Brief discussion of abuse
Mental health institutionalisation
Aym did not stay physically manifested all the time, which made the logistics of the next few hours much more convoluted and confusing than was necessary. Knowing Aym, that was probably the whole point, and a likely source of great amusement as well. Aym may have agreed to help us, but she was still elementally herself. We couldn’t trust her not to take an opportunity to jump on somebody’s back in a dark hallway, or creep over the edge of an unattended bed, or heaven forbid, surprise one of us while sitting on the toilet.
It was like having a cartoon bogeyman — bogeygirl? — as a house guest.
She started by vanishing from the sofa in the magical workshop, right in front of us, during a momentary lapse in concentration. I had been looking down at Evee, struggling with lingering shock and numb betrayal after her trickery with the fade stone; Evelyn’s eyes were glued to a point on the floor, burning with embarrassment at her own transgression; Praem must have turned her head just enough for Aym to slide into her peripheral vision. The coal-sprite of black lace and pinched face on the sofa blurred into a shadow on the edge of three sets of consciousness, human and demon and abyssal, and then she went up in puff of black mist.
“H-hey!” I said to the empty air. “Aym!”
Praem turned, snap-sharp. “Back. Here. Now.”
Evelyn huffed explosively. “Calm down, this is just what she does. Unless you want to pin her to the wall with iron spikes.”
“Hahaha!” Aym chortled. Her voice came from behind the sofa, her laugh like a rusty awl dragged through a bucket of decayed bolts. “Don’t worry, silly magey-wageys and anime demon maids, I’m not running away. Go get Flissy! Then we’ll talk magic. Real magic. I pinky-swear double-special promise, swear on my best little black dress. Which is every little black dress.”
Evelyn snapped, “You’re trying to get her to occupy the same room as me. I can see right through that. Just give her the information.”
“Uh-uh,” Aym croaked like a broken frog. “She won’t be able to do this one alone. This spell’s going to need more than one mage. Time to put your heads together, naughty kittens.”
“Ah,” I murmured. That was close to a worst-case scenario.
Evelyn stared at the sofa cushions as if her gaze might burn holes through them and smoke out Aym. I hesitated to touch her shoulder, she seemed on the verge of losing her temper again, and I felt a stinging, dull resentment that I didn’t like, didn’t want to acknowledge. But I gathered my courage and touched her with my fingertips.
“Evee?” I said. “You won’t be … ”
Alone, I meant to say, but the declaration died on my lips. She had ensured I wasn’t alone, either.
Evelyn shot a single glance up at me, furtive and guilty. She couldn’t hold it for long. “Fine,” she grunted.
“I said fine,” she snapped. “Go get her. Let’s get this farce over with.”
So, with much too-ing and fro-ing and making certain that nobody went anywhere unaccompanied, we fetched Felicity down from upstairs, prying her out of whatever dubious heart-to-heart she was having with Kimberly, though thankfully chaperoned by Sevens-Shades-of-Serious-Scrutiny.
This process meant leaving Praem and Evelyn alone together in the magical workshop, while Raine and I went upstairs to Kimberly’s bedroom, with strict instructions to Lozzie and Tenny that they were to stay together, and a suggestion that Zheng not wander around too much, at least not yet. It felt like a magical version of that old puzzle about getting a cabbage, a goat, and a wolf across a river, in a boat that can only hold two at a time, without somebody or something getting eaten.
Upstairs, Raine and I found a curious tableau: Kimberly was sat cross-legged on her bed, tucked inside a nest of blankets pulled up around her shoulders and neck, with Sevens perched not too far away, knees drawn up to her chest beneath the yellow robes. They looked very comfy and cosy. I yearned to join them, especially with the rain drumming on the roof and windows, the room a shadowy grotto of resumed safety in the depths of the house. Felicity was sitting on Kim’s swivel chair by her desk, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, hands together, sober-faced, as if she’d been listening intently to a grim tale. They’d heard us coming down the corridor, so the conversation had trailed off, but Kimberly seemed dry-eyed and calm, despite looking puffy-faced and a little strung-out. Felicity managed to look guilty, ashamed, defiant, and somewhat worried all at once. I caught Sevens’ eyes quickly, but she was unreadably heavy-lidded, like a lizard caught in the cold. I assumed that meant there was nothing to worry about — or that Sevens needed a mug of human blood. I made a mental note that somebody we trusted needed to talk to Kim, and soon.
“It’s go time,” Raine said to Felicity. “Your little shit of a friend says you’re needed. Let’s bounce.”
Felicity stared for a second as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Her good eye, her right eye, went wide with surprise, the burned-out left eye hanging dull in its socket of scar tissue. Then she nodded stiffly, picking up her sports bag and pulling herself to her feet like an elderly lady with terrible arthritis. She nodded once to Kimberly too, pulling the awkward smile of somebody who knew no words could suffice. I think I was the only one who noticed Kimberly raise her fingers as if to catch Felicity’s hand; the gesture was so truncated, aborted before it could begin, but there was no mistaking the way her red, puffy eyes followed the older mage out of the room.
As Felicity and Raine ducked out into the corridor, I lingered for just long enough to say, “Sevens, Kim, you two stay together for a while longer, please. Aym is still being difficult, to put it politely. Are you okay together, or do you want to swap with somebody else?”
Kimberly stared at me, then stared at Sevens as if only just remembering that the blood-goblin was right next to her on the bed.
“Guuurk,” went Sevens. “S’okay. We’ll talk about video games for a bit.”
Kimberly stammered, “V-video games?”
“Video. Games.” Sevens wriggled a hand free from her nest of yellow robes and pointed one pale finger at Kimberly’s computer. “Show me the one where you farm crops but also date girls. I saw you play it before. Want to see more.”
I left Kimberly to get distracted by Seven-Shades-of-Agricultural-Dating-Sim, and followed Raine and Felicity downstairs. The rest of the house was resuming around us, now unbound from temporary restriction in the disused sitting room; Lozzie bounced past in the front room, pausing to inform me that “Twil’s on her way!” When I asked who called, she only giggled. Tenny followed Lozzie upstairs; curiously enough she was leading Marmite by a tentacle, black silken appendage wrapped around one of his own segmented bone-tentacles. Marmite trotted along quite happily. Perhaps Tenny wasn’t going to require a new pet of her own after all. But then again, poor Whistle could hardly make friends with a giant invisible spider-squid-thing. Could he?
“Stick together, please!” I called after them as I hurried along in Felicity’s wake.
Zheng, of course, was impossible to truly control, but at least I didn’t have to worry about her going off alone and getting ambushed by Aym. I suspect that Aym would have regretted such an ambush very much. What we did have to worry about, apparently, was Zheng going feral with the desire to hunt. By the time Felicity, Raine, and I stepped through the workshop door, Evee was yelling at her.
“You’re going to damage the bloody sofa! Stop that!”
Zheng had hoisted one end of the sofa up into the air with a hand, tipping it almost onto its end. She was peering at the dusty wall behind it, shark-teeth bared and lips peeled back, a resonant rumbling noise in her chest, searching for Aym.
“Aym is not there,” said Praem, in a voice like a silver bell.
“Rrrrrrrrrrrr,” Zheng growled.
“Oh!” I said. “Oh dear, Zheng, please, no.”
“Zheng yes! Haha!” Raine laughed.
“Put it down!” Evelyn snapped. “This isn’t funny.”
“Come out, coward-thing,” Zheng rumbled. “Both formless and spineless.”
A voice cackled from under the table, “Ooooh, she’s got me dead to rights there.”
Zheng dropped the sofa with a spine-jerking clunk; I was surprised it didn’t just break in two. Me and Felicity both flinched. Evelyn huffed and tried to whack Zheng on the shins with her walking stick. I never got to find out if Zheng would have endured the abuse without retribution, because Zheng moved like greased lightning. She was across the room in a flash and down on her haunches to reach under the table. But her swiping hand and wide eyes found nothing. She growled in frustration and shot upright again, rumbling through her teeth as she turned in a slow circle.
From somewhere impossible to determine — perhaps beneath Evee’s chair, perhaps behind the open door, or perhaps inside the cavity of the walls themselves — Aym let out a snorty giggle.
Zheng showed her teeth in challenge. Felicity’s hand lingered over the opening of her sports bag, too near to her shotgun. Perhaps whatever it was loaded with would work handily on Zheng. The spider-servitors looked very nonplussed by all this. The one crouched on the table hadn’t moved an inch. I think they’d figured out how much of this was for show.
I tutted. “It’s like a pair of cats who don’t know each other’s scent. Zheng, stop it, please. I know she’s extremely annoying, but Aym has agreed to help us. At least wait until we’re done.”
Aym giggled. “But then I’m fair game? Sooooo scary!”
Zheng’s eyes tracked something invisible, something moving behind a wall, a signal only she could hear.
“Hey,” Raine said to Zheng, voice easy and soft in a way I hadn’t expected. “I don’t blame you, but ease down, yeah?”
“Aym,” I said, “stop winding her up. Maybe then she won’t want to eat you.”
Zheng huffed, grunted, and stalked for the door — but then she stopped at the last second. One muscled reddish-brown arm whirled outward, a hook of fingers aimed straight for Felicity’s face.
I think I yelped; somebody did, anyway. Somebody else gasped in horror. Raine moved to grab Zheng’s arm, but not quite fast enough. My tentacles whipped out too, about to drag Zheng off balance. We were all too slow, too off-guard, too relaxed.
But Zheng’s killing blow slammed to a halt, half an inch from shattering the delicate bones of Felicity’s jaw and skull. Arm held rock-solid still, paused in the moment before murder, Zheng froze. She wasn’t even looking at Felicity. She was watching a point on the far wall, waiting for her bluff to pay off.
Evee was panting in shock, gone grey in the face. Praem placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey!” Raine said, voice like a whip. She clapped her hands together twice. I jerked upright in obedience, Raine’s voice was so full of command. “Hey, both of you, down, right now!”
It was only then that I realised Felicity had drawn her sawn-off shotgun.
If Zheng’s strike had been for real, from that close, Felicity wouldn’t have had time to drag the weapon out of the sports bag slung over her shoulder. But the quivering bluff had given her the moment she needed to wrench the gun free of its concealing towels, flick the safety off, and press the double muzzles of the shotgun right against Zheng’s ribs, just below her armpit. Free of its improvised wrappings, the sawn-off was a dark viper of black metal and polished wood, well-oiled and properly cared for, a pure expression of mechanical violence.
Felicity herself was grey with terror, eyes gone wide as saucers, taking shallow, panicked breaths through her nose. But her grip on the gun was rock solid, her index finger touching the trigger.
“Felicity, no!” I snapped. I reached toward the shotgun with a tentacle, but I dared not risk jerking the weapon. Felicity’s trigger finger was so very tight.
“I’m not moving until this demon-host backs down,” she said in a near-incomprehensible half-mumble from her damaged mouth. Adrenaline and fear rendered her much harder to make out. “Call her off. Call her off. Heather, call her off.”
“Zheng, please,” I said. But Zheng didn’t move. She was like a hunting hound, utterly focused on Aym’s potential appearance.
“Fuck’s sake,” Evelyn huffed. She stamped with her walking stick. “This is the absolute last thing I want to be dealing with on top of everything else! Is Tenny in the kitchen, is she seeing this? Is a child witnessing this bullshit?”
I cleared my throat very gently. “Tenny and Lozzie went upstairs.”
“Good!” Evelyn spat. “At least vulnerable minds are spared this nonsense. Zheng, you great big brainless fuck, get off her, now! And you — you lower that fucking shotgun in my house or I will have Praem flog you.” Evelyn fumed silently for the space of two heartbeats. “You think I’m joking, try me. She’ll have to glue your skin back on.”
Praem agreed, “It is no jest.”
Slowly, the mutual stand-off disengaged. Zheng moved her hand forward, then dropped it away from Felicity’s face, muscles rippling. Felicity removed her finger from the trigger and lowered the weapon. Zheng stepped away, still not bothering to even look at Felicity, or anybody else. Fliss clicked the safety on her gun.
“Coward,” Zheng snorted.
Aym giggled, apparently from inside the ceiling. “I knew you weren’t really going to punch Flissy’s brains out through her neck. I can smell a bluff a mile away, even through all that muscle. You reek.”
Zheng pulled a face of utter disgust, then finally turned on her heel and stalked out of the magical workshop.
A collective creak of tension passed through the rest of us. Felicity stowed her sawn-off shotgun back in her bag with shaking hands, a terrible tremor coming over her. Then she staggered over to the sofa and sat down without asking. Evelyn was taking several deep breaths, rubbing the bridge of her nose. Praem managed to look unruffled and perfect, but she stayed in physical contact with Evee, hands on shoulders. Raine clapped me on the back and asked me if I was alright. It took a moment for me to gather my wits and answer, nodding along, mouth bone dry, heart still racing.
“Fucking zombie,” Evelyn muttered.
Zheng’s aggressive stunt had served as a reminder of what we were dealing with here: monsters and mages, all of them very dangerous, regardless of pleasant words or amusing asides. This was still a very delicate situation, complete with armed self-defence and malignant demons.
I wasn’t the only one who had been reminded. Even as we all took a collective breath and gathered ourselves, Felicity and Evelyn found each other.
Evelyn did not look angry. Felicity did not warrant a glare or a scowl or a sneer. Evee looked at the other mage as if she was an unidentified brown stain on a pair of underwear. Felicity couldn’t return that look, not even with her burned-out eye. She placed her bag on the sofa, then stared at the floor, a woman quietly enduring exposure to deathly cold.
“Okay, alright then,” Raine said, stepping forward. She was braver than I, to step into atmosphere chillier than the interstellar void. She clapped her hands together. “We’re all here now, no need to get off-topic again. Aym, if you would take it away, please? Let’s get this sorted out so we move on and get out of each other’s hair, sooner rather than later.” She shot a look at Felicity, dense with meaning, but Felicity was staring at the bare floorboards, a withered and dying plant before Evee’s blank-faced hatred.
To my surprise, Felicity said, “Yeah. Let’s get this over with. I’ll get out as soon as I can.” She wet her lips and started to add, “I’m sorry—”
“Ohhhhhhh,” Aym purred from behind the table, somewhere on the other side of the spider-servitor, which scuttled back out of the way as if catching scent of a terrible predator. “Oh oh oh, I am afraid this is going to take so much longer than that.”
Aym’s pinched and pale little face rose on the other side of the table, framed by her long black hair, as if she had hidden by ducking down in the seat of a chair. Like a black and dripping mushroom, a skeletal stick festooned with sheets of lace, she popped up into one of the chairs on the other side of the table, planted her boney elbows on the wood, and decided to ignore us in favour of winking at the spider-servitor. The spider was firmly unimpressed, standing stock-still and pointing its cluster of spike-tipped stingers at Aym’s face.
“Well well well,” said Raine. “There she is. You aren’t quite what I was expecting.”
Aym made a kissy-face at the spider. When she still didn’t get a response, she sighed and shrugged and turned her attention toward Raine, answering with nothing but a little smile.
“Be nice,” said Praem. Aym winced, blinking as if she had received a face full of cold air.
Felicity was frowning at Aym, mystified by something. She started to shake her head. “Aym?”
“What’s wrong, Flissy?” Aym purred.
“Well … you’re here. You don’t usually … not in front of other people. What are you doing?”
Aym smiled, toothy and girlish, and spoke in a voice made of hydrochloric acid. “Don’t ask questions to which you don’t want to know the answer. How many times, Flissy?” Aym giggled, wiggling her fingers and toying with the loose black lace around her wrists.
Felicity swallowed hard, holding Aym’s gaze for a moment before dropping her eyes back to the floor.
“Be nice,” Praem repeated, “includes Miss Hackett.”
Aym flinched and stiffened, as if Praem’s words had dropped an ice cube down the back of her dress. She hissed through her teeth, a sound like an angry komodo dragon, then smiled an increasingly sour smile.
“Enough with the comedy act,” Evelyn snapped. “What do you mean this is going to take longer? What are you trying to pull now, Aym?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is a rather worrying statement.”
Aym made a faux-innocent face, batting dark eyelashes and touching the fingertips of one hand to the middle of her chest. “Me? Play a trick? Never! I’m only supplying a personal estimate, based on prior experience. Why, if you and Felicity were to outstrip my expectations, I would be delighted!”
I cleared my throat and let my tentacles drift outward. Of all the people in the magical workshop only Praem and Aym could see them unaided. The meaning could not be mistaken.
“Aym,” I said. “The longer this takes, the harder my ultimate task.”
“Quite,” Evelyn added. “The longer we take to break the spell which hides Edward’s home, the less time to overcome him — or steal his books — and the less time to prepare the Invisus Oculus. Do not fuck us around.”
Aym rolled her eyes so hard I swore it was beyond human norms. “Flissy, what did I tell you about this before?”
Felicity took a moment to answer — she’d been staring at Evelyn, lost in a moment of undisguised fascination, the first time I’d ever seen her look directly at Evee without shame or pain or an apology on her lips. For a moment my skin crawled and my spine threatened to peel itself right out of my body; I assumed Felicity was taking the opportunity to stare because everybody’s attention was glued to Aym. Perhaps Evelyn had been right about her all along. Perhaps we really should have ensured Felicity not ever step foot in this house again.
But then I realised Felicity had only looked up at the words Invisus Oculus.
“Uh,” Felicity murmured, gathering herself before anybody but me could notice her staring. She took a deep breath and spoke with more confidence, back in her element. “Aym told me the original magic to conceal Tannerbaum house wasn’t actually that complicated. Basic geometrical principles — the pentagram and the circle — applied via the occlusion principles in Manus Cruenta.”
“Yes, I recall that much,” said Evelyn. “That principle isn’t possible to scale up. We’d need hundreds of dead peacocks. Thousands. It’s ridiculous.”
Felicity’s left hand strayed to her sports bag. I saw Raine stiffen, but she relaxed again when Felicity just patted the canvas. “I brought the book with me, in case we need to … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “Well. You know.”
Evelyn sneered and said without looking at Felicity, “You stole that from my mother’s old collection.”
Felicity froze, open mouthed. “Wha … I didn’t! I didn’t. I-I swear! I never stole from Loretta. I never.”
“Not when she was alive,” Evelyn muttered.
Felicity rummaged in the sports bag with both hands, then pulled out a thick leatherbound book, brown and cracked with age, but not quite old enough to crumble from regular handling. With desperate eyes and a greying complexion, she held it out toward Evee in both hands.
“I-it’s yours then!” she said. “Take it!”
Praem reached out and gently refused the book on Evee’s behalf, pressing it back toward Felicity. Evelyn didn’t even look.
Raine pulled a mighty grimace and caught my eye. I felt just as trapped as she did; this was no place for non-mages right now. I felt like a wildlife documentary maker in the middle of a group of posturing predators. If it wasn’t for Evelyn’s need for support, I would have scuttled away. The fade stone still sat heavy in her lap, the lump of white quartz mocking me silently. I stared down at that instead.
Evelyn sucked on her teeth and watched Aym. The coal-dust demon stared back, a little smile playing across her lips. They had made an agreement earlier, even if only in spirit: Evelyn was to stop tormenting Felicity every time they spoke. That was half the price for the spell.
Aym opened her lips with a wet click and a devious smile. For one horrible moment I thought she was going to demand Evelyn apologise to Felicity, right there in front of everybody. My tentacles twitched with protective affection, despite the sour feeling in my gut as I stared at the fade stone.
“That stupid little book,” Aym said in a voice of acid melting through silver, “is incomplete. And it lies. Sort of like me.” She rolled her eyes upward in thought, then giggled. “When Tannerbaum house was placed in its labyrinth, the grand old bastard used that book. I know, because I watched the whole thing happen. He couldn’t conceal anything from me. Just like you, Flissy. Just like you.”
Felicity swallowed hard, suddenly very focused on Aym. “But?” she prompted.
“But! The first time, it didn’t take. The labyrinth was born, but the house was not in it. He had to do the whole thing again, with a lot of blood, most of it his own but lots of it from elsewhere, all painted inside the house to make it correspond with the twisty turns of the place it was supposed to be hidden.”
“Simadia,” Evelyn murmured, her eyes alight with that familiar old magician look — cold and hungry fascination. Then, unexpectedly, she laughed, a single hard bark.
“Don’t think I get that one,” said Raine, a wry grin on her lips.
“Me neither,” I said awkwardly. I was feeling increasingly out of my depth.
“Simadia,” Felicity echoed, frowning to herself. “It’s a Greek grimoire — Byzantine, actually, not ancient — on the magic of making places into signs and symbols, which then correspond to other places.”
“And it’s nonsense,” Evelyn grunted at Aym, though she seemed oddly amused. “Monk bullshit. Folk magic. Not real.”
Aym just shrugged, tiny shoulders beneath too many black layers.
Evelyn drummed her fingers on the handle of her walking stick. Felicity clenched her hands together, lost somewhere inside her own head.
“Soooooooooooooo,” Raine said after a moment. “What now? We need to find a different book? Complete one fetch quest to unlock another fetch quest? I never liked that kind of thing.”
“I’m thinking,” Evelyn said.
“Mm,” went Felicity.
“Time for tea,” said Praem. She didn’t wait for acknowledgement, turning on her heel and marching into the kitchen, maid uniform swaying around her legs as she went. A moment later we could hear the gentle clink of mugs and the watery slosh of the kettle being filled. Neither Evee nor Felicity responded to that. Aym made a show of checking her flawless nails.
Evelyn murmured, “If Edward used the same method … ”
“Which is an assumption,” Felicity said. Evelyn hissed softly and tossed her head sideways. Felicity added, “But one we have to make.”
“Question is how to reverse it.”
Felicity sighed. “You’d need a magic circle that covers the entire countryside, the whole area where this house might be. I assume that’s defined?”
“Mm.” Evelyn grunted. She still didn’t look at Felicity. “Made a map. It’s on the table. Quite large, from here to Stockport.”
“Tch,” Felicity tutted. “Do we even have the resources for that?”
Evelyn finally looked up at Felicity, as if coming out of a trance. Her eyes blazed with such disgust that for a second I thought she was going to reach over and hit the other mage with her walking stick. Raine actually stepped forward, to put her own body in the path of any violence. I crept one tentacle around Evee’s side too, not quite touching. I had a sudden and vindictive urge to covertly snatch the fade stone out of her lap.
But then Evelyn said, “We … do not have the resources. Correct.”
Felicity nodded, lowering her eyes again. “Right. Right. Yes.”
“But,” Evelyn said, “there may be another way. I have a copy of Simadia upstairs, in my study. We can work from that. Are you going to try to steal that, too?”
Felicity looked up, moving only her eyes. “No.”
The two mages stared at each other for a long and uncomfortable moment. On the far side of the room, on the other side of the table, Aym sank into a black cloud of her own lace and hair, a Cheshire Cat grin in the threatening gloom from beyond the walls. Raindrops on the roof filled the room with static, broken with difficulty by the boiling of the kettle in the kitchen. I felt an urge to speak, but kept my mouth firmly shut. One of my tentacles touched a tip to the white quartz of the fade stone, then retreated.
This was a mage thing. I had no place in this particular conversation, other than at Evee’s side.
Evelyn huffed and seemed to expand into her chair. “Then let’s get this over with before the end of the day. I hope you’re still sharp, Felicity, because I have no use for you otherwise.”
Magic talk made me feel like a third wheel. Perhaps ‘fifth wheel’ or ‘seventh wheel’ would be more accurate, with the number of people who spent that afternoon in the warm cocoon of the magical workshop, poring over ancient tomes, sketching magical designs, debating how best to perform a large-scale, long-distance, low-signal magical work which nobody had ever attempted before — or just listening to Felicity and Evelyn doing all that, to the background of the storm drizzling on outdoors.
At first there was simply no question of leaving them alone. Even with Praem in the room to support and protect her mother, I couldn’t dream of wandering off and leaving Evelyn with Felicity, let alone Aym as well. So I settled in with fresh coffee and a sandwich for lunch, listening to things I didn’t understand. Praem bustled about making sure Evelyn ate something. Raine set up camp too, with a hand-held game console and her headphones.
Felicity and Evelyn planned real magic on that table, the kind which made my eyes ache to look at. They debated how to proceed, how to crack an existing spell. Evelyn filled page after page with rough magic circles, suggestions of designs to “unravel the knot” and “break the field at a pre-determined weak point, because it must have one.”
Felicity made notes on the Ordnance Survey map, the same one we’d used to figure out Nicole’s route during her magical fugue state, when she may have visited Edward’s house.
When they spoke, they stuck to the problem, which was a relief.
“Closer to Stockport would be better, require a smaller circle,” Felicity said.
“Nonsense,” Evelyn snapped. “It makes no difference. We may as well do it in the woods. Besides, how would we conceal it? We’re going to be using a lot of blood.”
Felicity frowned at the map. “Where are we going to get that?”
“A butcher’s. We’re not carting a live bull out there.”
“It has to be male. A bull, not a cow. Not mixed blood.”
“As I said. A butcher’s.”
“Or Zheng,” I offered, but neither of them were really listening.
The spider-servitor who had been crouched on the table had to scoot all the way to the end, then clamber down onto the floor. Maps and notes and half-scribbled designs proliferated across the tabletop, spiralling outward. Despite the massive size of the old oaken table, Felicity and Evee sat very far apart, with plenty of room between them, well beyond arm’s reach. Evelyn kept her bone-wand right in her lap, like a loaded gun ready to threaten with. Felicity left her concealed shotgun in the bag on the sofa. Praem often took up station on a chair equidistant between the two of them.
Twil called us twice, to let us know she was on her way over; then to let us know she was going to be late because she was buying us all dinner. She didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, but nobody had the heart to tell her.
Aym came and went seemingly at random, which kept spooking me, putting my abyssal instincts on edge, making my tentacles twitch and flinch at every errant shadow. She didn’t seem to have much left to add after her cryptic reveal of how to hide a house. Sometimes she sat on the opposite side of the table, sharp chin in delicate hands, swinging her legs back and forth as she watched the mages work, like a child watching her mother at the stove. Other times she appeared on the sofa, dozing and bored, or lying on her stomach and waving her feet in the air inside thick black socks. Once or twice she materialised in front of the gateway at the far end of the room, going up on tiptoes to examine Evelyn’s handiwork, the huge mandala design which cupped and surrounded the doorway of blank plaster cut into the wall. Evelyn gave her a sour, dark look, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t as if Aym was a rival mage, stealing her secrets.
Felicity tried not to look at her, suppressing tension in her shoulders whenever Aym was too close.
Occasionally Aym vanished altogether. Once I thought I heard low voices from over in the utility room; Zheng and Aym speaking to each other, but that couldn’t be right. Later on, when we were approaching an entire hour of endurance, Aym sat across from me at the table, staring and smiling with the manner of an irritating child who knows she is technically not breaking any rules by watching an adult, but is nonetheless being an intentional irritant.
“What do you normally do for fun, Aym?” I asked eventually. I’d meant it mockingly, but I couldn’t quite manage the tone.
“I like to read poems,” she answered with an innocent little moue, a dimple in her cheeks, and a voice like a rusty nail in salt, “paint watercolours, and take long walks on the beach. What about you, squid-brains?”
I couldn’t stand it — Aym, that answer, this whole situation.
I was terrible at waiting. I always had been ever since Cygnet Children’s Hospital, since the long and lonely hours in that blank grey place, coupled with the unspoken pressure to not acknowledge that one could not in fact get up and leave. It wasn’t polite to draw attention to one’s confinement. Good girls waited to be dismissed, for the proper times to go to the common area, to go to one’s room, to see the doctors. Good girls waited and did not ask.
This was hardly the same, sitting in a familiar and safe place, deep in the heart of the truest home I’d ever known. But I was antsy and uncomfortable, and the situation was degenerating.
At first, Felicity and Evelyn had swapped theories and suggestions at speed, but as the hour wore on, they slowed down, retreating more and more to their own ends of the table. It wasn’t a resumption of hostilities; that we could have dealt with. It was something far worse, something I couldn’t help — they were running up against a brick wall, running out of ideas, running on empty. Two mages with their heads together, if only in metaphor, were not enough for this spell. Evelyn grew grumpy and monosyllabic. Felicity went quiet and timid. I felt trapped.
The fade stone didn’t help. The lump of white quartz sat at Evee’s elbow while she worked. I kept looking at the thing to check it hadn’t moved. Every now and again I replayed my memory of the last few moments, trying to locate Evee and see if I could recall exactly where she’d been. Deep down, I was a little sore at her earlier deception. I ached to talk with her about that, but now wasn’t the time. Now was the time for mages to do magic, no matter how much I wanted to bend her ear about tricking me.
After an hour, I decided it was probably safe to excuse myself; the strange truce between Evelyn and Felicity had developed into a professional understanding, but now it was dormant, hibernating. They were clearly getting nowhere and it didn’t take a mage to see that.
“I’m just going to head upstairs and check on … people,” I said, clearing my throat as I stood.
Raine tipped her headphones off her ears. “You okay by yourself?”
I glanced at Aym. She was sitting on the sofa with a comic book spread out across her black-clad knees, watching me in return.
“Yes,” I said. “Aym can follow me if she wants.”
And if you do, I thought, we can have another little chat — without Evee.
Raine nodded and shot me a wink. “I’ll stick around with this lot for now, then. Call if you need me.”
“Safe travels,” said Praem.
“I’m only going upstairs for a bit,” I said. “It’s not like I’m going Outside.”
Aym said nothing. She watched me leave.
As soon as I was out of sight and beyond earshot, a wave of cringing relief crept over me. Standing in the front room, before the stairs, I blew out a big sigh and flexed all my tentacles, rolled my shoulders, and wiggled my arms as if I’d been confined in a straight jacket for several hours. The magical workshop was currently the single most socially awkward situation I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t going to end any time soon, certainly not by nightfall, not by the way the technical conversation had slowed to a crawl. Evelyn and Felicity were both grinding their minds down to stubs. There was only one thing for it: I needed a social butterfly of infinite grace and lubrication.
I mounted the stairs and made for Kimberly’s bedroom.
The raindrops on the roof tiles had scaled down their pounding fury, the static haze which drowned out thought now reduced to a background plinking on the windows. Wind had returned, churning the clouds over Sharrowford so they no longer dumped weeks worth of rain directly onto the city. I paused by the window to watch. The unnatural quality in the storm had moved on, withdrawn back inside Aym, leaving merely a grey and gloomy day outdoors.
Tenny and Lozzie were busy in their bedroom. Low voices floated into the corridor, voices like one might use to speak to a dog. I think they were fussing over Marmite.
Kimberly’s bedroom door was still wide open near the end of the upstairs corridor, opposite the left-hand L-shaped turn to the empty rooms full of ancient crumbling furniture and boxes of bric-a-brac. As I padded closer I heard the click-click of a computer mouse and the occasional clackety-clack of fingers on a keyboard.
“Muuurrrrr.” That was Sevens. “No, the other one, the artist. You have to give her a present before the event will fire.”
“How do you know that?” Kimberly asked. Click-click went her mouse. “Aren’t you … ”
“Yes, she is. I like the cottage-core aesthetic. But that doesn’t answer the question.”
“Still not an answer.” Kimberly sighed. “But don’t. Please. I don’t actually want to know. Sure, we’ll date the artist lady, then. But I do prefer the goth.”
Kimberly laughed with astonishing awkwardness.
I announced myself with heavier footsteps, a cough, and a little knock on the door frame, but I still managed to make Kimberly jump in her computer chair. Her hands flew up from the keyboard like I’d caught her looking at questionable websites, though the screen was filled with a pixelated farm. She jerked her head around to stare at me, blinking and flushed all of a sudden.
“Hello, hi, yes. It’s only me. Sorry, Kim.”
Seven-Shades-of-Suitably-Supportive was draped over the side of Kim’s chair, long yellow robes trailing down the arm and pooling across the floor like liquid sunlight on melted gold. Kimberly’s elbow actually rested on a fold of those robes. Sevens peered at me around Kim, little black-and-red eyes watching me with knowing intensity.
“It’s alright,” said Kim. “I’m just a bit tense. Um.”
I nodded and then proceeded to stand there like an utter lemon, feeling guilty for interrupting the video game session, but not certain how to proceed. Kimberly swallowed, paralysed by proxy. She was still wearing the clothes she’d slept in, pajama bottoms and all. She looked terribly vulnerable, her auburn hair in need of a wash, her face pale and greasy, something shivering about her frame. Sevens blinked like a large cat, slowly and luxuriously. She was probably fully aware of my sudden dilemma.
“So … ” Kimberly ventured, breathing too hard, speaking stiffer than a wet t-shirt left outdoors in Arctic cold. “So … how’s it going so far? Downstairs, I mean. How is it coming along?”
“Oh,” I said, almost as awkward. “Well. It’s … going.”
Kimberly nodded. “Good. Good to know. That’s … that’s good.”
Kim and I stared at each other for a long moment. Kimberly’s expression told me that she was trying very hard but if this went on much longer then she was going to crawl back into bed and start crying.
“Oh Kim, I am sorry,” I sighed all at once, bulldozing the small talk aside and stepping into the room. “That was a lie. It’s not going great down there. We’ve managed to avoid a thermonuclear exchange, but they’re not getting anywhere with this spell. And I suspect that has nothing to do with a failure to work together, nothing so absurd as that. I think it really is that difficult.”
“Ah,” Kim said. She even managed a tiny smile, though with some difficulty. The authentic Kimberly peered through the awkward shell.
“But you don’t want to hear about magic, I know, I’m sorry.” I stepped a few more paces into the room and peered at the computer screen, then at Sevens. “I really came up here to fetch Sevens. Somebody’s going to have to break that stalemate down there.”
“I’m watching,” Sevens rasped. “Busy.”
“We-we’re not busy,” Kimberly hurried to add. “I can pause the game.” She swivelled back and hit the escape key. A menu obscured the pixel-art farm. “See? Paused. If you need … Sevens.” She glanced at Seven-Shades-of-Petite-Vampire, still a little perturbed.
Sevens clacked her teeth twice. Oddly enough, that did make Kimberly jump. “Aym might come back to bully you again. I’m not going anywhere.”
Kimberly pulled a terribly self-conscious smile, looking anywhere but at me or Sevens.
“That’s very kind of you, Sevens,” I said.
“Kind shmind,” she gurgled. “It’s purpose.”
I raised my eyebrows at that, but Sevens examined something on the computer screen instead, an icon that I think was meant to be a potato. Maybe such things were not for discussion in front of others. I blew out a sigh and surrendered to circumstances. After all, I had other responsibilities too, other things I had promised myself that I would do.
“Kim,” I said — and something in my tone made her flinch. I held up a hand, trying to smile. “It’s okay, you’ve done nothing wrong. I just wanted to ask how you’re feeling, after all that mess earlier.”
Kimberly looked surprised. “Oh. Um.” She shrugged, boney shoulders moving beneath her pajama top. “Normal, I suppose. Talking with Felicity helped.”
“Ah,” I said before I could stop myself.
Kimberly went stiff. “Ah?”
I spread my hands in helpless exasperation. “Felicity is … of unknown quality.”
Kim frowned at me and I deserved it; that was one of the most tortured pieces of phraseological evasion I’d ever uttered. I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“I’m sorry to say this,” Kimberly ventured, roused in defence for once, “but that seems hardly fair. Quite judgemental? Don’t you think so?”
“Mmmhmmm!” Sevens agreed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just hard to know what to believe about her, considering the things Evelyn has said in the past. And then she uses the whole mess earlier to get in here, and then when you’re in a crisis she manages to get you to talk to her, and her alone. It’s a bit worrying, Kim. That’s all. I didn’t mean she’s low-quality, or some equally weird judgement.”
Sevens said, “You’re so bad at this.”
“Oh, thank you.” I laughed without humour.
Kimberly looked incredibly awkward, like she wanted to curl up inside her pajamas and pretend she wasn’t there. I didn’t blame her. Her eyes strayed back to the computer screen as if longing to dive into the video game again.
“Look, Kim,” I said, “you don’t have to tell anybody else what Aym said to you, or what you and Felicity spoke about. But it’s only right that I let you know about Felicity, in case she—”
“She’s a mage.” Kimberly didn’t look at me. Her voice was thin and tired. “I really don’t need the details.”
Raindrops on the window filled a moment of silence. Sevens bumped her head against Kim’s shoulder, like a cat, then disengaged from the chair and clambered onto the bed, curling up amid the sheets and her yellow robes. I noticed the three hand-rolled cigarettes on Kimberly’s desk.
“No, I suppose you don’t,” I said.
Kimberly smiled without joy. “She understood, though. Between Evelyn and Felicity … maybe mages aren’t … I don’t know.”
“Understood what?” I asked softly.
Kimberly looked up at me at last, eyes sad and exhausted, still ringed with red from crying earlier. She looked very small and frail in her computer chair, something unwell and diseased in her complexion. An episode triggered by Aym. I suddenly wanted to throttle the coal-sprite demon with a tentacle. She’d played the fool and the trickster downstairs, but up here she’d tormented a woman who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She had no excuse.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said quickly. “But you should talk to somebody other than Felicity, as well. Maybe one of your friends from the Coven. Or maybe Sevens here.” I winced at that. What a suggestion. “Or Tenny? No, Tenny’s a child, I’m sorry. I’m talking nonsense.”
Kimberly gestured at the bed. “Do you want to sit down?”
Surprised, I nodded, then perched on the end of the bed. Sevens shuffled over and put her head in my lap, suddenly warm as sun-heated fabric. I raked my fingers through her black hair. Kimberly just watched.
“Felicity didn’t say anything bad,” she said after a moment, in a very small voice. “I know you don’t think I’m very good at looking after myself, but I know an abuser when I smell one.”
I winced. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about. You’re easily exploited, Kim.”
It wasn’t a real question. Kimberly looked so defeated. I said, “We just don’t know if Felicity is what she appears to be.”
“She understood. She knows what it feels like. That’s all we talked about. I wouldn’t mind talking with her more. I’m sorry, Heather, I just can’t bring myself to care what she might have done. I know the sort of things she might have done, she’s a mage. I know, okay? But she made me feel less alone, in a single half-hour conversation.” Kimberly’s voice grew thick with emotion. She had to turn away and pluck a tissue from the box next to the computer. She blew her nose. Sevens reached out and touched her knee with a fold of yellow robe.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “None of us are very good friends to you.”
“Not true,” Kim said from behind the tissue. “Tenny is lovely. But you said it too, she’s a child.”
“You’re not ‘freaked out’ by Tenny?”
Kim shook her head. “No?”
“I just assumed you would be. You want to get away from all this, don’t you?”
Kim blinked at me. “Tenny’s great. She’s healthy and happy. She’s curious and clever and all that other stuff that clever kids are. She’s not … a … a dead body. A magical symbol. A … zombie. A bloody surprise wake-up call from a demon looming over my bed.” Kimberly swallowed hard again, hunching up in her chair.
“I’m sorry that we forgot to warn you, there’s really no excuse. Everybody just forgot this was your morning off.”
Kimberly shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay,” I said.
“Whatever you say.”
I straightened up and stopped stroking Sevens’ head. I was only making this worse for Kimberly. “Well, Kim, like I said, you should talk to at least one other person about what Aym said to you, about whatever you talked to Felicity about, just in case—”
“She told me there’s no escape.”
I froze. Kimberly looked at the crumpled tissue in her hands. Sevens went very still in my lap.
Kimberly carried on after a moment’s silence. “Aym, when she appeared over my bed she said, ‘there’s no escape once you’re in’. And I knew exactly what she meant. I was half-asleep and I knew exactly what those words meant. And they went through me.”
“Magic?” I murmured. Kimberly nodded. “Once you’re in the know … ”
“There’s no going back,” Kimberly finished. She said it very matter-of-fact, with a tinge of ironic humour in her tone. “When she perched on my shoulders in front of everybody else, she whispered the same thing, pretty much. Just in more detail. No matter how long I last, the knowledge will always be there. I could make it five years, ten years, twenty years, and it’ll be there, always waiting. You can’t un-know things.”
“You don’t have to be involved,” I said. “Today was my fault, a mistake, nothing more.”
“I’m already involved, just by being alive. There’s always the chance I rationalise something, I take another step forward, because I’m in so deep that I may as well keep going. Because I can never go back.”
“I am in blood stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
Kimberly smiled, thin and unhappy, without looking up. “Shakespeare, right?”
“Macbeth, yes,” I said.
“That’s one way of putting it.”
Kimberly shook her head, still staring at that tissue in her hands, as if the crumpled lines might hide a revelation. “I work in a flower shop, I smoke too much cannabis, and I play video games. That’s my life now. Enduring the knowledge.” She sighed. “I’m greasy and ugly and broken.”
In desperation, I said. “You know Nicole likes you, yes?”
Kimberly looked up in shock, as if I’d just told her that Zheng wanted to kiss her. “The police officer?”
“She’s a private detective now. She quit the police.”
“Still,” Kimberly squeaked.
“Well. Sorry. I was trying to illustrate a point. You’re not a goblin or something, Kim. And it would be okay if you were.”
“Hey,” Sevens gurgled.
“Figure of speech,” I said. “Sorry. My point is that Kim isn’t broken or wrong somehow. Or ugly. Certainly not.”
“Still,” Kimberly repeated. “But thanks, I think?”
“You deserve better,” I said.
Kimberly laughed a very sad laugh. “Better? Better what? What am I even good for, Heather?”
“You don’t have to be good for anything except yourself, Kim. I mean it.”
“I’ve got talent,” she said. Those words were so barren and desolate. “Did you know that? I’ve got magical talent. It’s why the cult used me. Back when you got me out, when I was first free, I avoided thinking about it at all. But recently I’ve been able to understand a little better.”
“Talent? In what way? They had you raising corpses, putting demons in corpses.”
“Procedural talent.” Kimberly sighed sadly. “I think that’s the best way to put it. Most mages are self-taught renaissance types, genius inventors. Everybody wants to be Doctor Frankenstein. The mad scientist making new discoveries. Nobody wants to spend hours fixing a magic circle, figuring out how to fit goal to result, unpicking sigils and welding them back together. Practical results. That’s my talent.”
“And you used that talent to save Praem,” I said. “You put her back in her body that one time.”
“I did.” Kimberly didn’t seem proud or happy about that.
“Did Praem ever thank you?” I asked.
“Mm. She did. Made me dinner.”
“Oh. Was it good?”
“Vegetable curry. Praem’s cooking is always good.”
Raindrops spattered against the window. Kimberly’s computer hummed away below her desk, casting rainbow light up the wall. Sevens purred in my lap, eyes closed as I slowly scratched the back of her neck. And I had no idea what to say, no idea how to help, except to listen. Kimberly was in a position unlike anybody else I knew, lost in trauma and dislocated from her own sense of self, of purpose, of meaning. Maybe Sevens was the right person to speak with her.
“You didn’t make a choice to get involved,” I said eventually. “You can make a choice to not be involved anymore.”
“None of us choose to be born.”
My turn to smile awkwardly. My goodness, Kimberly could be morbid sometimes. I even felt Sevens grimace in my lap. What possible answer could anybody have to that?
“Ow,” said a voice like rusty spoons dragged across bathtub mould. “Ow, ow, ow.”
A twist of black lace rose up from within the cold abandoned nest of blankets on the bed. Aym unfolded as if she’d been hiding under the covers, throwing both stick-like legs over the edge of the bed, grimacing at Kimberly, who was staring back in frozen shock.
“No,” I snapped. “Go away. Aym, leave. Right now!”
“Ow!” Aym said to Kim. “Oh you are just absolutely down there. What is this emo trash?”
Sevens had gone very stiff and very still in my lap, like a cat preparing to pounce. I could feel that her eyes were wide open, fixed on Aym.
“Emo … ?” Kimberly echoed, barely able to form the word.
Aym let out a sigh, which sounded like a broken machine trying to gutter back to life. She gestured with one little hand held flat. “You’re right, nobody gets out of this. Look what happened to your old cultist friends when they tried: minds eaten by a giant eyeball in the sky. You’re still walking about and breathing and pining after women you’re too scared to talk to, so that’s one up for you. But this whining! Really!”
“Aym!” I snapped. My tentacles unfurled behind me, ready to pluck her off the sheets and throw her out of the window. But Sevens grabbed my thigh and squeezed hard. I flinched, confused.
Kimberly was looking Aym up and down, eyes wide, mouth hanging open slightly, as if a live dodo had just appeared in her bedroom.
“You’re … ” she managed.
Aym cupped one of her own ears. “Yeees?”
“You’re just a weird little goth kid.”
Aym blinked once, pole-axed. She paused, cleared her throat, and sat up straight. “And what if I’m a demon?”
“Your voice is horrible,” Kimberly said. “What happened?”
“Excuse me!” Aym whined, a noise like a grinding engine. “Sorry I’m not ASMR-quality! Huh!”
Slowly and deliberately, Kimberly turned away from the lace-and-tar demon on her bed. She picked up one of the hand-rolled cigarettes from her desk, fumbled around for a lighter with a shaking hand, and stuck the roll-up in her mouth while she held the flame to the other end.
“Aym,” I repeated myself. “This is deeply offensive. You—”
“Guuurrrrriiieeek,” went Sevens. Aym turned to stare at her. For a moment the two creatures had a tiny stand-off, Sevens intent as a wild cat, Aym curious and slightly confused.
Then Kimberly got her reefer properly lit. She filled her lungs with a deep intake of breath, lowered the smouldering cannabis cigarette — and blew a plume of smoke right into Aym’s face.
“What— I— pfffft—” Aym flapped her hands in front of her face, screwing up her delicate nose and eyes, recoiling in shock.
It was, with the exception of stabbing Twil in the hand, the bravest thing I’d ever seen Kimberly do. And the weirdest.
She didn’t even seem to register what she’d done. After the single plume of — admittedly strong-smelling — smoke, she stubbed out her reefer in the ashtray on her desk, and stood up, looking somewhat shaky but resolved.
“Evelyn and Felicity don’t need peeling apart, or encouraging closer,” she said. “They need a third head. They need a procedural mage.”
“ … are you sure?” I asked. As I spoke, I saw Aym melting back into the nest of blankets in the corner of my eye, muttering about smoke and stench.
Kimberly nodded, then swallowed very hard, then blinked several times, eyes watering. “I’m going to need a hand downstairs though, please, or I’m going to get light-headed and fall over.”
Kim Kim Kim Kim! Kim! I love Kimberly. She’s been in the background for so long, but you know what, she’s got a spine too! She’s a mage, or was, under terrible duress, but she’s more than just a target for spooky bullshit. Aym, meanwhile, is a little shit and probably going to get herself in trouble sooner or later. At least Fliss and Evee are working well, for now.
If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, there’s always the patreon! But I’m not linking the patreon this week because it’s almost the end of the month and it’s very unfair to people to pay twice. So, you know, wait ’till the 1st of November if you want to! But in the meantime, thank you all so very much for reading. Couldn’t do this without you readers. I mean it.
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Next week, more mage nonsense, this time with extra mage. Triple mage threat. Or maybe Kim will just get really high and fall asleep.