A quick note to any readers checking back: there will be no Katalepsis chapter on the 26th of November. My apologies for this, a delay became unavoidable, here is a patreon post if you want more details. All you really need to know is that Katalepsis will resume as normal on the 3rd of December! I’ll remove this note then.
Geerswin Farm — Twil’s family home, the seat of the Church of Hringewindla, the archaic secret tucked away in the forest behind the village of Brinkwood, ringed by trees older than the industrial revolution which had turned the village into a bypassed backwater — loomed large in my imagination as the perfect location to perform real magic. Our previous visit had involved an unexpected collapse of reality, though we hadn’t known that at first: the onrush of false dusk, things going bump in the night, wind-storms and monsters and a trip deep into the earth to meet a god. The crumbling, isolated farmstead had all the hallmarks of a beautifully Gothic setting. Where better to waggle one’s fingers with mystical import and mutter ‘abracadabra’, while thunder crashed and spooky violins played in the background?
Raine had shown me far too many Hammer Horror classics. They were rubbing off on me.
So, as we trundled along the road out of Sharrowford and through the still-damp countryside, the rational part of me was trying to keep calm in the face of one of the most serious and dangerous magical tasks we had ever set ourselves, hands plucking and picking at the hem of my hoodie, tentacles bundled in my lap and trying not to clench. But another part of me — small and girlish and perpetually nine years old, giggling over spooky stories with Maisie — was beside herself with fan-girl glee.
She didn’t dare come to the surface. That would have been wildly inappropriate. I was too afraid for the safety of Evee and Kim, and yes, Felicity as well. Too focused on the day ahead. Too worried about Edward Lilburne’s response to our opening salvo.
But when we reached Geerswin Farm, gingerly unfolding ourselves from inside Raine’s battered red car to stand around on the old broken tarmac and wait for Felicity to catch up in her Range Rover with the others, that girlish and excited Heather inside my chest did a little pout.
Geerswin Farm was not dressed in grand rags of black lace and the heavy shadows of ghostly promise, like some cheap Halloween decoration; it was after all the height of summer, despite the aftermath of the Aym-born storm.
The sky was a clear, milk-tainted blue, brushed by a few wisps of fluffy cloud, ringed by the healthy, thick, verdant green of the woodland canopy, like one stood at the bottom of a bowl of wood, topped with leafy garnish. The forest rustled softly in the gentle wind; distant birdsong soaked through the trees. Strong sunlight revealed the general disrepair of the farm as anything but grandly melancholic — I wondered if Hringewindla understood that his most faithful worshippers, the core of his cult, desperately needed funds for major renovation work. The pair of alpacas and the cluster of sheep had been moved to the smallest of the uneven, soggy fields, the one attached to a proper shelter for them, made of old brick and new corrugated steel. The largest of the fields had been prepared for us in advance — mowed by hand, a task that Twil had complained about incessantly, despite the fact it had apparently only taken her thirty minutes. Being a werewolf conferred some major advantages in stamina. A massive area of field was shorn down to stubs of grass, thistles chopped, weeds murdered, to make way for the unnatural act we were about to commit. But the pile of grass cuttings and bits of weed against the nearest fence made it look more like an unfortunate site for a village fairground.
Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were all over the place, many dozens stronger than on our previous visit. They ringed the fields in overlapping curves of silently bobbing sentries, hovering over the clearing like on-station drones, lurking along the driveway to intercept any unwanted visitors. A few waited out in the road, watching for the wrong kind of car. They clustered on the roof of the house, piled up on each other in a slowly seething mass of semi-transparent, greasy, iridescent spheres. The effect was not menacing; it made the house look like it was wearing a silly wig.
I obviously couldn’t keep the disappointment off my face entirely. Zheng noticed.
Zheng had arrived at the farm ahead of the rest of us. She had set off out the back of Number 12 Barnslow Drive as we’d been figuring out who was going in which car. She wasn’t even out of breath, standing there like a muscular and immovable statue. She wasn’t locked in a face-off with Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors this time, though a pair of the dubious, disgusting ‘angels’ had detached from their guard duties to discreetly shadow her. Very discreetly.
She stood there in her grey jumper hiding her curves, long coat containing her toned muscles, booted feet planted firmly on the crumbling tarmac. She stared out across the fields as if they would soon be the site of a battle. Impassive, heavy-lidded, undeniable. She was everything this situation was not. And she heard my tut and looked around.
“Oh, um, it’s nothing. Nothing.” I tutted again, huffed at myself, and dithered on the spot, which made ‘nothing’ sound like a total lie. Which it was.
Everyone else was already in motion: Raine striding up to our welcoming party at the front door, to shake Christine Hopton’s and Michael Hopton’s hands, and clap Twil on the shoulder; Praem unlatching the boot of the car to haul out the buckets of blood; Evelyn clomping forward with her walking stick to frown professionally at the fresh-cut grass in the field.
I made a grumbly sound. “You’re too perceptive, Zheng. It’s the sunlight. The birdsong. The nice outdoorsy feeling. This isn’t the right place to do magic. It should be darker. Less clean. Spooky?” I winced and put a hand to my own face, followed by a tentacle. “Oh, listen to me, this sounds so stupid.”
Zheng chuckled, low and dark. “The shaman has a point,” she said to Evee, only a few paces away. “Poor aesthetics, wizard.”
Evelyn answered without a moment’s hesitation: she was truly switched on this morning, present and correct in every single second of the clock. “Mechanics care not for aesthetics.” She looked around not at Zheng, but at me. “Heather, what was the very first thing I ever told you about magic? I know you recall, because you seem to recall everything I’ve ever said to you.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I apologise for being silly.”
Evelyn tutted. “You have absolute license to be as silly as you bloody well like.”
“But you can’t take the literature student out of me. My imagination insists we should all be wearing robes and tying somebody to a sacrificial altar. Joining hands and chanting. Drawing pentagrams. Taking copious amounts of hallucinogens.”
“Magic is not black cats and broomsticks.”
I sighed again. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Praem stepped up to join us. A pair of sealed white food-grade buckets dangled effortlessly from each hand. “Black cat,” she said, staring at Evelyn.
Evelyn frowned, sudden and sharp. Her knuckles turned white on her walking stick. She looked quickly at me, then back at Praem. “Where? When? Where did you see it, exactly? Drop those buckets, get moving, catch it, right now! Zheng, you as well! I know you don’t take orders, but fuck it!” She looked around, free hand fumbling her modified 3D-glasses out of her pocket and trying to get them onto her face. I went to her side quickly, taking her cane-arm to support her. “Hringle-whatsit’s bubble things should be dealing with any interlopers. Even animals! Anything could be a trap, a scout, a fucking bomb for all we—”
“No,” said Praem. “I would like a black cat.”
Evee and I blinked at her. Zheng stared too, though less surprised.
Evelyn lowered her glasses. “Praem, what?”
“Black cat. Brown cat. White cat. Orange cat. Cat.”
“ … are you asking for a pet?” Evelyn let out a sudden, sharp sigh. I felt a horrible, winding tension go out of her, felt her weight press down on my support. “Praem, now is not the time. Come on, we need to go greet our hosts. You and I can talk about cats later. Bloody hell.” Evelyn shook her head and stomped off toward where Twil and her parents were waiting, with Amanda Hopton hovering just inside the doorway, her shoulders flanked by a pair of smaller bubble-servitors. “All I need, right,” Evelyn muttered as she dragged me along after her. “Daughter wants pets. What next? Later, later.”
I looked back and caught Praem’s eye, blankly milk-white. But I could have sworn I saw a twinkle in the depths.
Silently, I mouthed back at her, “Good job.”
Praem followed, buckets of blood in hand. Zheng set off for a circuit of the fields, probably to antagonise the locals. Felicity’s car finally pulled into the driveway behind us. Evelyn dragged me onward, to greet the Church.
“Listen carefully,” said Evelyn. “And no — not because I’m only going to say this once, or some equally puerile nonsense. I will happily repeat any part of this as many times as you need, backward or forward. I will translate it into Latin and German. I will draw diagrams — I have already drawn diagrams. Wait, no, Kim has drawn diagrams; thank you, Kim. Everyone say thank you to Kim, because God knows I can’t draw. I will repeat myself until I am blue in the face, and then I will step aside so Kimberly or Felicity can repeat it again in a slightly different accent. Listen carefully, because there are a lot of us here, and we all need to know our places. We are about to do something incredibly dangerous, in the sense that operating a large piece of industrial machinery is dangerous, while also bracing for return artillery fire. We need to not get in each other’s way, and we need to know exactly what to do if something goes wrong. So, listen up.”
Evee’s steel-shod eyes softened instantly as she lifted them toward the back of the room, and added, in much gentler voice: “That goes for you too, Tenny. Your job is to stick with Lozzie and stay safe, indoors, and then go with her to Camelot if something bad happens. But it’s important that you understand what the rest of us are going to be doing. If you don’t want to speak up in front of everyone else, you can ask me or Lozzie whenever, after we’ve all finished talking. Do you understand?”
Tenny, with three biscuits in the mouth-ends of three different tentacles, had a look on her face exactly like a child who knew that all the adults would be more comfortable pretending that she was too young to understand the topic of discussion. But she wasn’t. And she was here for her own safety. She bit her own lips and hunched slightly in her chair. She didn’t need further encouragement to stick close to Lozzie.
I had hoped that a change of scenery would be a nice trip for Tenny. She got on well enough with Twil, surely she’d be interested in where Twil lived. But since the moment she and Lozzie had Slipped back from Camelot, appearing in the Hopton’s kitchen, Tenny had adopted all the overt nervousness of a little girl who didn’t know how to act in an unfamiliar household.
“Tenns will be fine!” Lozzie chirped. One of her arms was buried deep in the grasp of two of Tenny’s tentacles. “Won’t you, Tenns?”
“Mmmmrrr-rrrr,” Tenny trilled, which made the Hoptons jump again — all except Amanda.
The Hoptons had so far responded to Tenny with polite bewilderment and nervous flinching, which I thought was a bit much considering their giant cone-snail god-friend beneath the soil of the forest. At least Amanda Hopton — Hringewindla’s conduit and closest and most beloved of this generation of human beings — had taken Tenny entirely in her stride. She’d even shaken Tenny’s hand, which was very sweet. Tenny had instantly liked the idea and shaken everybody else’s hand.
Amanda’s golden retriever, Bernard, was currently curled up at the foot of Tenny’s chair, content to receive slightly nervous pettings from one of Tenny’s tentacles, filling for Marmite. Marmite himself had been left at home; we didn’t want to risk him getting hurt if something went wrong and he panicked.
We — and there were a lot of us — were gathered in the Hoptons’ dining room, the spacious and airy termination to the long spinal corridor which ran the length of the house.
Cosy, rustic, and genuinely lived in, the dining room boasted a large and functional fireplace, currently unlit, very much to my taste. Two massive landscape photographs of forest vistas seemed to invite the woods indoors, along with the bank of windows and the glass patio doors looking out on the back fields. Waves of bright, clean sunlight flooded the room. The last time I’d visited this space it had all seemed rather more sinister, in the wake of the nightmare-twisting effect of Hringewindla’s parasitic infection. But now, sitting around with cups of tea and complimentary ‘planning biscuits’, it felt more like we were organising a harvest festival or an elaborate surprise birthday party.
The mages — Evelyn, Kimberly, and Felicity — stood up front, Felicity politely off to one side while Evelyn and Kimberly flanked a whiteboard on a wheeled frame. Christine Hopton had produced the whiteboard from somewhere seemingly without effort. She was a teacher, after all.
While the rest of us had bustled around getting seated, Kimberly had drawn an illustration on the whiteboard: two concentric circles, one inside the other, surrounded by little dots and arrows, framed by a quite charming doodle of what was obviously the tree-line which surrounded the farm.
I could think of nothing more blandly reassuring and less magical than a whiteboard.
The rest of us were seated around the scratched, chipped, still-grand table. The Hoptons took one side. Christine and Michael — Twil’s parents — and Amanda, formed the triumvirate leadership of the Church. Benjamin sat at their rear, their meaty bodyguard. They were joined by a further pair of Church members none of us had ever met before: a wiry, leathery middle-age man introduced only as ‘Mister’ George, who looked like he’d been pickled in tobacco. The other was a young woman named Katey, stocky and solid, dirty blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and obviously armed beneath her baggy clothes.
“Members of the Church who are prepared to do violence in our defence,” Christine had explained, very matter-of-fact, when Evelyn had asked. “However capable Benjamin may be, we thought it best to play all our cards for this.”
George had cleared his throat and answered in a voice more smoker’s cough than words. “We won’t get you in your way, madam wizard. Hringewindla has vouched for you. We all feel it. This is the truth.”
At that, Katey had rolled her eyes and shared a long-suffering glance with — of all people — Twil. “Shut up, dad,” she had said. “So fucking cringe.”
Myself and Raine took the opposite side of the table, joined a little awkwardly by Twil. I tried not to read too much into that seating decision, but I respected whatever Twil was trying to communicate. Praem sat at the front, ready to attend to her mother if required. Tenny and Lozzie took the rear of the room, separate and apart, because their job was to stay safe. The only reason they were here instead of back in Sharrowford was to avoid the risk of the house getting hit while the rest of us were absent; the only reason they weren’t squirrelled away in Camelot was in case something went unfathomably wrong in new and interesting ways.
Sevens had donned the mask of the Yellow Princess, starched and proper, umbrella in one hand, skirt perfectly pressed, blonde fringe cut straight as a ruler. Perhaps the blood-goblin was not proper for serious meetings. Aym — amazingly — had stayed fully manifested, climbing out of Felicity’s car alongside the others. Her black-lace layers had grown a matching black hood, which hid her face in deep shadows. Her sleeves had elongated to cover her hands as well, so not a sliver of skin showed. She held Sevens’ hand through a scrap of black, said nothing, and moved in total silence.
Twil had grimaced at this. “Could you like, drop the spooky nun act? I still don’t get what you are, but you’re making it look like you’re a secret weapon or something.”
Sevens had answered for her, with icy precision: “Aym is uncomfortable. Please respect her need to withdraw.”
Felicity had looked both embarrassed and relieved by this performance, as if she was glad for Aym but also felt a deep responsibility.
Zheng lingered in the doorway, drawing nervous glances from the new bodyguards.
Stack had not turned up, nor returned Raine’s call, nor been spotted lingering at the end of the driveway. After twenty minutes of extra waiting, we had started the meeting.
“Right, good,” Evelyn said to Lozzie and Tenny, then flicked her gaze to Amanda, hardening instantly. “Everything I just said goes triple for your … your god. The last thing we need is him trying to intervene without warning. I take it he’s paying attention?”
The Hoptons all bristled very slightly at the tone in Evelyn’s voice. Evee was trying so hard to be polite about Hringewindla, but her basic contempt was impossible to conceal. Her lips soured around the request, but she went through the form. I found myself clenched up in sympathetic embarrassment.
Amanda Hopton had looked glassy-eyed and sleepy until that moment, sitting next to her sister along the side of the table. Unhealthy, very pale, with the look of a woman perpetually exhausted, unable to shift the few pounds that kept her overweight. In a way I felt sorry for her — she’d spent most of her life attached mind-to-mind with her god.
But she seemed to value that connection. As she answered, she sat up straighter, still a little unfocused.
“He is remaining aware,” she said. “Staying aware. Comprehending … us. He will direct his angels to protect this house and his family. While you are here, the protection extends to you all. In grace and hospitality.”
She smiled, which transformed her face into an innocent bliss. She blinked: a vastness moved behind her eyes, as if iris and pupil were tiny windows on a gigantic aquarium tank.
“Say hi for me, please,” I added.
Amanda nodded again, neck muscles like springy rubber.
“Oooooooh,” said Nicole Webb, rubbing her hands together and ostentatiously smacking her lips. “I do like a good all-hands briefing. Miss Saye, I do hope you’re prepared for some very stupid questions.”
Detective Nicole Webb was our one unexpected arrival, the one we hadn’t planned for. She sat to the rear of the group, dressed for a woodland hike, in a brand new and very practical jacket, with lots of pockets and pouches. Hair pulled into a tight bun, energetic in every movement, eyes alive in the manner of a woman who had gotten a full ten hours sleep last night — or no sleep at all. I couldn’t tell.
Evelyn stamped on the floorboards with her walking stick. “There—are—no—stupid—questions,” she hammered. She managed to make it sound absolutely terrifying. I would have flinched if that tone came from anybody but Evee. Privately I winced; she wasn’t exactly making herself approachable.
Twil tutted. “Steady on, Evee. Stop shoutin’.”
Evelyn chose to ignore that and spoke to Nicole again. “Detective, you really do not have to be here.”
Nicky raised her hands. “Three of you have said that in three different ways. Look, if you want me to bugger off out, let me know, just be blunt. Be clear. I’ll run off and you witches can do whatever you’re gonna do.”
“Please do not swear in front of Tenny,” Evelyn said without missing a beat. “She is a child.”
“Oops. Er. Sorry.” Nicole twisted in her seat to give Tenny an awkward smile. “Bad words. You shouldn’t use them, Tenny.”
“Bad woooorrrrds,” Tenny trilled. She didn’t smile.
I cleared my throat. I was near the front of the table, closest to the mages and their ragged presentation. “Nicky, none of us want you to leave, not really. But you don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way, not for us. We can handle this. We know what we’re doing.”
Did we? I had no idea.
Evelyn added, level and sharp: “You have no responsibility to us, and I will not put you out in the field, even if you are carrying a dozen illegal firearms.”
“I am not,” said Nicky.
“Then you stay in the house with the others, that’s—”
“But hey, if anybody has a spare, I won’t say no?” Nicole spread her hands and gestured around at everybody else. “I won’t report it or anything. I think we’re a bit outside of Sharrowford jurisdiction here.”
The joke fell like a lead balloon. Nicky’s smile was stiff as wire. She was more nervous than she was pretending.
Raine jumped in to save her. “I thought you hated guns, officer?”
“I’m not an officer anymore. And that was sergeant to you, Haynes. Less ‘o your lip.”
Raine did a boxing-stance duck-and-weave as if dodging a blow, grinning. The atmosphere warmed by half a degree.
“And for the record,” Nicole said, “yeah, I don’t have any idea what to do with a gun. Point and pull the trigger? I’m well aware this room is probably filled with several weapon and firearm offences in progress. Nobody call the police, please, it could all get very embarrassing.”
Katey, the young woman who was obviously festooned with weapons, shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She clinked. Mister George looked like he was trying to pretend he had not heard any of that.
Benjamin Hopton, the shaved-headed, heavily muscled Church bodyguard, nodded toward the double-barrelled hunting shotgun which lay in the crook of his arm. The shotgun was open to reveal the breach, empty and unloaded. Even then he kept the ends of the barrels pointed firmly at the floor. “This is licensed. Legal.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Detective.”
“Yeah,” added Michael Hopton. “Licensed to me, Ben. That’s my shotgun you’ve got there.”
“We’re on your land,” Benjamin said slowly and carefully, as if speaking for the benefit of a hidden microphone. “You’ve given me permission to handle and discharge the firearm. Which means it’s legal.”
“Yeah, okay, and I’ll rescind that permission if you get too happy with it. You be careful with that thing.”
Christine Hopton, high priestess of the Church, cleared her throat and laid one gentle, wrinkle-backed hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Mike, dear, you would just shoot your toes off. Ben was in the army, you know that. Let him handle the gun.”
Michael Hopton pulled the uncomfortable face of a man who knew he was wrong. He wasn’t doing a good job of keeping his nerves down.
“It’s going to be alright, Mr Hopton,” I spoke up, making eye contact and holding it there. “We’ll deal with all of this, and … and … ” I swallowed and tried to think of what to say. To be an angel, to be reassuring. They already held me in uncomfortable respect and a touch of awe, after I had communed with their god, but I needed to assure them we weren’t going to bring Edward Lilburne down on them. Or rather, that we could deal with him, if we did.
“Mine’s not legal,” said a familiar half-mumble.
Everyone glanced at Felicity, but she was staring directly at Nicole. The ex-copper and the outlaw mage locked eyes, dense with frost. I suppressed a wince.
Nicky and Fliss had politely shaken hands upon meeting, but the ice had grown between them thick and fast, flash-frozen on the bleeding shore of how Kimberly seemed entirely comfortable inside Felicity’s personal space. As the mages had set up, Kim had darted about with her pen, asking Felicity for clarification or suggestions on the diagram, and shown zero discomfort at being only inches apart.
A mage-detective-mage love triangle was the last thing we needed that day; I made eyes at Nicole, hard eyes, and willed her to be professional.
She must have noticed, because she cleared her throat and nodded. “Good for you,” she said to Felicity. “Keep it to yourself, yeah?”
Evelyn cleared her throat louder, rumbling with suppressed irritation, like an animal asserting dominance over lesser squabbles. “Then why are you here, detective?. We informed you as a courtesy, because we trust you, and frankly I wanted you warned so you can protect yourself if necessary. My intent was not to call you here.”
Nicole Webb shrugged and folded her hands over her stomach. “In for a penny.”
“In for a pound,” Raine finished the saying. She winked.
“Yeah,” said Nicole. “something like that. Gotta see it through, you know? Maybe you’ll need somebody to slap cuffs on Edward when this is all over.”
Evelyn stared at her, pinch-lipped. “It is highly unlikely that we will directly engage Edward Lilburne today.”
“Yeah,” Raine murmured — low and soft, not a tone I heard from her often. I turned and blinked at her in surprise, but she was staring at Evee.
Twil snorted. “Directly engage,” she repeated in a silly voice. “Evee, we’re not the marines. Don’t talk like that.”
Benjamin interrupted. “Clarity is good. I like it. Right on.”
Evee ignored the both of them and spoke to Nicole. “Detective, this is your last chance to leave. Once we begin, you’ll have to stay until the spell is done and we’ve confirmed or ruled out a response. Mid-afternoon, if we’re lucky.”
Raine laughed softly. “What happened to ‘over by lunch time’?”
“I want the spell itself over by lunchtime. The response, we can’t predict.”
Nicole nodded once, holding Evee’s gaze. “I’m staying with you wizards. Get me a pointy hat if you like.”
“Fine.” Evelyn raised her eyes to the room again. “Right. Listen closely, as I said. Everyone on the same page. We’re taking no chances with this.”
Evelyn ran through the ritual on the whiteboard, pointing with her walking stick, punctuating herself by tapping the wooden head against the plastic surface.
I sat in quiet adoration, restraining myself, wrapped in my tentacles; this was Evelyn at the most organised I had ever seen her, marshalling her thoughts, her plans, and her troops. Her eyes were alight as she spoke, soft blue dancing from the board to the people and back again, watching for unspoken questions, for kinked brows, for any hint that somebody was not following. She had missed nothing, covered everything, accounted for the position of every person involved.
“The mages will only have to remain in the centre circle for just under twenty minutes. All three of us will be exhausted when the spell completes, but Kimberly more than myself or Felicity. That’s the most vulnerable moment, the moment we need to get back indoors as quickly as possible, regardless of the side effects or anything else that happens.” Evelyn jabbed a finger at Zheng. “Kimberly is your responsibility. I don’t care how filthy she is by the end. The moment it’s done, cross inside the circle, pick her up, and take her inside. You’re the quickest of us.”
Zheng stared, dark and unmoving, leaning against the door frame, the rustic kitchen behind her. Evelyn held that gaze and added, “If you don’t want to help, I will assign this task to somebody else. If you agree and then fu—” Evelyn bit down, gaze flickering to Tenny for a split second. “If you agree and then don’t go through with it, you put us all in danger.”
“I will handle the little wizard,” Zheng rumbled. Kimberly kept her eyes anywhere but Zheng; I got the impression she would have been happier to walk, or be carried by a bubble-servitor.
“Good,” Evelyn said. “Zheng, thank you. Praem, you’re to help me. Twil, you have Felicity.”
“Can’t I help you?” Twil asked.
Evelyn ignored that and carried on, going over the details of what was to happen next, the part after the spell. The long, drawn-out part, the waiting and watching. I don’t think I was the only one who saw the shadow pass over her face as she explained this part of the plan, the part we couldn’t predict.
Michael Hopton asked the obvious question. “Miss Saye, pardon me, but you keep talking about a response to the spell. What are we expecting here?”
Evelyn had been about to tap on the sketch again, the lower portion that showed the house with sight-lines and a list of who was not allowed outside until this was done. She paused, sighed slowly, and couldn’t meet Michael’s eyes for a heartbeat.
I jumped in. “Anything,” I said.
An invisible chill settled over the room. ‘Mister’ George and Michael Hopton shared an uncomfortable look. Benjamin sighed. Christine smiled with bland politeness. Tenny had gone very still. Zheng was unreadable, impassive, a quiet giant.
“Mages are difficult like that,” said Raine, in a voice I’d never heard her use before, a quiet smile through the ghost of a grimace. She was watching Evelyn. “You can never predict. Right?”
Evelyn finally looked up and cleared her throat. “He may not respond at all. But that is unlikely.” She held up one hand, her good hand, with four fingers raised. “There are four possible outcomes. Number one,” she lowered a finger, “is that he chooses to do nothing. A bluff, to throw me off and convince me the spell has not worked. Number two,” another finger down, “is that the collapse of his labyrinth will trigger an automatic defence, sending something to the location of whatever has collapsed it. So, us, here.” She stared at her remaining two fingers. “Option three is he chooses to send something against us, consciously, intentionally, rather than automatically.”
She fell silent for a moment, swallowed hard. I noticed the faint tremor in her throat and longed to get up and go to her.
Evelyn was hiding it so very well, so well that even I hadn’t noticed until that moment. I wasn’t even sure Praem had seen. Maybe Evee herself didn’t realise.
She was terrified.
So was Raine — though Raine responded to terror with the biological promise of terrible violence. I’d been so wrapped up in my own self, my own worries, my own trouble keeping track of what we were about to do, that I hadn’t noticed the two people closer to me than all others were replaying the emotions of an ancient murder as they prepared to go to war with a mage.
The ghost of Evelyn’s mother hovered over both of them, invisible to all others. Loretta Julianna Saye haunted Felicity too; though Felicity was so on-edge it was hard to tell the difference.
“What’s option number four?” asked Hringewindla, speaking through Amanda Hopton’s mouth, slightly slack in the lips.
“Two and three at the same time,” Evelyn answered quickly. “Automatic response plus manually dispatched agents of some kind.”
Twil snorted. “Bit dry, isn’t it? ‘Agents’? We’re not in The Matrix or something, Evee, come on.”
Evelyn’s eyes flashed with sudden anger, sharp and hot, all her carefully suppressed terror flowing outward at once as a single burst of redirected rage.
“Evee!” I said before she could open her mouth and offend everybody, sitting up so suddenly I almost got out of my chair. “Evee, Evelyn. Evee.”
She blinked three times and found me, gaze anchoring to mine with an intensity I had not expected. I desperately wanted to get up and hug her right then, but I knew it would undermine her confidence and everybody else’s confidence in her; I did not want to emotionally unbalance her before one of the most difficult magical operations of her life.
“What might Edward send here?” I asked. “Just, any ideas at all. Guesses. Educated guesses. Guesstimates.”
“Guesstimates,” Twil repeated with a big wince. “Ugh.”
“I know, I know!” I huffed, playing along with Twil’s hasty save. She must have seen the anger in Evee’s eyes too.
Raine leaned back in her chair. “I reckon it’s gonna be a big marshmallow man. Like in Ghostbusters, you know?”
“Raine,” Evelyn snapped, “do shut up. Now is not the time.” But she said it at her usual level of Raine-based irritation, rather than giving vent to the burning incandescence of over-pressurised fear.
“Servitors,” Felicity spoke up, half-mumbling, but with her head raised to address the room. “Servitors, or constructs. Possibly revenants, like … like Zheng there.” She nodded toward the back of the room. “Or possibly other things. We can’t predict. Please understand. He could even send a group of people, maybe a mage he’s trained himself. That would be a worst-case scenario … ” She gulped hard.
“That’s what bullets are for,” Raine said, ice cold and deadly serious. A shiver went up my spine, not all bad.
“Right,” Felicity agreed with a little dry swallow. “Right.”
I did not add that last time we had tried to kill a mage, the bullet had gone right through him to no effect.
Amanda spoke up, dreamy-voiced, “Hringewindla’s angels will turn back any assault.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said, a little sour. “That’s what we’re counting on. With luck — even if things do go wrong in some fashion — none of us will actually have to face any direct danger.” She sighed. “If something does show up, the direction of arrival could give us an idea about the location of Edward’s house.”
Christine Hopton raised her head and spoke. “We know it’s somewhere between our home and Stockport, correct? That is a very large area to cover.”
Nicole said, “Yeah, somewhere about there.” She sounded a little bitter. “Wherever I went.”
“Yes,” said Evelyn. She indicated a curve of space on the whiteboard, just inside the tree-line. “Which is why I expect that if anything arrives, it will enter the clearing here. Assuming it’s not clever enough to circle the farm, in which case we’ll have to follow any tracks.”
Kimberly helpfully added a curve in red, along with a little exclamation mark at either end.
Evelyn continued, straight-backed as she could make herself, wearing her invisible general’s hat. “It is very important that we kill or capture whatever turns up. It will be very difficult to stop any scouts returning to Edward with information, but we must try. Birds, tiny constructs, zombified rabbits. Anything. Make sure Hringewindla understands.”
Amanda nodded. “He does.”
“Does everybody understand?” Evelyn swept her eyes across the room. Nods, murmurs, folded arms. Dark eyes of silent acknowledgement. Raine’s big thumbs-up grin. My smile for Evee alone.
“Hope you know what you’re doing, Saye,” Twil said. She said it with a smile, then added, “Love you, dumb arse.”
However, to my relief and surprise, Evelyn said simply: “I have no idea what I’m doing, you moronic mutt. You should know that by now. But, we? We know exactly what we’re doing. Now grab a spade. For that, you’re digging half the circle by yourself.”
No matter how much I made light of the atmosphere, I would have preferred mundane disappointment to the frightening pleasure of Gothic aesthetics; in the end, the three-mage spell did indeed possess more than a whiff of black cats and broomsticks, despite the sunny day and blue skies.
Digging the outer circle took about two hours. Twil and Praem set to work, both of them basically tireless, helped by Michael Hopton and Mister George. The mages directed, darting about with diagrams, making sure that each curve of circle and accent of esoteric symbol was at the perfect angle. Zheng could have helped, but she drew an unspoken line at wizards directing her in manual labour. I didn’t blame her. Besides, she was required to guard the whole operation at this early stage.
“The likelihood that Edward is aware of any of this is minimal,” Evelyn explained. “The real danger is after we fire, not before. But it never hurts to post a lookout. You keep your eyes open too, Heather.”
“Don’t we have plenty of those already?” I murmured to her, shading my eyes as we stood side-by-side at the edge of the field, with Zheng only twenty feet away.
Bubble-servitors, Hringewindla’s angels, bobbed everywhere. The way the things moved set my teeth on edge, and made my tentacles twitch with restless motion of pre-emptive self-defence, but I couldn’t deny we were very well protected. There must have been over two hundred of the things.
“I don’t entirely trust them,” Evelyn murmured back.
“I trust Hringewindla,” I said. “Evee, I really do. He wants to help. I know they look … icky. But we’re in a fortress of the things.”
“Yes, Heather,” she sighed. The gentle wind tugged at stray strands of blonde hair. “But I don’t trust his judgement.”
Evelyn sighed and rubbed her eyes. Raine was calling for her from halfway across the field, Praem marching over to collect her, to check some minor symbol. I’d managed to draw her off for only a moment, not long enough or private enough to address her buttoned-down, glued-shut fears, the terror leaking from her pores. I imagined I could smell it on her, hot and raw and shivering. Or was I scenting pheromones for real?
“Evee. Evee this is going to be fine. We’re going to be perfectly safe.”
She shot me a frown just before Praem reached us. “Of course we are. Stop worrying, Heather. This has been mapped out to the smallest possible degree. The worst thing that could happen is we have to spend the night in Twil’s house, playing tower defence.”
I blinked at her “ … tower defence?”
“Video game metaphor. Never mind.” She turned away as Praem stopped behind her. “Come on, let’s go fix the spelling, or whatever the problem is.”
When the circle was finished it filled almost the entire field, leaving a thin margin of untouched grass around the edge, where the sentries were meant to stand while the mages performed the spell. I could barely look at the design dug into the wet, dark, clay-clogged earth of Brinkwood mud; the swirls and spirals of esoteric symbols made my eyes ache, not by themselves but only when placed in reference to each other. The outer circle was a quadruple-layered monstrosity of interlinked lines, with scraps of Latin and Arabic at right-angles, enclosing a whirling dance of overlapping symbols, stomach-wrenching signs, and shapes with far too many sides. I stood as far back from the edge as I could without climbing over the fence and entering the tree-line. It was like a great dark hole had opened up in the ground. Abyssal instinct wanted me to stay as far away as I could.
Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly were already waiting right in the centre for Praem to return with the canvas which contained the inner circle, the payload for this field-sized gun. Even from halfway across the field I could see Kimberly was quivering with nerves. Felicity was saying something to her, low and soft and undoubtedly reassuring, holding one of her hands. Evelyn had turned away, staring out at the woods.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled from a few paces to my right.
“I’m exactly where I’m meant to be,” I said. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Evee. “Evelyn isn’t pulling any punches, I might be needed out here, to do brain-math if something goes horribly wrong. Don’t tell me to go inside with the others.”
The others — the baseline humans who were more liability than protection — were beginning to trudge back toward the house. Evelyn’s plan called for them to wait on the crumbly tarmac, far away from the spell, and then head inside right away when it was complete. The heavily armed young woman, Katey, was already waiting there, along with Benjamin Hopton, his shotgun loaded and the breach closed. Michael Hopton and Mister George were heading back too. Nicole was sitting on the front step, a smudge of black jacket and blonde hair. Raine turned and raised a fist to me before she joined them. I smiled and waved. The smile did not reach my eyes.
Tenny and Lozzie were already indoors, given free run of Twil’s video game consoles. But I spied a little silken black face peering out of one window.
Zheng said nothing, just brooded in silence. I let out a long, slow, shaking breath.
“You are nervous, shaman.”
I turned a gentle frown on her. Zheng was a dark silhouette against the rustling trees, her sharp-edged eyes somehow cold in the bright sunlight. “Yes, well spotted. I am very nervous.”
“Your tentacles are tense.”
I huffed. I thought of saying something like how could you tell? But I was too irritatingly polite for my own good. Besides, Zheng didn’t deserve to be the target of my own bottled fears. I gestured at Evee — with a tentacle, so she wouldn’t see. She wasn’t wearing her modified 3D glasses, not yet.
“Evee is terrified,” I said.
“Raine is ready for violence. Real violence. I know not everybody can see it, but I can.”
“Felicity is … I don’t know. I don’t know what she’s capable of.”
“It didn’t really hit me until we were in the middle of that meeting,” I went on. “This is unspeakably dangerous, isn’t it? We’re inviting some kind of attack. A real one. I was thinking of all this more like a … I don’t know. A Maypole dance, or something.”
Zheng rumbled in contemplation. I knotted my hands together inside the front pocket of my hoodie.
“Your wizard is a wizard,” Zheng purred eventually, almost too low to hear. “Like any other. But she is … yours. She follows you. Same as I.”
I glanced at Zheng again. She was staring at Evee too, her expression unreadable, eyelids almost closed as if on the edge of sleep.
“Does that mean you’ll protect her, if you have to?” I asked.
Zheng rolled her neck from side to side, making popping noises with her spine. She rolled her shoulders, flexed her hands, and did not answer — possibly because Twil was trudging across the field toward us, skirting the edge of the circle. She shot me a grin and waved.
“Twil”, I called softly. “You’re not meant to leave your spot.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said as she jogged the rest of the distance, curly dark hair bouncing on her shoulders. “But we ain’t started yet, right? Least not the main event. You doing okay, yeah? Looked at you through these.” She waggled the modified, black-rimmed glasses she was holding in one hand. “You look sort of nervous. Tentacles all bunched up and stuff. Bit on edge, you know?”
Zheng said nothing. I pursed my lips.
“Ah?” Twil said, catching my expression. She even took a half-step back.
“Yes,” I sighed. “I am nervous. Evee is more nervous, can you not see that?”
“Evee?” Twil looked out into the middle of the field. “I mean, yeah, duh. Evee’s always nervous about this sorta shit.”
“More than usual. Twil, she’s terrified! She’s bottling it up, and I … I don’t know what to do.”
Twil eyed Zheng briefly, then shrugged and carried on. “It’s easy, Big H. Just be there for her when this is done. Everything’s gonna go off fine, then we can all have tea and you can rub her back or whatever.”
I didn’t find that particularly reassuring. “What if it doesn’t go off fine? What if we get attacked? What if Evee is wrong?”
Twil shrugged. “We’ll deal. Hey, between Zheng and me, we can take anything. You’re here too, for like, spooky tentacle magic bullshit. There’s at least three guns here. And uh, Seven-whatever, too, right?”
Twil nodded past Zheng and around the curve of the circle. Much to my growing consternation Sevens had also left her post and was heading around the circle to join us. Aym trailed in her wake, clutching Sevens’ pale palm through a handful of black lace. Aym looked like a stick dressed in black robes.
“Oh yes,” I said when they approached, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Everybody just abandon Evee’s plan and come join me instead. Sevens, you know where you’re supposed to stand.”
The Yellow Princess replied with a tilt of her chin and a mute flash of her eyes. She cocked that umbrella like a walking stick against the ground, daring me to answer. I frowned, refusing to back down.
“You need to stay where Evee said to stay,” I muttered.
“The ritual has not yet begun,” said Seven-Shades-of-Technical-Insubordination. “Aym and I shall return to our appointed section of the circle momentarily.”
Twil squinted. “Wait a sec, what are you gonna do with the spooky goth kid if we do have to fight something?”
Sevens answered as if this was a very tiresome question. “If I must don another face, Aym will leave for the house.”
I frowned down at the deep-hooded, faceless demon-thing. Not a sliver of flesh was visible beyond the lace. “You better not bother our hosts, if that happens.”
Sevens said, “Aym has a message for you, kitten.”
Kitten utterly and unexpectedly disarmed me. Zheng grunted — I think it was a laugh — while Twil snorted and covered her mouth, then waved away my embarrassed and offended look.
“Aym?” Sevens prompted, as if the coal-sprite horror was a nervous child. I was about to sigh and roll my eyes when Aym finally spoke up.
“She is desperately in love with you,” Aym said from deep within her hood, in a voice like needles thrust into a mouldy pie. “You horrible fuck. Stop stringing her along.” Aym paused, perhaps to savour my shock, then added: “Bitch-arse bitchy bitch,” which rather undermined the spooky little girl aspect of her current outfit.
“Yes, I know!” I almost shouted. Halfway across the field, the three mages looked up, so I lowered my voice, face hot with embarrassment. I huffed and puffed and wriggled my hands free from inside my hoodie so I could gesticulate pointlessly. “I know! Everybody knows! Twil knew before I did. Zheng probably finds it obvious. Sevens certainly knows. And Evee herself knows it full well, even if we don’t … don’t talk about … oh, for pity’s sake, we have a relationship. It’s just … awkward. Don’t mess things up for us, Aym.”
The twig wrapped in black rags looked up at me. There was nothing but darkness inside her hood.
“Dumb-arse,” she said.
A call echoed across the field like the toll of a soft and distant bell: “Places, please.” Praem, telling us all to get back into position. She was standing with the mages, inside the inner circle.
Evee wore a frustrated little frown on her face, gesturing with her walking stick for us all to stop mucking about. I composed myself, still burning red, and tried to look professional. I didn’t fool anybody, least of all myself. I had no idea what I was doing.
The others trailed off to their own positions. Sevens shot me an ice-cold look as she left. Perhaps an apology for Aym saying that, I wasn’t sure. Zheng stayed by my side — as Evelyn had so carefully stipulated, I was not to be left actually alone during all this. Twil bounded away. Amanda Hopton took up position on the far side of the circle, in case the hovering bubble-servitors should need any extra direction. The things were everywhere — one of them bobbed not ten feet behind Zheng and I, watching the tree-line. I tried to take some solace in that. I did, in a way, trust Hringewindla, even if his judgement was a bit strange.
Once every participant, guard, and observer had assumed their proper positions, Felicity raised a hand and turned in a circle, checking that everybody was watching, everybody was on the same page, and everybody was ready. The alpacas and sheep were tucked away inside their stable. The unaltered humans were by the front door. One could have heard a pin drop.
Felicity lowered her hand and said something to Evee. Praem turned and raised her voice.
The twenty minutes which followed were among some of the longest and most uncomfortable of my life. Nineteen minutes and thirty three seconds, according to Evee, but it felt like hours. The minutes slithered along as the three mages stood at equidistant points in the inner circle, whispering bits of language lost to the wind and the rustle of the trees. Seconds crawled slower and slower as I saw Evelyn spit blood, as Felicity turned away to cough red into a handkerchief, and as Kimberly shook with barely contained anxiety. She had the most pivotal role in this, of course. I wished she’d had somebody to support her in that inner circle, as Evee had Praem, but perhaps that would have been too awkward for her, considering what she had to do.
Evelyn had told us to brace for “anomalous atmospheric phenomena”, “auditory hallucinations”, and “possibly vertigo, but that’s unlikely. If you have to vomit, make sure you do it outside the circle. Don’t break the lines.”
So when the ambient air temperature plummeted by ten degrees, we were ready. I put my hands back in my pockets. Zheng gently slid my hood up for me. When the air grew thick with illusory heat-haze, we were mostly prepared, though it was very strange to blink away the blurred ground and wavering air, only for it to re-form seconds later, like a layer of oil on one’s own eyeballs. Nobody freaked out — not too much, anyway — when the air began to sizzle and crackle with something akin to static electricity, moving in waves across one’s clothes.
Vaguely unnatural, but they were hardly the stuff of nightmares. A light show, at best.
Nobody was ready for the vertigo. Evelyn had grossly underestimated it. To be fair, she probably hadn’t expected it to be that bad.
At about six minutes into the spell, into the concentration and chanting and mage-ly communal bleeding, the ground began to fall away.
My earlier sense of the outer circle as the edge of a pit suddenly became all too real. The earth tilted toward a black and gaping mouth; yet it was still level and flat, my senses providing two conflicting sets of data. The inside of the outer circle was a void, hundreds of feet deep; yet the grass was still there, close enough to touch, healthy and green in the blushing sun. The mages in the middle were suddenly very far away, tiny specks on the edge of perception; yet I could see Evee’s brow still furrowed in concentration.
Illusion or not, the vertigo caused a general panic. Everyone perceived that impossible pit and felt their feet sliding toward the precipice. I found myself clinging to Zheng with a tentacle, lashed to her like an octopus to a rock. Zheng had one hand on the fence, fingers cracking the wood. Twil had gone full werewolf, all bared teeth and bristling fur, claws dug into the dirt. Sevens, to my later amusement, had picked Aym up in both arms, like carrying a small child, and was braced as if against a terrible wind. Amanda Hopton was a vaguely human-shaped blob beneath the gooey, gluey anchor of a dozen of her god’s angels.
Even the bubble-servitors felt it, scudding upward like greasy clouds, trying to escape a sucking gravity well.
The circle was a void, the open maw of something from which the mages were stealing power, a sucking wound in the universe itself. It was an affront to reality and I knew with a bleeding certainty that to step on it was death. Abyssal instinct quivered. I half-climbed up Zheng. Somebody screamed. Maybe me. Maybe Evee.
All I knew for certain was that Evelyn opened her eyes and went white as a sheet, eyes pointed downward into that void just beyond the inner circle. Praem said something to her, lips moving, but it didn’t help.
I squirmed onto Zheng’s shoulders and stuck all my tentacles up in the air, all except the one I was using to hold onto Zheng. I pushed their strobing rainbow pulses to maximum brightness.
Evee’s eyes rose and found the rainbow glow. She stared, nodded, and returned to the spell.
In a way, the shock — which was probably an illusion in the end — helped undercut the deep embarrassment of the core part of the spell. While we were all busy getting our monkey brains in a panic over a big hole in the ground, in the middle of the inner circle Kimberly was taking off all her clothes.
We’d all been warned about this part in advance. Kimberly had repeated over and over that she was willing to do this. Evelyn lacked the physical strength; Felicity was capable, but she had to keep certain parts of her body covered, for magical reasons, and this part of the spell required actual full-body nudity.
Nobody had made a single joke during planning. Not Raine, not Twil, not even Aym. If anybody had dared, I think I would have slapped them with a tentacle.
Shaking and shivering, well aware that everybody was politely averting their eyes — or too busy up-chucking their guts onto the front steps of the farmhouse, overcome by vertigo — Kimberly stepped right into the very centre of the inner circle, spread her arms wide, closed her eyes, and held her breath.
Praem then emptied both buckets of bull’s blood directly over Kimberly’s head.
She did it slowly and carefully, so not too much blood went off target and splattered across the ground. Once she was done, she tore open the smaller packets of blood and began painting symbols on Kim’s back, with a little brush. Kimberly stood there shivering, eyes screwed tight, as the mages made her into a conduit for a metaphorical trebuchet rock we were about to hurl at Edward Lilburne.
When I’d asked her one last time the previous night, Kimberly had struggled to explain why she’d agreed to play the central role.
“It’s no danger to me,” she’d said. “I trust Evelyn. I trust Fliss too, though … I don’t know why.”
“Yes, I trust Evee too,” I’d said, unable to keep the deep and concerned frown off my face. “But that doesn’t mean you have to agree to get covered in animal blood in front of everybody. Naked, too. Let Felicity do it. She’s more experienced.”
“Fliss has a lot of burn scars. A lot. Really. She doesn’t want to be exposed.” Kimberly had smiled with surprising gentleness, but then again she had been red-eyed with cannabis. “I don’t mind. I don’t think I’m really ugly or anything. And it’s not like anybody’s going to perv over me in the middle of a spell like that. Everyone’ll be too busy getting dizzy and stuff.”
And so we were. Praem finished the design on Kimberly’s back, daubing pale skin with crimson blood. That black hole in the earth yawned wide, sucking down great heaving mouthfuls of air. The treetops themselves leaned inward, pulled low by otherworldly force.
Kimberly raised her arms over her head, eyes screwed shut, crying softly. For a split-second I thought I could hear Evelyn’s voice and Felicity’s voice together, a jumbled, impossible, burning whisper of sounds not meant for human throats.
Then, a hypnic jerk. A blink, as if reality itself had briefly closed and reopened.
And then we were all just standing in a field, in the middle of the woods, on a bright and sunny day. The ground was the ground, nothing more, nothing less. I was clinging to Zheng’s back, panting. In the middle of the circle the mages all stumbled — Praem caught Evee, Felicity whirled and almost fell over, while Kimberly stood there, shivering and clutching her naked body, caked in bull’s blood, slowly drying in the sun.
None of us had expected it to end so suddenly. A moment of shock made us all take a breath.
“Everyone move!” Evelyn spat at the top of her lungs, then coughed blood into the crook of her arm. Praem was already picking her up. The spell was over, time to get indoors, just in case.
Zheng didn’t peel me off her shoulders, she just dropped into a loping run with me still attached, headed for Kimberly like a bird of prey.
I almost enjoyed the ride; after all, the spell had worked, we were done. All we had to do was bundle everybody indoors and commence waiting. Time to run Kimberly the most luxurious bath of her life and play video games with Tenny. Time for tea and talking and maybe making sure that Evelyn wasn’t so afraid anymore. There was barely time to think — riding Zheng was like riding the wind. I clung on tight.
On our left, a quarter-way around the field, just behind Twil, something dark and low burst from the tree-line.
A blur, almost as fast as Zheng. Lean muscle and sharp teeth. Canine-shaped, without fur, and wrong.
It shot under the fence like a bullet, straight past Twil, weaving between the bubble-servitors that crashed into the ground like little comets trying to smash and smother this interloper. It shot for the centre of the circle, ignoring all else, aimed straight at Kimberly.
Magic is weird. Evelyn is a good strategist. And Kimberly is horribly vulnerable. Zheng is fast and Heather is so very throwable.
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