that would be proper. Should I be more … ?” She glanced at Zheng, but got no reply. She was trying to be respectful. A difficult needle to thread.

I failed to contain an exasperated sigh. At least Sevens had the good sense not to give them my family name, but that was scant comfort.

Lozzie snorted a laugh. “Heathy is Heathy!”

“It’s not funny,” I snapped at her.

“The shaman is the shaman,” Zheng said.

Isabella looked uncomfortable. “But—”

“Heather,” I snapped my own name. “That’s what you call me. Heather.”

Isabella bobbed her head in deference, with more than a touch of fear. Made me feel sick at myself. “Heather,” she repeated. “I’m sorry.”

I took a moment to gather myself before speaking again. Had I always been this cruel?

“The reason I had to break you,” I said. “Natalie’s mind was already reconditioned by spending a night alone in that swamp. We call it being ‘in the know’. She didn’t have a choice in the matter. And that means in the future she might see supernatural things for what they are. It’s not likely she’ll run into anything, it’s actually quite rare, but it’s possible. Without her parents similarly reconditioned, she would have nobody to turn to.”

Stephen gestured at me. Isabella cleared her throat as if to tell him off for the gesture.

“What about you?” he asked. “Can she turn to you?”

“Always,” I said on reflex. “But wouldn’t you want to know why your daughter is friends with a woman twice her age? And now you do.”

“Ah. Well.” Stephen cleared his throat. “When you put it like that.”

I nodded. “We’ll leave it a few weeks, maybe a month or two, just because of the police and the news media, but I would like to maintain some kind of contact with Natalie, yes. Even if just to let her know that we’re here for her if she needs it.” I smiled and tried to look warm again. “Plus, she has taken a liking to Tenny. Tenny doesn’t have any friends her own age. This might be good for her, too. Well. I understand if you’re wary about that.”

“Tenny is a good girl,” said Lozzie, in a sort of sad voice. “Good baby.”

I pulled my smile tighter. I was leaving out one essential detail, of course: in a few months’ time, I might be dead. We might all be dead, just a collection of bones covered in black ash in Wonderland. I tried not to think about that. But Natalie and her parents had to be prepared, even without anybody left to guide them.

“I’m sorry, but you still haven’t really answered my question,” said Isabella. “What happens when you leave?”

Perhaps she saw right through me. Or perhaps she was just asking a sensible question. It wouldn’t be a good use of time to cry on these shoulders, though.

“When Edward sees the news that Natalie turned up home safe and sound, he’ll know it was us who got her back. She’s under our protection — my protection. We’ll make this explicit when we next communicate with him. We’ve sent letters and stuff through a lawyer, we have a line of communication. Natalie is off limits.”

“Or else what?” Stephen asked. Then he did a little sigh and a grumble. “You already said you’re planning to kill this man. What leverage have you got?”

I stared back at him for a heartbeat, then dropped the act, the serious act, the I-know-what-I’m-doing act.

“Letting him live,” I said.

Lozzie hissed through her teeth. She didn’t like that idea at all. Zheng rumbled in disgust.

“All right,” I sighed. “Pretending that we’ll let him live. More importantly, we can set up your house — and Natalie herself — with magical protection, the kind of tripwire that he won’t dare risk coming into contact with. We’ve done it once before, for somebody else.”

Stephen and Isabella shared a look. This didn’t seem to be reassuring them.

“I’m sorry,” I said, then hiccuped. “I’m not very good at doing this. I know I’m not very reassuring, but it’s the best I can think of. The best I can muster. I’m sorry I can’t do more. Once he’s dead, you’ll have no more worries about this.”

Stephen cleared his throat gently. “Why does she matter to you? Why do you care?”

“I already told you that. I went through something similar. I won’t let it happen to another child.” Beneath the table, Lozzie’s small, warm hand wormed into mine. She squeezed hard. I kept talking. “I don’t want your girl to turn out like me, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, gaslit by the entire world. My parents denied what happened to me; it’s not their fault, but the damage it did was … is … ”

I stared across that bare wooden table and tried very hard not to see my own parents sitting on the other side.

How absurd. Isabella was practically my mother’s polar opposite, willowy and elfin and graceful, soft spoken and poised and careful. Stephen had all the underlying assertive nature my own father lacked, not to mention he didn’t have a beard. Also they were a lot younger, closer to my age than to my parents.

Yet for a moment my words stuck in my throat. In my head I was back in Cygnet children’s hospital, protesting to mummy that I was seeing monsters, crying out because nobody would stop lying to me, nobody would stop saying that Maisie wasn’t real.

People needed to stop treating me like a leader, or a messiah, or a god, because no matter how much I denied it, no matter how many layers of safety I wrapped around my core, how many understanding friends I made, how much I wrought my truth with the flesh of my own body, part of me would always be that scared little girl for whom reality had stopped making sense. Natalie’s plight had thrust it all to the forefront of my mind. All my casual aggression and calculated cruelty, was it all just to avoid this frank conversation with avatars from my own past? Surrogate parents were asking me why I cared about my surrogate self, and the answers I had were no different to when I was nine years old: because the world had stopped making sense.

I grabbed the stone coin off the table with a sweating, shaking hand. A terrifying mystery, but better than talking to mum and dad about the truth. I stared at it, opened my mouth to say something stupid, like “It’s time we left, then, we’re done here, goodbye.”

Zheng came to my rescue with a dark purr from the deeper shadows.

“The shaman sees further than you monkeys. She sees truth. Your pup will not.”

Both Skeates stared at Zheng in the manner one looks toward a bear appearing around a copse of trees.

She was right though. Natalie would not suffer like me. That brought me back, too. I blinked and took a deep breath and hit the ground running, speaking too fast, uncaring that it probably made minimal sense to Isabella and Stephen.

“Yes, Natalie won’t have to deal with even a fraction of what I do. She can’t see spirits, she won’t have the nightmares. But she’s still been exposed to the supernatural, and I don’t want another child to go through what I did, that’s why I care, that’s what matters. So I’ll do my best to protect her. That’s why I care. You understand? Is that enough? Can we move onto practical matters now? The sun is rising, and you two need to have your story ready for the police.”

Stephen raised one hand. “Wait, wait. All this talk about protection. What about the police?”

Lozzie perked up. Turmy did too, he must have felt it through her lap. Lozzie tilted her head to one side and waited.

A cold hand reached into my gut as I realised: the Skeates believed, but they didn’t understand.

I hadn’t prepared for this. It wasn’t in my script.

“What about them?” I echoed, buying time.

“They’ll never help you,” Lozzie whispered.

“Well … ” Stephen looked between the pair of us. “Isn’t there … any kind of … ”

“Can they really do nothing?” Isabella asked.

I almost wanted to put my squid-skull mask back on. Hide behind the inhuman face that was closer to the real me. Instead, inside my mind, I spoke with Evee’s voice. My words came out with surprising clarity.

“There is no ministry for magic,” I said. “No men in black, no secret Q-division in a government office somewhere. There’s no council of mages, or local werewolf clan, or a nightclub full of vampires. There’s nothing. There’s no supernatural government or institutions or laws. There’s just madmen, monsters, and mages — and very, very rarely, there’s people like me and my friends. And we’re monsters too, yes, but we’re not monstrous. Don’t investigate the supernatural, don’t start buying occult books, don’t go to the newspapers or paranormal websites or anything like that, because all you’ll do is risk unwanted attention. Do you understand?”

Stephen stared at me in wordless shock, mouth hanging open. “I … I assumed … well, I don’t know what I assumed, but … that’s … ”

“We’re on our own,” Isabella said.

“Not completely,” I corrected her gently. “It’s basically warlordism, yes. But we’re the local power bloc, and we don’t let mages kill children.”

Stephen started laughing, dark and a little overwhelmed. “So, which is it? Adopted daughter of an alien god — don’t think I forgot that one — or queen of Camelot, or warlord — warlady? — of Manchester?”

“We’re not actually based in Manchester,” I said with a sigh, taking extra care with my words — I was pretty certain the Skeates were not going to approach the police, but I still didn’t want to tell them we were from Sharrowford. “But for these purposes, our jurisdiction extends here, yes.”

Zheng chuckled from the shadows in the corner, a low rumble between sharp teeth. “Warlord, shaman?”

I froze, blushing, realising I’d basically just agreed to that without a second thought. “I mean, I … I’m … we … ” I let out a sharp huff at Stephen, then grabbed my mug of tea in a tentacle and took a deep drink of the lukewarm brew, before clacking it down in open irritation. Turmy peered over the lip of the table at that. A hiccup further undermined my unasked-for authority. “Fine. Yes, I’m all of those things and more. Is that what you want? You want a local ruler to worship? All right, you’ve got it. But not just me alone — I’m not a warlord. Warlady, really.” I tutted and shook my head, knowing that Raine would have loved that word. I was glad she wasn’t present to hear it. “Though you’re not going to meet the rest of us, for safety.”

Zheng purred curiously. “It would be a good title, shaman. War-lady. Mm.”

I could tell she was teasing me. Something about the amused hitch in her voice. I steadfastly ignored Zheng’s suggestion and focused on Natalie’s parents. “Now, if you are quite done, we need to discuss practical matters, preferably before any of your family contacts you, or a police officer knocks on your door. Now.”

But both Stephen and Isabella were having a very hard time looking away from the mug I’d just drunk from. I rolled my eyes, out of patience.

“No, I don’t possess powers of telekinesis,” I said. “I was lifting it with a tentacle. You saw them already!”

Isabella smiled and nodded, polite but on the edge of losing something important. Stephen cleared his throat with obvious concern, then said, carefully, “May I ask why we could see them when we were … ‘Outside’, but not here?”

“My tentacles are made from a special type of matter. Generally you have to be non-human, or extra-human, in order to see them, or anything else made from that matter. All three of us here—” I indicated myself, Lozzie, and Zheng with a sideways nod “—can see them clearly. You can’t. We have some special glasses which can allow for a human to see, but giving you a pair might be a bad idea for your mental health. Try not to think about that, please.”

Stephen shared an unreadable look with his wife, then a covert, polite glance at Lozzie. But nobody could sneak around the master sneaker; Lozzie flashed back a big smile and a broad wink, giggling in her seat as she petted Turmy. Isabella and Stephen may have finally managed to make sense of me, and Zheng was visibly not a human being, but Lozzie looked like an ordinary girl, at least on the surface. They didn’t seem to know how to process that.

I watched them both very carefully; these two were only freshly broken in, their minds still adapting to this new reality. Lozzie looked ordinary, yet she was not. I needed them to accept this, for their daughter’s sake, but I suspected it was possible to push them too far.

“Natalie will not turn out like us,” I said out loud. “She’s a human being, and will remain so. She can’t see my tentacles either.”

Stephen sighed with unconcealed relief, then had the good grace to wince with apology. Isabella managed to remain neutral, trying not to anger the god-queen-warlord-squid across the table from her.

We are what we pretend to be, I thought. So what am I being right now?

“Practical matters,” I said, somewhat sharper than I intended.

“Practically problems!” Lozzie chirped.

“Listen to the shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “Closely.”

Stephen nodded and pulled himself up in his chair, nodding seriously. “Right, of course. What do you want us to tell the police?”

Isabella spoke up before I could stick to the script. “We tell them she came home, of course. She wandered off. She had an adventure.”

I nodded along. “As far as the rest of the world is concerned, your daughter spent the last twenty-four hours on the adventure of a lifetime for a ten year old, wandering around Manchester with her cat. Lozzie’s already coached her, and we’ll do some more before we leave, because the police will undoubtedly want to hear it from Natalie herself. She knocked on the back door in the middle of the night and woke you up, and you found her there. That’s all.”

“With the cat,” Lozzie added. In her lap, Turmy opened sleepy, bleary eyes again and added a soft-throated ‘mmmmrrrr’ to the proceedings.

“With Turmy,” I added. “That’s the important part. The newspapers will love that. A feel-good story about a girl and her cat, a silly puff-piece that people won’t really read. They’ll move on within a day or two. With any luck it won’t even hit the BBC as anything other than a ten-second piece.”

I was echoing Raine’s words, but I only half-believed them myself. It would take some serious effort for the police to accept this without question, at least privately. In public they would express relief and close the case. But one or two canny detectives might start to ask questions behind closed doors. We’d have to wait that out.

Stephen nodded, but I could see that Isabella was harbouring some similar doubts to myself. I caught her eyes and nodded gently, letting her know that I understood. We were taking a gamble here.

“Secondly,” I went on, “is the issue of Natalie’s health.”

That certainly took their attention away from the issue of what to tell the police. Stephen froze, but Isabella didn’t waste a beat.

“The mud,” she said, mouth hanging open. “Oh my God. In that swamp, the mud. It was filthy.”

“The mud, yes,” I said.

“It’s safe!” Lozzie chirped. “She’s cleeeeeean, there’s no infections or nasties or anything like that. I triple-checked! Turmy too!” She petted Turmy on the head when the cat looked up at the sound of his own name.

“Lozzie knows what she’s doing when it comes to bodies and medical issues,” I said. “And I trust her judgement about this. But … ”

“She’s clean!” Lozzie chirped at me with mounting irritation. “Heathy!”

“We can’t be one hundred percent certain.”

“Mmmm!” Lozzie grumbled. She curled up and gave Turmy a hug.

“The same goes for Turmy.” I addressed Natalie’s parents again. They did not look reassured by this exchange. “We can’t be one hundred percent certain that neither of them ingested anything from the swamp, or that they’re completely free of infection. You need to watch both of them very, very carefully over the next few days and weeks.”

“But … ” Stephen swallowed. “But a doctor isn’t going to … ?”

“Exactly. If Natalie gets some Outsider illness or infection, don’t take her to a doctor or the hospital. Contact us. We have other ways of solving that kind of problem, if it happens. It probably won’t. But if it does.”

Isabella frowned delicately and spoke with exacting precision. “You seem uncomfortable, Heather.” She said my name with obvious reluctance. Probably wanted to call me, ‘your grace’.

My turn to freeze with self-conscious fear. I stared at my mug. “Um. Well. It’s complicated.”

“I understand that we can’t possibly comprehend everything about your world. I accept that, on your word. But you need to share everything about my daughter’s health. Everything.”

When I glanced back up, that burning dedication had returned to Isabella’s eyes, the same look I’d seen on her when I’d arrived in her sitting room and pinned her to the sofa, the look which said she would do anything for her child. She would reach across this table and slap a god if she had to. And she did think I was some kind of god.

Zheng purred from the dark, “The shaman speaks of sharing flesh with flesh.”

I sighed and allowed my shoulders to slump. “Zheng, please don’t.”

“I am touched by the shaman’s blessing. It kept my blood free of vermin, twice. She would do the same for your pup, if only asked.”

I wanted to get out of my chair and throttle Zheng. One of my tentacles pointed toward her in silent threat, but she stared it down. The Skeates looked even more confused than before. Lozzie grabbed another one of my tentacles, wound it about her arm, then hugged it to her chest, as if to comfort me — or restrain me.

“All right, fine,” I said. “My body produces certain unique … well, anti-bodies, I suppose. I’ve shared them with people before and it’s helped fight off supernatural or extra-dimensional infections. If Natalie was to develop some kind of problem, then it might be worth the risk.”

“What risk?” Isabella demanded.

“I have no idea,” I deadpanned, out of patience. “This isn’t a tested medical procedure. I’m not talking about something clean and modern here, I’m talking about probably feeding her a spoon-full of my blood.”

Isabella’s mouth made a little O-shape of unspoken shock. Stephen put one hand to his own mouth.

“I have no idea what it’s done to other people in the long run,” I went on, thinking of Raine, who had shared my blood by proxy, from Zheng. “But it would be better than the alternative, but only if Natalie gets sick.”

“Like communion,” Stephen murmured in awe.

The look in his eyes made my stomach turn over and my blood curdle.

“It’s not communion!” I snapped suddenly, surprising even myself. Stephen flinched hard. But Isabella stared at me with that look I hated more than all others — growing religious adoration. Her husband’s feeling had been sharp and quick, but hers had deeper roots that I could not seem to dislodge. Perhaps she’d been waiting all her life for a god to step into it. “It’s not communion,” I repeated. “I’m not literally a god. My blood doesn’t have magical properties. Well, okay, I suppose it does. But I’m not a god, stop looking at me like that.”

Stephen shook his head. “You said you’re the daughter of an alien god. What does that mean?”

Adopted daughter.”

“And that’s why you have tentacles? And … and all the rest of it? The teleporting thing?”

I glared at him, but that had the opposite of my intended effect. The poor man began to bow his head. “Stop that!” I snapped. “No. Well, yes. Sort of. I’m not … I’m not a god, that’s all. Or a messiah. I’m just a young woman in a very difficult situation. I realise that you’re thankful I saved your daughter, but stop thinking of me like that.”

This was so much worse than with the Brinkwood Cult, the Hoptons, Twil’s family. At least they were already worshipping an Outsider; sliding me into their rather thin pantheon had felt offensive and horrifying, but at least it made some kind of sense. But this? This was all my fault, this was because I’d presented myself as the Eye’s daughter in order to overawe them, to break their minds. And then I’d revealed myself as human, or at least looking like a human, and I thought that had settled the matter.

But here they were, clinging to driftwood pieces of their new cosmology whenever I gave them an opening.

Was this why cults happened? Was this why Outsiders could seem like gods? Because people needed an explanation to cling to, once they were in the know. And Natalie’s parents were using me as the new guidepost to their world. I had saved their child, delivered them from evil, and now they couldn’t help themselves.

Stephen nodded along politely, looking suitably ashamed. But the look in his wife’s eyes told me she would not accept my own denial. She’d believed it on the shores of the great swamp, in her moment of need, and she believed it now, with her child returned, salvation delivered, and the offer of a blood-bond with the messenger from beyond. She was ready to argue with the divine about the status of its own divinity.

But then she lowered her eyes to her own folded hands. “I have half a mind to ask you to do it right now. For Nat’s sake.”

“Bloody hell, Izzy,” said Stephen. “No, not unless we need to. Come on now.”

“This is what magic is like, this is what the supernatural is like,” I said. “There’s no waving wands and chanting some magic words to make something go back to the way it was before. If Natalie sickens as a result of her exposure, then sharing my anti-bodies with her may be a sensible choice. But that choice isn’t mine to make, so I didn’t.”

A very awkward few moments of silence fell over the cramped dining room. Isabella sat staring down at her own clasped hands. I hoped she wasn’t praying, at least not to me. Stephen drained the rest of his tea and nodded a thanks across the table, not just to me, either, but to Lozzie and Zheng too. That was a better sign. Lozzie picked Turmy up out of her lap and placed him on the table, which prompted him to go over to Isabella and nuzzle her hands, which finally snapped her out of her own thoughts. She idly petted the cat, smiling with distant relief.

“Zheng,” I said, “do you have the piece of paper?”

Zheng grunted an affirmative. She detached herself from the shadows like a great pillar in motion, strode to the table, and produced a piece of folded paper from inside her trench coat. She slid it across the tabletop, toward Natalie’s parents.

“There’s an email address written there,” I said as Isabella picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. “We’ll be in contact with you soon enough, as I said, but if anything happens to Natalie, if she gets unwell with seemingly no cause, send an email to that address and we’ll know.”

“And you’ll appear in the middle of our living room?” Stephen asked. He was only half-joking.

I shrugged and sighed. “Probably.” I pushed my chair back. “It’s almost dawn, time for us to get moving. I’d like to say bye to Nat though.”

Isabella nodded. “Of course. You’ve a right to.”

What right? I thought, but I kept that doubt to myself. I didn’t want to get into a theological debate about myself.

At least the final problem of the morning was a relatively sweet one; Natalie and Tenny did not wish to be parted so soon. On Natalie’s end, Tenny was a fascinating new friend with lots of hands, so she could hold eight or ten of Natalie’s plush toys and plastic robots all at once, facilitating a very elaborate game of make-believe. That’s what we discovered them doing, upstairs in Natalie’s bedroom, with Sevens looking on and quietly providing dramatic prompts.

On Tenny’s end, Natalie was the only friend she’d ever made who was close to her own age. This was the first time she’d played with another child. She didn’t even look sheepish or embarrassed about playing make-believe with toys. Still a little girl, then, even if she was growing up fast.

“Can Nat visit? Visit for playtime?” Tenny trilled, asking me and Lozzie alternately. She looked quite sad. “Pleaseeeee?”

“In the future,” I told her, not wanting to actually lie. “But it’ll have to be a while until then. Remember? Things have to be secret.”

“Secret thiiiiiiings,” Tenny trilled in irritation, then puffed her cheeks out. So much like her mother.

“Octopus lady knows best!” Natalie assured Tenny, patting her on the head, both hands in the fine white fur that covered Tenny’s skull. Tenny had three tentacles attached to Natalie in return, the Tenny version of holding hands and refusing to let go.

Apparently I did know best. Tenny was sad and grumpy, Isabella stood by in great discomfort, and Stephen awkwardly shook Tenny’s ‘hand’ — the end of one of her tentacles — but amongst all this, Natalie was serious and beaming, as if she knew better than her parents. She hugged Tenny goodbye, accepted the returned Turmy, then went back to hug Lozzie. She even hugged Sevens, which Sevens returned with all the grace of a real princess.

I hugged Natalie goodbye too, which almost made me tear up, though I didn’t understand why until I pulled back and started talking.

“Don’t be afraid of anything, Nat,” I told her, doing my best to control my own emotions, for her sake. “You might see things, but you’re safe. You’re safe because I brought you back, okay?”

“Mmm! Tenny told me too!”

“You remember all the things you need to tell the police?”

Natalie nodded. “I went for a long long walk about Manchester. All the ghosty stuff didn’t happen. Secret. But Turmy was there!”

“Secret,” trilled Tenny. She was petting Turmy goodbye for now. The cat rubbed himself against her tentacles in return.

“Smart girl,” said Sevens.

“You’re going to be safe,” I told her. “Nothing’s going to take you away, okay? Your parents both love you very much, and they understand. And so do I, and you can see Tenny again sometime soon. Nothing is going to take you away from home. I promise.”

Little Natalie nodded up at me as I stood back up, with one gentle hand on her head. She trusted me, because I’d saved her, from Outside and from the disbelief of return.

It took an effort of will to remove my hand and let go, because in a very real way I was letting go of my past self.

But Natalie wasn’t me. She was going to fare much better than I ever had. She had her parents on her side, and a guardian to watch over her for now — even if I rejected any notion that I was a guardian ‘angel’. She understood what had happened, she would not grow up confused and lost, and she would never have nightmares of the Eye.

The me who had returned from Wonderland, the scared little girl, the Heather who had sobbed herself to sleep for years because nothing made sense, she would always carry those scars. But I could find better ways to cradle her in my heart. I could acknowledge those wounds and tend them better, and she would have no reason to feel such bitterness.

Natalie would never have to deal with that.

Here, at least, I’d done some good. Even if I died in Wonderland in a couple of months time, this child would not grow up in pain.

==

Two soapstone coins sat side by side on the table in Evelyn’s magical workshop. Greenish like copper oxide, smooth as if passed through thousands of hands, their five points now rounded and soft, if they had ever been sharp in the first place. Like a slightly more jagged version of a fifty-pence piece. Veins and layers in the stone seemed to catch the light, as if always on the edge of sparking into something greater, as if about to reveal crystalline depths to their material structure.

They weren’t really soapstone, of course. They were from Outside.

I’d been staring at the coins for almost ten minutes while towelling off my wet hair after a morning shower, wondering if I should bother doing anything but going straight back to bed that day, when I was interrupted.

“Have they divulged any secrets, kitten?”

“Ah?” I jumped, but only a little. After all, I knew the voice of the Yellow Princess all too well. Sevens had ghosted into the room while I’d been staring at the coins. Her umbrella was absent, her hands folded in front of her yellow skirt, almost like Praem. “Sevens,” I tutted. “Don’t surprise me like that, I might belt you with my tentacles.”

She shrugged delicate shoulders beneath a crisp white blouse. “So be it. Belt me if you must.”

I scowled at her, suddenly quite serious. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, we are engaged. If I ever hit you, turn me over to your father, please.” I tutted. “Don’t even joke about that.”

Sevens tilted her head upward, sharp cold eyes somehow bright even in the artificial glow. With the gloomy day outdoors, the light streaming through the kitchen window and reflecting into the magical workshop was providing only a slow, grey trickle, so I had all the lights on. It did rather demystify the space.

“As you will, kitten,” she said.

I tutted and flushed, then pulled the towel off my head and nodded at the coins on the table. “To answer your question, no. I still haven’t the foggiest. Evee has theories, of course, but nothing new. Unless she’s found the answers in a dream. Is she awake yet?”

“Haven’t the foggiest.”

It was two days since we’d returned Natalie to her parents, safe and sound. We’d all spent most of yesterday recovering, sleeping off an exhausting night and waiting to see if our gambles had worked. Yesterday evening we had been rewarded with almost exactly what Raine had predicted.

The evening news had run a very absurd puff-piece about the missing girl who had wandered the back roads of Manchester with her orange tomcat as her only companion. The BBC had a much more flattering picture of Turmy than the grainy photograph from the newspaper. He was looking almost regal, if a bit battered by age. Natalie herself was kept firmly out of the view of any cameras. Her father, poor old Stephen, was interviewed by somebody outside his own front door, for all of one single-line sound-bite about his brave and adventurous daughter. The brave part was genuine, I could tell by his voice. An official police statement followed, wrapping everything up. Then, last and most certainly least, some talking head from Manchester bemoaned how no member of the public had alerted the police to a small girl wandering around the city unaccompanied.

But Turmy had been with her, so that was okay. A girl and her cat, alone against the world.

The police sirens we half-expected never materialised. We weren’t raided on suspicion of kidnapping or worse. And Edward, if he was planning a move, was lying low for now.

However, there was no rest for the wicked. I had a dozen things on my exhausted mind, making me feel numb and stretched thin.

Raine was currently out, picking up Sarika and then driving her to the hospital, where Badger was getting discharged that afternoon. On the far side of the magical workshop, Edward’s bizarre contraption of metal and glass sat safely contained inside a precautionary magic circle, waiting for Evelyn’s attention. The thing was probably inert — the spider-servitors didn’t care about it, and even Marmite hadn’t given it a second glance. We were expecting a phone call from Felicity later that day. She’d sent a text message last night asking if we were willing to discuss a plan. We were, provisionally, but I didn’t like the idea. Tenny was sulky and grumpy and I was consumed with worry about her long-term well-being; she couldn’t go on being cooped up in this house forever, but what options did we have?

And Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had spent every minute since our return in her Yellow Princess form. I hadn’t seen a peep out of the blood-goblin mask. As far as I knew, she hadn’t even slept.

And now she was here, alone with me. Well, alone except for Marmite, but spiders tell no tales. At least, pneuma-somatic ones don’t.

I pretended to focus on drying my hair again as I watched Sevens watching me back. She watched me watching her. I watched her, watching.

“Sevens?” I said with a sigh. “You know we need to talk, don’t you?”

“I know a great many things.” She sounded both cold and amused at once. “Are you going to visit your new holding today?”

I blinked several times. “My … my what? I’m sorry?”

“The castle, at Camelot.”

“Oh. Um. No, not right now. There’s too many things to do. Too many things to think about. We need to ask Hringewindla about these coins, for a start, somehow. Probably through Amanda. But you and I do need to talk.”

“That’s a pity. Camelot is a very pretty place, even if it is a bit silly. If we’re going to talk, perhaps we should talk in a place where your rule is without question, no?”

“My … rule?” I squinted at her. “Oh, Sevens, no. Really?”

“Oh yes.” Sevens’ voice lost most of its amusement. “Isn’t it time to lay down the law on me, for my misbehaviour? I’ve been a very bad girl, my queen.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Why do people keep treating Heather like a chosen one or a messiah? She sure doesn’t like it! It keeps happening and it seems to be getting worse each time. I wonder if she bears any responsibility for this one, though; she did kind of play those cards on purpose. Whoops! Sevens isn’t helping either. Or maybe she’s just flirting?

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Next week, Seven-Shades-of-Cheeky-and-Smug gets a spanking. Or not.

17 thoughts on “pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.14

  1. …………….. Sevens seems a bit….. different?….. Although the punishment bit is intriguing…….

    Ha, Warlady of Manchester. That is so cool.

    The perks and downsides of having power is that it attracts both powerful people and followers.

    Out of curiosity if Zheng and Sevens did manage to get their way, what would be the name of Heather’s Cult and Kingdom? Or would it be a Cultish Kingdom?

    Thank you for the chapter.

    • Hard to tell what exactly Sevens is doing, right? Is she being serious, or flirting, or something else? Maybe both?

      Warlady of Manchester! Perhaps a bit of a historical throwback.

      Mm, Heather doesn’t seem at all comfortable with the idea of having followers, even if she has technically collected quite a few by now.

      Hmm, cult of the she-squid, perhaps? The angel of the deep? Something along those kind of lines!

      And you are very welcome indeed, glad you enjoyed the chapter! Thank you for reading!

  2. The accidental god-queen of Camelot. I like it.

    And a lemon is perfectly acceptable as a pirate flag. Scurvy is a real threat.

    • Heather doesn’t seem to like it at all! But if she’s got the power, she’s going to play the role.

      Exactly! A pirate with lemons is a healthier pirate than without.

  3. Heather and Sevens both seem to overlook…if “Camelot”, the Knights, and the castle belong to anyone, it’s not Heather, it’s LOZZIE!

    • Bloody right! They’re Lozzie’s children. Building a castle for their mother, the Queen. Heather’s just the more distant overlord (overlady???)

      • Technically if Lozzie is their Queen wouldn’t that make Heather the High Queen? Which would technically make all that Lozzie owns, hers? Not that Heather would ever enforce it, I assume.

  4. A bit surprised Heather notices the bunk bed and doesn’t get at least a momentary worry that maybe the other bed is supposed to be occupied.

    With how she sees herself in Natalie I expected some mention of it after heather’s nerration noted it.

    a sufficiently paranoid reader might wonder if the bed did have an occupant and heather isn’t thinking about it because said occupant was retconned like Maisie and Heather isn’t immune as she wasn’t involved like with Maisie.

    • Perhaps Heather was simply ignoring her own worries! Or perhaps it was because she already asked Natalie if she had any siblings. Or perhaps something more sinister.

      A mystery, to be sure.

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