The spell was cast, the impossible hole in the ground had closed, and reality had reasserted itself; the damage to Edward Lilburne’s defences had already been done. Even if we had been able to watch the metaphorical trebuchet payload-boulder batter down the equally metaphorical wall, it was too late: Evelyn had assured us that any effect would be instant, magic did not respect the human perception of time. There simply was no firework explosion for us to appreciate, no matter that we might have enjoyed a bit of pyrotechnic release after the unbearable tension of the last few hours and days. Stopping us now would make no difference. Edward’s only rational move was to limit our ability to exploit the opening we had created — or run away. Hence Evelyn’s plan to get back inside and await his inevitable answer, or the lack of one.
Whatever instructions animated the blur of canine muscle and slavering teeth did not care about that. The hound-shape shot directly at Kimberly, flying across the fresh-cut grass and the bare-mud grooves of the magic circle, a dark and glinting shadow in the clean sunlight.
Or maybe it was a terror weapon. Maybe cruelty was the point.
The hound-thing was swift and sharp. Zheng was faster, but the intruder had already broken through the outer cordon, the line meant to defend the mages in the centre; it had bounded from the tree line, ducked the fence, zipped past Twil, and zigzagged the pursuing bubble-servitors.
Everybody was moving but nobody was close enough. It all happened so quickly, only a second or two from sighting to impact.
I clung to Zheng’s back as she sprinted toward the mages, wrapped in tentacles and vibrating with the need to act; Twil was up on all fours, all wolf, hot on the heels of the unidentifiable nightmare-hound; on the opposite side of the circle Sevens had dropped Aym and seemed to stride forward several meters for every measured step; bubble-servitors peeled off Amanda Hopton, their protective role fulfilled, streaming toward the centre of the circle like soap suds swirling down a drain; over by the farmhouse a knot of armed humans was spilling into the field — Raine, Benjamin with his hunting shotgun, the young Church member Katey pulling out a revolver.
The bubble-servitors swirled toward the mages, moving to cut them off from the hound. Canine muscle pumped and kicked, outpacing them by inches. As if designed specifically for this one task.
Kim stood in the dead centre of the field, a red exclamation mark of success; stark naked, shivering, clutching herself, coated in a rapidly drying layer of sticky crimson animal blood, hair plastered to her neck with gore, eyes a shocking round wide in that bloody smear. The hound-thing was so fast that she didn’t have time to scream before it was all over, caught in the intake of breath and the widening of blood-rimmed eyes. Felicity was next to her, already turning, wrenching down her own sleeve to expose her tattoos in magical desperation. Evelyn was still stunned, reacting too slowly, her withered leg buckling with effort even as her prosthetic held firm.
Zheng veered, going for the hound instead of Kim.
Her whiplash motion clacked my teeth together inside my skull and pulled my body weight against the harness of my tentacles. She had realised she wasn’t going to reach Kim in time — fast enough to pull the hound off her, but not fast enough to prevent it bowling her over and ripping her throat out.
I had a split-second to act, maybe less. Pushing myself up on Zheng’s shoulders, bunching my tentacles like an octopus in a strong current, hissing incoherent noise at the top of my lungs: I had no idea what I was doing, but I used Zheng’s momentum and my pneuma-somatic muscle mass to turn myself into a kinetic sabot — a term that Raine had to explain to me later. Ready to spring, to leap, to knock the unknown creature sideways, hopefully into the unkind embrace of a waiting bubble-servitor.
It was stupid, dangerous, and probably wasn’t going to work. But I could have done nothing else. We had failed in a way I could not countenance. Failed to protect Kimberly, the one person who wanted nothing more than to stop putting herself in harm’s way, stop involving herself with magic, stop living with the threat of supernatural death hanging over her.
Even as I readied the spring, coiled up my tentacles, and opened the valves of my bioreactor, I could see my leap would not land quickly enough. The hound was too fast. We were one step too slow.
Kimberly’s mouth opened in a scream. The hound-shape lunged for her throat.
Evelyn had accounted for this possibility. She had accounted for every possibility, every mistake, every vulnerability. My general, my genius.
Praem stepped away from Evee’s side and in front of Kimberly in one fluid motion, the black edges of her maid dress cutting the air like a bouquet of knives. Straight-backed, prim and proper, she didn’t even bother to brace her feet. Praem had been included in the centre of the circle, but not for Evelyn’s comfort and convenience; she had been included because she was the best bodyguard a mage could ever ask for.
Praem caught the hound’s jaws on her forearm. Canine teeth cut through three layers of maid uniform fabric, sliced open one layer of pneuma-somatic flesh, and stopped hard in wooden bones.
The creature slammed to a sudden scrambling halt, fur-less muscles twitching, metal braces glinting, lean paws lashing.
Maybe it had been a dog once, but nobody had time to think about that just then.
Praem grabbed the creature’s snout so hard that I heard bones fracture, a snap-crack-crackle of gut-wrenching breaks. It whined and squealed and tried to loosen its bite to let go of her arm, but she had it now.
Everything around Praem and the hound was chaos: Kimberly was screaming as Felicity dragged her away; Evelyn was up on her feet and shouting directions to somebody; Sevens appeared and bizarrely enough decided to open her lilac umbrella in front of Evee. Raine was sprinting across the field. Twil was skidding to a halt just shy of Praem.
The doll-demon leaned in close to the hound, staring at the two patches of smooth flesh where the hound’s eyes should have been.
“Bad dog,” she said.
Then I slammed into the dog in a squirming mass of tentacles, ruining Praem’s graceful victory and her one-liner. I’d been so panicked and so pumped full of adrenaline that I hadn’t been able to abort my springing motion, not without kicking Zheng in the face and probably eating a mouthful of field.
I dragged the dog-thing to the ground in a tangle of strobing tentacles, gnashing teeth, scraping claws, and clods of mud going everywhere. Praem let go the moment I made contact, which is how she managed to stay perfectly on her feet.
There was nothing heroic or even sensible about my late intervention. I was actually far less capable of dealing with a spooky mutant dog than Praem was. But between the initial tussle with the Shambler in Edward’s cottage, and springing up to Kimberly’s bedroom window when Aym first arrived at our home, I had gotten far too familiar with using my tentacles to hurl myself at things. It was a terrible habit and was going to get me in trouble sooner or later.
I needed to take lessons from Raine — when to leap and when to look.
The hound and I rolled, but it ended up on top; I had neither the body weight nor the experience for this kind of grappling on the ground. I twisted one knee in a groove of the circle, banged my head on the thankfully soft dirt, and ended up eating that mouthful of field which I’d been trying to avoid in the first place. The hound-thing then attempted to eat a mouthful of Heather, which I would not recommend unless one’s name is Raine.
Snapping jaws like an animatronic big bad wolf, inches from my face. Eyeless and noseless and smooth, robbed of all mundane senses. Slavering and dripping and hurling itself at my nest of tentacles. I pushed and slapped and slammed it in the head with tentacle-tips, hissing and kicking. I was too far off my head on instinct and adrenaline to take the sensible option and just brain-math the beast over to Camelot, so a Knight could run it through with a lance.
Twil and Zheng pulled the thing off me in the end. It did not get a free sample of raw squid. Zheng broke its spine over her knee, then held it down while Raine put a bullet through the skull. It was not a pretty end.
“Defence in depth, bitch!” was Twil’s idea of a victory cry.
Panting, filthy, shocked beyond words; Kim was still naked though Felicity had whipped off her own coat and draped it over Kim’s blood-soaked shoulders; Praem’s sleeve was delicately shredded, but she didn’t bleed; Raine had her gun out, sticking close to my side, saying nothing and watching the tree line; the bubble-servitors, Hringewindla’s angels, had come down in a triple-layered wall around us, as if embarrassed by their failure to stop the speeding intrusion.
“Stop standing around!” Evelyn shouted, her voice raw and croaky, blood on her lips. “This changes nothing! Inside, now!” She jabbed her walking stick at the bleeding, twitching corpse of the unnatural hound-construct. “And bring that inside. Tarpaulin, sheets, old t-shirts, I don’t care what, get it indoors and on the kitchen tiles. Now! Move!”
“What the hell are we even looking at?” asked Katey. “It doesn’t look real.”
The stocky Church bodyguard had untied and retied her dirty blonde ponytail five times in the last ten minutes, pulling a face like she was examining a sculpture made of poo. She had also shed her baggy hoodie and dumped several weapons on the kitchen sideboard — two knives, a massive shiny revolver that was probably one of the most illegal things I’d ever seen, and an actual sword. The sword looked more like a prop piece from a movie about ancient Rome, but I wasn’t about to go over and pull the stubby thing out of its black leather scabbard to find out. I wasn’t that curious.
“Halloween dog?” suggested Nicole Webb. The detective was squatting down on her haunches, examining the corpse with incautious curiosity. She used a pen to poke and lever at various parts of the anatomy. “Whatever this is, it’s not biologically possible. Poor thing should have been stumbling around, blind and deaf.”
“‘Poor thing’,” Katey said with a tut. “It nearly took poor Heather’s face off. We’d never live that down.”
I cleared my throat, feeling awkward. “I could have just sent it elsewhere. I really should have. I wasn’t thinking.”
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. The Church bodyguard, Katey, a woman who looked like she could eat nails for breakfast and then me for afters, looked at me with an expression of barely concealed awestruck terror.
“You mean you really do that? Twil said, but … ”
“She reeeeeally can,” Twil said, shooting us both a wink. “Scary, huh?”
I pulled an awkward smile.
“This isn’t a dog,” Nicole repeated. “I refuse to believe this is a dog.”
Evelyn sighed for the fiftieth time in the last hour — she was in the dining room, with the nice big fireplace and the sun streaming through the back windows, but we could hear her all the way over in the kitchen.
She called out. “Stop trying to classify it by mundane standards, detective. You’re only going to hurt your brain.”
Nicole snorted a little huff and shook her head. She muttered under her breath, “Impossible bullshit. I hate everything about this. It’s not a dog.”
“Maybe it started as a dog,” Katey said. She glanced at me again, near the rear of the kitchen, as if I would know. I smiled awkwardly and shrugged back. “Dog but modded. Mod dog. Yeah.” She swallowed, nodding to herself, then glanced out of the kitchen window, craning her neck. “Yeah, that makes more sense. I can live with that. Cool.”
Twil said, “That’s not dog. It’s imitation.”
Twil wore a barely suppressed grin, a bulging of the lips that told me she was desperately trying not to laugh. She was lounging by the fridge, eating scraps of meat from a packet of jerky. I didn’t know how she could stand to eat in the same room as something freshly dead and horribly wrinkled, too much like her own snack food.
Katey turned around slowly and gave Twil a look of deep, blaze-eyed disbelief. “Don’t fucking quote a line from The Thing. Don’t go all Thing on me, Twil. Not when we’re locked in a fucking building together with … with that.” She pointed at the corpse on the kitchen floor. “Fuck you. Fuck you sideways for that one. Fuck.”
Twil, absolutely straight faced, said, “I think we can safely assume it’s not a zombie.”
Katey looked like she wanted to hold Twil’s face down in a toilet bowl. I assumed that line was another quote from a spooky movie that Katey didn’t want to think about right now, locked in with a gruesome corpse and expecting a siege.
“If I stab you,” she said to Twil, “it doesn’t kill you. It just hurts like a bitch. Remember that.”
Twil grinned and threw another piece of jerky into her own mouth, chewing loudly. “Try that and I’ll give you an atomic wedgie.”
“Girls,” came Christine Hopton’s voice, also from the dining room, edged with strict warning. “Stop, please.”
Twil chewed through her grin. Katey shook her head, then returned to staring out of the window.
“Pay attention,” Evelyn called from the dining room. “Watch the windows. Stop getting distracted. Detective, if you want to be useful, stop poking at the body and watch the tree line.”
Nicole Webb blew out a big sigh, stood up from her crouch, and then frowned at the end of the pen she’d been using to interfere with the corpse. “Don’t really want to put this back in my pocket.” She turned with a half-hearted grin and offered it to me, Twil, and Katey. “Anyone fancy a pen. Lightly soiled. Never used.”
“Burn it,” Katey said.
The corpse of the hound-thing lay spread out on the Hoptons’ kitchen floor. Michael and Mister George had located some old blue tarpaulin, then some slightly newer green tarpaulin, then put down a couple of animal blankets for good measure. Only then had Zheng been allowed to dump the steaming body onto the makeshift containment. They needn’t have bothered: despite the gaping head-shot and fist-sized exit wound from Raine’s bullet, the dog-construct had barely bled at all, as if its veins were filled with dust and scabs. A little watery red fluid had leaked onto the grass in the field and the tarmac out front, but there was only a tiny puddle of pale plasma and brain matter sitting on the tarpaulin.
It also had no smell, which was creepy in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
The nightmare hound was all too familiar — an amalgamation of disparate parts pressed into a canine shape. In a way, Twil was correct, it was not really dog at all. Parts of it were lizard, grey-green and shedding old skin. Other parts were thick hide, like a herd animal, a buffalo or a bison. The legs looked bird-like, spindly, but wrapped with metal braces and supporting struts, all well-oiled and greased. It had no eyes, no nostrils, and no ears, just a smooth expanse of hairless skull. The jaw looked as if it had come from a miniature crocodile. It was attached with metal hinges. The teeth were stainless steel.
Raine and I had taken one look at the thing and both agreed we’d seen one before.
“What? Where?” Evelyn had demanded, during those first few frantic minutes back indoors. “I need to know, right now. Where did it come from?”
“The looping corridor trap,” Raine said. “In Willow House. Remember that? When the Sharrowford Cult set a trap for you, but Heather and I blundered into it?” Raine patted her thigh. “I’ve still got a little scar from the bite. Praem, we’re scar buddies now.”
“I do not scar,” said Praem. She had already rolled up her ruined sleeve and washed out the odd, bloodless wounds.
Evelyn blinked, eyes far away for a moment. “That was last year. We’ve not seen anything like this since then. Not even in the Cult’s castle.”
“Edward special, then,” Michael Hopton suggested. “His own private style?”
“Right on, dad,” said Twil. I realised how alike she and her father really were.
Raine nodded down at the hound-thing. “They had a couple o’ dozen like that. Along with Zheng.” Raine raised her voice, calling out of the kitchen to Zheng, who was lurking by the front door, watching the bubble-servitors surround the house in protective layers. “Hey, left hand? Come look, yeah?”
Zheng stalked in a moment later. Raine pointed at the corpse. “Remember these, right?”
“Mm. When we duelled.”
“Hardly a duel. You had a lot of help. You know where they came from, back then?”
“Puppets for a mage,” Zheng rumbled. She didn’t even look at the corpse; her eyes were glued on any window she could find, watching the tree line beyond. I found it deeply reassuring, especially since I was still buzzing with adrenaline and covered in smears of mud.
“Eddy makes them?” Raine asked.
Zheng shrugged. “He brought them to the plan. They are his. That one is dead.”
“You don’t fuckin’ say,” added Twil, with a big, fake laugh — she was on edge. I had the sense she was faintly embarrassed that the hound had slipped past her earlier. Now she was covering for that with big laughs, back-slapping, and wind-up jokes.
“Like I said,” her father added. “An Edward special.”
Evelyn had spent a little while considering and investigating the dead hound. She had even forced herself to crouch down and look closer so she could sketch the thing, though the position put pressure on her hips and made her wince. I didn’t like that. Casting the spell had taken a lot out of her and she wasn’t even trying to pretend otherwise, or slow down; Praem had to help her with every step, help her stand up straight. She kept coughing blood, but thankfully that trailed off.
“At first I thought it might be an organic response to what we did with that spell,” she said. “Nothing to do with Edward at all. But it’s not; it does belong to him. Which is better, actually, much better.”
“How’d it get here so fast?” Michael asked.
“It didn’t, it must have already been on the way. Perhaps he already knew about us casting the spell,” Evelyn mused, a dark frown on her brow. “But that should be impossible.”
“Traitor in our midst?” Raine asked with a laugh, but nobody took that seriously.
“Is this it then?” Twil asked. Everyone in earshot had gone quiet at that, to hear Evelyn’s response. “Is this his return fire? We done?”
“Far from it,” Evelyn replied. “This is a scout, at best. Stick to the plan. We bunker down. Everybody to your places. Eyes on the windows.”
We’d been bunkered down inside Geerswin farmhouse for nearly an hour, behind locked and bolted and barred doors — literally, in one case. Michael Hopton had broken out an antiquated-looking steel bar, taller than Zheng, which fitted into a pair of covertly placed brackets either side of the mostly-glass back doors onto the patio.
“Bit much, innit dad?” Twil had said.
“No chances, love,” was his answer. “We all saw how fast that dog moved. No sense in being sorry later.”
Evelyn had instructed us that nobody was to set foot outside, no window was to be opened by even a crack, and no door left untended. The first few minutes of our retreat indoors had been a mayhem of to-ing and fro-ing as we’d all piled in with Zheng carrying the corpse. Praem helped Evelyn, who was still coughing up clots of blood. Felicity too, staggering along under her own power and spitting into a handkerchief, even as she helped Kimberly and herded her in through the front door. The bubble-servitors had followed us to the walls of the house, contracting in a fortified ring and leaving the rest of the farm bare — though I was relieved to see three angels squatting on top of the brick-and-sheet-metal stables, to look out for the sheep and alpaca.
Felicity and Christine had worked together to take Kimberly upstairs without getting blood all over the carpets. Poor Kim was shivering, teeth chattering, eyes wild with adrenaline and fear. We could all hear water splashing into a bathtub upstairs; Lozzie was on the case already. Nicole had politely watched them go, and not with the expression of a woman who was trying to catch a glance of the naked body of somebody she fancied.
After the initial confusion, the hurrying back and forth along the corridors, the triple-checking of windows, the stowing of weapons, and the sight of Praem forcing Evelyn to sit down and drink a glass of water, the house slowly settled into an expectant waiting.
There were a few tasks to take care of — double-checking the magic circle wards which Evee had placed before all of the doors into the house; getting myself cleaned up, the mud wiped off my face and my hoodie; making sure that everybody had their modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses ready.
Of course we checked the corpse of the dog, but that was really the only distraction. Most of “this here motley crew” — as Raine put it — took up the process of wandering from window to window in a slow circuit of the house. All eyes stayed on the tree line, the driveway, the shadows at the edge of the forest. Glances were shared in passing. One or another person would stop before a window — Raine here, Michael Hopton there, Zheng looming large against the front door — outlined by the crisp, sharp sunlight, dark silhouettes, watching.
Once Evee was settled and no longer coughing up blood, Praem set about making tea and passing out mugs. A scrap of domestic comfort went a long way.
“It really does feel a bit like a castle under siege,” I murmured to Raine.
We were standing together in the little sitting room off the right side of the main spinal corridor. She was leaning against the corner of the bookcase and looking through the mostly-glass door in the side of the house, so she could watch the driveway and a sliver of road beyond.
“That’s exactly what it is,” she said, then flashed a grin without looking at me. “Enjoying it much?”
“Not really,” I sighed. “Castles should be more picturesque than this.”
Raine pulled a comedy wince. “Don’t let Twil’s mum hear you say that. She’s pretty house-proud, I think.” Her expression shifted as she pulled her attention away from the driveway and looked at me. A twinkle glinted in the depths of those rich brown eyes, warm and soft. “That was real brave of you out there, Heather.”
I sighed and blushed, dropping my voice. “Really stupid, more like. Please don’t flatter me, Raine. It wasn’t needed. I should have let Praem deal with it. I don’t have to be everybody’s angel all of time.”
“You’re my angel one hundred percent of the time.” She winked, then leaned forward quickly and planted a kiss on my forehead, running a hand through my hair.
“Raine!” I squeaked, blushing far too hard. “I’m still dirty from rolling around outdoors!” I sighed and tried to smooth my hair down; I needed a bath too. “I just … I felt such a sense of responsibility to Kim. We all have a responsibility to her. She didn’t have to volunteer for this. And she’s got work on Monday morning, just like usual. Going from this to back to normal, it’s hard. Maybe impossible.”
Raine’s smile turned deeply warm, as if she saw something in my eyes that I wasn’t aware of. “You’re right, Heather. We do have a responsibility to her. Good call.”
I sighed again and leaned my forehead against Raine’s arm for a moment. “I think I’ll go see her and say thank you.”
“Bet she’d love that. Kim trusts you a lot, you know?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Hundred percent. Always. You know me.”
“Do you think she’s out of the bathroom yet?” I glanced up at the ceiling, as if I could somehow see through brick and plaster and paint and tell if Kimberly was decent yet.
“Don’t hear anybody moving around again or refilling the tub, which means she’s either done, or she’s fallen asleep in the water. Fliss should be on hand to stop that though.”
I frowned at Raine as an unspeakable thought ghosted through my mind. “You don’t think Felicity was … well, because Kimberly was naked, in the bath, and … ”
Raine shook her head emphatically. “Nah. I went up to check. Fliss was on guard outside the bathroom door. We got enough shit to worry about without something like that happening. Fliss is weird as hell but she’s not that.”
I blew out a slightly embarrassed breath. “Okay, fair enough, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, no need to apologise. You’re looking out for everybody. It’s good.”
My initial question was a fair one: it had obviously taken quite a lot of effort for Kim to wash off all that blood. We’d heard the bathtub fill and empty three times over, interspersed with a lot of creaking floorboards, the sound of somebody moving about, and two long periods of water glugging through the pipes to feed the shower. Kimberly had been coated head to toe in bull’s blood; I was surprised she hadn’t asked to be scoured down with steel wool.
Despite seeing the Hopton’s home quite extensively once before, both in nightmarish parody and by the light of day, I had never actually mounted the narrow, carpeted stairs up to the second floor. So out I went, past the tasteful paintings of alpine views, past Katey watching another window and exchanging some quiet words with Amanda Hopton, past Zheng lurking just inside the front door — where I paused to touch her hand, and she responded by ruffling my hair — and up the stairs I went.
The upper floor of Geerswin farmhouse was much the same as the first floor: unreconstructed, untouched by the cruel hand of modern interior design, never remodelled. Bare beams, old plaster, even some exposed water pipes for the radiators fed by the massive exposed wood boiler downstairs. I approved deeply. The only downside was that the corridor was kinked, cramped, and a bit low; not a problem for somebody of my height, but I did wonder if Michael Hopton ever bumped his head on his own bedroom door frame.
My tentacles instantly attached themselves to the walls and ceiling, eager to pull me along like a squid in a tube. I resisted the urge, as I didn’t want poor Kimberly or perhaps Felicity to step out of a room and see me hurling down the corridor. They’d both had trials enough for one day.
The corridor formed a stubby little T-junction in the top of the house, cradling several bedrooms and one surprisingly large bathroom. I poked my head inside the open door of the bathroom and spent a moment admiring the absolutely gigantic claw-footed tub. It looked about eighty years old and could have easily contained Zheng, Raine, and me all at once. I banished that thought; now was not the time, Heather. Not the time, sadly.
The air in the bathroom still held a little steamy heat. The mirror was still fogged. A cluster of bathroom cleaning products sat at one end of the room, the kind of bottles which usually lived under a sink, like I had witnessed the rare emergence of a cave-dwelling species. Somebody had dutifully cleaned the bath itself, leaving behind no trace of blood.
Felicity’s coat sat in a bucket of cold water, to wash out the worst of the bloodstains, looking rather sad and wet.
To locate the others, I simply followed the sound of video games.
I found Sevens first, standing at the window at one end of the T-junction. It afforded her a perfect vantage point across the back fields, one of which was scarred and scored with the mud-runnels of the magic circle we had carved earlier. The canvas still lay in the middle, covered in blood, inert now.
Seven-Shades-of-Suitable-Sentry did not glance back over her shoulder as I approached. Low voices and the sounds of controller buttons came from the other end of the corridor, but I chose to go to her first.
“Sevens,” I said, stopping next to her.
The Princess Mask, so starched and straight-backed, umbrella rolled up and held like a prop walking stick in one hand, granted me a sideways shift of unreadable eyes. “Kitten.”
I sighed, but with a smile. “If I’m a kitten, what does that make you?”
“Hardly!” I laughed. “Where’s Aym gotten to? I must admit I’m slightly nervous about her running around unattended again.”
“She has gone to inspect the woods.”
“Oh.” I bit my lip. “Evee did say we should all stay indoors.”
“Aym’s unique nature allows her to inspect the woods while remaining indoors.” Sevens answered by talking to the window, not to me.
“So she’s not here, not right now, not really?”
Seven-Shades-of-Spiky-Standoff shot me another inching sideways look. For some reason my shoulder blades itched. I crept tentacles behind me and behind Sevens, like an early warning system, in case Aym was about to sneak up on us and go ‘boo!’
“Why do you ask that specific question, kitten?”
I made myself look like an absolute fool by glancing down the corridor behind us, as if worried about eavesdroppers. “Because I haven’t had any of you to myself for several days. Not that I’m claiming any right to you or something!” I blushed a little and pulled an increasingly awkward smile. “Just that a hug would be nice. You can wear the vampire mask if you’d rather not crease your nice smart blouse— o-oh!”
A tiny squeak of surprise escaped my lips as Sevens turned precisely ninety degrees and enveloped me in a sudden crushing hug. The Yellow Princess ruined the neat creases and crisp lines of her white blouse, and fatally disturbed the ruler-straight sheet of her blonde hair. She squeezed me as if trying to pull me into her chest, which was, I will admit, quite pleasant, though I was too surprised to fully enjoy it.
I hugged her back as best I could, suddenly very self-conscious of my hands and my tentacles messing up her aesthetic.
After what felt like minutes she finally let me go. She had not lifted me off my feet, but the way she set me back a pace or two made it feel that way regardless. I was suddenly breathless, flushed in the face, a little ruffled. The Yellow Princess betrayed no emotion, but her clothes were just that tiny bit out of place, blouse askew, hair less than perfect.
“Oh, Sevens, I’m sorry, you’re all mussed up.” I reached for her blouse. Why, I have no idea — I was not exactly good at this sort of thing. Any attempt to straighten things out would likely leave them worse than if I hadn’t tried at all.
Seven-Shades-of-Sudden-Snuggles caught my wrist in one hand.
She held me there for a heartbeat, staring at my eyes. Then: “Leave your mark on me, beloved.”
We stayed there like that for several long seconds. I waited for more, heart pounding in my chest. Sevens stared into my eyes as if expecting to find terrible sadness there. She was like a statue, rock solid, absolutely still. I wondered for a moment if she had vacated the mask, left it empty, an echoing vessel.
“Sevens?” I murmured eventually. “Are you … ? You want me to … ?”
No, I chided myself very gently. This wasn’t how Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight worked. I tried again.
“Sevens, are you wearing the wrong mask right now?”
“I wish to monopolise a fraction of your attention,” she said. “I wish to claim what is mine.”
“Okay,” I said, which was a terrible thing to say because it said nothing. Then I swallowed hard and tried to stop glowing like a light bulb. “Well, I’m here right now. I was going to check on Kim, but there’s no crisis, not yet, I’ve got time for you.” I added in a hurry: “I mean, I’ve always got time for you. You only have to ask. I … I think that’s how it works.”
“Time in the opening of a siege,” Sevens said. “Locked in together. What better moment to face inward?”
I sighed. “It’s hardly a siege. Might turn out that nothing happens. All a bit anti-climactic”
Sevens let go of my wrist. She caressed it as she let go, so I pulled it away very slowly. She said, “I am being unreasonable.”
“I don’t think you are. You’ve been stuck with Aym for several days and—”
“I have not been stuck with Aym,” said the Princess. “She is sweet on the inside. Soft. A little bitter. I wish I had been there, in my prior years, when she had needed guidance.”
“I’m glad you and her are getting along. I think. Gosh, this is very strange. It’s like you two come from the same place and have things in common that you and I don’t. Is that jealous of me?”
“Do you want to feel jealous?”
“I don’t really. I’m more interested in how you feel, Sevens.”
The Yellow Princess stared at me for several heartbeats, then turned away to stare out of the window again. The sunlight dusted the sharp lines of her face, her smooth cheeks, her clear eyes. “I feel unmoored, kitten. This is not your fault.”
“ … well, I’m going to … re-moor you,” I said. Then I reached up and tucked a lock of her already messed up hair behind one of her ears.
It didn’t suit the shape of her face or the look of her hair, not one bit. But she turned her head and blinked at me.
“If I’m an angel,” I said. “If I’m going to be an angel, if I’m going to define myself that way to help deal with all the nonsense that flows around me, then I have to be that to you, too. So if you feel unmoored, you can come to me.”
Sevens stared, then nodded, then returned to looking out of the window.
I touched her fingers, she touched mine. I stayed there for a minute or two, staring out at the dark tree line and hoping nothing showed up. Then we parted for now and I padded down the corridor in my socks, following the sounds of video games and the soft murmur and trill of familiar voices.
Twil’s bedroom was at the opposite end of the corridor, next to a matching window which looked out over the trees next to the driveway. I paused for a moment to peer down at the slip of visible road and up at the rustling treetops, thinking about zombified pigeons and magically-reanimated mosquitoes. But nothing moved except the grass in the wind and the vague oily blobs of the bubble-servitors. All was quiet. Perhaps we were waiting for nothing.
I poked my head gingerly around the door of Twil’s bedroom. “Hello, everyone. Just here to check. Hi. Hello.”
“Brrrrrrrr!” went Tenny, without looking around from the telly.
Twil waved me in. “Big H! Come join! We’re about to get totally mullered here, ‘cos Tenny doesn’t understand the first thing about football.”
“Brrrrrt!” Tenny trilled again. Tentacles were flickering, antennae were twitching; somebody was very frustrated.
I crept over the threshold and into exactly the kind of room I expected Twil to cultivate.
Despite the low ceilings and narrow corridors, the upstairs rooms of Geerswin farmhouse were large and airy. Twil’s room had the same exposed-beams-and-bare-plaster look as the rest of the house, but she’d painted the plaster a soft, cool blue and covered the beams in junk, video game cases, loose books, a primary school sports trophy, a rugby ball with a spike through it — I reminded myself to ask if there was a story behind that one — and a dozen other pieces of personal bric-a-brac. The walls in between were covered in posters of all kinds: bands, movie posters, pages ripped straight out of old video game magazines. I spotted weird movie monsters and spooky landscapes, footballers and rugby players I could not have named if somebody had threatened me, cartoon characters and anime characters and even a couple of Evelyn’s colourful ponies.
Above Twil’s narrow bed was a 3D poster of a werewolf, in pride of place. Laminated corners curling, printed in that green-and-red 3D style that hadn’t been in fashion since the 90s, I had the sudden flash of insight that it had been above her bed for a very long time indeed.
Two narrow windows at the far end provided woefully little light, but she had a pair of standing lamps casting a warm glow on the low ceiling and spilling back down onto the rest of the room.
On one side was a narrow bed, covers neatly made, tucked in, pillows forming a sensible bulge at one end. At its foot was a large and overflowing dresser, proving that Twil loved clothes but had little ability to organise them. The top was stacked with all sorts of junk — more clothes, more books, old mugs in need of being taken downstairs. Hand cream, a takeaway menu, a plush albatross as big as Aym, a tower of empty tissue boxes which made me wince, and what I’m quite certain was a dirty magazine, which should not have been left visible while Tenny was in the room.
The desk past the dresser surprised me. Beneath the window so it got the best light, absolutely piled with textbooks and school-work and well-thumbed notepads, it was organised to perfection. Twil had ring-binders and post-it notes, coloured separators and a mug of highlighters. She had three calculators and a reading lamp. A reading lamp.
Sometimes it was easy to forget that Twil was — academically speaking — incredibly driven and quite smart.
Twil herself was perched on the end of the bed so she could watch the action unfolding on the telly which dominated the opposite side of the room, currently wearing the grin of a blood-mad football hooligan.
Kimberly and Lozzie were sat on the bed behind her. I had expected Kimberly to look like hell, probably shell-shocked, maybe in need of a very big hit from one of her special hand-rolled cigarettes. I wouldn’t have blamed her; she’d stripped naked and been drenched in bull’s blood in front of everybody, then come within inches of being killed by a rip-off Hammer Horror mutant dog.
But Kim was glowing.
She was wearing clothes borrowed from Twil — a bright orange t-shirt and a pair of pajama bottoms — and wrapped in a large fluffy green dressing gown which I guessed belonged to Christine Hopton. She was scrubbed and pink from the bath, with huge bags under her eyes. And she was smiling like I’d never seen her smile before. It wasn’t a grin or a smirk, but something subtle and deep. The smile reached all the way up to her eyes and made their corners crinkle.
She wasn’t even smiling at anything in particular. Lozzie was just behind her and in the process of kneading the muscle knots out of Kim’s shoulders, but she didn’t seem lost in physical bliss. She was simply here, present, surrounded by others.
Felicity was sat more distant, on the cheap swivel chair in front of Twil’s desk. She looked shell-shocked and exhausted and drained, back bent, feet flat on the floor. Without her coat she was thinner, more unhealthy, wrapped in an old jumper and jeans. I felt a bizarre urge to make sure she ate something.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the bed, video game controller in her hands, face pinched in a frown, tentacles wiggling and waggling with hard concentration, was Tenny.
I couldn’t make any sense of the rows of numbers and statistics on the screen.
“Well,” I said in reply to Twil. “I don’t know anything about football either. You’re not teasing Tenny, are you?”
“Footbaaaaall,” Tenny trilled. She pressed buttons and made some numbers switch around on the screen.
“Nah!” Twil laughed. “We’re playing Football Manager! Well, Tenny’s playing, and losing.”
“Buuuu,” went Tenny, pouting. Twil leaned forward and ruffled her fluffy white hair, careful to avoid jostling her antennae. Tenny made a frustrated noise and navigated through a series of menus, which included pitch diagrams, player positions, and a very authentic looking team shirt, in bright red.
“Are you meant to be watching a window?” I asked Twil.
“Nah. Mum said to take a break, watch Kim.” Twil shrugged.
Kimberly spoke up, much to my surprise. Her voice was light and airy, a smile in her words. “Oh, I don’t understand anything about football either. I’ve never even seen a real game. But Tenny is very enthusiastic.”
She blinked slowly, eyelids heavy, feet stretched out on the bed. She scrunched her toes and sighed.
I caught Lozzie’s eye and glanced at Felicity too, frowning a silent question at both of them in turn. Just behind Kim’s sight-line, Lozzie shook her head and mouthed ‘sober!’ Felicity shrugged, too tired to say anything.
Others had been up here to check on Kimberly, of course, I wasn’t the first or only. Praem and Christine had both made sure she was well; Praem had even reported back to Evee. Neither of them had mentioned that Kimberly looked like she’d downed a fistful of codeine.
“Kim?” I ventured softly, walking over to join them on the bed. “Kim, how are you feeling now?”
Tenny pressed a button and a football match started up on the telly, virtual crowd murmuring to itself as the simulated players got started. Kimberly’s eyes wandered from the screen and found me, lazy and slow.
“Not bad,” she said. “Considering.”
I eased myself down on the bed. “If you don’t mind me saying, you seem a little … abstracted.”
“High,” she said. “You mean I seem like I’m high.”
I glanced at the back of Tenny’s head. She didn’t seem to have noticed, too focused on the video game. “I’m not sure we should talk about that in front of certain people.”
Lozzie, leaning over Kimberly’s shoulders, did a funny little bounce on the bed, making everybody wobble. “Tenns knows what drugs are! I taught her all the things, Heathy.”
“Yeah,” Twil added without looking over her shoulder. She was glued to the fake football match too, which seemed to be just random highlights. “Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Better the devil you know, all that.”
Felicity spoke heavily from the rear of the room. She was watching the match too, vague and uninterested. “Better not to know the devil at all.”
I struggled not to pull a grimace, knowing what I knew about Felicity’s personal history with addictive pharmaceuticals. Perhaps she was trying to share a piece of wisdom, but between her tone and her scarred half-mumble it came off as especially grim and grisly.
“Well,” I said awkwardly, smiling back at Kim. “You do seem very happy.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know why.”
“Endorphins,” Felicity added, low and serious. “Survivor’s high. I’ve told her a dozen times already.” She looked over to me with a sort of sympathetic sigh on her half-burned face, then dropped her eyes, almost ashamed. “Sorry.”
“Nah you’ve got a point,” Twil said. She hadn’t seen the look. “Brush with death, makes you feel alive.”
“I do feel alive,” Kim said. “I feel like I want to … I want to … go on a bike ride, or something! Oh, oh that sounds so lame. I mean I want to do something exciting. Something I normally wouldn’t do.”
I nodded along. “You deserve it. If there’s anything we — me and Evee and the others, I mean — if there’s anything we can do, anywhere we can take you, let us know.”
Kimberly blinked. Her eyes were shining, but her smile dribbled off, replaced with a slow-struck awe. I didn’t like that look; it had too much in common with the way Badger looked at me.
“Kim,” I added quickly, trying to head that off before she said something to make me cringe. “Thank you. What you did today, nobody else was ready to do. You didn’t have to. Thank you. You’ve done a lot for me. And it is for me, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t.”
Twil snorted a laugh. “Getting rid of Eddy is gonna be good for everybody.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “That too.”
Kim reached out and brushed my elbow with her fingers. I almost wrapped a tentacle around her hand on instinct, but managed to stop at the last moment, mostly because Lozzie poked the tentacle in question.
“Oh, no,” Kim was saying now she had my attention. Her lower lip was wobbling slightly. “Thank you, Heather. So much. For leaping to my rescue. You’re too good to me. You’re all too good to me.”
I cringed through a smile. “I didn’t need to leap like that. The others had it all under control. Thank Praem instead.”
“I did!” Kimberly nodded. “Praem … I love Praem. She’s been so … kind. Nice. She’s just always there. You know when I can’t sleep, she knocks on my door sometimes? She’s so sweet.” Her eyes were growing wet and scrunched as she spoke. “I love Evee too. I’d be on the streets without her, I really would, I never would have gotten that job.” Kim sniffed hard. Lozzie patted her shoulder with flaps of her pastel poncho. “And it worked. The spell worked. I hope we find Edward, that old … old … guy. Thing. Get that book. Get your sister. I’d like to meet her.”
Kimberly was crying now, holding herself right on the verge of tears. Everyone else had gone awkwardly quiet, embarrassed by this slow and heartfelt outburst of raw emotion. Two of Tenny’s silken black tentacles had crept up to clutch Kim’s left leg, but that was all. Only Lozzie knew how to respond, scooting around and giving Kimberly somebody to hug. Kim responded without thinking, clinging to Lozzie.
“Flowsie, Flowsie,” Lozzie murmured, a little sing-song. “You were always such a dummy. Dumbo dummy doos.”
“I don’t deserve that name,” she murmured into Lozzie’s shoulder.
I hadn’t heard Lozzie call Kimberly ‘Flowsie’ in months — the private name from their time in the Sharrowford Cult. I was reminded, once again, that these two had known each other long before I’d known either of them. When we had first dragged Kimberly out of the cult’s castle alongside us, Lozzie had declared that she didn’t care if ‘Flowsie’ lived or died. Now she was giving her a shoulder to cry on.
Felicity managed to look most awkward of all. She caught my eye and pulled a grimace. “Survivor’s high,” she whispered again. “It’ll pass.”
“You were beautiful,” Kimberly was saying, one eye watching me over Lozzie’s shoulder. “You and Zheng. Zheng! I knew her for years, big frightening monster, and she was running, for me. And Praem.” Kimberly’s eyes fluttered shut. “There is a beauty in magic. There is. There can be.”
She trailed off to nothing, breathing softly into Lozzie’s shoulder. Maybe she’d fallen asleep.
Twil cleared her throat gently. The simulated football match on the television had gone to penalties. “Hope you’re not talking about that bloody great hole in the ground,” she said. “Wouldn’t call that beautiful myself.”
“Twil,” I said. “Language. Tenny’s here.”
“Oh shit!” Twil clapped a hand to her mouth. “I mean, sugar!”
“Bloody is a bad word,” Tenny trilled, sing-song style. Lozzie giggled, setting a very bad example.
“Please don’t tell Evee, okay?” Twil said. “And don’t repeat that word. It’s bad. Rude. A rude word, alright Tenns?”
“I’m not rude,” Tenny said, all a-flutter.
Felicity spoke as if she hadn’t heard the last few moments of conversation, untouched by levity. “That breach was unexpected,” she said. I didn’t have to ask for clarification to know she was talking about the gigantic void which had opened in the ground, out in the field, the impossible sucking hole in reality.
“Was that normal?” I asked.
Felicity looked up. The bags were heavy beneath her eyes. She always had such a haunted look, even below the exhaustion. “There’s nothing normal about what we’ve done here. We did real magic. Large scale. We changed something about the arrangement of reality. That’s not going to go unnoticed, and not just by this Edward guy.”
I froze, staring at her. “Are you saying we’ve opened ourselves up to additional danger?”
Felicity shrugged. “I don’t know. I try to keep my head down, most of the time. This is the first in a while I’ve broken that habit.”
She raised her gloved hands, either to check herself or to show them to me. Both of them were shaking with anxiety.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Evee about it, not yet,” I said. “Everything has been so hectic. But I doubt she would countenance something which would create even more danger, not these days. Even if she was reckless when you knew her, she’s not that way anymore. She’s got much more to live for.”
Felicity returned her hands to her lap, linking her fingers to hide the shaking. “That’s … that’s good to know. Good to hear. She has seemed … driven. She was always driven, I mean. I’m sorry. Forget I said anything, forget—”
“Sweeties and sweetums,” crooned a voice made of rusty knives and the smell of melted plastic. “Don’t look now, but somebody’s stolen our horizon.”
All eyes — including Kimberly’s, which snapped open — looked to the doorway. Aym stood there like the spooky little sprite she was, head to toe in black lace, hood up, voice coming from a dark oval of nothing.
“Aym?” Felicity said instantly, not missing a beat. “Explain. Right now.”
Aym giggled, a noise like nails pattering on a blackboard. Down the corridor, Sevens’ shoes went click-click-click until she joined Aym in the doorway. The Yellow Princess was a mask of self-control.
“Aym is not exaggerating,” she said. “You should see. Tenny, stay here. Lozzie, watch her.”
Shouts of surprise and alarm were coming from the bottom floor of the house. Evelyn was calling my name. Raine was shouting to “look at it through the glasses, use the glasses! It’s not just the dogs!”
I was out of the room and into the corridor as fast as my tentacles could carry me. Others followed. Sevens ushered me along, down to the window she’d been staring out of earlier. Aym capered and scurried, but I could see her nervous energy was a false amusement.
Across the field, beyond the farm, the tree line was full of hounds. Maybe a dozen creatures similar to the dead one downstairs, pacing back and forth, staring at the house with sightless eyes or mismatched orbs.
Dark shapes hung in the trees, avoiding the sunlight, heavy and hanging like lumpy and unnatural sloths.
And above it all, forming a new skyline, dwarfing farmhouse and trees and all, was a spider-servitor the size of an oil rig.
And we’re back! Thank you for waiting. The arc now resumes, right where we left off.
Don’t mess with Heather’s friends! Even if they’re people who tried to kill her once! She’ll leap at you and paff ineffectually at you with her tentacles until her other friends have to pull you off her and then you’ll both be embarrassed and muddy and nobody will be having a good time. Looks like Edward’s counter-attack is here. Something doesn’t seem right though. He sure has reverse-engineered those spiders fast.
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Next week, somebody better summon Godzilla, because we’ve just passed the threshold. Maybe Felicity can do that?
The green field comes off like a lid
Revealing what was much better hid
But look, behind without a sound
The woods have come up and are standing round
In deadly crescent
(T H Auden)
Kim’s good feelings: There may be other reasons, but one big thing has to be – she’s finally had a chance to make up for her guilt over what she did while in the cult. She’s come from being feral with terror when alone in her apartment being visited by the Lozzie-Thing, to being a pity case supported by her former enemies but not really one of them, to now she did something brave and important that no-one else could have done, and she is valued for it. Maybe the first time she’s been able to feel good about herself again.
* W H Auden
Oooh, a little poem!
And a much older poem. How very relevant and fitting, thank you.
Kim has finally found something that matters to her, yes. Redemption, or belonging, or acceptance, or perhaps just being able to put her skills to use for a good cause at last. If she can get through this situation, maybe her future isn’t so bleak anymore.
As of the time of writing this comment, a Kimberly PoV is very likely for part of Book Two. I hope she gets there.
This is going to sound a little bit odd! But apparently the line of asterisks in this comment are breaking the site on mobile wordpress for some users. Normally I never ever edit any user comments, it doesn’t feel right to do so, but I’m going to remove the asterisks in your comment manually to try to fix the issue. This reply is just to explain why.
……You can edit comments?…….
I only just discovered it myself!
No problem! Evil asterisks with wicked site breaking powers! I was playing with powers I did not understand! Sorry to anyone this caused a hassle for!
No worries! Not your fault or anything. WordPress is truly a mystical and byzantine spell held together with duck tape and prayer.
Hope you are feeling better, health always comes first, glad you are back.
Everyone survived, hopefully will be fine as the house is besieged by a spider. thanks for the chapter.
Alright two parts for story
2 fifth part
I think I should try to rework the states on the circle. My mind has cleared somewhat since my friend started living upstairs,, I’ve forgotten to ask why she’s. here I’ll do that.
The scraps are missing, but has ꓛɐt said anything??
I did not have any dreams the past days, but the curtains are gone. Did I move them on;; each window sunlight i s starting to leeeeak in. The circle has taken the armchair, the bricks of the fire are crumbling? The pain in my hand is still there, but less?
Perhaps I’m getting bettertheʇɐꓛ has not been seen, and my friend has not come to see. I should get my friend to meet my friennnnnnd…
I do think we need food. the cellar is a mess, I need to clean up the wine bottles.
I put my good hand on the circles wall and felt nothing at all.
i………………..’ WaNt tOo petT tHe FuR
Abigail the hallways are longer now..
It’s strange. The house is the same, but there are rooms I’ve seen before, the guest, the locked head bedroom, all of the stairwells, the kitchen. It’s all the Same, but it’s all the tSamaeC.
I paced around the guest room. Two beds. The covers on one are moth-eaten. something Is quite right. I still haven’t been in that room. should I go or should I find food, use up what we have left. my cars still in the driveway I can.
I should sleep, I’m getting tired..
But One more thing here’s a meMory
It was on a sunny day in the backyard for a party, all our friends. There’s something in the mirror.
2 sixth part
I’ve lost count of tomorrow. Is that normal well? the circle is, and I am feeling comfortable enough to get closer.
I went to the cellar. Again moss is growing on the sTeps and the lawn is a forest of tall grass and brown deAd spots, which it’s normal that dead grass looks like foot prints right. Of Course silly me 🙂
My wound is healing. I don’t worry about how my dream was a pool, no need to write it out last morning.
I need to show my friend what she’s missing. The back door was open the sky outside was a red overcast.
Maybe I should try moving the circle, the living room is so cramped now.
I’m leaving Abigail are you coming with me!? They showed it.. t o me….. Sh ow ed me It.. I haven’t teaCen since tomorrow.
I should leave;; I really think I shouldn’t.. my car is in the driveway. I checked. They have been in the living room since. All the sunlight, a trail of tiny hairs mark where they have gone, to the bathroom and kitchen and back at least twelve times. I heard them stumbling from upstairs, the floorboard creak and whatever is in the.
The party was boring, only me them and a few others. We drank to much, did things I came to regret. I pushed them away they fell down and.
I looked at it. There’s a hallway in the mirror, I see something at the end.
I’m going to leave tonight. Need to go to the store get some food for us. I doWantn’t to return. I’m not sure I should have taken the curtains away.
I won der whAt ta C feels like. ?
Thank you! Yes, I’m doing much better, mostly back to normal, and I was able to write this week with minimal issues. I’ll take care of myself as best I can!
Everybody made it! Yeah! But now there’s a bigger threat (literally???) And you are very very welcome, glad you enjoyed the chapter, yay!
Oooooh more fanfic! Thank you for this, I’ll read right now …
I really like it! You’ve captured a creepy disjointedness that really works!
It’s a house taC, or a taC house?
Petting the fur would indeed be irrestible.
Amazing chapter! I loved the fluff with Sevens!
Thanks for the chapter!
You’re very welcome! Glad you enjoyed this one! Sevens really needs more Heather attention, the poor girl has been sidelined emotionally for too long.
Hope you are doing well author.
Aaahhh, They are so sweet together.
Heather x Poly!
Dang, Edward might be far out of most of their league. Excluding Heather, Praem, and Sevens possibly. Those three’s weakness only seems to be themselves.
Thank you for the chapter.
Thank you! I am doing much better now and mostly back to normal, back to writing!
Heather x her found family!
Edward has put up a real showing here, a genuine opener in a fight with a mage. We’ll see if Heather and the others are up to the task.
And you are very welcome indeed, glad you enjoyed it!
Thank you for replying.
The most astounding thing in this chapter to me, is a bath that can fit three and a half people in it!
Any baths I’ve owned struggle to fit one person.
Old-school baths! I know, right?! I’ve seen one that size once, in real life, and it was amazing. Now we can all rest easy knowing that Twil can go for a swim in her bathtub.