Felicity and Aym — mage and demon, master and servant, prisoner and jailer — stood us up. Twice.
In truth, the two false starts in Felicity’s journey down to Sharrowford obviously had everything to do with Aym and very little to do with Felicity. Whatever else one might say about Felicity, whatever sins and horrors she had committed in earlier life, whatever dark alliances and deals she’d made, it was plain to me that she would never willingly leave Evelyn waiting for help. This was all Aym’s doing, I had little doubt of that.
It was a very effective tactic, the last thing we’d been worrying about, and it drove Evelyn up the wall.
The drive from Felicity’s manor house up in Cumbria was meant to take a little under three hours, accounting for traffic, a stop on the M6 motorway, the need to skirt around Manchester, the changeable mood of Felicity’s battered old range rover, and some kind of unpredictable complexity involved in actually leaving the surroundings of her home. She had tried to explain that last point, but had rapidly dissolved into a string of half-understood esoteric terminology, which would probably have made sense only to Evelyn. Felicity hadn’t been in much of a state to go into detail at the end of our previous phone call, sitting on the floor and recovering from her horrible, tortured weeping. But she had promised to call Raine’s phone early the following morning, to give us advance warning of when she was leaving, and when we might expect her.
“The four minute warning,” Evelyn snorted that morning. “Fantastic. We’ll all huddle together in the cellar and wait for the blast wave, shall we?”
“Evee,” I sighed, though gently and indulgently. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot longer than four minutes. Felicity is taking this seriously. We’ll have hours to prepare.”
Evelyn cleared her throat and blushed faintly. “It’s … it’s a joke, Heather.”
“Duck and cover,” said Praem.
Felicity had made the same journey in a similar window once before, back when I’d called her for help during our crisis with the Sharrowford Cult, when Raine had been kidnapped and Evee had lain helpless in a coma. She’d had far less prep time for that drive, but also the extra motivation of a real emergency. Evelyn’s life had been at stake. Perhaps that had encouraged her to quite literally ‘step on the gas’ — or perhaps, more worryingly, it had motivated Aym to not muck about and get in the way.
But on that first morning after the phone call, Evelyn’s fears appeared to be crystallising into reality.
Nine o’clock came and went without any word from Felicity, not even a text message; her mobile phone would apparently work once she was on the road, after all. Then ten o’clock passed as well, then eleven, the hour-hand creeping round on the old grandfather clock which stood in our front room. Time slowed to an awful, torturous plod. Raine sent Felicity a text message, then called her twice, both the land-line phone and the mobile phone number she’d given us. Both times, nothing. The calls rang and rang, answered by nothing but the void.
Evelyn had already struggled to eat breakfast that morning, wracked by anxiety gnawing at her guts. Praem had pulled out all the stops, made bacon and scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms. Raine had wolfed her portion down, Sevens had happily chomped away, Tenny and Lozzie had briefly appeared and joined in too; even Zheng had complimented the bacon, which was rare. She preferred her meat raw and bloody. But Evee herself had managed only a few bites before complaining of nausea and retreating to the safety of cold porridge. I ended up finishing her portion for her.
As the hours wore on she found it harder and harder to hide her nerves. She sat in the kitchen, pretending to read but actually doing nothing, rubbing and worrying at the old scarring on her maimed hand. I’d never seen her do that before. She usually didn’t fiddle with her maimed fingers and palm, or draw any attention to it at all.
She got up eventually, stomped around the house in wordless irritation, left mugs of tea to grow cold, and spoke in monosyllabic grunts. She barely even heard what was said to her.
I couldn’t watch her like that. It hurt. She’d been so happy and fulfilled last night.
The previous evening, Evee and I had sat up until long past midnight, watching her pony cartoon together. It had been absolutely delightful, even if some of the context of the show was a little lost on me; Evee sometimes laughed at things that I didn’t understand, or gestured at the screen for moments that seemed quite mundane, but I felt like I started to get it after a while.
At first she’d acted quite embarrassed when I’d asked which character was her favourite. She had refused to answer for another three episodes, then ventured the truth while awkwardly looking away from my face.
“ … you mean, the one that does magic?” I’d said, trying not to sound too shocked. “I … well, I assumed with all the … you know, being a mage in real life, I assumed you wouldn’t—”
“Yes, yes! I know! Don’t you dare repeat this to Raine, I’ll never hear the end of it. I’ve always had to be quite clear to her that I do not identify with the magical cartoon unicorn, so do not tell her I’ve been lying about that, Heather. Do not.”
I’d sworn myself to secrecy.
Evelyn had finally relaxed after that, and began to share all sorts of details about this this obscure and esoteric passion — though according to Evee it was anything but obscure.
“It’s a big deal on the internet,” she said. “People draw art. They write fanfiction. There’s a whole subculture.”
“Oh. Well. I wouldn’t know, not really. Have you ever done that?”
Evelyn had cleared her throat, staring at me in a frozen state. “You mean … write … fanfiction?”
“Or draw art! Either or. It sounds really exciting.”
“No,” she said, too quickly. “No, I don’t. Never done that.”
Praem had stuck around for a few episodes of magical ponies and the occasional sparkling unicorn, but then she’d left me and Evee alone together. Raine had stuck her head in briefly, then left in wordless glee, shooting us a thumbs up and going off to play video games about girls with improbably large bosoms beating each other up. Kimberly had ambled past on her way to the kitchen at almost eleven at night, overheard some very distinctive bits of dialogue, and knocked on the door, much to our surprise. Kimberly, timid Kim who so often scurried about the place like she wanted us to forget she existed, had stood in the doorway with bloodshot eyes and a dazed smile, and nodded her heartfelt and touched approval that we were, “getting into the ponies at last.”
“Yes, well,” Evelyn had said, guarded and short and snapping, mostly from embarrassment, though perhaps also a little worried about being interrupted yet again. “Heather’s never seen it before. That’s all.”
Normally, Kim would have jumped out of her skin at being spoken to like that, then scurried off in terror, but right then she was high enough to start a new career as a cosmonaut.
She’d blinked at me in delighted surprise. “No shiiiiit, Heather? Awwww, that’s great. You’re one of us now. Have fun, yeah, have fun.” She’d clapped her hands twice, then bowed her way backwards out of the door, like she was giving thanks at a shrine. Maybe she had known that Evee was irritated, after all.
After that, it had been just me and Evee for the rest of the night, leaning on each other, watching cartoon ponies having adventures. She’d seemed so happy. Eventually I’d tucked her into bed.
But this following morning, waiting for a woman she hated, who might arrive at any moment, Evelyn was chewing herself to pieces.
She couldn’t stand the waiting and the not knowing. I couldn’t stand what it was doing to her, to her state of mind, her nerves, her well-being. Raine kept her own spirits up with that beaming grin, cracking jokes about how we were going to make Felicity sleep in a dog house in the garden, or how maybe we should all pretend to be out when she arrived. Praem stayed close to Evee, making sure she stayed hydrated, never leaving her alone. Sevens lurked in the shadows and around the door frames, but she couldn’t do anything. I got the sense she wanted to help, but maybe couldn’t find the right mask, the right role to play.
I turned into a curtain-twitching maniac. I couldn’t do anything to help Evee either; I’d tried to distract her but she was barely answering. So instead I lurked at the windows, trying to watch the road. I sent Zheng out to stand covert sentry near the end of the street, but that was pointless, and boring for her, so it didn’t last long. At one point I even opened the front door and stood there in my pajama bottoms and one of Raine’s old black hoodies, staring down the street. I probably looked like a total madwoman, silently rehearsing the indignant rant I was going to deliver to Felicity as soon as she dared show her face.
The weather was foul as foul could be. Summer had fled like a startled deer. Heavy rain-clouds battered the city, drizzling and spitting and whipping with cold, but refusing to break into the clean rain of a proper storm. My teeth ached. My fingernails itched. My eyes hurt.
Eventually, I asked out loud, “Is she causing this?”
I’d been staring out of the kitchen window. My eyes must have looked like dark pits of frustration. My tone brought Evelyn around for a few minutes, dragging her out of the stupor of anxiety.
“ … Heather?”
“The weather,” I explained.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“The weather! It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s so oppressive. Normally I’m more of an autumn sort of person anyway, but this feels wrong. Is this Aym, doing this at a distance?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn grumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Demons can’t control the weather.”
“Says you,” Praem chimed from behind her. Evelyn snorted a single not-laugh at that, a token effort of forced disbelief.
“What about mages?” I asked.
When I turned away from the window to gauge Evee’s response, she’d seemed so small and sad and shrunken, sitting there on the other side of the kitchen table, thick shawl over her shoulders, with a book in front of her, pretending to read. A hardback copy of Frankenstein which looked about as old as the house. That wasn’t a good book for her right now, she needed something light and fluffy, or at least something funny. A bit of Pratchett, maybe, but I wasn’t sure if we had any in the house. I had a sudden urge to suggest I do a one-woman dramatic reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for her, but then I dismissed the idea as absurd.
“The weather?” Evelyn echoed, then sighed and drew a hand over her face. “Why not? What do I know? Sure, maybe they’re sending rain to irritate us. Maybe they’re trying to ruin our harvest or make our bowstrings damp. Maybe we’ve been cursed by a rain god. Bugger it and let it rain.”
“Evee,” I sighed, feeling awkward all of a sudden.
“No, Heather, they’re not controlling the bloody weather. You sound worse than I get. Stop being paranoid. Hypocritical of me to say, I know.” She shrugged, eyes dropping back to the book. At least she wasn’t actually reading it.
At three minutes to midday, Felicity finally called.
Unfortunately, Raine had stepped into the bathroom for a few minutes, leaving her phone on the table like a ticking bomb. When it went off I jumped out of my skin and almost slapped the thing to pieces with my tentacles. Evelyn flinched and scooted her chair back.
Praem had enough presence of mind to scoop the phone up and press it to her shoulder. Raine skidded into the room ten seconds later, sliding on her socks, stopping just short of Praem before accepting the phone.
The rest of us could only hear one side of the rushed, chaotic conversation which ensued. Raine actually frowned in confusion, a rare look on her face.
“Heeeeeey Flissy, where the hell you at, girl, you— hey, hey, slow down. Slooooow down, you’re talking too fast. Okay. Okaaaaay.” Raine listened for a long moment, giving Evelyn and me a bemused look across the kitchen, eyebrows knotting together. Evelyn mouthed ‘is she here yet?’ and Raine shook her head, which provoked Evelyn to throw up her arms in frustration. “So, you’re leaving now, right?” Raine said into the phone. “Well, sure thing then, just let us know as soon as you’re ready. No sweat, no blame, just let us know. Cool? We okay? Okay, we’re cool. No worries, Fliss, just stay in contact. Like we said.”
“What do you mean, no fucking worries?!” Evelyn spat before Raine could end the call. “She hasn’t even fucking left yet?” Evee’s eyes found the phone itself. “What are you playing at, you—”
Raine held the phone up. She’d already cut the call. “She’s gonna phone back. Once she’s in the car and on the road. Evee, hey, come on, take a deep breath. Just breathe for me, yeah? Just breathe.”
“Oh this a fucking farce!” Evelyn spat. “What is she doing?”
“Crying, by the sounds of it,” Raine said with a sigh. “Held up by somebody having a little tantrum.”
“A bad girl,” Praem said.
“Oh I can’t believe this shit,” Evelyn said. “I bet she’s loving this. She’s found a way to torment me by not being present.”
We received five more phone calls from Felicity over the course of that afternoon, and not one of them was made from a moving car. She called us in a state of distress, apologetic and mortified, shocked, weeping with frustration, and then finally just broken with emotional exhaustion. Raine fielded all the calls but it wasn’t hard to overhear snatches of Felicity’s distraught voice on the other end. I could imagine her scurrying through the half-empty, echoing hallways of that dark and void-like manor house, below the dripping boughs of an evil forest, the walls whipped by cold winds and menaced by dark, creeping ivy, her own footsteps swallowed up by rotten wood and crumbling furniture, in pursuit of a tormentor that would not let her leave.
But that was only my imagination. Maybe Aym had just hidden her car keys.
Whatever was truly happening up in Cumbria, the final phone call at six forty-five in the evening was the last straw for Evelyn.
“Don’t fucking bother!” she shouted at the phone. She lurched up from her seat in the kitchen so fast that Praem almost didn’t round the table to catch her in time. Evee didn’t even care, stomping toward the phone and looking for something to hit with her walking stick. Raine tried to turn away, to shield the phone from Evelyn’s rage, but it was no use. One could probably have heard her three streets away. “If you leave now, you’ll get here at ten, or past ten, and you are not using that to worm your way into staying the night, you rancid fucking monster! You can try again tomorrow! First thing in the morning, you useless shit!”
I heard a pitiful whimper from the other end of the phone, before Raine managed to step out of the room to make real alternative arrangements.
In a way, I didn’t blame Evelyn, though I like to think I would have phrased my irritation with a little bit more tact — I also probably wouldn’t have muttered the absolutely unspeakable insults she strung together under her breath afterward, as Praem helped her sit back down. We’d done nothing all day except wait, but I felt utterly exhausted, yet without the clean ache of overexerted muscles and the dull thrum of a humming cardiovascular system. My trilobe bio-reactor could do nothing to soothe this particular kind of drawn-out weariness.
Raine reappeared a couple of minutes later and cleared her throat awkwardly before relating the new plan.
“Flissy is gonna try again tomorrow morning. No promises, though. We should probably prep for the worst. Maybe buy a deck of cards and settle in.”
The joke did not go down well. Evelyn looked about ready to bite the head off a live chicken, or crumble to dust.
With an unspoken agreement of shared glances and covert gestures, Praem, Raine, and I all set about making sure Evelyn didn’t slip further into a deep pit of depression and loathing. When Aym arrived, she was going to need all her wits about her, even if I was going to be glued to her side like a bodyguard for her soul.
Praem supplied tea, turned up the heating, and somehow made the kitchen smell faintly of warm butter for about half an hour. She also applied shoulder rubs, which first met with an angry hiss and a, “Get off, for fuck’s sake, can’t you see I’m trying to think?” but then finally earned her a, “Sorry, Praem. I shouldn’t have snapped. Thank you.”
I don’t know how Praem did it. Demon hands were apparently dexterous enough to avoid hurting Evelyn’s warped shoulders and kinked spine. Sevens reappeared from somewhere too, taking up her seat close to Evee, though she didn’t have anything much to say; I think I was the only one who noticed how focused she was, as if watching Evelyn for a sign of something. Zheng went out hunting. Perhaps that was her way of helping, returning with a brace of dead squirrels for the unlucky pack-member.
Raine went out too, to fetch a takeaway curry for dinner. We hadn’t actually had one in a while. Evee needed treats, even if she wouldn’t admit so.
Lozzie and Tenny ventured down from upstairs at long last. They’d spent most of the day staying out of the way, though I had noticed Lozzie eavesdropping from behind door frames at least twice, her face peering out just above Sevens. Apparently she could be very quiet and sneaky when she wanted to be.
Tenny instantly picked up that “auntie Evee” needed help.
I don’t know if it was some extra-sensory knowledge, some product of her non-human biology, or merely the intuition of a child. Tenny crept across the kitchen exactly like a nervous child approaching a grumpy parent, po-faced and serious, tentacles reeled in close, until Evee did a double-take at her and then just stared, grumpy and exhausted. Tenny stared back with her big shiny black pelagic eyes. Lozzie peered around from behind her.
Tenny hadn’t gained any additional height since her hatching several months earlier, but her straight-backed, oh-so-serious pose made her seem more mature than Lozzie, at least more mature than she’d ever looked before. All of her poses and gestures still held that strange, alien note to them, despite her basic humanoid body-plan, her two arms and two legs, her eyes and jaw and lips and chin and facial muscles, and her healthy upright torso — though I wasn’t certain she possessed a spine, not exactly. It was often hard to tell with Tenny where human influence ended and pneuma-somatic heritage began. She was plainly not homo sapiens, with her silken, coal-black skin, her wings hanging down her back like a cloak, her mass of tentacles that crept up and out from their hidden origin points in her shoulders, but at the same time her gestures and mannerisms were so very human, so very us.
As she stood opposite Evee’s exhausted anger, she obviously empathised.
“Tenny,” I whispered gently. “Auntie Evee isn’t feeling so good right now. Please … please don’t … ” I tried to say please don’t bother her, but I couldn’t get the words out. Tenny wouldn’t understand. She might be hurt.
“Auntie,” Tenny said in her fluttery trill-voice. It was not a question.
Lozzie whispered from behind her too, gently tugging on a tentacle. “Tenny!”
Evelyn sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and grunted an affirmative. “Yes, that would be me. Auntie Evee. Hello, Tenny. I’m not mad at you, it’s okay.”
“Mad because bad?” said Tenny.
Evelyn froze, as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Lozzie’s eyes went wide and she clamped a hand over her mouth, trying to smother a laugh. Praem turned her head to stare at Tenny. Whatever those words meant, it went completely over my head.
“Excuse me?” Evelyn asked.
“Or … sad because mad?” Tenny tried again, tilting her head to the side and doing a wobbly gesture with one tentacle, like somebody waving a hand. “Bad things make me mad too. Mad and sad!” Tenny’s flutter-voice grew louder, agitated, desperate to help. “Auntie Evee sad. Makes me mad. Bad. Bad sad.” Tenny blinked several times, her eyes finally wandering away from Evee and off to one side. “Bad mad sad,” she muttered to herself. “Glad?”
Lozzie snorted and winced. “Tenn-Tenns has just discovered rhyming!”
Tenny puffed her cheeks out. “Already knew!”
Evelyn sighed and shook her head. “I thought she was mocking me at first, it’s fine.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I followed absolutely none of that. Is everything all right? Tenny?”
Tenny’s attention snapped back to the room, as if she had been using all of her mental processing power to compose a new poem. Even her tentacles had all frozen for a second — I hadn’t realised until they’d resumed moving again. She seemed to remember what she’d been trying to do in the first place.
“Auntie Evee!” Tenny spread her tentacles out. “Hug for sad?”
Evelyn cleared her throat, frowning and flushing a little. “Uh, well. It’s not that I don’t … ”
“Air hug, Tenny,” I said. “Remember that auntie Evee has delicate bones? Air hug.”
“Mm-mm!” Tenny nodded. “No touch! I know! I know that, silly Heath!”
Evelyn looked intensely awkward and quite embarrassed as she and Tenny shared an air-hug, with a wide cage of Tenny’s silken black tentacles thrown around her, though without actually touching her directly. Tenny didn’t seem embarrassed in the slightest, tilting her head and pretending to lay it on Evee’s shoulder at a distance of about two feet away. Evee blushed and looked down at the floor tiles. As Tenny withdrew, Evee’s free hand brushed against the final tentacle to leave, which then paused and waited. Tenny didn’t look, already turning away to say something to Lozzie and I, but perhaps that was intentional. Perhaps Tenny understood that auntie Evee needed the excuse of not being seen.
Evee patted the tentacle and muttered something under her breath, something I almost didn’t catch.
“You deserve better.”
By the time Raine got back with the curry, Evelyn wasn’t so angry anymore, even if she was still exhausted.
The second day of waiting for Felicity was less irritating than the first, because I turned out to be correct. But it was also infinitely more worrying — also because I turned out to be correct.
When I woke up in the morning the first thing I did — after disentangling myself from Raine’s arms and clambering over Zheng and planting a kiss on Seven’s forehead — was to creep out into the upstairs hallway and check the weather through the window, to make my prediction. The heavy storm clouds that had spent the previous day bullying Sharrowford had now receded from the city, but not actually left. They waited on the northern horizon, like a dark wall of roiling smoke and oil, waiting to descend and drown the land below. Above the city the light was clearer, the sun poking through in weak shafts of diluted gold, but the threat of a deluge still lay close.
“She’s not coming today,” I whispered to myself in the quiet of the morning, staring out of the window across the smothered dawn. “But she’s still planning on a visit. She’s not bluffing.”
“Edging,” Praem said from halfway down the corridor.
I jumped out of my skin, lashing myself to the walls and ceiling with my tentacles, my human feet tapping on the floor several times before I crammed my heart back down my throat.
“Praem!” I hissed. “How do you always do that?”
A pair of milk-white eyes met me from the shadows, reflecting the dull grey beyond the window. “Stealth.”
I stared for a second, then laughed and smiled and shook my head. “Yes, I suppose, that’s technically accurate. Be careful not to do that when you’re standing too close to me though, I don’t want to accidentally slap you with a tentacle.”
Praem’s head went up and down in a very precise and graceful nod. “I will avoid such an outcome.”
“Of course,” I sighed. “Of course.” Then I looked out of the window again. “So, you agree with me? She’s not coming today? What did you say, ‘edging’? What do you mean?”
Praem stared at me, declining to answer.
I blinked at her in the gloomy hallway. Praem could be so esoteric at times. “You agree that she’s … somehow … oh,” I sighed, “this sounds so silly, Evee was right, it’s absurd, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but … do you agree that she’s controlling the weather, somehow? This is Aym’s doing?”
Praem clicked softly down the floorboards to join me at the window. She emerged from the shadows, a great mass of maid uniform and the soft, cuddly Praem beneath, solid and real, hands clasped before her, prim and proper.
As she stared at the distant horizon, the gravid storm roiled in her eyes.
“If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad,” she said.
“Then Muhammad must go to the mountain,” I finished the saying, sighed, and shook my head. “Praem, what does that mean, in this context?”
Praem turned her head from the window to stare at me. All-white eyes in a pale face, her complexion like milk with a hint of rose, hair pinned up behind her head in a loose, messy bun, all blonde loops and loose locks. She stared, waiting for me. I sighed again and smiled with long-suffering indulgence.
“It means … ” I chewed on my tongue, thinking. “Aym is still intending to visit, as promised, she’s just irritating us in the meantime. We don’t need to make alternative plans. We just need to shore up this one.”
“Mountain climbing is difficult,” said Praem.
I nodded. “Evee can’t climb a mountain. At least not by herself.”
“She can be carried.”
“Then we’ll carry her,” I said. “Praem, of all the things to worry about. I love her too, you know that.” I glanced at Evee’s bedroom door on the other side of the hallway, currently closed, no light showing from the crack at the bottom. “The last thing I’m going to do is let Aym anywhere near her alone.”
“She has to reach the mountain first.”
I frowned at Praem. “Now you’re mixing your metaphors.”
“Now you’re mixing your motivations.”
I blinked several times. “Praem?”
Praem the demon-doll, Praem Saye, Evelyn’s daughter, stared at me in the private gloom of the upstairs hallway, lit only by the storm-tossed horizon beyond the city. She declined to explain.
I sighed, intentionally, blowing out a long breath and pulling my tentacles in close, halting their habitual random drift. I even pulled my back straight; odd, but I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous in front of Praem, saying this. “Praem, whatever confusion or difficulties I might be suffering regarding the exact nature of my personal relationship with Evee, you and I both know that I would lay siege to hell itself to stop her from getting hurt. We saved her together once before. Let’s make sure it never gets to that point again.” I blew out a second breath and discovered I was shaking slightly. “My motivations might be mixed, but they’re also very clear. Like mixing water and … and … vodka. I guess. Wow, I’m sorry, that was bad.”
It was the third such smile I had ever seen on Praem’s face, a mechanical pulling at her soft, plush cheeks and the bow of her lips. Lack of practice had not improved her form. The smile was deeply unnatural, a forced pantomime of emotion; her face simply wasn’t made for it.
“ … are you smiling at my joke, or … ?” I cleared my throat and trailed off.
Praem stopped smiling. She stared at me instead, without saying anything. How very Praem.
“Praem, you don’t have to pretend a smile,” I said. “You don’t have to do that if it doesn’t feel right.”
I bit my lip, unsure if she was just humouring me. “And what about you? Are you okay with all this? I know this Aym thing is a lot to deal with.”
“Where is this coming from?” I asked. “Are you just worried about Evee?”
Stare. Silent. I sighed.
“Are you … worried Aym is going to get out of control? Are you worried she’ll be beyond my powers to contain? Beyond your powers?”
“No,” said Praem, sudden and sharp.
“Okay, okay, no offense meant. I’m sure you can make her cower with nothing but a sharp word. Praem, this is obviously bothering you. I … I think. I’m still not that great at reading your emotions.”
“I will not be present to carry her for the final stretch.”
I blinked, then realised. “Oh. Oh … ”
“Oh,” echoed Praem.
“Oh, Praem, I’m so sorry. When I was making that deal with Aym, I didn’t even think. I didn’t think! You’re not going to be in the room. It’s going to be me and Evee. I should have included you. I should have. I’m so sorry.”
I reached out a hand toward Praem, subconsciously pleading for forgiveness. She was right — I had made the deal with Aym to protect Evee, but I hadn’t included Praem. Who was better at protecting Evelyn Saye than her own beloved daughter?
To my surprise, Praem took my hand in hers. My eyes went wide.
“Is that … ?” I said. “Is that ‘apology accepted’?”
“Apology is not necessary.”
“I’ll look after Evee, I promise. It’ll only be twenty minutes.”
Praem let go of my hand again. She turned back to the window, a punctuation mark on the entire conversation. I turned to stare outdoors too, at the looming storm clouds. But it was difficult to adjust. This was the most I’d heard in Praem’s own words in a while.
“We should talk more often,” I said after a moment. “You and I don’t get many chances to chat.”
“Yes,” said Praem.
“I suppose the storm clouds will stay at least until tomorrow.”
“Do you really think Aym is controlling the weather?”
“ … do you think it’s just to irritate us?” Praem turned her head to stare at me. I sighed and shrugged. “Ask a stupid question,” I muttered.
I didn’t like being correct when it came to weird things that shouldn’t be happening.
The rest of that second day was an exercise in imposing my will by subterfuge, which I was exceptionally bad at. Luckily for me, Evee mostly went along with it. I had help, too.
We knew Aym was going to delay Felicity again. Praem knew it, Raine trusted my judgement, Zheng picked it up without needing to be told, Sevens heard it through a door, Lozzie probably learned it in a dream, and Tenny didn’t really care. But Evee was determined to get very angry and shout at the phone again — so I spent the entire day luring her away with small horses.
Ponies, I mean ponies, of course.
Rather than allow her to spend the day in the kitchen again, sinking deeper and deeper into a fugue state of anxiety and worry, I put into action every trick I’d learned from Raine, called on every bit of theatrical interruption owed to me by Seven-Shades-of-Surreptitiously-Sly, and had Praem stare at Evee from about three inches away, all for the aim of getting her upstairs and in front of those cartoons again.
“She might turn up any bloody minute, Heather! We can’t sit here, indulging ourselves all day. We have to be ready.”
“One more episode.”
“This is the end of the season! Heather, that was the end!”
“Then … next season?”
Evee huffed and crossed her arms. “I would have to download it.”
“We have good internet though, don’t we?”
“Yes, but you should let it sit. Digest what you just watched. Really.”
“What about that show you mentioned two days ago, the … the one with the … ” I wracked my brain. “The sad magical girls?”
Evelyn put her face in her hand. “We are not watching more anime, not while I’m waiting for a demon to show up on my doorstep. Certainly not that one.”
“Suffering,” said Praem.
“Then how about … ” I poked at the track pad on Evee’s laptop, which was sitting on a book on her bed again. “How about this one? These two on the cover, are they a couple? They’re cute. I like the style.”
“One of them is a vampire,” Evelyn grunted. “It’s silly.”
I swear I heard a gurgle from under the bed, but I chose to ignore it. “Even better!” I said. “But they’re a couple?”
Evelyn stared at the ceiling, looking like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to shout at me or go to sleep. “Yes. Well, canonically no. But yes. It’s complicated, one of of them finds the vampire in the woods and goes back to her house and there’s … ”
Evelyn trailed off when she realised what I’d baited her into. She shot me a hard-eyed, blushing look. I just stared back, smiling and waiting. Innocent face! I told myself, keep an innocent face, you’re just super interested in Evee’s very sapphic cartoons, not distracting her from the frustration of waiting another day.
“Heather, we need to be ready.”
“We are ready,” I said. “I’m ready for anything, including hearing about this vampire couple.”
“Only one of them is a vampire,” she sighed — and then surrendered to my pestering.
In a very real way, Evelyn was correct. Aym’s attempt to wind her up and ratchet her anxiety to new heights really was getting in the way of important things. Or at least things I needed to get done. I still had no replacement for my broken mobile phone and we couldn’t risk going out to buy one, in case Felicity did in fact begin her journey to Sharrowford that day. And there was no way I could mount the short but vital expedition to the Shamble-swamp, to check on the Dimensional Shamblers, as I had promised. Not until this task was safely over.
But I took plenty of solace in spending the day with Evee regardless. We watched two different anime shows on that slow, strange, dreary day — the one about the vampire girl and her mortal totally-not-girlfriend, and another one about a group of lady assassins who all seemed to be in love with each other in a dizzying web of romantic nonsense. It was very distracting, which was exactly what Evee needed, especially when Raine started fielding the inevitable calls from Felicity about how she was still stuck.
That evening, when Felicity’s attempt to get herself moving had once again ended in abject failure, I made sure that Evelyn spent a nice long time soaking in the bath. Sanctuary for the mind, solace for the body. It took quite some convincing — plus Praem’s insistent stare — but eventually we got her in there.
Raine found me standing half-in half-out of the doorway to Evelyn’s bedroom, staring down the corridor and listening to the distant, muffled splash of water behind the closed door of the bathroom.
“How’s she holding up?” Raine asked.
“ … mm? Sorry?”
Raine came up beside me, put one hand on the back of my neck, and started rubbing my muscles. I let out a low moan, almost a purr, and let my eyes flutter shut. Raine laughed softly.
“You seem kinda shell shocked, Heather. Take some time for yourself too, okay?”
“I’ve been relaxing with Evee all day, I’m fine.” I opened my eyes again and looked up at Raine, at her warm brown eyes brimming with confidence, her hair raked back like she’d just run a hand through it. “You’re the one who’s been dealing with all the phone calls. Thank you, Raine. I mean it. I wouldn’t be able to do that and look after Evee at the same time.”
Raine smirked and shrugged. “S’nothing. Phone’s easy for me.”
“Still, thank you. I think today was the last of it. I think they’ll set off for real tomorrow.”
Raine raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? You got a theory?”
I nodded toward the dark panes of the window. Evening darkness had fallen far too early for a summer’s night. On the horizon, lit from below by the glow of light pollution, the storm-wall loomed over Sharrowford like the face of a nightmare god. “That storm’s going to break in the morning. She’ll arrive at the same time.”
Raine raised both eyebrows at me in surprise. Not disbelief or scepticism, not even a little bit. “For serious?” she asked.
I suddenly felt very silly. “I … I think. It’s only a theory. Evee says it’s just weather, but it feels wrong to me. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.”
“Hey, Heather, there’s no shame in being wrong about something,” Raine murmured, soft and intimate, for my ears only. She leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “It’s better to have a theory and get proved wrong, rather than not bother thinking at all, right?”
“Right,” I sighed. “I just mean … magic. Even after all this time, it feels so silly. Magical weather because of a demon, really?”
Raine laughed and ruffled my hair. “You’re real tired. I can tell. You’ve done real good today, looking after Evee. Better than I ever could. Well done, Heather.”
I shrugged and pulled an awkward smile, looking down the corridor again, toward the bathroom.
“I really love her, do you know that?”
Why did you say that!? part of my mind screamed — but the rest of me was totally at ease, even as I looked up at Raine, seeking approval or understanding.
Raine ruffled my hair again. “‘Course you do. So do I.”
“No, I mean I … I love her.”
Raine grinned. “Wanna go join her in the bathroom?”
“Tch!” I tutted. “Raine. No. I’m serious.”
“So am I! Go join her in the bathtub, that’ll keep her spirits up.”
I gave Raine a withering look, but she just snorted. What was I trying to do here, confess something important, or express something she already knew? My heart rate was steady, my palms were dry, I was utterly at ease. Raine already knew all this, or thought she knew.
“Praem’s already in the room with her, in case she has trouble getting out of the tub,” I said as a compromise, falling back on the practical dimension. “As always.”
Raine laughed, pulled me into a rough and sudden hug, and kissed the top of my head. “Between you and Praem, Evee’s gonna be just fine.”
I melted into Raine’s arms, leaning my head against her shoulder and closing my eyes. Only then did I realise just how tense I was.
The storm boiled away on the horizon of my mind’s eye, to reveal a dripping grin beneath the clouds.
Distant thunder woke me the next morning, slow waves of mercury and molten silver crashing against a shore of broken glass, rolling across the sky. Raindrops tapped and danced on the roof tiles, hesitant for now, testing us. The sun was dead and buried.
Less than twenty minutes later, I was proven correct; into the gloom of our bedroom sprang the sickly light of Raine’s phone screen, flashing with an incoming call. Felicity, and it wasn’t even seven o’clock in the morning yet. Zheng growled from the other side of me, a shifting bulk moving to protect me from an unseen threat. Raine sat up in bed, sneezed into her elbow, and scooped up the phone.
She answered the call by saying, “You better be on your bloody way this time, Fliss.”
She was. The reclusive mage and her difficult demon were finally on their way to Sharrowford, just as the storm was breaking.
The rain steadily worsened over the next three hours as the storm moved over the city. Then the clouds seemed to stop overhead, hanging low and thick and dark, turning Sharrowford damp and chilly with the unbroken drizzle. Felicity called us twice more, once from the road and once from a service station on the M6, to let us know that all was well and she was making good time. We prepared for her arrival, but there was little left to do, except keep a close eye on Evelyn’s mood. She sat in the kitchen, reading, waiting, seemingly calm and ready. I had given her all I could.
By the time Felicity reached the outskirts of Sharrowford the storm’s drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour. Raindrops slammed against the roof and pounded through the leaves on the old tree out in the garden. Muddy wallows were forming around the back patio where short-lived streams cut through the unkempt grass. The garden path was under half an inch of water and the road itself was swirling with little eddies and puddles as the drains backed up. No wind, so the rain fell straight down from the unmoving clouds.
We even checked the news and found the newsreaders in serious mode, frowning and nodding, the weather lady gesticulating over a map of the north west of England, with Sharrowford picked out beneath a cross-hatching of alarming red. This storm was a big deal, flooding low-lying parts of the city centre and dumping months worth of rain into the river. Downstream would be even worse.
Amid this veil of storm, a dark chariot drew to a stop outside the house.
“She’s here,” Raine announced, peering out of the window in the old disused sitting room. “Places, ladies, places please.”
Nobody had to be told twice.
Felicity had been given very specific instructions about what to do when she arrived. Much to my relief, she followed them to the letter. She was probably terrified that I might set Zheng on her. Raine received two text messages from Felicity, confirming that she was here and that she was ready. Raine and I got into our shoes, following our part of the plan, though we hadn’t planned on the need to wear coats and grab umbrellas, but we did so anyway. No sense in getting soaked.
Evee waited in the kitchen, heavily guarded. There was no chance of Aym ambushing her before we were ready. She had Praem, Zheng, Sevens, Lozzie, and Tenny all in there with her. If Aym wanted to appear to her without warning, she was going to get “choke-slammed by two demons and a playwright”, as Raine so delicately put it.
That failed to get a laugh out of Evee. “Get on with it,” she said. “Go make sure she’s alive, or whatever. Or not.”
“Stay dry,” said Praem.
That was easier said than done. Raine and I stepped out of the front door and into the pounding rain, huddling close together. Water streamed off the pair of umbrellas we’d brought for protection, but even they couldn’t keep the storm entirely at bay. I kept my tentacles wound in close, wrapped around my limbs and anchored to Raine’s waist too, as if we were venturing into an Arctic night. We started off down the path, wellington boots splashing in the rushing stream of water.
“That’s the car, right?” Raine asked, speaking over the static of the raindrops.
“The same one from the last time she visited, yes.”
Felicity’s car was partially obscured by the sheer density of the rain pounding against the bodywork and tinted windows, but there was no mistaking it for any other vehicle. A battered old range rover, dark green, eaten away at the edges by slow rust. Even washed clean by the rain, the thing looked about ready to lie down and die of exhaustion. I knew very little about cars, but Raine had informed me that when new, such a car would have cost a very large amount of money.
The engine was silent, no lights showed inside the cabin, and the windscreen wipers lay still. But I could see a vague outline through the windscreen as we approached, a figure sitting in the driver’s seat, watching us draw close.
Felicity — for it must have been her — raised a hand in limp greeting.
Raine and I stopped on the pavement next to the passenger-side door, our wellington boots squeaking against the wet ground. Raine tilted her umbrella so Felicity could lower the window without getting a torrent of water inside her car. I huddled close to Raine, bracing for anything, one tentacle raised to — to what? To punch through the glass and grab Felicity by the face? To intercept Aym if she darted out like a missile?
Through the tinted glass, the figure inside leaned over and found the handle to manually crank the window down. With aching slowness, the dark glass lowered, revealing the unmistakable face of Felicity Amber Hackett.
Felicity was a very strange looking woman indeed, a certain kind of face one never forgets. Whatever she had been responsible for, whatever she had once inflicted upon Evee, however much she was a mage, it was difficult to look at the facts of her flesh and not feel at least some sympathy.
The entire left side of Felicity’s face was a burn scar. Old, reddish, rough scarring stretched from her scalp, blurred her brow and cheek and jaw, and vanished down inside her neckline. She had no left ear. Her left eye was blind, milky-white, sight burned away. The left corner of her lips was missing, wiped away by flame, the source of her permanent mumble.
The healthy side — her right — was unguarded, skittish, and soft. She didn’t look like a mage at all. In fact, she reminded me in an uncomfortable way of some of the older girls I’d briefly known at Cygnet children’s hospital. Gentle, afraid, haunted, forced into constant hyper-vigilance.
Felicity wasn’t intimidating at all. She was a very pitiful thing, brittle and willowy, moving as if always suppressing internal pain or hiding an injury.
Her reddish-brown hair fell to the middle of her back. She was wearing a dark cardigan and a battered blue coat, big boots on her feet and black leather gloves on both hands.
“Heeeeeey Flissy,” said Raine, grinning without guile. “Here at last, hey? Didn’t get to see you in the flesh last time you came down.”
Felicity froze, then straightened up very, very slowly indeed, back into the driver’s seat, as if Raine was a rattlesnake she had disturbed by turning over a rock. Her good eye stayed locked on Raine with all the focus of a gunfighter preparing to draw. She took great care to keep both hands in view as she moved, then carefully placed them back on the steering wheel, at two-and-ten.
Which was smart, in front of Raine, because Felicity had a gun lying in her lap.
I sighed sharply when I realised, shaking my head. A towel-wrapped bundle lay across Felicity’s thighs, about the right size and shape for the sawn-off shotgun she’d brought with her on her previous visit. One end was pointed off at an angle, not quite at us. The other end was open, the towel partially unwrapped, probably so she could access the grip and trigger.
“What is it with mages and paranoia?” I snapped. “You could have at least kept the thing in a bag. What is it even for? Were you planning a drive-by?”
Felicity blinked at me, suddenly self-conscious and mortified. “I’m— I— I— I’m sorry,” she said in her distinct half-mumble from her restricted mouth. “Precautions. You have to understand, there’s— there’s always precautions to take, when I’m away from home.”
“Hey, it’s all cool,” Raine said, still smiling. She leaned forward, one elbow on the lip of the car window. “Nothing to worry about, no danger to us.”
“Y-yes,” Felicity agreed. “It’s not for you, not aimed at you. I never know who I might see on the road. Have to be careful.”
“Besides,” said Raine. “Even with your gun in your lap and mine in my coat, I’d still draw faster than you.”
Felicity went white with fear.
“Oh Raine, for pity’s sake,” I hissed. “This isn’t Amy Stack. You don’t need to have a surrogate penis-measuring contest with Felicity. Really!”
Raine had the good grace to look a little sheepish, clearing her throat and looking away, out into the pouring rain, but she still grinned like this was all a big joke. “Well, you know. She started it.”
“It’s a gun, Raine. Take this seriously.”
“I am taking it seriously.” She laughed. “That’s why I’m armed!”
“Tch,” I tutted and sighed, then turned my anger on Felicity too. She flinched before I even opened my mouth, but she kept her hands glued to the steering wheel. “And you, this is practically a replay of last time you visited! Pointing a concealed weapon at us again! Mages, I swear to good sense, all of you are impossible.” I huffed and peered into the back of the car, past the passenger seat, but there was nothing back there except a couple of large bags, some towels, and a bundle of wires. “Where’s Aym, anyway?”
“It’s not even loaded for people,” Felicity mumbled.
“I’m sorry?” I blinked back at her, not sure if I’d heard that right. Felicity was staring at me with a kind of hollow horror in her one good eye, exhausted and twitchy.
Raine laughed. “Silver shot or iron pellets still work just the same on human beings, Fliss.”
“Good thing it’s not loaded with those, then,” Felicity said to Raine. “I could point this at you and pull the trigger and it wouldn’t hurt you. It’s not for you. I have things of my own going on, okay?” Felicity’s voice threatened to break. She panted twice, to get her composure back, as little as it was. “I need to carry protection. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
Raine studied her for a moment, then nodded, no longer laughing or grinning. “Okay, Fliss. We’re cool. Does this mean you gotta carry that gun into our house?”
Felicity blinked twice. “I … I wasn’t expecting to … be allowed inside.”
I sighed, hunching a little against the rain, despite my umbrella. “Yes, I think it’s best if you don’t come in. Evelyn has agreed not to try to kill you, I want to make that clear. But it would make her very unhappy.”
Felicity looked down at her car’s dashboard, her eyes miles away. She nodded to herself. “Yeah. Yeah. I … I don’t get to see her. I don’t. Can you maybe … maybe tell her … from me—”
“After she’s spoken to Aym,” I said.
It took all my ruthlessness, all my hard-hearted love for Evee, to tell this broken woman no.
Felicity drew in a shuddering breath, then nodded. She didn’t look at us.
“Hey, Fliss,” Raine said. “Serious question, yeah?”
“Mm?” Felicity looked up at last.
“That gun, you out here on your own, once Aym comes inside with us and all. Are you safe?”
Felicity stared for a moment, then swallowed, then straightened up. She seemed to find some strength in the answer to that question. “Probably. If I was being followed, I would know by now. If something … arrives, well, that’s what the gun’s for. I’ll be alright.”
Raine nodded. A professional reassuring a rookie.
I peered into the back seat again. “Where’s Aym?”
“Yeah,” Raine said “You hiding her in the boot?”
Felicity sighed. “She’s always here, always with me. If you go inside and go into a room alone, she’ll be ready. Heather and Evee alone, I mean. She normally never shows herself to more than one person at a time, but she’ll cooperate for this. I guess.”
“Real spooky.” Raine shot Felicity a wink.
“And make sure,” Felicity added, “make sure nobody else is alone during this. She might … well … I don’t know what she might do. I don’t control her. I can’t. She might … ” Felicity trailed off and shrugged.
“We’ve made sure everybody is together,” I said. “All in one place.”
Raine opened her mouth — then stopped, eyebrows shooting up. She turned to me. I frowned at her, then my eyes went wide and I put my free hand over my mouth.
“Don’t say—” Felicity started.
“Kim’s not at work today,” Raine said, then snapped back to Felicity. “Oh. Shit. Did I just jinx us?”
“Kimberly!” I hissed. “You’re right. She was sleeping in late, she always sleeps in late on her days off.”
Felicity went grey, panting with panic. “You said it! You said it! Not me! She’s going to have heard that!”
Raine rapped her knuckles on the car door to get Felicity’s attention. “Hey. What do we do?”
“Interrupt her! Quickly!”
“Kimberly is tougher than she looks,” I said. “We have time to get back indoors and get her with the others before—”
A scream of mad panic suddenly cut through the storm, muffled by the pounding rain and the walls of the house and the complexity of the second floor bedrooms. I had not heard that scream in months and months, the sort of scream that went on and on as somebody scrambled out of bed and hurled objects and fell over and banged into things.
Kimberly, screaming her head off.
Aym isn’t even there and she’s causing problems. She is causing problems by doing the one specific thing that Evelyn would actually prefer: not turning up. It’s a talent and a skill, being a little shit without even being present. Still, it did give Evee and Heather another chance to watch pony cartoons together. Very important use of everybody’s time. And Praem! This is the most she’s spoken in a while. Storms, meanwhile, are very comfy!
Incredibly enough, there is now another podcast also talking about Katalepsis! Perhaps encouraged by the release of the Volume I ebook and audiobook, the podcast In Media Les have made an hour long discussion about arcs 1-4. I swear, I didn’t plan this! Go give it a listen, if you like!
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Next week, Heather is going to tell Aym off so much. Nobody frightens Heather’s found family, not even those on the very edge of the pack.