Medical danger/internal organs/internal wounds
I awoke on the following morning sore in ways I had not previously considered possible.
That was quite a feat for my body. By that point in my as-yet short life I had experienced many different and unique ways of being sore — in the head, in the muscles, in the bones, in the heart, in the soul — that I unconsciously assumed I’d collected them all, short of giving birth, kidney stones, or cluster headaches. It was hardly a subject to brag about; to compare aches and pains with, say, Evelyn’s missing fingers, her prosthetic leg, and her spinal problems, would be the height of rude and inconsiderate behaviour. I never thought of myself as the sort of person who said, out loud, “I feel terrible, please pet me and make me feel better.” I had never compared pain or discussed bodies with Evee, because I thought I was being polite. I thought I knew all about being tired and sore and achy. I was hopelessly naive.
Consciousness poked and prodded me out from merciful oblivion with a dozen cracking joints, six hundred strained muscle fibres, and a thousand tiny bruises. For a long time I just lay there on my back in my own bed, half-swaddled in sweat-stained sheets, staring up at the shadows on the ceiling through my own eyelashes. Those hurt too; my eyelashes, I mean, not the shadows on the ceiling, though as my imagination churned on, I began to assume that shadows did hurt, and that I should reach out to offer comfort to the absence of light.
Too exhausted to fully open my eyelids, but kept from sleep by the solid, steady throb-throb-throb of my own tender carcass.
I had never felt less divinely inspired, never more aware of being meat.
If abyssal senses had crept over me right then and alienated me from this sack of chemicals and spongy tissues, I would have welcomed it with open arms. I would have happily slipped down into dissociation and abyssal dysphoria, if only to escape into sleep, or just the inside of my own head. I would have gladly thumbed out my own eyes for the sweet embrace of unconsciousness. For a second or two I may have actually willed it, inviting that unique kind of oblivion; I was not proud of that later, when I was coherent enough to self-examine — but it didn’t take the invitation. I just lay there in the pre-dawn grey, my tentacles limp and dim, listening to Raine breathing on one side of me and Zheng purring on the other.
No escape, neither up nor down, nor sideways, nor to Outer reaches, nor to inner space. Feverish and delirious, I lay there, panting softly, wishing for the energy to whine, so Raine might wake up and roll me onto my side.
Eventually true consciousness ebbed back, leaking into my mind and making me less of an animal. I recalled my own name. This was not a merciful thing. My breathing slowed. My aches and pains sharpened. My bladder complained.
Still, I didn’t get up. It was a bit like that time I’d woken up in Raine’s bed, after my fugue state, back in the shared house she’d lived in. Back then, panic and curiosity had forced me to my feet. But now? Panic was a luxury. Curiosity was too much effort.
I lay in bed and listened to the secret heartbeat of the house.
Number 12 Barnslow Drive told all her tales to anybody who cared to listen; one simply had to know how, like tuning in to an unlisted radio station. On the edge of dissociation, my ego pared down by pain, I felt all the little shifts and creaks of floorboard, all the drafts of air around the sensibly closed doors, all the metal hinges in the windows secure and tight. I listened for the steady ticking of the old grandfather clock in the front room, the gurgle and glug of the boiler in the cellar, the tiny scurry and scuttle of rodents down under the foundations. I listened to the moss and lichen drinking up the grey scraps of morning light. I felt the dew tremble on the grass in the back garden. I listened to the dust falling onto the table in the magical workshop. I listened for Evelyn’s breathing, her mouth half-smushed against her pillow, soft and slow and steady, a dreamless sleep of animal comfort. I felt Praem, a moving spark somewhere in the dark, cradled and cared for by unseen hands. I heard Tenny whimper in her sleep, and Lozzie’s hand brush Tenny’s shoulder to hug her close. I politely forgot about Kimberly’s sleep-talking; her racy dreams were none of my business. I heard Aym and Sevens, tucked away in a hidden place that was not Outside, but still within the house, playing a game with too many pieces to be chess. I even heard Felicity out in her range rover, the sound of her jeans shifting against the back seat, her heartbeat heavy inside her chest, her nightmares a crackle of memory inside her damaged skull; the house counted her as inside, threw its mantle of protection and enclosure around her too, even if she wasn’t permitted within the physical walls. Very sweet, I thought; only right, came the agreement.
I knew deep down in my guts — which also currently ached — that the house was safe and secure; Edward Lilburne had not attacked us in the night. All was well.
Then I hissed and screwed up my eyes and told myself to stop imagining things on the edge of sleep.
Sitting up took three attempts; my abdomen and flanks were covered in tiny bruises, the consequences of my unplanned berserker rage yesterday. My ribs spiked and cut me with intercostal muscle pain. My neck felt like it was made of wet sand and old glue. Eventually I got there, panting and trying not to whine; I didn’t actually want to wake up Raine or Zheng, they both deserved sleep too. It wasn’t their fault I was awake earlier than I wanted, aching all over and feeling like I’d aged ninety years overnight.
At least, that’s what I told myself as I gingerly peeled the sheets off my body and raised my quivering tentacles free of the bed. In a truth I did not yet understand, I was gripped by a furtive desire to spend a little time alone.
Getting out of bed clarified the pain. Most of my torso was covered in tiny bruises, each about the size of a twenty-pence piece, rapidly turning yellow and green and other fascinating bruise-colours. My legs were worse, striped with long bruises like claw-marks; I could only assume that I’d modified my muscles yesterday, for speed or power or motion or some other mad abyssal notion, which had fallen apart as soon as I’d crashed out of the high. My gums ached when I inhaled, the roots of my tentacles hurt like six separate sprains, the soles of my feet were raw, and my joints were full of broken glass. When I flapped the hem of my t-shirt and the waistband of my pajama bottoms to dry the sweat on my skin, all these aches and pains joined together in a chorus of big ouch.
But the real pain was in my right flank.
My bioreactor felt hard and cold, seized up like a pulled muscle.
I wasn’t immobile or sick. This was not the kind of pain that fells one like a lightning-struck tree. It was just very, very, very shitty. Pardon my language.
Two conflicting urges simmering inside me. The part of me I understood wanted to climb back into bed between Raine and Zheng; I stared at them for a long time in the grey gloom of the early morning, a pair of shadowed mountain ranges beneath the summer bedsheets, Raine on the right and Zheng on the left. Raine had slept within inches of me, but carefully restrained herself from hugging me overnight. She knew how bruised and sore I would feel; she always knew what I would feel. She slept on with one pillow between her arms, eyelids closed in angelic rest. Zheng, on the other hand, slept flat on her back like a vampire in an old movie, hands over her chest, breathing like the dead. She radiated a subtle heat, palpable on my bare skin even from two feet away.
Climb back between them, go back to sleep, wait for Raine to wake up and make me breakfast. Empty my head, don’t think about the aches and pains. Don’t think about anything.
Another part of me, a part I did not understand, wanted to go elsewhere, alone, and think.
I decided to stall.
Before I spent any time on myself, I padded over to Raine’s bedside table and picked up her phone, then carefully angled it toward the grey light from the crack in the curtains, so it wouldn’t flood the room with blinding illumination.
Last night, before we’d all collapsed into bed, Evelyn had given us very specific instructions about phones. I’d been barely conscious, but I still recalled the important parts: everyone was to keep their phones on and turned up, ready for a call from Twil or anybody else over at Geerswin farm, to maximise the chances of one of us waking up. Uninterrupted sleep was a distant second priority, compared with the importance of prompt communication in the event that Edward Lilburne decided to unleash giant carnivorous slugs against the farm, or at us, or anywhere else.
Raine’s phone showed no messages, no missed calls, nothing. I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but it was only five thirty in the morning, too early for Twil to check in and confirm that yes, nobody had been eaten or kidnapped in the night. I dimly recalled that Nicky had called Evelyn sometime yesterday evening, to confirm she had a nice big cast on her leg. At least there was that. Maybe I should call her later.
Then I went to the toilet. Always a good option when I had no idea what to do.
The upstairs corridor was dark and full of shadows, but I felt right at home, stretching out my tentacles as I crossed to the bathroom door. Bad decision: even my tentacles ached. The instinctive gesture made me wince and whine. I sat down on the toilet, in the dark, winded and puffing.
When I returned to the bedroom, I fetched one of my university notebooks from the desk and quietly tore off a fresh page, then found a pencil.
The first note I wrote just said: I’ve gone to be alone. Please don’t worry!
I threw that one in the rubbish because it was absolutely awful. Raine would worry herself so hard that she’d probably run up and down the house with her gun until she found me. That would be the opposite of the intended outcome. I sighed and tried a second draft.
I wanted to sit alone in the dark for a while, but I’m still in the house, please don’t come find me.
“Even worse,” I whispered to myself as I crumpled that one up and threw it after the first. “Why do words fail me now?”
After two more attempts I finally settled on: Just gone for a wander around the house. Don’t worry if I don’t come back to bed soon. Love you both so much. Heather, XXX
Technically a lie — I wasn’t planning on wandering anywhere, I was actually going to find a spot and plant myself. But I didn’t want Raine worrying and coming to find me, or thinking I’d gone Outside, or gotten stuck in the toilet. The little ‘x’s were not very me, and I blushed when I read the note over again, eyes straining in the grey darkness, but they did communicate the truth.
I weighed the note down with Raine’s phone on her bedside table, then kissed her on the head so gently that she didn’t even stir. I did the same with Zheng, leaving a feathery kiss on her brow.
Then I wriggled into my hoodie — the clean one, with the darker pink scales across the shoulders, not the one covered in blood which Praem had peeled off me yesterday, currently sitting in the washer or the dryer. I slipped some socks onto my feet too; it wasn’t cold in the early summer morning, but I needed a layer between the house and my aching soles, no matter how gentle the floors. Both actions required quite a bit of bending and lifting and moving muscles, a high price in pain, but I dressed myself without too much huffing and puffing.
In the darkened doorway I paused and looked back at Raine and Zheng, sleeping soundly. What would they do if they woke together without me between them?
I blushed to myself in the dark. I hoped they would enjoy themselves.
Then I closed the door and padded down the gloom-filled corridor, heading for the rear of the house.
This early in the morning, Number 12 Barnslow Drive was sound asleep, wrapped in grey shadows, flanked by the first clean knives of morning light at the edges of the windows. Nobody was stirring, not even Praem; she was not standing outside Evelyn’s doorway, nor lurking down the corridor. We were far past the witching hours, when Night Praem might have appeared to gently but firmly return me to bed. She was probably in Evee’s bedroom, or downstairs, reading a book.
If I went to the kitchen I might bump into Praem. I didn’t want that, so I dipped into the bathroom to drink some water from the cold tap, from my own cupped hands, finger joints sore and aching.
I wanted to be alone for a while, but I didn’t yet fully understand why.
My body rejected the notion of just sitting in the bathroom, in the dark, on the closed toilet seat. That wasn’t truly alone; anybody could wake up and need to use the toilet, and then my whole carefully constructed illusion of solitude would be broken. Downstairs was no better either, and the garden was just silly. The basement would be cold and uncomfortable. Evee’s study was a strong contender, but Praem might be in there too. I could have gone Outside — teleported to Camelot and wandered away over a hillside, beyond sight of the half-finished castle, or to some other barren dimension where I could sit on the ground by myself and turn my thoughts inward. But brain-math was not an option right then; my bioreactor was like a chunk of raw gristle in my flank. I dare not touch any hyperdimensional mathematics.
But what I needed, the house provided.
I padded down the upstairs corridor, toward the little t-junction in the rear, where the light from the single hallway window grew dim and distant. On the right was Kimberly’s bedroom, but on the left the corridor carried on into the gloom. The top of the house cradled several empty rooms stuffed with old furniture, bric-a-brac from Evelyn’s mother, ancient dusty boxes full of junk, and other untouchable mysteries. I walked deep into the dark, picked a door at random, and turned the handle with one tentacle.
Grey sunlight crept over my socks and up my shins; the room inside was angled toward the struggling dawn, catching it in one square window on the far wall. No forgotten servitors lurked within. No magic circles on the walls. No ghosts interrupted in bed. Good enough. I slipped inside and gently closed the door behind me.
Forgotten, but not abandoned; unused, but not barren. The spare room boasted an old wooden bed frame which looked like it had once served as the bottom half of a bunk-bed, with an old but clean mattress resting on top. A stack of ancient cardboard boxes stood against one wall, labelled in thick black marker pen: “PLATES”, “REVERSE”, “CABLES FOR CAR”, “DO NOT OPEN 23/08/1989”. That last one was sealed with duct tape and staples. A battered old desk stood against another wall, rickety and thin and looking ready to collapse. The desktop was covered in ossified pens, empty folders, paper-clips, and a single fist-sized block of glass with a stone encased in the middle. A painting hung opposite, a landscape which looked out from the top of a mountain. The sunlight in the picture was the wrong colour, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
When I crossed over to the square window I couldn’t quite tell what part of the garden I was looking down at. The left side of the house, I thought, but I couldn’t see the big tree in the back, even when I craned my neck.
I decided to ignore all of those things; the house would not have led me somewhere unsafe, after all. And the room didn’t contain too much dust, which implied Praem must be cleaning even the spare and empty spaces. She really deserved more thanks. A week off. A party. A hug.
“Thank you,” I muttered to the empty air, to the walls, to the house itself. Then I felt very silly and went over to the mattress.
My thighs and calves and knees all ached too much in too many new and interesting ways for me to comfortably sit cross-legged, so I flopped down on the mattress and sat with the soles of my feet together, using my tentacles to take my weight.
I took a deep breath, let my eyes unfocus, and allowed myself to just feel.
I had spent most of my life being alone all the time, in the most profound and painful ways. Maisie, my twin, my other half, my childhood, my lost secret and my guiltiest sin, had been taken away from me. I had spent ten years screaming in the wilderness. And then this last year, because of Raine, and Evelyn, and all the others, I rarely felt alone anymore. I was always surrounded by other people. I loved it, I valued every second of it, and in my darkest moments I worried about it all going away one day.
But sometimes one needs to be alone with one’s body.
If I’d said those words to Raine, she probably would have made a joke about masturbation, but I was about as un-libidinous as possible right then. Part of me wanted to strip naked for what I was about to do, but there was nothing sexual in that either. However, though summer it may have been, it was still summer in England, in the North, in Sharrowford, and far too chilly to be taking all my clothes off by myself.
Instead I slipped my arms inside my hoodie, leaving the sleeves empty, and pulled up the hem of my t-shirt so I could place both hands on my abdomen.
My trilobe bio-reactor felt cold and hard, a fist-sized lump in my side an inch or two below the skin.
I pressed and squeezed, wincing at the pain, trying to instinctively feel if anything was out of place, or damaged, or bleeding internally. I didn’t think anything was bleeding — I probably wouldn’t have been prodding at myself if I did — but I wanted to see how my body reacted, how it felt to touch and squeeze. I flipped the hem of my hoodie up briefly so I could take a look. A patch of skin on the side of my abdomen was blotchy and red, bruised below the surface, like a bubble of rot inside a peach.
“What’s wrong with you?” I murmured to the occulted organ.
Evee was right: if I damaged this organ, if I tore a membrane or clogged a valve or burst a vessel, there was no going to the hospital. Lozzie and I would have to fix it ourselves. And I didn’t know how it worked.
“Abyssal healthcare,” I whispered. “I wish I knew somebody who understood all this.”
Maybe somebody did, Outside. Maybe I needed to take Lozzie on a private trip to Camelot and ask her some very personal questions. Or maybe I needed to take a second journey to the Yellow Court and find the King’s physician. I couldn’t be the only human who had ever done this.
Wishful thinking. I might not be the only, but I might be the first.
I could only feel so much with my bare hands, through my own abdominal wall, and brain-math was risky in my damaged, low-power, empty-tank state. There was nothing else for it: I closed my eyes and attempted to consciously move the tiny muscles and miniature tendons inside the organ, testing the signals down the nerve uplinks which I had imposed on my human body. I needed to flex the new flesh in my core which powered me and kept me alive and made me what I was.
Bad idea: I didn’t know which muscle I tightened or what tendon I yanked, but as soon as I tried to twitch those unseen tissues, a blade of pain shot upward though my insides, swift and sharp.
“Ahhh!” I gasped, broke out in cold sweat, and grasped at my flesh as if I could squeeze it back together.
It is always shocking when the animal takes over in a moment of pain and fear, especially when one’s wound is internal. A part of me that had nothing to do with abyssal instinct was desperate to reach inside my belly and confirm that I was not broken, that I had not irreversibly damaged myself somehow.
I sat there for what felt like minutes, eyes wide open and staring at the bare mattress, hunched over the unexpected pain in my belly, panting and sweating and shaking.
But eventually the pain ebbed away, throbbing back down to mere muscle ache. I straightened back up, tender and afraid.
“Ow,” I croaked. “Oh, ow.”
I briefly considered going to fetch somebody else. I hadn’t realised until then the potential danger of this little indoor adventure. I might hurt myself and pass out, alone and isolated.
But then I brushed the wall behind me with a tentacle — not because I was reaching out for it, but because I was trying to steady myself amid fear for the flesh.
Number 12 Barnslow Drive was safe and warm; the wall was solid and sensible. The house would not lead me into danger.
In retrospect, that notion was completely irrational, perhaps even ‘crazy’ — a word I had avoided for months. But something deep in my gut told me that whatever I did, the house would keep me safe. If I was hurt, the house would not allow me to go unattended. Experimentation was safe inside these walls, as long as I respected my body.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried again — much, much, much slower.
That time the pain was bearable, blunt and prickly, like a pulled muscle rather than a razor across my intestines. I hissed through clenched teeth and moved with the care of a robotic surgical machine, slowing further when the pain told me to stop, pressing against minor aches until they unfolded into muscle soreness, or irritated surfaces, or the need for fresh blood to flow over thirsty tissues.
“Oh, this is weird,” I whispered to myself. “This is very weird. Mm … feels … ”
I didn’t say it out loud, even to myself, but it felt sort of good. And not because of the pain; I wasn’t discovering a hidden masochistic side.
It felt good to consciously move a part of myself that I had only ever used before on pure instinct.
I flexed tiny membranes against pressurised pockets of enzymes; I opened valves and pushed fluid through tiny tubes, feeling the sacs and chambers fill with potent juices and thin plasma; I slid sheaths up and down the control rods in their channels, cleaning out detritus, but I kept them in place, not wanting to fire anything up right then; I pressed flaps back and forth, squeezed muscle fibres together, and rocked tendons up and down.
And I felt warmth somewhere deep within the organ, at the point where all the structures converged.
A spark was still in there, burning away inside me, protected and harnessed.
“Not broken,” I whispered. “Just healing. Very slowly.”
I finally opened my eyes and looked down at myself, taking several deep breaths and feeling extremely weird. Examining the inside of one’s body was not something people did every day. It was akin to looking at my own genitalia in a mirror. I hugged my abdomen and leaned backward into my tentacles, thinking out loud.
“How did I burn this out so badly?” I asked the empty room. My attention wandered to the weird landscape painting with the strange light, then out of the window, across an angle of the road I’d never considered before. My mind wandered too, chewing on this problem. “Because I … I went berserk, because the others were in danger. Right. And … why was that different? Help me out here, body.”
My tummy didn’t answer, so I wiggled my arms back into my sleeves, stood up — very slowly and gently, wincing several times on the way there — and then walked over to the window again.
The grey light lay over Sharrowford like a veil.
“Because I wasn’t Outside,” I said to my reflection in the glass, ghostly and faint against the city and the sky. “I wasn’t in any kind of liminal space, not in Hringewindla’s shell, or trapped in Ooran Juh’s metaphorical-physical mouth-dimension, or in the pocket space with the castle. I was just here, fully in reality, wasn’t I? Geerswin farm, Twil’s house, it’s all here, in reality.”
Yesterday, in that moment of panic, I had transformed. I had manifested Homo abyssus in physical reality — even if it had been via pneuma-somatic flesh — and I had held it for as long as it took to make sure my friends were safe.
The sheer amount of power I’d used to transform — and sustain that transformation — must have been staggering. No wonder my bioreactor was in need of a rest. No wonder I was covered in bruises, my gums ached, my eyelids itched, and my knees felt like they were on backwards.
“I’m not invincible,” I said to my thin reflection. “I’m not immortal. Angels aren’t gods, Heather.”
Abyssal energy was infinite; hyperdimensional mathematics was omnipotent; the well was bottomless. But the interface through which I drew on the truth of reality was mere flesh, soft and spongy and susceptible, even if it was based on abyssal principles translated into human biology. That flesh required protection and care, no less than the rest of my body. I could not take it for granted.
I put my hand on my belly again. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, to myself, to the window, to Sharrowford, to the house, to my own body. “What do you need? Rest? Yes, I can do that. I can do rest. All day. Anything else? Food? Maybe … ”
The craving hit me as a physical sensation: my salivary glands filled my mouth with spit, my stomach rumbled, and my eyes began to water. I was so surprised that I burst out laughing, clutching my belly and wiping my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten a piece of lemon on its own, but right at that moment I would have peeled the skin off one with my tentacles and crammed the whole thing into my mouth, juice running down my chin. Imagining that made me quiver all over. My body was demanding — what, vitamin C?
“Okay, okay! I suppose that answers that. Wow. Uh, time for breakfast? Just lemons, or … ?”
Lemons, tomatoes, pineapple chunks; raw fish, soy sauce, olives. My head swam with desire for foods I rarely or never ate. Posing the question to my own biology had prompted my body to start throwing out suggestions. I smiled at my reflection, oddly delighted.
“Oh, but I doubt we have any of that. And it’s only just past six in the morning.”
True, I could tell Raine that I was craving moon flowers, or fairy dust, or mermaid flesh, and she would leap out of bed and straight into her shoes, off on a quest to sate my every desire. But I didn’t want to wake her up and send her down to the nearest corner shop to buy me a bag of lemons. I wanted her to rest and sleep. I wanted her to be safe.
“May as well check the fridge,” I said out loud. “Thank you.” I reached out with one tentacle and patted the window frame, thanking the house itself.
Then I pulled my tentacle back and frowned at the tip.
Ah. I’d been avoiding thinking about this.
That specific tentacle was the same one I’d almost used to inject Nicole yesterday. I could feel the ghost of the bio-steel needle inside the tip, a flexible rigidity waiting to be summoned again with a flicker of thought. It ached in a different way to all my other bruises, with an insistent potential.
Sober and thoughtful, with my head on properly for the first time in a while, I stared at that tentacle. I took the tip in my hand and squeezed gently. I thought about how I’d wanted to jab Evelyn as well, when she’d looked so exhausted and spent and in so much ambient pain. I grimaced and blushed and chewed on my lips.
“Is this a … sex thing? Do I … do I want to … jab Evee with my big rainbow wing-wang?”
I blushed from the roots of my hair all the way down to my collarbone. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass, and saw a small squirrel hopping along the edge of the fence. For a moment the squirrel seemed to have too many legs, but that was just because I was so mortified. I hope the squirrel did not hear me being a massive freak.
“No,” I said slowly. “No, I don’t feel arousal at that idea. Do I? I don’t think so. It’s a healing thing, I just wanted to fix them both. I’m certainly not attracted to Nicky, anyway. And when I jabbed the Forest Knight, that certainly wasn’t sexual, that was emergency medical attention! Yes, there’s nothing … nothing sexual about the tentacle. Nothing. If I just wanted to have sex with Evee … mm. Do I?”
“I don’t know, do you?”
Aym’s voice was a crackle of rotten leaves on a parched forest floor.
I whipped around — bad reaction, as it left me wincing and clutching my abdomen, tentacles rearing up and then shuddering with muscular pain — but the room was empty. Not even a lurking shadow in the corner. Mattress, desk, stack of boxes. No Aym.
“Aym?” I said out loud, then sighed. “That was an unkind trick. I am in private.”
She didn’t speak again. I checked under the bed and behind the stack of boxes, but there wasn’t so much as a speck of mould clinging to the skirting board.
I spoke to the air. “I don’t appreciate you listening in on my private moments.”
The reply came like a whisper from inside the walls, a scrape of mouse-feet on plaster and insulation: “Calm your tits. I only heard the very end. Later, squid-brains. Use protection if you must.”
I frowned at nothing, my brain chewing over the meaning of that for a few seconds. Then I got it and spluttered, blushing again. “Aym!”
But she didn’t even giggle.
Sadly our fridge did not contain any lemons, whole tomatoes, sliced mango, raw fish, or olives. A small bottle of soy sauce was tucked into one of the door shelves, but it was almost empty and the lid was crusted with dried brown gunk. I couldn’t recall ever seeing anybody put any on their food. I sighed and closed the fridge door, leaving behind the chill artificial light and entombing myself once again in the grey dawn.
I sighed and grumbled and rubbed my tummy. Couldn’t help it, the gesture was instinctive. Then I blushed at how childish I must have looked, and shot a glance at Praem.
She was sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, with a small stack of books at her elbow, reading a copy of War of the Worlds, by the grey morning light spilling in through the window. She hadn’t looked up, which was a relief; but then again, Praem would never judge me or call me childish. I knew better than to assume that.
I’d found her already sitting there after I’d padded downstairs and across the chill floor of the front room, a warm little sprite tucked away in an unexpected place. I’d said, “Oh! Hello, Praem!” like a moron who thought I was the only person moving around in the house. Praem had said good morning, and then resumed reading.
Praem’s resemblance to Evee was particularly sharp that morning. I wasn’t sure if it was the fuzzy morning light, my current preoccupation, or the brain-haze caused by weird food cravings — but it certainly wasn’t helped by the absence of Praem’s habitual maid dress. Her outfit was ruined and bloodstained after the fight yesterday. Washable, certainly, but it would need so many repairs that I assumed she was just going to purchase a new one.
So, sitting in the dreary summer morning, reading books, Praem was dressed in a sea-blue ribbed jumper and a long cream skirt, with matching white tights on her legs. It was really very fetching. She had her hair pinned up behind her head in that usual messy bun. She was prim and elegant but also contained and neat, in that very specifically Praem-like way.
“Gosh, Praem,” I said, carried into bravado and stupidity by hunger and pain. “You really are Evelyn’s daughter.”
That comment drew her gaze up from her book. Milk-white eyes stared at me from the gloom. I blushed again and cleared my throat and hurried to explain.
“I-I mean you just really look like her right now. N-not in the face, I mean, just in dress, and … and … reading books. And … oh, I’m sorry, I just meant—”
Her voice rang out like a tiny silver bell coated with ice. I cleared my throat and nodded.
“Sorry to interrupt your reading,” I said. “Do you know that’s how I met Evee? I interrupted her reading. I mean, I interrupted a lot of things, but mostly the reading, at first.”
I paused and blinked at her in the dark. The kitchen sat heavy and grey around us. “ … yes?”
“She’s … told you?”
“Oh. All good things, I hope? I was a bit … well. I was more difficult then. So was she.”
Praem just stared. I curled my feet against the floor tiles and felt exceedingly awkward and extremely hungry and very, very silly. I shot a mournful glance at the cereal cupboard. Oats and milk did not seem very appetizing right then. Toast made me feel vaguely nauseated. I didn’t even want tea or coffee, which was even weirder. I sighed and flapped my arms, then hugged my hoodie to myself.
“How is Evee, anyway?” I asked. “I assumed you’d be up there with her, making sure she stays asleep. She was so exhausted after yesterday, I was really worried about her.”
“And she you.”
I grimaced. “Fair enough. Seriously though, Praem, how was she? Did she sleep okay?”
“Yes. No dreams.”
I laughed softly. “You can sense when she dreams?”
“Rapid eye movement.”
“Ah, yes. I suppose there’s that.” I frowned for a moment. “Does that mean … I mean, that implies you … do you watch her sleep?”
“I will not leave her in a nightmare.”
A fist gripped my heart all of a sudden, a constricting band inside my chest. I had meant that question semi-jokingly; of course Praem would never have watched Evee sleep without Evelyn’s permission. Either I had the wrong end of the stick or there was some good reason for it. I was just gently probing. But Praem had answered seriously. For a long desolate moment I stared back at her unreadable, placid expression.
“Evee has nightmares?” I asked. “I mean, everyone has nightmares, sometimes. But she has … a lot? Regularly?”
I felt a sudden overwhelming urge to sprint up the stairs; my tentacles even twitched toward the door, which made their roots ache where I was still bruised. I winced and clutched myself. “Then why … why aren’t you up there right now? Praem?”
“I am more than my mother.”
I swallowed, skin prickling with heat. “Yes, yes of course you are! But—”
“ … pardon?”
I blinked three times, stunned by the clever name and by the implication. “You mean Sevens is watching her right now?”
“I wanted a break.”
“And you trust her not to let Aym—”
I almost flopped down in a chair. I only resisted because doing so would have made all my bruises flare up in a chorus of pain. This was a lot to suddenly take in. “I need to sleep with her sometimes,” I muttered before I realised the full meaning of my words. “I need to be with her sometimes, at night. Why hasn’t she said anything?”
“They are only nightmares.”
I was so agitated that I actually paced up and down the kitchen twice, stretching my legs and wringing my hands. Evee suffered nightmares. Praem wanted a break sometimes. Somebody needed to sleep with Evee, occasionally. I couldn’t deal with this all right then; I was so bloody hungry. I could have eaten a bag of lemons with the skins still on. I could have eaten the bag.
“Praem, we really must throw you some kind of birthday party.”
She just stared at me, as if that made no sense.
“I mean you deserve some celebration!” I went on. “You’re so … well, okay, not selfless, I shouldn’t put you on a pedestal. But you do so much for us. I know everybody treats you well, and thanks you, and stuff. But my goodness, you deserve a day just for you! Praem day!” I was getting worked up now. “We should throw you a birthday party, on … ”
I drew to a halt as I realised that I did not know on which day Evelyn had made Praem. I’d been unconscious in Raine’s bed, of course.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “November … it would have to be between the eighteenth … no, the nineteenth, the day Raine and I were … then I came back here on … ”
“The twentieth of November,” said Praem.
“Yes!” I was so excited I actually pointed at her. “That’s your birthday! You’ll be a year old. Well, I mean, of course you’re much older than that, you were alive in the abyss for a lot longer, but your one-year anniversary of being here, with us. I-I don’t want to assume, I—”
“ … really?”
Praem wasn’t smiling. But I saw the twinkle in her eyes. “One year old it is then,” I said.
Only when I finished saying that did I realise what we were doing: we were making plans for something after Maisie’s deadline. We were both assuming we were going to live.
Gosh, I prayed that Praem was going to live.
I crushed that thought down and away. Worrying about that right then would not help my body recover. I was no use to Maisie if I was a mass of bruises writhing on the floor. A calcified and dead reactor organ would not help me withstand the attention of the Eye long enough to shout Give me back my sister! and spray it with lemon juice.
But, cold cereal? Soggy toast? An apple? My body was demanding so much more.
“Praem,” I said slowly — as she was still staring at me rather than at the open pages of her book. “I want to go for a walk.”
“The leash does not fit you.”
My eyes went wide. Praem stared back. We were frozen for a good five seconds.
“I … I mean … okay? Um.”
“Yes!” I squeaked. “It had better be! My goodness, where did that come from? Actually, no, don’t answer that question.” I sighed. Praem didn’t even open her lips. “I was being serious. I want to go for a walk. Just a few streets, down to the nearest corner shop and back. I’m craving … well, I’m craving a lot of foods we don’t have. And I don’t want to wake Raine, or Zheng, or Evee. Or anybody else. But I know I shouldn’t go alone. It’s not as if I can Slip away reliably, right now. If Edward Lilburne decides to send blokes in balaclavas to bundle me into the back of a van, I’m actually less capable of self-defence than usual. He has no way of knowing that, but … ” I shrugged. “Evee’s paranoia is wearing off on me, I suppose. That and she’d kill me if she knew I went for a walk all by myself, unprotected. Raine would be horrified. Zheng would probably call me ‘foolish shaman’, instead of just ‘shaman’.”
Praem still said nothing.
I pulled an awkward smile. “What I’m trying to say is: will you accompany me on a walk? You and I, down to the corner shop and back. Do you think that’s responsible of us? If you don’t, then I can wake Raine, but I thought it might be nice. Just you and I. I do value you, Praem. I love you too, like a niece or a step-daughter, or … or … I don’t know, maybe we don’t need labels like that.”
I blinked at her. “To which part?”
I did this simultaneous sigh and big smile both at once, then nodded. “Thank you, Praem. Shall we … ?”
Praem was already closing her book and rising to her feet.
We left fresh notes for the others; well, I did, anyway. I scurried back upstairs to change out of my pajama bottoms and into some trousers, slipping back into the darkened bedroom where Raine and Zheng were still fast asleep. I wrote a new note: “Gone for a walk with Praem! She will have her mobile phone, so please call if you’re worried. We shouldn’t be long, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. Love you, love you, love you.”
I drew a little heart as well, and was glad for the darkness.
Before I left the room, I rummaged for two items on the desk, and slid them into my pockets: the personal attack alarm and the very illegal pepper spray which Raine had purchased for me, months ago. If I couldn’t Slip, I wanted a worse-case scenario option, even with Praem at my side.
Back down in the front room Praem was busy putting on her sensible boots, the ones with the thick soles which looked like they could be used to kick bricks apart. I didn’t bother with a coat; my two layers of t-shirt and comfy hoodie were more than enough on a summer morning, even a grey one like this. Praem opened the door and let the weak sunlight inside. The smell of leaves and mist hooked my senses.
“Money?” she asked.
“I have twenty pounds in my purse. More than enough.”
“I require strawberries.”
“Oh, of course! I think they have fresh fruit, this time of year. My treat, on me.”
I stepped outdoors. Praem locked up after us.
Sharrowford was dreary and limp that early in the morning; summer had remembered itself but without several key components, like the selective amnesia of a petulant princess. Perhaps it was still taking after Aym. The air was warm enough, with no creeping cold sliding up inside my hoodie, but the sky was milky with high clouds, the sun was playing hide-and-seek, and there was low mist visible at either end of the road.
I eyed that mist for a moment, simmering with suspicion. But spirit life moved within it as usual, and beyond it, up on the rooftops. The unpredictable menagerie of creatures did not seem spooked or skittish that morning. Something with lots of claws and a face like an axolotl skittered down the opposite side of the road, pausing to do a little dance and a spin. Several humped shapes on the corner were playing some bizarre imaginary version of hopscotch, which ended with them opening wide and swallowing each other, so only one of them was left at the end. A vast tree of soft blue light hung over a distant row of houses, flashing like bioluminescent coral.
“Quiet morning,” said Praem.
“Yes. Quite. Nothing going on, we can hope.”
To my great surprise, Praem’s fingertips brushed mine as we walked down the garden path. I flinched softly, then looked at her. Milk-white eyes stared back at me.
“Hold hands,” she said. It was not a question.
“Oh, Praem, I’d be delighted. Thank you.” I happily took her soft, cool palm in mine. But then I frowned again. “Wait, is this so I don’t run off? Is this like holding the hand of a small child?”
Praem did not reply. I sighed and rolled my eyes — but I couldn’t say no. This was too sweet.
Felicity’s battered old Range Rover stood in the road just beyond the garden gate, the wheels lapped by lazy tongues of morning mist. She hadn’t bothered — or wasn’t able — to pin up anything over the windows, so when Praem and I reached the car, we could see her curled up on the back seat, beneath a couple of rugged blankets and an extra coat.
Even through the window, I could tell she was exhausted. Half-buried by a blanket and obscured by a veil of hair, the skin of her face seemed thin and fragile, even the part that wasn’t burn-scar. She looked lumpy and awkward on her makeshift bed. She looked cold. Her sports bag with the shotgun inside sat on the floor in front of her, within easy reach.
“This isn’t right,” I sighed.
Praem and I had drawn to a stop, perhaps by instinct, perhaps on some humanitarian impulse. Praem didn’t say anything, she just held my hand while I peered in at Felicity’s sleeping form.
“But if she was inside … Evelyn wouldn’t feel comfortable,” I whispered on. “Understatement of the year.”
“Yes,” said Praem.
In a moment of incredible awkwardness, Felicity opened her eyes and looked up at us.
Bleary and bloodshot, heavy with sleep, I don’t think she had actually overheard me talking about her through all the metal and plastic of the car door. But it was still a mortifying experience. And then Praem and I were rooted to the spot by politeness as Felicity slowly sat up, stretched her arms, shivered with post-sleep metabolic lethargy, bundled up her blankets, and popped the car door.
“Um, Heather,” she mumbled with the good corner of her mouth. “Praem. Good morning.”
“I’m sorry if we woke you, Felicity,” I blurted out. “I didn’t mean to. I thought you were, well, fast asleep.”
“Good morning,” Praem intoned.
Felicity shrugged a non-response, then shuffled over the edge of the seat and clambered out of the car, looking even more awkward than usual. She had slept fully dressed, though in a different change of clothes to yesterday. She moved with incredible care and stiff slowness, reaching back into the car to make sure her weapon was still within reach. I sighed and felt awful for her.
“We were just going for a walk,” I babbled on, trying to cover for my own embarrassment. “Just down to the corner shop, I think. Just me and Praem. You’re welcome to breakfast, of course. Or we could pick you up something, or … ”
Felicity blinked hard at Praem. “Evelyn is safe by herself?”
A moment of frozen tension slid between the three of us — or was that just my imagination?
What did Felicity mean by that question? Goaded by pain and lack of clarity, my mind spun that statement out into a hundred hidden meanings. Felicity was out here because her presence made Evelyn uncomfortable; that was because of their shared history, which I did not fully understand. But I thought I had a good grasp of her by now. Did I? Hadn’t things changed the last few days? They had, yes?
Felicity was unhealthily obsessed with Evelyn — with her regard, with her forgiveness, with any opportunity to practice self-sacrifice for her. I didn’t believe for a second that leaving her alone with Evelyn was actually dangerous to Evee.
If I did, I’d pull your head off myself, whispered a dark part of me.
But what about emotionally? If Felicity got Evelyn alone, what questions might she ask? What memories might she dredge up in her quest to punish herself?
Did she care about Evelyn being safe without Praem around — or was she fishing to see if Evee was alone?
I had no idea. The thought itself was deeply uncharitable. This woman had helped save us. She’s fought alongside us. But that didn’t erase her personal history.
Before Praem could answer, or clarify that Evee was not technically alone, never alone, never again — I blurted out a question with a very hidden meaning indeed.
“Felicity!” I chirped, the fresh air hurting my gums. “Do you want to come with us, on our little walk?”
Rest and recovery, and a little bit of bio-abyssal experimentation. Always good for any young squid girl to listen to her body. And eat lemons! But now there’s a grumpy mage and Heather is trying to figure out what she’s really up to.
If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, please consider:
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
This helps so much! A lot of readers still find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!
And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, a squid, a maid, and a magician all walk into a corner shop. What’s the punchline? Better not be violence, Heather’s too sore for that.