Discussion of torture
Gaslighting/mental fog/reality disconnect
But no Sevens, not that I could see.
I hurled myself off the sofa.
Fear for Seven-Shades-of-Uncertain-Safety; lingering guilt over the state of Geerswin farmhouse; self-directed horror at almost injecting Nicole Webb with unfiltered Heather-juice; exhaustion and pain; the bloodstains on my clothes; the ache in my flank where my bioreactor lay beneath my bruised and spongy flesh. A heady cocktail too strong for little old me; it yanked me to my feet and sent me lurching toward the shadow-wrapped bundle in the corner of the Hopton’s ruined and smashed dining room.
I reached for Aym with half my tentacles. The other half retained a sliver of sense, slapping desperately at the floor in a futile effort to keep me on my feet.
A poor decision, but I plead panic born of love. In my mind’s eye I was meant to stagger toward Aym, grab her by those thin, lace-drowned shoulders, and shake her. I was meant to shout: “Where is Sevens?!” This was a bad plan, not only because I couldn’t stand, nor because the only sound I could make was a hissing squeak, but mostly because Aym wasn’t properly manifested. There was nothing to grab and shake. She did not currently possess shoulders, thin and lace-clad or otherwise. ‘Aym’ was an amorphous veil of darkness. She was probably feeling shy. Or playing silly games.
Praem had to step in and catch me before I could fall flat on my face. The only injury was to my dignity, but it was a nasty wound.
To my credit I didn’t instinctively attack her with my tentacles or hiss in her face, which would have been deeply mortifying and require hours of penance later. Instead I blushed and fussed and clung to her in gratitude, embarrassed by my outburst and quite off-balance. I muttered various species of ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘I’m so clumsy’, but Praem ignored it all with her usual affectless acceptance. She deposited me back on the sofa as gently as she could; Evee instantly clung to my arm, as if to stop me from attempting another escape.
Everyone was talking at once — including me.
“Aym! Aym!” I was saying, trying to get a look around Praem’s hip. “Sevens, where’s Sevens?!”
Twil was saying, “What do you mean, hunting rabbits? Who’s that guy, hey?” She pointed at the gap where the back doors had once stood, now filled with semi-transparent bubble-servitors. “You mean you’re on him? You’re after him?”
Evelyn snapped her voice like a whip, “Explain yourself, you vile thing! Heather, stay put! Stay!”
Christine and Amanda both looked rather shocked by all this; Christine was trying to ask a question, but her words were lost in the noise. Raine darted back into the room, probably drawn by the sound of my panicked voice. Felicity was hot on her heels but she stopped dead when she saw Aym’s shadow-mass in the corner; despite the cacophonous near-panic, I clearly saw the tension drain away from her shoulders and depart the muscles of her face, the moment she saw Aym. Kimberly didn’t stop in time. She bounced off Felicity’s back, which almost sent Felicity sprawling, because the mage was still exhausted and spent. They caught each other, awkwardly close. I wished them luck. ‘Mister’ George and Michael Hopton blundered in too, late to the show.
“What’s going on now?” Michael thundered. “Is it kicking off again? Ben and Katey aren’t even here, we don’t have the fire-power for another—”
“Aym, hey,” Twil was saying, voice sharp and clear for once, cutting across the others. “If you’re hunting, I gotta know! And somebody find Zheng.”
“Found,” Zheng rumbled from the doorway. A few people jumped; Zheng had appeared almost as quietly as Aym had.
“Sevens!” I was almost screeching. “Where’s—”
Aym — or the pool of black mist that contained the concept of Aym — went: “Shhhhh! Shhh! Shh!”
It was like being hushed by a throat full of flaking rust mixed with the sound of nails down a chalkboard, but inside one’s own head. Several people winced. Twil sneezed and swore. Zheng growled. I swore I saw a tentacle or two drifting inside that cloud of black nothing, like a hand concealing a naughty smile.
Aym continued in a less ear-punishing voice. “We’ve almost hooked him over the line, sweeties and swooties. I’ve only nipped back to make sure wolf-brain here doesn’t rush out there and ruin the whole trick. Don’t spook him! He’s so close to the jaws.”
A slick slap of tongue and a clack of teeth came from within the black mist, as if slavering over a delicious morsel.
Twil spoke quickly, with more confidence than she usually showed, heading off any further confusion. She stretched out both hands in an ‘everybody stop’ gesture. “Whoa whoa, okay,” she hissed under her breath, as if we were trying to stay quiet and stealthy inside a deer blind. “Nobody move, nobody look at the window— uh, door— bubbles … you know what I mean. She’s got a point. If they’ve been reeling that guy in then we don’t want to disturb the hunt.”
Raine looked suddenly alert. Her pistol was in her hands. “What guy?”
Twil pointed at the hole in the back of the house, covered with a makeshift skin of stretched bubble-servitor, like oil suspended in water between two layers of cling-film. “There’s a guy, at the edge of the woods. Don’t look! Pretend we haven’t seen. Right?”
Aym giggled, a raspy noise like pine cones crushed beneath steel boots. “Good wolfie! You get it, yes you do. How about some scritches later, mmmhmm?”
Twil froze, deeply confused.
Evelyn snapped, “You leave Twil alone or I will remove both your hands. Twil, don’t respond to that.”
“Uh, yeah, yeah,” Twil said, then cleared her throat. “Look, just, chill, okay? Everybody chill, don’t look at the woods. Let Aym do her thing.”
Amanda said, slurring her words, “Made it so he can’t see through the angels. We can see out. Can’t see in.”
“Clever, clever!” Aym purred in approval.
The logistics of that statement made me frown inside; unaltered human beings couldn’t see the bubble-servitors in the first place. But I didn’t have the spare mental bandwidth to question it just then. I trusted Hringewindla on this.
Raine said quickly, “It’s not Edward himself, is it?”
“Confirm that!” Evelyn hissed. “He wouldn’t be that stupid, but … ”
Twil shook her head. “Nah. Too young. It’s not him.”
Evelyn tutted. “Pity.”
“Sevens!” I hissed. “Aym, where is Sevens?”
From within that black mist I felt an awareness turn toward me, an observer deep in the darkness looking back, as if Aym was only just now paying proper attention.
The darkness thickened and shrank. For a second I thought Aym was leaving again, tormenting me with doubt and uncertainty over Sevens’ safety. I almost lurched out of the sofa all over again, anchored only by Evelyn’s iron-hard grip on my arm. But the darkness sucked itself into a solid form, like vacuum packed plastic wrap. Mist became black lace, head to toe, without a scrap of skin showing, Aym’s face hidden deep inside a hood.
Diminutive and concealed, the slight little figure trotted over to the sofa as if escaping a darkened cellar. Before I could yelp in surprise or ward her off, Aym wriggled down next to me as if retreating from the rest of the room, from all the other curious gazes turned her way. She even hid from Felicity, burrowed down by my burning right flank.
“Aym?” I croaked, spiritually uncomfortable. Her hip against mine felt just like a regular human being. She squirmed into the embrace of my tentacles, like a tiny fish seeking cover in the seaweed. “You— ah, what are you—”
A tiny voice whispered forth: “Your fiancée is fine, stop whining. She’s hunting. I’m yours for the moment so don’t betray her trust, squid-for-brains. Let me shelter.”
Twil said, “Heather, she say something?”
“Sevens is fine,” I replied with a shuddering sigh. “I guess she’s conducting the hunt.”
Aym whispered with her hidden face pressed into my shoulder. “Tell them it’s time to move. Wolfie, the murder-dyke, and your muscle zombie. Get them together. Here’s the plan. Don’t screw it up!”
Sevens’ plan — for it was her plan, Aym was only the messenger — was hardly complex enough to justify all this cloak-and-dagger skulduggery, especially when several of us were so exhausted. But Aym assured me in her hissing, warbling, broken little voice that it was essential, it was the only way to catch this “skip-hop skitter-beast of a man.”
“Eh?” said Twil when I repeated that particular description. “What’s that meant to mean, is he really good at running away?”
Aym giggled in my ear: “A professional runner-away, yes!”
I relayed the plan. Evelyn critiqued it a bit, though she was basically on board from the start. Twil and Zheng both approved — though Zheng insisted she be responsible for the tackle, rather than Twil. Raine was doubtful, but Zheng said: “We watch each other, little wolf. None will get at our backs.” That seemed to do the trick.
Getting into place was a little bit awkward. The clock was ticking: by the time Aym had explained the plan and I’d relayed it and the others had agreed, the man at the edge of the woods had begun to creep into the fields.
Aym had not exaggerated; he did look professional, even at a distance, across the farm, seen through a wall of bubble-servitors. Perhaps it was the way he moved, or the way he held himself, or the simple hiking clothes he wore. He walked with slow and exaggerated care, eyes up, awareness spread wide. He stopped every few paces to look over his shoulder, crane his neck to see around the corners of the house, take pictures with his phone, stare through his binoculars, and write in a little notebook he kept pulling out of his coat.
He couldn’t see the bubble-servitors shadowing his every move. They had him boxed in, covered from behind, even from the sky, bobbing and writhing with invisible glory. But they couldn’t do the deed.
“If we’re wrong and he’s a mage, he could go right through them,” Evelyn had said. “No, it has to be real flesh to do the job.”
Abyssal instinct stirred as I watched. Instinct knew. He was no predator; this man acted like prey.
We observed him from the back door — or rather, the hole where the back door used to be. Everybody who was not directly involved in trapping this poor man like a skittish rabbit clustered around to watch. Amanda assured us again that the bubble-servitors would make it impossible for him to see us. I didn’t question the pneuma-somatic mechanics of that; I’d had enough headaches for one day.
However, I could barely stand up. My right flank burned like a chunk of star lodged inside my flesh. Kimberly helped me, arm beneath mine. But so did Aym. She stuck uncomfortably close, propped me up, her tiny black-lace form wedged into my side and aggravating my bruises. I returned the favour and wrapped her in tentacles for support, but she didn’t complain. Praem helped Evelyn to stand; she was lucky.
We watched the suspicious man make his way across the field, as the others got into position. He didn’t look like much, just a stray hiker with a sturdy walking stick, a camo-print coat, and a big sensible backpack.
Christine Hopton cleared her throat gently. “We’re not about to traumatize some uninvolved gentleman, are we?”
Evelyn sighed sharply. “With all due respect, High Priestess, that man is taking notes.”
“Watch how he moves,” I croaked. “He’s up to something. He’s skulking.”
He was also speaking to somebody who wasn’t there.
Every few seconds he turned his head to the left and spoke a little. The actual words were lost to distance and muffled by the walls of the house. But he was speaking to somebody, pausing, responding, answering questions.
I whispered under my breath, “Good job, Sevens. Good, good, keep it up. Good girl. I love you, you can do it.”
Aym whispered into my hot, aching flank: “She’s brilliant.”
“Hmm?” I glanced down at Aym, but her face was still hidden deep inside her hood. She clung to me like an animal in the shelter of a cliff. I knew Felicity was watching with great curiosity, but the older mage didn’t seem bothered by this new-found and unexpected clingy Aym. Which was a relief. If she’d shown jealousy I think I would have been disgusted.
Executing the plan went lightning fast. There wasn’t really much to it.
Raine stepped around the side of the house, raised her handgun and shouted: “Police, freeze!”
Aym had been very specific that Raine needed to shout ‘police’. It made me wish Nicole wasn’t currently halfway to Sharrowford General Hospital; she would have been either delighted or outraged, I’m not sure which. None of us actually saw Raine, not from the angle of the doorway, but we heard her shout. She was wonderfully authoritative.
The hiking man froze for a split-second — then turned to run, ducking and weaving, both hands hooked into the straps of his backpack. Not the response of somebody who’d never had a gun pointed at him before, but the last resort of a desperate professional.
Twil and Zheng burst from the tree-line behind him, corralled him in about half a second, and then Zheng hit him like a wrecking ball. She delivered a rugby tackle to fell an elephant — though she’d been given strict instructions not to actually kill or main him, so she did cradle his head in one hand before they hit the ground.
After all, we did want to have a word with him.
Ten minutes later we had Edward Lilburne’s after-action scout tied up in the Hopton’s kitchen. Raine taught me that phrase — ‘after-action scout’. I didn’t like it very much; too clean and bland, something worryingly sanitised about the words.
“Isn’t he more of a … rear-guard?” I suggested.
“Nah, wrong term,” Raine said, ruffling my hair.
The others were less kind.
“Vulture,” Zheng purred.
“Quite,” Christine agreed, arms folded. She regarded our captive with pursed lips and a tight frown. “I’m not very well predisposed to this attempt on my home and family, but I’ve not yet had anybody at which to vent.”
“Dumb-arse,” said Twil.
“Twil!” her mother scolded.
“I mean him! Not you, mum! Fuck!”
“Nobody,” Felicity said in her heavy, tired mumble, leaning on Kimberly’s support. “He’s a nobody. He doesn’t even have any weapons on him?”
“Everybody shut the fuck up,” Evelyn croaked from the kitchen doorway, still using Praem to keep herself upright. “If we’re going to terrify this bastard, I’d prefer we do it in a more systematic fashion. Allow me, please.”
The mysterious man looked terrified enough as it was — and anything but mysterious. Part of me wondered if Christine’s initial fear was correct: if we had accidentally assaulted and kidnapped a random woodland rambler who’d stumbled upon what he could only have assumed was a crime scene. But then I recalled how he’d moved.
He did look rather like the sort of man who might be out for a solo hike in the deepest woods.
In his late forties or perhaps early fifties, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a freshly shaved chin, he had the sort of face one only gets from a lifetime spent outdoors, weathered and craggy, but lean and tight, with an athletic build. His eyes were soft deep blue, his skin tanned, and his fingernails very dirty. He reminded me a tiny bit of my own father, if my dad had been about a six stone lighter.
Dressed in a camo-print coat, sensible trousers, and sturdy boots, he passed muster for a long journey. His pockets and the bag on his back contained nothing out of the ordinary: no weapons, no magical sigils, no hidden compartments, not even after Praem and Raine had rifled through all the contents, and Felicity had done something esoteric with her right hand over his midsection.
She said, “Skin’s clean too, nothing on him.”
Evelyn had grunted: “I hate that you do that with no circle. It’s obscene.”
“Mm, me too.”
Raine found his car keys and wallet; the latter contained a driver’s licence, with his face, and the name, ‘Preston Owl Woods.’
“Think it’s real?” Raine asked.
Twil pulled a grimace. “Pee-oh-double-you? Is this guy bait or what? Must think we’re all stupid.”
“Can’t we ask him?” Michael said. “We’ve got him covered in about six different ways. He tries anything, his head’s gonna burst, right?”
“Ew. Dad,” said Twil.
“Well, it’s true. And I’m not speaking a word against caution, not after the last couple of hours. You hear me, Mister Woods? If that’s even your real name. We take that gag off your mouth and you better not try anything, because you’ll be dead in seconds.”
‘Mister’ George cleared his throat with great discomfort. “Are we going to have to … make this guy … talk? Because I don’t want to be present for that. Sorry. Just don’t.”
Raine shot him a wink. “It’s cool, we’re dab hands at that by now. No help needed.”
Not the right thing to say — ‘Mister’ George went quite pale, staring at Raine. But I knew the talk was for show, to intimidate our captive. I just wish Raine was a little more delicate about it.
Twil was sucking on her teeth. “You don’t think he’s that guy, do you?”
“What guy?” Raine asked.
“You know. The guy. Joking.”
“Joe King,” I croaked. “No. He was … built different. Wrong face too.”
Evelyn said, “Let me speak to him first, before we try anything rash.”
‘Preston Woods’ watched all this with steadily increasing terror in his wide eyes. Out in the field, Zheng had pinned him to the ground with his face in the mud and knelt on his hands: anti-mage precaution, no words, no gestures. Raine had gagged him, bound his hands and wrapped his fingers in rope, to stop him trying any sneaky magic. After being hauled inside he’d been tied to a chair by his chest and ankles, and now sat, alone, at the centre of a ring of strange people, in the gore-streaked ruins of the Hopton’s kitchen.
His eyes were wide and wild, his chest pumping beneath his coat and grey jumper. But he was aware, trying to listen to and take in everything we said.
I tried to see this all from his perspective; he probably thought he was about to die.
Evelyn stepped forward, walking stick in one hand, her other arm wrapped around Praem. She stared at our captive and he stared back, eyes watering.
Evelyn spoke slowly and carefully. “We’re going to take the gag off your mouth. One of my associates is going to point a gun at your head, but that will be a back-up option, hardly necessary.” She tapped the floor with her walking stick. “Look at this.”
Preston looked down, at the hastily scrawled magic circle on the patch of clean floor tiles amid the bloodstains.
“If you try anything,” Evelyn continued, “this will set your brain on fire and turn your organs to pulp. There is also a monster hanging from the ceiling above your head. It is invisible, you can’t see it, but it will murder and digest you at the first sign of trouble. Nod if you understand.”
Preston Woods nodded. He couldn’t see the bubble-servitor hanging from the ceiling above his head, a raindrop ready to fall.
Twil hissed, “Bloody hell, Evee.”
I whispered back in a broken croak, “She’s just tired. Makes her blunt.”
“She’s fucking terrifying sometimes,” Twil hissed in reply.
Evelyn’s tone was colder and more precise than usual, I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. I ached to step forward and take her hand, but that would undermine her gravitas and intimidation. Also, I had a pair of gremlins attached to my sides — Aym on one, and Sevens on the other.
Seven-Shades-of-Silent-Resumption was in her blood-goblin form, heavy-eyed and unsmiling. She’d appeared out of thin air while the others had been busy tying Preston to a chair; she had announced herself by clamping to my side all of a sudden, opposite Aym, as if she’d just stepped out from around a corner. I hadn’t got a chance to speak with her yet, but she and Aym kept exchanging covert little touches across my back and belly. The pressure of her embrace made my bruises ache, but I wrapped my tentacles tight around her shoulders and clung on.
I just accepted the pair of them, and they helped me stand.
Evelyn continued, “We have just fended off an attempt on our lives. I hope you appreciate the seriousness with which we are treating you.” She nodded to Raine. “Point the gun at his head. Somebody remove the gag.”
Twil did the honours, pulling the makeshift gag out of Mister Woods’ mouth. The man just sat there, panting, eyes flicking around at all the staring faces. He swallowed, hard and dry, opened his lips, then thought better of it, and said nothing.
Raine laughed softly. “You’d do better to speak, mate. And fast.”
“M-m-may I?” he said, stammering hard.
Not a local accent, something Southern perhaps, maybe London. Deep voice, speaking from his chest, level and controlled despite the terror-born stammer.
Evelyn snapped, “Do you speak English as a first language? Answer that question and only that question, or my friend will pull the trigger. Yes or no; either answer will not get you killed.”
I could see a ‘What?” forming on his lips and in the crease of his brow, but Preston was fast enough and smart enough to catch himself. “Yes,” he said.
“Then speak only English. A single word in another language and we have to kill you, as a precaution.”
Preston nodded — but I could see in his eyes, he didn’t understand.
“He’s not in the know,” I murmured.
A few of the others looked at me. Evelyn frowned. Raine raised her eyebrows. Kimberly looked away, more focused on helping Felicity than the unfolding interrogation.
I cleared my throat and repeated myself. “He’s not in the know. He doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s not properly aware.”
Felicity sighed in agreement. “He’s practically dissociating,” she mumbled. “Look at his eyes.”
Preston’s pupils were massively dilated. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot with stress. He couldn’t focus properly, eyes skipping about the room, over our faces — and flinching away from several people: Aym, Sevens, and Zheng.
“Shiiiiit,” said Twil. “You think?”
Amanda muttered, “Little lost lamb. Seen it before.”
Evelyn clenched her jaw and said, “Fuck. You’re right. We don’t have time for this. Mister Woods. Mister Woods, focus on me.”
Raine chuckled softly. “Little Yellow’s got his brain fried. He thought he was talking to somebody, out there with him in the field.” Raine glanced at Sevens, who was still clamped to my side, my little blood-limpet with her hands under my hoodie. “That was your handiwork, right?”
“Guuurrruk, yeah,” rasped Seven-Shades-of-Psychic-Damage.
“Can you bring him back around?”
“Rrrrrrrk.” Sevens managed to make that gurgle sound very apologetic, and then bury her face in my flank. Aym reached out and touched her shoulder.
“Mister Woods.” Evelyn stamped once with her walking stick — bad idea, seeing as she could barely stand. Praem kept her steady. “Mister Woods, whoever you were talking to was not real. Focus on me. Your life depends on focusing on my words. Listen.”
Michael Hopton muttered from the doorway. “Poor bastard.” ‘Mister’ George murmured in agreement.
Twil leaned against the wall and puffed out a sigh. “Have we gotta break him in?”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, that would leave him confused for hours, at the very least. And it’s not … right. It’s not right.”
“Yes,” Evelyn grunted. “We don’t have the time. And we have no idea how he would respond.”
A chest-rattling rasp vibrated against my other flank, like lungs choked with blood-flecked saliva; Aym drew a breath, and said: “Needs the expert touch.”
Aym let go of me and stepped forward, a miniature ghost all in black lace. She was half my current support, so Christine Hopton had to quickly step in to hold me up. Aym swept between the gathered people like a scrap of fabric on an errant wind. Before anybody could reach out to stop her, she was right next to Preston and the chair he was tied to.
She leaned forward, the side of her hood cupped by one sleeve-drowned hand, and whispered something inaudible into his ear.
Preston Woods went completely stiff, then relaxed, blinking rapidly, like a waking sleepwalker; he was still terrified, but now he was concentrating.
“I’ll— I’ll co-operate,” he babbled, lips thick with effort. “I’ll tell you anything. Everything you want. Please don’t— don’t shoot me. I’m not important. I’m just doing a job I was paid for. Do you want me to talk, or answer questions, or … please.” He wet his lips and swallowed.
Evelyn frowned at Aym — but then Aym was gone, vanished like a wisp of smoke in damp air. She reappeared attached to Sevens, clinging to her back. The pair of goblins leaned against my side together.
Twil said, “Woah, hey, did you just fucking brainwash him!?”
“Unclogged,” said Aym. “He’ll be ga-ga in an hour or two. Work fast, sillies.”
“Please,” Preston repeated.
Raine said, “You’re doing great, fella. Just relax.”
Evelyn snorted. “No, how about don’t relax? Who are you working for?”
“I don’t know who this job is for,” Preston said. He focused on Evelyn alone; something obviously told him that she was the leader, she was the one he needed to convince. “It’s all via anonymous contacts. All I have is a text message telling me to start and a phone number I’m meant to report back to. It’s completely hands off. You’ll find the text message on my phone, it says ‘go, four’. That’s the code to start. I don’t have the report number written down, I have it memorised. I destroyed the piece of paper with it on, this morning. Which I was instructed to do.”
He spoke crisply and clearly, enunciating his words as best he could, despite the fear for his life. I had the impression he was barely holding back his terror, but he knew his chances were better if he gave us what we wanted.
Evelyn and Raine shared a look. Twil sighed. Christine tutted. Michael said, “Typical.”
“That is his style,” Raine said. “No-contact, no liability, all that.”
“Typical, yes,” Evelyn grunted.
Twil said, “What are you, some kind of cut-rate merc?”
Preston nodded. “Basically, yes.”
Evelyn sighed. “Alright. What were you doing here?”
Preston wet his lips. “The job is strictly recon. It was set up a long time ago. I was meant to come to a specific location in the woods and then proceed toward this … farm. I didn’t know it was a farm. I didn’t know what was here. The instructions were to proceed to this point and then report back if anybody was left alive. That’s all.”
“Left alive?” Michael Hopton said.
“Yes.” Preston took a breath but he couldn’t get it all the way down. “Nobody’s … nobody’s dead. I’ve seen no bodies. And I’ve seen no gear, no drugs, no product. So, I’m not aware of anything that’s happened here. I don’t … have to report back. I can pretend I never got the activation message.”
Twil squinted at him. “Drugs?”
Present blinked rapidly. “This … this is … about drugs, right? I know the job must be for a big-scale dealer, but I don’t know who. I’m sorry. I know this is a hit on a rival, but I don’t know anything else. I’m sorry, I can’t give details, it’s a no-contact job. I swear.”
Raine started laughing first. Twil rolled her eyes and flapped her hands. Evelyn looked like she was made of stone. Felicity put her face in her hand.
“It’s not funny!” I protested. “He’s genuinely confused.”
“Funny,” said Praem.
“Come on Heather,” Raine said, “it’s pretty absurd.”
Michael Hopton said, slowly, “He thinks we’re — what? A hidden growing operation? Drug dealers?”
“You’re not then,” Preston said. “You’re not. I saw nothing. I still see nothing. You’re not dealers, I never saw any of you.”
Twil snorted. “That ain’t the problem here, buddy-guy pal!”
Evelyn sounded like death. “This idiot doesn’t know a thing.”
“I can give you the number!” Preston said, desperate. Poor man thought we were going to shoot him for not knowing anything. “I can give you that.”
Felicity murmured, “I want nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. I’m not torturing this man.”
Evelyn sighed. “What’s to torture? He knows nothing.”
“Wait a sec,” Raine said, stifling her laughter. “Mate, listen. Do you know a woman by the name of Amy Stack?”
Preston Woods froze, mouth on the cusp of an answer.
“Oh,” I breathed.
Raine continued, before he could lie to us. “Tell us the truth here, friend. It’s gonna increase your chances of getting out of here alive.”
Preston nodded, slowly. His eyes stayed glued to Raine; any port in a storm, even one made of razor-sharp rocks. “Yeah. Haven’t seen her in two years, but Amy’s the one who gave me the job, back then. She gave me a phone number where I got the initial instructions, and also gave me the pay. Ten thousand up front. I’m supposed to get ten more on completion, after I report, but it’s one of those jobs I never expected to call.”
Raine cracked a grin, and said, “Small bloody world, isn’t it?” Preston didn’t know how to respond.
“Ten grand!” Twil said, aghast. “Fuck me, that’s a lot, just to wait around for a call and then take some pictures?”
“I’m reliable. Amy knew that. It’s why she got me the contact.”
“You better be reliable, fucking hell. Expensive!”
“Two years ago?” Evelyn asked Preston nodded. “And you haven’t seen her since?” He nodded again. “I think that confirms who the job is really for.”
Twil said, “We trust Stack?”
Zheng purred, “I trust the fox.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “She’s with us. Kind of.”
“Oh, right,” said Preston. This fact did not seem to reassure him.
“Hey, mate,” Raine went on quickly, speaking fast. “Were you at the library?”
He stared at her, blind-sided. “The … library?”
Raine waited. But Preston only swallowed, utterly confused.
Evelyn huffed. “Yes, he’s one of Stack’s mercenary contacts, but not the ones Edward used directly. This guy was not taken to Carcosa, or used for anything more. He’s a nobody.”
“Sooooo,” Twil said, “what do we do with him?” She pulled a grimace. “Have we gotta … you know?”
Michael Hopton shook his head, big beefy arms folded over his chest. “We can’t just let him go. Not after this.”
Raine winced. “Yeah, intel is too valuable to share.”
Amanda Hopton spoke up as well, but she spoke for her god: “This has been too much of a transgression to risk a repeat.”
“He does seem pretty scared … ” said Twil. She was right, Preston Woods looked terrified. He knew we were debating his death. Felicity said nothing, too busy putting her arms around Kimberly. Kim had her hands over her ears; she didn’t want to know anything about this.
“Please,” Preston said. “I can give you the number. Talk to Amy, ask Amy, I’m solid. I am! Please don’t— don’t—”
“Shut up,” Evelyn snapped. “Everybody shut up.” She looked round at the rest of us. “I know this has been a rather traumatic day, but please, you all have higher IQs than this.”
“‘Scuse me?” said Twil.
“This guy is pointless,” Felicity murmured.
“Felicity is correct.” To my great surprise, Evelyn grudgingly nodded at her. “Edward Lilburne is an extremely mature mage. He doesn’t need some hoodwinked courier to confirm if his plan worked or not. This man is nothing worse than independent confirmation, a fail-safe. A red herring, perhaps. We could let him go and it wouldn’t make any difference.”
I saw Preston exhale with controlled relief.
“But we’re not going to let him go,” Evelyn finished.
Twil winced. Raine went still, readying herself. Zheng cocked her head.
“Evee?” I murmured.
Evelyn’s face blossomed with one of those subtle smiles, knife-thin and devious. Evelyn Saye the strategist, my strategist, making a move nobody else had thought of. Praem stood tall at her side. She turned back to Mr Woods, who had gone grey, like rotten oats.
“You are going to call the number you were given — and I am going to make your report.”
“ … okay,” he said, nodding. “Alright. I can do that. I will co-operate.”
“Evee,” Raine said. “What are you thinking? Share with the class, hey?”
Zheng grunted. “Wizard filth.”
“Yes, Evee?” I echoed. But I was vibrating. Evelyn’s satisfaction was contagious. “Evee, what are you planning?”
Evelyn’s smile grew sharp and beautiful.
“Edward Lilburne was always so afraid of hearing my voice over the phone, remember? Well. I’m going to send him a letter bomb.”
For the second time in one day, Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly worked together — but mostly because Evelyn was too exhausted to stand up without leaning on Praem, let alone rip a metaphorical hole in her own metaphysical throat.
“I am perfectly capable of doing this by myself, for pity’s sake,” she complained when help was not so much offered as imposed upon her. “The theory is simple and sound, it’s only going to require a small circle, it’s hardly any work. Praem, let me— go— for—”
“You’ve never done it before,” Felicity said.
“Neither have you, you cretin!”
“You said it yourself. The theory is simple and sound. I can do it, with Kim’s help.”
“Don’t act all bloody self-sacrificing! And I want it to be my voice Edward hears before his brain cooks! Praem, let me—”
“Bad Evee,” said Praem. “Sit down.”
That settled it, for now.
Evelyn was allowed to stay in the kitchen and supervise, though she was placed firmly in a chair while Praem and Felicity drew the magic circle directly onto the floor tiles. Kimberly stood by, mostly to help Felicity get up and down. The room already needed a very serious scrub-down; all the nooks and crannies were stained with blood. Nobody would be using that kitchen to cook for a while, not until the bubble-servitors had gone over every surface and removed all the biological matter.
We all watched the circle take shape, in scraps of filthy blood and swoops of clean chalk. Amanda and Christine drifted away, to aid the bubble-servitors in plugging the holes in the building. Michael stayed, arms folded, standing behind our chair-bound captive, presumably in case he tried to gnaw through his bonds. ‘Mister’ George excused himself to chain smoke out front. Somebody — I think it was Raine, but I was fuzzy-headed by that point — suggested to Zheng that she should keep watch, play lookout, make sure that Edward Lilburne wasn’t going to try for a hat trick. Zheng didn’t need much encouragement; she didn’t like to linger during magecraft.
She ruffled my hair on the way out, purring “Shaman” under her breath. And to my surprise, she ruffled Seven’s hair as well, in a strangely affectionate gesture. The little blood goblin didn’t even try to bite her. Sevens was too busy pressing her face into my flank and clinging to my side. My support, my limpet.
Part of me was desperately aware that Sevens needed me. She’d not said more than a dozen words since returning from her unscheduled and unplanned sneaking session. She was clasped around me as if clinging to a piece of driftwood in the open ocean. Aym was attached to her back as well, but that seemed less urgent.
I needed to get Sevens alone, but now was not a good time.
While the circle was taking shape, Twil asked, “Uhh, Evee, is this actually going to cook his brain? ‘Cos like, yeah, that’s pretty gnarly and he deserves it and all. But is this like, responsible?”
Raine laughed softly. “Since when are you worried about being responsible?”
Twil shot her a scowl. “Hey!”
Michael Hopton cleared his throat. “Our Twil can be very responsible. I’m proud of her.”
Twil winced as if hit with a brick. “Daaaad,” she whined.
“It’s the truth,” he said, unashamed.
Evelyn sighed heavily from her chair. “It was a figure of speech. If mages could kill with a word, the world would be a much more simple place.” She added in a quieter voice: “If I could kill with a word, it would be a much better place.”
“Evee,” I mumbled after trying and failing to tut. “Stop being scary.”
I couldn’t help but notice our captive was having trouble following this conversation. Mages and magic were not penetrating the veil of normality around his psyche. He kept blinking too hard.
Evelyn cleared her throat and waved me off. “Anyway, no. It won’t actually kill him. It’ll cause him a lot of pain, perhaps a migraine, maybe explosive diarrhoea if I’m lucky.”
“What if somebody else hears it first?” Twil asked. “We’re not gonna mess up some random merc, right?”
“The spell will key off Edward’s recognition of his own full name,” Evelyn explained. “It shouldn’t hurt anybody else. And it will sound like a real report, mostly, to increase the chances he might listen to it himself.”
Raine sucked on her teeth. “And what if he doesn’t?”
Evelyn smiled again, sharp and dangerous. “He is expecting a reply to the question ‘are my enemies still alive?’ The answer will be a bomb. Do you see the power in that? I want him paranoid. I want him jumping at shadows. I want him so riled up he risks missing the real hit.”
Twil nodded along, enjoying this. “Rustle them jimmies. I dig it.”
Michael Hopton squinted. “Wait a moment. Sorry, Miss Saye, but all this is to give our enemy a headache?”
Raine laughed again. “Evee can be amazingly petty. It’s one of her best qualities.”
“Mm,” I agreed with a soft grunt, the best I could muster right then. All my consciousness felt dragged down to the ache in my flank, like a lead weight tugging at my thoughts.
Evelyn snapped, “If he’s dealing with a blinding headache, he’s not making clear plans. We want him off-balance for as long as possible. Need I remind everyone that we still don’t know where his home is? We have to buy time, for … ”
Her eyes flickered to me, to hunched and pained little Heather Morell, propped up by a fake vampire and a black-lace demon.
She wouldn’t say it out loud, but I knew the truth: Evee needed to buy time for me.
The fastest method of locating Edward Lilburne, now that the veil was lifted, was always going to be hyperdimensional mathematics. In theory I could walk out the front door right now, step over to the pile of dead canine corpses, and use one of them to trace the web of interaction and creation and meaning all the way back to the mage himself. Assuming he was responsible for them, of course. But it was a solid bet that we could tug on that thread and eventually find him at the other end of it.
But my body wasn’t working right. My bioreactor had overheated, self-shutdown, or just plain broken. I had no idea what brain-math would do to me right now. Evelyn knew that, but she wouldn’t say it out loud.
We had other methods, of course. Zheng could go hunting, maybe with Twil at her side. Hringewindla’s angels were already fanning out into the woods, but they could hardly cover all the countryside between here and Stockport. Given enough time we could search for the house the old-fashioned way, on foot.
But brain-math would be fast, brain-math would solve the problem, brain-math would do in minutes what would otherwise take days.
And brain-math might burn through my abdomen.
Evelyn never finished that sentence. As her eyes lingered on me, Raine stepped in for her: “Yeah, we gotta buy time. We’re in no shape for another fight, not like this.”
Evelyn squinted at her. “That’s not like you.”
Twil chuckled. “Yeah, speak for yourself, Raine. I could go another round.”
“Sure you could,” Raine said with a grin. “Meanwhile, I think we should negotiate.”
“Negotiate?” said Michael Hopton.
“Raine?” I said, actively horrified.
She shrugged. “You’re exhausted, Heather. Evee, Fliss, Kim, all spent. Nicky’s got a broken leg, she’s out. I’m almost out of bullets. What are we gonna do if we find the house now, go running in for a frontal assault?”
“Swarm it with bubble-lads,” said Twil. “Come on, Raine! What are you talking about?”
“Agreed,” Evelyn grunted through gritted teeth. “Raine, we’re not negotiating anything except an unconditional surrender. He gives us the book and fucks off forever, preferably into the ground, or no deal. I’ll make that part of my letter bomb, shall I?” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
But Raine was serious. “Yeah, please do. But then we’re heading home.”
Evee stamped with her walking stick, a gesture which almost toppled her out of her chair. Praem leapt up from working on the circle and caught her.
Evelyn snapped out, “We are not having a strategy meeting right now, Raine!”
“Yeah,” Raine said, perfectly level and perfectly calm. “We’re not. Decision is already made. We gotta rest, Evee, even if just to recover for a day or two. How are we gonna press this? What’s the plan?”
Evelyn pursed her lips. She shot a look at Preston, tied to his chair, but he looked lost.
“We are not talking about this now,” Evelyn snapped.
Raine cracked a grin. “We’re overextended.”
“We haven’t even left this house!”
“It’s a metaphor.”
Evelyn snapped, “Well it’s a shit one!”
Twil spoke up, intensely awkward. “Hey, uh, calm down, yeah?”
“Evee,” I murmured. “I can’t … I’m sorry. But I can’t. And you told me to rest.”
Evelyn froze in a way she so rarely did, catching herself on the edge of a precipice, horror behind her eyes as she stared at me. She swallowed, then had to cling to Praem’s arm for several long seconds, despite the fact she was already sitting down quite comfortably.
“That’s true,” she murmured, looking away from me. “True. We can … we’ll finish this spell, then … then talk. Make a new plan. Yes.”
Raine shot me a wink. A victory, but not one I enjoyed.
Eventually that magic circle drove me out of the kitchen, with Sevens in tow. The circle burned my eyes like a magnesium flare. At first it was fine, just marks on the floor, a little uncanny but no worse than any other magic circle which had ever made me feel vaguely unwell. But when Felicity and Praem were just over halfway done, the symbols seemed to spark and burn inside my brain. Nobody else suffered that effect; this wasn’t errant magic or an unintended side-effect. I was seeing the purpose beneath the symbolism. The Eye’s gift.
“Go sit down!” Evelyn snapped at me, when I covered my eyes and groaned. “You’re going to give yourself a migraine by watching.”
“But you— you’re so tired—”
“And so are you.” Evelyn sighed sharply. “Somebody make Heather sit down, please, because I can’t even stand up. Raine? Raine, take her into the sitting room and make sure she doesn’t wander back in here and burn out her retinas. Heather, rest, for pity’s sake, or I will do this magic myself.”
I obeyed — with a little helping hand from Raine. She led me back into the shattered sitting room. Sevens clung to me the whole way. Aym clung to her back. We made a very silly conga-train from the kitchen to the sofa in the dining room, but I was too wiped out to care, too exhausted for self-consciousness.
Raine got me settled on the sofa. Seven burrowed into my flank, hard and tight. Aym sat on her opposite side, one hand resting against Seven’s narrow thigh.
I recalled putting my head back and closing my eyes, but only once I made sure Sevens was anchored with three tentacles and she wasn’t going anywhere. Consciousness drifted back and forth, a veil parting and closing over my face. Part of me assumed Raine had stood up and gone back into the kitchen, but then I felt a cool, soft, dry hand on my forehead, brushing my hair back. Only a handful of seconds had passed.
Raine’s hand withdrew. She whispered, “She asleep?”
I was about to answer, dredging my voice from drowsiness. But Sevens spoke first.
“Dunno,” came the rasping voice from somewhere down near the base of my ribcage, nuzzled against the roots of my tentacles. “Maybe.”
“Heather?” Raine whispered.
A rare and impish impulse bade me stay quiet. I allowed myself to drift instead of answer.
“Guess that’s a yes,” Raine whispered.
Sevens replied with a gurgling, “Mmmm.”
“How about you, Yellow? How you holding up?”
Silence. Sevens shifted against my side. My bruises sang a bitter chorus. I felt a gentle prick of sharp teeth, muzzled by the fabric of my hoodie. Somehow that made the bruises fade. The teeth withdrew.
“Need a rusk?” Raine whispered with a grin in her voice.
Sevens did not answer; Aym did, in a voice like iron filings sprinkled on a snowdrift. “She’s tired, bitch-tits.”
I’d never heard her speak so gently, despite her choice of terminology.
Silence returned for several moments. I almost drifted deeper, beyond sound. I could hear Evelyn’s voice in the kitchen, muffled by the wall and the door, and then a reply, perhaps from Felicity. Raine must have pulled up a chair, because I heard a creak of damaged wood, followed by a gentle sigh. I could smell the iron tang coming off Sevens — and something else below that, like sweat or pheromones.
“You wanna talk about it?” Raine whispered. “In front of Aym?”
“ … hurt … inside,” Sevens rasped softly.
I almost broke cover, almost opened my eyes and sat up and hugged her around the shoulders and pulled her into my lap and kissed her on the forehead. She sounded so spent and tired. Seven-Shades-of-Sad-and-Slow.
“Because you helped us?” Raine whispered. “Because hey, thank you. You kept that guy distracted, right? Led him forward for us? Who were you being?”
“Nobody,” came the mumbled reply. “Never done that before.”
Aym said, “She bent herself a way she’s not meant to bend. All for you people.”
My heart ached so terribly. I wanted to cry — but I was too tired.
Raine reached forward: I could feel her hand displacing the air. Sevens let out a tiny squeak, then a noise of breathy surprise, then a purr, high and soft and vibrating against my side.
“Don’t hurt yourself for us,” Raine whispered. “Don’t hurt yourself for anybody, yeah?”
“Had to … for Heather.”
“Nope. Wrong. Not true. Anybody who asks you to hurt yourself for them, they’re not worth being hurt for. If Heather was awake — and I suspect she might be — she’s going to feel pretty bad about that.”
“Trying to be … whole.”
That drew another little sigh from Raine. But I could feel the comforting grin in her words; I could see it in my mind’s eye, the warmth and acceptance. “Sevens, you’re trying to be a person. But you don’t make yourself whole by hurting yourself. That’s how people make less of themselves, not more.”
“Mmmmmmmmm … mmmm.” Sevens’ purring turned heavy. She burrowed back against my side, escaping Raine’s petting.
Aym spoke through a bundle of whispering knives. “Be just peachy if Heather would tell her that.”
Raine said, “I don’t think this is Heather’s fault.”
But Raine was wrong. This was my fault.
Sevens had gone out there and broken all the rules about the masks she could wear, and why, and when, and what they could be related to. She had turned herself into something original — a fresh creation, a void, a mind-trick — to distract Edward’s cheap little mercenary, because she thought it was necessary to help protect me, to look after me, to further my cause. She had bent herself into a shape she did not want to occupy, an act of self-redefinition which hurt her soul.
She’d gotten it all wrong, because of me.
Was this because I’d kissed her earlier, before the fight started? Because I showed her a scrap of real affection?
I did not want her self-sacrifice. I would not allow it. I was having none of this.
Without even thinking about my actions, I started the brain-math. I plunged my hands into the black tar and the boiling mud and the soupy mass of toxic waste, and I pulled out machines of such precision and complexity that to look upon them would burn out the eyeballs of an unaltered human being. I began to cast the net, to define everything between here and Stockport, to turn the countryside into an equation which I could unravel in my hands. I would pluck out the grit of Edward Lilburne’s house.
I’d seen maps of the area, I could imagine it; that would have to do. Imprecise and power-hungry as a method, but it would work, now Edward’s walls were down. Damn the consequences, because the consequence right now was Sevens in pain.
My flank started to burn; my bioreactor was still recovering, still in emergency shut-down, still not ready to fire. But I tried anyway, running the maths red-hot without any cooling, without any source of energy but my own glucose and calories and body fat. I would knock myself out for a week to spare Sevens another hour of dislocation and dissociation and dysphoria.
Poised on the edge of the cliff, I made ready to dive.
And then Seven-Shades-of-Sharp-Little-Slicers opened her mouth and bit into my forearm.
C h o m p
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Whatever you celebrate (or if you don’t), I hope you’re having a great weekend, taking it easy, and staying warm. I hope you’re doing better than Heather is right now. Don’t get bitten. Or you know, do, if you’re into that. Maybe Heather is. We’re probably about to find out. Hey, at least she’s doing better than the very confused man they have tied up in the kitchen.
No patreon link this week! Why? I don’t know, because it’s Christmas! Go give somebody a hug instead. Glad you’re all enjoying the story though! Thank you so much for reading.
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Next week, chomp chomp chOMP.