Biting, bite marks, bite wounds
Seven-Shades-of-Sanguivore possessed the most wonderfully sharp little teeth I’d ever seen on any creature, Outsider or otherwise. Each tooth was a smooth white pointed needle; they looked as if they had evolved specifically to punch through a steel gorget and penetrate the living meat inside, to cut channels in flesh for blood to flow free. She was tiny and twisted and weird, but also beautiful in her own way — but when she opened her mouth she was beautiful like a blade was beautiful, sharp and dangerous and elegant all at once. Sevens wore her blood-goblin mask as a habitual lounging form, when at home and comfortable and safe, but the sight of those teeth always reminded me that the mask was based on a real person — a ‘vampire’, who had once been called Julija, and had used those teeth to drink blood from human throats.
Seven-Shades-of-Stunning-Snap slammed those razor-tipped teeth tight around my forearm, right at the climax of a brain-math equation.
She sliced straight through the fabric of my pink hoodie and the cloth of two different t-shirts, cut into my flesh like a handful of scalpels, and clamped down hard around my ulna and radius.
I felt enamel scrape my bones.
My edifice of brain-math collapsed like an aborted sneeze — or like an orgasm interrupted by muscle cramp.
I crashed out of the hyperdimensional mathematics harder than ever before; it was like being ripped away from a cliff-edge by a none-too-gentle rottweiler. All the carefully balanced infernal machinery and heavenly mathematics of the Eye came crashing down around me, unstable scaffolding smashing into my mind and sending me reeling, crushing me to the floor, breaking bones, pulping flesh.
My eyes shot open; I was back on the sofa in the Hopton’s ruined sitting room, heaving for breath, coughing and hacking and retching, my vision blurred with black and red. I groped for Raine and clung on tight with two tentacles, a drowning woman clutching a piece of driftwood. My nose filled with blood and dripped onto the front of my hoodie; I made no effort to hold that back. Why bother? I was already filthy with blood and worse from the fight with the Outsiders. I whined and spat and shook as the equation rolled back onto me. Waves of pain lanced up through my eyeballs and set my brain on fire.
But my bioreactor stayed cold. My mind, my soul, my self, all of it flinched and jerked away from the fire of hyperdimensional mathematics — but my body was spared the damage.
Meanwhile, three other tentacles were trying to peel Sevens off my arm.
Abyssal instinct was screaming. So was regular, normal, terrestrial instinct. The clever ape part of me was very concerned that a jaw was latched around my flesh and was willing to do almost anything to unlatch it. A paradoxical balance held me back: the ape wanted to punch Sevens in the face, but abyssal instinct would not allow me to harm a member of my pack, my group, mine.
My memory of the next few seconds was a jumble of yowling — my yowling, mostly — drowning out Raine’s voice. She spoke as if trying to calm a skittish horse. Aym was giggling like crazy.
Eventually I came back to myself, my senses bleeding through the haze of pain and confusion. I turned my head and looked at Sevens, through the sheet of tears in my eyes and the black throbbing in my peripheral vision.
I laughed. I didn’t mean to. All my emotions and responses were so jumbled up. She just looked so silly.
Sevens was clamped to my arm like a tiny, irritated dog, her face all smooshed up by the position. Her own eyes were a pair of black-red lamps staring at me over her distended jaw — and she was burning with anger.
I hissed right in her face, interrupting my own hiccuping laugh, which I’m certain was an absolutely awful sound. Three of my tentacles were wrapped around her head and throat and shoulders, trying to pry her off. But I wasn’t willing to exert enough strength to hurt her, no matter how much damage she’d done to my arm.
Raine was speaking slowly and calmly: “Sevens, hey, hey, let go, hey? You’re distressing Heather. Come on, girl, that’s it, let go, come on.”
How could Raine stay so collected? My arm — her girlfriend’s arm — was practically bitten off, streaming with blood, stabbed by two dozen tiny knives. My sense of reality slipped sideways, smothered by pain and confusion.
Another voice appeared in the doorway. Kimberly, soft and wary. “I-is everything okay?”
Raine answered with an awkward smile. “We’re just having a moment. No worries.”
I reared up like a cornered serpent, gritting my teeth, about to spit: No worries!? My voice probably would have sent poor Kimberly scurrying to hide under the nearest bed.
But Aym was waiting for me.
She was a black hood peering over Sevens’ shoulder. No face within, just a blank emptiness where a person should have been, the outline of a being, the suggestion of form beneath endless layers of black lace. A dead-leaf whisper scraped inside my ear canals.
“Say you won’t do it again, you half-wit bitch,” Aym whispered. “No more maths.”
“Okay,” I squeezed out through gritted teeth — to Sevens, not to Aym. “Stop, stop. Sevens, let go, I won’t do it again, I won’t do it again, I’ll stop … ”
With all the reluctance of a wild animal, Seven-Shades-of-Snapping-Turtle opened her jaw. I felt needle-points scrape my bones, knives slide out through my flesh, and teeth pop free from bleeding wounds. Sevens ruined the dramatic moment when she had to use one hand to awkwardly free her teeth from the fabric of my hoodie.
I snatched my arm back and instinctively cradled it to my chest, my free hand wrapping around —
“ … uh … uhhh?” I made a noise that made me sound very stupid. Yanking my sleeve up did not reveal bone-deep gashes and rivers of blood amid ribboned skin, but just bruises and some light grazing. Sevens had punctured my clothes, which was bad enough, but she hadn’t even bitten down hard enough to draw blood. “Wha … ”
Aym giggled again, a sound to curdle milk. “She had a little help from a friend.”
I boggled at the pair of them. Sevens ducked her eyes and wriggled back into the sofa cushions as if trying to burrow between them and vanish into the ground. She rubbed at her jaw with one hand. Aym, a stick of black lace with no visible features, just sat there looking inherently smug. How could lace be smug? I bled from the nose and tried not to think too hard about that.
Raine raised her voice slightly and backed it with steel: “Alright then, ladies, girls, ghouls, and others. One of you is going to explain to me what I just witnessed.” She turned her head briefly. “Kim, would you be a dear and fetch a glass of water and some tissues for Heather? Looks like we had a little accident. Maybe some painkillers, too? Dunno if those are in high demand at the moment. Ask Evee for some of hers. Please?”
Sevens rasped: “Her fault.”
Speaking through a glugging nosebleed, a post-math headache, and a lake of burning embarrassment, I said, “I was trying to do brain-math. I was trying to help. Sevens!”
Seven-Shades-of-Sad-Eyed-Sulking wouldn’t look at me. She even pouted.
Aym agreed with her. “Your fault, little Miss messiah complex. Know when to stay down.”
“Hey,” Raine said, suddenly sharp. “Only I get to tell her that.”
But a classic touch of Raine had no effect on Aym. The lace-and-shadow creature just giggled, a noise like metal branches rustling in a winter wind. “Not this time, turbo-butch. She’s done fucked up and somebody needed to tell her. What, you were going to let her pop herself like a balloon? You into that? Never guessed you as the type. Go back to deviantart.”
Sevens gurgled. “Shut up.”
Aym shut up. But she also draped herself over Sevens’ shoulders, wrapping the blood goblin in a close embrace, cheek-to-cheek. Sevens looked at her own lap and grumbled.
Kimberly returned with a glass of water, a box of tissues, and one Evelyn-issued pill. We didn’t seem to have attracted any further attention — I could still hear Evelyn talking in the kitchen and Felicity replying to her, punctuated by the occasional comment from Twil or her father. So I couldn’t have been hissing or yowling that loud; I was too exhausted to make much noise.
Raine made me drink the water — which helped flush out the taste of bile and blood — and take the painkiller, which wouldn’t help much for several minutes yet. Then she wiped the blood off my face; the nosebleed was trailing off now, my senses clearing, my embarrassment rearing up to defend itself.
“Sevens,” I spluttered again as Raine tried to wipe my lips. “Why did you do that? I was trying to help!”
Seven-Shades-of-Sulking went, “Guuuuurk.”
“Don’t ‘gurk’ at me!” I snapped.
Raine gently took my face in one hand, turning me back to her. “Hey, Heather, slow down,” she said. But I wasn’t listening. I pulled free and frowned at Sevens again.
“Sevens! I’m serious!”
She rasped low in her throat. “Mmm, you were going to hurt yourself.”
“And you had already hurt yourself! How am I supposed to sit by and let you—”
Raine’s voice hit me like a whip across the buttocks: “Heather.”
I flinched. A full-body jerk, tentacles included, flailing about like a surprised octopus. Raine had gone past command and straight to angry — angry with me, in a way she’d never been before. Abyssal instinct went soft and floppy, urging me to roll onto my back and expose my belly. The steel in her eyes, the set of her shoulders, the implied impending punishment, all of it made me want to curl up and submit. I looked right back at her and let out a completely unintentional, unbidden, unthinkable little whine.
Then I blushed, mortified at myself. “R-Raine, I’m s-sorry, I—”
“It’s okay, Heather,” she purred, switching gears in an instant. She reached forward to brush my hair away from my eyes. “Just stop shouting at Sevens, hey? Don’t make me carry you to the car and put you in time-out. Look, you’ve even spooked poor Kim over there.” Raine nodded sideways, but Kimberly was very pointedly staring at her, not me. I suspected she’d suffered some spillover from the vocal whipcrack. Maybe she wanted Raine to tell her off just like that.
“Um,” said Kim, eyes wide and visibly sweating. “I should— should— maybe go back in the kitchen. Yes. Kitchen. Spells. Yes.”
Kim excused herself, leaving me alone again with Raine, Sevens, and Aym.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, though I wasn’t sure who I was apologising to — Raine, or Sevens.
Raine pulled a beaming smile, the kind of encouragement and love she kept on tap just for me. She nodded slowly, the sort of nod that said nothing but let me know she understood everything. She leaned back and blew out a long breath, ran one hand through her rich chestnut hair, and rolled her shoulders inside her leather jacket. Part of me couldn’t help but admire how good she looked, sitting there in a chair with one leg thrown over the other; if I was to be interrogated, I would want Raine to be handling me.
She said, “How about nobody hurts themselves for anybody else, okay?”
The ghost of a strange anger lurked still inside the curves and planes of her face, a secret geography I’d rarely witnessed.
I nodded. “Okay. Um, Raine, why are you … oh,” I sighed. “Oh, I’m being a fool, aren’t I? I don’t need to ask why you’re angry.”
Raine shrugged. “I don’t like it when my girls hurt themselves.”
I spluttered: “Your girls?! Raine!”
Sevens made a snorty noise. “Means me too.”
“Well, yes!” I said. “I assumed that was the meaning!”
Raine shot us a broad wink. “Nobody hurts my girls, not even themselves. So come on, Heather, what was that all about? And Sevens, what was the bite for?”
I sighed, mostly at myself, “The bite was because I was being a fool.” I told the truth: “I overheard what Sevens was saying, about … twisting herself into a new shape, to bait that man for us. And I … I didn’t want her to hurt herself for that.” I turned to Sevens, to the scrap of huddled pale flesh and black fabric snuggled down on the sofa next to me. “Sevens, nobody asked you to do that, please don’t!”
“Mm,” Sevens just grunted.
Raine cleared her throat. “And then you … ?”
“I began the brain-math to find Edward’s house.” I turned and held her gaze, feeling oddly defiant. “Don’t tell me that I shouldn’t have done it. We have to find him, Raine, we can’t let this go on any longer.”
Raine’s turn to sigh, through her grin. “Heather, we don’t have a lot of choices. We’re tapped out.”
“Sevens hurt herself just to deal with some stupid red-herring thing! We can’t let up now, Raine, we can’t! We have to keep the pressure on, we have to go find him and … and … ”
Raine kinked an amused frown at me. “You’re sounding like Evee. And I don’t think you really believe that.”
“I … ”
“Heather, even if you find his house right now, we aren’t gonna be able to do shit. I just went through all this with Evee, and I know you were listening and paying attention. You pay attention to almost everything. We’re tapped out and we need to rest, even if just for a day. Do you agree with me, or not?”
“Raine … ”
She repeated, soft and calm, “Do you agree with me, or not?”
“I do. But … I just … I feel so … guilty. I had to try. I can’t just sit by and let everybody else … I have to be … ”
An angel? I didn’t say the words. It sounded too silly. But what good was a dead angel?
Sevens rasped, “You were going to burn a hole in your gut.”
I turned, ready to snap at Sevens again — part of me was still deeply confused by the bite, angry yet excited. Part of me wanted her to do it again. Another part of me wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool and take her home and feed her soup. Another part of me wanted to shove my throat between her fangs. Part of me wanted to shout at her. It was too much.
But Sevens was finally looking up at me, with those red-on-black eyes in that mushroom pale face, framed by dark, lank hair.
My residual anger fizzled out to nothing. I followed my better instincts and wrapped her in a hug, though I was weak and bruised and couldn’t exert much strength. Everything ached. She pressed herself into my front. Tiny hands found my shoulders and held on tight.
“You were gonna hurt yourself,” she mumbled into my shoulder.
“I … felt like I had to. Please, Sevens, don’t damage yourself for my sake.”
“I’m sorry. For shouting at you. For getting angry with you. You were right, but … why a bite? You could have just said something to me.”
“Everyone else has said it to you and you still won’t stop.”
My heart ached.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m not,” said Sevens. “Not for biting.”
“Well, I suppose I deserved it … ”
“Fools, the lot of you,” Aym whispered. I shot her a tiny glare, but I couldn’t tell if she was even looking.
Raine cleared her throat. “I think we need some new ground rules for you two.”
Sevens and I both looked round, huddled against each other. “Raine? What do you mean?”
“Nobody asked for any self-sacrifice. Same thing I was saying to Sevens before. Hurting yourself never makes you whole.”
I huffed a little laugh. “Raine, I am not trying to start a fresh argument, but that’s a bit rich coming from you, isn’t it?”
Raine’s grin blossomed wide. “I’ve never self-sacrificed.”
I gave her a frown. But Sevens said: “She hasn’t.”
Raine shrugged. “Not in the way either of you just tried to. And the way I was doing it, Heather taught me to stop doing that. I love you, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself, and you just tried to push yourself way too far. So it’s time for a new rule: no self-sacrifice. You love Sevens, right?”
The question hit me like a brick to the gut, especially after the rest of what Raine said. I sat there like a fish for at least five seconds, just staring at her with my mouth open.
“Raine … is this … really the best time for this conversation?”
Aym clucked her tongue; I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I glanced around at what was left of the Hopton’s sitting room: the blood-soaked carpets, the missing door filled with bubble-servitors, the table splintered in half, several destroyed chairs, and the huge twin stains on the floor and up one wall, where the Outsiders had died and slowly turned to biological mush. Bubble-servitors were everywhere, soaking up and digesting biomatter, turning red inside as they processed the gore. This was not exactly the location one imagined for this kind of difficult little chat.
I glanced at Aym too, unreadable inside her black lace refuge — but somehow I knew she was looking at me like something she’d discovered on the bottom of her shoe.
Raine laughed gently. “It’s exactly the time for this conversation, because you just tried to go all Chernobyl with your super-appendix, and Yellow Brat here squeezed into a disguise several sizes too small. You’re both at fault and neither of you are allowed to do that again.”
Aym spoke up, a dry and metallic sound like a steel comb rasping over rocks. “Says who?”
Raine sat forward, aiming her whole body toward the little demon. Her grin turned into a challenge. “Says me. Heather has to look after herself, see, because if she doesn’t, then I’ll punish her.”
I felt my face flush. “Raine, really.”
“Ha,” said Aym. “And Sevens? Does she have to follow your orders too?”
Raine stared at that blob of black lace, as if she was looking at a clear and unveiled face. “She does what Heather says. Isn’t that right, Heather?”
Did I have the right to tell Sevens to do anything?
A barb of sharp and acid guilt twisted inside my chest. I thought I’d known what Sevens needed — I thought I was giving her space and time to re-define herself, giving her the quiet and unconditional support she needed to go through whatever process she was going through. But Sevens was not a human being struggling with her sense of self-worth or direction in life or sexuality. She was an Outsider, the Yellow Princess, a thing of gossamer butter-scotch beauty stretched across the currents and ebbs of the abyss. She had fallen in love with me, given me a piece of herself, and then stayed by my side. What did love mean to a being like her? I thought I was doing the right thing; but she’d just hurt herself for my sake, thrown herself on a spike that nobody else could perceive, let alone understand.
The idea of Sevens hurting herself for my sake was offensive to me.
Snuggled against my side, Sevens was watching my face. Could she read my thoughts as I decided what to do about her?
Did I love Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Perhaps. I cared about her well-being. I didn’t want her to hurt herself. But she had done exactly that, after I had shown her the barest hint of real physical affection and offered her a few words of comfort.
Sevens bumped her head against my shoulder, exactly like a cat.
What is love if not the sum of care?
I could not tell Sevens I loved her — maybe I did, but if that later turned out to be a lie, I could never forgive myself. But there was something I could do, a truth I could tell. A strange impulse overtook me, a piece of abyssal instinct rising inside my gut like a wave of hormones I so rarely acknowledged.
She flinched. Something in my tone forced that flinch out of her, as water is forced from a sponge with a hard squeeze. The instinct in my abdomen squirmed in pleasure at that.
Before I could second-guess my gut feelings, I grasped Sevens-Shades-of-Naughty-Puppy with three tentacles: one around each arm, and a third around her throat. I gripped lightly, gentle and soft, and peeled her away from Aym. She squeaked and froze as I leaned down until we were face to face. I have no idea how I wasn’t blushing. Raine froze too, just watching. Sevens went silent and still, a mouse before a snake.
“You do not have my permission to hurt yourself,” I said to Sevens. My voice was cool and level, but inside I was squeaking and flailing about, trying to piece this together as I went. “I care about you very much. You made yourself mine. So you need my permission to hurt yourself. No. Bad Sevens.”
Bug-eyed, red-eyed, black orbs stared back at me. Sevens opened her mouth and let out a breathy little hiss between two rows of needle-teeth. I hissed back without even thinking about it, soft and low. Then I leaned in and planted a little kiss on the corner of her thin lips. There was nothing erotic about the gesture or the brush of contact between our mouths; we were more like a pair of animals, one licking the other’s face to establish a pecking order. Sevens shivered and shook and then curled up against my side, coiling within my tentacles.
“Good … good girl … um,” I murmured, the hormones and the bravado passing together. Now I was blushing like a beetroot. Had I really said all that?
Raine was grinning wide. She shot me a thumbs up. I rolled my eyes and huffed and tried to drain the blood back out of my cheeks. But alas, abyssal biochemical control did not extend to manually switching off my own blush.
“Ew,” said Aym. “Bleh. Sick. Vile. Peh.”
I almost reared up and snapped at her for ruining the moment, but then from within my arms, nestled against my bruises, Sevens said, “Jealous.”
“A little,” said Aym.
“Snug as a bug in a rug.”
Aym turned her faceless hood upward. “I’m always snug.”
“More like smug.”
“We’re rhyming now?”
Sevens went all singsong. “I never rhyme without a rime.”
“A rime of salt on sailor’s beards. Where is this going, Princess?”
Sevens shrugged. “You can be a princess too. Just have to ask.”
“Princess-in-law is not the same.”
“Law is all there is to any princess.”
“Ha!” Aym barked like the slap of a rusty drum. The abyssal goblins fell silent. I just held Sevens, rather confused but unwilling to take the risk of asking.
Raine was braver than I. She said, “You two sound pretty esoteric sometimes.”
Sevens blinked at her, genuinely surprised. Aym just tilted her head as if Raine was a moron.
I cleared my throat, hoping to return the conversation to ground level. “Sevens, can I ask you a question?” She nodded into my side. “You deserve self-definition, not … whatever it was you did to yourself out there. But I still don’t understand what you actually did. I couldn’t even see you, you were invisible. What happened?”
“Mmmm … ” Sevens grumbled, then set about wriggling free from my grip. She slipped out of my tentacles and stepped off the sofa. She tripped forward three paces, walking on bare feet with dirty soles, then stopped and did a little spin.
The blood-goblin vampire-mask vanished, replaced by the Yellow Princess in all her starched and pressed glory, with perfect creases in her blouse and a ruler-straight line in her skirt. The tip of her umbrella pressed into the carpet.
Aym made a noise like “blurp.” Abyssal instinct recognised this as either submission, or attraction, or maybe relief. I wasn’t sure which. It wasn’t a fully human emotion.
Seven-Shades-of-Icy-Superiority settled herself in place. “I wore no mask,” she said. “I wove a face from muscle memory, a mask of skin and bone. I made our brief guest a visitation from a friend long dead, plucked from his life in the manner my father might remake an old rival, or a lost brother, or a dead child.”
I put one hand to my mouth. “Oh. Oh, Sevens. Oh no.”
Sevens bowed her perfect haircut toward me. “It was an act of torture and cruelty; Mister Preston Woods will weep alone, in the dark, lost. He will suffer dreams and nightmares of a meeting which did not really happen, with a dear friend who was shot in a faraway place, a decade ago. He is unmoored in time. I have done this thing, to himself and me.”
“Sevens,” I sighed. I reached toward her, but I was too exhausted to rise.
“And I apologise to you,” she said. “Because I have no right.”
“Apology accepted,” I said softly. “Unconditionally.”
Sevens merely nodded. “Thank you, my angel.”
I blushed again. “Maybe don’t call me that.”
Aym snorted, a very unpleasant sound. I shot a glance at her. “Did you have anything to do with encouraging this?”
A blind black hood turned toward me. “Encouraging? Sweetest of butter-baked fools. She should have used it for herself, not for you.”
“Aym,” said Sevens, cold as metal in winter and just as painful to the touch. Aym flinched hard, jerking in place and then withdrawing slightly. “No,” added Sevens.
“Gaaaah!” Aym hissed at her. “Okay, okay! But only for you!”
“Only for me is more than enough,” said Sevens.
“You’re lucky you’re so hot,” Aym burbled.
Raine was biting her lip in a failed attempt to suppress a grin, an expression like she was watching a soap opera up-close. My eyes were wide and my imagination was on fire. I cleared my throat.
“Um,” I said. “Not that it’s any of my business if you don’t want to share, but you two have been very close and I was wondering—”
Aym giggled. “You’re right! It is none of your business, squid-stink.”
Sevens said, crisp and clear: “Aym and I enjoy one another’s company.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Aym agreed.
“Aym is more than she appears.”
“Well yes,” I said, blushing. “I realise that, but what I’m asking is—”
Raine broke in, speaking with all the beaming confidence of a lorry barrelling straight into a stop sign. “Heather is trying to ask if you’ve got a side-piece, Princess. Gotta fess up if you have. Poly rules and all.”
“Not telling,” said Aym — at the exact same moment Sevens said: “Technically yes.”
They looked at each other.
“Technically?!” Aym screeched.
Sevens was unmoved. “Would you prefer no?”
Aym melted into the sofa, vanishing like a scrubbed-out stain — and reappearing at Sevens’ side like a mushroom growing in fast forward, holding her free hand.
“It’s not romantic,” she gurgled like a clogged drain. “Fuck off with that.”
Sevens tilted her head sideways and blinked, the most she ever came to giving ground. “It is different for beings like us.”
“Fucking right it is!” Aym warbled.
“Hey,” Raine said. “As long as you’re having fun.”
I nodded at that and then leaned back into the sofa, closing my eyes with bone-crushing exhaustion. “As long as you’re still here,” I murmured, struggling not to drift away, one hand on my right flank, just over the cold lump of my bioreactor.
Seven-Shades-of-Questionable-Definitions purred for me, “We’re not going anywhere, kitten.”
At Raine’s behest and with Evelyn’s grudging acceptance, we held a strategy meeting.
We had to wait until Evelyn had finished sending her letter-bomb, of course; I overheard only part of that grisly process, sitting on the sofa with Sevens at my side and Aym clinging to her opposite arm. Raine ventured back into the kitchen briefly, to see how the bomb-making was moving along, but she was shooed out along with the rest of the non-mages when the time came to connect the wiring and plug in the metaphorical alarm clock — with the exception of Praem and Mister Preston Woods, of course.
Felicity did the talking. We all heard that, even with the kitchen door firmly closed. Zheng probably heard it too, off at the far end of the field. Even Hringewindla may have heard it, miles underground.
Preston Woods made the beginning of his report: a muffled voice talking about “all clear, nobody left alive,” among other such bland horrors. But then Felicity cut into the middle of his sentence, with words not meant for a human throat.
Evelyn had explained that the spell was keyed to Edward Lilburne’s recognition of his own name, but it made me feel sick and wrong. It made Raine sway in her chair and Amanda Hopton sit down heavily as she entered the room. It made Twil burp, loudly, twice. It made Zheng reappear at the doorway, baring her teeth. It made Mister George place an unlit cigarette in his mouth and start chewing it to pieces.
Each syllable made reality blink and shudder like a tortured animal backed into a corner.
When the mages were finished, Felicity joined us in the sitting room. Her nose was bleeding, her skin was grey, and her eyes were unfocused. She sat down in a bloodstained chair and stared at the floor, dead-eyed and so motionless that I thought she might stop breathing. Kimberly wobbled out after her, significantly less ruined, then stood behind the chair and gently rubbed Felicity’s back, wordlessly affectionate.
Evelyn came out last, grumpy and exhausted as ever. She would have collapsed if not for Praem’s arm.
“Evee,” I breathed with muted affection. She looked how I felt. “Oh, Evee, you have to rest. We all do.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed slowly, drawing the word out. “We gotta talk about that, I think. Discuss our next move, yeah?”
Christine Hopton cleared her throat; she had drifted in along with Amanda. “I agree wholeheartedly.”
“Our guest needs water,” Evelyn croaked. “And plug his ears, if we’re going to talk.”
Twil perked up at that, eyebrows climbing her forehead. “Does that mean we’re going to let him go?”
Evelyn sighed. “Unless you can find a justification for murdering him. I suppose we should talk about that too. Get to it. Praem, set me down … somewhere.”
“Here,” I said, patting the sofa next to me, on the opposite side to Sevens. “With me, please, Praem. Put her with me.”
Evelyn offered no complaint. She settled down against my side like a shipwreck victim in a tiny boat, lashed by storm-winds and the cruelty of salt water. Her head on my shoulder was shelter from the elements. She almost fell asleep, held awake only by an iron force of will that I admired so very much.
There simply wasn’t anywhere left in the house untouched by blood and combat and bits of broken door. The bubble-servitors were doing an admirable job of cleaning up — already there were great streaks and patches of clean carpet and scoured wall where they had passed, like massive semi-translucent slugs leaving behind reverse slime-trails. But their progress was slow and no other room was any better, so we naturally gathered in the sitting room, all of us, everybody who was left.
As fortune would have it, Benjamin called from Sharrowford General Hospital as we were dragging ourselves together. Michael took the call on his mobile phone.
“Detective Webb’s in the A&E right now,” he informed us afterward. “Ben and Katey are gonna stick around there for her. Doctors don’t seem too worried. Bad break, but fixable.”
“Sucks for her,” Twil said. “Mean it. No sarky, yeah?”
Raine said, “She was incredibly brave. We owe her a thank you. What do you think she drinks?”
“Bottle ‘o whiskey?” Twil suggested.
Christine cleared her throat. “I think we owe Miss Webb unlimited and unconditional taxi rides for the next few months, until her leg is healed.”
“Hear hear,” muttered Evelyn, eyes half-closed.
After the phone call, Raine stood up and took charge. It was a strange sight, as all eyes turned toward her in that shattered sitting room, great slug-masses of bubble-servitor moving over every wall, half of us exhausted beyond words and the other half still shell-shocked. Amanda Hopton was sitting in a hastily recovered chair, eyes and nose gone red as if suffering flu symptoms. Out beyond the cling-film bubble-servitor door-plug, more of the angels were gathering in the field. I watched them with idle curiosity — were they digesting the dog corpses, or burying them?
Raine clapped her hands together. “Ladies and gentlemen, enbies and others, humans and demons and mages alike. And Hringewindla, if he’s listening: I think we’re done for the day.”
I braced myself for Evelyn to sit up and start arguing; in fact, I may have joined in with her. I wasn’t sure which way I was leaning on this question. Sevens was right, I was spent, but could we really afford to slow down now?
But Evelyn just sighed and grumbled. She did sit up straighter, just enough to glare at Raine, but without any of her usual fire.
“Evee?” I said.
Another sigh, then: “I’m forced to agree. Raine is right. We’re not in good condition. I hate this, but we need to regroup, for now.”
A dark rumble interrupted us — Zheng, leaning against the wall with her arms folded and her eyes narrowed to slits. She rumbled like a volcano god denied her offerings.
Several people flinched: Christine and Michael Hopton, Twil, Mister George, and Kimberly. When Kim flinched, Felicity struggled upright and put a hand on her arm. Aym hissed, as if rolling her eyes. Praem stared at Zheng.
“Left hand?” Raine said. “You got a problem? Complaint? Suggestion? Come on, we’re all being open here, don’t just sound angry and then stop.”
“Wizards,” Zheng rumbled. “Like mould. Leave the hunt half-finished and they will regrow. We have not even begun, little wolf. Expected better from you.”
Christine Hopton cleared her throat. “That’s hardly fair—”
Another growl cut her off.
“Hey,” Raine said, spreading her arms. “Zheng. Look at us. Evee and Heather can’t walk. Felicity looks like she just recovered from a wasting disease. I’ve been over this once already. You and me and Twil, we’re fighting fit, sure, but we need the DPS to go with the tanks. If we found Edward right now, what would we even do?”
Zheng looked like she was carved from a block of stone. “Rip off his head and devour his guts. I will eat his flesh, little wolf. No scrap of wizard goes into the ground, nothing escapes.”
“I feel you there,” said Raine. “Very poetic. Very emphatic. But we’re talking practical stuff, not fitting ends. What are you gonna do by yourself?”
“I can carry the shaman—”
“Not right now you don’t.”
Zheng levered herself up off the wall, towering over everyone else in the room, baring her teeth. Was that her body heat I felt, radiating from several feet away? No, just my imagination.
“You are smart and strong and swift, little wolf, but you are thinking too much like a mage. I will carry the shaman into anything, she need only ask—”
I said, out loud, “I can’t do this.”
Everyone looked at me. I sighed softly and drew an exhausted hand over my face, then repeated myself, eyes squeezed shut. “I can’t do this.”
Zheng paused. Her anger ebbed away. “Shaman?”
Raine gestured to give me the floor, but I didn’t bother to get up. Evelyn squeezed my hand. I found my throat closing up, my tongue growing thick in my mouth, my eyes burning.
“The bruises and the aches and pains don’t matter,” I managed to say. “But I’ve burnt out something inside me. My bioreactor is … damaged. I’ve pushed too far. I’ve damaged myself. I don’t know how or why, but I am out of action, Zheng. I could do brain-math—”
“Not right now,” said Sevens.
“In theory,” I added quickly. Then I sniffed. “In theory I could do brain-math, but I have no idea what it might do to me right now. Like … running on a broken ankle.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted.
“The quickest way to find Edward’s house is for me to use brain-math,” I said. I felt Evelyn go stiff next to me as I said it out loud, but I plunged on ahead before I could start crying. “We have other methods: searching manually, for example. But brain-math is by far the quickest way, the cleanest way, the least risky way. For everybody else, at least. If we wanted to get this finished today, then I would have to push, on broken legs. And … I’ve been … I’ve … ” I swallowed, surrounded by people who loved me and who wanted me to stop acting like this.
My bioreactor, the greatest gift the abyss had ever given me, the engine and fuel for the body I needed to inhabit, was hurt. I had taken myself for granted. I’d taken my body for granted. I’d pushed and pushed, listening to instinct which didn’t know when to stop. I had risked wearing myself down to nothing. I had disrespected my body.
“I have been convinced to rest,” I said, then had to wipe my eyes on my sleeve.
Zheng stared. Raine nodded as if listening to a sage rather than a fool. Evelyn was stiff and still at my side. Sevens sat like a pillar of ice.
“Shaman,” Zheng said. Acceptance and acknowledgement; I began to breathe a sigh of relief. But then she finished: “I will hunt alone.”
“Zheng!” I whined. “No!”
“I do not need your permission,” she said.
But oh, she wanted it. I saw it in the way she stared at me, through my skin and into my guts. I saw it in the way she angled her body toward Raine, in the way she tilted her eyes, in the way she flexed one hand, then the other. Zheng opened like a book, her musculature the poetry of a big cat at unwilling rest.
“Don’t fight alone,” I said. “Please, Zheng. Not alone.”
“Woah, woah,” said Raine. “Hold up a sec, Left Hand. What do you mean, hunt? What’s your plan? Don’t make plans alone and not share, hey? The lone wolf dies while the pack survives, right?”
Zheng turned heavy-lidded eyes toward Raine. Her entire frame was hard and tight with aggression.
But before I could get a word in, Raine said, “Don’t look at me like that, you giant cunt. I asked because I care about you. You’re not dying out there in the woods all by yourself. Heather would hate that.”
Zheng said nothing. Christine Hopton bit her own lower lip — probably restraining herself from telling Raine off for the particularly nasty swear word. Raine spread her hands, wide open, a come-and-get-me pose.
Aym cackled and spoke up for the first time in several minutes: “She’s got you there, bitch-brains.”
Zheng turned away from everybody, as if petitioning a god for us all to shut up for five seconds.
“Zheng,” I said, my voice still wet and thick. “If you have to go hunt for the house, don’t fight alone. You have my permission even if you don’t need it. But don’t get in a fight. If you find the house, come home. Please.”
I shot a glance at Raine. She shrugged and said, “I can live with those conditions. As long as she comes home.”
Zheng turned dark eyes on me. “I will always return to you, shaman.”
“Call,” I said. “You have a mobile phone now. Use it. If you don’t call by midnight I’ll assume we need to come rescue you.”
“Call. Promise me.”
“I will call, shaman.”
And she stalked off without another word, out of the room and down the corridor and out of the hole where the front door once stood.
“I guess that settles that then,” Raine said. “Thanks Heather, nice save.”
I smiled and shrugged and felt rather useless. I had done nothing. I wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep.
After that, the decision was already made; Zheng would scout and report back — I hoped and prayed — but the rest of us were done, spent, the ‘operation was over’, as Raine phrased it. But the analysis was not quite yet complete. I sat there on the edge of unconscious exhaustion while the mages and the Church discussed practicalities.
Christine Hopton asked, at length, “Can we establish what the purpose of this attack was? Miss Saye, earlier you were talking about multiple possibilities, you were quite clear about that. Have you changed your mind?”
Twil snorted. “Purpose? To kill us, duh.”
Everyone ignored that — except Felicity, who, bizarrely enough, offered Twil the most limp and tired fist-bump I’d ever seen.
Evelyn gave a serious but very slow answer, croaky and raw. “The use of Outsiders, physical entities, implies this was a response to what Edward Lilburne likely considers an existential threat. The illusion—”
“Spider,” said Praem. “Cruel trick.”
“Yes, the spider,” Evelyn agreed. “It was an attempt to draw us out, flush us out, whatever. Put us in the firing line of his real attack. Which we resisted and fought off. It’s been … what, two hours since then?”
Michael confirmed. “And counting.”
Evelyn nodded. “I think that was all he had. His best shot.”
Twil squinted at her. “You mean we’ve won? That’s it?”
Felicity snorted, and it was one of the saddest sounds I’d ever heard. She raked her hair back, uncaring of how the gesture exposed the burned side of her face. “Contests between mages always get weird.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said. “Quite. No, this isn’t over. I meant that was probably all he had on hand to throw at us. He’ll be working on something else already, but we shouldn’t expect anything so simple as a physical assault.” Then she frowned and added: “But we should expect that too.”
“Race against time,” Felicity said. Evelyn nodded.
I spoke without thinking. “As soon as I’m healed … ”
Nobody said anything to that. Raine took a deep breath. Evelyn screwed her eyes up and muttered on: “We rest. One night at least. Then back to the task of the house. Quicker we find him, the better. Remove him or kill him, or … whatever. He has knocked us out for a day or two. That’s everybody’s job now. Rest. Except Zheng, I suppose.”
Twil asked, “What about Lozzie and Tenny?”
Raine answered. “Loz said they’ll swing back home as soon as Tenns is feeling better.”
My heart ached for Tenny; another wound I needed to mend.
Evelyn sighed a grumbly sigh. “And there we come to the most thorny matter. Mr and Mrs Hopton. Amanda. Twil too, I suppose. And … Hringewindla.” Evelyn said that final name with a little cough. “If we withdraw home, we leave you without support or protection, even if just for a single night of sleep. We have ruined your house. We need to plan some kind of protection for you while we—”
“Hringewindla,” Amanda interrupted.
Her voice was thick with sleep or trance. She was sitting on one of the recovered chairs, wobbling slightly from side to side, sniffing and snuffling, eyes red-rimmed, staring out of the door-hole and into the field beyond. She looked barely present.
“ … Mandy?” said Christine. “What is it? What does Hringewindla say?”
“Protection is … forthcoming,” Amanda mumbled. “Hringewindla is very unhappy. He grows a hand.”
She pointed out of the door-hole, through the cling-film cover of bubble-servitors.
None of us had been paying attention to what the spare bubble-servitors were doing on the edge of the field, but now we all turned to look. Modified 3D glasses went on over human eyes. Evelyn craned her neck. Felicity turned in her chair. I frowned in confusion — then stared with awe.
“Snail,” said Praem.
On the edge of the field, several dozen bubble-servitors had combined their sphere-mass bodies. Their surfaces had run together, melting and melding, turning smooth and glassy as they lost their individuality. Half-complete, growing angel by angel, a vague snail-form was taking shape, tall and fluted, with coils at angles which hurt the eyes.
It was nowhere near as large as the tentacled shell-core down beneath the earth, where we’d met the old man face-to-face, but the thing out in the field was only half-complete and it was already halfway up to the roof of the house.
“He appoints a guardian and grows us a shell,” Amanda said. “We are loved and protected. His anger is not light. He thanks all of you. He will watch us. He will … banish?” She struggled, then swallowed and looked like she was going to be sick. “Refute. Refuse? He wants to … this Edward Lilburne … ” She screwed her eyes up and groaned.
Christine went to her, hands gently rubbing her sister’s head. “It’s okay, Mandy. It’s okay. Don’t try to translate. We understand.”
Evelyn nodded. “We do indeed. Protection enough?”
“I believe so,” said Christine.
“But we will stay in touch. Until tomorrow. I’ll call when we get home.”
“Uhhhhh,” said Twil. “Sorry to like, make this weird. But what about the guy? In the kitchen. You know, the guy?”
Evelyn shrugged. “Take his phone number and address, then let him go. We’re not warlords or mafia.”
Michael Hopton laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“Mm,” Felicity agreed with a grunt. “That is exactly what we are, Evelyn. You know that.”
Evee’s gaze flicked out and pinned Felicity to her chair. The older mage withered, retreated, and looked down. An old argument, perhaps? Curiosity almost overcame my exhaustion, but Evelyn concluded before I could ask.
“Are we?” she said. “Then my word is law. We’re letting him live. That’s final. Get him cleaned up, point him at the road, and remind him this was a drug operation. Nothing more.”
I nodded agreement, too tired to say anything. My free hand lingered at my flank, on the cold sleep of my bioreactor.
Heal thyself, o’ abyssal squid; I prayed I wasn’t broken.
New Heather challenge: no more self-sacrifice! Sevens and Evee are also taking the challenge! Failing the challenge will be punished by the weight of their friends’ concern for their wellbeing. How about them teethies, huh? Meanwhile, Heather needs to exercise a body part she doesn’t yet understand. She’s in for a grand old time.
No patreon link again this week! Why? Because it’s literally the last day of the month, and the year! Happy New Year, readers! Hooray! Woo! I hope your 2023 is a good year; I will try my best to make it so, here in my own little corner of the internet.
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Next week, time for healing and rest. Right? Riiiiiight? Right.